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Transition Period: Business

Volume 686: debated on Wednesday 16 December 2020

What steps his Department is taking to help Welsh businesses prepare for the end of the transition period. (910245)

The Wales Office is engaged with businesses the length and breadth of Wales, with a simple message: “Make sure you are prepared for the end of the transition period, whether or not we reach a negotiated outcome with the EU.”

When I was speaking to sheep farmers in Builth Wells in my constituency at the weekend, they made it clear that they do not want to be a political football. They are keen to embrace the changes that will come, but they want the certainty that their Government will support them come what may. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is working closely with all Cabinet colleagues to ensure that my sheep farmers are front and centre of the UK Government’s mind when transition ends?

Not only my hon. Friend’s sheep farmers but sheep farmers in constituencies across the House can feel confident that the Government are on their side. One way we can demonstrate that is the fact that we have guaranteed the £337 million of funding across the lifetime of this Parliament. People said we would not do it, but we have done it, and we are committed to ensuring that there is a healthy future for the farming industry, particularly livestock in Wales.

Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. It was interesting to hear the reference made to Welsh fishing previously, but I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that 90% of the Welsh fleet is made up of small boats, under 10 metres in length, which catch shellfish and non-quota fish species such as bass. Between the prospect of no-deal tariffs to their markets in Europe and the covid closure of hospitality, fishermen such as those in Porthdinllaen near where I live see no Brexit bonanza on the horizon. As Nelson might have put it, “Wales expects that every Secretary of State for Wales will do his duty.” Can the Secretary of State explain how his Government’s vainglorious Trafalgar posturing with warships in the channel helps our small fishing vessels?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her comments. I was rather hopeful that leaving the common fisheries policy and regaining our status as an independent nation state might be something that would appeal to a separatist, but sadly that does not appear to be the case. I can answer her question, perhaps, by referring her to the inclusion in the spending review of £2 million-worth of support for fisheries in Wales in 2021-22 and for the lifetime of this Parliament. We share a common theme, in the sense that I too have those fishing interests off the coast of west Wales and I am very conscious of the problems she raises. That is why we are determined to ensure that they are properly looked after.

I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that there is a consultation going on about how to allocate fishing quotas in the future. If that is done on historical grounds for Wales, it will be very bad news indeed for our fishermen. Turning to the Prime Minister’s latest U-turn on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, it will give a modicum of flexibility to the devolved nations, but it is undeniable that the Bill is a disaster, weakening devolved power and centralising more power here in Westminster. The Conservatives and Labour have been working together this week to let efforts to give our devolved Governments a say in state aid fail. Will the Secretary of State commit to a productive U-turn this time, and assure me that no other powers will be reserved through the internal market Bill?

The fact that the Government have listened carefully to the arguments should not be deemed some kind of act of evil or a U-turn. It shows that we are conscious of the complexities of this legislation and have listened carefully to the arguments. Where the right hon. Lady makes a mistake is in thinking that the contents of the UK Internal Market Bill are somehow a threat to devolution. Actually, they are a means by which we can encourage inward investment into Wales and encourage jobs and livelihoods. We have had this exchange across the House before, and it strikes me as worrying that she always refers to power—it is all about power to Cardiff, rather than jobs and livelihoods in Wales. For a party that argues it is the party of Wales, it seems to be remarkably out of touch with the people of Wales.

One of the findings of our Select Committee report last week on this issue was that the Government have really stepped up their communication with Welsh businesses ahead of the end of the transition period, which is very welcome. The new money that the Government have announced for Welsh ports, including Fishguard in my own constituency, is very welcome too, but will my right hon. Friend say a bit more about what he is doing with the Welsh Government to ensure that the inland checking facilities that will be required ahead of the full implementation of new border checks will be in place, given the very challenging timetables that he is working to?

My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Of course, the devolution settlement poses its own complexities. With Holyhead, we have a Welsh Government-UK Government-HMRC relationship that needs to be managed as we progress towards the end of the transition period, but Fishguard and Pembroke on the coast of west Wales, in the areas we represent, are entirely in the gift of the Welsh Government. However, we have tried to ensure that we work almost on a daily basis with the Welsh Government to ensure that those delivery timetables and objectives are in place.

The Government’s failure to get the Brexit deal that they promised means we still have no clue about the terms on which businesses will be trading from January, and we face the very real prospect of a no-deal exit, risking chaos at our ports and shortages of critical goods. As the CBI and others have said all year, businesses cannot be expected to prepare for a no deal Brexit in the middle of a pandemic, so what is the Secretary of State’s message to those Welsh businesses that now face a Brexit cliff edge in just a few days’ time?

I have been working closely with the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in Cardiff, hosting joint webinars and seminars. We are also engaging with businesses across Wales in limitless number of ways, and the message I am getting from them is not the same as the message that he has just delivered to the House. They are, by and large, prepared. They are certainly aware of the challenges, but also of the opportunities that this process throws up for them. I would also make the point that, right from the start of this, the hon. Gentleman’s party was saying that there would not be a manifesto commitment about a referendum, but there was, and that there would not be a referendum, but there was. They said that the leave camp would lose the referendum, but it did not. Then they said there would not be a withdrawal agreement, but there was. They said that the Conservatives would not win the election, but they did. Now he is saying there will not be a deal; I think we should wait and see.

I have been speaking to businesses across Cardiff North, and they are doing all they can to protect against the impact of a no deal, but they are deeply worried about supply chain delays, stockpiling and a tariff cliff edge. They are saying that they can put the sandbags down, but that’s it. So will the Secretary of State apologise to the many people in Cardiff North and across the whole country whose jobs and livelihoods he is willing to gamble and play politics with, and tell me whether his Government are preparing to fail or failing to prepare?

After all, it was the hon. Lady’s party that voted against a deal last year, so when she had the opportunity to land this more carefully, she chose not to and therefore increased the risk of getting the outcome that she definitely does not want. Attempting to pillory the Government when actually there has been considerable daily joint working between the Welsh Government, under the control of her own party, and the UK Government over many months to ensure that the risks are minimised, is not just an insult to the House but an insult to her own colleagues in Cardiff who have been devoting a huge amount of time to try to make this work as seamlessly as possible.