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Volume 669: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Welsh Language

My Department and I are 100% committed to supporting the Welsh Government’s ambition of 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050, as well as to increasing Welsh language services across Whitehall and supporting the growth of the Welsh language in Wales. I am proud that my constituency is home to S4C, and welcome ideas from all Members on ways we can promote the Welsh language.

I am a keen supporter of the language and a Welsh learner myself. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Diolch yn fawr; thank you. Does the Minister agree that the best way to support the language is through economic prosperity, which means supporting jobs, skilled employment and projects such as Wylfa Newydd on Ynys Môn?

May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend on her fantastic election result? She has already brought an energy and a fizz to her part of the world, which will be appreciated across the House. I know that her father is watching these proceedings from his hospital bed, and he will be as proud as we are that she is among us.

As far as the Welsh language is concerned, I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s recognition that a vibrant economy and a vibrant language go hand in hand. The language of Wales is one of the oldest in the world and we are rightly proud of it—even those of us who are perhaps not as fluent as others. On the question of Wylfa, I cannot think of anybody better in the House to take forward that project. I am happy to commit to helping her to do that and I know the Welsh Government will be doing the same, so fingers crossed; we will definitely work together on our shared ambitions in that regard.

Shared Prosperity Fund

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the UK shared prosperity fund. (900133)

I have already had productive discussions with the First Minister and his colleagues. Only last week I met Jeremy Miles to discuss the UK shared prosperity fund, and I am excited about the opportunities that the fund will create to bind together the whole United Kingdom, tackling inequality and deprivation across each of our four nations.

Diolch yn fawr. The EU funding that comes to an end in 2020 has delivered more than £2 billion of investment in Wales since 2014. This money has been used according to priorities set in Wales, for Wales, by the Government of Wales. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that Wales will receive not a single penny less under the Government’s funding scheme, and that the priorities for Wales will continue to be set in Wales, by the people and the Parliament of Wales?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for strengthening the Union by coming here to support Welsh questions, which is very much appreciated. I hope that I can reassure him by describing the shared prosperity fund as a good news story, because for the first time in 45 years, a substantial sum of money is going to be distributed in Wales by Welsh politicians who are directly accountable to Welsh voters. That has not been the case for some time. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the collaborative approach I take with the Welsh Government over the distribution of the fund should ensure that it goes to the places where it is most needed, and is not—as some might argue has been the case in the past—blown on vanity projects. The relevant Minister in the Welsh Government is with me on this; we have a shared ambition to ensure that outcome, and to do so collaboratively and efficiently.

I am all for strengthening the Union, as most Welsh politicians are. I am completely against nationalism and all it stands for, but the reality is that I am also in favour of supporting the devolution settlement. This funding has always been controlled by the Assembly, so can the Secretary of State confirm that he will rule out subverting the Welsh Government by funding local government directly in Wales? Bypassing the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales will do nothing to strengthen the Union.

The reassurance I can give is that nothing contained in the proposals for the shared prosperity fund will in any way drive a coach and horses through the devolution settlement.

The Secretary of State answered the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) by saying that there would be a “substantial” amount of money. Will he, though, confirm that there will not be a penny less nor a power lost, as the First Minister of Wales put it, to Wales, and that spending decisions will in fact be taken where they should be—by the Welsh Government?

On the first part of the hon. Lady’s question, our manifesto commitment was clear on that. As for the second part, my discussions with Jeremy Miles so far have been very clear about taking a collaborative approach so that the UK and Welsh Governments, working together, ensure that this money gets to the right place in a timely fashion.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on his new post? I also congratulate my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), on his long-anticipated and—may I say?—long-awaited promotion to the Front Bench.

As Wales leaves the European Union, the Secretary of State will be aware, because we have heard it in the questions so far, that there are deep concerns about the continuation of structural and investment funding. I have to say that his answers to my hon. Friends have not been that reassuring so far. Can he clear up the uncertainty now with two unequivocal guarantees—not a penny lost, and the Welsh Government having complete control of the funding?

On the hon. Gentleman’s first question—there are lots of double questions going on—the answer is yes. That was in the manifesto and we made it clear. As for the second question, the Welsh Government do not even have complete control over the situation now, so he is asking about something that is not even the status quo. I think he should refer to his ministerial and party colleague in Cardiff—Jeremy Miles, who I have spoken to—who is perfectly adamant, and perfectly content, that this should be a joint UK Government-Welsh Government initiative. What the hon. Gentleman is hinting at is actually contrary to the policy of his own party in Cardiff.

May I warmly congratulate my right hon. and good Friend on his appointment as Secretary of State?

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that since 2000 more than £4 billion of European aid has been spent in Wales but communities have not yet felt the benefit of that money, and the prioritisation of that spend by the Welsh Government has been brought into question by many local authorities and businesses alike? Does he agree that this is an opportunity to reset the formula and reset the way in which money is distributed, and to enable Members of this House to have some influence on how it is spent?

May I, with your patience, Mr Speaker, start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend and predecessor? There is a saying in politics: “There is no such thing as real friends, only sharks circling waiting for a sniff of blood”, but no such situation would describe our relationship. He has done a fantastic job for Wales. He has boundless energy and I know that Wales will benefit from that again.

On my right hon. Friend’s comments about the shared prosperity fund, I hope I can reassure him by saying that this is a reset of the meter of the relationship between the Welsh and the UK Governments. It is absolutely right that he highlights the priority that we should give to this, which is getting the money to the right place in a timely way and in a way that is accountable to Welsh voters as it never has been before.

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Speaker. Under the Welsh Labour Government, Wrexham has missed out on opportunities for the past 20 years. Can the Secretary of State give assurances that Wrexham will now start to receive benefits from the shared prosperity fund?

May I congratulate my hon. Friend too? It is going to be a day of congratulating new Members, which is a happy place to be.

I hope—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will confirm this in due course—that, as far is Wrexham is concerned, the answer is yes. As for growth deals, that is an ongoing and positive development for Wales on which further information will be made available as we proceed. It is absolutely right that my hon. Friend highlights the specifics for her particular part of Wales, and yes, we will certainly comply and co-operate with that.

May I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister to their positions?

The shared prosperity fund represents a unique opportunity for all parts of Wales to benefit from Brexit. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that it is essential that in the design of the architecture of the fund, the priorities of local authorities and the interests of the people they serve should be properly reflected?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the advice that he has so generously given me over the years. It should be a source of encouragement that the early conversations I have had with the relevant Ministers, including the First Minister in Cardiff, suggest that they are as attuned as we are, or are certainly getting that way, to the need to ensure that the shared prosperity fund money that will be benefiting Wales is targeted at the areas where it is most needed and recognise the arguments being made across all parts of Wales. There is a public perception that this is always just about Cardiff, but this will be more about more than just Cardiff, and it is my job and the job of the Welsh Government to ensure that that is the case.

13. Those on the Opposition Benches see the shared prosperity fund as primarily a constitutional issue, but it is fundamentally an economic issue, and the previous rounds of European funding have failed in their objective of lifting Welsh GDP to EU average levels. Does my right hon Friend, whom I strongly welcome to his position, agree that however we design the new shared prosperity fund and however we share the responsibility with the Welsh Government, we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past? (900137)

I thank my right hon. Friend and west Walian neighbour for his question. The answer is yes. One of the reasons we are in this position—one of the reasons the Brexit vote went the way it did in June 2016 and the general election went the way it did in December 2019—is exactly the point he makes: people were beginning to lose faith. They knew that there were substantial sums of money, but somehow it never quite reached the places it should. The new arrangement—the reset to which I referred—will address exactly that point.

Steel Industry

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the future of the steel industry in Wales. (900127)

The UK Government are committed to supporting a productive, modern and vibrant steel industry in Wales. With that in mind, I have already had discussions with the Welsh Government and unions. I plan to visit the steel industry in Wales within the next few days, and I look forward to my meeting later today with the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who has initiated a meeting with other Labour colleagues to discuss the steel sector.

We know now that Liberty Steel is cutting 72 jobs in Newport, and although it is based in the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), those job losses will affect people across our city—east and west. The losses follow the disastrous decision to mothball the Orb steelworks at Christmas. The UK steel industry is disappearing before our eyes, and it is happening on this Government’s watch. We can see with Flybe that this Government can take steps to save jobs and industries when they want to, so when will the Secretary of State sit down with his ministerial colleagues and agree a plan that will protect jobs, livelihoods and the steel industry across Newport, Wales and the rest of the UK?

I am pleased to say that that process is already happening. I am sitting down not only with my ministerial colleagues but with the hon. Lady’s ministerial and parliamentary colleagues, as well as unions and management, all in the space of a few days. I am absolutely conscious of the huge impact, uncertainty and worry that the current circumstances are resulting in. I will say it again: it is our shared responsibility with the Welsh Government to steady the situation and rectify the position. There are a number of ways of doing that; energy prices is one, and business rates is another, which we will look at closely to see how we can help.

This is my first appearance at the Dispatch Box in 2020, so may I wish all hon. and right hon. Members a happy new year? I welcome the new Secretary of State to his place, and I wish the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), well. Given the average length of tenure of previous Wales Office Ministers, his first achievement will be to last more than a few months. I understand that he is a junior Whip as well, which may be even more challenging.

The Liberty Steel announcement is yet another blow to the steel industry, following Tata Steel’s announcement about Orb. Our thoughts are with the steelworkers and their families at this very anxious time. I must commend my hon. Friends the Members for Newport East (Jessica Morden) and for Newport West (Ruth Jones) for all the work they have done on this. I am sure that the Secretary of State has heard Welsh Government Economy Minister Ken Skates ask the UK Government to intervene more directly to reduce energy prices. Will he use his voice in Cabinet to make that call?

I thank the hon. Lady. I am sure the whole House will want to extend its congratulations to her on becoming a grandmother this week. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I hope she will not mind my mentioning that for the public record.

The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is, of course, that the UK Government made £53 million available in, I think, 2018, by way of compensation for energy prices. The conversation I want to have is also with her colleagues in Cardiff—perhaps she can lead this herself—about business rates, and where Welsh Government can help the industry in that regard as well. However, the shared ambition to make sure that there is a future for steel in Wales is absolute, and the hon. Lady can rely on the fact that I and my Cabinet colleagues will work to ensure that.

My question was about energy. In other countries, large companies pay far less for their energy. All that Welsh steelworkers need is a fair deal. Steel is a foundation industry, and this UK Government and this Secretary of State need to do far more. Will the Secretary of State act now, decisively—or will he be just a bystander in the decline of the vital steel industry in Wales?

The hon. Lady may have misheard me, but I have already commented on the £53 million being made available by way of compensation for energy prices, and I restate what I said just now: one way in which the Welsh Government could step in now, and help significantly with the certainty around steel, is by addressing the issue of business rates. It would be a powerful message if she and I, combined, could make that case to Welsh Government.


4. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the resilience of infrastructure in Wales. (900128)

Last week I met Ken Skates, the Minister for Economy and Transport, to discuss how we can work together on infrastructure in Wales. I look forward to a productive and collaborative relationship with Welsh Government, and with Members in all parts of this House. In particular, I reaffirm this Government’s commitment to rebuilding the M4 relief road.

The Secretary of State’s predecessor long dodged giving answers to questions about the lack of electrification further west than Cardiff. Will the Secretary of State, and the Minister, do better, and get Swansea and west Wales the investment that they deserve by funding a more integrated system, such as a Swansea Bay metro?

My predecessors felt—and I share their view—that it would have been difficult to justify spending hundreds of millions of pounds on electrifying the line from Swansea to Cardiff, which would not have delivered any decreases in journey times. So we put £5.7 billion into the Great Western main line, £2.8 billion into the Great Western main line modernisation, over £1.5 billion into the Wales and borders route—all investments that have benefited Welsh travellers. We look to continue to do that, and I would be delighted to work with the hon. Lady to develop plans for further rail improvements in west Wales.

Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. Dw innau hefyd yn croesawu’r Ysgrifennydd Gwladol newydd a’i Weinidog i’w seddi ac yn gobeithio y cawn ni gydweithio efo nhw. [Translation: Thank you, Mr Speaker. I also welcome the new Secretary of State and his Minister to their seats, and look forward to working together.]

Wales currently benefits from EU funding to the tune of £680 million a year, including many infrastructure projects—£4.4 million for Blaenau Ffestiniog, £3.4 million for Tywyn, and £7.5 million for Llanbedr airfield, to mention just a few in my constituency. But as we leave the EU, we sadly leave behind the principles that underpin such funding—principles whose objectives were to tackle deprivation, poverty and inequality. The old political adage says follow the money. Can the Minister and the new Secretary of State allay my fears that, after this Tory Brexit, the money will not mainly find its way into the constituencies presently coloured blue on the political map of Wales?

I ddechrau, a gaf I ddweud diolch yn fawr iawn am y croeso? [Translation: First of all, may I say thank you very much for the welcome?] Can I assure the right hon. Lady that this Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that Wales does not lose out by one penny as a result of Brexit. Indeed, as a result of the growth deals that will now be taking place in all parts of Wales, we are going to see hundreds of millions of pounds invested in the economy of Wales, levelling up communities.

I am delighted to hear the Minister’s commitment that Wales will not lose a single penny. We should be building the whole of our nation. One idea is a railway from north to south, so that we no longer have to travel to the neighbouring nation to go from one end to the other of our country.

I hope that the Minister has had a chance to look at the iTunes charts, where Dafydd Iwan’s protest song “Yma o Hyd”—“We’re Still Here”—has been going up the charts. It has reached No. 1 this week. It was originally, of course, released in the midst of Thatcher’s relentless attacks on Wales, and it might be time to update the lyrics:

“er gwaetha’r hen Foris a’i griw;

ry’n ni yma o hyd.”

[Translation: Despite Boris and his crew, we are still here.]

I thank the right hon. Lady. The north-south link has been talked about for years, and I look forward to seeing some costs on that. East-west links in both north and south Wales have finance available to them, and I very much hope that the Welsh Labour Government will again consider the commitment to the M4 relief road. I congratulate Dafydd Iwan on that fantastic song. As far as the Conservative party and this Conservative Government are concerned, with hundreds of millions of pounds going into growth deals for Wales, his other song, “I’r Gad”, springs to mind.

Has not the whole point about infrastructure and the M4 been missed so far—unless I missed it during the singing—because of the fact that the Severn crossing is now free? Is it not that point that will help Cardiff and Swansea?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My predecessor, who managed to get tolls on the Severn bridge scrapped, has done wonders for the south Wales economy. The Welsh Government must now match the commitment shown by the UK Government, by getting the M4 relief road built and continuing to support the south Wales economy through a good transport link.

Mid-Wales Growth Deal

5. What recent discussions he has had with (a) the Welsh Government and (b) Welsh local authorities on the mid-Wales growth deal. (900129)

Over the past week I have held discussions with the Welsh Government’s Minister for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates, and I look forward to working collaboratively with our partners to discuss the mid and west-Wales growth deal.

The Minister will be aware that people in Ceredigion and across mid-Wales are keen to see swift progress on the growth deal. With that in mind, will he consider meeting groups and businesses in Ceredigion that are involved in some of those proposals, to see how we can get them implemented as soon as possible?

When I was invited to join the Government, one of the only things that might have dissuaded me was that I was planning to visit Ceredigion with the Welsh Affairs Committee—I believe the hon. Gentleman had arranged for us some whisky tasting and to see some cheese factories. I will therefore take his question as an invitation to visit Ceredigion. I hope it will go on to the Wales Office, and I look forward very much to accepting it—diolch yn fawr.

North Wales Growth Deal

Together with the Welsh Government and the leaders of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, heads of terms for the north Wales growth deal were signed in November 2019. The opportunities provided by that deal are the latest example of the Government’s commitment to levelling up communities across the United Kingdom.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. In the past 20 years, the people of north Wales, and the people of Aberconwy, have grown used to being overlooked and underfunded by a Cardiff-based, Labour-led Welsh Government. It will not have escaped the attention of the House that seven of the nine MPs from north Wales are now Conservatives. Does my hon. Friend agree that that represents a new chapter for north Wales?

May I offer the warmest welcome to my hon. Friend? This Government note that the people of north Wales appear to have rejected 20 years of Labour government, and have already begun to build an impressive piece of infrastructure—a political blue wall that now stretches from Ynys Môn to Clwyd South. I look forward to seeing that political infrastructure followed up by physical infrastructure, as we release hundreds of millions of pounds in the growth deals into north Wales.

I welcome the Minister to his place. I hope he lasts longer than his predecessors, and that I can meet him more than once about the north Wales growth deal—more than I did any of his predecessors. May I ask him for more money, because the money on offer is not enough? I also ask for a strategic growth deal, not a series of pet projects across north Wales.

We have absolutely no intention of allowing the sort of pet projects to go ahead that we have seen money wasted on in previous years. All growth deal projects will be rigorously scrutinised to ensure value for money, but at the end of the day, if the right hon. Gentleman wants to criticise the Government for putting hundreds of millions of pounds into the north Wales economy, then I plead guilty and I am absolutely delighted to be a part of the Government who are doing it.