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Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 6 December 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Inflation and Public Spending

May I say how sorry I was to learn of the death of Baroness Kinnock? I met her when I was an intern in the European Parliament many years ago, and I have never forgotten how fearless, remarkable and determined she was. I send my deepest condolences to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) and the wider Welsh Labour family, who also mourn the death of Allan Rogers, who served in this House as the Member for Rhondda for 19 years.

The UK economy has outperformed expectations this year, and the Prime Minister has delivered on his pledge to halve inflation. Following the Chancellor’s announcement at the autumn statement, the Welsh Government will receive £305 million in additional funding, which can be used to support public services in Wales.

Tory inflation and austerity mean that the Welsh budget is worth £900 million less than it was when it was set, and the autumn statement consequentials do not make up for that. The Institute of Welsh Affairs has called the autumn statement “a return to austerity” with

“tax cuts at the cost of cuts to public service delivery.”

It is the people of Wales who are suffering poverty and cuts to public services, so I ask the Minister: instead of the autumn statement tax handouts to the wealthy in London and the south-east, will the Secretary of State not urge the Chancellor to tax the wealthy to better protect Welsh public services?

The House will not be surprised to learn that I completely disagree with the hon. Lady’s assessment. It is not the amount of money the Welsh Government are receiving but the way in which they are mismanaging public services that is the problem. The 2021 spending review delivered the Welsh Government a record settlement of £18 billion a year, so I think that she needs to recognise that the problem is on her own side in Wales.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her role and thank her for her tribute to Baroness Kinnock and to Allan Rogers. Glenys Kinnock was an inspiration to our Labour movement, to her many friends and colleagues around the world, but most of all to her family. As the Kinnock family grieve, we send them our love and deepest sympathy.

On public spending in Wales, the Prime Minister promised, when abandoning HS2, that the north Wales main line would be electrified, at a cost of £1 billion. In the past eight years, construction costs have increased by 7% a year, because of the Government’s economic mismanagement. Will the Minister confirm that the last time any cost assessment was done on electrification was in 2015 and that the scheme will now cost between £1.5 billion and £1.8 billion?

I join the hon. Lady in her comments about the Kinnock family.

It is important to recognise that this Government are the first in many decades to commit to that project. I am sorry that she appears to agree with her colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff Bay, who seem to say that this is not a priority; Conservative Members feel that electrification and economic growth in north Wales is a priority, and I am sorry that she cannot agree with that.

If it is such a priority, why has nothing been done since 2015, when the cost assessment was undertaken? The hon. Lady’s Government promised to electrify the south Wales main line, but they did not do so. They promised to improve journey times and connections between south Wales and London, but they did not do that either. She has not given an answer on whether the Government will fully fund electrification, so how can she stand there and claim to the people in north Wales that this project has any prospect whatsoever of being completed by this hapless Government?

I say again that the hon. Lady’s party has already dismissed this project as not a priority. I also say again that north Wales is a priority for this Government; we are determined to level up right across this country and especially to focus on areas that the Welsh Labour Government, in south Wales, have completely ignored.

I add my condolences and those of my party to the Kinnock family on their sad loss.

Wales’s public services, assailed by inflation and austerity, now face the further difficulty of recruiting the skilled migrants who have become so vital to caring for our ageing population, as the family threshold is to rise to £38,700. That is £8,000 higher than the average wage in Gwynedd, with many of my constituents earning significantly less. Will the Minister tell me what representations she—or, rather, the Secretary of State—has made to the Home Secretary on the effects of the new threshold on Welsh public services?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Secretary of State has regular discussions with his Cabinet colleagues about the issue. It is absolutely vital that we take tough measures to make sure that we sustain sensible levels of migration. That is exactly what the Home Secretary has announced this week.

The change in the salary threshold will affect real people with real families and real people receiving care. My constituent Daniel Griffith was due to marry his Brazilian partner next year. They intend to make their home in Wales, but it is far from clear at present whether they will be able to do that under the new income rules. Why should Daniel, unlike the Secretary of State, the Minister and everyone else in this Chamber, have to choose between his wife and his country?

Some of the policies put in place by the Welsh Labour Government, aided and abetted by Plaid Cymru under the co-operation agreement, are disadvantaging Wales, putting off investors from creating investment and jobs in Wales. Again, I say to the hon. Gentleman that it is his colleagues in Cardiff Bay who need to have a look at what they are doing.

Narrow Gauge Railway Tourism

2. Whether he has had discussions with the Welsh Government on promoting and supporting narrow gauge railway tourism in Wales. (900417)

Narrow gauge and heritage railways are important for our tourism sector. Although tourism is, of course, devolved, the UK Government have demonstrated their support for the sector. The Secretary of State saw that at first hand on 2 June, when he opened Corwen station, which was partly funded by the UK Government’s levelling-up fund.

First, I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box; it is a pleasure to see her there.

A little while back, a friend of mine from Rouen, Thierry Fontenay, came over to Tywyn in Gwynedd. I asked myself, “How can I amuse him?” I took him on the Talyllyn railway, and we went from Tywyn to Abergynolwyn. He was over the moon—he took photographs of the engine and went on to the footplate. He told me that there are no narrow gauge railways like that, if at all, in France. What can we do to promote in Europe these wonderful narrow gauge railways that we have in Wales?

My hon. Friend is, of course, right: Wales’s narrow gauge railways are part of our unique tourism offer, so it is vital that they are marketed to the world. That is why Visit Britain works to ensure that Wales’s brand values are reflected in the broader GREAT campaign. Let me do Visit Britain and Visit Wales’s job for them and warmly invite Monsieur Fontenay to come and see the premier narrow gauge railway—the Brecon Mountain railway.

Impact of Autumn Statement

The autumn statement set out the UK Government’s plans to grow the economy and incentivise work so that economic growth can be felt throughout the United Kingdom. That will include a national insurance tax change from January, which will put £324 back into the pockets of 1.2 million workers across Wales.

North Wales has always been the poor relative to south Wales, where the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff fund their voter bases. However, thanks to the foresight of this Conservative Government, money is now flowing from Whitehall to Wrexham—£13 million from the levelling-up fund, £20 million from the towns fund, £24 million from the shared prosperity fund and the prospect of a £160 million investment zone. We are working on a civil service hub. Does the Secretary of State agree that, after 20 years of neglect from the Welsh Labour Government, this Conservative Government have put Wrexham firmly on the map?

I am absolutely delighted to agree with my hon. Friend: the UK Government are putting Wrexham on the map. I was, of course, delighted with the £160 million investment zone across Wrexham in Flintshire, which was marked by a visit from the Chancellor to the area. The £20 million towns fund for Wrexham will ensure long-term certainty and investment for the area and for the growth deal. I believe that the freeport in north Wales will also benefit my hon. Friend’s constituents.

According to research from the Bevan Foundation, nearly one in four Welsh children have reported having recently been worried about being cold, and around one in eight have worried about being hungry. What are the Government going to do about that?

The UK Government have spent £96 billion on measures to help the least well off across the United Kingdom throughout the difficult times brought about by the covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine. On top of that, in the autumn statement we were able to announce a cut in national insurance, which will put more money into people’s pockets. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be talking to his constituents, who are no doubt hit by the highest taxes in the whole United Kingdom as a result of the policies of the Scottish National party Government.

May I join others in paying tribute to Glenys Kinnock, who was much loved by us all?

Earlier this year, the Secretary of State told my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) that his Government would prioritise helping the most vulnerable, yet Welsh households still face the consequences of 13 years of his Government’s economic failures, with a historically high tax burden and his own constituents paying on average £240 more each month on their mortgages. Can he explain, then, why his Conservative colleagues in the Senedd are calling for the Welsh Government to withdraw their £40 million mortgage support scheme for those at risk of repossession?

The UK Government have already brought forward a mortgage charter to support anyone getting into difficulties. I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that the fact that the Government have delivered on their pledge to halve inflation over the past year will mean that everyone in Wales is better off; that the cut to national insurance will mean that everyone in Wales is better off; and that the increase in the living wage as well the Government’s commitment to ensuring that pensions and benefits are uprated in line with inflation will mean that everyone on low salaries is better off.

Tourism Sector Visitor Levy

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the potential financial impact of proposals to implement a visitor levy for Wales on the tourism sector. (900419)

The UK Government are investing in Wales and in the Welsh tourism industry, which has been evidenced most recently by the decision to allocate £500,000 to the Hay Festival—a project championed by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. It is a pity that the Welsh Government are not taking the same view about the importance of the tourism industry and are introducing a tax that signals that Wales is closed for business.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. It is no surprise that hitting tourists with a tax is likely to deter them from wanting to visit Wales, despite the natural beauty of places such as Snowdonia and the attractions of visiting locations such as Anglesey. Alongside highlighting the folly of this move from the Welsh Labour Government, will he ensure that anyone advocating for a tax on tourism anywhere else in the UK is reminded of the negative impact that it would have on our tourism sector?

I can assure my hon. Friend that not only will I be reminding the Welsh Labour Government about the importance of supporting the tourism industry and the folly of introducing a tax, but my Conservative colleagues in the Senedd will also be making that point. I hope that the Welsh Labour Government will listen to them and also listen to the Wales Tourism Alliance, which has said that this tax will be a tax on jobs and a tax on an industry that employs one in 10 people in Wales.

Rural Communities: 20 mph Speed Limit

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the potential impact of the 20 mph speed limit on rural communities. (900420)

14. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the potential impact of the 20 mph speed limit on rural communities. (900429)

All of us support speed limits in places where there is a risk to life. I have supported speed limits outside schools, hospitals and other places in my constituency, but the Welsh Labour Government’s policy of bringing in a 20 mph speed limit on all 30 mph roads—a blanket speed limit—is damaging for the economy. By their own figures, they have suggested that it could create a £4.5 billion hit to the Welsh economy. They need to think again.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. More than 8,700 people on Ynys Môn and almost half a million across Wales have signed the Senedd petition to rescind and remove the disastrous 20 mph law. In fact, more people have signed the petition than voted for Labour in the last Senedd election. Unlike the Welsh Labour Government, will the Secretary of State listen to people across Wales and join me in calling for the Welsh Labour Government to reverse this new, disastrous 20 mph law?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and call on the Welsh Labour Government to rescind the policy of a blanket 20 mph speed limit across Wales. At the same time, I call on them to rescind their policy of building no new roads ever again in Wales, and I call on them to scrap their policy of bringing in road charging for using the motorway network. Is it not interesting that not one Labour Member present is willing to stand up to defend their own Senedd Government policy?

We have already heard about the importance of tourism to the Welsh economy. Has my right hon. Friend made any assessment of the impact on tourism, which will disappear from Wales as a result of this blanket ban?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. People will now not only have to pay extra money to come into Wales as a result of the Welsh Labour Government’s tourism tax, but find it a lot slower to get around Wales as a result of the Welsh Labour Government’s speed limits. In my constituency of Monmouthshire, the Labour council has recently decided for the first time ever to bring in charges for people who want to use the shops on a Sunday over the Christmas period, meaning that it wants us to slow down, but not to stop.

Local authorities in Wales have had the opportunity to exempt roads and villages from the blanket application of a speed limit. Devon County Council has had less discretion. In May this year, 105 parishes in Devon applied to the county council to have a 20 mph limit, but only six applications were granted. Does the Minister accept that an opt-in system for 20 mph zones depends on local authorities having enough funding to exercise discretion?

The hon. Gentleman’s party is in charge in Powys—I am not sure whether he is aware of that. The reality is that local authorities across Wales need more funding to implement such policies, which have cost £30 million. The Welsh Labour Government are diverting money from local authorities so that they can spend it on their pet schemes, including extra Senedd Members.

Impact of Autumn Statement

6. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of the autumn statement on households in Wales. (900421)

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues regarding UK Government support for households in Wales, so I was absolutely delighted that in the autumn statement the Chancellor announced a 9.8% rise in the national living wage, providing an extra £1,800 to the annual earnings of full-time workers.

We are all thinking of the lovely Glenys Kinnock and her family, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), at this sad time.

The number of emergency food parcels distributed by the Trussell—[Interruption.]

Order. Does it occur to hon. Members when they are conversing in a normal speaking tone, rather than whispering, while a Member is asking a question that it is really rude and discourteous?

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The number of emergency food parcels distributed by Trussell Trust food banks in Newport West is on the rise. In 2018, the number of parcels distributed was 1,971. In the same period this year, over 3,000 were distributed to families. There was nothing in the autumn statement that would make that situation better. Why not?

With respect, I disagree with the hon. Lady. The fact that inflation has been halved will be of benefit to anyone receiving food parcels. The fact that there has been a cut in national insurance will be beneficial for people. The fact that there has been an increase in the living wage will be beneficial for people. The fact that pensions and benefits are going up in line with inflation is going to be beneficial for people in her constituency. What is not going to be beneficial for her constituents is the Welsh Labour Government wanting to spend over £100 million creating extra Senedd Members.

The Minister will be aware that he UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly has been meeting in Westminster this week. It was made clear by the co-chair, Natalie Loiseau MEP that Glenys Kinnock had made a huge contribution in the European Parliament, particularly in advocating for women’s rights. That was something that she wanted to record, so it is not just in this Parliament that Glenys Kinnock will be remembered for her role in politics.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cut in national insurance contributions, the improvement in the national living wage and the cutting of inflation are crucial to Welsh households, as they are across the UK?

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend on all those points—first, that Glenys Kinnock made an enormous contribution to politics in this country, as has her husband, to whom we send our condolences, and as does her son who, at this very moment, is working hard to support steelmaking in south Wales. It is a pleasure to work with him on the transition board in Port Talbot, even though we have disagreements from time to time on political matters. May I add to the tributes and support everything that my right hon. and learned Friend said?

I agree that the recent changes in the autumn statement will be beneficial for people in Wales.

Floating Offshore Wind: Celtic Sea

7. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on expediting the development of floating offshore wind in the Celtic Sea. (900422)

I have regular—in fact, frequent—conversations with Cabinet colleagues and stakeholders to support the floating offshore wind industry, which will create high-quality jobs in Wales. The Government fully support plans for up to 4 GW of floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea, and we are working to bring forward an additional 12 GW through the 2030s, with the potential to bring forward up to £20 billion-worth of investment.

Previous offshore wind developments on England’s east coast have shown that appropriate planning is needed to minimise disruption to communities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the development of floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea should mean single-cable corridors—one to his side of the water, and just one to the north coast of Devon or Cornwall—to reduce environmental and societal disruption?

I know that the electricity systems operator is currently reviewing the design of connections for offshore wind projects. Last week—or possibly earlier this week—I met the Crown Estate, and I have been meeting National Grid to discuss some of the issues around cabling and the reconfiguration of the grid. The decision as to where the cables will go and how many of them there will be is a fairly technical one that I fear I am not qualified to take a view on, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the Crown Estate and National Grid would be more than happy to talk to her about that.

Any onshore and offshore wind in the Celtic sea will affect fishermen in Northern Ireland as well. Can the Secretary of State assure me that, when it comes to plans for offshore wind, the fishing organisations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will all have input on where it happens, so that fishing will not be affected?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. In sparking a floating offshore wind industry, certain challenges need to be dealt with together with various other Government Departments—he has made reference to one challenge. I can assure him that I have already had informal discussions about that, and will be looking to have more such discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other Government Departments to ensure that we overcome all the challenges and create a vibrant, sustainable industry for the future.

Energy Bills

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a variety of issues, including the cost of energy bills. The Government recognise the challenges posed by cost of living pressures, which is why we are providing on average £3,700 per household from 2022-23 to 2024-25 to support households and individuals with the cost of living.

The Minister may not be aware of the very successful Warm Wales programme in the noughties, which saw tens of thousands of homes have their cavities and lofts insulated, saving residents in Neath, Port Talbot and Wrexham hundreds of pounds every year. Do the Government recognise that concentrated schemes of that nature have a major impact on fuel poverty, and will Ministers steal our plans, which would see hundreds of thousands more households benefit?

I am well aware that there are a number a renewable energy schemes that could have a positive benefit on householders in Wales, which is why the UK Government have been so supportive of the potential for floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea, and why, in the last round, we arranged higher strike prices for tidal energy. We are looking at a wide range of renewable energy systems that can bring benefits to people in Wales. At the same time, in recognising the cost of living pressures, the UK Government ensured that we were paying around half the average fuel bills for homeowners during the last winter period.


Last week, I had the pleasure of talking to farmers at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society winter fair, and at livestock markets in Sennybridge and Talybont in my constituency. The UK Government are committed to backing Welsh farming, most notably by allocating more than £900 million to the Welsh Government. That delivers on our manifesto commitment to maintain funding for farmers and land managers at 2019 levels.

Farmers across the UK—from those in the country of Wales to those in the village of Wales in Rother Valley—face increasing pressures. The Minister will know that I am holding my next farmers’ forum with the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), early next year in Rother Valley. What is my hon. Friend doing to support farmers in the country of Wales, farmers in the village of Wales in Rother Valley and farmers across the whole of the UK?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work to ensure that the voice of farming is heard by the Minister. Like me, he understands that farmers across this country are the beating heart of the rural economy, driving growth in rural constituencies such as mine. I must say, that attitude stands in stark contrast to that of the Labour party in Wales, which has already cut £37 million from the Welsh agriculture budget. We wait with trepidation to see what damage Labour will do to Welsh farmers next week.

I call Stephen Doughty—[Interruption.] Order. That just proves the point: Members are not paying the least bit of attention to a colleague who is about to speak—he could not even hear his name being called. It is rude to keep talking when someone is trying to ask an important question.

Rail Infrastructure

12. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the adequacy of rail infrastructure in Wales. (900427)

Thank you for your generosity, Madam Deputy Speaker. I, too, pay tribute to my very good friends in the Kinnock family after the loss of Glenys, who was a dear friend to all of us, and note the sad death of the former Member for Rhondda.

I ask the Secretary of State—

The UK Government are committed to building a strong rail infrastructure network across Wales, which will improve connectivity and drive economic growth.

My constituents want the parkway station to be built at St Mellons. That will require important work on the south Wales main line for relief lines. Will the Minister meet me and colleagues, with the rail Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman)—to ensure that this important national investment is made, so that the station can go ahead?

I will be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss that and the investment that the UK Government are already putting into rail infrastructure in Wales.

The Secretary of State and the Minister should know that I have campaigned for years to close the dangerous level crossing in Pencoed in my constituency. No levelling-up funding or transport bid funding has been approved for any of the applications. Will the Minister please talk to Department for Transport officials to resolve this, rather than allowing DFT officials to keep announcing more and more rail services, which means closing the crossing more by stealth? That is not acceptable to my constituents.

I worked well with the hon. Gentleman when I was in the Government Whips Offices and I very much look forward to doing so again. I will write to him to offer a meeting about that.

Before we proceed to Prime Minister’s questions, many colleagues have asked me to pass on their best wishes to Mr Speaker in his absence. I am happy to inform the House that, although Mr Speaker has tested positive for covid and therefore cannot be present in the Chamber, he is rapidly getting better. Just as soon as that little test shows negative, he will be straight back here in his Chair.