[Relevant documents: Fifth Report of the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2019-21, Brexit and trade: implications for Wales, HC 176; Fourth Report of the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2019-21, Wales and the Shared Prosperity Fund: Priorities for the replacement of EU structural funds, HC 90; and the Government Response, HC 1083; Oral evidence taken before the Welsh Affairs Committee on 28 May 2020, 10 September 2020 and 14 January 2021, on Responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales, HC 96.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Welsh affairs.
Thank you very much for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. Prynhawn da; diolch yn fawr. I thank the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) and the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) for supporting the application to the Backbench Business Committee, and I thank the Committee for granting this time this afternoon, although it is and always has been my view that time should be set aside every year, as a permanent fixture of the UK parliamentary calendar, to debate the affairs of Wales on or around St David’s Day, which occurs on 1 March, next week.
I want to open on a sad note, by paying tribute to the former Member for Aberavon, Hywel Francis, who died earlier this month. Hywel entered the House nearly 20 years ago, alongside me and other current Members from Wales, my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David), my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), and the hon. Member for Arfon.
It will not surprise hon. Members and others listening who knew Hywel that, in his maiden speech back in 2001, he spoke about Labour history, the miners’ strike of 1984, Welsh devolution and the rights of disabled people, the latter a subject that was personally very close to Hywel and his wife Mair and their family. In calling, in that speech, for equal rights for disabled people, he said:
“Those are, after all, universal rights, whether they apply to a disabled child in Soweto, or to a disabled miner or steelworker in Skewen.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 456.]
Typical of Hywel: a voice for the oppressed everywhere, an internationalist voice, a compassionate socialist voice, a distinctly Welsh voice. Rest in peace, good friend and comrade.
Circumstances mean that I am participating in today’s debate from Wales’s capital city. I recently heard a quote about Cardiff from the late, great Victoria Wood, who said it was
“classy and yet somehow seedy at the same time”—
surely the slogan to put on our road signs; but in truth Cardiff has developed in the last 20 years, in the era of devolution, into a classy capital city that truly feels like a modern capital, with a vibrant cultural sector and the seat of the elected Government of Wales. Wales is second only to London in percentage growth, for example, in music tourism in recent times, not least here in Cardiff itself; and this Saturday, in normal times, our streets would be thronged with people for the Six Nations rugby encounter between Wales and England. Sadly, there will be no crowds this Saturday, but millions will watch on free-to-air public service television. I say to the Welsh Rugby Union: do not lock this important part of our sporting culture in a dark cupboard behind a paywall. All Wales’s Six Nations matches must remain free to air in Wales in any new broadcasting deal.
But I do not want to talk just about union as in rugby union today, but I want to say a few words about the state of the Union of the United Kingdom, and Wales’s place in it. Any union, whether a sporting union, or a trade union, or a political union of nations, can only with the consent of its members, and that consent can only be obtained through a culture of respect. I am genuinely worried that the UK Government, Prime Minister and current Secretary of State for Wales do not understand that. We read that the Union unit, set up at the heart of Whitehall to save the Union, has been so disunited itself and beset by brutal rows that it has had to be disbanded. Well, if the Government cannot even keep their own unit in charge of unity united, what hope is there that they can keep the United Kingdom united?
But all may not be lost, because the Union unit is being replaced, we are told, by a Cabinet Committee consisting of—I quote from the press—
“Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Welsh Secretary Simon Hart, Scottish Secretary”
“Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and other Cabinet members.”
They are to
“discuss how best to save”
the United Kingdom. Well, forgive me if I am sceptical that this news will have people running down to the bookies to put money on the improved chances of the survival of the Union, because the problem is, there is no evidence here of any understanding of that principle of consent and respect. In fact, we have clear evidence to the contrary from the Secretary of State for Wales himself. While aggressively undermining the democratically elected Welsh Senedd and Government by centralising spending powers from Wales, this week he said:
“I do wish Welsh Government would stop fretting about their own little status in Cardiff”.
“their own little status in Cardiff”—
contain not an ounce of respect for Welsh voters and the two referendums that established elected devolved institutions in Wales.
I say to the Secretary of State: he is treading a dangerous path. He has revealed that he has had no respect for Wales’s democratic institutions, choosing instead to look down his nose from Gwydyr House, sneering those words—
“their own little status”—
with reference to the elected Government of Wales. I presume he will soon be getting fitted for his governor-general’s costume and plumed hat at this rate.
I sometimes hear colleagues say that these constitutional issues do not matter. They say, “I have never heard anyone on the Ely omnibus talk about devolved powers.” That may be right, but they do matter to the things people really care and talk about, and which affect their everyday lives, including those riding with a bus pass on the No. 17.
It does matter to Welsh people that they have the right to elect a Government who genuinely reflect their values and aspirations, and who are empowered to make real changes that affect their lives. Devolution has allowed those values of the Welsh people to be expressed in progressive policies that are an alternative to neoliberalism and to running the country in favour of the wealthiest through crony capitalism.
It does matter to people in Wales that their NHS has been true to its Welsh roots, with free prescriptions and freedom from market-driven motives and privatisation. The UK Government are now mimicking that, after the abject failure of the experiment in competition under the Lansley reforms.
It does matter that Wales can decide to have an integrated public transport system, which was denied by the centre to all but London until recently, with rail brought back into public control, bringing Wales in line with modern European countries. It does matter to people that their education system remains free from divisive selection, with local governance and free of outsourcing and fragmentation.
In this covid crisis, it has mattered to people that the Welsh Labour Government have not ducked or delayed difficult decisions, but have always put health and welfare first. They have struck better deals on personal protective equipment for the NHS and social care because of their public service values, rather than turning to expensive and dubious outsourcing, which has failed repeatedly. It has mattered to people that Wales has had a successful, publicly run contract tracing service, rather than a massively wasteful, outsourced chumocracy.
It also matters that in Mark Drakeford, Wales has a First Minister who is rightly praised for integrity, difficult decision making, grasp of detail and open communication, in contrast to a Prime Minister held hostage by headlines and headbangers. Now is not the time for empire Unionism from the Welsh Secretary or the Prime Minister; now is the time to recognise that this voluntary Union of four nations can function only through equality, respect for devolution and a commitment to enhance and develop our democratic institutions in Wales and the other nations and regions of the United Kingdom.
I start by putting on the record my condolences to the family of Dr Hywel Francis, one of my predecessors as Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee. He was a man of huge intelligence and wisdom, and a very caring man. He will be missed enormously.
This St David’s Day debate is happening still under the shadow of the pandemic, but with very much better days just ahead as a result of the extraordinary national vaccination effort. We had something of a slow start in Wales, but I have no hesitation whatever in saluting what has been achieved over the last three months right across Wales. There were calls from some quarters for Wales to have its own vaccine strategy. Plaid Cymru pushed the line that Wales should cut loose from the rest of the UK when it came to procuring vaccines. It and its Welsh Labour allies also wanted us to be locked into the disastrous EU vaccine programme.
Now, with more than a third of the adult population in Wales having received a first dose, we can see the clear value of being part of an independent, UK-led strategy. The UK Government were able to move quickly and with strength to secure those vital early vaccine supplies, to the benefit of all parts of the United Kingdom. That, for me, is the value of the Union in action. Or we could point to the sheer financial firepower that has been brought to bear during the crisis. There has been billions of pounds of additional support for Wales, and hundreds of thousands of workers across Wales have had their livelihoods protected. That was possible only because at the heart of our United Kingdom, there is a powerful redistributive fiscal union.
For all that, there is a concerted effort under way to use the pandemic to weaken the bonds of our United Kingdom and to argue for division and separation. The Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru spokespeople will argue for exactly that later on. The question for me today, having listened to the speech by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), is: where exactly is Welsh Labour when it comes to the Union? There was a time when Welsh Labour was a force for Unionism in this country. However, when I hear Welsh Labour politicians talk down and devalue the efforts of the United Kingdom, when I hear them wanting to stop the UK Government actually spending money on projects in Wales, when I hear them cynically stoke up the rhetoric about the English-Welsh border—and they know exactly what they are doing when they do that—and when I hear them criticise and delegitimise the visits to Wales of the UK Prime Minister, I fear that they have turned their backs on the Union and thrown in their lot with the nationalists.
I believe passionately that one can be a fierce, proud Welsh man or woman and that also alongside that one can be proudly British. There is no contradiction there, and for me perhaps the most powerful and attractive thing of all about our Union is that it does not force us to choose our identities. On that note, I wish a happy St David’s Day—Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus—to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all fellow Welsh Members of the House of Commons.
I echo the remarks about my dear friend Hywel Francis, whose legacy spreads across south Wales and beyond. I will miss Hywel more than words can say, and my thoughts are with Mair, Hannah, Dafydd and Hywel’s many friends and comrades.
Wales is a special country. Its people are parochial, but we are also internationalists in all the best ways. We have a history of social solidarity that is unrivalled: the miners’ friendship with American actor, singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson; miners’ contributions to the fight against fascism; the father of co-operation, Robert Owen; and the fact that the NHS was born in Wales.
In my wonderful constituency, we are proud of our cultural heritage and global reach, which served us well during the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Support groups sprang up in the Neath, Dulais and Swansea valleys, with the same resilience and commitment to equality, justice and fairness as those miners who joined the international brigades. Education partnerships were forged across the world, such as the community university of the valleys and those with mining communities in Appalachia. The film “Pride” told the story of London’s lesbian and gay community supporting miners’ communities in my constituency during the strike.
The miners’ strike produced long-lasting community organisations such as Canolfan Maerdy, Glynneath Training Centre and Dove Workshop. The coronavirus pandemic has produced many more, with hundreds of street champions delivering food parcels and medication to the vulnerable and shielding. I am proud of the multi-agency working between Swansea Bay University Health Board, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council and South Wales police before, during and, no doubt, beyond this pandemic. It has been truly humbling to see the exceptional commitment in the fight against this terrible virus—working long hours and seamlessly within and between organisations.
Despite more than a decade of Tory austerity and UK Government cuts across Wales, the Welsh Labour Government are leading on partnership working, which is the embodiment of compassion, co-operation and solidarity. The Welsh Labour Government have provided an extra £500 million to local authorities to deliver key services, made a special commitment of £500 to more than 67,000 social care staff and continued their commitment to free school meals during school holidays up to Easter 2022, feeding over 105,000 children in Wales. Businesses in Wales have accessed the most generous support package in the UK. The £2 billion economic resilience fund alone has secured over 141,000 jobs in Wales. As Hywel would say, history is on our side.
I echo the comments made about Hywel Francis, and my sympathies go to his family, particularly his daughter, who was in the same class as me at school.
This debate comes at a time when many claim that the Union of the UK is under pressure. I am more optimistic in that the benefits of the Union have really come to the fore this year, with the unprecedented financial assistance to businesses, families and the devolved Administrations, as we have heard; the combined might of the UK to research and source vaccines; and the benefit of the stability from the borrowing capacity that only the UK Government could achieve on world markets. These benefits to our four nations are recognised widely among the public, in spite of the ever-noisy demands for independence regularly exaggerated by the BBC.
Separate to those issues, however, I was previously concerned that Whitehall’s approach to the nations was feeding calls for greater separation. The “devolve and forget” attitude became endemic among officials after 1999, with responsibilities simply passed on to the devolved Administrations irrespective of whether a four-nation approach would deliver better outcomes. Central to that is the Treasury. On the one hand it was keen to act positively and, rightly, increase resources for Wales. We adjusted the Barnett settlement and introduced a funding floor, resulting in Wales receiving £120 for every £100 spent in England—much higher than under Labour. That was done out of respect for devolution—recognising the need but not interfering—but it missed the point. Wales needed an active interest from Whitehall Departments, and that is why I argued for the UK shared prosperity fund to be established at the outset and for funds to be retained for its implementation.
Recent announcements on the shared prosperity fund and, yesterday, the levelling-up fund are such good news for communities in Wales—the strength of the Union coming to support areas that have been left behind. My request is that that needs to be followed through. The allocation of funding and the power to spend are fundamental, and the Government should be congratulated. However, we still need an active interest from Whitehall in understanding and delivering for communities in Wales. In my constituency, there is a desperate need for a railway station in St Athan and a marina in Barry as part of my regeneration plans and ambitions. Those issues have been rejected by the Welsh Government, and until now the UK Government have had no means by which to step in. I want those two projects to be at the top of the Secretary of State’s spending list.
I begin by paying tribute to Hywel Francis, the former Member for Aberavon. Hywel was a good friend for many years. He was a great socialist, a distinguished historian, an effective parliamentarian and a staunch internationalist. He will be missed by many in Wales and beyond.
We are in a difficult and unprecedented time, and so many people in Wales have responded, and are still responding, extremely well to the challenges we all face. The forbearance and resilience of my Caerphilly constituents is quite amazing, but everyone accepts that there is still some way to go before this virus is defeated. As well as my constituents, I pay tribute to the staff of the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, whose dedication to the tasks before them is simply incredible. In the health board area as a whole, the incidence of covid-19 is reducing. It is now 76.4 per 100,000 people, down from 83.6 the previous week. The situation within hospitals is improving as well, with the number of covid-19 patients in intensive care and the number of patients testing positive in in-patient beds both reducing significantly.
On vaccinations, things are also encouraging. In care homes, every member of staff and every resident had been offered a vaccination by the end of January. I am pleased to say that most have been taken up, and advanced plans are in place for second doses. More generally, up to 25 January, 1,184 vaccinations had been given across the health board area through a blend of vaccine centre, GP and mobile team delivery.
Much has been done but, of course, there is still much to do. However, I am happy to be able to say that things are going well in the Greater Gwent area. Undoubtedly, one reason why things are going well is because of effective leadership from the First Minister and the Welsh Government, which is in contrast to the dither, delay, U-turns and contradictions that we have seen from the Westminster Conservative Government. It is not just me who is saying that. Last night on BBC Wales Live, Dr Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, made it clear that this was his view as well.
So, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am proud of the way my constituents and the authorities are responding to this continuing crisis—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I also say how very saddened I was to learn of the death of Hywel Francis, who was quite simply a dear, much-loved friend.
The coronavirus pandemic, of course, is the background to today’s Saint David’s Day debate and indeed, it has dominated life in Wales for much of the past 12 months. Times have been difficult, but the impressive efficiency of the vaccination programme means that at last we are now able to see the prospect of returning to a life that approaches normality.
The financial support given by the Government to our citizens during this worrying time has been outstanding, and I know from many discussions with constituents just how much it is appreciated, but as we see the increasing positive impact of the vaccine, it is important to consider how people’s livelihoods will continue to be secured after we emerge from lockdown. In north Wales, tourism and hospitality are the mainstay of our economy, worth a remarkable £3.6 billion, employing over 46,500 full-time equivalent jobs and bringing in 29 million visitors. The 2020 season was severely disrupted, with a drop in income of an estimated £2.17 billion. It is therefore crucial that as much clarity as possible is given to hospitality business operators as to when and how they may recommence operations in 2021.
In England the Government have set out a clear, though cautious, road map for exiting lockdown. Indeed, one senior representative of the north Wales tourism sector, told me only yesterday that the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday amounted to what he called light at the end of a very dark tunnel, which, unfortunately, is not being replicated in Wales. If the virus suppression programme proceeds as we all hope, hospitality should reopen in England by mid-May. Sadly, no clarity of the sort given by the Westminster Government has been provided in Wales, and this is a huge concern to north Wales tourism business operators. It is likely that more UK citizens will be taking their holidays domestically this year as a consequence of the disruption of air travel. Families are making their bookings now, but if there is no clarity as to when Wales will be open for business again, they will go to Cornwall, the Lake District or some other part of the country where there is sufficient clarity.
I therefore urge my right hon. Friend and the Government to work closely with the Welsh Government to agree a joint strategy for the reopening of the entire UK hospitality sector. If that is not done, I very much fear that there will be another bleak holiday season in north Wales, with consequent business failures and redundancies, and that is something that none of us wants to see.
Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker. I, too, pay tribute to Hywel Francis, a former colleague, a friend, and Dean of Faculty during my university days. When I was a child, St David’s Day was almost as good as Christmas. We ran into school in our Welsh costumes and watched the boys eating their leeks for lunch and then feeling ill all afternoon. Most children will not have that opportunity to share St David’s Day with their friends this year, but their safety is far more important. That is why the Welsh Labour Government have set out a staggered return to the classroom for all our children, starting with the youngest, who return this week, and gradually working our way up. Like we have done throughout the pandemic, Welsh Labour Ministers are being careful and cautious, basing their decisions on evidence while working tirelessly to protect our health and our jobs.
Over the past year no one can have escaped experiencing something completely out of their comfort zone. Every MP’s office will have been overwhelmed by the increased casework, some of which has been heartbreaking. For my office, one of the biggest issues has been the volume of correspondence regarding the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. With more than 550 positive cases and a tragic death among the staff, the way that the issue has been dealt with by both the management and the Department for Transport is nothing short of appalling. We are currently in a situation where staff are seriously considering taking strike action as a last resort. They feel—and rightly so—that their safety and wellbeing have been compromised by the UK Government’s refusal to address their concerns.
The positive news is that, thanks to the outstanding work of our wonderful NHS staff and volunteers, Wales is leading the way on the vaccine roll-out. This heroic effort, alongside the public’s willingness to follow the rules, has been one of the reasons that our number of positive cases has started to drop. In fact, it has halved in Swansea in the past four weeks.
While we all miss the smell of Welsh cakes cooking that usually wafts out of Swansea market on the days running up to St David’s Day, this year, by following the restrictions for a little bit longer, we will get through this. While we stay at home this weekend to keep our families safe and to protect the NHS, let us hope we get a triumph of Wales over England in the Six Nations. What joy that would bring us all on St David’s Day weekend! Diolch, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Dirprwy Lefarydd. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). This St David’s Day debate provides a good opportunity to thank all my constituents who have made sacrifices over the past year to help protect the community. Early this year, I raised concerns about the slower pace of the vaccine roll-out in Wales. I am relieved that significant improvements have been made and that efforts are now generally progressing well in the Vale of Clwyd. In addition to the tireless efforts of NHS staff and the armed forces, a key driver behind that improvement has been the presence of directly comparable vaccination data across Britain.
The current general shortage of such directly comparable healthcare performance indicators can make objective comparisons difficult. UK-wide data in the NHS, along with aligned inspection mechanisms and audit procedures, would increase transparency. It would allow different regions of the country to recognise both best practice and shortcomings in the service that they are providing, and to work collaboratively to improve. It would allow Ministers and, ultimately, voters to make a more informed decision about the direction they want their health service to take. This is particularly relevant for north Wales, which I suggest would sadly be seen to be falling behind most parts of the UK if such data were available.
The same can be said for infrastructure, where north Wales is in the unenviable position of being overlooked and misunderstood by Cardiff Bay, while UK Government Ministers have, over the past 20 years, had decreasing access to intervene. Mobile phone data from 2019 demonstrates that in normal times, over a 24-hour period, 153,000 journeys are made between north Wales and north-west England. That figure is 20 times higher than the number of journeys from north Wales to other regions of Wales. Despite that, the public transport offering is inadequate. For example, the 65 miles from Prestatyn to central Manchester takes up to 105 minutes on the train, while the same distance is covered in under 50 minutes in many parts of southern England.
In seeking to rectify that, we need to move to a position where the administrative border between England and Wales is not seen as an excuse or a barrier to progress. The all-party parliamentary group on Mersey Dee North Wales, which I chair, has already held constructive talks with the Department for Transport and the Union connectivity review about how to achieve improvements.
Through the Government’s levelling-up agenda, including the now UK-wide levelling-up fund, I hope that our regional rail service can begin to receive a much-needed boost, with capacity and line speed enhancements and, ultimately, electrification of the north Wales main line, with efficient connections to High Speed 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. Such developments can transform the regional economy and will help the UK to achieve its bold net zero target. Mr Deputy Speaker, Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus iawn ymlaen llaw—happy St David’s Day in advance.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Dirprwy Llefarydd. I, too, would like to send my party’s condolences to the family of Hywel Francis.
Yesterday, the UK Government broadcast their intention to undermine Welsh democracy and the proven priorities of our country with their levelling-up fund. Within the velvet glove of deigning to address regional inequality, the iron fist of Westminster’s divide and rule tactics now sets our nations firmly against each other, but of course, that Westminster can single-handedly fix regional inequality is fantasy politics. It is Westminster that has tolerated, facilitated and, at times, marshalled the creation of systematic and structural regional inequalities that are the worst of any comparable developed country. In this unequal Union, Wales is, at best, treated as expendable; at worst, our homegrown ambitions are thwarted. Let us take HS2. It is a £100 billion high-speed railway without an imperial inch of track in Wales. Ignoring that and the calculations at HS2 that that will cost Cardiff alone nearly £70 million annually, the UK Government went ahead and classified the project as benefiting—wait for it—both England and Wales. That means that Wales will not receive the full Barnett consequential payments—approximately £5 billion—which we should rightly receive.
On projects actually physically here in Wales, such as the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, or the electrification of our railways, Westminster has also failed to deliver. In terms of public funding, the same structural bias favours the favoured. Wales receives 42% of the research and development spending per capita compared with England. Although we have 11% of the UK’s railway and 5% of the population, we receive only—wait for it—1% of Westminster rail investment.
I will not pretend that Wales is the only part of the UK hamstrung by Westminster’s failures. Only three out of the UK’s 12 nations and regions are net contributors to the UK budget, illustrating the real-life repercussions of Westminster’s poor economic priorities. Let me be clear, through this levelling-up fund, Westminster is overruling Wales, sidelining our democracy, and dictating our future. The Secretary of State’s comments yesterday evening that we should stop fretting about what he terms our “little status” ignores his own insignificance at the Cabinet table or that Wales will lose a fifth of its representation in Westminster in the next Parliament. Perhaps he should reflect on his own role before belittling our democracy. This announcement is a duplicitous mistake, a shameful sham of an election ploy. They are empty words when Wales needs so much better. Decisions affecting Wales should be made in Wales by a Government who are accountable to the people of Wales. This May, vote for Wales.
I, too, would like to offer my condolences to the family of Hywel Francis.
A year ago in the St David’s Day debate, I gave my maiden speech. Thinking back to that debate, it seems like another world, given that it was held in the last days before lockdown. Hopefully, with the benefits of the UK Government’s highly successful vaccination programme, the end is in sight of the worst of this pandemic.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the frontline workers in Clwyd South and elsewhere in Wales, including our NHS and emergency service staff, carers, community volunteers, council staff and retail staff, who have done so much to keep us safe during this pandemic. Along with the monumental effort by the people of Wales, the UK Government have stepped up by providing unprecedented levels of support—an additional £5.85 billion for Wales—ensuring that we make it through this crisis as one United Kingdom.
Having grown up in a family hotel business in Wales and now acting as the Conservatives’ small business ambassador for Wales, I speak to many Welsh companies that are struggling in the covid crisis, particularly in sectors such as hospitality and tourism. A common theme to their comments is the disorganised nature of the roll-out of the Welsh Government’s economic resilience fund, with many people unable to apply due to the IT system crashing, unclear guidelines on information required, and the application period closing in only a matter of hours without any prior warning. Some degree of administrative difficulty is understandable in the current crisis, but businesses feel extremely aggrieved when they hear that the Labour Welsh Government have still yet to spend £650 million of the money that they have received from the UK Government, which could be used to put right the problems caused by short-changing Welsh businesses in business support. This problem is further compounded by the unfairness of the Welsh Government’s prioritisation of south Wales over mid-north Wales in their policy, financial support and investment. A clear example is that the average increase in the Welsh local government authority funding support in north Wales is below the national average, whereas in predominantly Labour-run south Wales, it is above the average. In my constituency, Wrexham Council received a Welsh Government grant increase of only 2.3%, which is the second lowest in Wales and compares with an average of 4.1% in south Wales.
While other parties like Labour and Plaid talk about process, power and breaking up the Union, I am proud that the Welsh Conservatives are focused on seeing off covid together as a United Kingdom that serves everyone in north, mid and south Wales on an equal footing.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Deputy Speaker. Prynhawn da and I wish you a happy St David’s Day debate.
I, too, send my condolences, and pay my respect to the late, great and lovely Professor Hywel Francis, who did so much for the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Human Rights Committee, and fought with me to get David Cameron to commit to the electrification of the railway to Swansea—a promise yet to be fulfilled. Gorau arf, arf dysg: the best weapon is the weapon of knowledge, as Hywel would say.
Hywel would be very pleased that the Welsh Government are leading the way in terms of vaccination, at 26% of the nation versus 24% in England. By 31 July, everyone will have been offered a vaccination. Already we see children in schools, with a gradual roll-out and in a responsible way—not the sort of big-bang approach we see in England. England has ended up with excess deaths over five years of something like 20% when it is just 13% in Wales, partly because of the success of our contact tracing system, which is wholly in the public sector. We have also seen in Wales what has happened where the UK Government are in charge at the DVLA. There were only hundreds of people at work in the last lockdown in March; there are now thousands, even after 555 covid cases. That is completely irresponsible at a time when BT has offered more kit to enable people to work from home. The Government are basically playing Russian roulette with the workers, who are forced to choose between going on strike or protecting their families. It is completely irresponsible and unnecessary.
The Welsh Government are building back better and building back stronger. Meanwhile, we get less than 2% for railway enhancements versus 5% in terms of our population, which is completely unfair. I want to see investment in the Swansea Bay lagoon, but again there has been a U-turn by the Conservative Government on that. I want to see the commitment to the shared prosperity fund being spent where it is most needed and most productive, as was the case with the EU. We do not know what the Tory Government are going to do about that. Wales is also suffering from a bad Brexit because it was a late deal—a half-filled sack delivered by the Prime Minister at Christmas. There is a bit of chaos there that can hopefully be sorted out. Meanwhile, the Development Bank of Wales set up by the Welsh Government is doing well, alongside the £2 billion economic resilience fund that has already delivered 141,000 jobs. Apart from a greener, stronger Wales, we have a fairer Wales with the Welsh Labour Government—free school meals during holidays, no dodgy deals, and no homeless left on the streets, unlike in England.
I urge people to vote Labour this year for the ambition of Wales, the health of Wales, justice in Wales, and a fairer, stronger Wales. Give us the tools and we will do the job. We have the Government who are capable of doing it.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, for this important debate. Although the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) brought us together on the rugby, I am afraid that the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) has divided the Chamber on many of the issues he mentioned—but it is still a privilege, of course, to follow him.
This St David’s Day debate is of course set in the context of covid, but the covid crisis has brought our four nations together, and the vaccine programme is an exemplar of the strength of our Union. I very much welcome the figures from the Welsh Government and from the UK Government on securing the supplies that have made possible the pace and speed of the roll-out. I pay tribute to the frontline NHS, the Ministry of Defence, the volunteers in Montgomeryshire and Powys and the local health boards for delivering so much care and support throughout this covid pandemic. Let us look at the economic support that has been mobilised from this Parliament and this Government across the United Kingdom: 10% of workers were furloughed in Montgomeryshire, leaning on the support of the Union to get them through this crisis.
I pay particular tribute to the Powys Association of Voluntary Organisations and Carl Cooper, its chief executive. He rightly said before covid that Powys is the volunteering capital of Wales, and we see at the moment 60,000 volunteers out of a population of 120,000—half of our population in Powys and Montgomeryshire is mobilised, supporting people who need it.
During my short, three-minute contribution, I want to mention the pet projects I have been pushing as a Member of Parliament: the Llanymynech-Pant bypass, where there is a feasibility study at the moment; the Carno station, which we hope to see under the new stations fund; and, more importantly, the Montgomery canal, which we seek to reconnect to the UK network and which those volunteers are still delivering. That is happening right now. I will not say exactly how many yards or metres they have delivered while I have been speaking, but those volunteers represent spades in the ground and it is great to see that continuing.
In closing, I wish to pay tribute to Robert Owen and acknowledge his 250th birthday. He is a great export from Montgomeryshire. He was born in Newtown in 1771, and we have a museum in the heart of my constituency’s biggest town. I want to end with a quote. Robert Owen campaigned throughout his life
‘to promote the well-being and happiness of every man, woman and child without regard”—
“sect, party, country and colour”.
That is a nice way for me to end my contribution to the St David’s Day debate.
People watching from Wales may well be reflecting on why this once-a-year debate is cut so short and not given more time and prominence. The message of St David, “Gwnewch y pethau bychain”—to do the small things—resonates strongly, now more than ever. In the past year, we have experienced great hardships and sadness, and we could not have got through the past year without all those who have looked after us. In Cardiff North, the Feed the Heath group have kept our hard-working NHS staff going and delivered to the shielding in places such as Thornhill, Lisvane and Pontprennau. I should mention all those who have provided emotional support and advice. The kindness and impact of their small actions has travelled much further than they will know. They show our common values.
Our friend and former colleague here Hywel Francis spoke of those. Hywel was a great supporter of Welsh democracy. He understood that democracy is served by a strong Parliament in Cardiff, not one that could be undermined at the stroke of a pen or the whim of a Minister in London, without a mandate or without a clue or care. That is what we are seeing today; the UK Government’s attempt to control Wales’s levelling-up fund, riding roughshod over devolution, pitting nations and regions against one another and airbrushing out the last 10 years of Tory failure. We see businesses knocked hard, and parents worried sick by the cut in universal credit, having to make choices between a bus fare and feeding their children.
However, our Welsh Labour Government here in Wales continue to provide the most generous support package to businesses and are fully funding free school meals right through to Easter 2022. We know that what we do here has a huge bearing even on the most distant communities. From Cardiff to Kampala, we see the same common values of decency, compassion and solidarity, and we must keep fighting to protect those values. Here in Wales, the first fair trade nation, where we have the first Parliament and Government to declare a climate emergency, and where we are giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote and to shape their future, our Welsh Labour Government are leading, working to make the small things count. Gwnewch y pethau bychain.
The heavily pregnant sheep in the field next door to me are a reminder of the optimism that spring will soon bring to Brecon and Radnorshire after a very long winter. The vaccine roll-out is also bringing huge optimism to many thousands of my constituents. As a volunteer at the mass vaccination site in Builth Wells, I have seen just how well progress is going, and I want to send my heartfelt thanks to all the vaccinators, volunteers and healthcare professionals in Powys.
Listening to some of the contributions this afternoon, it astounds me that Opposition Members are slow to recognise the UK Government’s outstanding financial contribution to Wales of more than £6 billion during the coronavirus. But slow is top speed for the Drakeford Government. They have been slow to publish an exit plan and slow to take action where it is so desperately required.
There is no better example of that than the state of our rivers here in Brecon and Radnorshire. Two thirds of the River Wye, which flows through Radnorshire and into Herefordshire before sensibly returning to Wales, is failing environmental targets. It is even worse for the River Usk, which flows through Breconshire. Almost daily, I meet with local councils, campaigners and my hon. Friends in neighbouring constituencies in England to discuss how we can clean up the rivers, but on this, a wholly devolved issue, Brecon and Radnorshire’s Member of the Senedd is missing in action. The inertia of the Welsh Government is harming tourism, agriculture and the natural environment. This needs heavyweight political intervention—something that we will never get from the Welsh Labour Government.
Next week, I will attend the St David’s Day dinner at Brecon barracks. Sadly, this year’s event will be on Zoom, but at least I will be spared the ignominy of the leek eating ceremony that the Secretary of State for Wales and I had to endure last year. Brecon is a proud garrison town with a deep and historic military connection. I once again thank my ministerial colleagues for the announcement that the 160 brigade will remain in Brecon. Although I am delighted with that news, they will know that I have not given up my campaign to keep the barracks in Brecon.
No focus group needs to advise Government Members to support and respect our military. It is ingrained in all of us, and once again I declare my interest, in that my partner is a serving soldier, but championing the armed forces is not just about preserving key facilities; it is about recognising the lifelong toll that service takes. Every nation in the United Kingdom has a veterans commissioner except for Wales. With key public services devolved to the Welsh Government, a veterans commissioner would ensure that Welsh veterans are never disadvantaged as a result of their military service.
Like you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I love my country, but I know that Wales could be so much more. A Conservative Government in the Welsh Parliament would offer real prosperity right across Wales, never again keeping Wales poor, sick and tired, as Welsh Labour has done for 21 long years.
Happy St David’s Day to everyone for Monday, and congratulations to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) on securing the debate.
I pay tribute to my friend Kirsty Williams, who, after 22 years in the Senedd, is stepping down at the May elections. During that time, she has been a fantastic voice for her constituents as well as leading the Welsh Liberal Democrats for eight years, as the first female leader of a Welsh political party. Since 2016, she has served with distinction as Education Minister in the Welsh Government. During the pandemic, she ensured that Wales was the first of the four nations to commit to continuing the provision of free school meals during the summer holidays.
The hon. Lady and I are both committed Unionists. In relation to education, some of my constituents from Strangford are attending medical school in Cardiff. We should celebrate the education in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—better together, as always.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I absolutely agree that it is important that we work across the four nations, but one area that the Welsh Government have been focusing their attention on recently is the Erasmus scheme. Last year, we heard from the Prime Minister and others that UK membership of Erasmus was not under threat. Indeed, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster indicated that we would still be part of Erasmus as late as 17 December 2020; yet ultimately it did not feature in the deal with the EU, apparently on cost grounds.
That is a huge disappointment, and I know that the Welsh academics in universities to whom I have spoken are concerned that the Government’s new Turing scheme is at risk of overpromising and, very likely, underdelivering. We are told that up to 35,000 students will take part in the first year of the programme, but funding for providers will be confirmed only in July, which leaves a very short window to get places finalised by September. At the heart of the new programme, we are told, is the Government’s levelling-up agenda; yet the reality is that the Turing scheme does not cater for adult and youth groups, as Erasmus did.
Add to that the likely additional costs to participants of visas, savings and income requirements, which the Foreign Office has said are for universities to navigate, as well as the loss to local economies of income from students attending UK institutions, and I find it increasingly difficult to understand the Government’s decision. The Welsh Government, like the Scottish Government, want to be able to opt in to the Erasmus scheme, and I think that we should do what we can in this place to facilitate that choice. I ask the Minister to set out what conversations he has had with the Welsh Government on that issue.
There are a number of areas where Wales faces challenges posed by our departure from the EU. Another is the impact on trade routes and ports. There has been a huge reduction. At Rosslare Europort in the Republic of Ireland, traffic to the UK halved last month while direct routes to the EU increased in popularity by nearly 500%. The Government might dismiss that as teething problems, but the general manager at Rosslare said that Wales should consider shutting one of its ports. Surely that must be concerning for all of us.
The rise in the number of direct ferry routes bypassing the land bridge route through Wales means that this is not going to go away. The Government need to engage on this issue now, because if they let it run on, it will cause damage to the Welsh economy and local communities. The foresight must also be applied as livestock comes into season and the agriculture industry looks to export to the EU later in the year. Can the Government offer assurances that farmers will not experience the same disruption that the fishing industry is currently facing?
I have talked about the challenges posed by Brexit, but I also want to touch on the challenges posed over the last year by the pandemic. It is incumbent on all of us to reflect on the enormous change to the political centre of gravity in Wales and elsewhere over the last year. None of us has ever experienced anything like the restrictions placed on our lives over the last year, and I very much hope that we will never have to endure them again. But for those of us in the devolved nations, there have been restrictions conceived and passed not in this place, but in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, and that is hugely significant. The whole driving force behind devolution is the idea that power is best utilised where it is closest to the people that it impacts upon, and that is a lesson that has been reinforced during the pandemic. That means not just between the four nations, but within them. That partnership built on consensus and common interest has to be the future of this Union and, as we approach Saint David’s Day, I can think of no better time for all of us in this place to engage again with that approach.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity today, ahead of Saint David’s Day on Monday, to highlight some of the key areas where we have seen Wales’s place in a strong United Kingdom being backed up by action from the UK Government.
I will start with the great British success story: vaccines. Seeing our world-beating vaccine roll-out to defeat covid-19 and protect lives is, I think, one of the most compelling reasons for Wales’s place in our Union of nations. However, had Wales stayed in the European Medicines Agency, as UK and Welsh Labour had wanted, it would have received fewer vaccines. In 2018, when he was the Finance Minister, the First Minister said that the European Medicines Agency was “high” on his list of agencies of which he would like to see continued membership. Well, if we had stayed, Wales would have received 670,144 fewer vaccines.
There has also been confusion and frustration for many of my constituents this week. When the Prime Minister set out his clear and honest plan to unlock England’s economy and society, many of my constituents in Bridgend were watching with keen interest, just to have this road map dismissed and to have the First Minister say, simply, that it does not apply to Wales. Although he is right to say that the rules on public health are within the Welsh Government’s remit, surely a co-ordinated approach, and not being different for political sake, would have been a far more attractive offering for the people of Wales. There has been no clear plan, however, from the Welsh Labour Government about unlocking our economy and our society.
Another testament to this great Union of nations has been our armed forces, with the support coming from military personnel to assist with the vaccine roll-out in Wales. This has been thanks only to this one-nation UK Government, and the armed forces are a testament to the strength of our United Kingdom.
The announcement that the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will be UK-wide, so that the UK Government can directly support communities in Bridgend, is yet another example. For decades, Welsh Labour has not delivered on regeneration in Bridgend and I am pleased that the UK Government will possibly be in a position to deliver on this much needed investment.
The power that the Welsh Government have has never been more apparent. We can no longer take Welsh elections for granted and, at the upcoming election in May, the people of Wales have a choice: more of the same, or a Welsh Conservative Government that will work hand in hand with our UK Government to rebuild Wales and build back better.
Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi. I am very glad today to remember my colleague and friend Hywel Francis, whose passing impoverishes Wales and the radical cause everywhere. Cof da amdanat, Hywel.
This Government’s blatant power grab of Welsh responsibilities returned from Brussels is very well known. Now we can see the levelling-up fund for what it really is—a money grab on the same unprincipled lines. It is the worst of both worlds: not enough to remedy the enormous concentration of wealth and power in the south-east of England; no match for the EU’s long-term commitment to cohesion funding; and now in the hands of the very same London elite who created and worsened the regional inequality in England, and who have sidelined and impoverished Wales, the very poorest part of their United Kingdom.
Between 2014 and 2020, Wales received £2.7 billion in EU funding, equivalent to £375 million annually. Funding was allocated according to need and invested on the principle of subsidiarity—that those closest to the problem would know best how to tackle it. For this Government, though, the money is theirs to splash out as they wish, to old friends and new supplicants, as they know best. Wales has been stitched up, as businesses across our country are learning every day.
Every day it seems that new problems emerge from this Government’s botched, last-minute Brexit deal, and the deal’s chief supporters—the European Research Group, the Democratic Unionist party and others—all howl, “This is not what we wanted.” Well, true enough. The port of Holyhead has lost 50% of its traffic since the end of the transition period. Welsh exporters face huge barriers to trade, mounting paperwork and long transit delays. Welsh pharmaceutical companies have been affected; one in particular has been forced to throw out hundreds of packs of vital cancer treatments because of the Government’s Brexit red tape on exports, and it has since moved production from Wales—to where? To Ireland, of course. Welsh shellfish producers, such as those in my Arfon constituency, are also prevented from exporting to the largest and most important markets.
The lesson for Wales from this red, white and blue Brexit is clear: do not expect Westminster to seek our best interests. Control of our own affairs and speaking directly with our international partners is our way to prosperity, to expanding our opportunities and to opening our horizons. Our people are now seeking to grasp that opportunity in greater numbers than ever, particularly young people. Westminster has long since had its day. Only independence will enable us to reach our full potential.
Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus; happy St David’s Day for Monday, and a special shout-out to my wonderful Welsh teacher.
Wales accounts for 5% of the UK’s population, but produces only 3.4% of its wealth. My constituency of Anglesey has one of the lowest GVAs in Wales. Why is that, when in Môn Mam Cymru—Anglesey, the mother of Wales—we have such abundant natural resources? Anglesey has been neglected for many years and has become overly dependent on seasonal tourism. We were one of the first parts of the country to be hit by the economic effects of the pandemic, and we will be one of the last to recover. Indeed, if it was not for the intervention of the Chancellor, keeping businesses such as Catch 22 and Coffee Cups going, our local economy would have been decimated.
Our young people are forced to leave to seek work on the mainland due to the lack of good-quality jobs on the island. They tell me that what they really want is to stay here, buy a home, raise a family, share a daily paned with their friends, and keep their culture and language alive. Local businesses such as Holyhead Marine, Pentraeth Automotive and Holyhead Towing offer outstanding training and long-term jobs to local people, and the innovation jobs fair that I am holding at M-sParc will highlight our many science, technology, maths and engineering employers, but there simply are not enough quality jobs to go around.
This UK Government’s commitment to making a success of Brexit, levelling up and delivering net zero by 2050 will enable Anglesey to capitalise on its resources and talent, and bring prosperity back to our island. Wylfa Newydd is still the best site in the UK for nuclear power, and I continue to work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and local stakeholders to explore potential opportunities at the site.
I am working on a proposal to bring a freeport to Anglesey. The freeport bidding process for Wales should be led by the Welsh Government, but it is already months behind the English process. This means that if—as seems likely—freeports are created in England ahead of those in Wales, Anglesey will be further disadvantaged. This week the UK Government announced that they will manage the £4 billion levelling-up fund. It is great news for Anglesey. I will be fighting hard to take advantage of that fund for the island and address past inequalities.
I assure my constituents that, like St David raising the hill so the crowds could see him, I am working hard to raise Anglesey up as a shining beacon of new prosperity for all to see. Diolch yn fawr.
I too want to begin by paying tribute to Professor Hywel Francis, who was a long-standing friend of my family. He made an invaluable contribution to Wales and the miners here in the valleys, and my condolences go to his family.
“Mae’n bleser i siarad heddiw ac i gael cyfle i ddweud tamaid bach yn fy mamiaith. Rwy’n caru Cymru—ein hiaith, ein diwylliant ac yn bennaf ein pobl.”[Translation: It is a pleasure to speak today and to have the opportunity to say a little in my mother tongue. I love Wales—our language, our culture and above all our people.] People make a country, and I am so proud to be Welsh and to share my national identity with so many wonderful people. That is why I am so angry and sad to see people in Wales suffering hardship and poverty. I read the statistics that show that my constituency has the third highest death rate from covid in the UK, and that one of the wards in my constituency has a rate of child poverty of 45%. Wages are low and jobs are insecure. We have high levels of digital exclusion and health inequality.
It is always the poorest in society that suffer the most. Successive Tory Governments’ austerity policies have undermined their ability to fight the pandemic, attacked the benefits system on which so many of my constituents depend, and stripped our Welsh Government and local authorities of much needed funds, with £90 million of cuts in my local authority. At the same time, we have seen the resilience of local people in the way they have stood together. Local people here in Cynon Valley kept the museum going and fought to keep the children’s pool open. They are volunteering at the food banks and have formed a committee to stand up against projects that could damage our environment. They have set up a community hub and they are being good neighbours and friends.
No woman or man is an island. We all need each other, and that forms the basis of my philosophy and the philosophy of many of my forebears. Wales has a radical socialist tradition driven by that sense of community and togetherness, and it stretches from the Chartist movement to the “clear red water” statement of Rhodri Morgan. It continues in so many of the policies of our current Labour-led Welsh Government, with the maintenance of free prescriptions and the protection of the NHS as a publicly owned service. Work has been done on a social partnership Act, and in my constituency my economic advisory group is looking at how we can develop and support community wealth building.
The present UK Government are determined to ride roughshod over the devolution settlement and recentralise power in Westminster. My call today is for radical constitutional reform that puts the four nations of the UK on an equal footing, and that gives all the nations a fair funding arrangement based on the needs of the people. We need a new political and constitutional consensus aimed at delivering power, wealth and opportunity back into the hands of the people, and communities underpinned by the core values of democracy, fairness, climate stability and equality. I know from my home in Cynon Valley that people in Wales have the ability and the appetite to do things differently. They can see the way forward. They just need the tools, the financial support, the decision-making powers and the political determination to get there. “Mae gan bobl Cymru a phobl Cwm Cynon y gallu i greu byd sy’n fwy gwyrdd, cymdeithas fwy cyfartal a dyfodol tecach i bawb.”[Translation: The people of Wales and of Cynon Valley have the ability to create a greener world, a more equal society and a fairer future for all.]
I recently asked some of my constituents for their thoughts on living in north Wales, and the vast majority of them told me just how lucky they felt. I could not agree with them more. North Wales has a rich culture and history, outstanding natural beauty and, most importantly, that close-knit sense of community that means it is a fantastic place to live, work and raise a family. However, while I wish it was all positive feedback, my constituents also told me that they feel altogether let down and ignored by the Welsh Labour Government and that Cardiff places far too much emphasis on south Wales, often meaning that the people of the north feel like a forgotten afterthought.
There are still those who falsely claim that the reason the Welsh Government are failing the people of north Wales is underfunding from the UK Government, but we all know that that is not the case. It is just standard rhetoric. Just this morning, in fact, the Welsh Minister for Transport gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, and he was super-excited to mention the investment of around £750 million in the south Wales metro scheme, but when I asked why less than a tenth of that was being spent on the north Wales equivalent, he abdicated responsibility to a lack of investment from Westminster. So, when there is investment, it is down to the wonderful Welsh Government, but when they choose to spend their money in the south instead of the north, that is Westminster’s fault and nothing to do with them at all.
I think the people of north Wales are finally beginning to see through that, and beginning to recognise that they will never get a fair crack of the whip while the Welsh Government are run by a Labour party that is concerned only with appeasing its core voters in the south. At no point in the period of devolution has spending on health in Wales relative to England matched the levels of relative need. In England, spending on health has increased by 150% in that period, but in Wales it has increased by only 98%, so we will take no lectures from Opposition Members as to who is more committed to the welfare of the NHS.
Sadly, the theme of underfunding continues into education. The Welsh Local Government Association highlighted the scale of the pressure facing school budgets, and just today the Children’s Commissioner for Wales published a report on home education and independent schools, in which she concluded that there has been a “lack of progress” and that
“the Welsh Government has failed…to protect the rights of children”
in those areas.
Fortunately, this Conservative Government are committed to their levelling-up agenda and will make sure that every part of the UK benefits from it. I was delighted to see the announcement yesterday that the £4 billion levelling-up fund will be increased to almost £5 billion and will now include the UK Government investing directly in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland so that my constituents in north Wales will no longer be forgotten.
To conclude, as one of my constituents said to me, “The Welsh Government just needs to do better.” I say back to constituents that we all have an opportunity to change that in a couple of months’ time and to finally see a Welsh Government that works for everyone in our wonderful country.
Diolch, Mr Deputy Speaker. One motto on one of the Welsh coats of arms is:
“Y ddraig goch ddyry cychwyn”.
That broadly translates as “The red dragon advances”, and the Welsh dragon is advancing—leading the way in vaccine delivery; investing in remarkable bioscience and high-tech innovation; driving a green revolution; producing TV, film and music that is shaping the world; through our Welsh regiments as part of our UK armed forces, keeping us safe at home and abroad and working on the covid vaccine delivery; and of course inspiring us on the rugby and football fields. We all salute Louis Rees-Zammit; what a remarkable set of tries.
That is the Wales that I believe in—Wales advancing, not the Wales recently depicted by one nationalist group, shamefully, as an abused partner, or, indeed, the one described by the leader of Plaid Cymru using comparisons with slavery, which he rightly apologised for. Nor is it the Wales described as “little status” by the Secretary of State, or the one described as “poor, sick and tired” by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones). That is not the Wales I know. The Wales I am proud of is a Wales that is advancing and a Wales that can do so much. That is the Wales that we celebrate on St David’s Day.
We in Welsh Labour support the Union, unlike the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee said; it is just that we do not support the policies of this Tory Government. We do not support their cutting universal credit; we do not support their leaving kids going hungry in the holidays, and we do not support their spending billions on contracts for Serco, delivering dividends to their supporters. There is a big difference—
I echo colleagues’ kind words about Dr Hywel Francis, a great socialist, historian, campaigner, internationalist and friend, and I extend my condolences to his family.
St David’s Day, coming in the springtime, is always a time of hope and celebration, but particularly so this year—and not just because we can begin to see an end to the pandemic thanks to the amazing work of our scientists and our NHS workers in rolling out the vaccine. This year has been a most extraordinarily difficulty year, and I express our enormous gratitude to all our key workers in Wales. I pay tribute to First Minister Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Government for their skill and commitment in handling the biggest health emergency in a century—keeping people safe, working closely with local government to keep vital services running, providing the most generous support package for businesses anywhere in the UK, and, of course, protecting our NHS.
Our health service workers deserve a special thank you for the way that, in spite of the pressures, they have gone above and beyond to treat every patient with care and compassion. But of course our risk of catching the virus is not equal: poverty; poor diet; damp, cold, cramped living conditions, and greater workplace exposure all increase the risk. Inequalities are not new, but the pandemic has highlighted all too vividly the real life-and-death consequences of inequality, and in so doing it has shown how the principles on which we base our policies have a profound impact on outcomes.
We in the Labour party believe passionately in the principles of co-operation, respect, sharing wealth and working together for the greater good. The Welsh Labour Government’s determination to tackle inequalities means that in Wales we have seen support targeted at the most disadvantaged. In contrast with the Conservatives in England, Welsh Labour has retained the Flying Start scheme, retained the education maintenance allowance, guaranteed free school meals during the school holidays all this year and into next, and supported the most disadvantaged students. But let us not forget the appalling impact of 10 years of Conservative tax and austerity policies, with massive cuts to tax credits, which have led to a huge increase in in-work poverty and exacerbated inequalities.
For all its talk of levelling up, I do not think that the Conservative party really does understand, or wants to understand, what is really needed to tackle inequalities—both geographical and within our communities. Yes, we need infrastructure, but not fanciful ideas that never get delivered; we need immediate, practical measures to improve connectivity and productivity. We need real commitment from the UK Government to invest in our railways in Wales, in better broadband and in upgrading the national grid to harness our huge potential for renewables and drive the green transformation in Wales and beyond.
We also need investment in our communities to develop the skills and jobs for the future. That is why the Welsh Government have been working with local authorities to develop a framework for the shared prosperity fund. What is going on? Is it through pure incompetence or more sinister reasons that the Secretary of State and his Government have still not confirmed the full details of the SPF? All we have seen so far is a fraction of the amount of the EU finance that the fund is supposed to replace. What happened to “not a penny less”? Will the Secretary of State now commit to delivering the full equivalent of EU funding to Wales, to respecting the work that the Welsh Government have already done, and to working closely with them to get the best outcomes for the people of Wales? On the so-called levelling-up fund, will the Secretary of State also clarify how he intends to respect the devolution settlements and work with the Welsh Government to put those funds to most effective use?
I would like to touch a little more on respect for Wales and respect for the powers devolved to the Welsh Senedd. The past year has brought into people’s living rooms across the UK a snapshot of devolution as they see the four nations make decisions appropriate to their communities. They have been able to see the calm, measured approach of Welsh Government Ministers determined to make the best decisions for the people of Wales after listening to the scientists and consulting with health boards, local government leaders, trade unions and business. Yet shockingly, the Welsh Conservatives have repeatedly voted against the coronavirus measures, which are designed to protect people and save lives.
We have seen the Welsh Government and local councils promoting better protection against covid in the workplace, while the UK Government have failed to ensure that managers at the DVLA respond promptly and effectively to concerns about covid security raised so often by MPs. We have also seen the contrast with the close collaboration between the Welsh Labour Government and our local councils, who know their communities and have a public service ethos, which has enabled the development of a really effective test and trace system. The Tories have given millions of pounds of public money to their cronies, whose private companies have neither local knowledge nor the ethos to deliver.
This year has also highlighted the Tories’ lack of respect —indeed, disdain—for consultation and co-operation with the devolved nations or with council leaders in England, as we saw when the Welsh Government approached the Chancellor about support for businesses in Wales for the proposed October firebreak, only to be ignored, as council leaders across the north of England had been before us.
Worse than that, with the UK Internal Market Bill we saw the Conservatives casting aside the productive work between the four nations on the common frameworks and preferring instead to ride roughshod over the devolution settlements, in what was nothing short of a power grab. That appalling behaviour is not only a betrayal of trust, but it fuels resentment. Now more than ever is a time when our energies at all levels of government must focus on recovering from the pandemic and building back better and greener. It is not a time for stirring up disunity or for indulging in the fantasies of independence, which bear no resemblance to the chaos that would ensue.
For Labour, the Union is strengthened when we value the strength of our common endeavour and foster a co-operative approach between the nations of the UK and a sharing of wealth according to need. We can achieve so much more when we work together to tackle the challenges of inequality, injustice and climate change at both UK and international levels.
I now turn to the issue of coal tip safety. Some 40% of the UK’s remaining coal tips are in Wales; with our steep-sided valleys, we have a higher proportion of those that pose greater risk. With climate change and more violent weather patterns, we are seeing renewed threats. Fortunately, no lives were lost in last year’s dramatic landslip at Tylorstown, but it is a salutary reminder of what can happen. The Welsh Government stepped in and worked with Rhondda Cynon Taf to deal with the immediate situation and set up the coal safety taskforce. But coal tips are clearly a legacy from pre-devolution days, so will the Secretary of State persuade his Government to join the Welsh Government and play their full role in providing funding to tackle coal tip safety, recognising the huge contribution made by Welsh mining communities to UK prosperity?
In conclusion, the pandemic has hit people in very unequal ways. As we look to foster economic recovery, people across Wales want us to work with compassion and determination to create a fairer, greener and more prosperous society. That is what the Welsh Labour Government are determined to do.
Mr Deputy Speaker, how appropriate it is to see one of Swansea’s most famous sons in the Chair for today’s debate.
I thank the hon. Members for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and for Arfon (Hywel Williams), and of course my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), for bringing the debate before the House. I also join many colleagues in paying tribute to Hywel Francis. Back in 2010, he was the first and, I suspect, the only Member from the Opposition Benches who came and welcomed me to the House, and he did so with great warmth and civility. I have never forgotten that moment.
The St David’s Day debate last year was in a busy Chamber and guests from across Wales poured into No. 10. There was lots of positivity and good humour, but also some serious discussion of Wales’s place in the world. Little did we know what lurked around the corner at that time or how Wales would rise to the challenge. This is a good opportunity to thank the thousands of people in every village, town and city, and in every shop, hospital, care home, church and council building across Wales for going way beyond the call of duty over the last few traumatic months. Sadly, I do not have time to recognise them all, but some were recognised in the new year honours list. All those who were honoured would probably say that they simply reflect the massive national effort in their local communities.
I hope that further down the line there will be a full-scale analysis of the last few months—a chance, perhaps, to lay to rest a host of conspiracy theories and to heap praise on those who have borne the greatest burden. It will help us show where devolution has worked—and it has worked, in parts—and, if we are honest, where it has not. It will show the role played by the Ministry of Defence, the vaccine programme, research and development, and financial support of the sort that we were able to put in place quickly and positively for Celsa in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), which rescued nearly 800 jobs.
Sadly, time prevents me from taking an intervention.
The analysis will demonstrate, I hope, that the Union is about more than money; it is an historic bond that adds to the individual strengths of its component parts. I hope it will show, once and for all, that the choice is not whether we can be a patriot or a Unionist, but how we can effectively be both.
I hope, too, that history will record the value, in social as much as economic terms, of furlough, business interruption loans, universal credit support, VAT changes, kickstart and restart, tax holidays and, of course, the £6.6 billion of additional funding the UK Government have provided for our colleagues in Cardiff Bay. I hope it will also show that the UK Government have engaged more closely than ever with the devolved Administrations. What better example is there than the vaccination programme, where there was proper teamwork between central and devolved Administrations to really positive effect? It will show that devolution can work and does work, but not when it is misused or—worse—hijacked by political ideologies.
What really matters now for all our constituents is what the future looks like and what our covid recovery plan consists of. For me, recovery is about optimism, commitment, resilience and investment—in other words, all the ingredients needed for jobs and livelihoods. It is also about levelling up, so that life chances in Blaenau Gwent are the same as in Buckingham or Bath. That includes connectivity—roads, rail, digital—and yes, that does mean we will help the Labour party deliver its 2016 manifesto commitment to build an M4 relief road. It is about being serious about net zero and looking at it as an opportunity as well as an obligation—tidal, wind, nuclear, hydrogen—with a proper share in the 250,000 jobs that that ambition presents. It is about an economy that works well enough to fuel our public services, and that takes schools and hospitals in Wales from the bottom of the UK league tables to the top.
That is why we extended the levelling-up fund yesterday, taking the total to £4.8 billion of direct investment from the UK Government in projects across Wales. It is why the shared prosperity fund will mean that at least £375 million comes into Wales via the UK Government for the lifetime of this Parliament. It is why the UK Government will deliver a freeport in Wales—hopefully with Welsh Government support, if we can get it—and many other schemes. Yet somehow, we have heard speeches, particularly from separatists, who seem to want to turn this vision of optimism and investment into some kind of bad news story. I profoundly reject the Welsh Government’s recent letter from Rebecca Evans, in which they claim that Cardiff Bay is “best placed” to make these choices, just as I do not believe that those of us in Westminster have a monopoly of wisdom, either. What does it actually say about the Welsh Government’s attitude towards MPs across the House, local authorities, universities, businesses and others who are deeply embedded and sensitive to their local needs? Is that the respect that the hon. Member for Cardiff West mentioned at the beginning? It is not devolution either. True devolution is about involving all those people in the decision-making process. That is what we want to achieve. It is not just about Labour in the Bay or, indeed, us in SW1; it is about involving everybody.
There have been a number of interesting points raised, and I would love to deal with all of them, but, sadly, time prevents that. It is revealing and to some extent a little depressing that over the something like 25 speeches we have heard this afternoon, a significant proportion were from Opposition Members who were laden with negativity and pessimism, talking down Wales’s prospects and opportunities. It was depressing to hear. It is almost as if they look at their electoral chances in Wales in May as being dependent on a Wales that fails.
It was on a happier note that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) made a very good point about the role of the armed forces. Unsurprisingly, they have been as professional in dealing with covid as they have in their other duties around the world, and it is a good opportunity just to mention very quickly one of Wales’s three great regiments—the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, who are currently stationed in Poland with the NATO enhanced forward presence. She also made a very good point about the veterans’ commissioner. I have been speaking to the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, and I am therefore delighted to announce that the UK Government are actively exploring ways to establish the first ever veterans’ commissioner in Wales.
I will finish on this point. Every Member of this House, when they stand back from the politics, knows that in the end it is a small number of things that matter a lot to most of our constituents: our health, our jobs, our homes, our schools and our planet. Everything that the UK Government and the Wales Office believe in—our values and ambitions—is covered by those five expressions. While the Welsh Government seem strangely to fixate about power and process, every decision we take and every judgment we make will be through the prism of jobs and livelihoods, investment and opportunity, and prosperity and growth, and that is the true choice that faces voters in Wales in about 70 days’ time.
I thank everybody who has participated in the debate today. I pay tribute to our friend and comrade Dr Hywel Francis. I hope that it will be a comfort to Mair and the family that so many of the Members who have spoken today wanted to pay fulsome tribute to Hywel in his memory and for his contribution to the House and outside. I also thank everyone who has contributed, but also express my sorrow for those who were not able to participate because of the lack of time for this debate, particularly the Members from Wales who missed out. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) might have had something to say to the Secretary of State on his closing remarks, had she had an opportunity to make her contribution. Others include the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who of course is now the Member for the seat that Hywel Francis represented in the House for so many years—I am sure he would have wanted to pay fulsome tribute to Hywel as well—and my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), whose contribution, as always, would have been extremely important and passionate. My hon. Friends the Members for Newport West (Ruth Jones) and for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) would have made important contributions as well. It highlights the need for us to work towards trying to make the St David’s Day debate a permanent fixture of the parliamentary calendar and to guarantee it sufficient time, so that those Members who wish to contribute—particularly those representing Welsh constituencies—can do so.
I will not revisit the arguments of the debate, but I join others who have wished good luck to the Welsh team against England on Saturday. At least that was one issue that united us all in today’s debate, including perhaps even the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain), who contributed and I suspect might also have expressed support for the Welsh team on Saturday.
Finally, Dydd Gŵyl Dewi hapus.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Welsh affairs.