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Volume 664: debated on Wednesday 4 September 2019

The Secretary of State was asked—

Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the provisions of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 on trends in the level of sustainable development in Wales. (912224)

While the UK Government have not made a formal assessment of this legislation from the National Assembly for Wales, the wellbeing of future generations is already at the heart of UK Government policy.

The aim of this Act is to focus minds on the long term so that we leave things better off for the next generation than they are for us. Given the decade of austerity, the risk of a no-deal Brexit and the climate emergency we are currently in, how does the Minister think this legislation would fare in UK law judging by what we are doing to the future generations now?

If we were looking well to the future, we would say that this was the first Government of one the major industrialised countries to set a legal target for zero carbon emissions. We can look at the work being done in the north Wales growth deal to drive forward sustainable growth. Given that one of the tests for future generations is not handing them unsustainable debt, we can look at how we got on and tackled the deficit that was completely unsustainable when we inherited it in 2010.

As someone who helped to develop this law from its beginning to its end in Welsh government, I have seen what a difference it has made to our public bodies, to Welsh government, and to people’s lives in Wales in terms of long-term decision making. Will the Minister commit his Government to bringing in this future generations law for the whole of the UK?

As I said, the UK Government already have the wellbeing of our future generations at the heart of our policy. Looking at Labour Members, it would be interesting to know exactly how the provisions around handing on unsustainable debt would apply to the shadow Chancellor’s economic policy.

Withdrawal Agreement

2. What recent economic assessment he has made of the potential effect on Wales of the implementation of the withdrawal agreement. (912225)

10. What recent economic assessment he has made of the potential effect on Wales of the implementation of the withdrawal agreement. (912233)

The best outcome for Wales and the Welsh economy is that the UK leaves the European Union in an orderly manner with a deal. We will continue to work with energy and determination to make sure that that happens. However, the UK will be leaving the European Union on 31 October.

Given that 90% of Welsh lamb is exported to other countries in the European Union, does the Secretary of State still believe that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a viable alternative market will be Japan?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I met the Farmers Union of Wales yesterday, and I will be meeting NFU Cymru quite soon. The Japanese market is a new market that opened in January. It is wholly separate from the free trade agreement that the European Union has with Japan, so there has been lots of misreporting that the hon. Gentleman fails to recognise and understand. However, his constituency voted to leave the European Union—why is he trying to stop the process?

Will the Secretary of State confirm what conversations his Government colleagues have had with the manufacturing industry concerning a hard Brexit?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because manufacturing is an extremely important part of the Welsh economy. Wales has the fastest growth in the manufacturing sector across the whole of the UK economy. The Welsh manufacturing sector is in good strength, and I look forward to the new opportunities after we have left the European Union.

This House has rejected the withdrawal agreement on three occasions, and it is therefore a dead letter. Given that the people of Wales voted to leave the European Union, does my right hon. Friend agree that we have a positive obligation to deliver Brexit and that that is less likely to be achieved if this House decides to pass the Bill that it will be considering later today?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to him for his work in this area. The Welsh and the British public want Members in this place to act on the result of the referendum, to draw a line and move on, and to focus on growing and supporting the Welsh and the UK economies for the opportunities after we have left the European Union.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the 594 pieces of legislation that this Parliament has passed in the event of a no-deal Brexit and the corresponding pieces of legislation passed in Brussels mean that the future for Wales, whether it be deal or no deal, is bright?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The UK Government are making comprehensive preparations, in the event of a deal or in the event of no deal, to best position the UK and the Welsh economy to take the new opportunities as we leave the European Union. I am determined to work with colleagues right across Whitehall to ensure that Wales is at the forefront of their thinking.

Last night, 85% of Welsh MPs voted against no deal, including some very honourable Members who braved their own Whip. No deal has no mandate from the people and no mandate from Parliament. Is the Secretary of State proud of being complicit in his Administration’s attempt at pushing through an anti-democratic, damaging version of Brexit by silencing Welsh MPs who are representing our nation’s best interests?

The right hon. Lady’s party jointly published a document, “Securing Wales’ Future”, with the Welsh Government, which said that they would honour the outcome of the referendum. The reality is that the right hon. Lady and her party are frustrating the process. People in Wales want to draw a line and move on.

Evidently the Prime Minister has a kennel of little pet dogs. As this place descends into further chaos, when the Senedd is recalled early tomorrow, Plaid Cymru will be calling for a Welsh national constitutional convention, to look at the options for Wales’s constitutional future. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether his party will get behind this national conversation, or will his seniors—the Minister for the Union and his advisers—stifle every attempt at our nation’s democracy?

The right hon. Lady claims to be the leader in Westminster of the party of Wales, but she fails to remember and to act on the instruction that came from the people of Wales to leave the European Union. She is seeking to frustrate the process. She is causing uncertainty to the Welsh economy, which is undermining business confidence.

I have listened intently to the Secretary of State’s answers, and I am struggling, because he appears to be totally out of touch with what is going on in this place and in Wales. Does he now believe that the backstop is anti-democratic and risks undermining the Good Friday agreement, as his current boss claims?

The hon. Lady did not support the withdrawal agreement—she voted against it—which has contributed to the current circumstances. Does she genuinely recognise and want to act on the instruction that came from the Welsh people, which is to leave the European Union? We need to draw a line.

That is another non-answer from the Secretary of State, among many. I thought the system here was that I ask the questions and he answers them, unless I have got it wrong or he wants to swap positions. I will ask him again: why did he vote for the backstop three times under his previous boss? Was that to curry favour and keep his job then, or is he trying to keep his job now, or both?

I am seeking to act on the democratic will of the Welsh and British people, and I am also seeking to respond to the demands that have been made in Parliament. The withdrawal agreement has been killed three times. We are working energetically and enthusiastically with our European allies in order to come back to this House with a deal, so that we can move on and focus on growing the economy and delivering on public services.

Universal Credit

3. What assessment he has made of the economic effect on low-income families of the roll-out of universal credit in Wales. (912226)

8. What assessment he has made of the economic effect on low-income families of the roll-out of universal credit in Wales. (912231)

People claiming universal credit move into work faster, stay in work longer and spend more time looking to increase their earnings. The latest labour market statistics show the positive impact of universal credit, with unemployment in Wales down 10,000 on the previous quarter.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about making it easier for private sector tenants in Wales to have their housing element of universal credit paid directly to their landlord?

We are always having discussions across Government about how we can improve the experience for universal credit claimants. It is possible already in certain circumstances for rent to be paid directly, but part of universal credit is ensuring that benefits mimic more the experience of being in a job and encouraging people to find one.

Does the Minister agree that, thanks to the changes that his Government have introduced this year, couples forced to transfer from pension credit to universal credit will lose up to £7,000 each and every year? What is he doing to mitigate that personal economic disaster for those couples all across Wales?

I must say that I do not recognise the figures the hon. Lady has just given, but I would say that the introduction of universal credit has ended the 16-hour cliff edge that many families faced and the introduction of the national living wage has helped boost the incomes of many across Wales.

11. Mr Speaker,“Women survive violence then have to survive on peanuts, we have nothing, no furniture, no food, no recourse to public funds, we need money to live on, otherwise we are either destitute or die.”Those are the words of a Welsh survivor of domestic violence. Is the Secretary of State aware that his Government’s universal credit scheme is responsible for causing victims more pain, more hardship and more heartbreak? These survivors need help, not hurdles. When will he start speaking up for them? (912234)

I can say that the Department for Work and Pensions has been working with Welsh Women’s Aid to deliver training for domestic abuse specialists in jobcentres. By the end of September, every jobcentre in Wales will be covered by a specialist who will further raise awareness of domestic abuse and be able to provide additional support.

Shared Prosperity Fund

I have regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues, including the UK shared prosperity fund. The Government are committed to consulting widely on the design of the fund, which will provide a real opportunity to strengthen the bonds of the Union through a programme of investment to tackle inequalities between communities.

That does not really tell us very much. The Government snuck out a statement pre-recess, with no guarantees and a very vague promise of consultation. Can the Secretary of State tell me today whether Wales and Scotland will be able to set their own priorities under the shared prosperity fund, or is this just another blatant Westminster power grab?

Wales has received more than £4 billion—or almost £5 billion—over the last 17 years or more, but remains the poorest part of the UK. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change that funding, so it can be more responsive to the needs of communities, rather than perhaps centralised bureaucrats.

Like Wales, Cornwall has benefited from the European regional development fund and objective 1 funding. Can I ask what representations the Welsh Secretary is making to the Treasury to ensure that small businesses are able to bid in, because that was the big problem with the funding in the previous round?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He talks about the engagement of the private sector and small businesses, particularly with what are currently European programmes, and the difficulty they have had. The UK shared prosperity fund will allow us to respond to the demands of businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency and right across Wales.

13. The Ebbw Vale to Cardiff train line is critical for Blaenau Gwent’s economy. It needs track, bridging and signalling work to run more trains an hour, but Wales has received just 2% of rail enhancement funding since 2011, so the shared prosperity fund would really help here. Will the Secretary of State meet me, Transport Ministers and the Welsh Government to help provide funding and improve this line for Blaenau Gwent? (912236)

I will happily work constructively with the hon. Gentleman, as I regularly do—I pay tribute to the work he has been doing to highlight the challenges and opportunities that the Ebbw Vale railway line brings—and I will meet him and our colleagues. I would highlight, however, that Cardiff Central is also important to the network in and around south Wales. The renewal of the station, which we have announced, has been well received within the region, as has the new West Wales Parkway, which will take tens of minutes off journey times between Cardiff and west Wales.

Can the Secretary of State give this House an assurance that every part of Wales—not just west Wales and the valleys, but every part of Wales, including mid-Wales—will be in a position to benefit from the funding opportunities that will arise from the UK shared prosperity fund?

May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for highlighting and championing this cause for some time? He recognises that some of the poorest wards in Wales are outside the current European rules about where money can be spent. His constituency is one and my constituency is another, so reshaping the UK shared prosperity fund will give us an opportunity to support his most vulnerable constituents and others, wherever else they are in Wales.

Agencies, small businesses and local authorities are making post-2020 plans now. What assurances can the Secretary of State give those businesses and agencies that the money will become available, and how will they manage to access this money?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Even if we were remaining in the European Union and we had not had the referendum, there would be no clarity on his question from a European perspective. The way in which the Labour party is prolonging the Brexit debate means more uncertainty for community groups that want to benefit from the post-Brexit policies, such as the UK shared prosperity fund.

Leaving the EU: No Deal

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on economic preparations for the UK leaving the EU without a deal on 31 October 2019. (912228)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues. We would prefer to leave the European Union with a deal, but if it is not possible, we will leave without a deal, and the Government are committed to preparing for this outcome.

Wales will benefit from Brexit with or without a deal. Does the Secretary of State agree that we could deliver an extra boost to the economy of south Wales by devolving air passenger duty to the Welsh Government, allowing them to cut that tax in Wales, which would put Wales on an equal footing with Scotland and Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend has made many points. I pay tribute to the research and report that the Welsh Affairs Committee, which he chairs, has published. It has recently received a response from the Government. It highlighted that this is one aviation market. Therefore, we cannot act in a way that would benefit one part and destroy another. I fear that the Welsh Government would increase air passenger duty in Cardiff and make the airport even more uncompetitive.

What provision have the Government made to support Welsh farmers in the event of a 40% tariff on 1 November?

I met the Farmers Union of Wales yesterday to discuss the challenges and opportunities that Brexit will bring. I plan to meet NFU Cymru shortly. We recognise that there are new markets that we need to be exploring. I have already highlighted Japan as one of those markets, but there are many more.

To continue that point, 40% of the UK’s sheepmeat is exported tariff-free to the EU. Yesterday, our shadow team met the FUW, which said that on 1 November there will be a huge lamb market in Dolgellau. If we crash out of the EU without a deal on Halloween, the lamb export market will disappear overnight. The lambs in Dolgellau will have no market value and will be culled, buried or sold off as pet food. Which of those options does the Secretary of State think is the best?

Our record supporting rural Wales and the rural economy across the whole of the UK is strong. It compares favourably with the hon. Gentleman’s performance. I hardly saw him as the champion of Welsh agriculture in the past.

Leaving the EU: No Deal

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on planning for the UK leaving the EU without a deal. (912230)

I have regular discussions with Welsh Government Ministers on a range of issues, including preparations for leaving the EU. Within days of the Prime Minister’s appointment at the end of July, the Prime Minister and I met the First Minister in Cardiff. Naturally our departure from the EU was central to these discussions.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. There are some concerns that the devolved Administrations might not be as ready as this Government for a no-deal exit. Can he confirm that this Government are doing all they can to ensure that the entire UK is ready to leave, come what may, on 31 October?

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. The devolved Administrations are invited to the exit planning committees that the UK Government hold. They are fully aware of the proactive, positive steps and measures that we have introduced in preparation for leaving the European Union. I am only disappointed that the same courtesy and invitation have not been extended by the Scottish and Welsh Governments, which would allow and give us the same confidence.

The Secretary of State talked about manufacturing and the economy. The impact of Tata’s announcement on Monday that it will close Cogent’s Orb steelworks will be keenly felt in Newport. It is devastating news for workers and their families. Will he meet me urgently to discuss what the Government will do?

Absolutely. I will meet the hon. Lady and work with her to co-ordinate our response. I recognise the priority she has placed on this operation for some time and she highlighted some of the risks and concerns she had some time ago. Yesterday, I spoke to Roy Rickhuss from Community union. I have, naturally, also spoken to Tata. We are working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in terms of challenging the issues that Tata is raising to seek to bring it to the most competitive position possible.

With reports that the British Government are stockpiling body bags as part of their no-deal Brexit preparations, what assessment has the Secretary of State undertaken of the amount of Welsh people who may die as a result of medical shortages for a no-deal Brexit?

The hon. Gentleman, by supporting the motion last night and the Bill this evening, is simply prolonging the uncertainty. The Welsh people and the British people want certainty about our exit from the European Union. We are determined to leave at the end of October. We would like to leave with a deal—that will give us the smoothest possible exit—but at least we can plan for the opportunities the future brings. [Interruption.]

Order. I appeal to the House to calm down. There are a very large number of noisy private conversations taking place, which, at the very least, is rather discourteous to and disrespectful of the people of Wales.

Strength of the Union

This Government are a Unionist Government firmly committed to strengthening our United Kingdom. My noble Friend Lord Dunlop is conducting an independent inquiry to ensure UK Government structures are configured to strengthen the working of the Union, while respecting and supporting the current devolution settlements.

Does my hon. Friend agree that all four nations of our United Kingdom benefit from the close bonds of our Union and that, as we leave the EU with powers returning from Brussels, we can strengthen those bonds even further?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Seeing powers coming back to this United Kingdom and going to the devolved tier of government will help to bring our four nations closer together. That is why it is so strange that those people who call themselves nationalists actually want to take powers back so they can give them away again to Brussels.

Is it not the case that the real nationalist party in this Chamber now, after last night’s events, is the Tory party, which is rapidly turning into the right-wing English nationalist party?

Well, what a load of rubbish. This party is absolutely firmly committed to being a Unionist party, and we will not be fanning the flames of division by raising the prospects of second referendums, including second referendums on separation.

Leaving the EU: Potential Benefits

12. What assessment he has made of the potential benefits to Wales of the UK leaving the EU on 31 October 2019. (912235)

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

My gosh, Mr Speaker, the Minister has answered the question for me. I cannot ask a supplementary.

We can take great pride in how the economy has performed since the referendum took place: record levels of employment; low levels of unemployment; and inactivity levels in Wales now that are better than the rest of the UK for the first time in decades. I look forward to the opportunities being a participant in new free trade agreements right around the world will give to the Welsh economy.

Now the hon. Gentleman knows how popular he is, he has a right to have his question heard with courtesy. We will keep going for as long as necessary to ensure that that happens in every case.

I’m not sure it’s worth it, to be honest. [Laughter.] If the UK leaves the European Union without a deal, how will Welsh farmers be able to sell their lamb in the European Union?

I have already mentioned the positive engagement that we have with the farming and rural affairs community, and the new markets that are open to us. The hon. Gentleman, by voting last night in favour of a motion and by supporting the Bill tonight, will just prolong the uncertainty and will not allow farmers to prepare. We are determined to leave the European Union. We want to leave the European Union with a deal, but we must draw a line and move on to exciting economic opportunities thereafter.

Severn Bridge Tolls

14. What recent economic assessment he has made of the effect of the removal of tolls on the Severn bridge. (912237)

I am delighted to say that July 2019 saw a 20% increase in traffic westbound and an 8% increase eastbound compared with July 2018. It is too early to make a detailed economic assessment, but our initial estimates were that it would boost the Welsh economy by around £100 million a year.

I am really pleased to hear of those benefits. Will the Minister have a word with the Transport Secretary—just along from him on the Government Front Bench—and get him to take notice of them and have him remove the tolls on the Mersey crossing, which the Conservative Government said that they would never levy in the first place?

Each crossing is based on an individual case, and the Mersey Gateway, which, as the hon. Gentleman will know, was built in 2017, was based on a 30-year concession to fund its construction.

RAF St Athan: School of Technical Training

15. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on No. 4 School of Technical Training at RAF St Athan. (912238)

The Secretary of State has regular discussions with Ministers at the Ministry of Defence on No. 4 School of Technical Training. I will be meeting Ministers at the MOD shortly to explore options not only on maintaining St Athan’s role as an important military and civilian site, but on how to enhance the wider military presence in Wales.

The commandant has said that the school will close before April 2024. What steps is the Secretary of State taking, given that it is in his constituency, to ensure that the people there will have a chance either to move to Cosford or Lyneham, or, even better, to remain in Wales with this viable school remaining where it should be?

Thankfully, those who are based in St Athan have a very strong champion in the local MP and the Secretary of State for Wales in ensuring that the military presence is maintained. We just wish that the Welsh Government were slightly more co-operative.