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Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Liverpool City Region Freeport

What discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) Ministers of the Welsh Government on maximising the potential economic benefit to north Wales of the proposed Liverpool city region freeport. (913409)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and Welsh Government Ministers about freeports. North Wales and the Liverpool city region are interdependent, and Liverpool freeport can bring significant economic benefits for the whole region.

As my right hon. Friend has said, Liverpool freeport is potentially of huge benefit not only to the city itself, but to north Wales, which is part of the same economic region. Does he agree that there is considerable potential synergy to be found, for example, between the Deeside enterprise zone and the new freeport, and will he urge the Welsh Government to grasp the opportunity and work with Westminster to maximise that synergy?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the situation. Local authorities and port authorities are keen on this initiative, and these schemes can produce up to 15,000 jobs each. It is therefore disappointing that the Welsh Government seem to be still dragging their feet and allowing the initiative to flourish everywhere other than Wales, which is costing jobs and livelihoods.

A freeport at Liverpool will sap and displace trade, investment and jobs from Holyhead in north Wales. Liverpool will get £26 million of investment, whereas we are only being offered £8 million for one UK freeport in either north or south Wales. How will the Secretary of State ensure that Wales gets its fair share of £26 million for its one UK freeport, and how will he prevent jobs being lost and moving from north Wales to Liverpool?

The best way of avoiding that outcome is for the Welsh Government to get behind the scheme and support a project that is endorsed by local authorities and port authorities in Wales, and to encourage jobs and livelihoods in that way. Every single day that they leave it—on the basis of the “not invented here” syndrome—will cost jobs and livelihoods. My message to the hon. Gentleman is get hold of the Welsh Government and encourage them to come to the party.

The Union

What recent assessment his Department has made of the strength of the Union between Wales and the rest of the UK. (913410)

As the vaccine roll-out has shown, our four nations are safer, stronger and more prosperous together, and I look forward to the people of Wales giving a resounding endorsement of the Union at the Senedd elections in May.

I find that very interesting, because the Labour First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, told the Welsh Affairs Committee a few weeks ago that devolution is under aggressive attack by a Tory Government who have “outright hostility” at the heart of their governance. With independence currently polling as high as 40% in Wales without an official campaign, will the Secretary of State respect the democratic rights of people in Wales and Scotland to have a post-pandemic independence referendum in the event of pro-independence majorities in May?

I think the First Minister has been pretty reckless in trying to inject an air of uncertainty into these discussions, and most of us realise that he is only doing so because his only chance of remaining as First Minister post May is to do some kind of a deal with Plaid Cymru; and we know what the price of that would be.

Will my right hon. Friend explain what benefits to Wales being a member of our United Kingdom brings?

We could spend the rest of the morning listing the benefits, but I refer my hon. Friend to the Budget only a few days ago, with £4.8 million for the Holyhead hydrogen hub, £30 million for the global centre of rail excellence, the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund and £450 million community ownership fund. I could go on and on, but the benefits are numerous.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llefarydd—agus beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh! Pob bendith arnoch chi heddiw, ar ddydd gŵyl Padrig.

Asylum seekers will—

Order. Can I just say to the right hon. Lady, let us just stop; I do not mind the beginning, but to start extending the sentence in Welsh goes against the rules of the House.

The first part was in Irish, the second was in Welsh and it was wishing everybody a happy St Patrick’s—

Order. I have no arguments with it whatsoever, but unfortunately the House makes the rules; I am only here to ensure that the rules are kept.

Thank you; diolch yn fawr.

Asylum seekers will leave the squalid Penally camp this weekend, thanks to months of campaigning by Plaid Cymru police and crime commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn, and others. The camp is in the Secretary of State’s constituency, but he only became aware of the Home Office plans on 12 September last year, days before people moved in. Despite months of resistance from his own Government, I am afraid to say that he now scrabbles to change the narrative, and he recently dismissed the Welsh Government’s “little status”—those are his own words. Given the “little status” of the Wales Office, how does he continue to justify its existence?

As brass neck goes, that is quite an exceptional example of it, as far as Penally is concerned. It seems that Plaid’s commitment to a nation of sanctuary extends only as far as its not being in its patch, as we have discovered from the reactions of the right hon. Lady’s party colleagues. The fact of the matter is that this has been a difficult situation for a number of people involved. It is being resolved, thanks to collaborative efforts between the Home Office and the Wales Office, demonstrating the value of both.

On Wales as a nation of sanctuary, Penally is closing while Napier remains open.

Today, work begins on reducing Wales’s voice in Westminster from 40 MPs to 32. At the same time, the levelling-up fund will make local authorities’ ability to bid for funding dependent on—wait for it—the number of MPs in their areas. The Secretary of State has been gifted a role in overseeing all this, while our Senedd —the Parliament with competence over economic development—is sidelined. How does he condone taking such power away from the people of Wales in the name of pork barrel politics?

The right hon. Lady needs to read up on the notes on the subject. What she has described is nothing resembling the truth. The levelling-up fund is a fantastic opportunity for Wales, as is the community renewal fund. It involves local authorities and local stakeholders in a way that she should welcome. It is the true definition of devolution. It does not get wedged in Cardiff; it goes to local authorities and local communities across Wales, and she should welcome that. The fact is that we have extended the hand of friendship to the Welsh Government. We want this to be a collaborative approach, and we very much welcome that being the case. This will involve local communities in a way that they have never been involved before, and she, of all people, should welcome that.

Vale of Glamorgan received a tiny amount of European aid over the past 20 years despite having areas of significant deprivation. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund will apply to Vale of Glamorgan—we have been ignored up until now—and that exciting projects such as Barry marina, St Athan train station and the Dinas Powys bypass could now become possible because of Union support?

Who would ever dare ignore the efforts of my right hon. Friend? He is absolutely right that the local authority in his area will now have a chance to bid in a way that it never could before, and to bid with the strong and vigorous support that he provides. I think this is going to be a golden age for the vale.

UK Community Renewal Fund

Wales will be better off as a result of the UK community renewal fund. Compared with its European predecessor, the new fund will be better targeted and better aligned with our domestic priorities, and will put decision making squarely into the hands of local authorities.

According to the community renewal fund’s prospectus, the devolved Administrations will have a place within the governing structures, but when the Scottish Affairs Committee took evidence from academics a fortnight ago, we heard of confusion as to what role they would realistically play. So will the Minister set out exactly how the devolved Governments will be involved in the decision-making structures for how funds are released?

Devolved Governments will be involved in the decisions, but so will the local Members of Parliament and local authorities, and I would have thought that the hon. Lady would support that. Only this morning, I read a fascinating article on that well-known website Liberal Democrat Voice, in which the leader of her council—a Liberal Democrat himself—called on the UK Government to step up and empower local authorities. That is exactly what we have done, so I look forward to being praised in the next edition of Lib Dem Voice.

The Tories have repeatedly claimed that Wales would not be worse off when EU structural funds come to an end, but the community renewal fund of which the Minister spoke is a shocking betrayal of that commitment. The fund’s value—£220 million for the whole of the UK—is a just a fraction of the £375 million a year that Wales was promised. Why are communities in Wales once again having to foot the bill for the Tories’ broken promises?

I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman, whom I greatly like and respect, perhaps has not been told that not only will the fund be there to enable access to the shared prosperity fund, but we will continue to receive European structural funding for the next three financial years at least. I looked this morning at the figures for European structural funds for Wales, and we will receive more on average next year than we have received previously, so there will actually be no loss of funding whatsoever as a result of coming out of the European Union.

Manufacturing Industry

We have provided £2.75 billion in direct support for businesses in Wales during covid. The job retention scheme has been extended until September, and we are introducing a new super deduction to cut companies’ tax bills by 25p for every £1 they invest in new equipment.

A recent report by Grant Thornton stated that Brexit could cost Flintshire and Wrexham as much as £300 million a year. Manufacturing is vital to the future of north Wales, but numerous companies are telling me of the difficulties they are having exporting. Instead of saying that everything will be fine, when are this Government going to sort these problems out and get this moving?

I draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to the additional £5.2 billion we have provided to the Welsh Government and the £2.75 billion to businesses in Wales, with £1.5 billion in bounce bank loans and £503 million in coronavirus business interruption loans. This is all about jobs and livelihoods in the part of Wales that he represents so vigorously, and he should welcome that, as he should welcome the £20 million announcement this morning for the south Wales industrial cluster. There is good news, and he cannot dwell on the past in order to make political capital.

On 10 February, the Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box that there would be a world-leading battery plant in Bridgend, but I think he meant the Vale of Glamorgan. It has been moved to Blyth because of investment from the Tory Government. The Secretary of State then decided to take to Twitter to praise the Prime Minister for announcing that the mythical battery plant was going to be in Bridgend. Could the Secretary of State set out when he will deliver a world-leading battery plant for the Bridgend county borough or, indeed, for the neighbouring Vale of Glamorgan, and when he will start bringing inward investment into the Bridgend borough? That would all be very welcome, because my constituents deserve a lot better than what the Secretary of State is currently not delivering.

I think that the hon. Gentleman’s question was probably intended for the First Minister in Cardiff, but I will do my best to answer it anyway. As he well knows from the Prime Minister’s statement, there is considerable investment going into Wales. There are some really encouraging job prospects, particularly around gigafactories and the like.

The hon. Gentleman can shake his head as much as he likes, but he fails to grasp that there are many millions and billions of pounds going into exactly these kinds of technology improvement in Wales.

Bridgend has lost the Ford factory, and we did not get the investment from Ineos that we were hoping for. For Bridgend and the wider area to move forward, the town needs regeneration in order to increase the attractiveness of the overall area for investment. Can my right hon. Friend outline what the Government are doing to help towns such as Bridgend?

Absolutely. I start by reminding my hon. Friend—not that I need to—that Bridgend is a priority 1 area for the levelling-up fund, which means that it has potential access, with his assistance, to significant sums. Each local authority will get £125,000 of capacity funding to make those bids to the central fund. I hope he will recognise that there is a real focus on exactly the kind of town and area that he represents as part of the levelling-up project, which will produce jobs and livelihoods in a way that has perhaps been difficult in the past.

Highly skilled workers in the aerospace industry across Wales, such as those at AIM Altitude, are now facing redundancy or even factory closure, as this sector will take years, not months, to recover. While overseas competitors are giving their companies support so that they can up production when the sector recovers, the UK Government still have not brought forward a specific aerospace package some 12 months after the pandemic started. Is the Secretary of State just going to sit there and watch these industries fold, or can he persuade his Cabinet colleagues to put in the long-term support that these high-value industries need?

The hon. Lady’s comments are not reflected by large companies, such as Airbus, whose judgment I trust in these particular circumstances. I simply repeat what I said in answer to an earlier question: the UK Government have provided £5.2 billion for the Welsh Government; £2.75 billion for businesses in Wales; another £1.5 billion in bounce back loans and £500 million in CBILS loans. If that is not an indication of how committed we are to this particular sector, which I absolutely recognise is going through an especially difficult time, I do not know what is.

But if we are going to retain these industries and rebuild for the future, then we need a comprehensive UK-wide plan. However, this Government have just shelved their industrial strategy, scrapped their advisory council and are now preparing to rip up their industrial policy, so when will the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues develop a forward-looking, far-reaching UK industrial policy that will build on our fantastic skill base to guarantee the new green jobs of the future?

I disagree with the hon. Lady’s comments. She has referred to some process issues. We want to get process and bureaucratic issues out of the way and actually deliver money and prospects, jobs and investments to the places that need them the most. That is what the Government are committed to doing, and we have widespread support from industry in that ambition. As I said in answer to an earlier question, only this morning a further £20 million has been announced for the South Wales industrial cluster. Rather than talk about process, bodies and bureaucracy, we are actually doing real things.

Can I wish everybody celebrating a happy St Patrick’s Day today?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) has said, the Secretary of State will be more than aware of the complex challenges that coronavirus has presented to the aviation sector and the entire manufacturing supply chain. I hear what the Secretary of State says about Airbus, but sadly, General Electric and British Airways in my constituency of Pontypridd have had to make significant staffing cuts. This sector is crying out for financial support, but its pleas are falling on deaf ears, so will the Secretary of State therefore please update the House on his recent conversations, specifically with the Chancellor, on a sector-specific support package for Wales’s aviation industry?

The Chancellor has, I think, made it very clear how he is supporting every sector that has been so adversely affected by the coronavirus. In fact, I do not think there is a Government in the world who have done as much in financial support either for this sector or, indeed, other sectors or individual families. That has been to the huge credit of the Treasury and all those who have been part of the team that has been able to do that. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast for economic recovery next year and the year after is a testament to that, and that should benefit this sector just as much as it does everything else.

Levelling-up Fund

What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the levelling up fund. (913426)

The levelling-up fund is unquestionably good news for Wales. It will ensure that millions of pounds is invested in Welsh local authorities, providing much-needed local infrastructure and driving up regeneration in left-behind places.

Would the Minister meet me about, and visit when possible, exciting projects in Clwyd South that fulfil the requirements of the levelling-up fund, such as Wrexham Council’s bold regeneration plans and the reopening of Corwen station in Denbighshire on the Llangollen steam railway?

I assure my hon. Friend that it is always a pleasure to meet him and hear about the enormous amount of hard work he is undertaking in his constituency. Unfortunately, I have been advised that it would not be appropriate for me to visit any specific project site, but I of course look forward to supporting him and other Members of Parliament who continue the work of using the funds being made available by the UK Government to drive forward regeneration in their constituencies.

I was delighted to see so much in the Budget for Brecon and Radnorshire. The levelling-up fund is extremely welcome, as is the commitment to the global centre for rail excellence in Coelbren in my constituency. However, parts of Brecon and Radnorshire are plagued by substandard broadband and mobile coverage. Could the Minister confirm that the levelling-up fund will make a genuine difference to structural problems like this that hold back rural areas such as mine?

We expect that the levelling-up fund can be used to invest in community infrastructure right the way across the board. Of course, the UK gigabit programme will invest in broadband and the hardest-to-connect areas of the United Kingdom. I was also delighted, of course, with the news about the global centre for rail excellence—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pushed very hard for it—which is also going to be good news for the economy in that part of Wales.

Given that the Welsh Government have worked with Welsh local authorities and other stakeholders to produce a framework for regional investment, can the Minister tell the House why Ministers at England’s Housing Department, with no history of delivering within Wales and no record of working with communities in Wales or understanding their priorities, are the right people to be administering this so-called levelling-up fund in Wales? Is this the result of this Government’s fixation with undermining democratic devolution?

That was a rather disappointing question from the hon. Lady. The Chancellor has made £800 million available for the devolved Administrations across the United Kingdom and wants the UK Government to be able to work directly with local authorities and to hear about what their priorities are. I think it is absolutely fantastic that the Chancellor, as well as being able to deliver that £800 million, has found £740 million for the Welsh Government and has continued the support for businesses and individuals in Wales affected by the covid crisis. Perhaps I can pass the hon. Lady’s congratulations on to the Government for a fantastic Budget for Wales.

Green Industries

Earlier this month, the Chancellor committed £4.8 million to the Holyhead hydrogen hub project. Offshore wind in Wales is going from strength to strength, with the potential for a 1.5 gigawatt project in north Wales and growing interest in floating wind off the south-west Wales coast.

Green issues affect the whole of this Union; does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important not only that Wales capitalises on new and innovative green industries, but that it continues to decarbonise the heavy industry it already has given that over 10 megatons of carbon emissions were generated by businesses and industries in Wales alone last year?

As I mentioned in answer to an earlier question, only today there has been an announcement of a further £20 million for the South Wales industrial cluster to develop an industrial decarbonisation plan. The 10-point plan and our net zero ambitions will create 250,000 jobs across the UK, and I am absolutely determined to ensure Wales gets more than its fair share of them.

Drug Crime

Cutting crime is an absolute priority for the UK Government. We are working cross-Government with local partners to address the drivers behind drug-related crime, to help prevent further substance misuse and offending.

From the village of Wales in Rother Valley to the great country of Wales, drug usage, including in the form of nitrous oxide capsules, is a huge blight on our communities. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the law is rigorously enforced, and even tightened, in regard to nitrous oxide so that everyone, particularly young people, is protected from this noxious substance?

My hon. Friend points to a crucial approach, and it is worth pointing out that these awful crimes do not respect political or geographical borders; they are international problems and UK problems. Therefore, one way of approaching this is to make sure UK police forces can collaborate effectively cross-border, and that is what they are doing. My hon. Friend might have heard of Project Adder, the trial in Swansea bay, and of course seen some of the benefits from the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016.

UK Shared Prosperity Fund

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on the UK shared prosperity fund. (913424)

I have regular discussions with the First Minister of Wales and his ministerial team 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, which will be published later this year.

Absolutely; that underpins the entire thrust of a number of these funds. We are attempting to prioritise areas with greatest need and where there is opportunity and challenges so that we get the money to the right places at the right time as fast as we can. One of the bits of feedback we get from local communities is that there seems to be a lot of money talked about but it never quite gets to the right place; this new initiative provides a much quicker and better way, involving local authorities, to get over that problem.

Budget 2021: Effect on Economy

On top of the new UK-wide funds, £4.8 million has been committed to the Holyhead hydrogen hub, up to £30 million to the global centre of rail excellence, and we are accelerating funding for the growth deals in Wales.

In north Wales, just as in Burnley, there is a strong and proud aerospace manufacturing sector. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Chancellor’s super deduction, announced at the Budget, could be transformational for that sector, allowing it to invest in equipment and machinery that will create jobs and boost productivity?

My hon. Friend does not have to take it from me; he makes a very good point and I have to tell him, from the number of stakeholder engagements we have had in the Wales Office, including with that sector, that the reception to this particular recommendation has been fantastic. It is transformational. This is the first time this has ever been done—probably the biggest tax cut in history. That is the sort of thing that will regenerate jobs and livelihoods at a time when they are most needed, and I congratulate the Chancellor on his efforts.