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Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Steel Industry

I would like to start by putting on record the enormous sense of solidarity felt by all people across Wales with the French nation. We stand with them shoulder to shoulder in these difficult and anxious days.

The steel industry in Europe is facing a perfect storm as a result of a glut of cheap imports, falling prices and high energy costs. With nearly half of the UK’s primary steel industry employed in Wales, we fully recognise the impact of these global challenges on Welsh steelworkers and their families. We are working closely with the industry and with the devolved Administrations to do everything possible to support the industry at this time.

We on the Labour Benches associate ourselves with the Secretary of State’s words about the people of Paris.

On 28 October, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills attended an extraordinary meeting of the Competitiveness Council on the steel industry. Following that EU meeting, plenty of warm words were issued in a written statement, but can the Secretary of State tell the House what practical measures were agreed to help the steel industry in this extremely difficult time?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. Before I answer it substantively, I should make the House aware that there has been an explosion in the past hour at the Celsa Steel plant in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty). Our thoughts are with the workers at this time and with the emergency services who are at the plant as we speak.

On the practical response to the global challenges facing the steel industry, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) will be aware of the specific practical working groups that we established following the national summit. Those engage the Welsh Government as well as the Scottish Administration, and action has been taken by the Business Secretary at a European level to get our European partners to focus much more seriously and more urgently on tackling dumping and bringing forward state aid clearance so that we can fully compensate our steel industry for the higher energy costs that it faces.

What assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that procurement for large infrastructure projects, such as the electrification of the great western main line, will prioritise the use of British steel?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, as it gives me the opportunity to talk about one practical measure that we have taken in recent weeks: we have changed the guidelines for Departments on procuring steel for major projects, allowing for Government contracts to take into consideration wider economic and social impacts, which we hope will create more opportunities for UK steel manufacturers to win those bigger contracts. With this Government making a record investment in infrastructure, that creates future growth opportunities for the British steel industry.

Although we clearly need measures such as help with business rates and energy costs, does the Secretary of State agree that if we do not tackle Chinese dumping, all those other measures will count for nothing and that the future of the industry in this country is bleak?

I agree with the sentiment and the direction of the question. That is the backdrop to the global challenge, not just for the British steel industry, but for the steel industry in north America and all across Europe. With a glut of cheap Chinese steel coming on to the market, we are leading efforts at a European level to tackle dumping. We voted for the anti-dumping measures in one specific section of the steel industry and we are continuing with those discussions.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the answers that he has given so far, but what measures is he taking with the Wales Office to lobby other Government Departments to pre-order steel from Wales and other areas of the country for our infrastructure projects to ensure that there is a future for steel in Wales?

My hon. Friend is right. That taps into the point that I made a few moments ago about the changes that we have made in the procurement guidelines. The Crossrail project, for example, which has used 50,000 tonnes of high-quality steel from Celsa Steel, which I mentioned a few moments ago, is a great example of the UK Government investing in infrastructure and using the power of our procurement to create growth opportunities for British steel manufacturers.

The incident this morning at Celsa in my constituency to which the Secretary of State has referred is obviously deeply concerning news. Can he say anything more about the incident and ensure that there is full support from all in responding to and investigating it?

As I understand it, the incident happened in the past hour. Ambulances are at the scene. I am told by officials that there are three injuries at the site. That is all I know at this moment. As the hon. Gentleman says, our thoughts are very much with the workers, their families and the emergency services at the scene.

First, I echo the words of the Secretary of State in respect of the tragic events in Paris and the explosion at Celsa this morning.

The Secretary of State knows just how serious is the crisis facing the steel industry in Wales, and indeed the whole of the UK. Four years ago, the Chancellor promised a compensation package for energy-intensive industries. What reassurance can the Secretary of State now give to the thousands of workers in Wales whose jobs depend on the steel industry that his Government will deliver that package by the end of this month?

The point I would make first up is that we are in the process of delivering that compensation. We have already paid out about £50 million in compensation to British steel companies, not least to companies based in Wales, so the money is already getting to them. What we are talking about at the moment is getting state aid clearance for the final element of the compensation package. That is really important for the steel companies, and we are pressing hard to get it.

After four years, the Secretary of State’s Government have still not finished negotiating one package. That hardly bodes well for the promises the Prime Minister is making about EU reform.

The Government have made much of merely renewing existing anti-dumping measures, but with 94% of the Chinese steel that comes into the EU flooding the UK market, why is the Secretary of State’s ministerial colleague in the EU Council of Ministers blocking the much needed reform of the trade defence instruments?

I am not sure that the hon. Lady is fully sighted on all the actions on steel that we are taking at a European level. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and his colleague, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, have been at the forefront in discussions and negotiations at a European level to get change, with real, practical, urgent action on anti-dumping and on state aid clearance for compensation for energy costs. We are leading the way in trying to get change at a European level to support and protect our British steel industry.

Access to Justice

It was of course a Conservative Government who introduced the Welsh Language Act 1993, which provided for the use of the Welsh language in the courts system. We are committed to remodelling our courts to make them more cost-effective and efficient, and these changes will give due consideration to the needs of Welsh speakers.

I take this opportunity to extend our sympathies to every nation that has suffered at the hands of IS in recent days, and to express concern at the news of the explosion in south Wales.

I understand that the Ministry of Justice has closed its consultation on the court and tribunal estate in England and Wales, which proposes the closure of 11 courts in Wales, including Dolgellau in my constituency, and that is without undertaking a Welsh language impact assessment, as required by law and under the Welsh language scheme. Will the Secretary of State ensure that a Wales-wide assessment is undertaken and that its recommendations are implemented before any decisions are reached on court closures?

I am happy to confirm to the hon. Lady that a full Welsh language impact assessment will be included in the Government’s response to the consultation. We are determined to protect the interests of Welsh language speakers, as demonstrated by the Department’s Welsh language scheme.

Over many decades, Conservative Governments have a strong record of supporting the Welsh language. Does my hon. Friend agree that every Department at Westminster, including the Ministry of Justice, should be committed to supporting the Welsh language and the modernisation of Government services, enabling us to give even more support to the language that we in Wales call the language of heaven?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Protecting and preserving our heritage is a core Conservative principle, and this Government, like previous Conservative Governments, have done a lot to secure that, as he rightly mentioned. The Government’s digital agenda provides an opportunity to bring about innovations to enhance the opportunities to use the Welsh language in the courts system and in other Government services.

Access to justice in both Welsh and English is important to my constituents in north-west Wales, but following court closures alternatives such as audio-visual facilities and paying fines over mobiles would not be possible in such areas, in English or in Welsh, because we simply do not have the infrastructure. Can we put court closures on hold until we get that infrastructure?

Estate reform of the Courts Service must continue, but that is allied to the digital transformation that the Government are bringing about. A total of £69 million has been invested in broadband services in Wales, in addition to European aid and Welsh Government money. We have also announced a consultation on a minimum service requirement for broadband distribution, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

Inward Investment

Almost exactly one year on from the UK investment summit in Newport, inward investment figures for Wales show the best performance for a quarter of a century. This is no coincidence. With the support and assistance of UK Trade & Investment and the UK Government, Wales continues to provide a world-class offer for foreign investors.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating all the workers in Wales who make it such a brilliant place in which to invest? Does he agree that this record investment shows that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The economy in Wales is getting stronger, thanks partly to new inward investment. Just a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of welcoming Israeli investors to south Wales, where they announced £3 million of new investment, creating almost 100 new jobs. We should all be encouraged by the fact that inward investment in Wales is back to the level of the days of the Welsh Development Agency before the Welsh Labour Government abolished it.

I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State welcome the more than 100 inward investment projects in Wales in 2014-15. Will he now congratulate the Welsh Labour Government on making it possible?

The important thing is to welcome the more effective partnership that now exists between the UK Government and the Welsh Government to deliver the inward investment. Of the new projects coming into Wales, 87% were secured on the basis of co-operation between the Welsh Government and the UK Government, and I have no hesitation in congratulating both.

High-quality transport infrastructure is crucial to attracting inward investment. I was therefore delighted to see the Under-Secretary at the rail summit in Llandudno last week. Will my right hon. Friend convey to his colleagues in the Department for Transport the clear message that came out of that summit that north Wales regards itself as part of the northern powerhouse and demands an electrified railway line?

My right hon. Friend has been a powerful champion and advocate for investment in transport infrastructure in north Wales. The summit that happened last week was very important, and the Transport Secretary has received loud and clear the message about the importance of investing in transport in north Wales.

Welcome though the figures are, the Secretary of State will acknowledge the important contribution of higher education to inward investment. Is he satisfied that UKTI is fully aware of what is happening in Welsh universities? That would give it more ammunition to promote the very good story of Wales.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We have some world-class higher education institutions in Wales that are at the cutting edge of innovation. It is a reminder to us to keep reminding UKTI of the importance of that, and how higher education links into business growth in Wales.

Single Market

The single market offers enormous opportunities for Welsh business, accounting for 42% of Welsh exports. However, exports to non-EU countries account for 58% of our total exports and are worth more than £7 billion to the Welsh economy. That is why we are seeking EU reform to go further and faster on economic competitiveness, trade and deregulation, which will strengthen Welsh exports.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the success of Airbus in Wales and in the south-west, which has connections to my constituency, demonstrates the value of the single market, and that reforming it further to include the digital economy and energy will give those important sectors even more capacity to expand and grow?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, not least about the importance of investing in technology. If we are to drive up prosperity in Wales, we need more growth in higher technology. This afternoon, I am proud to be helping to launch a new compound semiconductor centre for IQE and Cardiff University. That is emblematic of the changes in the Welsh economy.

Twenty-five thousand jobs in Swansea bay city region rely on being in the single market. Swansea is, of course, in the convergence funding area. Will the Secretary of State support Swansea bay city region MPs’ bid to get the new tax centre for Wales in Swansea bay city region, given that it is an area of relative deprivation, and not Cardiff?

Exciting things are happening in Swansea and the Swansea bay city region. I am delighted that Swansea MPs are working together. If they have a proposal about future changes to the delivery of Government services, with opportunities for Swansea, I ask them please to send them through and we will consider them.

Does the Secretary of State agree that no one who believes we should leave the European Union is suggesting that we stop trading with our European neighbours, and the fact that they sell more to us than we do to them means that there is no chance of their wanting to stop trading with us?

The truth is that Wales’s future prosperity depends on whether we can transform the economy, improve productivity, invest in transport infrastructure and improve our skills and education. That is where Wales’s future prosperity and success lie, and the question of whether or not we remain in the European Union is therefore a secondary one.

The Secretary of State is just a little bit shy today. Why cannot he just recognise that 191,000 Welsh jobs are totally dependent on EU trade and that Wales is a net beneficiary of EU aid? Cannot he just say—we will protect him from the Tory “Little Britain” sketch on the Benches behind him—that Wales is better off in?

I am not often described as shy; I am interested that I have come across in that way to the hon. Lady this morning. I do not recognise the figure that she cites. The important point is that the single market creates a really strategic opportunity for Welsh business. That is what we need to defend and extend.

International Sporting Events

5. What effect the hosting of international sporting events has had on the Welsh economy in 2015 to date. (902187)

The rugby world cup demonstrated yet again how Wales punches well above its weight in the global sporting arena. It was the most successful rugby world cup in history, generating £316 million for the Welsh economy. There should be no limit to our ambition to build on these successes and to attract more tourism and inward investment to Wales.

What steps is the Minister taking to attract even more high-quality sporting events to Wales, such as the Commonwealth games, which would make my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) very happy, as well as people across our great country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making such a suggestion. It was on a Conservative motion back in 2006 that the Assembly voted unanimously to attract the Commonwealth games to Wales. The next opportunity is in 2026, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) is keen on that date and keen to ensure that Cardiff makes a leading bid. The Wales Office is standing ready and waiting to support any bid that comes forward from any part of Wales.

We were all pleased to see the rugby world cup come to Cardiff. I know that the Secretary of State shares my concern about the delays on the great western railway. What will he do to ensure that such delays do not happen again?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Immediately after those disruptions occurred, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke with the train operators, who have apologised to him and to the public. Of course, we are upgrading the great western main line, which will make a significant difference in the long term. We also call on the Welsh Government to bring forward their proposals for the M4 in order to improve the infrastructure for those coming to Wales by road as well as by rail.

Rebalancing the Economy

Our long-term plan is turning around the Welsh economy: since 2010, unemployment has fallen, manufacturing industry has created 12,000 jobs and the Welsh economy has grown faster than any other part of the United Kingdom.

Does the Secretary of State agree that key to rebalancing the economy is getting a proper grip of the public finances? Does he share my shock and horror at the recent TaxPayers Alliance report that exposes the enormous amount of waste in the public sector in Wales?

With his eagle and sharp eye on the care of the public finances, my hon. Friend makes a really important point. I was actually shocked by some of the examples from the TaxPayers Alliance that we have read. Clearly, the Welsh Government and the entire public sector in Wales need to get a much stronger grip on the disciplines of cost control and to get on top of managing the national finances.

Provisional results from the annual survey of hours and earnings by the Office for National Statistics show that Wales is at the bottom of the pay table and is the only part of the British state where earnings have gone down. Does that not indicate that the Welsh Government need to be empowered with a wide portfolio of fiscal powers—the Secretary of State has supported that for Scotland—as direct control from Westminster is clearly failing?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Welsh Government need more fiscal tools. They need the responsibility of income tax devolution to encourage them to be a more financially responsible Administration. The point that he makes about earnings is also important. That is why he should be giving full-throated support to the steps that we are taking to drive up wage levels and end the curse of low pay in Wales.

Draft Wales Bill

7. What progress he has made on consulting civic society in Wales on the likely effects of the provisions of the draft Wales Bill; and if he will make a statement. (902189)

Last month, I published the draft Wales Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny and I continue to meet members of civil society, the judiciary and leading business organisations across Wales to take soundings and hear their views.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. There was a substantial deliberation on our country’s constitutional future, led by a distinguished former Officer of the House, Sir Paul Silk. However, the Secretary of State has so far chosen to include very few of the recommendations of the Silk commission in the draft Wales Bill. Will the final version of the Wales Bill give his final vision of our country’s constitutional future? Is this it for the foreseeable future?

A lot of the Silk recommendations do not require primary legislation and we have already delivered them. We are committed to delivering the Silk recommendations that we have agreed on, which we set out in the St David’s day announcement earlier this year.

There is general, substantial and growing dissatisfaction with the draft Wales Bill, not least among legal colleagues. Would the Secretary of State not be better advised to withdraw the Bill and start again?

I fear that if we were to withdraw the Bill, we would see no progress whatsoever on strengthening and clarifying Welsh devolution, which I understood Plaid Cymru and the Labour party supported.

When I raised this issue before the general election, a previous Secretary of State for Wales said that I was wrong. Will the present Welsh Secretary say that if the Welsh people would like a Welsh Parliament, rather than a Welsh Assembly, they will be able to have one?

To paraphrase the famous old man of Pencader, it will be the Welsh people ultimately who determine the direction and pace of Welsh devolution. The draft Wales Bill will give powers to the Welsh Assembly to call itself a Parliament and take on more law-making responsibilities.

Tax Credits

Low pay has been a scourge on the Welsh economy for too long. Reforming tax credits is an important part of our plan to transform the whole of the UK to a low tax, low welfare, higher wage economy. The Chancellor will set out details of these reforms in his autumn statement.

What representations have the Minister and the Department made to the Chancellor about the impact on 44,600 people in north Wales and 200,000 people across Wales of the loss of £1,300 per year as a result of his changes? What has he said to the person who is sitting next to him?

The Wales Office is in regular dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the Treasury. The Chancellor will set out how we plan to achieve the goal of a lower tax, low welfare, higher wage economy in next week’s comprehensive spending review. The right hon. Gentleman needs to recognise that the tax credit changes are part of a wider reform that includes increases to the national living wage, changes to universal credit and help with childcare, on which we hope the Welsh Government will follow suit.

Order. There is still too much noise in the Chamber. The Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee must be heard.

12. Will the Minister confirm that while the Government are, of course, listening carefully to any concerns about tax credits, the people of Wales stand to benefit enormously from the increase in the tax threshold, the increase in the minimum wage and the Government’s determination to stick to the long-term economic plan? (902196)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. When we move from the basic minimum wage to the national living wage next April, there will be an increase of 7.5%. That means that 100,000 people in Wales will benefit immediately from next April.

Small Businesses

9. What assessment he has made of the effect in Wales of the Government’s measures to support small businesses. (902191)

Small businesses are the lifeblood of the Welsh economy and are leading the way in creating new jobs and driving growth. There are now 22,000 more businesses in Wales than in 2010. Supporting these businesses to grow is a key part of the Government’s long-term plan for Wales and the UK.

Does the Secretary of State agree that infrastructure is critical to supporting small businesses and that the electrification of the Great Western railway, which serves my constituency too, will unlock social and economic opportunities for his constituents and mine?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, investing in the Great Western line is just one part of the largest programme of investment in British railways since the days of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

May I associate myself with the comments about the explosion in Cardiff today and the sad situation at the Celsa steelworks, and thank the Secretary of State for making us aware of it?

The legal profession is a crucial part of the small business sector in my constituency. The Secretary of State will be aware that the First Minister now wants a separate Welsh legal jurisdiction, despite what he said 18 months ago. Will he assure me he is protecting our jurisdiction?

I am aware of the calls from the First Minister and Plaid Cymru for Wales to have a separate legal jurisdiction. One of the sources of Cardiff’s growth in recent years has been investment in legal and professional services, and I fear that moves to create a separate jurisdiction for Wales will lead to a flight of talent from the Welsh legal profession.