Simon Hart – 2020 Statement on Welsh Affairs

Below is the text of the statement made by Simon Hart, the Secretary of State for Wales, in the House of Commons on 27 February 2020.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Welsh affairs.

Let me welcome everybody to this St David’s Day debate, where we have some veterans and some first-timers. I have to apologise in advance, because I need to leave to entertain some visitors from Wales in No.10 during the course of this debate, so if I slip away, there is a good reason for my doing so. [Interruption.] I apologise to Opposition Members who have not received their invitation quite yet.

This is a fantastic opportunity to champion Wales at a national level, and to highlight the potential and resilience of our constituencies. I wanted to start by discussing resilience, because there has been no greater example of it than the response to the recent flooding events in Wales and further afield. I have visited communities in Carmarthen and Pontypridd, and the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies,) has been around and about in the Monmouthshire area, where the Rivers Wye and Usk have caused such devastation. We have spoken to emergency services, agencies, MPs, AMs, local authorities and the Welsh Government on numerous occasions. It is encouraging to see that when things such as this really matter, there is a such a widespread degree of co-operation between those agencies.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab) rose—

Simon Hart

I am not going to take every intervention, but, in the spirit of collaboration, I will give way on this occasion.

Mark Tami

The Secretary of State has told us where he has been, but does he know when the Prime Minister has been to Wales or whether he is intending to go there?

Simon Hart

I am surprisingly grateful for that intervention, because it allows me to say that the Under-Secretary will wave a letter from the head of his local authority that asked us specifically not to interfere and get under the feet of emergency services by going to these areas before the moment was right. I have spoken to a number of local authorities and they echoed that view, so rather than make this a political stunt, we let the experts get on with what they wanted and needed to get on and do.

Several hon. Members rose—

Simon Hart

I will continue, if I may. The most important people we have spoken to during this incident have been the families and businesses affected. This has been horrendous for them and it remains so, because these weather patterns have not completely worked their way through.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC) rose—

Simon Hart

I will of course give way to my neighbour.

​Jonathan Edwards

The Secretary of State will know that Carmarthenshire has a history of flooding. There were big floods there about a year ago, and even now some of the families and businesses affected are still recovering. One big issue is that they cannot get insurance after having been flooded. There is a huge market failure in that insurance market and public intervention will be needed. Will he press his colleagues in the UK Government to come up with a UK Government insurance scheme to support families who cannot get insurance because of flooding?

Simon Hart

As the hon. Gentleman knows, this issue has come up a number of times in the decade in which we have been in this House. The answer to his question is yes, but it is never as simple as it seems. All sorts of contributory factors are involved, with planning being one, but I assure him that we will take that issue seriously and look into it.

I had wanted to mention financial assistance, because it was raised during yesterday’s Welsh questions and Prime Minister’s questions. It is an important moment to restate what the Prime Minister said yesterday about money being “passported through” in relation to this. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is not here, but if he were, he would talk about this as being a Union issue, as he did yesterday. We agree that it is a Union issue, which is why we are working so closely with the Welsh Government to make sure that we know precisely what they need and when they need it, while not interfering with the devolution settlement.

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)

Bearing in mind that the Rivers Severn and Wye have an impact on communities in England, if the Welsh Government were to approach the UK Government for additional support specifically to address that flooding, how would the Secretary of State respond?

Simon Hart

We will respond in the way we always do to Welsh Government requests for assistance, in whatever form it might be requested, by taking it extremely seriously and respecting the views that they express. However, in the two meetings I have had with the First Minister so far, it is clear—this is no criticism of him—that we are a long way off being able to measure precisely what that request might consist of. When it comes, we will take it seriously.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Simon Hart

Not at the moment, thank you. It is nothing personal, obviously.

At this time, I just want to mention the potential for landslides, which, obviously, has caused almost as much concern as some of the flooding risk. In the past few days, that issue has become particularly significant, and I wanted to update colleagues by saying that I have met the First Minister to discuss it. We have brought all the relevant stakeholders together, either by way of conference call or in person on Monday this week. Just so that those co-signatories know, I should say that we have also received a letter from the hon. Member for Rhondda which asks some of the questions that I hope to be able to answer now.

The First Minister and I have asked for an up-to-date database of the sites involved—it may surprise some to learn that no such thorough document exists—as we ​want to know precisely who owns them. We have asked for a risk assessment to be undertaken as a matter of urgency as to the integrity of these sites and what exactly the legal liabilities are and where they lie. We have also asked for an outline of a potential timescale and cost for addressing problems associated with these sites, bearing in mind that it is difficult to get on to them at the moment because of the weather conditions that caused the problems in the first place. I also assure colleagues in the House that we will update them just as soon as we have information that we think is viable and useful.

Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab)

I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he knows that this issue is of huge concern to those of us who represent Rhondda Cynon Taf constituencies, as I do. May I press him a little? He spoke about the liabilities, but will he assure me and other Members that no matter where responsibility lies, the UK Government will provide funding to ensure that the coal slips are safe? He will agree that we do not want a repeat of what has happened in the past, when Governments have argued over maintenance, controls and safety, and we have had situations like Aberfan.

Simon Hart

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. My referencing liability was not to pre-warn him that we will somehow try to excuse ourselves from liability; it is just so that we understand exactly what the legal position is regarding ownership, because there may be things such as access issues, which we need to understand. These things are always frustratingly complicated.

I wish to use this opportunity to be positive about Wales, because there is much to be positive about. This discussion is about opportunities, jobs, growth, culture and identity—

Geraint Davies rose—

Simon Hart

It will also be about an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to intervene—in a minute, but not yet. I have been waiting 10 years for the opportunity to be able to turn the hon. Gentleman down. I am not going to lose out on that.

In Wales, there are now 144,000 more people in work than there were in 2010 and 90,000 fewer workless households than there were in 2010. Before anybody sticks up their hand and says, “Ah, but they’re not real jobs,” or, “Ah, but they’re zero-hours contracts,” even if we take the most pessimistic view of those figures, it is still a remarkable testament, not necessarily to the Welsh Government or even the UK Government, but to the businesses and individuals in Wales and their resilience in being able to create and sustain that positive economic picture.

Since 2010, GDP per head in Wales has grown by more than the UK average, and in the past year alone 51 foreign investment projects have come our way, creating 1,700 jobs. We have institutions such as INEOS Automotive in Bridgend; Admiral and GoCompare; Airbus and Toyota in Deeside; Aston Martin in St Athan; Bluestone and Valero down in my part of the world, in west Wales; Tata, Celsa and Liberty Steel; numerous successful holiday and leisure small and medium-sized enterprises around the coast; agri-tech in Aberystwyth; a cyber-security hub in Newport; Zip World in north ​Wales; and a growing renewables hub in the Milford Haven waterway. I know that every single colleague present will have a fantastic example of people who have created interesting, diverse and profitable businesses.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)

The Secretary of State mentions many companies, including some in my constituency. It is crucial that through a great education system we equip the younger generation to prepare for the opportunities in those companies, so will he join me in congratulating the Welsh Labour Government on the investment that they have put into my constituency? We have new schools in the east of Cardiff and in Penarth, and a new further education college—Cardiff and Vale College—and we have seen the improvement of a whole series of educational facilities at every level.

Simon Hart

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I will always congratulate any Government of any colour if they do the right thing by jobs and growth.

On renewables, which I have touched on, Wales’s electricity is already 50% powered by clean energy, and I am committed, as I know colleagues are, to seeing that figure rise. This is of course the Prime Minister’s year of climate action, building up to COP26, and Wales has a role to play in that, just as it does in a low-carbon economy.

Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)

The Secretary of State is making an important point about Wales’s potential contribution towards meeting renewable energy targets. Does he agree that one of the big constraints we face in Wales is grid capacity? I know that he has not been long in the job, but has he had a chance to have any discussions with Western Power or National Grid, for example, about how we can enhance grid capacity so that more renewables projects can be taken forward?

Simon Hart

The answer is a partial yes. As my right hon. Friend knows, businesses in the Carmarthenshire element of my constituency in particular are constrained by grid capacity. In my capacity as an MP, my answer is yes; in my capacity as Secretary of State, my answer is that it is on the to-do list. It is an urgent issue that colleagues from Plaid Cymru raised with me towards the back end of last year.

Mr David Jones (Clwyd West) (Con)

My right hon. Friend has mentioned the importance of clean energy in Wales; would he be willing to meet me and other colleagues, together with the proposed developers of the Colwyn Bay tidal lagoon, and preferably with the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, to discuss the possibility of developing that very important contributor to clean energy in Wales?

Simon Hart

My right hon. Friend is right, and yes I would of course love to do that. There is a feeling in some quarters that perhaps we have turned our back on tidal lagoon energy; no, we have not. On anything like that project, which has good potential and offers value for money for taxpayers, I will of course meet my right hon. Friend and any other colleagues who may have similarly encouraging projects to promote.​

This is not all about the traditional industries that I have already listed; it is also about innovative business: artificial intelligence, virtual reality, compound semiconductors, cyber-security, FinTech, InsureTech—lots of stuff with tech in the name—and many more cutting-edge new industries dotted around, not necessarily in the centres of Wales where people would expect to find them. These businesses offer long-term, well-paid, skilful, green jobs and keep home-grown talent in Wales.

Geraint Davies

The Secretary of State has mentioned the impact on Wales of climate change in terms of flooding, and he is now mentioning the opportunities; will he reconfirm that he is looking again with fresh eyes at the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, including at its financial structure and its cost relative to the price of future energy, which will go up? We cannot use all the coal and oil, because we will all burn up. It would be a pathfinder for new opportunities for export growth, not just in Wales but throughout the UK.

Simon Hart

In answering that, I want to avoid giving the hon. Gentleman the impression that we are just going to dust off the original tidal lagoon proposal, because that would possibly build up false hope. I can say that tidal lagoons as a concept were and remain something of significant potential for Wales and the rest of the UK, but any project obviously has to meet the right value-for-money criteria.

We have talked about the traditional industries; Wales also has a fantastically expanding creative industry offer. Who would have thought it? Not many people know—apart from those in this Chamber, obviously—about “Doctor Who”, “Hinterland”, “Keeping Faith”, “Casualty”, “Gavin & Stacey” and, of course “Sex Education”, which is filmed in my ministerial colleague’s—

Geraint Davies

House. [Laughter.]

Simon Hart

In the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Wales.

Craig Williams (Montgomeryshire) (Con)

I pay tribute to that programme, but apart from the brief sight of a Welsh flag, one would not know that it is filmed in Wales. We need to look at Netflix and the new creative industries and think about reminding people that we have these great facilities.

Simon Hart

Absolutely. My hon. Friend should raise that question with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, because it would seem to me to be the subject of an inquiry that that Committee might enjoy.

On the subject of culture, we have a fantastic, rich and vibrant heritage. The fact that we have more than 600 castles—more per square mile than any other part of the world—is a source of great pride. We have world-class museums, we have galleries, and even the slate landscape of north Wales has been nominated for UNESCO world heritage status.

In sport, we have won a grand slam since the previous St David’s Day debate. I will not make any further predictions on that score. In Tenby in west Wales we host Ironman Wales, the only competition in Wales that attracts more than 2,000 competitors from 35 countries. Last year, Loren Dykes of the Welsh national women’s football team was honoured with her MBE, and Wales has again qualified for the Euros.

​Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming to the House a very good friend of mine, Lowri Morgan, a woman I used to play rugby with back in the day, who is renowned for her ultra-marathons and adventurism? She is here to join the Secretary of State in Downing Street this afternoon. I also welcome her father, Dr Morgan, who is also my constituent.

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)

She wants us to come.

Tonia Antoniazzi

Lowri would love us to be there this afternoon. I had to explain the order of events; unfortunately we will not be able to join the Secretary of State. Sport is a massive industry in Wales—it is very important and very close to our hearts. It is important that we raise the profile and importance of sport for everyone, especially women.

Simon Hart

I very much look forward to meeting Lowri in No. 10. We will, of course, have a drink together and think of you all in here as we do.

Let me return briefly to our economic prospects. No St David’s Day debate, certainly in recent years, would be complete without mention of our departure from the EU, which was voted for in Wales by a margin of 5%. The result of the election towards the end of last year confirms the Union ambitions and Union values of our residents.

That leads me neatly to the shared prosperity fund, which is the subject of much discussion in this House and elsewhere—what it means, where it is going, what it will include, who will be responsible for it and so on. I have always said, and I said it on the day I was appointed, that this is a nice problem to have—large sums of money to be distributed by politicians elected in Wales by Wales for the first time in nearly 50 years. The shared prosperity fund for me, and I am sure this view is shared by the Welsh Government, too, is about jobs and growth. It is about priorities that benefit everybody across the country, not just specific parts of it. It is not about vanity projects and ideas that may sound good and even look good, but that do not deliver on those two core objectives.

One of the reasons why the EU referendum vote went the way it did, why there was such a heated debate about it, why there was such frustration sometimes about the knowledge that there were large sums of money that never quite reached the places that they were meant to go, is because there are examples—admittedly not many—such as the funicular, a £2.5 million EU-funded project in Ebbw Vale. It broke down more than 250 times between June 2015 and November 2017, and it cost Blaenau Gwent Council £52,000 a year. I have not been aware at any time in recent years of residents of Wales campaigning for more of that kind of thing. Techniums are another example. I have one in my constituency. The 10 innovation centres, costing £38 million of EU funds, failed to meet job targets, and six centres closed after nine years. They were even described by the Lib Dems as a white elephant.

Geraint Davies

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Simon Hart

No, no, hold tight. I liked the idea of a £20,000 dragon statue in Ebbw Vale, but the test of these things must be how they have contributed positively to jobs and growth. My challenge to the Welsh Government is for the UK and Welsh Governments to work collaboratively on the shared prosperity fund to make sure that those objectives are met and are driven by local demand.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. It really is a travesty for him to attempt to depict European funding in this way. European funding has been a huge boost to the Welsh economy. We need only look at road infrastructure, the colleges, the voluntary sector that has benefited and the training that we have put in place. All those things are very positive, but what he has presented is a gross caricature of reality.

Simon Hart

It is in fact quite the opposite. I suspect that what I have done is cause a certain amount of embarrassment. We all know and understand that the funding does not always work in the way that it should. I made it absolutely clear that the examples I gave are the exceptions, not the rule. My point is very clear. There should be a collaborative approach by the Welsh and UK Governments to prioritise jobs and growth. If the Welsh Government or Welsh Labour cannot live with that, that is their problem, not mine.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Simon Hart

I will give way once more, to the hon. Gentleman.

Stephen Doughty

I thank the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being generous—but also uncharitable. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) made his point; I can point to examples in my constituency. In Butetown, EU funding went to the community centre, the youth pavilion, and regeneration in one of the most deprived areas in Wales. The Government have not given answers as to where funding will come from to ensure that the so-called levelling up agenda can be delivered. They need to answer those questions.

Simon Hart

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. Those questions will be answered. Whether they are answered now or at a future stage is a matter for him to judge. I am conscious that I have been super generous with interventions, and that I must now get on with my few remaining comments.

As the hon. Gentleman has just mentioned, levelling up and strengthening the Union are our buzzwords. That means road, rail, air, and digital infrastructure improvements. It means mobile phone coverage in the most hard-to-reach places and cross-border connectivity. If we want an argument in this place, let us have one about the M4 relief road. Let us hear from Opposition colleagues about what pressure they are putting on the Welsh Government to remove that blockage and unleash economic potential throughout south and west Wales. Not a single business from the west coast of Pembrokeshire to the Severn Bridge does not believe that the project is a good idea. The blockage appears to come from the First Minister’s Office, so if colleagues share our ambition ​for the project, let us hear from them. I will take any intervention from the Opposition confirming their enthusiasm for that improvement. [Interruption.] Okay, perhaps not.

We also want a more reliable rail service and charging points for electric vehicles. For those who say, “What has HS2 ever done for us?”, I would say this—

Geraint Davies rose—

Simon Hart

No, I will not give way, because I must get on. I was talking about the benefits of HS2. Whether it is by direct connection to a new form of rail infrastructure, the like of which has not been seen since Victorian times, or whether it is by being able to tap into the supply chain opportunities, HS2 benefits not just those on the route that it will follow, or in the cities that it will join. It will help link up the UK, which will be good for the economic prospects of Wales.

Jonathan Edwards rose—

Geraint Davies rose—

Simon Hart

No, I will not give way. My mood has changed. I am no longer co-operative and collaborative.

On defence, we have, in our ministerial team, two people who have worn a military uniform—that of the Royal Artillery in the case of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, and that of the Royal Wessex Yeomanry in my case. We have an instinctive love, affection and respect for the defence industry, our soldiers, sailors and airmen, and we want to see more of them in Wales. We want to ensure that their veterans’ railcard is delivered in exactly the same way by the Welsh Government as it will be by the UK Government in November, and we want to preserve and enhance the Ministry of Defence footprint in Wales.

Let me turn to the question of steel, which is of huge significance to a number of constituencies, including mine. I reassure the House that the UK Government recognise not only the economic value of steel, but its social and cultural importance in Wales. We are working with steel companies to find out, and be absolutely clear in our minds about, what they see as a sustainable steel industry, and what UK and Welsh Government support they need to be able to develop that. I will be at Tata Steel Port Talbot tomorrow. I hope to meet the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) there to discuss these issues further.

I want to end on a cultural matter to do with the Welsh language. I am very proud of the fact that S4C moved its headquarters from Cardiff to Carmarthen. It is, of course, the only Welsh language broadcaster. As somebody who has, as the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) knows, a limited grasp of the Welsh language—she would argue that I had a limited grasp of any language—this is of real significance. It is about far more than viewing figures. I am anxious to make sure that the language is seen as approachable, fun, and significant. The moment it becomes politicised, it turns off people who might be taking their first steps with the language—whether they are already residents ​of Wales, or are moving to Wales, perhaps for work. The vibrancy of the language and its future are important.

The Welsh Government ambition, which I fully support, is to have 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050. That will be achieved only if that is seen as something that we can aspire to achieve without fear of political retribution if we somehow fall short. Inserting the odd word of Welsh into a speech or article does not do the trick. It is a lazy way of attempting to do our duty by the Welsh language. We have to go further than that, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will say more about that later.

On that point, Madam Deputy Speaker, I think it is time for a gwin coch mawr over in No. 10. Those are the three words of Welsh that I have learned and have carried me through the most difficult situations over the past 10 years. This is a great occasion. It is a brilliant opportunity for us to speak about the positives of Wales. I look forward to hearing the rest of the contributions.