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Volume 642: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2018

The Secretary of State was asked—

Universal Credit

Universal credit is already operating in 15 jobcentres across Wales, with a further nine scheduled for roll-out this month. The number of people receiving universal credit in Wales is now over 40,000, and 36% of them are in employment. Wales’s jobcentres are in the latter part of the roll-out schedule and will be fully in place by December this year.

My constituent suffers from Huntington’s and early onset dementia. As a result of a 10-week delay to receive universal credit, her rent arrears went up £1,000. A couple of weeks ago, she attempted suicide. Thankfully, I managed to help her on this, but there may be other cases in Wales just like it. Will the Secretary of State work with his colleagues and revise this damaging policy?

I obviously cannot comment on the individual case, but I am sorry that the hon. Lady’s constituent was in that position. We have tried to do everything we can to ensure that the roll-out has been as smooth and as slow as possible, and where we have had issues such as those that she raised, we have made changes. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made the announcement in the Budget about the changes—we want to deal with the housing issues that she raises.

The IPPR, Shelter Cymru, the National Assembly’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, the Bevan Foundation and the Trussell Trust all argue that Wales should have the same powers that the Scottish Government have been using so effectively to mitigate this Government’s horrendous social security cuts. Why will the Conservative Government here and the Labour Government in Cardiff not make it happen?

My understanding is that there has never really been consensus on devolving this to Wales. I also point out that the Scottish Government have many of these powers and are yet to use them.

In Scotland, the transfer from disability living allowance to personal independence payment has resulted in a total of more than £56 million being lost in annual payments. In my constituency, the total loss to people with disabilities is over £2 million a year, so what assessment has the Secretary of State made of a similar impact on disabled people in Wales?

The reason we have introduced PIP is to make sure that people who are living with disabilities are able to have as independent a life as possible. The problem with the old system of DLA is that people were given the payment and their needs were never reassessed. That is the reason why with PIP, we are making regular assessments, so that as those conditions may deteriorate, they will get more support. I also point out that more people are getting the higher rate of PIP than they did of DLA.

Will the Minister reflect on the fact that it is welcome that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has put measures in place to make sure that there is no delay in people getting universal credit, and that it is worth reminding people that universal credit means that it always pays to take a job, and that people are better off as they move up the income scale in work? Those are the important benefits of the policy that people need to be reminded of every day of the week.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. People who are on universal credit are spending 50% more time looking for a job than they did on jobseeker’s allowance. They are getting into work quicker and when they are staying in work, they are staying there longer. The figures are quite staggering: 86% of people on universal credit are looking to increase their hours, because they can do so, compared with just 38% on JSA.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ own figures show that 44% of universal credit claimants have seen their arrears rise by the time that they are nine months into their claim. Many of these claimants are vulnerable because they have issues with mental ill health, literacy and using computers, or they may have experienced domestic violence and recent bereavement. Whatever the reason, nearly half of them are suffering financially as a result of universal credit. Will the Minister and his team meet Opposition Members and advice agencies from Wales to discuss these issues and to see how we can improve this dreadful situation?

There are a number of reasons why people who come to universal credit have arrears—I presume that the hon. Gentleman is talking about housing costs arrears and rent arrears. Some of those people had arrears when they were on JSA. That said, we have listened very carefully. That is why in the Budget we made provision that from now on, people who are going on to universal credit will have two weeks’ extra payment to address that need.

Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. (905728)

I have regular discussions with Ministers at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on energy matters pertaining to Wales. A statement on the proposals for the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon will be made in due course.

The Swansea Bay tidal lagoon is vital to Britain’s future energy supplies and is the first of many major schemes to harness the vast marine energy resources around our shores to generate electricity and switch the country to renewables, to reduce and prevent climate change. That is now urgent. Given that, among other things, the Welsh Government have offered to help pay for it, when are the Government going to stop dithering and make the scheme happen?

I would really like the tidal lagoon to go ahead, but of course it must prove to be value for money. Tidal projects could have a positive energy potential, but of course they must deliver value for money for the taxpayer. A number of proposals have been made, and I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is supportive of just the project he mentions or marine and tidal projects in general.

The Secretary of State is fast becoming the grim reaper of Welsh politics—the bearer of bad news. When he pulls the plug on the lagoon there will be huge public anger in Wales. Many people back in the motherland will be left asking not only what the point of the current Secretary of State is, but what the point of having a colonial Secretary at all is.

I am disappointed with the tone the hon. Gentleman takes. I would hope that he would recognise the fair funding settlement that we got for Wales—something that the Labour party ignored for 13 years; the Severn tolls announcement; and the city and growth deals that we have got. For Swansea there is a £1.3 billion scheme, and the Cardiff scheme is the biggest in the UK. I hope that demonstrates the value that a Secretary of State for Wales can bring.

Electrification—we have not had it. Tidal lagoon—if the Financial Times is to be believed, we are not going to have it. When is the Secretary of State going to start speaking up for the people of Wales?

No announcement has been made on the tidal lagoon because we are still looking at the numbers. We are doing anything and everything possible to try to make this fit. The hon. Lady should not want it to go ahead if it is not good value for money for the taxpayer. She will be well aware that Tata is an energy-intensive industrial site right next door to the site for the proposed tidal lagoon. I do not think she or any other Member would want to increase energy prices in a way that could put those jobs at risk.

Will the Secretary of State point out to the Business Secretary that once nuclear energy commands 12% of global output, we will run out of uranium in 10 years and the price will go up, as will the price of fossil fuels, because we cannot use 80% of them if we are to fulfil the Paris agreement, whereas the price of energy from the lagoon will go down over 100 years? Will the Secretary of State point that out, rather than just sit there doing nothing?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman mentions the Wylfa project, because it is a great demonstration of the Government being prepared to look at the financial model and adjust it in order to make projects happen. It will be the biggest infrastructure project in Wales for well over 30 years, and it provides fantastic prospects. I hope that tidal and marine energy could offer the same, but we should want a scheme only if it is good value for money.

When the people of Wales and the Welsh Labour Government can see the merit of the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon to the extent that they are prepared to invest more than £200 million to achieve the benefits in jobs, growth and cheap, clean renewable power, why will the Secretary of State’s UK Tory Government not even go as far as to sign the same deal they have already concluded with the French and Chinese Government to pay £92.50 per megawatt-hour for nuclear electricity that will be produced at Hinkley C for the next 35 years?

The hon. Lady raises an important point, because she talks about projects that are value for money. Of course £92.50 was rightly highlighted as extremely expensive at the time, and we said that that would be the highest we would pay for such energy projects. We have already said that the tidal lagoon, under the current proposals, would be twice the price of nuclear, so clearly we would not want to be in that position. I should add that I really want this project to happen if it is good value for money for the taxpayer, and my record is strong. I was the one who took Tidal Lagoon Power to meet the special advisers at No. 10 at the very beginning of this process in 2012, and it was from that moment on that the project was taken seriously.

The whole of Wales is waiting for this decision, because the tidal lagoon project is not just about Swansea. If the Secretary of State’s UK Tory Government accept Carwyn Jones’s kind offer, tidal lagoons for Cardiff, Colwyn Bay and Newport will quickly become real prospects. They could bring jobs and prosperity to the whole of Wales and boost our vital steel industry. This is about the development of technological innovation and bringing it to the point of full commercial productivity. That is what we do in Wales, in stark contrast to the way the Government have proceeded. Were the Government to participate in a general election in the next few months, what exactly would the Secretary of State be able to claim as the industrial or infrastructure achievement that they have delivered for the people of Wales?

I sometimes wonder whether the hon. Lady’s questions are more in the manner of an academic thesis. I trust that they will be published, because they are in Hansard.

The hon. Lady referred to the Welsh Government’s commitment of £200 million, but that is merely a small fraction of the cost of the proposal. We are working with the Welsh Government: we have shared our financial analysis of the project and they have not rejected or pushed back on the sharing of that data. That demonstrates the collaborative approach to the project that we want to take. I point out to the hon. Lady that the city and growth deals throughout every part of Wales are a good demonstration of the industrial strategy and of how the UK Government are committed to development and growth in Wales.


3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretaries of State for (a) Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and (b) Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on promoting Wales as a tourist destination; and if he will make a statement. (905729)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, including about how we work together to promote Wales across the globe. Along with the Minister responsible for tourism, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), I recently met key figures from our tourism sector to discuss the industry in Wales and the important role that the UK Government and VisitBritain have to play.

Whether it be the beautiful beaches of the Gower peninsula, on which I entice my hon. Friend to join me one day, the Clink restaurant in Cardiff prison, or whitewater rafting—I could go on and on—

But I won’t; does my hon. Friend agree that the tourism offer in south Wales will be enhanced by the removal of tolls on the Severn crossing?

Given my hon. Friend’s participation in the programme “First Dates”, I am somewhat perturbed by his proposition. Anyway, I agree that the removal of the tolls will show that Wales is open for business and that we are determined to get people to come and visit the wonderful sights on offer in south Wales and throughout the country.

The fastest-growing industry in Wales is tourism, and as the Minister will know, the jewel in its crown is Anglesey, Sir Môn. Many businesses have been helped to establish themselves by the European social fund; how will that gap be filled post Brexit? Those businesses need the UK Government’s help.

Having been born and brought up on Anglesey, I have to agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a wonderful place to visit. The European funding systems have been very complex and a source of frustration for businesses. We want to ensure that the UK prosperity fund is far more effective for exactly the industries that the hon. Gentleman refers to.

The 24 policy areas held back by Westminster in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill have now, with Labour’s seal of approval, been increased to include state aid. Why are the Government deliberately intervening to deny Wales the means to help ourselves?

The Government are absolutely determined to make sure that our exit from the EU is as smooth as possible and benefits every part of the United Kingdom. We will make sure that in that process, we fight Wales’s corner in every part of Whitehall.

Last night, the Unionist parties showed their complete contempt for devolutionists by collaborating to ensure that we had no longer than 18 measly minutes to debate the fate of our national democracies. Is this another attempt by Westminster to defeat what a former Prime Minister once described as the “enemy within”?

I have the utmost respect for the hon. Lady, but I completely disagree with her. I am a proud Unionist and I am also proud to be Welsh. I have to say that it was not Members on the Conservative Benches who curtailed the debate; it was the Opposition, who pushed every single Question to a Division.

It may be a small thing, but one way of attracting tourism to Wales is to clean up our verges and our roads. There is nothing worse than coming to Wales and seeing rubbish thrown across the sides of the valleys. What are the Government doing to speak to the Welsh Assembly and local councils to ensure that they are cleaning up their roads to attract more people to Wales?

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is actually issues such as that that matter a great deal to people and give a good impression. That is exactly why we have given more and fairer funding, to the Welsh Government. My understanding is that it is £120 per head at the moment.

Heathrow Expansion: Benefits for Wales

Heathrow airport is an asset for the whole of the United Kingdom and we will make sure that the benefits of expansion are shared as widely as possible.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the logistics hubs are absolutely vital to ensure that places such as Wales and Scotland benefit from Heathrow’s expansion plans?

My hon. Friend is right, and I know that he is keen to gain a logistical hub in Scotland, which demonstrates that Heathrow airport expansion is a project not just for London and the south-east, but for the whole of the UK. I was in Shotton just a couple of weeks ago, one of the potential sites for a logistical hub, so I suspect that we may be in competition.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the demand for the Heathrow rail spur link is of paramount importance now, and that the original date for implementation and opening of 2020 should be adhered to?

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Public transport is an important part of the expansion of Heathrow, including the western rail link. I am as keen as she is to see that progress as quickly as possible.

I welcome the moves that my hon. Friend is taking to ensure that Wales benefits from Heathrow expansion. I have a Heathrow hub in my constituency, just on the other side of the Severn. Aside from removing the tolls on the Severn bridge, which is an excellent thing to do, what else is he doing to try to strengthen economic links between the south-west of England and Wales?

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, because the removal of the Severn tolls creates a great opportunity to create and generate a new economic region. I held a Severn growth summit in Wales in January, and more people attended from the south-west of England than from Wales, which demonstrates the will to combine the capacity of the area to compete with the northern powerhouse, the midlands engine and London and the south-east.

Liverpool and Manchester airports serve north Wales. Will the Secretary of State ensure that those airports, which want further contacts with Heathrow, are not relegated to a position behind Heathrow on the issue of service access to airports?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He talks about Liverpool and Manchester. Part of the condition of the expansion of Heathrow airport and the construction of the third runway relates to the protection of 15% of slots for regional airports around the UK, and Liverpool and Manchester stand to benefit significantly from that.

Community Transport

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the potential effect on community transport providers in Wales of changes to the way in which section 19 and 22 permits are issued. (905732)

Community transport operators provide vital services to the people of Wales. The Government have recently consulted on how to align domestic law on section 19 and 22 permits with EU legal obligations, as well as updating existing guidance on permits. We are now analysing the responses and will respond in due course.

As the Minister said, community transport operators in Wales have many valuable functions, including helping isolated people get to the shops, doctors, friends and family. They will be hit very hard by Government changes in terms of extra licensing and certification. The Community Transport Association says that this will affect 95% of operators, so what will the Minister do to help the Department for Transport listen and make changes?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that community transport operators provide vital services, particularly in Wales, where there are an estimated 2 million passenger journeys over a total of 6 million miles. But we do have to align ourselves with the EU regulations, so we are consulting widely and looking at the responses in detail to ensure that we come up with the right answers.

The Minister will be aware that community transport providers along the Welsh border play a vital role in helping patients get to hospital and undertake some school contracts. I encourage him to speak to his colleagues in the Department for Transport to ensure that these vital services continue, irrespective of the court ruling, so that these services can be maintained in rural areas.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. These services often carry some of the most vulnerable and isolated members of society, which is why we are being careful to consult widely. I assure him that I already have an appointment in the diary with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman).

Bridgend Community Transport has some specific concerns about having to employ a transport manager costing in excess of £35,000. There is a real risk of that if the regulations go through after the consultations by the Department for Transport. May I ask the Minister, with all sincerity, to please be aware that these measures will have real implications if the Government simply do nothing to support community transport organisations?

I am aware of the real concerns of many operators. I have seen a lot of letters that have come in. There have been more than 500 responses to the consultation, and 550 operators attended each of the events around the country. We will ensure that we look at this in detail. [Interruption.]

Order. We are listening to exchanges about the effect of section 19 and 22 permits on community transport providers in Wales, upon which we need to hear the inquiry of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke).

Will my hon. Friend press his colleagues in the Department for Transport to query the legal advice that has changed the interpretation of these European Community rules, because it seems to be ultra-cautious? Will he ensure that genuine community services with unpaid, voluntary drivers and unpaid staff—providing services that no commercial operator would provide—are not put out of business by quite unnecessary regulations and costs?

Yes, indeed, in Wales, Mr Speaker. Well, I defer to my right hon. and learned Friend’s expertise in all matters legal. I would therefore, perhaps, in preparation for my meeting with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, ask for my right hon. and learned Friend’s guidance and advice so that I can present a case for the people of Wales.

Air Pollution: Chepstow

7. Whether he has had discussions with local councillors in Monmouthshire on air pollution in Chepstow; and if he will make a statement. (905733)

I have met Monmouthshire county councillors and share their concerns regarding air pollution around Chepstow. The abolition of the tolls on the Severn crossings represents a huge opportunity for economic growth in Chepstow and Monmouthshire, but we must also be alive to those sorts of pressures.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the interest that he has taken in this issue. Will he continue to press the Welsh Labour Government to fulfil their obligations by building a Chepstow bypass and showing the same commitment to clean air and a better environment that is being shown by this Conservative Government?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has established a strategic roads group in Britain, in which we can discuss cross-border issues. A meeting was held just last week. I am disappointed that the Welsh Government were not present, but we can continue to engage on a positive basis to ensure that these cross-border opportunities are exploited to the best of our ability.

I was about to say to the hon. Gentleman that Ceredigion is a considerable distance from Chepstow, but I am sure that he will construct his question in terms that make it orderly.

14. My colleague Simon Thomas is leading the way on tackling air pollution and has proposed a clean air Act for Wales. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a case for transferring responsibility for fuel duty income so that the National Assembly has the additional resources to tackle air pollution? (905740)

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point about air quality, which is why the Government have launched their clean air strategy. There have been significant improvements in this field since 2010, but we absolutely recognise the challenges. I am not sure about the second element of his question, which relates to further devolution of fiscal policy.

Steel Industry

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the steel industry in Wales. (905735)

13. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the steel industry in Wales. (905739)

I regularly discuss the role of Welsh steel plants in supporting a successful UK steel industry with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. We remain committed to supporting the sector to remain competitive in a challenging global marketplace.

US steel tariffs represent a major threat to the Welsh steel industry, so what are the Government doing not only to get the US to see sense, but to limit the threat of displaced steel being dumped in the UK and further undermining our steel industry?

The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has raised this matter directly with the President of the United States. The Secretary of State for International Trade has also raised it with his counterpart, and I have spoken to the UK’s trade commissioner in the US and to the US ambassador here in the UK. It is only by working with the European Union on these issues that we can bring about the best pressure. I am confident that the UK can play a leading part in those negotiations.

It is estimated that 100,000 tonnes of steel will be needed for the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, so what representations has the Secretary of State made to his colleagues to show that scrapping the project would mean denying the Welsh steel sector that vital opportunity?

We had a series of questions on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon earlier, and we said that the project should only go ahead—I would really like it to go ahead—if it represents good value for money for the taxpayer. The hon. Lady notes the amount of steel that would be needed, but that is less than a month’s output for a major steel plant. The project has an important procurement role, but it should not be overstated.

North Wales Growth Deal

10. What recent discussions he has had with the north Wales economic ambition board on the progress of the north Wales growth deal. (905736)

I am meeting the leaders of the growth board later today to discuss the progress they are making towards a deal, and last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met members of the CBI in north Wales to hear what business needs. I remain committed to securing a deal, but it must deliver a step change in economic activity.

North Wales has a thriving voluntary sector and some excellent social enterprises. What engagement are Ministers in the Wales Office having with them?

The hon. Lady might be interested to know that I have met every single council leader in north Wales—I had a particularly good conversation with the leader of Conwy Council about this issue—and I am encouraging them to involve the sector in the growth deal bid.

Leaving the EU: Benefits for Wales

The Welsh economy approaches EU exit from a position of strength. Leaving the EU will allow us to shape our own ambitious trade and investment opportunities, in Europe and beyond, and put Wales and the wider UK at the forefront of global trade and investment opportunities.

Some 67% of Welsh exports are to the European Union. Yesterday, the Office for National Statistics reported that manufacturing in our country declined by the greatest amount in the past five years, and Ernst and Young says that our exports are nosediving. How is Brexit going to help?

I would say in the first instance that the hon. Gentleman is calling for a second referendum, which would create the greatest uncertainty for the UK, both economically and constitutionally. I also point out that exports from the UK are growing, and at a faster rate than areas outside the European Union, and he well knows that exports from Wales cannot be taken in isolation without considering the wider procurement and networking of businesses across the UK.

15. Wales and Cornwall have benefited from objective 1 funding and subsequent funding. What discussions has the Secretary of State had on the shared prosperity fund and how its funding will be allocated? (905741)

My hon. Friend is obviously very interested in how the successor to European aid programmes will work, as I am in relation to west Wales and the valleys in general. We have committed to a UK shared prosperity fund, which will allow us—this is one of the benefits of leaving the European Union—to come up with a much simpler and more targeted approach that can help the poorest communities across the UK.


12. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on supporting Welsh companies to export. (905738)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I hold regular discussions with colleagues on the promotion of Welsh exports, and I am pleased to say that those exports continue to grow. The latest figures show that the value of exports from Wales, including those to destinations outside the EU, increased by more than 7% over the past year.

E-commerce gives even the smallest Welsh businesses the opportunity to get into exporting. What will the Department do to encourage the use of e-commerce among small and medium-sized businesses in Wales?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention that. Indeed, a good example is Net World Sports in Wrexham. That is an example of Welsh success in the retail market. Over 60% of its sales were in foreign markets last year, and it has won numerous industry awards in recognition of its success. There will be more of that in the future.

When the Government Chief Whip is comfortably seated—I do not want him to be discombobulated—and the Under-Secretary of State for Wales is happily seated, we will proceed to questions to the Prime Minister.