COMMONS

Today's House of Commons debates - Wednesday 22 October 2014

Version: Uncorrected | Updated 20:46

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Devolution of Fiscal Policy

1.

What steps he is taking to ensure that the Welsh Government remain fiscally accountable following the next stage of the devolution process.[905488]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb):

May I first pay tribute to my predecessor as Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones), who worked tirelessly for Wales, particularly over the past year, working behind the scenes to ensure that last month’s NATO summit was such a success for Wales?

The Wales Bill devolves tax and borrowing powers to the Assembly and the Welsh Government, ensuring that they raise some of the money they spend. The new income tax powers are a tool to help the Welsh economy become more dynamic and make the Welsh Government more accountable. I call on the Labour party today to support holding a referendum as soon as possible.

Glyn Davies:

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his much-deserved elevation. Does he agree that the Welsh Government cannot be regarded as a genuinely fiscally accountable governing body until they are responsible for raising public money as well as spending it, and does he accept that this step forward in the devolution process is much more important than devolving power in any more policy areas?

Stephen Crabb:

I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s comments on fiscal devolution. I believe that this represents the next step for devolution in Wales. Devolving a portion of tax responsibility to the Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly will create dynamic opportunities for the people of Wales and the Welsh economy, and I believe that the Welsh Government should seize those opportunities as soon as possible.

Mr David Hanson (Delyn) (Lab):

When the Welsh Government raise money and spend it, they will potentially be spending some of it on hospital services in Chester, Clatterbridge hospital or the Christie hospital, which are local to me. What does the Secretary of State think about the fact that under his proposals I, as a Welsh Member of Parliament, will have no say about services that affect my constituents?

Stephen Crabb:

The right hon. Gentleman is referring to proposals for English votes on English laws. There are important cross-party issues, but they also work in reverse. For example, constituents on this side of the border do not have a say in the Welsh Assembly about policies that affect services they use. He has to recognise that we currently have a hopelessly lop-sided devolution arrangement, as he and I, as Welsh MPs, and Scottish MPs, have a say on laws affecting schools and hospitals in England, but English MPs have no equivalent say on services in Scotland and Wales. That must be addressed.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD):

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his post and look forward to working with him. I also welcome the Government’s concession on the lockstep in the other place. With that in mind, does he agree that every step forward increases the accountability and maturity of the Welsh Assembly?

Stephen Crabb:

I agree with my hon. Friend. Giving the Welsh Government fiscal powers for the first time means that they have to raise money as well as spend it, which I think will lead to a much healthier political debate down in Cardiff on real responsibility. It is about not only deciding how to spend the money, but taking responsible decisions on how it is raised, and I think that is a big step forward in the political development of Wales.

Minimum Wage

2.

If he will estimate the potential effect of increasing the minimum wage rate by £1.50 on the economy in Wales.[905489]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Alun Cairns):

The Government’s increase of 3% in the national minimum wage this year means that low-paid workers are enjoying the biggest cash increase in their take-home pay since 2008. The independent Low Pay Commission is responsible for recommending the level of the national minimum wage.

Jessica Morden:

About 73,000 people in Wales are in minimum wage jobs, and a quarter of a million earn less than the living wage. Will the Minister commit his party to Labour’s plan to raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour, which would at least start to tackle the scandal of low pay in Wales?

Alun Cairns:

I am surprised that the hon. Lady raises that question, given that the commitment to £8 an hour by 2020 has been somewhat derided by independent commentators—Alan Milburn himself said that it lacked ambition—because the current projection shows that the minimum wage will rise to £8.23 an hour by 2020.

Jonathan Evans (Cardiff North) (Con):

May I take this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to the Front Bench, along with the Secretary of State, and associate myself with the tribute to his predecessor? Is my hon. Friend aware of the work that has been done by the Mayor of London on the living wage, promoting the idea that public authorities themselves have powers when they structure their pay settlements to lift the position of those who are on the minimum wage and on their payroll? In that regard, perhaps he shares my disappointment that the trade unions in Wales have rejected the Welsh Assembly’s plan to do just that.

Alun Cairns:

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Of course, it is a matter for employers to pay the living wage. The national minimum wage is set by the Low Pay Commission, but obviously when an employer can afford to pay the living wage, we would encourage them to do so.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC):

As the Minister mentioned, Alan Milburn and the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission have pointed out that under Labour’s minimum wage proposals, the rate of increase between now and 2020 would be slower than that between 1999 and 2014. Does he agree that what we have heard from the Labour party about an £8 minimum wage shows that the Labour machine is still firmly stuck on the spin cycle?

Alun Cairns:

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, which gives me the opportunity to underline yet again Alan Milburn’s point about the lack of ambition among those on the Labour Benches. Only my party cares about low pay and only my party has given, in the past year, the largest increase in the national minimum wage of 3%—more than twice the rate of inflation.

Hywel Williams:

Does the Minister therefore agree with my contention that the way to achieve a basic but decent standard of life is the living wage, which would benefit 266,000 workers in Wales alone, and in the UK would slash the tax credits bill by £1.5 billion per annum? Clearly, Plaid Cymru’s policy on the living wage is the best for Wales and for the UK.

Alun Cairns:

Where possible, we would encourage employers to pay the living wage, but the Government’s responsibility is to ensure that the national minimum wage is adhered to. It is set independently, and it is a balance between a discussion between employers, Government and employees.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):

If Conservative Members are so keen on improving poor wages, why did they do everything in their power to prevent the national minimum wage from coming into law? Why do Conservative Ministers regularly accuse the poor of being workshy when actually, in my constituency, many of the most hard-working are those who are hit by a double whammy—low wages and few hours? That means that when they travel to work in Wales they are working a damn sight harder than he ever did.

Alun Cairns:

We have not only increased the national minimum wage by the largest cash increase since 2008 but taken the lowest earners out of income tax, which means that a full-time employee on the national minimum wage is paying two thirds less income tax. I hope that that is something that the hon. Gentleman would welcome.

Devolution

3.

What plans the Government has for further devolution of powers to Wales.[905490]

8.

What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the effects of the Scottish referendum result on government policy on further devolution for Wales.[905497]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb):

This Government are putting Wales at the heart of the debate on devolution across the UK. I am a member of the new devolution committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and I have already met the party leaders from Wales here in Westminster to discuss how we might take forward devolution in Wales as we work towards a fair and lasting settlement.

Albert Owen:

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to his new position. I also welcome his moving from being an anti-devolutionist to a pragmatic devolutionist. May I encourage him to go further and become a real devolutionist? When he has discussions with colleagues and others, will he look at moving Government Departments and Government business away from central London to parts of Wales such as north-west Wales so that we can have real devolution and real jobs in those areas of the United Kingdom, and have a more balanced UK?

Stephen Crabb:

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments about the need for real devolution not only to rebalance the economy of the UK but to rebalance our politics. It is also worth pointing out that the current Welsh Administration in Cardiff is probably one of the least devolutionary Administrations that we have across the UK—they are centralising more in Cardiff. We need devolution within Wales as well as from the UK to Wales.

Bob Blackman:

I am a big supporter of the Government’s devolution programme and of giving responsibility to the lowest possible level. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a concern that certain Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs want home rule for Wales, which would be oppositional to the Government’s agenda?

Stephen Crabb:

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I heard the comments by the First Minister and others, at the end of the Scottish referendum campaign, about wanting home rule for Wales. When I travel round Wales and talk to people and businesses, I find there is an appetite for more devolution, but I do not detect much appetite for home rule. Indeed, support for independence in Wales is at a historic low of just 3%.

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab):

May I add my welcome to the Secretary of State in his new role, and to the Minister? I also welcome the zeal that the Secretary of State has shown for devolution—unexpected zeal, because of course he used not to be so fond of it. For the benefit of the House, will he confirm today that he no longer thinks that devolution is what he once described as “constitutional vandalism”?

Stephen Crabb:

I pay tribute to the internet research skills of the shadow Secretary of State. He is referring to an article I wrote in 2007, at a time when the position of Secretary of State for Wales was reduced to a part-time job; when there was no fiscal devolution; and when there was an unbalanced, unstable devolution settlement for Wales. I am delighted to be part of a Government who are rectifying some of those wrongs.

Owen Smith:

I thank the Secretary of State for that clarification. We agree with him that devolution is not constitutional vandalism, but I will tell him what is: a Prime Minister for Britain describing Offa’s Dyke as

“the line between life and death”,

and a Tory Health Secretary hiring the Daily Mail to scuttle around traducing Welsh public services. That is constitutional vandalism and the Secretary of State’s record will be judged not by soft soap and warm words about devolution, but by what he does to condemn the war on Wales.

Stephen Crabb:

Not a single Member of Parliament with a Welsh constituency could stand up and honestly say, with their hand on their heart, that, when they get out and speak to people on the doorsteps on a Saturday morning, those people do not tell them that the quality of their health services is the No. 1 issue facing the people of Wales. It is wrong for the Welsh Labour party to seek to shut down debate about and scrutiny of the performance of its Administration in Cardiff when it comes to the most important issue for the people of Wales.

12.[905502]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in Wales we have longer waiting times, missed accident and emergency targets since 2009, the worst ambulance response times of anywhere in the United Kingdom, no cancer drugs fund and a 7% real-terms cut in funding? That is what Labour delivers for the NHS. Does my right hon. Friend agree that only the Conservatives can be trusted to run the national health service?

Stephen Crabb:

I do not want anybody holding up any part of Welsh economic and social life as a bad comparator. I want Wales to be leading and for people to be holding up Wales as a good example to follow. The truth is—I think the shadow Secretary of State would admit this in private—that the Labour Health Minister in Cardiff needs to get a grip, get on top of this issue and really deliver for the people of Wales.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD):

To return to the theme of devolution, one of the great successes of the Scottish referendum was the participation of 16 and 17-year-olds in the process. Yesterday the National Assembly spoke with one voice when it voted on returning electoral arrangements to itself. Does the Secretary of State believe that this is an issue that deserves attention? Increasingly, many young people believe it does.

Stephen Crabb:

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I visited Scotland several times during the referendum campaign and saw for myself the enthusiasm with which teenagers were engaging in the discussion. I have yet to be convinced on the argument for reducing the voting age for all elections in the UK, but it is clear that such issues will need to be considered in the future.

Zero-hours Contracts

4.

What estimate he has made of the number of people in Wales working on zero-hours contracts.[905491]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Alun Cairns):

Zero-hours contracts benefit many employers and employees in Wales, but we are committed to taking strong action against abuse by banning the use of exclusivity clauses.

Chris Ruane:

I thank the Minister for that response, but does he not recognise the negative impact that zero-hours contracts have on family life, the well-being and mental and physical health of individual workers, and morale at work? Under this Government the number of zero-hours contracts has shot through the roof; what can the Minister do to reduce it?

Alun Cairns:

Again, I am surprised by the tactic used by the hon. Gentleman. If zero-hours contracts are so wrong, why do Labour-run local authorities make active use of them? Furthermore, why do more than 60 MPs make active use of zero-hours contracts?

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab):

In welcoming the new Minister to his post, may I suggest that, instead of trying to do an impression of a jumped-up rottweiler, he should try to understand and recognise the reality of the miserable state of employment for far too many workers in Wales, whether they are on zero-hours contracts, are among the 150,000 who are underemployed and want to work more hours but cannot, or are among the 50,000 people who are being shoved off disability benefits and into a world of work that is mean, difficult and hard?

Alun Cairns:

The abuse of zero-hours contracts is an important issue and that is why this Government are taking action to ban them. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned people in part-time employment. Only 19% of part-time employees are looking for full-time work. We will take strong action against those employers that are abusing zero-hours contracts, but zero-hours contracts are important to many people, such as carers, to encourage and facilitate them back into the workplace.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab):

Over 50,000 workers in Wales are on zero-hours contracts, with all the stress, insecurity and exploitation that that entails. Will the Minister join me in congratulating the trade union USDAW—the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—on negotiating annualised contracts for workers with some big retail firms in Wales, giving both sides flexibility but also guaranteed income levels for workers? Will he support Labour’s calls for employees who in reality work regularly to have an automatic right to fixed-hour contracts and the security that such contracts bring?

Alun Cairns:

I do support the action taken by the union. After all, the last thing we want is the abuse of employees on zero-hours contracts. However, such contracts offer some people flexibility in the workplace. They offer a great opportunity to encourage more people back into work who would not otherwise be able to work.

Manufacturing

5.

What assessment he has made of trends in manufacturing in Wales since 2010.[905492]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb):

Under the previous Labour Government, 83,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in Wales. Our long-term economic plan has made a good start in reversing this decline, with 12,000 manufacturing jobs created since the election. I was delighted recently to visit ConvaTec and Toyota in north Wales to see for myself how two global manufacturers really value Wales as a great place to come and do business.

Stephen Mosley:

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post, and I congratulate him and the Government on the success of the NATO summit this summer. In recent weeks, Airbus has announced a $26 billion deal for 250 new aircraft with India’s largest airline, IndiGo, and a deal for 70 aircraft with a Chinese leasing company. The fact that all those aircraft will have wings built in Deeside in north Wales will generate thousands of jobs, including many hundreds in my constituency of Chester. Will he join me in congratulating the company and its employees?

Stephen Crabb:

One of my early visits as Secretary of State was to Airbus in Broughton, where I saw for myself just what a fantastic plant that factory is. I spoke to senior management there, but not just that: I got a chance to meet the apprentices and see for myself just what a contribution they are making to Airbus’s success at this time.

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op):

The Secretary of State will know that General Dynamics in my constituency recently signed a contract for the Scout specialist vehicle platforms. Will he now pay tribute to the previous Labour Government, who were instrumental in bringing General Dynamics to Oakdale, creating hundreds of high-tech, high-spec jobs?

Stephen Crabb:

General Dynamics is another superb Wales-based company that I have had the pleasure and privilege of visiting in recent weeks. I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to whoever was responsible for securing the inward investment.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab):

When Robin Southwell, the chief executive of EADS, which owns Airbus, addressed the Labour party conference this year, he stressed the importance, from Airbus’s point of view, of Britain remaining a member of the European Union. Does the Secretary of State agree on the importance of that, or does he know better?

Stephen Crabb:

Being part of Europe is important for Wales-based manufacturers—there is no question about that—but when I talk to businesses all across Wales, they also tell me that our current membership of the European Union imposes burdens and costs. That is why they support the Prime Minister’s strategy to renegotiate our membership with the European Union to get a better deal for Welsh and UK business.

Rail Network (South Wales)

6.

What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Welsh Government on improvements to the rail network in south Wales.[905493]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb):

Electrification of the great western main line to Swansea and the valley lines is a transformational project that would deliver a much-needed boost to the Wales economy. I am determined to find a way forward for this important scheme, and I am leading discussions with Cabinet colleagues and Welsh Government Ministers to secure this vital investment for Wales.

Huw Irranca-Davies:

I thank the Minister for that answer. He might not be aware that the two lines with the greatest passenger growth into Cardiff in the past couple of years have been the Chepstow to Cardiff and the Maesteg to Cardiff lines, which have far outstripped other valley lines. Is he surprised to know that there is no Sunday service on the Maesteg line for people who want to get to work or to get into our capital city? Will he discuss this with Arriva Trains Wales?

Stephen Crabb:

I was aware of that point, and I want to raise that issue with Arriva Trains Wales. The growth in usage of the valley lines is one of the reasons why we need to press ahead and create new capacity and make improvements to all the valley lines.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab):

Will the delay in the delivery of the electrification of the valley lines mean that the final cost will go up?

Stephen Crabb:

I hope that there will be no delay in delivering the electrification project for the Great Western line and the valley lines. We are involved in productive and constructive discussions with Ministers in London and in the Welsh Government to find a way to crack on and deliver that important project for south Wales.

Energy Prices

7.

What discussions he has had with businesses in Wales on the effects of energy prices on their international competitiveness.[905494]

10.

What discussions he has had with businesses in Wales on the effects of energy prices on their international competitiveness.[905500]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Alun Cairns):

We are a Government who listen to business and take action to support business. We have introduced a package of support to tackle the rising costs of energy. Wales Office Ministers have hosted two round-table discussions with energy-intensive industries in Wales to listen to their views on energy prices.

Paul Flynn:

Yesterday, more electricity was generated by wind turbines than by nuclear power. Instead of putting money into expensive French nukes, why do we not help business by investing in unused Welsh tidal power, which is infinitely available, absolutely predictable, clean, green, British and belongs to us?

Alun Cairns:

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The UK needs a diverse range of energy sources. He mentioned tidal power, and there are some exciting projects around Wales at the moment. That is something I want to be closely involved with.

Mark Tami:

Tata Steel is a much-valued local employer in Shotton, where it produces high-quality coated products. However, it is competing against foreign companies that have much lower energy costs. What talks has the Minister had with the Department of Energy and Climate Change to address that issue and create a more level playing field?

Alun Cairns:

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. In recent Budgets, the Chancellor has set out important measures that will make a difference, such as capping the carbon floor price and dealing with the indirect costs of the EU emissions trading system and the renewables obligation.

Creative Industries

9.

What recent estimate he has made of the contribution of the creative industries to the economy in Wales.[905498]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Alun Cairns):

I recently visited Cwmni Da in Caernarfon, which is a great example of how the creative industries make a vital contribution to the Welsh economy and the cultural life of Wales.

Kevin Brennan:

I welcome the Minister to his post. He is right that the creative industries are a growing and important part of the Welsh economy. Following the WOMEX conference last year, will he join me in campaigning for the BBC to bring the Radio 2 folk awards to Cardiff next year?

Alun Cairns:

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will look positively at his suggestion and will happily meet him to discuss the matter further. He is right about the importance of the creative industries in Wales. He might be interested in the launch of the Cardiff internet exchange, which took place last week, and the launch of Cardiff local television.

Agriculture

11.

What assessment he has made of difficulties facing the agricultural sector in Wales.[905501]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Stephen Crabb):

Agriculture is a key industry in Wales, and I recognise the challenges that many Welsh farmers have faced this year. That is why the Government fought hard to achieve the best deal for Wales in the negotiations on the common agricultural policy, and why I welcome the forecast of an increase in Welsh farm income for 2013-14.

Jonathan Edwards:

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Welsh Government and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about an action plan to help Welsh farmers, who are being hit by a supermarket price war and Russian sanctions?

Stephen Crabb:

The Government recognise that Welsh agriculture produces some of the best quality products in the UK. That is why we have talked to farming representatives throughout the summer, and why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister became the first ever serving Prime Minister to visit the Royal Welsh show this summer. We stay in close contact with farming organisations. We are clear that supermarkets need to work with the farming industry to deliver better returns for farmers.

Mr Speaker:

There is an opportunity for a free hit on the agricultural sector in Wales. If nobody wishes to seize it, and as we are all present and correct, we will move on to questions to the Prime Minister.