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Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: The Union

Good morning, and welcome to Wales, Mr Speaker. Before I answer that question and the one grouped with it, let me thank you for all the work you and the staff of the House have done in making these proceedings possible—it is a remarkable achievement.

I welcome wholeheartedly the cross-Government and cross-party work that has taken place to respond to the covid-19 outbreak, including through regular meetings of Cobr(M) and the ministerial implementation groups.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and with most people in Dudley that we are stronger as one United Kingdom in responding to coronavirus? Can he let the House know whether the devolved Administration have improved outcomes for people in ways that we can share across the United Kingdom?

I join you, Mr Speaker, in congratulating my hon. Friend on his birthday. It is clear that the four-nation approach to covid-19 is not only the preferred option, but the only option in dealing with this extraordinary set of circumstances. The level of collaboration between the UK Government and the Welsh Government—in our instance—is an indication of that. So I can reassure him that that is definitely the case.

May I also wish my colleague a very happy birthday from Radcliffe? I also wish to thank my right hon. Friend for the statement he has just made, which I hope will reassure my constituents, some of whom have contacted me with concerns about the lockdown extension and its economic impact, and the supply of personal protective equipment. Will he continue to keep the House updated, particularly as economic support measures and infection control are rolled out?

I can definitely offer that assurance, and add to it by saying that I hold regular meetings, by Zoom, not only with my colleagues in Parliament but with Opposition colleagues, to achieve exactly those aims.

I would like to start by paying tribute to all NHS staff and key workers in Wales and across the UK for their outstanding efforts during this pandemic. We in the Opposition send our thoughts and prayers to all those who have tragically lost their lives, as well as to those recovering from this terrible illness, including, of course, the Prime Minister. As the UK and Welsh Governments work alongside one another to respond to the pandemic, it is vital that families and businesses have clarity on which programmes apply to Wales and which apply to the UK as a whole—that is particularly important at the Downing Street press conferences. What is the Secretary of State going to do to make sure that his colleagues across Whitehall and all Government agencies reflect the reality of devolution when responding to the pandemic?

That is an entirely reasonable observation from the hon. Gentleman. It has been an ongoing case that we have regular discussions about the communication of the issues to which he refers. To minimise confusion, it is absolutely essential that we stipulate what is devolved and what is not. Of course, in some instances that line is quite blurred, but we have such discussions every day and will continue to have them.

I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) said about those working in the health service and those who have suffered from the virus. We know that when Ministers from Wales and the other devolved nations of the UK[Interruption.]

I do not know whether I caught any more of that than you did, Mr Speaker, but I got the general gist of it. I suspect I would have answered with something along these lines. The collaboration between the UK Government and the Welsh Government is a really important element of all this. We are determined to put our political differences aside to achieve the goal that the businesses and residents of Wales want us to achieve, which is to defeat covid-19 for good.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic underlines the importance to Wales, and to every part of the UK, of being part of an economically powerful Union that is able to give real help to every individual business and person who needs it in times of trouble? How well does he feel that Wales would have fared had it not been part of that Union?

My right hon. Friend puts his finger on a really important point. The key thing about this period is that, almost irrespective of people’s political backgrounds, everybody has come to the conclusion that we could have dealt with this situation only as a Union; whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England or Wales, the Union has really mattered. Never has the “United” in United Kingdom been more important than it is now. It does not matter what kind of sceptic someone is; that is pretty blatantly obvious to everybody.

Will the Secretary of State explain why the British Government, via Public Health England, instructed major manufacturers of PPE not to supply care providers registered in Wales? To paraphrase Orwell, is it not the case that within this Union we are all equal, but some are more equal than others?

I absolutely and fundamentally reject my parliamentary neighbour’s assertion as to what the position is and, indeed, what the ambition is. Right from the start of this situation, our sole objective has been to get the right amount of kit to the right place, at the right time and in the right form. We have had huge help from across the nation, including from the Ministry of Defence, to achieve that. Even the hon. Gentleman’s SNP colleagues in Scotland recognise that that is the case. To try to make a—dare I say it—cheap political point out of a situation in which a number of people are striving to improve day by day is not an especially helpful contribution to the debate.

There is no doubt that the strength of the Union has enabled the Government to support extraordinary levels of funding for the NHS, businesses, charities, families and so many others in so many ways that few nations across the globe could manage. When a common approach has been used across our Union, we have seen efficient delivery—business rates support is one obvious example. However, when it comes to notifying the most vulnerable shielded constituents in Vale of Glamorgan about gaining access to supermarkets, it has been much more difficult, so will my right hon. Friend encourage the Welsh Government to follow a united model, rather than complicate matters needlessly?

The short answer to my right hon. Friend’s question is yes, and indeed that is already the case in my weekly, or nearly weekly, conversations with the First Minister and members of his Government. Consistency is everything. We all understand that there may be gaps in a complicated, fast-moving situation, but my right hon. Friend and I share an absolute desire to make sure that where gaps appear, the Welsh Government and the UK Government working together fix them quickly.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), but may I press him further? There is still concern about the Downing Street press briefings not getting across the message that we have a devolved nations system of government in the UK. What representations has the right hon. Gentleman made to the BBC and other public broadcasters to ensure that it is made clearer that certain aspects of policies announced from Downing Street or by the UK Government may not apply to Wales, or may apply differently? I am sure he agrees that it is extremely important that we get the correct information out to people across Wales and across all the nations of the UK.

The hon. Gentleman’s comments about the BBC are significant, and in fact we have already made approaches through the Wales Office to a number of media outlets to make precisely that point. Regarding the Downing Street briefings, that point will be made, and it is made. I have noticed a shift towards greater clarity about devolved and non-devolved matters. I will talk to colleagues in the relevant places to make sure that we keep as close an eye on that as we should.

In Aberconwy and across north Wales, my colleagues and I have been working with the Betsi Cadwaladr University health board to make sure that preparations are in place for the coming wave. What assurances has my right hon. Friend had from the Welsh Government about the proper prioritisation and distribution of resources across Wales? I am particularly interested in oxygen supplies.

I can offer my hon. Friend some assurances. Recently, the Welsh Government have made an application for additional military support in achieving exactly the aims he mentioned, especially in terms of oxygen supply. Whenever we have had those requests—I think the most recent was on Thursday last week, for 20 additional military planners—the UK Government’s desire is of course to grant them and get the measures in place as soon as possible.

Wales has a higher proportion of micro or very small businesses than other parts of the UK. The survival of those businesses is vital not only for the Welsh economy but for supply chains across the four nations. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Welsh Government about removing some of the restrictive eligibility criteria for the economic resilience fund grants, such as the VAT status requirements, so that all the small businesses in Wales can get the help the fund promised to deliver?

The overall point about consistency in the conditions that apply to businesses in England and in Wales is an important one. In whatever we do, we have been attempting to be as aligned as it is possible to be in the particular context, and that will continue. I think there has been a positive spirit of co-operation and collaboration. Of course, I have weekly meetings with the relevant Ministers of the Welsh Government, and that point has been raised. It will be raised again, and I will report back to my hon. Friend after our next meeting, which I think will take place on Monday.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on support for Welsh businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (901909)

Since the beginning of this crisis, Welsh Government Ministers and I have had regular discussions with the Business Secretary about the support that the UK Government can offer to Welsh businesses. We will continue to work together and in collaboration with the Welsh Government to ensure that Welsh businesses are protected and supported.

I have plenty of constituents who work across the border in north Wales, all of whom are desperate to get back to work. Some of them cannot because they fall into the protected or shielded group or have family members who do and therefore need longer-term support. When the Government produce their exit strategy, will they ensure that support continues for businesses after the lockdown has ended, so that people who are not able to go straight back to work are not forced back into work because their employers have no option, since there is no support left for them?

The hon. Member raises a point that I suspect every Member of the House has been considering over the last few days and weeks, and my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State will no doubt refer to that in a few moments. It is fair to say that whatever the means by which we come out of the covid restrictions, this will need to be carefully considered at every step and in conjunction with the devolved Administrations, to ensure that the fairness the hon. Member seeks can, between our two Governments, be delivered.

Welsh businesses have been hard hit by this pandemic, and they desperately need support to stay viable. Despite the Chancellor promising to do all it takes, the UK Government’s loans for small and medium-sized businesses have a very low take-up rate, not because firms do not need the money but because of the personal risk involved. How will the Secretary of State ensure that more businesses in Wales can access that support, and when will the Government do the decent thing and underwrite 100% of the loans, to give businesses the confidence they need?

May I start by welcoming the hon. Lady to her position on the shadow Front Bench? I look forward to lively exchanges with her, remotely or in person. I dispute the underlying point that she makes. There has been probably as much support offered by UK Government for UK businesses as any nation on the planet affected by the coronavirus. Even the Barnettised figure for the Welsh Government of a little over £2 billion is a significant contribution to address the concerns that she raises. I stress that her point is as relevant to her colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government as it is to us in the UK Government—that is crucial. I give her an assurance that it is my intention to work with the Welsh Government to ensure those outcomes, but I hope that she will not politicise this more than absolutely necessary.

The UK Government’s job retention scheme is an important tool for Welsh businesses and their workers, but gaps in the programme have left some employees relying on dismally low universal credit payments. For example, where reduced demand means that employers need to put workers on short-time working, they cannot top up from the scheme for their lost hours. Will the Secretary of State urge his colleagues to close the gaps and introduce flexibility, so that those put on short-time working can receive a proportionate payment for their lost wages?

As the Chancellor himself has said, we are fully aware that with schemes of this nature, set up under enormous pressure and at great pace, there may be occasions when they do not work perfectly for everybody. I offer this to the hon. Lady: if there are examples of the system not being as watertight as we think it could be and she alerts me to them individually, I will take them up with either the relevant Department in the UK Government or colleagues in the Welsh Government, if that helps.

Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. I too would like to thank all the technical staff. Necessity is truly the mother of invention, and they have done extraordinary work. I would also like to take the opportunity to congratulate the four Plaid Cymru-run councils Gwynedd, Ynys Môn, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, as well as Pembrokeshire, on working together to ensure that business support money is directed to those businesses which really need it and as soon as possible.

There remains a concern that the loophole allowing holiday homeowners to register residential properties as businesses for tax purposes to avoid paying council tax will see millions of pounds directed away from legitimate businesses in other local authority areas across England and Wales. How is the Secretary of State working with the First Minister to ensure that second homeowners do not exploit the business rates system across England and Wales and, more importantly, that covid-19 business support money is diverted to the businesses that really need it as soon as possible?

I have to say that that was far too long a question. We have to have short questions in fairness to others.

On the question of collaboration, may I say how pleased I am to see the first signs of a sort of Union approach from the right hon. Lady, which bodes well for the future? On the question of second homes and/or holiday lets—the two things being distinctly different, by the way—it is absolutely crucial that a business is a business and defined as such. It would make no sense to me that a business designed around holiday lets has to go through greater hoops than some other form of business, and it is very important that the councils she mentions are consistent.

We still have experiences of people making non-essential journeys to holiday homes and second homes in Wales. The penalty at present is £60 reduced to £30. Given the forthcoming May bank holiday, can the Secretary of State make a commitment that the police will have sufficient powers to have meaningful penalties in place to stop people making those non-essential journeys?

My own police force and others—Dyfed-Powys police force is an example—have done a fantastic job in using just the right balance of carrot and stick to ensure that, where possible, most people comply with most of the regulations. I take the right hon. Lady’s point on board, but I will be guided by the police as to whether they consider that they need additional powers in that respect, and if they make a good case we will take it to the Home Secretary.

Covid-19: Medical Supplies

What steps he is taking to ensure that procurement of (a) personal protective equipment, (b) medical appliances and (c) testing kits in response to the covid-19 outbreak operates effectively between the UK and Welsh Governments. (901912)

The UK and Welsh Governments are working together closely to make sure that Wales gets the PPE, appliances and testing kits it needs. So far more than 3.4 million PPE items have been delivered to Wales. I speak to the First Minister regularly in relation to this and the use of the armed forces.

Eight hundred companies in Wales are now in touch with the Welsh Government to help to supply critical PPE and other supplies, including a major manufacturing firm in my constituency. Like many other Welsh firms, they want to help across the UK and use the strength of our Union, so why has it taken the same firm over two and a half weeks to get an answer back from the UK Government, with as yet no order placed and only after an intervention by me? Will the Secretary of State work with me to unblock that unacceptable delay?

Of course I will work with the hon. Gentleman, who has been constructive throughout this crisis. The Department of Health and Social Care and others have had a mountain to climb in relation to this and the many very kind offers they have had, but if there are administrative gaps that we need to fill, I will of course take up individual concerns where relevant.

In the absence of a vaccine or cure, large-scale testing and contact tracing will be essential tools in tackling coronavirus. In recent days, we have seen a Welsh Health Minister rip up his own testing targets, key people in my local health authority have told me they were not cited on the Deloitte plans for rolling out regional testing centres and there is no real evidence of contact tracers being recruited. Can my right hon. Friend tell me therefore who is actually running the test strategy in Wales—the UK Government, the Welsh Government or Deloitte? Furthermore, what assurances can he give that we have a clear plan based on the science, and that that remains at the heart of everything we are doing in Wales?

That was three questions rolled into one. Being driven and guided by the science is absolutely the ongoing priority of the UK and Welsh Governments. As my right hon. Friend will know, being a former Secretary of State for Wales, the question of responsibility for the pilot and other testing schemes is a matter for the devolution settlement. If there is a lack of clarity there—the test centre he mentioned is rumoured to be situated in my own constituency—I will take it up with the First Minister in Cardiff.

We now come to questions to the Prime Minister. I will be running questions for 45 minutes and I will call the First Secretary of State to answer the engagement question. I welcome him to the Dispatch Box.