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Volume 738: debated on Wednesday 18 October 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Crime Prevention

The Government are committed to investing in our police to drive down crime across Wales. That includes an extra 1,127 police officers for Welsh forces under the police uplift programme. Approximately £9 million has been allocated to Welsh forces through the safer streets fund, targeting neighbourhood crime, violence against women and girls, and antisocial behaviour.

Antisocial behaviour has a devastating impact on communities across Wales and in Cardiff North. My constituent, Sarah, suffered a miscarriage due to the stress of repeated antisocial behaviour. She was not entitled to any support, because this Government consider those who suffer from antisocial behaviour to be second-class victims. My amendment to change that in the Victims and Prisoners Bill was rejected by this Government. How can they claim to prevent crime while failing to support victims?

I assure the hon. Lady that victims of antisocial behaviour are as much victims of crime as anyone else. I absolutely stand with victims of antisocial behaviour; it is a matter that we take very seriously indeed. I have not seen the amendment tabled by the hon. Lady, but she must be aware that this Government have brought in longer prison sentences for the most serious crimes, and made it easier for the police to arrest people carrying out crime—matters that the Labour party has voted against.

The chief constable of Dyfed–Powys police recently told the Welsh Affairs Committee that Dyfed-Powys police force now has more police officers than at any time in its history, following the UK Government’s decision to invest in more officers and increase the local number of officers by 154. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Dyfed-Powys police force on reaching that milestone, and on all the hard work it does in helping to make Pembrokeshire one of the safest parts of the country?

My right hon. Friend will be as pleased as I am that the Government have delivered on their 2019 manifesto commitment to recruit 20,000 extra police officers, and I commend the work of police officers in Dyfed-Powys police. I had the privilege and honour to go to one of the passing out ceremonies recently, and I commend the work that it does.

It is not just antisocial behaviour that is wreaking havoc across Wales. Shoplifting in Wales is also soaring, and in the year to March 2023 it was up by 31%. Why will the Secretary of State’s Government not adopt Labour’s plan to scrap the minimum £200-worth of stolen goods rule, which was introduced by his Government in 2014 and allows gangs of shoplifters to escape punishment and puts shop workers at risk?

I agree with the hon. Lady that shoplifting is a serious offence, and repeat shoplifters and those who go out in organised gangs must be dealt with by the full force of the law. That is why I welcome the fact that this Government have brought in longer prison sentences for people carrying out the most serious offences. I do not understand why the hon. Lady will not join the Government in supporting longer prison sentences. Perhaps she should talk to her colleagues in the Welsh Government who seem to be against building any extra prison places.

The Secretary of State knows that the prison estate across Wales is not just full, but that overcrowding is significantly above safe limits. With his Government having to commandeer police cells, with judges being told to jail fewer people, and with criminals—including those convicted of assault—being released early on the instruction of his Justice Secretary, how can the Welsh public have any faith that they will be protected?

The prison population has increased as a direct result of policies that the Government have implemented, to ensure that those committing the most serious offences spend more time in prison. That is something that the hon. Lady should be supportive of. She needs to talk to her colleagues in the Welsh Government, who have stated clearly in writing that they are completely against building any prison places. This Government are building emergency prison places and filling up prisons, because people who commit serious offences deserve to go to prison. The Labour party in the Welsh Government is saying clearly that it is totally opposed to building any extra prisons anywhere.

Economic Links: Wales and the North-west

This Government are committed to strengthening the economy of north Wales and north-west England. We have recently announced that we will invest £36 billion in Network North, including £1 billion to electrify the north Wales main line. That will improve connectivity across the region, bringing many parts of north Wales within one hour of Manchester and Liverpool by rail.

The announcement of the electrification of the north Wales main line will help to improve transport links between this region and the north-west of England, supporting economic growth, tourism and jobs across both areas. Does my hon. Friend agree that residents across Wales and my constituents in Blackpool will see real improvements in their local transport infrastructure as part of their share of this £36 billion that is available?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. North Wales often feels overlooked by the Welsh Government. Indeed, the Welsh Government have said that the electrification of the north Wales line is not their priority. Just as it was Conservative Governments who built key elements of the A55 in the 1980s and 1990s, we now see a Conservative Government investing further in the infrastructure and prospects of north Wales and north-west England.

Connectivity is key to underpinning that economic growth, and the railway line between north Wales, through my constituency in St Helens and on to Manchester should epitomise that, but unfortunately it does not seem to be working at the minute. It is frequently overcrowded, and there are cancellations at the Manchester end and at the Chester end. Will the Minister speak to his colleagues in the Department for Transport as well as Transport for Wales, so that we might make some progress and make sure that my constituents can get to work and this line can deliver economic growth for the north-west and north Wales?

Of course, improving rail is not simply about the rail infrastructure; it is also about the train operating companies and how they operate. The hon. Gentleman is right that Transport for Wales has struggled from time to time. I can reassure him that I do have discussions with it. In fact, I am also meeting the rail Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) later today, when I will reiterate those concerns.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Strong economic links are dependent on the Government actually having an economic plan, but the Conservatives’ track record speaks for itself. They cancelled the electrification of the main line to Swansea, they are spending half a billion pounds but still potentially making up to 3,000 steelworkers redundant and their pitiful semiconductor strategy does not even give us a bit part on the world stage. Why should anyone believe that their latest promises made for north Wales at a desperate party conference are worth the fag packet they are written on?

I welcome the hon. Member to her position. She shares Welsh lessons with me, and I hope she will continue to do so. I urge her to be somewhat more positive about the £1 billion that has been announced for infrastructure development in north Wales by means of the electrification. Also, in terms of the steel industry at Port Talbot, the half a billion pounds has saved many jobs and means that decarbonisation can occur.

HS2 is

“going to benefit Wales, it’s going to benefit people in North Wales who will benefit from better access at Crewe to London.”

That was the Secretary of State’s central argument for withholding billions of pounds from Wales by claiming that HS2 benefits us. Now that the link at Crewe is another casualty of Tory chaos, will Wales Office Ministers stay true to their own logic and urge the Treasury to class HS2 as English-only?

As the right hon. Lady knows, rail infrastructure is not devolved. I would argue that investment in Great Britain’s rail infrastructure is of value to those in north Wales and the rest of Wales. Furthermore, HS2 is an important connection to the west midlands from London. Passengers from London to north Wales are likely to still use that.

We all know that the money that has been committed is illustrative. In a major boost to Plaid Cymru’s campaign, the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales has proposed devolving the Crown estate and reinvesting profits in communities through a sovereign wealth fund. The commission criticised the current system of wealth transfer from the poorest country in Britain to Westminster as “illogical and bizarre”. Whose side is the Minister on: Welsh communities or a system that extracts our natural wealth?

We have had this discussion on previous occasions in various settings, but I would argue that the Crown estate allows this country to share risks and opportunities that it deals with. It does a fantastic job and I simply do not agree.

Cross-border Healthcare: Welsh Government Policy

3. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of Welsh Government policy on health authorities on cross-border healthcare. (906596)

13. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of Welsh Government policy on health authorities on cross-border healthcare. (906608)

Of course, I work within the NHS in north-east Wales and west Cheshire and see the stark realities of the disparity in healthcare services between the two. It is concerning that the Welsh Government have missed their target to eliminate two-year waits in most specialties and that more than 27,000 patients have been waiting over two years for treatment in Wales, compared with circa 280 in the whole of England. The Health Secretary has offered to consider requests from the Welsh Government to use alternate providers in England to reduce waiting lists and the distress that they bring.

With the Welsh Labour Government facing cuts to their NHS as a decision of their own, does the Minister not find it extraordinary that they are looking at spending £122 million on new politicians and £33 million on a blanket 20 mph speed limit that nobody voted for in Wales?

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is scandalous that the Labour Welsh Government are prioritising spending on more politicians in Cardiff Bay as well as an unpopular 20 mph default speed limit. Their decisions mean less funding for the NHS, education and other important devolved services. They have the potential instead to invest in important capital projects such as the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Rhyl. They must re-examine their agenda.

It gets worse: the UK Government have twice offered the Welsh Labour Government help in reducing patient waiting lists for important medical procedures, but neither offer has been taken up. Will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that, in fact, that offer still stands and that patients in Wales who are stuck and suffering on waiting lists have not been forgotten by the UK Government?

Having spoken with the Department of Health and Social Care, I can confirm that the offer still stands. My hon. Friend will find it of interest to know that the Labour Welsh Government did write in response to the latest offer several weeks after that offer was made. Unfortunately, the Minister did not confirm whether they would accept the offer. In the interests of tens of thousands of patients, I strongly encourage them to do so.

Cost of Living

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues, including the cost of living. The Government have made certain that the state pension, benefits and the minimum wage have all risen in line with inflation. Last winter, the Government’s energy support schemes saw them paying about half the average fuel bills for homeowners across the United Kingdom.

The Bridgend food bank and the Baobab Bach food pantry are running out of food. My constituents in Ogmore and those across the Bridgend borough literally cannot afford to pay for the weekly shop. What work is the Secretary of State doing to tackle the significant access-to-food crisis that is impacting constituents in the Bridgend county borough and right across Wales?

As I have already mentioned, the Government have made sure that pensions, benefits and the minimum wage have risen in line with inflation. There have been other payments as well, with £900 to households on benefits, £300 to pensioners and £100 to those in households where there have been disabilities. The Government have made certain at all times to prioritise the least well off. May I respectfully suggest that the hon. Gentleman should listen to the earlier questions and suggest that the Welsh Government stop spending money on extra politicians and put that back into communities where it is needed?

Polling of 2,000 people by Public Health Wales found that about eight in 10 Welsh citizens are either worried or very worried about the rising cost of living, with almost half saying that it will have a negative impact on their mental health. Similar concerns have been expressed in Scotland. What consideration have the Secretary of State and his Cabinet colleagues given to the SNP’s call for a £400 energy rebate as winter approaches?

As I said, in addition to the Government’s priority on supporting the least well-off and the fact that the Government paid around half of people’s energy bills during the last winter, we will continue to prioritise those who are having difficulties. If the hon. Lady is really worried about a cost of living crisis and the impact on energy, she will do well to revisit her party’s policy of getting rid of the oil and gas industry in the UK, including in Scotland—something that would cost 200,000 jobs and have a terrible impact on energy prices for homeowners across the United Kingdom.

The Wrexham-Flintshire investment zone bid could bring huge benefits to my region, including more and better-paid jobs. An investment zone requires collaboration between the Welsh and UK Governments. There is a possibility that the UK Government could support two zones in Wales, but the Welsh Government have yet to give me a commitment to a second zone. If they do, will the UK Government also commit?

I can assure my hon. Friend that I have made a very strong case to Cabinet colleagues for two investment zones in Wales. She is right that we need the co-operation of the Welsh Labour Government. I suggest that she, and any Members who represent north Wales, write to the Welsh Labour Government’s economic development Minister and suggest that Welsh Government prioritise two investment zones for Wales. We would be delighted to work with them when they get around to doing that.

Strength of the Union

Our United Kingdom is stronger than ever. It is a testament to the strength of the Union that the UK Government have been able to support people across the country, including with £94 billion to respond to cost of living challenges.

At the Welsh Affairs Committee this morning, the First Minister Mark Drakeford blamed the UK Government for not giving adequate financial support to the Welsh Government in times of high inflation and a cost of living crisis. Can the Secretary of State tell us how much his Department is spending on promoting the UK Government in Wales? Why does he think that is a better use of taxpayers’ money than funding services for the people of Wales? I am happy to receive an answer by email if he does not have that information to hand.

First, I can assure the hon. Lady that the Welsh Labour Government are receiving a record-breaking settlement of more than £18 billion, and 20% more per head to spend on public services than is spent in England. Perhaps the First Minister should explain why we have longer NHS waiting lists in Wales and why education standards are lower. As far as spending on public affairs and promotion is concerned, I can assure the hon. Lady that a far greater amount is spent by the Welsh Labour Government than is ever spent by the Wales Office. Frankly, the proof of the strength of the Union is demonstrated by the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) has joined the Conservative and Unionist party, and she is very welcome.

I have raised the damaging effect of the UK’s Brexit on the port of Holyhead and the north Wales economy in this Chamber 26 times. Holyhead has been disadvantaged by the lack of a green lane for exports to Northern Ireland. In August, at last, His Majesty's Revenue and Customs confirmed to me that there will now be a green lane for goods travelling from Wales to Northern Ireland through Holyhead and the Republic. I emphasise, as a precaution, that this is not a freeport issue—the Secretary of State is very keen on that. Rather, what specifically is he doing to promote and enable those new procedures for Holyhead?

I did not quite hear all that, but on the port in Ynys Môn, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take some comfort from the fact that the United Kingdom economy has grown more quickly outside the European Union than that of many nations that have remained in it. The Government have shown their absolute commitment to both north Wales and Ynys Môn through their development of a freeport project for the area and the announcement of £1 billion for electrification of the north Wales railway line, which will help to bring jobs and investment into north Wales.

Barry is Wales’s largest town, but it has been ignored by the Welsh Government for decades. It has significant regeneration challenges, like many places. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on awarding Barry towns regeneration status, but can he reassure me that that does not preclude Barry from benefiting from levelling up funding?

Obviously, I welcome the announcement, but my right hon. Friend is far too modest, since he has been knocking on the door of the Wales Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for a very long time to demand extra funding for Barry. He makes a very strong case for that, and I assure him that the UK Government will continue to listen to him.

Cross-border transport links between Wales and England are a key part of the strength of the Union. Does my right hon. Friend agree that cross-border projects, such as the Pant and Llanymynech bypass and the longer term ambition to dual the A483-A5 passing through Clwyd South and North Shropshire, are vital?

The United Kingdom Government are absolutely determined to support infrastructure projects in Wales. We have done so through the levelling-up funds. It will happen again through the shared prosperity fund and it has, of course, been happening through the growth deals. What we do need is a Welsh Labour Government that will support infrastructure. That is why I find it so disappointing that the Welsh Labour Government have ruled out building any new roads ever again. It worries me greatly that that is seen as a blueprint for the rest of the United Kingdom.

Energy Costs

7. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on energy costs for (a) households and (b) businesses in Wales. (906600)

The Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues, including energy costs. The Government spent nearly £40 billion protecting households and businesses from high energy bills over last winter, meaning that between October 2022 and June 2023, a typical household saw half of their energy bills paid for by the Government.

The Government did not listen to the renewable energy sector, which repeatedly warned them that the budget set for this year’s offshore wind auction was too low to attract bidders to develop offshore wind in the Celtic sea. Can the Minister tell the House why that advice was ignored, leading to not a single bid being made?

What I can tell the hon. Lady is that it is an issue of discussion that the Secretary of State and I are engaged with. We understand the importance of floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea and it will progress in due course.

Speed Limits

8. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the potential impact of the Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Wales) Order 2022 on the Welsh economy. (906601)

11. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the potential impact of the Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Wales) Order 2022 on the Welsh economy. (906605)

No sensible person would oppose a 20 mph speed limit where there is a case to be made on the basis of safety outside hospitals, old people’s homes or schools, but the blanket decision by the Welsh Government, which has been opposed by over 460,000 signatories to the largest petition in the Senedd’s history, is deeply unpopular, deeply expensive and completely wrong.

Given that more than 450,000 people in Wales have signed an online petition against the Labour Welsh Government’s blanket 20 mph roll-out, does my right hon. Friend agree that devolved Administrations across the United Kingdom should listen to the people and the communities they serve, rather than their own narrow centralised agenda?

I agree completely with what my hon. Friend says. The Welsh Labour Government need to listen to what people have said about this and they need to listen also to all those who are opposed to this ridiculous war on motorists, which is not just about a 20 mph speed limit but a block on any new roads being built and extra road charges.

Can I just say to Conservative Members that the hon. Member was in the middle of asking a question? It is disrespectful to your own side. You should think about what you are doing. People should wait. Just because you want to cheer somebody coming in. Do it at the right time. That is totally inappropriate.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Labour likes to showcase Welsh Labour as its blueprint for the rest of the United Kingdom. Does the Secretary of State not agree that this is yet more evidence of its war against motorists wherever they are: Wales, Dudley North or the rest of the United Kingdom?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We need to be very careful of this blueprint for Britain, which includes a ban on new roads, a ban on meal deals, a tourism tax, road charges, over £100 million being spent on more politicians, a £1,600 minimum wage being paid to some asylum seekers and a ban on news channels in the Assembly that Senedd Members disagree with. That is not a blueprint for Britain; it is a recipe for disaster. I hope the people of Wales will take note and vote Conservative in the next election.

Mortgage Interest Rate Increases

9. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the impact of increases in mortgage interest rates on homeowners in Wales. (906602)

The Government recognise that this is a concerning time for mortgage holders, especially those who are due to come to the end of a fixed deal in the immediate future. We are supporting borrowers who are struggling with their mortgage payments through the new mortgage charter. It sets out the standards that signatory lenders will adopt, including new flexibilities to help customers manage their mortgage payments over a short period.

Throughout Scotland, people are paying the price of the Westminster-made cost of living crisis as a result of this Conservative Government and the actions of the Tories in crashing the economy last year. Will the Government bring forward that mortgage interest relief scheme for my constituents, and perhaps even for those in East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow?

The Government have, of course, provided “support for mortgage interest” loans for those receiving income-related benefits, and the pre-action protocol helps to make repossessions less likely. That is in addition to the action that I have already outlined.