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House of Commons Hansard
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14 March 2018
Volume 637

The Secretary of State was asked—

Severn Growth Summit

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1. What steps he is taking to expand the economic links between south Wales and the south-west of England as a result of the Severn Growth Summit. [904274]

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Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd. Growth corridors are an important element of the industrial strategy for Wales. We are responding to local demand, building on the work undertaken by the great western cities and creating a great western powerhouse. We want to see the skills and expertise of this important region recognised across the UK and internationally.

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Does the Minister agree that scrapping the tolls on the Severn crossing—a commitment made by this Conservative Government—will prove an economic catalyst for further investment and significantly expand the links between south Wales and the south-west?

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I certainly welcome the abolition of the Severn tolls. It sends a powerful message that we are keen on this economic corridor. It will, I hope, bring about investment for the rest of south Wales, and it will save the average motorist around £1,400 per year.

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My constituents want to be able to access work in the south-west, but despite it being plain that demand for rail services is going to grow and grow locally, there are still too few carriages, overcrowding and unreliable rail services. Will the Minister personally talk to Great Western about that?

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We are going through a consultation at the moment, and I hope the hon. Lady’s constituents will take part in that. We recognise that investment in rail is important. That is why this Government are investing more than we have done as a country since the Victorian era. The new intercity express programme trains are an investment of more than £5.7 billion, and I hope she will welcome that positive news.

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South Wales is one of the key markets for Torbay’s holiday companies and industry. Will the Minister look at improving the direct rail link between Cardiff and Paignton? In particular, will he raise issues with Great Western about the provision of refreshments on that service? At the moment, there are none throughout the whole journey.

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I would say that Wales is a good place for my hon. Friend’s constituents to come and visit as a tourist destination, too. Of course we want to make sure that transport is as effective as possible, and we are in constant discussions about improving services. I will make sure we make that point about the food.

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One way that we could have real economic growth and jobs prospects for the whole region would be to deliver the tidal lagoon project. It has been more than 18 months since the Hendry review. Can I ask the Minister to get on with it and encourage the Secretary of State to start defending and standing up for Wales in the Cabinet?

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I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State always stands up for Wales in Cabinet and does so very effectively. We are looking at the tidal lagoon carefully to ensure that it is value for money for the taxpayer, too.

Welsh EU Continuity Bill

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2. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the proposal for a Welsh EU continuity Bill. [904275]

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7. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the proposal for a Welsh EU continuity Bill. [904280]

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11. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the proposal for a Welsh EU continuity Bill. [904284]

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As I have said previously, I do not think that the Welsh Government’s continuity Bill is necessary. The UK Government want to reach agreement with the Welsh Government on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, with a view to securing the National Assembly’s support for the legislation.

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Despite that answer, the reality is that on Friday, the Cabinet Office printed a list of 24 devolved competencies that the UK Government are going to snatch back from Wales and Scotland. That proves the need for a continuity Bill. Why is the Secretary of State not defending his devolved Parliament and standing up for it, instead of allowing this power grab?

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My relationship with the First Minister and the Welsh Government is a positive one. We do not agree on everything, but we agree on the objective, which is to improve the outcomes for businesses and communities in Wales. There are 64 areas of the devolution settlement with Wales. There are 24 areas that we want to discuss further with the Welsh Government, to come to an agreement on how best to ensure that common rules apply across the UK, so that Welsh businesses are protected and can market their products across the rest of the UK.

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Earlier this week, the long-awaited Government amendments to clause 11 of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill were published. Despite assurances and promises, they were published without the consent, support or agreement of the devolved Administrations. Is it still the Government’s policy to obtain the consent of the devolved Administrations? If further agreement is reached, will the Secretary of State bring forward further amendments?

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The hon. Gentleman is referring to amendments tabled to clause 11 in the other place. Commitments were made that amendments would be tabled, and that is exactly what we have done. If we had not tabled those amendments, we would have been criticised. As I have said in this Chamber and elsewhere, we are determined to work with the devolved Administrations to come to an agreement, but it is the UK Government that have the interest of looking after the whole UK. It is the UK Government that want to act in the interests of businesses and communities to ensure that a Scottish business can sell or buy products in Wales under the same regulations, where a common UK market matters.

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One of the reasons why continuity Bills have been brought forward is that there is no agreement in the Joint Ministerial Committee on this blatant Westminster power grab, but that has not stopped the UK Government pressing ahead anyway. Does the Secretary of State agree that no deal can be agreed on new powers unless there is agreement at the JMC?

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I am hoping the agreement of the devolved Administrations will come as soon as possible. I am not going to tie it down to any one particular Joint Ministerial Committee meeting, but the one last week was another positive engagement between Administrations. I have been in this position before, when it was predicted that I would not get a legislative consent motion for the Wales Bill as it was progressing through Parliament. This can be done only by constant hard work and engagement, as well as optimism on both sides—acting in the interests of businesses and communities, not in the interests of politicians.

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Will my right hon. Friend confirm that not only is there not a power grab, but there will be a significant increase in powers to the devolved Administrations as Britain leaves the European Union?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no intention of any power grab. Of the 64 areas that relate to Wales, we have already said that 30 will pass to the devolved Administration without the need for any further agreement, or at the very most only an informal agreement between the UK Government and them, but there are 24 areas in which it is in the interests of businesses in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as in England, to have common practices so that we can protect the UK market; 80% of Welsh output is sold to the rest of the UK.

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Does the Secretary of State recall that Wales as a principality and the United Kingdom as a nation voted to leave the European Union and that, rather than talking about EU continuity, we should therefore be focusing on how to strike the best deal for Britain on leaving the EU, particularly to be ready and prepared on day one at the Dover frontline?

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The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that Wales voted to leave the European Union, and we have an obligation to act on that instruction from the referendum. This is also an opportunity to highlight that 80% of output from Wales goes to the rest of the UK, and Scotland sells four times more to the rest of the UK than it sells to the rest of the European Union. On that basis, protecting the UK market must be a priority, and acting in the interests of businesses and communities is our priority.

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Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the advantages to Wales of having a common market across the whole United Kingdom?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Much focus is understandably and rightly placed on selling and trading with the European Union, but the most important market to Wales is the UK market—with eight out of 10 lorries of output from Wales and complex supply chains—and this is only right. Only two weeks ago, we recognised that the investment of Toyota in Derbyshire will have major positive impacts on the Toyota plant making engines on Deeside.

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I am disappointed that the much-promised UK Government amendment to the power grab in clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, tabled by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government in the House of Lords on Monday, states that UK Ministers will merely consult Welsh Government Ministers, not seek their consent. In so doing, his Government have changed the fundamental principle of the devolution settlement against the settled will of the people of Wales.

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I do not recognise the statements made by the hon. Lady. The amendment tabled in the other place is a significant one. It recognises that powers automatically fall to the devolved Administrations, but also introduces the prospect of bringing them in centrally to protect the UK common market, which is in the interests of Welsh business. I have had the privilege of sitting in front of a number of expert panels of industry representatives, and we are acting in the way they are calling for, rather than in the way that some politicians who are more interested in the powers are calling for.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but the UK Government have said that the amendment merely creates a temporary place for the 24 powers to be kept—in a freezer—until new arrangements are discussed. If this is a temporary measure, why permanently alter the Government of Wales Act 2006?

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Protecting the UK market is absolutely a priority for us. The hon. Lady will have food producers in her constituency who want to sell their products in England according to common practices on food labelling. That is an example of the area of policy on which we are seeking to get agreement. We will continue to work hard with the devolved Administrations to get agreement, but only the UK Government can act in the interests of the whole UK, not some politicians in other areas who are seeking to represent a regional dimension only.

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Last week, the Secretary of State published a list explicitly outlining which powers Westminster intends either to hoard or to dole out, as it sees fit. This week, he published a set of amendments to clause 11 of the withdrawal Bill, without gaining the agreement of either of the devolved nations. Will he explain how that is anything other than a power grab?

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In the first instance, that list is still subject to discussion, as clearly stated in the headings under the three various sections. I am also pleased to say that the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales recognised that we wanted to publish that list and supported our publication of it, while not necessarily recognising the three elements of it. That demonstrates the positive way in which we seek to work with the devolved Administrations to get agreement. It is only the UK Government who can act in the interests of the whole UK.

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Today the Welsh EU continuity Bill will be subject to the first stage of the expedited legislative timetable. If it passes, debates over the power grab will be forced out of this Chamber and into the courts. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he intends to fight us in the courts?

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As I said in my initial answer, I do not think that the continuity Bill is necessary. The Welsh Government have also said that they would prefer not to pursue it. I genuinely believe that there is enough good will between all Administrations to come to an agreement. After all, if we focus on the needs of businesses and communities, we will achieve a positive outcome. It is when politicians focus on the powers rather than on outcomes that things go wrong.

Rail Electrification: Swansea

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3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the effect on the Welsh economy of the decision not to electrify the mainline to Swansea. [904276]

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5. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the effect on the Welsh economy of the decision not to electrify the mainline to Swansea. [904278]

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The UK Government’s record investment in Wales’s rail infrastructure is focused on maximising the benefits to passengers while delivering the best value for taxpayers. The £5.7 billion fleet of modern, intercity express programme trains running on the great western main line to Swansea brings significant time savings to and from London and tangible benefits to passengers in terms of speed, comfort and reliability, without the need for a costly, disruptive programme of electrification.

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The failure to fully electrify the line to Swansea means that more people will use their cars. Following the removal of the tolls on the Severn bridge, the Department for Transport said in response to my written parliamentary question:

“No further modelling was undertaken”

on the increase in cars. Has the Minister’s Department assessed the potential further gridlock in north Bristol?

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I simply do not accept that not electrifying the line to Swansea will not bring benefits—it will. The train journey times to London from those areas will be reduced by 15 minutes. We have to recognise that the costs have gone up significantly. The benefit-to-cost ratio was extremely low and even the Public Accounts Committee recommended looking at the issue again.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that his Government’s broken promises on rail electrification, both in Wales and the wider UK, including Hull, and their unwillingness to provide funding for rail enhancements will damage connectivity and therefore hinder our opportunities for economic growth and development?

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I find it very hard to accept a Labour Member talking about rail investment when that party electrified probably only 10 miles of line in 13 years. We are bringing record investment all over the country, particularly in Wales, and we are proud of our achievements.

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Is my hon. Friend aware of press reports suggesting that the Welsh Labour Government are now cancelling electrification projects in the valleys? Does he agree that if they were serious about improving transport links, they would get on with building the M4 relief road?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is this Government who have being bringing in the investment in our rail infrastructure, and the M4 corridor really does need solving. Many people and businesses across south Wales have been calling for that for a very long time and, frankly, it is time that the Welsh Government got on with it.

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May I urge my hon. Friend to look at the evidence received by the Select Committee on Transport? We heard that the new bi-mode class 800 trains will run to the same timetable, whether they operate on diesel power or on electric, so there will be no loss of service by not having the lines electrified.

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My hon. Friend is a great expert in transport matters and he is absolutely right that having those lines above the train will not improve performance. What passengers want is to be able to get to their destination reliably, and that is what we are going to bring back.

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Diolch. As we heard from the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), the Labour Government yesterday cancelled the electrification of the line to Ebbw Vale using exactly the same arguments as the Secretary of State for cancelling the electrification of the main line to Swansea—I do not know whether they swapped press releases or not. Is it not the case that when it comes to the Welsh railways, the Welsh people have been let down by the Governments at both ends of the M4?

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I would not accept that. The fact is that we are investing in the railway. Let us not forget that some of the investment in England will benefit passengers in north Wales. For example, the Halton curve helps passengers from north Wales to get to Liverpool and the north-west of England.

Steel Industry

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4. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the future role of the Welsh steel industry in the UK steel supply chain. [904277]

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We are working with the sector, the unions and devolved Administrations to support the UK steel industry to develop a long-term viable solution. We are deeply disappointed by the US announcement and are taking all possible action to support the industry.

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The steelworks in Corby is part of a comprehensive steel supply chain that involves sites in Wales. Further to the conversations the Secretary of State has been having in Wales, what discussions is he having with UK Government Ministers about how we can best support the UK steel industry as a whole?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he is doing to support the steel industry. He was at the forefront of the debate two years ago when the steel industry was facing a particular crisis, and it is through his influence, with others, that we have introduced an energy compensation scheme, flexibility over EU emissions targets and 45 trade defence measures to prevent illegal steel dumping in Europe. His influence is pretty strong in this debate.

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Is the Secretary of State aware that when President Bush introduced steel tariffs in 2002, it led to 200,000 job losses in the US? What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that American politicians, employers and trade unions are pressing President Trump to drop these utterly self-defeating tariffs?

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We have said that we disagree with the statements the President has made. I was in the US just two weeks ago, and I spoke to our ambassador and the UK’s trade commissioner about this issue. I subsequently met the US ambassador here in the UK and I spoke again, just last Friday, to the UK trade commissioner in the US. This is a cross-Government effort. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade is travelling to the US as we speak to pursue and raise these issues. There has been a whole cross-Government approach to this issue and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has raised it directly with the President.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

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6. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the UK leaving the EU and the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. [904279]

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I have regular and constructive discussions with the Welsh Government on EU exit and the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. I look forward to continuing those discussions this afternoon at the meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee in plenary, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that agriculture, and hill farming in particular, is vital to the Welsh economy? What is he doing to ensure that the EU money currently going into the rural economy continues to do so after Brexit? What discussions has he had on that with his colleague from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

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My hon. Friend is a great supporter of agriculture across the whole UK and he is right to highlight the importance of the agricultural sector to the Welsh economy. He will also be familiar with our manifesto commitment, as well as statements made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to fund agriculture on a similar scale up to 2022.

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The US-UK trade and investment working group was set up in July last year. What representations has the Secretary of State made to that group about the impact President Trump’s tariffs would have on the Welsh steel industry?

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I mentioned to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) the direct actions I have taken and the whole host of actions being taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade. This is such a priority for this Government that there is cross-Government action to support the steel industry. As someone whose father was a welder in the steelworks in Port Talbot, I recognise the importance of this industry to Wales.

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As my right hon. Friend knows, the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff love nothing more than a long and fuzzy row with Westminster over powers. Does he agree that they would do much better to work constructively and pragmatically with Ministers here to make a success of Brexit, which is, after all, what the people of Wales voted for?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. As my predecessor, he took positive steps to get to a positive relationship with the Welsh Government and laid the foundations of the Wales Bill, which is now the Wales Act 2017. That has clarified the devolution settlement and enabled constructive debate to take place. I am optimistic that on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill we can win if we both focus on the outcomes we need to focus on: the interests of our businesses and communities.

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I met representatives of Celsa Steel from my constituency yesterday, who made very clear to me the importance of pan-European safeguards to prevent diversionary dumping as a result of the Trump tariffs. Does the Secretary of State not think it ironic that, at a time when we need to be co-operating more than ever across Europe, we are planning to leave the European Union?

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I also want to support Celsa Steel, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that Wales voted to leave the European Union, and we have an obligation to act on that instruction. However, he is right about the diversion and the distortion to the market from the risks of the action that is taking place. We are working closely with the European Union to protect the interests of Welsh steelworkers.

Industrial Strategy: Cross-Border Working

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8. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the growth corridors set out in the industrial strategy facilitate cross-border working. [904281]

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Members across this House recognise that economic activity is not constrained by administrative borders. A perfect demonstration of that is the closeness of the economies of north-east Wales and the north-west of England, supported by the northern powerhouse and the Mersey Dee Alliance. I was delighted to see that growth corridors were formally recognised in the industrial strategy and we will continue to develop these for the benefit of the 50% of the Welsh people who live within 25 miles of the border.

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Wales has great access to my constituency thanks to the M4, but has my hon. Friend considered improving connectivity to the south of England by building the M31, for example, which would link the M3 to the M4, and possibly beyond, with the economic benefits that that would bring for everyone?

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I completely agree: we recognise that connectivity—particularly cross-border connectivity—is incredibly important. The Department for Transport is gathering evidence at the moment to inform the second road investment strategy, and I hope that my hon. Friend will put a bid forward.

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Bristol has been very successful in attracting financial services to its economy. Now that the tolls on the M4 toll bridge are coming down, what opportunity does Wales have to create a financial services powerhouse from Cardiff and Swansea?

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, Cardiff already enjoys a centre of excellence in finance. The fact that the tolls are going on the bridge will make that opportunity even more available, and we will do everything we can to make sure that it benefits in every way it can.

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May I tell my hon. Friend that I had a meeting with commercial property people on Monday? They were telling me that the electrification of the rail line to Swansea is having no effect whatever on investment. What is having an effect is the lowering of tolls on the Severn crossing.

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Exactly. We should be talking up the benefits of the investment that is happening in our rail infrastructure to bring about growth for cities such as Swansea. It is disappointing to hear negative comments when we really should be pushing the opportunities that exist for the city.

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There are 7 million residents in north-west England and nearly 700,000 in north Wales. Priming and connecting the two economies makes absolute sense. The issue is funding—money. Welsh Governments have already committed hundreds of millions of pounds to these improvements. What new additional funding have this Government committed to date?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have given more moneys to the Welsh Assembly under the new settlement, but I completely recognise that the cross-border activity in north Wales and the north-west of England is incredibly important. That is why I was pleased to meet representatives from the all-party group the other day. We are looking at some of the rail investment that is needed, particularly the Halton curve and the Wrexham-Bidston line.

Investment in the Railway Network

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9. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on future investment in the railway network in Wales. [904282]

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I hold regular meetings and discussions with the Transport Secretary and his ministerial team to make the case for investment in Wales’s railway infrastructure. I am determined to drive forward improvements to Wales’s rail connectivity for the benefit of our passengers, commuters and businesses.

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I am losing my voice, Mr Speaker. HS2 will cost £56 billion and 20,000 Welsh jobs. For £1 billion, we could build two and a half miles of HS2 or halve the time between Cardiff and Swansea and have an electrified Swansea metro. Why is the Welsh Secretary not objecting to the £1 billion cut from Network Rail to our rail infrastructure and investing in Wales instead?

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The hon. Gentleman has done very well, considering he has lost his voice.

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I point out to the hon. Gentleman that HS2 is a UK scheme and provides an opportunity for significant connectivity benefits with north Wales. He refers to the Swansea metro project, which offers interesting opportunities, and I am happy to say that I am meeting Mark Barry, the project’s architect, in the coming weeks.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the recently launched West and Wales strategic rail prospectus contains sensible proposals that would, if adopted, significantly improve rail connectivity in north Wales and that they should receive favourable consideration by the Government?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his hard work in this area, because cross-border connectivity is extremely important. It demonstrates how integrated the network is. There are significant investments already taking place across the north Wales network, including improvements to signalling, as well as the Halton curve, which has already been referred to. Any additions to the debate, however, are interesting, and we will look at them in due course.