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Wales

Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2016

The Secretary of State was asked—

S4C: Funding

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on future funding of S4C. (902938)

4. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on future funding of S4C. (902942)

The Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues which provide opportunities to discuss a range of issues, including matters related to the funding of services across Wales such as the future funding of S4C.

The Prime Minister said last week at the Dispatch Box that he wanted to

“meet…the wording and the spirit of our manifesto promise”,

on S4C, which stated:

“We would safeguard the funding and editorial independence of S4C.”

In the light of last week’s commitment, may I invite the Minister to make it clear that the Government will abandon the proposed cuts to the DCMS part of S4C’s budget and undertake a review of the future funding needs of S4C?

We will meet our manifesto commitment to

“safeguard the funding and editorial independence of S4C.”

The hon. Gentleman will have heard the Prime Minister say that we would

“meet…the wording and spirit of our manifesto commitment.”—[Official Report, 6 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 281.]

He will also remember that on the evening before there was a debate proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) to which the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy responded by saying that he was looking at the arguments and keen to engage positively.

I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning last Tuesday’s debate because I too want to talk about the wonderful consensus that broke out in the Chamber regarding S4C’s funding. Given that consensus, will he remind his colleagues at DCMS that he has a statutory duty to protect S4C’s funding? Will he also join us in offering his personal support for an independent review of S4C?

The hon. Lady took part in that debate and she will recognise the way in which the Minister responded. He said that he was listening to the arguments and that he wanted to engage as positively as he could. I hope that she recognises the spirit in which that was intended.

Last July, the Culture Secretary and the Treasury informed the director-general of the BBC in a letter that S4C’s grant might be cut by the same percentage reduction as the BBC itself and that:

“It will be up to the Government to decide how to make up the shortfall.”

This is therefore not the only Government-driven cut facing S4C. What additional funds will the Government be providing over and above these DMCS cuts?

As the hon. Lady knows, charter renewal negotiations and discussions are under way at the moment, and I do not want to pre-empt any of the issues that will come out of that. Clearly, there will be a widespread consultation and I hope that she and other Members will engage positively in it.

I understand, of course, that we are facing the BBC charter consultation, but given the BBC’s response in the current situation there is surely now room for cross-party consensus on Silk II’s recommendation that the funding of the public expenditure element of S4C should be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales.

I do not accept the basis of the question. During my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s discussion that led to the St David’s day agreement, there was not agreement on this issue. We are keen to progress in consensus so that we can take everyone forward. We need to remember that it was a Conservative Government who established S4C, which has been a great success since 1982. I hope that the hon. Lady will share in and recognise that success.

What complete waffle from the Minister! The Tory party manifesto said only last spring that that party was committed in government to safeguarding

“the funding and editorial independence of S4C”,

yet now we are talking of a cut from the DCMS budget of a quarter of its funding. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is asking for my question. It is simply this: why will the Government not safeguard the funding, and why is that quarter of the DCMS funding budget still under consideration? It is a disgrace. How can we trust them on any other commitment they make?

The hon. Lady will have heard my answers to the previous questions. I find it a bit rich that Labour Members are calling for extra funding for a Welsh language channel when this morning the First Minister in the Assembly is seeking to defend his position of cutting the budget to support the Welsh language by 5.5%. That is simply a disgrace.

SMEs

2. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of Government support for small and medium-sized businesses in Wales. (902939)

Our nation’s small businesses are the true heroes of this economic recovery, and I am proud to be part of a Government who are on their side. SMEs have created two thirds of all the new jobs in the private sector in Wales since 2010. As we continue to reduce regulation and lower taxes, support for small businesses right across the UK has never been stronger.

This year is the British Chambers of Commerce year of action on exports. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on how he is helping small businesses in Wales to punch above their weight this year?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. We have set ourselves a really ambitious target of £1 trillion of exports from the UK by 2020. If we are going to have any hope of meeting that target, we need to engage with SMEs right across the UK, especially in Wales. That is why I will be in north Wales tomorrow, with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment, promoting everything that north Wales has to offer.

The Welsh steel industry plays a critical role in underpinning business right across the board, including SMEs, but global headwinds affecting the industry have been growing stronger. Will the Secretary of State join me and Welsh MPs from all parties in asking for a meeting with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that no stone remains unturned in the fight to save the Welsh steel industry?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the spirit in which he asked it. He knows as well as we do that the steel industry right across the UK, not least in Wales, faces a global crisis. He is aware of all the different actions being taken by the Government to try to help the British and Welsh steel industry face the global nature of the crisis. I am very happy to pass on his request to the Business Secretary. We are obviously in very close contact, as is the hon. Gentleman, with Tata, and especially the plant in Port Talbot in his constituency.

My right hon. Friend will know that one of the small businesses emerging in Wales is Tidal Lagoon Power Ltd, which has exciting plans for the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. The roll-out programme also includes Cardiff, Newport and north Wales. When can we expect to hear what financial support will be forthcoming from the Government so that this exciting project can proceed without delay?

My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State is right. The Swansea tidal lagoon proposition is very exciting and commands wide support across the business community in Wales, but we also need to recognise that the project is asking for a very significant level of public subsidy and intervention. It is absolutely right that my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change should conduct very robust due diligence in making sure that such projects will deliver value for the taxpayer.

One of the issues that small businesses raise with me in my constituency is the lack of connectivity for superfast broadband and, indeed, mobile connections. Now that the Government and the Prime Minister agree with me on the universal obligation for broadband, will the Secretary of State help me by supporting a pilot scheme on Ynys Môn, the Isle of Anglesey?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. We have discussed this many times in Wales questions and debates. Improvements are happening right across Wales, and we are seeing big improvements in internet connectivity and for mobile phones in his constituency and mine. There is much more that we can do. I am very interested to hear about a pilot project in Anglesey, which I am happy to discuss with ministerial colleagues.

In early December, the UK Government announced £50 million of additional funding to address flooding issues. That figure has Barnett consequentials for Wales of £2.276 million. Since then, a further £90 million has been announced by the UK Government, and we await to see what, if any, Barnett consequentials will arise from that. On the new money to be allocated to Wales, will the Secretary of State join me in calling on the Welsh Assembly Government to allocate it to St Asaph? Many SMEs, as well as local residents, were flooded there three years ago, and there is currently a £4 million shortfall for the necessary flood defence works.

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in making that suggestion and recommendation. It is worth putting it on the record that our sympathy and thoughts are with all the families and businesses in Wales, as well as with those right across the UK, that suffered damage due to flooding over the Christmas period. All the new money that the Government have announced to address flooding issues has delivered Barnett consequentials for Wales. It is up to the Welsh Government to decide how to use that money, but we certainly want them to use every single penny to help to address flooding issues. I am afraid that we will have to come back time and again to such issues and discuss them in this place.

Further to the question from the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), the Minister will undoubtedly share our concern about press reports over the weekend. What contingency plans do the UK Government have for a worse-case scenario? Would he support a Welsh public stake in the Welsh operations of Tata, as was afforded to the banks of London during the financial crash of 2008?

I will not engage in the speculation about job cuts that we saw in the press at the weekend. Members from all parts of the House need to be responsible in how we debate these issues. We are in very close contact with Tata internationally and with regard to its operations across the UK, including in south Wales. We are discussing closely what its needs are at this moment. There are big issues and questions that need to be addressed.

Rail Connectivity

We are investing in the most ambitious rail upgrade programme since Victorian times. We are committed to electrifying the Great Western main line to Swansea and have agreed to contribute £125 million towards electrifying the Vale of Glamorgan and valleys lines. That will increase services and reduce journey times for passengers across south Wales.

Blaenau Gwent needs good rail links down to Cardiff and across to Bristol for jobs. The flourishing Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line must be part of the core metro system for that to happen. How will the Minister help make sure that south-east Wales gets the modern transport infrastructure it so badly needs?

The hon. Gentleman has been a strong champion of investment in the Ebbw Vale railway line, including in the new station at Ebbw Vale and the UK Government’s investment at Pye Corner, which has improved access to Newport. The scope of the valleys lines upgrade is a matter for the Welsh Government, but the Department for Transport has made £125 million available specifically for that purpose. To my mind, the valleys lines upgrade stretches from Ebbw Vale to Maesteg and down to the Vale of Glamorgan.

The Government’s investment in the rail network is crucial to businesses and people across Wales and, in particular, in my constituency of Gower. Despite the negativity surrounding electrification from Opposition Members, will the Minister take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the electrification of the line to Swansea?

The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Wales have confirmed that. Only last week, the Chancellor was in Cardiff and restated our position once again. We will electrify the Great Western main line the whole way to Swansea.

Given that UK commuters spend up to six times as much on rail fares as European passengers, has the Secretary of State made any assessment of the impact of the recent rail fare increases on the Welsh economy?

The hon. Lady should know that there were limits to the recent increases. We need to contrast that with the £3 billion that is being spent on improving rail services to and within Wales, as well as our efforts to ensure that Wales benefits from the national project of HS2 by making Crewe a central hub so that north Wales benefits too.

Does the Minister accept that this investment will revolutionise connectivity in the valleys and on the main line to Swansea? Will he share with the House what assessments have been made of the impact it will have on job creation and passenger journeys?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about the economic prospects that will be brought by the significant capital investment that we are bringing forward. It is worth remembering that the last Labour Government left Wales as one of only three countries in Europe, along with Moldova and Albania, without a single mile of electrified track.

M4

5. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly on the contribution of the M4 to the economy in south Wales. (902943)

We regularly have discussions on a range of issues, including transport infrastructure. The M4 is one of Wales’s vital arteries. The need for an upgrade was identified decades ago by business leaders as a No. 1 priority.

The Minister will surely be aware that the ongoing delays on the M4 are causing problems for the economy in south Wales. Will he outline what steps he is taking to enable the Welsh Assembly Government to make improvements to this vital piece of transport infrastructure?

It is hard to believe that the former right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks was Secretary of State for Wales when the upgrade was first committed to, only for it to be cancelled by Labour Members. It was reconsidered later by a Plaid Cymru Welsh Government Minister, only to then be cancelled. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made additional resources available, and we just want the Welsh Government to get on with it.

In the light of the serious flooding caused by climate change, will the Minister ensure that the newly proposed M4 relief road will double as a flood defence for the Severn estuary?

The route is a matter for the Welsh Government, and we encourage them to consider all options. We want the project to start as soon as possible. Even if it started to the earliest possible timescale outlined by the Welsh Government, it would still not be completed until the end of 2022, which is unacceptable.

Cardiff City Deal

6. What discussions he has had with his ministerial colleagues on proposals for a Cardiff city deal. (902944)

Last week my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer visited Cardiff and announced his desire to deliver a city deal by Budget 2016. We are now working with the Cardiff capital region to deliver on ambitious proposals that will increase economic growth, not only in the city but across the entire south Wales region.

Last week the Chancellor brought a welcome sense of urgency to the Cardiff city deal process, with the deadline of March and a down payment of £50 million for a compound semiconductor catapult centre. Does the Secretary of State agree that with a semiconductor catapult at the heart of the city deal process, we stand a real chance of securing a long-term transformation of the south Wales economy?

My hon. Friend is right, and I put on record my thanks for his work in championing the city deal for Cardiff. The Chancellor’s announcement last week was a massive statement of this Government’s confidence in Welsh business and our ambition for Wales. The £50 million is a down payment on the Cardiff city deal, and it is now time for local partners, Welsh businesses and the Welsh Government to crack on and conclude this transformational project.

We do not want just warm words from the Chancellor about the Cardiff city deal; we want to know whether the UK Government will match the £580 million that has been pledged by the Welsh Government for the Cardiff city deal. Can the Minister answer that?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady noticed, but during our visit to Cardiff last Thursday we were not just using warm words; we were investing £50 million of UK Government money in a new high-tech centre of innovation at Cardiff University. The Chancellor made it clear in his speech in Cardiff last Thursday that we will support in principle the infrastructure fund that will be at the heart of the Cardiff city deal project.

Northern Powerhouse

7. What recent assessment he has made of the economic effect on north Wales of the northern powerhouse; and if he will make a statement. (902945)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the economic benefit to north Wales of the northern powerhouse. (902948)

The northern powerhouse, which stretches from north Wales to Newcastle, is reviving the economic and civic strength of our great northern cities. It is central to our vision for rebalancing the economy, and north Wales is already benefiting from large-scale infrastructure investments.

Given the proximity of north Wales to the newly established Cheshire science corridor, the positive impact of infrastructure investment—including High Speed 2—and the 871 square miles of opportunity nearby in Cheshire and Warrington, does my hon. Friend agree that north Wales stands to benefit strongly from the northern powerhouse that is being taken forward by this Conservative Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. North-east Wales and north-west England form one single economic entity, and businesses in north Wales see the opportunity that the northern powerhouse can bring. When the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), and I met businesses last year in north Wales, they were keen to be a central part of that, and, as my hon. Friend said, HS2 offers great opportunities.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the £10.4 million investment in the reopening of the Halton curve will provide a significant economic boost for north Wales, as well as for Cheshire and my constituency of Weaver Vale, not least because there is a direct link to Liverpool John Lennon airport?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in securing that investment. He championed this project from the outset, and later this year the direct link from north Wales through Cheshire to Liverpool will be operational. That is a tangible demonstration of the northern powerhouse in action.

12. I, too, welcome the Halton curve and the direct link to Liverpool airport, but does the hon. Gentleman recognise that HS2 coming to Crewe is also important, not just for electrification and the link to north Wales, but to speed up contacts to Manchester airport from north Wales? (902950)

The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the rail transport summit that was held in north Wales last year. It talked about how we can best bring forward a bid to modernise the railway infrastructure across north Wales, and we look forward to that bid coming forward. Only last week I spoke to the chair of the north Wales economic ambition board to discuss the progress of that project.

When I have previously questioned my hon. Friend and his colleague about the potential benefits to north Wales of the northern powerhouse, I have been disappointed to be told of a total lack of engagement on the part of the Welsh Assembly Government. Will my hon. Friend say whether they have changed their stance and are now more plugged in to the process?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for championing the benefits of the northern powerhouse. What is clear is that business sees the benefits. Local authorities also see the benefits. We encourage the Welsh Government to engage positively, because business does not recognise the administrative boundaries between the two.

The Government’s so-called northern powerhouse will bring no benefit to north Wales unless we see the much-needed investment in infrastructure that the Government have so far failed to deliver. When the Chancellor visited Broughton in July, he promised he would look at rail electrification in north Wales. Six months later, has anything happened?

Yes, a considerable amount has happened in relation to investment in north Wales. I mentioned the summit that was held last year. We are keen to develop the signalling needed to improve the railway lines. The North Wales Economic Ambition Board is delighted with the support we are giving. We are keen to develop that even further.

Let us hope that the Government can get on a bit quicker with the electrification than they are on the Great Western main line. North Wales also needs better rail links to Manchester airport. Arriva Trains Wales has proposed a direct service from Llandudno to the airport. Will the Minister explain why, instead of investing in greater capacity on routes to Manchester airport, his colleagues at the Department for Transport have rejected Arriva’s plan, supposedly in favour of extra trans-Pennine services? If the Secretary of State’s place at the Cabinet table counts for anything, what is he going to do about that?

I do not recognise the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. Significant discussions are going on between the Department for Transport, the Welsh Government, rail operators and other partners about remapping and the franchises. We will happily take positive representations on that

Workless Households

In all parts of the United Kingdom our welfare reforms are working, transforming the lives of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The number of workless households in Wales continues to fall, with 12,000 fewer in the last year alone.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government’s welfare reforms are improving the life chances of children in Wales?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We on the Government Benches understand that work is the best route out of poverty. I am very pleased that in Wales the number of children growing up in a home where no parent works has halved, falling by 62,000 since 2010. I am clear that if we are to transform life chances, we have to go much deeper and address the root causes of worklessness, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out in his speech on Monday.

Four years ago, my constituent Margaret Foster was sacked from Remploy by this Prime Minister. Yesterday, I raised her case in a debate. Today, I have been approached by local employers offering her work. Why are the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister presiding over a system to support disabled workers so useless that it takes a Member of Parliament raising the issue in Parliament for anything to happen?

The proportion of disabled people in Wales in work has increased under this Government. There was a time when Labour Members understood and talked the language of welfare reform. Maybe when they have stopped kicking lumps out of each other they will get back to addressing it.

Swansea Tidal Lagoon

I recognise that the proposed Swansea tidal lagoon project has the potential to establish Wales as a major hub for tidal power, creating thousands of jobs and attracting millions of pounds of investment. Robust due diligence is, of course, essential in the interest of taxpayers, who would incur the cost of any subsidy through their energy bills.

Dean Quarry in my constituency is likely to be the source of stone for the tidal lagoon. For over a year, local residents have been concerned about that because it is an important tourist area and marine conservation zone, and we believe there are cheaper areas from which to source the stone. Does the Minister agree that the impact on the environment and the economy is too great and that other sources of stone are available? Will the Government look for places other than Dean Quarry to get the stone?

I am aware of the issue raised by my hon. Friend, who is as ever a powerful and effective voice on behalf of his constituents. Planning applications in relation to Dean Quarry would be dealt with by the Marine Management Organisation and local authorities, which should absolutely take into account local concerns.

Local businesses across Wales are eagerly anticipating the investment that the tidal lagoon will bring. It would be a travesty if the UK Government were to pull the plug on the lagoon, so can the Minister confirm that they remain committed to the project and to agreeing a strike price for the tidal lagoon?

The hon. Lady is right: this is a big, potentially very exciting and significant project. It is also a project that is looking for a large amount of public subsidy and intervention, and it is absolutely right—not that we would expect Opposition Members to understand this—that when we are dealing with large sums of taxpayers’ money, there needs to be due diligence.

Swansea bay tidal lagoon and the other potential lagoons that may result from it provide amazing opportunities for exports of intellectual property, technology and supply chains across south Wales. Will the Secretary of State at least commit to making it happen and doing it as soon as possible?

I repeat the answer I gave to the hon. Gentleman’s colleague. We recognise that this is a potentially very exciting and significant project, in delivering low-carbon renewable energy over a long period. We need to look carefully at the finances to ensure that it delivers value for taxpayers, who will be asked to put a large amount of subsidy into the project.