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Volume 657: debated on Wednesday 3 April 2019

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: Discussions with First Minister of Wales

1. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. (910110)

2. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. (910111)

I have regular discussions with the First Minister on the implications and opportunities for Wales arising from EU exit, including the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration.

Given the new easy listening approach of the Prime Minister, will the Government give a commitment that they will discuss any new proposals that they make on withdrawal from the European Union with the First Minister of Wales and the Welsh Government prior to the meeting of the European Council?

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is keen to work with colleagues across the House to secure a deal to leave the European Union in a smooth and orderly way. My relationship with the Welsh Government, and specifically with the First Minister in Wales, is warm, positive and constructive. As the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, the First Minister or someone that he nominates attends the European Union exit committee, which focuses on preparedness in the event of a no deal.

If it is good enough for this House to be asked repeatedly to approve the Prime Minister’s deal, why is it not good enough to put it back to the people of Wales? If the Secretary of State is so confident in the merits of the Prime Minister’s deal, why is he so afraid to put a deal that has been rejected by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly back to the people of Wales to decide?

The hon. Gentleman seems to forget that Wales voted to leave the European Union. Also, I underline that Wales voted to leave the European Union in higher numbers than the average across the rest of the United Kingdom. Of course we are keen to work with all political parties to secure a smooth and efficient exit from the European Union. Let us be frank: the Welsh public and the UK public want to draw a line under this chapter.

Is not the key problem that we are facing with the withdrawal agreement at the moment that there are just too many MPs from Wales and elsewhere—on the Opposition Benches and some on our side—who go to their constituencies at the weekend and tell their leave voters that they want to get on with Brexit, but who then come back here on a Monday and find every trick in the book and every excuse to vote against implementing Brexit?

My right hon. Friend has absolutely hit the nail on the head and I am grateful for his support. He is well aware that, last Friday, the Opposition voted against the withdrawal agreement, having previously said that they had no differences with the withdrawal agreement. That seems to demonstrate that they are seeking to create as much chaos as they can, rather than acting in the national interest.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, in discussing the withdrawal agreement with the Welsh First Minister, he has made clear the Government’s position, which is to rule out participation in the customs union?

My right hon. Friend is well aware that this House has not yet come to a conclusion as to whether it wishes to call on the Government to be part of the customs union or not. So far everything has been rejected and the Prime Minister is seeking to work across the House, and with colleagues in all parties, to come to an agreement on what the House actually wants.

12. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Welsh economy will be stronger under the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration or weaker, and will he support a strong Welsh economy or a weaker Welsh economy? (910122)

With the actions that the Government are planning, I am optimistic about our prospects outside the European Union. Having travelled internationally—I was in Japan some weeks ago and in China at the end of last year—I am encouraged by the interest that has been shown in the UK economy, and I believe that Wales and the UK economy will be prosperous outside the European Union.

The Secretary of State told my colleague, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), on the record in the Welsh Affairs Committee two days ago that he did not want to be “in a situation where there is no deal.” Could the Secretary of State explain to Welsh food producers and manufacturers why there are press reports after yesterday’s Cabinet meeting that he was for a short delay? That is, of course, shorthand for supporting no deal.

The right hon. Lady is seeking to draw me on private discussions within Cabinet meetings, but of course she knows that I would not be drawn on those. What I said on the record on Monday I will happily say on the record now: I do not want to be in a no-deal position and that is the reason that I voted for a deal. I hope that the Welsh food producers that she referred to also supported the Prime Minister’s deal, and I hope that she will explain to them why she refused to support it.

To lose one Wales Office Minister may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose four in little over a year looks like carelessness. Something must make their positions untenable, intolerable, dispensable, toxic. When will the Secretary of State admit that his office has also become dispensable and too toxic to serve the interests of Wales? When will he do the right thing and resign?

I do not think that a month passes without the right hon. Lady calling for me to take such action. However, it gives me an opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) for his efforts, including his work on the north Wales growth deal, for which the right hon. Lady has shown appreciation in the past. I wish that she would not be so churlish now.

As you know, Mr Speaker, the Newport West by-election will take place tomorrow, having been called after the sad passing of our wonderful colleague Paul Flynn. I wish Ruth Jones, our wonderful candidate, all the best for tomorrow. Let me also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), to his place. Is he staying long, or is he just passing through?

On several occasions the House has refused to back leaving without a deal. So have the Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly. The Prime Minister does not want that either, and she has at last reached out to our party, seeking a cross-party approach to resolve the Brexit impasse. Does the Secretary of State agree with his Prime Minister, or with his former junior Minister, the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), who has just resigned?

Let me first wish Matthew Evans well in the by-election to which the hon. Lady has referred.

As I said a moment ago, I do not want to leave the European Union without a deal. That is exactly why I voted for the Prime Minister’s deal. Perhaps the hon. Lady will explain to her constituents why she voted to block Brexit.

I think it would be really helpful if the Secretary of State reiterated to the House today that he would rule out a no deal, which he knows would be disastrous for Wales. If he will not do so, he should follow his junior Minister and resign.

In the spirit in which the Prime Minister made her statement yesterday, when she said that she was keen to engage on an open and transparent basis, the Leader of the Opposition has said that there are no red lines, so I do not know why the hon. Lady is calling on me to draw some now.

UK Shared Prosperity Fund

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues about a range of issues affecting Wales, including the UK shared prosperity fund. Leaving the European Union removes the geographical and fund-specific constraints that currently exist, and provides an opportunity to address the concerns of businesses, the voluntary sector and communities about excessive bureaucracy.

The Government committed themselves to creating a UK shared prosperity fund to replace EU funding that seeks to reduce inequalities across our communities between the four nations of the United Kingdom. Two years later, the fund still does not exist. Are the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Scotland advocating its introduction in the Cabinet, to ensure that Scotland and Wales secure the fairest deal and will not receive less funding than they currently receive, or than was promised by the leave campaign?

The simple fact is that the shared prosperity fund does not exist because we are still part of the European Union and receiving that EU funding. There is clearly plenty of space for development, and we will be consulting shortly. In respect of the share of funds received by Wales, I would compare my record positively with that of the Labour Administration. Having underfunded Wales for 13 years, we now have a new, enhanced settlement that is focused on need.

The worst inequality in any EU member state exists between London and Wales, and leaving the EU would make that worse. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he is working to ensure that the shared prosperity fund delivers for Wales—which can be done only if decisions are made in Wales—and that devolved Governments are not sidelined?

The hon. Lady raises an important point about the worst inequality, as she described it—that between London and Wales. The facts speak for themselves, but those inequalities have built up over some time. I would also point to the relative positive growth in Wales compared with other parts of the UK and the enhanced funding settlement that has been negotiated under the fiscal framework. So I am optimistic and excited about our future outside the EU.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK shared prosperity fund offers a cast-iron guarantee that Wales is not going to lose out financially as a result of Brexit, and will he consider ensuring that that money goes directly to local authorities so it is spent in the best possible way?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Like me, he was an Assembly Member in 1999 when the first form of European aid on this scale was discussed. It was described as a once in a lifetime opportunity. Sadly, we have qualified twice since and that is because of the relative failure of the existing programmes.

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), will my right hon. Friend ensure that it is local authorities that can bid for this scheme, rather than it just being devolved to the Welsh Assembly to divide up the funds accordingly?

My hon. Friend makes an important point and that is the sort of innovation that the consultation will consider. He is tempting me to draw conclusions before we actually consult, but we have not been doing nothing on this policy area. Pre-consultation discussions have already been taking place in Wales and the Welsh Government jointly presented at the last St Asaph meeting in north Wales.

10. Wales has been a net beneficiary of EU structural funds and we were told we would not lose a penny when we leave the EU, so can we have certainty on the UK prosperity fund? When will the Secretary of State start to do his job, stand up for the people of Wales and make sure we do not lose out after we have left the EU? (910120)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but of course he is tempting me to announce elements of the comprehensive spending review well before my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will do so later this year. However, communities have said that the £4 billion has not changed communities in the way they wanted it to, so this is an opportunity to introduce a much more innovative, proactive approach that responds to the private and voluntary sectors and local authorities in a much more local way.

I welcome the hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) to his new ministerial position. May I too wish our Labour candidate Ruth Jones well in the Newport West by-election tomorrow?

There has been more than just the one meeting on the shared prosperity fund in Wales—there have been five meetings—but the consultation has not started. MPs were neither informed nor invited to those meetings, even if, as was the case with me, they were held in their own constituency. Does the right hon. Gentleman view MPs from all sides as stakeholders in the shared prosperity fund? Why were MPs not invited to these meetings and will he meet with stakeholder MPs to discuss the design of the fund?

First, I point out that these meetings were aimed at communities and the Welsh Government jointly presented at the last one. The hon. Gentleman has frequent opportunities to make direct representation here and it was only a little over a week ago that I met the all-party group for the UK shared prosperity fund to discuss the matter. I am sorry that he could not be present with some of his colleagues, but of course I will be happy to meet him or any other colleague who wishes to discuss the UK shared prosperity fund.

Foreign Direct Investment

Last year, over 3,000 jobs came to Wales through foreign direct investment, through 57 projects, of which 93% were supported by my Department and the Department for International Trade.

Given the recent showcasing of the Welsh investment portfolio at the MIPIM conference, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to try to lever further foreign direct investment into Wales, in what is undoubtedly a key nation in the global economy?

My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for foreign direct investment in his constituency and in all parts. He rightly points out that the Department for International Trade promoted a Wales capital investment programme at the MIPIM conference for the first time. That is a great demonstration of Whitehall Departments working closely with local authorities. There has been extremely positive feedback from both local authorities and investors, and we are working through those leads to see which projects can land.

Not only would no deal have an impact on foreign direct investment; it would also, on the Government’s own figures, leave the Welsh economy 8% smaller over 15 years. Can the Secretary of State clear up any ambiguity about his own attitude to no deal and say clearly today that there are no circumstances whatever in which he would back no deal?

The hon. Gentleman is quite selective in the quotes that he cites on foreign direct investment. He and the House will be well aware that the latest available figures show that the UK has the third highest stock of foreign direct investment in the world after the US and Hong Kong. Clearly, the UK’s record on FDI is strong, and I suggest that Wales’s record is stronger than most of the rest of the UK.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that every single UK trade delegation overseas sings the song loudly and proudly that Wales is, and will continue to be, open for business?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He is rightly aware of the great record that Wales has on attracting inward investment. There are more than 60 Japanese companies in Wales, for example, and that is why I was there some weeks ago talking not only about existing investments but about the potential for new investments for the UK outside the European Union.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Irish Government have recently reopened their consulate in Cardiff. What more can the Government do to encourage other countries to do likewise, so as to boost Wales’s international presence and levels of inward investment?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which we discussed at the Welsh Affairs Committee on Monday. I pay tribute to him for his persistence on this matter. He rightly points out that the Irish Government have opened an office in Cardiff, and we would encourage other Governments to do that. I am happy to meet and to work with him to see which nations we should target to attract them to Wales and to Cardiff.

Infrastructure Resilience

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the resilience of infrastructure in Wales. (910114)

I have regular discussions with the Welsh Government’s Minister for Economy and Transport on a range of matters, including infrastructure in Wales. We are committed to creating a broad-based resilient economy through our own modern industrial strategy and the Welsh Government’s economic action plan.

The resilience of the major road network in north-east Wales is entirely dependent on the M56, just across the border in my constituency, which is now beyond capacity. Will the Secretary of State speak to Department for Transport Ministers to ensure that we get the upgrades we need in order to benefit north-east Wales as well?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, particularly when responsibilities are split between the Welsh Government and the UK Government. In seeking to address these sorts of issues, and cross-border infrastructure projects in particular, the strategic roads in Britain group has been established—of which the Welsh Government and the UK Government are part—to prioritise how we can best resolve these issues.

9.   The Chancellor said last week that there was not one extra penny for the environment in Wales. Who is going to clean up the 100 acres of polluted land in Abercwmboi unless the Government do it? (910119)

I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for her work on seeking to clear up the phurnacite site. She has been working on this project for many years. I would perhaps enhance the comment she made about funding for Wales for environmental projects, because that is devolved and would be part of the Barnett block. I am keen to work with her to see how we can best influence the Welsh Government in this devolved area of policy so that we can bring benefit to her constituency.

Prince of Wales’s Investiture Regalia: Permanent Home

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on a permanent home for the display of the Prince of Wales’s investiture regalia in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (910116)

I commend my hon. Friend for his commitment to this issue. I would be delighted to see the return of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales’s regalia to Wales. There are many fine residences in Wales that would be suitable to display what some consider to be the Welsh Crown jewels.

As you will know, Mr Speaker, the question on Welsh people’s lips at the moment is not Brexit but the royal regalia. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that there are many suitable locations, including Caernarfon castle or, perhaps even better, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, which has a secure place to store them?

My hon. Friend is persistent, but that demonstrates the importance of the project and its potential to attract tourists to Wales. It is an interesting proposal, and my officials are happy to work with other organisations to see how we can make it a reality. There are security implications, but there are also significant potential benefits.

Investiture regalia is probably a controversial subject, but those who are keen on it would describe themselves as patriots. Will the Secretary of State for Wales describe himself as a real patriot by ruling out a disastrous no-deal Brexit, and will he show his commitment to that?

I am a passionate Welsh patriot, as I would hope that the hon. Lady would recognise. I want to leave the European Union with a deal, which is why I have voted for it, but I point to the hon. Lady’s record: she voted against the deal last Friday, rejecting the call, instruction and demand that came from the Welsh public in the referendum.

The Royal Collection contains a fantastically valuable sword made of Tain silver. Will the Secretary of State have a word with the Secretary of State for Scotland to see whether the sword could be lent to my home town of Tain in the highlands?

I will happily raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. This question highlights the great history, shared identity and common issues of this nation, and we can share such assets to attract tourists to every part of the United Kingdom.

Industrial Strategy

7. What discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Welsh Government on the effect of the industrial strategy on the Welsh economy. (910117)

I have been working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy and with the Welsh Government to ensure that Wales benefits from the opportunities that our modern industrial strategy provides.

The recent BEIS Committee report on the industrial strategy was particularly damning about how the steel sector has been failed by the Government. If Ruth Jones is elected tomorrow, she will be strong voice for the industry in Newport West, but what is the Secretary of State doing to push the sector deal negotiations and demand action on energy costs?

I do not recognise the hon. Lady’s point, but she is a strong supporter of the steel industry in her constituency, across Wales and elsewhere. The steel industry faced a challenging crisis just three years ago, and it is now in a much more positive position as a result of Government interventions such as reducing energy costs for energy-intensive industries.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for meeting a delegation that I brought here a few months ago, but we now need action. Rehau is shedding jobs in my constituency, and this is an opportunity for the Department to put its money where its mouth is with the industrial strategy and help that company. Will the Secretary of State meet me to follow up on the meeting that the former Under-Secretary of State had with the company so that we can keep jobs and production in Amwlch in my constituency?

I am happy to respond positively to the hon. Gentleman, who is a champion for Anglesey. Since our meeting about Wylfa Newydd, I met the chairman of Hitachi to press the importance of the case and to stress the support that comes from the local authority, the Assembly Member and the Member of Parliament, which demonstrates the co-ordinated approach.

Universal Credit: Low-income Families

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on low-income families in Wales. (910121)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the roll-out of universal credit on low-income families in Wales. (910123)

Universal credit is available in every jobcentre in Wales. Our welfare reforms are incentivising work and supporting working families. In the past 12 months alone, the employment rate in Wales has increased by 3.4 percentage points, the largest increase in any area of the UK.

Considering that pensioner poverty is higher in Wales than in any other country of the United Kingdom, what assessment has the Minister made of the change in the rules for mixed-age couples, who will lose up to £7,000 in pension credit?

It is not right that those of working age should be accessing pensioner benefits, but this Government have delivered the triple-lock pension support, which has given pensioners an extra £1,600 a year.

Will the Minister set out what discussions he is having with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on making it easier for private-rented sector tenants in Wales to have the housing element of universal credit paid directly to their private landlord?

I can confirm that I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on this subject, about which she is incredibly passionate. We are making it easier, particularly for those on legacy benefits who already have direct payments.

Has the Minister received an assurance from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that the social security freeze will not continue after 2020?

I can confirm that that is the default position. It was a four-year position, and this is the final year. We will continue to share the benefits of strong economic growth with the most vulnerable in society.