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Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 25 May 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Railway Infrastructure

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on railway infrastructure in Wales. (900135)

I am sure the whole House will want to join me in sending love and best wishes to parents, teachers, and the village of Llanfair Caereinion in Powys following the traumatic incident involving their school on Monday. I hope very much that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) will be able to pass on the House’s very best wishes.

I regularly discuss rail infrastructure in Wales with the Secretary of State for Transport. More than £340 million has already been provided for rail enhancements in Wales, including the core valley lines and Cardiff Central station.

From the Queen’s Speech, we learned of a new public sector body to oversee Britain’s railways. Given the importance of the railway infrastructure and the benefits of linking north Wales to HS2, and in view of the problems, delays and cuts in services that we are seeing in Scotland owing to the mismanagement of ScotRail by the SNP—[Interruption.] Have Scottish National party Members tried taking a train this week?

Given those factors, can the Secretary of State tell us what discussions the Government have had with devolved Administrations to boost connectivity across the United Kingdom, and to ensure that lines are properly funded and appropriately managed?

I do not know why some Members on the Opposition Benches were being so derogatory during the hon. Lady’s extremely valid question. It was perfectly reasonable for her to highlight the fact that transport infrastructure in the UK is in the UK, and that any suggestion that it should in some way be devolved underestimates completely the economic value that it provides.

I agree with the general comments that the hon. Lady made, but the UK Government have been working alongside the Welsh Government where they can on infrastructure projects, particularly those involving rail, and the record reinforces that. We are also spending many millions of pounds on infrastructure more broadly, and I think she will support that—along with, I hope, others on the Opposition Benches.

As my right hon. Friend will know, there is considerable and long-standing support in north Wales for the electrification of the line between Wrexham and Bidston, which would link two important enterprise zones and put Wrexham and the whole of north-east Wales in commuting reach of Liverpool, and would be generally welcomed by the local business community. What discussions has he had with colleagues in the Department for Transport about advancing this project?

My right hon. Friend has made a good point. The Government recognise the importance of the line to which he has referred, and I know that Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and Transport for Wales have been discussing the opportunities presented by battery-powered trains.

My right hon. Friend also made a good point about cross-border connectivity and the need for us to view these areas as economic regions and not be disrupted in any way by the artificial boundaries that devolution sometimes creates. I assure him that we will have further meetings with the Department for Transport about this issue.

This Government cancelled Labour’s plans for electrification of the line to Swansea, citing the pretext that it would not speed up journeys. However, there is an urgent need for electrification to combat climate change and decrease reliance on imported fossil fuels. Will the Secretary of State talk to his colleagues about reinstating the plans for electrification of that line, extending electrification further west through my constituency to the Pembrokeshire ports, and supporting these moves through increased investment in renewable forms of electricity generation?

The hon. Lady has raised, quite reasonably, a point that she has raised before. I agree with her on most of the issues that she has raised, apart from the background to the cancellation of electrification, a decision which, as she knows, was taken in the context of bimodal trains as an equally beneficial alternative. However, her general views about rail infrastructure and net zero are entirely shared by the Government. I hope that she might be able to make the same compelling case to her colleagues in Cardiff as she makes to us.

Wales contains 11% of the UK’s railway infrastructure, but in recent years has received only 1% of the Government’s investment. As if that were not bad enough, classifying HS2 as an England and Wales project is denying Wales nearly £5 billion of investment. I know that the Secretary of State does not like it when we remind the Welsh public that his Government is short-changing Wales, but now the leader of the Welsh Conservatives agrees with us, as does the Welsh Affairs Committee. Perhaps if the Government had given Wales a fair settlement to upgrade its railways, the Chancellor would not have had to fork out £10,000 for a helicopter to make a round trip from London to Powys. When will the Secretary of State use his position at the Cabinet table to ensure that his Government cough up?

A good question interspersed with some slightly trite comments; the hon. Gentleman might have done better had he avoided them. He overlooks the fact we have invested £340 million so far, with £125 million for the core valley lines, £58 million for Cardiff Central station, £76 million for the electrification of the Severn tunnel, £4.7 million for St Clears station in my own constituency, £4 million for Bow Street station—I could go on forever. He underestimates and undervalues the investments we have already made.

Having represented a border community for the last 17 years, one is cognisant of the interdependence we have in Shropshire with Wales, with our friends across the border, with my right hon. Friend’s Department and with the Senedd. We are campaigning in Shropshire for the electrification of the line from Birmingham to Shrewsbury, which will help passengers going on to mid-Wales. Will he take an interest in that scheme to ensure that the people of mid-Wales can benefit from quicker times to Birmingham via this electrification process?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend on that point. I have travelled that route myself many times, and I would be happy to see what we can do to help.

Costs of Living: Households and Businesses

2. What recent steps the Government have taken to mitigate the impact of rising costs of living on (a) households and (b) businesses in Wales. (900136)

4. What recent steps the Government have taken to mitigate the impact of rising costs of living on (a) households and (b) businesses in Wales. (900138)

10. What recent steps the Government have taken to mitigate the impact of rising costs of living on (a) households and (b) businesses in Wales. (900144)

To alleviate the immediate impacts of this global crisis, we have injected support worth over £22 billion in 2023. For businesses, we have cut fuel duty and provided help to high energy-using businesses. In the longer term, our Plan for Jobs will ensure long-term prosperity for Wales, including the development of the Wylfa nuclear power station.

The Scottish Government introduced the Scottish child payment to tackle child poverty head on. That payment doubled to £20 and is set to increase further and be extended to children under the age of 15, resulting in 50,000 children being taken out of relative poverty. Given that Wales has persistently had the highest child poverty rate in the UK, does the Secretary of State not agree that welfare powers should now be devolved to Wales so that the Welsh Government can introduce a targeted child payment of their own?

Even the Welsh Government have not made that argument to me. I think they fully recognise that the proper and fair distribution of welfare is done most effectively and cost-effectively on a UK-wide basis, but I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue because the money that the Scottish Government are using is available as a consequence of the Barnett formula, and the situation is the same in Wales.

In relation to the cost of living crisis faced by people in Wales and across the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister told the Welsh Tory party conference that the UK Government would

“put our arms around the British people again as we did during covid”.

Based on the evidence of the Sue Gray report, they are more likely to be linking arms in a conga line. Can the Secretary of State for Wales tell me what discussions he has had with the Chancellor on an emergency Budget to help the poorest households in Wales and across the United Kingdom?

The hon. and learned Lady rightly refers to the fact that the Chancellor may yet be making further comments about this particular issue, just as he did throughout the pandemic. For those who think that the Treasury is neither flexible nor conscious of these challenges, the fact is that there was ample evidence during the pandemic—and now, of course, during the current challenges we face—to disprove that theory. I can tell her, and everyone else in the House, that I have really regular conversations with Treasury Ministers and with the Chancellor himself about exactly these challenges.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to help people during the cost of living crisis is to make sure that we have a vibrant economy and a low rate of unemployment? Would he also agree that having the lowest rate of unemployment since 1974 is helping many families across Wales and the rest of the UK at the moment?

Absolutely. I think most people believe that growing our way out of a cost of living challenge is infinitely preferable to spending our way out of a cost of living challenge. My hon. Friend is right to point out that we want to be flexible, rapid and generous. When there are occasions, as there inevitably will be for Members across the House, where individual constituents somehow do not fit the solutions we have, there are other measures that I hope local authorities will be able to deploy to assist them.

To what extent does the Secretary of State see investment in new nuclear as a way to help people with their energy costs in the long run?

Order. I am not sure that links to Wales. It is a bit off the mark. If you had tried to link it to Wales, I could understand. If not, we will go to the shadow Secretary of State, Jo Stevens.

We now know that the energy price cap is expected to rise to £2,800 a year in October, which means that typical household bills in Wales, having already gone up by £700, will go up by another £800.

It is now 138 days since Labour proposed a windfall tax on oil and gas producer profits so that people across Wales can get help right now. Every day the Government delay is another day they are letting down people in Wales and across the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State voted against a windfall tax last week. What is his alternative to help the people of Wales, and where is it?

I suspect the hon. Lady reads the same news channels I read, so she will be aware that the Treasury will make a further announcement imminently. [Interruption.] She may be annoyed by my answer, but it is only reasonable that I suggest she waits until the Chancellor sets out precisely what his plans are.

May I suggest that the hon. Lady applies equal pressure to her colleagues in Cardiff? They have the power to intervene on things like business rates, council tax and income tax, which they have not done. In the meantime, however, they are thinking of imposing a tourism tax, costing Welsh taxpayers £100 million in the process. They are buying a farm that nobody wants and providing free musical instruments to young people under the age of 16.

Welsh voters gave their verdict on the Welsh Government in the election the week before last, and there is not a single Tory council left in the whole of Wales. The Secretary of State’s party was wiped out.

As the Secretary of State’s answer demonstrates, he does not have a plan and we have not had a plan from the Chancellor. Does he think that buying value supermarket brands, getting a better-paid job or riding around on the buses all day to keep warm is the Government’s answer to the cost of living crisis?

The hon. Lady clearly did not listen, or did not want to listen, to my previous answer. When we know the Chancellor is about to make a statement in the Chamber on all these issues, would it not be more sensible to allow the Treasury to spell out exactly what its plans are and how they will benefit businesses and individual families in Wales before making such highly politicised comments?

I add my party’s commiserations to everybody affected by the bus accident in Llanfair Caereinion.

The Oakeley Arms in my constituency is a superb inn located in a grade II listed building at the heart of Snowdonia national park. It is off grid, it is limited by regulations on energy efficiency measures and its owners now face a quadrupling in energy bills. Does the Secretary of State agree that small businesses need more support? Will he speak to the Chancellor about extending the price cap to our hard-pressed small and medium-sized businesses?

I will definitely speak to the Chancellor, as I often do about these things. Perhaps I could suggest a deal to the right hon. Lady: I will speak to the Chancellor to get further information if she will speak to her leader in Cardiff to get him to call off the dogs by cancelling the tourism tax that the Welsh Government want to impose on businesses, causing further hardship for people in her constituency.

If the Secretary of State kept to the powers he has in Westminster, perhaps he would have better support. There are now no Tory councillors in any of the Plaid-held councils along the west coast of Wales.

Rumours of an economic package are rife, not because the Government care about struggling households and businesses but because, of course, they want to distract from their own lawbreaking. Household energy bills will likely increase to £2,800 in the autumn, yet the Chancellor is sitting on his hands until it proves politically convenient. Is the Secretary of State not ashamed of his Government’s behaviour?

I despair sometimes, with the greatest respect. I urge the right hon. Lady to wait, for what should not be a great deal more time, to hear precisely what we have in store on the cost of living challenges. I remind her that, throughout the pandemic and the cost of living challenges, the Treasury has been unbelievably flexible, unbelievably adaptable and, in some respects, unbelievably generous. To try to pre-empt the Chancellor by making cheap political points undermines the value of what those contributions may be, and it does a disservice to the businesses and individuals that the right hon. Lady purports to support.


3. What steps his Department is taking to support the development of plans for at least one freeport in Wales. (900137)

The Wales Office has worked tirelessly to ensure there will be a freeport, which will deliver jobs and investment into Wales. As announced earlier this month, an agreement has now been reached between the UK and Welsh Governments to deliver that freeport, and this agreement will be backed by millions of pounds of Government funding.

I welcome the Government’s decision to have at least one freeport in Wales like the Solent freeport, which covers part of my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as bringing jobs and trade to Wales, it will bring mutual benefits to other freeports, it will be vibrant, and it is a stark reminder of why the Union between Wales and England is so important?

I agree with both of those excellent points. We have already seen that the Thames freeport has suggested that there will be 21,000 jobs directly and indirectly created, so we know that the Welsh freeport will deliver jobs. I also agree that it is going to be good for the Union and good for Wales to have vessels of all kinds coming from all over the world, bringing their jobs and investment with them, including perhaps from across the Union—we may even look forward to seeing a few ferries from Scotland, if the SNP Government can actually get around to building them.

Cost of Living: Households in Newport West

5. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on potential fiscal steps to help tackle the impact of the rise in the cost of living on households in Newport West constituency. (900139)

My ministerial colleagues and I fully acknowledge that there is a cost of living challenge, which has been caused by a combination of the covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. That is why we are providing £22 billion for households across the UK to try to get through this crisis.

The people of Newport West are facing the harsh effects of this Government’s failure to tackle the cost of living crisis. My constituent Hettie contacted my office because she is a single mum of two and must choose between food and heating. Both her cooker and her hot water are gas, so as the prices rise so do her bills. She works, in her words, “Every hour possible”. She is scared for her and her children’s future, and she is not alone. Local people need to see real action. If Tory Ministers will not take any fiscal steps, will the Minister do what many people in Newport West want and back a windfall tax on oil and gas companies?

Taxes are a matter for the Chancellor, but what I can say is that I absolutely acknowledge that there is a challenge at the moment, which has been brought about by the international situation. That is why the Government are putting £22 billion aside. It is why they have changed universal credit to help people such as the hon. Lady’s constituent who are out working, and why we have increased the minimum wage. It is why national insurance contributions are going to fall, we have extended the warm home discount and put in place a whole package of other measures. While we are spending money helping people get through the cost of living challenge, the Welsh Government are spending money buying up farms in mid-Wales and increasing the number of Senedd Members.

Trade and Foreign Direct Investment

6. What steps his Department is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help increase trade and foreign direct investment in Wales. (900140)

The Wales Office works closely with the Department for International Trade to promote the excellent opportunities that there are to invest in Wales. Wales is an attractive destination for foreign companies to come to, to invest in and to create jobs in, as we have seen with the continued support from companies such as Airbus, which only recently announced plans to increase wing production in Broughton.

As the trade envoy to Brazil, I see the huge economic growth opportunities for both the UK and Brazil in the post-Brexit and post-pandemic environment. Does my hon. Friend agree that, like Dudley North, Wales plays a huge part in UK plc and that therefore we want to see the Welsh dragon flying just as proudly as the Black Country flag?

I am delighted to say that Wales has an excellent trading relationship with Brazil. In 2021, we exported nearly £85 million-worth of goods to the country, while importing £165 million-worth of goods. Wales has good trade and investment with countries across the world. We have seen 72 direct investments in the last financial year, with 1,500 jobs created. Only last week, the Secretary of State for Wales and I were with the Member for the Vale of Glamorgan looking at the new Aston Martin supercar factory in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Free Trade Agreements with Australia and New Zealand: Welsh Farmers

7. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for Welsh farmers following the implementation of the UK’s free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand. (900141)

The Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on free trade arrangements. The Wales Office works closely with the Department for International Trade to ensure that Wales will enjoy the benefits that will flood in both directions from free trade deals with Australia and New Zealand.

The Government’s own impact assessment states that the Australia and New Zealand FTAs will see a reduction in gross value added in agriculture of more than £142 million. The measures are likely to have a disproportionate impact on Welsh agriculture because of its reliance on livestock and dairy farming. NFU Cymru is calling for Wales-specific impact assessments, so will the Minister ensure that they are delivered and that he starts working for Welsh farmers, rather than undercutting them and destroying the industry?

I cannot really accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We were able to import lamb, beef and other kinds of food from Australia and New Zealand when we were members of the European Union. Both countries had an agreement that allowed them to export goods to us without paying tariffs, up to a certain quota, and the fact of the matter is that they never met that quota. It is a bit of a myth that there is cheap beef and lamb in Australia and New Zealand; anyone who wants to look at a website can see what people pay for those goods in Australian and New Zealand supermarkets. They have no plans to increase their flocks or herds. The trade deals that have been agreed are going to be good for farmers and for industry more widely throughout Wales.

Senedd Representation and Levelling-up Agenda

9. What discussions his Department has had with the Welsh Government on the potential effect on the levelling-up agenda of proposals to increase the size of the Senedd. (900143)

13. What discussions his Department has had with the Welsh Government on the potential effect on the levelling-up agenda of proposals to increase the size of the Senedd. (900147)

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the proposed changes to the voting system at Cardiff Bay and the potential impact on democratic representation?

It is mystifying that this proposal was announced on the same day as the Queen’s Speech. It will impose a £100 million burden on Welsh taxpayers and demolish a voting system that has served us well for years, and there has been no consultation with any voters at all. Even the Lib Dems describe it as a stitch-up.

The Welsh Government have decided that they want to increase the size of the Senedd, but there are real concerns that that will lead to a lack of proportionality in representation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the money would be much better spent on public services?

Indeed, I do. I have to say that if this Government were making suggestions of that nature that involved the constitution and voting measures, pretty well all Opposition Members would be saying that that should be subject to a public referendum at the very least. I suggest that the proper course of action for the Welsh Government is to seek the approval of their voters before they proceed with any of the extremely costly measures proposed.

Universal Credit

11. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on trends in the level of people in (a) Rhondda constituency and (b) Wales in receipt of universal credit. (900145)

My colleagues and I are aware that the number of people on universal credit has fallen both in Rhondda and across Wales over the past year. We will continue delivering for residents through schemes such as in-work progression, kickstart and our plan for jobs.

The thing is, 6,320 households in the Rhondda are in receipt of universal credit, and when the Government cut universal credit by £20 a week last year, that took £6.5 million out of the Rhondda economy. That is one reason why the food bank in Tylorstown—ironically, it is in the old Conservative club—now has to provide food to the tune of 3 tonnes a month, although families are not able to contribute so much. When will the Secretary of State restore the extra £20 a week in universal credit?

The Chancellor will make interventions clear in due course. The context to the hon. Gentleman’s perfectly reasonable question is that there has been a 7% increase in the number of people in work in Rhondda and the number of people who are unemployed in Wales is down 23,000 in the past year—he did not mention that. I very much hope that the increases in the national living wage and the national minimum wage will help to offset some of the issues he has raised.

The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—who is my occasional friend, when he is not slagging me off on Twitter—is right to talk about the Rhondda, because there are areas of real poverty, as there are in parts in Lichfield. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that there are many ways to help people, some of which he has named, that there is an urgent need to address food and fuel inflation, and that that can be done in other ways, which the Treasury may well talk about, and not just by raising universal credit?

On that particular point, I agree with my hon. Friend—I would probably describe him as my permanent friend. It is perfectly right that we wait and see what the Chancellor says. We have tried to set out short, medium and long-term measures that will help with the current challenge and we will of course hear more in due course.

Shared Prosperity Fund

12. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of Wales on the shared prosperity fund. (900146)

I have regular discussions with the First Minister of Wales on a range of issues, including how Wales’s £585 million share of the UK shared prosperity fund will level up communities across our country.

Does the Secretary of State share my concern that according to a number of independent analyses, the shared prosperity fund is likely to shift resources away from the valleys, the poorest parts of Wales, to more prosperous parts?

Unsurprisingly, I contest the hon. Gentleman’s assertion. I would just say this: by 2024-25, the annual funding from the shared prosperity fund will match the average annual funding that Wales would have received from the European Regional Development Fund after adjusting for inflation. If he does not take that from me, or does not believe me, I can tell him that it is from Guto Ifan, research associate at the Welsh Governance Centre. That indicates that we are going in the right direction with the shared prosperity fund. Would it not be good, just for a moment, if the Welsh Government supported those very ambitious opportunities?

Order. I know the whole House will want to join me in expressing our outrage and deep sorrow following the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Texas. I know that our thoughts and prayers are with those affected and all of the families who have lost loved ones.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I want to welcome Nick Munting and his family to the Gallery. Nick has worked in Parliament for over 30 years, primarily as a sous chef but also as an Associate Serjeant at Arms. Unfortunately, Nick has had to leave his role because of ill health and he is much missed by his colleagues. I know that all Members, particularly the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), Nick’s constituency MP, will wish to join me in thanking Nick for his long service to the House and in sending good wishes to Nick and his family.

I would like to point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on