The Secretary of State was asked—
EU Withdrawal Agreement
With your permission, Mr Speaker, before I answer the questions, may I say that I am sure the House will want to join me in paying tribute and respect to Assembly Member Steffan Lewis, who sadly died just over a week ago? He was a bright and dedicated politician who had an exceptional future in front of him, with so much to offer Wales. My prayers and thoughts are with his wife, Shona, and son, Celyn, at this most difficult time.
I can update the House that the UK air accidents investigation branch is working with the relevant rescue and transportation authorities in relation to Emiliano Sala and the pilot who went missing on Monday evening. I am sure that the whole House wishes to join me in hoping for a positive outcome.
The Government are working to identify the broadest possible consensus on a way forward so that we leave the European Union in a smooth and orderly manner. We are engaging with Members on both sides of the House and with representatives of business groups, civil society, trade unions and others.
A recent report by The UK in a Changing Europe has found that almost half of all respondents oppose the Prime Minister’s deal, with only 23% in support. How can the Secretary of State reconcile his position of being Wales’s champion in Westminster when this place is working contrary to Welsh public opinion?
In the first instance, I remind the hon. Lady that Wales voted to leave the European Union in even stronger numbers than the rest of the United Kingdom. The withdrawal agreement sets out the basis on which, and how, we will leave the European Union. In the light of last week’s votes, we are determined to make amendments and to develop a document in consultation with colleagues across the House in order to win the House of Commons’ support.
May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about Steffan Lewis? He and I worked together as young researchers in the National Assembly for Wales. We must remember the words of our colleague Jo Cox that we do have a lot more in common across this House and across the devolved institutions.
Will the Secretary of State simply rule out now, and make representations to the Prime Minister to rule out, no deal, so that the automotive industry in Bridgend—Ford in Bridgend employs many of my constituents—can have certainty beyond March? This continuing planning for no deal is providing no certainty to anybody.
I would say to the hon. Gentleman that the best way of avoiding no deal is obviously to get a deal. It was interesting that the hon. Gentleman voted against the deal last week. We will continue to engage across the House and with the devolved Administrations, and we are optimistic that we will continue to make amendments to the document that will gain a deal with the European Union.
In an excellent briefing on the 9th, organised by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on the effects of leaving the European Union on businesses in Northern Ireland, I was told the slightly unknown fact that 40% of Northern Ireland perishable food exports come through Holyhead. This fact was not known to the people I met then, and is perhaps not known to other Members of this House. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of a no deal on the supply chains that sustain the exports of such foods through the port of Holyhead, and will he confirm what steps he is taking personally to mitigate that impact?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the port of Holyhead. It is the second busiest port in the UK during the summer months, but of course all year round it is pretty critical to the supply chain, particularly for foodstuffs that come from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. A ports working group has been in place for quite some time—it involves the UK Government, the Welsh Government and the relevant UK Government agencies—to plan for a deal, and also to plan for no deal, as a responsible Government would do.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that voters in Wales will not forgive this place if we fail to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum, and that businesses in Wales will not forgive us if we create a set of circumstances that makes their job of creating jobs in Wales even harder? Given those two imperatives, does my right hon. Friend agree that actually passing a withdrawal agreement—passing a deal—is absolutely essential now?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. He obviously recognises the importance of gaining a deal, and I have no doubt he will play a significant part in working with the Government and influencing colleagues in understanding the opportunities and the challenges that we face. He is absolutely right: the ports in Pembrokeshire are extremely important to the Welsh economy—my right hon. Friend regularly highlights those—but he also understands the importance of agriculture and manufacturing, and why a deal is so important to those sectors, too.
What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the opportunities for Wales, once we leave the European Union, of more jobs and investment, and also of the potential for Wales to boom, as opposed to the doom and gloom of the Labour party?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question. He will be well aware that, in the past quarter, the UK economy was growing faster than the eurozone economy—the UK grew by 0.6% while the German and Italian economies went into decline. That highlights some of the opportunities that we face but, of course, we can grasp them in the smoothest way only if we manage to get a deal with the European Union.
Given that the Wales CBI has said that a no-deal Brexit will see a £7 billion annual fall in Welsh manufacturing output and output generally in the economy, will he, for goodness’ sake, simply admit that a no-deal Brexit will be bad for Wales? Before he responds, let me say that I do not want a Maybotic answer.
The hon. Gentleman will know that there are many predictions in economic forecasts, but they are forecasts rather than fact. He will have predicted a recession after the 2010 general election—he may well have even predicted a double or treble-dip recession—but I hope that he will recognise the fantastic employment data that was published yesterday showing record numbers of people in work in Wales. The inactivity rates in Wales are at staggeringly positive numbers, matching the rest of the UK for the first time since records began.
I echo the words of the Secretary of State with regard to Steffan Lewis and Emiliano Sala.
The Secretary of State voted for the Prime Minister’s disastrously flawed withdrawal agreement—he was one of the few, not the many. Will he explain why the Government pretend that nothing has changed, despite their suffering the biggest defeat in parliamentary history?
It is no secret that the House did not support the deal that was presented to it last week, but we are committed to working with colleagues across our own Benches, and across the House, to come forward with a proposal that can gather the support of the House of Commons and, obviously, to negotiate with the European Union in order to get a deal. I am sure that the hon. Lady would much prefer to see a deal and I challenge her to say whether she was comfortable being in the same Lobby as some colleagues, from all parts of the House, who would like to see no deal.
I think that that was a Cairnsbotic answer.
Yesterday, the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, cleared Government business in the Welsh Assembly so that he and his Cabinet Ministers could make urgent statements on how a no-deal outcome would be so disastrous for the people of Wales. Will the Secretary of State tell us if he will be voting for amendments put forward in this House to avoid a no-deal outcome, or will he, like his Prime Minister, put party before country?
I can advise the House that the UK Government have laid 75 statutory instruments at the Assembly’s request. We have had countless meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee and the Prime Minister has agreed to invite the First Minister to the European Union Exit and Trade (Preparedness) Sub-Committee. I hope that that demonstrates the joint work that is taking place. The hon. Lady talks about putting party interests first. I cannot understand why the First Minister of Wales is happy to meet the Prime Minister—they will be meeting later today—but the Leader of the Opposition refuses to meet her to discuss the prospect of a deal, yet seems always happy to meet the IRA.
UK Shared Prosperity Fund
EU structural funds have been crucial for communities across Wales, and it is vital that Wales must not be left behind—we need that assurance. Why has it taken so long to get any detail from the Government on the shared prosperity fund, not least the consultation, which was promised by the Government before Christmas?
I agree that the UK shared prosperity fund will be extremely important to all parts of the UK. My specific interest is protecting Welsh interests in the development of that policy. On 14 January, I spoke to the Welsh Government’s Brexit Minister, Jeremy Miles, to update him on the latest stages of the plans for consultation, and I also committed to sharing that with him before we formally consult. Of course we want to engage with a whole load of stakeholders. There is widespread recognition that the current structure does not work, and we have an opportunity to get it right.
Between 2014 and 2020, Wales will have received £2.4 billion in structural funding, or over 20% of the total UK allocation of EU funds. Will the UK Government ensure that Wales continues to receive at least an equivalent share of funding from the shared prosperity fund?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, in which he highlights some of the most recent data. The complete data on the period since European structural funding was introduced show that more than £4 billion has been spent over 17 years, but I am sure he agrees that we have not always got the best value out of that investment—there are several audit reports to that effect. Of course, any quantum of the UK shared prosperity fund is a matter reserved for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor during the comprehensive spending review.
Given the not unreasonable concern in north Wales about Hitachi’s decision to suspend development of Wylfa B, is my right hon. Friend willing to meet representatives of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board to discuss ways in which the shared prosperity fund may be used to support the regional economy?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s work in securing Hitachi’s interest in Wylfa when RWE and E.ON withdrew their interest from the project. Although last week’s decision is disappointing, our focus is on maintaining momentum towards the development consent. Of course I am happy to meet the board and my right hon. Friend to discuss how we can best use influences such as the shared prosperity fund and the north Wales growth deal. We will happily keep an open mind, but these matters are project-led, and the strength of resource depends on the quality of the project.
The UK shared prosperity fund should be just that—a UK-wide fund. What discussions have my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Scotland had with the Treasury to ensure that the UK Government have a positive impact on the lives of the people of Wales and Scotland?
My hon. Friend has highlighted inefficiencies in the current proposal, and there is a range of options for how we can best work on those. We are going out to consultation very soon. We have cross-Government discussions and consideration of this subject, but I do not want to pre-empt the consultation. I encourage my hon. Friend to engage with me, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Treasury.
In the late 1990s, the Secretary of State’s party was voting against the existence of the National Assembly. In 2005, it had a manifesto option of abolishing the Assembly. Can he understand why many Opposition Members do not believe that he truly wants to involve our National Assembly for Wales in the governance of the UK shared prosperity fund?
That question is a bit rich coming from the hon. Lady, given that her party’s Government left us with the famous legislative consent order motions, which meant that the Welsh Government could not even pass primary legislation in certain areas without Parliament’s explicit control. I point to the Wales Acts 2014 and 2017 and to the referendum, which extended the powers of the Welsh Assembly, as well as countless Joint Ministerial Committee meetings and this afternoon’s meeting between the Prime Minister and the First Minister to discuss how best to manage Brexit.
Universal Credit: Low-income Families
Universal credit is available in every jobcentre in Wales. Our welfare reforms are incentivising work and supporting working families, and employment in Wales is at a record high.
Twenty-six per cent. of people in Wales have a disability and 39% of them are in poverty—both the highest proportion in the UK. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of people who lost severe disability premium when they transferred on to universal credit and the impact on those individuals, their families and their communities?
In recent weeks, an assessment has been conducted by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Secretary of State has made it clear that it is vital that we reform to deliver a fair and compassionate welfare system. This is an ongoing piece of work. It is essential that people who have been trapped out of work by a confusing and complex mix of tax credits and benefits are helped into work.
Many organisations in my constituency do great work mitigating the effects of the universal credit roll-out, but it is still causing great hardship. Have Ministers asked the Prime Minister to fully stop the roll-out, or are they simply not standing up for Wales?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is fully committed to not rushing the migration of universal credit; she will proceed with the utmost care and attention. As she has announced, managed migration will be piloted this year, involving 10,000 people, following which the Government will report on their findings. Migration beyond the pilot number will not occur until my right hon. Friend has brought legislation back to this House to extend that migration.
Severn Bridges Tolls
The removal of the tolls from the Severn river crossings will drive the biggest economic stimulus Wales has seen in decades, putting over £1,400 a year back into the pockets of hard-working motorists and boosting the south Wales economy alone by £100 million.
I am delighted to hear that positive assessment from my right hon. Friend of the impact of removing the tolls, which add a significant cost to doing business between the south-west of England and Wales. Will he advise on what discussions he is having to exploit this opportunity by identifying any job-creating developments this might inspire on the M4/M5 corridor?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work in this area to encourage closer working between this super-region that is being developed. The great western powerhouse allows the south-west of England and south Wales to market themselves jointly to start competing with the northern powerhouse and the midlands engine. I know that he has a strong interest in the M5 and the business around it. I obviously have a strong interest in the M4, and together we will attract more investment.
May I begin by associating myself with the comments that the Secretary of State made about Steffan Lewis? As his local MP, I always admired and respected him, and his passion for Wales will be greatly missed within the Assembly. It is a loss to Welsh political life.
The closing of the tolls at the M4 bridge creates massive opportunities. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with other Government Departments to bring regional offices and Government jobs to Wales?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for such a question. A number of discussions are going on across Government Departments about the drive to decentralise civil service opportunities from London. He will be aware of the Cardiff hub, and we are looking to where other opportunities exist. But abolishing the Severn tolls has also created challenges. We need better integration for projects such as the Chepstow bypass and other road projects that work cross-border, and we need to harness those as priorities.
The Welsh economy has shown significant progress in recent years. The rate of employment in Wales is at a record high and increased by more than that in any other part of the UK over the last year, with 64,000 more people in work. There is a wealth of world-leading innovation in Wales, with Welsh businesses spending over £450 million on research and development in 2017.
The decision on Wylfa Newydd is a massive setback, not only for Anglesey but for the whole north Wales economy, and the project was a central plank of the north Wales growth deal. When it comes to major infrastructure projects, the Secretary of State has a record of unmitigated failure; he has a kind of reverse Midas touch. When will he start to speak up for Wales in Cabinet? If he is not prepared to speak up for Wales, will he step aside and let someone else have a go?
I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that there is no greater champion for Wales than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. However, the hon. Gentleman raises a very serious and important point regarding Wylfa. This does affect the whole region. The Government were willing to offer a significant and generous package of potential support, but despite that, Hitachi decided that the project was still too great a commercial challenge. We are still committed to nuclear sites as part of the UK’s future energy mix, and we will also continue to support the Isle of Anglesey with initiatives such as the north Wales growth deal.
I understand from my colleague Rhun ap Iorwerth AM that, given the economic uncertainty now surrounding Hitachi’s future at Wylfa Newydd, the Welsh Government have indicated that they are prepared to commit further funds to the north Wales growth bid if Westminster makes the same commitment. Will it?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. We are certainly open-minded. Commitments such as this must be project-led. I reiterate that we recognise the significant impact that Hitachi’s decision will have on the region and planned investment, some of which could be co-dependent on the growth deal. We are committing £120 million, as the hon. Lady knows, and we will certainly talk to our partners in Wales. In fact, I am going there next week to talk with Ministers and stakeholders.
I greatly appreciate that the Minister sees the importance of the north Wales growth bid, particularly in relation to the news at Wylfa. It is interesting that the British Government offered Hitachi a one-third equity stake in the £20 billion nuclear power development in Ynys Môn. Now that Wylfa Newydd looks set to be the latest project to join the Welsh infrastructure scrapyard, will the Minister guarantee that his Government will use the previously promised equity to create 850 alternative, permanent and well-paid jobs in north-west Wales?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. We are certainly not abandoning that area of Wales. I reiterate that this was a commercial decision. We are committing £120 million to the north Wales growth deal, which we hope to get over the line as soon as practically possibly. The Government’s decision to agree to take an equity stake, to secure a strike price and to underwrite the debt on that project, was incredibly generous.
Since 2013, we have seen the cancellation of the Atlantic Array wind turbines off south Wales, the cancellation of the Celtic Array wind farms off north wales, the cancellation of the Cardiff-Swansea rail line in 2018, the cancellation of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon in 2018 and—to cap it all, the cancellation of cancellations— the cancellation of Wylfa Newydd last week, which was a £16 billion investment that would have transformed the economy of north Wales. Will the Secretary of State support the establishment of an inquiry, which the CBI in Wales has called for, to uncover why this Conservative Government are incapable of delivering large infrastructure projects in Wales?
The hon. Gentleman seems to miss the fact that these are commercial decisions to put these projects on hold. In terms of Hitachi, it is a suspended project. We will continue to engage with Hitachi regarding options for the site. We are absolutely committed to creating a broad-based, resilient economy through our industrial strategy, and we will continue to work with the private sector, local partners and the Welsh Government to ensure that Wales prospers. I hope that Members across the House welcome the news this week that the employment rate in Wales now matches that of the UK for the first time since my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) was the Secretary of State for Wales.
Fuel Duty Freeze: Low-income Families
The Government recognise that transport is a major cost for households and businesses, so it was announced at last year’s Budget that fuel duty across the UK will remain frozen for the ninth successive year.
Despite the excellent fuel duty freeze from the Government, oil companies are still hitting motorists across Wales and the UK by increasing petrol prices hugely when the international oil price goes up but taking a long time to reduce it when the oil price goes down. Will my hon. Friend work with the Secretary of State for Transport and the Treasury to introduce a “pump watch” regulator, as recommended by FairFuelUK, so that there are fair prices for motorists at the pumps?
There is no greater champion for consumers than my right hon. Friend, but we do not believe that setting up a regulator would be justified, given the costs of doing so. This sector, like every other, is subject to the normal competition and consumer protection law. We are committed to passing on savings to commuters and, due to nine years of fuel duty freezes, the average car driver in Wales and the UK will have saved a cumulative £1,000 by April 2020.
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has announced that she will not extend the two-child limit on universal credit to children born before April 2017, when the policy first came into effect. That will benefit about 15,000 families, and the decision restores the original intent of the policy, which will give parents in receipt of universal credit the same choices as those in work.
Leaving the EU: No Deal
May I associate myself with the Minister’s comments on Steffan Lewis, who was one of the most able and talented politicians that Wales has ever had?
With days to go until we crash out with no deal, we know the devastating impact. The CBI is warning us, the Army is on stand-by to slaughter lambs set for export, and the Government are refusing to rule out no deal. What does the Minister say about that, given that the Prime Minister is not going to get her deal through?
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out our position and is determined to work not only on our side of the House but across the House to introduce proposals that will allow the House of Commons to support a deal. It is interesting that the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, is prepared to meet her to discuss the proposals, but the Leader of the Opposition refuses to do so, in spite of being more than happy to meet the IRA on other occasions.
Baby Deaths and Stillbirths: Cwm Taf University Health Board
I thank the right hon. Lady for raising this very important issue, and my thoughts are with all those families affected. I recognise her continued and passionate dedication to this issue and to ensuring that we have a health service that is fit for everyone. It is imperative that both the internal and external reviews of maternity services in Cwm Taf are both comprehensive and timely. Those affected will rightly be looking for urgent answers and clear action to ensure improvements in patient care and safety.
Of course. At present, this is a matter for the Welsh Government and for the health board, but we await the findings of the review, and we will act accordingly. In the meantime, the Government will continue to ensure that the NHS has the funding that it requires. I can assure the right hon. Lady that we will work with her to ensure that we get the right outcomes.