[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for people and businesses in Wales affected by the covid-19 outbreak.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Leigh. I am pleased to have secured this debate and glad to see so many hon. Members from across the House who hope to contribute. I do not need to tell anyone that we are living in extraordinary times. No one foresaw the pandemic, and the virus, by its very nature, has been difficult to predict. In the absence of a vaccine, it seems as though the virus will be with us for a long time and that we will have to learn to live with it. That means trusting science. As always, we have those commentators who are suddenly experts in microbiology and seem to know better than the scientists. However, the debate must focus on how the Welsh economy will adapt to the new world in which we live.
Ever since a national lockdown was announced in March, nearly every sector in my constituency—from the hairdresser, to the driving instructor and the estate agent—has written to me because they are worried about their future survival. Just last month, the Caerphilly county borough area, which includes Islwyn, was put into a further lockdown, which has only increased the financial pressure on businesses struggling to recover from the March lockdown. With the announcement of a firebreak—a two-week lockdown commencing at 6 pm on Friday—those fears have massively escalated.
The firebreak lockdown proposed by the Welsh Labour Government is necessary in order to regain control of the virus, save lives and alleviate the pressure on the national health service, but the news of a lockdown has been a hammer blow for so many businesses already struggling to stay afloat. During my time as a Member of Parliament, I have worked with and come to know one of the Islwyn businesses under threat. Halletts Cider got in touch in March to ask for assistance in finding financial support. Since that time, it has been able to access a bounce back loan, but it now faces the worry of how to pay that back. As this crisis goes on, I fear that many people will be in a similar situation to Hallets, a company that many hon. Members will know well, as it has taken part in past events arranged by the all-party parliamentary group on cider, and it can be seen at many festivals around Wales and other parts of the country. It is a very good business, and I ask that the Treasury makes plans to address its concerns.
I am concerned for businesses across the UK. It is vital that we do all we can to support them. As I said about Halletts, these businesses are completely viable in normal times—they are flourishing and thriving—but through no fault of their own they face huge financial uncertainty. The Welsh Government have worked hard to curtail this uncertainty, going above and beyond the work of the UK Government to offer the support that Welsh businesses needed. However, areas such as mine have not been able to function properly for a long time now, and this looks likely to continue, given the recent announcement of the two-week full lockdown.
The Welsh Government have done all they can to support businesses, but at the end of the day it comes down to one thing: finance. The Welsh Government can offer support only within the confines of Barnett consequentials. However, that will only become more difficult given the need for a firebreak lockdown. Since the lockdown was announced, I have heard from more businesses concerned about being unable to operate once again. I know that the Welsh Government will do all they can to support those businesses, as they have throughout the pandemic. However, I feel that the Chancellor of the Exchequer can and should do more.
I place on the record my thanks to the Welsh Economy Minister, Ken Skates, and I am sure that many Members will agree. Whenever I have written to his office about a business in my constituency asking for support, he has often arranged for members of his office to give the business a ring and talk through the options. I know those businesses have found that help invaluable— and I include Halletts in that, after his office rang Halletts within a couple of days of my asking them to give the business a call. The Welsh Government have provided the most comprehensive and generous package of financial support for businesses of all the UK’s nations. To date, the Welsh Government’s economic resilience fund has given almost £300 million of support to more than 13,000 businesses in Wales. That has helped to protect more than 100,000 jobs that were at risk of being lost. Welsh Government Ministers have made available a £300 million support package for businesses affected by the firebreak, including additional discretionary grants and support for smaller businesses that are struggling.
I believe that the Welsh Government are doing everything they can, but I am deeply concerned about the level of communication with the devolved Governments. It has been nothing short of disappointing. Sometimes I think that the Prime Minister needs to realise that we live in a new world. Perhaps it is beyond his ideas of the 1940s and ’50s, when the Prime Minister was all-powerful. The fact is that there are three nations with their own Governments and leaders, and he has to talk to them. The UK Government should commit to more regular and reliable engagement with those devolved Governments. Simply put, the matter is too important for us not to be singing from the same hymn sheet.
Among new measures that the Welsh Government have introduced is an increase in the flexibility of terms for firms borrowing from the flexible investment fund of the Development Bank of Wales. The limit for that fund will be doubled from £5 million to £10 million. The development bank will also have the discretion to extend loan periods up to 15 years, which will help to spread the cost of borrowing. Those are all helpful steps, but the measures that are coming in on Friday will strain them to the absolute limit.
At the end of last month the Welsh Government announced that £140 million would be spend in grants to Welsh businesses. Of that, £20 million has been earmarked for tourism and hospitality businesses, while businesses with a rateable value under £50,000 are able to apply for grants as well. Those are incredibly helpful measures for a huge number of businesses, but the next two weeks will mean that more help is needed.
In the phase of local lockdowns, the Welsh Government introduced a new local lockdown business fund. That support is invaluable for areas such as mine that have now been in local lockdown for over a month. The purpose of the fund is to support businesses with cashflow support, to help them to survive the economic consequences of the local restrictions that have been put in place in their area. Businesses can apply for the fund when their local area has been in lockdown for a minimum of 21 days. It is administered by local authorities, which are best placed to serve the needs of the community. I want to thank the chief executive and leader of Caerphilly County Borough Council for their handling and management of the lockdown, as well as the vast number of staff who have been so helpful during the pandemic.
The Welsh Government have also implemented targeted support for childcare providers. At the beginning of the pandemic I was contacted by several nurseries and childcare providers in my area, who were understandably concerned that if everyone worked from home their services would no longer be required. Thanks to the Welsh Government, they can now apply for a grant of £5,000 to cover any losses from April to June, when the strictest measures were in place.
Wales is a nation with many great assets that we can be hugely proud of. One area that I am passionate about is the promotion of tourism in Wales, and I am glad to see that it is the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who will respond to this debate, as we spoke extensively in February about the development of a Henry VII trail, to encourage American tourists with an interest in British history to come to Wales and see where Henry VII landed before eventually becoming King. I pay tribute to the Minister for the encouragement that he and officials and other Members have given to trying to bring that to fruition. Unfortunately the pandemic brought the talks to a crashing halt, but we were making progress.
Tourism has been one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic. Gareth Bates, who owns the Cardiff-based tourism company Tours of Wales, has said that usually about 50% of his customers are Americans, and so, as he has not seen any of them, he has lost a portion of his revenue. Some tourism companies have been able to recoup part of that loss through an increase in the number of tourists from other parts of the UK. As families could not holiday abroad, more of them turned to Wales for a summer holiday. However, this increase has not been enough to meet the shortfall, with many hotel and bed-and-breakfast owners wondering where their next booking is actually going to come from.
Local lockdowns and full lockdowns, such as the upcoming two-week lockdown in Wales, and the guidance not to travel unless absolutely necessary have made fewer and farther between the number of UK travellers hoping to holiday in Wales. This means that many business owners now face the prospect of losing not only international customers but customers from elsewhere in the UK, too. I am pleased to say that the Welsh Government have once again stepped in to help secure these businesses by ring-fencing £20 million of support specifically for the tourism hospitality sector.
Some 34% of businesses in Wales have benefited from Welsh or UK Government coronavirus support, compared with only 14% in England. I believe that is a good thing. The Welsh Government are also taking additional steps to ensure that covid support reaches those who need it most. They have announced that coronavirus support will not be available to companies based in tax havens, thereby ensuring that coronavirus aid reaches the companies that need it most and that contribute to our economy fairly. That is why support needs to be provided in an ethical way, ensuring that we reward companies that do the right thing and contribute.
An example of the extra support offered by the Welsh Government is the aid given to start-up firms, which are currently left out of the UK provisions for financial aid relating to covid. The Welsh Government have not left these businesses out in the cold. This is such an important point, Mr Leigh, as the vast majority of our businesses in Wales are microbusinesses of one or two people. The fund for this aid is worth £5 million, with flexibility to increase this amount in the future, if needed. It will support start-up firms that fall outside of the UK Government’s self-employment income support scheme. Under the UK scheme, businesses that were started within the last year do not qualify for the SEISS, and it is unclear whether that will be remedied or if other provisions will be made for those affected. The Welsh Government are stepping in and providing crucial funding to recently established businesses so that they can continue to trade through the pandemic. This will aid at least 2,000 businesses that fall outside the UK Government’s help schemes.
Although every sector across the country has felt the economic hardship that covid has brought with it, I will highlight only some sectors today. There are recurring themes in the correspondence I receive from the people of Islwyn about certain areas that need help, or else face closure. They are all related to gaps in the UK Government’s schemes.
As we are well aware, pubs and restaurants have been operating under varying levels of restriction since March. Restrictions on their opening times and capacity, guidance to limit contact with others, and public anxiousness all drastically cut footfall. Footfall is significantly lower even for those businesses that are capable of being opened. As we know, all these businesses will be closed completely during the coming weeks while the firebreak is in effect.
In my own constituency of Islwyn, I have heard of many local pubs and restaurants that have struggled in the past few months. One pub was excluded from furloughing staff because of the date that the landlady took over, meaning that she had to choose between staff not being paid or paying them and going into debt herself. The cut-off date for support seems completely arbitrary to me, and it puts new business owners, such as my constituent, in a difficult position.
I take issue with the lack of clarity in the Chancellor’s statements. Many people in Wales do not follow the intricate details of what is and what is not devolved, or they are simply too busy to keep up with such matters. We do not all live in a bubble within which politics is the be-all and end-all of our lives. At the start of the crisis, Welsh Labour MPs were forced to write to the Treasury to seek clarity on what support applied to businesses in Wales, as the guidance simply was not clear enough. Businesspeople were often left confused as to whether or not the Chancellor’s announcements applied to the whole of the UK or just England. The message was not clear and it was also difficult to access, leaving many businesspeople confused as to what financial aid they qualified for.
Only the UK Government have the financial firepower to guarantee the levels of support that workers need, despite the continual work of Welsh Ministers. Welsh businesses need more generous payments to help their workers through this crisis. The Welsh Government are clearly taking proactive steps and doing all they can to support businesses, plugging gaps where UK support is not sufficient. However, through no fault of its own, Wales is struggling, despite the best efforts of the Welsh Government and of the residents to keep their businesses alive.
It is time that proper consideration is taken in Westminster as to the level of flexibility of aid that should be offered, to ensure that businesses can continue to function and jobs can be retained over the coming winter. As Wales faces a two-week lockdown, this has become even more urgent. Aid needs to be more targeted and more flexible, to take into account the complexities of British businesses. Above all, that must happen right now.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this important debate. The last time he and I were in Westminster Hall, he reminded me of a day we spent in Blackwood, walking to raise funds for Velindre Cancer Care, which at that time was treating the late Steffan Lewis, a great man and a Plaid Cymru Member of the Senedd. We have sadly lost Steffan now, but every time I see the hon. Gentleman, I am reminded of that uplifting day and the collegiate, cross-party support that came with it, which I hope will seep into this debate.
Coronavirus has devastated businesses across Wales. I am incredibly proud and thankful for the level of support that both Governments have made available. Schemes such as the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme and the bounce back loan have directly supported businesses of all sizes right across Wales. Some 11,000 jobs in Brecon and Radnorshire have been protected through the UK Government’s furlough scheme. These schemes have been a lifeline to businesses that have lost the ability to trade for the better half of a year, with no clear end in sight.
Every sector in Brecon and Radnorshire has lost out, but I want to speak in particular for the tourism and hospitality sector. Many of the most beautiful parts of Wales can be found in my constituency. In a normal year, they would draw hundreds of thousands of tourists from all corners of the United Kingdom and, indeed, from around the world. For example, the small, independent book shops in Hay-on-Wye attract thousands of visitors each year, with the Hay festival being one of the world’s foremost literary events—yet another example of a loss to our community during this pandemic.
Following the easing of restrictions in Powys, pubs, restaurants and hotels were slowly coming back to life. Supported by the unique eat out to help out scheme, demand picked up in August. Many restaurant and café owners have told me how much they valued this scheme, which resulted in more than 77,000 meals being enjoyed in the constituency. The argument that it contributed to increasing rates of the virus in September is simply not borne out in Brecon and Radnorshire, where coronavirus rates have stayed mercifully low.
The First Minister’s decision on Monday to put the entire country into lockdown once again is, to use the words of the hon. Member for Islwyn, a hammer blow for those businesses that were just starting to recover. The decision penalises everyone across Wales, irrespective of the number of virus cases in a certain area. To make the problem worse, businesses have no foresight as to what comes next. The businesses in my constituency, which have relied on customers being able to travel up from the south Wales valleys, have no idea whether those people might be allowed back after the lockdown is lifted.
Like the hon. Gentleman, since Monday I have been flooded with emails from businesses and workers who are now deeply uncertain about their future. I was saddened to read on Facebook this morning that Aroma, a café in Llandrindod Wells, has announced that it cannot survive lockdown 2 and will be closing its doors permanently.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Is there not more certainty around the idea of a firebreak, or a circuit breaker, because it is time-limited, with a specific deadline of 9 November, whereas a very open-ended tier-based system leaves people in a vacuum for an indefinite period of time? Surely the Welsh approach provides far more certainty than the UK Government’s approach.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but we do not know what will happen after 9 November, as I will address in my speech.
It is clear to me that businesses do not want to be kept on life support through Government grants and loans. They want to be open and busy, serving customers and playing an important role in our communities. Throughout coronavirus, the tourism and hospitality sectors in Brecon and Radnorshire have reacted admirably and have done everything they can to stay open, while ensuring that their customers are safe.
I was pleased to visit Cantref activity centre in Brecon in the summer, which has worked incredibly hard to implement social-distancing measures and limit capacity, as have Dan yr Ogof caves, a 60-year-old underground caving attraction in Abercrave. They have all now been told by the Welsh Government that that work was for nothing and that they are to lose their half-term revenue—the only glimmer of hope in an otherwise dreadful year.
The lockdown is being imposed, and we will all have to comply, businesses included. I welcome that the Welsh Government have made £300 million available, but I hope that that can be targeted at businesses in the tourism and hospitality sectors, which are now facing their third winter of 2020. I will play my part by urging the Chancellor and the Treasury to maintain the 5% VAT rate, but I urge the Welsh Government to commit to scrapping business rates for tourism and hospitality businesses for another year. Above all, in answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), the Welsh Government need to explain what happens next. It is vital that we avoid an endless cycle of rolling lockdowns, as trailed by the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on Sunday morning.
Before I conclude, I want to highlight the plight of the events sector, which is another important employer in my constituency. The Royal Welsh show is the largest agricultural show in Europe. Each year, it welcomes a quarter of a million visitors to Llanelwedd, just outside Builth Wells. It creates £45 million for the UK economy and, more than that, it is a rich seam in our cultural fabric. For many, it is the highlight of the year—an annual holiday and a chance to catch up with friends right across the agricultural sector. Just before the Royal Welsh show was cancelled for 2020, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport provided the Welsh Government with £59 million to support cultural activities in Wales hit by the pandemic. I find it curious that only £53 million of that money has been made available so far. The Royal Welsh show is one of the biggest cultural events in Wales. It is on a par with the Urdd eisteddfod, which received £3.1 million in support from the Welsh Government. The Royal Welsh show has received next to nothing in comparison. I implore the Welsh Government to consider the rural economy and find some extra funding for the show, which faces an uncertain future.
Support for businesses comes in many forms, not just lifeline funding. Businesses need to know what comes next. We in Wales know that half-term, Halloween and bonfire night are all cancelled. Valuable chances to recover are gone. Where do we go from here? How do we fight the virus on an economic and a public health front after 9 November? The Welsh Government need to come forward with a plan urgently.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this debate and on the excellent speech he made. I apologise profusely for having to leave before the winding-up speeches, as I must go and chair a Committee.
As my hon. Friend said, this debate on support for people and businesses in Wales during covid-19 comes in the context of the Welsh Government’s announcement that Wales will enter a national firebreak for a fortnight from the end of this week. That is a sensible, proportionate response to the national rise in cases we have seen over recent weeks—we only have to listen, for instance, to national health service staff from the Aneurin Bevan health board on social media to know that. I know it is also something that many of my constituents, while accepting the challenges it will pose—and it will be hard —will understand.
The First Minister’s tone, which encouraged the people of Wales to come together to look after each other and ease the burden on our NHS, was well judged. That is not least because in Newport, which has been under local lockdown since 22 September, we saw our cases drop yesterday to the joint lowest figure in the Aneurin Bevan health board area, along with Monmouthshire, part of which I represent. People in Newport have stuck to the rules, and there are some signs that that is now having an effect, even against the backdrop of a worrying national picture. We thank them for their efforts and their sacrifices at this time, and we also thank those working hard on the frontline during the second wave, who must be exhausted but who are keeping going. We are eternally grateful.
In his announcement on Monday, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, highlighted the challenges that businesses across Wales are continuing to face. That is why it is good to hear that businesses affected by the firebreak will be supported with the new £300 million fund, which opens next week, on top of the economic resilience fund that has safeguarded 100,000 jobs. It will include payments for businesses covered by small business rates relief; small and medium-sized retail, leisure and hospitality business; and targeted support for struggling businesses, for which it cannot come soon enough. We need to repeat the First Minister’s ask: the Chancellor must give Welsh businesses early access to the new, expanded job support scheme from Friday. The Welsh Government are offering to pay the extra costs to retain staff. I hope that can be resolved quickly.
It goes without saying that the past few months have been incredibly challenging for us all in Wales, and all the more so for individuals and businesses that are falling through the cracks of the support offered by the UK Government. In Welsh questions last week, I spoke up for constituents who are locked out of the Government’s new job support scheme or are deemed to be in unviable jobs. In his response, the Secretary of State invited me to raise individual examples of gaps in Government support that my constituents have encountered. Here are just a few for my constituency neighbour, the Minister.
A worryingly large amount of correspondence has come in from constituents who were denied access to the furlough scheme in the first place, including those on maternity leave; those who are shielding; those made redundant before 19 March, whose previous employer does not agree, for whatever reason, to re-employ them and place them on temporary leave; and many zero-hours contract staff, particularly agency workers. There are also those who started new jobs in March and who have been unable to access support through the furlough scheme. For example, a constituent who started a new job in south Wales in March was told to stay at home after a week in the office. He was later informed that the company could not afford to pay everyone, and he was put on eight weeks’ unpaid leave.
There are also ongoing problems with Government support schemes that affect those who have received support. They include the deeply unfair situation, which is only now becoming apparent, whereby lower paid workers who fall ill after returning to work from furlough risk losing their entitlement to statutory sick pay, as their earnings fall under the limit of £120. I thank Mike Payne of the GMB union for highlighting that, and I think the Government should sort it out.
There are also gaping holes in the Government’s support for the self-employed, including those who work on short pay-as-you-earn contracts. For example, constituents in the creative sector on local film sets have not been covered by the self-employed income support scheme or the job retention scheme. Those I have spoken up for in previous debates who serve as directors for limited companies and draw down their income in dividends currently have no support under either scheme. Those small business owners and directors are often not high earners, paying themselves a nominal salary and taking the rest as dividends.
The new job support scheme is also flawed. An Institute for Public Policy Research report estimates that only 10% of so-called viable jobs will be saved by the package. The truth is that a grant of two thirds of their salary for workers is simply not sufficient for those on the lowest wages, and will make it harder for many of my constituents to pay bills and feed their families, especially in the run-up to Christmas. Government adviser Dame Louise Casey said last week:
“It’s like you're saying to people, ‘You can only afford two-thirds of your rent, you can only afford two-thirds of the food that you need to put on the table.’ There’s this sense from Downing Street and from Westminster that people will make do. Well, they weren’t coping before Covid.”
She is absolutely right that this level of support simply will not cut it. The UK Government should reconsider the policy and listen to the Wales TUC, which has rightly stated that the wage replacement should be at least at the current furlough level of 80%.
Given that two thirds of the national minimum wage is about £800 a month, there is a strong likelihood that many of the lowest-paid workers in Wales, where the average wage is 15% lower than the UK average, will need to claim universal credit under the new job support scheme. That again illustrates the pressing need to address the in-built flaws in the universal credit system, including the five-week wait, which the Work and Pensions Select Committee highlighted yesterday, and the advance loan payment, which pushes people into debt.
Whole sectors of the Welsh and UK economy are facing an uncertain future. In my constituency—my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn has mentioned many of these—the sectors include the exhibition and events industry and its many supply chains, driving instructors, garages, dog kennels, gyms, the wedding industry, and beauty and hair, as well as others. As chair of the all-party group on steel, may I point out the need to help out our steel industry, which we will definitely need if we are to build back greener? I urge Ministers to work with their counterparts in the Welsh Government to produce a road map for recovery for these businesses, particularly those where supply chains frequently cross borders within the UK.
My final point is about lower-paid workers, particularly women, and I draw Ministers’ attention to the excellent report by the Welsh equality charity, Chwarae Teg, “Covid-19: Women, Work and Wales”. What we are going through might be the new normal, but for lower-paid workers in unfurloughed sectors, such as care, retail and the NHS, who are keeping the country going, there is nothing normal about the contribution they are making to keep us safe in the second wave. The lowest paid—those on the living wage—deserve the Government to commit, at the very least, to giving them a raise next year. As I highlighted in Prime Minister’s questions last month, Ministers should confirm that the hourly level will still rise to £9.21 in April. Working people in Wales and across the UK should not be made to pay for this crisis.
It is pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing it.
I, too, believe that the decision that the Welsh Government have taken is absolutely right and necessary to bring the virus under control and to provide certainty to many of the businesses and organisations in my constituency that are deeply worried about the prospect of open-ended periods of restrictions that will cause them much more difficulty than a defined, albeit very difficult, period of restrictions. Many of them are telling me that the confusion, particularly from the Prime Minister, that has been reported in the UK media filters through into Wales and depresses demand and the willingness of people to go out and use local hospitality, for example. It is clear that, with the virus rising in the way that it is, and with the potential impact on the NHS and the potential for even stricter measures to be put into place, this is the right decision at the right time.
It is disappointing that the UK Prime Minister has not taken the same approach despite calls for him to do so. There has been a stark contrast in approach between that taken by Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, and Ministers in Wales, and what we have seen from the Prime Minister. I have similar stories of helpful engagements with the Economy Minister, Ken Skates, when I have brought him concerns on behalf of individual businesses and sectors. However, I will be generous to the Minister and the Secretary of State, who is not with us today, because of the support that they have provided in a number of cases, particularly in the case of the steel industry in my community. Unfortunately, it requires the whole UK Government to be working in concert, and such support has not been forthcoming in a number of other areas. That is disappointing. However, I acknowledge the support the Minister has personally provided on a number of issues, and it is right to acknowledge that.
We have the most comprehensive, nuanced and generous package of financial support, beyond the support from the UK Government, and it has protected 100,000 jobs in Wales. The package of support that was announced at the same time as the proposed measures is crucial in bringing together clarity on public health restrictions with economic support and making sure that the support gets through to businesses. Ken Skates has announced a £300 million support package for businesses and, although it contains multiple aspects, I should just mention that it provides individual payments to those who, for example, benefit from small business rate relief and—of particular concern to my constituency—those small and medium-sized enterprises in the leisure and hospitality sectors that receive individualised payments.
I wish to raise a few specific issues. I have already mentioned the wider implications of confusion. Despite the welcome BBC Wales broadcasts and coverage of statements from the First Minister, the Economy Minister and other Ministers, much of the media reporting on what is happening in England and on the chaos and confusion that we have seen in recent days filters across into Wales. Many businesses and individuals regularly come to me to talk about the tiers and the decisions that have been taken for England. I have raised that point since the start of the crisis, and I know that the Secretary of State for Wales has made attempts to try to be clearer, but that is not often matched by the Prime Minister and others getting up at UK Government press conferences to put information out there. That causes huge confusion not only for businesses and individuals along the border but for others who pick up news from England. There needs to be a real step towards greater clarity on the decisions—whether people agree with them or not—that have been made and why they have been taken. Anything that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales can do to help provide clarity, even if there are differences and disagreements, would be helpful. The decisions are taken in Wales, and businesses should know that there is that certainty and clarity about what is happening.
I have raised this many times, but I want to raise again the situation facing many freelancers and those in the excluded groups who have fallen through the gaps in different programmes and packages. Again, I want to praise the Welsh Government for the approach they have taken, particularly on freelancers working in the arts and creative industries, in setting up a freelancer fund. Individuals are not able to benefit in the same way from the large sums that the Chancellor keeps trumpeting as having been given to the arts and creative industries, but the freelancer fund is of course welcome. That package supports many venues and arts and creative businesses in my constituency, but individuals—often the lifeblood of our creative industries—are not eligible in England, although they are Wales, but the demand is huge. If evidence is needed about the hurt and pain going on out there, one has only to look at how quickly people have applied to the freelancer fund scheme in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan in recent days. There have already been two phases, and I am arguing for a third. Many people are struggling and are absolutely desperate for payments to help get them through the next few months. The problem is not related to the lockdown that starts on Friday; it has been going on for months, and we have heard again and again from those who have fallen through the gaps.
I also want to raise the issue of the bureaucracy that businesses face and the fact that the Chancellor has not responded to the very reasonable request from the First Minister to bring forward the job support scheme package. Businesses now have to apply for the furlough scheme at its tail end and then apply for the job support scheme. I know there is a difference in approach and there are different views, and I know that politics is involved, but I am talking about plain common sense for businesses. It would have made a lot more sense for the Chancellor to have brought the scheme forward. If businesses have to continue to apply for the two separate schemes, I urge the Minister to ask his ministerial colleagues to bring forward the funding for the tail end of the furlough scheme as quickly as possible, because we all know that, for many businesses, cash is king. Many are really struggling with their cash flow, and they need the money as soon as possible.
I want to raise a related issue. I am being contacted by many constituents and others facing delays at the UK Government-run testing sites in Cardiff. I have raised the issue with the Department of Health and Social Care. The site is run as part of the Lighthouse lab system. I have had multiple cases come in over the past few weeks of people not getting tests and then having to self-isolate. They are unable to go to work, which is causing financial strain and worry for them, their families and the businesses that they work for. I have raised the matter with the DHSC Parliamentary Private Secretary and others. I urge the Minister to look into that specific case because it relates to the UK Government-run site, not the Welsh Government.
We have seen a methodical, measured, science-led and consultative approach from the Welsh First Minister, our Economy Minister and others in these very difficult circumstances. I will continue to stand available to support all of my businesses and all those who are struggling at the current time. I will continue to make sure they get the right information and access to support. I hope that we see a more measured, methodical, clear and consultative approach from the UK Government going forward. We are going to get through this only if everybody works together and if we take some of the politics out of it. We need to support our residents and our businesses and not make the cheap jibes that we have heard in recent days from the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and their health spokesperson, Andrew R. T. Davies. It is not helpful, it is deeply damaging, and it is not in line with the facts on the ground.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this timely and important debate. If there is one thing that 2020 has taught us, it is the unshakable truth that we are far stronger and more resilient when we come together, pool resources, look out for one another, take collective responsibility, and shield and protect the most vulnerable among us.
The health and wellbeing of people, the planet, family, communities and businesses are at the heart of decision making in Wales. I know that the people of Cardiff North, whom I am here to represent, fully understand the gravity of the situation that we face and that no decisions are being taken lightly by the Welsh Labour Government. I am so very proud of the clear, responsible and transparent leadership that the Welsh Labour Government have shown throughout the crisis. They have rolled out the most all-inclusive financial support package for businesses of all the four nations—£2 billion to keep businesses afloat. That has already saved 100,000 businesses across Wales, and is appreciated by many I have spoken to.
I have had many conversations with constituents and exchanges with people and businesses right across my constituency. There is no doubt that it is a very worrying time. We are facing tough times, but these businesses are integral to our communities. Cardiff North would not be the same without Mr Lazarou, the barber’s down the road from my office in Whitchurch; Dave Vater and his Forest café in Tongwynlais; or Fran and Rupert with their fantastic deli, Snails, in Rhiwbina. Hairdressers, beauty salons, cafés, restaurants, the creative heritage and tourism sector—these are the people who put their heart and soul into our high streets and communities and who create jobs in local areas. They must be protected too.
The Welsh Government have also provided grants for the self-employed and a freelance fund for those who have been shamefully excluded from all support from the UK Government since March. They have lost work, yet still have the same bills to pay to keep the roof over their heads and their families fed. Yet again, the Welsh Labour Government have committed to providing support for all where the Tories in Whitehall have been either unable or unwilling to do that. It is no surprise that in a recent constituency-wide survey I conducted, the majority of businesses who responded—78%—said that they far preferred the Welsh Labour Government’s approach to the UK Government’s.
As we approach the short, sharp two-week firebreak this Friday, we see the difficult decisions being taken by the Welsh Labour Government, listening to the scientific advice and taking action where needed. It is at times like these that I am so proud to be Welsh—I know that this view is shared by the majority of my constituents who write and tell me—and so proud to represent a Welsh constituency. The Welsh Labour Government are ensuring a supported firebreak for a short period, rather than a slow decline towards Christmas, which we know is the time that a lot of businesses depend on to secure them throughout the year. The firebreak is absolutely necessary to get back on top of the virus, to suppress the spread of infection and to stop the NHS being overwhelmed.
The Welsh Labour Government stepping in to save lives and provide a generous financial support package is in stark contrast to what we see unfolding in England, which is the UK Government playing poker with people’s lives and livelihoods. In Wales, the Welsh Government are providing £300 million in an enhanced resilience fund for this short two-week firebreak, small business rates relief grants, funding for retail, hospitality and leisure shutting down for two weeks, and a £100 million fund for long-term business development.
The Government in Wales have swiftly provided the clear and quality support that is needed now, as well as keeping an eye on the future. Despite repeated requests from First Minister Mark Drakeford to work with the UK Government, they have continued to ignore our First Minister. The UK Government’s display yesterday towards Manchester shows the deep contempt they have for people’s lives and livelihoods. Never has there been a more important time for us to come together and govern together. This is not governing—the UK Government seem incapable. They are seeking to divide and conquer. It is politicking at best, but it is downright dangerous at a time of national emergency. We need trust and transparency.
I will make some specific requests of the Minister. I hope that the Chancellor responds swiftly to Mark Drakeford’s request to give Welsh businesses early access to the new job support scheme, cutting down paperwork that overstretched and overworked businesses must complete to access it. Will we see outlawed fire and rehire tactics under the guise of covid that few businesses—thankfully—but some practise? Usually, that affects those lowest paid and in the most precarious jobs. Many have contacted me and are desperate to see an end to the practice. Likewise, the £20 uplift for recipients of universal credit has been a lifeline for more than 5,000 people in Cardiff North, the difference between being able to cope and being cut adrift. Economic hardship shows no sign of easing, so will the UK Government extend that uplift to and throughout 2021?
This is a deeply worrying time for everyone, and we have an uncertain future until there is a vaccine. There is no easy fix right now, but I thank the people of Cardiff North and of Wales for making those tough sacrifices and for their continued co-operation. Elsewhere, we have witnessed how division leads to dithering and delay. Ultimately, that is bad for public health, and the uncertainty is bad for livelihoods and for businesses. Coming together is our best chance of defeating this virus.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this vital debate.
To start, I pay tribute to all those across my constituency and, indeed, across Wales and the UK for doing their bit to fight this pandemic. Community groups in Aberavon sprang into action to help residents across our community, to help with food shopping, prescription pick-ups and so many other forms of support, and often just with acts of human kindness. Demand on our food banks has increased dramatically. I thank the Port Talbot, Briton Ferry, Cwmafan and the Skewen Salvation Army food banks, as well as Age Cymru West Glamorgan for ensuring that those most in need in our community do not go without.
Our key workers have, of course, played an absolutely pivotal role. Our health and social care workers have been right on the frontline of this fight, working so hard in the toughest of conditions. However, so have many of our other unsung heroes, such as our transport workers, waste disposal men and women, food producers, steelworkers and many more who have kept our economy going even during the national lockdown.
Manufacturers have also played a critical role. I visited local Aberavon firms which have shown incredible innovation, flexibility and adaptability in producing essential frontline equipment: BOC kept our Welsh NHS stocked with oxygen; Ministry of Furniture, also in my constituency, flipped on a sixpence to start producing shields and screens for frontline workers; and a company called RotaTherm, which turned its hand to PPE, also moved from its core business to a very different type of activity almost in the blink of an eye. It has been truly inspirational to witness such a community effort.
I have also been profoundly impressed by the response of my local authority, Neath Port Talbot, and of course by the Welsh Government, as many of my hon. Friends have pointed out. Our First Minister has led by example. He has followed the science and provided adequate support for businesses and individuals, where it is the Welsh Government’s responsibility and capability to do so. The £300 million of financial support to firms and workers, to help them through the upcoming firebreak lockdown, is a case in point. That is leadership, and it is truly welcome and much needed.
Contrast that—as a number of my hon. Friends have already observed—with the events in Greater Manchester, where the UK Conservative Government are certainly failing to deliver on their levelling-up rhetoric. One specific issue that my constituents regularly raise is the need for more support from the Chancellor for the self-employed. Creative industry workers have told me that their work has dropped off a cliff, and because of the nature of their employment—short-term pay-as-you-earn contracts, freelance work and so on—many of them fall outside the income support schemes.
We also need far more support for our steelworkers. The Port Talbot steelworks is the biggest employer in my constituency by far, but Tata Steel has fallen through the cracks in the UK Government’s schemes and has yet to receive any emergency funding or loans. It took the French and German Governments just weeks to provide their major steel producers with the finance to cover their short-term cash flow issues—issues that are, of course, due to the impact of the pandemic—yet there still has not been a penny for the British steel industry from the UK Government. They continue to sit on their hands.
Steelworkers are key workers. The steel industry continues to operate and serve our country through the current crisis, and will be critical to rebuilding our economy after it. It is the backbone of modern manufacturing, and it should be noted that every other sizeable economic power in the world has a significant steel industry. It is also far greener to make steel in the UK than it is to import it, and lots of incredible work is taking place in this sector, including the SPECIFIC project at the Innovation and Knowledge Centre on Swansea Bay campus, in partnership with Tata Steel. That project is making steel-based materials that form the basis for photovoltaic cells, potentially turning every building in our country into a power station.
Steel is very much a 21st-century industry, and it is the backbone of our economy and our manufacturing sector. We need our steel industry, yet because of the extraordinary nature of the situation we find ourselves in, that industry can only get through this crisis with Government support. Of course, part of the reason why the steelworks needs this short-term support is that over the past 10 years, the Government have consistently failed to back the UK steel industry with the long-term support it requires. The UK Government have not offered a sector deal similar to those that are in place with industries such as aerospace and construction, and have not done enough to create the policy framework around energy prices, procurement, and dealing with the dumping of steel by countries such as China that is needed to form the foundation for a strong and healthy steel industry. The message to the UK Government is clear: we need our steel. There can be no post-pandemic economic recovery without a strong and healthy steel industry, and the Government should be backing this industry to the hilt.
It is not just the steel industry that the UK Government have failed to back in the long term. The impact of 10 years of austerity on public services in Wales, including a reduction in the Welsh Government’s grant, has affected the ability of local services to meet the challenge that this pandemic poses. Neath Port Talbot Council has had to remove £90 million from its budget since 2010, and is expected to find another £50 million reduction by 2025. Now coronavirus has hit, meaning that like other councils across the UK, both the extra spend and the loss of revenue for Neath Port Talbot Council will run into the millions. This really is going to be a test for public services whose resilience has been undermined over the past decade.
Local councillors need the Chancellor to heed the words of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who promised in May that the Government
“stands with local councils at this difficult time”
and that they would do “whatever is necessary”. So far, there is scant evidence of the UK Government making good on that pledge, but they need to, because “whatever is necessary” needs to mean what it says.
Take also the long-term issue of strategic independence. I recently visited one local company, which has turned its hand to manufacturing PPE for the Welsh NHS in a truly flexible and inspirational way, but what came home to me during that visit was that at that point, there were no Welsh companies making PPE for the Welsh NHS. That is because the whole supply chain had been moved offshore to countries such as China.
Every single one of the firm’s employees who I spoke to expressed their profound concerns about the way in which our sovereign capability had been eroded, to the point where we are left dangerously exposed and over-reliant on other countries. Frequently, those countries are not allies of ours or our national interest and security. The UK Government must understand that when we talk about supporting UK businesses through covid-19, we also need to have an eye to the future, and the reliance and resilience that UK manufacturers would bring to the economy. We cannot go on in a situation where so much of our critical infrastructure is exposed to forces that we cannot control.
Finally, Sir Edward, I want to touch on skilling and reskilling. After the pandemic we are going to need significant investment in vocational training for my constituents and for people across the country, to help them get back into the job market, because, I am afraid, there will be a huge shift of people losing their jobs. We are going to need to retrain those people and bring them back into the labour market.
Skilling and reskilling programmes have frequently been funded through European structural funds in Wales and other economically challenged parts of the United Kingdom. That money will disappear in January, when the transition period ends, leaving a huge black hole. The UK Government have promised that a UK shared prosperity fund will replace EU development funding, but we still know next to nothing about the SPF. How much money will be in the envelope? What development programmes will it cover? What will be the focus of those programmes? Who will be in charge of administering the scheme? There is a tremendous risk that the UK Government will undertake both a money grab and a power grab from the devolved nations with regard to how that development funding is spent. We have even recently heard suggestions that the UK Government plan to funnel money directly into marginal or Conservative-held seats in what can only be described as the worst sort of pork barrel politics.
It is frankly unacceptable that we are just two months away from the day on which the shared prosperity fund is supposed to be launched, yet we have no idea about its overall size, focus or governance. That is yet another example of the UK Conservative Government treating the regions and local areas of our United Kingdom with contempt. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on post-Brexit funding for regions, nations and local areas, I will be working closely with colleagues to hold the Government to account and to ensure that they deliver on their promises.
With those words I close, and simply add that we have seen some inspiring examples in all our local communities. In this time of crisis, we all need to pull together in the interests of those communities, our constituents and our entire country. That will require leadership, investment and a new way of working across our United Kingdom. I look forward to the Minister’s comments on all those issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Edward.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing today’s important and timely debate, which comes just a few days away from the new restrictions coming into force in Wales, in the form of the firebreak lockdown between 23 October and 9 November. As the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, said, that was not an easy decision, but it was taken on the advice of the Welsh Government’s scientific advisers and it is absolutely necessary to regain control of the virus, to protect our NHS and to save lives.
No one in the Chamber is ignorant to the challenges that this will cause to businesses and families in Wales, who have already sacrificed so much as we seek to control the virus. As we have heard, the Welsh Labour Government are putting in place an enhanced package of support, doubling the third phase of their economic resilience fund, making more than £300 million available to Welsh businesses. That builds on what the fund has already achieved, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn and others, supporting nearly 13,000 companies and helping to secure 100,000 jobs in Wales.
Many Members have cited the support Welsh people and businesses have received from the UK Government, primarily through the furlough scheme, and on these Benches we have welcomed that. We are a party that believes in the Union, and it is only right that we pull together and pool our resources, so that we can support one another in times of national crisis.
It is also right to recognise the huge contribution of all partners in supporting local communities. Local authorities in Wales have been at the forefront of ensuring that our crucial public services are maintained; and, of course, local authorities and third sector organisations, working with public health bodies and others, have made a huge contribution to sustaining families and communities. That has included co-ordinating food box schemes, neighbour befriending schemes and other schemes that support residents’ wellbeing and combat loneliness and isolation. I pay tribute also to the work of those in the housing sector—in local authorities and housing associations—who have done much to support their tenants. An example of that was the WithYou campaign launched by Community Housing Cymru.
I do not think I shall have time today to mention all the contributions to the debate in as much detail as I should like, but I want to acknowledge some of the comments that were made by other Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn highlighted the genuine concerns of businesses in Islwyn and across the country. He also rightly highlighted support from the Welsh Government, as well as the lack of regular contact from the UK Government to the Welsh Government and the lack of co-operation from the UK Government at various times during the pandemic.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) talked about the understandable concerns raised by businesses and the tourism sector. I am sure that she will join me in welcoming the additional funding set out in this week’s announcement dealing with the firebreak lockdown, and the additional £20 million that was ring-fenced by the Welsh Government as part of that, specifically for tourism and hospitality.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) talked about her gratitude to constituents of hers who have done the right thing. I am sure that we would all echo that, as people in communities across the country have gone through a hugely difficult few months and unfortunately the end is not yet in sight. She also raised the need for early access to the job support scheme—something that was echoed by my hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin)—and the need to combat bureaucracy as businesses deal with two schemes in the short two-week lockdown.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth talked about taking the right decisions at the right time, which would contrast starkly with examples of what we have seen from the UK Government. He also mentioned the fact that the Welsh Government have aligned public health with the need for economic support—a crucial link. He talked about the lack of support for those who have been excluded, and contrasted the launch of the freelancers’ fund in Wales with what has happened across the UK, pointing out the huge need for that fund across the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North talked about the need to pool resources and the measured approach of the Welsh Government. She also raised the freelancers issue, and requests for early access to the job support scheme.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) talked about the community action that sprang into place throughout the pandemic, of which I am sure we have all seen examples across Wales. Our communities have demonstrated a huge amount of community spirit, and I pay tribute, as I am sure we all do, to the key workers across Wales who have kept our economy going. My hon. Friend raised the need for a steel support fund and contrasted the UK Government’s approach with that of other Governments around the world, who sprang into action a lot more quickly to support their key industries. Of course, he also raised the important issue of the shared prosperity fund, highlighting the fact that in 2018 we were due to have a consultation on it, and two years later, with just two months to go, clarity about the fund is missing. That is a shocking indictment of the UK Government.
The Welsh Government’s inclusive approach has ensured that local government, the third sector and other partners have pulled together in one direction, with a shared interest, to support people across Wales. That is, unfortunately, in stark contrast to the situation we find at Westminster.
It is disappointing to hear some representatives of the Conservative party continually calling into question the justification for the firebreak lockdown, as they have done in recent days. I think that approach is both ignorant and irresponsible. Unlike the UK Government, we have followed the science in Wales. I suggest that Conservative Members actually read the advice produced by the Welsh Government’s technical advisory cell. I have a copy if Members want to pass it on to their colleagues.
We are in the middle of a national and global crisis, and the responsible thing for us all to do is to reinforce the clear public health messages that are designed to regain control of the virus and to save lives. It has not been a happy 24 hours for the Government in their dealings with the nations and regions across the UK. I hope that, when the Minister gets to his feet, he will address some of the genuine concerns and questions that Members have raised on behalf of our constituents. I hope that we will achieve some unity as we work to tackle this dreadful virus and support Welsh businesses and families who are affected at this hugely difficult time.
I am not quite sure how many minutes I have.
Right. I thank the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for his comments. He, like many others, including the hon. Members for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock)—I think everyone did this, actually—mentioned the role played by public sector workers, including local authority workers, teachers and, of course, the police. I want to mention prison officers, because they always seem to get left out. I am not saying that they did any more or less than anyone else, but they have certainly taken risks and, sadly, in my constituency one member of the Prison Service died as a result of covid. I thank all hon. Members for an interesting and perceptive debate, and I will try to respond to as many of the points as I can.
I want to strike a note of unity by saying that covid-19 is the biggest challenge that we have faced for generations. We are tackling this pandemic head-on, and we seek to reduce the risk of transmission and the number of infections and deaths, while minimising the longer-term damage to the economy. I believe that the UK Government have shown clear leadership across the country in fighting the scourge of coronavirus. Every time the UK Government have implemented measures designed to curb the spread of covid-19, we have put in place provisions to support those who are affected, in Wales and right across the United Kingdom.
We started with an additional package of funding in the spring Budget to support the NHS and other public services. We followed that up with support for business through lockdown and beyond, including Government-backed loans, starting with the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. To date, almost £400 million of UK Government-backed loans have been extended to firms in Wales under that scheme. The bounce back loan scheme, introduced for small and medium-sized enterprises, has supported over £1 billion-worth of loans in Wales. The furlough scheme kept workers in their jobs during lockdown, with the Government paying up to 80% of their usual wage. At its peak, the scheme supported more than 400,000 workers in Wales—around a quarter of the workforce.
The UK Government have pursued a generous approach, designed to work together with all devolved Administrations, and we have given the Welsh Government an up-front guarantee of an additional £4.4 billion of funding, over and above the normal block grant, to help them to deal with the scale and uncertainty of the disruption caused by coronavirus. Various Members, including the hon. Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Cardiff North—in fact, probably all the Opposition Members who spoke—praised the Labour Government. The hon. Member for Cardiff North seemed to use the words “Welsh Labour” in virtually every sentence, saying, “The Welsh Labour Government have delivered this; they’ve delivered that; and they’ve saved x number of jobs.” I am not denying for one moment that they have done those things, but they did them with the £4.4 billion and all the other money that has been provided to them to deal with this crisis.
It was right that the Welsh Government be given extra funding in order to deal with this crisis. It is perfectly reasonable to praise one’s own political party or Government—we all do that from time to time—but I was disappointed to hear the hon. Lady say that we must all try to work together and take politics out of this, and then not even to acknowledge that the Welsh Labour Government were able to deliver that help, which she spoke about in such grand terms, only because extra money was rightly given by the UK Government.
Does the Minister not agree that the Government in Westminster have acted across the UK in a way that could be described as politicking, at best, and downright dangerous, at worst? He fails to realise that by not engaging with Wales, Scotland and the regions, he and his Government are leaving people desperate and dying.
It is disappointing again that the hon. Lady uses the word “politicking” in one sentence and “dangerous” in the next, and then goes on to suggest that one Government’s approach is leaving people dying. If she wants to talk about poker games, she might want to look at what happened in Manchester, where a Labour local authority leader did everything possible to avoid locking down unless he could get some more money out of the Government. That is playing poker. That is politicking with people’s lives. The UK Government’s approach has been to try and avoid the narrow politicking. That is why you will not catch me saying that a policy that is being pursued by the Labour Government in Wales, even though it may be different from the UK Government’s policies, is causing people to die or causing danger. That is not a comment that I ever want to make.
The Minister is picking on my speech, so I seem to have got under his skin. Can he point out the scientific evidence that the UK Government are following? It certainly is not the scientific evidence that we have seen from our scientific advisers across the country and, specifically, in Wales.
It is not that the hon. Lady has got under my skin, but if she suggests that the UK Government are deliberately leaving people to die, that is something that I have to tackle. As far as the science goes, at the first Cobra meeting I attended—I have attended a few of them when the Secretary of State has not been available—I saw the Prime Minister ask the chief scientific adviser, “How can we save the maximum number of lives?” The UK Government’s whole approach has been about asking the scientists not, “What will be good for the economy?” but, “What will save lives?” The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that a member of the Welsh Government—I cannot remember if it was the Health Minister or the First Minister—was present at that meeting.
I will probably completely mess up my speech, now but I want to talk about co-operation. I have never seen such co-operation between the UK and the Welsh Governments. From the very start, Welsh Government Ministers have been invited along to every Cobra meeting and to the ministerial implementation group meetings, which are at the level below that, where a lot of decisions are also taken. We have had Welsh Government Ministers, SNP Ministers and Northern Irish Ministers there, all listening to the evidence and all taking part in the decision-making process. It is right that that was the case, because we wanted to approach the matter from a UK perspective.
At the same time, it occurred to the Secretary of State for Wales that it might be useful if he or I had some knowledge of what the Welsh Government proposed—not to take part in any decision-making process, but to have an idea of what was taking place. We wrote to the First Minister, pointing out that his Ministers rightly come to many UK-level ministerial meetings and asking if it would be possible for us to attend Welsh Government ministerial meetings—not to take any part in the decisions, and not necessarily even to say anything, but simply to listen and understand the process in Wales—but we received little response.
In the end, we were told that we could perhaps sit in on some of the meetings, but only for the moments where non-devolved matters were being discussed. I think we have had one invitation in the last six months. That is a disappointing lack of co-operation. It is extraordinary to me that anyone has the audacity, frankly, to suggest that the UK Government are not working hand in hand with the Welsh Government, when the UK Government have fallen over themselves to invite Welsh Ministers to these meetings.
The Minister is being generous with his time. Is it not the case that people in Wales are tired of this back and forth, and of people playing politics with who has been invited to what meeting? The Opposition’s accusation that we are not working closely is completely false. In actual fact, they do not like it when we disagree. They cannot cope with that, so they say that we are not working together. That is not working together; it is just disagreement.
I want to take the Minister back to a specific point. There has been co-operation on a number of issues—I mentioned the steel industry, and that was a good example of close working between the Minister, his fellow Ministers and Welsh Government Ministers with one of my key local businesses and with me—but I do not think it has been consistent throughout. It was not helpful that the Prime Minister did not even speak to the First Minister for many months, even if there was co-operation at other levels.
I want to ask the Minister this question specifically: why can the Chancellor not start the job support scheme that little bit earlier to coincide with the Welsh Government’s decision on a local lockdown? That would make things a lot easier for businesses.
On the point made that was made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, a telephone conversation took place last week between the First Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer; I am afraid that I cannot find the relevant part of my speech, but I know that that phone call happened. During that discussion, the First Minister indicated that he would bring forward this lockdown and indicated the date that it would start, and he asked for the financial support that the hon. Gentleman refers to. He was told very clearly that the Chancellor’s new scheme would apply on a certain date, and the Chancellor implored the First Minister not to bring in the lockdown on the dates proposed. The point is that the Chancellor and the First Minister had that discussion and knew each other’s position. The First Minister still decided to go forward with that lockdown, and therefore it is the First Minister’s responsibility to come forward with the proposals to support affected businesses in Wales.
I suppose there is one thing that we all agree on: a lockdown has an enormous impact on business. There is absolutely no doubt about that. It will cause people to lose their jobs and businesses to close—it will leave people worse off. We all agree on that, which is why we are arguing, to some extent, over how much money we can find to support those businesses. If we all accept that, we need to be careful before we introduce lockdowns.
The hon. Member for Cardiff North mentioned the science. The Government are following the science of people such as the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, who said—today, I think, or certainly earlier this week—that local lockdowns are working and are likely to be effective. The World Health Organisation said that lockdowns can be effective but should be used as a last resort. The Government have to take account of the fact that although a lockdown can temporarily suppress the number of people going into hospital, it will also have the impact that we all know about on people’s jobs and livelihoods.
In the long term, the inability to diagnose patients with things such as cancer will ultimately have an impact on lives. I was talking recently to a senior, established dentist in south Wales, who told me about the number of referrals each year for oral cancer, which are first discovered by dentists. Because so many dentists are now not operating, or are not operating the same service, fewer people are going to see the dentist. Therefore, fewer people are being referred for oral cancer consultations, and at some point in the future a number of people will lose their lives because of an undiagnosed form of cancer. That is absolutely inevitable; it is just not going to generate a headline.
A responsible Government must take account not only of what is going on here and now in the NHS with covid, but of what will happen in the longer term when people lose their jobs, or when they are not diagnosed as early as they should be for diseases such as cancer. It is a very difficult tightrope to walk. I do not envy anyone in the Department of Health or in No. 10, and I do not envy Mr Gething or Mr Drakeford; they both have a very difficult job to do and I do not doubt that they are doing their utmost. I certainly am not going to play politics or suggest that, because they are taking a slightly different course of action from that of the UK Government, they are doing something dangerous. However, we have a right to question what all of the Governments are doing.
As a Union of four nations, it is sensible to have that four-nation approach where possible, but clearly the virus is taking different directions in different parts of the country and there is a need to have that local—devolved or regional—response to things. Whether it is the Mayor of Greater Manchester or the First Minister of Wales, they are clearly in touch at a grassroots level with what is going on in their area. Does the Minister agree that in those circumstances, it is disappointing to hear the example that we have heard about today of the lack of contact between the Prime Minister and the First Minister, which at one stage meant there was something like three months or so without any contact between them whatsoever?
I do not accept that last point, because the First Minister would have been able to speak to the Prime Minister anyway, had he wanted to, and Welsh Government Ministers were dealing with UK Government Ministers on an almost daily basis. I would go as far as to say that, because at a lower level I was involved in the ministerial implementation groups, and I know that during lockdown they were taking place multiple times every week—I will not quite say every single day, but it felt like it. Every day, Ministers from each of the devolved regions were taking part in the decision-making process. I therefore cannot accept at all the argument that there was a lack of contact.
I am told that there were attempts by No. 10 to talk to the First Minister and that he cancelled one meeting, but I do not know the full ins and outs of that. However, I am absolutely certain that the First Minister would always have had access to the Prime Minister had he needed it, and he certainly has always had access to the Secretary of State for Wales. I know that they are talking on an almost weekly basis. It is inconceivable that the Secretary of State for Wales would not take a call from the First Minister; in fact, I am sure that has never happened.
The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney made the interesting point that it makes sense to have a regional approach, because the virus is breaking out in different ways across the United Kingdom; that is a fair comment. Of course, the same can be said within Wales. There are areas of Wales where the outbreak of the virus is far lower than in other parts of the United Kingdom. Therefore, he may feel that he needs to justify to a tea shop owner in Tenby why there is now a full lockdown taking place in half-term, at a time when that shopkeeper or that tea shop owner would have been hopeful of recouping some of the money that has been lost over the last six months.
I am conscious that the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) must respond to the debate. By the way, he made an excellent speech. I am grateful for the comments he made and I am looking forward to the Henry VII trail that will take place. Of course, by the time Henry VII made that famous march across Wales towards Bosworth, we had already seen the hard border disappear; from the time of Owain Glyndŵr onwards, we have not had a hard border in Wales. Yet, as a result of decisions that are being made at the moment, I fear that it will come back again, which is not something that I, as a Unionist, wish to see.
For as long as this virus continues, the UK Government will want to support all parts of the United Kingdom, and if other Governments or local authorities in other parts of the United Kingdom want to take credit for the enormous help that has been offered, that is absolutely fine by me. I can assure hon. Ladies and Gentlemen here today that we do not want to play politics with this situation; we simply want to eradicate this virus and then get back on with the job of rebuilding Britain.
May I begin by apologising to you, Sir Edward? I called you Mr Leigh when I should have referred to you as Sir Edward, and I hope you do not think I was being discourteous to you as Chair.
This debate was going very well until the Minister summed up, and then we had an argument for 15 minutes. I pay tribute to everybody who took part. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) talked about how Newport is recovering during its period of lockdown. I thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), who made a very pertinent point about how important tourism is to her constituency. It has been embedded in her constituency for a number of years. As I alluded to when I spoke to the Minister about the Henry VII trail, we are trying to develop a growing tourism industry in constituencies such as mine. They have an industrial past, but we are hoping that we can bring about tourism, and Hallets, which I mentioned, is part of that. Who would have thought that cider would be made in the valleys?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) for being so feisty and causing such an interesting exchange with the Minister. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who made a very pertinent point. In the early days of this pandemic, when the Prime Minister was making announcements, there was a serious concern about whether they applied to Wales. I am glad that has been corrected, because it is a really important issue that we had early on. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who raised concerns about the shared prosperity fund and talked about how we go forward with it. I also pay tribute to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), for the way he summed up.
I should also mention the Minister. Very often we are on our feet battling with each other, as he did with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North, but we forget how important the work that he does behind the scenes is. He has always been very happy to meet colleagues from across the House if they have an issue, whether over the phone or face to face. I pay tribute to him for that work that he does behind the scenes. We often do not talk about it, and members of the public do not see it, so I thank him for that.
I want to end by saying this. The pandemic is no respecter of political colours or borders. Whatever the Government can do or think they can do, it is up to people on the ground to make sure those measures are in place as we fight this terrible disease. The most fantastic thing that all Members have seen since covid-19 is the way the country has come together. People in communities across the country, whether in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland or England, have come together to reach out to their neighbours and friends to make sure they are okay and can get through the loneliness and the mental health issues that come with it. They have banded together, particularly in the summer when we saw a drop-off in the virus infection rates, to ensure that business thrives. I am hopeful that once the pandemic is over, business and the economy will once again bounce back.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered support for people and businesses in Wales affected by the covid-19 outbreak.