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Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 1 March 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Digital Connectivity: Rural Wales

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving digital connectivity in rural Wales. (903769)

Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd, and a happy St David’s Day—dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus.

The Government are committed to improving digital connectivity as demonstrated by our commitment to Project Gigabit, the shared rural network and, most recently, the new very hard-to-reach pilots, two of which are located in Wales.

Ofcom reports that some 30,000 premises across the UK have no access to decent broadband or to a decent 4G signal, including rural areas of Ceredigion, such as Lledrod, Pennant, Talgarreg, Cribyn, Sarnau, Abermeurig and Coed-y-bryn to name but a few. Will the Minister make representations to colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that those areas are prioritised in the next iteration of Project Gigabit?

The hon. Member is right to raise that issue. Let me reiterate that we have Project Gigabit, which is an ambitious £5 billion project to reach the hardest-to-reach areas outside of the commercial scope, and also the Alpha trials using satellites, two of which are in Snowdonia National Park. There are, as he will be aware, also opportunities through the Mid Wales growth deal. I would be happy to meet him to discuss what more we can do. With regard to mobile networks, there is the shared rural network, alongside the use of the Home Office’s extended area service infrastructure.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) is absolutely right to raise the issues that he has—he is often right, actually. I declare an interest here, Mr Speaker. In the Dysynni valley, in Gwynedd, broadband fibre was connected to premises after being a complete non-spot for so many years. Can my hon. Friend the Minister carry on with the hard work to ensure that there is gigabit connection within Cymru—Wales?

I know that my hon. Friend is a regular visitor to Wales. He is quite right to raise the importance of broadband both to people’s modern way of life and also to business. There has been progress, but there is much more to do.

Happy St David’s Day, Mr Speaker. I thank London Welsh School for such a lovely flag-raising ceremony this morning.

On the subject of digital connectivity, EU structural funds have helped our universities to deliver research, innovation and skills development across areas that the Minister’s Government consider a priority, including digital transformation. Many of these projects now face a cliff-edge as EU structural funds finish, with 60 projects in Wales due to end this year, putting around 1,000 skilled jobs at risk. What conversations has he and the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues to protect those valuable skilled jobs?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. She is right that academic institutions have been reliant on EU structural funding in the past. There is, of course, the shared prosperity fund coming forward, which universities will need to apply to. I know that my colleague the Secretary of State is visiting all universities across Wales. I have accompanied him to Bangor University and I have also visited Wrexham University very recently, and both are adjusting to the new landscape.

Going back to the subject of gigabit, the Government’s Project Gigabit boasts that it will deliver lightning-fast reliable broadband to every corner of the UK, but the project update that was published this week by the Minister’s Government shows that Wales has the lowest coverage of any of the home nations—just 57% compared with, for example, 73% in England and 89% in Northern Ireland. Does that not represent yet another broken promise by the Tories to Wales?

The hon. Lady is aware that the geography and topography of Wales make digital connections more tricky than in some other areas. She is also aware that it is the Welsh Government who have been leading on the roll-out of broadband in Wales in conjunction with Building Digital UK, and I agree that more work needs to be done to improve those figures.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd, a dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus i chithau ac i bawb—happy St. David’s Day to everybody.

Although the Minister might blame the mountains, it is evident that poor connectivity in rural areas is clearly one of the factors holding businesses back. Another is trade barriers, particularly for Holyhead. Pre-Brexit, about 30% of all trade through the port went on to Northern Ireland from Dublin. That trade has collapsed and it is not protected by green lanes. Stena Line says that there needs to be a solution to this disparity. Can he come up with a solution to protect Holyhead from his Government’s policy?

The right hon. Lady recently attended a debate that I responded to in Westminster Hall, where she was making the case for a freeport in Holyhead. She knows that there are opportunities, through freeports, to boost the trade through Holyhead and other ports in Wales that are seeking the same designation. I urge her to continue that fight.

I urge his Government to come forward with news, because Wales desperately needs two freeports at least.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that Northern Ireland is in the “unbelievably special position” of having privileged access not just to the UK market, but hey, to the EU single market. That is an excellent argument for Plaid Cymru’s policy to rejoin the single market. Why is it not good enough for Wales?

Wales voted to leave the EU quite decisively. The right hon. Lady knows that the situation in Northern Ireland is really quite different from that in Wales, and this is a carefully put together deal to accommodate that situation. I feel quite sure that the EU is not in the business of allowing what she suggests.

Healthcare Provision

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the adequacy of NHS provision in Wales. (903770)

7. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the adequacy of healthcare services in Wales. (903775)

A gaf i hefyd ddymuno dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus i bawb?—[Translation: May I also wish everyone a happy St Davids day?]

Health is a devolved matter and we therefore have no control over how the National Health Service is delivered in Wales—that is a matter for the Welsh Labour Government—but improving health outcomes for people across the UK is, of course, a priority for this Government, and we have made sure that the devolved Administrations have the funding to enable them to deliver the same high standards of care that have been delivered in England by this Conservative Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a top priority for the Welsh Government should be helping the 45,000 people who are currently waiting more than two years for treatment in the NHS in Wales, rather than focusing on things such as banning meal deals and axing road improvement schemes?

I agree completely with my right hon. Friend. Figures from the Office for National Statistics this week suggest that around 1 in 5 people in Wales is now on a waiting list as opposed to just 1 in 18 people in England. As she has just pointed out, 50,000 people have been waiting more than two years for healthcare in Wales. I would far rather see the money that will be spent on creating extra Senedd Members spent on delivering healthcare in Wales.

Despite the Welsh Government receiving £1.20 for every £1 spent on public services in England, they spend only £1.05 of that money. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government should spend less time and money on expanding the Senedd and putting tampons in men’s toilets, and focus on delivering a proper service for the people of Wales?

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. I am sure that the 50,000 people who are in pain and on waiting lists at the moment would far rather see the £100 million that will be spent on expanding the Senedd being spent on delivering healthcare and reducing waiting lists in Wales.

The Secretary of State will be aware that higher levels of poverty give rise to higher healthcare costs and higher absolute numbers of people needing healthcare, so how can he justify the fact that Wales does not get its 5% share of High Speed 2—£5 billion—and is losing enormous amounts of money from EU funding, which he promised would be provided, and thousands of jobs in Welsh universities? We need that productivity to alleviate poverty and to put less pressure on the NHS. It is his fault that those waiting lists are growing.

I certainly do not recognise the figures that the hon. Gentleman has come up with on HS2. The fact is that the UK Government have replaced EU funding in full through the shared prosperity fund, the community ownership fund, the community renewal fund, levelling-up funds and much else besides. The UK Government have also made certain that £1.20 is delivered per head of population for NHS care in Wales, as opposed to £1 in England. It is very hard for him to explain why Wales receives more money to deliver healthcare and yet delivers lower standards.

If the UK Government were to uplift NHS and social care pay in England to the level in Scotland, it would unlock funding for all the devolved nations to support their national health services through the cost of living crisis. Will the Secretary of State discuss the possibility of a pay uplift and its impact on Wales with Cabinet colleagues?

The hon. Lady is right that Scotland is very generously funded. She seems to be making an argument that Wales and England should receive more money per head than Scotland does at the moment and that she would be happy with that: I doubt it very much. The reality is that despite the generous funding that the Scottish Government receive, they have very poor outcomes, and some of their own members have said that health care in Scotland is close to collapse.

Renewable Energy

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for renewable energy in Wales. (903771)

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on support for renewable energy in Wales. (903772)

The UK Government are committed to supporting renewable energy generation in Wales, including for innovative tidal stream technologies at Morlais through our flagship contracts for difference scheme. I will continue to work across Government to ensure that we can capitalise on the huge renewable energy opportunities Wales has to offer.

The best way to bring down bills for Welsh businesses long term is to help to transition away from fossil fuels. That is why Labour is calling for a national wealth fund, so we can help industries such as Welsh steel win the race in the future. What comparable steps will the Government take to help heavy industry decarbonise?

The Government have an ambitious programme to decarbonise the country by 2050, and we have provided £21.5 million to the south Wales industrial cluster to decarbonise heavy industry and support the transition to net zero. Of course, the opportunities for floating offshore wind in that region could be critical too.

A Labour Government will more than quadruple offshore wind to make the UK a clean energy superpower, making the most of the fantastic natural resources in Wales. When will the Government match that ambition so that sectors such as Welsh offshore wind can achieve their full potential?

As I mentioned in my previous answer, there is an ambitious programme for offshore wind, including floating offshore wind in south-west Wales and south-west England. There is an intention for 4 GW of power to be provided through the Celtic sea by 2035 and many more gigawatts in the future.

On this St David’s Day there are many reasons to be positive about the Welsh economy, not least the role that Wales will play in delivering greater energy security for the UK and helping move us to net zero. On that theme, would the Minister agree that we have a brilliant opportunity with the deployment of floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea, but we need the Government to go ahead and give us the Celtic freeport for south Wales? We also have a huge opportunity on Ynys Môn with the development of new gigawatt-scale nuclear power there.

My right hon. Friend is a strong campaigner on this front. I would add that £60 million is being invested in the marine project at Pembroke dock through the Swansea Bay city deal, so there is plenty of potential for his region.

Does the Minister agree that over recent months we have seen better co-operation between the European Union and the UK over energy? Does he agree that the Windsor framework will mean that we can go much further? That co-operation will release the potential for energy security and hopefully see prices come down, which will help Wales.

My right hon. and learned Friend is of course right that co-operation is always a good thing, and in fact interconnectors are critical to our energy security. Only last week I met a company proposing to connect mainland Great Britain with the Republic of Ireland through a second interconnector.

We know that oil and gas producers have been making record profits for more than 18 months, but the Government’s paltry windfall tax began in May last year. How can the Government justify leaving billions of pounds of excess profits untouched while so many people across Wales are struggling with household bills and the rising cost of living crisis?

Mercifully, energy costs now appear to be on a downward trajectory, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that up to 70% in tax has been taken from energy producers through the windfall tax, which is bringing a great deal of money into the Treasury to help to fund the support packages that people are relying on.

Governance of Elite Rugby Union

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the adequacy of the governance of elite rugby union in Wales. (903773)

I share the concerns of all hon. Members about the grave allegations of misogyny that have been made about the Welsh Rugby Union, and the recent contract negotiations with players have also been a matter of concern. Rugby has always been at the heart of Welsh culture and, as such, I was pleased to meet the acting chief executive officer Nigel Walker recently. He is an honourable man and well thought of. I am sure that he takes the allegations seriously and will be dealing with them.

Being half Welsh and half English, the game at the weekend can often be difficult, but I am united in being a rugby fan. In England, I have met the CEOs of premiership rugby and of the Rugby Football Union, and the Minister, to ensure good governance. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Welsh Labour Government to ensure that the players, fans and good governance secure rugby union and its elite stars in Wales?

Obviously, sport is a devolved matter, but I have had conversations with Nigel Walker and other members of the WRU informally. The UK Government, and I am sure the Welsh Government, were appalled by the allegations. I would be happy to work with the Welsh Government, the WRU or any other body, including the external body that has been set up to look at the issue, to ensure that the allegations are properly dealt with.

Dydd gŵyl Dewi Sant hapus, Mr Speaker. I am sure that all hon. Members are concerned about the allegations of discrimination and misogyny within the WRU that victims have come forward and said they have faced. What conversations is the Secretary of State having with his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about the matter and the pressure that they can put on the WRU to address these serious allegations?

The hon. Lady will be aware that sport is a devolved matter, but those concerns will be shared in DCMS. Those sorts of allegations have been made about not just rugby, but other sports, so there is a nationwide problem. My colleagues in DCMS will be doing everything they can to deal with such allegations in England. I would honestly be happy to work with her, the WRU and the Welsh Government—or any other body that has some means of dealing with the issue. We must absolutely ensure that sport is safe for women, minorities and everyone to take part in without any form of discrimination.

Levelling-Up Fund: Welsh Communities

6. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the impact of the levelling-up fund on Welsh communities. (903774)

11. What assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the impact of the levelling-up fund on Welsh communities. (903779)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about how the £330 million allocated to Wales so far through the levelling-up fund is supporting communities, creating jobs, driving up economic growth and keeping the Government’s commitment to ensure that Wales does not lose a penny as a result of coming out of the European Union.

The Labour Welsh Government have badly let down Clywd South and Wrexham by scrapping the A483 junction upgrade, which would have unlocked substantial investment and jobs in our community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they need to support and maximise the benefits of the UK Government’s Welsh levelling-up fund projects by investing in road upgrades across Wales?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Welsh Government’s response to the roads review gives the impression that Wales is closed for business by determining that no further road-building projects will take place. I urge them to consider the impact of not building roads on the economy and the long-term prosperity of Wales. They should consider how they might build on the record support that Wales has received through the levelling-up fund and city and growth deals by rebuilding roads and improving connectivity across Wales.

Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus, Mr Speaker. The levelling-up fund offered prospects for communities such as Barry that had been ignored by the Welsh Labour Government for many years. In the last levelling-up fund round, however, Cardiff bay, which has received billions of pounds for regeneration in recent decades, received a further £50 million, but Barry Making Waves, which is delivering a marina project, was ignored. What hope, prospect and opportunity can I offer people in Barry for the next round of levelling-up funding?

I fully understand my right hon. Friend’s disappointment that the bid was not successful on this occasion, and I pay tribute to him for being such a champion for that particular bid and for his constituency. I suggest to him that there is going to be a third round of levelling-up funding, and I hope that local authorities that have not thus far been successful will apply.

Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus i bawb. Will the Minister please join me in congratulating Mountain Ash in my constituency on being shortlisted for the Let’s Celebrate Towns competition, which is being announced here in Parliament this evening? On this St David’s Day, will he also now join me in urging the UK Government to restore the £1.1 billion missing in Wales, and allow the Welsh Government to administer those funds to enable every community in Wales, including Cynon Valley, to thrive?

First, Mr Speaker, I would like to say llongfyfarchiadau mawr to the constituents of the hon. Lady. I do not recognise the figure that she has just quoted: the UK Government have made sure that record funding has flowed through to the Welsh Government, and in replacing the funds that we used to receive from the European Union we have made sure that Wales has not lost out by one penny. The UK Government have been working directly with the 22 local authorities across Wales, including the hon. Lady’s, to ensure that we can continue to deliver jobs, prosperity and growth in Wales.

The Minister says that he does not recognise the figure of £1.1 billion—well, the people and communities of Wales will recognise that £1.1 billion when it fails to materialise any significant improvement in their communities and healthcare outcomes, or in business investment. What will he do to compensate the people of Wales for the paltry levelling-up funding that is no match for European funding?

The hon. Gentleman will know perfectly well that it is not just levelling-up funding that is replacing EU funds: it is levelling-up funds, community ownership funds, community renewal funds and shared prosperity funds. On top of that, the Government are delivering nearly £790 million in growth deals. Wales has not lost out by one penny as a result of the UK Government’s implementing the result of the referendum, in which the people of Wales voted to leave the European Union.

Cost of Living Crisis: Impact on Businesses

8. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of the cost of living crisis on businesses in Wales. (903776)

This Government have provided an unprecedented package for non-domestic energy users through this winter, worth £18 billion, and our new energy bills discount scheme will provide a discount on high energy costs to give businesses certainty while limiting taxpayers’ exposure to volatile energy markets.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s support running up to April, but he must accept that the changes that the Government are introducing from April are also bringing about huge amounts of uncertainty for many businesses, including in my constituency of Ogmore. One business is looking at potentially making several hundred of its workforce redundant because it is unable to get guarantees on funding beyond April. Will the Secretary of State meet me to see what work we can do to try to ensure that business is secured, and convince the Chancellor that more support is needed in the Budget for businesses in Wales and across the UK?

I certainly know that the Chancellor and the Treasury have been having discussions with businesses in Wales about what support can be given, but I would be perfectly happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and that business in his constituency to see what further support can be given.

Dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus. Businesses on Ynys Môn have been impacted by the cost of living crisis, compounded by a lack of investment in key infrastructure. With the cancellation of plans for a third Menai bridge, it is clear that Labour and its Plaid chums in Cardiff would rather Anglesey was on a road to nowhere. Does the Secretary of State agree that a freeport on Anglesey would demonstrate that my constituency is on a superhighway to the future?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been a doughty champion for not only a freeport, but a nuclear power station and a third Menai bridge, in her constituency of Ynys Môn. She must have been as disappointed as I was that the Welsh Labour Government have decided that they will build no more roads in Wales, meaning that her constituents will lose out as a result of not being able to have that vital road connection.

Public Services: Government Support

9. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of Government support for public services in Wales. (903777)

This Government are committed to delivering high-quality public services. For instance, by next month, there will be a record number of police officers serving communities across Wales, and we have seen crime decrease by 10% across England and Wales between 2021 and 2022. As the hon. Lady is aware, many public services, including health and education, are devolved in Wales.

Will the Minister urge his colleagues to accept the Welsh Affairs Committee’s recommendation that HS2 be reclassified as an England-only project? Wales will then receive Barnett consequentials estimated at £5 billion, allowing the Welsh Labour Government to continue to expand public transport services, and people in Wales can then receive the same benefits from HS2 as those in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The hon. Lady knows that HS2 is an England and Wales project and is an important backbone of Britain’s rail infrastructure, and the important thing for Wales is to be able to plug in to it and take advantage of it. We also need to see the roads review that the Welsh Government have brought forward scrapped. We need to see investment in our roads.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to inform Members that a book of condolence for Baroness Boothroyd has been placed outside the Library.

I point out that live subtitles and British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings are available to watch on