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Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welfare Reform

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of welfare reforms since 2015 on people living in Wales. (905007)

Welfare reforms in Wales are working. Since 2015, 54,000 more people have been employed; 25,000 fewer people are unemployed; and 25,000 fewer people are economically inactive. This demonstrates that welfare reforms are transforming lives across the country. As research shows, universal credit claimants spend more time looking and applying for work than those on previous benefits.

In January, the Wales Audit Office produced a report saying that the Government’s welfare reform policies were contributing to homelessness in Wales. What does the Minister think is causing homelessness in Wales?

We have been taking time to roll out universal credit and have responded to some of the needs and suggestions put forward, which is why people now get two weeks’ extra housing benefit, but I would add that not every council has used its discretionary payments for housing.

If universal credit is such a good thing, why is the Minister’s Government denying some Welsh-speaking people the right to apply for it?

I have already written to my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions about this because I recognise the importance of claimants being able to access the service in the Welsh language. That is exactly why the roll-out has been delayed in areas with a high proportion of people who speak Welsh. In addition, Welsh speakers can access some services via a freephone line.

Some 13% of adults in Wales received treatment for their mental health in 2015, and one in four of the wider Welsh population are thought to live with a mental health condition. Many suffering with mental illness are too ill to work. Last year, I was told by the Government in a response to a parliamentary question:

“No psychologists or psychiatrists are currently employed by Centre for Health and Disability Assessments to conduct work capability assessments.”

Will the Minister join me in requesting a meeting with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss reviewing this policy and ensuring that those suffering from mental illness are properly assessed by professionals and not denied the welfare to which they are entitled?

We have been very careful to consult a wide range of experts—people working for disability charities and medical professionals—to make sure we get these assessments right. The hon. Gentleman is right that mental health needs to be looked at very carefully, and I will take up his invitation: I will meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Network Rail: Electrification

2. If he will discuss with Network Rail its decision to reduce levels of investment in south Wales; and what recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the cancellation of the electrification of the line between Cardiff and Swansea. (905008)

Network Rail’s budget for investment in the Wales route is more than £1.3 billion—record investment in Wales’ railway infrastructure. Passengers in south Wales are also directly benefiting from our £5.7 billion of investment in the new intercity express trains operating from west Wales through Swansea to London.

The Secretary of State knows that Wales has 5% of the population and 6% of the railways yet less than 2% of the investment. Network Rail has just cut £1 billion from its projects, and £700 million has been cut from rail electrification. Will he now promise to support the Swansea bay electrified city metro scheme, alongside alignment, which would reduce the time between Cardiff and Swansea and result in faster, greener connectivity for Swansea bay?

The hon. Gentleman well knows that Wales does not operate in isolation. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), for example, has been campaigning for the Halton curve, which is in England but of course would serve north Wales and link it better with Merseyside, demonstrating how the rail network in Wales does not operate in isolation. I have met Mark Barry, the proponent of the Swansea bay metro. He is undertaking a host of work on it, and we will happily look closely at it, but I point the hon. Gentleman to the need for a decent cost-benefit ratio.

On the subject of electrification of the line to Swansea, is my right hon. Friend aware that the South Wales chamber of commerce, in Swansea, is a darned sight more concerned about there being an old Labour Government in this country destroying industry than about shaving two minutes off a journey time?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The political grandstanding by some Opposition Members does nothing other than undermine potential investment in Swansea. Nor will we take any lectures from a party that left Wales in the same league as Moldova and Albania in not having a single track of electrified railway line.

There is considerable disagreement about the total amount saved by the cancellation of electrification to south Wales—the figures range from £430 million to £700 million—but, irrespective of the total amount saved, does the Secretary of State not agree that there is a compelling case for reinvesting any funds saved by the cancellation in the Welsh network?

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. There are opportunities for new railway investment in Wales. The Department for Transport’s strategic outline business case includes a range of options, one of which is improving access to west Wales; that would be transformed by a Swansea parkway railway station, for which there is a growing demand. We are well aware of the Welsh Government’s interest in linking Aberystwyth and Carmarthen, and I think that those schemes would be complementary.

Before I ask my question, Mr Speaker, I hope you will allow me to mention Tecwyn Thomas, a stalwart of Welsh Labour for many years, who has sadly passed away. He was my agent, and the agent of many Labour candidates in Wales. My colleagues and I send our condolences to Tecwyn’s widow Iris, and to his family.

According to a report from the National Audit Office, the Transport Secretary knew that bimodal trains would not provide the equivalent of electrification and that no trains exist that could deliver the timetable. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Transport Secretary acted against the advice that he was given when he cancelled electrification to Swansea, and that that has resulted in poor execution of Network Rail’s electrification work in south Wales?

Let me also pay tribute to the late member of the Labour party whom the hon. Lady mentioned.

A report from the Public Accounts Committee, to which I refer the hon. Lady, said that the plan for electrification between south Wales and Paddington should be reassessed on a stage-by-stage basis, and that is exactly what we did. Electrification would provide no practical journey time saving between Cardiff and Swansea; passengers would sit on the same train. I think we need to get over that issue. I am seeking to attract investment to Swansea, and constantly criticising the cancellation of a plan that would deliver no practical benefits to passengers does nothing to help that.

In the Transport Secretary’s statement of 20 July 2017, which cancelled the electrification of the line of Swansea, it was proposed that a new pipeline service be established for rail enhancement schemes. However, details of the process, and mechanisms for the development and delivery of the schemes, have not been forthcoming, and no Welsh scheme has yet entered the pipeline. Will the Secretary of State explain what the Transport Secretary is doing to prioritise the funds that Welsh projects so desperately need through that pipeline service?

As I have said, there are a number of options in the strategic outline business case, and it is important for us to use that to assess the merits of the study. The increase in the costs of electrification projects throughout the United Kingdom has naturally caused alarm—I mentioned the report of the Public Accounts Committee earlier—but I am excited by the proposals in the business case. I have already mentioned the potential, and the growing demand, for a Swansea parkway station, as well as a new station at St Mellons. There is a host of opportunities.

UK Administrations: Co-operation

3. What recent steps his Department has taken to improve co-operation between the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments. (905009)

I was always optimistic that discussions with the Welsh Government would result in agreement on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. The agreement that has been reached is testimony to the close intergovernmental working that has taken place and to the spirit of co-operation, and I am still hopeful that the Scottish Government will sign up to it as well.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the agreement—announced last week—between the Welsh Government and the UK Government in respect of clause 11 of the Bill shows what can be achieved when Governments work together constructively for the benefit of the whole United Kingdom and all its peoples?

My hon. Friend has made an extremely important point. I think the agreement demonstrates the maturity of the relationship between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. The Welsh Government recognised the merits of providing certainty and security for businesses and communities. I am still hopeful that we can underline the benefits of the scheme to Scottish businesses and communities, and that we can attract the support of the Scottish Government.

The heavy hand of the Treasury is still delaying investment in north Wales. Will the Secretary of State commit to real devolution, as we in north Wales want the freedom to invest and attract investment ourselves, to improve our infrastructure?

I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the north Wales growth deal that we are currently negotiating between the authorities and businesses in north Wales. I met Ken Skates, the Economy Minister, just last week to discuss it. We are anxious to see greater devolution, but some Assembly Members do not want that, because some areas of north Wales have traditionally felt as isolated from Cardiff Bay as from Westminster.

Will my right hon. Friend extend to the Welsh Government the thanks of many hon. Members of this House for accepting the UK Government’s sensible and pragmatic proposals for resolving the issue of the repatriation of powers, thereby reflecting the fact that Wales voted to leave the European Union in 2016?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question, because he rightly focuses on the practical benefits and the outcomes. I believe that so long as we are focusing on an environment in which business can continue to invest, employ and represent communities in the way we have negotiated with the Welsh Government, that will put us in the strongest position to get the best benefits for every part of the UK.

I am sure that, in the interests of co-operation, the Government would not want to do anything that undermines the devolution settlement. Do they not recognise that the Conservatives are isolated in the Scottish Parliament, where there is a cross-party consensus that the EU withdrawal Bill is not fit for purpose? Will the Secretary of State therefore ensure that the House of Lords is not asked to consider the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill on Third Reading until all the devolved Assemblies have had a chance to pass a legislative consent motion?

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) highlighted, so long as we focus on outcomes—and the Scottish Government focus on outcomes and delivering for Scottish businesses—I am confident we can reach an agreement. The Welsh Government clearly would not undermine the devolution settlement as far as Wales is concerned, and I hope the Scottish Government will see the merits of the certainty and security that we can offer Scottish industry and Scottish business with this agreement.

Policing Budgets

4. What assessment he has made of the effect of changes to policing budgets since 2015 on Welsh police forces. (905010)

The Government understand that police demand is changing and becoming increasingly complex. That is why, after speaking to all forces in England and Wales, we have provided a comprehensive funding settlement which will increase total investment in the police system by over £460 million in 2018-19.

Cardiff hosts more than 400 major events a year—civic, political and royal—as a UK capital city, and on top of the Government’s police funding cuts, my constituents are having to find money to pay an extra £3 million for the annual cost of policing those events, which is the equivalent of 60 police officers. When are the Government going to recognise South Wales police as a capital city force, with proper funding to match?

As I said earlier, we have consulted all the police and crime commissioners and chief constables, as they are ultimately best placed to understand their local needs. Following the police funding settlement, most PCCs have set out plans either to protect or to increase frontline policing this year. I acknowledge the hon. Lady’s point on Cardiff; that is part of a national formula, but I will be happy to meet her if she wants to discuss it further.

Does the Minister agree that policing is not just about budgets and money, although they do matter, but about leadership, strategy and organisation?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I saw an interesting statistic recently: if we increase productivity through the better use of digital technology, we could save each police officer an hour a day, when they could be on the frontline. That would be the equivalent of 11,000 extra police officers a year on the streets of the country.

I, too, extend my condolences to the family of Tecwyn Thomas. He was well known, and was ready to work with other parties, including mine, to the benefit of his area.

Police forces in Wales pay £2 million a year towards the Government apprenticeship levy, yet get virtually no financial support towards training. Skills and education are devolved competences, but this levy was imposed by Westminster—cue entirely predictable confusion and buck-passing. Where was the consent decision to impose a 0.5% tax on major Welsh employers?

In the conversations I have had with many businesses around north Wales, they have welcomed the apprenticeship levy—

Well, I have been round a number of businesses, and they welcome the levy. The fact is that training in Wales is devolved, as the hon. Lady has said, and the amount of money that the UK Government have given to the Welsh Government exceeds the amount that the Welsh Government are spending on training.

I am sure the Minister shares my concern that the word “Orwellian” is overused in contemporary politics, but does he also share my concern that the Orwellian concept of doublespeak is epitomised in what now constitutes devolved consent agreement—namely, consent as agreeing to consent, consent as disagreeing to consent and consent as refusing to consent? How can Wales possibly say no?

There have been extensive discussions with the Welsh Government, and they have recognised that the UK Government have come a long way and that the levy is beneficial to the whole United Kingdom. I hope that other Governments will follow suit.

Order. If the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) wants to come in briefly on this question, he can, but he is not obliged to do so.

9. A recent report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary on the National Police Air Service concluded that the service was financially unsustainable and that flying hours had halved despite the cost of flight hours doubling. Is it not the reality that the centralisation of police air support on an England and Wales basis has been an unmitigated failure, and that the decision of the British Government to steal our dedicated police helicopter in Dyfed-Powys has led to a second-rate service for my constituents? (905015)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the responsibility for overseeing NPAS lies with its strategic board, which is made up of police and crime commissioners and chief constables, including the Dyfed-Powys PCC. Both NPAS and the National Police Chiefs Council have already announced that they are undertaking work to address the issues that he has raised, and Mark Burns-Williamson has said that many of the areas identified in the report have already been recognised and they are doing work to address them.

Rail Links with England

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the adequacy of rail links between Wales and England. (905011)

The Secretary of State and I hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and the Welsh Government on modernising cross-border rail connectivity. Improving connectivity drives economic growth and spreads prosperity to our communities on both sides of the border.

The western rail link to Heathrow—a 4-mile track between Slough and Heathrow—could mean a two-hour journey from Heathrow to Cardiff and Newport and a journey of around three hours to Swansea, not to mention huge economic and environmental benefits. The Welsh Government are in favour of this, the UK Government themselves committed to it in 2012, and yesterday an all-party parliamentary group on the western rail link to Heathrow—co-chaired by the right hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and myself—was launched to remind the Government of their commitment. Will the Minister tell us when the link will finally be built, or are we to be subjected to further sluggish studies and Government procrastination?

I was about to be very complimentary and say that the hon. Gentleman had been a doughty campaigner on this issue, as have many people across the House. The western rail link to Heathrow would significantly improve rail journey times, and it is named in Network Rail’s enhancement pipeline. Network Rail is progressing the design and development of the link, and a final consultation on the proposed alignment is expected to commence this month.

Since the Secretary of State for Transport has agreed to give the power to award the next Cardiff to Manchester rail franchise to the Welsh Assembly, will my hon. Friend give the English MPs through whose constituencies—which include the beautiful towns of Church Stretton, Craven Arms and Ludlow—this line passes some indication of how we can hold the Welsh Government to account on this matter?

It is a line that I have used many times myself, and my hon. Friend is right to say that parts of his constituency are very beautiful. We have ensured that there is an agency agreement between the UK Government and the Welsh Government, so that English passengers—and Members of this House—can go to the Secretary of State for Transport and he can raise their questions directly with the Welsh Government.

Industrial Strategy

6. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the industrial strategy benefits Wales. (905012)

11. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the industrial strategy benefits Wales. (905017)

There are significant opportunities for Wales from the industrial strategy, particularly in relation to innovation, where there is a commitment to raise the total research and development spend to 2.4% of the economy. This is already benefiting Wales, with almost £6 million committed to 17 Welsh partner projects.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but will he outline how he is ensuring that research and innovation, which is a key part of the industrial strategy in Wales, is recognised across the world?

My hon. Friend is a key campaigner for the steel industry, and I draw his attention to the Swansea bay city deal and the industrial strategy, which has established a new national Steel and Metals Institute, not only offering long-term viability to the industry in Wales, but complementing his constituency’s interests.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answers so far. Does he agree that the combination of scrapping the Severn tolls and the cross-border commitment to the industrial strategy represents a significant boost for south Wales, mid-Wales and even south-west England?

My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to our commitment to scrap the Severn tolls by the end of this year, which will benefit south-west England and his constituency, as well as the south Wales economy. We are developing a new economic region and the industrial strategy commits to cross-border growth corridors. There is a great deal of excitement in south Wales and the south-west.

In view of the lack of news about a sector deal for steel—[Interruption]—coupled with looming trade disruption caused by US steel tariffs, what is the Secretary of State doing in Cabinet to press for action to get the UK—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Lady has been overwhelmed by just how popular she is. We will just have to hear the question again from start to finish.

In the light of the lack of news about a sector deal for steel, coupled with the looming trade disruption caused by US steel tariffs, what is the Secretary of State doing in Cabinet to press for action to get the UK steel sector a more sustainable future? When is the next Steel Council?

I have already referred to the national Steel and Metals Institute at Swansea University, which is important for the sustainability of the steel sector. On the US trading arrangements on steel, the UK and European exemption was extended last week, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has travelled to the US specifically to discuss the matter. I have also raised the matter with the US ambassador here, and we are optimistic.

At the heart of the industrial strategy is a commitment to 5G connectivity for businesses in Wales. Most businesses across Wales, including in my constituency, have little or no connectivity and slow connections. The Secretary of State has been warned by the CBI that the industrial strategy must be achievable. Is all this not just pie in the sky for businesses that are not connected at the moment?

I point to the commitment to the Swansea bay city deal and to our ambition for Cardiff to be a 5G testbed, and we are excited for the opportunities that they will bring. As for connectivity, the Welsh Government have a significant responsibility and, although they have recently committed more money, I ask them to look at their planning rules. The highest that a mast can be in Wales is 15 metres, whereas masts can go to 25 metres in England.

Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon

7. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the effect on the Welsh economy of the Government not yet having made a decision on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. (905013)

I have regular discussions with Ministers at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on energy matters pertaining to Wales, including the potential role that tidal could play in our energy mix. As I have said previously, it is an untried technology, so it is quite right that we take time to consider both the opportunities and challenges that it presents.

Will the Secretary of State now make a statement on the timetable for a decision on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon? Has he asked his colleagues in BEIS to commit to such a timetable?

I have regular discussions with my colleagues in BEIS and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about the project. We would like it to go forward, but it must provide value for money, so it is right that we take time to consider the matter. Data has been shared with the Welsh Government, demonstrating the partnership approach that we are determined to take, but no one should want the project to go ahead if it does not represent good value for money for the taxpayer.

Leaving the EU: Welsh Economy

8. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on the Welsh economy of the time being taken to legislate on the UK leaving the EU. (905014)

14. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on the Welsh economy of the time being taken to legislate on the UK leaving the EU. (905021)

The agreement reached between the UK Government and the Welsh Government on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will ensure that we exit from the EU with the certainty and continuity that businesses and communities across Wales have called for.

Will the Minister reassure the House, and businesses across Wales, by confirming that arrangements will be put in place to ensure that new trade deals negotiated after we leave the European Union do not undermine devolved policies?

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman is looking at the opportunities that leaving the European Union provides. Obviously, exports from Wales to the rest of the world are expanding at a much quicker rate than exports to the European Union, which demonstrates that businesses are already looking to those new opportunities, and more Members are looking to those opportunities as we have them.

My constituent Damian Harris owns a cycle shop in Cardiff North but is struggling because of the uncertainty caused by Brexit. Twenty-nine of the 30 bikes he stocks come from the EU and, at the very least, he needs a customs union to have any sort of viable future. We are now hearing that 60 Tory MPs are plotting to sink their own Government to force the Prime Minister to abandon any form of customs arrangement. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that he will work with the Welsh Government and speak up against that decision? A low-skilled workforce and—

Order. We are grateful for the hon. Lady’s thoughts but, unfortunately, one has to take account of the situation in the Chamber. The question needed to be a bit shorter.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is absolutely clear that we will be leaving the customs union but, of course, we are keen to negotiate to allow for the most frictionless trade possible with the European Union. We are also keen to take the new opportunities that leaving the European Union provides. We are keen to strike trade agreements right around the world, and to strike free trade agreements in due course.

My right hon. Friend will know that Labour’s economic development spokesman in the Welsh Government, Ken Skates, has spoken of the fact that Wales is receiving record amounts of inward investment. He said that Wales is “punching above its weight” at the moment. Is it not time that Labour Members started to listen to their own economic development Minister in Wales and stopped talking down the Welsh economy, which is booming under this Government?

Having met international investors from Japan, Qatar, the US and elsewhere over recent months, I am excited and optimistic about our prospects outside the European Union. Yesterday it was a privilege to be part of the inaugural flight from Qatar to Cardiff, which demonstrates that the industrial strategy, and the wider approach taken by the UK Government in seeking new markets, is already working.

Reoffending Rates

Continuing the success of the “Wales reducing reoffending strategy”, the Prison Service in Wales, working with the Welsh Government, recently launched a joint framework to support those at risk of offending in Wales by focusing on early intervention to reduce the number of people entering the criminal justice system.

Does my hon. Friend agree it is vital that prison governors prepare offenders for life outside prison? For that purpose, will he therefore draw on the lessons from the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which has already been implemented in England?

My hon. Friend knows more about the Homelessness Reduction Act than anyone, and I congratulate him on the hard work he did to introduce the Act. He will be pleased to hear that the Ministry of Justice recently reached its target early to recruit 2,500 additional prison officers so that prisons can start to introduce a key worker model. This new model will mean prisoners have a dedicated officer to help them access services, many of which are devolved in Wales.