The Secretary of State was asked—
Support for Welsh Businesses
The Government have provided Welsh businesses with wide-ranging support, including more than £1.5 billion in bounce back loans, £503 million in coronavirus business interruption loans, £726 million for the self-employed income support scheme, in addition to the £5.2 billion funding guarantee given to the Welsh Government.
It is important that, as we build back better and progress the levelling up agenda, businesses in all parts of our United Kingdom are encouraged to maximise the benefits of Brexit and the multitude of trade agreements secured by the Department for International Trade. Can my right hon. Friend give me reassurances that he is working with the DIT to ensure that businesses get the best out of Brexit? Whether those businesses are in Wrexham, Clwyd South, or Sedgefield, we should work as one United Kingdom.
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. He makes a crucial Union point in his question. We have secured trade deals with more than 60 countries, which is good for Wales, good for Welsh business and good for the UK. I should also tell him that we are working with the Secretary of State for International Trade on putting a proper dedicated team into Wales to deal with these matters in that capital city.
It costs British Wool 50p a kilo to bring Welsh mountain sheep’s wool to market where it sells for only 30p a kilo. I wrote to the Prime Minister six months ago to ask what he was doing to boost this fantastic Welsh product now that his Government are responsible for procurement. Welsh wool as a raw material for carpets and upholstery should be woven into every relevant UK Government-funded public project contract by now. Why is it not?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising that question. Indeed, she has raised it with me before, as have a number of others. I have strong sheep-farming interests in my own constituency and I know the problem to which she refers. We are working closely with our colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and indeed with the Welsh Government on this and a range of other issues. Since the end of the transition period, we do have more flexibility in our markets for wool and in other matters, but home procurement is very much top of the Government’s agenda.
Timing does seem to be a bit of an issue with the Government. Almost a month has gone by, and it seems that Wales is still waiting for a reply from the UK Government about our final financial settlement. This, of course, has created unnecessary doubt over the date of the Welsh Budget. Welsh businesses and public services are enduring ongoing uncertainty over funding, and this will handicap our response to the pandemic. Will the Secretary of State please explain what is the point of his office if he cannot even persuade his colleagues in the Treasury to speak to the Welsh Government?
That is a slightly strange question, given that the relationship between the Treasury and the Welsh Government, particularly around covid recovery, has been conducted on a daily, if not hourly, basis, with vast sums of money being made available to businesses and individuals of Wales, very much in the spirit of collaboration and co-operation. Rather than trying to make cheap political points, the right hon. Lady should acknowledge the fact that, in these very difficult times, two Governments have worked quite well together and the Union, which is perhaps the point that she does not like me to make, has been particularly crucial in that process.
Before I start, on behalf of the Labour party, I would like to pay tribute to Captain Tom Moore and send our deepest condolences to his family.
Cockle-gathering in both north and south Wales is not just a job, but a way of life, dating back generations. Gatherers, who are already alarmed at DEFRA advice that they could not resume the export of shellfish until April, now feel not just forgotten, but utterly betrayed to discover that UK Ministers knew all along that the EU ban on importing non-decorated UK shellfish would be indefinite. What urgent action will the Secretary of State and his Government take to facilitate the resumption of shellfish exports and save this traditional industry from disappearing forever?
I join the hon. Lady in her tribute. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be making a more formal statement in a few minutes’ time, but I do recognise—as does the whole House—the comments she makes.
On the industry and sector to which the hon. Lady refers, I am in close contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Cabinet Office and, indeed—through the Government—the EU, to make the distinction between teething issues that might be arising out of the particular subject to which she refers, and perhaps more permanent structural matters that may need a longer-term solution. I assure her and the industry that we are very seized of the challenges that the industry currently faces.
Small businesses in Cardiff North and across the country are struggling to cope with impossible red tape, with no time to prepare due to this Government’s eleventh-hour Brexit deal. Despite more than 10 days preparing the correct documents for full compliance, a local family export meat business has had its produce turned away in Italy, leading to thousands of pounds of stock being destroyed. The owners have subsequently been up all night every night trying to salvage and recoup. They do not want to hear excuses such as “teething problems” when it is their and their employees’ livelihoods on the line, so can the Secretary of State clarify what urgent actions he and his colleagues are taking to resolve these issues, and will he meet me along with this business to see how he can help?
I received the hon. Lady’s letter about this particular constituent only last night. I am very happy to meet her and to see if we can resolve her constituent’s particular problems; that letter is already receiving the urgent attention that it deserves. I would challenge her on the readiness point that she makes more generally, given the numerous levels of engagement that I and other Government colleagues conducted in the run-up to the end of the transition period; and given the reaction since then from businesses and stakeholders across Wales. They are generally supportive of the fact that a deal has been reached and of the opportunities that it presents, and now actually want to get on with a positive relationship with the EU and the other countries with which we deal.
Covid-19 Vaccines: Delivery to Wales
I have regular discussions with the Minister for Vaccine Deployment, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), as well as Defence Ministers and the First Minister of Wales, on the delivery of covid-19 vaccines. Rapid vaccine roll-out is key to us getting back to normality.
The work being done in Wrexham to manufacture the vaccine is quite literally saving lives in my constituency of East Surrey. Will the Secretary of State join me in extending our thanks to all those workers and the supply chain for the vital work that they are doing to protect the nation?
I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in that tribute. The Prime Minister and I visited Wockhardt in Wrexham a few weeks ago to see the fantastic work that it is doing. Hers, like so many stories, is a story of a successful Union. As we all know, the vaccine roll-out is not a competition between Governments; it is a competition between Government and covid, and the Union is central to that.
The short answer is: a pivotal role. It has been a joy to behold the unbelievable enthusiasm, dedication and professionalism in Wales and across the rest of the UK from servicemen and women. We are regularly receiving requests from the Welsh Government for additional support, and we turn that support around in Cardiff just as soon as we can.
The mid-February target to vaccinate Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority groups 1 to 4 involves offering a dose to all those who are considered clinically extremely vulnerable. What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with the Welsh Government regarding the accuracy of data being used in relation to this group?
As my hon. Friend might imagine, there are regular discussions across all levels of government around data accuracy and the progress that we can make with this particular challenge. He is right to point out that it is, of course, a devolved issue. We are trying to ensure that we can find solutions to issues of a more permanent nature—perhaps persistent data problems, for example—but the ambition remains to get absolutely everybody in those cohorts done within the timescale, and we are currently on target to achieve that.
UK Shared Prosperity Fund
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular discussions with the First Minister and Welsh Ministers on a range of issues, including the UK shared prosperity fund. The Government will continue to engage with the Welsh Government as we develop the fund’s investment framework for publication.
From the figures that I have seen, the British Government may have conflated overrun spend from the previous convergence period for this financial year with the actual allocation of new money. Under the previous scheme, Wales would receive nearly £400 million per annum. Is not the reality that the Minister is unable to guarantee that the shared prosperity fund, when fully operational, will match that level of investment? Why will he not just admit that the communities that both the Secretary of State and I represent in Carmarthenshire are about to get fleeced?
The figures will show that on average Wales is receiving £375 million a year. What the hon. Gentleman may be referring to is the fact that over a number of years to follow there will still be some money coming to Wales from the European Union. Of course, it is absolutely right that that money should be counted towards the £375 million total, and the Government will guarantee to ensure that the amount of money to be spent in Wales in future will be exactly the same, or higher, than the amount that was spent previously.
Britain has left the European Union. The transition period has come to an end. There is no new money coming from the structural funds. Given that the Government announced the shared prosperity fund back in 2017, can the Minister at least tell us the timetable for the introduction of the new fund?
We have already made it very clear and demonstrated that the amount of money that is going to be spent in Wales when the SPF comes in will be identical to or higher than the amount of money that was spent in Wales that came from the European Union. There has been absolutely no secrecy about that. The way in which the fund will be managed is subject to discussions at this very moment, and I would expect full details to be publicised over the next few months.
Many of my constituents are very sorry to see the hundreds of millions of pounds of EU funding that Wales received in recent years come to an end. Our departure from the EU made this inevitable, and of course I accept this, but they also believe that the Welsh Government should have full autonomy over their part of the shared prosperity fund, and I agree, so can the Minister provide some evidence that this working together is taking place?
I am sure that the hon. Lady’s constituents will be delighted to know that hundreds of millions of pounds will continue to be spent in Wales, and continue to be spent where it is most needed. I am sure that her constituents would be rather disappointed that we already know from the Audit Wales report that some of the money that has gone into, for example, pillar 2 agricultural funding has not been well spent. I urge her to recommend to her constituents that they look at the dossier presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), which demonstrates that millions of pounds of European Union money that was handled by the Welsh Government was misspent. When that money becomes British taxpayers’ money, all partners in British Government, including the Welsh Government and local authorities with growth deals, will want to make sure that it is properly spent, and I am sure that her constituents will agree.
Covid-19: Employment Support
I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on our support for people affected by covid-19. The UK Government have funded the furlough of 8,900 employees and provided over £17 million to the self-employed in the hon. Lady’s own constituency.
The pandemic has exposed inadequacies in our welfare system to act as a safety net, from the insufficient level of statutory sick pay to the damaging impact of the two-child benefit limit on families. The idea of a universal basic income is gaining increasing traction as a solution to many of these issues, and there is increasing support in Wales and elsewhere for a UBI pilot funded by the UK Government. Will the Minister express his support for such a pilot and call on the UK Government to fund it?
The UK Government have already provided £5 million of extra funding to the Welsh Government to ensure that they have adequate funds to support businesses and individuals who have been affected by the covid pandemic, and of course the Welsh Government also have tax-raising powers. The reality is that this Government have spent hundreds of billions of pounds supporting businesses and individuals throughout this country, such is our commitment to ensuring that no one is left out as a result of the impact of this terrible pandemic.
The last year has been immensely challenging for many Welsh families, who have seen their lives completely upended by the virus. Despite welcome progress on vaccinations, the pandemic is not going away overnight, and many still feel grave uncertainty about the future of their jobs and their family finances, so why do the Government think that now is the time to cut universal credit by £1,000 a year, hitting more than 200,000 Welsh families who are doing their best to get by?
I have not yet been promoted to the Treasury, and I cannot possibly predict what might happen in the Budget that may or may not come in a few months’ time. Perhaps the hon. Lady knows something that the rest of us do not, but I can tell her that the Government have been steadfast in their commitment to supporting all those who have been left out. May I just point out that we will come through this crisis quickly as a result of the Government’s wise decision not to take part in the European Union vaccination scheme, which is why we have now vaccinated 14% of the population of the United Kingdom?
Anyone who took the initiative and started their own business within a year of the pandemic hitting was completely shut out of the self-employment income support scheme when it was announced last March. Many turned to universal credit as their only option. Now, nearly a year on, and with last year’s tax returns submitted to HMRC, will the Government think again, close the gaps in support and give the newly self-employed the help that they deserve?
The hon. Lady knows very well that I am not responsible for the policies of the Treasury, but I simply point to the fact that we have provided more than £9.3 billion of additional support through the welfare system for people affected by covid, including the £20 a week increase in the universal credit standard allowance. The Government’s commitment to supporting all those who have been affected by this pandemic is very clear to all.
We have provided £16.8 billion to the devolved Administrations to fight coronavirus, including £5.2 billion to the Welsh Government and £8.6 billion to the Scottish Government. We have also secured vaccines for all four nations, demonstrating the importance of the Union and how we are stronger together.
The fiscal settlement of this disunited kingdom means that the Treasury continues to impose unfair, unreasonable and inexplicable limits on the devolved nations’ borrowing powers. That has meant that at every step throughout the covid crisis, the devolved nations have had to wait for the Treasury to announce financial support before they could do the same. The next challenge is climate action, and with evidence from the Dasgupta review and the Committee on Climate Change showing how far we still have to go, will the Government now ensure that the devolved nations are fully equipped to meet this challenge by devolving borrowing powers?
I would have thought that the Scottish people, with their reputation for understanding the importance of money, would be quite pleased that the UK Government have provided £8.2 billion of extra funding for the Scottish Parliament, rather than expecting it to borrow money and pay it back at some point. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might like to familiarise himself with the report from the London School of Economics this morning, which suggested that independence for Scotland would end up costing every Scottish taxpayer thousands of pounds a year, in addition to the £8 billion that they would have lost as a result, as the UK Government would not have provided that extra money to the Scottish Parliament.
Welsh Lamb Exports
The UK Government have taken significant steps to support and promote Welsh lamb exports around the world. That includes securing a tariff-free, quota-free deal with the EU and securing the protection of the Welsh lamb geographical indicator as part of the Japan deal.
Rules on international trade require sanitary and phytosanitary rules to be based on risk and science, so will the Government put immediate pressure on the European Union to lift the unreasonable compliance requirements it is imposing on British food exports? They are disproportionate, given that our food standards and rules are among the very toughest in the whole world.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, particularly in her last point, and I can offer that guarantee. We are in regular contact with our colleagues in the EU about this specific point, and there are meetings later this week involving the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on this and related issues.
Lamb exporters in west Wales have raised concerns about the delays they are facing at EU ports, reporting that some shipments have been held by customs officials for two to three days because of to the supposed issues with animal export health certificates. Can the Secretary of State enlighten us as to whether he expects an urgent resolution to this problem?
I do not know how “urgent” would be defined in the EU at the moment, but certainly there is an urgency to resolve some of these problems. As I have mentioned, there are some teething issues that can be resolved quite quickly. If there are longer-term structural issues, they need to be looked at in more detail. I have sheep farming interests in my constituency, as does the hon. Member, and it is worth pointing out that there are some big opportunities across the rest of the world that we should be exploring, rather than necessarily just concentrating on some of the difficulties with the EU.
Welsh lamb is a premium product that is wanted across the world. Welshpool livestock market, which is usually the heart of my farming community, is quieter because of covid, but the sheep meat prices are still robust. Will the Secretary of State meet me, farmers and slaughterhouses in Montgomeryshire to discuss the health certificates and the wider SPS issues on the EU border, which are clearly out of order?
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents; I used to live in his constituency, so I know some of them quite well. He is right to raise this issue. One of the companies in question is meeting the Cabinet Office later this week; that is progress. I am delighted that Welshpool mart has done some good business. I see that lamb prices have increased by around 17% in 2021, and consumer spending was £652 million, but the rest-of-the-world opportunities that I mentioned—particularly the Gulf, the middle east and the US, once we get the small ruminant rule resolved—will help the lamb industry across Wales and the UK.
Apprentices: Wales Office
Will my right hon. Friend outline what progress the Welsh Government have made towards meeting the public sector apprenticeship target of 2.3%, and what progress frontline services in Wales such as the police have made on offering apprenticeships to their employees?
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has raised this point. The public sector apprenticeship target is applicable only to bodies in England, but he raises a critical point about devolution. We are concerned that, for example, Welsh police forces are paying into the apprenticeship levy scheme but not getting anything out of it because the Welsh Government do not support police apprenticeships. I suggest that it would be very interesting for his Committee to look at why Welsh forces are paying in but getting nothing out the other end by way of apprenticeships.
EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement
Getting the Brexit deal across the line before the end of the year was important, and huge credit is due to the Government for securing it, but we have a serious situation emerging at Welsh ports, with freight levels way down on where they should be. Will my right hon. Friend work urgently with ministerial colleagues, HMRC and trade bodies to find simpler solutions to the problem of checks and paperwork, which risks making the UK land bridge more costly and less attractive for trade between Ireland and the continent?
As my right hon. Friend knows, I am in touch with Pembroke, Fishguard and Holyhead about this issue, and we are trying to make a distinction between what we can assign to covid changes in business and the other, more permanent factors that he refers to. There are some complications to do with port infrastructure, which is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. We have meetings tomorrow to try to push the Welsh Government to get that process under way more quickly. We have discussions with road hauliers about the land bridge. I assure him that we want this business to return to as near as possible as soon as possible, and I am happy to work with him and others to achieve that goal.
Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I want to express, on behalf of the whole House, our deep sadness at the death of Captain Sir Tom Moore. His dignity and determination in raising money to support NHS charities caught the nation’s mood at the most difficult time. He exemplified the best of our values. I know the whole House will want to join me in sending our condolences to his family and his many friends. I invite Members to join me for a minute’s silence to commemorate Sir Tom’s life, and to pay our respects to those who have lost their lives as a result of covid and their families and friends.
The House observed a one-minute silence.