The Secretary of State was asked—
Strength of the Union
Recent years have highlighted the strength of our United Kingdom. The successful covid vaccine roll-out was just one example of the strength of our Union; the ability to spend £94 billion during the cost of living challenges caused by the covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine was another. That support will continue, with two freeports and an investment zone being delivered in Wales.
Polling on Welsh independence has found that young people, aged 16 to 34, are far more likely than any other group to vote by a majority for independence for Wales to secure the change they feel their nation needs. That mirrors the views of young people in Scotland, who believe Scotland can and will prosper outside this broken Union. Why does the Secretary of State think that so many young people have so little faith in the Union?
Contrary to what the hon. Lady posits, young people want and welcome the right to be able to live, study and work in all parts of the United Kingdom, which is why the Conservative and Unionist party has consistently polled far higher in every kind of election than parties that seek independence for Wales.
One benefit of the Union should be that all its citizens are entitled to broadly equivalent public services, no matter where they live. Yet in north Wales, on the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the NHS, patients are unable to access specialist medical services in England with the same ease as English patients, despite the fact that those services may not be available in Wales. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an unreasonable and unfair state of affairs? Will he urge the Welsh First Minister to rectify that as quickly as possible?
It is deeply disappointing that on the 75th anniversary of the National Health Service, the Welsh Labour Government, which are responsible for healthcare in Wales, are unable to provide the same level of service as that received by patients who live under a Conservative-run Government running the NHS in England. It is deeply unfair that patients in Wales are waiting longer for treatment and wait longer in accident and emergency, and that those who draw attention to allegations of misspending of more than £100 million in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board have been sacked from their jobs.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lefarydd. One in five people in Wales is facing hunger. On the NHS’s 75th birthday, we must break the vicious cycle where poverty fuels hunger and, consequently, poor health. As the Secretary of State is a staunch believer in the power of the Union, I would like to pose him a challenge: would he be willing to stake his support for the Union on its ability to eradicate food poverty in Wales by the end of the Tories’ time in office?
I assure the right hon. Lady that my support for the Union is absolute. It is because we are in a powerful Union that we have been able to spend £94 billion on cost of living support, which has meant that pensions, benefits and the minimum wage have all gone up in line with inflation. If the right hon. Lady is concerned about food poverty, I hope she will talk to her friends in the Welsh Labour Government, which her colleagues are propping up, about the ridiculous proposal to ban meal deals.
I will take that as a no. Perhaps I can give him another go to prove that Wales gets added value from the Union. English water companies can extract the equivalent of almost 480 Olympic swimming pools of water from Wales every day. Among those companies is Thames Water, which paid over £200 million in dividends over the past five years. Can he explain to households in Wales why the profits gained from extracting our country’s natural resources are benefiting profiteers and not our communities?
The right hon. Lady will be well aware that the way in which water companies are run is rather more complicated than that. She will also be aware that there is a nationalised water company in Scotland and we have a not-for-profit water company in Wales, and yet in both Wales and Scotland average bills are higher, and so are spills into the rivers—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, SNP Members can say what they want. They are presiding over a situation where there are more sewage spills going into the water in Scotland than there are in England.
Wales is a great tourist destination and only recently I spent a long weekend in Llandudno. I believe my hon. Friend was there. He has seen for himself what a wonderful place it is. We have some of the best beaches in the United Kingdom and some of the best mountain biking in the United Kingdom. It is a shame that as a result of the Welsh Labour Government’s decision to impose a tourism tax on overnight visitors, fewer people see it.
My right hon. Friend is indeed right. I went to Conwy Castle with my two whippets and saw the delight that Wales has to offer. I encourage everyone to go and see it. Tourism accounts for about £127 billion of UK industry and almost 4 million jobs. What conversations is he having with the Welsh Labour Government to ensure that there is a UK-wide approach to both domestic and international tourism?
It is deeply disappointing not only that visitors will face a tourism tax, but that those offering accommodation will face extra regulations and that those coming to Wales will be forced to drive at around 20 mph on roads that currently have a 30 mph limit. Therefore, people will have to pay more to come to Wales and spend longer getting here as a result of the Welsh Labour Government’s policies. I encourage all tourism operators to speak to their Welsh Labour Government Minister about this.
On the subject of tourism, is the Secretary of State aware that Avanti has decided to cancel further services into Chester and north Wales to coincide with the peak tourism season? Improvements have been dangled in front of us one day and then pulled away at the next opportunity. When will this hokey-cokey of train services stop?
I am aware of widespread concerns about Avanti’s performance. I know that my colleagues in the Department for Transport have spoken to the company about them, but it has also suggested that some of the old-fashioned working rules that have been worked out with the unions are hampering its ability to supply trains as often as it wants. All I can say to the hon. Lady is that my colleagues in the Department for Transport are well aware of the concerns about Avanti and have spoken to the company about them.
This Government have put in place steps to deliver growth and to level up across the whole of the United Kingdom. The IMF now predicts that cumulative UK growth over the 2022-24 period will be higher than that in Germany and Japan, and the Bank of England made one of the biggest upward revisions to its growth forecast for the UK. In Wales, the Government have invested in two freeports and will guarantee at least one investment zone to support economic growth.
But the most recent data is not pretty reading as far as the Welsh economy is concerned. The Welsh economy still has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, unlike in England, and unemployment in Wales is going up, unlike elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about what is going on inside the Welsh economy under the Labour Administration in Cardiff? Does he agree that what we need is a laser-like focus on supporting growth, supporting business and unleashing all the opportunity and potential in Wales?
My right hon. Friend is correct. It is deeply disappointing that growth in Wales is now below pre-pandemic levels, whereas in England it is above pre-pandemic levels. The Welsh Labour Government need to ask themselves some difficult questions and perhaps stop concentrating on nanny state policies, such as the ban on meal deals, the 20 mph limit and the ban on new roads and start thinking about what they can do to deliver jobs—I do not mean the £100 million scheme to create a whole load of extra Senedd Members.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the announcement last week that has shocked the Bridgend communities about Zimmer Biomet and the suggestion of losing more than 550 jobs. I, along with my Senedd colleagues, have met the Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething. May I ask the Secretary of State to do all he can to make representations to the Business and Trade Secretary to encourage Zimmer Biomet to change its mind and keep the jobs in Bridgend and to grow from Bridgend to ensure that we keep these well-paid, highly skilled jobs into the future?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very useful and important point. Bridgend is a wonderful place in which to invest and do business, and the new freeport will make it even better in the vicinity. I have been in touch with the Department for Work and Pensions about that, but I am very happy to talk to those in the Department for Business and Trade about what further measures can be taken to encourage that company and others to take advantage of the wonderful working environment that is Bridgend.
On the 75th anniversary of our NHS, created by Welsh founder and Labour Minister Nye Bevan, may I thank, on behalf of Labour Members, all our NHS staff in Wales, past and present, for their dedication and public service?
Last week, the Department for Business and Trade published its report on foreign direct investment in Wales. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Welsh Labour Government’s Economy Minister, Vaughan Gething, on his success in delivering economic growth through attracting an additional 3,000 jobs to Wales in the past year?
I think the hon. Lady will be aware that both the Minister for Economy in Wales and the Department for Business and Trade work closely with embassies across the world to ensure that investors know about the enormous opportunities that exist in Wales. I hope she will agree with me that that is testament to the fact that, while we may have political differences, on the issue of foreign direct investment, the UK Conservative Government and the Welsh Labour Government both enjoy working constructively together.
I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s response. I am sure we can both agree that we want strong economic growth across Wales and the rest of the UK. The last Labour Government gave the go-ahead for new nuclear sites in 2009. Nearly a decade on, none is up and running, and it is now two years since Hitachi pulled out of the Wylfa project. Labour is ready to deliver new nuclear to ensure energy resilience, security and lower bills—[Interruption.] What have the Government been doing? When are they going to stop talking and start acting?
I am delighted that the hon. Lady has set out that the Labour party now supports nuclear power. It was not something that was evident to us when Labour was in opposition a few years ago. Labour had an opportunity over the 13 years it was in government to build nuclear power stations, but it is good that it has belatedly decided that it will support new nuclear power in Wales. I can assure her that I am happy to work with the Welsh Labour Government and anyone else who is interested in making sure that Great British Nuclear can take forward sites such as Wylfa, which is an excellent site for new nuclear.
New Nuclear Power Sites
To continue the topic from the previous question, there are regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the potential for new nuclear in Wales. This Government are launching Great British Nuclear to support our ambition to ramp up nuclear capacity in the UK to up to 24 GW by 2050. GBN is actively working with the Government on access to potential sites for new nuclear projects.
Nuclear power has an important part to play in a balanced energy policy to provide energy security. Does my hon. Friend agree that Wylfa is an ideal site not only to continue generating nuclear power, but to expand beyond it, because the reality is that without improving and continuing that site, nuclear power has to come to Wales?
I agree with my hon. Friend. Wylfa is one of the best sites in this country, if not in Europe, for nuclear power generation due to its optimal location and geology. I am confident that the site’s potential to support our 24 GW target can be utilised. I know it is a site that GBN is very interested in.
Nuclear power is an excellent and much-needed source of power, but when demand for energy decreases, that power is often wasted. Has the Minister looked at any new Welsh nuclear power plants producing so-called pink hydrogen at times when electricity demands are low, so that we are not wasting that energy?
We recognise the important role of both nuclear energy and hydrogen in reaching our net zero goals. We are committed to a nuclear future for Wales and so far this year I have visited the Wylfa site and Bangor University’s Nuclear Futures Institute. My hon. Friend is right to mention the importance of storing energy effectively. Our 2021 hydrogen strategy laid out our intention to explore the use of electricity and heat from nuclear power stations to produce pink hydrogen.
The Secretary of State was delighted recently to announce two successful freeports in Wales—the Celtic freeport and Anglesey freeport—which will each be supported by £26 million of Government funding. We have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the delivery of the two Welsh freeports, which we aim to bring into operation as soon as possible.
I have been a keen supporter of the new Solent freeport joining my Meon Valley constituency. I know the economic benefits that freeports can bring to businesses and workers. Can my hon. Friend assure me that he is doing everything he can to ensure that the two freeport bids in Wales move ahead swiftly to benefit the communities they serve?
I certainly can. The two new freeports will help to level up north-west and south-west Wales and bring new high-skilled jobs to successful areas. They will become drivers of growth and employment in their areas, acting as hubs for regeneration, innovation and global trade. I understand my hon. Friend’s desire to see rapid progress. Both the UK Government and the Welsh Government will work closely with the successful bidders to develop their outline business case so that we can understand the benefits, costs and the most beneficial intervention options.
The Celtic freeport bid is based on floating offshore wind. The floating offshore wind manufacturing investment scheme is a vital programme to get the infrastructure in the port ready for the fabrication of substructures and turbines for floating offshore wind. As the voice of Wales in the Cabinet, what steps is the Secretary of State taking with Cabinet colleagues to secure FLOWMIS to maximise the benefits of the Celtic sea freeport?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that. He may also be aware of yesterday’s announcement of the leasing area in the Celtic sea for floating offshore wind. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular meetings with stakeholders, as do I, about FLOWMIS and the necessary infrastructure to bring that into being.
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues to discuss transport links between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. I am pleased to say that the UK Government have recently provided £2.7 million to develop solutions to M4 congestion and deliver improvements to rail infrastructure.
My right hon. Friend will know that routes such as the A303 from the south-west to London have been upgraded to ease congestion and boost the economy, but for those travelling to Cardiff along the M4, delays and congestion persist. What are the barriers to getting the vital upgrades that that route needs?
I am afraid to say that the barrier is the Welsh Labour Government, who have decided that they will, as a matter of policy, end all new road-building projects in Wales, and, on top of that, bring in speed limits and road user charging. That is bad for jobs, bad for commuters and bad for the economy of Wales.
The Government have woefully underinvested in Welsh rail. The Burns commission and the union connectivity review all point to what the Government should do: upgrade the south Wales main line and build new stations, such as in Magor. When will the Government invest?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. There is a project, which is going through the business case process at the moment, to improve the freight lines on the south Wales line to enable passenger services to run on it. I believe that there will be announcements about that shortly, when the new rail network enhancements pipeline programme comes out.
Considering that not a single mile of High Speed 2 track will reach Wales, and that current services between Wales and England are woefully unreliable and expensive, what steps will the Secretary of State and the Government take to improve that and ensure that those living in Wales actually benefit from HS2?
The HS2 project, which was, of course, proposed by the last Labour Government and is supported, as far as I am aware, by the Labour Opposition, will benefit passengers in north Wales. The Government are committed to passengers across the whole of Wales, which is why £390 million has been spent on a range of improvements. In addition to that, we will shortly have the south Wales metro system, which is part of the Cardiff capital region growth deal.
Network Rail Funding
I have regular discussions with Department for Transport colleagues on a wide range of transport matters. Wales receives proportionally greater funding than the rest of Great Britain. In fact, figures from the 2021-22 financial year demonstrate that Government funding of the operational railway was 32.1p per kilometre travelled in England, 57.3p in Scotland and 59.3p in Wales.
When I asked the Department for Transport about the maintenance funding spent on the Wales route, it told me that it gets 4% or 5% of the spending and it equates to 4% of the network, so it must be fair. The problem is that the figures were based on train miles rather than track length, and the train miles are always lower in Wales because of a lack of investment in infrastructure. The track length is actually 11%, not 4%. Will the Minister make representations to the DFT to increase rail spending proportionately to make it a fairer settlement?
The hon. Member is right to reference investment in rail in north Wales. Growth Track 360 has pressed for that hard—I have been involved with that, as he has—and the North Wales Transport Commission has recently outlined similar projects. He will be aware of the Union connectivity review development funding pot that has been available, and the entry in RNEP for the north Wales coast main line in relation to line speeds.
Foreign investment created 3,062 jobs over the last year. With the number of FDI projects also on the rise, that shows that more and more investors are looking to Wales. This is testament to the £52 million that we are providing to support two new freeports, our commitment to delivering at least one investment zone in Wales, and the £1 billion we are investing in the next decade to boost the UK’s global strengths in semiconductors.
Does the Minister agree that supply chain businesses need
“a modern, functioning road network to keep goods moving efficiently”—
whether they are on the M4, the A55 or elsewhere—and that the failure of the Welsh Government to commit to this is a “body blow”, according to the Road Haulage Association director, Geraint Davies?
I absolutely do; my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The Welsh Government’s response to the roads review is more of a roadblock, sadly. Their opposition to the M4 relief road and other schemes continues to hold the Welsh economy back. The Welsh Government’s impact assessment suggests that the impact of the 20-mile-an-hour default speed limit could be as much as £4.5 billion. The Welsh Government, I am afraid, are advertising that Wales is closed for business.
The automotive sector contributes significantly to the economy in Wales, including Gestamp in my constituency, where investment in the latest technology to make lighter, tougher bodywork parts contributes to the safety and energy efficiency of vehicles, including new electric vehicles. However, with the US and the EU offering big incentives to companies to invest in new green technologies, what talks has the Minister had with ministerial colleagues about offering similar incentives to get the investment from automotive companies to ensure that we keep a vibrant automotive sector?
I know that that question is very important to the hon. Member and her constituency. I point her in the direction of the growth deals, which have an important role to play, and regular ongoing discussions are held between the Secretary of State, the Wales Office and other Government Departments.
Investment in Wales is also conditional on there being adequate healthcare. Is my hon. Friend aware that, in Tywyn on the west coast of Wales, a hospital that was built only six or seven years ago has now closed? People in that area have to travel many, many miles to get healthcare when it is needed.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Clearly, the provision of healthcare services in rural areas is often very difficult, but he will be aware of the particular challenges in Wales, especially north Wales, over the availability of safe and accessible healthcare services. He is right to raise that point.
Cost of Living Support
This Government are supporting households across Wales with the cost of living. Between October 2022 and the end of June 2023, a typical household would have seen half their energy bills paid for by the Government.
According to a study on hunger in Wales, around 753,000 Welsh people faced hunger in mid-2022—that is more than double the population of Cardiff—with Welsh Trussell Trust foodbanks experiencing an 85% increase in the number of emergency food parcels that they distributed compared with five years previously. What specific conversations has the Secretary of State had with Cabinet colleagues and the retail sector on the high costs of food in supermarkets?
Obviously, all Cabinet colleagues are absolutely committed to making sure that we put our resources towards the least well off. That is why pensions, benefits and the minimum wage have all gone up in line with inflation, and it is why there have been extra payments of £900 to people on benefits, £300 to pensioners, and £150 to households with disabilities. But at least the people of Wales are not in the same position as those of Scotland, where 1.4 million people are being hit with extra taxes.
Actually, families who need it most in Scotland are seeing the game-changing £25 a week Scottish child payment. When will the Secretary of State devolve powers over social security to Senedd Cymru, so that it can also make decisions like that to protect the people of Wales from the Tories’ cost of living crisis?
I can assure the hon. Member that all members of the Cabinet are committed to resolving the cost of living problems that have come about as a result of the covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine. That is why our first priority is to halve inflation, as well as growing the economy, reducing debt, stopping illegal immigration into this country and—we are responsible for this in England—reducing hospital waiting lists.