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Volume 608: debated on Wednesday 13 April 2016

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of steps taken to rebalance the economy in Wales. (904360)

As the economy continues to grow, this one nation Government are ambitious for every part of the UK. In Wales, we are regenerating the south-east with a city deal for the Cardiff capital region. We intend to follow suit with a deal for Swansea in the west, and we have opened the door to a growth deal for north Wales.

May I be the first to welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister to their new roles?

Following the announcement of the north Wales growth deal in the Budget, what plans are there for the deal to be genuinely cross-border and to plug into the northern powerhouse, which has the potential to deliver huge benefits throughout the north, not only for the distinct regions like north Wales but for God’s own county of Yorkshire?

As well as seeking to grow the economy across the United Kingdom, all the way to Yorkshire and beyond, we are seeking to move our dependency in Wales from the south-eastern part of the country. Less than two weeks ago, I was in north Wales talking to local authority leaders, businesses and business groups, all of whom were keen to support the north Wales growth deal. It was interesting to note that they called for the deal to take place on a cross-border basis, extending to Cheshire and the Wirral, to ensure that north Wales was plugged into the northern powerhouse.

Given the importance of north Wales, will the Secretary of State press very hard for the establishment of links to Manchester airport and rail links to enable people to benefit from HS2, and would I, as a north Wales MP, be able to vote on such measures?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the new cross-border taskforce is making a bid for control period 6 funding from the Department for Transport with the aim of improving links with north Wales. Franchise negotiations are taking place between the Welsh and United Kingdom Governments, and we are determined to ensure that Members are represented properly in those negotiations.

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his position. As he said, the Budget contained excellent news for north Wales in the form of the growth deal announcement, which recognises the region’s close association with the north-west of England, but does he agree that maximising the benefit will require at least an element of political devolution to north Wales?

My right hon. Friend speaks with authority and knowledge of this issue. Devolution to north Wales from what is seen in many quarters as the remoteness of Cardiff Bay is essential. The community groups whom I met in north Wales, whether they were from the north-west, from the border or from the English side of the boundary, wanted the growth deal to work on a cross-border basis, and I am determined to explore that possibility in the interests of the region.

One of the most effective ways of rebalancing the economy is to empower the Welsh Government by giving them the necessary job creation levers, which is why I welcome moves to increase fiscal empowerment for Wales. If fiscal devolution is to work, however, it must be facilitated by the provision of a genuinely no-detriment fiscal framework. The SNP Scottish Government have negotiated such a framework for their country. What is the Secretary of State’s preferred deduction method for Wales?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the plans in the draft Wales Bill for the granting of income tax-varying powers for the Welsh Government. We want Wales to be a low-tax economy. Of course, mechanisms will need to be introduced to protect Welsh interests. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I met the Chief Secretary to the Treasury earlier this week to discuss early proposals for such mechanisms, and we are happy to engage in further such discussions.

Which sectors of the Welsh economy offer the most exciting prospects for growth to help to rebalance the economy, and what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to encourage them?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Budget focused on the city deal for Cardiff, which is the largest city deal in the United Kingdom, with £1.2 billion covering 10 local authority areas. However, we also have ambitions for the Swansea bay city deal and the north Wales growth deal. We need to remember that this involves UK taxpayers’ money in addition to the Barnett block, which is something that we never saw when Labour was in power.

North Wales growth is interdependent on growth in the Republic of Ireland as well as in England. Will the Secretary of State—and I welcome both him and the Under-Secretary of State to their new positions—ensure that north Wales Labour Members are provided with some details of the so-called partnership, given that we are the partners from north Wales?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words and support.

We are determined to work on that issue. There has been a bottom-up approach on the growth deal. We have met local authority leaders and businesses from north Wales, and we are determined to pursue that further. I am not sure that I can make the growth deal stretch as far as Northern Ireland and the Republic Ireland, but I would be interested to try to take it across the English border.

Severn Crossings: Tolls

2. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on people in Wales of the Government’s decision to reduce tolls on the Severn crossings. (904361)

This Government’s commitment to halve the Severn crossings toll is a major boost for the economy and people of south Wales. It will make a positive difference to commuters and small business owners and demonstrates our continued determination to rebalance the economy.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I also welcome him to his place. It seems only a moment or so ago that we were competing to be the parliamentary candidate for the then safe Labour seat of Gower, which was some years ago.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reduction in the tolls will also hugely benefit the Welsh tourism sector by encouraging people to come to Wales, and that it is time for the Welsh Government to pull their finger out and deliver the investment and improvements to the M4 corridor?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. It is fair to say that there are no infrastructure projects more important to the south Wales economy than the upgrade of the M4 around Newport. It is hard to believe that our noble Friend Lord Hague was Secretary of State for Wales when a commitment to that was first made, only for it to be cancelled twice by the Labour party when it was in government. Business has called for it; commuters have called for it; visitors have called for it. The Chancellor made money available specifically for this project almost three years ago. We just wish the Welsh Government would get on with it.

The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs found that the operational and maintenance costs of the bridge represented a quarter of the toll, yet, as the bridge goes into public hands, the Government have reduced the toll by half and are therefore creating a 100% margin. When will they reduce the toll to the level of the operational and maintenance costs to give south Wales and the Welsh economy every chance of performing as well as anywhere else, rather than having this stranglehold on it?

I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman, like business groups, be it the Federation of Small Businesses, the chambers of commerce or the Institute of Directors, would welcome the halving of the tolls. We saw no action in that regard from the Labour party when it was in government. However, we have gone further than just halving the Severn tolls. A small goods vehicle, for example, will move from the current rate of £13.20 to less than £4 when the tolls are halved, because we are also removing the second-class toll.

13. The announcement by this Conservative Government of the cut in tolls is hugely welcome. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that in the longer term the revenue generated from the tolls should not exceed the cost of maintaining the two Severn bridges?


I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his diligent and persistent campaigning on the issue. I know that he was absolutely delighted when the Chancellor was able to respond to his and many other Conservative colleagues’ requests. Of course, a debt will remain on the tolls even when the bridges come back into public ownership in 2018 or thereabouts. That debt will still need to be serviced, as will the innovations on free-flowing traffic that we want to introduce.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister on their recent appointments. Labour Members look forward to working constructively with them, particularly on the new Wales Bill, whenever that may appear.

To clarify, in last month’s Budget the Chancellor made much of halving the tolls on the Severn crossings, but as we have since discovered that is not quite the bargain it appears to be. The 50% discount includes the 20% of VAT, which disappears anyway when the bridge reverts to public ownership, and of course businesses reclaim VAT. So instead of leaving businesses still paying thousands of pounds a year, why will not the Government do the right thing and scrap these tolls altogether?

We have an election coming and the call from the Labour party is now very different—it is very convenient. It has long called for the devolution of the tolls, but we were fearful that, as soon as the tolls were devolved, they would be used as a cash cow to support the income of the Welsh Government.

Employment Trends

The labour market in Wales has never been stronger. Although we recognise the challenges facing the Welsh economy, there is a lot to celebrate. Unemployment has fallen to its lowest since 2008 and the number of people in work in Wales is at an all-time high.

I welcome the Minister to his position. He is quite rightly focusing on the issues affecting steel production at Port Talbot, but what assessment has he made of the decision by Aston Martin to build its new DBX car at St Athan?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that success story. It is a success story for all of the United Kingdom. It is an investment in St Athan, in Wales and in Britain, creating 750 highly skilled jobs in Wales and the west midlands, and I am very grateful to the Prime Minister and to Michael Fallon for the work that they have put into achieving that success.

I think that the hon. Gentleman was referring to the Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon). Some name was mentioned, but it does not mean anything in the Chamber.

Since 2012, Jobs Growth Wales has helped 15,000 people into meaningful employment. Given that youth unemployment is falling faster in Wales than in the UK as a whole, does the Minister agree that the UK Government could learn from the Welsh Labour Government in this regard?

It is interesting to note that an independent audit of Jobs Growth Wales has highlighted that some 80% of its spending has been inefficient. However, it is important to point out that successful jobs creation in Wales is dependent on co-operation between the two Governments, which is exactly what we saw in relation to Aston Martin.

11. My hon. Friend will know that tourism is a major employer. Will he take this opportunity of paying tribute to Andrew R. T. Davies, the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly, and to Anthony Pickles for coming up with the idea of bringing the Prince of Wales’s regalia to Wales? Will he also praise the Prince of Wales for following up on that idea? What discussions is the Minister having with the Welsh Government to promote this?


I will of course join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the leader of the Welsh Conservatives. It is important to highlight the importance of tourism to the Welsh economy, and bringing the regalia back to Wales is the right thing to do. I am certain that the castle of Conwy in my constituency would be delighted to host them.

Does the Minister think that his colleagues’ plan to sack hundreds of civil servants in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in Cardiff will help or hinder employment trends in Wales?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but she will be aware that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on a leaked report. The key thing that we need to be aware of is that wherever in Wales we look—north, south, west or east—we are seeing employment growth.

14. I welcome my hon. Friend to his new position and congratulate him on his new job. Does he agree that the reductions to business taxes announced in the Budget and the ability of people to keep more of their own earnings will create an environment in which the private sector can invest and in which employment opportunities can come to Wales in the same way as they do to the rest of the country?


I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The tax cuts that have been put in place by this Government since 2010 are to be welcomed. Of particular importance in the Budget was the announcement on small business rates, and I call on the Welsh Government to follow the example of the Westminster Government to ensure that Welsh small businesses have the same advantages through their business rates as do those in England.

The right hon. Lady asks an important question. There is more work to be done and, again, there is a need to work together on this issue. However, I would highlight the fact that more and more people with disabilities are now in work—152,000 more in the past 12 months and over 300,000 more in the past 24 months. We need to ensure that the successes we are seeing across the country are replicated in Wales.

Steel Industry

The steel industry is currently dealing with unparalleled global economic conditions and the UK is deeply concerned by the social and economic impact that they are having in south Wales. While we cannot change the status of the global steel market, our objective remains to overcome the challenges and play a positive role in achieving a sustainable future for the steel industry in Wales and across the UK.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that in order to secure the future not only of the Port Talbot site but of Tata sites around the UK, no option should be ruled out?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which he has represented the interests of his constituents and of those who depend on steelmaking in his area. He recognises the way in which the plants are interlinked and he has been working closely with the Business Secretary and me to help to support a secure future. I can reassure him that no stone will be left unturned to secure a long-term future for the Corby plant as well as for every other plant across the UK.

I welcome the Secretary of State and his deputy to their new positions and assure you, Sir, that I will endeavour to give them ample opportunity to explain themselves after my questions. Why did the Secretary of State not travel to Mumbai for the Tata board meeting of 29 March?

The Government have been in close dialogue with Tata steel for many months. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary was at Tata the month before the Mumbai meeting and had engaged with its directors well before that. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be grateful that as a result of the Government’s actions we managed to avert the immediate closure of the plant and propose a sale.

I will give the Secretary of State another go. Did he fail to attend the meeting because a more senior Cabinet colleague told him not to do so? Did he decide not to go off his own bat? Or was it more down to the fact that, as the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise said of her boss the Business Secretary to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs yesterday,

“He would not have gone to Australia had he known that they were going to close the ruddy works”?

What stopped our Secretary of State? Was it the Cabinet’s pecking order, was it indolence, or was it just plain ignorance?

I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman’s approach. Steelworkers want to see Government and Opposition, and the unions and the company, work together to secure a long-term future. The Government have been in a long-term dialogue, which is demonstrated by the ongoing sales process, as opposed to the plant facing the risk of immediate closure.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he and the Wales Office will work with all relevant Government Departments to ensure the long-term future of Port Talbot, particularly for the workers who live in my constituency?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. He met the Business Secretary last week, and he and I have had several conversations about support for his constituents who depend on the plant, demonstrating its regional impact. The Government are determined to do everything possible to secure a long-term, viable future for the plant.

As the Secretary of State well knows, at sites across Wales, such as Shotton, Llanwern, Orb, Trostre and Port Talbot, Tata steelworkers produce a whole range of specialist products. What assurances has he obtained from Tata that it will not siphon off the production of the most profitable lines to their plants aboard? What guarantees has he received that the intellectual property will remain with the Welsh operations in order to attract a suitable buyer and safeguard thousands of Welsh jobs?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the sale of the operations in the United Kingdom, which demonstrates the positive engagement between the UK Government and Tata Steel that has resulted in its decision to sell off all its operations, rather than simply to dispose of what some might see as the more profitable assets.

Steel Industry: Government Support

We have been in extensive discussions with Tata for months, and it is due to Government intervention that Tata has agreed to a sales process rather than an immediate closure of its operations in Wales. I spoke to the hon. Gentleman before he went to the Tata meeting in Mumbai and have spoken to him since. I am keen to stay in regular contact in order to update him as the position changes. [Interruption.]

Order. These are important matters affecting the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people in Wales and across the country. Let us have some respect for that fact without Ministers wittering away— Mr Evennett—in the background. Important matters are being discussed. Be quiet, sir!

The Secretary of State will know that retaining the order book and customer base is critical for the Welsh steel industry. I want a short answer to a short question. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he has had conversations with customers such as Honda, Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover to secure the integrity of the customer base? Yes or no.

My father was a welder at the Port Talbot plant for more than 30 years before he was made redundant several years ago. I am from that community and understand how important the steelworks is to the income of the area. My family has been through the good times when records have been broken and the difficult times when my father, like many others, was made redundant. The Government regularly engage with many of the companies, both suppliers and customers, that work with Tata. We are determined to do everything to support them.

Yesterday, the Business Secretary said we need to work together, cross-party, on this, and the Secretary of State for Wales has just said the same. I understand that he is to visit Shotton on Monday—when was he intending to tell me?

I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would be grateful for, or approving of, a visit from a UK Minister to Shotton. I have been responding to the calls from the local workers, but I was in Wrexham on the day that the news broke about Shotton, and I spoke to community leaders and business leaders about the impact. I said to the community, “As soon as more information becomes available, I will return.” That is why I am returning to Shotton next Monday, and I am pleased about it.

EU Membership: Economy

The European Union makes a massive contribution to the Welsh economy: it is our largest trading partner; it supports thousands of jobs; and it provides significant investments for projects all around Wales. The economic benefits of a reformed EU are far too great to risk leaving.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He is absolutely right; the Welsh economy depends on EU funding to a large extent. Does he agree that remaining in the EU is vital for training and employment opportunities in Wales and across the UK?

I fully endorse the comments the hon. Gentleman has made. The funding from the EU has been significant in re-skilling the Welsh workforce to a very high extent and the support given by the EU to higher education institutions is phenomenal.

Small family farms remain the backbone of the west Wales rural economy, but incomes have declined by £5,000 over the past two years. Does the Minister share the concerns of the Farmers Union of Wales, the National Farmers Union and many in the rural economy that the last thing we need to countenance is withdrawal from the European Union?

I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Both farming unions in Wales—the FUW and the NFU—are strongly in favour of our remaining in the reformed European Union. The extent of Welsh agricultural produce that is exported to the EU shows how important that market is; 90% of Welsh agricultural produce is exported to the EU and we should not risk losing that.

On this point, the Minister is absolutely right. The best decision for Wales is to stay in the European Union, as our favourite pamphlet says. But can he tell us why, at a time when Sir Terry Matthews, Airbus, NFU Cymru and the FUW support our membership, Andrew R. T. Davies, the person the Conservative party wants to be First Minister of Wales, wants Wales out of the EU? It is a disgrace, is it not? [Interruption.]

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the support of Airbus, Horizon Nuclear Power and the farming unions, but I make this point to her: the Conservative party is a democratic party that believes passionately that the people who can make a decision about this issue are the people of this country. We have offered them a referendum and their votes will result in a decision in 10 weeks’ time.

Disabled People: Employment

The Government believe every disabled person who wants to work should be able to work. As announced in the spending review, there will be a real-terms spending increase on supporting disabled people into work. That will ensure that valuable talent and skill will be further recognised in the Welsh workforce. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Disability rights organisations, the Equality and Human Rights Commission and many others have decried the lack of evidence in support of the Government’s cutting £1,500 a year from disabled people who have been found not fit for work. How many employers in Wales have the Government signed up as active Disability Confident employers for those disabled people who are fit for work?

It is important to point out, first, that supporting disabled people into the workplace is incredibly important, and this Government have a track record of success. Over the past 12 months, we have seen 150,000 disabled people enter the workplace; the figure is more than 300,000 over the past 24 months. I am proud of the fact that Swansea is the first disabled-friendly city in the UK, supporting disabled people into employment. On the specific numbers, I will write to the hon. Lady with the details that she requests.

Will the Minister concede that with more than a third of work capability assessment appeals being successful, Government policy is damaging the lives of a great many disabled people and starving them of money that they need in order to live a reasonable quality of life?

Although the work capability assessments need to be refined and are being refined, it is crucial to highlight the fact that this Government strongly believe that people who are disabled and who want to work and are able to work have a contribution to make. The aim of this Government’s policies is to help people into employment where that is possible, and the figures show that our policies are successful.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the Minister to his post. Is he aware that the callous policy of the Conservative Government of implementing personal independence payments is leading to many people being prevented from working because Motability cars are being taken away from them, which prevents them from being able to travel to work? Will he speak to the Prime Minister, who is sitting next to him, to try to talk some sense into him?

I find the hon. Gentleman’s comments slightly disappointing. When he looks at all the changes in the employment situation in his constituency, he should welcome this Government’s work on welfare reform. The welfare reform changes that we are putting in place are contributing to behavioural change, leading to more people supporting their own families and contributing to the economy. When he looks at the statistics for the Wrexham constituency, he should welcome the changes, instead of condemning them.