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Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 8 March 2017

The Secretary of State was asked—

Article 50

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union on the process for triggering article 50. (909071)

I encourage the whole House to recognise that today is International Women’s Day. Events are taking place here in Parliament and across government.

I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to ensure that our exit from the EU is a success. As members of the European Union Exit and Trade Cabinet Committee and the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations), we are committed to working closely with the devolved Administrations to ensure that exiting the EU has a fair and strong outcome.

I join the Secretary of State in welcoming International Women’s Day.

At yesterday’s sitting of the Exiting the EU Committee, the Welsh Finance Secretary, Mark Drakeford, voiced concerns about the UK Government using Brexit to grab new powers over such things as farming and fishing, which should without question go directly to Cardiff and Edinburgh under the existing devolution settlements. Can the Secretary of State give a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no such attempt to undermine and row back on devolution?

We have already said that no decisions currently taken by the devolved Administrations will be removed from them. We will use the return of decision making from Europe back to the UK to strengthen devolution and the Union.

On behalf of the people of Wales, will my right hon. Friend tell the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union that nobody—not the unelected House of Lords or anybody else—is going to stand in the way of the will of the Welsh people to have their freedom?

My hon. Friend reminds us that Wales voted to leave the European Union at the recent referendum. There is an obligation on the Government and on both Houses of Parliament to accept its outcome.

9. A hard Brexit would be bad for jobs in Wales. Blaenau Gwent has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, yet the Department for Work and Pensions proposes shutting Tredegar jobcentre. Will the Secretary of State meet me to talk about supporting the people of Blaenau Gwent into work? (909079)

I will happily meet the hon. Gentleman, although I do not necessarily recognise his message about our approach to Brexit—we want a deal that works for every part of the United Kingdom.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that unemployment across Wales is lower than the UK average, which is remarkable considering the industrial heritage of constituencies in Wales such as the hon. Gentleman’s. I will happily work with him on the issues he raises in connection with the Department for Work and Pensions.

In his evidence to the Brexit Select Committee yesterday, Cabinet Secretary Mark Drakeford also said that the Welsh Government were, disgracefully, not made aware of the UK Government’s 12-point Brexit plan or their White Paper. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the Plaid Cymru-Welsh Government Brexit White Paper is fed into the article 50 letter and accompanying documents?

The Welsh Government’s White Paper on exiting the European Union was considered by the Joint Ministerial Committee at the end of February, and we have a significant amount of common ground. The Welsh Government talk about “unfettered access”, while my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has talked about “frictionless” access and trade. We can work on the basis of a lot of common ground, and I am optimistic that we will continue to work in a positive environment with the Welsh Government and the other devolved Administrations to secure a Brexit deal that works for every part of the United Kingdom.

Infrastructure Investment: North Wales

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on infrastructure investment in north Wales. (909072)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I hold regular discussions with colleagues from across Government to champion the people and businesses of north Wales. Our commitment to north Wales is demonstrated by the Government’s £212 million investment in HMP Berwyn, and we have opened the door to a north Wales growth deal further to strengthen the region’s economy.

The Mersey Dee Alliance meets tomorrow in Wrexham at Glyndwr University. It has presented a coherent and effective transport plan for improving links between north Wales and the rest of the country. Will the Government give us not just warm words, but a financial commitment to north Wales to match the investment put in by the Welsh Government?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the plans that he supports for better connectivity between north Wales and the north-west of England are also strongly supported by the Wales Office. The proposals made by stakeholders in north Wales are being given serious consideration, but I would not want to prejudge any financial decision made by other Departments here in Westminster.

Is the Minister aware of significant concerns among local authorities covering north Wales, west Cheshire, east Cheshire, Warrington and other areas abut the inadequacy of the current proposals for the HS2 station at Crewe, in terms of both line routeing and platform and junction arrangements? Will he undertake to represent those concerns at the highest level to ensure that a fit-for-purpose Crewe hub station can bring regional connectivity and economic benefits?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in respect of the importance of connectivity between north Wales and the north-west of England, as well as more widely. He is clearly aware of the potential of HS2 to open the door to better connectivity. I recognise his concern about the Crewe hub. We are discussing the issue at a ministerial level, but I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it further at any point.

I look forward to welcoming the Secretary of State to my constituency tomorrow so that he can see the importance of connectivity between Wales, Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. On the broadband universal service obligation, has the Minister made the case to other Departments for finance to roll out superfast broadband to the extra 5%?

The hon. Gentleman is well known for championing Anglesey. I thoroughly agree with him about the importance of connectivity, both digital and by road and rail. The Wales Office is continually making the case for a scheme to ensure that the whole UK is well served by digital connectivity as we exit the European Union.

Given the interconnective nature of the Wales-England border to constituencies such as mine, does my hon. Friend agree that collaboration between local leaders and industry is essential for people living on the borders?

That is an important point. I was in mid-Wales over the weekend, and there is no doubt that that connectivity is part of day-to-day life there. I agree that both the Government and business need to co-operate across the Wales-England border.

11. In the context of infrastructure, we have just heard that Brexit rebel Lord Heseltine, who had been overseeing work on the already overdue Swansea city deal, has been ousted by the Government. What hope have we of securing similar deals for the rest of Wales if experts are axed at the whim of an insecure Executive who are fearful of parliamentary sovereignty? (909081)

The hon. Lady highlights an issue that is in the news today. It should be emphasised that the Swansea Bay region city deal has a bottom-up agenda. Lord Heseltine did contribute significant expertise during a challenge session, and I am confident that we will have a city deal for the region, followed by further growth deals for Wales as a result of the Government’s work to ensure that Wales benefits from investment in the same way as any other part of the United Kingdom.

May I bring the Minister back to north Wales and raise the issue of its connectivity through my constituency? In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), he seemed to pass the buck to another part of the Government, and that is not good enough. Will he ensure that the Government and their silos do not restrict connectivity between Wales and English cities, and will he arrange a cross-governmental meeting with Members of Parliament who want more investment in the connection between north Wales and Merseyside?

As a north Wales Member, I am very happy to be brought back to north Wales—that is nothing other than a pleasure.

The Government are moving ahead with a cross-border growth deal that will benefit north Wales and the north-west of England. The aim is to improve connectivity between north Wales and the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. I am proud of the fact that 57 trains a week now travel from my constituency to Manchester, but we need more of that to improve the economies of north Wales and the north-west of England.

I wish a happy International Women’s Day to all the women in the world, especially my daughter, Angharad, who has been my inspiration.

Last week, Economy and Infrastructure Minister Ken Skates launched “Moving North Wales Forward”, the Welsh Government’s “Vision for North Wales and the North East Wales Metro”. When will the Minister launch his vision for north Wales?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her post, and I am delighted to respond to her question on International Women’s Day. However, I am disappointed that the Welsh Government’s “Vision for North Wales” seems to be a vision for north-east Wales. The Department and the Government have a vision of connectivity throughout north Wales.

Welsh Language

I was delighted that, on St David’s day, the House resolved that the use of Welsh be permitted in parliamentary proceedings of Select Committees and of the Welsh Grand Committee held in both Wales and here at Westminster. That is just one example of the work that we are doing to promote the Welsh language throughout the UK.

I might represent an English constituency, but I am also proud of my Welsh ancestry. Does the Minister welcome the increased viewing figures for S4C in England?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It was highlighted to me at a recent reception in the Wales Office that since the partnership between S4C and the BBC has seen S4C programmes being available on the iPlayer, the largest area of S4C viewing figure growth has been in England—a 25% rise over the last year alone. This must be welcomed by everybody who cares about the Welsh language and culture.

The funding last year for S4C was £6.7 million; the funding for next year is £6.1 million. How does that square with the manifesto commitment that the Minister stood on in 2015 to protect funding for S4C?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the commitment was that the funding for S4C would be frozen until after the delivery of a review of S4C, and I am quite certain that there will be an announcement that the funding will be frozen until after the review has taken place.

I proudly served on the Bill Committee that considered the Welsh Language Act 1993, during the John Major Government, so I am fully in favour of the use of the Welsh language, but may we have some consistency in Wales on road signs? In some areas Welsh is first followed by English; in other areas it is vice versa—that does make life complicated.

I think that the whole House is aware of my hon. Friend’s commitment to and support for Wales—and certainly his support for Welsh questions. He makes an interesting point, but with road signs in Wales it is very much a case of localism—this is a devolved issue. If a local authority wants Welsh first, Welsh is first, but if an authority, because of the linguistic nature of the area, prefers to have English first, it can choose to do so.

May I press the Minister a bit further? He says that he is “quite certain” that a positive announcement will be made, but can he guarantee that the freeze will be carried on until the review of S4C is concluded? S4C does marvellous work not only in Wales but across the world, and it needs the reassurance that its funding will be frozen again.

The hon. Gentleman is well known for his support for S4C and the Welsh language, but I have stated very clearly that this Department is committed to ensuring that that manifesto commitment is delivered. More importantly, we need a long-term agreement on the future of S4C, and the whole point of this review is to ensure that S4C not only has a decent financial situation for this year, but is on a strong footing for the future.

This institution has spent four centuries disrespecting the Welsh language, which existed and was a sophisticated literary language for 1,000 years before English existed, so we pay tribute to the late Wyn Roberts and my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for this step forward now: “O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau.”

Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the deployment of another language should in all courtesy be immediately followed by a translation for those who would benefit from it—but the hon. Gentleman can save that delight up for us for another occasion.

The hon. Gentleman finished his comments by saying, “Long may the language live,” and I subscribe to that viewpoint. I am very grateful to him for highlighting the work of my predecessor Lord Roberts of Conwy in relation to the Welsh Language Act 1993 and Welsh language education. The fact of the matter is that the Welsh language is no longer a political football, and it should never be a political football again. We need to support it in all parties across Wales.

All in the Scottish National party support the Welsh language and Sianel Pedwar Cymru—S4C. Will the Minister use his good offices to reciprocate the good wishes of the SNP and urge the BBC to fund BBC Alba to the same levels as Sianel Pedwar Cymru so that we have the same support for Welsh and Gaelic across the UK, as they rightfully should have?

I have a very fond recollection of a holiday on the isle of Barra when I was 10 years old where I heard Scots-Gaelic being spoken in the streets. I understand that an increase of £1 million for BBC Alba has been announced, which is to be welcomed, and I would say that people in Scotland want to support that language in Scotland in the same way as people in Wales want to support the Welsh language.

International Business

4. What assessment he has made of the strength of Wales’s international business links since the UK’s decision to leave the EU. (909074)

Wales is an exporting nation. Welsh lamb, Penderyn whisky and Anglesey sea salt are all known well beyond our own borders, but we can do more. On Monday I hosted a business export summit in Cardiff to ensure that businesses in Wales have full access to UK Government business support for exports.

What steps is the Secretary of State taking to engage with and understand the needs of smaller businesses in Wales as we negotiate to leave the European Union?

My hon. Friend recognises this Government’s global trading ambition. There are 1,200 staff in the Department for International Trade, across 109 countries. Any businesses based in Swansea are as entitled to the same sort of support as businesses based in Swindon, and I encourage them to use the Department for International Trade.

Some 44% of trade goes to the EU, but the amount from Wales is 70%. Last week in Swansea, the CBI and producers told me that it is imperative that we retain access to the single market and the customs union. The people of Wales did not vote to leave them. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he will do everything he can to keep that going so that our exports are free to continue?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that on Monday I held an event to promote exports to not only Europe but all parts of the globe. Clearly there are great opportunities, and last year 4,000 Welsh companies took their first steps towards exporting. Europe is an important market. We want frictionless trade with Europe, and we also want to look to the great opportunities that exiting the European Union will bring to not only Welsh businesses but businesses across the whole United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

Order. An excessive number of rather noisy private conversations are taking place. I understand the sense of anticipation, but it is very unfair on Members asking questions and the Minister answering. Let us have a decent audience for Mr Stephen Crabb.

Despite Wales having world-leading companies that contribute to humanitarian efforts in some of the poorest nations on earth, no Welsh company has been able to secure a contract with the Department for International Development. Will my right hon. Friend look into that and work with the excellent International Development Secretary to make DFID not only more pro-business, but more pro-Welsh business?

My right hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. Not only has he been a strong champion for Wales over many years, but he has shown a strong interest in overseas development. I will happily work with him and my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary on overseas aid to ensure that Welsh businesses get the same opportunity as any other UK business to win contracts to help to support and develop those nations.

At a St David’s day celebration, Wales’s First Minister, Carwyn Jones, declared that Wales is open for business. Last week he spent four days in America, boosting post-Brexit trade between the USA and Wales. Does the Secretary of State plan to visit the USA and recruit more business for Wales?

May I welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box for her first Welsh questions? Last week GE Aviation announced a £20 million investment in Nantgarw. The UK and Welsh Governments worked together to land that significant employment opportunity, which will secure 1,200 jobs for more than two decades. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade always rightly underlines that every business in Wales is entitled to the same support as any business in England, and I am working closely with him on not only that but trade missions.

Steel Industry

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the future of the steel industry in Wales. (909075)

I recently met the unions. Following the positive outcome of the recent ballot, it is now vital that all parties work together to deliver the agreed proposals. We will continue to engage with the sector, as well as with the unions, the devolved nations and other partners, as we seek to find a long-term viable solution for the industry.

The International Trade Secretary is said to have stated that the Government should ignore those who argue for protection. Will the Welsh Secretary agree to argue for a proper trade defence mechanism for steel, if that is what is required?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look to this Government’s positive record, in spite of the scaremongering of many Opposition Members. There are already 41 trade defence measures in place and the outcomes speak for themselves. Rebar coming into the European Union has reduced by 99%, as has wire rod—the statistics speak for themselves. This Government are determined to take the right action to support not only free trade but Welsh and UK businesses and industry.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what action has been taken to ensure that Welsh steel is used in British procurements across the UK?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that significant steps have been taken since 12 months ago when the crisis broke. Energy-intensive industry support has meant that £134 million has now been paid to the steel sector, and I have already mentioned the fact that 41 trade defence measures are in place. We have also introduced flexibility over EU emissions regulations. We are determined to ensure that everything will be done to make the steel industry sustainable over the longer term.

There has been much discussion in the past week about the automotive industry, particularly about Ford in Bridgend and the acquisition of Vauxhall by PSA, which are of major importance in south Wales and north Wales respectively. The presence of a domestic steel industry is key to our automotive industry, so will the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues about the automotive and steel industries and what assurances he can give to both industries about the Government’s commitment to their sustainability?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and I are in regular communication, not only about steel but about the automotive sector. Although Ellesmere Port is not in Wales, there are clearly a significant number of Welsh employees in the workforce there. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take encouragement from major investments such as that being made by Nissan in Sunderland. There are 100 automotive component industries based in Wales that will have access to those contracts—

Valleys Lines: Electrification

The Government have confirmed their commitment to contribute £125 million to the Cardiff city deal, which will provide an investment fund for the region and support for the electrification of the valleys lines. The project has the potential to broaden employment opportunities for those living in some of Wales’s most deprived communities and to act as a significant incentive for business investment. The scope, planning and delivery of electrification are matters for the Welsh Government.

That is a pitiful answer. It does not answer the question at all. The former Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), who is talking to the present Secretary of State for Transport, told the House in October 2012 that the project would be finished by May 2015, but it has not even started. When will the Minister ensure that my constituents get the proper service that they require, with clean trains, disabled access, proper toilets and services that do not break down?

I think that the whole House enjoys the hon. Gentleman’s rhetoric, but it would appear that he—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. One cannot fail to hear the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), but I want to hear the Minister’s reply.

It would appear that the hon. Gentleman does not understand the way devolution works. The city deal has been agreed with the Welsh Government, and the scope, planning and delivery of electrification are matters for the Welsh Government. I advise him to speak to his colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government.

With the arrival of electrification in south Wales and the Government’s investment in the new bimodal trains, which have been greatly welcomed in my constituency, we need the correct infrastructure to ensure that people in south-west Wales can benefit. This could be realised by the creation of a Parkway station at Swansea. Will the Minister meet me to discuss this, please?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing to ensure that south-west Wales also benefits from the electrification of the Great Western main line. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss the proposals for a Swansea Parkway station, which would be a huge boost for that city as it moves towards a city deal.

“Securing Wales’ Future”

7. Whether he is taking steps to implement the Plaid Cymru-Welsh Government’s White Paper entitled “Securing Wales’ Future”, published in January 2017. (909077)

The White Paper, “Securing Wales’ Future”, was presented to the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations in late February, and we are discussing the detailed proposals with the Welsh Government.

Does the Minister realise that there is a difference between discussing a paper and taking action on it? When are the devolved Governments going to have any tangible action taken on their Brexit strategies; or are the devolved Assemblies not going to be part of empire 2.0 and instead be left with the scraps from the table?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there is a significant amount of common ground between the Welsh Government’s paper and the 12 principles that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has outlined. This Government are determined to deliver a deal that works for every part of the United Kingdom. We have already said that no decisions currently taken by the devolved Administrations will be removed from them and that we will use the return of powers from Europe to the United Kingdom to strengthen devolution and the Union of the United Kingdom.

Over 5,000 EU students study in Wales and over 1,300 EU academics teach and do research, greatly adding to our national wellbeing. The Welsh Government’s EU White Paper makes it clear that their position must be secured. Why will the Secretary of State’s Government not adopt that elementary piece of economic good sense?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others have said that we want to seek the earliest agreement to secure the status of EU nationals living in the UK and of UK nationals living in the EU. It is not in our interests to undermine any one sector. We would like to press for an early agreement, but it takes two people to come to an agreement.

Today, on International Women’s Day, my constituent Shiromini Satkunarajah will be studying for her final exams in electrical engineering. She is likely to get a first in her field, in which there is a world shortage of qualified people, women in particular. Had this Government had their way, she would have been deported last week. How would her deportation have steadied the Chancellor’s dodgy post-Brexit spreadsheet?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we do not comment on individual cases, but he will know the detail and the latest situation. I hope that he will recognise, on International Women’s Day, that no other nation across the European Union has lower unemployment among women than Wales.