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Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

If he will hold discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on extending the support available under the coronavirus job retention scheme to June 2021 to help support Welsh businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (908724)

I am quite surprised by the hon. Lady’s question, as the Government have extended the coronavirus job retention scheme to the end of March. It continues to protect millions of employees across the United Kingdom and has supported over 400,000 jobs in Wales, and in fact 700,000 in Scotland, too.

I did welcome and continue to welcome the fact that the job retention scheme has been extended until March, but in fact we would ask that it is extended until June 2021, as that would give businesses sufficient time to plan and to be able to build, considering that we will also come to the end of the transition period. Does the Secretary of State also recognise the need to extend furlough and support to those small companies that so far have had nothing and the self-employed who have been excluded from all support?

We have to be serious about this, and it seems to me odd that each time we extend the scheme, we are asked to extend it even further. I think that if we extended it to 2050, the hon. Lady would be saying that 2051 would be a more appropriate date. The fact is that the Chancellor has attempted to be as flexible, versatile and dynamic as possible, and hundreds of thousands of people’s jobs have been saved as a result of that flexibility.

Financial Support: Covid-19

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. (908726)

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. (908728)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on our economic response to covid-19. We have directly provided over £500 million to the self-employed in Wales on top of the £5 billion additional funding guarantee given to the Welsh Government.

The pandemic, as the Secretary of State will know, is putting huge financial pressure on constituents right across Wales. Families and communities are hugely impacted, and none more so than those who have been impacted by flooding and by living underneath what are arguably unsafe coal tips. Can the Secretary of State tell us what representations he has made to the Chancellor to make true the Prime Minister’s promise that additional funding will come to Wales to help those families who have been impacted by flooding and to secure the coal tips, including the ones in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

As I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been significant movement on the guarantee for the initial important works around Tylorstown. The rest of the funding that has been requested by the Welsh Government is the subject of a national reserve, and that has to be part of the normal estimates process. We have asked the Welsh Government to come forward with their numbers, and a decision on that will be made in due course. However, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has already indicated that he will look favourably on an application provided it meets the necessary criteria.

The lockdown in England of course came after the firebreak in Wales, so will the Secretary of State ensure that Wales gets its full equivalent of the England lockdown through the Barnett consequential formula, so that we get our fair share of funding that can be best deployed by the Welsh Government?

The sums of money that have been already made available to the Welsh Government under the Barnett scheme are substantial. As the hon. Member knows, at least £5 billion has formed the major bulk of that. What I should also say is that, as far as the additional sums are concerned and the point he makes, the significance of doing this on a UK-wide basis is to minimise the complications and the divergences in policy between the UK Government and the Welsh Government, because that makes that even spread so much more difficult. However, the Chancellor has made available substantial sums of money in advance of the normal Barnett formula, and £1.8 billion is still being sat on by the Welsh Government and is available to spend.

Sadly, this week we have seen the Prime Minister’s utter contempt for devolution, yet it is only because of the devolved powers that the Welsh Labour Government were able to heed the scientists’ advice and actually go into the firebreak at the time it could be most effective. As the Secretary of State knows, the Welsh Government called on the Chancellor to extend furlough to support businesses from day one of the firebreak, so why was it that the Secretary of State failed to secure that support for workers in Wales and why was it only made available after England belatedly followed Wales’s lead into lockdown?

Again, it is a strange question to be levelling at the UK Government, given the level of support that has been provided. I should remind the hon. Lady that the infection rates per 100,000 in Wales are actually higher than they are in England and testing rates per 100,000 in Wales are lower than they are in England, so this notion that she is attempting to put forward that somehow it has all gone swimmingly well in Wales and not so swimmingly well in England is completely untrue. What it demonstrates is that actually a competition between the two Governments is not the answer; the answer is working together more collaboratively. As far as the Chancellor’s statement is concerned, he made it very clear in a phone call to the First Minister exactly what was possible and what was not, yet for some reason the First Minister decided to press ahead with plans that he knew could not be met by the Treasury in the timescale available.

It is strange, and the question is about making such support available for Wales when it needed it. After this Conservative Government’s dither and delay led to a crisis-point lockdown in England, the Chancellor suddenly made the 80% furlough available, but it was not backdated to 23 October for Welsh businesses, whose closure at that point helped to turn the tide on covid numbers in Wales. That is of no help to workers who have been made redundant because of the Government’s refusal to extend furlough, up until the very last day. What will the Secretary of State do to get that furlough backdated and give Welsh businesses and workers the support they deserve?

The hon. Lady has clearly not had the conversations with Welsh businesses that I have had. I will not go into too much detail on this issue, because we would be going all day, but I have pages of numbers on the contributions that the UK Government have made to Welsh businesses and employees: £1.6 billion of direct support to businesses; 401,000 people protected by furlough, accounting for one in three jobs; £1.47 billion in bounce-back loans; and £530 million in support for the self-employed. The hon. Lady should be getting to her feet and saying, “This is why the Union is important. The UK Government have come to the rescue of so many people and businesses in Wales and the rest of the UK, and that is why they should be collaborated with, assisted and, indeed, thanked for some of the work they have done.”

On top of the economic hardship inflicted by the pandemic, there are only 43 days until the end of the transition period, yet the replacement of key EU funding in Wales remains shrouded in mystery. The shared prosperity fund will reveal where the Government’s principal interests lie. Does the Secretary of State respect Welsh devolution, and if so, will he guarantee that funding decisions will be fully devolved? Anything else will stink of political expediency.

For the first time in a while, I am rather grateful for the right hon. Lady’s question, because it enables me to point out that of course I thoroughly support devolution, but that does not mean simply transferring power from Westminster to Cardiff. Devolution means getting decision making done at the closest possible level to where it matters, which is across Wales. That is why I have had conversations with local authorities and the Welsh Local Government Association about the shared prosperity fund, as well as with others, including the Welsh Government. They should be playing a much more active part in the decision making and prioritisation of SPF spending than they have done so far.

Through all those words I will take that as a “no” for devolution in Wales. The Prime Minister and the self-monikered Minister for the Union has said that devolution is a “disaster”, yet a YouGov poll found that 72% of Welsh people do not trust Westminster to look after their best interests. With support for independence gaining speed and traction across Wales, how can the frippery of a Union taskforce overcome the disastrous realities of Westminster’s track record in Wales?

Devolution is only a disaster when it is hijacked by separatists and when people who expect devolution to deliver jobs and livelihoods discover that all it delivers is a pet project of nationalists to try to break off one part of the UK from another part. If the right hon. Lady wants to talk about polling, I might remind her that the last barometer poll showed that support for Plaid Cymru had dropped by 4% and that support for independence in Wales had dropped by 2%. She should not get too excited about the direction of travel.

Covid-19 Restrictions

What comparative assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the covid-19 restrictions implemented in Wales and England. (908727)

The UK Government work closely with the devolved Administrations to ensure a broad UK-wide approach in our response to covid-19. There is consistency across the United Kingdom in the restrictions implemented to tackle the virus, with some divergence to reflect differing rates of transmission.

I thank the Minister for his answer. We will get through this pandemic only with a measure of trust between the public, the Government and the Welsh Government. Does he agree that the Welsh Government were wrong to introduce their nanny-state ban on supermarkets selling non-essential items during their lockdown?

My hon. Friend makes a very useful point. Any policy that allows members of the public to buy vodka but not baby food is patently devoid of common sense. By needlessly testing the public’s patience and sowing confusion, the Welsh Government have undermined this Government’s efforts to tackle the virus across the United Kingdom.

Following the Welsh Labour Government’s decision to introduce a firebreak lockdown in Wales, coronavirus cases have begun to fall across the board. At the time, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives described the 17-day lockdown as “unnecessary” and “disproportionate”, yet just days later, the Minister and his Welsh Conservative colleagues voted for a lockdown in England that is at least a fortnight longer and may last longer still. Will the Minister finally join me in welcoming the Welsh Government’s decision? Is it not time for him and his Welsh Conservative colleagues to put party politics to one side and support responsible actions to combat the pandemic that are in the interests of the people of Wales?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it is the UK Government who have been trying to put party politics to one side. That is why we have invited Ministers from the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government to come to the many meetings that we have been holding in order to develop ways to tackle this virus. The fact of the matter remains, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already pointed out, that cases are higher in Wales and testing is lower than that it is in England, so I urge the hon. Gentleman to do whatever he can to encourage the Welsh Government to work more collaboratively with the UK Government to tackle this virus.

As my hon. Friend will know, the border between England and north Wales is densely populated, with many thousands of people travelling across it in both directions every day for work, social and business purposes, and many other purposes too. However, the Welsh Government have sought to close that border, causing considerable inconvenience and disruption to those people. What future arrangements can be put in place to ensure that there is no repetition of this disruption?

My right hon. Friend is certainly right that these closures have caused a certain amount of confusion for people living along the border—confusion about whether or not people can travel to and from work, confusion about where they can go to do their shopping, confusion about what sort of shopping they can buy, and confusion about whether or not those who are in a household bubble can go on holiday with each other. The fact of the matter remains that the Welsh Government’s actions have been legal, but I am not sure that they have been sensible.

Job Protection: Covid-19

This Government have taken a broad set of measures to protect jobs in Wales and right across the UK during the covid-19 outbreak. We have shown flexibility, most recently by extending the furlough scheme until the end of March.

To what extent have jobs and livelihoods in Wales been protected by the Government’s financial support through the Chancellor’s furlough and self-employed schemes and business grants and loans? Are there other ways that the Welsh Senedd has been supported by the UK Government?

The short answer is that they have been protected to an enormous extent as a result of measures brought forward by the UK Government. Over 400,000 people in Wales have benefited from the furlough scheme, £2 billion-worth of financial support has been provided through the UK Government’s self-employment income support scheme, and £5 billion extra has been given to the Welsh Government. Not all that money has yet been spent, so there is plenty more that the Welsh Government could be doing to support businesses and jobs in Wales.

EU Trade Negotiations

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues and representatives of the devolved Governments on trade negotiations with the EU. (908730)

The Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Ministers on a range of issues, including EU trade negotiations. The Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations meets regularly, and my ministerial colleagues frequently discuss the EU trade negotiations with Ministers from all the devolved Administrations.

The comments by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Sunday that sheep farmers should just switch over to beef in the face of higher tariffs have been widely ridiculed in Wales and, indeed, in Scotland—quite a “let them eat cake” moment. Lamb exports are vital not only to farmers but to wider rural communities. What confidence can hill farmers have that the British Government have their interests at heart when it comes to EU trade negotiations after such a ministerial blunder?

First of all, I assure the hon. Lady that this Government are working very hard indeed to ensure that we get a full trade deal with the European Union. The second point to remember is that her party has voted against or abstained on every single trade deal that has been put forward for the last 15 years. The third point that I put to her is that the UK Government have already shown over and again how much support they will give to any industry that gets into any kind of trouble as a result of covid, or indeed, as a result of anything else. She can rest assured that we are doing everything possible, and if she is worried, perhaps she would like to explain to her constituents why she and her party voted against a deal that would have kept us inside a customs union and a single market. I voted for it; she and her party rejected it.

I know that the Minister is a strong supporter of devolution and he will acknowledge that the UK Government’s conduct of reserved matters such as trade will have significant implications for devolved competences such as agriculture. With that in mind, what concrete steps are the Government taking to develop the capacity of the Joint Ministerial Committee so that it fosters greater trust and transparency among the four nations?

The hon. Gentleman is being quite kind to me, because I was on a slightly different side of the argument in 1999, but I have reformed. I am a changed man. I recognise that the people of Wales voted twice for devolution in referendums and I believe that when the people of Wales vote for something in a referendum, that choice needs to be respected. I respect and will support devolution and I welcome his suggestion of closer co-operation between the UK and Welsh Governments over important issues such as agriculture.

Local Sports Teams: Covid-19 Support

What discussions he has had with the sporting community in Wales on financial support for local teams during the covid-19 outbreak. (908733)

I have had constructive discussions with representative bodies, including Welsh Rugby Union and the Football Association of Wales. These discussions will prove instrumental in allowing teams to get back on the pitch.

On a recent trip to Flint Town United in my constituency, who were successfully promoted to the Welsh premier league last year, the chairman was telling me that they need only 15% to 20% of their ground capacity to be allowed in to watch matches in order to cover costs and keep their heads above water. They have done a lot to enable a small number of supporters to return in a covid-secure way. Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting supporters back into grounds in a safe and secure way is the best way to make sure that we do not lose clubs in Wales, which provide vital recreation services for all ages and act as a focal point for the local community?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I absolutely agree with him. This is also a good moment to congratulate, I think, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney on their recent purchase of Wrexham football club. What an exciting future they have, no doubt. My hon. Friend’s point is a good one. Of course we want to see a successful vaccination programme and a successful testing programme—that will help in his ambitions—but some funding from the National Lottery and from the Welsh Government will also ease the way to returns to stadiums, and complete capacity stadiums, of the sort that he wishes.

On 10 November, the difficult decision was taken to cancel the remaining games of the women’s rugby Six Nations 2020, due to the impact of coronavirus. While we live in unprecedented times, what assurances can the Secretary of State give that international women’s sport will be given the same priority as men’s, and what message does he think the decision gives to women’s and girls’ sport in Wales?

The hon. Lady is probably the only person in the Chamber who has represented a sport at national and international level, so I take her question very seriously in that regard. Of course, there should be no disparity between the sports that she refers to. I am absolutely with her and link arms with her in our determination to make sure that that is the case and that we get back to sport of all different sorts as soon as possible, as safely as possible. We will work with her and others to make sure that that is the case.

Although football matches are being played again, it is behind closed doors and with no associated matchday income. Will my right hon. Friend encourage Sport Wales and the Football Association of Wales to work together to ensure that clubs such as Rhyl in my constituency receive the support that they need at this really difficult time?

It would be remiss of me not to give a substantial name-check to Rhyl, having given one to Wrexham—that would seem unfair. I agree with my hon. Friend’s position and the basis of his question. National league funding in England has come up with significant funds, which should be replicated in Wales. We will certainly do anything we can to get money channelled into the sport to see it through this difficult time.

Manufacturing Industry Support

On top of the £5 billion guarantee given to the Welsh Government, we have provided an additional £1.96 billion in direct support to businesses in Wales and protected over 400,000 Welsh jobs. We have also extended the £1 million annual investment allowance to stimulate investment in UK manufacturing.

Several of my constituents work at the Airbus plant in Broughton in north Wales. In July, it was announced that more than 1,400 jobs would be cut there and earlier this month we heard that there could be more than 400 compulsory redundancies. This is a time of immense uncertainty for the aerospace sector, so what action is the Secretary of State taking to work with the Welsh Government and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that my constituents’ jobs are secure?

The hon. Lady appropriately points out the cross-border implication of the effect of coronavirus on Airbus, and I am very aware of that. That is why we are working together with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Welsh Government, other stakeholders and, in particular, with Airbus, which has been incredibly co-operative, forward-looking and—I would like to think—grateful for the support already given by the Chancellor to it in particular and to the industry. The plan is to ensure that there is a future for Airbus at Broughton not only for the next few months but for the next few years. All the planning is about having a sustainable business over a long period of time in addition to seeing people through this immediate period with the most limited amount of hardship that we can achieve.

Covid-19: UK-wide Approach at Christmas

What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on a UK-wide approach to tackling the covid-19 outbreak during the Christmas 2020 period. (908737)

The UK Government have been working closely with the Welsh Government and indeed all three devolved Administrations to tackle covid-19. We have had numerous meetings—in fact, we stopped counting at 200, because it seemed they were becoming so numerous as to be impossible to record. The co-operation has therefore been substantial.

The Secretary of State will agree it is essential that any new coronavirus vaccine is both safe and effective and rolled out as quickly as possible in Wales and across the UK so that we can put an end to these disastrous lockdown policies and get back to normal. Therefore, what discussions will he have with Welsh Ministers on co-ordinating national vaccine supply chains and the UK-wide vaccination roll-out strategy?

As my hon. Friend knows, an equitable spread of vaccination across the UK is absolutely essential. That is why we are having regular, daily meetings at official and ministerial level with the Welsh Government and others to ensure that that is achieved. In addition, the testing regime announced today for the county of Merthyr Tydfil, which involves, I think, 165 military personnel provided by the UK Government, is in indication of how we are determined to act collaboratively in dealing with this disease.

Steel Industry

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the long-term future of the steel industry in Wales. (908739)

I know how committed the hon. Gentleman is to steelmaking from our time on the Welsh Affairs Committee. I reassure him that the UK Government are similarly committed to a long-term sustainable future for steelmaking in Wales. We have already met Tata and the Welsh Government, and BEIS will continue to work with the company as it shapes its business strategy in the future.

The Minister will be concerned by the recent news that Tata Steel is selling its Dutch operations to a Swedish company. The steel industry is helping so much in the current crisis, and it is the basis of our entire manufacturing sector, so can the Minister please give us a bit more detail about what discussions are taking place with the Government and with Tata Steel, and when we can hear some positive good news, because we need our steel industry?

I agree with the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I cannot go into great detail about what discussions are taking place, but I can reassure him that discussions have taken place with Tata and with BEIS, and the UK Government stand ready to work with all to ensure that we have that steelmaking future in Wales. If the hon. Gentleman has any doubt at all, he only needs to look at the work that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did to ensure that Celsa received a £30 million loan—a loan that has saved 800 jobs in Wales and demonstrates firmly our commitment to the Welsh steelmaking industry.