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Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 19 October 2022

I am honoured to take my first questions as Secretary of State. I ask the House to remember that Friday will mark the 56th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, which, even with the passage of time, remains searingly painful. We will never forget, and we will still mourn, all those who lost their lives.

My Department has worked alongside the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that the freeport offer works for Wales. Over the summer, we successfully agreed a prospectus for Wales with the Welsh Government, which was launched in early September. This takes us one step closer to investment, growth and long-term prosperity.

May I be the first to welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to his place and to align myself with his comments about the Aberfan disaster? I remember being taught about it in school as a child of roughly the same age: it made a deep, profound and lasting impression on me.

By making it easier and cheaper to do business, freeports drive not only local and regional growth, but national growth—growing the pie, as we have learned to call it. Will my right hon. and learned Friend give further details on how freeports in Wales can help to level up local areas and help their prosperity?

We are committed to establishing at least one freeport in Wales by the summer of next year, with £26 million in seed funding. The bidding process is still open; I am sure that we will see some excellent bids. The estimates for the Teesside freeport and Freeport East initiatives are that they will both create more than 18,000 jobs and provide a £3.2 billion boost to their local economy. I anticipate a similar boost to the Welsh economy.

I have just returned from the World Trade Organisation in Geneva as a rapporteur for the Council of Europe. There is some concern there about how freeports might undermine internationally agreed labour standards and might be a safe haven for carbon-intensive production. What meetings has the Secretary of State had with the WTO about the matter? Will he meet me about it? Can he give an assurance that there will be no reduction in labour standards and no dirty production in these freeports?

I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have enjoyed lively exchanges over the years. I assure him that in the prospectus he will see a specific reference to the Senedd’s Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. Along with giving assurances as to our UK Government’s standards, I can assure him that the sort of concerns that have been outlined are unfounded and that he will find encouragement in the green initiatives that I am sure will thrive with the freeports project.

May I say on behalf of the Labour party, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), that we are all thinking of the community of Aberfan this week?

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. He must be very pleased, following his summer U-turn, that the Prime Minister has been taking daily lessons from him. The Welsh Government’s Minister for Finance and Local Government, Rebecca Evans, is now dealing with her sixth Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Can the Secretary of State explain how it is possible to progress the Welsh freeports prospectus with such an appallingly chaotic and unstable UK Government ahead of the 31 October Budget announcement?

I assure the hon. Lady that the time that I have had as Secretary of State has been time well spent. Throughout the summer, I made sure that the prospectus process for the freeports initiative was maintained. I worked with the then Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), to make that so.

I assure the hon. Lady that we have not lost a beat in my time in office. The fact that there may be changes in personnel does not change the Government’s growth strategy, which remains on course and which I think deserves the support of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The Budget has been ripped up and the manifesto has been ripped up, but there we go. The UK Government’s original approach was to ignore devolution and impose a freeport on Wales; the Welsh Government put a stop to that and to the harm to the environment, to workers’ rights and to Wales’s finances that it would have caused. The UK Government’s latest version of freeports appears to be investment zones. Has the Secretary of State actually seen any evidence that proves his Government’s claim that they create growth, rather than just displace it?

I find it concerning that the hon. Lady does not share my enthusiasm for freeports and investment zones. I think of examples from the past in Wales, when inspirational Secretaries of State such as the late Lord Crickhowell, Peter Walker and Lord Hunt of Wirral demonstrated that, through enterprise zones and, for example, the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, the economy could be transformed and regenerated. I am confident that our approach to investment zones will ensure that Wales shares in the growing prosperity that we want to see throughout our United Kingdom. I believe it will generate more investment and grow that economic pie, which is the aspiration of this Government.

This Government have been forced to U-turn on their fundamental ideology that slashing taxes magically leads to economic growth. That same ideology underpins freeports and investment zones. Both will shrink the UK Government’s tax revenue and, in turn, the Welsh Government's budget, which is already facing a £4 billion shortfall. With inflation now over 10%, what is the Secretary of State doing in the Cabinet to protect Wales’s budget?

I yield to none in my admiration for the right hon. Lady, but she has just laid bare Plaid Cymru’s ideological approach. Her party believes that there should be an ever-shrinking share of wealth, which means that our public services would decline. We on this side of the House believe that the way in which to pay for public services is to grow our economy, and it is through initiatives such as the freeports and investment zones that we will do just that. I hope that the Welsh public will note Plaid Cymru’s ideological opposition to growth.

The Secretary of State is on record as saying that he believes it is right to make cuts in public spending—and that was before last week's multiple U-turns. According to the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, the last Tory austerity experiment led to 335,000 excess deaths. How many excess deaths is the Secretary of State prepared to justify this time round?

I am sorry, but hyperbole from the right hon. Lady does not help her case at all. We are not talking about so-called austerity; we are talking about ensuring that the money allocated in the public spending round that was agreed last year is spent efficiently and wisely. I said that it was right for each Department to look carefully at its priorities to ensure that frontline services—the sort of services in which I know she and I believe—are maintained for the benefit of the citizens whom we serve.