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House of Commons Hansard
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26 February 2020
Volume 672

The Secretary of State was asked—

Universal Credit

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1. What assessment he has made of the effect on low-income families of the roll-out of universal credit in Wales. [900896]

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Universal credit was designed to simplify the system and ensure that payments reach those in need. We estimate that 700,000 more people will receive about £2.4 billion of unclaimed benefits through universal credit.

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Will the Government commit to ending the dehumanising work capability and personal independence payment assessments, which routinely find sick and disabled people fit for work, and commit to bring all these assessments in-house?

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I think all of us, on both sides of the House, recognise that the system does not always work as well as it should. We all have casework that would indicate that. Our ongoing commitment—indeed, I was doing this back in 2011—is to make sure that, where people do struggle with the system or fall through the gaps, we act quickly, efficiently and humanely. Any cases that the hon. Lady or other Members have where that is not happening, please raise them with us and we will take them up with the Department for Work and Pensions.

Welsh Economy

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2. What recent assessment he has made of the strength of the Welsh economy. [900897]

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The unemployment rate in Wales is at a record low. There are 144,000 more people in work in Wales than in 2010 and 90,000 fewer workless households. The Government are committed to driving further economic growth and levelling up across the UK, including west Wales.

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As we prepare to celebrate St David’s Day, now is a good moment to celebrate the enormous and excellent progress that has been made in reducing unemployment in Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is really encouraging is the fact that the long-term lag between Welsh employment levels and the UK average has now closed, with more people in Wales going out to work than ever before?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour for raising this issue. He will be as pleased as I am that the figures in his own constituency, when compared with 2010, are as good as they are. It is absolutely right that the Government’s job, in collaboration with the Welsh Government if that is necessary, is to ensure we create the circumstances where that trend continues. He has my absolute assurance that that will be the case.

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Will the Secretary of State provide the House with specific details on how many people have been affected by the catastrophic flood damage to residential properties and businesses across Wales, and exactly how much has been lost to the Welsh economy so far?

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I should start by saying that, during the visits to flooded areas made last week by the Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I, we were, as one would expect, completely bowled over by the professionalism, resilience, determination and expertise of numerous agencies and individuals in coming to terms and dealing with the particular problem the hon. Lady raises. She should, I hope, be pleased to know that I have had a number of meetings with the Welsh Government and council leaders in areas affected by these unusual—unfortunately, not as unusual as we would like—weather events. It is fair to say that the Welsh Government are still assessing the extent of the damage and exactly what is necessary by way of rectification. We have said, and we will repeat our commitment, that when the Welsh Government come to us with absolutely watertight figures and explain exactly what they need from us, we are ready to help in whatever way we can.

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First Minister Mark Drakeford and his Welsh Government Ministers have visited flood victims and have already pledged an initial £10 million from the Welsh Government’s severely restricted budget after 10 years of Tory cuts. Yet last month, at short notice, the Treasury took back £200 million from the Welsh Government because of recalculations of Barnett consequentials. The Prime Minister has not bothered to visit flood victims in Wales, but could he at least return that money to the Welsh Government to help to clean up the damage?

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I have to say that, if I was a business or individual affected by the events of the last few days, the last thing I would expect to hear in this House is the politicisation of a very difficult situation. The conversations I have had in face-to-face meetings with First Minister Drakeford in Cardiff have been constructive. He has at no stage made the observations the hon. Lady has made to me. We have made it absolutely clear that as soon as the damage is assessed we are ready to assist, notwithstanding the fact that this is a devolved responsibility, and it is absolutely right that we as a UK Government should respect the devolution settlement. I will just finish by saying that local authority leaders—[Interruption.] I will leave it at that point.

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HS2 will do next to nothing for north Wales and worse than nothing for south Wales. Yet only six miles of HS2 railway line will cost more than the crucial, first-of-its-kind tidal lagoon in Swansea, rejected by the Minister’s Tory Government. I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that low-carbon electricity generated in Wales should power the transport of the future. What will he do to get Wales-wide tidal lagoon projects back on track?

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As the right hon. Lady knows—she may even have been at the debate that I hosted in this Chamber where we discussed the matter into the early hours of the morning—it is undisputed that a tidal lagoon has a future in the UK, and in particular in Wales. The difficulty that we had over the tidal lagoon project in Swansea was in relation to the company proposal itself. So I hope that she can be reassured that this is part of the energy mix—it is part of the renewable commitment that we have made. The tidal lagoon is still under discussion.

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I hope the Minister will join me in congratulating Wales Week co-founders Dan Langford and Mike Jordan on again providing excellent opportunities to celebrate Welsh business and culture in London and 21 other places around the world. I am sure the Minister will also agree that his Government have a crucial part to play in supporting Welsh businesses by ensuring that they are not undermined by future trade negotiations. Will he reassure us that, in pursuit of trade agreements with both Trump’s America and our nearest trading market, the EU, the Government will not trade off Welsh animal welfare and food standards in favour of chlorinated chicken?

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I can absolutely offer that guarantee; it is a repeat of the guarantee that has been offered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and, indeed, the Prime Minister himself.

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A lot of the strength of the mid-Wales economy is predicated on trade with border towns such as Shrewsbury, which is currently very badly flooded. Does the Minister accept that more needs to be done between his Department and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to work together to alleviate the terrible problems of flooding on both sides of our border?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The answer is yes. The answer lies in greater collaboration and co-operation across a wide range of agencies, and even those that he has mentioned. I believe we are learning some stark and important lessons from this, and I agree with his assessment.

Regulatory Divergence from the EU

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3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the Welsh economy of regulatory divergence from the EU. [900898]

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4. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits for Welsh businesses of regulatory divergence from the EU. [900899]

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Far from lowering standards, the UK already exceeds the EU minimum requirements in several areas, including on workers’ rights and environmental targets. We will continue in that vein, with an independent trade policy, and in so doing, unleash the enormous potential of the UK and Welsh economies.

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Over 60% of Welsh exports are destined for the EU and dominated by key industries vulnerable to divergence related to trade barriers—agricultural machinery and transport equipment, to name but two. So instead of actively trying to circumvent the Prime Minister’s own withdrawal agreement, why are not the Government pursuing the regulatory alignment that is crucial for Welsh businesses and exporters?

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We of course voted to leave the European Union, and that meant voting to leave the customs union and voting to leave the single market. I am quite surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s question, because I should have thought that he would be the first to agree with me that a nation that leaves a union will want full control of its regulatory and trade policy. That is a matter of principle, which I would have expected he and his colleagues to be in full agreement with.

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I share the Minister’s enthusiasm that we can now exceed EU regulations—that is, have better regulations than those set by the EU. Does he agree, though, that the Government’s agenda is proof of our commitment to maintaining the existing high standards that are independent of EU law, and that it is not only businesses that could benefit from that regulatory divergence?

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I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Outside the European Union, we are looking forward to exercising the freedom to set some of the highest standards in the world on animal welfare, health and safety and workers’ rights, thus making Britain one of the best places in the world in which to live, work and invest.

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Tomorrow, the Government will publish their position on the EU trade negotiations. That is of particular importance to the automotive sector in Wales. Just to give the Minister an example, if there were to be 5% tariffs on import/exports and 2.5% on components, it could add £1,000 to the costs of production on a car and put jobs at risk. So can he confirm that the Government are seeking tariff-free access for the automotive sector to the single market and that, if that is not obtained, the Government will have a contingency plan in place to support jobs in that sector in Wales?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the importance of the automotive sector to south Wales and he is correct in saying that the Government are seeking a full free trade arrangement that will allow full access to the European market. If for any reason the EU does not realise that that is in its interests—it exports more cars and automotive parts to us than we do to the EU—I cannot absolutely say what will happen, but it will be at the forefront of my mind and the minds of all my colleagues that we would want to support the automotive industry in south Wales.

Cross-border Transport Links

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5. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of cross-border transport links between Wales and (a) Reading, (b) Farnborough, (c) Guildford and (d) Gatwick Airport. [900900]

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Earlier this week, we announced 2,000 extra weekday seats on CrossCountry trains between Cardiff and the midlands. We have already reduced journey times by 14 minutes on the Great Western main line between Swansea and London, and connectivity to north Wales will benefit from the introduction of HS2, which will shorten journey times and drive economic growth throughout the region.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. As well as rail links—not just the ones he mentioned, but the offshoots from the Great Western line to Guildford and Gatwick—does he agree that to unleash Wales’ potential it will be critical to improve links between the M3 and M4, as Transport for the South East has recently recommended?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of the road network, particularly the M4, to increasing economic productivity in Wales. I hope that Labour Members are aware of the importance of the M4 and will encourage the Welsh Labour Government to accept the borrowing made available to them to build the M4 relief road in south Wales.

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The western rail link to Heathrow would really help people travelling from Heathrow to south Wales and could get passengers from Reading to Heathrow in less than 30 minutes, but progress has been badly delayed. When will the construction work on the line properly begin?

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I am unable to say when exactly it will begin, but I can assure the hon. Member that it is our policy to make sure it begins. I fully recognise the importance of the links between Heathrow and Reading and the importance of that for the rail network across Wales, which will see £1.5 billion spent on it during control period 6. Overall, he will welcome the fact that we are making the biggest investment in our rail infrastructure in the country since Victorian times.

Bank Holiday: 23 June

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6. If he will hold discussions with the Welsh Government on the potential merits of the creation of a UK bank holiday on 23 June each year. [900901]

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As this is a reserved matter and is currently not Government policy, I have no plans to discuss this with the Welsh Government.

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Well, the Secretary of State needs to change his mind. Wales has one of the lowest numbers of bank holidays in Europe. Some countries in Europe have twice the number. What has he got against giving workers in Wales an extra day off?

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I suppose this was inevitable in a way. My experience of businesses and residents in Wales is simple: they have an exciting future and are keen to get on with the new opportunities that face them. They do not request or want extra opportunities to reminisce about the past.

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I call the Secretary of State to reply to Question 7. [Interruption.]. Minister or Secretary of State? [Hon. Members: “Get on with it!”] Someone answer the question. It is Question 7 from John Spellar.

Public Bodies: Buying British

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7. What steps his Department is taking to encourage public bodies in Wales to buy British goods, products and services. [900902]

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Apologies, Mr Speaker, for the novice performance from the Front Bench.

Now is an excellent opportunity for public bodies, Departments such as the Ministry of Defence and the NHS to buy British goods, products and services. Projects such as the £500 million F-35 repair programme in north Wales and the 2 million tonnes of steel needed for HS2 have the potential to level up regions and strengthen the Union.

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In an answer a few minutes ago, the Secretary of State’s ministerial colleague was extolling the importance of the automotive industry to Wales, yet Welsh police forces are buying heavily from France and Germany. Given that we have come out of the EU, should we not be taking the opportunity in that sector and across public procurement to support British jobs and workers?

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I can completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and that opportunity is now simpler, given that we have left the EU. Our job here and with the Welsh Government is to make sure that those procurement rules reflect the fantastic products Wales has to offer.

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Welsh construction and civil engineering firms frequently complain that EU procurement regulations effectively preclude them from bidding for contracts in Wales. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, when we have completed the transitional process, everything possible will be done to ensure that Welsh firms have the chance to bid for those contracts?

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Absolutely. I could not agree with my right hon. Friend more. That is one of the great benefits of leaving the European Union.

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If we want to maximise the benefits of HS2 for Wales, which will require about 3 million tonnes of steel and new high-speed trains, will the Secretary of State lobby the Department for Transport to procure Welsh and UK steel and trains from CAF in Newport for the project?

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Yes, that will definitely be an objective of the UK Government. As the hon. Lady knows, we take the future of the steel industry in Wales extremely seriously, and I want to ensure that every opportunity it has to contribute to UK infrastructure projects is taken.

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Crickhowell, in my constituency, was badly affected by last week’s floods, and we have a lot of small businesses struggling to get back on their feet. Along with public bodies, will the Secretary of State join me in urging all consumers to buy British and buy local?

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I know that my hon. Friend’s constituency was particularly hard hit by recent weather events, and her recognition of that is to be commended. I also completely agree that everything we need to do as a UK Government, in collaboration with our colleagues in Cardiff—I keep making this point—will deliver the sort of result that she is seeking.

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We know that for every pound spent with a small or medium-sized enterprise 63p is re-spent in the local area, as opposed to some 40p for every pound spent with a larger chain or business. What steps will the Government take to enable public bodies in Wales to buy more local goods, products and services?

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Part of the problem has been caused by the restrictions imposed on us by our relationship with Europe. The change in those terms will free up the opportunity for the UK and Welsh Governments to ensure that procurement rules are changed as well, and to unpick the problems to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Cross-Border Working

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8. What steps he is taking with the Welsh Government to strengthen cross-border working. [900903]

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I have already held constructive discussions with Welsh Government Ministers on various issues, including cities and regional growth deals, which have the potential to create jobs and economic growth in Wales and strengthen cross-border working to benefit both sides of the border.

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Many residents of Aberconwy, and, indeed, north Wales as a whole, rely on good road and rail links along the north Wales coast. Does the Minister recognise the importance of that east-west axis and the connections that it offers with England so that people can have contact with families, public services, work and, dare I say, even the Crewe hub as part of HS2?

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We certainly recognise the importance of those east-west links in both north and south Wales, as will be clear from the improvements in the rail and road infrastructure and the growth deals. I recently had a chance to see cross-border working in action when Dŵr Cymru was taking water in from English counties in order to ensure that fresh water continued to run in Monmouth after the floods, and I pay tribute to it for that, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we will recognise the importance and benefits of cross-border working because we are a Unionist party.

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As the Secretary of State will know, Henry VII landed next door to his constituency, and he grew up in in Raglan Castle, in the Minister’s constituency. He then gained the crown at Bosworth Field, which brought about the Tudor dynasty. Has the Minister considered promoting the history of our modern royal family by creating a Henry VII trail?

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That is an excellent and interesting idea. I know that the hon. Gentleman is an expert on sporting history and the contribution that boxing has made in Wales, but I had not realised that he was also interested in Tudor history. I look forward to discussing that with him outside the Chamber.

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My hon. Friend said that he recognised the east-west links between north and south Wales and England, but links with mid-Wales are also important. The Cambrian line—the Shrewsbury-to-Aberystwyth line—needs a signalling upgrade. Will he convene a meeting with me and other interested parties?

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It is always a pleasure to meet my hon. Friend, who has done a fantastic job in lobbying for better east-west links in his own constituency, and I shall look forward with interest to hearing what he has to say. No doubt those in the Treasury and the Department for Transport will also take a keen in interest in the subject.

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Wales took the brunt of the storm last week, and hundreds of people in my constituency lost absolutely everything, because they have had to make a choice between buying food and paying the insurance bill, and they are completely uninsured. Rhondda Cynon Taff Council alone—just one local authority—is going to have a bill of £30 million. What is the point of a United Kingdom if the United Kingdom will not stand by Wales financially when we really need it?

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As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said, he has had meetings with the First Minister. At the moment, there is no way of knowing exactly what the cost of those floods will be—I know that the chief executive of Monmouthshire was unable to tell me—except that it will run into millions of pounds. We have already moved to ensure that people who receive compensation will not see any impact on their benefits. We absolutely stand with Wales, but as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it would be impossible for us to go marching into Wales to tell the Welsh Government what to do in what is a devolved area. We stand ready to support the Welsh Government in any way, but they need to come forward with a set of costs and explain exactly how that money will be spent.

Victims of Sexual Violence

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9. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on the Government’s support for victims of sexual violence in Wales. [900904]

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I am proud that this Government have recently announced that victims of rape and sexual assault will be helped by a 50% funding boost for specialist support services. That will provide additional funding for the vital services offered at six rape support centres across Wales.

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I welcome the Government’s announcement, which will go some way towards ensuring that more people receive the support and advice that they need in order to recover. I am also pleased to hear that two of the support centres that will benefit from this funding are in north Wales. In November last year, the Wales Audit Office reported that victims and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence were being let down by inconsistent, complex and short-term services in Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to work towards having a Wales where no one is turned away?

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I can reassure my hon. Friend that that is the shared ambition and intention of the UK Government. May I also commend her for bringing this matter to the House’s attention? There are few more important issues facing us at the moment.

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Last year, thousands of cases of revenge porn were brought forward to the police in Wales, but only a handful of those cases went to court, because victims do not have the advantage of anonymity and also have to prove malicious intent. Will the Secretary of State ensure that he has discussions with the relevant Minister on the forthcoming online harms Bill, so that the problem of women in particular being subjected to internet porn—basically, pornography being thrown out on to the internet without their consent—is sorted out properly?

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I can absolutely offer that guarantee.

Military Bases

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10. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the future of military bases in Wales. [900906]

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I was fortunate enough to visit St Athan last week, where I met my right hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) and military personnel. My officials have been working closely with Ministry of Defence and Welsh Government officials to secure the future of bases in Wales, and they are making good progress with St Athan.

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MOD St Athan has been designated a key element of the defence estate across the United Kingdom, but the Welsh Government are refusing our armed forces ongoing use of their existing site. Will the Secretary of State impress on the First Minister the importance not only of the economic benefits that the armed forces bring to the community but of the role that they play in the defence of our nation?

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I can absolutely offer that guarantee, and I can go a little bit further. The blockage between the MOD and the Welsh Government has started to loosen, and there now seems to be some progress. I very much hope that we can achieve the objective that my right hon. Friend wants, which is a substantial military footprint at St Athan.

Cross-border Rail

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11. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on improving cross-border rail services. [900907]

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The Secretary of State for Wales is due to meet the Secretary for State for Transport in the coming weeks, when they will discuss how we can build on the new superfast rail service between south Wales and London and the improved connectivity that HS2 will bring to north Wales.

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Of course, I am talking about south Wales, and I am sure that the Minister will welcome the support that the Welsh Labour Government are giving to the St Mellons parkway project to the east of Cardiff. Will he ensure, in his discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport, that as many GWR cross-border services as possible can stop there, as well as services from competitors?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I would be happy to discuss it with him. I can absolutely assure him of our commitment to rail infrastructure in south Wales as well as in north Wales, which is why we have spent an extra £1.5 billion during this control period and laid on thousands of extra seats between London and south Wales.

PIP Assessment Centre: Accessibility

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12. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the location of an accessible personal independence payment assessment centre for disabled and vulnerable claimants in north-west Wales. [900908]

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I have written to the relevant DWP Minister, and I know that he has plans to meet local MPs to discuss assessment centre access in the region. The Government will support Capita to ensure that it finds a suitable, long-term site in north Wales.

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The disability centre, which moved to Rhyl without consultation, is now back in Bangor in my constituency, housed temporarily in a museum. Does the Secretary of State agree that that would also be an apt location for the Government’s disability benefits system?

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I agree; I have taken the hon. Gentleman’s observations seriously. The situation has not been satisfactory in parts, but I hope that there is now some movement in a positive direction.