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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 698: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

International Trade Policy

What recent discussions he has had with (a) the Welsh Government and (b) other devolved Administrations on the UK Government’s international trade policy. (901785)

May I align myself very much with your comments, Mr Speaker? I know the whole House will share the sentiments you expressed.

I have regular discussions with the Welsh Government and the First Minister on a wide range of subjects, including the UK Government’s international trade policy.

Does the Minister share my concern that the devolved Governments have had no democratic involvement or oversight in the negotiation and approval of the Australian trade deal, despite the disproportionate impact it will have on their areas? When does he think that this “Union of equals” will start working equally— or, like this Government’s post-Brexit promises to farmers, is this another empty set of words that will turn out to be all bull and no beef?

It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman that I do not agree with his comments. We have engaged devolved Administrations and numerous other stakeholders during the whole course of the various free trade agreements that have been reached, in particular the Australia trade deal. It would be nice if we could reach some kind of consensus between us about the opportunities that these trade deals offer, not only for businesses in Wales but for businesses in Scotland.

We all support new export opportunities for Welsh businesses, but free trade deals must also be fair. There really is widespread concern that this proposed deal with Australia will disadvantage Welsh farmers, because they will be forced to compete against producers with lower animal welfare and environmental standards. So I ask the Secretary of State again: if he is unable or unwilling to protect our farmers, why will he not let Welsh Government Ministers take part fully in trade talks, so they can stand up for them instead?

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. Of course, we have involved numerous stakeholders in the preparation of these deals. That includes the Welsh Government and some very positive responses from farmers in Wales, who, by a majority, voted in favour of leaving the European Union in 2016. They accept, as I do, that there are numerous opportunities. We have built into this process some protections—a 15-year transition period—as well as taking note of the fact that the Australians themselves say they cannot even fulfil their existing markets, let alone start flooding ours.

It is not just selling out our farmers. Today, the Government are choosing to bury their head in the sand and pass up the last opportunity to renew vital steel safeguards. With our industry now dangerously exposed to cheap imports and the news that a deal is imminent that will grant exemption to EU exports going to the US, our steel exports are going to be desperately trying to compete. What will the Secretary of State now do to ensure that his Government negotiate a similar deal that will protect our steel exports and enable them to enter the US without tariffs? How soon can we have news on that?

The hon. Lady and colleagues across the House have been resolute champions of the steel industry in Wales. I hope the UK Government’s support of Celsa Steel in Cardiff during the pandemic is an indication that we, too, are prepared to put our money where our mouths are as far as supporting the industry, for all the reasons she has rightly highlighted. It would be rash of me to predict what the statement or announcement might be on this, other than to say that I expect it later today, so she, and colleagues across the House, should get clarity on this matter before close of play today.

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Speaker. There have been several instances in recent weeks where UK Government Ministers, including the Secretary of State for International Trade, have dismissed concerns from the agricultural community regarding food standards in this trade deal, especially Australia’s position on animal welfare. Can the Secretary of State explain to Welsh farmers how the UK Government will ensure fair competition and that imports from Australia will always match those expected of Welsh farmers?

The hon. Gentleman, like me, has significant agricultural interests in his constituency in west Wales. We have had local conversations as well as national ones to try to reassure farmers—I think successfully, in some respects—that the transition period and our commitments on animal welfare and environmental standards will not be compromised. I do not think there is anything I can say to him that suggests that that has changed in any respect, but I urge him—I know he will take this seriously—to look at the trade deal as a huge opportunity for food and drink producers in Wales. As we work to challenge some of the myths that have been written and spoken about the Australia deal, let us also use the platforms that we have to promote everything that is good about it and how it will provide access to new markets of the sort that we have not had before.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, this Government have until tonight to step in and temporarily retain crucial steel import safeguards to protect our steel industry from cheaper foreign imports. There is still no action from the Government. I hear what the Secretary of State says, but we will be waiting with keen interest. Is this what Ministers meant by promising to protect and champion our businesses post Brexit, and what exactly have Wales Office Ministers done to intervene and stop this?

I assure the hon. Lady that we have been in regular touch with our colleagues in Government on this, as well as with the industry itself, with whom, as the hon. Lady knows, we deal on a regular basis. I said earlier that our commitment to steel in Wales—as she knows, because we have talked about it so many times—is absolutely resolute, but I am afraid that she will have to wait until later this afternoon to have a statement or announcement of some sort, which I hope will clarify the situation.

Covid-19: Co-ordination of UK-wide Response

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901786)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on co-ordinating a UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901791)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues as part of the UK Government response to covid-19. This includes weekly meetings with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment and, of course, the First Minister of Wales.

I thank my right hon Friend for his answer. Clearly, cases of infection in Wales have dropped dramatically. Over the last seven days, they are roughly 50 to 55 per 100,000, compared with the previous highs of 500 per 100,000. In these circumstances, does he agree that it is about time that the Welsh Government gave Welsh businesses some certainty or vision for when they can start to rebuild their lives, and that the Welsh Government should come on board with the UK Government road map out of the lockdown?

My hon. Friend’s question reveals quite a sad contrast between the priorities of the Welsh Government and the priorities of the UK Government at this moment. We read in the papers this week that the Welsh Government are fixated on talking about new tourism taxes. They are talking about constitutional reform, even going as far as reform of the House of Lords. None of these seems to be consistent with the UK Government ambitions, which are jobs, livelihoods, investment and recovery, and they should be joining us in that endeavour.

Like my right hon. Friend, I hugely welcome the progress that has been made in Wales, but what frustrates many is that the Welsh Government seem to be in the habit of announcing extended lockdowns at short notice—[Laughter.]—without having due consultation with the Government. Does he agree that, should this practice continue, we should expect Cardiff Bay to meet the financial cost of supporting businesses to keep their heads above water during those lockdowns?

I notice the laughter stopped at the moment my hon. Friend raised that particular question. I will say again what I have often said from the Dispatch Box: certainty is crucial in all this. I have always preferred a UK-wide response to covid, in whatever respect that might come, because it inspires confidence and compliance. I think that some kind of further indication from the Welsh Government as to the unlocking process for businesses in Wales is overdue and I hope very much that we will hear more shortly.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llefarydd. With your permission, I would like to say thanks to Wales’s national football team. It was not to be this time, but fe godwn ni eto— we will rise again.

More than one in five households in Wales with a net income under £20,000 have seen their income drop since January. Nearly 110,000 families are struggling to cover essential costs. Labour’s leader in Wales complained yesterday that the key levers for tackling poverty are in the hands of the UK Government, but paradoxically he opposes the devolution of those powers to the Senedd. One Government have the levers but choose not to use them, while the other are content with not having those levers at all. Will the Secretary of State urge the Chancellor, please, to make use of his powers and make permanent the £20 uplift to universal credit?

I am absolutely happy to confirm, as I always do from the Dispatch Box, that the Chancellor is very focused on making sure that levelling up means exactly that, that economic recovery means exactly that, that nowhere gets left behind and that every decision we take in Government, in any Department, is always taken through the prism of levelling up and of equalising opportunity and job and life chances across Wales. That has been a really transformational development during covid, and I very much hope that the right hon. Lady can join me in congratulating the Chancellor on the work that he has done.

None the less, I am sure that for those families £20 would make a lot of difference.

Last week, I presented a Bill—the Crown Estate (Devolution to Wales) Bill—to devolve the management of the Crown Estate, and our natural resources in Wales, to Wales. Scotland gained those powers in 2017, and now it is reaping the benefits of the green offshore wind revolution. I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the value of the Crown Estate’s remaining seabed assets, which include those in Wales, has more than doubled over the past year, to more than £4 billion. Does he agree that Wales deserves equal treatment with Scotland as regards control over our natural resources?

I can confirm that I have conversations with the Crown Estate. Its proposals for offshore floating wind off the west Wales coast are extremely welcome. Where I think that I am in some form of disagreement with the right hon. Lady—she will not be remotely surprised by this—is on the fact that in order to achieve some success in the renewables sector, somehow we always have to go back to powers and further devolution. Of all the conversations that I have had with industries, sectors, individuals, voters—you name them—across the whole of the past 18 months, including and in particular at the Senedd elections, not one single person urged me to follow the route that the right hon. Lady has just set out. Of course, they urge us to pursue our renewables agenda, and that is what we are doing. We are doing it, as far as we can, as a UK-wide endeavour, because that is the way we will get to our targets the quickest.

Covid-19 Vaccine Programme: Role of Union

What recent assessment he has made of the role of the Union in the effectiveness of the covid-19 vaccine programme in Wales. (901787)

The UK Government’s vaccine taskforce has been the foundation for the success of our covid-19 vaccines programme. The research, development, acquisition, manufacture, payment and UK-wide distribution, supported by the UK armed forces, has demonstrated beyond doubt the value of our United Kingdom.

Can my right hon. Friend give an indication of just how many vaccines the UK Government have now supplied to the Welsh Government and the NHS in Wales so that they can continue to roll out this triumphant United Kingdom achievement, in which I am reliably told that my constituents in Dudley borough are leading the way?

To date, the UK Government have delivered more than 3.8 million doses of vaccine to the Welsh Government—free of charge, as should absolutely be the case. Of all the many examples that we could stand here and list of the strength of the Union, the value of the Union and where it has been such a reassuring force in the past 16 months, the success of this UK-wide programme is probably the best that we could ever turn to. I am grateful to have been given an opportunity to say so again.

Covid-19: Staff Safety at DVLA Offices

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the safety of staff at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency’s offices in Swansea during the covid-19 outbreak. (901788)

We work very closely with the Department for Transport and share the view that the safety of staff at the DVLA is paramount. That is why the DFT has implemented weekly covid testing for everyone, hired more than 30 new cleaners and installed thermal imaging cameras to carry out temperature checks on all people entering the building.

I am glad to hear that the Minister is so in touch with the DVLA, but can I enlighten him on an issue? A staff rep at DVLA has been subjected to a tirade of online abuse for standing up for colleagues’ safety. Much of that abuse has been shared on the social media accounts of some DVLA managers. The DVLA is refusing to remove an online petition that includes threats to the rep’s safety. Will the Minister join me in condemning this abuse and, in his conversations with Department for Transport colleagues, encourage them to not only distance themselves from that abuse, but ensure that the DVLA removes all the abusive contact immediately?

I am not aware of the specific examples, but I am happy to join the hon. Lady in condemning all kinds of online abuse against absolutely anyone. I have been the victim of online abuse myself, and I am sure that the hon. Lady has—I assume that most of us have—and I would never ever support the abuse of anyone online, whatever their views or their position in some form of industrial dispute. I would just gently point out, though, that 60,000 items are received by the DVLA every day that have to be dealt with in person, and many of them are coming from the most vulnerable members of society, so I hope, notwithstanding the issues around online abuse, that the Public and Commercial Services Union will quickly draw this dispute to a close.

Jobs and Investment

Inward investment is central to the UK Government’s mission to level up the UK economy. Last year, Wales attracted 5% of all inward investment projects into the UK, creating over 1,500 new jobs and safeguarding almost 7,000. This strong performance will be boosted by the Welsh trade and investment hub, based in Tŷ William Morgan, which I was pleased to be able to visit last week.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Visitor destinations in Wales are, like Eastbourne, set for an unprecedented staycation summer this year, but to secure the long-term recovery of the sector, to remain internationally competitive and to fully realise the power of the visitor economy, the 5% VAT cut is key. Will he make representations to the Treasury to that effect?

The 5% cut in VAT for the hospitality industry has been a boost to tourism businesses across the whole of the United Kingdom, including in Eastbourne, and it has certainly benefited many businesses that I have had the pleasure of visiting in Wales, such as the National Slate Museum at Llanberis, the zip wire at Penrhyn and Surf Snowdonia at Dolgarrog. There are fantastic opportunities to go on holiday to north Wales, to south Wales and even to Eastbourne as a result of the cut in VAT, and I hope hon. Members will take advantage of it this summer.

The Welsh Labour Government’s business support funding has been a lifeline to many Welsh companies throughout the pandemic. Indeed, there are businesses that have been able to stay afloat solely because of the emergency grants and loans that they have received, but this business support is under threat due to this Conservative Government’s determination to make decisions about post-EU funding here in Whitehall instead of working with the newly elected Welsh Government. Will the Minister urgently reconsider this approach to the ending of 20 years of Welsh decision making on these issues, in order that businesses can have confidence that these vital Welsh Government programmes will have the funding to continue in the future?

I welcome the point made by the hon. Gentleman, because it is absolutely true that the £3 billion that the UK Government gave in support to businesses in Wales has been hugely beneficial in ensuring that those businesses survived, along with the £8.6 billion extra that the UK Government delivered to the Welsh Assembly Government. That commitment of those billions of pounds demonstrates the enormous commitment of the UK Government towards Wales. I can assure him that the new shared prosperity fund and the levelling-up funds will continue to support Welsh businesses, and of course we look forward to working with the Welsh Government to ensure that those funds are well spent.

The Minister will be aware that last week the Lloyds Banking Group announced the closure of 44 branches across England and Wales. For communities such as mine in Pontypridd and Taff Ely, these banks provide a vital service for residents and are important local employers. Can the Minister therefore confirm exactly what conversations he has had with the Chancellor about encouraging banks to remain open in Wales to protect these vital local jobs and services?

I have certainly had discussions about closures with Lloyds bank in my capacity as a constituency MP. We do not, of course, have the power to prevent independent commercial organisations from making such decisions, but it is regrettable that banks have closed down. Obviously, I would be happy to work with the hon. Lady, as I did last week when we visited the excellent Royal Mint in her constituency and met some of the kickstart workers who have benefited as a result of UK Government funding.

With its world heritage site, the Llangollen canal and the steam railway, tourism is vital for jobs and investment in Clwyd South. Does the Minister agree that the Labour Welsh Government’s plans for a tourism tax would be disastrous for the hospitality industry in Wales, particularly as we have just come out of the covid pandemic?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I look forward, I hope, to an invitation to visit his constituency at some point in the future to see some of the superb tourist attractions there. The UK Government have shown their commitment to the tourism industry by cutting VAT to 5%, whereas the Welsh Labour Government want to implement a tax on the tourism industry at a time when it is at its most fragile. The UK Government will always want to level up the economy, whereas Welsh Labour will always want to levy taxes.

Professional Qualifications Bill

What discussions he has had with the (a) Welsh Government and (b) Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the potential effect of the Professional Qualifications Bill on professionals affected by that legislation in Wales. (901790)

I have regular discussions with the Welsh Government and the Business Secretary on a wide range of subjects, such as the impact of legislation on Wales. This Bill will ensure that any unnecessary and unclear barriers imposed on accessing professions—both for overseas-qualified professionals and UK nationals, including those in Wales, who are seeking to become qualified—are removed.

The Bill allows the Secretary of State to exercise powers concurrently over areas where Welsh Ministers normally exercise power. Does the Minister therefore agree that the devolved Administrations should be able to revoke these measures if they decide this is necessary in the future?

The UK Government have shown their commitment to devolution on numerous occasions and are always willing to work with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Administrations, but at the end of the day the Bill is about ensuring that highly qualified professionals in the hon. Lady’s constituency are able to work anywhere in the UK, and I would have thought that that is something she would support.

Renewable Energy Infrastructure Funding

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Morlais tidal energy and Pembroke dock marine initiatives, both of which are part of the growth deals. Later this year, we will bring forward a net zero strategy and hold an auction for up to 12 GW of renewable energy funding.

The newly re-elected Welsh Labour Government have wasted no time in getting to work and have committed to building greener homes, hospitals and schools, which will develop new green jobs in a radical transition to a zero-carbon Wales. So will the Minister join me and the people of Newport West in welcoming these Welsh Labour Government commitments to build on their investment in Wales? What lessons does he think the Westminster Government can learn from these green, ecologically sound plans?

Of course I welcome Welsh Government commitments to support green energy and green jobs. I assure the hon. Lady that the Secretary of State and I will want to work with the Welsh Government to further that aim. These are issues we can agree on, which is why we have demonstrated that commitment through the £21.5 million going to the south Wales industrial cluster and the £15.9 million going to Meritor—or Lucas Girling as she and I would remember it—for electric powertrain integration. That will help many members of her constituency.

Political Neutrality in Positions of Faith

What discussions he has had with representatives of the Church in Wales on political neutrality in positions of faith. (901795)

I have recently been corresponding with the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the Bishop of St Davids’ ill-advised and divisive comments on Twitter. I am sure we all agree that our religious leaders should promote tolerance and inclusiveness, and I am pleased that the Church in Wales has apologised for the bishop’s intemperate language.

I am very supportive of the actions taken by the Secretary of State involving the Bishop of St Davids, but does he agree that this issue of intolerance towards those who hold Conservative views is becoming more widespread throughout academia and public life, and that we need concerted efforts to address this?

As my hon. Friend knows, it appears that this sort of trolling habit is, sadly, not exclusive to the bishop; Professor Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones has also been busy dishing out abuse, with his most recent contribution being to describe Conservative voters as the “lowest form of life”. I cannot help but ask what the professor would have done and how he would have reacted if any of our colleagues had described university academics as the lowest form of life. It would have been as outrageous for him as it is for us, and I very much hope that Cardiff University will follow the example of the Archbishop of Canterbury and deal with this promptly.

Rail Infrastructure Funding

We have committed £2 billion to Network Rail for the current control period, and close to £60 million has been committed to upgrade Cardiff Central station and £76 million to electrify the Severn tunnel route. More locally, the Cambrian and Wrexham-Bidston lines and stations at Bow Street and St Clears are also set to receive additional funding.

In a previous answer, the Secretary of State said that the UK Government’s priority was investment. That clearly is not the case with Welsh railways: we have more than 11% of the track but have not had even 2% of funding over the past decade. It has been a lost decade for Welsh railway infrastructure. The Secretary of State needs to set out quickly with Department for Transport officials how he is going to address the lack of investment and ensure that Welsh railway gets the investment it deserves.

The hon. Gentleman is a great campaigner on this issue, but I can only repeat what I said in answer to the substantive question, which was a list of investment. It is all about levelling up and infrastructure—

It is all very well the hon. Gentleman shaking his head in disbelief, but the reality is that there has been more investment in all the infrastructure projects than at any stage in recent history. That is largely thanks to the energy of this Government and our commitment to levelling up in Wales.

The Cefn bridge at Trewern is a bottleneck between mid-Wales and the west midlands economy. Will the Secretary of State meet me and stakeholders to ensure that the Union connectivity review, which I very much welcome, tackles this bottleneck?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is the epitome of energetic campaigning on road improvement and other infrastructure schemes. Who will forget the Pant to Llanymynech bypass as one of the great achievements of the MP for Montgomeryshire? I am happy to confirm that, so excited am I by that prospect, I will be there on Monday next week.