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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 682: debated on Wednesday 14 October 2020


The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Trade Negotiations

What recent discussions he has had with the devolved Administrations on UK trade negotiations with the EU. (907294)

I have regular discussions with Welsh Ministers on a range of issues, including EU negotiations. The Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations meets regularly. My Cabinet and ministerial colleagues frequently meet Ministers from the devolved Administrations.

Tomorrow is the day the Prime Minister has set as the deadline for a trade deal with the EU. So far, the devolved Administrations have been left out of the loop or deliberately kept in the dark on some details. Does the Secretary of State believe that withholding key information and detail at such a stage as this shows respect or disrespect to the devolved Administrations?

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s accusation. Given the number of meetings I have personally been in with Ministers from the devolved nations, let alone other colleagues, it would be a difficult charge to land to suggest that they have not been closely involved with the process right from the beginning. I suspect his comments are based on the fact that he does not like the reality of what is going on, rather than being a legitimate comment.

Last week, it was revealed that the Secretary of State’s Government have actively sought to conceal information from the Welsh Government. This information included the likelihood of food shortages and their intention to grab new powers. That does not sound like inter- governmental parity of esteem. Where does his role to represent the Tory party in Wales stop and his role to build trust and mutual respect start?

The first responsibility in this particular context is to respect the fact that 55% of people in Wales voted to leave the European Union, and it seems astonishing that the party of Wales, represented by the right hon. Lady, is still so out of step with the people of Wales when it comes to that. The clock is not being turned back, and what we are attempting to do is to deliver a deal that respects that decision and all the institutions in Wales, which I thought we both valued.

Trust in politicians is sadly diminishing, because politicians are not seen to answer the question at hand. Back to the matter of trust, transmission rates indicate that Wales stands on the brink of a circuit-break announcement. Businesses in Wales, and people who need to self-isolate, seek assurance that they can trust the Treasury to back up covid-19 control measures made in Wales for Wales. Can the Secretary of State guarantee to the people of Wales that they can, indeed, trust the Government to do this?

Having seen the Chancellor ensure that the Welsh Government have had £4.4 billion-worth of UK taxpayers’ money for exactly that purpose, I hope the right hon. Lady would share my view that we are looking at the UK in the round. Covid is an international problem, and it does not respect political boundaries. The Chancellor’s announcements make it very clear that he sees all the UK as a priority, not just individual component parts, and I would think the numbers speak for themselves.

Covid-19 Restrictions

We have, of course, worked hand in hand with the Welsh Government throughout the covid-19 pandemic. The Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Welsh Ministers about the ongoing UK-wide response to covid-19, and those include discussions between the Secretary of State and the First Minister and, of course, meetings between the UK Government and all devolved institutions.

Restricting the virus is vital, but the Welsh Government’s lockdown measures in Clwyd South and the rest of north Wales need reviewing. Given the difficulties they are causing, particularly for hospitality, the wedding industry and leisure businesses, by using county boundaries rather than being targeted on the specific areas with high covid case numbers, is the Minister able to outline how often the Welsh Government have invited the UK Government to participate in their covid-19 planning meetings and whether they have discussed using more detailed evidence by community rather than just by county?

That is a very good question. Although the UK Government extend an open invitation to the devolved Administrations to take part in Cobra meetings and ministerial implementation groups, the same spirit of co-operation has not thus far been forthcoming. I was invited to one meeting by Welsh Government Ministers to discuss parts that were reserved to the UK Government anyway. We stand ready to accept the same level of co-operation from Welsh Government as we have always extended to them.

With cases rising across the UK, the First Minister has called for an extraordinary meeting of Cobra to discuss plans for a so-called circuit-break lockdown. The measures are already under active consideration in Wales and would be implemented by the Welsh Government if they need to be, but of course, any such measures are more effective if we apply them with a four-nation approach across the whole UK. Will the Government now listen to their own scientific advisers and the Opposition and agree to meet the devolved nations to discuss these specific proposals?

Throughout this pandemic, the Government have listened to a wide range of scientific advisers, some of whom will be advising circuit breakers, whereas others will be suggesting that measures are too strict. The Government have listened to all and tried to steer a course through the middle of this. They have listened to Welsh Government Ministers on numerous occasions, with more than 100 such meetings having taken place. We will continue to listen with an open mind and to follow the evidence.

Unlike this Tory Government in England, our Labour Government in Wales do follow the science. The rules in Wales have stopped people taking the virus with them from high-prevalence to low-prevalence areas, thus protecting people’s lives. We want the same for visitors to Wales from across the rest of the UK, where rates are even higher, so why are this Tory Government ignoring the First Minister yet again, failing to stand up for the people of Wales and playing politics with people’s lives?

We certainly are not playing politics with people’s lives. The hon. Lady will be aware that 25% of the workforce of Wales travel over to England to work there, and playing politics with people’s lives potentially means looking at livelihoods as well. The reality is that we have followed the science all the way through this process and, more or less, the Welsh Government have followed exactly what the UK Government are doing.

The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) says we should follow the science, but 10 minutes ago, Public Health Wales told me that it did not even carry out a community-level analysis prior to instigating these lockdown measures. Does my hon. Friend agree that this virus does not respect county borders and that, once again, all the Labour Welsh Government are doing is throttling businesses and letting down the people of north Wales?

First, let me wish my hon. Friend penblwydd hapus for tomorrow. It is the case, of course, that this virus does not respect boundaries, but the UK Government do. Although I fully accept that some people may have concerns about the slightly different approach the Welsh Government sometimes adopt in this matter, the UK Government respect devolution and the reality of Welsh government, and my role as a Minister is to work constructively with Welsh Government Ministers. At this moment, I do not wish to start playing politics and criticising them.

Storm Dennis

What additional funding the Government have provided to communities in Wales affected by Storm Dennis. (907296)

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury wrote to the hon. Gentleman last week to confirm that he is expecting to provide £2.5 million needed for the tip repairs in Tylorstown, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The letter also clarifies that the Chief Secretary is waiting to hear further from the Welsh Government on an additional request to access the reserve.

That was useless yet again. I have been asking for the money for the Rhondda for months. The Prime Minister wrote to me in June saying that he recognised that Wales had been particularly badly hit by Storm Dennis and that the UK Government would look seriously at any requests for funding. I am delighted that we have got the £2.5 million for the Tylorstown tip, but we need £60 million to mend culverts and drains and to make people’s houses secure in Pontypridd, the Rhondda and across the whole of Rhondda Cynon Taf. Make sure you earn your money by getting us the money in the Rhondda.

What a contrast with the conversation the hon. Gentleman and I had last when I reported this news to him; he was charm and diplomacy itself then, yet when he gets in the Chamber with an audience, he becomes a different personality. I will remind him, just in case he has forgotten, what the Chief Secretary’s letter actually says. Among other things, he says, “I am expecting to provide the required funding.” That is in relation to the Welsh Government confirming they will make a reserve claim for 2020-21. So this process is under way. It does require the Welsh Government to come to the party, too, but they have not yet done so. Of course a lot of this is in the devolved space, so the hon. Gentleman cannot just pick and choose which bits of devolution suit his desire to make a statement in the Chamber.

Covid-19: Financial Support

What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on financial support for people in Wales affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (907297)

What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on financial support for people in Wales affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (907301)

I have regular discussions with the Chancellor, and we spoke only last week. He has since announced a significant package of further job support and an additional £400 million of funding for the Welsh Government.

Tourism and hospitality is the backbone of the economy of the Gower peninsula. My constituent Lara Joslin runs the Kings Head in Llangennith. She is fighting to keep her family businesses alive. Lara runs a popular rural pub with accommodation, which, like many others in Gower, provides vital part-time jobs for local people. Why is the Secretary of State not banging on the door of the Treasury to right the wrong of the job support scheme failing to support independent hospitality businesses such as Lara’s?

The hon. Lady and I have a similar dependence on tourism in our constituencies, so I understand absolutely the argument she makes about its value, but I remind her that so far UK taxpayers have contributed £1.1 billion by way of bounce back loans; £490 million in self-employed income support; £303 million in coronavirus business interruption loans; £30 million-worth of eat out to help out; future funding of £7 million—I would carry on, Mr Speaker, if only you would let me—and that is not to mention the 401,000 employees on furlough. The Treasury has gone above and beyond the international average and tried to get to every single business in every single area of the UK, and that includes Gower just as much as anywhere else.

For those who are able to access the Government’s new job support scheme—many are locked out or deemed by the Government to be in unviable jobs—a cut of a third of wages for the low paid makes it extremely hard to pay bills and feed families. Does the Secretary of State really get this? If so, will Wales Office Ministers fight to get a better scheme?

Often in this questions session we have talked about the fact that there will always be those in all our constituencies who do not quite fit every single one of the intervention measures that the Chancellor has announced over the past few months. In those circumstances, of course we want to be as flexible as possible and to try to find ways, through either the intervention schemes or universal credit, to support the hardest-hit families as best we can. If the hon. Lady brings to my attention individual examples of those gaps, I will of course do my best to address them.

Throughout this pandemic, Welsh businesses have done all they can to stay open and stay trading, with so many drawing on the support grants and loans that have been so important in keeping them afloat. But as more areas of the country come under local restrictions, with trading halted or severely limited, and amid fears about public confidence, many businesses feel that they have absolutely maxed out on their borrowing and are worried about the future. What plan do the Government have to support businesses that are now heavily in debt, to make sure that the burden of repayments in the coming months does not mean that they go under?

I start by expressing some confusion: on the one hand, Opposition Members are articulating a Welsh Government view that the existing interventions are not strict enough, but on the other, the hon. Lady gets to her feet and says that the interventions are almost imposing undue hardship. It is quite difficult to know exactly where the Opposition stand on getting the balance right between disease control and the maintaining of a vibrant economy. At each and every stage of this process, the Chancellor has been flexible and adaptable and has recognised that the situation is changing, often by the hour, let alone by the day or week. The financial interventions, which up to now have been about £4.4 billion by way of Barnettised contributions to the Welsh Government—and we could probably double that for the other interventions, which are more direct—have supported business in Wales. But of course, as the circumstances change and our reaction changes, so we will remain flexible.

Indeed, we have always said that any restrictions need to be backed up with proper financial support measures for business. To reduce the spread of the virus it is also vital that workers who are unwell or asked to self-isolate do actually stay off work, but as hours are reduced in sectors such as hospitality, an increasing number of Welsh workers will find themselves falling below the minimum weekly earnings threshold needed to qualify for statutory sick pay. To expect them to live off nothing for a fortnight is totally unacceptable. Will the Secretary of State urge the Chancellor to do the decent thing and extend the statutory sick pay scheme to all workers?

I know from my personal contact with the Chancellor over the past few weeks that he is looking at all these options. That is why the winter resilience measures were brought in a week or so ago, on top of all the other measures he has introduced, which recognise the very difficult situation in which so many people find themselves. I am not going to stand here and say that we are never going to consider another option; of course we will. We will always look at the individual circumstances, particularly of those who are hardest hit.

Further to our recent meeting, with the various covid funding measures being announced by the Government sometimes seeming haphazardly and causing some confusion—the bid for football here, the bid for the arts there and now, apparently, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy funding for universities in Wales even though the matter is devolved—will the Minister consider publishing a regular simple table of the Government’s covid funding with the consequential amounts for Wales if there are such?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about universities. Of course, that is a devolved matter and yet hugely dependent on the Union effort. In answer to his very direct question, I can give him a very direct yes.

City and Growth Deals

I am committed to driving forward each of the growth deals in Wales and, since March, have taken part in 24 meetings with representatives of Wales city and growth deals. I recently visited Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire constituency after approving the Pembroke Dock marine development, one of the many growth deal projects that will be contributing to levelling up in Wales.

Last week, the Prime Minister outlined how we can build back better by investing in areas such as hydrogen, green energy and electric mobility. Does the Minister agree that, while it is an opportunity for the whole United Kingdom, we should particularly put Wales at the heart of that green revolution?

I am very happy to agree with that. The Prime Minister’s commitment last week was a game changer, quadrupling offshore wind energy by 2030, doubling the amount of support for renewables projects and providing £160 million to support infrastructure and one gigawatt of new floating wind projects. That is all clear evidence of this Government’s commitment to a green and resilient economic recovery from the coronavirus.

UK Internal Market Bill

What assessment he has made of the potential economic effect on Wales of the provisions in the UK Internal Market Bill. (907299)

The United Kingdom Internal Market Bill will protect seamless trade across the United Kingdom, which will benefit people in all corners of the UK and, indeed, of this House. Our market access guarantee will provide certainty for Welsh businesses as the transition period ends and provide a firm foundation upon which businesses may flourish.

Obviously, in Newcastle-under-Lyme, the whole of Staffordshire, and indeed the whole of the west midlands, there are a number of businesses that both source from and supply to Wales. Those businesses need the certainty that standards will be observed and that what they produce will be able to be sold into different markets around the United Kingdom, and particularly in Wales. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill will deliver on that?

I can absolutely confirm that. I hope all Members of this House are listening to the wise words of my hon. Friend. The Bill provides a vital guarantee that businesses in his constituency, and in all constituencies across the UK, will be able to continue to trade confidently within our internal market as the transition period ends.

Covid-19: Economic Recovery

What steps his Department is taking to support Wales’s economic recovery from the covid-19 outbreak. (907300)

The UK Government have provided a support package for Welsh businesses and communities in recent weeks, including the Government’s £30 billion plan for jobs. Our ambition remains to secure jobs, stimulate growth and provide opportunities to level up Wales.

I thank the Secretary of State for his financial support for Wales and for the devolved Welsh Government. Does he agree that, if the Welsh Government want to trigger further restrictions and go beyond Government measures, which should ultimately be used as a last resort, they need to provide plans for how they will financially support the industries that will be hit as a result?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The Barnettised numbers, which total £4.4 billion so far, do give the Welsh Government a degree of flexibility in addressing issues if the evidence supports doing it in a slightly different way. There are one or two examples of where they have introduced their own interventions, courtesy of money provided by UK taxpayers, but the overriding point is that there does need to be a degree of collaboration and co-operation that straddles all the countries of the UK, because this is an international and a national challenge.

Like me, the Secretary of State will have welcomed the vision set out by the Prime Minister last week for expanding renewable energy and, importantly, the commitment to boosting floating offshore wind power, which represents such a big opportunity for us in Wales. May I ask him if he would use his good offices to ensure that all the relevant players in this—the private sector developers that have projects ready to go, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Crown Estate, which owns the seabed—are all on the same page, working towards a shared goal so that we get decisions made in a timely way?

Absolutely. I agree with my right hon. Friend and neighbour’s assessment of the situation. We were all encouraged by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary’s comments just now in that respect. I can, I hope, encourage my right hon. Friend by saying that I am meeting the Crown Estate the day after tomorrow, I think, to discuss the potential delays, which at the moment look like being its problem, and we need to unblock that.

Covid-19: Employment Support

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on support for people in Wales whose employment has been adversely affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (907302)

I have frequent discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. At least 510,000 people in Wales have been directly supported by the measures we have so far put in place. However, the best possible support we can provide is to get behind the national effort and public health guidelines to ensure that we overcome this crisis sooner rather than later.

With the UK’s unemployment rate at its highest level in three years, it is clear that many workers in Wales will need to rely on social security in order to get back on their feet. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is only fair to update legacy benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance to match the increase in universal credit that was announced earlier this year?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. Conversations I have had with the Department for Work and Pensions, and indeed the Chancellor, have touched on this very issue. This is why the arrangements on universal credit have been as flexible as they can be. The Department is making an effort to ensure that everybody is accounted for and that those who might fall into the gaps we referred to earlier are properly looked after. That is very much uppermost in the minds of Cabinet and ministerial colleagues. I can give her that assurance.

Full-fibre Broadband Network

The Government are committed to rolling out broadband across the United Kingdom, although we have much work to do. I am pleased that 50% of premises in Wales have access to full-fibre broadband, compared with only 14% in the UK as a whole. Only a fortnight ago, I was able to go out with the innovative Welsh SME Beacons Telecom, which is helping to deliver broadband in remote and rural parts of Wales—the parts of Wales that Openreach seemingly cannot reach.

I suspect that my question will come as no surprise. I represent one of the most remote parts of the UK, and far too many of my constituents simply cannot get decent connectivity. Could the Minister please share his experience and his know-how with the Scottish Government so that we can get this problem sorted out?

If the Scottish Government care to issue me with an invitation, I stand ready to serve and offer advice such as I can. Actually, I think my advice is that are innovative small companies out there that are able to do things that Openreach apparently cannot do. I saw an example of that in Wales, and I am sure there must be many others. I assure the hon. Gentleman that as a Government who are committed to the Union, our broadband ambitions span not just Wales but the whole of the United Kingdom, from the tip of Penzance right up to the coast of Caithness and beyond.

Strengthening the Union

The Government are fully committed to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. Our response to the covid-19 outbreak has clearly demonstrated the value of Wales being a part of the Union, with a package of UK Government support that frankly goes well beyond anything that the Welsh Government could offer alone. It is clear that our four nations are safer and more prosperous when we stand together.

It is very good news that the Government have appointed Sir Peter Hendy to undertake a detailed review as to how the quality and availability of transport infrastructure can support economic growth, as well the quality of life, across the UK. Will the Minister advise on what his Department’s priorities are for this review in Wales?

Our priorities, clearly, will be better transport links, ensuring that Wales is better connected to the rest of the Union, but the Government’s ambitions go well beyond transport infrastructure. We believe that Wales is an integral part of the United Kingdom and we want to see not just good transport links but our historical links and cultural links, because we believe that one is quite easily able to be proud to be Welsh and proud to be British in this Union.

From Ilfracombe to Exmoor in my North Devon constituency, it is possible to see south Wales. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should look at the options for better connecting the two areas to strengthen the links between our economies and, ultimately, the Union?

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend has said. The Government are going to strengthen all links within the United Kingdom. We are a Conservative and Unionist Government, and I look forward to support from all sides of the House.