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Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 15 September 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Universal Credit Uplift

1. What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Welsh Government on the effect of the planned removal of the £20 universal credit uplift on low-income families. (903355)

The House will be aware that today is the 10th anniversary of the mining disaster in Gleision, in which Charles Breslin, David Powell, Philip Hill and Garry Jenkins lost their lives. I know that colleagues across the Chamber will join me in paying appropriate respect at this time, and of course in sending condolences to their families.

We have always been clear that the universal credit uplift was temporary to help people through the economic shock of the pandemic. We are committed to supporting families most in need and planning a long-term route out of poverty by helping people find work.

I echo the words of condolence from the Secretary of State.

More than a third of all those who receive universal credit are in work and will now have to pay an extra £100 a year in national insurance contributions while also suffering a cut of £1,040 per year, and UK inflation has risen to 3.2%—its highest increase since 1997. Will the Secretary of State use his influence to push for the publication of any impact assessment or analysis of the consequence of this cruel cut to universal credit, which research suggests will mean that one in eight people will struggle to afford food?

I know that colleagues across the House have received representations from constituents, charities and other bodies on this subject, so it is one we take extremely seriously, and rightly so. Of course, one of the things the Government are absolutely committed to is to rebalance the economy, both local and national. We have, of course, the plan for jobs, the levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund and the community renewal fund. There is a number of ways in which we are attempting to do that, which will of course help those who are not in work, but also those people on in-work benefits. We are very conscious of the hon. Lady’s observations and, as I say, absolutely committed to making sure that every family, not just those out of work, are helped as best we possibly can.

A quarter of a million Welsh families now face the grim prospect of losing over £1,000 a year because of this Government’s shameful decision to slash universal credit. We know that the Secretary of State’s colleague, the Work and Pensions Secretary, seems to think that people just need to work harder, but I would remind him that nearly 40% of Welsh people who receive this payment are in fact in work, many of them key workers. What does the Secretary of State have to say to those families and their children who are struggling to make ends meet now and will be so much worse off as a result of this cut?

I touched on this obviously in the answer to the initial question, especially the temporary nature of the increase and of course the many plans and projects we have that are going to enhance and improve the economy in Wales, which will have a positive effect on the very families the hon. Lady talks about. I think it is just worth pointing out as well that it is this Government who increased the personal threshold on NICs—that was of considerable value to families across the land—and there have been other improvements, such as the increase in the national living wage. I think those things need to be taken into account as well, and I am sure the hon. Lady will do that.

I am not sure that is going to be much comfort to those families who are going to be losing £80 a month. This is not just a blow to Welsh families, but a real hit to Welsh shops and businesses, because we all know that families on low income have to spend their money locally on the very basics of life. This will suck £286 million per year out of the Welsh economy. The Conservative party constantly talks up the sums paid to get this country out of the pandemic, but is not the reality that the Tories are taking money away from Welsh businesses just at the time that so many of them need it most?

I do fundamentally reject that accusation. Having visited numerous companies, large and small, across Wales throughout the pandemic, the message I have had back is one of relief that the UK Government Treasury has been able to step in and offer the levels of help that it has. Particularly in relation to the hon. Lady’s comment about universal credit, what she is suggesting is that none of the remedial measures we have introduced will work. That is clearly not the case, so the families that she and other colleagues quite rightly raise as being concerned about what the future holds should, I hope, be reassured by the fact that the Government continue to be committed not only to companies, but to individual families themselves.

The north Welsh coast, when one goes from Wylfa to Trawsfynydd to Capenhurst, is intimately connected with the north-west of England through Capenhurst, Warrington and all the way up to Sellafield and Moorside. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that those economies work well together to solve problems in the nuclear industry, and that the North West Nuclear Arc is something we should be very proud of?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, particularly because I have been on the receiving end of such compelling arguments from organisations, such as the Mersey Dee Alliance, that recognise the economic region and the economic drivers and recognise that administrative boundaries can sometimes be an impediment to investment. I absolutely share her enthusiasm and her confidence about what may be available in the future.

The Government’s attack on struggling families this autumn will make more than four in 10 families with children over £1,000 worse off. It is no surprise that the Secretary of State is content with plunging thousands of people into poverty, but these families spend their money in high street shops and local businesses. Government policy will be directly responsible for taking £286 million out of the Welsh economy. This is not levelling up; it is hammering down. What assessment has he made of the effect of the £20 cut in universal credit on the Welsh economy?

The right hon. Lady clearly did not listen to my answers to the first and second questions on this very subject, and her statement—rather than question—was predicated on the basis that absolutely none of the Government’s other economic interventions, such as the plan for jobs, the levelling-up fund and the other encouraging initiatives we have been talking about, will have any positive effect at all. That is clearly incorrect and is clearly not supported by businesses across Wales, which leads me to the conclusion that she is determined to talk down the economic prospects of the country she wants to represent.

It is clear that the Government are content that Wales loses almost £300 million. The pattern is clear from the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, trade agreements, the control of state aid and now plans to cut the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 32: the right hon. Gentleman’s Government are taking from Wales and giving to Westminster. Anyone can see that levelling up will only happen when we have a strong Parliament in Wales empowered to do the job and directly answerable to the people of Wales. We all know there is a reshuffle going on; is now the time to reshuffle the Wales Office out of existence?

The right hon. Lady will not be surprised to learn that I am not going to rise to the last of the baits she dangles in front of me, but she needs to make her mind up about whether she wants Westminster representation or not: she complains on the one hand that the numbers might be reduced, whereas in fact they are being equalised to be fairer, and on the other that we should not be here at all.

Rail Infrastructure

The Government have and are funding a number of rail improvements in Wales, including upgrading Cardiff Central station and the Cambrian line and upgrades that are in the pipeline to key lines in north, south-east and south-west Wales. I also recently had the opportunity to visit Pencoed to hear the case for an upgrade to the Pencoed level crossing.

Wales accounts for 11% of the rail network but receives only 2% of rail enhancement funding from this Government. Will the UK Government commit to addressing this underinvestment, and make a start in Newport East by finally allowing the Welsh Government to run more cross-border services under the Wales and Borders franchise and by supporting the new stations fund bid for a walkway station for Magor?

This oft-cited figure comes from a Wales Government report which looks purely at renewals between 2011 and 2015. The very same report on page 20 draws attention to the figure that would apply if one looked at maintenance operations and restoration as well, in which case the correct figure would be 4.37%, not 1%.

I was glad to hear the Minister mention, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), Pencoed in my Ogmore constituency. He will know that the debate about closing the level crossing has been going on since the early ’90s, and I know he is personally supportive and has been to Pencoed to look at the site. However, Bridgend County Borough Council has now put forward cabinet reports to say that the scheme will cost almost £20 million. Department for Transport Ministers cannot keep announcing additional services on the mainline without tackling the safety issues around the Pencoed level crossing. So may I press the Minister to ensure that DfT Ministers back up their announcements with much-needed funding to deal with the problems in my constituency?

I would certainly encourage all partners and stakeholders in this, including DfT Ministers—and also those in the Welsh Government, who are responsible for the highways of course—to engage with the rail network enhancement pipeline in the usual way or consider future rounds of the levelling-up fund. I say, too, that the hon. Gentleman has made a powerful case for that level crossing and the wider strategic benefits that will flow if this problem is sorted out.

I know the Minister shares my disappointment and that of my constituents in Gower at the lack of electrification to Swansea, but is he aware that we have great issues with the Hitachi carriages and fleet? They are costing a lot of money and cracks have been caused because of their becoming hybrid. Can he confirm that he is aware of this problem, and can he say what conversations he is having with his colleagues in the Department for Transport and what it is costing?

I believe that that problem was quite well publicised, so I think we are all aware of it. The rolling stock is being examined. There is no issue around safety. I do not know what the costs are. I understand the hon. Lady’s disappointment about electrification, but she will know, through her sterling work on the Welsh Affairs Committee, that there would have been enormous costs to electrification between Cardiff and Swansea and no benefits for any passengers in terms of decreased time. This Government want to spend that money where it will have the most impact and benefit for rail passengers.

The community in St Athan in my constituency was naturally disappointed, and even angry, that the Welsh Government did not include a new station for St Athan in their application to the Department for Transport’s new stations fund. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that he will listen to the views of Members of Parliament as well as the Welsh Government when considering applications for new stations?

I can absolutely reassure my right hon. Friend on that point. I commend him for the work that he has done in improving rail infrastructure in his constituency. I enjoyed visiting Barry station with him to see the disability access improvements that had taken place sometime last year.

When the Minister listed all the projects that the Government are undertaking, he did not mention the marvellous work being done by Network Rail on the only wooden bridge in the country being used for rail services, between Morfa Mawddach and Barmouth. Will he make a point, together with the Secretary of State, of visiting the bridge and walking across it when it is finally completed and all the wooden piles have been installed? Of course, it is a walkway as well as a railway.

I would be delighted to take my hon. Friend up on what I think is an invitation to visit. I believe that he may even be able to supply a cup of tea somewhere in the vicinity. He is right that I did not mention that particular project. There are so many projects I could mention that Network Rail is responsible for in Wales as a result of UK Government funding. I did not mention, either, the south Wales relief line, the north Wales coast line, the improvements that will hopefully come about to the Wrexham to Bidston line, or a whole host of other projects that are being funded by this UK Government.

One key way we are supporting rail infrastructure across the country is through HS2. Does the Minister agree that HS2 will have a truly nationwide benefit in places such as Port Talbot and Teesside if we use UK steel in its construction?

Of course, many companies in Wales will be tendering for work on the HS2 project, so there will be huge benefits to Wales, huge benefits for the railway industry, and of course huge benefits for the whole United Kingdom. HS2 is also about getting people off the roads and on to the railways, which is something that anyone who supports getting Britain to net zero by 2050 should be in support of.

Manufacturing Industry

I assure the hon. Lady that the UK Government are completely committed to manufacturing in Wales, which is why we have put £3.4 billion into manufacturing and enabled companies to take advantage of the many schemes that were brought forward during the covid crisis.

I thank the Minister for that response. Will he join me in welcoming the Welsh Labour Government’s £20 million commitment to the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Broughton, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), which will attract business and boost skills across the north Wales region?

That, I believe, would be a promising scheme that could perhaps be looked at in conjunction with the growth deals. As the hon. Lady will be aware, £790 million has been put forward for growth deals across Wales, and that is exactly the sort of scheme that is being considered as part of that. May I say how strongly I welcome the hon. Lady’s support for the aviation sector, which I hope will be shared by all her colleagues?

Net Zero Emissions Target

Wales’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by close to 31% since 1990. To bring them down to zero, we will be scaling up low-carbon power generation, kickstarting the hydrogen economy and transitioning to zero emission vehicles.

I am grateful for that response. Many parts of Wales are rural like my own constituency in the Scottish borders. These rural areas need a plentiful supply of electric car charging points to encourage people to make the switch to electric cars. How are the UK Government supporting the switch across the four nations of the United Kingdom?

I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, because it illustrates a situation very similar to his in Wales. I hope he is as pleased as we are with the £275 million commitment to the electric vehicle homecharge scheme, the workplace charging scheme, the on-street residential chargepoint scheme and a number of other measures, all of which, of course, are UK-wide initiatives.

The drive to net zero presents huge challenges to industry all across south Wales, especially for us in Pembrokeshire where the oil and gas plants support thousands of high quality jobs. What further steps can the UK Government take to help the energy sector to adapt, taking advantage of new opportunities in hydrogen but also plans for floating offshore wind? The truth is that we are going to need significant extra help in Pembrokeshire if we are going to make that transition.

My right hon. Friend raises a very important point. I hope he has taken note of the £20 million commitment to the south Wales industrial cluster. That is driving carbon capture initiatives and similar initiatives. He and I frequently speak to big employers in our area, such as Valero on the Milford Haven Waterway, which are an absolutely critical part of our net zero ambitions in Wales. Of course, the floating offshore wind opportunities in the Celtic sea are well known to both of us and I hope that developers will be able to bid for contracts for difference later this year.

When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that the Welsh Labour Government have led the way: banning fracking, legislating for net zero, establishing a new ministry for climate change, and generating more than 50% of the energy we use from renewable sources, a figure higher than the UK average. Does the Secretary of State also agree that those efforts are undermined somewhat by his own Government’s decision to drop binding commitments on climate change from the free trade deal with Australia? What message does that send to the world ahead of this country hosting the COP26 summit later this year?

I do not acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s challenge in quite the way he would expect me to. I think it has been made perfectly clear that our net zero ambitions are not going to be solved by one country or one Government; it will be resolved by a very serious and joined-up approach to net zero across the UK and beyond. I am very happy, as he knows I am, to work with the Welsh Government to achieve those aims. If we relegate this issue to some kind of political spat, it will make the challenges harder, so I hope he will join me and Welsh Government colleagues in trying to make sure we achieve the mutual aims we claim to share.

Will the Secretary of State look at the recommendation of the Welsh Affairs Committee that Wales should get its fair share of HS2 funding, the same as Scotland, so we can invest in a modern infrastructure and meet net zero, in particular with the Swansea Bay metro, more quickly?

The hon. Gentleman and I share many common ambitions for the rail network in Wales. He knows my views on that. He also knows the Union connectivity review will be published shortly. I do not want to second-guess what is in that, but I suspect that he and I need a conversation shortly after that has been published.

There is great potential for small scale renewable energy schemes in the more rural parts of Aberconwy. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had to ensure that the grid connections are in place to make them viable?

It is fair to say that they are in their early stages. I enjoyed my visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency last week, where these points were raised. He is right to point out that we can come up with all the initiatives in the world, but unless there is a supportive grid to cope with that, our progress will be slower than we would like. Those conversations are in play and I look forward to sharing them with him at the earliest opportunity.

Devolution Settlement

5. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on the adequacy of the operation of the devolution settlement. (903359)

8. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on the adequacy of the operation of the devolution settlement. (903362)

My discussions with the First Minister and his ministerial team are focused on how our respective Governments can use the powers at our disposal to deliver jobs and economic growth for Wales.

Hijacking pots of money for Wales in the UK Government Departments that have not operated in Wales for 20 years undermines the devolution settlement and, by extension, the Union, but just as damaging is the bureaucratic delay caused by the uselessness of UK Ministers. Why have Welsh councils still not had a response on community fund renewal projects that are supposed to be completed by March 2022? If the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues cannot do the business, they should get off the pot.

In the last 18 months or more, I have spoken to numerous individuals, charities, churches, universities, the private and public sectors, businesses, investors—you name them, we have spoken to them. Not a single one has raised the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises this morning. They are committed to the economic recovery plans that we are talking about, and, as I said in answer to a previous question, if all these question sessions do is relegate these exchanges to some kind of cheap political point scoring, we will not make the progress that he seeks.

The landslips in the Rhondda last year sent a shiver down the spine of the valleys communities, and many of my constituents in Cynon Valley live in fear of future coal tip disasters. Three hundred of the 2,000 coal tips in Wales have been classed at high risk of endangering life or property. We need to know that they are safe and the UK Government have a clear duty to make them safe. [Interruption.] What discussion has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer ahead of the forthcoming spending review to ensure that sustainable funding is provided to deal with the legacy of the coal tips? [Interruption.]

I think I caught most of that question, but the hon. Lady will no doubt recall that the UK Government put over £30 million into coal tip renewal and coal tip safety issues. It was the UK Government who joined forces with the Welsh Government to make sure that that approach was collegiate and addressed all the concerns that were raised, including those that fall into the devolved space just as much as the reserved space. If she wants an example of the UK Government and the Welsh Government working together and the Treasury picking up the tab, that issue is a perfect example.

Respecting devolution cuts both ways. Recently, the Welsh Government published a written statement on the evolution of the national grid. It was very welcome—we need to work together—but clearly, the 132 kV lines are a UK competence. Will the Secretary of State pull Ofgem and the operators together to build and evolve the national grid, with consensus from the people of mid-Wales?

I can go a little further than that, having spoken to the Busines Secretary on this topic only yesterday evening. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) raises a very important point, especially around where the devolution settlement and reserved responsibilities sit. It is absolutely right to raise that but it is also fair to say that an issue of that significance will require a UK-wide approach and, of course, the views and responsibilities of the Welsh Government will be taken very seriously in those discussions.

If the devolution settlement is to work, the UK Government have to match their rhetoric on the respect agenda. Given that all devolved Governments in the UK have asked the UK Government to cancel the cut to universal credit, can the Secretary of State say that he made that representation to his Cabinet colleagues, or is the post of Secretary of State entirely redundant? [Interruption.]

I barely caught a single word of that, but on the basis that I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s views on this subject before, I will simply repeat my views and observations. Over the past 18 months during the covid pandemic, there has been a very analytical look at what works and what does not work in the devolution settlement by businesses, employers, wealth creators, investors, universities, churches and members of the public. I have to say that this fixation with the niceties of the devolution settlement is not reflected by businesses in Wales at the moment. [Interruption.] If by any chance I have missed the hon. Gentleman’s question, which, by the shake of his head, I suspect I have, we can have a conversation in the Tea Room later.

Apprentices: Wales Office

We fully support the Government’s apprenticeship scheme. We have employed apprentices in the Wales Office, and our most recent apprentice has just been promoted.

Will my hon. Friend set out what he is doing to encourage apprenticeships across Wales? Will he ensure that all new jobs offered in the Wales Office are offered as apprenticeships, not just graduate schemes? Will he ensure that the Wales Office meets the public sector target on apprenticeships?

I can assure my right hon. Friend that we will certainly meet the public sector target—we have been meeting it. We will be taking on further apprentices and we have just taken on a kickstart worker and somebody from the care leavers scheme.