I beg to move,
That this House has considered Welsh Affairs.
I commend the Backbench Business Committee for recognising the importance of holding this debate on Wales. I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for agreeing to reschedule the debate from St David’s day, in the light of the weather, and to hold it now in Government time. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who originally secured the debate by persisting with the Backbench Business Committee and gaining a positive outcome. I am sure that the debate will be wide-ranging, constructive, and even provocative at times. Whatever issues are considered, I am confident that we will all have the best interests of Wales at heart.
I think the whole House will want to pay tribute to Lord Crickhowell, the former Welsh Secretary—the longest-serving Welsh Secretary—who sadly died today. A statement was made in the other place. I have many fond memories of him, as I know many other hon. Members will, and we know the challenges he faced and the stability he brought to Wales with his vision. Cardiff Bay is an obvious example, as is the establishment of S4C, and there were so many other changes thanks to the influence he brought to bear across government.
It is also important to pay tribute and respect to Lord Richard, who also died today. He contributed significant work to the devolution debate through the Richard commission, which played a significant part in establishing a foundation for the further advancement of devolution in Wales. Our thoughts and respect go to the families of both Lord Crickhowell and Lord Richard.
If this debate had been held on the originally planned day, it would have been associated with a whole host of initiatives and gatherings here in London to recognise issues facing Wales, and highlighting the best that Wales has to offer, as part of Wales Week in London. More than 80 events were held in areas from culture and sport to business and the economy. There were events at No. 10 Downing Street, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, here in Parliament and at Lancaster House, where the Welsh Government scheduled their events. Unfortunately, Ken Skates, the Welsh Government Minister, could not be there, but I was happy to step in and to support his actions and his wishes. There were also events across London at various headquarters of UK and international businesses that have strong interests in Wales or are seeking to invest in Wales. Wales Week in London was a fantastic success. Being Welsh, it lasted much longer than a week, and probably longer than a fortnight.
In recognising those events, I pay tribute to Dan Langford and Mike Jordan, who initiated the concept of Wales Week in London. All the events have become part of a successful time in the Welsh calendar on and around St David’s day. The week has been jointly supported by the UK and Welsh Governments, appreciating that as we leave the European Union, the more outward-looking and ambitious we are, the stronger our position as we grasp the new opportunities ahead.
Indeed, 1 March would have been a very special day for the debate. Would it not also have been a special day to announce the finalised growth deal for north Wales, given that one was announced for other parts of Wales on that day, and given that there has been a tremendous amount of work on it? We have now had the spring statement. Will the Secretary of State give some indication of when he will announce the funding and outcomes for the growth deal in north Wales?
I am encouraged by the sense of urgency from the right hon. Gentleman, and from other Members from north Wales. He will well know, however, that this is a matter for local partners, because we can respond as quickly as possible as they develop and bring forward their initiatives and ideas. We are making very good progress. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary was in north Wales last week, working with local partners—local authorities and businesses—to progress the case as quickly as possible.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way again. He will know how important the deal is. It is certainly locally driven, but the framework for it is the spending limits set by the UK Government and the Treasury and the indications that he gives. If he gave an indication via the Treasury of what the spending limit was, the deal could be signed very quickly.
The right hon. Gentleman tempts me, but he knows that that is not the way it works. We assess and break down the merits of each individual part of it. We then break down which areas are devolved and which are reserved, and we come up with a package that is jointly supported by the Welsh Government, the UK Government and partners in the community, including those in the private sector and local authorities. I am as anxious as he is to see the deal progress as quickly as possible, on the basis of the success we are seeing elsewhere.
On St David’s day in Torfaen, we had a visit from the American ambassador. He visited Pontypool indoor market and Frog Bikes, a new business which, with support from the Welsh Government and Torfaen County Borough Council, is now partnered with USA Cycling. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Frog Bikes on that achievement?
I will happily congratulate it. I met the US ambassador to the UK a few days before his visit to Wales. He shared his plans and hopes, and I said that the visits he hoped to make were thoroughly excellent. He is a true friend of Wales, and I am keen to develop a much stronger relationship with him as we attract investment and other opportunities and meet challenges such as the one between the UK and US steel industry, which we spoke about last week.
The Secretary of State has outlined how important it is for Wales to look outward. The Government committed in 2012 to the western rail link to Heathrow, which would directly connect Wales to Heathrow, going through the west country and, indeed, Slough. Does he agree that it is about time the Government built it?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting that project, because it is important to Wales. I thoroughly support it, and we want to gain investment from a range of sources for it. His point highlights how integrated the rail network is—Wales sometimes benefits from spend in England, and England sometimes benefits from spend in Wales.
I want to make some progress, then I will give way.
I was discussing the opportunities for Wales as we leave the European Union. I hope Members throughout the House will welcome the news earlier today that an agreement in principle has been reached with the European Union on the implementation period. As the Prime Minister has said, that shows that with good will on both sides, it is possible to agree an arrangement that works for all sides.
As we leave the European Union, the Union of the UK is more important than ever before. We are a Union of four nations developed over a long history, communicated through a common culture and a shared identity. As a result of joint working and the collaborative approach taken by the UK Government and the Welsh Government, we have delivered a fiscal framework that secures Welsh funding over the long term and a Wales Act that puts Welsh devolution on a stable footing.
Despite what is often reported in the press, the relationship between the Governments is positive, and I take pride in that, along with the First Minister. While there will undoubtedly be challenges ahead, Wales is well placed to benefit from the many opportunities that leaving the European Union offers, such as the chance to form new partnerships, maintain relationships with old allies and become true beneficiaries of the UK being a global leader in free trade.
The Secretary of State must be concerned by a leaked document from the Government five weeks ago indicating that there would be a 9.5% reduction in Wales’s economic growth rate if the Government failed to achieve a deal with our European partners. If the Government are considering the possibility of no deal, he must be extremely concerned about that projection.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but he knows that the Government do not comment on leaked documents. Statements have been made that those documents were not complete, nor were they approved by Ministers.
I am happy to talk about the strength of the Welsh economy and the opportunities we have to exploit the UK being a global leader in free trade. Wales was the fastest-growing nation in the UK in 2016. We have 98,000 more people in work since 2010, with 44,000 more women in work and unemployment down by 48,000 compared with 2010. That demonstrates the strength of the Welsh economy, in which I have significant confidence.
Does the Secretary of State accept that 60% of Welsh exports are to the EU, and there is a real risk that we will face tariffs, regulatory barriers and supply chain constraints, which would undermine that growth? Would it not be better for him to commit now to pressing to be part of the single market and the customs union, if in fact we Brexit?
As the hon. Gentleman says, about 60% of Welsh exports go to the EU. I am surprised by the simplistic approach that someone of his stature and understanding takes. He of all Members would recognise the complexity of supply chains. The real figure is that 80% of Welsh output goes to the rest of the UK, and there are then onward exports to the European Union and elsewhere. That demonstrates the complexity of supply chains, and he undersells himself by taking that simplistic approach.
Export figures are strong, as the hon. Gentleman is happy to highlight. Last year, we exceeded the £16 billion figure. Export growth to the EU rose by 12%, and the increase in exports to areas outside the EU was 13%. Inward investment remains strong, with investments from companies such as Ipsen Biopharm. It has invested £22 million in Wrexham to expand its facilities, creating 100 jobs. Over recent years, the amount invested locally has been close to £100 million. Spanish manufacturing giant CAF is investing £30 million in Newport producing railway rolling stock, creating 200 new jobs.
Toyota’s recent announcement that it will build its new Auris model in Burnaston is great news for the engine plant on Deeside. That demonstrates the complexity of supply chains, which I mentioned to the hon. Gentleman, and highlights the fact that Wales gains much from being part of the common UK market.
Clearly the Toyota announcement was extremely good news, but it was planned over a number of years. Does the Secretary of State agree that the company, along with others such as Airbus, has major concerns about the post-Brexit situation, particularly if we have tariffs?
I am quite surprised that the hon. Gentleman suggests that major investments such as that take place with such simplicity. They might have well have been thought of a number of years ago, but it takes a lot of hard negotiation to strike the final deal and gain a commitment to investment. We all recognise that global companies such as Toyota could take their investment almost anywhere, but it chose to bring it to the United Kingdom. I was in Japan just last August talking to Toyota about that investment, because of the ongoing influence it will have on any investment on Deeside. We have not yet won that for Deeside, but we are in a much stronger position because of Toyota’s commitment in Derbyshire.
I have also had the privilege of visiting Qatar and the US in recent months, to meet investors and seek to establish new relationships that will benefit Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. The Welsh and UK Governments are developing a strong trading relationship with Qatar, and in six weeks the very first Doha to Cardiff flight will operate, making it far easier for investors from the region to trade in and with Wales.
Does the Secretary of State now accept that the Welsh Government were right to put in the investment to purchase Cardiff airport several years ago? Without that investment within his own constituency, Cardiff airport could have folded, because he simply was not interested.
I do not accept that statement. The ownership of the airport does not matter; it is the operation and management of the airport that is important. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is an independent, limited company, and it is important that the airport has the freedom to operate in the way it does. I am privileged to have the airport in my constituency, and I support it. In recent months, I have spoken to every managing director or chief executive involved to encourage and facilitate more flights to and from the airport, which is playing a part in contributing to its success. It has grown by 8%, but other airports across the country have grown by similar amounts because of the success of the UK economy.
Welsh businesses will be at the forefront of the UK’s biggest ever trade festival, which kicks off in Hong Kong later this week. I am determined to ensure a close working relationship between the Welsh Government, my office and the Department for International Trade on foreign direct investment and our export ambitions. This is what businesses and communities want. Last week, the Department for International Trade and I held workshops in my office in Cardiff bay to better understand the barriers to exporting and the opportunities in which each Government can play a part in supporting those ambitious companies. I will host a similar event in north Wales next week.
Certainty and continuity for businesses and communities are themes that we are extending to our approach to leaving the European Union. As Members will be aware, we have been working closely with the Welsh Government on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Our initial approach was to retain all EU powers at UK level on a temporary basis to provide the certainty and security that the business community has called for, and we have committed to working with the devolved Administrations on how these powers will work and their onward transfer to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Assemblies and Parliaments. However, having listened carefully to the concerns raised by the devolved Administrations, we have tabled an amendment to clause 11. The assumption is that the powers should be devolved, but with an order-making power to enable the UK Government, working with all the devolved Administrations, to legislate and to protect the UK common market. This will apply only in a limited number of areas and on a temporary basis. We have published analysis showing that we expect there to be only 24 areas of policy where we will need to discuss the possibility of legislative frameworks with the Welsh Government.
I will give way in a moment, but I want to finish this important point.
This means that we expect to be able to devolve 40 areas with either no frameworks or only informal agreements. The result is that the vast majority of powers returning from Brussels that intersect with devolved competence will fall under the full control of the devolved Administrations from day one of exit.
I would hope that the hon. Lady recognised that we have listened to the Welsh Government and the other devolved Administrations by bringing forward the amendment in the other place. We are still working with the Welsh Government to get to a position of agreement where we can gain a legislative consent motion. That we have a robust relationship is demonstrated by the fact that the First Minister and the Finance Minister, Mark Drakeford, have said that we are very close to a deal, although we are not there yet and further challenges remain.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. As we talk about the 24 areas, we will of course want to apply the Sewel convention. That is the basis on which devolution has worked since the change to the UK constitution back in 1999. We will always want to get there by agreement, but that is the basis on which the Sewel convention works. Whatever legislation there is in the 24 areas of law that we want to use to protect the UK market, we will always seek agreement with the devolved Administrations under that convention. That demonstrates the level of co-operation between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, and I have already mentioned my positive relationship with the Welsh Government.
I am not quite sure which specific element the hon. Lady is referring to, but I will happily meet her to discuss the details. We are having an ongoing positive discussion with the Welsh Government, as well as with the Scottish Government, and we are keen to get to a position where we will gain a legislative consent motion.
The reason for using the word “temporary” is that we want to bring in order-making powers for 24 areas of law to use them to protect the UK market until we have reached a position of agreement with the devolved Administrations on how we will enact legislation to put in place frameworks on those areas of law. In each and every one of the areas, we will, as we progress through the 24 areas, use the Sewel convention. This demonstrates the pragmatic, positive process we are pursuing. I could easily give some simple, practical examples of why this is important, but Wales has certainly more to gain than it has to lose. I have highlighted the fact that 80% of Welsh output goes to the rest of the UK, and that undermines—sorry, underlines; let me clarify that this underlines—the importance of doing the right thing on these 24 areas of law, because one part of the United Kingdom should not be given the power to hold up every other part.
Much attention is understandably given to the EU market, but the UK market is central to the success of the Welsh economy, and we must recognise the importance of the UK market to investment and jobs. As I have mentioned, 80% of Welsh output goes to the rest of the United Kingdom, so protecting the internal UK market will protect jobs and investment in Wales and across the UK. Where these limited common frameworks are needed or indeed essential, we will continue to apply the principles of the Sewel convention, seeking the support of the devolved Administration at every stage. This is an entirely reasonable proposition, and follows the foundations on which devolution has been established since 1999. I hope that the Welsh Government and Labour Members will recognise that we have moved a considerable way on this, and will see the importance of providing as much certainty and continuity as possible for businesses in Wales. We will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government to secure their agreement to promote a positive recommendation on a legislative consent motion in the Assembly.
Advice on the 24 areas, as well as on the others that we do not want to be subject to an order-making power, has come from industry itself. An expert panel was established, and businesses have raised genuine concerns about their UK prospects being undermined. Industry has advised us all the way along, and that is how we have ended up with these 24 areas. Any action to scupper that will be undermining—genuinely undermining —industry and business, as well as investment prospects, in Wales.
Agriculture is a key area of the Welsh economy and central to our way of life across Wales. Last summer, I hosted the Environment Secretary at the Royal Welsh show where, in one his first official engagements, he met the Farmers Unions of Wales, the National Farmers Union Cymru, the Country Land and Business Association and other key stakeholders, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), who was working at the show that day. Our engagement with them has continued since then, with all of them having regular access to UK Government Ministers and officials. Most recently, the farming Minister—the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice)—met a group of representatives at the Royal Welsh agricultural showground to discuss our exit from the EU, but also to talk about longer-term plans for the UK’s environment and agriculture sectors.
At many of those meetings, if not all, geographical indicators have been raised, because we all recognise the importance of labelling, marketing and branding our produce. A moment ago, I talked about clause 11 and frameworks. This is a good example of why a UK approach is needed to protect the interests of producers and consumers. We obviously need common regulations on food labelling across the UK because we rightly want to protect the status of Welsh lamb, Welsh beef, Halen Môn and many other brands, so that they are recognised and protected across the UK and beyond. That does not mean, as has been suggested, a one-size-fits-all approach to branding. We are committed to protecting all 84 of the registered geographical indicators now and after EU exit.
The Secretary of State makes an important point about what the UK wants. Has he had discussions with European Ministers or Commissioners about what they will allow in respect of such branding in the future? Many brands, including Halen Môn in my constituency which he mentioned, are very concerned about this issue.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Like me, he highlighted Halen Môn, which has gained significantly from its geographical indicator brand. He will recognise that these issues are subject to negotiations. I expect our discussions with the European Union to take place on a positive footing, but of course we cannot pre-empt anything.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the European Union has an equal interest in ensuring that its products receive similar protection? For example, the United Kingdom is one of the biggest markets in the world for champagne. I am sure that the new Conwy vineyards in Mochdre would be delighted to label their excellent products as champagne, but I think they would be entirely happy to see their products equally protected.
My right hon. Friend is very sharp on these matters and recognises their importance, as I am sure do many of the champagne drinkers on the other side of the Chamber. A vineyard in my constituency was caught out by the geographical indicators when it labelled its sparkling wine “llampagne”. Unfortunately, the European Commission threatened to take action and the company rebranded its product. My right hon. Friend underlines my point that we hope that these elements of the negotiation will take place on a positive basis as we leave the European Union and consider the new opportunities that that will provide.
On another topical issue, I want to reassure Members that work continues between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my office and the Welsh Government on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. As the Business Secretary said last week, the Swansea proposal is more than twice as expensive as Hinkley nuclear power station, so we will continue discussions with the Welsh Government to look at the affordability of the case and do everything possible to make it a reality. However, the challenges are quite obvious.
As much as we are all enjoying the tour around the Secretary of State’s Outlook diary and the various visits and meetings he has had, in that time he could have made a decision with his Cabinet colleagues about the Swansea tidal lagoon. It is over a year since the Hendry report; when will we hear a result and a decision?
As we have said, we will respond as quickly as we possibly can. However, the hon. Lady will recognise that this is quite a dynamic environment. The price of renewable energy has plummeted over that period and the numbers from the tidal lagoon company have also changed, so perhaps the delay will prove to bring better value for money for the taxpayer. As I have said, the current proposal is twice as expensive as Hinkley nuclear power station, and I am sure the hon. Lady wants to see good value for money for the taxpayer, whatever the outcome.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if Opposition Members were serious about getting the project off the ground, they would recommend to the First Minister of Wales that he accept the invitation to appear before the Welsh Affairs Committee and explain the apparent gift of £200 million that he briefed the Western Mail on, instead of hiding behind the excuse that he will not come for some reason?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the need for hard negotiations and discussions about what the facts are. Many claims have been made, but ultimately it comes down to whether the case provides value for money. As I have said many times, we must ensure that large-scale projects provide value for money for taxpayers and consumers. My hon. Friend will remember the very difficult decision the Welsh Government faced when they decided to cancel the Circuit of Wales in Blaenau Gwent. Despite wanting to do something, they knew ultimately that it was not good value for money, as the numbers proved.
Will the Secretary of State tell us when he has accepted an invitation to an Assembly Committee? On the tidal lagoon, does he agree that this is not just about a one-off project that will create valuable renewable energy; it is about the knock-on effects throughout south Wales, the technology that will be created and all the other tidal lagoons that will be created as a result?
I appeared before the Assembly’s External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee just a few months ago. I have been in front of them on a number of occasions.
The hon. Lady will have had a close relationship with the Circuit of Wales and the challenging decision that that involved. The principles behind the Circuit of Wales decision apply equally to the value for money of any major infrastructure project. As we analyse the numbers, I am sure that she and other Members would not want to see investment that was not good value for money for the taxpayer.
Before we move on from Swansea and the topic of cancelled projects, does the Secretary of State agree that there is a strong argument to reinvest any funding that was allocated to the electrification of the south Wales main line, which has been cancelled, in the Welsh network?
The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, but he well knows that, as the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) indicated earlier, the rail network is far more integrated than that. I would highlight the investment in the Halton curve. Although it is in England, it will benefit north Wales passengers by linking Wrexham to Liverpool directly. We therefore cannot be prescriptive about what will bring benefits. There are exciting opportunities to improve access to west Wales. For example, there are calls from significant quarters for a Swansea parkway station. That holds the prospect of transforming access for west Wales passengers and is something that I am quite excited about.
I would love to talk about the Severn tolls and the growth deals in much more detail, but unfortunately time has got the better of us. I want to use this opportunity to celebrate the great success that Wales has to offer in the UK and beyond. From abolishing the Severn tolls to supporting exporters and investors, we continue to show our commitment to Wales. Growth in Wales is strong, and Cardiff saw the highest increase in growth of all UK capital cities in 2016. It is clear that investors see Wales as a great place to invest. There is clearly a lot to celebrate and I look forward to the stimulating debate ahead of us.
The Opposition echo the Secretary of State’s comments about the sad passing of Lord Crickhowell and Lord Richard.
The St David’s day debate is now a firm fixture in the parliamentary calendar, as it provides a great opportunity to discuss the issues, challenges and priorities that matter to Wales. Even though this year we are debating these issues a little later than usual because snow stopped play on 1 March, today it will take more than the beast from the east to put us off our stride.
There is so much to celebrate about our great nation, but there are also many challenges and uncertainty against the backdrop of Brexit and the negative effects of austerity on so many Welsh communities and families. The challenging times make it more important than ever to have a strong shadow Wales team here in Westminster, working with Carwyn Jones and the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff Bay. It remains a huge privilege to serve as shadow Secretary of State for Wales, supported by the tremendous team of my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). We are all kept in line by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden).
Serious matters confront us, and the people of Wales are watching. The people of Wales heard loud and clear the Government’s commitment to modernise and electrify the railways in our country. That included the main line between Cardiff and Swansea as well as the north Wales main line. The people of Wales will hold the Government to account for their failure to deliver.
The Opposition will continue to make the case to give the go-ahead to the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. That vital investment in Wales’s infrastructure would represent a step change in technology, provide hundreds of jobs and help equip Wales for 21st-century energy generation, as well as sending a strong signal of confidence throughout the Welsh economy. It is long past the time for the UK Government to work with the Welsh Government and match the latter’s commitment to that indispensable project.
The UK Government must recognise the folly of continuing to frustrate efforts to launch a major new domestic market for Welsh steel at a time when Donald Trump is slapping tariffs on exports. The pathfinder tidal lagoon requires around 100,000 tonnes of steel, much of which can be sourced in Wales with a clear commitment from the investors and businesses involved to buy Welsh.
The UK Tory Government continue blindly with their austerity agenda, while families and entire communities struggle to make ends meet. The Chancellor’s spring statement signalled simply more of the same. The Government’s failed prescription of austerity will deliver nothing except even slower economic growth, wage stagnation and even longer queues at food banks the length and breadth of Wales. It will deliver only further pressure on the NHS and social care, on our schools, our police services and right across the public sector. Those of us who believe in decent public services will continue to fight for the investment that they desperately need to serve us all.
Wales needs investment, as the whole UK needs investment, and the people of Wales will judge this Government harshly if they continue to fail to deliver it. As the date for Brexit looms ever closer, it becomes ever more urgent to take the necessary measures to protect Welsh industry and Welsh business. There is still no clarity for Welsh businesses on customs arrangements and no clear steer for Wales’s key exporters in the agriculture, aerospace and automotive sectors that rely so heavily on friction-free trade with our EU partners.
Wales’s close and indispensable economic ties to Ireland must be maintained. How will the UK Government deliver that? Thousands of jobs in Wales depend on clarity and on sensible agreements being reached. The clock is ticking. If the UK Government fail to deliver stability for Welsh industry post Brexit, the consequences could be nothing short of calamitous.
On stability in industry, the Secretary of State talked a lot about export and import within the UK market and with the EU. A concern is Ford in Bridgend, which neighbours my constituency, where a lot of the workforce live. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we do not get stability post Brexit and are not inside a customs union at the very least, there would be a real risk of Ford pulling out of Bridgend, with the loss of thousands of jobs in the tributary system?
I totally agree. As a former councillor on Bridgend County Borough Council, I have close ties with the factory and I fully understand my hon. Friend’s point.
Ports make a huge contribution to the Welsh economy, supporting around 11,000 jobs and providing an economic hub and trade gateway with Europe and the rest of the world. Indeed, 80% of goods carried in Irish-registered HGVs between the Republic of Ireland and Europe pass through Welsh ports. In 2016, 524,000 lorries passed through major Welsh ports to and from the Irish Republic. Ireland holds a key position in Welsh inward investment, with more than 50 Irish-owned companies in Wales employing 2,500 people.
Opposition Members will continue to speak up for Wales and for Welsh families, communities and businesses. We will continue to stand up for the devolution settlement itself. Twice the Welsh public have gone to the polls in referendums to shape their devolved Government, and they have set down the parameters on how the Government in Wales relate to the Government of the whole UK. It is not for any UK Government unilaterally to rewrite the rules of devolution—to attempt to power-grab and centralise functions set out in law and agreed through the ballot box—using Brexit as a cover for those actions. Opposition Members will stand up for Wales and for devolution.
The Welsh Labour Government have made it clear that they will not recommend that legislative consent is given to the UK Government’s proposals while they impose unacceptable constraints on current devolved powers, which remain unworkable in practice.
The Welsh Labour Government also made it clear that, in the event of the UK Government failing to bring forward satisfactory amendments, they will introduce their own legislation to provide legal continuity in Wales for EU-derived legislation relating to devolved competences.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, but does she think that it is time we got it into the heads of some Government Members that Wales did not vote just once for devolution, but for full law-making powers in a second referendum? The Government are totally disrespecting democracy in Wales.
And we do, and I will see the hon. Gentleman in the gym in the morning.
The law derived from the full Welsh Government Bill was introduced in the Welsh Assembly on 7 March 2018, but the Welsh Government are clear this is not their preferred option. What the Bill categorically does not do is to block or frustrate Brexit. The Welsh Labour Government respect and accept the outcome of the EU referendum. However, the vote to leave the EU was not a vote to reverse devolution. The current devolution settlement in Wales has been backed by two referendums, in 1997 and in 2011. Brexit is not an excuse to ignore those votes.
I repeat that serious matters confront us. I doubt there has been a St David’s day since the second world war when there was so much at stake for Wales. The future of whole sectors of industry, as well as the ability of families simply to get by, hangs in the balance. The people of Wales have a right to see a UK Government acting in their best interests: protecting their jobs and investing in the public services they rely on and the infrastructure we desperately need to secure Wales’s future.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most unfair things we regularly see in our surgeries is the manifestation of the assessment system for benefits, particularly with regard to employment and support allowance and personal independence payments? That is greatly unfair and is entirely due to what the Government are doing here in London.
Will the hon. Lady give way on that point, because this is a very interesting debate?
The hon. Lady is being very kind. As I understand it, the Labour party’s policy is that it supports being in a customs union, not the customs union. She will know that as a member of the customs union we benefit from trade deals with over 60 countries across the world, accounting for £150 billion-worth of trade at UK level—there are no figures for Wales, of course. If we are in a customs union, we will lose those trade deals. Surely, it would be far better for the Welsh economy if we stayed in the customs union, rather than trying to create some kind of a customs union, which is more or less a trumped up trade deal?
May I say how pleased I am that the traditional St David’s day debate is taking place again this year, albeit on the wrong side of St Patrick’s day? Like the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), I was very disappointed when the beast from the east paid its visit. Of course, we had a further visit this weekend from its little cousin, and I was a bit concerned that we would not be able to have the debate again today, but here we are. It is important that hon. Members on both sides of the House have the opportunity to debate Welsh affairs.
I would like to start by saying how much I, in north Wales, appreciate, contrary to what the hon. Lady said, the Government’s investment in Wales. I was astounded to hear her complaining about a lack of investment. We have had city deals in both Cardiff and Swansea, which have been welcomed on both sides of the House and by the Welsh Government. As the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) pointed out, we expect a north Wales growth deal shortly, for which I personally thank George Osborne. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am impatient to see exactly what the shape of that growth deal will be. Councils across north Wales, the Mersey Dee Alliance and businesses are all working very hard to shape it, and I very much hope that later this year we will see some flesh on the bone.
Like most city deals and growth deals, this is a question of partnership working. Nevertheless, we are seeing investment in Swansea and in Cardiff, so I felt it was slightly churlish of the hon. Member for Neath to complain.
I shall concentrate on north Wales, as that is the part of Wales of most interest to my constituents. North Wales is an important part of what is, in reality, a cross-border north-west England and north Wales regional economy. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House realise that and, as a consequence, we have seen the formation of the all-party group on Mersey Dee North Wales, which is very ably chaired by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). In no small part due to the work of the all-party group, policies have developed that I believe will be of immense benefit to not only north Wales itself, but the north-west of England.
I sometimes think that hon. Members from other parts of Wales may not fully realise the extent to which the economies of north Wales and the north-west of England are closely integrated. We have major employers on both sides of the border. We have heard already about Airbus, JCB and Toyota on the Welsh side, but there are also major employers on the other side of the border, including Vauxhall. Every day people from both sides of the border commute across it to their places of work. A great deal more could be achieved if we sought to achieve a synergy between north-west England and north Wales. I think that, perhaps a little belatedly, the Welsh Government are starting to recognise that, too. Recently I paid a visit to Cardiff with the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. We took evidence from the First Minister, Carwyn Jones. Hearteningly, he recognised that there could be a role for further devolved institutions in north Wales, which could work with institutions on the English side of the border to further the economies of both regions.
I agree fully with what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I wonder how he squares that with the fact that I, as a north Wales Member of Parliament, cannot vote on matters that affect England, such as business support, health and education, which my constituents use.
My right hon. Friend makes the point very well indeed. A lot of people living in the Forest of Dean are served by the Welsh NHS and are taking legal action because they are desperate to be served by Jeremy Hunt’s Conservative-run NHS in England. That is absolutely true. They have no say over what Labour Ministers are doing, despite being inflicted with the Welsh Labour-run NHS.
I do believe that my hon. Friend, in his own manner, is agreeing with what I have just said, but I am straying from the subject I want to discuss—improving the synergy between north Wales and the north-west of England.
One of the most important areas in which that can be achieved is transport, specifically rail transport. It is a sad fact that the rail network in north Wales is, frankly, not up to dealing with the employment conditions that prevail on both sides of the border. We have previously debated the Wrexham to Bidston railway line in the House. That line is incredibly important to the people of north-east Wales, and its importance is growing, as it now links the two enterprise zones at Deeside and Wirral Waters. As north Wales Members will know, the sad fact is that if someone wants to travel from Liverpool to Wrexham, they have to get off the train at Bidston. That is an incredible inconvenience—actually, it is more than an inconvenience, as it is holding back the north Wales and north-west economy—so I was very pleased when we recently had the launch in this House of the “West and Wales Strategic Rail Prospectus”, which was attended by the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew). I was also pleased that it was attended by the Secretary of State for Transport.
It is important that we aim for a much more closely integrated transport system in that part of the world. I believe that the prospectus that was put forward at the meeting earlier this month in the House lays out a very sensible blueprint for travel in north Wales. Furthermore, it provides connectivity to the new HS2 hub that will be constructed at Crewe. My plea to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is that he works very hard with the Secretary of State for Transport on pursuing the vision of the prospectus and achieving something that will provide for the sort of rail transport that we require in north Wales.
I wish to touch on two other issues, one of which has been raised by the hon. Member for Neath: the question of the Swansea tidal lagoon. I fully accept my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s point about the importance of achieving value for money in a project of this scale. I also appreciate that it will be an expensive development, but it is fair to say that the technology that could be developed if the lagoon were constructed would give the United Kingdom, and Wales in particular, a world lead. We need an answer fairly soon on when the Government will respond to the recommendations of the Hendry report. The lagoon not only would provide a hugely important facility in terms of the generation of clean energy in Swansea, but would be a pathfinder for similar developments right around the western coast of Britain, not least in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), where a proposal for a lagoon with five times the generating capacity of Swansea is being considered. It would be possible to work this up into something that would be genuinely valuable for the United Kingdom, and I really hope that the Government will not miss this opportunity.
Does the right hon. Gentleman concur not only that Wales needs to be an exporting nation in the future and that energy gives us that potential, but that with tidal lagoons, we are looking at a situation in which our energy security could be that much safer?
Yes, I would agree. In fact, the proposals from the developers of the Swansea lagoon are for a chain of lagoons from Lancashire right through to Somerset. That would provide virtually 24-hour-a-day generation so, again, it would be an important development for energy security. There would be other benefits too, such as for sea defences on vulnerable coasts such as that of north Wales. I again plead with my right hon. Friend to consider carefully the recommendations of the Hendry commission and to ensure that a response is made reasonably soon.
In connection with that, I also make the case, as I am sure that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) will, for the consideration of Wylfa Newydd, which would be a hugely important element of the north Wales economy. We should also listen to suggestions for the development of small modular reactors in Trawsfynydd which, again, I suggest would represent a hugely beneficial element of the north Wales economy.
I am conscious of your strictures about time, Madam Deputy Speaker. Despite the somewhat downbeat assessment of the Welsh economy that we heard from the hon. Member for Neath, I, as a north Wales Member, am very optimistic about the future. I think that the Government are investing strongly in the north Wales economy and I am very proud to be a Conservative Member of Parliament.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate from the Scottish National party Front Bench. As well as being a member of the SNP, I am a member of Plaid Cymru, so this is a good opportunity to show solidarity not just with our colleagues from Wales—[Interruption.] Well, I joined Plaid in September 2014, when people in their tens of thousands were joining the SNP and I wanted to show a bit of solidarity. I also joined the Campaign for Real Ale, because I thought that that was the closest I could find to an English equivalent. In fact, I found out today that my former colleague, the former Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine—Stuart Donaldson—has just been appointed as a campaigns manager at the Campaign for Real Ale, so I look forward to meeting him.
I am glad that the Government have made time for this debate in their own time. As the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) said, it was rescheduled from St David’s day. Indeed, we are now on the other side of St Patrick’s day. We have also gone past St Piran’s day —the patron saint of Cornwall—and today is the feast of St Joseph, who is the patron saint of Canada, so we are not short of Celtic and heavenly inspiration for this debate.
I am delighted to hear that it is St Joseph’s day today, as it is also my occasionally angelic daughter’s eighth birthday—so happy birthday, Eilidh, if you happen to be watching. She, along with the rest of our family, will be visiting Cardiff next month for a dancing competition, which I am not participating in, I have to say. I have visited south Wales on a number of occasions for rugby-related business, although thankfully not last month. Does my hon. Friend agree that south Wales is one of the best places to visit in the UK—outwith Scotland, of course?
Absolutely, and I think my hon. Friend makes a number of important points that the House will take on board. Tourism is absolutely vital to economies across the United Kingdom and will only become more so in the years to come. I will look briefly in my remarks at the impact of Brexit on the economy, but I know that a large number of Members from Wales want to speak, so I will be as brief as I can.
I want to look at some of the key challenges and opportunities that are facing Wales and its people, particularly in the context of the devolution journey and Brexit. It is more than 20 years since the first devolution referendums, and next year will mark 20 years since the devolved institutions first met. Matters such as health, education and transport have been and continue to be decided by the people of Scotland and Wales. In recent months and years, Scotland has welcomed the further devolution of powers on matters such as income tax, which is now under the remit of the Scottish Parliament. Wales is also in the process of seeing further devolution on issues such as transport, energy and electoral arrangements.
The devolved powers that we have in Scotland have allowed us to make many decisions that are different from those affecting people elsewhere in the United Kingdom. For example, nobody in Scotland pays the pernicious bedroom tax. The Scottish Government spent more than £125 million between 2013 and 2017 on mitigating that. Unfortunately, I do not think the same can be said yet in Wales. We also see some divergence in areas such as public sector pay. The Scottish Government have lifted the cap on wage rises for public sector workers, meaning, for example, that a nurse earning £30,000 a year will get a 3% rise in the coming financial year. That is in stark contrast, unfortunately, to the Welsh Administration, who insist that Westminster needs to loosen the purse strings before they take action.
Although I might not agree with all the decisions that the Administration in Wales are making right now, it is certainly to be celebrated that those decisions are being made in Wales, and it demonstrates that there is still a strong case for even further devolution to Wales. A good example of that is policing. In Scotland, we have devolved responsibility for policing, and recorded crime is now at its lowest level for over 40 years. That is in no small part thanks to the Scottish Government’s commitment to an extra 1,000 police officers, and is set against the stark backdrop of Westminster-led austerity and falling police figures in England. In Wales, there are 750 fewer police officers than there were in 2010—a 10% drop since the Tories came to power at Westminster.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s point, although I put the blame firmly on the Tory UK Government for the police cuts. Does he recognise, though, that thanks to the Welsh Labour Government there has been huge investment in police community support officers, which has kept them on our streets and made a big difference in my local communities?
It is important that efforts are made by the devolved Assemblies wherever possible. I have seen figures from Dyfed-Powys police showing that were policing to be fully devolved to Wales and funded per head of population, Welsh forces would be £25 million better off. We welcome the UK Government’s recent decision finally to allow the Scottish integrated police service to reclaim the VAT it is owed. We are looking for a refund and hope that similar progress can be made in Wales. That demonstrates the strength of devolution. I should also pay tribute to my friends in Plaid for the influence that they are exerting on the Welsh Administration. I hope that one day they will exert even more influence by taking full control.
As with so much, however, all that is overshadowed by Brexit. The Secretary of State has championed the Welsh economy and its great trading relationship with the EU, but the Government’s own analysis shows that Wales will be one of the parts of the UK that bear the brunt of Brexit. If we crash out on World Trade Organisation terms, we are looking at a contraction of almost 10% in the Welsh economy, meaning huge cuts in wages and potentially thousands of jobs lost. Some 200,000 Welsh jobs are based on trade within the single market and the customs union, and Wales is a net beneficiary of EU funding by around £245 million, or £79 per head. All that is at risk from an extreme Tory Brexit, and the only solution that can guarantee frictionless trade is continued membership of “the” single market and “the” customs union.
Of course, we are having this debate on the day when the House of Peers is debating clause 11 of the EU withdrawal Bill—the great power grab of the great repeal Bill. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have a unity of purpose at present and are doing a fantastic job of defending not only Scottish and Welsh interests but the very foundation of the devolution settlement from the crude attack being perpetrated by the Tories here at Westminster. We have seen the Cabinet Office list outlining 24 areas of devolved competence in Wales that it wants to snatch back, which is why Plaid was right to introduce the continuity Bill in the National Assembly for Wales as a way to safeguard the devolution settlement from the Tories’ power grab.
The Tory Government here always speak of the will of the people, but as we heard from the Labour Front- Bench spokesperson, the people of Wales have endorsed the devolution settlement not once but twice, in 1997 and again in 2011, so they cannot use the UK Brexit referendum as an opportunity to overrule the decisions people made in Wales to have power devolved to their Assembly. There is still time for the UK Government to reach an agreement with the Welsh and Scottish Governments on the question of clause 11 and the devolution of powers post Brexit—both those Governments have indicated their desire to do so—but we are absolutely clear that UK-wide frameworks to deal with the post- Brexit scenario have to be arrived at on the basis of the consent of the devolved Assemblies, not simply consultation.
As has been noted, this debate was originally scheduled for St David’s day. In Scotland, St Andrew’s day is recognised as a public holiday, because the Scottish Government had the power to make that change. That is an anomaly in Wales that ought to be put right, both by introducing a public holiday and by giving the Welsh Assembly the power to make that determination.
Indeed, although most of them got an involuntary day off in any event as a result of the snow.
I look forward to other contributions to the debate. I know that many other Members want to take this opportunity to celebrate the important contribution that Wales makes to the economy, society and culture of these islands. I am reminded of the motto of my city: let Glasgow flourish. The same ought to apply throughout the rest of this debate and in the approach of this House, the Welsh Assembly, the Government and everyone with the interests of Wales at heart: let Wales flourish.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). I did not agree with much he said, except for his comments about real ale, but I support the fact that all Members of this Parliament can be proud to be part of one great United Kingdom and be welcome to speak, which is why I am proud to be wearing my Union Jack cufflinks today.
I am grateful to all members of the Welsh Affairs Committee, past and present, not least because we all have worked diligently to reach consensus on a range of issues. Over the past few years we have examined many topics, from defence and the care of veterans in Wales to agriculture, transport, which I will return to, and the state of the economy. I have noticed that members of the Committee always get promoted extremely quickly, and it is remarkable how many are now sitting on the various parties’ Front Benches, with the exception of myself, of course, but—who knows?—the call may one day come.
Labour Members have raised their concern that they cannot discuss certain issues that affect their constituents because they are now dealt with only by English MPs. I recognise their concern, but of course that has come about because of the devolution settlement that they championed. Nobody can have their cake and eat it in a devolved fashion: they cannot, on the one hand, stop MPs in London having any say over what happens to the health service or education in Wales and, on the other hand, have that influence over what happens in England.
I share the concern, however: many constituents in the Forest of Dean have to have their primary health services delivered by Welsh GPs and are taking court action because they are unhappy with the state of the health service in Wales. They are taking court action because they want to be treated by Jeremy Hunt’s national health service. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may boo and yah, but it is a fact. They all have smartphones—they can whip them out and have a look themselves if they wish to. The reality is that where people have the choice of being treated by a Conservative-run NHS in England or a Labour-run NHS in Wales, they want to be treated by the NHS in England. It is not in the least bit surprising, because in Wales we wait longer for ambulances and in accident and emergency units; we wait much longer for surgery—26 weeks as opposed to 18 weeks; and we do not have the same access to cancer drugs.
That is actually a very fair point, and it cannot be put down to money either, because more money is spent per head on the population in Wales than in England. Of course, Members of all Opposition parties want to talk about what they call austerity. I call it trying to balance the books. I call it a recognition that, when we have a debt of £1.7 trillion and are adding to that by borrowing £50 billion a year, the Government are quite right to get spending under control. They have done so very successfully and have reduced the deficit from £100 billion a year in 2010 to just £50 billion a year now. Every time they suggest spending reductions in any area, of course everyone jumps up and complains, and then when it turns out that the national debt has grown a little, hon. Members want to complain about that as well.
Will the hon. Gentleman share with the House how many women in his constituency are affected by the 1950s pension debacle and what kind of representations he has made on behalf of those women, who I am sure would be interested to hear him supporting his Government’s stance on cuts when they are absolutely destitute?
It is a bit unfair to suggest that anyone is destitute, but the hon. Lady is right: many women have been affected by the changes to pension law. They say they were not contacted by the previous Labour Government, who were in power for 13 years, when many of these changes we introduced. I do not know whether Labour Ministers contacted them—there are different sides to the story—but certainly many people have been affected. But of course we do not have unlimited money. If she wants to offer pensions to everyone—of course, it would have to be for men and women under the changes to EU legislation—she has a responsibility to say how she would fund the money. Would it be through extra taxes, even though they probably would not raise any extra money, or through extra borrowing or cuts to other Departments? We would all be interested to hear how these promises would be funded.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about borrowing. I wonder what he made of Treasury analysis showing that, as a result of the Brexit scenarios that the Government are pursuing, public sector borrowing will go up massively over the next 15 years, completely wiping out any of the claims that were made on the side of that infamous red bus.
I look forward to seeing whether those predictions are any more accurate than the many other predictions that have been proved completely inaccurate since the referendum.
Let me return to matters that we are not allowed to discuss in the Welsh Affairs Committee. I should very much like to have the right to discuss education, for instance.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we were paying about £18 billion a year to be a member of the European Union. Even if the £39 billion Brexit divorce bill figure is correct—I am prepared to accept that it is—it represents about two years’ membership of the European Union. If that is the price that we have to pay for a good deal, and if other Members support it, I am willing to support it as well. I would probably be willing to walk away and, effectively, say “Get stuffed”, but I am a man who likes to work with other people, and if I can encourage other Members to get behind the Government and compromise a little bit, I am all for doing that.
Let me now return to education for a minute. I think it very important for members of the Welsh Affairs Committee, and Welsh MPs in general, to consider the state of education in Wales. We often hear comparisons between the Welsh and the English national health services, but I do not think we hear enough comparisons between the Welsh and the English education systems. I want to know why my children, who attend state schools in Wales, have less chance statistically of getting good GCSE results and A-level results, less chance of getting into the best universities, and less chance of getting first-class degrees, and I want to know whether Labour Members agree with the judgment of the former Labour Education Minister in Wales who announced that it was time for the Labour Government in Wales to apologise to learners and parents for the mess that they had made of education.
I think I have raised this issue with the hon. Gentleman before. When his own county’s education services were put into special measures while being run by a Conservative administration, he said nothing. I will tell him what is good about the Welsh education system: record investment in school buildings, record GCSE results, record A-level results, and some of the best universities in the United Kingdom, if not the world.
The hon. Gentleman is doing a great disservice to the people of Wales and the people of Monmouth. He needs to get his facts straight rather than making misleading statements on the Floor of the House.
I have been given only 10 minutes, and I would like to move on to the subject of Brexit, which, after all, is a matter of some interest to all of us at the moment.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union for the enormous amount of extra power that he will give the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, although, if I were anything less than a man who likes compromise, I would be slightly worried about it. I was on the losing side of a referendum in 1999. I remember what it was like to wake up the next day and realise that we had lost, and to have a great discussion about what to do next. What we decided to do was respect the fact that the people of Wales had voted for a Welsh Assembly, albeit by a very narrow majority, and with a much smaller turnout than the one that we saw for the Brexit referendum. We in the Conservative party decided—and I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales was among the people who were thinking about this—that the thing to do was simply to respect the decision and get on with it.
We did not say, “Well, there was only a small turnout and a tiny majority, so let us have a second referendum.” We did not say, “Let us see if we can find some dubious hedge fund managers and challenge the whole thing in the courts on a technicality.” We did not go off to the House of Lords and say, “Let us see if we can delay the whole thing”, or whip up a load of scare stories about what it was likely to do to the economy—although I must admit that the scare stories that remainers are coming out with are not particularly good. One minute they say that Brexit will crash the economy, and the next minute they are complaining that there will not be enough people to fill the thousands of job vacancies that are currently available as a result of the good handling of the economy by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.
We did not do any of that. We recognised the fact that the people of Wales had voted in a certain direction, and we respected that. We respected devolution and we respect it now, and we respect the voice of the Welsh public, who voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. I commend my right hon. Friend and the Government for listening to the people of Wales. Ours is the only political party that is willing to deliver the Brexit for which those people voted.
I am always reminded of the benefits of mindfulness when I listen to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), and then follow him.
Wales, as we know, has a very proud history and tradition. When I was thinking about the debate today, however, I decided to focus on the future, and, in particular, on the role of young people in Wales—especially those close to home, in my constituency.
Cardiff is projected to be one of the UK’s fastest-growing cities, with a 26% population growth over the next 20 years. I represent a university constituency in our capital city, and I am very proud to do so. There are very few university constituency Members in the House, and I am also proud that the majority of them sit on the Labour Benches. There is an obvious reason for that, which I will come to later.
Cardiff Central contains the campuses of no fewer than three excellent universities,: Cardiff University, Cardiff Metropolitan University, and the University of South Wales.
Cardiff University is one of the global top 100 universities, Cardiff Met is continuing to increase its strong international reputation, and the University of South Wales is now the second largest university in Wales in terms of student numbers. Many academics and students from other universities choose to make Cardiff their home, which is partly why Cardiff Central has the second highest proportion of residents aged 16 to 24 in the United Kingdom. Moreover, 40% of our city’s population hold tertiary-level qualifications, and we have 75,000 students in the city region. That amounts to half the student population in Wales. There are 43,000 students in Cardiff alone, most of whom live in my constituency. More than one in three students studying in Cardiff’s higher education institutions are now postgraduates, and a quarter of those studying in the city are international students.
The first university in Cardiff was founded in 1884, with only 13 academic staff and 102 full-time students. What has been developed and built over the past 134 years —not just in terms of expanding campuses, but in terms of knowledge, skills and our economy—is a wonderful achievement.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. She is making an excellent speech. Many members of university staff and some students live in my constituency—although not as many as live in hers—and I am very proud of the role that universities play in Cardiff. Does she agree that it was important that so many young people and, indeed, lecturers and staff from Cardiff universities turned out to protest against the extreme far-right neo-Nazi actions that we regrettably saw in my constituency at the weekend? That solidarity across Cardiff was a powerful thing to behold, and I am sure my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming it.
I thoroughly endorse what my hon. Friend has said. We know that when such incidents happen in Cardiff, which, sadly, they do from time to time, the whole community turns out in support of our fight against them.
When I walk through Cardiff Central, past the neoclassical buildings of Cathays Park or the modern, striking architecture of the University of South Wales, or Cardiff Met, I see those buildings as a striking reminder that our universities represent both our openness to ideas and our promise to future generations. The way in which we value and treat our universities and those who work and study in them says a lot about our progress on those fronts.
Topically, the last month has seen the biggest ever industrial action undertaken by the University and College Union in defence of the university superannuation scheme and against proposals by Universities UK to change it. The changes would mean a reduction of £10,000 a year in the pension of the average university academic. Cardiff University UCU members voted overwhelmingly to take industrial action, easily seeing off the restrictions in the Government’s mendacious Trade Union Act 2016. Cardiff UCU, through a very effective campaign and with a perfectly reasonable and justifiable case, has seen its vice-chancellor—who is also the head of Universities Wales—eventually peel away from the hard core of vice-chancellors who were opposing any return to the negotiating table and a fresh, independent look at the pension fund valuation that had been undertaken by Universities UK.
The dispute that has hit Cardiff University is a consequence of the Government’s marketisation of higher education. In the Government’s rush to ensure that universities are run like private businesses, lifting the cap on tuition fees and treating students as customers, the balance sheet has become king. It is the balance sheet that will allow vast borrowing to expand campuses and capacity, and, as we have seen in the private sector, employees’ pensions are always an easy target for those trying to smarten up their balance sheet. But what is the point of a glossy prospectus and a shiny new building if we cannot attract the best people to teach and do research there? As if Brexit was not enough of an unnecessary threat, we do not need to turn the brightest minds away from a career in our universities in Wales teaching the next generation of engineers, doctors, teachers, business leaders, and, yes, maybe even politicians, by making those careers less attractive through slashing pensions. As Anthony Forster, vice-chancellor of Essex University, has said:
“university employers must step up to the plate and commit to increasing employer contributions to the scheme…Principled compromise is the answer.”
Going back to the issue of how we value and treat our universities in Wales and those who work and study in them, Government higher education policy says a lot about their attitude to young people in Wales. In 2010 the Tory-Lib Dem coalition Government made clear what future they had in mind for the next generation when they saddled young people with tuition fees of £9,000 a year, and this was made clearer when the current Government replaced maintenance grants with loans. While preaching the virtue of paying down the national debt, claiming this was for their benefit, the UK Government devised a system whereby the average graduate would be £50,800 in debt and the poorest graduate an average of £57,000 in debt. The bankruptcy of this system can now be seen in the Prime Minister’s own pledge to freeze tuition fee rises and hold a review.
We should contrast this with the approach of the Welsh Labour Government, who have looked to keep maintenance grants at every stage of further education, from college to the end of university. They have also kept NHS bursaries in Wales, unlike the Government here. Labour’s policy has been to ensure that the playing field is kept as even as possible, as opposed to piling the greatest debt on the poorest students.
While the Welsh Labour Government have not been able to rein in fee rises indefinitely, they have ensured that for almost a decade Welsh students have graduated with significantly less debt than their English counterparts, and they will continue to do so.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate and well-informed speech. The Welsh Government have also worked with students, including NUS Wales, to get to where we are now with this new programme for students. That is important and shows a clear contrast between how the British and Welsh Governments work.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that permeates much of what the Welsh Labour Government do, such as working through the social partnership with trade unions in Wales on public services and with the NUS in Wales on education.
All of this matters because, although Cardiff has three excellent universities, it also has postcodes and catchment areas that contain some of the highest levels of poverty in Wales. No child, wherever they live in the United Kingdom, should ever have their aspirations of obtaining a university degree curtailed because of the frightening burden of debt. With the Institute for Fiscal Studies reckoning that three quarters of our graduates will never pay off their student loan, it is clear we need to end this system which is loading our children’s future into a Ponzi scheme.
The Government’s approach to higher education also says a lot about our openness to new ideas and new people. It is vital that the Government listen to the concerns of universities and students, rather than dismiss them. Universities and their global connections and collaborations are vital to our knowledge economy. A recent report by the London School of Economics found that Cardiff University alone contributes £3 billion to the UK economy per year, and every year international students at Cardiff University generate over £200 million for Cardiff’s local economy. Welcoming people from all over the world has long been an integral part of our successful higher education sector, yet our exit from the European Union threatens to compromise that.
For all the Government’s words, everyone knows that immigration policy is being dictated by what looks good on the front page of the Daily Express or Daily Mail rather than the good of the country. The Government say that they remain committed to the UK, and by extension Wales, being as “open as before,” yet that contrasts with their own stated aim of reducing net immigration to “tens of thousands,” which, unless they are planning on encouraging mass emigration, will necessitate a large drop in the number of international students.
The Government’s approach to Brexit and the Brexit negotiations have been at best confused and at worst downright hostile. It is already having a detrimental effect on our higher education sector, with a fall in applications to UCAS from EU students. If the Government are serious about the UK still being open to new people, they need to recognise the overwhelming view of the public and drop international students from their immigration targets. They also need to explain to us and to the Welsh Government how they are going to ensure that academic institutions in Wales and across the UK can still easily attract and recruit EU academics after Brexit.
Literally every week constituents come to my advice surgeries to ask whether they will be able to live, work and travel in and around Europe as they do now. I cannot answer those questions but it seems that I am in good company, because pretty much every time I ask the Secretary of State for Wales or his Minister, they cannot answer either. In the last four months, I have asked the Secretary of State eight times whether he can identify and name any specific advantages or opportunities for Wales of leaving the EU, and he has not yet given me a single specific, tangible example—and I have not heard any in today’s debate either. With our exit less than a year away, this is ridiculous.
By contrast, students and academics in Cardiff have been regularly and forcefully telling me how Brexit is harming the horizons of higher education in Wales. Cardiff University is currently part of over 50 Horizon 2020 schemes, and the EU remains a significant investor in Welsh higher education. This funding and the jobs it supports could easily be lost in the car-crash Brexit that some members of the Government are pushing for.
Welsh students are currently able to enjoy the advantages of the Erasmus+ scheme along with students from non-EU countries such as Norway and Iceland. While the Government have in principle committed to paying into EU programmes, the lack of detail on this front is deeply concerning. We need clarity now that the Government have contingency plans in place for alternative sources of large-scale credit and funding from which our universities have often benefited.
We often speak about duty in this House: we talk about our duty to our constituents and our duty to our country, but surely both those duties are not just in the here and now, but encompass the future, too.
I want to begin, as others have, by congratulating my good friend the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing today’s important debate. In keeping with this good spirit, I congratulate the Secretary of State on achieving two years in his esteemed and very important position. Like others, I also want to make brief reference to Lord Crickhowell, who died today. I knew him very well; he was a friend of mine. In fact, it was Lord Crickhowell who first appointed me to a public position many years ago, so in a sense he was responsible for starting me down the path that ended up with me speaking in the Chamber today.
It is important that we have a Welsh affairs debate associated with St David’s day. It is a special day for the people of Wales, when we celebrate the life of St David, and I want it to be a special day for the people of the United Kingdom as well.
When I was elected to this House, my ambition and intention was to further the interests of Wales—that applies to most of us in the Chamber—and to raise awareness of Welsh issues. We hear a lot about the importance of unity in the United Kingdom, and I agree, but fundamental to that is a recognition of the importance of Wales right across the United Kingdom. I wanted to build on the eight years I spent in the National Assembly, developing the relationship with the bigger country of England. That is in part what I want to speak about today.
I also want to say in this introductory phase of my contribution how thrilled I was when five weeks ago we were able to speak in the House in the Welsh language. Not only was that a huge thing for those of us who have made a big commitment to Welsh—I made the commitment to learn Welsh—but it was a hugely important statement about the importance of Wales and the fact that Wales is different. There is nothing more unique to us than our language and that was a very important day for the nation of Wales.
Today’s debate is a general debate, so a huge range of issues could fall within its remit without attracting your opprobrium, Mr Deputy Speaker. I want to speak fairly briefly on three issues that relate specifically to mid-Wales. They are very different, but they have the common theme that they are all cross-border issues. They are hugely important in England as well as Wales, and the theme is that the two sides of the border have to work closely if we are to deliver the services that people deserve. The three issues are: the delivery of secondary health care; cross-border road schemes; and the Pumlumon project. I shall speak briefly on each of them in turn.
There is no secondary health care in Powys, and 80% of the people in my constituency go over the border to Shropshire for their secondary care, so what happens in Shropshire matters to us. There are two issues involved. For several years, there has been a reluctance to tackle the difficult decisions involved in delivering the sort of care that we need. We desperately need a decision from the Government about the funding to provide what we call a future-fit service locally. We have been pressing for it for ages, and it is crucial that we get it quite soon. If we do not, we will be able to deliver fewer and fewer services in Shropshire and mid-Wales.
My second point about healthcare is the importance of locking Shropshire and mid-Wales together when it comes to health issues. Most treatments now have a population threshold. There are 450,000 people living in Shropshire, but the threshold for a lot of treatments is now 500,000, including for radiology, as we saw recently. There are not enough people in Shropshire to justify a specialist radiotherapy department there, but mid-Wales is also involved in this. There are more than 500,000 people in mid-Wales, and if we took the two populations together, as we should, we would cross that threshold. This is not just a theoretical issue; it is a hugely practical and fundamental one.
The second issue I want to touch on is road schemes. The economy of mid-Wales in particular—and those of the north and of the south—is very much dependent on the ability to travel east and west. The Severn valley is crucial to where I live. The biggest disadvantage of devolution has been the complications that it has caused to cross-border road schemes. The Pant-Llanymynech scheme is a major scheme. It is well known, and it will provide access from mid-Wales to Manchester and the north. The road that I want to talk about, however, is the one from the Severn valley through to Shropshire and on to the west midlands. It involves about seven miles between Welshpool and the English border, and it is absolutely crucial. This should have been developed years ago, but there are problems. From the Welsh perspective, the cost-benefit analysis is great, and the Welsh Government would be perfectly happy to pay for it, but there has been no cost-benefit analysis on the English side at all. We need a close working relationship between both sides of the border to ensure that we deliver schemes that benefit everyone, and that is the first project that I would like to see the mid-Wales growth deal looking into.
The third issue that I want to touch on is the Pumlumon project. I share the feelings of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) about this amazing scheme, but it cannot be delivered just in Wales. We are talking about 100,000 acres of land, mostly peat land, between Machynlleth, Eglwys and Aberystwyth. It is a huge area, and over the decades, it has been drained. The water flows on to it whenever there is heavy rain, and it flows into England. There would be huge benefits to re-wetting it under the Pumlumon project. They would be a big benefit for diversity, and a major community benefit because of the funding associated with it—it would keep communities together. The smallholders would be able to remain there. People are very happy about it; they have already shown that they want to do this. The major benefit, however, would be to England—to all those towns and cities down the Severn valley. Millions of pounds are involved, and the Welsh Government cannot be expected to pay that. We need a cross-border arrangement. The UK Government and the Welsh Government need to work together to deliver what I think would be a wonderful scheme. Whenever I go to a meeting at which the mid-Wales growth deal is being discussed, I shall probably bore for Wales by referring to this on three or four occasions.
I am a great supporter of devolution, and the final point I want to make is that we have to be committed. Like some Members who have spoken, I opposed it, but when I was driving home from the count, I accepted the result straightaway. I have done what I can to make a success of it, and I still do. It is hugely important, but we need a relationship in which the Government in Cardiff and the Government in Westminster work together in the common interests of Wales and England whenever cross-border issues are involved.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who talks a lot of sense in a very consensual way. I know that he is a strong supporter of devolution and that he has worked with Members from across the parties here in Westminster and in Wales to make it happen. I want to join him and the Secretary of State in paying tribute to Lord Crickhowell and to Lord Richard, both of whom died recently. I have lobbied both of those guys, and I did not agree with some of the things that they did, but they listened to me. They did not always deliver, but they were true servants of the Welsh people in their respective roles.
I also want to join the Secretary of State in thanking the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us our original debate on Thursday 1 March, which was co-sponsored by the hon. Members for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). We did not have the debate on that day, however. It was put off because of Storm Emma, which had a devastating effect on Wales. In my own constituency, huge storms ripped apart the harbour in Holyhead and caused untold damage to 80 vessels. The cruel sea really was cruel on that occasion. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to the emergency services for the work that they did during Storm Emma. They dealt with snowdrifts and high winds in my constituency, and the coastguard and lifeboat services were also involved. I declare an interest as vice-president of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The emergency services went out and took staff to the hospitals as well as delivering essential medication and care to people in rural constituencies, and that is worth putting on record.
We are celebrating 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918, and I want to put on record the work that the suffragettes from Wales did in getting the vote for women. The first woman MP to be elected in Wales, in 1929, was Megan Lloyd George, in my own constituency. That showed the pioneering spirit of the county of Anglesey, which has also been seen in the field of education. Megan Lloyd George was the first Member of the House of Commons to lead a Welsh affairs debate, in the 1940s. She is historically important in that way.
Since we last met for a Welsh affairs debate in the House of Commons, we have had a general election, and there is a Welsh dimension to that, because the Prime Minister went for a walk in the hills of north Wales and thought that it was a very good idea to have a general election. We called it the hard Brexit general election, because she was seeking a mandate and an increased majority in the House, but the people of Wales and the people of the United Kingdom took away her majority.
I will take the hon. Lady’s word for it. However, I will say that the Prime Minister had told the House on several occasions that she was not going to hold a general election, but she did. She said that she wanted to put her trust in the people of the United Kingdom, and they voted overwhelmingly against a hard Brexit.
Before moving on to Brexit, particularly the links with the Republic of Ireland, I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating the island of Ireland on winning the grand slam this weekend, Wales for being the runners-up and a third Celtic nation on coming third. Eddie Jones’s smirk was wiped off his face.
The hon. Gentleman prompted me to intervene at this point. I wish everyone a belated happy St Patrick’s day for Saturday. We know that when the Blarney stone is turned the right way, we will have the opportunity for good weather, and we had a great victory on Saturday as well. The Irish team do their talking on the pitch, unlike the England rugby coach, who does his talking—
I am glad to hear the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) supporting the united Ireland in its grand slam victory.
I want to talk about our historic links with the Republic of Ireland. Dublin is the nearest capital city to my constituency, and we have had trade for many decades—hundreds of years—between the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Much of that will be put in jeopardy if we do not get the Brexit deal right. We need a special arrangement, and I am appealing to the Secretary of State because he has been to my constituency to see the port of Holyhead and the problems that could occur. It is no good his repeating what the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union says about a frictionless border, which is meaningless. We need proper policies and partnerships, because Irish firms are already doing direct trade and are proposing further direct trade between the Republic of Ireland and continental Europe, bypassing the ports of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, so we need a special relationship.
We have a common travel area with the Republic of Ireland, and the Prime Minister has told me on several occasions that it would continue, but the reality is that it was set up based on our historical links and formed part of our special relationship when we were both in the European Union—we joined at the very same time. Now that the UK has decided to leave the European Union, that puts strain on the relationship. Unless we have a customs union of sorts—an arrangement or agreement—it will be impossible not to have tariffs and barriers at Welsh ports. The reality is that jobs will be lost in those ports. Holyhead and Fishguard are also railway towns, and they rely on the trade that comes from Ireland, so if we lose that vital link due to high tariffs, people will go elsewhere and jobs will be lost. It is hugely important that the Secretary of State listens to what the people of Wales, the Welsh Government and what many Welsh Members are saying. It is no good repeating the mantra of frictionless trade; we need practical things. The Irish Government want to see practical arrangements, as do Members of this House.
Turning to the Welsh economy, I agree with the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) when he talked about the north Wales growth deal. I am as frustrated as he and my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) are, because we have been told for a long time that the process will be bottom-up. Now is the time to shape that growth deal and to deliver on those arrangements. I want north-west Wales and the rest of north Wales to benefit. We need to put pressure on the Treasury to come up with a figure that can match the deals that are coming up from the local level to deliver jobs and prosperity in north Wales.
Time is limited, but I want to talk briefly again about the low-carbon economy and how Wales and north Wales can benefit and lead in this area. There are two marine energy projects in my constituency, and I know that the Secretary of State for Wales and the other Secretaries of State are aware of them. They need a kick-start, and the Welsh Government and the European social fund are providing the essential investment. Minesto, a Swedish company, is investing in my constituency, and Morlais, a local social enterprise, is working to develop marine and tidal energy.
New nuclear is on its way, and I congratulate the Secretary of State and his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Clwyd West, on the continuity they have provided in that project, which started in 2007 to 2009, because we could be world leaders in the low-carbon economy.
Like many Members, I again want to raise the issue of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, because it is not good enough for the Government to keep saying, “We want value for money.” Of course we want that, but we also want ambition from this Government. They talk about an industrial strategy for the whole UK, and they now have to put their money where their mouth is. If they want Wales to prosper, they will find that Wales has an on-the-shelf project that can be rolled out across the whole of Wales in tidal lagoon technology. It will benefit the steel industry in Wales, and the supply chain in Wales and across the UK. We can be that first of a kind. Yes, first of a kinds are expensive, but if we had not invested in other first-of-a-kind technologies, we would never have anything in this country. It is time this industrial strategy came to life.
I want to finish by saying a few things more. I wish this debate had been held on 1 March, and I want to carry on campaigning for a public holiday—a bank holiday—on St David’s day. This was in our manifesto. If the Prime Minister decides to go for another walk in north Wales, I am sure we will have that opportunity to deliver a public holiday. The people of Wales are unique, but we are proud members of the United Kingdom, an equal nation—we are a nation and a proud one. When we come to this next year, as the biggest party in Wales, we will get another debate—we hope it will again be in Government time, not in Back-Bench time—because the people and the Members of this House of Commons from Wales deserve it.
I wanted to start my contribution by talking about steel, because this Friday, 23 March, President Trump’s 25% tariff on steel imported into the US will kick in, unless the Government and the EU can force some movement on the decision announced on 8 March.
I am very proud to represent a constituency with significant steelmaking: at Llanwern, where, among other things, we have Tata’s Zodiac plant, which produces high- quality finished steel for automotive customers, including Jaguar Land Rover and BMW; at Cogent Orb, a global supplier of electrical steels; and at Liberty Steel whose footprint is growing and growing in the UK and beyond and whose green steel vision could see major expansion in Newport in the future. The steel industry and steelworkers in my constituency have been through tough times, and the recovery we have seen is still fragile.
This move will have not only a direct impact on our exports, but the indirect impact of others countries’ displaced steel trying to find a home. We had a statement on this tariff last week, when the International Trade Secretary laid out both the Government’s approaches to the US and the work being done at an EU level as part of a unified response. Will the Secretary of State for Wales ensure that he is playing his part in speaking up for Welsh steel at the Cabinet table and that the Government do all they can to work with the EU on a response to this? May we have a report back from the International Trade Secretary on how he has got on this week in his discussions in the US?
On steel dumping, Opposition Members have not forgotten that it was the Conservative Government in 2016 who sought to block EU plans to impose tougher targets on Chinese steel imports. Clearly, this US decision is not about national security, and we ought to remind the US that when they last tried this in 2002 economists estimated that it cost the US economy 200,000 jobs. Clearly, we all do not want to see these tariffs imposed, but if they are, what practical help will the Government be offering the steel industry? For instance, our energy prices continue to be much higher than those of other countries and Ofgem’s targeted charging review could produce even higher charges, so will the Minister look at that specifically? The Government have been slow to act on some of the issues challenging the steel industry in the past, but we need robust action now.
The second issue I wish to raise is Severnside growth. Newport East is changing. Before the term “Severn bridge tolls” is consigned to history, I should acknowledge that the Government have acted after a strong and sustained local campaign about the impact of the tolls. [Interruption.] I had to get that in. That is good news for commuters in my constituency, local businesses and the economy of south-east Wales.
It was reported last week that Newport and Severnside are experiencing a housing boom, with many people choosing to move across the Severn. However, there are clearly challenges as well, and we will need councils, the Welsh Government and UK Government Ministers to work together to address them. For example, last week an estate agent in Caldicot said that a three-bedroom former council house in Caldicot would have been on the market last year for £150,000, but they are now on sale for around £230,000 or more. We will need more affordable housing and the accompanying infrastructure, and we need all levels of government to work together to address the challenges.
The Secretary of State has previously talked quite rightly about the importance of cross-border transport links. I reiterate to him that one important thing the Government could do for commuters in my constituency is to address the lack of capacity on cross-border Great Western services to Bristol and beyond, which is making it really difficult to access cross-border jobs. That is a daily complaint, so I would be grateful if the Secretary of State took that up.
There are lots of positive developments in our part of Wales, a few local examples of which are the excellent collaborative work of local authorities such as Newport through the city deal and the great western cities initiative and the excellent support from the Welsh Labour Government. We are looking forward to the potential of the metro. We have the semi-conductor cluster facility, the National Cyber Security Academy and the National Software Academy putting south-east Wales at the heart of the UK digital sector.
I attended a recruitment fair for CAF—the Secretary of State mentioned the company earlier—at Coleg Gwent today. CAF is a Spanish train manufacturer that is bringing 200 high-quality jobs to the constituency this year and 100 next year. We are really grateful for that. There are plans for the renovation of the Chartist tower, the city centre regeneration and the new international convention centre at the Celtic Manor, so there is plenty to be positive about, but in uncertain times, particularly in respect of Brexit we have to keep our eye on the ball. The Government have a role to play in that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who is no longer in his place, mentioned Megan Lloyd George. Over the past few weeks, I have been at many events to celebrate International Women’s Day, and in this Vote 100 year this debate is an excellent opportunity for me to name just some of the excellent local women in my area who are leading the way in their fields. We have Pam Kelly, the deputy chief constable of Gwent police; Nicole Garnon, the editor of the South Wales Argus; Debbie Wilcox, the leader of Newport City Council; Susan Gwyer-Roberts, the excellent headteacher of Caldicot comprehensive, whom I wish well in her imminent retirement; and Trudi Marsden, the commercial supply chain director from Cogent Orb.
Those are all women of whom the famous Lady Rhondda from Llanwern, who was imprisoned in Usk for blowing up a post box for the suffragette cause, would be rightly proud. Lady Rhondda’s story is one of which we in Newport are proud. She fought a valiant campaign for women to take their seats in the House of Lords, was the first women president of the Institute of Directors and even survived the sinking of the Lusitania. Her story is rightly becoming more well-known this year and is the subject of an opera and a brilliant biography by Angela John. I wish to record our gratitude to her and acknowledge the fantastic leadership of the women I have mentioned. We have come a long way since Lady Rhondda’s times. There is still much more to do, but I know that the women who are leading the way in our communities today will act as an inspiration for young women in my constituency.
Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in the debate, and a belated dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus to you and all Members.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this wide-ranging debate on Welsh affairs. I also wish to join others in congratulating the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on originally securing the debate. I very much welcome the fact that it is now being held in Government time.
It will come as no surprise to right hon. and hon. Members that I intend to concentrate my remarks on Ceredigion, the constituency that I have the honour of representing. In particular, I believe that a significant rethink, if not a recast, of economic strategy is needed if Ceredigion and other areas of Wales are not to be left behind in the years to come. My underlying contention is that it is not being overly ambitious, let alone idealistic, to believe that the prospects for individuals living in rural areas should be just as promising as those for people living elsewhere. The children of Ceredigion deserve the very same opportunities as those of other constituencies; adults, too, should be afforded career prospects and the ability to enjoy a life similar to that enjoyed by those inhabiting other areas of the United Kingdom.
I am in no way espousing the idea that the UK Government grant Ceredigion preferential treatment—although I could certainly be persuaded of the merits of such an approach—but I am arguing for fair play, or, as we say in Wales, chwarae teg. It may be too much to ask for, but I believe that Wales sorely needs an economic strategy that facilitates growth in both rural and urban areas if we are to avoid building a geographically unbalanced Welsh economy. The development of the rural economy should form a key part of an economic strategy for Wales. We need look no further than the state of today’s UK economy to appreciate the consequences of an unbalanced approach to economic development. Or better still, we can turn to page 218 of the Government’s own industrial strategy White Paper, which illustrates all too clearly how focusing attention and investment in urban areas has meant that the productivity of rural areas, such as Ceredigion, is consistently below that of the UK average, and in stark and depressing contrast to that of larger towns and cities.
It is for that reason that I cautiously welcome the Government’s announcement of a mid-Wales growth deal as at least a tacit acknowledgement that Ceredigion and—I say this as the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) are in their places—Powys have been overlooked for far too long. I know that time constraints meant that the Secretary of State was unable to speak on that issue in greater depth, but perhaps when the Under-Secretary sums up we may learn a little bit more about the potential of the mid-Wales growth deal.
A growth deal for mid-Wales, if adequately resourced and successful in bringing businesses and communities together, could be a real opportunity to address the consequences of the area’s chronic underinvestment and neglect by successive Governments. It is also a chance to diversify the base of the rural economy in that part of Wales to ensure that, just like the economic success stories of the cities, the economy of rural Wales is rooted in a rich mixture of sectors and industries. That would mean that, in the future, the children and young people of Ceredigion have ample opportunity to pursue a prosperous living in the county and are not forced to move elsewhere for work.
Members will have heard me speak about the difficulties that many of my constituents face in accessing fast and reliable broadband. That is not only a significant barrier to Ceredigion’s economic growth but a source of great frustration for households across the county. Broadband, and good digital connectivity in general, is no longer a luxury; in the 21st century it is increasingly becoming an essential amenity. As such, I very much hope that the mid-Wales growth deal will address poor connectivity. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire rightly pointed to the investment in roads, but I also hope that some investment will be put into digital connectivity, because broadband, or rather the lack of it, is by far the most prevalent issue raised by constituents in Ceredigion, which, unfortunately, is among the 10 worst constituencies for broadband speeds.
Rural Wales should not be written off as an area without potential. Why should it be the case that opportunities afforded to start-ups and small businesses, including shared office spaces, are poorer in rural areas, or that essential utilities such as adequate broadband and mobile infrastructure are sometimes dismissed as luxuries in places such as Ceredigion?
I am conscious of the time, so I will try to draw my remarks to a close. Increasing investment in mid-Wales is of the utmost importance not solely because Ceredigion, and more generally west Wales and the valleys, are among the most deprived areas of western Europe, but because of the impact that greater job opportunities will have on reducing poverty levels. Indeed, west Wales and the valleys, as many Members here this evening will know all too well, have received significant new structural funding. The United Kingdom Government have previously mentioned that a UK prosperity fund will be established to replace the structural funding post Brexit. I think that Members from both sides of the House would agree that the funds allocated from it should at least equal the European funding, and be allocated on the basis of need, not population.
If the case for further investment in Ceredigion needs justification, I turn the House’s attention to the levels of poverty, particularly child poverty, in my constituency. After housing costs, nearly 29% of children in Ceredigion live in poverty. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that to truly tackle this shameful affliction, we need to improve the quality of existing housing stock, increase the supply of affordable housing and ensure a fairer social security system. I will not have time this evening to go into each of those points, but the foundation also says that half the battle could be won by increasing wages and improving job opportunities.
I have spent nearly every year of my life going to Aberystwyth on holiday. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should invest in the beautiful coastline, amazing rural environment and great history of Ceredigion, particularly Aberystwyth? There are people who have now have more money, are a bit older, do not want to get skin cancer, and are thinking about the Paris accord and the environment, and Ceredigion is a great place for them to go, particularly Aberystwyth, which is where my father was from. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should be investing in the area and promoting Aberystwyth as an opportunity for a great holiday?
And Borth in the north. Everyone is welcome to visit us in Ceredigion. I am sure that hon. Members will all agree that it is the best and prettiest constituency in the whole of Wales.
In so far as greater investment will help to tackle poverty levels, I have no doubt that both the Welsh and UK Governments desperately need to reconsider their approach to economic development, and to refocus attention on rural areas such as Ceredigion to ensure that Ceredigion and other rural areas form an integral part of any economic strategy. They must be far more than an afterthought, an also-ran or a non-essential addition to the real effort of developing our cities and urban areas, as is all too often the case. People should have a realistic hope of being able to pursue a career, afford to settle down and lead a prosperous life in any part of Wales. I, for one, am sure that the people of Ceredigion deserve no less.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake). I entirely echo what he said about the importance of good broadband connections in a modern economy. I also join in the appropriate tributes that many right hon. and hon. Members have paid to Lord Crickhowell and Lord Richard. As this debate follows International Women’s Day, I pay tribute to the mayor of my home town of Blaenavon, Councillor Phyllis Roberts, who I understand is the oldest mayor in the United Kingdom at the age of 93 and who has given a lifetime to public service.
I will concentrate my remarks on universal credit. If there is one issue that has generated more casework than any other since I was first elected to this House in May 2015, it is dealings with the Department for Work and Pensions. I have spoken in the House on a number of occasions about personal independence payment and the problem of people being driven all the way to a tribunal in order to achieve the award that they should have been given in the first place. That remains a significant problem, but this evening I will specifically address the roll-out of universal credit. I am grateful to the Torfaen citizens advice bureau for providing me with a number of case studies that I can now put before the House. I really hope that they will have a sobering effect on the Government so that they do more than is being done at the moment.
First is the example of a couple suffering financial hardship and developing arrears, which led to problems paying rent to the extent that they were served a notice seeking possession of their property. That happened because there were unnecessary, mistaken deductions from their universal credit award, which is clearly not acceptable.
Let me give another example. The person’s initial payment was delayed by two weeks, causing rent arrears to increase and leaving no money for gas or electricity. By the time it arrived, most of it was owed to the landlord in arrears. What happened then? He discovered that his allowance for two children had been omitted from the claim. By the time that was rectified six weeks later, the family had been left, in the interim, living on food parcels. That is not, I am afraid, an uncommon experience, as I can see from my constituency surgeries.
I will give the example that perhaps shows most of all the real problems that people have been caused by social security policy over the past eight years. The person in question is a 27-year-old man who is in the process of moving into a property with his partner. They are currently in receipt of employment and support allowance. Their income from employment and support allowance works out at £986.70 per calendar month. Their total universal credit is £817.65, so they are going to be £169.05 per month worse off. That is not the end of it, though. They are going to be subject to an under- occupancy charge because they are living in a two-bedroom property, so they will be hit by the bedroom tax as well. They exemplify many people in my constituency who are being made significantly worse off because of the failure to pause and fix the universal credit roll-out.
Let me be clear: this is not the fault of staff, who work extremely hard. I visited Jobcentre Plus in Pontypool only recently and saw the excellent work that staff there were doing to try to make the roll-out of universal credit work. I have also visited Cwmbran pension centre in my constituency, where the staff are being severely let down by this Tory Government. Hanging over them is the threat of Cwmbran pension centre being closed and the staff moved to a hub north of Cardiff, taking away local people’s jobs and taking support away from the local economy.
There is incredible generosity among the people of Torfaen in the donations that I have seen them make to local food banks. Local food bank use is increasing as a consequence of the universal credit roll-out. I have stood and watched people making donations. I have also had requests from local food banks to give—believe it or not—toiletries because of the poverty that has been created by universal credit and the amount of time that people are having to wait for payments. Torfaen County Borough Council does its very best within the financial constraints it has, not least in its approach to discretionary housing payments, to try to make the situation better. I am also incredibly lucky to have a fantastic voluntary sector locally, with many organisations being there to help the people who are affected.
But while all that local work is excellent, and I am very proud of what people in my constituency do, the reality is that the blame for this situation lies squarely with the UK Government. They really do have to do more. We have had a vote in this House asking the Government to pause and fix the universal credit roll-out, but they are not doing enough. It is no longer enough to say, either, that under the Tories a job is a route out of poverty, because two thirds of children living in poverty in this country are actually in working households. The jobs that the Tories talk about, I am afraid, are insecure and are not paid as they should be. This is a Government who are driving up poverty. I say to Ministers, having highlighted the examples that I have, that now is the time to act: callous indifference simply cannot continue.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Dirprwy Lefarydd. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for securing the debate, which I was proud to sponsor, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds).
This is my first Welsh affairs debate, and I hope to uphold tradition. I am only 19 days late in taking a lead from Dewi Sant himself, and I would like to take the opportunity today—I am sure I will get away with it, as we did in the Welsh Grand Committee—to entreat all present: “Frodyr a chwiorydd, byddwch lawen a chedwch eich ffydd a’ch cred, a gwnewch y pethau bychain a welsoch ac a glywsoch gennyf i.—[Translation: Brothers and sisters, be joyful and keep your faith and belief, and do the little things you saw and heard from me.]”—It looks like I got away with it!
Dewi preached that we should remember the little things, and this evening I would like to take the opportunity to celebrate the good done on a small scale by voluntary organisations. As many Members have mentioned fluently, we are in a time of uncertainty and change. We are also still in a time of austerity and cuts to local authority budgets. I have seen in Gwynedd how important community initiatives are to maintain services and many activities in local communities.
Those in the voluntary and charitable sector in Wales fall into two categories: the voluntary and the voluntary-voluntary. The first kind are the biggish voluntary organisations, which are often the Welsh representative of a larger body. They might employ staff, run national campaigns and contract-in to provide services on behalf of public bodies. They might well have the trappings of a business and, as such, be registered as a charity. On the whole, they can look after themselves, and their misfortunes are those that can befall any large organisation but are not intrinsic to their structure. Those charities do excellent work on the national stage and also locally.
I must not fail to give a call-out to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the lifeboat crews of Porthdinllaen, Abersoch, Pwllheli, Criccieth, Barmouth and Aberdyfi and all their supporters. They provide an essential emergency service to leisure and commercial seafarers alike. Another essential emergency service is provided by the mountain search and rescue teams of Aberglaslyn, south Snowdonia and Aberdyfi. Those dedicated men and women often find themselves working alongside the salaried emergency services in horrendous conditions.
I would also like to make a special mention of an international charitable organisation, Rotary. Across the world, its supporters have played a magnificent role in bringing down polio as a major cause of human suffering, to the point where it is possible to track individual cases with a weekly update. Locally, dedicated volunteers like Mr and Mrs Horwood ensure that not only does the Rotary Santa float makes a festive noise around Llŷn villages before Christmas but the moneys collected are distributed among a host of local charities, including cylchoedd meithrin, youth football teams, playgrounds and school parents’ associations.
I would like to turn now to the second sort of voluntary organisation—the very local set-up, generally based in one village or community and dedicated to one particular aspect or cause, from providing lifts to a local hospital to running an eisteddfod. They include O Ddrws i Ddrws, with its on-call bus services and round-Llŷn summer bus route, to Eisteddfod Ceidio and scores of other tiny eisteddfodau in village halls, chapels and vestries across Wales.
Those small organisations are the bread and butter of the voluntary sector—the essential glue of communities. They encapsulate the spirit of Dewi Sant’s endorsement of the importance of the little things—y pethau bychain—and yet they sometimes struggle to survive from year to year. One reason is that they often have no status and no legal personality, with charitable status being in their eyes inappropriate and too big and bureaucratically burdensome a step to take. If and when the committee secretary retires, the charismatic founder moves on or dies, the committee falters because of age or ill health or there is a combination of all those factors, the organisation falters and may cease to exist. We are all too familiar with that scenario. The handover from one generation to another is fraught with obstacles and risk.
I propose that we need an intermediate status for these organisations in Wales, which is more than a collection of interested individuals who may come and go, and less than a registered charity. Such a status exists in other countries, allowing “associations”, as they are called, to register locally with municipalities and with the minimum of red tape. They then have the status needed to apply for grants and reclaim VAT, and when members cease to be involved, the association itself is more likely to continue, as it has a certain amount of formal supportive structure to carry it through times of change such as we are in now. We have an opportunity to enable a slightly more structured approach to community activity that is suitable for the voluntary-voluntaries, with the prospect of greater continuity allowing communities to identify and redefine themselves over time—the people who do the charity bike rides, the mountain races, the lifts to hospital or the eisteddfod.
To close, as I illustrated earlier, many local initiatives could benefit from such a provision in my constituency and, I would venture, in constituencies across Wales. It is a model for ensuring a modicum of public accountability, without too much of an administrative burden, that is particularly suited to the way Welsh local life is constituted. We are, after all, as a community of communities. The way we organise our civic society should reflect this, and I recommend the association model to the House for further consideration. It encapsulates what St David—Dewi Sant—said: “Gwnewch y pethau bychain”.
It is over two decades since the UK passed the Government of Wales Act that officially created the National Assembly of Wales in Cardiff. It is this institution that we have been calling on this Government to protect in the past few months as they resist calls to respect the devolution settlement, and time is running out.
The Welsh Assembly is due to meet tomorrow to rush through its emergency Bill to try to bypass UK Government plans to undermine devolution and return powers to Westminster, not Cardiff, after Brexit. Months of talks have failed, and Assembly Members are quite rightly attempting to block this power grab by refusing to give consent and passing their own legislation. Agreement must be enshrined in legislation and consent must be enshrined in legislation. Whether this is through a council of Ministers or any other mechanism, there must be movement on this; otherwise, the UK Government risk plunging this country into a constitutional crisis of their own making.
Today, however, I want to focus on a problem that, despite being widespread in British society, is rarely raised on the Floor of this House. I want to speak about the subtle, almost socially acceptable, anti-Welsh sentiment, which I think Brexit has helped to highlight. The England rugby union coach, Eddie Jones, has apologised for publicly calling Wales a “little shit place”, but as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett of The Guardian pointed out last week, it is no surprise that he felt such feelings would be socially acceptable.
It is almost fashionable for the liberal elites in London to make casual racist remarks about Welsh culture, Welsh accents and Welsh language. This seems to be one of the last acceptable forms of xenophobia and bigotry, and it is a remnant of English colonialism. Roger Lewis of the Daily Mail once said of Wales and the Welsh:
“I abhor the appalling and moribund monkey language myself”.
If hon. Members remember, a few years ago Anne Robinson described all the Welsh as “irritating” on a commonly viewed programme on BBC2, asking:
“What are they for?... They are always so pleased with themselves.”
I think those making xenophobic anti-Welsh comments are so pleased with themselves that they are unaware that their own comments amount to bigotry, and this has only got worse since the referendum.
Examples of vile anti-Welsh abuse on mainstream media are numerous, but I do not want to burden the House with any more crude language. Instead, I want to point out that there is a link between the free expression of such bigotry and the sense of false English superiority leading this Government to pursue their hard Tory Brexit. Just as this Government have completely and utterly abandoned all efforts to rebalance the economy of the regions and nations of this country, they are also taking decisions that will have a disproportionally negative effect on Wales.
However, I will not merely attack the UK Government and complain about anti-Welsh bigotry; I want to offer solutions. To change a culture, we need to make sure that our media are representative. Currently, the broadcast media are London-centric. The vast majority of the most influential journalists and broadcasters are English and broadcast from England. However, Channel 4 recently announced its commitment to investing in the nations and regions of the UK. I welcome that commitment and hope that it is followed by action that supports the establishment of a Channel 4 hub in Cardiff—one that truly reflects Wales and its communities.
Cardiff is home to an established creative industry that employs 15,000 people and is worth about £1.6 billion in gross value added. We have a pool of excellent candidates, with three brilliant universities teaching more than 7,000 students and producing high-calibre graduates in the creative industries, including film, radio, TV, animation and post-production. Up to 40% of our population is educated to at least degree level. Cardiff is the highest ranked city in the UK outside London for its ability to attract and retain this talent. With a population that is set to grow by 26% over the next 15 years and a city region that already numbers 1.5 million people, Cardiff’s growth is one of its greatest assets.
The logistics of the move will be easily facilitated by many things. When electrification is completed from London to Cardiff, hopefully by the end of 2018, it will take 90 minutes to make the trip from the Welsh capital to London. By 2022 to 2024, Cardiff’s metro will also be completed, making transportation in the city even easier. Our broadband is superb, with competitive rates for superfast broadband. Cardiff has what it takes to deliver an investment project and the track record to prove it. Cardiff’s strengths as a centre for broadcasting and as a cultural centre are unrivalled outside London.
Such a move would be culturally significant. It would ensure that more Welsh speakers and employees from a Welsh background were employed in a highly competitive, influential sector that at the moment is notoriously Anglo-centric. It would ensure that the views of different nations of the UK were represented in a fair and balanced way, and ensure that bigotry, whether anti-Welsh or otherwise, was identified and challenged. I urge the rest of the House to be vigilant to bigotry in all its forms, especially when mainstream media depict it as socially acceptable.
Last summer, Flybe, a leading low-fares airline, cancelled its route between Cardiff airport and London City airport, citing air passenger duty as the reason. Despite the Secretary of State for Wales being a self-proclaimed local champion, he has voted repeatedly to raise APD and is still opposed to devolving it to Wales. In complete contrast, the Conservative leader in Wales supports its devolution.
If the Government want to show Welsh people that investing in Wales is not a second thought but a priority, I urge them to support Cardiff’s bid for the Channel 4 relocation and the devolution of powers over air passenger duty to allow Wales to reach its full potential. As I told the Secretary of State for Wales during a Welsh Affairs Committee sitting before Christmas, his commitment to Wales is in doubt because he has consistently shied away from investing in Wales, from the tidal lagoon to renewables, to devolving air passenger duty, and rail electrification. As a Swansea Valley boy, he must be embarrassed to go home.
As Rhodri Morgan, Labour’s father of Welsh devolution, said:
“The Tories’ relationship is based on trust and understanding. We don’t trust them and they don’t understand us.”
I do not trust this Tory Government, or that the Secretary of State will take up the suggestions that have been made today, but I hope that the debate will help them understand why the Welsh people and our communities reject their party with their feet.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who is not in his place, for securing today’s debate. It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin).
I rise today to speak about a gross injustice visited upon the people of Wales not far from this House. On 10 February 2018, the Welsh people were quite simply robbed blind. With this being the delayed St David’s day debate, I would expect many rugby fans to be here, but for those who do not know what I am talking about, I am referring to the recent outcry in the Wales v. England six nations rugby match, when the referee fatally denied a legitimate Welsh try, which proved decisive. We saw Wales denied what we were due, and we were ignored by those in power. I am afraid that that is a running theme in political and public life. The rugby pitch is not the only place where England and Wales are not on a level playing field; not the only place where better judgment and match reviews are needed. In spite of all that, we persist.
Just as I have faith in the talent and promise of Welsh rugby, so I have faith in the talent, promise and future of Wales. Our best days are still ahead of us. Whitehall may not play fair, Westminster may ignore us and Downing Street may break its promises, but Wales will persist, and we shall we succeed.
The Conservative record in Wales is one of false and broken promises; it is the record of a Government who do not listen and do not care. What happened to rail electrification? What happened to the tidal lagoon? What happened to supporting our steel industry and to investing in our young people?
To add to the comments about what happened to the £700 million for rail electrification, as my hon. Friend knows, Network Rail also took out an extra £1 billion. We want extra investment in electrification, straightening lines, the Swansea metro, yet, proportionally, there is far less investment in Wales—something like 1% versus 5% of the population and 6% of the network. Does my hon. Friend agree that we are massively underfunded and desperately in need?
I agree absolutely that if the Government are serious about rebalancing the British economy, which is grossly skewed towards London and the south-east, that has to start with infrastructure investment. The difference between the per capita sums that are spent in London and the south-east and those that are spent in the rest of the country is a chasm that has to be filled.
When the Prime Minister famously declared in Wrexham that “nothing had changed”, she did so in front of a sign claiming that she had a plan for a “strong and prosperous future”. But building that future requires investment, not platitudes; action, not warm words. More than a year ago, the Hendry review—a Government- commissioned review, carried out by a former Conservative Minister, no less, reported back, calling for the Swansea bay tidal lagoon to get the go-ahead. It is a groundbreaking project that would power 150,000 Welsh homes for 120 years, creating thousands of jobs and using Port Talbot steel. Yet nothing has happened. Fourteen months on, and the Government have not even bothered to respond to the review. It is just like the sector deal for steel. For six months, a comprehensive plan for how we can turn our steel industry from one that is surviving into a sector that is thriving; a plan that would allow our communities to fulfil their potential, has sat on a shelf, gathering dust. The plan would mean an additional £1.5 billion of investment over the next five years, increasing production by 40%, creating 2,000 more jobs, training 200 more apprentices a year and increasing investment in R&D. It has the support of all the steel companies and unions, but to unlock that investment, the Government need to act to cut energy prices, which are, on average, 50% higher than those of our competitors.
The steelworkers of Port Talbot, Llanwern, Trostre and right across Wales have shown the lengths they will go to to save our steel industry, but when they agreed to changes in their pensions to save the industry the Government did nothing. They ignored our calls for changes to deemed consent that would have helped many to maximise their savings, and they did nothing when dodgy pension advisers—vultures—swept in to rip off our steelworkers.
Since the 2015 election, Labour MPs have called on Ministers over 700 times to stand up and support our steel industry. While the Business Secretary was on a jolly in Australia, I was in Mumbai with Community union fighting for the future of our steelworks and our industry. How much longer is this meant to continue? On the tidal lagoon and steel, we seem to have a Government incapable of making any decision, a Government frozen by their own ineptitude and shortcomings. While the Westminster Tories have stood by and done nothing, Welsh Labour has gone to the very limits of what it can do, announcing tens of millions of pounds of support for the Welsh steel industry and a plan for millions to support the lagoon. While the Tories stand by, Welsh Labour stands up.
Without more powers, however, there is only so much we can do. That is why powers must be given to Cardiff Bay, not hoarded by Westminster after Brexit. We have seen that we cannot trust the Tories with those powers. They promised electrification through to Swansea. It was in their manifesto. The then Welsh Secretary not only assured me, but promised when I challenged him at Question Time back in 2015 that we would have electrification. However, the day before learning of millions in new investment in London with Crossrail 2, we were told the electrification would be cancelled and that instead we would get hybrid diesel trains. As the Secretary of State experienced—it is a pity he is not in his place so I could remind him—those trains are not so reliable. After his finely balanced photo op with the Transport Secretary, the train broke down and started leaking on its inaugural journey.
The people of Wales deserve better than that. And we deserve better than a Government forcing a prison on Port Talbot, against the wishes of the community, in a totally inappropriate site. I agree that we should be investing in better and newer prisons, but they must be in appropriate sites, not right next to schools and retirement homes on marsh land with poor communications. It must be done with the consent of the local community. We need a Government who listen and a Government who will not try to build our future on the cheap. Since 2008, some £78 million has been cut from Neath Port Talbot’s annual budget and it is expected to find an additional £60 million over the next five years. If it manages to achieve that, it will be the equivalent of it scrapping the entire social services budget. It is a textbook example of the Tory strategy of the devolution of blame: Westminster cuts budgets and forces local councils to cut services or to break the law.
As the central Government budget cuts have grown deeper, it has been impossible to sustain many services, but in Aberavon we are a community and we stand together. Residents, service users and the council workforce have all played their part in meeting those savings. Council staff took a voluntary pay cut and the community banded together to take on responsibilities, volunteering their time and experience to keep facilities open, such as the libraries in Taibach, Briton Ferry and Cymmer. Volunteers have worked hard to keep open the Noddfa community centre in Glyncorrwg, the Gwynfi miners hall and the Afan Valley swimming pool and to take control of bowling greens and sports pitches. When the Government have stood by, our community has stood up, but they should not have to. Community action should be in addition to the state, not in place of it.
There are times when I worry for the future of our country. We have a Government short-changing the present: a Government who claim to know the cost of everything, but know the value of nothing, and a Government who seem incapable of taming the Brextremists, whose reckless, hard Brexit would devastate steel communities like those in my constituency. But then I remember the steelworkers willing to make personal sacrifices to save their industry, community and way of life, to save our steel. I remember people standing by the tidal lagoon, despite Government delay and incompetence. I remember the residents standing up for their services.
Above all, I think of the young people in my constituency, in particular the incredible young women of LEAD— the leadership, enterprise, activism and development programme—delivered by RECLAIM. Through LEAD, those 12 and 13-year-old girls from Aberavon are engaging with the issues that face our community and are gaining the confidence and skills, so that they too can be change makers, leading change and making a difference in Aberavon. The girls of PT Perfect have put together their manifesto of the issues that are important to them, such as homelessness, supporting local businesses and giving girls the opportunity to be seen and to be heard. They have campaigned tirelessly on those issues and have engaged actively with a range of community figures about them. Last month, they were in Parliament to mark the centenary of women receiving the vote. This month, they have been selected to appear on stage at the WOW—the Women of the World—festival at the South Bank.
It is for these girls and for the cohort of boys that will start the LEAD programme in a few weeks’ time and for the thousands of youngsters across Aberavon that we need the Westminster Government to change their attitude towards Wales. Labour understands the potential that we have in Wales and is willing to do what is required to allow us to fulfil that potential. The people of Wales deserve better. The people of Port Talbot deserve better and all in our country deserve better, because we have much to give and much to achieve, but to do that we need support from a Government that believe in Wales and will invest in our people.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). I simply want to say a few things. Swansea city region has the biggest urban footprint in Wales. We are also one of the poorest areas of Wales and desperately need our fair share of investment, particularly as we approach Brexit and see convergence funding and the like withdrawn. In particular, it is worth remembering that for £1 billion, which would simply build two and a half miles of HS2, we could provide electrification, halve the journey time between Swansea and Cardiff and provide an electrified Swansea metro. I hope that Ministers will look carefully at that.
We desperately want the lagoon to kick off a global export business that will provide new technology at a time when we are supposed to be looking with seriousness at Paris. We want our fair share of public sector investment. It is unfortunate that the Government seem to be planning for the Land Registry offices in Swansea and Cardiff to merge and go to Cardiff. It is unfortunate that at the moment—I realise this issue is devolved—it looks as though the trauma centre for south Wales may well be in Cardiff and not in Swansea. Indeed, I think that a lot of the major investors, such as the BBC and others, tend to migrate to Cardiff.
This book I have here by Rhodri Morgan reminds me that there was a time when putting money in—such as with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea, the Mint in Llantrisant and when Ford went to Bridgend—that we would think very carefully about how to move things not only out of London, but within Wales. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) said the same thing: we need to disperse the opportunity to grow our economies. There are such things as the lagoon, electrification and hubs and centres of excellence, which might be office space for financial communities and the like, and they need to be moved into places such as Swansea.
We hear about investment in prisons in north and south Wales, but when we talk about investment in prisons, we are basically talking about the opportunity to have people, who might be children now, incarcerated in the future. Instead of thinking of prisons, we should be thinking about investing in the education and economic opportunities to lift people out of poverty. It is absolutely appalling that in Britain today, the age of austerity has meant that for the first time since the 1920s, the bottom 10% of girls now being born are expected to live a shorter amount of time—their life expectancy is going down. We are seeing that the cost of austerity is tens of thousands of premature deaths.
It is time to see a fairer Britain. It is time to see a fairer Wales and a fairer Swansea. I hope that as we approach the challenge of Brexit, the Government will change their ways and invest in economic opportunity on a more egalitarian basis to help, in particular, places such as Swansea to get the tools that they need to achieve the opportunities that they deserve.
I join colleagues who have paid tribute to the work of Lord Crickhowell and Lord Richard. Lord Richard was from Ammanford, my home town, and although I am not that familiar with the work of Lord Crickhowell, I certainly pay tribute to the work of Ivor Richard and his incredible contribution to developing the devolution settlement in our country of Wales.
The Secretary of State’s remarks at the start of the debate largely concentrated on the need for a new UK internal market following the British Government’s decision to set the red line of leaving the EU single market and customs union. I fear that he has missed the crux of the argument. His argument is that the UK Government must maintain full control over the creation of that internal market. As I said during the general debate on Europe on Thursday, I recognise, as somebody who supports Welsh independence, that there would have to be a UK internal market for the British state, if the British state decides to leave the EU single market.
The question is: how will it be constructed? Will it be constructed just by Westminster, or do we accept that we have a multipolar settlement in the UK with four national Governments? It is my firm view that the new UK internal market, if we are to leave the single market—I think that that is completely the wrong decision, by the way—must be constructed and regulated equally by the four Governments. It cannot be a matter for the Westminster Government alone. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) completely opposed devolution. This is a power grab. Indeed, we heard in that debate people talking about the British state being a puppet Government or a vassal country if it did not leave the single market, but that is exactly the fate that now faces Wales as a result of the British Government’s policy.
The shadow Secretary of State concentrated on the tidal lagoon. I agreed fully with her comments and those of many other hon. Members. It seems that the British Government are stalling because of the cost implications of the contracts for difference financing model. I have some sympathy with that, but my counter-argument would be: considering how cheap it is for the British Government to borrow on the bond markets—because of the ultra-loose monetary policy pursued since 2008—why do they not invest directly? It would be far cheaper for us as taxpayers to do that than for the cost to be loaded on to consumers via their energy prices. I therefore have little sympathy with the British Government’s argument that the scheme is unaffordable. The right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) pursued this issue with vigour. He made an excellent speech about the potential of this technology, and I commend him for the manner in which he made that contribution.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), a fellow member of Plaid Cymru, contrasted the SNP Scottish Government’s progressive agenda with that of the Labour Welsh Government. He concentrated on the bedroom tax and the public sector pay cap. The Labour party in Wales fought last June’s general election on the basis that it would scrap the pay cap in Wales, but we have seen little progress. He could also have mentioned tuition fees, because whereas the Scottish Government scrapped them, the Labour party, following a general election in Wales at which it stood on a manifesto pledge to scrap tuition fees, actually raised them as their first act following the election.
The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) talked about numerous people in England accessing health services in Wales and, as usual, gave a passionate performance. I did not agree with a single word he said, but his contributions are always good quality. The hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) made a serious speech in which she highlighted the industrial dispute over pensions that is impacting on lecturers—Plaid Cymru Members stand in solidarity with them—and the importance of the university sector to the city of Cardiff and her constituency in particular. She also mentioned the Erasmus project, which is very important to higher education in Wales and brings in a lot of funding. I bumped into an official dealing with this in Brussels. Countries and regions outside the EU can qualify for and contribute to the Erasmus project. Quebec in Canada does, for example, because of the French-speaking element and the importance of its higher education institutions having a link with French universities. I understand that the Scottish Government are pursuing the matter with vigour, and unilaterally—regardless of what the British Government decide to do. They intend to reach an agreement with the European Union after Brexit to ensure that Erasmus can continue from a Scottish perspective. Unfortunately, we are way behind in Wales, and I think that the Welsh Government need to pursue the matter with vigour as well.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) concentrated on cross-border issues. He highlighted the Pumlumon scheme, of which I was completely unaware. I commend him for his work on that, and I also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake). It sounds very exciting, and I think that it should be pursued on a cross-party basis, because it will be very beneficial for the communities of Ceredigion and Powys.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) is no longer in the Chamber, but I congratulate him on securing the original debate. He talked about the importance of links between the Republic of Ireland and Wales. Much of the commentary on Brexit has been about avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, but equally important to Welsh Members is avoiding a hard border, and a trade border, in the middle of the Irish sea, as that would be hugely problematic for our Welsh ports. There is no doubt that if there are two different borders between the British state and the Republic of Ireland—a soft border on the island of Ireland and a hard border on the Irish sea—trade flows will bypass Welsh ports, as there will be a convenient trade route up through the north of Ireland and across to Scotland and England. That would be hugely detrimental to the economy of the west of our country. The hon. Gentleman also argued passionately that St David’s day should be a bank holiday for the people of Wales. Of course, Plaid Cymru Members totally agree.
The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) made a very passionate speech about the problems facing the steel industry following the implementation of US tariffs, which worry me very much. We seem to be moving into the middle of a global trade war at the very time when we are leaving the protection of the EU customs union. Following the statement made by the Secretary of State for International Trade last week, I asked him what trade defence mechanisms the British state, outside the customs union, would employ against the might of the United States economy. Unsurprisingly he was unable to offer a single idea. These are the sort of problems that we will face if the British Government pursue their policy of leaving the customs union. Indeed, Mr Barnier has said that the UK will have to renegotiate 700 international agreements during the transition phase if we are to stay where we are at the moment.
The British Government believe that they will create great global trade deals with countries such as the United States during that period, and, on top of that, conclude the trade deal with the European Union. It is not going to happen; it is pure fantasy. In view of how far we have progressed with the Brexit process, we urgently need a dose of reality in the political class regarding what is facing us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion highlighted the importance of placing the rural economy at the heart of economic planning. Indeed, he called for a complete rethink of economic policy implementation. My hon. Friend has been here for a very short while on the parliamentary timescale, but he has already made a vital contribution by attacking the major economic problem facing Wales: the brain drain of our young people, and its social and economic consequences.
The hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) spoke passionately about universal credit. I used to work for Citizens Advice, so I know that it is a fantastic organisation. The hon. Gentleman mentioned some pressing and important cases.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) paid tribute to the work of the voluntary sector, and talked about the prophecy of Dewi Sant: “Do the little things”, or “Gwnewch y pethau bychain”. She rightly highlighted the work of community groups in her constituency.
The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) made a powerful speech about the need to resist the Westminster power grab. I could not have put it better myself. I think I shall have to send the hon. Lady a Plaid Cymru membership card. She made some very brave comments about anti-Welsh bigotry, which I believe is the last acceptable form of racism. I am grateful to her for putting her points so powerfully.
The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) rightly highlighted the injustice of the cancelled rail electrification between Swansea and Cardiff. It now takes longer to travel between those cities on the new trains, because they are bigger, and it takes 90 minutes to travel down to London. Our priority must be investing in infrastructure in our own country. We should revisit the decision by the Silk commission that rail infrastructure should be devolved. Unfortunately, that proposal was taken out when the back-room deal between the two main Unionist parties was done during the St David’s day process, and that will cost Wales a lot of investment unless we put things right.
I will leave it there, Mr Speaker, because I think I have taken up my time. Perhaps in future years, we may be able to push for a full day of debate, rather than half a day.
First, may I add my condolences to the families of Lord Crickhowell and Lord Richard, who were two servants of Parliament and of Wales?
Many great themes have been explored by speakers on both sides of the House. On growth deals and city deals, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) and the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), and indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), spoke about the need to speed up the north Wales growth deal—I agree. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) mentioned rural parity with urban areas, which is also a valid point, especially in relation to digital connectivity. The right hon. Member for Clwyd West wanted devolution for north Wales, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) wanted the devolution of policing, and the hon. Members for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) wanted cross-border services and cross-border devolution. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) spoke of a Brexit power grab against the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments.
On green energy, the right hon. Member for Clwyd West spoke about the tidal lagoon, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn. My hon. Friend has coined the term “Energy Island”, and he spoke about the need for Wales to develop a world vision and to be a world leader for green energy. On transport, the right hon. Member for Clwyd West—he is getting a lot of mentions; I agreed with him on many points—talked about the need for electrification of the north Wales railway line and for it to be connected to Manchester airport and HS2.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North said that Wales would bear the brunt of Brexit, with a 10% drop in the Welsh economy, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North said that Brexit brought out bigotry among many people, especially those from England. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn spoke of Welsh-Irish links; as a Welsh-Irish person, I agreed with him entirely. The hon. Member for Monmouth spoke powerfully about the Welsh education system, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) mentioned tertiary education and the negative impact that Brexit will have on the three universities in Cardiff. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) spoke passionately about steel, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). We heard of an attack from both east and west—from the US and China.
Jobs and unemployment were mentioned by several speakers, including the hon. Member for Ceredigion, who spoke about the effects of low wages on child poverty. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) talked about the impact of benefit cuts on the poor, and the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) mentioned the valuable role that the voluntary sector plays in Wales.
In the few minutes left to me, I shall speak about a few of those points myself. There has been great regional inequality since 2010, especially under the strict austerity that has blighted this land for the past eight years. The Welsh Government have lost £1.5 billion from their block grant every year since 2010. Despite those cuts, the Labour Government in Wales are sheltering people and local government from the worst excesses of austerity. Budgets for health, education and local government have all been protected, but the dam is about to break.
Wales needs more help. We hear much talk about the north Wales growth deal, the northern powerhouse and the regional industrial strategy. They are great terms, but where is the beef—where is the money? Talk is cheap, but we want action. Just this month the Government published their response to HS2 with the Crewe hub consultation. That policy area has massive consequences for north Wales but, yet again, there is a complete lack of detail for north Wales.
It is impossible to talk about addressing regional inequalities without referring to Brexit. Only hours ago, in this very Chamber, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury was quizzed on the implications for Irish-Welsh trade, post-Brexit. Once again, there was nothing from the Government to reassure Welsh people, beyond vague platitudes. The people of Wales have benefited from two decades of the highest rate of EU funding. They were hoodwinked in the referendum by members of the Government who told them that Wales would not lose out if they voted for Brexit. Farmers, 58% of whom voted for Brexit, now find that they could lose 40% of their subsidies. They are only now seeing the deceit. The funds that were delivered directly to Wales to help the poorest and most deprived areas of the UK—and of the EU—will now be filtered through London and creamed off to be spent on the Government’s pet projects around the country. Austerity will bite much deeper in Wales without those EU funds to buffer our Welsh economy.
Many Members have spoken on the need for Wales to lead the way on green and low-carbon energy. I was proud to switch on North Hoyle wind turbines off the coast of Rhyl in 2004. Since then, nearly 300 additional offshore turbines have been added off the coast of north Wales. Wales will host a new nuclear power plant on Anglesey, and progress is being made in developing solar farms across Wales. The continued silence of the Government on tidal lagoons is stymying the Welsh Government’s attempt to be one of the greenest nations on earth. Four of the six tidal lagoons for the UK could be located in Wales, which could become a world leader in this new technology. The only thing holding us back is this Conservative Government’s refusal to engage in that vision. This is deeply disappointing. A green Wales would provide economic stimulus, reduce our dependency on foreign—and potentially rogue—states to meet the country’s energy needs, and help in the fight against climate change. We need central Government to back the Welsh Government in developing this vision for Wales.
I want to finish by talking about the impact of austerity on the whole population of the UK and especially that of Wales. Last week, research from the Equality and Human Rights Commission showed that an extra 1.5 million children in the UK would be living in poverty by 2021. About 80,000 of those children living in poverty will be in Wales—that is probably an extra 2,000 in each of our constituencies. After 20 years of falling poverty, it is on the rise again on this Government’s watch. A third of children in this country now live in poverty, along with 16% of pensioners.
The Government have done much to champion employment levels, and this is welcome, but, given the fact that 47% households in poverty have at least one person in work, it is clear that work is not working for those people. Something is fundamentally wrong with the way in which our economy is working. To put it bluntly, we are seeing trends in poverty that were last seen in 1994. Since 2010, the Conservatives have only had one tool in their toolkit, and that is austerity. It is not working, and the people of Wales are bearing the brunt.
In closing, I would like to thank all Members for their contributions today. I remind Ministers that the people of Wales and of the UK want hope, they want vision and they want justice. They are fed up to the back teeth with the eight years of austerity that they have already suffered, and they are appalled at the prospect of another 10 years, as promised by this Government. It is no wonder that the Government lost their majority last year, and we on this side look forward to the next election when we will finish the job and put a Labour Government in power.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd. I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to what has been a fascinating debate. I should like to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his opening contribution, and to congratulate him on the fact that it is two years today since he came into post. I should also like to echo the comments that many Members have made about Lord Crickhowell and Lord Richard, and to offer my condolences to their families.
The last time we debated Wales I was new to my post, and I have attempted to get my Welsh back up to scratch. Since then—some 20 years since I last did Welsh—I have actually done some Welsh language media, and I felt proud about doing that. I am doing my best to reacquaint myself with the language. In fact, I must give the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) credit for comments she made at the Welsh Grand Committee, where she talked about the importance of using the language, even if we stumble and make mistakes, and I am sure that there will be many mistakes.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing the original debate. It was a shame that we could not have it on St David’s day itself but, given how difficult it was for people to get back home, it was a sensible decision. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, St David’s day and Wales Week in London have been a fantastic success, and I was pleased to hold two roundtables during that time—one on the tech industry in Wales and one on tourism in Wales. Tourism is really important for Wales, and we need to do something about the number of people who come to the United Kingdom but do not enjoy the beautiful, spectacular scenery and all that Wales has to offer. It is particularly important that we consider how to get people to go to mid-Wales.
My right hon. Friend touched on some remarkable points in his opening statement and how significant they are for Wales. In just under two weeks, we will see the new devolution settlement come into force in Wales on the same day that Wales puts in place its first devolved taxes, as we provided for in the Wales Act 2014. Not only are we transferring powers to the Welsh Government, but the Budget announced significant fair funding for the Assembly.
Many subjects have been discussed during this debate, including Brexit, transport, growth deals, universal credit, the rural economy, broadband, the NHS, the tidal lagoon, energy, universities, steel, and local organisations such as Rotary and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. There was also mention of bigotry, and let me say clearly from the Dispatch Box that I am proud that I have tried to fight bigotry wherever I can, and I will always stand up for people who are facing discrimination. It is important to recognise, though, that not everybody is bigoted towards the Welsh. At the weekend, I was in my local pub, where most of my friends are English. Everyone has a nickname in the pub, and one of my friends, Mucker, had the grace to shake my hand and congratulate Wales on their strong performance. There is lots of support for us out there.
Turning to the growth deals, the whole point is that we are trying to rebalance the economy. We have heard lots about doing that today, but that is what the growth deals are all about. We need local involvement, because local people, local businesses and local authorities know their areas best and know the uniqueness of the local economies. That is why we are keen to deliver the deals. We already have the £1.2 billion scheme for Cardiff and the £1.3 billion scheme for Swansea, and I am taking a personal interest in the north Wales scheme. In fact, my first official visit after my appointment was to meet the leaders of the north Wales growth deal to show them that I am absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver for north Wales. I am acutely aware of the concerns that north-west Wales should not lose out to the more industrial north-east Wales, and I am keen that the growth deal recognises every single part of north Wales and the contribution that it can make to growing the local economy.
Lord Bourne was in Aberystwyth last Friday to start the discussions on the growth deal in mid-Wales. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) made some important points and is a doughty campaigner on broadband. We are investing money to ensure we get broadband connectivity and we introduced the universal service obligation to try to guarantee that every household has the right to request a minimum broadband speed. We will do everything we can on that, and I hope it may well feature in the emerging growth deal that comes forward.
The Minister will be aware that the roll-out in Wales has been undertaken by BT, along with Welsh Government, UK Government and European Union support. Can he guarantee that if we leave the EU, the UK Government will make up the shortfall, so that we can have full coverage across the whole of Wales?
As I just mentioned, the USO that we put in place seeks to achieve that before we even reach the point the hon. Gentleman mentions. We are committed to delivering it because we recognise its importance.
I also want to address the cross-border issue, because it is important. We have already shown that we are keen on making sure that we maximise the cross- border potential we have. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State held a summit in south Wales not so long ago, and the fact that the tolls are going from the Severn bridge will be a huge transformational project in terms of encouraging that cross-border activity. As the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) mentioned, the area is already starting to see some of the benefits, although I know there will be challenges, too. I was pleased to meet my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) and other members of the all-party group on Mersey Dee North Wales to hear how we can make that cross-border connectivity even more effective in building the economy in north Wales.
We also talked about steel, and I know that many Members rightly have concerns about that. I assure them that the Secretary of State for Wales has spoken recently to the UK trade commissioner to the US to get an update on the latest developments, has met the US ambassador to the UK, has written to the First Minister to update him on the situation and is acutely aware of the issues being faced. The Government have been clear that tariffs are not the right way to address the global problem of overcapacity—a multilateral solution is needed. We will continue to work with EU partners to consider the scope here and the work that will be needed to protect the steel industry as much as possible.
Energy was another issue raised, and I know the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has worked very hard on getting my home island to become a great area for investment in energy. I certainly look forward to working with him in the future. We also heard a discussion on universal credit. I know that there have been issues with it as it has been rolled out, but that is why we have been taking time to roll it out, and to listen and make alterations to it. The old system meant that if someone worked a minute over 16 hours they would lose so much benefit, and that was not a good incentive. We are continuing to monitor this to make sure we get it absolutely right.
International Women’s Day received a number of mentions, including from the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, who referred to Megan Lloyd George, a former Member of this House. I also pay tribute to the 93-year-old constituent of the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) who is serving as a mayor. There is hope for us all yet that perhaps our political careers can carry on long into old age, even for those, like me, who have a very marginal seat.
This has been a great debate, and I am grateful to all Members, from all parts of the House, for the contributions they have made. It is a good testament to the passion we all have for Wales. I know there has been criticism from some Members that Conservative Members do not care about Wales, but I can tell them that we fight day in, day out for Wales. We are passionate about its success. This is why we are all working hard for it, in every level of government here in Westminster, and we will continue to do so, for as long as I am in this role.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Welsh Affairs.