I beg to move,
That this House has considered Welsh affairs.
A belated happy St David’s day, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am very pleased indeed that the Backbench Business Committee agreed to the collective request from Welsh Members for this St David’s day debate. It is an important historical event, and I feel that it is a particularly important debate this year, given what is happening. I am pleased that it is taking place and that Welsh Members have turned up in significant numbers despite, let it be said, some strongly competing demands. Good for them.
I will focus on two issues. The first is the shared prosperity fund and the fog around it, which I hope the Secretary of State will sweep to one side; the second is the very real cost of living crisis that people in Wales face today.
As we know, the shared prosperity fund is intended to replace European structural funds, from which Wales in particular derived a tremendous benefit over many years: west Wales and the valleys was designated an objective 1 area because of objective need, and significant resources were allocated from the EU to Wales. The Government said that they intended to replace that funding with a shared prosperity fund, and we have been waiting for the details with bated breath for some time.
We were initially promised the fund last year. We were then told, “Hang on a minute—the details will be in the White Paper on levelling up,” but the White Paper was published with only a passing reference to the shared prosperity fund. A guidance note was published, but that was all. We are now told that we must wait until next month for more details of the fund.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the lack of detail is extremely corrosive, particularly to small community organisations and small businesses? They are trying to plan ahead, but clearly they are being impeded by the Government’s delay—and probably, I am afraid, by their incompetence.
There is a great deal of concern about it, undoubtedly. Many of us were hoping that the Government would be true to their word and that a streamlined system would be introduced quickly and effectively. That clearly has not happened, so one of my questions to the Secretary of State is whether he will provide further clarification in this important debate, in some detail, about what will happen with the shared prosperity fund.
We have heard that the Government’s intention is to match European funding pound for pound. I welcome that statement, but I have to say that I am slightly concerned that that commitment may be more apparent than real. The European funding period was seven years, but we have yet to hear any commitment from the Government beyond the current short-term spending round. That could be as short as two years, so the big question is what happens after that.
Local authorities and other organisations have long-term projections for how their money will be spent. They have fed back to a number of hon. Members their very real concern that they can now commit only to projects that last two years, whereas reality and the needs of their communities dictate that they should have a longer-term perspective. If we are to make the promise of pound-for-pound support real, let us flesh it out. I will give the benefit of the doubt to the Government, but I have to say that there is nothing to substantiate the rhetorical claim that is being made.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the shared prosperity fund, which was debated in Westminster Hall this week. There are other things that we agree on, too. Does he agree that the ties that bind us together as British and Celtic nations are worth celebrating, and that more should and must be done to make the most of our wonderful tourism opportunities through the shared prosperity fund? Between our two nations, I believe we have the United Kingdom’s most beautiful countryside and equally warm-hearted people—the Welsh and the Northern Irish people together.
Indeed. It is extremely important to celebrate the diversity of the United Kingdom and the mutual respect in our communities. That respect extends not only within the United Kingdom—long may it be united—but beyond our borders into other European countries and internationally. It is extremely important to remember that.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. May I pay tribute to him after his announcement that he will retire from this House at the next general election? He will recall that he was very kind to an 18-year-old student from his constituency —that was in the Pugin Room on my first visit here some time ago, on the day of the Conservative leadership challenge.
My hon. Friend will recall the community renewal fund. His county borough and mine were excluded from the planning process for that first fund. It is a systemic problem with the Government: they are not allowing local authorities to plan, they are not allowing them to have the funding, and they are not letting officials at local government level understand the process for applying for the shared prosperity fund. That is simply delaying any bids to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. On the community renewal fund, he is right that there was tremendous concern in the Caerphilly borough and in his constituency in the Bridgend area that those valley areas were, for some mystical reason, excluded from the Government’s list of 100 prioritised areas. Thankfully, as far as Wales was concerned, that prioritisation list was pushed to one side and all local authorities bar one received support from the community renewal fund.
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) on the huge contribution that he has made to this place and to Welsh politics more broadly.
The mess that my hon. Friend is talking about—the community renewal fund, the lack of information and the governance issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore—is symptomatic of a strategy to cut the Welsh Government out of the shared prosperity fund, and that is symptomatic of a broader strategy to completely dismantle devolution in our country. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) agree that it simply does not make sense to cut the Welsh Government out, because we need that strategic overview of what is happening with economic development in Wales? Unfortunately, this is due to a politically motivated aim to dismantle devolution, and the UK Government are using the shared prosperity fund as a vehicle for those purposes.
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way, and I will pay a broader tribute to him when I speak.
I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of issues such as the community renewal fund. We secured 23% of that fund for 165 projects in Wales, which is above and beyond the UK share that we would have got from any European project. Will he reflect on that sharing of the fund and hope that we secure more? When I talk to local authorities, they tell me that they are very welcoming of the schemes and the fact that they engage with them directly rather than through third parties.
It is a complicated situation. Initially, we were extremely concerned because, objectively speaking, areas of obvious need were being excluded for no good reason at all. That situation has changed, and I have to say that is because of our strong lobbying. It is very important to recognise that.
If we look across the border, we see that the situation in England is very worrying indeed, because in many cases resources were allocated not on the basis of need, but on the basis of a perverse formula that was concocted to help areas that most of us would agree do not need support. I am concerned about what has happened so far and the implications for the future.
The Government have apparently moved away from a competition mechanism whereby local authorities and others compete against each other. However, given the performance of the community renewal fund, I am worried that we will get another perverse formula that does not recognise what most of us would consider to be objective need. That is what happened with the European funding, but we are concerned that it may not happen with the shared prosperity fund.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) touched on my final point about the shared prosperity fund. He said that he was concerned about how it would relate to devolution. It is extremely important that we ensure that different tiers of government—central Government and the Welsh Government—work together. There must be, to repeat the phrase I used earlier, mutual respect between the two institutions. They need to pull together so that resources are used to maximum effect. It worries me greatly that there is, unfortunately, quite a lot of friction between the Welsh Government and central Government. I have to be honest: it seems to me that that is because central Government refuse to co-operate fully with the Welsh Government on economic development. I plead with the Wales Office and central Government to move away from that approach and to recognise that, at the end of the day, our interest is in the wellbeing of the people of Wales. We need to pull together in the interests of all our people, not indulge in petty squabbles and friction, and the onus is on central Government to do that.
It is very important that the Secretary of State issues a clarification today on the shared prosperity fund and sweeps to one side the fog that has descended over the replacement for European funding. We need clarity on what is going to happen in the very near future.
The second issue that I would like to address is the cost of living crisis in Wales. I referred in the Welsh Grand Committee to the Bevan Foundation’s excellent December report, which gave information on poverty in Wales in winter 2021. Two of its conclusions are very worrying. First, it said:
“Households are struggling to make ends meet—Nearly four in ten Welsh households (39 per cent) do not have enough money to buy anything beyond everyday items, up from 33 per cent in May”.
It also concluded that living costs were still rising, stating:
“Households across Wales have seen their living costs increase. More than half have seen the cost of food increase with more than six in ten seeing the cost of their utilities increase.”
As we all know, since that report was written at the end of last year, things have become much more difficult for many families—for all families, in fact—in Wales.
We all know that the fuel crisis is an important part of the general crisis. Unfortunately, the situation in Ukraine and Russia is making it worse—we cannot get away from that fact. I am extremely concerned about how it impacts directly on my constituents. I will give two examples. One constituent recently got in touch with the constituency office in Bedwas, Caerphilly to let us know that she would usually pay £80 a month for her fuel bill but that it has now jumped to £210 a month. That is a 162.5% increase. She told us that she is going to have to choose between heating and eating for her and her child. That is the reality, and that is just one example.
Another constituent said that his combined energy utility bill was £101 a month, but from this March it will increase to £340 a month. That is a huge increase—it is phenomenal. He is a retired gentleman and says that he has a good pension, but even he will find it difficult to make ends meet.
My hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point. Is not that the reason why the Chancellor’s buy now, pay later scheme is so misguided? These constituents are already going to be potentially getting into debt as a result of those eye-watering rises; they do not need more misery piled on later.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Unfortunately, people still believe that they are being given money by the Government when in reality we all know that it is a loan that has to be paid back.
As we also realise, this is not a short-term crisis; it is going to continue for some time yet. There has been a slight delaying of the pain but no resolution of the difficulties that many people are facing. There is a need for a wholesale cut in VAT, but we also need to target those people who are in the greatest need again. Everybody is facing a crisis or a problem, but those who will bear the brunt of it are the poorest in our society. I urge the Government to rethink their whole support policy and to have not just a holistic policy, which is absent, but a policy that focuses particularly on those people and families who need support most of all.
For example, I welcome the fact that the Welsh Government’s winter fuel support scheme is making funds available only to those claiming universal benefit. That is a recognition that that is where the need is greatest, and I hope that this Government will learn from their good example. Clearly this is an ongoing situation, and I really hope that the Government will not just acknowledge the situation but revisit what they are doing to alleviate real fuel poverty and poverty generally for many people in Wales.
Finally, I would like to comment on the situation in Ukraine and the support that many people in Wales are giving to the Ukrainian people in their hour of need. I am sure that every single Member has been close to tears when they watch the television, particularly this morning when we saw families and small children crying and leaving their homes to find refuge and sanctuary elsewhere. I think that all of us, irrespective of our political affiliations, would want to do everything we possibly can to help those people in their terrible need. I pay credit to the fact that the Welsh Government, even though they have limited resources, have made some £4 million available in humanitarian aid and declared Wales to be a nation of sanctuary. Good; so it should be. That is something we can all be proud of.
I am pleased that the Government here in London have said that they intend to provide match funding for the resources provided by members of the public to the Disasters Emergency Committee, but the scale of the crisis that we see unfolding is truly enormous and horrifying, and all of us need to do far more. We need to do a lot in this House to encourage and work with the Government so that they can give the greatest possible support. We need to ensure that this Government work with the Welsh Government to ensure that aid and sanctuary are provided to those people who need them. Also, we all have a responsibility to go back to our constituencies and do everything we can to work with local people to provide the infrastructure and mechanisms to ensure that the support they want to give is channelled effectively and quickly. I am sure that we can all commit ourselves to doing that.
I am sure that we would not want to forget the brave people in Russia and the Russian people living in this country who are protesting against the war. I organised a large rally in Caernarfon last Saturday, where I spoke to a Russian lady who lives locally. She told me through her tears that this was the first time she had ever felt ashamed of being Russian. She was there with a Ukrainian friend. There are also people in Russia who are standing up and protesting against the war, and we should support them as fully as we can.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One thing that is very clear is that the Ukrainian people’s struggle is not with the Russian people; it is with Vladimir Putin, whose actions can only be described as barbaric. It is important that we have that solidarity in place to give our maximum support to the people facing such horrific circumstances.
I will conclude by saying that it is appropriate, on this day and in this debate, to remember something that St David repeated time and again, which is that is important always to be generous to those people in need. That is absolutely right.
May I belatedly wish you a very happy St David’s day, Madam Deputy Speaker? May I also say what a great pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David)? This is not the first time I have followed him. I also followed him as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Wales Office, and I would like to pay tribute to him for all the hard work he has done over the years for Wales.
We speak today on the important issue of Welsh affairs, and I am delighted that the Backbench Business Committee has facilitated this debate. We speak also against the sombre backdrop of the events in Ukraine. We are living through difficult times—arguably the most difficult times since the end of the cold war. Russia’s unjustifiable aggression against Ukraine has made us all realise the truth of the old adage that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Making a strong contribution to the United Kingdom’s vigilance against the threats posed by an aggressive Russia are the 850 soldiers of the Royal Welsh Regiment who were recently deployed to Estonia as part of the defence of NATO’s eastern flank. The 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh is the successor to the historic regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, one of the most ancient regiments of the British Army, which historically recruited in north Wales. I am sure that we all wish the soldiers of the Royal Welsh and their families well at this difficult time.
As the hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned, sad events such as this tend to bring out the best in the Welsh people. I have no doubt that the tragedy of Ukraine is touching the hearts of the people of all our constituencies. In fact only today, while I have been waiting to speak in this debate, I have received two emails from constituents. One was from Mrs Parry in Llanfair Talhaiarn, who wanted me to advise on how she and her neighbours could get a supply of nappies to the refugees in Ukraine. The other was from Mr Bolton of Abergele, who drew my attention to the activities of Abergele Viewpoint, which is supporting the Disasters Emergency Committee. Like the hon. Member for Caerphilly, I commend the Government for already committing £20 million to that fund and committing to match-fund anything that the public raise.
The crisis in Ukraine is not only a humanitarian one; it has focused attention on a number of issues, not least the issue of energy. Many European countries are heavily dependent upon Russia for natural gas. It has the largest natural gas reserves in the world. Germany, for example, takes over 40% of its natural gas from Russia. Italy takes about 50%. Some of the smaller countries, such as Bulgaria, are virtually entirely dependent upon Russian natural gas. Germany has halted approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as part of its sanctions against Russia. That is a move that is likely to infuriate President Putin, and I would suggest that his retaliation is only a matter of time. Fortunately, we in the United Kingdom rely on Russian gas for only around 3% of our own natural gas supplies, but nevertheless, the potential for energy shortages on the continent should be a wake-up call for all of us. We need to do more to ensure the security of our domestic energy supply, and that means not only gas but the carbon neutral sources of energy that will be crucial if we are to meet our net zero targets.
The right hon. Gentleman rightly mentions the UK Government’s assistance in relation to the Ukraine crisis. During this St David’s day debate, will he acknowledge and praise the Welsh Government for setting aside £4 million of their budget for financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine?
Obviously we should commend the Welsh Government for doing that, and we should commend everyone who is lending their resources to the Welsh national effort. Wales is a generous nation, and its generosity is demonstrated by all the stories we are hearing in this debate.
North Wales potentially has a huge role to play in helping to secure the energy supply of this country. It is well placed to become an energy powerhouse, and not only in relation to what I would describe as the low-hanging fruit of wind energy. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) would wish me to draw attention to the potential of Anglesey as an energy island, which should be developed as a priority.
The Prime Minister has said it is his ambition to see a new nuclear power station started in this Parliament, and there could be no better location for it than Wylfa on the north Anglesey coast. I was once told by a senior nuclear engineer at Hitachi, which previously had an interest in Wylfa, that it is the best site he has seen anywhere in the world for a nuclear power station, and I strongly urge the Government to pursue the development of Wylfa with appropriate private sector partners as a priority. I am pleased that the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill will soon become law, as it will provide a financing model, the regulated asset base, that should prove more attractive to domestic investors.
Similarly, I suggest that Trawsfynydd should be considered for the location of a new fleet of small modular nuclear reactors. That proposal has the support of the local authority, it has significant local expertise and it has a lot of the necessary infrastructure. Siting an SMR in Trawsfynydd would present the prospect of a new north Wales-developed industry that could relatively quickly be rolled out across the country and, indeed, internationally, putting north Wales ahead of the game.
We should also look seriously at the concept of tidal lagoons. Sadly, as we know, the proposed Swansea lagoon did not proceed.
Will the right hon. Gentleman congratulate the Labour-controlled city and county of Swansea on how they have turned around the Swansea tidal lagoon to make it a financially viable project that will provide energy at reasonable prices to over 800,000 homes in the Swansea area?
It would be wonderful if that is the case. If it is happening, it is clearly welcome.
I draw attention to the proposed Colwyn Bay tidal lagoon in my constituency, which would have an installed capacity of around 2.5 GW. That is significantly more than the Swansea lagoon. Frankly, it would have the output of a nuclear power station. It would be completely carbon neutral and would probably require little maintenance throughout its very long lifetime of around 125 years, as a minimum.
Along with my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) and for Aberconwy (Robin Millar), who also have constituency interests, I recently had a meeting with the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change to discuss the proposal, and I am pleased to say that he appeared to be more than interested. Again, I urge the Government to work with prospective developers on producing a feasibility study on what would be a hugely important piece of energy-generating infrastructure off the north Wales coast.
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would not want to ignore the flood-prevention function of such a lagoon, which is one of the reasons why I support it, too. Communities along the north-west Wales coast have suffered very much in the past, and we remember the poor people of Towyn many years ago. I am sure that is another benefit of the lagoon.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will remember that we discussed lagoons on the Welsh Affairs Committee 15 years ago. I would not want to see another 15 years pass before the Government do something to encourage such a development. He is absolutely right that another important function of lagoons is that they are an additional layer of coastal protection, quite apart from the leisure opportunities they present, so they are extremely important.
The Mersey Dee is a hugely important industrial and commercial area that straddles the north Wales-England border. It is the seat of many nationally and internationally important companies such as Airbus, Toyota and Vauxhall, but it is hampered by the border passing through the middle of it. Part of the area is subject to economic policies developed in Westminster, and the other part is subject to economic policies developed in Cardiff. There is frequently a lack of joined-up economic development policy, which impedes the region in achieving its full potential.
The Mersey Dee Alliance is an important organisation comprised of private sector companies, local authorities, academic institutions and others. Its focus, and that of the all-party parliamentary group on Mersey Dee North Wales, is to maximise growth in this unique cross-border region. I and other officers of the group, together with leaders of the Mersey Dee Alliance, recently had a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), to discuss ways in which a more co-ordinated approach to the region might be pursued with the Welsh Government.
There are good reasons to do so. In fact, Dr Elizabeth Haywood, in a 2012 report for the Welsh Government, recommended the creation of a quasi-city region straddling the border between England and north Wales. I strongly urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to work with colleagues in the Welsh Government to reassess that report and to work to create that city region, with a formalised role for the Mersey Dee Alliance, to produce co-ordinated policies for the whole region. I think the proposal has widespread support in north Wales and north-west England, and it would do a great deal to improve still further the economic potential of what is already one of the most important industrial areas of the country.
I support my right hon. Friend because such cross-border interaction is vital for my Clwyd South constituency.
On north Wales becoming an energy powerhouse, I draw attention to incremental, smaller renewable projects such as the Corwen community hydro project in Clwyd South. The big projects are vital, but it is also extremely important that we increase the incidence and reach of smaller projects that can do so much for our individual communities.
I am pleased to agree with my hon. Friend. It is welcome that so many innovative smaller projects are now coming forward. As I said, the problem in north Wales is that we have been pursuing the low-hanging fruit of wind power, which I believe has now reached saturation point. We should be considering more developments of the sort he describes to generate the energy we need.
Once again, I am very pleased that Welsh MPs have the opportunity today to debate Welsh affairs on the Floor of the House, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating this debate.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I join in the tributes to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who has announced his retirement at far too young an age? There is plenty of life left in him yet. I wish him and his partner Jayne well when, eventually, in some considerable time, perhaps in a couple of years, he stands down from the House. May I also extend that to you, Madam Deputy Speaker? With both you and my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly announcing your intention to leave the House at the next election, we will be poorer on these Benches in the future. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly is not leaving because in one of the last Welsh affairs debates I claimed the title of Tad y Tŷ—the Welsh Father of the House—as the longest serving Welsh Member of Parliament, having sneaked in before everybody else back in 2001 and taken my oath first of the Welsh intake at that time. I know it was dispiriting for all the other Welsh Members to suddenly realise that their hopes of ever being Tad y Tŷ were threatened by my claim to that title.
We meet to celebrate that patron saint of Wales and St David’s Day, and to discuss Welsh affairs, as we usually do each March. As I have said before, this should be a permanent fixture and we should not have to go to the Backbench Business Committee with a begging bowl to ask for this debate each year. As other Members have said, we meet at a time of great peril for Ukraine and for the world. I want to take this opportunity to express the solidarity of the people of my constituency, in Wales’s capital city, with the people of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and the whole of the Ukrainian people. Hon. Members may not be aware, although some will, that one of my predecessors had strong Ukrainian ties. In what can only be described as a temporary historical blip, the voters of Cardiff West broke habits that were decades old and returned a Conservative MP in 1983. I am afraid that the experiment was not a success and after four years they returned to Labour, and have done so ever since, to my considerable benefit. The name of the late Conservative MP for Cardiff West was Stefan Terlezki, who was born in what is now western Ukraine in 1927. I should make it clear that his politics and mine could hardly have been more different, but his extraordinary life story, where he was both enslaved by the Nazis and conscripted into the red army, from which he absconded, is a reminder of the suffering that the people of Ukraine have endured through war in their history. When Ukraine became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he warned of the dangers of maintaining overly close ties with Russia and pressed for Ukrainian membership of the European Union. We now see his fears being realised before our eyes.
Hon. Members also may not be aware of this Welsh connection with Ukraine, but we are learning more about Ukrainian history, perhaps for the first time. For example, the city of Donetsk in Ukraine owes its creation to a man from Merthyr Tydfil, John Hughes. Towards the end of the 19th century, he left the Welsh valleys to start a new life in what was then one of imperial Russia’s industrial centres. In 1869, Hughes, along with dozens of others, embarked on a daunting journey of more than 2,000 miles, boarding eight ships and heading eastwards, ultimately using the opportunity to set up a state-of-the-art steelworks and ironworks of his own in what is now Ukraine. He chose the Donbas region, because of its rich mineral deposits. As word reached the ears of skilled workers, engineers and managers back home, around the site there gradually grew up a thriving town of expatriate Welsh people, which was christened Hughesovka and later Yusovka. It had grown to a population of 50,000 by the turn of the 20th century, although its Welsh influence would come to an end with the Soviet revolution in 1917, after which it was renamed Stalino and later Donetsk. Today, there still remains one part of Donetsk known as Yusovka, and we, as Welsh MPs in the UK Parliament, send a message, across political parties, of solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
However, Wales is the focus of today’s debate and I wish to talk a little about Welsh leadership. The past two years of the covid pandemic have highlighted the issue of leadership and styles of leadership, providing a case study in different types of leadership at a Wales and a UK level. There is no doubt that the people of Wales have been glad to have had my friend and constituency colleague Mark Drakeford as First Minister during the past two years of the covid crisis. His thoughtful, serious and empathetic approach has provided a contrast with the shambolic, chaotic and irresponsible behaviour of the UK Prime Minister; while a bevy of drunken parties, in breach of the Government’s own regulations, were proceeding at the heart of the UK Government, in and around No. 10 Downing Street, the First Minister of Wales was devoting every ounce of his efforts and attention to protecting the Welsh people against the deadly virus, even taking the precaution of occupying a small separate building in his garden to avoid spreading it. Throughout, he was prepared to take difficult, potentially unpopular decisions for the good of the nation. In short, he was faithful to the facts, not a hostage to the headlines—that was the approach the UK Prime Minister, in his desperate desire to not upset the right-wing press, pursued.
We see further evidence of that compassionate leadership in Wales’s response to the Ukraine crisis. As I mentioned in an intervention, the First Minister has made it clear that Wales is proud to be a nation of refuge and has set aside £4 million from the Welsh Government’s own budget for financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. I still do not understand why the UK Government were content until recently to provide passports and privileges to Putin’s pals but are still refusing to waive visas for Putin’s Ukrainian victims in their desperate hour of need. The quality of that Welsh leadership has been reflected in the polls. In a recent poll, in January, in Wales, more than 1,000 people aged 16 and over were asked about leadership during the pandemic and the different approaches that were taken in Wales and England. They were asked which approach they preferred, and 60% preferred the Welsh approach, 17% preferred the English approach, 10% did not know and 13% expressed neither opinion. Other polls have shown that even voters in England preferred the Welsh approach to the covid crisis than the one that has been taken in England. We need to reflect on the whole issue of leadership and what it means, and I think that Mark Drakeford been an exemplar of good political leadership.
I also wish to mention the excellent leadership of Wales’s capital city, Cardiff, by council leader Huw Thomas and his Welsh Labour colleagues. During the pandemic they acted so that no one needed to go hungry, setting up an advice line, and co-ordinating with Cardiff food bank and delivering 13,271 food parcels. On refugees, Cardiff hosted one of the highest numbers of people seeking sanctuary per head of any local authority in the UK; 50% of all asylum seekers in Wales have been hosted in Cardiff in recent years, and the people of Cardiff have been generous in doing this. On the environment, Cardiff has been recognised by the Queen’s green canopy, the UK-wide tree planting initiative for the jubilee, as a champion city. Cardiff Council has planted more than 25,000 trees and started work to increase canopy cover from 19% to 25% of the city. This year, 16,000 trees will be planted in a single planting season.
On culture, the post-covid-lockdown “Live and Unlocked” music gigs at Cardiff castle last August, funded by the council and the Welsh Government and curated by grassroots venues and supporting performers, who have struggled during the pandemic, were a huge success. Successive Purple Flag awards for excellence in the night-time economy have been given to Cardiff since 2019, and £130 million of business support was distributed by the council during the pandemic. The council also adopted a new street-naming policy that I particularly welcomed using Welsh language names by default, with an expert panel proposing names that reflect local history and historic place names. Cardiff Council is working towards parity in the number of English versus Welsh language street names across the city.
That kind of leadership needs to be praised, and I hope that it will be added to at the forthcoming local elections in Wales in May by the candidates for Welsh Labour in my constituency, who I think will all make excellent councillors, including Jasmin Chowdhury, Stephen Cunnah and Susan Elsmore in Canton; Leo Thomson, Kanaya Singh and Caro Wild in Riverside; Peter Bradbury and Elaine Simmons in Caerau; Russell Goodway, Maliika Kaaba and Irene Humphreys in Ely; Laura Rochefort and Peter Jenkins in Llandaff; Helen Lloyd Jones and Tyrone Davies in Radyr; John Yarrow in Pentyrch; and Claudia Boes, Saleh Ahmed and Lorna Stabler in Fairwater. I believe that great leadership requires clear vision, integrity, the ability to see round corners and a willingness to take on difficult decisions. Both the Welsh Government and Cardiff Council have shown that.
I will move on to one final point: the pig-headedness of the Home Office post Brexit on certain issues, and its impact on the Welsh economy and, particularly, Welsh tourism and tourism across the UK. I refer in particular to school trips that are undertaken by children from member states of the European Union. I was formerly a chair of Cardiff castle when I was a member of the local authority in Cardiff. It is a wonderful centrepiece of our capital city, and was bequeathed to the city by the Marquess of Bute and the Bute family. It is a major tourist attraction in Wales and in the city of Cardiff, and a big attraction for coach parties of school children from the continent of Europe, particularly from France, Italy, Germany and other EU countries.
As a result of Brexit, the Home Office has decided that any child visiting the UK on a school trip has to have a full passport. Previously they need only have carried an identity card or some group identity passport. That was all that was required to participate in the school trip. As a result of that decision, it was reported in The Guardian at the end of last year—this evidence was confirmed by Bernard Donoghue, the chief executive of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, at a recent meeting of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee—that 80% of some travel companies’ customers are now going elsewhere than Wales, or the rest of the UK, as a result of the policy.
My hon. Friend is making some really important points. The cultural differences around our country are also made great when we can travel to Europe. I had the great opportunity as a member of the national youth choir, orchestra and brass band of Wales to be able to tour Europe as a child. Artists and musicians are now struggling to tour across Europe because of the visa issue. That point desperately needs to be raised for our choirs, brass bands and orchestras.
My hon. Friend and I have raised that point many times in this House, but I want to get to the nub of the issue. This policy is a choice, not a requirement, by the Home Office. It is a choice that is causing significant damage to British business and to our ability to attract these kinds of school trip tours to our country, and it is affecting our visitor attractions. When the Home Office is asked why it is pursuing this particular policy, the answer that it has given to organisations such as the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions is that that is what people voted for in the Brexit referendum. It has a point; I remember seeing that bus, on the side of which was written: “No more French schoolchildren coming to visit our country!” Is that what people really voted for in the Brexit referendum—no more French schoolchildren absconding and taking our jobs; no 12-year-olds stealing British jobs? The Home Office has adopted a ludicrous position, which it needs to revisit urgently.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point that tourism is a vital industry in Wales, especially in north Wales and not least in my constituency. My tourism operator constituents are terrifically concerned about the prospect of a tourism tax in Wales, which the Welsh Government seem to think is a really good idea. Does he think it is a good idea too?
It is a great distraction technique to try to stop me when I was reaching my peroration. It is absolutely irrelevant to the point that I am making. My view has always been, and I have made it absolutely clear, that those sorts of things should be decided locally. People should have the option to decide how best to handle their tourism funding at a local level. That has always been my view, and I would have thought that it is a view that might fit in with Conservative philosophy, rather than centralising everything.
To return to the point that I was making about visitors to Wales, as a result of the policy, as I have said, there has been a significant reduction. It will have a huge impact if we do not have schoolchildren from Europe visiting. As a former teacher, if I had a class of schoolchildren some of whom had a full passport and some of whom had only an identity card, I would do the same as continental schoolteachers are doing now: I would not bring my class, because I would not deprive some of an opportunity to visit while allowing others to take it up, and neither would any teacher worth their salt. Whenever we took a school trip, if someone could not afford it we ensured that, somehow or other, the funds were put together quietly behind the scenes to allow that child to travel. This is a ludicrous example of Lord Frost’s pig-headed Brexit dogma, and it should be stopped. The Home Office should reverse the policy so that children can come and visit Cardiff castle again, and we can have the joy of seeing them on the streets of our capital city.
I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for bringing the debate to the House. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). I may not agree with all his views, but I certainly have a very high respect for his support for cultural activities and other areas of important activity in Parliament.
I made my maiden speech in this St David’s day debate two years ago, which seems like a different age—before covid and the invasion of Ukraine, and at the very start of my work as the Member for Clwyd South, representing the interests of my constituents and trying my best to help them through numerous problems and upheavals over this dramatic period. Wales has always been the fulcrum of my political views and activities over many years, growing up at Lake Vyrnwy and then serving as a county councillor, town councillor and mayor of my town, before being elected to represent Clwyd South in 2019.
My reaction to the dramatic events of the last two years has always been first and foremost from a Welsh perspective. When I signed the book of solidarity for Ukraine two days ago here in the House of Commons, I signed it on behalf of the residents of Clwyd South. When I stood yesterday with other hon. Members, many of whom are here today, to give a standing ovation to Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, I thought of people across my constituency who have pledged their support for Ukraine and its freedom from the tyranny of Russia. I also thought of two of my constituents: Mr and Mrs Jones, who have managed to bring two members of their family back from Ukraine to safety in their home town of Corwen.
That prompts me to make one remark with regard to the criticism of the Home Office that we have heard from the Opposition Benches. The Home Office, in my opinion, has worked extremely hard to deal with the complicated process of bringing people here from Ukraine when they may have moved over to Romania or Poland. From my point of view, representing my constituents, I can say that the Home Office has gone the extra mile to help those people. I think we will see a very different picture over the coming days as more and more people come over from Ukraine, as the protocols are developed and changed.
I am delighted that this week, we have been able to bring Wales in all its glory to London with numerous events, particularly in Westminster with the raising of the Welsh flag in New Palace Yard; the first ever eisteddfod at Westminster, held in Speaker’s House; a reception at No. 10 Downing Street; and, of course, this debate. Wales is of huge importance to me. I love Wales and its special character, and I feel that that is typified by my amazing constituency of Clwyd South, with its beautiful scenery and heritage, as seen in the Dee Valley, in the Maelor around Bangor-on-Dee, and in Erddig and Chirk Castle; its pioneering industrial heritage in our proud former mining communities, the Llangollen steam railway and the Llangollen canal, with its mighty aqueduct designed by Thomas Telford; the many successful businesses that have started up and replaced the work of the old industrial and mining communities, and which are now thriving in Clwyd South alongside larger and more famous companies, such as Cadbury’s in Chirk, Village Bakery in Coedpoeth and Wrexham, and Ivor Williams Trailers in Cynwyd and Corwen.
The special character of Wales is typified also by the beautiful Welsh language and culture, as showcased by the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod and the Fron and other male voice choirs; our hard-working farming communities and those who love the outdoors—walking our hills, taking a narrowboat along the canal, canoeing on the River Dee or taking part in the many other activities that draw so many visitors to Clwyd South—and, most importantly, by our close, caring communities, where everyone looked after each other during the pandemic, and our frontline workers in the health service, shops, council services and other organisations went the extra mile to keep people safe. In those communities, people do not interfere in each other’s lives, and they bring that special Welsh sense of humour to raise our spirits and keep us sane in difficult times.
Representing my constituents here at Westminster also brings home to me how much Wales benefits from being part of the United Kingdom. Like my Welsh Conservative colleagues here today, I take great heart from the fact that under this Conservative Government, the Union—specifically as it relates to Wales, but also across our whole United Kingdom—has grown stronger and continues to do so.
Our response to the pandemic shows the benefits that the Union brings to people across the UK. To support the booster rollout and wider covid-19 response, we have now confirmed a further £270 million that the Welsh Government can spend in advance of budgets being finalised at supplementary estimates in the new year. This is on top of the £3.8 billion that has been provided to the Welsh Government through the Barnett formula over the recent period, and on top of the extra £5.2 billion that the Welsh Government received in covid funding in 2020-21.
Vaccines have been the way out of this pandemic. The UK Government have secured and purchased vaccines on behalf of the whole United Kingdom, and over 6.5 million doses have been delivered across Wales. I emphasise that the speed and scale of this programme would never have been possible if we had stayed in the EU. We have heard a significant degree of criticism from the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), but if we had followed the Welsh Government’s policies and stayed in the EU, we would never have got the vaccine programme off to the flying start that we did. That would have had a major impact on the health and wellbeing of people in our nation.
Indeed, the armed forces have made a tremendous contribution to helping in the fight against covid. Currently, 411 military personnel are available to support the pandemic response in Wales, and that includes 313 supporting the Welsh ambulance service and 98 deployed to assist the seven health boards across Wales. My right hon. Friend made the point in his excellent speech that the deployment of the Royal Welsh to Estonia is another vital aspect of how the armed forces are helping us to deploy and present our position in the terrible crisis in Ukraine. That is testament to the fact that as a United Kingdom, we are stronger in our defence and in dealing with the health and wellbeing of our country. We can bring the whole strength of the United Kingdom to assist Wales and the rest of the UK. That is why, for me, being a Unionist is vital.
People and businesses in Wales have benefited from direct financial support from the UK Government. The facts are well known, but 475,000 jobs have been protected through the furlough scheme, and £2.4 billion has been provided to 60,000 Welsh businesses through the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme and the bounce back loan scheme.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned the shared prosperity fund. It is important to point out that the Government have committed, at a minimum, to matching the size of EU funding in Wales. Over and above that, as a Member of Parliament for a constituency that lies not in west or south Wales, but in north-east Wales, I must make the point that a large part of Wales received no benefit from EU structural funds. The shared prosperity funding and the new ways of financing and helping Wales give us a great opportunity to help all communities, so that we are not stuck to some rigid dogma concerning geographical areas, but we can focus on all areas where there is deprivation and a need for levelling up. The new system will be of huge benefit, and it will be a much improved way of helping communities across Wales.
Overall, Wales receives considerably more funding per head than England—about £120 for every £100 per head spent by the UK Government in England. Furthermore, Wales’s notional net fiscal deficit—the gap between total public spending for Wales and public sector revenues from Wales—amounted to £14.5 billion in 2020-21. This equated to around 18% of estimated GDP for Wales, or £4,556 per head. These are dry details, but in truth they represent an extraordinary Union dividend for Wales.
In Clwyd South, we have historically been starved of investment by the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff bay, but we have seen renewed vigour from the UK Conservative Government to correct this injustice, with unprecedented levels of funding coming into the region. [Interruption]. Would the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) like to intervene?
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. Part of the issue that we are dealing with is that Labour almost entirely represents south Wales, and it has only one seat north of the valleys, in Alyn and Deeside. Therefore, it does not surprise me that Labour Members really do not understand how much people in north Wales feel left behind and uncared for by the Welsh Government. I am afraid that her remark bears out exactly what I am saying.
The levelling-up fund bid for Clwyd South was developed by Wrexham and Denbighshire Councils and sponsored by me, as the Member of Parliament, and it proved successful. It is vital investment for my constituency, going from the Trevor basin through Llangollen and Chirk and on down to Corwen, and bringing huge benefits to the communities, the Llangollen canal and the Llangollen railway. One central part of it is the world heritage site at the Trevor Basin, which incorporates Telford’s magnificent aqueduct. It is an extraordinary fact, but until now there has been absolutely no public investment in the world heritage site by either the Welsh Government or the UK Government. I am delighted that the UK Government have now put their money where their mouth is and supported these tremendous projects within my constituency.
These projects will have an important catalyst effect on local communities, addressing not only the issue of visitors, but the health and wellbeing of our communities through the use of the canal and so on. Very close to the Trevor Basin lies areas of derelict industrial land. My hope is that this money will not only improve the visitor experience and life for the residents of my constituency along the Dee valley, but act as a catalyst for further development of areas that are in bad need of improvement and regeneration.
It was my pledge in the 2019 election to work constructively to deliver the change and investment that Clwyd South needs. I am proud to have worked with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales and their team at the Wales Office, as well as the rest of the UK Government, to bring improvements to my constituency.
I finish with reference to the comments made by Huw Edwards when he introduced the Eisteddfod on Tuesday in the Speaker’s House and celebrated St David’s famous exhortation:
“Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things that you have heard and seen me do.”
I felt that those wise words had an extra resonance this week, as we are almost overwhelmed by the great events that are besetting our world. By focusing on activities that we can control—the little things to which St David referred—such as helping others, working hard, raising money to help people in Ukraine, looking after our family and friends, volunteering and taking an active interest in our community, we will find a way through the darkness and emerge on the other side, and, in the words of St David,
“be joyful and keep the faith.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this debate and thank him for the huge amount of work that he did in government as a Minister in the Wales Office, and also for his work in defence, in foreign affairs, on the constitution, on Scotland and so on. As we all know, he has brought many, many talents to the House and we wish him well for the future.
This year marks 100 years since Labour became the party of the majority of people of Wales, winning 18 out of 35 seats at the general election in 1922, with the Liberals taking 10 and the Conservatives six. For Labour politicians, being an elected representative is about trying to improve the lives of our constituents, strengthening the cohesion of our communities, making sure that we value each and every one, and looking after those who fall on hard times.
The Llanelli constituency has been represented continuously by Labour MPs since 1922. I am privileged to follow three distinguished parliamentarians: Dr J. H. Williams, Jim Griffiths and Denzil Davies. A party can only bring about radical universal change when it is actually in government—be that at UK level, Senedd level or council level.
I pay tribute to Jim Griffiths, who was described by James Callaghan as “one of Wales’s greatest sons”. If we look back at some of Griffiths’ achievements, we can see how relevant they are to some of the problems that we face today. In that radical Government of 1945, he brought in family allowances. They were to be paid to the mother, which is something that campaigners had been wanting for a very long time. He saw the poverty and malnutrition in his constituency and was determined to look after people who fell on hard times. He brought in the National Insurance Act 1946, which ensured unemployment benefit and sickness benefit, and the National Assistance Act 1948, which ensured that those who were unable to make the contributions necessary to be eligible for those benefits—people who had disabilities; people who had been unable to make enough contributions to cover their old age—were covered. He also brought in the Industrial Injuries Act 1946 to look after those who were injured at work, those who needed a disablement pension for life, and indeed money for the dependants of those who were killed at work.
We need to think hard about how we look after the poorest in our society today. It is 12 years since the Conservative Government came to power. In that first year, they broke the benefits link to inflation that had always been there. Even Margaret Thatcher did not break that link. We have seen 12 years of erosion in the value of benefits, plus, of course, the £20 cut that we saw earlier this year. It is all very well to say that that was additional, but we must bear in mind those 12 years of erosion. It was hardly a fair compensation for that, and that money did not even go to those people on legacy benefits. Then there were the cuts in tax credits. It is all very well to talk about the softening of the taper on tax credits, but that does not make up for the amount of cuts that there have been to them.
I fear now that, with rampant inflation, we will see malnutrition return. We are already talking about people having to choose between eating and heating. If that goes on for more than a few weeks, children will suffer—their development will suffer—and, sadly, we will risk returning to a pre-1945 state. I urge this Government to look again at how we treat the poorest in our society, particularly in respect of the cost of living crisis.
Jim Griffiths was also known for his work in developing what we now know as the Wales Office, a precursor to the whole idea of devolution. We have been able to do things differently in Wales with a Welsh Labour Government. Gradually, we have had more powers, and we have developed and implemented policies that reflect Welsh Labour principles. The Development Bank of Wales, for example, has supported many businesses and helped them grow, working to the priorities of the Welsh Government, including growing the missing middle—those medium-sized businesses that we are still short of in Wales.
The Welsh Government have been not only providing support for the foundation economy, which is home-grown local businesses feeding into the local economy, but using public procurement to support the local economy and promote ethical procurement—not using firms that blacklist or trash workers’ right. We also have a social partnership approach—a partnership between Welsh Government, businesses, industry and trade unions. Interestingly, because the Welsh Government gave out more money than usual during the pandemic, they were able to increase the number of firms that are involved in a partnership that has conditionality attached to it for having that money from the Welsh Government. That conditionality is about saying that there will be growth and job provision, about saying that there will be fair work and workers’ rights, about looking after the wellbeing of the workforce, including mental health, and about having a commitment to tackling climate change.
It is very noticeable that the National Audit Office gave the Welsh Government a clean bill of health on the way they had gone about procuring supplies during the pandemic, while the UK Government, sadly, wasted billions by giving contracts to cronies. Frankly, we are all very ashamed of that. It is also shameful because all of us paid for that.
Public transport is a real challenge for us in a very large country. It is vital to help people get better access to education, training and job opportunities. I know that the Welsh Government are committed to building on their work for Transport for Wales, by taking over the railway franchises and by ensuring that we have a better bus service that is more responsive to people’s needs and that looks at ways to make fares more accessible. I know people in rural areas of my constituency who are very dependent on buses with quite high fares to get any job opportunities, because the mining villages that once offered such opportunities now do not, so they have to travel to towns such as Carmarthen and Llanelli for work.
Of course, it is not just the infrastructure that we need to look after; we must also invest in our people. That is something the Welsh Government have taken seriously, with initiatives such as all-age apprenticeships, workplace learning and better digital inclusion. Levelling up is a huge challenge, and I do not pretend that the UK Government have an easy job to do. Working out how to spread power, wealth and opportunity is really difficult. It is not only about getting the appropriate structures in place, but about getting the appropriate ethos and the right relationship between one layer of government and another.
I must say, however, that the way the Conservatives are running the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund shows brazen disregard for the devolution settlement. The Tory UK Government are completely ignoring not only the Welsh Government, but the partnership work done between the Welsh Government and Welsh local government leaders on strategic priorities. Instead, we have an England-focused Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which has not dealt with Wales since pre-devolution days in 1999, and which has allowed previous Tory Ministers to give money to each other’s constituencies, to the detriment of more disadvantaged areas. Will the current Secretary of State be any better?
Again, that contrasts with the close working relationship that the Welsh Labour Government have with the leaders of the 22 Welsh unitary authorities, whatever their political colour, throughout the pandemic, recognising the vital role and burdens that councils have shouldered. We can contrast that with what we hear from council leaders in England about the lack of consultation with the Tory Government. In dealing with the covid pandemic, time after time there was no real consultation, nor even sometimes any communication from the UK Tory Government to the other nations of the UK. Perhaps that should not surprise us, given the poor communication even within the Tory Cabinet and the Prime Minister’s absence from Cobra meetings, but it has serious consequences. It is not only a poor way to run the UK; it also fans the flames of separatism.
It is important that we pin the blame clearly on the Conservative Government for the way they behave, rather than allowing the idea to take hold that it is the existence of a UK Government that is the problem. As we talk about a better balance of power, wealth and opportunity across the UK, we must also celebrate the huge benefit that comes with being part of the UK and being able to tackle big problems such as climate change together.
What is really needed is to put that relationship between the UK Government and devolved institutions across the UK, whatever form they take, on a firm statutory footing. The relationship between areas and different levels of Government should be one of mutual respect. As the Welsh Government have clearly set out, the UK Parliament should not normally seek to legislate for a territory in relation to matters within the competence of the devolved legislature of that territory without that legislature’s explicit consent.
Instead of pitting areas against each other, we should look at ways that different areas can complement each other, perhaps by developing different industrial specialities. That means developing effective funding mechanisms to get away from competitive bidding and ministerial interference—simply creating systems that work better than what we have at present.
The Welsh Government have not grabbed power to themselves; they are using their power to enable local authorities. What we have seen this year in the local government settlement is a very generous settlement to local councils across Wales: a 9.4% increase in core revenue, in recognition of the huge work that local councils have done throughout the pandemic.
On test and trace, Wales used local councils with local knowledge and local people with a public service ethos to provide a service—we might joke that the Welsh are all very nosy, so we would know where so-and-so was on a Saturday night and who he or she might have been meeting. It is so much better to have that ethos than to have the billions wasted in England on contracting out to firms all over the country that did not even manage to train up or employ their people half the time. If we have that ethos and local knowledge, the service can be delivered so much better.
The financial settlement will help to put our local services on a firm financial footing—firmer than has been the case for a long time, as we have had to absorb the swingeing Tory cuts to the Welsh budget. The settlement is the result of months of constructive dialogue between Ministers, leaders and officials in local government and the Welsh Government. Councillor Andrew Morgan, the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, commented:
“Investment in councils is more than figures on a spreadsheet. It’s about investing in our communities, our people and in our vital services that help improve and change lives, whilst continuing to respond to two global challenges: the pandemic and climate change.”
I hope we can all work towards those ends.
It is a great delight to take part in this debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for opening it. I know we all say that there should be a staged item on the parliamentary programme every year, but through the usual channels we seem to have it on an annual basis, so clearly something works, and I hope that that continues long after his retirement. I pay particular tribute to him; his Unionist credentials have never been in doubt and since I have been elected his sage advice and warm words for our United Kingdom have been incredibly welcome. They will be missed on the Labour Benches—although hopefully there are still years to come before then in which he can move the debate.
I echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) on energy policy and in particular the role of nuclear in Wales. I wish him and other colleagues championing it success—I had better mention my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) and her long-haul campaign to deliver nuclear power on Wylfa and Trawsfynydd.
I also echo the points made around the Royal Welsh battle group. We have leaned heavily on our armed forces during covid with military aid in response to civil authorities’ requests, and the strength of the United Kingdom can be seen nowhere better. I know that from my own experience nigh-on two weeks ago, when we called the Welsh Ambulance Service because I was helping a dear lady who had fallen over on Welshpool High Street. Ten minutes later, an ambulance turned up and out jumped a paramedic and a member of our armed forces. It is great to see that support continuing. Clearly it is not sustainable, but that is what our armed forces and the United Kingdom Government are there to do: to provide support where we need it the most.
In this debate more than most, our thoughts are with the armed forces as they forward deploy to support our NATO friends in eastern Europe. The Royal Welsh has done a tremendous job for us in this country during the covid crisis, the floods and other crises; now we lean on it again to ensure the defence of the realm and to support our NATO allies.
I also pay particular tribute, as we have all done this week and in years gone by, to Wales Week. I am sure most Members of the House have been to a Wales Week event this week. Wales Week London—Wales Week world, as it is now—has become a feature of the diary. I pay particular tribute to Dan Langford and Mike Phillips, who are bastions of the championing of Wales, our culture, our heritage and our business and are positive about the opportunities that Wales, the Welsh people and the Welsh business community have. They have brought Governments, communities and businesses together.
I implore the Secretary of State to continue his great work with Wales Week, working with the Foreign Office to ensure that not only is the Welsh flag flying at our embassies around the world every St David’s day, but that business communities and the Department for International Trade are invited and that our businesses are championed at UK level, as they rightly deserve. There were 90 events in London throughout Wales Week—an historic high. I am in no doubt that the whole House will wish Wales Week continued and greater success.
We have heard a bit about the UK shared prosperity fund, and I want to discuss not just the words but the commitments to date surrounding the replacement of European money. I accept the benefit of the doubt given by my hon. Friend—I call him that to reflect St David’s Day—the Member for Caerphilly, and that was kind of him, but this is not just about words. The community renewal fund gives 23% of the UK funding to Wales—way above any Barnettised formula in the past. That is a clear direction of travel. We have secured 7% from the levelling-up fund. Again, that is way above what we would see from a UK Government scheme if we just were just going to honour the commitment.
The hon. Member makes an interesting point given that I have just given him two hard figures. The latest schemes coming out of the United Kingdom Government show that this is not about words, but action—actual funding leaving the Treasury and the levelling-up unit and going into Wales. We have 23% from the community renewal fund going straight into schemes across Wales and 7% from the levelling-up fund—way above any Barnettised formula. The figures are there, so he need not ask for them. Now we need to work together.
The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who is not in his place, talked about an attack on devolution. With the objective 1 funding, we qualified once, we qualified twice, and we continued to qualify. That was not a great thing to continue doing, as countries in eastern Europe managed to use the funding programmes organised by the European Union to grow their GVA and so no longer qualify because their prosperity, skills and poverty indicators were all going the right way. In Wales, we are still under the Welsh European Funding Office. This is not just a political assertion from the Conservative Benches. The Audit Wales, Committees of this House and the European Union itself wanted to know time and again why the European funds that were going to Wales were not getting any better outcomes than countries in eastern Europe—the outcomes that our constituents wanted. I remember during the referendum, when we were on the same page, wondering why the response was so bad in the south Wales valleys.
Does the hon. Member accept that many of the financial levers are not in the control of the Senedd, including the whole taxation and benefits system, which affects the GVA of the population of Wales very significantly? Therefore, there are 12 years in which the Conservatives share responsibility for whatever deficit he is referring to in terms of where he thinks the development should have gone to? In addition, why is there this aversion to including the Welsh Government together with his Government and local government to talk about the priorities of the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund, instead of just ignoring them?
I could make a 10-minute speech on the irony of that intervention, but I can see the Deputy Speaker looking at me funny so I will not. Most of those arguments could be made for most of the eastern European regions, as they have different constitutional settlements and local government as well. We could go back and forward on that, on an academic level, for a while.
Going back to the attack on devolution, I have seen the discussions around what mutual respect means for Labour Members. They do not mean mutual respect; they mean that they want the Welsh Government to control all decisions. It is not about putting things together; it is about having a veto over what this Government are doing. I find that completely frustrating, given what I have described as happening with former European programmes. The leader of Powys County Council has been unequivocal in welcoming the levelling-up fund and community renewal fund—schemes that, for the first time ever, provide real investment in mid-Wales. This is hugely significant.
I reflect on the exchange between the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes). Looking at the political map of this place, above the Brecon Beacons there is beginning to be a political discourse of two countries—or three with mid-Wales—where there is a palpable feeling of neglect coming from the south Wales Labour party, as we see it.
Two speeches are enough.
I would push back heavily on the willingness of communities in north, mid, and, no doubt, south Wales to access funding directly from the UK Government to work with us on strategic issues. Mutual respect is always chucked around in this Chamber, but in the Union connectivity review, for the first time ever, the UK has looked at taking responsibility for connecting the United Kingdom. When the European Union did that through its trans-European network, there was not a single utterance in this place. In fact, there probably were some utterances from the Conservative Benches, for a very different reason. It was absolutely fine for Welsh Labour and the Welsh Government to have the European Union dictating where infrastructure spend should go in the United Kingdom in connecting the whole of Europe, but the second the United Kingdom Government say how to connect our great four nations together, there is outrage, saying it is an attack on devolution. [Interruption.] That intervention from Scottish Members will feature independence, I am sure.
Montgomeryshire has a strongly cross-border population. A good chunk of the workforce, if not the majority, cross the border to work every day. Our district general hospital is in Shrewsbury in England. Our sixth-form colleges are over the border. We are a community that certainly does not see, or want, the huge policy divide that is being asserted on the Opposition Benches.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the bits that is missing from mutual respect in Wales is from the Senedd to local authorities, and that one of the enabling and exciting aspects of the new funding arrangements, particularly with regard to the levelling-up fund, has been to put local authorities in the driving seat and give them the respect that they deserve in this process?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. We have seen that time and again. It is ironic that anyone should say we are attacking devolution given that those on the Treasury Bench and former Secretaries of State have empowered the Welsh Government and the Welsh Parliament with a plethora of new powers. I well remember when planning powers were devolved and an aspect of those, for energy, was devolved directly to local authorities. The first thing the Welsh Government and the Welsh Parliament did was to take those powers from the local authorities and centralise them. That is the theme of devolution since Labour has been at the helm—power and control. I very much welcome the increase in funding to the local authorities, especially the rural ones. I am big enough to say from the Conservative Benches that the First Minister of Wales got many of the decisions right during covid, and he did a good job in the round, but now is the time to restore the civil liberties to my constituents and to Wales. Now is the time to back off from the day-to-day control and, I am afraid, the nanny state, to a certain degree, that seems to develop around the covid rates.
Let me return to my central point—the great opportunities in trade going forward. Hopefully in the next St David’s Day debate we can leave the old Brexit arguments aside and start really focusing on what is great for our Welsh agriculture and businesses. It was hugely terrific to see the investment go into Randall Parker, one of the biggest sheepmeat abattoirs in the country, through Pilgrim’s UK. Members will reflect that for decades we have been worried about our sheepmeat market, the process, our abattoirs and our capacity. For the first time ever, money is following actions and words, and we are seeing investment, growth and new markets.
I implore you, Secretary of State, in my final concluding remark, to ensure that by the next St David’s day debate, the New York market has access to the most sustainable, net zero meat in the world—Welsh lamb—and we can be championing that success and that emerging, burgeoning market.
I think I have taken enough time in this St David’s day debate. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] If Members would like me to continue, I could move on to page 2 —[Interruption.] The Welsh Grand Committee will, I am sure, meet before long.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for securing this St David’s day debate on Welsh affairs. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams). My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly and I went to the same school: Cynffig Comprehensive School in my home town of Kenfig Hill. I was the sporty one, and he was the musician. When I made my maiden speech in May 2015, my hon. Friend sat by my side in the Chamber for many hours waiting for me to be called, and he has been at my side throughout my time in Parliament. I thank him for all he has done for the people of Caerphilly and Wales.
In my maiden speech I spoke about the historical and political aspects of my Neath constituency, and my dear friend Hywel Francis, the former MP for Aberavon, helped me write that speech. My speech was about other people, not Hywel, but today I will speak about Hywel and how he was, in so many ways, involved in creating and recording the contemporary history of my Neath constituency.
Hywel tragically died on 14 February 2021, aged 74. Even though Hywel was the MP for Aberavon, we in Neath only loaned him to Aberavon, because so many people in Neath regard him as one of Neath’s finest, and I do, too. I have spoken with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), and he wants me to mention just how much Hywel meant to him, too.
Hywel was born in the village of Onllwyn in the Dulais valley, Neath, and he had a rare childhood. Born into one of the leading communist families in south Wales, he was the son of Dai Francis, general secretary of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. When Hywel was a child, he met Aneurin Bevan, Arthur Horner and Will Paynter, and he lived a lifetime in awe of men like Dai Dan Evans, who Hywel mentioned often. Hywel was a child of the revolution. With that background, Hywel was destined to study history at Swansea University, and he went on to complete a PhD, which was two volumes of intricate, beautifully written historical analysis.
In 1984, Hywel’s PhD was published as “Miners Against Fascism”, one of the finest studies of the international brigades ever written. It pioneered the use of oral history and broke with the long-established tradition within the Communist party regarding what the Spanish civil war was all about. Welsh miners from south Wales made up one of the largest contingents within the British battalion of the international brigades in the Spanish civil war, and they brought with them trade union militancy, extra-parliamentary activity and internationalism. Hywel wrote about the compulsion imposed on some of the volunteers and the effects on the wives and children of those volunteers who joined up. Much of the history of south Wales was dependent on Hywel’s PhD and his subsequent publications. Hywel would probably have had much to say about Putin invading Ukraine.
In 1969, Hywel joined with Welsh academic, cultural historian and author David Burton Smith, known as Dai, and they made a plan to recover the fast-disappearing archives and intellectual material of the south Wales coalfield. This led to the founding of Llafur, which Hywel made sure that I joined, in a Swansea pub in 1970. Llafur brings together people from all walks of life who have a common interest in Welsh people’s history, because history does not just inform us about our past, but can help us understand the present and shape our future. That is what Hywel did—he brought people together, and he was always full of ideas. In fact, Llafur has had such an effect on promoting Welsh history that people are now undertaking historical studies of Llafur.
In that Swansea pub in 1969, the south Wales coalfield history project was also created, and that led to the establishment of the South Wales Miners’ Library in the autumn of 1973. My friend Sian Williams is the secretary and vice-president of Llafur and has been the librarian of the South Wales Miners’ Library since 1985. Before I became an MP, I was national coach for Squash Wales, and I coached Sian’s three sons in squash. Wales is one big family. We shall be celebrating the South Wales Miners’ Library’s 50th anniversary next year. Sian and I cannot contemplate doing that without Hywel.
As a young boy, Hywel was mesmerised by hearing Paul Robeson at the Ebbw Vale Eisteddfod in 1958 and hearing his voice down the transatlantic link to the Porthcawl Miners’ Eisteddfod. Every year between 1952 and 1957, Robeson was invited to attend, but his passport had been withdrawn by the US Government because of his outspoken left-wing and anti-racist views. Hywel was so proud when Paul Robeson Jr. visited the South Wales Miners’ Library in 1989 and again in 2007.
Hywel played a prominent role during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, and in 2009 Hywel collected his earlier writings and memories together to publish a book on the 25th anniversary of the miners’ strike in Wales entitled “History on Our Side”. The title comes from the words and actions of the 1984-85 strike, what was happening across the world in 2008, and the words of Tower colliery striking miner Robert True in June 1984, who said to Hywel:
“Surely we can’t lose, history is on our side”.
Hywel started to keep a diary during the strike, but became aware of police surveillance, so went through a gradual process of self-censorship. Phil Thomas and Penny Smith from the Welsh Council for Civil and Political Liberties recorded their experiences for their book “Striking Back”, but they hid their tapes under the floorboards in their house. I became friends with Phil and Penny when I did my law degree at Cardiff University during the nineties. Phil was head of the law department, and I am still in touch with him now.
Hywel believed that his miners’ support group in the Dulais valley was the best, because of the talented and committed people who rose to the challenge of developing what was to become an alternative welfare state. Kay Bowen from Dyffryn Cellwen was the food co-ordinator who organised food for more than a thousand families for 12 months. Dai Donovan from Ynyswen was one of the fundraisers. Dai built strong links with trade unions in London, a range of political organisations and the gay and lesbian community, who donated a minibus. The most successful fundraiser was Alun “Ali” Thomas, the secretary of Onllwyn miners’ welfare club, which Hywel called “the palace of culture”. Ali was away collecting funds in Ireland, north Wales and other parts, and he became known as our roving ambassador or our foreign secretary. Many years later, Ali became the councillor for Onllwyn and leader of Neath Port Talbot Council. He is a great friend and has helped me so much, but when he tugs at his braces and says, “Now look here, lovely girl,” I know that I am in trouble. He is one of the best storytellers, especially after he has had a few sherbets.
The fundraisers organised many concerts which featured the South Wales Striking Miners Choir, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, Jimmy Somerville, the Communards and the Flying Pickets to mention a few. The Welsh Striking Miners rugby team went on a fundraising tour of Italy. The funds, some £350,000, were looked after by the support group’s treasurer Christine Powell, whose fearsome dog Butch slept on top of the money until it was deposited in a bank.
The support group also produced its own weekly newspaper The Valleys’ Star, whose editors were Frank Rees from Ystradgynlais and Margaret Donovan from Ynyswen. It was distributed all over the world and was included in striking miners’ food parcels. The wise picket organisers believed in talking rather than fighting and they were so good at it that some people were talked into submission.
Hywel’s support group was different in that it was led by women: the secretary of the group, the formidable Hefina Headon from Seven Sisters, who was courageous on the picket line and a great public speaker and fundraiser; Siân James, who went on to become the MP for Swansea East; and Margaret Donovan, who developed a women’s support group and who travelled to fundraisers to speak and to picket. Since retiring as an MP, Siân has returned to live in Neath.
All of that and more, with a bit of poetic licence, was made into the film “Pride”, which was filmed in the palace of culture and the village of Banwen at the top of the Dulais valley. I have watched the film many times and I always cry when my friend and singer-songwriter Bronwen Lewis from Seven Sisters sings “Bread and Roses”.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Hywel worked behind the scenes; he did not like to be in the limelight, but I totally agree that there should have been a place for him in the film.
Hywel and the support group organised the annual commemoration of the start of the strike in the palace of culture, which became known as the “Glorious 12th”. He brought together all the people involved in the support group who were still alive, the cast of “Pride” and many of his friends. At the 2019 commemoration, I had the honour of unveiling a memorial plaque for Hefina.
Hywel saw history as a means for social change and his boundless energy and relentless activism had a profound effect on everyone who had the privilege to meet him. I was in awe of him, but he had the gift of making people think that they were the important ones. His networking was the stuff of legend. He had many friends throughout Neath, Wales and beyond who he kept in touch with by text and email, which he signed off as “H”, and by telephone calls that turned from minutes into hours. He would start by asking, “What do you think of this, Chris?”, but by the end of the call, he would have given me far more guidance and advice than I could ever have given him, all delivered with his quick-witted humour and lots of anecdotes along the way.
Hywel could never be accused of rewriting history to portray himself in a better light, because he was our guiding light. He used his charm to find consensus by working behind the scenes, cajoling and persuading—never demanding. He was a man who always had a long-term plan and who drew in many of his friends to achieve a common good. We could never say no to H. We are lost without him and we miss him more every day. After standing down as MP for Aberavon, Hywel and Mair returned to live in the village of Crynant in the Dulais valley, and I spent many hours in their house putting the world to rights.
Many hon. Members may not know that Hywel was an accomplished rugby player. He was president of the Seven Sisters rugby club from 2005 to his death and he was the author of “The Magnificent Seven” about its history. He played rugby from 1972 to 1980 and was awarded the Seven Sisters RFC club badge in the 1972-3 season. He played 78 times for the first 15, and scored 22 tries, with a total points score of 88.
After I had been selected as the candidate for Neath in 2014, Hywel took me to Seven Sisters RFC to watch the first team play against my home town of Kenfig Hill. He introduced me to the chairman Jeff “Jako” Davies, who has become one of my dearest friends. The club’s compère Emyr Lewis, who is well into his eighties, took great delight in reminding the crowd that “Chris is from Kenfig Hill” every time that Seven Sisters scored against them. I must be one of the few MPs who has voluntarily joined a rugby club committee—and I still do not know how that happened.
Hywel was instrumental in me becoming the patron of the Seven Sisters ladies team. My friendship with the club captain, former Ospreys captain and former Welsh international Bethan Howell, has grown over the last seven years. Hywel used to call Beth the gay icon of the Dulais valley just to wind her up, but she never bit. She is a formidable person on and off the field. When she puts her arms around me, I feel loved and safe—and a little bit crushed. I am a squash player and I am proud to have played more than 100 times for Wales, but even though she has tried to persuade me to play rugby—on the left wing obviously—one tackle and I would be done for!
Hywel was a one-off who influenced the lives of many people. His friends will ensure that that is never forgotten and that his ideas are taken forward to influence the lives of future generations. Salud comrade!
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) and her wonderful tribute to Hywel Francis, who I know all hon. Members miss. We send our love to Mair. It is also a pleasure to take part in the annual St David’s day debate, which was so ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), whose wise words, contributions, sage advice and friendship we will all miss following his announcement that he will not contest the next election. There is a while to go yet, but we will miss him when the time comes.
Proceedings in Parliament this week have obviously been dominated by events in Ukraine, and all our thoughts are with the Ukrainian people in these dark times. That was demonstrated yesterday in the Chamber by the reception for the Ukrainian ambassador, which was one of the moving moments of my time in the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) said, there are long-standing ties between the people of Wales and Ukraine, with city of Donetsk, which was originally known as Hughesovka, having been founded by the Welshman John Hughes, who made his reputation and fortune as a leading engineer at Uskside Engineering in Newport.
Coalmining and steel production have played just as important a role in the economic and cultural life of central and eastern Ukraine as they have in south Wales. We are all united in our solidarity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly said, the scale is enormous and horrific, and our contributions reflect that.
Like other hon. Members, I have constituents with friends and family in Ukraine and at least one constituent who is currently stuck in the country after travelling there to care for dependents before the invasion began. In her case, her family members were refused a visa application for entry to the UK last year by the Home Office. I hope that everything will now be done to ensure that visas for Ukrainians looking to flee the conflict can be processed swiftly and that a robust system to reunite Ukrainians with family members here in the UK is put in place promptly. I note the announcements this week, but I pray that action is swift. That family have been told by a Home Office adviser that they should be eligible, but they now tell me that there may be no safe passage out from Zaporizhzhia, which is surrounded by Russian forces.
With the failures of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, we have seen how not having comprehensive and compassionate structures in place can have real consequences. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West, I am grateful to the Welsh Government for voicing their strong support for providing Ukrainian refugees with sanctuary in Wales and for providing £4 million in financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. We are a nation of sanctuary and a nation of compassion, as is demonstrated by the groups and individuals across Wales that are already doing what they can to support Ukraine. Groups such as the Polish Community for Ukraine and the Women of Newport, including my constituent Kamila, have been overwhelmed with support for their emergency appeal just this week.
I know that Newportonians in Prague are raising donations in Newport for refugees on the ground. I am grateful also to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) who have donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine humanitarian appeal. I know that we all hope the Government can ensure this money reaches those who have fled their homes to escape the conflict as quickly as possible. Of course, it will again fall to our councils on the frontline to welcome those fleeing Ukraine. I ask the Secretary of State to make sure that the UK Government, working with the Welsh Government, ensure that they have the financial means not just to welcome them, but to support them.
Today’s debate comes at a time when we are looking to the future after the pandemic. That was clearly not the case on St David’s Day in 2020, and two years on from the devastation of the first wave of covid in March 2020, it feels a good time to take stock. I thank all those in Newport East and beyond who have helped us get to where we are now, including the many community groups, charities and volunteers on the ground who helped keep people connected and very supported during the darkest hours of the pandemic.
I also thank our local councils, Newport City Council and Monmouthshire County Council, which kept key services in Newport East running as smoothly as possible in unprecedented times. We should not forget or underestimate how difficult that was. I remember the conversations at the start of the pandemic, the scenarios being anticipated and the very difficult decisions being considered. It was leadership at one of our hardest times, and I certainly will always be thankful for those who step up and are willing to hold those positions at such times. As the Tad y Tŷ, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West, said, our councils play a pivotal role, as we all know, right on the frontline of delivering our services—be they the schools our children attend, care for the elderly, keeping the roads safe, waste collection, recycling services, parks and sports facilities and more. It is our councils that are key to—and are—looking ahead with ambition for a much brighter future after the pandemic.
Labour-led Newport council, very ably led by Councillor Jane Mudd, spent the pandemic, among many other things, distributing more than 9,000 laptops and devices to pupils, and administering nearly £55 million of Welsh Government funding to Newport businesses to support them through the pandemic period, including grants that supported over 70 new start-up businesses and targeted support for sectors such as the arts and leisure. I think the council is a leader in many ways. We are the UK’s best city for recycling, employer of the year at the Welsh Veterans Awards, and a hub for sports with the National Velodrome of Wales, the Football Association of Wales’s Dragon Park and other major events venues in our city. They are all world-class facilities that are on our doorstep. Our future plans include a new leisure centre, the reopening soon of Newport market—the largest indoor market refurb in Europe—and a new 4-star hotel over the river in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West, as well as lots of new modern housing developments in the city centre. This is all in the plan for the regeneration of our city.
Monmouthshire council also deserves praise for its work supporting vulnerable residents and bringing people together during the pandemic. A great example of this are those on the Monmouthshire youth council whom I met when they came to Parliament last week. Throughout the pandemic, the council provided a regular virtual forum for young people to discuss the issues that matter most to them at a time when schools, colleges and social activities were restricted. As the mother of two teenagers myself, I very much appreciate the work of people such as Jade Atkins, its participation officer, who convenes the group that puts in that work, and I know the real difference it can make.
Hon. Members have mentioned levelling up, but last year I worked closely with Monmouthshire County Council on its cross-party bid for levelling-up funding for Caldicot. It is a real shame that this strong bid for improvements to the leisure centre and the town centre was rejected by the UK Government, as indeed were all bids from the Gwent area. I hope that future tranches of levelling-up funding will be more inclusive of all regions of Wales, or the accusations of pork barrel politics may ring true again.
May I note, on behalf of the wonderful and dedicated volunteers at the Magor Action Group on Rail, that it has a bid in for a new walkway station for Magor and Undy? I mention to the Secretary of State that its restoring your railway bid is in at the moment, and it would be much appreciated if he could nudge his Department for Transport colleagues for an update on the next steps, as would his taking the lead, following the Burns Commission, to provide the funding to reverse the historical under- investment in rail in Wales by investing in our lines and new stations. We are watching that very keenly.
I want to pay tribute to the work of the Labour group on Monmouthshire council, which has combined constructive opposition to the administration with its continued campaign for better services across the county and improved infrastructure in areas such as Severnside in my constituency to match the rapid growth in house building we have seen locally. It is important that, after the upcoming local elections in May, the council, which this year received the highest increase in its core funding settlement of any local authority in Wales from the Welsh Government, now prioritises this investment where it is needed most. We need to invest in infrastructure where we are building new house developments.
I will cheekily take this opportunity to wish all the candidates standing in Newport East the very best of luck for 5 May. I am very proud of the candidates whom Labour has chosen in the Newport and Monmouthshire wards in my constituency. They are a very enthusiastic and talented cross-section of our community. We have a firefighter, a brewery worker, a nurse, a journalist, a taxi driver, a lecturer and small business owners, and they are all hoping to be given the privilege of serving their communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) spoke about the benefits of the strong collaboration between our councils and the Welsh Labour Government, and that should never be underestimated. Wales led the way on the vaccine roll-out across the UK and maintained the most generous comprehensive package of support for businesses of any UK nation. Now, as we look beyond the pandemic, the Welsh Government have come up with a £330 million package of extra help for the cost of living crisis—a funding package that, yet again, is significantly larger than the equivalent support provided by the UK Government in England.
Of course, there is only so much that a Welsh Government and local authorities can do with the powers afforded to them. This is true of the steel industry in Newport, where the UK Government must provide our steel industry with the support it needs on decarbonisation and electricity costs. We have talked about that in the House—other members of the all-party group on steel and metal-related industries are here—for over a decade. It is also true of funding for our police, which has been cut by this soft-on-crime Tory Government over the last decade.
On the cost of living, Conservative Members need to acknowledge the part they have played in enabling this crisis. It was the Government who failed to regulate the energy market, failed to invest in home-grown renewables and failed to end our dependence on imported energy. They cranked up national insurance contributions while cutting universal credit, and then responded to the lifting of the energy price cap by marching their MPs through the Lobby to vote down Labour’s motion to cut VAT on household energy bills with a windfall tax. As I highlighted in my Westminster Hall debate last week, the cost of living crisis in Wales and across the UK is now very real, and it is pronounced for businesses as well as for households.
That is especially true for industries such as hospitality which were already dealing with the shockwaves of the pandemic. Hospitality means about £3.6 billion to the Welsh economy each year—that is a major contribution—and, pre-pandemic, the industry trade body UKHospitality Cymru reported that the sector employed 180,000 people in Wales, about 140,000 directly and 40,000 in the supply chain. The challenges that the sector faces are multifaceted, from energy costs to recruitment, which is currently at an all-time low. Representatives from local hospitality businesses tell me that the sector now needs greater support from the Government in their efforts to recruit and retain staff as the recovery opens up the economy. The sector in Wales also wants to discuss the scheduled increase in VAT in April, which UKHospitality suggests could lead to price inflation of around 12.4%, compounding other supply chain cost pressures.
I hope that the Government can work with the hospitality sector in Wales now as it seeks to recover the confidence that has been lost over two challenging years.
I am very glad to contribute to this debate, much of which has indeed been a debate—that is refreshing, as the toing and froing is very useful. I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for securing the debate. He and I, and the Tad y Tŷ, the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), came into Parliament in 2001—clearly I was not as canny as the hon. Gentleman in aspiring to that title. Still, that was 20 years ago and how time flies when one is enjoying oneself—or not, as the case might be. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the debate in this most momentous of weeks. I would like to pay tribute immediately to the bravery and continued resistance of Ukraine’s armed forces and people in the face of the illegal and criminal Russian aggression. Our thoughts are with them in these dark times, and I hope that, through our collective action against Putin and his cronies, the people of Ukraine know that they are not alone.
On Tuesday we celebrated dydd gŵyl Dewi, St David’s day, the day that brings people together in Wales, and indeed across the world, to celebrate our place in the world. We of course celebrated here in Westminster, and I thank Mr Speaker once again for allowing us to use Speaker’s House to bring some people together for a wonderful programme of events, which I think everybody enjoyed. It was organised by the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) and myself, and I am grateful to them for their work. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire is in our thoughts today, she having lost her mother a couple of days before St David’s day. I saw her at the event and she said to me, “Mum would never have wanted me to miss a party,” which was a wonderful thing to say. Our thoughts go out to her today.
The spirit of community was also reflected in the Senedd, where Members of all parties, including the Conservatives, supported Plaid Cymru’s long-standing call for St David’s day to be made a bank holiday. Some 80% of the people of Wales are in favour of that, according to a recent poll by the BBC, and the Parliament of Wales has backed a motion to that effect. The UK Government have a duty to deliver and might follow the lead of my local authority, Gwynedd, which for the first time gave all its workers a day off. Wales has the lowest number of bank holidays of the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom, so a St David’s day bank holiday is long overdue. We are the only devolved nation without the powers to do this, which represents yet another asymmetry in the treatment of devolved nations by Westminster.
Does the hon. Gentleman have any confidence that the UK Government will listen to their Welsh Conservative colleagues, not least because in a recent business statement the previous Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees- Mogg), who now has another ministerial job, could not even name the leader of the Welsh Conservative party?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fine point. I am afraid I could not name the leader either—I never know whether it is our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State across the Chamber or Mr Andrew R. T. Davies, the rather excitable leader of the Conservative group in Wales. Possibly it is the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). He gets my vote, as I really enjoy talking to him, although we rarely agree about anything—he is a very fine man. But the serious point is that we need a bank holiday to celebrate our saint’s day.
This week there was yet more evidence of the other long-standing crisis, that affecting our climate, in the form of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. As the UN Secretary-General noted, the severity of the challenges facing our climate, our ecosystems and our way of life mean that the report is, in his words, an “atlas of human suffering”; that is a striking way of putting it. The report underlined in stark terms how those least responsible for climate change will face the worst risks, which is the poor of the earth mainly; how climate change will drive the widespread extinction of life both on land and in the sea; and how these life-threatening events will continue to multiply. We all have a duty and responsibility to mitigate and adapt to these outcomes. As such, I urge the Government to update their net zero commitments and use the upcoming Budget to fiscally empower Wales and the other devolved nations to meet their own net zero and sustainability commitments and targets.
Further to this, the Government must reconsider their position on the Crown Estate in Wales. They devolved the management of the Crown Estate in Scotland to Scotland in 2017, but Westminster retains control of that estate in Wales. This means that revenues from Wales’s natural resources are siphoned off to Westminster and the Treasury rather than staying in the communities where they are generated. This injustice and constitutional asymmetry is particularly pertinent to our net zero ambitions. Were we to get those rights and that power, the opportunities for us in Wales would be breathtaking. For instance, through 17 offshore wind projects, Scotland has secured nearly £700 million for its public finances and attracted a global consortium of developers who will further invest in a Scottish supply chain. This is great for Scotland and the world, and for the environment, and clearly demonstrates how local control is essential to maximise the benefits of the green transition.
While our resources are smaller in Wales, the most recent round of auctions demonstrated the potential wealth of Wales’s offshore wind resources as the Crown Estate’s Welsh marine portfolio increased in value from £49.2 million to £549.1 million—about a tenfold increase. Simply put, we have an opportunity in Wales to better deliver the renewable electricity needed for our net zero transition and for energy security. I urge the Government to reconsider their position ahead of the Budget and to work with Wales, rather than over us, to help meet our net zero commitments.
Finally, I would like to close by considering the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. As I said earlier in the debate, I was deeply moved at a rally I organised in Caernarfon on Saturday. We had between 200 and 300 people there, including people from Ukraine and Russia. I was deeply moved by the commitment shown by local people; we organised the rally overnight essentially, calling it on Friday afternoon and holding it on Saturday lunchtime.
More broadly, I applaud the UN General Assembly meeting yesterday and voting overwhelmingly to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The international community showed itself to be united in the face of Russia’s illegal war and demanded the full withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. Plaid Cymru also fully supports the sanctions regime introduced by the UK, the European Union and the US, and urges the Government to go further in their pursuit of Russian influence and money in the UK.
Hundreds of thousands of people have already been displaced by this conflict. Wales stands ready to assist as a nation of sanctuary, as has been said—gwlad lloches ydym ni. We are a land that welcomes people and gives sanctuary, and we are ready and willing to take in those displaced by this illegal conflict. As someone said at the rally on Saturday, “Close the door on the thieves, open the door for the refugees”—in a nutshell. That is why I urge the Government to waive all visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees coming to the UK and match the support offered by the EU, and to put in place support for the Welsh Government to implement their nation of sanctuary plan.
I will make one further point on this matter. The Prime Minister, at Prime Minister’s questions, said it was impossible for the UK to do that because countries on the mainland of Europe were within Schengen. Therefore, they had open borders and by necessity had to have a unified plan allowing movement. He neglected to mention, despite the heckles from those on the Opposition Benches, the fact that Ireland is outside Schengen. But Ireland has said, “Come. Don’t worry. It doesn’t matter if you have no contact with us. Come, there is a welcome for you.” That is how we should be in Wales, too.
To conclude, in these times of crisis we must all come together and play our part. Wales can and will do more to further our common future, whether on climate action or on helping those displaced by conflict. I urge the Government to step up, listen to the wishes and aspirations of the people of Wales, and work with everyone to deliver on them.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for securing this Backbench Business debate on Welsh affairs to celebrate St David’s day.
I would like to make my initial comments about Ukraine, because on Sunday we had 400 people gathering in Mumbles in my constituency—I was unable to join, having tested positive for covid. Ukraine Wales organised the event and it was very well and widely attended. I was very upset that I could not be there, but I did speak to my constituents Stuart and Galina Morgan. Galina is Russian and I saw the hurt on her face as she spoke about her disappointment about what is happening in Ukraine. She is half-Ukrainian and feels horrified by Putin’s barbaric actions.
Hearing stories at first hand about the work being done by so many people across Gower and across Swansea to support our Ukrainian community makes us realise that the community is pulling together. I am also very pleased with the work of the First Minister and the Welsh Senedd on Wales being a country of sanctuary, and with Swansea’s Labour council on Swansea being a city of sanctuary.
I am going to take my speech in a little bit of a different direction, and I will be putting some asks to the Secretary of State, which I hope he can help me with. It is an honour to speak in this debate. I echo the words of the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), who asked for St David’s day to become a bank holiday. As he said, it has the full support of the Senedd and a Mr David Davies in Penclawdd, who runs a very avid campaign in the South Wales Evening Post to make St David’s day a bank holiday, which I commend him for. Let us be honest: it is about time it happened.
I grew up in Llanelli next to the Gower constituency, but overlooking Stradey Park. I bang on about having represented Wales. I have nine caps for international rugby and my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees), who is not in her place, represented Wales in squash. It is a real honour to be able to represent a country. Rugby in Wales is about identity. Villages and towns and their rugby teams across the Gower constituency are absolutely fantastic. Their communities are at the heart of my constituency, which is made up of small towns. Penclawdd, Pontardulais, Loughor, Mumbles, Swansea Uplands and Fall Bay RFC—this is where the talent in Wales is being grown, with grassroots rugby and the commitment of volunteers. Our communities, our regions and the Welsh Rugby Union are investing in girls rugby. I am very proud to be an ambassador for the West Swansea Hawks team, which has age-grade rugby for girls. It is fantastic. I know the niece of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) plays for them and she is very proud of her achievements —so am I, actually.
Going back to rugby players from my constituency, as today is World Book Day I would like to pay tribute to some rugby greats who have written books. I remember two years ago paying tribute to my friend Lowri Morgan when she was here for an event at Downing Street—which, again, I was not invited to. She is a TV presenter, an adventurer and an ultra-marathon runner. She is also lucky enough to have played rugby with me. She has written a book, “Beyond Limits”. I spent a week in Norway with the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme and the royal marines, which took me to my limits. I cannot imagine what it was like for her running an ultra-marathon in the Arctic Circle. It is really important that we share the experiences of sports people, because they are us and we are sports people. I could never do that, mind you. It is a brilliant book and I commend her for it on World Book Day.
The book by my constituent James Hook, a player for Ospreys and Wales, and David Brayley, another constituent, is absolutely brilliant. It has not only won an award, but he has written a sequel. The book gives young people—boys and girls—the inspiration to pick up a rugby ball and play for their country. Another constituent is Ryan Jones, a recent MBE and a great individual. There are so many and I could go on, but I shall not.
My raison d’être, the whole point of being a Member of Parliament, is to empower women and girls to achieve in their lives, to pull down the barriers that are put in their way, to tell their brothers that they can play for Wales as well, and to fight for the right to do that as we are 51% of the population. As I said, I grew up in Llanelli overlooking Stradey Park. My brother Julian, five years older than me and far more attractive, had it all going for him. [Hon. Members: “No!”] You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true. He played for Wales under-18s and under-21s, and beat the All Blacks. His advice to me when I went to university was, “In freshers week, make sure you join a club and find yourself something to do, something where you can play to your strengths, Tonia.” I think that was code for, “Find a sport where you can throw your weight around.” I was very proud to play at Exeter for the women’s team in the town and for Exeter University. That afforded me the opportunity to play for Benetton Treviso in Italy. I turned down the opportunity to play for Italy, I’ll have you know. I chose to follow my heart, which is Welsh. In my fourth year of university I had the opportunity to play for Wales, to be awarded full colours at university and to follow my dreams. That is what I wish for all women and girls in sport.
Last year, together with 120 former players and coaches, I wrote to the Welsh Rugby Union, because we felt strongly that women’s rugby in Wales was being badly let down. Many things could be blamed for that. I played back in 1996—a long time ago—and felt that things had not really moved on, and many other former players felt the same way. We saw the captain, Siwan Lillicrap, crying on TV and felt her pain. We knew how the pride to pull on a jersey for Wales is unique but that that pride was being really hurt by a lack of attention and force, and we did not want to see that.
I was glad that the chief executive, Steve Phillips, spoke to a small group of us to explain the WRU’s plans and say how it would turn the situation around. He said that it would review women’s rugby, with the review undertaken by Kevin Bowring, Helen Phillips and Amanda Bennett. That was a very important process. The Secretary of State may be aware that something similar happened in Ireland, where the Irish women’s team put together a letter and went to the Government. However, their report was published—they had their report and saw what it said—and we need that to happen in Wales. The Welsh Rugby Union must publish its review of women’s rugby in Wales. That publication would be groundbreaking in fast-tracking female development in Welsh rugby for the next 10 years.
The WRU is a great organisation that has produced great rugby players, but we can always do better, and it takes a great organisation to be honest with itself and reflect on its mistakes, warts and all. If there is a sexist and misogynistic culture, that needs to be called out and addressed. We need to know why women on the executive board have resigned. We need to know why women are leaving the WRU. In the conversations that I know the Secretary of State will have with the WRU and other governing bodies in Wales, will he press them to ensure that they are stamping out sexism and misogyny in women’s sport in Wales? We are great in Wales, we are proud to be Welsh, and we must ensure that sexism and misogyny is gone. Will he, like the Irish Government, ask the WRU to publish its review into women’s rugby so that we can accept the mistakes of the past and embrace a more equal future for women and girls?
I am a proud Scarlets supporter—much to the chagrin of some of my constituents in Swansea and Gower—but I am pleased to see how the regions are also embracing the women and girls’ regional game and age-grade rugby. That needs to be invested in. I look forward to having a conversation with the Secretary of State on that, because I see the potential for the WRU, the Irish Rugby Football Union and other countries’ rugby governing bodies to come together for a Celtic or European league so that there is another level of rugby for young women and girls—older women as well, if they are good enough—to strive to play in. That would put us on a competitive stage with England, France and New Zealand, and we would be in the right place for the women’s rugby world cup again.
I pay tribute to Nigel Walker, who was brought in by the WRU and has addressed so many of the issues that were haunting the women’s rugby team. He has worked day and night, and that man has a heart of gold—he is brilliant. I also pay tribute to Liza Burgess, who is also part of the WRU set-up—I think she is now the coach or manager of the under-18s women’s team. Women and girls need our support in rugby in Wales. I hope that the Secretary of State will meet me for a conversation on that as well as press the WRU to publish its review and find out why women are leaving. If there is a culture of misogyny and sexism in that organisation and other governing bodies in Wales, I hope that, along with me, he will help to stamp it out.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) in this important debate. She is a vociferous campaigner for women’s sport, not just in Wales, but across the globe. She has given me a brilliant opportunity to humbly brag about my fantastic niece Robyn, who plays for West Swansea Hawks rugby team, is hoping to be capped for Wales in the under-18s girls squad and has just been given a place in the Wales under-17s netball squad. We can clearly see where the talent is in my family.
I join colleagues in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this important debate. It is my third St David’s day debate in this place—how quickly has the time gone?
It would be remiss of me not to mention what has been happening in Ukraine. The people of Pontypridd and Taff Ely send all their thoughts and prayers to the people of Ukraine. Colleagues have mentioned Wales’s history and proud relationship with Ukraine; we have always stood together. Pontypridd has its own very special link with Ukraine: our Member of the Senedd and Wales’s Counsel General is my very good friend and colleague Mick Antoniw, who is of Ukrainian heritage, as colleagues will know. We stand with him, with all his family and with all Ukraine today.
I would like to make a few important points about the incredible work that is going on in Wales as we head into what I hope will be the road to recovery from the pandemic, once and for all. It has been an extremely busy period for all of us in this place, with the very welcome return of the Welsh Grand Committee only a few weeks ago. Very sadly, I had an unavoidable clash and was unable to speak in the debate, but I look forward to participating in the next one. With any luck, my Welsh learner language skills will finally be showcased on an appropriate stage.
This St David’s day, I want to touch on how the coronavirus has changed lives in Pontypridd and Rhondda Cynon Taf and to celebrate how my community has come together in difficult times. In Pontypridd, we have seen huge physical changes to our town centres, particularly in Ponty town. With the impact of the pandemic, the flooding and changes in how we shop and use our high streets in comparison with the years before, it has been incredible to see people and businesses in our community reimagining what our high streets can be and how they serve our communities.
We have seen a real explosion in the number of cafés, restaurants and bars making use of the space. I cannot list every single one, but I will give a quick shout-out to some incredible places that I have had the great privilege of visiting in recent months. From the award-winning Janet’s Authentic Northern Chinese in Ponty market and the new Gatto Lounge, both of which I visited with my team in the autumn, to the brand-new No 12 cocktail bar, which is very handily located next door to my office, we are seeing a huge growth in what our high streets have to offer. Old favourites such as Alfred’s and the world-renowned The Prince’s are drawing in more people than ever.
Especially in the pandemic, people have been encouraged to support local businesses where they can. Crucial to that success is the hard work of the fantastic Pontypridd business improvement district team, who have done so much to support businesses in recent months. Across my constituency, our many small businesses have had to get creative over the past few years. As ever, there are too many to mention, but I will name a handful: the brilliant Kookoo Madame in Ponty, Pink Zebra in Llantrisant, the Glamorgan brewery, Bragdy Twt Lol in Treforest, Best Buds by Samara florists in Tonyrefail, Bradleys Coffee in Talbot Green, Cortile Coffee in Ponty town and the Deli in Pontyclun. Special mention must go to the incredible efforts of Dawn Parkin, who is up for a St David’s Day award this year in the Senedd; to the team at Interlink, who fundraised to support people at the beginning of the pandemic; and to the team at Beefy’s Baps, who helped the elderly by distributing free food to all those in need.
It is not just small businesses that have been at the heart of our covid recovery. Our fantastic local tourist destinations have helped to take the lead on our road to normality. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, which the Secretary of State and I had the great opportunity of visiting last year, rapidly went from making coins to making personal protective equipment. It then acted as a major covid testing site for much of the pandemic. It really is a fantastic and fascinating place to visit—I recommend it if you are ever in Pontypridd, Madam Deputy Speaker—and it is busy making coins to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee this year. Also busy is Nantgarw China Works, which I recently visited alongside the Welsh Government Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, Dawn Bowden MS.
Investing in such local tourist destinations is a crucial part of supporting communities across Wales in their recovery from the pandemic. Long-term, sustainable changes are also crucial to towns and communities like mine if they are to continue to be fit for purpose for our residents in the long run. For example, I have started to see Pontypridd as something of a transport hub for Wales. We play host to the new Transport for Wales offices right in the middle of town, which, combined with our strengths in aviation and engineering and fantastic local coach operators such as Ferris Holidays and Edwards Coaches, are bringing vital jobs and infrastructure to our community.
While the Government’s confusion over devolved responsibilities is clearer now than ever, I want to talk briefly about the importance of devolution to my constituents. All hon. Members participating in the debate understand the importance of devolution and of working closely with our counterparts in Welsh Government. Our Labour Government in Wales have worked hard throughout the pandemic to take a cautious approach. They are leading by example, unlike some people, and are working hard to support everyone through the significant challenges that we have faced. I have been in Parliament for a few years now and my experiences as a Welsh MP and as a former shadow Minister for Northern Ireland have made it clear to me that for much of the UK Government the devolved nations are just a distant second thought.
We all remember well the controversy that surrounded the UK Government’s disastrous attempt to cut free school meals for children in England, a policy that I would hope that Members of all political persuasions could see was an appalling idea from the get-go. Luckily for children and families in my area, our fantastic Labour-led local authority, Rhondda Cynon Taf Borough Council, led by Andrew Morgan, has for some time been providing parents with the vital cash needed to put food on the table for children.
We have also seen the Welsh Labour Government boldly invest in our creative sector in a way that continues to be missed by the Chancellor in Westminster. Recently they announced £15 million from the third round of the cultural recovery fund to support the arts and cultural sector through covid recovery. Clearly, the Welsh Government recognise, in a way that seems to be missed in England, the unique value of our brilliant local creative sector across Wales. In Pontypridd and across RCT we have some incredible musicians, including our Welsh icon Sir Tom Jones, but there are also smaller groups and organisations that have benefited hugely from Welsh Government support. From the world-renowned brass band the Cory Band, to our very own Dance Crazy in Llantwit Fardre and Green Rooms in Treforest, I am pleased to report that our creative industries locally are still alive and kicking, despite an extremely difficult few years. Long may they continue.
To conclude, it is of course undeniable that there is more work to be done, and we are not yet out of the woods in terms of coronavirus and its implications for our local communities across Wales. What is clear, however, is that our Union—our United Kingdom—is at its strongest when we are able to celebrate and respect our differences but unite against adversity. I am confident that the First Minister of Wales and Welsh Labour are the team Wales needs to see us through the pandemic and beyond. I will of course continue to work in partnership with them over the coming months and years, because only by doing so will we be able to truly rebuild a thriving, ambitious and successful nation out of a crisis. For me that really is the very essence and purpose of St David’s day. Long may this work continue. I would like to conclude with the words of St David—his last words:
“Be joyful, keep the faith, and do the little things”.
It is wonderful to follow my good and hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who is a fantastic advocate for her constituency, and to take part in what is one of the very few opportunities for Welsh MPs to talk about Wales.
I pay tribute to my good and hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who opened the debate and who, sadly, has said that he will stand down at the next election. When the time comes, we will hugely miss his experience and great talent.
There is never a shortage of pride among the people of Wales. We are a resilient, kind, caring nation—always have been and always will be—and we have witnessed that over the past difficult few years. As we reflect on what has been an unprecedented year—I am sure that in 50 years’ time it will be a very tough history exam to study for—I am struck by one overarching theme: the strength of humanity. The human spirit has proven itself to be unbreakable again and again over these past few years, and it is being tested once more. We have all seen the barrage of distressing images and videos from war-struck Ukraine. The most poignant that I have seen is of an elderly woman whose blue eyes pierce through the blood dripping down her face. I know that we are all united in our support for the Ukrainian people. We are all deeply saddened and it is hard not to get hugely upset as we see those very distressing images.
Our First Minister’s response to Russia’s abhorrent attack on Ukraine was to announce that £4 million would be made available to assist with addressing the humanitarian crisis. In that announcement, Mark Drakeford said that he wanted to go even further. Unlike our Prime Minister, he does match words with actions. The Welsh Labour Government have called for a
“simple, fast, safe and legal route for sanctuary”,
with biometric requirements lifted, and for the deadline for the EU settlement scheme family permit to be extended from 29 March. It is unsurprising that hundreds of Welsh supporters have gathered outside the Senedd over the past few days to show their solidarity with Ukraine. During Tuesday’s rally, my Labour colleague in the Senedd, Mick Antoniw, the Member for Pontypridd and whose family are Ukrainian, as has been mentioned, praised Wales for its “phenomenal” support. Mick echoed my views and those of many others when he described the steps taken by the UK Government to assist refugees fleeing Ukraine as “totally unacceptable” and in stark contrast to Wales being a “proud nation of sanctuary”. Mick began an online fundraising campaign to buy medical equipment for injured people in Ukraine with a target to raise £5,000. This has recently reached £23,500—thousands of pounds in donations given in a true spirit of random acts of Welsh kindness, something that Mark Drakeford referred to in his own St David’s day speech on Tuesday when he said
“let’s all do a little something to brighten up someone else’s day. We can call them random acts of Welshness!”
I hope we can all follow Mark’s example and make sure that we show kindness to those around us during these trying times, just as my constituents have done.
The outpouring of local efforts to collect emergency supplies and give donations has been exemplary and I would like to pay tribute to two brilliant local businesses, Flower Lodge and the Secret Shed in Rhiwbina, who are fundraising and have made some brilliant efforts to progress this. I think all of us on these Benches will agree what a huge difference it makes when we have a true leader in power—someone who leads by example, putting the welfare of his people first, as we have seen in Wales. I also want to pay tribute to the President of Ukraine for this. The sheer depth of his passion and commitment to his country is unwavering, and something I know many of us could learn from.
The Labour Government in Wales are continuing to prove what power looks like in the hands of those who are concerned with their entire population, not just with the top 1% while making the other 99% pay for it. Just yesterday, the Welsh Government confirmed that they will spend more than £1 billion on new social housing over the next three years, £72 million of which will be spent on accelerating the scale and pace of the decarbonisation of homes across Wales, proving once again that they are a true leader on climate change. As a way of combating the Tory-made cost of living crisis, they have also made cash payments available to people on lower incomes to help with their energy bills, as well as providing free prescriptions and free school breakfasts.
In an attempt to break the cycle of poverty, the Welsh Government announced last week what has been dubbed a “brave and imaginative decision” to pilot a basic income scheme. This will focus on a group of around 500 young people leaving care who are turning 18. It will start in the next financial year and each person will receive £1,600 a month, making it the most generous basic income in the world. This group has been chosen because young people leaving care are much more likely to be socially excluded and have poor educational qualifications. It is about giving this group of young people the best possible start to their adult life, and as our Welsh Minister for Social Justice said, we want to support them to thrive, not just survive.
In Wales we look after one another. This is in welcome contrast to those in power here. I am proud that, at local level, we have hard-working individuals, business leaders and community leaders who are prepared to step up in their spare time and bring their experience, knowledge and time to improving our communities. At the risk of echoing my good friend and neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), I want to pay tribute to our local councillors, Dilwar Ali and Jen Burke-Davies for Llandaff North and Graham Hinchey and Julie Sangani for Heath and Birchgrove. I also want to pay tribute to our candidates: Mike Ash-Edwards, Marc Palmer, Jackie Jones, Kate Carr and Jamie Green for Whitchurch and Tongwynlais; Bev Hampson, Morgan Fackrell and Chris Walburn for Rhiwbina; Leo Holmes and Claire O’Shea for Gabalfa; Bethan Proctor and Gary Hunt for Llanishen; David Chinnick, Spencer Pearson and Georgina Phillips for Lisvane and Thornhill; and Khuram Chowdhry and Nicola Savage for Pontprennau and Old St Mellons. I am proud of all of them, and I wish them well in the coming elections.
Finally, I want to say a few words about our language. As our Minister for Education in Wales, Jeremy Miles, reminded us, we should never fail in being proud of our language. It is part of what makes us us, and we have a duty to make sure it thrives. Cymraeg belongs to all of us. Mae’r Gymraeg yn perthyn i ni i gyd.
What we have seen in Wales from our Welsh Labour Government is just that: a clear vision and clear, calm and collected leadership. I am proud of that.
It is a great honour to speak in such a wide-ranging and overwhelmingly good-humoured annual debate on Welsh affairs. Before I get properly under way, I associate myself with the remarks that all hon. Members have made about the current situation in Ukraine, which distresses us all very greatly. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have used the powers they have to assist as well as they can. In this fast-moving situation, we are all looking to come up with the best possible outcomes for Ukraine. I associate myself with the calls for the UK Government to open routes that allow more people to come to safety and sanctuary in these islands.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this debate, and I hope everybody in Wales and the Welsh diaspora enjoyed a very happy St David’s day on Tuesday. I assure our Welsh friends that, despite recent events at the Principality stadium—I am sure you share my distress in equal measure, Madam Deputy Speaker—we bear no grudges. Hearing the speech by the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) about the amount of rugby development work going on, particularly in the younger generation, it is perhaps no surprise that Scotland has had such a dismal run of results in Wales recently.
In addition to our sporting links, Wales and Scotland have strong historical and cultural ties going back many centuries. Many of our traditions are shared. If the House will permit me, I offer my own modest example. When I was a student at university, I had a good friend called Carwyn, who achieved some measure of fame going around Wales playing the harp to put himself through his studies.
Carwyn and I met in Cardiff and we decided to go out busking. Carwyn had his harp and I had my violin. We went up to Cwmbran, where we did quite well—we made about £30 in an hour, with which we were very happy. We then headed up to Brecon and made about £70 in an hour, with which we were even happier. The following day I was coming over to see friends in London, so we decided to go busking in Weston-super-Mare once we got over the bridge, and we made the grand total of no pounds and no pence in the two hours we were there.
I bear no grudges against the good people of Weston-super-Mare, and perhaps some day I will go back without my violin. I am not sure where that leaves us, but our combined Scottish and Welsh cultural efforts certainly seemed to find more fertile ground in Wales than on the other side of the Severn bridge.
A debate on Welsh affairs is an opportunity not just to reflect but to look forward. The 2021 Senedd election, for the first time, enfranchised 16 and 17-year-old voters, just as we did in Scotland at the 2014 referendum. It amplified the voices of young people in the political system, allowing them to have their say on important issues. Perhaps just as importantly, it allowed what we might call the devolution generation to pass its verdict on the shared and sometimes competing visions for Wales we have heard expressed this afternoon.
The election late last year yielded a working relationship between Labour and Plaid Cymru. Plaid is not in government, but that cross-party co-operation reflects the relationship that the Scottish National party now has in government with the Green party in Holyrood. It just goes to show how parties’ setting aside differences, establishing their common ground and working together on delivering a common purpose can be an incredibly positive way of working, rather than having some of the crude majoritarianism we sometimes see in legislators closer to where we are now, who are able to press on despite a minority share of the vote.
That agreement, certainly when viewed from Scotland, has resulted in a hugely ambitious policy programme: extending free schools to all primary school pupils; extending childcare to all two-year-olds, setting up an expert group to create a national care service, free at the point of need; taking action on housing—on unaffordable housing and ending homelessness; exploring the creation of a shadow broadcasting and communications authority for Wales to address concerns about fragility in the media and the attacks we have sadly seen on the independence of the print and broadcast media; and, perhaps very significantly, working on plans to reform the Senedd, based on having 80 to 100 Members, to allow for better scrutiny of matters that comes under the auspices of the Assembly, and a voting system that is at least as proportionate, if not more proportionate, than the one that is there now, with some gender quotas, which can really begin to transform the debate in politics. Although I am sure that neither party will have achieved everything out of that agreement that they perhaps desire, all told it is a very broad package of social, economic, cultural and environmental measures, which can help to reinforce the foundations of society in Wales as a modern, prosperous, socially just, confident, inclusive and outward-looking European nation.
The devolution generation might like what they see their Government doing in Wales, just as our devolution generation like what they see in Scotland, but the evidence is mounting that they are far less likely to be enamoured of what they see being done in their name in Westminster, under the current Government. Like most things, that comes back to the problems we are facing as a result of the hard Brexit that has been inflicted on us. Neither Wales nor Scotland were given a seat at the negotiating table and our voices were marginalised. We were told to just suck it up—again, that comes back to the crude majoritarianism I mentioned. That approach displayed a complete lack of respect, not just for the devolved institutions, but for the Union itself—I say that as someone who is avowedly not a Unionist. It seemed to me to tear at the very fabric of what many of us, even if we did not support the Union, thought it had at its heart and what it was all about. Through the likes of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, the remit of devolved powers is being undermined by the UK Government, whether we are talking about not transferring, as we were told would happen, all the powers that were invested in Brussels back to the devolved institutions; simply arrogating the ability to spend, overrule and overreach in respect of the properly devolved structures of governance; ignoring the lack of legislative consent motions; tearing up the Sewel convention, which was such an important part of embedding relations between Westminster and devolved Parliaments and Assemblies at the outset; and undermining the strategic approach that comes from having devolved government working closely with local authorities by simply trying to create bypass streams of funding.
Nowhere do we see that more than in the “levelling up” agenda. I have to say that it is going to take a considerably greater amount of money than has been indicated to date to compensate for the loss of economic opportunities as a result of Brexit and for the loss of structural funding and individual grants programmes that were supported by the European Union and were done in partnership with devolved Governments and local authorities, rather than being done to them. It is going to take a great deal more than what we have heard and seen so far to tackle some of the deep-rooted economic and structural inequalities that we see across the UK. Let me give an example on the shared prosperity fund. I am happy to be corrected on it if I am wrong, but I do not think I will be. Seven out of 10 of the most deprived local authorities in Wales have yet to see any funding coming through. The situation is only marginally better in Scotland, where about six in 10 authorities are failing to get anything through that process.
That takes us to a really fundamental problem: the UK is one of the most geographically unequal of all the OECD nations, with a political and economic system that is skewed very heavily towards London and the south-east. Success breeds success, but so many parts of the UK are performing below their potential because of the way that we choose to structure our politics and the economy. To give an example, gross value added per head in Wales in 2018 was just 72.8% of the UK level, which is pulled up considerably by the heft of London and the south-east. It is important to recognise that Wales is not necessarily the outlier; it is London and the south-east, because of the pull of the capital city effect.
There are, however, other long-term reasons for the disparity which are equally applicable to Scotland, such as the legacy of rapid deindustrialisation through the ’80s and the failure of successive UK Governments to use the powers that they possess in order to alter that picture. Research and development is one such area that seeds success for the future. The Office for National Statistics has data that shows that London, the south-east and the east of England accounted for 42% of total UK R&D funding in 2017. In 2019, that share of the cake had risen to 54%. Meanwhile, Wales in 2019 managed to gather in only 4% of that, which is lower than we would expect from the population share. We have to ask some serious questions about why that is and how it will be addressed, because it certainly will not be addressed by levelling up, or by the modest increase to R&D spending that the Chancellor announced in his recent Budget.
Any commitments to invest in infrastructure would carry far greater weight had the Government not, as I said earlier, bypassed aspects of devolution and the established funding formulas. In Wales, we have a particularly egregious example of that when it comes to HS2, the building of which will diminish Welsh competitiveness at the expense of those regions that will benefit. I am happy to be corrected if wrong, but HS2 also sits outside the funding formula, meaning that the Welsh Government will not even get the benefits of the proportionate spend that could be put into extending the electrification to Swansea, electrifying the valley lines, or any of the other major infrastructure investments that could really unlock potential in parts of Wales that are crying out for it, and make transformative changes to infrastructure from north to south. Members might expect me to say this, but I do not think that active interest from Whitehall is really needed in order to do that, or more of the self-serving cant that we sometimes hear that devolution is somehow misused whenever the Welsh or the Scots have the temerity to vote for more non-Conservative politicians than Conservative ones. What is needed is to give our devolved Governments the tools they need to get on with the job.
In that regard, I particularly commend the suggestion of my good friend the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) when he spoke of Crown estate devolution. He spoke of the £700 million that has come to Scotland from the latest licensing round for offshore wind, but that is only part of the picture. A significant part of that, once the offshore wind farms are up and running, is the additional revenue stream per megawatt-hour of electricity generated that will be able to be directly invested in public services. That is exactly the sort of empowerment agenda that could really start to bring benefits to Wales, just as it hopefully will in Scotland, in terms of supply chains—tackling the world’s environmental problems, ensuring an independent funding base for public services in Wales, and giving our politicians the ability to get on with the job.
My party has long argued that the UK’s fiscal settlement is simply not fit for purpose, and the pandemic has really taken that argument out of the abstract and into reality. In his speech, which I listened to closely, the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) spoke of the money that had come in Wales’s direction as a result of the pandemic. What I did not hear him say was that the Welsh Government, like the Scottish Government, had to wait for decisions to be taken on the English response to the pandemic before those moneys were generated through the Barnett formula and transferred. That made it much harder than it ought to have been to plan the public policy response in Wales and Scotland—and, incidentally, in Northern Ireland—to the pandemic. A Government who were confident in their stewardship, not just of government but of the Union, would surely look to see how they could overcome such frictions instead of perpetually demanding gratitude when a sclerotic and creaky system of funding eventually coughs and splutters its way into life to deliver the money that it was always designed to supply.
Scotland and Wales have been on quite a political journey since the Parliaments opened their doors. In my own party, we certainly stand in solidarity with the entitlement of people in Wales to exercise their right to self-determination; to choose the form of Government that is best suited to their needs; to choose their own future; and to have their choices accepted without hesitation or qualification from the UK Government. I hope that we can all agree in this place, as democrats, that how far and how fast Wales and Scotland continue on that direction of travel ought to be a matter for the Scottish people and the people of Wales to express for themselves, and for themselves alone.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for securing and leading this debate. His recent announcement that he would be standing down at the next election took some of us by surprise, and I hope he knows that his wisdom, his counsel and his huge contribution will be missed in this place. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate, and I thank all colleagues here today for contributing to a wide-ranging and positive debate on Welsh affairs.
With the horrors unfolding hour by hour in Ukraine, I know that it can be difficult to focus our minds closer to home. As we have heard today from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), however, Wales and Ukraine have special historical bonds. One of those is between the town of Merthyr Tydfil in my constituency and the city of Donetsk, which was originally named Hughesovka after the businessman who built it, John James Hughes from Merthyr Tydfil. John Hughes, whose father was a lead engineer at the historic Cyfarthfa ironworks, took a team of around 100 Welsh miners and metalworkers in the 1870s to build the city that is now Donetsk. Our countries have a special link, and we and the people we represent the length and breadth of Wales send solidarity and strength to the brave Ukrainian people as they face Putin’s illegal and barbaric onslaught. The thoughts of all of us are with them today.
Today’s debate has become an important annual event to mark our patron saint, Saint David. In opening the debate today, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly talked about the shared prosperity fund, and he asked for further clarification on how it would work. After almost five years, I do not think that is too much to ask, and it would allay the deep concern and uncertainty that exists among local authorities and partners in Wales. Those comments were echoed by the hon. Members for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock).
My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly talked about the cost of living, the huge pressures that food and utilities prices are creating, and the folly of the Chancellor’s £200 loan for utilities. He spoke about the need to support people who are in the greatest need, and he referred to the Welsh Government’s winter fuel support scheme, which I will return to a little later.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West again talked about the need for this debate to be a permanent fixture, and he spoke about one of his predecessors in this place, Stefan Terlezki. My hon. Friend paid tribute to the Welsh Government and Labour-led Cardiff Council, led ably by Councillor Huw Thomas, for all the work that it has done in partnership through the recent difficult times. He also highlighted the barriers to cultural exchanges for schoolchildren.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli talked about this year being the 100th anniversary of Labour majority representation in Wales, with Labour taking 18 out of the 35 seats in the 1922 general election. She paid tribute to one of her predecessors, Jim Griffiths, and voiced her concerns about the impact that 12 years of Tory Government have had on the poorest families in our communities. She quoted the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, Councillor Andrew Morgan, who said that support and funding for local government were more than figures on a spreadsheet; they represented investments in people and lives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) talked movingly about the former MP for Aberavon, Hwyel Francis, and his huge contribution to the Labour family, to Welsh life and to his community. She mentioned his role in developing the South Wales miners’ library. She also spoke movingly about the contribution of Councillor Ali Thomas, who was a legend not just in Neath but across Wales.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) talked about her constituents stuck in Ukraine and the compassion needed to support safe passage, and highlighted her pride in Wales as a nation of sanctuary. She also spoke of the frontline work carried out by Newport City Council, led by Councillor Jane Mudd, and the delivery of 9,000 laptops across Newport and the £55 million in Welsh Government funding to support businesses there.
The hon. Member for Arfon talked about the need to make St David’s day a bank holiday, the climate change challenges in delivering renewable energy, and also Wales’s role as a nation of sanctuary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) talked about the powerful work across communities to unite and offer sanctuary. She spoke movingly about the work being done by rugby clubs across Wales at the grassroots of the sport. She spoke with pride about her own prowess in winning nine Welsh caps, and I know that all of her colleagues are proud of that as well. She also talked about the work being done at grassroots for children, particularly girls, in supporting the foundation of rugby.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) talked about covid through difficult times, on the back of the floods in Pontypridd, and the need to support local businesses more than ever. She also talked about the excellent work of the Labour-led council in Rhondda Cynon Taf, led by Councillor Andrew Morgan, and the support that it has given to families by delivering meals and food.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) talked about the work in unprecedented times, and the role of the Welsh Government in supporting the Ukrainian people. She highlighted the role of our First Minister, Mark Drakeford, and also the work of councillors across Cardiff North in supporting people during these difficult times.
The right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) and the hon. Members for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) and for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) also spoke movingly about the work being done across their constituencies.
One year ago, the then shadow Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), spoke in this debate and said:
“This year has been a most extraordinarily difficult year, and I express our enormous gratitude to all our key workers in Wales. I pay tribute to First Minister Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Government for their skill and commitment in handling the biggest health emergency in a century—keeping people safe, working closely with local government to keep vital services running, providing the most generous support package for businesses anywhere in the UK, and, of course, protecting our NHS.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1198.]
Little did we know then that the most difficult of challenges would continue for another year. I once again want to express our gratitude and admiration to our key workers, to the Welsh Government and to our local councils for everything that has been done to keep Wales safe over the past 12 months.
The contribution of our local councils and councillors, their leadership and all their workforce, often go unremarked on, and so, in the time that I have today, I want to highlight just a few of their achievements. Welsh Labour councils up and down Wales have supported our communities day in, day out over the past year. They have played an integral role in the lives of our constituents. As a former councillor, I know the vital role that locally elected representatives play. Whether picking up prescriptions, delivering food or essential medication to those who were vulnerable or shielding, and also to key workers, Welsh Labour councillors have been at the very heart of our communities.
In Cardiff, Councillor Norma Mackie returned to service in the NHS, alongside her council duties, to vaccinate thousands of Cardiff residents in Wales’s record-breaking vaccine roll-out—I expect she will have vaccinated more people while I am speaking in this debate. The council workforce in Cardiff were superb, adapting to urgent circumstances—all credit to the council leadership, led by Huw Thomas, working with elected members, the workforce and trade unions.
In Wrexham, Welsh Labour councillors including Malcolm King and Dana Davies volunteer at The Venture in Caia Park, a charity set up by Councillor King, which provides extensive play facilities, learning and support specifically for children and young people. It is a real example of community provision while the independent councillors who lead Wrexham Council fight among themselves instead of for the people of Wrexham.
In Torfaen, at Panteg House in Pontypool, an incredible group of local people run a food bank, a community garden and sports teams, among other things. There are 60 community groups active from Panteg House, catering for all ages from babies and toddlers to pensioners. Initially operating as the free school meals pick-up point for Griffithstown and Sebastopol at the beginning of the pandemic, the scheme quickly snowballed into a community food and clothes bank. Seven days a week, amazing volunteers sort, pack and distribute food and essential items to those in need, as well as offering financial, mental health and physical support across Torfaen. Torfaen’s Welsh Labour councillors, led by council leader Councillor Anthony Hunt, are amongst the local residents who make up the volunteers who ensure that households across Torfaen have access to regular food.
Today, however, under the economic management of the Conservative party and the choices it has made, Wales faces the biggest drop in living standards for 30 years: the highest inflation rate for a decade; gas and electricity bills increasing by 54%; a cut to universal credit and working tax credit, with another to come; more people being pushed into higher tax thresholds; national insurance levels increasing by more than 10%, breaking the party’s 2019 manifesto promise; and a real-terms cut to state pensions.
In just a few weeks’ time, the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis will really hurt deeply. Across Wales, the numbers on people’s payslips will go down and the numbers on their bills will go up. As more and more households try to cope with the impact of the decisions the Conservative party has made, food banks such as those at Panteg House will only become busier.
Where the Conservative Government fail, Welsh Labour delivers. In Bridgend, the Welsh Labour council has helped more than 4,600 people into work through its dedicated employability scheme, involving free training, supported job searches and CV development advice, to upskill and support those seeking work. At the height of the second covid wave, Welsh Labour’s Caerphilly Council delivered its millionth free school meal—an astonishing achievement made possible by a great Welsh Labour council, ably led by council leader Councillor Philippa Marsden and local councillors including Carl Cuss and Eluned Stenner, among others, with financial support from our Welsh Labour Government.
Hundreds of council homes are being built at numerous sites by the Welsh Labour council in Caerphilly, and there are plans for thousands of new council homes in Cardiff over the next two years, including the brand-new net zero council homes welcoming their first occupants in Roath in Cardiff Central. They are 90% more efficient than standard homes, tackling the housing shortage and climate crisis and reducing energy costs all at the same time. There are now hundreds of high-quality new homes in Flint, together with newly built care facilities and a superb town centre regeneration that has created more jobs and apprenticeships locally, all delivered by the Welsh Labour-led council in Flintshire.
Locally, in Merthyr Tydfil, Welsh Labour councillors are looking to replace the ruling Independent Group, whose councillors are too busy squabbling among themselves to look after the needs of residents—something they have in common with the independents in Wrexham, it seems. Just yesterday, the Welsh Labour group on Merthyr Tydfil Council launched an ambitious manifesto that plans to deliver for local people, improving local transport, building on the brand new £11 million bus station provided through Welsh Government funding, and pursuing its No. 1 priority of improving education standards after they have slipped backwards under the Independent administration.
Across Merthyr Tydfil and elsewhere, Welsh Labour councillors are at the forefront of our communities. We have community champions such as Councillor Gareth Richards, who was recently involved in the successful campaign to improve the library facility at Treharris; Gareth Lewis and Brent Carter, who have been supporting those affected by floods in their communities; and all those who helped during the pandemic.
As the effects of climate change become ever more pronounced, freak weather events will continue to become more frequent. Significant investment in infrastructure and flood defences has been made by Welsh Labour councils with funding from the Welsh Labour Government, despite little additional support from this Conservative Government. Most importantly for Wales’s future and our future generations, our Welsh Labour Government and Welsh Labour councils are transforming our schools through the 21st century schools building programme, delivering the best possible learning environments for our children and young people. I also pay tribute to the Welsh Local Government Association for the role that it has played and continues to play in supporting local government across Wales, and to the excellent leadership of Welsh Labour’s Councillor Andrew Morgan.
On the whole, we have had a positive debate highlighting Welsh affairs and the contribution of Wales, and Welsh local government in particular.
I echo the tributes to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for bringing this debate to the House—I also thank the Backbench Business Committee—and regarding the fact that since we last met he has announced that he will be standing down at the next election, whenever that might be. I join in and support his warm comments about Ukraine. I do not think there is a Member of the House with whom those comments would not have resonated, whether here or watching these affairs on television.
However, there the agreement may come to a rather abrupt end. The hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned two very important subjects: the shared prosperity fund and the cost of living. On the shared prosperity fund, I think that he and other Members, on both sides of the House, will be pleased that the long wait for clarity and publication is coming to an end, and there will be further details available any day now. I am conscious that I may have said that before on previous occasions, but one day I will be absolutely right, and that day is soon. Like other Members who have raised similar issues, he made perfectly justifiable comments about mutual respect and a desire to minimise petty squabbles—an ambition somewhat thwarted by subsequent speeches—but that only works so long as the shared ambition is about outcomes rather than about power.
I will not give way for a bit, but I anticipate that the hon. Gentleman will want to intervene when I get on to his speech.
On the hon. Member for Caerphilly’s points about the cost of living, all of us representing seats in Wales will have examples not dissimilar to the ones he has raised in respect of this particularly difficult challenge. While the UK Government have attempted, and continue to attempt, to intervene in all the ways that he suggested so as to be as generous, rapid, thorough, fair and humanitarian as possible, the Treasury must of course balance that with trying to control the inflationary effect of those significant interventions, which, if allowed to run rampant, would end up with greater hardship being suffered by the very families that we both agree need the help that we can all provide.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That is precisely why we have to take considerable care with the measures that we are taking, because if we do not, then the already quite pressing inflationary pressures can only get worse. We are in the same place on that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) rightly introduced early on in the debate a tribute to our soldiers of the Royal Welsh currently stationed in Estonia. That was a sobering and passionate reminder of the role that they are playing and have played in many other pressures facing the nation over the past few months and years. He mentioned, as did others, the potential in the renewables sector, especially in north Wales. He is right to have the ambitions, as is our hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), for large-scale and small-scale nuclear at Wylfa. The other day, I met representatives of the floating offshore wind sector to talk about the potential in the Celtic sea, particularly off the west coast of Pembrokeshire. There are unbelievably exciting prospects in that regard, so we need to aim high. When I refer to the comments of the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) about devolution of the Crown Estate, I will explain why that would limit our ambitions rather than enhance them.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West mentioned the tidal lagoon at Colwyn Bay. That was an argument well made. When visiting north Wales with the Prime Minister the other day, we looked out across the potential site for that. I might add that the Prime Minister has been to that particular part of Wales more often than the First Minister, in fairness to him. That is how seriously we take levelling up and the potential in that part of Wales. I resonate with the comments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West made about the Mersey Dee Alliance. That can be just as easily extended to mid Wales and its relationship with the west midlands as it can to south and west Wales and their relationship to Gloucester, Swindon, London, the south-west of England and beyond, as represented by the Western Gateway.
I quickly turn to the comments of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), who seems to have generated more use of my highlighter pen than any other contribution today, which is probably what he intended to achieve, so full marks for having done that. He made some interesting comments about leadership, most of which I had some sympathy with, but in his glowing tribute to the First Minister, it struck me that if the First Minister’s choice of leadership had been successful, we would be confronting our problems across the globe with the potential of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) as Prime Minister. I am not sure that would necessarily have provided the leadership and robust response to Vladimir Putin.
On the issue of leadership and mutual respect, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to clear up confusion in the House? Is he the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, as according to the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), or is it somebody else?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the leader of our Conservative group in Cardiff is Andrew RT Davies, and the leader of the Conservative party is Boris Johnson. The hon. Gentleman should know that by now, I would have thought.
I have to resist the hon. Gentleman’s attempt to talk about an English approach or a Welsh approach to the covid response. If anything epitomised a UK approach, it was our response to the covid pandemic, and what better example of that than the vaccination programme, which was originally conceived, researched, contracted, delivered and paid for by the UK Government. It was then distributed, with some professionalism, I might add, by a combination of the Welsh Government—tick that box, we can credit our opponents when necessary and appropriate—with the huge help of the Ministry of Defence, as represented rather conveniently by the Minister for Defence Procurement, my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Jeremy Quin), who is sitting next to me on the Front Bench, and NHS Wales. The suggestion that there was either an English approach or a Welsh approach is demonstrably untrue.
I add one last thing. The hon. Gentleman made a rather unnecessarily snide comment about integrity, but when it comes to promises to the electorate, the First Minister and the leader of Plaid Cymru both said just before the Senedd elections that the one thing they would not do is get into bed with each other. Within months of making that pledge to voters in Wales, they did precisely the opposite.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes), with rather good timing—it was a relief at that moment—decided to celebrate everything that is good about Wales, having been treated for a few minutes before that with apparently everything that is bad. I thought that his message to the outside world about what Wales has to offer, and in particular what his part of Wales has to offer, and the strength, value and opportunities that the Union presents, was incredibly well-timed and reminded me of the visit I paid with him to the Trevor Basin back along, where we were able to see for ourselves the joy on the faces of the people who had received funding courtesy of some of the new initiatives from the UK Government to engage in projects that they have hitherto not been able to do.
The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) rightly made some powerful comments about how we should be helping communities in need at this time, but she went on to mention one or two things that make that more difficult in terms of the relationship with the Welsh Government. The solutions to the very problems that she rightly pointed out are not necessarily always achieved just by dishing out cash. I do not think that the Labour party has a remotely compassionate record to look back on. The undeniable truth is that, every time a Labour Administration have held office for goodness knows how many generations, more people were unemployed at the end than at the beginning. That is nothing to be proud of; it is no sign of compassion at all.
We want to be as fair and as reasonable as we can to as wide a number of people in vulnerable positions as possible not only by making sensible, fair and humane interventions but by creating the best circumstances for job creation and proper well-paid sustaining jobs across the whole of Wales. That is compassionate and that is levelling up. It is not simply about handing out cash, tying people down into the benefits system and offering no hope of being able to move on from that position to a different state of their lives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), again, echoed the armed forces’ contribution and made some great comments about the levelling-up fund and how Powys County Council had never been able to qualify for funding of that nature before. I thought he was going to launch into a lengthy speech, because I have heard it often before, on the subject of the Montgomery canal.
I do not think I will.
That initiative, provided courtesy of the UK Government, unleashed private sector funding at the same time. My hon. Friend put his finger on what devolution really means. It is not whether power is held in Cardiff or Westminster; it is about how many people in frontline decision-making positions, who live and feel the opportunity and challenge every day, are brought into the decision-making process in the way we have in Powys—and I hope it will be reflected across the rest of Wales as well.
I was overjoyed that the speech of the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees), unlike others from the Opposition, did not talk down the fortunes of our country, but talked up the record of her great friend Hywel Francis. He was the first and about the only Member of her party who came up to me after my maiden speech in 2010 and, probably through gritted teeth, congratulated me on what I had said.
I am glad that the Secretary of State is in such a celebratory mood. I am sure that he is as excited as I am that the global centre of rail excellence is coming to Wales, in fact to Onllwyn in my constituency. When will the Government release the funds so that we can get on with it?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady is delighted that we have been able to put £30 million into that project. That shows what levelling up is capable of and it shows that collaboration and co-operation—all the things that apparently do not happen—are happening in her constituency. I cannot tell her exactly when, but I will find somebody who can put her out of her misery. Her reference to Siân James reminded me of many happy hours, which other hon. Members might have shared, in Patagonia on a trip of the Welsh Affairs Committee courtesy of my absent hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). I can see the odd smirk of Opposition Members who also remember it.
Nearly finally—somebody once said to sprinkle one’s speech liberally with “And finally” to retain a sense of optimism in those listening—the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), who I have known for a long time and who I like to think of as a friend, made a speech that started brilliantly and ended disappointingly. It almost sounded as though the first half was written by her and the second half was written by a Labour policy wonk obsessed with scoring cheap political points.
The good points were brilliant, however, and I very much take on board the hon. Lady’s comments about the visa situation and the spirit of co-operation with local authorities. There was a call this afternoon between the UK Government and the Welsh Government on the subject of Ukraine refugees, so that level of co-operation is already in place. In response to her point, I hope that she will be as pleased as I am that we have now recruited 479 additional police officers in Wales. It is however difficult to get the oxygen into the hospitality sector, which she rightly raised, when the Welsh Government are about to impose a tourism tax and a second home tax on people who like to go and spend money in the hospitality sector in Wales.
The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) made a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), which this week of all weeks was much appreciated, and I know it will be appreciated by her, too. When it comes to additional bank holidays, I have to say that the lobbying I tend to listen to the most is not from politicians, I regret to say, but from the business community in Wales. I will probably now have a few emails within a few minutes, but I have yet to hear any such requests from anybody who is actually striving to make their business work, to encourage investment into Wales and to create long-lasting jobs. The last thing they have been knocking on my door and asking for is an additional bank holiday. They have asked for lots of other things, but that is not one of them.
On the question of the Crown Estate, and to deal with the comments of the hon. Member for Gordon, I have to say—this is similar to my last answer—that very few people who are, I hope, on the cusp of investing significant sums of money and creating many thousands of very good, long-lasting and well-paid jobs in Wales are saying to me that the blockage, or the only thing stopping them doing so, is devolving the Crown Estate. It is quite the opposite. In fact, I think the potential opportunity for income to come into Wales is enhanced by not devolving the Crown Estate, and that is the official Government position.
I loved the quick whip around the world of rugby from the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). It reminded me of how many members of the national side came from Bancyfelin in one particular game, and although I cannot remember the number, I think it exceeded the number who came from Gower. However, we can argue about that another time. I would love to meet her to talk about the youth element of the sport. That is a source of frustration and ambition, as far as I am concerned, but it is of course devolved. We discovered that when we tried to get some money for the WRU at the beginning of the pandemic, only to get sucked into the whole devolution settlement and it became almost impossible to do a reverse Barnett and get in the money that was necessary.
I appreciate the Secretary of State’s comments about sport being devolved, but I would like to draw his attention to my main request, which was that he press the WRU for the release of its report last year on the review of women’s rugby. That is my key ask.
Absolutely, and when we undoubtedly meet in Cardiff for a rugby-based evening, I think in a couple of weeks’ time, we can with any luck carry on that conversation.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) made some strong comments about culture, but again failed to mention that this is a devolved area and that the investment she referred to was brought to her courtesy of the UK Government’s investment in the cultural sector, Barnettised and made available for those very opportunities in her own constituency. I was surprised she did not mention—I am sure it was an oversight—the £5.3 million that the UK Government have put into the Muni in Pontypridd, which I have visited twice, or the £20 million that her local authority, Rhondda Cynon Taf, has successfully bid for under that particular scheme. Anybody who points a pork barrel politics finger at me gets promptly referred to the hon. Lady, whose local authority came out of that process better than any other in Wales.
And finally, the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) mentioned random acts of kindness—that was her expression—which gave me a sense of false hope, I suppose, about what was coming next. If we are to be able to operate with the Welsh Government, local authorities and other stakeholders in the form she described, we somehow have to wean ourselves off this pathological inability to recognise that we all have a stake in this game, and not everything that goes well in Wales is down to Labour and not everything that goes badly is down to UK money. We have to prise ourselves off that ridiculously lazy generalisation if we are to make progress and if we are to be able to have a proper, mature conversation about how we level up Wales in the way that I think we both want to do. For all the warm words, there is never an opportunity missed to make a snide comment about some party political point that puts us all back to where we started. I do ask her, with the greatest respect, if we can possibly try to move ourselves away from that rather 1970s model of political exchange.
I cannot let that rest while the right hon. Gentleman attacks my speech. Yes, it was about focusing on random acts of kindness within the Welsh people and the stark contrast with the current UK Government, who are damaging the Welsh people time after time after time. If we speak to my constituents, we hear that they do not get anything from the UK Government. The right hon. Gentleman speaks about outdated 1970s politics; he should speak to his own Prime Minister.
I rest my case. My son is a constituent, so I will refer to him. It also might have been an oversight in the spirit of the warm relationship the hon. Lady and I are now forming that she has not mentioned the 9% increase in funding for S4C as a bastion of the Welsh language. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady looks astounded; this is a major contribution to our ambitions on the Welsh language.
Finally—last, and least—the hon. Member for Gordon referred to a number of what I thought were slightly predictable points around devolution. Again it reminded me of the fact that it is difficult to make the progress we all want if every single thing we debate in this House is seen through the prism of independence rather than the prism of jobs and ambition. The big difference between his country and our country is that in Wales 54% of people on average voted to leave the European Union back in 2016, and it is brave for somebody of the hon. Gentleman’s record in this area to suggest that somehow the voters of Wales were not bright enough to make a decision on this.
The Secretary of State is nothing if not prescient, on that point at least. Of course there may have been a slim majority in Wales for Brexit, but does he honestly think that has exempted Wales from any of the problems that have afflicted the rest of the UK from that, and if a referendum were held tomorrow would he truthfully expect that result again?
The obvious statement to make in relation to the hon. Gentleman’s claim that somehow Wales and Scotland were not involved in the negotiations is that I was one of the lucky ones who had to sit and listen to his colleague Mike Russell putting the case, as he did loudly and persuasively in the numerous meetings we had on the Brexit negotiations. It is simply not correct to say that the devolved Administrations did not play a very full and active part in those discussions.
Today’s debate has had its moments of optimism, its moments of hope and many moments of respect for our friends and colleagues in Ukraine. I hope it has also served to show what we have in store on levelling up, and also the huge amount of funding. People sometimes question the amount of funding coming to Wales and make an erroneous comparison with what might have been the case had we remained in the European Union, but actually the numbers and the facts show that there is everything to be cheerful about. I want the relationship with local authorities and the Welsh Government to be positive, because if it is, and if we do not get strung up on the minutiae of power and instead concentrate on our important jobs and inward investment agenda and are prepared to enter those negotiations in the spirit intended, we have a real opportunity of the Welsh Government being able to demonstrate they are good and competent at what they do and the UK Government demonstrating we have an important strategic and economic role to play in Wales as well. That is the challenge that faces us, and today’s debate has enabled us to move just a few small steps towards achieving it.
This afternoon’s debate has been good and extremely worthwhile. It is particularly good that many Members referred to Ukraine and the solidarity the Welsh people are demonstrating to the people of Ukraine; I thank everyone for that.
My only hope is that the St David’s Day debate does not have to be applied for every year but becomes automatic. I ask the powers that be in Parliament for the St David’s Day debate to be a permanent feature of our parliamentary calendar.