[Relevant document: First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, on Pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Wales Bill, HC 449.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Welsh affairs.
I can confirm that, this morning, I enjoyed a meeting with the Secretary of State, at which we discussed the crisis in the Welsh steel industry, so he was certainly available for discussions then.
It is a great honour to open this debate today, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing a St David’s day debate. The debate offers us the opportunity to speak about the challenges and opportunities affecting Wales. I am sure that Members will wish to touch on a wide range of different matters. I want to open today’s debate by concentrating on what I believe are some of the most salient, political, cultural and economic matters facing our country and our people today.
This will be a momentous year for Wales. First, we are on course for a championship-deciding clash with England in the Six Nations. I remind the House that it is traditional for Wales to win the Six Nations after a World cup. Perhaps the most momentous sporting occasion will be when the rugby team’s round-ball counterparts make their debut in the European championships in France this summer. It has been 58 years since we have been at an international finals. That is far too long for a country that has produced footballing greats—such as Allchurch, Rush, Hughes and Giggs—to be absent from major footballing tournaments. “Together Stronger” was the mantra of the team and the supporters through qualification, and it is a philosophy that can be applied across many of the issues that I wish to speak about today.
When Bale, Ashley Williams and Ramsey are flying the flag for Wales in that contest, campaigners from this House and across Wales will be making the case for Wales and the whole of the UK to remain in the European Union. We will do it with special zeal. Wales is a net beneficiary of EU funding. Our membership of the European Union is vital to our economy, security and our place in the world. A Brexit would be a massive gamble for Wales, putting jobs, investment, trade and therefore the safety of our communities at risk. The very last thing that we need now is the instability that the possibility of secession from the EU inflicts on a country that already endures economic fragility and social disadvantage.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point. Does he accept the Library figure that the UK makes a net payment of around £8 billion to £8.5 billion each year to the European Union, and that if that money were taken and Barnettised and 5% of it were handed over to Wales, Wales would become a net beneficiary from exiting the European Union?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I am afraid that he is confusing the budget of the European Union with the British economy. The British economy benefits to the tune of £227 billion a year in the exports that it makes to the European Union, thanks to its membership of the single market. If we are looking for value for money, £9 billion to £227 billion looks like a pretty good deal to me.
More immediately, many share my concerns about the months between now and 23 June and ask whether it is realistic to expect rational decisions to be made around a Cabinet table that is beset by mutual loathing.
Hundreds of thousands of Welsh jobs are linked to EU membership, and that membership is our largest source of investment, bringing growth, quality employment and higher wages. Much of our global investment from outside the EU is made possible by the fact that, inside the EU, we provide a gateway to the single market. That is a major reason for international firms such as Tata Steel in my constituency to locate in Wales.
As Members will be aware, the Welsh steel industry finds itself in a precarious position and nowhere in Wales is that felt more acutely than in my constituency. The works in Port Talbot are the productive core of our local economy and community, so the announcement at the start of the year of 750 job losses was a bitter blow, which will be compounded when the impact starts to be felt through the supply chain and the wider local economy.
Although the steel crisis may be partly the result of global trends and events, what cannot be ignored is that the Government have been asleep at the wheel for the past five years. Far more could and should have been done to give the British steel industry a fighting chance. From the blatantly unfair and distortive dumping of Chinese steel to the incompetent and complacent management of public procurement, this Government have failed to give justified support or stimulus to steel.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. May I draw his mind back to the evidence that we took from management and the unions about those terrible job losses? Both said that the European Union had delayed bringing in tariffs on Chinese rebar and had taken a very long time to agree the compensation package—for which the Government had to ask permission from the EU— in order to give back to companies such as Tata some of the money that had already been taken as a result of energy taxes.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Membership of the European Union is defined by how a country engages and how it works with partners in Brussels—both with the European Commission and the other member states. What we have is a Government who, in 2011, recognised that there should be an energy-intensive industries compensation package, but then failed to knock on the door in Brussels and make it happen. How can it be that it took five years to deliver that deal?
When it comes to the dumping of steel, the British Government are the ringleader of a set of member states that do not want to reform the anti-dumping rules—so we still have the lesser duty rule—and are cheerleaders for China, lobbying for it to have market economy status. I am afraid that we need to draw a line under this constant scapegoating of Brussels. The blame should be laid squarely at the doors of Nos. 10 and 11 Downing Street and the rest of the Cabinet. Unlike other member states, they have failed to engage in Brussels in a way that wins for British business.
The Government operate in a fog of laissez-faire ideology. They pray to the gods of the free market, and then they hope for the best. In reality, the market economy can function effectively only if it is regulated. Just as football requires the off-side rule to ensure fair competition, so our steel industry requires the right regulatory framework, so that it can trade in equitable conditions—on a level playing field. Instead, the Government’s blithe faith in the free market is driving them to lobby for China to be given market economy status, and to refuse to support the scrapping of the lesser duty rule.
I wish to state now, with utmost gravity, that if speedy action is not taken to prevent the dumping of Chinese steel, we will witness the beginning of the end of UK steel making. The Government know full well that this foundation industry is hanging by a thread. Neither free market dogma nor cosying up to Beijing should be allowed to impede their patriotic duty to emulate other EU countries and stand up for the men and women who are the backbone of the British economy.
The Minister for Enterprise and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills recently visited my constituency, and I hope they will return so that they can go to the homes of some of my constituents who have lost their jobs. I hope they will look those men, women and families in the eye and explain themselves—explain how they can claim publicly that they are supporting the steel industry, while fighting tooth and nail behind closed doors against the lifting of the lesser duty rule and for market economy status for China.
I hope those Ministers will explain how they can claim publicly that they are changing public procurement to maximise the use of British steel, while allowing the Ministry of Defence to build the latest flotilla of Royal Navy frigates with Swedish steel. I hope they will come to Aberavon and explain the breath-taking contrast between their words and their deeds, for the people of my constituency deserve an explanation.
I am certain that the British steel industry has a promising future if it is given the right support by Government. The men and women at the Port Talbot works make the finest steel that money can buy and they are breaking all production and efficiency records, but the industry requires a long-term industrial strategy based on a sustained, comprehensive approach to skills, investment, regulation, energy and industrial relations. That is why I am proud to co-chair a working group of the all-party parliamentary group on steel, which will produce a report, “Steel 2020”, on formulating a long-term industrial strategy for British and Welsh steel.
Our strategy for the future of the Welsh economy must not be limited to steel. We need a new industrial revolution grounded in the new economy of renewables and connected technology, a fourth industrial revolution such as the one that was spoken of at the recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. I see Wales at the forefront of that revolution. The Swansea Bay tidal lagoon could transform the energy industry, but frustratingly, its future is under threat owing to the Government’s perpetual flip-flopping. A positive decision on the lagoon would not only put a much needed tick in the Government’s ever-diminishing green credentials, but deliver a massive boost to the local economy. By committing to sourcing as much steel as possible from the UK, it would significantly help the UK steel industry. That project needs and deserves rapid advance. The Government need to get off the fence, and fast.
The Government’s short-sightedness is undermining other forms of renewable energy, such as wind and solar. These are burgeoning industries in my constituency, with hundreds of jobs at stake, but they are under threat because of the Government’s moves to cut price stabilisation mechanisms, such as the feed-in tariffs. The Government have been on a policy descent from “Hug a huskie” to, in the words of the Prime Minister, “Let’s cut the green crap”.
May I point out the hypocrisy in what the hon. Gentleman is saying? There is a contradiction between supporting steel—Celsa Steel, for example—which uses so much electricity, and putting a price on that electricity for renewables?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As we have discussed, it is clear that energy-intensive industries require support from Government. That was recognised by the Chancellor in 2011. The support that has come, finally, is welcome. The big question for me is how it could possibly have taken five years to make that happen—to get the state aid clearance that was required from the European Union. Fundamentally, the strategy for energy must be about spreading the burden of the cost more effectively so that our energy-intensive industries are not being hung out to dry by an energy policy that does not make sense. It is also about making a firm commitment so that those investing have a sense of the stability and sustainability of the market in future. We currently do not have any of those things in place, which is why we are in such a mess.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about stability. Does he agree that the real problem in industries such as solar and anaerobic digestion—on which a reception was held in the House earlier this week—is the instability of the legislative and regulatory framework, which is a deterrent to long-term investment and is costing a large number of jobs in communities right across Wales?
I agree absolutely. The Energy and Climate Change Committee has just produced a compelling report that clearly demonstrates that we are losing investment and jobs precisely because of the mixed messages and signals that this Government send to investors. Business abhors a vacuum. Business needs stability. It needs to know whether there will be a return on its investments, and at present it sees no evidence whatever of that in the United Kingdom.
Wales, and south-west Wales in particular, can also be at the forefront of an internet revolution. Swansea Bay city region has based its city deal proposal on the concept of an “internet coast” to drive the digital future of energy, health and economic acceleration. All eyes are on the Chancellor. If he really wants a “march of the makers”, he must give his full backing to that exciting vision. The Swansea University bay campus, which, I emphasise, is based in my Aberavon constituency, has a huge role to play in the development of the internet coast. I look at my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for verification of that.
This outstanding project, made possible by EU and European Investment Bank funding, is one of the largest and most important knowledge economy projects in Europe, producing cutting-edge research focusing on science and innovation.
The “internet coast” is a plan for the future. It is a pity the same cannot be said of the Government’s draft Wales Bill, which does not provide anything like the lasting settlement that it was intended to create. Instead, it has thrown up more uncertainties around the legislative process, and succeeds only in generating reams of constitutional red tape. Just this week the Welsh Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), called on the Government to pause the proposed timetable for the Bill so that there is opportunity to reflect fully. That is the least that is needed. My specific concern is about ministerial consent and the risk that the process is seen as tantamount to an English veto, but my more general concern is that the Bill has been drafted in a bubble, isolated from the broader debate about the constitutional reform that our country so desperately needs.
The UK is more centralised than any other leading industrialised economy, and the Scottish referendum demonstrated that the constitutional foundations of the UK are cracking beneath our feet. The British people need and deserve better. The piecemeal, make-do and muddle-through approach that is epitomised by this Wales Bill is simply not going to get the job done. We must, therefore, have a full constitutional convention that would formulate a bold, radical, rational, root-and-branch reform of our constitution. The convention would develop a written constitution that is anchored in a confederal UK, an elected senate, a more proportional electoral system, and properly defined devolution of powers to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
We have also seen the results of government by muddle in Wales with the Trade Union Bill. Having taken a sledgehammer to crack a nut, the Government have found that the nut is not entirely theirs to crack in the first place. I am delighted that my Labour colleagues have stood eyeball to eyeball with the Government, and it was the Government who blinked first. The Trade Union Bill, coupled with the changes in voter registration and the alterations in constituency boundaries, are blatant and disgraceful attempts to turn the UK into a one-party state, the thinly veiled agenda being to eradicate parliamentary opposition altogether. Vladimir Putin would be proud of such fixing. Wales is disproportionately hit by the boundary changes, losing around a quarter of our MPs, reducing Wales’s voice in the House and marginalising the Welsh people.
There is great potential in Wales, but we will realise that potential only with bold leadership. There is vision and willingness in Cardiff Bay, but we find those qualities abysmally lacking on the Government Benches. As we go into elections in May, we should remember all that we have to be proud of in Wales: a Labour Government delivering for working people, creating 50,000 apprenticeships and getting 15,000 young people back to work with Jobs Growth Wales; ground-breaking legislation on violence against women; a Labour Government who have improved the cancer survival rate faster than anywhere in the UK, and who are training more nurses than ever before; a Labour Government who stood up to Westminster to protect farm workers’ wages; a Labour Government who stood by Remploy, while the Tories were shutting it down across the rest of the UK.
Let us remember that it is the work of the Welsh Labour Government under the leadership of First Minister Carwyn Jones that has enabled the creation of 750 jobs at Aston Martin in St Athan. Under Carwyn, Labour will make use of the Welsh Government’s new powers by cutting business rates for small businesses and supporting entrepreneurship, growth and jobs. That is the kind of leadership we need in Wales.
I thank my hon. Friend for his wonderful speech and for his important leadership in the whole steel debate—he has been critical in moving in it forward. Will he talk a little about the importance of clarifying what will happen with rail franchising in Wales? Will he talk about whether it is true, as suggested by the Department for Transport, that no trains that start or end in England will be franchised in Wales? We have to know what is happening. Is it not important that we take that issue forward?
I agree entirely. That comes back to an issue I was talking about earlier: the need for a long-term industrial strategy that connects supply with demand and that gives our steel producers some certainty so that they know what infrastructure projects are coming down the track. They can then configure their production processes to ensure that they make the right kind of steel at the right time. That is about a partnership between Government and business; without such a partnership, industries such as the steel industry will continue to struggle. I hope that we will hear a little more today about the Government’s commitment to such a partnership.
That is the kind of leadership we need in Wales: the kind that creates jobs, opportunity, industry and enterprise and that stands up for all in our nation—the kind we can be proud of. That is why it is vital that we see a Labour victory in Wales on 5 May.
Wales has the talent and creativity to emulate our Celtic cousins Scotland and Ireland in gaining strong recognition in the world. Our people achieve far beyond the nation’s size in rugby, football, athletics and so on. With effort and fair chances, we can do the same politically, technologically, environmentally, culturally and economically. I am proud to be Welsh, to be British and to be European. I am certain that we can make those advances because, in all dimensions, together we are stronger.
Order. I hope we can manage this debate without a formal time limit on speeches. If everyone who has indicated that they wish to speak takes under 10 minutes—that means around nine minutes—everyone will have an equal chance to put their points.
May I take this opportunity to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, a belated happy St David’s day? May I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate? Traditionally, it has always been held close to St David’s day. It reminds the entire House that, even in an age of devolution, many of the most important decisions that affect Wales are still taken in these Houses of Parliament.
There have been busy times recently for the Wales Office. We recently had a very full debate on the draft Wales Bill, so I do not propose to rehearse the remarks I made then, save to tell the Minister how pleased I am that he and his colleagues have taken the opportunity to have a pause in the process of developing what will be extremely important legislation. It was generally agreed by hon. Members, and indeed by commentators outside this House, that the draft Bill was really not ready and not fit for purpose.
I am glad that the Minister and his colleagues are giving further consideration to the matter. They are looking at the issue of the list of reservations, but my concern was not so much with the reservations, as he knows, as with the necessity test, which was rather sketchy and ill-defined. I hope he will be able to come back to the House with something that is more fit for purpose.
I wish to speak—briefly, Madam Deputy Speaker—about north Wales, because that is the part of Wales I come from and in which I have lived all my life. Welsh Members frequently think that north Wales is something of an afterthought in Westminster and in Cardiff Bay. In the case of the Welsh Assembly Government, I think few of its members come from north Wales and understand the peculiar circumstances that prevail there. For example, I do not think it is fully understood by members of the Welsh Government that most of north Wales is, in reality, closely tied to north-west England; in fact, it is fair to say that it is very much part of the north-western economic region. That lack of understanding has resulted in certain problems for north Wales, and I am glad to say that north Wales Members of Parliament are beginning to address that through the formation, under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), of the new all-party group for the Mersey-Dee north Wales region.
North Wales needs to maintain its close links to north-west England. Traditionally, it has always looked, culturally and economically, to the great cities of north-west England—specifically Manchester and Liverpool. However, devolution carries with it the danger that those historical and traditional links will be loosened. It is important, now that Government policy is firmly focused on developing the northern powerhouse agenda, that north Wales is not overlooked in that process.
One aspect of the northern powerhouse that north Wales needs to link into is the rail network. I was glad when, a few months ago, the Chancellor announced that he was making funds available to upgrade the Halton curve, which many Members on both sides of the border—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans)—had been pressing for for some time. However, there is much more that needs to be done.
North Wales MPs hear constantly of the wonderful electrification upgrades in south Wales. Before long, the Great Western line will be upgraded to electrified status all the way through to Swansea.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that it appears from announcements by the Department for Transport that the north Wales line to Manchester will be held by an English franchise and that there will be no opportunity for a Welsh franchisee to hold it, because it will not be possible for any franchise that starts or ends in England to be held in Wales?
I do have concerns about the franchise, but now that the hon. Lady has raised the subject, I am bound to say that the citizens of north Wales would not express much satisfaction with the franchise that has been put in place by the Welsh Assembly Government. Arriva Trains provide a very poor service. It is actually much quicker for me, as a north Wales MP, to travel to London by Virgin Trains than to Cardiff by Arriva. Certainly, issues of topography are partly responsible for that, but they do not explain the appallingly low standards of comfort that one experiences on Arriva. I would certainly hope, therefore, that all aspects of the franchise will be looked at, not least the adequacy of the service that is provided at the moment.
The north Wales coastal line needs to be upgraded. We must not miss out on the opportunity to tap into the new service that will be provided as a consequence of the advent of HS2. It looks very much as if a new hub will be provided at Crewe, and it is essential for the travelling public of north Wales that proper, electrified services connect the whole north Wales coast, from Holyhead, all the way to Crewe.
In that connection, valuable work is being done by the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, and the new all-party group can play a role in that. It is hoped that there will shortly be a meeting that will be attended by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), who is the northern powerhouse Minister. I was very pleased to see the Minister at a meeting organised by the board in Llandudno a few months ago. It is essential that the Government do not take their eye off the ball, because electrification of the north Wales line is fundamentally important to the economy of north Wales and to its connectivity with the northern powerhouse.
Similarly, consideration should be given to the Borderlands railway line that runs between Wrexham and Bidston, connecting the two enterprise zones at Wirral Waters and Deeside. Electrification of that stretch of line, particularly between Bidston and Shotton, would provide a relatively inexpensive, but highly desirable, piece of infrastructure. It would put Deeside industrial estate within commuting distance of the centre of Liverpool, again improving connectivity.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words earlier. He knows that I strongly share the agenda he is outlining. The Welsh Government have invested £43 million in dualling the Wrexham-Chester line, which is hugely important, and we need to do more. Will he join me in pressing the Welsh Government and the UK Government to put their money where their mouth is? The Welsh Government, to be fair, believe in cross-border transport so much that they have dualled the line in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) rather than in Wrexham, and we want it to run right through to Wrexham.
Yes, that is the burden of my speech. As the north-eastern part of Wales is so dynamic and so important to the economy of north Wales, as well as that of the country of a whole, and because it straddles a border—a line on the map that was not there in reality until fairly recently—we need to ensure that differing policies on either side of the border do not have any unforeseen effects. Yes, of course it is essential that both the Westminster Government and the Welsh Government should be working extremely closely together in this regard.
Before I sit down, Madam Deputy Speaker—I am very much alert to your strictures on time—I will mention the A55 coast road, or expressway, which is the most important route in the whole of north Wales, linking the areas around the border to Holyhead. The road is now quite old and in desperate need of upgrading. A few years ago, arrangements were made whereby borrowing powers were given to the Welsh Government—in fact, they were given the right to access the old borrowing powers of the Welsh Development Agency—in order to upgrade road infrastructure. That was stated to be specifically for the M4 and the A55. The Welsh Government are taking steps to upgrade the M4 around the Newport area, and that is all well and good, but looking at this from a north Wales point of view, it is rather galling that they do not appear to be accessing these borrowing powers to upgrade the A55. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government the message that they should realise that the A55 is just as important to the people of north Wales as the M4 is to the people of south Wales.
There is a strong perception among us north Walians that we always get the short straw. I very much hope that the Welsh Government are listening to the contributions made to this debate and will understand that there is life north of Merthyr Tydfil and that the people of north Wales need their own specific economic interests to be reflected—and that means more connectivity and more integration with the great north-west economy.
I would like briefly to refer to three issues: first, what has happened to the draft Wales Bill; secondly, the importance of the European Union to Wales; and, thirdly, the need for the third runway at Heathrow airport from a Welsh perspective.
I have to ask where the Secretary of State for Wales is this afternoon. Surely this is an important debate and his place really ought to have been in this Chamber listening to what Members have to say and responding to their remarks. It is not asking too much that he show some courteousness and political common sense by coming here. I very much hope that he will learn the lesson from his embarrassment this afternoon. The Under-Secretary will clearly take that message back to him.
Quite a significant decision has been taken by the Secretary of State over the past week—to withdraw the draft Wales Bill—but I am concerned that there has been no oral statement or even a written statement. There has been no communication with the House of Commons. We learned about the decision from the press. That is a gross discourtesy and an undermining of the parliamentary system that we are all committed to.
That brings me to my main issue. I ask the House this question: what do the following individuals and organisations have in common? They are the Wales Governance Centre, the leaders of three political parties in Wales, the Learned Society of Wales, Sir Paul Silk, Sir Emyr Jones Parry, the head of the Wales office of the Law Society, and the professor of governance and constitution at University College, London—and the list could go on. The answer is that they all said that the draft Wales Bill was not fit for purpose. There was relative unanimity on that among those in Wales who follow these issues closely—the objective experts and academics, and the people who are at the sharp end of implementing legislation. I am sure the Under-Secretary will say, “Well, yes, that is why we withdrew the Bill—we listened”, but would it not have been better if he had listened at the start?
Concern was expressed about the draft Bill right from the very beginning, when it was first published. I have a copy here, and quite a heavy tome it is. The Secretary of State said in the foreword:
“This draft Bill sets out in detail how the Government plans to deliver the St David’s Day commitments to create a stronger, clearer and fairer devolution settlement for Wales that will stand the test of time.”
It stood the test of time for four months, and then he recognised what everybody else was saying—that it was not fit for purpose and he should go back to the drawing board and start all over again.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman’s criticisms, but does he not agree that it is far better to get the legislation right than to bring through hasty legislation that does not stand the test of time? In that regard, did he read the recent report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that bemoaned the fact that the Blair Government of 1997 hastened through legislation that has now resulted in the West Lothian question not being addressed?
I agree up to a point. Pre-legislative scrutiny is good—it makes for better legislation—but it would have been far better if the Wales Office had recognised that meaningful constitutional change can be achieved only on the basis of a high degree of political consensus. It cannot be achieved by a Government—any Government—trying to push through legislation that does not command broad support and is seen by some people as partisan and not properly thought through. That was one of the fundamental problems with the draft Bill. Many people thought it was purely impractical and would therefore lead to bad governance. That lesson ought to be learned.
That part of the splendid report referred to by the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) is a fine example of inventing precedent to suit a case. In fact, the words inserted into the report were disputed, because they are a great example of the argument made at the beginning of a splendid book about those times called “Dragons Led by Poodles”, which asserted that only the future is certain, but the past is always changing. That is what the Committee tried to do.
My hon. Friend is too modest to say this, but it is worth pointing out that he was the author of that book. I disagreed with some things in it, but it did have many words of wisdom.
My central point is that those of us who believe in devolution need to recognise that there needs to be a high degree of consensus, dialogue and debate among all politicians involved in the process, both here and in Cardiff Bay. I really hope that when the Government start from scratch, they will have learned the cardinal lesson that they have to consult—genuinely and openly, and on a cross-party basis—opinion here in Westminster. I think that all our colleagues are prepared to contribute.
It is also important that the Government work with the Welsh Assembly. It is very important that we have that dialogue with Cardiff Bay, because, to be frank, it is unthinkable that a Westminster Government could decide a devolution package that is not acceptable to the body to which power is being devolved. If they had proceeded with the draft Bill, we might have been in that situation, ridiculous though it seems. I ask the Government for dialogue not only here, but with our colleagues and friends back in the Welsh Assembly.
My second point is about the European Union. In my view, there is an overwhelmingly strong case for the United Kingdom to remain a full member of the European Union, but that case is particularly strong for us in Wales. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the European Union is vital for jobs, exports and, therefore, prosperity in Wales.
Last week the Prime Minister visited the General Electric aircraft engine maintenance plant in Nantgarw, just outside my constituency. He made his case for why Britain should remain in the EU and why it benefits south Wales and General Electric. Objectively, he had a strong case to make, because General Electric is one of my constituency’s most important employers; many of the workers travel down Nantgarw hill to work there. It recognises how important it is to have a good relationship with the EU and to be an integral part of the single European market. I have no ideological axe to grind; empirically, we recognise that it is good for our economy to be firmly linked to our partners in the rest of Europe. It is as simple and straightforward as that. It is a bread and butter issue.
On Monday night, I met representatives from DS Smith Recycling Ltd, which is a British company with a strong European presence. It is expanding its operations in an innovative way throughout the European Union, and it is a major and important employer in my constituency of Caerphilly. The company is not committed to the left or to the right; it simply wants to expand its work and be a good employer. It recognises that it would be absolute lunacy for itself and the people it employs if we extricated ourselves from the European Union. The message that went out on Monday evening was, “In the interests of the company, jobs and prosperity, please make sure that the strong case is put for Britain to remain in the European Union.”
The two companies I have mentioned have innovative and well-structured training programmes, which the EU’s structural funds contribute to in large part. Wales has been allocated £2.4 billion from the EU structural funds for the 2014 to 2020 period. Indeed, Wales is a net beneficiary—more money comes in than goes out—to the tune of £838 million a year. There are strong practical reasons for making the case over the next few weeks that Britain and Wales should remain an integral part of the European Union. It makes sense for ordinary people and for the country’s prosperity, to which we are all committed.
My final point is also linked to the prosperity of Wales, namely the question of whether Heathrow should be expanded and have a third runway. As a Welsh MP, I believe that the strongest single argument in favour of the third runway at Heathrow is the positive impact it would have on the Welsh economy. That is not just my view. The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, was clear the other day that the Welsh Government support the expansion of Heathrow because it would provide the best possible support for investment, tourism and jobs in Wales. His comments are informed by hard facts and clear analysis. It has been estimated that 85% of the new manufacturing jobs that an expanded Heathrow would generate would be created outside London and the south-east. Up to 6,000 of those manufacturing jobs would be in Wales, constituting a significant part of the 8,400 Welsh jobs accompanying a total of £6.2 billion of economic benefit.
Those facts speak for themselves. It is essential that the Government stop shilly-shallying and give the go-ahead for the expansion of Heathrow. It makes sense for the country as a whole and for Wales in particular.
Whether or not Heathrow will bring the best possible benefits to Wales depends on access. That is why it is essential that Heathrow’s expansion is accompanied by the electrification of the Paddington to south Wales railway line and the construction of a rail spur directly to Heathrow. I am aware that a consultation began this week.
On the subject of Governments dilly-dallying, if we are going to have a third runway at Heathrow—which I support wholeheartedly—would it not make sense for the Welsh Labour Government to get on with the M4 relief road and improve the tunnels and the capacity of the M4 so that we can get to the airport?
I am in favour of that, but the decision is not up to the Government in Cardiff alone. A lot depends on what the Government in London do and on whether financial facilities are made available to the Welsh Government. That is important.
It is vital that a message goes out from the consultation that Network Rail is commencing that the Governments in Cardiff and in London are in favour of the spur to Heathrow. When the Minister replies, I would like him to say that strong representations will be made to Network Rail to make sure that we get the spur. We hope that that will be part of a longer-term project for the expansion of Heathrow airport.
I have spoken about three important issues. We want a coherent draft Wales Bill to be presented, and I hope that it will be formulated on the basis of consensus. I hope that in the next few months many Members in this Chamber will decide to pull together and argue the case for Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, highlighting its importance for Wales. I also hope that we will be able to unite in support of an expanded Heathrow airport. That, again, would be of tremendous benefit to the Welsh economy.
You just got the nine minute bar in before I rose to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, which is probably a good thing. This debate is close to my heart. I have always thought we should have a debate in the Chamber as near as possible to 1 March. I always think of it as a St David’s day debate, and that tends to lead me to take a non-adversarial approach.
I opened the debate last year, as the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) did this year. In preparation, I remember looking back through Hansard to see who had spoken in similar debates. I was rather hoping that my favourite British politician of all time, David Lloyd George—his statue rightly stands outside the door to the Chamber—had opened a similar debate, but he had not. He was a remarkable politician. A left-wing, radical Welsh speaker from Criccieth in north Wales whom nobody had ever heard of until he came here, he effectively led the Conservative party for six years in this place. Only a Welshman could pull off a trick like that, and he did. It was his daughter, Megan Lloyd George, who opened the first St David’s day debate in 1944; this debate does not have a long history. In her speech she focused mainly on two issues: the dire situation of the farming industry, particularly the dairy industry, and the way in which mid-Wales is ignored. Over the last 70 years, not an awful lot has changed. Welsh dairy farming is in seriously dire straits, and mid-Wales continues to be ignored.
I thank my hon. Friend for offering me the opportunity for some degree of self-congratulation, but I had probably better not take it.
I particularly enjoyed one comment from Megan Lloyd George’s speech, which you may enjoy as well, Madam Deputy Speaker:
I think she meant English women as well, but in those days women were not included as they are today—
“can understand the Welsh. However much he may try, and however sympathetic he may feel, he cannot get inside the skin and bones of a Welshman unless he be born again.”—[Official Report, 17 October 1944; Vol. 403, c. 2237.]
That explains quite a lot.
I am supportive of making St David’s day a national holiday, and I support the efforts of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who is sponsoring a private Member’s Bill under which that decision would be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. When I was a National Assembly Member, I declared 1 March to be a bank holiday in my office, and the staff were always told that they need not come in to work. If we are not able to agree a bank holiday, I could certainly do the same again.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for supporting that idea. Would he support Plaid Cymru Members if we tabled an amendment to the Wales Bill to remove public holidays from the list of matters reserved to Westminster?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would expect me to go further than to say that that may well be an idea that could be supported and looked at.
St David was a great Welshman, pure in thought and pure in deed—a condition to which every good Welshman aspires. He performed awe-inspiring miracles. People usually refer to the most famous one, which was to raise the ground on which he was standing in order to be seen. The First Minister of Wales gave that very example in London today in a speech that I heard. What I find most interesting about it is the reflection made by the late Professor John Davies, another great Welshman, who said that he could not
“conceive of a miracle more superfluous than the creation of a new hill at Llanddewi Brefi.”
That is true, but it was still a very good trick to pull off.
I want to comment on three areas. They are points that I feel I ought to make in this place as often as I can. The first is on culture. I will then make some comments on sport. I also want to comment on the transfer of power, which will take place under the Wales Bill and to some extent under the constituency boundaries review, from this place to the National Assembly for Wales.
Wales is a great nation of culture—it is part of the Welsh DNA—but the one thing that is particularly special is the Welsh language. It makes Wales different. Not everybody can speak it, but it does make Wales very different from any other part of Britain. We can go to certain places and hear the indigenous language of Welsh being spoken on the street. I think that is very special.
A key part of supporting the Welsh language is Sianel Pedwar Cymru—S4C—the Welsh television channel. Every couple of years, we seem to have to fight very hard to maintain the public support that is needed for such a channel to continue. I hope that Members from all parties in this place will acknowledge its importance in ensuring that the Welsh language thrives and keeps Wales the special place that we all aspire to its being.
I want to talk briefly about sport, but perhaps not to say the obvious things. We know about the Welsh rugby team, and we wish them well. We have a magnificent captain in Sam Warburton. I say that not just for the quality of his play, but for the type of man he is. When I look back on everything I have seen in sport, I will never forget how, when he was so unjustly sent off in the semi-final of the world cup, he looked at the referee, nodded his head and walked off. He showed no disagreement with the referee, but accepted a really unfair decision—the referee’s judgment—and went off. That requires a level of self-control that I find absolutely amazing. To my mind, that makes him a magnificent man. I must of course also make reference to the Welsh football team, who are going to France for the European championship. We wish them well.
I want to mention two other sportsmen. One of them is an international figure, John Charles. I am of a certain age—a lot of Members in the Chamber are young—and in my view he was the best footballer that Britain has ever produced. He is never thought of as such and does not come to people’s minds, but he was an absolutely amazing man. He could leap, above everybody, like a salmon. Actually, he was a little bit like St David in that he could rise himself up, but he did not need a hill. He was appreciated across the world. Again, amazingly, he had the same Warburton-like concept of fairness. He was never sent off or cautioned in the whole of his career. How someone could play at his standard—one of the best players in the world—and never be cautioned, or never have an argument with anyone, is amazing.
The other person I want to mention is a local man from Welshpool, Barry Williams. I played rugby in the midlands and the north of England, and I eventually came back to Welshpool, where we had one team. Sometimes, we were lucky even to get out one full team. In terms of the first team, Welshpool is not much different now, but has up to 10 teams of youngsters—under-eights, under-10s, under-12s and under-14s—playing every week. Barry Williams organises all that. To my mind, he is the sort of individual who makes a massive contribution to Welsh sport and, indeed, to the spirit of encouraging young people to be part of society. I think that Welshpool rugby club—it is not the greatest rugby club in the world, although I thought it was when I played there—has the sort of man we need as an example to everyone right across Wales.
Finally, I want to say one or two things about the Wales Bill, which we have not yet seen. I am one of the few people to be disappointed by the pause. In the end, I acknowledge that there has to be a pause because of the delays in getting to where we are, but I would very much have liked it to be a subject for debate during the National Assembly election. It would have been a real issue of contention. Elections very often finish up as a debate about all sorts of things that are very much unrelated to what they should be about. If it had been an issue in the Welsh Assembly election, we could have focused on the future of Wales and how Wales is governed, which would have been very appropriate.
What I have seen of the Bill so far has pleased me. Clearly, the draft Bill did not receive a level of support that would have enabled it to go forward. We still have the reserved powers model, but it seems that the powers that are reserved will be greatly reduced—something we should all welcome. Other parts of the Bill are important. The inclusion of income tax responsibilities for the Welsh Government is crucial. It will give them a financial responsibility, rather than just a spending responsibility. That will enable the Welsh Government to grow up. There are a whole lot of other issues on which there is general agreement across all parties. Hopefully, in the end there will be a Bill that Members from all parties can support and that delivers the stable, long-term devolution settlement that all of us in this place would very much like to see.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate. It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies).
Well done to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for securing this important time in the Chamber to talk about all things Welsh. He rightly talked about the crisis that the steel industry faces. The issues that he raised in respect of Aberavon also have a huge impact on Llanwern steelworks in my constituency, so I wholeheartedly support the points that he made. This morning, he, I and other Labour Members who are in the Chamber lobbied the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise on those very points, and we will keep saying those things. I support my hon. Friend’s call for more help to protect our industry for the sake of constituents who work in Aberavon and, crucially, in Llanwern. We must never forget the Llanwern workers, given the announcements on job losses. We are feeling the effects of the job losses, too.
We went into this matter in some depth in the debate on steel on Monday. I know that the Secretary of State and the Minister are extremely mindful of these issues, but on behalf of the steelworkers I represent, I ask the Wales Office Ministers to keep speaking up in Government on behalf of the steel industry. I shall not repeat the five asks because we went through them in depth on Monday, but I ask the Minister to please be mindful of them.
I realise that there is a mixed picture in my constituency in respect of steel, because there is positive news at the Orb steelworks, which is also owned by Tata. It produces some of the best-quality transformer steel in the world and delivered a profit in quarter three last year. Liberty steel, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) mentioned in the debate on Monday, has restarted production at the old Alphasteel works and hopes to increase production in the months and years to come. We must acknowledge that news, too.
I know that many hon. Members want to get in, so I want to use this opportunity primarily to bang on about the Severn bridge tolls. I make no apology for doing so again. It is by no means a new issue for the House, but after many years of debate, questions and meetings, it is coming to a head. The bridges will soon come back into public ownership, so we are in the crucial period when discussions are taking place about the level of tolling. We must not miss the opportunity to get the tolls reduced.
As local issues go, the tolls are one of the most frequently raised with me, alongside the overcrowding on the commuter services to Bristol and beyond. Some 12,500 people travel from Newport and Monmouthshire into England every day. There is a transport trap for people in south-east Wales: they can either take the expensive overcrowded train, if they can get on it, or pay the eye-watering tolls on the bridge every day.
If the Minister wants to grant my St David’s day debate wish and, I suspect, the wish of many of my constituents who are commuters or who run local businesses, he will commit to lobby the Department for Transport to slash the tolls to a near-maintenance level when the bridges become publicly owned. The tolls have a huge impact on commuters, and also on access to jobs for many of my constituents, because when people factor in having to pay the tolls, they cannot afford to take many of the jobs that are on offer in Bristol and the surrounding area. There is a huge impact on local businesses—not just hauliers, about whom I will continue to talk in debates on the subject, but other businesses across south Wales that absorb the cost in their bottom line or that in some cases have to relocate to England.
My neighbour the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) recently discovered in his role as Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee that the debts on the bridges were due to be paid back earlier than expected—as early as autumn 2017—because of tax changes and increased traffic volume. In an answer to a recent written question, I was told that the concession is due to end in 2018. It is therefore really important that we know the answers to the following questions. Will the debts be cleared by 2017, and is it the Minister’s understanding that the concessionaire has had increased revenue? If so, why will the concession end in 2018, not 2017, and what will the concessionaire recoup in the meantime? What discussions are going on, and between whom, about the date on which the concession will end and the future level of the toll? Will Ministers please heed the calls for the tolls to be slashed?
We know that VAT will have to be taken off the tolls when the bridges revert to public ownership—thanks to kindly EU rules, I might add. What would happen to the Severn bridge tolls if we voted to come out of the EU? That is a new angle. It is important that the Government recognise that the change would have happened anyway, so it is not a great gift. We need some clarity about the money that the concessionaire is recouping from the bridges, the current debt and the money that the Government are getting in from the VAT and other taxes.
My plea today is that the Government involve hon. Members with constituency interests in the bridges in their discussions. I appreciate that the Minister will not have all the answers today, but will he at least commit to getting Transport Ministers to write to me with answers to those questions? Would he be able to broker a meeting between me and other hon. Members and the Department for Transport, so that we can find out what is happening?
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon talked about bold leadership in the Welsh Government, and their partnerships and achievements were one of the themes of his speech. In Newport, there is real optimism about the newly opened Friars Walk development.
I thank my hon. Friend. All credit is due to Bob Bright and Newport City Council for their brave political leadership in driving the project through at a time when hardly anywhere else in the country was building such projects. It is not a silver bullet and will not answer all of Newport’s problems, but 120,000 more people came to our city centre in November. Along with Coleg Gwent’s hope to relocate to the city centre with the University of South Wales, and other developments and partnerships involving businesses and the Welsh Government, it is bringing real optimism to our city. We need the UK Government to play their part, too, to save, protect and build our manufacturing industries. They have a role to play in allowing our city to thrive and grow, and protecting our steel industry is one way to do it.
In the spirit of St David’s day, may I first give huge congratulations to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate? More importantly, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) for introducing a bit of consensus just before my speech, which I will build on. In that spirit, I add my name to the lobby of the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) on the Severn bridge tolls, which are an important cross-party issue on which we all campaign strongly. I would certainly like to come to the meeting with the Department for Transport if Ministers can arrange that.
I want to touch on several points. I am mindful of the time limit, but as the Member for Cardiff North it would be remiss of me not to start with the Cardiff city deal. I know that my colleagues would be sad if I did not bang on about it for at least half my speech.
It is an important time for Cardiff, and an exciting time to be involved with what I see as the engine room of the Welsh economy—Cardiff and the city region. If the city deal is successful, it could bring a lot of scope, investment and vision together. The next couple of weeks will be incredibly important for our capital city. I want to make a couple of pleas from the Chamber about private sector involvement. I know that the Minister is a champion for us, and I implore him to do anything he can in the spirit of consensus and the framework of the city deal.
The Aston Martin announcement was so welcome and brilliant, and the Minister was integral to that. It resulted from championing by the UK and the Welsh Governments. If we take that partnership approach on many more issues, we could secure much more investment. We are all tempted, so close to an election, to take all the credit for anything positive in Wales, but there are many more companies floating around south Wales—and I hope north Wales, but I am unabashedly the champion of Cardiff—and working together can help secure investment.
Electrification is a key issue. When that happens in Cardiff and then in Swansea, there will be an opportunity to tie into the south Wales metro. I want to work with the Welsh Government and Network Rail to get work in the south Wales valleys into the right control period. I want to be involved in the conversations, for example, about whether the line is heavy or light. I want to do what I can, and I want the spirit of consensus to get into the city deal. I hope that the metro will be at the core of that. I realise that the next couple of months will be difficult and that we might not quite agree on everything in the run-up to the Assembly election. However, in the spirit of consensus. I very much look forward to working with Councillor Jayne Cowan in Cardiff North, who, with 16 years of experience on the council, could help deliver the metro.
I also want briefly to mention IQE in the context of the city deal. It is a great Cardiff and Welsh company that produces the compound semiconductors that we find in most electronic devices. Its relationship with Cardiff University, and the new catapult that the Chancellor of Exchequer launched in Cardiff, are bringing high-end, brilliant manufacturing to Wales—exactly the sort of industry that we need to attract together. By “together”, again I mean the UK and the Welsh Governments.
Without venturing too far into the European debate, I have to say that Cardiff University punches far above its weight. That ties into Horizon 2020 funding and the critical mass we get in the single market for research and development, which I support wholeheartedly. The metro, electrification, IQE and working with the private and third sectors will deliver a Cardiff city deal to rejuvenate south Wales. The valleys are important in the Cardiff city deal, which might start with Cardiff but is incredibly important to that critical work population of about 1.5 million people. Although Cardiff is the engine room of the Welsh economy, we need transformation for south Wales.
The hon. Gentleman alluded to the importance of the European Union for Cardiff University and research funding. He knows, of course, that the leader of the Conservative party in the Assembly has said that he will vote for Brexit. What impact does the hon. Gentleman think that that will have on higher education policy in the Conservative manifesto for the Assembly elections?
The hon. Gentleman is trying to ruin the consensus within my party as well as the debate. I will try my best to skirt around that issue. Although I disagree with Andrew R. T. Davies, a good friend and colleague, we will work those things out when he is First Minister. I therefore would not worry about that.
Let me move on quickly to the redevelopment and challenges that I envisage for the south Wales and Cardiff economy. The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) is not in his place, but I am sure that he will read Hansard later. The barefaced cheek of saying that we are waiting for some sort of financial package from the UK Government for the M4 relief road is unbelievable. That borrowing power—the old Welsh Development Agency powers—has been available to the Welsh Government for a considerable time and they have not done much to progress that.
I wholeheartedly accept that, and I feel for the A55 as much as I do for the M4. However, the M4 relief road is key for our links to Heathrow, as is the spur for Network Rail. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) referred to Andrew R. T. Davies—the next First Minister—and he has committed to having, within 12 months, a spade-ready M4 relief road. I massively welcome that and look forward to its coming to fruition.
I am conscious of the time, but I want to touch on the redevelopment of the M4 and the Eastern Bay link road. It is a shame and a travesty that Wales’s capital city does not have a circular road around it, and any visitor to the National Assembly for Wales who comes out of the Butetown tunnels then sees the national disgrace of a road that ends—it is a road to nowhere and it needs finishing. I know that phase 1 is now on the cards, but it is ridiculous to do one phase of a circular road, but to leave out a small section up to what would be an excellent gateway to the new M4 relief road. I have also touched on the metro and the tolls, on which there is cross-party consensus.
Let me briefly mention the Commonwealth games, and a bid that we must champion as a nation. Cardiff is at the core of that, but the games have the opportunity to be a real Welsh national Commonwealth games. When we consider what happened in Glasgow and Scotland, and at the Olympics in London, the kind of economic redevelopment and opportunities that a Commonwealth games presents for Wales cannot be missed. I hope that all parties in the upcoming Assembly election will have in their manifestos a clear commitment to the Commonwealth games. Sports, businesses and Welsh civic society are behind that bid, and we need political vision and leadership from Cardiff Bay. I hope that that will be the only bid within the United Kingdom, and that we can have full support from the UK Government.
I will now touch on sporting success. I asked permission from my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire to mention one hero, but I will actually mention three. He mentioned Barry Williams. I spent many a Saturday morning more than two decades ago selling match programmes with him, and he is a true champion. We finally have something in common again, because he is up for election in the Peter’s Pie competition for a Welsh rugby hero. Outside of Cardiff North, Welshpool rugby club is the finest rugby club in Wales, and I support his bid wholeheartedly. He is a true champion of Welsh rugby and a great friend.
Lewis Wilkins is a young scientist from my constituency, and he is coming to the House of Commons on Monday as part of the SET for BRITAIN initiative to encourage, support and promote Britain’s early-stage and early-career research scientists. It is a great scheme to get young people into science and research and development so early on. He will be in Portcullis House—I will not give the time and date, but if anyone wants to join me in going to see Lewis Wilkins, they will meet a true champion of science and a true advocate for Cardiff and Cardiff University.
Finally, I want to mention Mrs Beth Baldwin, whose son tragically died of undetected type-1 diabetes. This week she presented a petition to the Assembly on raising awareness of diabetes and on having a simple prick test—perhaps as part of schools’ injection processes—to discover whether children are diabetic. She received the Pride of Britain award, and she is an incredibly brave woman from an incredibly supportive and great Cardiff family that have turned a tragedy into a great campaign. She is a true Welsh hero. I am delighted that she will be coming to No. 10 later this month to present another petition about having a gold standard or minimum for GPs and other health care professionals to routinely test for diabetes.
I hope that I have captured the economic development, excitement and potential of Cardiff and Wales. We should not talk it down too much. We have great opportunities, but a Commonwealth games bid could draw much of that redevelopment together, and I very much want that to happen.
It is a tad ungracious to complain about the absence of the Secretary of State for Wales without having sympathy for the dreadful week he has had. On Monday, it was the humiliation of having to withdraw his signature Bill. Things then got worse. Humiliation was heaped on humiliation on Tuesday when he lost a competition in which last year he won first prize. This year, he came in an extremely lowly position. This extremely prestigious competition is run by the Beard Liberation Front. Happily, there was one Welsh parliamentarian, with a beard of a different hue, who managed a creditable position. It is quite right that the Secretary of State wants to hide the pathetic starter beard that disfigures his features and not to be seen in public today. We do understand.
The main point I would like to make, after expressing sympathy with the Secretary of State, is one of optimism for the Welsh nation. I recall in 1957 the publication of a book called “Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd”, a story about the future in which somebody is transported to 2033. It was a dreadful Wales that he saw. It was a Wales that had changed its name to West England. The language was dead and the Welsh personality had gone. There was another depressing moment in 1962, when the genius Saunders Lewis made his speech “Tynged yr Iaith”. He foresaw a Wales where the language would die and not live beyond the 20th century. When we look at the Wales of today, however, there are huge reasons for satisfaction and optimism.
We had a lovely service this week, with Welsh spoken at its beautiful best by the young children, representing the future, from the Welsh school. The fact is that we have succeeded in the dream. In the 19th century, politicians came here in their droves as Welsh patriots and soon became seduced by this place. Wales was let down, generation after generation. Now, however, we can rejoice. We have our own Parliament on the soil of our country, where we speak both the beautiful languages of Wales. I had the pleasure this week of talking to a delegation from the Icelandic Parliament. While we call ourselves the mother of Parliaments, they call themselves the grandmother of Parliaments. They are in Cardiff today. I am sure they will be equally impressed by the young grandchild of Parliaments, a Parliament that started brilliantly and has achieved much in spite of criticism from outside. I think we can all take pride in the Welsh nation.
In this atmosphere of consensus, one person to whom we should pay great tribute is the man who ensured that Welsh is heard on the lips of all our children in Wales, wherever they live. That was a very courageous decision. That was the work of Wyn Roberts, who was called the bardic steamroller. He was a member of the Gorsedd bards and his subtlety was regarded as akin to a steamroller. I think that was a little unjust, but we should remember the vital role of steamrollers in the area of construction. He constructed politics. I watched with great admiration the way he took the policy on Welsh language education through a hostile party of his own. We need to acknowledge that great debt.
The issue I would like to raise is one that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). It is the sole point I want to make and it relates to the future of energy in Wales. If we look at our map and our potential, our North sea oil, which is Scotland’s great treasure, is the tide and hydroelectric power. We have allowed this immense source of energy to run to waste untapped. There is an extraordinary devotion to Hinkley Point, which I find inexplicable. It is based entirely on a stubborn view that will not accept the truth and the scientific reality. It will not accept that Hinkley Point is the final manifestation of a technological blind alley. It is an EPR reactor. The one in Finland is now seven years late and €6.7 billion over budget. It will probably never work. The one at Flammanville has had a terrible technological problem in the roof of the reactor’s vessel, and it will probably never finish.
As for finances, if we look on the other side at tidal power and at the source of the energy, we find that it is free, British and of immense power, whereas the source of energy for Hinkley Point is an imported form of fuel that will leave a legacy for all time. The source of the power on the tide is entirely predictable—unlike most other forms of renewable energy such as solar. We can predict precisely how the tide is going to come in and make the energy entirely demand responsive by linking whatever it is—lagoons, barrages or whatever—to electric storage schemes that allow us to pump water up to the heads of the valleys when electricity is required and save the energy when it is not. That is how the Dinorwig power station has provided a vital element in our electricity supply for many years.
Now that it seems we have had yet another year’s delay at Hinkley Point, the Government must come to their senses. They have done an atrocious deal with the French to guarantee them a price of electricity that is twice the present going rate and is guaranteed—and index-linked—for 35 years, yet we cannot guarantee what the price of electricity will be for 35 weeks. This is an extraordinary deal. All the sensible money has retreated from Hinkley Point. Centrica invested £200 million, but it has gone—abandoned the project. All the money left is Chinese, and China is anxious to invest in what it sees as a Hinkley sprat in order to get the mackerel of all the future engineering at Bradwell and everywhere else, in perpetuity. China is stealing our jobs and our skills through that deal. EDF is virtually bankrupt. It has a debt of €37 billion, and its board has now cancelled the project—a further cancellation—for another year.
If we look at the evidence at other EPRs, we see that they are going nowhere, so we should recognise that this investment, taken together, is one of the worst investment decisions since the building of the pyramids—when objects were bought at great cost but had no practical value. It is now becoming clear that the established scientific community, which has been locked in this stubborn view that we had to have Hinkley, is realising that we have an enormous financial disaster on our hands—and that at some time it will be necessary to pull out.
What could be better than investing the money in tidal power? Ignored for so long, this great moving cliff of water that comes up and down the Severn—the second highest tide in the world—could provide energy that is green, non-carbon, predictable and eternal in its duration. We have seen examples where it has worked magnificently. Fifty years ago, a barrage was built in La Rance in Brittany, and it still has turbines in pristine condition producing energy that is the cheapest in the world. That, I believe, is the way forward for Wales.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), and it was quite a surprise to hear such a consensual speech from him, which leaves me in the position of carrying on in the tradition of this debate and not being too aggressive in the way I behave.
I also thank the hon. Member for Newport West for his comments about my predecessor, Lord Wyn Roberts of Conwy, which I think were appreciated by all Members and I know will be appreciated by my constituents and Lord Roberts’s family. His contribution was indeed significant. My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) mentioned the A55, and we should not forget that in addition to the work that Wyn Roberts did for the Welsh language, he was the prime mover for the development of the A55 from Chester all the way to Holyhead. It is remarkable that in his maiden speech of 1970, he stated that his ambition as an MP was to ensure that a general hospital was built in Bangor and a dual carriageway was built from Chester to Holyhead. It is quite an achievement for any Member of Parliament to deliver both the promises that he made in his maiden speech, but Wyn delivered so much more.
Sometimes, in a debate such as this, a Member can feel that, occasionally, he or she can make a difference through membership of a Select Committee. We have heard about investment in the Halton curve railway line to provide better connectivity between north Wales and Liverpool, and I agree that that investment is essential to the economy of north Wales. I remember sitting in the Welsh Affairs Committee back in 2011 when we called for that investment. It is good to know that the work that we do in Select Committees occasionally results in changes.
I can paint an upbeat picture of the current economic situation in Wales. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock)—whom I congratulate on securing the debate—spoke of some of the concerns of his constituents, and I am sure that all Members sympathise with them, because what is happening to the steel industry is indeed a matter of grave concern. However, the Government should be proud of the fact that, since 2010—under the coalition and, subsequently, under a majority Conservative Government—we have seen a significant improvement in employment in Wales, and a significant decrease in unemployment. I think that we should be genuinely pleased about the strides that we are making.
I also think that, in the context of a St David’s day debate, it is crucial to emphasise that when the Governments in Westminster and Cardiff work together, we see better results. That co-operation, that willingness to work together, often results in a better performance on the part of the Welsh economy. I am in a staggering position, in that I have only received really bad news, from an economic perspective, on two occasions since my election. One example was the recent tragic fire at Llandudno Junction, which caused 50 people to lose their positions at Express Linen Services. I find it remarkable that, although I have been a Member of Parliament for nearly six years, that is one of the few examples of job losses that I can remember. The story in Aberconwy is of a halving of unemployment since 2010. More and more people are in employment, and when I talk to businessmen, they are very positive about the future. I think we should acknowledge the successes that been achieved as a result of co-operation, with successive Secretaries of State trying their best to work with the Welsh Government.
I think that the present Secretary of State has made the right decision in “pausing” the new Wales Bill, because it is unlikely that there will be any willingness to agree on a way forward between now and the Welsh Assembly elections. That was a mature thing to do. The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who is no longer in the Chamber, should reflect on the fact that it is a brave politician who is willing to pause, and to say that he will look at the evidence and come back with something better. What we want for Wales is a settlement for the long term. Let us be honest: we are building on a devolution settlement that was not about Wales, but all about the Labour party. We are slowly trying to make the settlement more effective and constructive, and I believe that taking time to secure a proper deal is necessary and correct.
The second big issue facing Wales this year is the European referendum on 23 June. I have a long track record as a Eurosceptic. I certainly experienced some difficulties in a former life as a result of my membership of Business for Sterling, a campaign which launched a great political effort to ensure that we did not join the single currency—and no one in the House today would say that we should have joined it. That campaign was correct; we made the right call. Our slogan was simple: “Europe yes, euro no”. Europe is not perfect, but I think that it gives us more than we have to give it, and that we benefit from our membership.
When we are talking about the north Wales economy, it is sobering to reflect that, just last week, the largest company in north Wales, Airbus, stated clearly that it considered membership of the European Union to be important. Moreover, the largest potential investor in north Wales, Horizon Nuclear Power in Anglesey—which is developing what may be the first new-generation nuclear power station, if the hon. Member for Newport West is correct—has also expressed the clear view that it is important for us to remain in the EU.
We should also reflect on the small businesses that benefit from our membership of the European Union. I would like to highlight an example in my constituency. A company called Zip World, run by Sean Taylor, did not exist in 2011. I remember Sean coming to see me and telling me that he was going to set up some zip wires. As someone who is scared of heights, I was not particularly interested, but I can tell the House that that company now employs 240 people from my constituency and those of the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). Sean has created 240 jobs from scratch in rural Snowdonia, and that is a huge contribution to our economic wellbeing. Even more importantly—my constituency predecessor, Wyn Roberts, would be proud of this fact—70% of those workers are local Welsh speakers. That company makes a huge contribution to keeping those people in their communities, and it was seed-funded by European money.
I am not going to be quite as reasonable as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) on the issue of European grant funding. Wales is a net beneficiary, and it is clear that my constituency of Aberconwy, which is in west Wales and the valleys, is a significant net beneficiary. The figures that I have recently obtained from the local authority, Conwy County Borough Council, show that well over 900 jobs have been created in 240 new ventures as a direct result of the European grant funding of small businesses over the past five years.
Is the European grant spent well in Wales? I do not think so. We could do much better. In a speech at the National Eisteddfod in Denbighshire in 2013, I highlighted the failures of the way in which we spent that European money in Wales, but I started my speech by saying that those failures were a “made in Wales” problem, not a European problem. The problem is the way in which we have used the money in Wales. When we claim that there is waste in the European funding that is allocated on a regional basis, it is important that we highlight where the problem lies. I would argue that the Welsh Government’s lack of willingness to embrace the private sector is more of an issue in regard to the use of European funding than any decision taken in Brussels.
Also on the subject of European grant funding, there has been a fantastic achievement by the Wales Office and the Secretary of State for Wales in at long last establishing the funding floor. We have been asking for that for a very long time. However, I would ask our leader in the Assembly to consider carefully whether he genuinely believes that, with the Barnett floor in place, there would be additional money to make up for the current shortfall if we lost European funding to areas such as mine. I very much question that.
Looking at the European issue from a local perspective, and taking into account agriculture, regional development funding and, more importantly, the trade deals that allow companies such as Airbus and Horizon to invest in north Wales, I believe that despite all the European Union’s flaws, Wales will be stronger in the EU.
St David’s day, 1 March, is a national day of celebration in Wales. It is a day on which to celebrate Wales and being Welsh. We are a proud nation of culture, literature, song, art and sport. I congratulate the Wales women’s rugby team on recently beating Scotland and France at the Knoll ground in my constituency and on qualifying for the world cup. That is a great achievement. It would be remiss of me not to mention squash—the game, not the drink—because in a former life I was the national coach for Squash Wales. As a small nation, we have always punched above our weight and medalled on many occasions, including the European Championships, in many countries. That leads me to what I want to talk about today, which is the importance of staying in Europe.
In my constituency of Neath and across Wales, we enjoy great opportunities and great benefits as a result of EU membership. I pay tribute to Derek Vaughan, our Member of the European Parliament for Wales, who is vice-chair of the budgetary control committee in the European Parliament. He has fought for the benefits that Wales receives. He is a former leader of Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council, and he has used his great experience and knowledge as a former leader of the Welsh Local Government Association to fight for Wales in Europe.
Wales is a net benefactor from the EU to the tune of £838 million a year. Moreover, the lower prices, higher job numbers and increased trade and investment that come from our membership of the EU are worth more than £3,000 a year to the average Welsh household. That is 10 times more than the £274 that each household pays in.
The EU is without doubt the biggest, richest market in the world, upon which, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, 191,332 jobs in Wales depend. The economic benefits are clear: for the 2014 to 2020 period, Wales will receive £4.9 billion from the common agricultural policy and structural funds. It is estimated that, over time, the UK could lose as much as 6.1% to 9.5% of our GDP following an exit from the EU. In my constituency, the EU has created 1,120 jobs, helped 6,680 people into work, granted access to further education for 3,490 people and helped 13,630 to gain qualifications. The help in my local authority area—that of Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council—that the EU has provided to enterprises has meant that 670 have been assisted and 420 have been created.
One of the best examples of EU funding benefiting my constituency is the newly relaunched Workways Plus scheme, which is led by the local council and has received £7.5 million in EU funding. It offers training and paid work experience opportunities to 4,000 long-term unemployed people to help get them back into work. The support targets disadvantaged people, helping them to take their first steps to re-engage with or enter the labour market; the scheme offers one-to-one mentoring, and support with job-seeking and interview skills. The programme targets individuals affected by work-limiting health conditions and disabilities, as well as those with care responsibilities and low or no skills. It is the perfect scheme to get people back into work, and it continues a similar EU-funded scheme that ran across south-west Wales between 2009 and 2014, which was an enormous success and showed the true benefits that EU funding can bring to our communities.
Not only are there jobs that have benefited from EU funding, but the effects of our membership have benefited the infrastructure in Neath. EU regeneration funds have been used expertly by Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council to regenerate many town centres across the constituency, and this, in turn, has revived the use of these town centres and has helped the local economy get back to strength after tough economic times. Crucially, EU investment and involvement would also help aid the UK steel industry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) said. The UK Government should follow the example of the Welsh Government, who have taken full advantage of our membership of the EU to help fund many of their projects and schemes, such as Jobs Growth Wales, which have helped get the Welsh economy, and the jobs and skills market, back on track.
Business leaders have already warned that leaving the EU would amount to a step into an
“Abyss of uncertainty and risk.”
The path for a potential exit is unclear; it has been likened to getting off a bus and into a car, which sounds a dangerous prospect to me. My constituents cannot afford this uncertainty as the negotiations conclude and then a potential exit is negotiated. The economic reality for Wales and for my constituents in Neath is such that Brexit would be disastrous for our jobs and prosperity, not to mention for the benefits we all enjoy, such as workers’ rights, environmental protections, consumer safeguards and free movement.
The Conservative party has treated the issue of our membership of the EU as a political football for many, many years, and the Prime Minister has put so many jobs, businesses and projects in my constituency on the line just to appease his own Back Benchers. Rather than address the necessary reforms of the EU in a constructive manner from inside, we face the prospect of an exit, which will be a disaster for neath and for Wales as a whole.
I cannot speak about matters important to Wales without mentioning another critical issue—the ongoing farce that is the Wales Bill, which, as originally drafted, met with criticism from all sides, including the Welsh Affairs Committee of this House. To make matters worse, we learn, not in this House but from the media, that the Bill is now on pause, pending a major overhaul. As the First Minister said, we are back to where we started. How can the Conservative party justify putting Wales’s economic development and prosperity at risk with its mishandling of this Bill and of our relationship with the EU?
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this debate. I am very conscious of what he said about different Members having different matters to raise, as I have several areas of concern that I would like to discuss. I thought I would do that by taking Members on a very quick geographical tour of the south Wales coastline.
I will start at Cardiff Bay, the seat of the National Assembly for Wales. During my time as an Assembly Member, I fell upon what must be one of the most scandalous episodes in Welsh devolution. One of the main jobs of any Government is to ensure that the public receives value for money, but I am afraid that, in this tale, the public received absolutely no value from the Welsh Government in the Regeneration and Investment Fund for Wales. It is crucial that Governments attach the highest importance to public assets, but, on this occasion, the Welsh Government not only sold land for an incredible amount under its true value, but seemed completely complacent during the process of the sale.
There was huge weakness in the oversight of this project. It is incomprehensible that the “jewel in the crown” site at Lisvane in Cardiff was sold to a preferred purchaser for £l.8 million, when its potential open market value for housing was at least £39 million.
The Welsh Government sold the land in Lisvane in Cardiff North, the most valuable land in Wales with the richest agricultural output, for £15,000 an acre, when it is worth £1.2 million an acre. It is a national scandal. If it had happened in this House, does my hon. Friend think that people would have been held to account and that there would have been resignations?
I am absolutely sure that my hon. Friend is right. I am amazed that the First Minister did not hold anyone to account and sack them. That perhaps speaks volumes.
Indeed, Guernsey-based South Wales Land Developments, the preferred purchaser, which bought 15 sites for £21 million, has made £19 million by selling just a few of them. That casts a very dark shadow over what the Welsh Government were doing during the process. The cavalier approach to the disposal of public assets is quite disturbing. Furthermore, questions must be asked about the valuers, Lambert Smith Hampton, and the fund managers, Amber Infrastructure, which gave the Welsh Government extremely poor advice.
There have been two recent reports on the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales by the Wales Audit Office and the Welsh Assembly Public Accounts Committee, both of which are damning in respect of all parties involved in the deal. The Wales Audit Office made it clear that effective oversight of the project was difficult because of the governance weaknesses in establishing the RIFW. I know that the Serious Fraud Office has taken a look at the matter, but how deep did it go? I would like it to reassess any new evidence. Anything the Wales Office can do to get to the bottom of the issue would be very welcome.
Moving on further down the coastline, we come to the steelworks at Port Talbot, which plays a huge part in the landscape of south Wales. It is a crucial part not just of the economic fabric of the country, but of the social fabric, and nowhere is that truer than in my constituency of Gower. For decades, the works has provided for people across south Wales. They either work directly at the plant or in the supply chain. Indeed, the community surrounding the steelworks has survived, and indeed thrived, because of the plant. It is a crucial part of the community, and it is vital that we work together to ensure that the industry has a successful and prosperous future.
I have met Ministers and discussed their efforts to help the steel industry win procurement contracts. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will help where he can to stimulate the demand for steel, which will have a positive knock-on effect on opening up opportunities in the supply chain in Wales. I recently visited Rosyth in Scotland to see the new aircraft carriers and was delighted to learn that 94% of the steel used in their construction was British steel.
Continuing our journey around the south Wales coastline, we come to Swansea Bay and the Swansea tidal lagoon. Much political point-scoring has been attempted on this, particularly in the local press, which is rather a shame. We are all at one—we all want to see the scheme developed. It will be a pilot scheme and we should realise that it will cost an awful lot of money to develop. There will be a great deal of public money involved, but it is the first of what could be several schemes. The Government are right to sit down and look at the whole thing in the round. I hope we will see it developed one day, and I know that other politicians in the area share that hope.
I was delighted with the recent announcement from Sir Terry Matthews about the Swansea Bay region. That scheme needs to be pushed along, perhaps through an elected mayor system. I am keen for that debate to be opened in Swansea. We need more infrastructure in Swansea, such as a parkway railway station. At present there is Swansea railway station at one end of the town and the bus station at the other end. For a successful bay region, we should consider that.
I shall move quickly round to the Burry inlet and talk about my constituency and the north end of Gower, the first area of outstanding natural beauty in the UK. I want to speak about the loss of the cockle industry and the loss to the economy of about £23 million over 10 years. That was once an extremely successful industry in Gower that supported the community and was the livelihood of many people. Now there is a 95% mortality of the cockles when they get to one year old. They should live to four or five years old. They are usually harvested when they are 18 months to two years old, but can be harvested up to about five years.
The problem has existed for about 10 years. The cockle beds have never recovered since 2005 when the mortality started. In 2000, this area had the best cockles in Europe and exported to France and Spain, bringing tens of millions of pounds into the region. The cockles are no longer suitable for the high-end market and there is a limit to how many small cockles can be sold. The nucleus of the cockle industry is Penclawdd and there are questions about its viability now that the main processor has been taken over by a Dutch company.
Local cocklers are unable to guarantee a regular supply of cockles to the processors. The season starts in May but is finished by July, whereas it used to be a year-round business. The cocklers believe that the cockles are being killed by discharges of sewage from waste treatment plants on the south Carmarthenshire side and from sewage works at Gowerton. Samples have been taken of dead and rotting cockles and of some live ones and these have been analysed, but we have never seen the results. The cocklers are calling for further scientific research, including a parasitology investigation, which has never been carried out before and requires funding from the Welsh Government. Research has discovered that each cockle in these waters carries up to 29 different types of parasite, many times more than is found in cockle stocks elsewhere in the UK and along the Atlantic seaboard from north Africa up to Scandinavia.
There are 35 licences still in existence in the Burry inlet and 25 of them are still being used. People are paying for licences but cannot make a living. In the 1960s and 1970s, up to 100 people were working there, gathering cockles 52 weeks a year. The licences cost £700 a year but they can no longer be transferred to sons or relatives, who have to go on a waiting list to be given a licence. There are still 120 people on the waiting list in Gower. There is much hope in the community that the industry will recover, and here in this House we must do all we can to support the efforts to help the industry.
When I was an Assembly Member I raised the matter many times in the Chamber. Since I have been a Member of this House I have written to the Welsh Government to try to get them to fund an inquiry into why the cockles are dying. To date I have had no success. We need to find the cause of this problem and ensure that the cocklers whose livelihood has been greatly affected are treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve to get this great product and industry thriving again. Anything that the Wales Office can do to encourage the Welsh Government into action would be very welcome.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important debate on Welsh affairs, which marks St David’s day.
I would like to focus on three issues, albeit briefly. First, there is no doubt that Wales has been hit hard by the UK Tory Government’s austerity measures. In my constituency advice surgeries, the most common theme is the hardship people face due to the welfare reform agenda being pursued by the Tory Government. I think there are Tory Members who do not understand the situation people find themselves in.
Specifically, the spare room subsidy, or bedroom tax, is harming people in my constituency and across Wales. A report by the Welsh Affairs Committee in 2013 showed that Wales was disproportionately affected compared with the rest of Britain, and that remains the case. This tax is, quite frankly, the most unfair and pernicious since Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax.
I have spoken with staff at my local citizens advice bureau in Merthyr Tydfil, who have told me about the many cases they regularly see coming through their doors—people who have nowhere else to turn. Those clients already have a number of other significant issues in their lives, and the bedroom tax only adds to them. Some of those people are now in rent arrears because of it, and some could lose their homes. That could have massive consequences, and for those who are physically or mentally disabled, it could result in even more severe issues, such as homelessness, suicidal thoughts, substance misuse or further debt—a downward spiral.
Unfortunately, in many communities in my constituency, there is not a huge number of smaller properties. Therefore, people affected by the bedroom tax decide either to stay in their property, thus incurring a financial penalty and placing great strain on their ability to manage, or to move to a smaller property, which can often be in a village some miles away. I have spoken with constituents who are in debt for the first time because of having to pay the bedroom tax. Food bank usage has increased massively, which is totally unacceptable in 21st-century Britain.
The second issue I want to focus on is the forthcoming EU referendum. As other Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon and for Neath (Christina Rees), have outlined, Wales has benefited considerably from EU investment. Projects right across Wales have been delivered using EU funding, which is vital in helping to create a skilled and inclusive labour market and in driving economic prosperity.
EU funding is important, and it has benefited Wales considerably—the evidence is there in terms of jobs and the businesses that have been supported—but there is still work to do. [Interruption.] If I may, I will carry on.
A key example of the projects I mentioned is the Welsh Labour Government’s Jobs Growth Wales fund, which has supported more than 15,000 young people across Wales since 2012, when it was created in response to the Tories’ scrapping of the future jobs fund. Using £25 million of European funding, the programme has supported countless young people. There are many more examples of how the EU has benefited Wales, which is why it is so important for Wales that the UK remains a strong part of the EU.
I turn now to the Wales Bill. As the party that established the Welsh Assembly, the Labour party supports the additional powers for Wales proposed in the draft Bill, but we had significant concerns about how the Assembly’s powers were rolled back in other parts of the Bill. It is fair to say that the draft Bill was not met with universal support. In fact, despite the Welsh Affairs Committee having witnesses from various aspects of Welsh life, it was a struggle to find anyone who had anything positive to say about it. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has finally listened to the overwhelming body of evidence from experts, lawyers and politicians from all parties, and to the Committee’s recent report. The Bill is deeply flawed and I welcome the fact that he is now not pushing ahead with it in its current form. Labour Members have been raising concerns about the Bill since its publication last October. If those concerns had been listened to then, perhaps we would not be in this situation now. Only last month, in the Welsh Grand Committee, many of the same concerns were again raised with the Secretary of State, who at that point, just a few short weeks ago, was defending many of the provisions he now seems to have binned.
It is only fair, right and proper that Members of this House, and indeed members of the Welsh Affairs Committee, have clarity about the detail of what the Secretary of State announced on Monday. Specifically, we need to know if anything is going to replace the necessity test, what system will be used for Minister of the Crown consents, and how different the list of reservations will be. It is imperative that the Secretary of State gets the Bill right this time and sticks to a timetable. Any delay means a consequent delay in the powers being transferred to the Welsh Assembly. It is also important that the Secretary of State and the Government fully consult the Welsh Government to iron out the practicalities.
The fact that the Secretary of State has presented a radically different Bill from the one that the Select Committee scrutinised may be problematic. The Committee’s report states:
“Whilst this pre-legislative process has flushed out views, it has also made it apparent that the final Bill will be significantly different to that which we have been scrutinising. That is wrong. Whilst changes and improvements are what this process seeks to provide, the weight of the evidence we received has meant we have had to focus on fundamental principles of the draft Bill rather than the specifics of the text. The Government should have focused its effort on resolving these matters of principle, before proceeding with a draft Bill.”
The Secretary of State said that he wanted a lasting devolution settlement that would resolve the constitutional situation for a generation, and I am sure that is what we all want. The best way to get it is to consult and negotiate with all stakeholders, such as the Welsh Government, the Welsh public sector, and other key interested parties to get broad agreement on the direction of travel and iron out the practical difficulties and issues. Ideally that should have been done before the Bill was put to this House, but it should be done now. The Bill is deeply flawed as it stands, and progress is needed. I urge the Secretary of State—who is now, thankfully, in his place—to get things back on track.
I am sure that Welsh Members who see me, as an English Member, rise to address this debate will be a little curious as to my intentions. Let me reassure them, and the House, that I am not here to assert my historical right to use my crossbow with extreme prejudice on any of their fellow countrymen I might find within the walls of my beloved city after the hours of darkness. It is a historical right but I certainly do not intend to assert it.
In fact, I hope to give something of a mirror image of the speech by the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) about the importance of cross-border working between north Wales and my area of west Cheshire and Merseyside. He talked about a border that does not exist. That border might have prevented me from taking part in this debate, but, as he said, it is a border in name only. Indeed, Colin Brew, chief executive of West Cheshire and North Wales chamber of commerce—a cross-border body—tells me that business, in particular, does not recognise the border. When the Minister was at a North Wales CBI dinner just before Christmas at which I was also present, he felt very confident and positive about these matters, and he is well aware of the importance of this strategic area.
Let me give some examples. Of the 5,000 skilled manufacturing workers at Airbus in Broughton—which is, in essence, in Chester but across the border in north Wales—at least 600 live in my constituency. The situation is similar for other major manufacturing employers, such as Toyota and Tata Steel on the Deeside industrial park, which my good friend and parliamentary next-door neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), visited last week because so many of his constituents work there.
It works both ways. For example, Bank of America MBNA is one of Chester’s most prestigious employers and is based on Chester business park. It employs about 3,500 people, a third of whom live in north Wales. The cross-border region has a population of about 1 million, 81% of whom work in the region, but whether they live in north Wales and work in England, or the other way around, is scarcely relevant for them.
I was pleased to join noble Lords, right hon. and hon. Members of all parties and local government representatives from the Mersey Dee Alliance at a meeting—this was mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman—of the all-party group for the Mersey-Dee north Wales region, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) and has been formed to drive forward in Parliament and Government the concept of the Mersey Dee Alliance. The group and the alliance will work together to prevent needless duplication; propel economic growth; provide flexibility for greater cross-border co-operation within the parameters of existing local government frameworks; and, above all, overcome administrative differences created by the national boundary running through a successful and functioning economic region.
I reject the Government’s notion of a northern powerhouse. I believe it is nothing more than a slogan from a Government who are very adept at using slogans to hoodwink and mollify those of us outside London and the south-east of England while our imbalanced economy continues to grow at an imbalanced rate in an imbalanced direction.
Given that economic growth in north-west England is focused on the big cities, there remains a danger that Cheshire and north Wales will be squeezed out. The MDA initiative will give us strength to stand our ground, stand up to that squeeze and punch at our true weight. Discussions are currently taking place about local government reorganisation in England. Anything that would force Cheshire West and Chester to look the wrong way, as opposed to across the border, would be very unhelpful to north Wales, as well as to Chester. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind in his discussions with the Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government.
If we are to maximise the natural economic link between north Wales and Chester, we must optimise our infrastructure, which is important to north Wales and west Cheshire. As the West Cheshire and North Wales chamber of commerce has said, this is all about connectivity. I want to give the Minister a couple of examples of how it might be improved.
For starters, the M56 motorway in Cheshire must be upgraded. Although it is in England, it is the main link road to north Wales—people also use it to get to Holyhead and Ireland—and it provides the principal access to industrial zones in Deeside and to industrial parks in Wrexham via the A483. Serious accidents and major delays are a weekly occurrence, but Department for Transport Ministers have declined to include the upgrade of the M56 to a smart motorway in any programmes before 2020. Will Wales Office Ministers have words with their Department for Transport colleagues and impress on them the importance of that link road to north Wales, including its role as a driver of the north Wales economy?
We also hope to get a new bridge over the Dee near Broughton, which would link the A55 and A494, thereby improving access to the industrial zones I have mentioned, particularly near the Airbus site, and increasing capacity and resilience in the network. I have written to the National Infrastructure Commission in support of that major project and I ask Ministers to seriously consider supporting the proposal.
There is also a strong case for the electrification of the north Wales coast line, from Crewe to Chester and on to Holyhead. The Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), who has responsibility for rail, attended a meeting in Llandudno last year. She expressed the view that electrification was not the magic bullet that many of us believe it to be. It is the view of Mersey Dee Alliance members, however, that electrification of the line is necessary for performance, capacity and reliability, and to run larger electric trains from Holyhead to London. The right hon. Member for Clwyd West mentioned the importance of linking it to HS2 in Crewe. I do not want the benefits of HS2 to terminate at Crewe; I want them to extend to Chester and north Wales.
It is important for the future prospects of Cheshire and north Wales that the UK votes to remain in the European Union, as other hon. Members have said. So many of our major employers in the Mersey Dee Alliance area are dependent on our relationship with Europe. Airbus is the obvious example. To Members who claim that a so-called membership fee of £55 million a day is the cost of EU membership, I say that every time the Beluga flies out of the Airbus plant into the north Wales skies with products that are the result of skilled manufacturing, the fee, bogus as it is, is paid off.
Bank of America, Tata Steel and Bristol-Myers Squibb all have a presence in the area that is central to their European operations. That is not to mention the countless smaller businesses that trade with Europe but would not have the time or energy to worry about negotiating through trade barriers with each EU country, should we leave. Those businesses simply could not afford to wait for the chimera of a promised free trade deal, which is supposedly the answer to every argument that proponents of our leaving the EU cannot face up to.
I finish by echoing the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Clwyd West and continuing the consensual note that he brought to the debate by daring to suggest that many residents of north Wales feel a stronger affinity with Chester and west Cheshire than they do with Cardiff. We in the region are doing something about that; we are working together to drive forward common economic growth across that border. I hope and believe that hon. Members will be hearing a lot more about the Mersey Dee Alliance and our successes in the years to come.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) for spearheading our attempts to secure this debate. It has given hon. Members from across the country a welcome opportunity to debate a rich variety of issues.
I commend the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who is no longer in his place, for his glowing tribute to David Lloyd George and Lady Megan Lloyd George. Lady Megan Lloyd George strayed a little in later life and became the Labour MP for Carmarthen. The hon. Gentleman failed to mention the word “Liberal”, but for 54 years, David Lloyd George was a Liberal in this House, as was Megan Lloyd George for 22 years. Perhaps none of us aspires to 54 years in the House, but Lloyd George managed it. He is a great hero of mine as well as of the hon. Gentleman’s.
I want to raise a range of issues. I do not have the geographical organisation of the hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies), who gave us a tour de force around Wales. I will pick randomly on issues that affect my constituency, but which I believe are pertinent to other constituencies across the country.
I believe that the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) will relate to one issue that cropped up earlier today, because he has done a great deal of work on the mis-selling of interest rate swap products and led our campaign on the matter. I have done a little work on that as well, and I have tried to represent the interests of my farming community. I am concerned about a letter that I saw this morning from a bank to one of my constituents. I had no hesitation in referring my constituent—a farmer, who has worked hard and continues to do so, and who wants to develop his business—to the Financial Ombudsman Service to attempt to get some redress and independent adjudication. The bank wrote:
“If the FOS agrees with us, they will not have our permission”—
so says the bank—
“to consider your complaint and so will only be able to do so in very limited circumstances. If you do not refer your complaint to the FOS within six months, the FOS will not have our permission”.
That is the bank talking, not the independent adjudicator, the ombudsman. I will not go into the specifics of the case, but it is a concerning state of affairs when the banks regard the ombudsman in such a way, and when my constituent is treated with such contempt.
Transport has been a big theme of the debate. I want to raise the issue of physical connectivity. If the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has been, to use her words, “banging on” about the Severn bridge tolls for a long time, I have been talking about the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury railway for a long time. There have been great advances, and I pay tribute to the Assembly Government for instigating an hourly service and investing in a new signalling system. I very much welcome the fact that Welsh Ministers are likely to be the franchising authority for Wales and the borders by 2017. Negotiations are taking place between the Government in Wales and the Department for Transport. Concerns have, however, been expressed about the remapping of services in the franchise. The Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth Rail Passenger Association is very concerned about consideration being given to splitting the current Cambrian coast and Aberystwyth to Birmingham service, meaning that all trains will terminate in Shrewsbury, rather than going all the way through to the west midlands. I understand the logic of a neat franchise boundary, but that will have an impact on constituents.
We have spent a long time promoting the tourism sector in west Wales and building links between Aberystwyth and west Wales and Birmingham International airport. During the previous Parliament, the Welsh Affairs Committee looked at the direct route through to the airport. It is now a great success, with 50% more trains through to Aberystwyth and a 40% increase in the number of passengers using the service. I hope that the Wales Office will, if it has not already done so, become engaged in those discussions, and at the very least voice the concerns that some of us have about the need for direct services from the midlands to west Wales.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I know he has a potential interest in Aberystwyth University, and I commend it unreservedly to the Bebb family. Whether they come by road or on the train, the issue is important in developing the university.
I commend to the House early-day motion 1073 on the proposed closure and franchising of Crown post offices. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales will be interested in the one in his constituency of Vale of Glamorgan. Both Governments rightly talk about the vibrancy of the high street, and few of us would doubt the economic benefits that Post Office Ltd brings to our communities, so there is an inconsistency in franchising post offices, such as mine in Aberystwyth, out of the high street and into some backwater or into the back corner of a retailer.
There is also the effect on staff. The hard-working staff in Aberystwyth Crown post office were given the choice of redundancy, redeployment to the nearest Crown post office—in our case, that is the one in Port Talbot—or possibly transferring to employment by the retailer concerned, with wages and work conditions that were far from conducive to such a move. I urge Ministers in the Wales Office to look at those issues and to intervene with Ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to encourage them to protect such valued businesses on the high street in our communities.
Not only post offices but banks have been leaving the high street. There have been bank closures in rural areas. In my constituency, banks in Aberaeron, Llandysul, New Quay and Tregaron have left the community. One reason why banks leave is that, as they say, so much bank business is now undertaken via internet banking.
I make no apology for talking again about broadband provision and mobile coverage in my constituency. The Under-Secretary of State was very kind to me, or I think he was, when he told me during last week’s Welsh questions that I was persistent. I am persistent, but I am increasingly frustrated, as are many of my constituents. We still have significant problems in rural parts of Wales; this applies not only in rural parts, but I am standing up for a rural area. We fall into the bottom 10% of seats represented in the House for average download speeds and superfast availability. Since Christmas, my constituency office has already had 100 concerned constituents from different parts of Ceredigion coming to us. We sit 639th out of 650 constituencies across the UK for broadband provision, which is bad. There has been some progress and there have been some advances, but, quite frankly, not enough for areas such as ours.
If broadband provision is bad, I must say that the Government’s mobile infrastructure project is far worse. Arqiva, their agents, has identified 24 sites across the Ceredigion constituency for new masts to alleviate the problem of “not spots” and lack of mobile reception. It spoke to landowners, the county council and community councils. It all sounded so impressive at the start:
“A publicly funded project to provide mobile phone coverage by all four Mobile Network Operators in areas that have none at present.”
The scheme ends at the end of this month. We were promised 24 masts; three masts will be achieved, one of which was already there. That mast was built by the excellent Ger-y-Gors community project, under the leadership of Duncan Taylor of Pontrhydfendigaid. One of them was a £60,000 makeover of a mast and just one other mast was built. Nationwide across the United Kingdom, 600 masts were identified, but by the end of March only about 50 will have been built.
This issue is not just about domestic households. We have talked a lot about building our economy and the advances that have been made. Surely the most basic infrastructure in areas such as mine is broadband and basic mobile coverage. My constituency is as vibrant, innovative, creative and entrepreneurial as anywhere else, but it is being denied the most basic infrastructure. That must be addressed by both the UK and the Welsh Governments. If funds have been available to the Assembly Government, they need to publicise them more and make them more available, and there need to be additional resources for rural areas such as mine.
Finally—I will not go beyond the 46 seconds I have left—it came as no great surprise to me that Ceredigion was listed in The Sunday Times as the most pro-European Union constituency in Britain, according to YouGov. That has a huge amount to do with our excellent universities and the collaborative work they are doing with those on the continent. It has a huge amount to do with the fact that we have qualified for and used money from convergence funding over the last few years. That is for good reason, because there are significant pockets of deprivation in the constituency. It also has a lot to do with farmers, who are concerned about the blank sheet of paper being offered to them by the out campaigns and UKIP. I look forward to a massive yes vote in Ceredigion on 23 June, even if I still have some concerns about the date.
We have become very accustomed to waiting for things in Wales. We waited a very long time for rail electrification, we waited patiently to get the Welsh national football team into the Euros, and we waited a very long time for a Welsh premier league football club, but now Swansea City is there. Today, we waited a very long time for the Secretary of State to make an appearance in this very important debate. Either our performances are not up to scratch or he has had a better offer, because he has chosen to leave the Chamber.
I am happy to announce to the hon. Lady that the Secretary of State has an important telephone conversation with the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport in the Welsh Government.
It was nice to see him for a short period of time.
We are now waiting for a review of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. We waited a full year for the negotiations between the developer and the Government, and now we are being asked to wait while the Government establish an independent review of tidal lagoons nationwide. My first reaction to that news was to ask the very same questions that many of my constituents threw at me. Why are the goalposts being moved again? After so much talking, what is there left to learn? Is it a sign that the Government are serious about the project, or is it an airports-style way of kicking it into touch without losing votes in an election year in Wales?
Having discussed the review with the developer, I am encouraged because although it thinks the wait is frustrating, it is optimistic that the scene is being set for success. It has to be hoped that the launch of an independent review of tidal lagoons represents a new level of commitment from the Government. I hope that if the Government are investing time and money in reviewing the concept, they too can see the potential of this exciting new industry. If the review is genuinely meant to be the vehicle through which this technology can at last be realised, it will be to the good, but if this stalling is just to kick the scheme into the long grass, it will be a travesty.
Wales and my constituency of Swansea East will be the big winners from the launch of a UK tidal lagoon, but the whole country will share the success of this globally ground-breaking innovation. I look forward eagerly to the quick formation of a committee and a chair—a committee that, one naturally assumes, will have Welsh representation among its members. I look forward to seeing the details of how the review will operate, who will be involved and when it will report. I will follow those developments closely, as I know many people here and in the other place will. We also eagerly await updates from the Department of Energy and Climate Change regarding the progression of negotiations on the Swansea bay tidal lagoon.
The UK needs to seize this opportunity. We have to be seen as the leader, not a follower, in tidal power. We have the potential to have the first tidal lagoon in the world to secure planning permission. The project can be delivered, and it could match costs with other energy projects that are springing up around the country. Swansea East is ready to host this new global industry, and Swansea is ready to be that leader.
What may be lost on many Members is the effect that the lagoon has already had in transforming my community. People have bought into the vision in a way that has not been seen before, and as that vision has become ever more real it has brought with it a new high morale and a new can-do attitude. It has given rise to many plans, from small businesses in and around Swansea bay to the industrial facilities that are ready to win contracts for the Swansea bay city region and the Sir Terry Matthews strategy for a city deal. As plans for further tidal lagoons around the Welsh coastline start to take shape, the sense of optimism will spread.
There is growing international interest in the plans, which are putting Swansea and Wales on the map. I conclude my speech in this St David’s day debate with a message for all colleagues in the House: here is an issue on which we can and should all agree. Here is an opportunity that the whole of Wales and the UK can benefit from. Let us work together and ensure that tidal power brings world acclaim to Swansea, Wales and Great Britain, and that we have the first tidal lagoon in the world. On the morning when a tidal lagoon opens for the first time, the words “good morning” need to be spoken as “bore da”, not “bonjour”.
I will start by talking about the European Union, as many Members have during the debate. I will vote yes for a number of reasons. In a previous life I was an international historian in the international politics department at Aberystwyth, a world-renowned department in our country. It was set up in the aftermath of the first world war, following a generous donation of £20,000 by the great industrialist David Davies Llandinam to honour the dead and maimed students of the university. Davies was motivated—I will quote the university’s website, because I could not put it better myself—
“by a global vision, forged in the fires of war, aimed at repairing the shattered family of nations and, more ambitiously, to redeem the claims of men and women in a great global commonwealth”.
My academic speciality was both world wars and the cold war. No one should ever question the vital role played by greater economic co-operation on the continent, and by the European Union, in forging lasting security, prosperity and peace.
I will vote to remain also because Wales is a net beneficiary of EU support, to the tune of £4 billion by 2020 if match funding is added. To its credit, the EU has redistributive mechanisms whereby resources and investment are aimed at the poorest geographical areas—mechanisms sadly lacking in the UK, which I suggest is a matter of shame for Unionists. I have yet to see a contingency plan from the UK for what would happen if they oversaw a calamitous exit from the EU. In contrast to the EU’s mechanisms, the UK fails to allocate spending based on need and instead ploughs its infrastructure investment into already vastly wealthy areas at the expense of those desperately in need of it.
UK membership of the EU has also played an important part in driving social justice, be it in protecting people from discrimination based on age, sex, race, religion or disability, in maternity and parental leave entitlements, or in the right to paid holidays and working hours limited to 48 hours a week.
As a net exporter, the Welsh economy benefits hugely from the single market and its 500 million consumers. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) gave an important statistic about the importance of export trade to the Welsh economy.
The hon. Gentleman is making a passionate case for Wales remaining in the European Union. However, can he reconcile that with the fact that his party held street stalls in my constituency to argue that the European Union, in a trade deal with America, would sell our NHS? That is hardly a case for staying in.
I was not going to mention the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, but the hon. Gentleman has led me to it. He knows that there are genuine concerns about how TTIP could impact on public services, and about the privatisation of public services. That is one of my concerns about the European Union—I am not an unconditional supporter because it has fostered those liberalising policies that successive Westminster Governments have introduced for our public services. The fear is that TTIP could be a Trojan horse for promoting those liberalising polices even further, especially in public services. That is why I believe that the Welsh Government should have a veto on whether the UK Government sign up to TTIP. I am also somewhat sceptical about the European Union because of its treatment of the Greek people in their hour of need recently.
Although I will vote to remain, I believe that the Prime Minister’s current tactics are dangerous and ill judged. Project Fear 2, and the use of all the assets of the state to ramp up risk and anxiety, may prove to be a short-term success in securing a vote to remain in June. However, a gaping wound will be created when people feel that they have been cheated and bullied. As we see in Scotland following Project Fear 1, the battle might be won from a Unionist perspective, but ultimately the war will be lost. If the UK Government’s position is to settle the European question, they need to fight a positive campaign, and as I have outlined, there are numerous things that they could say.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to delay the introduction of the Wales Bill following pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft measure. I am pleased that the Secretary of State seems to have agreed to remove the necessity tests from the Bill. I hope that he has taken note of the excellent work in the Cardiff University/University College London report, which stresses that the model itself makes the necessity tests unworkable, rather than the choice of words, “necessary” or otherwise.
I also welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has agreed to shorten the list of reservations significantly. However, as always, the proof of the pudding will be in the detail of the Bill when it is published. He will know from the pre-legislative scrutiny that two reservations in particular make the Bill unworkable—the reservations of the criminal law and private law mechanisms. While I am encouraged by his promise to shorten the list, his reluctance to accept the evidence on the need for a distinct jurisdiction leads me to believe that he will not remove criminal law and private law from the list.
Indeed, the Welsh Affairs Committee, which has a Tory majority and is chaired by one of the most prominent anti-devolution MPs, accepted that creating a distinct legal jurisdiction would
“provide a solution to issues associated with the reservation of civil and criminal law and necessity clauses.”
When redrafting the Bill, and the list of reservations in particular, the Secretary of State should ensure that each and every reservation is individually justified. I believe that the Secretary of State is serious about creating a long-lasting devolution settlement and I share his ambition, but unless he fights against his devo-sceptic fringes, he will just be yet another Secretary of State for Wales who creates yet another failed devolution settlement.
The context of the rewriting of the Bill has also been changed by the decision to cut more than a quarter of Welsh MPs. If the UK Government want to make those cuts to Wales’s representation, they must give the National Assembly the same powers as the Scottish Parliament—the number of Scottish MPs was cut following transfer of powers. That means full transfer of responsibility over energy and the Crown Estate, full income tax powers, transfer of policing and criminal justice, the legal system, transport, air passenger duty, and the rest of the provisions in the Scotland Act. The Government cannot expect those responsibilities to remain with the UK Government and Westminster with only 29 Welsh MPs. That would create a gaping democratic deficit.
I want to turn my attention to one economic project in Wales about which I have not had the opportunity to comment in any great detail to date—the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Despite Wales being one of the most advantageous locations in Europe for renewable energy, just 10.1% of our electricity is generated from renewable sources. That compares with 32% in Scotland and 14.9% for the UK as a whole. Despite Wales being home to the second highest tidal range in the world, and 1,200 km of coastline, we are lagging behind on tidal technology. I understand concerns about the proposed financing model. Proponents of the contract for difference strike price model argue that the Swansea lagoon is nowhere near as big as the planned Cardiff and Colwyn bay lagoons, and that therefore the strike price on a per megawatt basis seems high. However, it must be considered as a long-term investment that will eventually deliver multiple lagoons across the UK.
Funding green energy through a CFD effectively passes the cost of upfront investment on to the consumer, who inevitably will see their bills go up. If I were in the shoes of the Secretary of State, I would make the case that the Treasury should invest in the project by bringing it on to the books directly, as happens for transport infrastructure such as HS2 in England. Raising money on the bond markets has never been cheaper, with 50-year bonds at a negative rate and 10-year bonds at less than 1.5%. Those rates are available only to the Government and not the private sector. Using an old-school financing method—direct public investment—as opposed to an ultimately far more costly financing scheme such as CFD, will be far cheaper in the end for the public, and the UK Government should be honest with the people of Wales about that.
The Treasury will be aware of my early-day motion tabled earlier this week, which calls for a specific Welsh public sector pooled pension fund. Instead of letting the pension assets of Welsh public sector workers be pillaged by a super pooled asset fund based in England, why is the Wales Office not ensuring that Welsh assets are pooled at a Welsh level to invest in Welsh infrastructure such as the lagoon? I recognise, however, that that model would require a CFD. Confidence is the magic trick in any economic policy, and moving forward quickly on the proposed lagoon will be a massive confidence boost for the south and west of our country, stimulating further economic investment and growth.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) on securing this important St David’s day debate, and on his work to champion the steel industry. Today he mentioned not just the steel industry, but the need for clear and consistent messages from the UK Government if we are to encourage more investment from a range of different industries.
The right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) emphasised the importance of transport links to the economy of north Wales. That theme was taken up by many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) who suggested the need to upgrade the busy M6, and to think beyond Crewe for HS2 so that it serves Chester and north Wales. Along with other Members he stressed the importance of staying in the EU, particularly for the success of big companies such as Airbus, as well as a host of other companies in his constituency and over the border.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) reminded us that Gordon Brown was right in keeping the UK out of the euro, and the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) made a strong case for the EU, mentioning peace, political stability, social justice, economic matters, and the fairer distribution of resources from which Wales benefits. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) explained why it is important to campaign for proper links to Heathrow airport and to support its expansion, and he made a strong case for the need for better rail electrification to Wales. He also referred to the Wales Bill, and the fact that the Secretary of State was not here.
The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) spoke of the Cardiff city deal, as one would expect, and of the importance of interesting young people in science and innovation. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) spoke of the Wales Bill and thanked the Welsh Affairs Committee for all its hard work on that. He also pointed out some of the considerable problems with the Bill. The hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies) mentioned the importance of the cockle industry and of getting to grips with the causes of those cockle deaths. We must get more information so that we better understand exactly what is happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) talked about the need to get on and secure the tidal lagoon project and the jobs for the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) also mentioned tidal power, referring to the eternal nature of the tide. He stressed again the importance of the Welsh language. My predecessor as Llanelli MP, Jim Griffiths, was the first Secretary of State for Wales. I know he would very much have approved of my hon. Friend’s speech today.
How could I possibly skip over what my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) said about the Severn bridge tolls? That issue is absolutely crucial for us across the whole of south Wales. She emphasised the point about the end of the concession. When is it happening and what will the reduction in price be? We want something much more substantial than the mere reduction in VAT.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) mentioned dairy farming. I am sure he will be supporting the farmers’ march in London on 23 March. We shall certainly be speaking with one voice with them on the need to increase the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to get a fairer price for our farmers. He also spoke of how the ground rose up around St David, propelling him above the crowd. We wondered today whether the Secretary of State is showing himself as a reverse St David, disappearing into the earth and appearing for only a few minutes at today’s debate—that is utterly disgraceful, I have to say. This comes in the week when he has treated the House with complete disdain by announcing a major U-turn on the Wales Bill at a press conference in Cardiff and refusing to come to the House to answer questions. Does the Secretary of State for Wales not think that a debate on Welsh affairs and the Wales Bill are worthy of his time?
I can only assume that the reason the Secretary of State is hiding in the Wales Office is that he is as embarrassed as he should be that his flagship constitutional Bill has run aground. What we saw on Monday was quite remarkable: large parts of the Bill that the Secretary of State was defending to the hilt just last month have now been binned. This amounts to a major change in policy in the one piece of proposed legislation for which his Department is responsible. It is shameful that he was more than happy to take questions from journalists but not from Members of this House whose constituents deserve to know what powers their Assembly will have. The Wales Office even tweeted on Monday to suggest that MPs should be happy to wait until today’s Backbench debate to have their say. I hope he is listening.
It is a shocking discourtesy to Members and is reminiscent of the arrogance the Secretary of State has shown towards the Welsh Government and to those who have disagreed with him. Let us not forget that shortly before we met at the Welsh Grand Committee, he said those of us who dared to challenge his rosy view of the Bill had given up on the Union. We were told that we had basically gone and joined Plaid Cymru because we suggested that the necessity test should go, the rules on ministerial consent should change and that the list of reservations should be drastically reduced. Now, he apparently agrees with us. Has the Secretary of State had a last-minute conversion to the separatist cause, or does he recognise that his hysterical comments were just a desperate attempt to deflect from the shambles of his draft Bill?
I am glad the Secretary of State has seen sense and will not now push ahead with a deeply flawed piece of proposed legislation, but let us not pretend that all this is business as usual. It is not a normal part of pre-legislative scrutiny to then go on and dump the Bill, and nor is this an example of a Secretary of State in listening mode. He wanted and fully intended to go ahead with a Bill that was complex, unworkable and which rolled back the powers of the Welsh Assembly. He only changed course when it became clear that literally no one supported him.
The Welsh Affairs Committee, with its Conservative majority, has produced an excellent report on the draft Bill. I would like to place on record my thanks to the members of that Committee for all their hard work. Their report, like the report of the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee before it, shows that the Secretary of State has mismanaged the process from start to finish. Instead of producing a Bill with a robust set of reserved powers, he allowed Whitehall free rein to decide which powers it thought Wales should have. That resulted in 34 pages of reservations, covering 267 areas. How could the Secretary of State possibly have thought that this was the clear and lasting devolution settlement that he himself promised? We are now told he wants to reduce and simplify the reservations, but why did he not do that to start with? Is it because he did not actually know what was in his own Bill? How else can he explain saying to the Welsh Affairs Committee:
“When I read through the list of reservations I can see for myself that there are things where I think, you know, ‘For goodness’ sake, why is that being held back as reserved?’”?
We have a Secretary of State who did not do his job. He did not make sure that the draft Bill was fit to be published, and that is what has led to this wholly unacceptable state of affairs. We are told that the Bill will now be presented sometime in the next Session, but there are reports that this current Session of Parliament will run until after the European referendum. That means we will not see the Bill until July at the very earliest, with a real possibility that it will slip into the autumn.
So in the Secretary of State’s absence—well, I see him here now and perhaps he will listen—will the Minister respond for him and tell us when he expects the Bill to be published and when its provisions will take effect? Is it not the case that the Assembly will now have to wait even longer before having these powers devolved to it, because of this avoidable delay? In light of the Welsh Affairs Committee’s stinging criticism of the fact that
“the final Bill will be significantly different”
to that which they have been scrutinising, will the new Bill be submitted to the Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny?
I cannot help feeling that if the Secretary of State had spent less time attacking those of us who disagreed with him and more time fixing his Bill, this unnecessary delay could have been avoided. I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to produce a Bill that delivers the powers he promised, but his abysmal record so far hardly fills me with confidence.
On Monday, the Secretary of State also made reference to the Barnett funding floor, which we Labour Members welcome, although we recognise that it makes virtually no difference at a time when the Government are cutting the budget of the Welsh Assembly. In light of recent argument about a fiscal framework for Scotland, we now need to establish a framework for Wales that will underpin our future funding arrangements for the long term. The Smith Commission made it clear that Scotland should suffer no detriment from the transfer of tax-varying powers to Holyrood. It is imperative that the same principle is used in relation to Wales and that any arrangement is subject to review to ensure that it provides a stable financial settlement. Can the Minister update us on what progress has been made?
The Secretary of State and I have our differences, but I think we agree that we want to move past the debate about the process of devolution. We need a Bill that establishes a strong, fair and lasting settlement that achieves what the Welsh people want—a Welsh Assembly, a Welsh Parliament with the powers to make a real difference to the lives of people of Wales.
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and other Members on contributing to today’s important debate in Westminster’s calendar—one that underlines the role that Wales plays within the United Kingdom. I welcome all the contributions of right hon. and hon. Members, and I will do my best to cover as many points raised within the limited time remaining.
The debate has been extremely wide ranging and has covered issues across the spectrum of the constitution, the European Union, the economy, public services, the tidal lagoon, the railways, the northern powerhouse and many other issues. I shall canter through as many as I can, but I want to spend some time on the Wales Bill in order to respond to the questions from the shadow Secretary of State for Wales and others. I shall address some other points, too.
Let me start my opening remarks by saying that Wales is in a good place. I am optimistic about our future. As a Government, we have been determined to make a difference to all parts of the UK, and while the job is not complete and there is always obviously more work to be done, we have taken positive action that sets the scene for a bright outlook for Wales. We are determined to work constructively with the Welsh Government, and whatever rhetoric we hear from individuals within Cardiff Bay, we are determined to respond in the measured fashion that the people of Wales deserve.
We want to secure our economic recovery, which was our greatest challenge when we came to office in 2010. Members will remember that unemployment was rising and for too many young people there was little prospect of employment, with the UK and Wales in a precarious financial position. Few Members, however, have mentioned the funding floor, so I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) for doing so. This has been called for by Members for well over a decade, and it is only a Conservative Administration who have delivered it—and within the first year of their Parliament.
Previously, throughout my time in this Parliament and, indeed, in the Welsh Assembly, the Barnett deficit dominated every discussion, and was often raised by Opposition Members. Now we are in balance. Fair funding for Wales is one of the Government’s biggest achievements, but it is not being properly recognised by everyone.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for emphasising that point. The 115% rate of Barnett consequentials is extremely important—it entirely meets the criteria in the Holtham demands—but one would almost think that Labour and Plaid Cymru Members were disappointed that we had actually delivered on something that they had been calling for. They would far rather be shouting from the sidelines, calling for it in the hope that we would not deliver it. When we respond in a positive way and deliver for the people of Wales, there is complete silence.
Obviously the Barnett formula is a step forward, but does this not underline the danger of using opaque terms such as “fairness” and “non-detriment”? In my view, a fair funding settlement should be based on need rather than serving to prevent further injustice. As the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) pointed out, the key aspect of non-detriment is the fiscal framework. Has the Minister any idea of the preferred index for which the Welsh Labour Government are arguing with the Treasury? It is clear that different mechanisms will have vastly different outcomes.
The hon. Gentleman has made some important points. It is, of course, up to the Labour party to explain its position. All I know is that Labour called for this for decades, we responded within a year, and since then there has been complete silence on the Opposition Benches.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy was extremely upbeat about Wales’s economic prospects. It is true that, since 2010, the number of people in work has risen by 89,000, unemployment has fallen by 35%, the youth claimant count has fallen by 61%, and Wales has experienced faster growth per head than any other nation or region of the United Kingdom outside London. The hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) spoke of the importance of getting people into work. This is action, and this is where it is happening.
We have been getting behind Welsh businesses, and there are 22,000 more small and medium-sized enterprises in Wales than there were in 2010. The hon. Member for Aberavon mentioned the steel sector. I know that he spoke to the Secretary of State and the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise earlier today about the issues facing the steel industry and, in particular, the communities around Port Talbot, but I hope he will recognise that the Government have gone a long way towards meeting the five asks from the steel industry.
One of those asks was a cut in business rates, which were mentioned by some Opposition Members. That is a devolved matter, and something that the Welsh Government could do. The energy-intensive industry compensation package has been delivered, as has the provision of more time in which to comply with the EU’s industrial emissions directive. As for EU-level action on anti-dumping, the UK Government are leading the pressure that is being exerted in Brussels. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that, along with a range of other measures that we have taken.
The Minister was going OK until he got to the bit about dumping. I am sorry, but we cannot let that one go. There are two key facts. The British Government are the ringleader of a group of member states that is blocking the scrapping of the lesser duty rule, which would make a huge difference to the ability to impose tariffs on unfairly dumped Chinese steel. They are also the chief cheerleader for Beijing in Brussels when it comes to giving market economy status to China, which would also dramatically reduce the scope. It must be recognised that, in respect of those two points, it is a case of abject failure.
I am sorry to hear that response, which raised two issues. The first is the confusion over market economy status. Russia has market economy status, but that does not prevent the European Union from introducing tariffs or prevent it from taking action. The other measures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned would take three years to introduce. We want to take action before then. We want to continue to be proactive. We want to work with the hon. Gentleman, the Welsh Government and the communities in and around Port Talbot and Newport, because of the importance of the steel industry to them.
In 2014-15 there were 102 inward investment projects in Wales, 98% of which were supported by UK Trade & Investment. That demonstrates the role that the UK is determined to play in supporting the Welsh economy, and in working with the Welsh Government.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) mentioned welfare reforms. Welfare reforms are very important to getting people back to work, but we cannot pick one element individually. We need to look at the wider package, such as the national living wage, which would increase the incomes of 150,000 people in Wales by 2020. That will make someone working full time on the national living wage £4,400 better off, on top of the tax cuts that they will receive as a result of the increase in the personal allowance.
The Cardiff city deal was mentioned by many hon. Members, most notably my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams), who has spearheaded and championed that cause and been persistent at every turn. He has been relentless, first as a candidate and now as a Member of Parliament, in pressing Ministers on this issue. Let me make it clear that we want this deal to be signed as quickly as possible and we are determined to press those involved in order to develop a world-class deal. We want Wales to look outwards and we want it to involve the private sector. We want the city deal to be a world beater in what it delivers. Hon. Members should recognise the fact that the spending review has already announced our “in principle” commitment to support a new investment fund, and earlier this year the Chancellor committed £50 million to establish a UK compound semiconductor centre as a down-payment on the city deal.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) talked about ensuring that north Wales was recognised and about the importance of the northern powerhouse, a subject that was also raised by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). There was a focus on the importance of rail links, and I hope that bringing the HS2 investment forward by six years will provide great opportunities for mid-Wales, north Wales and Cheshire through the links to the northern powerhouse. The hon. Member for City of Chester talked about local government reorganisation and the need to look towards Wales. I would also say that local government in Wales needs to look across the border. I think that it does so, but the Welsh Government need to recognise the fact that it is an administrative border and that the way in which people lead their lives means that they cross that border in a much more open way.
I could also go on at length about the investments that the prison in north Wales and Hitachi’s involvement at Wylfa will bring. Much has been said about the tidal lagoon project in Swansea. The Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay company has recognised the strength of the review and welcomed it. I wish that hon. Members would reflect on what they are saying in this context and support the company rather than seeking to undermine the project, which could involve a significant investment.
In the time remaining, I want to talk briefly about the Wales Bill. We said at the outset that it was a draft Bill and that we wanted to be pragmatic and to use pre-legislative scrutiny positively. Given some of the negative points that have been made, however, I want to say that we will take absolutely no lessons from the party that gave us the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the convoluted and complex legislative competence order system, which has led to a great deal of legislative confusion. We are determined to get this right, and this pause needs to be taken in the positive spirit in which it was intended.
There have been calls to adjust the necessity test, but we plan to go further and to remove it. We will look at the list of reservations, but it also gives clarity. I encourage members to look at the Scotland Bill, which also has quite a long list of reservations, but there have been no complaints because of the clarity that it provides. Many people are calling for a distinct legal jurisdiction, but that would effectively mean a separate legal jurisdiction. That would be dangerous for Wales, in relation not only to the legislative process but to investment. We are also determined to work constructively to clear up the mess that we inherited with the pre-commencement orders. We want to get this Bill right, and we are being pragmatic. If we ploughed ahead, we would be criticised. We are being criticised just for pausing. It seems that, according to Labour Members, whatever the Wales Office does, it cannot win.
I should like to thank the entire House for an excellent debate today. We have covered a wide range of issues including the economy, the EU, the Wales Bill, the Severn bridge toll, road and rail, city deals and public services. The red threads that run through all these subjects are the ideas of partnership, investment and solidarity. We know that we need to work together with the European Union and across the UK, and we hope that we will see that spirit of partnership from the Government, alongside investments to enable us to take our economy forward to a brighter future. I thank the House for this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Welsh affairs.