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Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2024

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cost of Living

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on supporting rural areas in Wales with the cost of living. (901886)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of increases in the cost of living on people in Wales. (901887)

The UK Government fully recognise the challenges posed by cost of living pressures as a result of the covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which is why we have provided £96 billion since 2022 to support households and individuals across the United Kingdom —an average of about £3,400 per household.

Diolch, Mr Speaker. Just as the cost of living crisis here demands urgent action for my constituents in Slough, the cost of living crisis in Wales demands it for the good people of Wales, especially as households face being £870 worse off under this Government’s tax plan. Shockingly, a Which? survey has found that one in five working-age parents in Wales is skipping meals owing to high food prices. What recent conversations has the Secretary of State had with supermarkets about keeping the cost of food down?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will recognise and welcome the fact that, as a result of the policies being pursued by this Government, inflation has fallen from more than 11% to about 4%. I hope he will also agree that workers throughout Wales will be very pleased with the cut in national insurance contributions, which means that on average they will be £642 better off. If he is really concerned about the plight of working parents in Wales, I hope he will ask his colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government to roll out the childcare initiatives that are being rolled out in England, but not by them in Wales.

A number of my constituents have been adversely affected by their transfer from working tax credit to universal credit, because they work in sectors such as agriculture and tourism and their incomes are therefore seasonal. The switch from an annual to a monthly assessment of their entitlement means that many are losing out, but the Government have said that there will be no impact assessment to determine the financial effect of the move. Will the Secretary of State intervene in support of such an assessment, so that workers with seasonal incomes can be treated fairly?

The hon. Gentleman is a champion of constituents in rural areas such as his, and I am happy to look at any information that he wants to give, but I hope that he will recognise that the increase in the living wage will have helped his constituents, even those who work seasonally. That is alongside the extra payments that the Government have made to households in which people are living on benefits or have disabilities.

Is the Secretary of State aware of a report published this morning by the Trussell Trust? It states that 55% of the people receiving universal credit in Wales ran out of food last month and could not afford more, nearly 40,000 have needed to use a food bank in the last month, and four in 10 have fallen into debt because they could not keep up with their bills. Whatever the UK Government are doing about this, it is clearly nowhere near enough. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it?

The focus of this UK Government is on ensuring that people can work and do not have to live on benefits, but we recognise that there are those in need. That is why pensions, benefits and the living wage have all risen in line with inflation, and why we have ensured that additional payments are made to pensioners, those living on benefits and households where there has been disability. The fact is that people on low wages will not be helped by the plans of the hon. Gentleman’s Government in Scotland—and, indeed, the Labour Opposition—to shut down the oil and gas industry, which would throw 100,000 people out of work.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government’s sustainable farming scheme, if implemented, would have the most serious possible impact not only on Welsh farming businesses, but on the cost of living in the rural areas that depend on them? Does he further agree that for those communities, the scheme is the very opposite of sustainable?

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct. The Welsh Labour Government’s sustainable farming scheme involves taking 20% of prime Welsh agricultural land out of commission in order to pursue a whole load of nebulous schemes. It will increase food miles, and will reduce our ability to feed ourselves.

One of the best ways we can support people with the cost of living across Wales is by supporting businesses. Does the Minister agree that the Welsh Labour Government, propped up by Plaid Cymru, should do more to support hard-working farmers on Anglesey, such as Richard Jones and his family dairy, Maelog Jerseys, in Llanfaelog?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Welsh Government should abandon their so-called sustainable farming scheme, which will remove 20% of prime Welsh agricultural land and prevent farmers from growing food or grazing crops on it. They need to do something about tuberculosis, which is running rampant in Wales, unlike in England, and they need to look at the nitrate vulnerable zones across the whole of Wales, which will also impact farmers, such as her constituents.

The impact of the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis on people in north Wales has been exacerbated by their dither and delay on new nuclear at Wylfa. The previous project, which Ministers abandoned in 2019, could have been 50% completed by now, and would have created up to 8,500 jobs. Some 900 permanent jobs would also be well on the way, adding a total of almost £400 million a year to the local economy in wages. What does the Secretary of State say to people across north Wales who are still looking for good jobs because of his Government’s failures?

The last Labour Government certainly did not build any nuclear power stations. The UK Conservative Government are getting on with Hinkley, and we are sorting out small modular reactors. There is a process going on, in which six companies with an SMR model will be reduced to two, and one will be selected by the end of the year. We have provided £160 million to buy the Wylfa site. That will ensure that there is a nuclear industry in Wales—a result of the policies of this Conservative Government.

It is a stark admission of the Government’s failure that the Secretary of State boasts, after 14 years in government and doing absolutely nothing for five years, of acquiring a site at Wylfa. His Government’s inaction has cost people money, and still does. In nine years, all but one of our current reactors will be offline, which will weaken our energy mix, risk higher prices, and again leave us vulnerable to energy tyrants such as Putin. Will the Secretary of State make an explicit commitment today to backing new nuclear in places such as Wylfa, as Labour has done, in order to unlock jobs, investment and cheaper bills—issues that his party has ignored for so long? Or is this another never-ending Tory fiasco, like High Speed 2?

The last Labour Government were not in the least bit supportive of nuclear. What this Conservative Government have done for energy is increase to 50% the amount of electricity that comes from renewables. We are the first advanced economy to halve our carbon dioxide emissions, and we are pushing forward with floating offshore wind and SMRs. All we get for business from the Welsh Labour Government is a block on new roads being built, 20 mph speed limits, and legislation to charge people for driving to work.

Budget 2024: Businesses in Wales

The UK Government are backing our small businesses by raising the VAT threshold, delivering tax reliefs for the creative industries and investing in high-growth industries, such as advanced manufacturing. That is in stark contrast to the Welsh Labour Government’s anti-business agenda; Wales has some of the highest business rates in the whole United Kingdom. It is interesting that the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) thinks that having the highest business rates in the United Kingdom is funny.

Sadly, pubs and restaurants are closing at a faster rate in Wales than in any other part of the UK. The measures in the Budget that the Secretary of State mentioned will bring some relief, but does he agree that what is pushing many of these businesses to the wall right now is Welsh Labour’s slashing of business rates support?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The UK Government have made sure that pubs and other small hospitality businesses receive a 75% discount on their business rates. In Wales, that policy has been absolutely slashed, meaning that pubs and small businesses pay thousands of pounds more under the Welsh Labour Government. That is an absolute disgrace.

May I return the Secretary of State to the issue of the Rhondda tunnel? The Chancellor of the Exchequer doled out bits and pieces of money to the constituencies of various Members of Parliament on the Tory at-risk register, but he did not allocate any money to the Rhondda tunnel, despite the Secretary of State having told me personally in the Chamber that we should apply for money from the levelling-up fund. That is all gone, hasn’t it? So where should we now apply for money for the Rhondda tunnel?

There have been three rounds of levelling-up funding. The hon. Gentleman should know that there are growth deals across the length and breadth of Wales, covering every single constituency; that there are special projects being backed in areas such as Newport; and that there is an investment zone and a freeport in Port Talbot. Constituencies the length and breadth of Wales have benefited from the many projects that this Government have put forward. I appreciate his concern for that project in his constituency, and I suggest that he might look at shared prosperity fund money in future.

My right hon. Friend is well aware that the Chancellor has extended business rate relief at the rate of 75% here in England, but of course the Welsh Government are refusing to pass that money on to small businesses in Barry and Cowbridge in my constituency. Does he not think it completely unfair that a business in Bristol or Cornwall will pay a lot less in business rates than a business in Barry or Cowbridge?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is extraordinary that the Welsh Labour Government, who are receiving this funding in order to support small businesses in Wales, are failing to pass it on. As a result, the average pub in Wales will pay more than £2,000 more in business rates than a pub in England. The Welsh Labour Government must do more to support small businesses in Wales.

The Secretary of State will know that much of our monetary policy, which has an effect on interest rates for Welsh businesses and Welsh households, is decided in Threadneedle Street. Has he met the Governor of the Bank of England recently? If not, will he invite him to Wales to see the impact of his policies on the Welsh economy? Will he hold a meeting with other Welsh MPs, and may I humbly suggest that it be in Blackwood, Newbridge or Risca in my constituency?

The hon. Gentleman will surely be aware that the Bank of England sets interest rates independently, as a result of a policy brought in by the former Labour Government. It has been widely accepted that it is right that the Bank should set interest rates with a view to not what politicians ask it to do, but what the economy demands. As a result of the policies being pursued by this UK Government in conjunction with the Bank of England, inflation has dropped drastically from over 11% to 4%, and I would like to think that interest rates will soon follow.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This

“Budget will do nothing to deliver a better future for retailers and their customers.”

Those are the words of the British Retail Consortium, whose members face 45,000 incidents of theft and 1,300 incidents of violence and abuse every day. To help keep our Welsh high streets safe, we Labour Members want to fund an extra 13,000 police officers and police community support officers, and extra measures to deal with offenders. Why are the Government failing to tackle the epidemic of shoplifting and its victims, and to take it seriously?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this important issue for retailers, but I remind her that the UK Government have provided for an extra 20,000 police officers across the whole United Kingdom. We have repeatedly brought forward legislation to increase prison sentences and punishments for offenders, but that legislation has often been voted against by members of her political party.

This Government pledged £1 billion to electrify the north Wales main line. We all know that that £1 billion is an uncosted number pulled out of the air. We also now know that phase 1 goes no further than Llandudno. How can the Secretary of State explain that to the people living in Ynys Môn and Gwynedd? Talk of rail electrification just means more of the same for us: slow trains, cancelled services and empty election promises.

The UK Government have already shown a commitment to transport in Wales, spending £390 million on improved rail infrastructure over the last control period. In addition to that, there has been the south Wales metro, which is part of a UK Government-Welsh Government joint-funded growth deal. The Prime Minister was very clear about our commitment to the electrification of the north Wales rail line, and that commitment stands.

The Tory leader in the Senedd opposes moves to tackle the effects of excessive numbers of holiday homes in our communities. He goes on about

“anti-tourism, and anti-English policies being imposed on the Welsh tourism industry”.

Now that the Tory Westminster Government are abolishing tax breaks for holiday lets, would the Secretary of State claim that his Chancellor is anti-tourism?

I would not. My friend in the Senedd has spoken out repeatedly about the Welsh Labour Government’s plans for an overnight tourism tax, which will have a detrimental impact on tourism businesses across Wales. The hon. Lady’s party is in partnership with the Welsh Labour Government, and if she really wants to support the Welsh tourism industry, I suggest she tells it that her Members will vote against Welsh Labour’s Budget, to prevent that tax from coming in.

Electricity Transmission and Distribution

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero and the Welsh Government on electricity transmission and distribution policy. (901884)

The Government are committed to transforming our electricity network to reach our energy security and net zero ambitions. We recently announced an ambitious electricity network package that will reduce consumer bills, bring forward £90 billion of investment over the next 10 years and allow us to harness Wales’s renewable resources, such as floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea.

Pylon developments for electricity transmission and distribution purposes are very controversial in the communities that are expected to host them. I have four such potential developments in my constituency, and the whole of Carmarthenshire is in uproar. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero to commission a study on technologies such as cable ploughing, which allow undergrounding and have a comparable cost to pylons?

I understand the concerns that have been raised in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He has discussed this with me previously, and is championing his constituents’ concerns. The information that I have been given is that laying cables underground would cost five to seven times more, but I hear what he is saying. If he has a presentation or something that he can forward to me, I would be delighted to make sure that officials in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero see it.

On the subject of transmission and distribution policy, is my right hon. Friend aware that the Senedd has decided to ban GB News? What is his policy on that?

There may be a small electricity saving, but it is very disappointing that the Welsh Labour Government are preventing a perfectly legitimate viewpoint from being heard by Members of the Senedd, who would do well to listen to people who do not always agree with everything they say.


6. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the adequacy of healthcare services in Wales. (901889)

As my hon. Friend knows, healthcare is devolved to the Welsh Government, who have received record funding to deliver on their devolved responsibilities. They receive 20% more funding per person than is received for comparable services in England. Despite that extra money, more than 24,000 patients in Wales have been waiting more than two years for treatment. The number of people waiting more than two years for treatment in England, which has roughly 20 times the population, is around 200.

Last month, fewer than half of red calls were answered by the ambulance service in Labour’s Wales within the necessary eight minutes. That is the Leader of the Opposition’s blueprint for government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, instead of campaigning for more politicians in Wales, Labour should focus on delivering the health services that the people of Wales thoroughly deserve?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I had to make a 999 call for an ambulance for my father-in-law at 11 o’clock one morning, and it arrived at 4 o’clock the following morning. My father-in-law then had to wait for another six hours in the back of an ambulance outside an accident and emergency unit. The Welsh Labour Government had built industrial fans in the ambulance bays to waft away the diesel fumes. That is totally unacceptable. They are cutting the NHS budget in Wales by around £65 million, yet they can find £120 million extra for more politicians in Cardiff Bay.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), has announced an extra £200 million of spending for dentistry. I have repeatedly asked her whether that is in the English budget or additional, in which case it would produce a Barnett consequential, but all she could say, repeatedly, is that it was additional. Can the Secretary of State for Wales tell me whether the extra £200 million for dentistry in England will produce about £10 million extra for Wales, or will it produce nothing at all? Perhaps he does not know, either.

As a result of the Budget, around £170 million extra will go to Wales. The hon. Gentleman knows that Wales receives around 20% extra to deliver healthcare, and it is therefore absolutely appalling that the Welsh Labour Government are unable to deliver the same services that are supplied in England. It is interesting; Labour claims to be the party of the national health service, but where are Labour Members? They are not standing to ask a supplementary to this question, because they are ashamed of the healthcare that they have delivered in Wales. Let this not become a blueprint for the rest of the United Kingdom.

A 90-year-old constituent of mine spent 31 hours in the back of an ambulance outside the Wrexham Maelor Hospital waiting to be seen. Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, which serves north Wales, is responsible for 80% of the preventable deaths in Wales. Does the Minister agree that the Welsh Labour Government, who run the NHS there, are putting lives at risk?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise concerns about the level of healthcare being provided to her constituents. Shockingly, when the independent commissioners at the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board raised serious concerns about more than £100 million being misspent, the Welsh Labour Health Minister called them in and sacked them. No wonder we are not getting the right level of healthcare in Wales.

The Secretary of State and other Tory MPs bring up a litany of health issues in Wales, but Barnett consequentials are a result of health spending and need in England. Have the UK Government ever made any spending decisions on need in Wales, such as in health, and then funded England, Scotland and Northern Ireland as a consequence of Welsh need? He might find that a strange question, because UK decisions are always made on the basis of England’s need and other people get money as a consequence, which is why Wales is never going to catch Ireland for as long as Wales is in the UK and not independent. Is that not so?

The Holtham review looked at what Welsh needs were and calculated that Wales needed an extra 15%. The UK Conservative Government then provided Wales with an extra 20%. The question still stands: why have thousands of people in Wales been waiting for more than two years for treatment, given that the Welsh Labour Government have been given more money than they need to properly fund the health service in Wales?

Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales

7. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the Independent Commission’s final report on the constitutional future of Wales. (901891)

The not very independent commission was set up by Welsh Labour Ministers and reports to them, but it was paid for by Welsh taxpayers. Its report was entirely in line with all the predictions I made: it contained more constitutional navel gazing and more calls for more powers, and nothing at all to address the problems that have been inflicted on Wales by the Welsh Labour Government.

It is deeply concerning that a so-called “independent” commission described Welsh independence as “viable”, despite the fact that the vast majority of people in Wales support remaining part of the Union. Of course, there is a difference between something that might be viable and something that is best. Does my right hon. Friend agree that independence for Wales would be hugely damaging to the Welsh economy and public services, and that any further exploration of this idea must be immediately ruled out by the Labour Welsh Government?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend; it is hugely concerning that the Welsh Labour Government were even willing to consider independence for Wales with this commission. They should be sorting out the longest NHS waiting lists in the UK and doing something about the fact that we have the lowest educational standards and some of the highest business rates in the UK. As a result of the last bit of legislation, we also have some of the slowest speed limits in the UK. It is time the Welsh Labour Government addressed the real priorities of the people in Wales with the powers they already have.

Is the reality not that the Conservative party never wanted devolution in Wales or Scotland in the first place, which is why it does not want to see powers extended to either the Senedd or the Scottish Parliament?

I campaigned against the Senedd in the first place, but I was perfectly happy to accept the results of the referendum. I suggest that Scottish National party Members ought similarly to respect the results of independence referendums, be they about independence from the UK or independence from the European Union.

Support for Farmers

8. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on support for farmers in Wales. (901892)

The recent protests by farmers across the whole of Wales, including outside the Senedd, show the huge anger there is about the proposals for the Welsh Labour Government’s so-called “sustainable farming scheme”.

One of the best ways we can support Welsh farmers is by choosing to buy British products. That is good for the environment, as it reduces food miles, and for our food security, as we support our farmers. Will the Secretary of State congratulate Morrisons, Aldi, Sainsbury’s and now Ocado, which have all signed up to my campaign to have a “buy British” button online so that consumers can easily find British produce?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend about buying British, although I might go one step further and suggest we buy Welsh food, wherever possible. That will be a lot more difficult if Labour implement its plans to bury 10% of Welsh agricultural land under trees and to bury another 10% under ponds. That will increase food miles, decrease food security and destroy prime agricultural land in Wales. The Welsh Labour Government need to think again.

The best way to support farmers in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England is to buy British. Does the Minister agree that we should all work together, across all this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to promote farming everywhere?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Let us encourage everyone to buy British and ensure we use as much of our land as possible for growing food, not covering it in trees. It is particularly hypocritical for the Welsh Government to tell farmers they have to plant trees on their land when the Welsh Labour Government are responsible for thousands of acres of forest. They are chopping down 850,000 tonnes of trees every year and even putting some of them into the boiler that heats up the Senedd—not that many trees are probably required to add to the hot air in there.