The Secretary of State was asked—
Passport Application Processing
This Conservative Government are presiding over backlog Britain, with never-ending travel chaos causing misery and havoc for hard-working people’s holiday and travel plans. Many of my Slough constituents have been waiting not weeks but months for their new passports to arrive. I know it is a similar story for the good people of Wales. Can the Secretary of State clarify how many of the promised 1,700 new members of staff the Government have actually recruited to deal with the crisis?
I should add, for anybody who has an interest in this particular subject, that if there are individual cases that are clearly being badly held up, they should please pass them on to the Wales Office and we will do whatever we can to expedite the service. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, 850 additional staff have been brought on since April 2021, with a further 350 arriving this summer.
I simply do not believe the statistics the Government keep on giving, and I think the Secretary of State should push back on them. I have 30 cases outstanding and more coming in to my office every single day of the week. The team in Portcullis House used to be five people, but is now only three, so there is less of a service. Members of staff have to queue for two and a half hours to be able to deal with a single passport case. I have people who have been waiting for 14 weeks, some who have been waiting for 18 weeks, children who have been waiting for 14 weeks—this is simply incompetence. When will the Government get a grip of it?
The hon. Gentleman knows that every MP has examples of their own. I can only restate what I said just now: where there are individual cases, we are very keen to help. Some 98.5% of applications are being dealt with within the timescale. I realise that for the people who are not in that particular bracket it is intensely frustrating, and it is frustrating for Members across the House. The situation continues to improve, but if there are ways we can help the hon. Gentleman and his constituents I am very happy to do so.
Like other Members, I have an inbox full of hundreds of constituents struggling to get their passports. Some are waiting 15 or 18 weeks, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has said. Those people are already struggling with the cost of living crisis, they are having to fork out for the cost of passports, and now they are losing out on their vital holidays, which they have been desperately waiting for for more than two years. What support is available for those people? What economic redress is available? What conversations is the Secretary of State having with the Prime Minister—or is he too bothered with propping him up instead of dealing with people’s actual issues?
As the hon. Lady knows, we in the Wales Office have conversations with all Government Departments, especially on this particular issue. Staff numbers are being increased and the pace at which applications are processed continues to improve: it is at 98.5%. I realise that for people not in that bracket, this is a tough challenge, and I can only repeat what I have said in answer to the hon. Lady’s colleagues: if there are individual examples we can help with, we are very happy to do so.
We are all quite surprised to see the Secretary of State here this morning, but perhaps he cannot leave the disintegrating Government because his passport application is stuck in the queue. People across Wales are sick and tired of the Government’s incompetence. Can he explain to my constituent Jamie Dunkley and others across Wales why their Welsh language passport applications have been sent to Peterborough for processing, causing huge delays, stress and additional cost?
The hon. Lady raises an interesting question; this is the first I have heard of it, to be honest. As I keep saying, at the risk of being boring, I am very happy to look into that if it is causing undue delays. Those can also be resolved by the same means I suggested earlier.
This Government are committed to levelling up across Wales. That is why we are investing over £340 million in Welsh rail and £120 million through the levelling-up fund in Wales in round one alone, and Wales will benefit from the UK-wide £5 billion Project Gigabit to connect hard-to-reach premises.
It is of the utmost importance that every part of these islands can enjoy investment from this United Kingdom Government. Can the Secretary of State update the House on what he and the rest of the Government are doing to achieve that aim in Wales and across the whole United Kingdom?
I found it quite hard to hear my hon. Friend’s comments, but I can say that we believe there are really positive steps in terms of sustainable job creation in Wales through the various different funding measures, in particular the UK’s shared prosperity fund, which is currently in lift-off. Levelling up is devolution in action. We get a lot of criticism from the Opposition Benches about the Welsh Government’s being bypassed, but we are going to 22 local authorities and stakeholders in a way that has never previously been done.
The Global Centre for Rail Excellence that is being developed in Onllwyn in Neath will become the first and only rail infrastructure testing facility in the UK. It recently secured a memorandum of understanding with an Association of American Railroads subsidiary, US venture MxV Rail, to work together to advance global rail research and technology. The Welsh Labour Government have provided £50 million. When will the UK Government provide the £30 million they promised so that this world-class rail facility can be completed by 2025?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady raises that absolutely perfect example of the Welsh and UK Governments working in tandem, creating new, innovative, sustainable jobs in her constituency and in adjacent areas. It is a £30 million investment and I am delighted that she is welcoming it in the way that we should be.
At the end of the Great Western line in my constituency is Milford Haven, the UK’s most important energy port and the largest town in my constituency. Its railway station is a disgrace. Does the Secretary of State agree that a project to upgrade Milford Haven train station would be an ideal round 2 levelling-up fund bid, and will he look favourably on any such bid from Pembrokeshire County Council?
My right hon. Friend and neighbour has raised the question of Milford Haven station a few times, and I am no stranger to it either. Although I am not allowed to express a preference for individual levelling-up bids, that is precisely the type of infrastructure improvement bid that the levelling-up fund was created for, so if he and the local authority can put together some compelling evidence, I am sure that those who are in a position to judge it will look on it favourably.
Perhaps the Secretary of State ought to tell the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) that he cannot put in his levelling-up bid because the Government portal has broken down. Despite Ministers’ promises on supporting infrastructure investment in Wales, we all know that the reality is very different. He will not challenge his Government’s sleight of hand in denying the consequential of £4.6 billion to Wales from HS2, nor the annual £150 million hit that that will have on the Welsh economy. Because of his Government’s spending review, the Welsh Government’s capital budget will be 11% lower by 2024-25 compared with last year—less money, less infrastructure. Instead of focusing on media appearances defending his indefensible boss, when will he focus on doing his job for the people of Wales?
It is telling that the hon. Lady did not mention the increasing levels—the record levels—of investment that the UK Government have made in Wales, which, from £16.7 billion in 2021, will reach £19.08 billion by 2024-25. Whichever areas of investment we look at, despite her claims to the contrary, they are considerably greater than they have been at any time since the devolution settlement, resulting in extra jobs, extra investment and extra reasons to celebrate what Wales has to offer. It is profoundly depressing for people who are looking to the Opposition for inspiration on investment in Wales that all we get is a litany of negativity.
Birmingham, Crewe, Derby, Doncaster, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and York: that is the shortlist of cities for the headquarters of Great British Railways. The Secretary of State failed to get a single Welsh location as a candidate. Is he not embarrassed at his dismal track record in Cabinet despite being a loyal Government spokesman?
I love it when the right hon. Lady, who is so determined to separate her country from the rest of the UK economy, lists a whole lot of stations and locations in England. There are either separatists or Unionists and I never know with her which side she is batting for. This is about our delivery in Wales, because in a sense she is asking me to choose between the Welsh Government and the UK Government. I am very proud to be part of a Government who have produced £121 million-worth of levelling-up funds, £46 million-worth of community ownership funds, £585 million-worth of shared prosperity funds, the floating offshore wind potential of the Celtic sea, the potential for nuclear at Wylfa, project Gigabit, Airbus investment at Broughton—the list goes on and on. All we get, as I said to the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), is negativity.
The Secretary of State defends an infrastructure that is extractive for Wales and brings nothing back. Time and again, the Secretary of State has been rolled out to defend the indefensible on behalf of the Prime Minister. The outgoing Children’s Minister said that he
“accepted and repeated assurances on Monday to the media which have now been found to be inaccurate.”
Two Cabinet Ministers have gone and the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretary has gone—it is not business as usual, is it? When will he be going?
I thank the right hon. Lady for that tempting question. It is business as usual in the Wales Office, and that is why I am proud to repeat what I said just now: we are getting on with the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund and the shared prosperity fund. We have investment across every part of Wales, and despite all her protestations, there is so much evidence that being part of the Union is part of the success of Wales in creating sustainable, long-term jobs. I dearly wish she would come and join us in the endeavour to improve the life of people in Wales, rather than using cheap political opportunities to do the opposite.
The UK Government will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations to ensure that everyone across the UK gets the healthcare they need. There is a memorandum of understanding with the Welsh NHS, which has been essential in resolving a number of long-standing issues over patients’ rights across the border.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is to the left of me. We have been working hard to try to get the Welsh Government and the Department of Health and Social Care together to talk about ambulance times. My constituents are suffering, because if they get into a Welsh ambulance or an English ambulance, they still go to the same district general hospital in Shrewsbury. Will the Minister pull together the two Governments to talk about ambulance waiting times in Shrewsbury?
I would certainly be happy to write to the Department of Health and Social Care. I am afraid that I am not responsible for the Welsh Government, but I would be pleased to see them working harder to ensure that patients in his constituency get access to the healthcare they need. For 21 years, the NHS in Wales has been run by the Labour party, and one in four people are now waiting more than 12 months for treatment, and that is an absolute disgrace that Opposition Members are responsible for.
It is a bit farcical to be asking questions of Ministers when we have no idea whether they will still be at the Dispatch Box by the end of the day, but I will give it a go. Those in Wrexham need to get easily to Clatterbridge Cancer Centre in my constituency for specialist cancer care, and at the moment it is too hard because of the quality of public service. Will the Minister, before he leaves—maybe he is going to stay—give my constituents and people in north Wales an update on progress on the Wrexham-Bidston railway line?
The Wrexham-Bidston line is one of a number of lines that are being looked at, including the south Wales relief line and the north Wales coast line. The reality is that constituents in Wales are fed up with having to wait more than 12 months for treatment, and the reason for that is 21 years of Labour Government running the NHS in Wales. Their record is an absolute disgrace.
Cost of Living
My ministerial colleagues and I fully accept that there is a cost of living challenge, but this country has faced some exceptional challenges over the past few years, including a global pandemic and a European land war. We have responded vigorously by providing £37 billion to help households across the UK through these challenges.
I agree completely with my right hon. Friend. Households across the whole United Kingdom will be receiving a cost of living support payment worth £650 this month. By contrast the Welsh Labour Government want to spend £100 million to increase the number of Welsh Senedd Members. Some people believe in levelling up, but I am afraid that Opposition Members believe in leaving people behind and spending more money on further politicians.
Across the UK, 8 million low-income households will get £1,200 in financial support to help with rising electricity and gas bills. Would not the £100 million being spent by the Welsh Government on extra politicians in Cardiff be better directed at helping those families?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Not only will households receive an extra £1,200, but next week, 8 million households on means-tested benefits will get an extra £326 in their bank accounts; in September, 6 million people on disability benefits will receive a £150 payment; and in October, £400 will come off households’ energy bills. There is much more to follow, because the Government believe in levelling up, not in spending £100 million on extra Senedd Members.
In spite of parliamentary questions, we still have no answers about how people who have their permanent residence in park homes or similar in Wales, who receive their energy bills via a third party, can receive the £400 discount. Will the Minister speak to his ministerial colleagues to sort that out so that those people can receive the money in a timely fashion?
Unsurprisingly, the UK Government have repeatedly broken their promises to fund Wales to the tune of nearly £800 million, and they are blatantly trying to undermine devolution at every opportunity. Can the Minister tell me how that serves the Welsh people when they are struggling with the cost of living crisis? While he is at it, can he tell us why he is still propping up a broken Government who promote an abuser and then lie about it?
That statement is completely incorrect. Prior to Brexit, Wales received around £343 million a year in structural funds and £337 million a year was spent on agriculture. Post Brexit, the sums will be exactly the same. My question is why Opposition Members are still supporting a Government in Wales who have left us with lower education standards; lower standards in healthcare; and more taxes on business, such as a tourism tax and a tax on wine producers. Why do they now want to spend £100 million of taxpayers’ money on extra politicians? Those are the questions to which the people of Wales would like to know the answers.
The Conservatives’ cost of living crisis is hitting Wales hard. The soaring costs of energy, fuel and food have been compounded by crippling increases in tax and national insurance. The meagre 5p cut to fuel duty has proved wholly inadequate and energy costs are due to rise even further this autumn. It is clear that the Government have run out of not only ideas but Ministers. Will the Minister commit to speaking to whoever holds the post of Chancellor this afternoon about taking immediate further action to tackle the cost of living crisis?
We have already acknowledged that there is a cost of living crisis, which was partly caused by having to spend £400 billion on getting us through the covid pandemic and by a European land war. Of course, we are doing everything we can to support people through these difficult times, which is why we are spending £37 billion on support for hard-hit households and why we have introduced a new 25% energy profits levy on oil and gas companies, which will raise about £5 billion of revenue that will also go to relieving the burden on families.
UK Shared Prosperity Fund
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on how Wales’s £585 million share of the UKSPF will level up communities across Wales. With local authorities, business, the third sector and civil society fully engaged, the UKSPF will mean quicker delivery, better targeting and closer alignment with local priorities than previous EU funding.
The priority of the UK shared prosperity fund is to empower local communities, business and people, with the funding for delivery going directly to local authorities in Wales. Can my right hon. Friend outline the steps he is taking to work directly with local communities in Wales to ensure the delivery of local priorities, and the benefits that that will bring to people, communities and businesses in Wales?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about devolution. Of course, it frustrates Opposition Members that we are taking devolution to its literal limit as far as the funds are concerned; we are going to 22 local authority stakeholders across Wales. I find it absolutely perplexing that for some reason, the Welsh Government think that devolution stops in Cardiff and simply do not trust 22 democratically elected local authorities spread across the whole of Wales to make sensible decisions on behalf of their constituents.
Given the timescale involved, there is a lot of concern among local authorities in Wales that moneys allocated under the shared prosperity fund will not in fact be spent by them, and the money therefore will be clawed back by central Government. Will the Secretary of State say that that will not happen?
I got the gist of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Of course, the shared prosperity fund is an absolute cast-iron commitment. It has thousands of jobs at its disposal. We think it has great potential across the whole of Wales and we are very happy of course, if he has individual examples that concern him, to address them.
The Welsh Government wasted close to £5 billion of the former European aid in west Wales and the valleys. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give me that the UK shared prosperity fund will reflect UK priorities, working with local authorities in Wales—in all of Wales—to ensure that places such as the Vale of Glamorgan benefit, having been excluded by the former European scheme?
My right hon. Friend puts his finger on exactly why the levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund are so vital. What they do is go straight to local communities. This allows them to make bids and decisions on behalf of their constituents, residents and ratepayers in a way no other scheme has previously enabled them to do. That is why this is innovative and will lead to sustainable jobs.
What type of shared prosperity is it when the UK Treasury plunders capital investment programmes in Wales by refusing to let contractors use red diesel instead of white diesel, further driving up construction inflation to the benefit of the UK Treasury and the detriment of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?
I do not think that question has any sensible context to it, because the proposals that have been set out—by the Treasury or, indeed, through the levelling-up and shared prosperity funds—make it absolutely clear how those funds will benefit all communities in a way that they have not before. Picking specific examples and saying that this is an anomaly overlooks, I think deliberately, all the criteria that underpin the funding methods I have talked about.
Welsh Product Procurement
Yes, it says here. Welsh products and services are some of the best in the world, from Welsh steel used to build Crossrail to Airbus’s cyber-security expertise and Raytheon in Broughton upgrading the intelligent surveillance capabilities of our aircraft.
Wales is being denied billions in consequential funding from HS2. Does the Secretary of State agree that, for Wales to see any benefits from the scheme, which of course needs about 3 million tonnes of steel and new high-speed trains, the Department for Transport should look to procure Welsh steel and, indeed, buy trains from CAF in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) to ensure that Wales finally benefits from the project—or is it simply that the Tories will continue to fail the people of Wales?
I actually agree with a lot in the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. If he looks at some of the projects we are talking about, particularly around defence spending—£850 million of defence spending—the potential around floating offshore wind once the Crown Estate’s leases are in play and the huge potential around nuclear development at Wylfa, he will see that domestic UK procurement of steel is right back on the agenda, and that will result in every steel maker in Wales benefiting.
Tourism is crucial to Clwyd South, which attracts visitors from all across the world for events such as the Llangollen international musical eisteddfod, which is taking place this week. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the Welsh Labour Government’s plans to introduce a tourism tax, which will do great damage to the tourism industry across the whole of Wales?
I think I can do even better than my hon. Friend requests me to by simply quoting the words of the chief executive of UKHospitality, Kate Nicholls, who said: “The tourism tax is ill thought through and proposed without any impact assessment. Welsh Government does not know why it is needed, what its effect will be on visitors and what damage it will do to businesses and jobs in a sector making up a quarter of the Welsh economy. It is unnecessary, unhelpful and ill considered.” If the House does not believe it from me, it should believe it from the experts in this particular field.
On tourism in Wales, when a previous Tory leader resigned, he not only visited Wales but bought a home in Wales. Can I suggest that one way the Secretary of State for Wales could help tourism in Wales is by encouraging the current Tory leader to follow suit, resign and buy a home, although perhaps not in Wales—perhaps somewhere else?
Perhaps I can encourage the hon. Gentleman to persuade his colleague in Cardiff, the First Minister, to drop his ridiculous plans for a tourism tax and for various other means of punishing successful businesses in Wales. If he did that, perhaps we could create some lasting jobs in Wales rather than simply listening to his political protestations.