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Volume 706: debated on Wednesday 5 January 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Rail Infrastructure

May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and of course House staff and Members a very happy 2022? May I also take the opportunity to acknowledge some fantastic news for Welsh sheep farmers? As many in this House will be aware, the US ban on the import of UK lamb has been lifted as of 3 January, which brings Welsh farmers one step closer to putting their first-class lamb in front of more than 300 million US consumers for the first time in 20 years.

More than £340 million has been provided for enhancements to Welsh rail, including investing in the core valley lines, Cardiff Central station and the electrification of the Severn tunnel.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to all those involved with the House.

You will know, Mr Speaker, that the north Wales economy is massively integrated with the economy of the north-west. We have been promised, although it is very slow in coming, the northern powerhouse, because of the very poor infrastructure and very poor journey times across the north of England. Why have Welsh Ministers not demanded that north Wales be included in that northern powerhouse structure, and why are Welsh Ministers letting down north Wales so badly?

I disagree with the hon. Member’s comments about infrastructure. As he knows, we introduced the Union connectivity review; its proposals have just been published and we are working through them as we speak. We have spent a huge amount of money on road and rail infrastructure throughout Wales—and, for that matter, the rest of the Union—so he should not take such a gloomy view of things. I absolutely endorse his comments, however, about the fact that north Wales and the north-west of England—and, indeed, the rest of the UK—are integrated economies, and we need to look at them holistically.

Blwyddyn newydd dda—happy new year—Mr Speaker.

The Secretary of State knows that HS2 will halve the time it takes to get from London to Manchester from two hours and 10 minutes to one hour and 10 minutes, but it will still be three hours to get to Swansea. Will he be taking forward the Welsh Affairs Committee’s proposal to give Wales its fair share of HS2 funding on the same basis as Scotland, which would give us an extra £4.6 billion for levelling up, net zero and connecting the Union? Will he meet me and Professor Mark Barry to help prepare to make the case to the Treasury to take this forward?

I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. He is nothing if not persistent and consistent in his campaigning. I should remind him—I suspect I do not need to—of the significant rail funding that has already come into Wales, but if it helps, I am always keen to look at new, innovative ways that will encourage investment and create jobs. I am very happy to do that.

May I welcome the new shadow Secretary of State, Jo Stevens, to her new position, and thank her for what she did previously?

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; happy new year to you, and, if I may, blwyddyn newydd dda i chi i gyd—happy new year to all.

I am afraid I was a bit disappointed with the Secretary of State’s answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) about HS2 reclassification as an England-only rail project, because it is utterly illogical to designate it an England and Wales project. Crossrail has an England-only classification; HS2 should as well. In addition to that missing £4.6 billion of rail funding for Wales, the analysis of his own Treasury colleagues confirms that HS2 will result in an economic disadvantage to Wales estimated at £150 million every year. Levelling up will remain an empty Government slogan unless he persuades his Cabinet colleagues to cough up, so will he do that?

May I also welcome the hon. Lady to her place? I much enjoyed our time on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee where we worked in harmony on many different subjects for quite a long time, and I was hoping we might be able to continue that habit across the Dispatch Box; things are starting quite well, I think. However, I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question and look forward to further discussions. I would just point out that there has been more than £430 million of rail funding so far, including £125 million for the core valley lines and £58 million for Cardiff Central station; I could go through the list but I think Mr Speaker would stop me. This constant refrain, and going over old ground, about whether HS2 has any benefits for Wales is an overused cliché; we all know there are significant direct and indirect benefits to Wales from the HS2 project and that will continue to be the case.

There is another conversation the Secretary of State should be having with Cabinet colleagues about HS2 and Wales. Ministers have previously confirmed that around 2 million tonnes of steel will be used across HS2, but I am going to upset him again by mentioning that £4.6 billion that the Government are cutting from Wales. The Transport Minister has just confirmed that there is no target for the use of UK or Welsh steel in HS2 construction, so will the Secretary of State commit today to making the case in Cabinet for a Welsh steel target for HS2 construction to protect Welsh steel jobs, and will he come back to the House to confirm that he has done that?

I am very happy, as ever, to make the case for Welsh steel; indeed, we have done so on numerous occasions, and if the hon. Lady is in any doubt about our commitment to it she need only turn her mind back to the beginning of the pandemic when nearly 1,000 steelworkers in her own city were saved as a result of Government intervention. Our commitment to Welsh steel, and in particular its being used strategically and extensively in UK infrastructure projects, is completely undiminished, and I am always happy to join forces with her to make that case.

Renewable Energy Generation: North Wales

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the development of large-scale renewable energy generation in north Wales. (904896)

We recently opened the contracts for difference renewable energy support scheme, with £285 million per year available for projects in Wales, Scotland and England. Nuclear will also play an important role as a low-carbon source of electricity and we continue to explore how we might support a nuclear project at Wylfa.

If we are to achieve net zero while maintaining economic growth, we need more large-scale low-carbon generating projects of the sort represented by the tidal lagoon proposed for Colwyn bay in my constituency. That would have an in-store capacity of over 2 GW and make a huge contribution to national energy security, so is my right hon. Friend prepared to meet me and my hon. Friends the Members for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) and for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies), who also have a constituency interest, to discuss this project and see what the Government can do to help move it forward?

I can definitely give my right hon. Friend that commitment, and I would be more than happy if he wanted to bring additional stakeholders from the area into that meeting because there is not only huge potential for nuclear; he mentioned a tidal lagoon and there is also the commitment already made around the Holyhead hydrogen hub; and of course there is almost limitless potential in the Celtic sea for floating offshore wind. I would like to discuss with him and others exactly what opportunities they present.

Blwyddyn newydd dda, Mr Llefarydd—I wish you a wonderful new year. A National Trust-run hydro scheme with eight sites in Eryri has reached its target of producing 20 million kW of energy within eight years; that is enough electricity to power 5,300 homes for one year. The scheme has helped local communities to develop their own community hydro schemes but technical issues in connecting to the grid make that no easy task. What is the Secretary of State’s Government doing to upgrade the electricity grid in rural Wales to enable more such schemes?

The right hon. Lady has raised this issue with me a few times and her point about that initiative is really well made. I am very happy to go with her and talk about particular infrastructure requirements. These things are not straightforward, as she knows, but if there are sensible proposals that we can discuss with not only the relevant Department, but the Welsh Government, who will have a role in this, I would be very happy to do that.

I have heard the Secretary of State mention the offshore wind potential of the Celtic sea. He will know that, as part of Plaid Cymru’s co-operation agreement with the Welsh Government, both parties agree that further powers are needed to support our path to net zero—specifically on the management of the Crown Estate and its assets in Wales. Two months ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), said that he would look with interest at my Crown Estate (Devolution to Wales) Bill. Given that there is now a clear majority in the Senedd to support the principle of Wales having the same powers, remember, as there are regarding the Crown Estate of Scotland, will the Minister also support my Bill to ensure that the profits of offshore wind go to the people of Wales?

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), was very disappointed not to be here to answer this question in person; he is diligently following Welsh Government regulations on covid isolation and sends his apologies. That said, the relationship that the Crown Estate enjoys with the UK Government, the Welsh Government and stakeholders works very well. I do not think there is any public interest or appetite for altering the terms of that arrangement. Frankly, it is a case of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but I am always happy to listen to the right hon. Lady’s arguments.

Covid-19 Booster Vaccinations

3. What steps the Government are taking to support the roll-out of covid-19 booster vaccinations in Wales. (904897)

Booster vaccinations are absolutely critical in strengthening our defences. That is why I and the Secretary of State for Defence have made an additional 98 armed forces personnel available to support the vaccination programme in Wales. We have confirmed an additional £270 million that the Welsh Government can spend in advance of budgets being finalised at supplementary estimates.

Blwyddyn newydd dda, Mr Speaker. The personnel that the Secretary of State mentioned have been brilliantly organised from Army HQ Wales, which is based in Brecon barracks in my constituency, and I put on record again my thanks that the plans to close the barracks have been scrapped. The Army has been brought in three times to help us in Wales, most recently during the booster programme. The fact that we have a military assistance programme ready to support us in times of need is a strength of our Union, so will he continue to liaise with the Welsh Government to ensure that they have all they need to manage the pandemic?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is right, and I cannot begin to tell the House how many times I have met members of the public in the past few months who have been filled with confidence and pride when they have arrived at a vaccination or testing centre to see representatives of the armed forces there to greet and look after them through that often quite difficult process. The comments that she makes are well received, and will be by the number of servicemen in her area. The answer to her question is emphatically yes. I note that the Welsh footprint of the MOD—the number of MOD personnel in Wales—has now increased as a result of recent MOD announcements, and that will make this job that much easier.

Over 75% of eligible adults in Wales have already had their booster, thanks in no small part to the fact that the Welsh Government have earned the respect and trust of the people of Wales due to the clear and consistent messaging throughout the pandemic. What lessons does the Secretary of State think that the Prime Minister and his Government could learn from the example set by the Labour Government in Wales?

That is a slightly cheap shot, especially in a week when, under Welsh Government guidelines, it seems that it is all right for people to go to a pub but not to their office. They can watch the rugby from the clubhouse but not from the touchline. They can go to a gym but they cannot partake in an outdoor activity such as parkrun. There is a huge number of mystifying and contradictory positions—the hon. Gentleman goaded me into that. The vaccine programme has to be one of the best examples ever of co-operation, not competition, between Governments. That has been absolutely essential and it has been done in a good spirit, with professionalism, and has been an enormous success.

Support for Businesses

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for businesses in Wales. (904898)

I am pleased that the Welsh Government have followed the lead of the UK Government in offering business rate relief to support the hospitality sector. The UK Government have supported Welsh businesses through £2.4 billion of coronavirus-related loans, £3.5 billion to the self-employment income support scheme and other measures.

The Federation of Small Businesses has warned that only a quarter of its members are ready for the new Brexit import controls, and that many will simply abandon trading with the EU if they are unable to receive support. What plans do this Government have to support businesses in Wales and the other countries of the United Kingdom in bearing the costs of their failed Brexit policies?

The hon. Gentleman’s comments are not reflected by the businesses that I speak to in Wales. They are looking forward in an optimistic and positive way as we climb our way out of covid. They accept the decision in Wales where, unlike his, nearly 55% of our nation voted in favour of leaving the European Union, so they are simply reflecting the views of the majority. They are confident that there is a healthy future to be had, and what is more, there are more people in work now than there were before the pandemic.

With the Prime Minister promising to take advantage of the freedoms of Brexit, further divergence from EU standards and rules appears to be likely. That will amplify trade disruption and increase costs for businesses, so can the Minister explain exactly how trade disruptions and barriers will be advantageous to businesses and whether the UK Government will provide any support to ameliorate the cost of these benefits?

The UK Government have been doing everything they can, including providing substantial investments in Wales under my jurisdiction, to address a number of the challenges that have been presented. As I said before, there is no appetite whatsoever in Welsh businesses and communities to keep trying to go back four or five years and pretend that the referendum result did not happen. It did happen, it happened in Wales and it got a resounding majority. Those businesses are reflecting that position.

Having spent Boxing day and new year’s in Wales, the home of my beloved mother, I met a number of business people in the evening who said that Mark Drakeford’s plans for covid restrictions were nothing but political posturing and that they were damaging their economy. Have they got it wrong?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There has been a huge effort on the part of the UK Government and the Welsh Government to maintain public confidence through what has been an incredibly trying period, and a number of people in Wales were happy to give the First Minister the benefit of the doubt. However, the recent raft of announcements, including the confusing examples that I gave the House a moment ago, have got even the most loyal people doubting whether he is still making the right decisions.

Strengthening the Union

Wales is a strong believer in the Union, with three in four voters opting for Unionist parties in the 2021 Senedd elections. The overwhelming majority of people in Wales are passionate about their national identity and proud supporters of the Union. The two things are not exclusive.

I am sure you would agree, Mr Speaker, that parkruns are fantastic for people’s physical and emotional health. I am sure you enjoyed many of them yourself over the Christmas recess. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government’s decision to prevent people from taking part in parkruns—not just Welsh citizens but those from the English side taking part in Welsh parkruns—has meant that those people have been significantly detrimentally affected by such a bonkers decision?

I know that it might not look like it, but I am a veteran of 175 parkruns myself, and I absolutely endorse my right hon. Friend’s position. It seems mystifying and bizarre, when we talk about covid regulations needing to be clear and concise in order to command public confidence, that people in Wales can go to the pub but be fined if they go to their office, that they can watch rugby in a crowded club room but not from the touchline, and that they can have a gym session in their own property but not go and do a parkrun, which is known to have enormous health and mental health benefits.

Baglan Energy Park: Power Supply

6. If he will take steps with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to help ensure ongoing power supply for Baglan energy park until a permanent connection to the grid is secured. (904900)

Contingency planning for Baglan and support for businesses once the official receiver has carried out its duties is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. Along with the Business Secretary, I will continue to work closely with the Welsh Government to support this work.

In just nine days’ time the supply of power to Baglan energy park will be cut off by the official receiver. Not only will this leave businesses in the area in a completely untenable position but the power supply also feeds the energy park’s waste water pumps, which could have a massive and catastrophic effect on businesses and homes in the area. The UK Government are in a position to work with the official receiver to keep the power supply on. Will the Secretary of State engage with the official receiver and with his colleague, the Business Secretary, to avert potential catastrophe for my constituents and businesses on the Baglan energy park?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. He and I have been following this saga closely, and the exact position is that the UK Government provided funding indemnity to the official receiver on 24 March 2021 to enable it to carry out its duties as liquidator of the Baglan group. The official receiver has temporarily maintained power to Baglan energy park while developing its plan to disclaim the site.

Transport Connections

7. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving transport connections between Wales and the rest of the UK. (904901)

Effective and resilient cross-border transport links are vital for levelling up every part of Wales and the rest of the UK, which is why we commissioned Sir Peter Hendy to lead the Union connectivity review. Notably his review recognised the importance of the north and south Wales transport corridors.

The Secretary of State will know that certain roads, such as the M4 and the A55 in north Wales, connect our great Union and are therefore the property of the whole Union. Does he agree that these roads should be treated as pan-UK roads and should be overseen in a similar way to how the European Union oversees the trans-European transport network?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He will have heard me refer to the M4 on many occasions as a vital asset that joins the European mainland to the Republic of Ireland. It is not just a Welsh road; it is of economic significance to the UK and more widely, and it plays a strategic role. That, combined with the slightly mysterious position that the Welsh Government have adopted on a moratorium on road building, leads me to the conclusion that he has reached, which is that there are better ways of maintaining and improving the UK-wide network, including roads that are exclusively in Wales.

Omicron Covid-19 Variant

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the impact on Wales of the omicron covid-19 variant. (904904)

The UK Government have worked closely with the Welsh Government throughout the pandemic. We continue to do so in tackling the omicron variant, and Ministers in both Governments are in regular discussions.

With Labour Welsh Government Ministers now introducing fines to try to stop people going to their workplaces, with the crazy decision to prohibit parkruns at this time and with the Welsh hospitality sector effectively under lockdown through new year, does my right hon. Friend share my deep concern that, yet again, Wales faces the most burdensome and most intrusive restrictions in any part of the United Kingdom? Does he agree that these measures are driven more by fear and pessimism than by good science?

My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes a good point. I might have found myself disagreeing with him if it could be demonstrated that the results of covid controls in Wales are in some way better than the results in the rest of the UK, but they are not. It is absurd that the popular parkrun in his own town of Haverfordwest cannot take place and that people cannot watch rugby from the touchline, but they can cram into a club where they ought not to be. That is nonsense. It is throttling the recovery and it is throttling economic activity.

Transport Connectivity and Infrastructure

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on connectivity and infrastructure in (a) Wales and (b) between Wales and the rest of the UK. (904905)

The Union connectivity review recommended a multimodal review of the north Wales transport corridor, including the A55 and the north Wales main line. We are considering this and the other recommendations in the review.

We received the Union connectivity review five months later than scheduled; will my right hon. Friend indicate when its recommendations will be implemented? Will he throw the weight of his office behind the proposals for the new station in Greenfield, which is vital to connectivity in the region?

The hon. Member raises a good point. We do not have a precise date as yet, but there is some imminence to it. I ask him to bear in mind the fact that, thanks to interventions and recommendations by the Treasury, other funding models are also available. He should not overlook the work that he can do in future with his local authority in respect of things such as the levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on BSL interpretation will also be available for the Prime Minister’s statement following PMQs.