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Volume 680: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Support for Self-employed: Covid-19

How many self-employed people in Wales have not received support from the Government’s covid-19 support schemes. (905954)

There are 205,000 self-employed in Wales, 110,000 of whom are receiving direct cash grants, totalling over £295 million, through the Government’s self-employment income support scheme. The scheme is one of a range of Government initiatives supporting the self-employed during the coronavirus outbreak.

If you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, I want to pass on my commiserations to everyone involved in the horrific car crash in Trebanog in the Rhondda earlier today. I thank the police and the fire brigade, who have been helping.

The Secretary of State is right that lots of people have received help, but an awful lot of people in the Rhondda have not had a single penny. There are people who set up a company just two years ago and have now lost their business, their home and their livelihood. There are people who have gone from having £3,000 a month in the bank to £300 a month. When we come to the next round of decisions by the Government and the Treasury, we have to do something for the 3 million people who have been excluded from every single scheme. They feel that this has been massively unfair, and we have hundreds of tradespeople in the Rhondda who have not had a single penny off the Government.

I know the whole House will join me in expressing our sympathy for those involved in the accident in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency this morning. I know what a blow it is for him and everybody involved, and our thoughts are with them.

In relation to the schemes, I suspect that we all, as constituency MPs, have examples of people who have fallen through the net. I can only reiterate what the Chancellor has said on numerous occasions, which is that we will always try to look at every possible way to ensure that those who qualify for help, but for some reason, are not getting it, do get it. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise any individual cases—which we have all had—I am happy to look at them.

My thoughts are with those caught up in the awful crash in the Rhondda.

Many self-employed people in Wales who have already been hard hit by lockdown now fear the impact on their customer base of the looming spectre of mass unemployment that is hanging over their communities—industrial communities that still bear the scars of the damage wreaked by the Tories in the ’80s. When will this Government grasp the urgency of the situation and bring forward specific measures for sectors such as aviation that need longer to recover, in order to support the thousands of Welsh workers who depend on them?

The hon. Lady makes an unnecessary political point. This Government, along with the Welsh Government, have done everything they can to ensure that the smallest possible number of people in Wales have gone without important assistance during the pandemic. If she is hinting that the extension of furlough is the only answer, I can tell her that it is not. The Treasury has said that that is one option, but there are numerous other options that ought to help people and are already helping people make their way out of covid and back into a properly functioning economy. Of course, the best way to save jobs across the whole of Wales is to get people safely back to work.

Indeed, but there is now barely a month to go until the Government’s job protection schemes end, leaving thousands of self-employed people and others at risk of unemployment. It is not just Labour saying that. Businesses, trade unions and the Treasury Committee have all sounded the alarm. Will the Government accept that a one-size-fits-all approach to this jobs crisis is simply not working, and will they come forward with concrete proposals and a real plan to safeguard jobs for people across Wales?

A third of the workforce in Wales has been supported by the UK Government during the pandemic. We have gone further and deeper than pretty well any Government in the world, with VAT deferrals, mortgage holidays, rental support, increases in universal credit, relaxation of the minimum income floor and VAT reductions. This is not a one-size-fits-all arrangement. This is a whole package of measures that are designed to help as many people as possible to stay in work and get back to work as soon as it is safe to do so. I am surprised that the hon. Lady does not welcome that.

On the issue of the 3 million excluded, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is right. When more local areas are facing lockdowns, I would urge Ministers to do far more to help those who have fallen through the gaps, at the very least by addressing the five-week wait for universal credit—it should be a grant, not an advance.

I assure the hon. Lady that there will never be a moment when the Government or the Wales Office sit back and think we have done enough as far as this is concerned. We are always striving and will always strive to ensure that we improve every one of our schemes. Where there are gaps, which we have identified before—Government Members have also been helpful in that respect—we will do everything we can to ensure that they are plugged.

UK Internal Market

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on legislative proposals for a UK internal market. (905957)

The Government’s response to the UK internal market consultation published last week highlighted the broad support for the proposals from businesses and job creators in Wales. The Bill gives businesses the continued certainty of seamless trade across the UK as the transition period ends.

Much of the rhetoric around the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is that it is a shared asset, yet what is missing are any shared intergovernmental structures. On Owain Glyndwr Day, why will the British Government not be honest for once and admit that they are using consequential legislation resulting from Brexit, such as this Bill, to effectively reassert direct Westminster rule over Wales?

I disagree with the fundamental premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. These proposals went to public consultation, and I will quote the response from one business in Wales that is promoting Wales, employing people in Wales and contributing to the Welsh Government. It said:

“The UK Internal Market Bill will be the making of the UK.”

It seems to me that those commenting on UKIM are divided into politicians who are anxious to protect their cosy clique in Cardiff, and business, employers and the public in Wales, who recognise that this is an important part of the next stage of our economic recovery.

The proposals in the Bill are designed to make sure that UK businesses can continue to enjoy the ability to trade easily across our four home nations in a way that helps them to invest and create jobs, just as they have done for hundreds of years. It is extremely important, therefore, that businesses are on board and happy with our proposals. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with businesses across Wales about these proposals and what sort of a response has he received?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. There have been numerous engagements in person with the Business Secretary and others, and online engagements, and I can safely assure the House that those who have responded have not expressed any great concerns about UKIM. In fact, they see it as a perfectly natural successor to the status quo. They want us to proceed with it, they consider it to be fair, and, more important, they think that jobs depend on it.

Ministers seem to be in a state of denial about what this internal market Bill actually says. It is quite clear that it will give the power to the UK Government to make spending decisions in Wales on matters that are devolved to the Welsh Parliament. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how on earth that respects the devolution settlement?

The hon. Gentleman illustrates my point. It seems that in certain nationalist quarters this is all about politics and power, whereas in fact it is all about jobs and the economy and people grafting their way into a post-covid world. The Welsh Government will not lose a single power—not one—after the Bill is passed; in fact, they will have 70 new ones. The fact that the UK Government will be there as well to contribute to the economy of Wales in a way they have not been able to for 45 years should be welcomed by him and his colleagues in Wales as a major step forward.

Next spring, Milton Keynes theatre will host Welsh National Opera—a great, historic institution in Milton Keynes hosting a great Welsh institution. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just the free movement of goods, but the free movement of people, culture, ideas and values between our four nations that makes our Union so strong?

That is a wholly appropriate question because it enables me to say that sometimes when we talk about the strength of the Union, we limit ourselves to talking simply about economic activity, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that the Union is magical for a whole lot of other reasons too. The cultural and social elements he describes sum up why the Union is important. Some of the legislation and ideas we are talking about will enhance and encourage that over the coming years.

I echo the findings of the public consultation on the internal market Bill and reinforce the reality: in mid-Wales and Montgomeryshire, economic activity, transport links and our public services look to the west midlands economy. My constituents and businesses have been watching the progress of the Bill, they welcome it and they want it. They do not want Cardiff Bay or nationalist politicians distracting people’s attention from the fact that they would welcome investment. I look forward to lobbying the Secretary of State and the Department for Transport to build things such as the Middletown bypass.

I am a former resident of my hon. Friend’s constituency and I know exactly what he is referring to. It is worth reminding ourselves that a quarter of his constituency’s workforce cross the border every day to make a living, and cross back again in the evening. The border must be porous. The worst things for jobs and the economy of mid-Wales, or anywhere else, are artificial, political boundaries put up for the advantage of a few people, under a cosy arrangement in Cardiff. We are talking about proper jobs, proper people and proper parts of Wales that require and deserve the support of all the parties, including the nationalists, who make so much noise but never deliver.

On 8 July, the Secretary of State, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake), said that ending our relationship with Europe would allow public bodies in Wales to buy more local goods, more local products and more local services, yet his own Government’s UK Internal Market Bill appears to block local measures that would prioritise local goods or services over those from other parts of the UK. How does he reconcile those two positions now?

I reconcile the positions by not recognising the claim that is being made. If the public consultation on the UK Internal Market Bill is anything to go by—forget what we politicians may say—the public welcome the idea, because it secures a market that has been enjoyed for hundreds of years. People see it as logical. They see it as a perfectly reasonable step forward to enshrine in UK law what has for 45 years been conducted in Brussels. They see it as good for jobs, and the right hon. Lady seems to have some objection to that.

Well, he said it, and it was in the White Paper; procurement was mentioned there. Given that that is one of the weapons in the armoury of the Welsh Government with which to support businesses, it would be fair to expect something on it in the Bill—but I will move on.

Today marks, of course, the anniversary of the proclamation of Owain Glyndŵr as Prince of Wales at the first Senedd or Parliament in Machynlleth.

There was a Senedd in Machynlleth. The year 2020 saw the renaming of the Assembly as Senedd or Welsh Parliament. [Interruption.] Maybe the significance is lost on a certain Welsh MP; maybe the significance is lost in translation. [Interruption.]

Order. We are not having a debate across the Benches. Please have the discussion outside afterwards, and let me know the result of that discussion.

Maybe even the debate is lost entirely here or lost in translation, but how can the Secretary of State reconcile this historical serendipity with this Government’s brazen power-grab?

It seems astounding to me that the Labour Opposition consider the UKIM Bill to be a threat to the Union and the nationalists consider it to be a threat to separatism. I think they should continue their debate, so that they could inform the rest of the House of their objection. To describe a piece of legislation that would result in 70 new powers and the removal of none as a power-grab is to use a definition of power-grab that I do not recognise.

Last year, the Tory party promised to strengthen the Union and strengthen the devolved settlements, but their Internal Market Bill does exactly the opposite, as the Secretary of State’s colleague David Melding knows. So will the Secretary of State accept that, rather than being about promising more powers to Wales—promises that we simply cannot believe—the Government’s Internal Market Bill actually rolls back the powers, undermines the devolution settlement and gives comfort to those who want to break up the Union?

The answer to that is no, no and no. The reason is that when it comes to testing the temperature and mood of the people of Wales, I rely on public consultations and my engagement with businesses—employers—north, south, east and mid, and none of them make the claims that the hon. Gentleman has made. They see this legislation as a perfectly natural transition from EU rule to UK and Welsh Government collaborative operations in Wales; that seems to them to be perfectly sensible. It seems to me to be perfectly sensible. It seems that the objection is about politics and power, rather than about jobs and livelihoods.

We all know the interest with which the Secretary of State listens to the No. 10 chief adviser, like every other member of the governing party. The Brexit Minister in the Welsh Government, Jeremy Miles, has been very clear that there are no new devolution powers: the measures are within the existing rules of devolution. Members on the Government Benches may pontificate all they like; the reality is that they are trying to roll back devolution because they do not like what the people of Wales do by electing Labour-led Governments in Welsh Government elections. This is a reversal of 20 years of the Tories’ not liking who is elected to Government in Wales.

The hon. Gentleman needs to remind himself that there was not a single seat in Wales where Labour did not lose votes at the last election. He needs to be a little careful—[Interruption.] With respect, he needs to be a little careful about making accusations based on the political reality. The economic reality is that the people of Wales do not share his enthusiasm for defining the next stage of our post-covid and post-Brexit evolution purely in terms of political one-upmanship. They want to see jobs and investment, and that is what we intend to deliver.

Future Relationship with EU

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on the effect on the Welsh economy in the event that the UK does not reach an agreement with the EU on the future relationship by the end of the transition period. (905958)

The Secretary of State and I have had regular discussions with Welsh Ministers, including the First Minister, on a wide range of matters, including preparations for the end of the transition period. Preparations for the end of the year are well advanced, and build on the plans that we had in place for a no-deal scenario in 2019.

When he has had those discussions with the First Minister, has the Minister discussed how the so-called shared prosperity fund will be spent in Wales? I do not know whether he has seen any opinion polls recently, but far from people in Wales regarding the Welsh Government as a “cosy clique in Cardiff”, as the Secretary of State puts it, they much prefer the Welsh Government running their affairs to a swivel-eyed bunch of incompetents in Westminster doing so. Will the Minister commit to the House, now, that every penny of that money will be allowed to be spent by the democratically elected Government in Cardiff?

There are no swivel-eyes on this side of the Chamber. The hon. Gentleman ought to restrain himself a little; I do not think anyone would want to be looking at his eyes at the moment. The reality is that far more people voted for Members of Parliament in Wales than voted for Members of the Welsh Assembly—the turnout is always high, which rather rebuts the hon. Gentleman’s point. We have already said that the shared prosperity fund will match the amount of money that came from the European Union, and that will of course be spent in Wales after discussions with Ministers in both the Senedd and Parliament.

The Minister will be aware of the news overnight that Hitachi has decided to pull out of the project to build the Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station on Anglesey—a project that is not only of strategic importance to the Welsh economy but will help the UK to meet its net zero target by 2050. Will my hon. Friend leave no stone unturned in the quest to see whether there is a way forward for the project? In particular, will he continue his discussions with ministerial colleagues here and in Cardiff Bay and continue to work with my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), who has worked so hard to get the project moving?

I am happy to confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already had discussions with Horizon about this matter. The announcement was deeply disappointing for us all and came on the back of Hitachi’s concerns, so I am told, about the covid situation and the Japanese economy. None the less, Wylfa is one of the best sites in the world at which to build a nuclear power station, and I understand that Horizon has already been sounding out the possibility of the project going ahead with other developers.

Business Finance: Banks

What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the comparative effectiveness of the (a) Development Bank of Wales and (b) high street banks in providing finance to business in Wales during the covid-19 outbreak. (905960)

High street banks have been at the forefront of lending to firms impacted by covid-19. They have provided support to Welsh firms through more than £1.1 billion-worth of loans under the Government’s bounce back loan scheme and £300 million of loans under the Government’s coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. There has also been an additional £100 million of lending through the Development Bank of Wales, which has been a useful contribution.

Thank you very much from over here in Wales.

The Development Bank of Wales has been found by the Welsh Affairs Committee to be much more effective in the delivery of coronavirus loans to business than high street banks, which have been found to be unresponsive, delayed and risk-averse, and not to understand local businesses. Will the Secretary of State and the Minister impress on the Chancellor the need to provide more funding for the Development Bank of Wales, and to import this excellent idea into England to help all British business?

I suppose it would not come as a great surprise to the hon. Gentleman, or to anyone who understands economics, as he does, that a high street bank is always going to be slightly more risk-averse than a bank backed by the UK Treasury. None the less, I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the figures I gave earlier, which show that around £1.4 billion has been lent to businesses in Wales via high street banks utilising Government schemes, and £100 million has come via the Development Bank of Wales. This is not some sort of competition; we welcome every single pound that has been lent to Welsh businesses, no matter where it has come from.

Covid-19 Testing

My hon. Friend will be aware that testing for covid in Wales is a matter for the Welsh Government and we respect their devolved responsibilities. I understand that the Welsh Government have decided to seek support from the UK Government for testing in Wales, which is a responsibility of the Welsh Government, so the Department of Health and Social Care has been working directly with them to offer the help that they need to deliver an efficient testing and analysis programme.

We have made huge progress in rapidly scaling up our testing capacity, and I have witnessed that myself in my constituency of Keighley, but there is always more that we can do. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to explore with the Welsh Government the benefits of repeat population testing, and, if that proves effective, how can it be scaled up across Wales and the rest of the UK?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have made enormous strides in increasing the amount of daily testing that is available, but it is not yet enough in either Wales or England, or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, to meet the huge rise in demand that we have seen over the past few weeks. The UK Government have set a target of a 500,000-a-day testing capacity for the end of October, and we are also increasing the number of testing sites to 500 by the end of October. Across Wales and the United Kingdom, Governments of all sorts of different political persuasions are working hard and working together to increase testing and to meet the demand.

Supporting People back into Work

By the end of July, more than 400,000 Welsh jobs had been supported by the coronavirus job retention scheme, while £295 million has been provided to support 110,000 self-employed people. Since the start of March, that is at least 510,000 people in Wales who have been supported directly by the UK Government.

More than 77,000 meals were enjoyed in Brecon and Radnorshire as part of the eat out to help out scheme created by the UK Treasury. This provided a very welcome boost to the hospitality and tourism sectors in my constituency, which I particularly welcome as those sectors largely employ more women than men. Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging the Welsh Government to do their part by creating a similar scheme and getting more women back into the workplace?

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. Having visited her constituency twice, I think, in the recent past, I know just how much she has done to promote these schemes. Another value of the eat out to help out scheme is to remind everybody, whether members of the public or, for that matter, Members of this House, of the importance of supporting local businesses in every possible way we can as we climb out of these horrible few months. The work that my hon. Friend has done, and that of the Treasury, has been a pretty good start.

A key element in supporting people back into work is access to high-speed broadband, particularly in rural areas. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the first broadband USO—universal service obligation—connection in Wales, which was launched last week in Tregeiriog in the Ceiriog valley in my constituency as part of the Government’s across-the-UK USO scheme to improve broadband where it is currently running at a low level?

My hon. Friend is a solid champion of that cause. Some 3,500 premises in Clwyd South and over 200,000 in Wales have access to full fibre connection, but, as he says, this is only the start. For those businesses and individuals who really need high-quality broadband to operate, the clock is ticking in their favour. This will help jobs, families and prosperity in Wales.

Support for the Steel Industry: Covid-19

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for the steel industry in Wales during the covid-19 outbreak. (905967)

The UK Government share the steel industry’s ambitions for a sustainable future in Wales. That is why the Business Secretary, the Chancellor and I worked to reach an agreement with Celsa that saved hundreds of jobs in Wales. I have frequent discussions with Cabinet colleagues about supporting the Welsh steel industry, especially in dealing with the impact of covid-19.

In the debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) held in this House the other evening, we heard about how the Welsh steel sector has been so adversely affected by this economic crisis. The response from the Minister who replied was yet again, I am afraid, lots of warm words. When are we going to see more action, notwithstanding Celsa, to support this vital industry in Wales to save jobs and the economy?

I would like to think that warm words are better than cold words, but actions speak louder than words, at whatever temperature they come. The fact is that the UK Government absolutely recognise the importance of the sector. That is why we did the deal with Celsa and saved 800 jobs there, and that sends a message to other steel producers in Wales that we mean business. We are not just talking about the survival of the industry during covid; we are talking about having a significant steel manufacturing presence in Wales in five years, 10 years and 15 years. That is why we have continued these discussions. The Celsa deal ought to be a source of encouragement for everyone involved that actually, when it comes to it, we do mean business.