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Wales

Volume 678: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19 Outbreak

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with the First Minister of Wales and his ministerial team on the response to covid-19, totalling 124 meetings and calls since the pandemic began.

As the Secretary of State knows, the Welsh Labour Government are making a thank-you payment of £500 to every social care worker in Wales. Does he agree that it is a kick in the teeth to those workers that the Treasury intends to tax that bonus payment, and will he join me and the Welsh First Minister in urging the Chancellor to think again?

We have discussed this at Wales questions before. It is disappointing that the Welsh Government did not discuss this in greater detail with the Treasury earlier on, because we could have found a way around it. Those discussions are ongoing, and there is a reasonably positive dialogue, but as I say, the answer to this would have been found in earlier engagement, rather than by making an announcement that they knew required primary legislation for which there was not time.

On Friday, the First Minister of Wales said that it had been “impossible” to get a “sensible answer” from the UK Government on the plans to allow travel to foreign countries. At the beginning of this crisis, we regularly heard from the First Minister that he had just come off a call with the UK Government, and we know that ministerial implementation groups were being used to co-ordinate a four-nations approach. Despite the numbers that the Secretary of State quoted, there seems to be a communications breakdown. Does he believe that the Government could have done more to work more closely with Wales and other devolved nations during this crisis?

I was talking to the First Minister about this only a few days ago, and he described the particular occasion that the hon. Lady refers to as the exception rather than the rule. As I mentioned, there have been 124 meetings between the two Governments. Actually, dialogue is pretty good, and in eight out of 10 cases, we reach agreement—albeit not necessarily in the greatest of humour, but we do reach agreement. The relationship is better than we sometimes read in the press.

The loss of over 1,400 jobs at Broughton is a devastating blow for the not only workers on site and in the supply chain but the whole economy of north Wales. What discussions has the Secretary of State had recently with Airbus and Welsh Ministers, and when will his Government come forward with a specific sector deal to support the aerospace industry in Wales and across the UK?

I am pleased to report that we have had regular conversations with Airbus throughout the pandemic and very recently, as well as with Welsh Government and stakeholders in the north Wales and Broughton area. Airbus has reported that the industry has had between £6 billion and £10 billion-worth of UK Government support so far. Discussions with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are ongoing about other areas where help can be provided. My colleagues, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Rob Roberts), have been at the front of that, looking at any other areas in which we can help the industry to remain in Broughton not just now but in five and 10 years’ time. We are open to further discussions.

Sadly, there are not just sectoral problems for aerospace. With Bridgend now reeling from the INEOS threat to take jobs elsewhere, it is clear that Wales and the UK face fierce international competition. Can the Secretary of State explain what he and his Government are doing to develop a UK-wide industrial strategy and a trade policy that will help to retain, create and attract the new green jobs of the future?

I have initial discussions with INEOS tomorrow. This is a deal between the Welsh Government and INEOS, so in a sense, that question should be addressed to the relevant Minister in the Welsh Government. That said, the inability or unwillingness of Welsh Government to make any moves at all on improving the M4 relief road have played a part, it is rumoured, in the decision that INEOS has taken. In the wider context, I hope the hon. Lady can remain in her seat or one near it for Prime Minister’s questions and the statement from the Chancellor afterwards, as I believe that some of the questions she raised may be answered at that stage.

Covid-19: Tourism Industry

What steps the Government are taking to help support the tourism industry in Wales during the covid-19 outbreak. (904300)

What steps the Government are taking to help support the tourism industry in Wales during the covid-19 outbreak. (904301)

What steps the Government taking to help support the tourism industry in Wales during the covid-19 outbreak. (904302)

What steps the Government are taking to help support the tourism industry in Wales during the covid-19 outbreak. (904304)

What steps the Government are taking to help support the tourism industry in Wales during the covid-19 outbreak. (904309)

The UK Government have provided unprecedented support to enable the tourism industry in Wales to get through the pandemic. Now is the right time for the industry to reopen safely, and I have urged the Welsh Government on many occasions to share their plans to ensure that Wales is not left behind and can make the most of what is left of the summer season.

Many of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South will be hoping to be able to get a holiday in Wales this summer, so as we reopen, will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to ensure that my constituents will still get a well-earned break and enjoy everything that Wales has to offer?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that tourism, like covid, does not recognise political boundaries, so we are very eager to welcome his constituents—indeed, him and anybody else in the House who wishes to visit Wales—once the lockdown has been properly lifted. It is really important that there is a road map to that position. Wales wants to be back in business; it needs to be back in business, and that leadership needs to come from the First Minister of Wales. It has been a bit messy up till now, but there is still time for him to correct the untidiness around the reopening so that tourism can resume.

The people of Darlington have a great fondness for Wales. [Interruption.] Can the Secretary of State outline what representations he has made to the Welsh Government to encourage them to open up their economy, so that my constituents and others from across England can enjoy all its attractions?

I am not sure that I understand why there was sniggering from the Opposition ranks in response to the point that the residents of Darlington might want to visit Wales. We absolutely want residents of Darlington and everywhere else to visit Wales, as has always been the case, but it does need a clear plan; and what has been lacking so far is a clear plan that enables our tourism industry to welcome with open arms residents of Darlington and other places back into the country in the few remaining weeks of the season.

The UK internal tourism market will be very important for the rest of this year, not only for Wales in Rother Valley but for Wales as a nation, so does my right hon. Friend agree with those in the Welsh Association of Visitor Attractions who, before they delivered their vote of no confidence in the Welsh First Minister, said that the Welsh Labour administration was “destroying the survival chances” of the tourism industry in Wales?

We really should take some time to reflect on that. As far as I can remember, that is the first time ever that a major representative body, the Welsh Association of Visitor Attractions, has not only passed a vote of no confidence in the First Minister, but also said that his Government are “destroying the survival chances” of an industry in Wales. That, surely, must be the most shameful description of a devolved Government that we have heard in this Chamber.

My hon. Friend is right that 160,000 jobs are dependent on the industry—9.5% of the workforce of Wales. It deserves far better treatment than it has so far had at the hands of the Welsh Government, and I welcome his ability to raise it in the House—

Order. I appeal to the Secretary of State: we have a lot of questions to get through; let us have shorter questions and answers.

My right hon. Friend will appreciate the interdependency between the economies of north Wales and north-west England. We often see holidaymakers travelling between both regions, and in Blackpool, we are always pleased to welcome visitors from north Wales. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to improve transport links between the two regions, which will boost not only tourism, but the economy more generally in a post-covid-19 world?

I will endeavour to be briefer than I have been so far. We have already delivered a £50 million project of railway upgrades in north Wales. We have commitments to the A55 improvements. There are numerous other accelerated plans for infrastructure. As I said in answer to an earlier question, tourism and covid do not recognise political boundaries. Such attempts to improve infrastructure will continue.

Many tourists will go to Wales from England and, indeed, Cornwall. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that those travelling, or thinking of travelling, know the differences between any lockdown rules that we have and any that are in place in Wales?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I think that residents of Wales and other places have become fatigued by the completely confusing array of messages coming out of Welsh Government in relation to what they can do, what they cannot do, and how far they can go to do it. That is gradually being cleared up. However, we do not want residents of Cornwall to decide that they cannot come to Wales and therefore align themselves with another part of the UK at our expense because of this lack of clarity. The perfect example of that is Llanymynech golf course, where you tee off in England and the ball lands in Wales.

There is mini-Budget talk of a VAT cut for hospitality, and it is fantastic if this is true, because Plaid Cymru has been pushing for it since 2008. Would the Secretary of State support a clear plan for targeted Wales-specific VAT cuts for specific sectors, such as tourism and home improvements, so that our small-employer economy can recover as quickly as possible?

I am going to goad the hon. Lady into having to wait a little longer to hear what the Chancellor has to say in his statement at half-past 12. I would just point out to her, though, that at every possible opportunity the UK Government—I emphasise, the UK Government —have embraced jobs, livelihoods and businesses across Wales in a way that is unprecedented in modern times. I am sure that even as a nationalist, she would like to thank the UK Government and the Chancellor for those very special efforts they have made on behalf of the people of Wales.

The Secretary of State has very kindly answered my question with a question. I will take it, because he has not said no, that he is interested in Wales-specific VAT reductions, and I look forward to talking to him more about that.

Another initiative we could introduce in Wales is one introduced in countries such as Malta and Poland—voucher schemes to encourage domestic tourism to help the recovery. Ahead of the Chancellor’s statement, would the Secretary of State support the introduction of a Welsh tourism voucher scheme to be spent on outdoor attractions, accommodation and transport—trains and buses—which would be a much-needed boost to make the tourism industry work for the people of Wales?

I think the first part of the hon. Lady’s question is aiming too low. Referring to Wales as just a tourism industry in its own right does not go anywhere near embracing the opportunities that tourism in Wales, and the jobs associated with it, has as part of the Union push. My message to her is just to have a look at the interventions that the UK Government have made so far, let alone anything that may come later today, in support of that and many other industries. It is a bit like the sketch, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” I urge her to look at those figures, because I think she will be as pleased as the rest of the House is.

Ynys Môn is the most dependent of any constituency on tourism. My island constituency needs jobs, skills, employment and investment if this Government are to deliver on their levelling-up agenda. Will the Secretary of State commit to helping our island by championing Ynys Môn’s capacity to play a leading role in the decarbonisation of the UK economy?

There is no greater champion of Ynys Môn than my hon. Friend, on this and numerous other issues. In particular, her work around Wylfa Newydd has been outstanding and is ongoing. I would urge her —as I am afraid that I have become boring in saying to other Members—to remain in her seat for just a little longer, because I think that some of the subjects that she has raised may get a greater airing later.

As we know, the tourism and hospitality sector has been hit very hard by this pandemic, and despite the best efforts of operators across Wales, this year will be a very difficult one for those in the industry. Can the Secretary of State get the Government to act now and extend the furlough scheme to the tourism sector to avoid workers facing a cliff edge later in the year?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there have been significant interventions already, with £2.4 billion-worth of Barnettised income for Welsh Government, plus over twice that in terms of the other interventions that the Welsh workforce has benefited from, particularly in tourism and hospitality. One in three workers in Wales is currently being supported by the furlough scheme. It is not for me to comment on what the Chancellor may or may not be saying in a few minutes’ time. As with so many other questions this morning, I can only say that if he can remain patient for as long as possible, he may find some interesting comments will be made.

Tourism is extremely important to mid-Wales. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for meeting some of my local businesses recently. Many of them could benefit from the £59 million generated by the Culture Secretary’s recent announcement, but I am deeply concerned that the Welsh Government could stick to form and only channel that money towards Cardiff-based tourist and culture attractions. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that he will do all he can to ensure that mid-Wales will see the benefit of that money, which is, after all, mid-Wales’s money?

Of course I can offer that commitment, but the commitment is to urge the Welsh Government to make those important decisions for the whole of Wales. Having had the pleasure of meeting some of my hon. Friend’s industries the other day, I know that, in her own area, critical events such as the Royal Welsh Show are hugely culturally important, and it is absolutely right that the Welsh Government should look at the whole of Wales, and not be tempted into just supporting a few well-known industries around their favoured patch.

Covid-19: Economic Recovery

What steps his Department is taking to support economic recovery in Wales as the covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (904305)

The Government’s support to business —the £350 billion package—is helping to limit the long-term damage to the economy, and my Department will continue to work with others in Whitehall and the Welsh Government to drive forward that economic recovery. As the Prime Minister said last week, we must “build, build, build” to ensure jobs and growth as we continue to ease lockdown.

Wales desperately needs new projects to deliver growth and better quality work, so may I ask my hon. Friend if he will look at the proposals coming from the joint venture based in Pembrokeshire between Total and Simply Blue Energy for deploying floating offshore wind technology in the Celtic sea? I also ask him to use his office to ensure that Treasury and BEIS stay fully involved, because it is a serious project that is worth backing.

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. Floating offshore wind is a hugely exciting technology. I would be happy to meet those companies. Our commitment to offshore wind is demonstrated by the £28 million, which we, along with the Welsh Government, have invested in the Pembroke Dock marine project.

Recognising the severity of the economic damage of covid-19 and also the importance of swift responses from the Government, will the Minister consider proposals made by the Wales Governance Centre recently that both the annual drawdown limit from the Welsh reserve and the cap on Welsh Government borrowing should be

“very significantly relaxed—or removed?”

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend has already signed off about an extra £800 million for the Welsh Government and if he can wait in his seat for a little while longer, there may be more good news to come.

Economic recovery in north Wales will be made all the harder by the devastating news that Airbus in Broughton is to shed 1,435 jobs. I know the UK Government are already supporting the UK aerospace industry significantly, but can the Minister confirm what further the Government can do to assist Airbus?

I can confirm that when I and my right hon. Friend spoke to the leaders of Airbus last week, they were very grateful to the UK Government and said that the UK Government had been one of the most supportive Governments in the world, which is why, no doubt, the numbers of jobs being lost in the United Kingdom is far fewer than in other European Union countries. Airbus has benefited from around £5 billion of UK Government support, and I am absolutely certain that the Government will want to continue to support the aerospace sector.

UK-EU Trade Negotiations

What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the UK’s trade negotiations with the EU. (904306)

What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the UK’s trade negotiations with the EU. (904316)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I discussed our future relationship with the EU as part of multiple engagements with the Welsh Government. We will continue to work and listen closely to the Welsh Government throughout the trade deal negotiations. It is, of course, a reserved matter, but we always listen carefully to what the Welsh Government have to say.

Listen, but probably don’t do anything, Mr Speaker. Michel Barnier told our Select Committee that the EU will introduce full border checks for the UK from 1 January regardless of the UK’s position. Given that exports to the EU from Wales account for 60% of Welsh exports, this will cause huge disruption. Has the Minister secured any additional support for Welsh exporters, or is it Brexit at all costs and who cares about the Welsh exporters?

Ensuring that Welsh exports— and, indeed, those from Scotland and all other parts of the United Kingdom—are able to be traded freely across the world, including with our former partners in the European Union, is a top priority for the Government. Of course, the hon. Gentleman appears to be asking for some sort of extension to the current deal that we have. He had the opportunity to do that on three occasions last year. I voted on every occasion for a deal that would have given a permanent extension; his party voted against it.

A recent survey by the Office for National Statistics has found that 46% of Welsh businesses have less than six months in cash reserves—the highest percentage among the UK nations. Without additional support, the looming threat of no deal in less than six months could be the final blow for many businesses. How will the Secretary of State explain to businesses that his Government actively decided to build additional barriers by ruling out an extension when they were already struggling?

I have to remind the hon. Lady once again that SNP Members had the opportunity to vote for the whole of the United Kingdom to remain in a semi-permanent customs union until a deal had been struck. They decided to vote against it, taking a gamble that they could destroy Brexit completely. They lost the gamble, and it is far too late now for them to ask for their stake back. We are leaving the European Union at the end of this year, as we promised to do in our manifesto.

Over the years, the Erasmus scheme has benefited many young people in Newport West. The Welsh Labour Government have repeatedly requested that Wales should be able to participate in programmes such as Erasmus, even if the Conservatives in England stop England doing so. Can the Minister confirm whether this important request from a devolved Government has been relayed by the UK negotiators, and if not, why not?

I have to declare a slight personal interest, because my wife was on an Erasmus scheme when I met her as a student some 20 or so years ago. Of course, at that time she was a citizen of a country that was not then in the European Union. So I can absolutely assure the hon. Lady that, whatever the future of Erasmus, I and my colleagues are determined to enable young people to be able to travel and study not just in the European Union, but outside the European Union.

Covid-19: Employment Levels

What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the effect on levels of employment of the continuation of covid-19 lockdown restrictions in Wales. (904307)

I have regular discussions with the Welsh Government on the effect of their lockdown restrictions on levels of employment in Wales. This Government are continuing to provide unprecedented support to businesses and employees in Wales, and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has already said, now is the time to look to reopen Wales and keep people in their jobs.

I am grateful for that answer. The Minister will know that the rules on pubs and restaurants operating in Wales are currently more restrictive than those in England. Can I urge him to say to his constituents that, at least for the time being, if they want to attend pubs and restaurants safely, they are very welcome in the Forest of Dean to safeguard jobs and livelihoods?

In passing, I understand the First Minister is a great fan of cheese, in which case I can recommend Stinking Bishop from Dymock in my constituency, which Claudia Winkleman no less has christened the King of Cheese.

My right hon. Friend and I agree on many things, but I might beg to differ over whether tourists should come to the Forest of Dean or to Wales. I want them to be welcomed in Wales, and I look forward to the Welsh Government reopening the tourism industry in Wales as quickly as possible to save the 160,000 jobs that depend on it.

Covid-19: Welsh 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. (904308)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on support for Welsh businesses. The hon. Lady will no doubt be aware that we have put forward a £350 billion scheme to support businesses and jobs across the United Kingdom, and much of that will go to Wales.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the Welsh Government’s economic contract, which means that any business that receives financial support must demonstrate its commitment to growth, fair work, employee health and skills, and reducing its carbon footprint?

I hope the hon. Lady and everyone in this House will join me in congratulating the United Kingdom Government on bringing forward a furlough scheme that has protected 300,000 jobs in Wales and a self-employment scheme that has protected 100,000 jobs. In addition, we have had bounce back loans, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme and the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme. Last week, we protected another 800 jobs—

I welcome some of the wartime-socialism policies of this Government, based on Gordon Brown’s rescue packages under the last Labour Government, which were then cruelly undermined by the Tory Government who followed. But there is room for more fiscal measures, including perhaps looking at VAT on events as a way of trying to stimulate that industry. When the Chancellor sits down next to him, will the Minister whisper in his ear and tell him to do that?

I am happy to accept the hon. Gentleman’s support for Conservative party policies, and if he can just restrain himself for another half hour or so, he might well discover that there is yet more good news for businesses and individuals in Wales. Diolch yn fawr.

Flooding

I certainly empathise with the victims of recent flooding, especially as many of the same areas were affected more recently. Flood defence is a devolved matter. However, we have made available £16 million to the Welsh Government through the Barnett formula, as a result of flood defences in England.

The unprecedented flooding this year disproportionately affected Welsh communities, including my constituency of Cynon Valley. The Government have now acknowledged the flooding problems caused and indicated that UK Government support for Welsh communities will come from UK reserve. However, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), the Government informed the House on 15 June that the support would be subject to the Barnett formula. Will the Secretary of State confirm that UK Government funding for flooding in Wales will come from the UK reserve in line with the ethos of support and solidarity central to our Union and that it will not be subject to the Barnett formula? Will he also clarify the amount that will be—

Mr Speaker, thank you. In the interests of brevity, may I inform the hon. Lady that discussions are ongoing on this subject and she will be hearing more from the relevant bodies in the near future?