Christina Rees – 2020 Speech on Welsh Affairs

Below is the text of the speech made by Christina Rees, the Labour MP for Neath, in the House of Commons on 27 February 2020.

I thank the Government for bringing forward this debate on Welsh affairs. Of course, the calendar dictates that we are unable to hold the debate on St David’s Day, as 1 March falls on a Sunday this year. Nevertheless, the debate remains a firm fixture in our parliamentary business, providing a great opportunity to discuss the issues, challenges and priorities that matter to Wales.

I also thank the Government for granting the debate in Government time, which has not happened for many years; not, I think, since the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) became Secretary of State—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) would be able to correct me on that, were he here, as his knowledge of the House is far better than mine. Certainly, since I have been taking part in St David’s Day debates, they have been Backbench Business debates.

Yesterday I bumped into my good friend Albert Owen, the former Member for Ynys Môn. We were reminiscing about Welsh affairs debates, among other things. Seeing Albert reminded me just how much I miss him, Ian Lucas, David Hanson, Susan Elan Jones, Owen Smith, Madeleine Moon, Anne Clwyd and, last but not least, my former shadow ministerial colleague, Chris Ruane. Those dedicated Welsh MPs have given years of service to the people of Wales, and their work should be celebrated for all that is good about being a Welsh Labour MP. We have two great new Labour MPs, my hon. Friends the Members for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) and for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones), who are already making their presence felt and will be fantastic additions to our Labour Team Wales.

Not many hon. Members know this, but in my constituency of Neath we celebrate not only St David’s Day, when the children dress up in Welsh costumes to celebrate our Welsh culture, but St Patrick’s Day. Patrick was born in Banwen, at the top of the Dulais valley, but he was kidnapped as a child and taken to Ireland. Every year we hold a fantastic celebration at a stone we have erected to his memory in Banwen. Schoolchildren, residents and special guests come along to hear the great Roy Noble giving one of his memorable speeches about St Patrick. We are indebted to the famous local historian George Brinley Evans, now 93, who researched this phenomenon ​and was the leading protagonist in establishing the St Patrick stone and the annual event. Please join us. We have a leprechaun who comes all the way from Ireland to take part too. I look forward to seeing Members there on 17 March.

It is regrettable that I must begin my proper address in sombre tones, as we reflect on the impact that recent events have had on our great nation. Two storms and unprecedented flooding have taken their toll on communities across Wales, including, but not limited to, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Llanwrst, Monmouth and parts of my Neath constituency. From severe damage to bridges and iconic landmarks, such as the national lido of Wales, to the destruction of the entire contents of family homes, these floods will cost Wales dearly.

The First Minster, the Leader of the Opposition and, indeed, the Prince of Wales have visited households and communities right across the country, but alas the Prime Minster could not find the time to visit just one of the flood-damaged areas of the UK. He has said many times that he would not “die in a ditch”, but perhaps he was missing in action because he fell into the moat surrounding his holiday castle, or perhaps he could not find his wellies.

The community spirit and response in our devastated Welsh communities has shown the world the best of Wales: compassion, kindness, humour and solidarity have shone through the contribution of volunteers, emergency services, council workers, welfare halls, miners’ institutes, Royal British Legion branches, rugby clubs, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and so many more.

Craig Williams

The hon. Lady missed that the source of the Severn is in Montgomeryshire, in mid-Wales. Although I will not politicise this or make tribal political points about missing one of the biggest floods in Wales, will she reflect on the fact that we have to work together to ensure that people recover as soon as possible from this tragedy, and that does not include cheap political shots of the sort she has made thus far?

Christina Rees

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. We always work together, but the Prime Minister is the leader, so he should have visited the areas affected.

Many local authorities are pulling together to support those who are most severely impacted by the floods, working in the most demanding of circumstances to get the quickest possible support to those in need. However, the UK Government must now step up and recognise the disproportionate and intense impact that the floods have had on Wales. We need additional funding for Wales. We need protection for emergency household payments. We need immediate help for those who do not have insurance. We need support for those who have lost their jobs and livelihoods.

Geraint Davies

My hon. Friend is probably aware that more severe weather conditions are expected over the coming seven to 10 days, so is she as concerned as I am about the saturation of coal tips and the like? We need an urgent assessment of whether there is an imminent risk to villages and hamlets in the valleys, which are susceptible to flash-flooding and slides, because of the topography of the valleys and the increased risk from ​climate change. We need urgent action, immediate help and long-term solutions; we cannot just wait for a report to come back.

Christina Rees

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When I have visited homes that have been flooded or affected by landslips over the past few weeks, it has broken my heart. People who do not have insurance have had their homes destroyed yet again. Yes, we need action, and we need it now, because the weather forecast is definitely not favourable for the next few weeks.

A quarter of all homes and businesses were flooded in Rhondda Cynon Taf alone, with a potential bill of £30 million—twice the council’s annual capital budget. I must commend the work of the Rhondda Cynon Taf MPs and AMs and the leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf Council, Andrew Morgan, who is also leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, which has done some fantastic work.

There is so much to celebrate about our great nation, some of which I will discuss in a moment, but there are also a great many challenges and a level of uncertainty in our communities, against the backdrop of Brexit and the negative effects of austerity on so many Welsh communities and families.

These challenging times make it more important than ever to have a strong Welsh Labour team of MPs here in Westminster, working with the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, and the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff Bay. It remains a huge privilege to serve as the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), our Welsh Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), and our wonderful Welsh Labour MPs.

This Tory UK Government have continually failed Wales, and unfortunately the Wales Office continues to fail to stand up for the people of Wales. We were promised the electrification of the Great Western main line to Swansea, but the UK Government changed their mind. The Swansea bay tidal lagoon was recommended by this Government’s own inquiry, but they ignored it, and Wylfa Newydd has been paused. The people of Wales hear loud and clear the UK Government’s promises to our country, and the people will hold them to account for their failure to deliver. We demand more, and we demand better.

The UK Government must recognise the folly of continuing to frustrate efforts to launch a major new domestic market for Welsh steel. The pathfinder tidal lagoon in Swansea bay requires around 100,000 tonnes of steel, much of which could be sourced in Wales, against a very clear commitment from the investors and businesses involved to buy Welsh. The past 12 months have seen the loss of hundreds of jobs in the steel industry, in Tata’s Orb steelworks in Newport and in Liberty Steel in sites in south Yorkshire and south Wales. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Newport East and for Newport West (Ruth Jones) for their tireless campaigning on behalf of our steelworkers.

Wales needs investment, as the UK as a whole needs investment, and the people of Wales will judge this Government harshly if they continue to fail to deliver it. Opposition Members will continue to speak up for Wales—for Welsh families, communities and businesses— ​and for the devolution settlement itself. It is not for any UK Government unilaterally to rewrite the rules of devolution by attempting to power-grab and centralise functions set out in law and agreed through the ballot box, using Brexit as a cover for those actions. Despite what the Secretary of State has said about the UK shared prosperity fund, it is still a mystery to me. We continue to wait and wait for the much anticipated consultation, and for any details whatever on how the fund will be implemented. It must respect devolution and be overseen by the Welsh Government, and we must not see a penny less or a power lost. I commend the report produced by the all-party parliamentary group for post-Brexit funding for nations, regions and local areas, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock).

The people of Wales have a right to see a UK Government acting in their best interests, protecting their jobs and investing in the public services they rely on and the infrastructure we desperately need to secure Wales’s future. Despite a decade of austerity and a 7% real-terms cut to funding per head of the population, the Welsh Government have continued to lead the way in delivering landmark legislation and progressive policy making. The Human Transplantation (Wales) Act 2013, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 and the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act 2016 are groundbreaking examples of a modern legislature creating laws that make a difference for the people of the nation.

The Welsh Government have also introduced policies such as free bus travel for the over-60s, free swimming for children and older people, free school breakfasts, free prescriptions and free hospital parking, as well as being the first nation of the UK to introduce the 5p carrier bag charge. They have banned smoking in cars carrying children, and Wales has the third highest recycling rate in the world. That is just a brief glimpse of what has been delivered during the past decade. The achievements of the Welsh Government are, quite honestly, nothing short of remarkable.

Craig Williams

On that point, will the shadow Secretary of State give way?

Christina Rees

For the hon. Member, of course.

Craig Williams

I could not resist intervening at this particular moment—I rather thought it was 1 April, not St David’s Day. Will the hon. Member comment on the report of the Wales Audit Office that pointed out the several hundred million-pound overspend on the heads of the valleys road and other significant infrastructure projects over the decade that the hon. Member said was so successful?

Christina Rees

As the hon. Gentleman knows, European funding produced the heads of the valley road.

Craig Williams

So it’s okay to waste it?

Christina Rees

Pardon me?

Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)

So it’s okay to waste it?

Christina Rees

No, of course —that road is going ahead. It is only the UK Government who have prevented it from going ahead faster. I do not know where I am now; the hon. Members have completely lost me. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. We must not have heckling—well, not much—of the shadow Secretary of State.

Christina Rees

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am going to finish now, because I am sure that lots of other Members want to speak.

Jonathan Edwards

Will the hon. Member take a friendly intervention before she moves on?

Christina Rees

I was getting to the good bit, but I will give way to my constituency neighbour.

Jonathan Edwards

I am sure the hon. Member will also have some concern about the negotiating mandate set out today by the British Government in relation to the second phase of Brexit and the trade negotiations. Indeed, the Welsh Government have issued a stern statement indicating that they were not consulted at all about the mandate. I fear that the best we can hope for is a bare-bones free trade agreement. The Welsh economy will be more exposed because of our reliance on exports into the single market. What does the hon. Member think the Welsh Government should do now, since the British Government clearly are not taking any notice of Wales’s position?

Christina Rees

The hon. Member makes some very good points. It has been a concern of mine for a long time that the Welsh Government have not been involved in the negotiations. They have to be involved; this is the future of Wales that we are talking about. I am really disappointed that they have not been involved to the extent that they should have been.

Now I come to the good bit. The House will know how passionate I am about sport. Wales is a sporting nation. When Wales wins the people of Wales are very happy. When we lose it is the end of the world. I went to the Wales versus Italy match, which was a great result, as the House knows—I don’t think I want to talk about the other matches, so I will move swiftly on.

My constituency of Neath has a proud sporting history. The Welsh Rugby Union was created in the Castle Hotel in Neath. The best player in the world, Gareth Edwards, was born and bred in Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen. Dan Biggar’s family was born and bred in the Dulais valley, where I live, as was Dennis Gethin, who recently stood down as chair of the WRU. Of course, Neath RFC are also called the All Blacks—a great tribute.

In a former life I was a squash player and played for Wales over 100 times. It was a great honour to pull on the red jersey of Wales. I became national coach for Squash Wales, and one of my roles was to develop squash for all ages and all standards throughout Wales. We have a superb junior development structure, which has produced some great players. I am very proud to say that on St David’s Day we will have two senior players ranked in the top 10 in the world, and they have both come through the junior structure: Tesni Evans, based in Prestatyn, is ​two times British champion and bronze medallist at the last Commonwealth games; and Joel Makin from Aberdare, a member of the Welsh men’s team who came third in the last world championships. Wales is again showing that we are punching above our weight.

Rob Roberts (Delyn) (Con)

Will the hon. Member give way?

Christina Rees

Sure—a squash player?

Rob Roberts

Not a squash player, but almost. On a sporting theme, would the hon. Member be kind enough to pay tribute to the wonderful Jade Jones from Flint in my constituency who has, since the last time this debate was held—since last St David’s Day, in fact—become 2019 world champion in taekwondo?

Christina Rees

Of course I will. Jade is fantastic advocate for women’s sport, and I am glad that the hon. Member intervened to mention her.

Coming back to squash, there is a great injustice. We have been campaigning for many years to get squash into the Olympics. It has never been included, despite having championships at every national and international level. I have been banging on about this for quite a few years, so I ask all Members to join me to ensuring that squash becomes an Olympic sport.

I am not the only Welsh Labour MP who has represented Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) is a Welsh rugby international. I must say that that game is far too tough for me; one good tackle and I think I would be done for, so I will stay off the rugby field.

That is enough from me. I look forward to all Members’ contributions and wish the whole House a happy St David’s Day for Sunday.