Wales Questions: 19 October 2016

Aberconwy MP and Wales Office Minister Guto Bebb answered questions on Wales in the Commons Chamber on 19 October 2016.

Swansea Bay City Deal:

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op)
2. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on whether funding for the Swansea bay city deal will be included in the autumn statement. [906613]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Guto Bebb)
I am very supportive of achieving a deal for the Swansea bay city region. However, this is not about Government telling local authorities what to do; it is about empowering them to bring forward bespoke proposals for their region. I welcomed the announcement in the Budget that we were opening negotiations, but it must be the right deal—a well-thought-out deal that delivers for the whole region.

Geraint Davies
The Minister will know that Brexit will deal a major body blow to Swansea’s universities and the Swansea region overall. What assurances can he give that in the autumn statement the Chancellor will make a firm commitment to put his money where his mouth is, because we want hard cash, not hot air, to provide the required support for jobs and prosperity in the area?

Guto Bebb
First, I should correct the hon. Gentleman: the city of Swansea voted to leave, so if there was a body blow to Swansea, it was delivered by people in Swansea. On the city deal, he has to be slightly fairer about what this Government are doing. We have delivered a city deal for Cardiff, with over £1 billion of investment, including £500 million from this Government, and a guarantee that the European elements would be supported.  If the Swansea city deal is as good as early indications appear to suggest, it can be supported by this Government in due course.

Christina Rees (Neath) (Lab/Co-op)
The Swansea bay city deal aims to turn the region, which includes Neath, into a digital super-hub to boost the local economy, transform energy delivery, and improve health and social care. Will the Minister assure the House that this deal will not face the delays experienced by the Swansea bay tidal lagoon and rail electrification projects?

Guto Bebb
It is important to point out that this was announced in the last Budget and is being taken forward. However, there is a bottom-up approach. This Government do not take the view that Westminster knows best. We believe very strongly that the proposal should come from the region, and it is fantastic to see the way in which the four local authorities are working together. I am confident that the deal brings something quite special to south-west Wales, but let us see the detail. If the detail is persuasive, then the support will be forthcoming.
 

Rail Electrification:

Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on rail electrification in Wales. [906614]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Guto Bebb)
This week will see the completion of the engineering work in the Severn tunnel required for the electrification of the Great Western main line. This is a truly historic occasion and a clear demonstration of this Government’s commitment to deliver a rail investment strategy that will benefit the people of Wales in its entirety.

Justin Madders
The Secretary of State has spoken of the Growth Track 360 campaign, which, as the Minister will know, has the potential to transform the north Wales and Cheshire area by delivering 70,000 new jobs over 20 years. Improving the Wrexham to Bidston line, which serves Neston in my constituency, has been identified as the first priority for the team. Will the Minister join in the words of encouragement that we have already heard in agreeing to make representations to the Chancellor ahead of the autumn statement so as to deliver some of this much-needed investment?

Guto Bebb
I am pleased to echo the words of the Secretary of State, who highlighted the Growth Track 360 proposals. These are made in north Wales or made in north-west England proposals which will try to improve connectivity between parts of north-west England and north-east Wales. We are supportive of the proposals. I am pleased to say that this morning the Treasury wrote to the proposers in north Wales stating that support.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)
Some £738 million has been ring-fenced for the electrification of the valley lines, although that is not expected to be completed until at least 2022 or 2023. What assurances has the Minister had that the £120 million  from the European regional development fund will still be forthcoming for this project before the UK leaves the EU?

Guto Bebb
The situation is very clear. The proposals for the south Wales metro are part of the Cardiff city deal. They are a significant investment, and they include a contribution of around £110 million from the European fund. My understanding from the Treasury is that it will, if necessary, underwrite that element of the contribution, but if the proposals move forward in a timely manner, the European elements will be funded by the European Union.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
I associate myself with the words of the Secretary of State on Aberfan. In 1966, I was the same age as the schoolchildren who were killed in that tragedy. My predecessor Cledwyn Hughes, who was Secretary of State for Wales, said that that was the darkest day of his life when Aberfan lost a generation.

On rail integration, can the Minister tell the House whether he has had discussions with the Welsh Government, and indeed the Irish Government, about connectivity between rail and the port of Holyhead?

Guto Bebb
I assure the hon. Gentleman, who is a keen advocate of rail links in north Wales, that the Wales Office has had discussions with the Welsh Government, with the Irish Government and, just as importantly, with the Rail Minister at Westminster.

Mrs Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
Is it not a scandal that during its 13 years in government, Labour failed to electrify a single mile of railway track in Wales?

Mr Speaker
That is a most interesting point, but it is not germane to the hon. Gentleman’s responsibilities. A brief sentence in response to the right hon. Lady will suffice.

Guto Bebb
I agree entirely with the comments made by my right hon. Friend.

Liz Saville Roberts (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC)
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Department for Transport and its predecessors have prevaricated over funding rail electrification in north Wales for more than 40 years, and can he give us a definite date for the project to move ahead?

Guto Bebb
I agree with the hon. Lady that the situation in North Wales has been one of under-investment for a very long time, so it is important to highlight the current investments: £43 million for signalling in north Wales, and a significant investment in the Chester links into Wrexham. It is important to look at the Growth Track 360 proposals carefully and coherently to see how we can improve connectivity through rail in north Wales.

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab)
I join the Secretary of State in marking the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan tragedy, and I pay tribute to the spirit and resilience of the people of Aberfan.

Rail passenger numbers into our capital city station, Cardiff Central, are forecast to increase to 22 million a year by 2025, so the expansion of the station, in conjunction  with the south Wales metro project that includes EU funding, is critical. Will the Secretary of State explain why the Government have been willing to invest in Birmingham and Edinburgh stations but will not confirm funding to accelerate feasibility work on expanding Cardiff Central? Does he want our capital city to have a station that is fit for purpose, or not?

Guto Bebb
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place on the Front Bench. The situation in Cardiff is another example of the old-fashioned view that Westminster knows best. We are still waiting for the proposals from south Wales for what needs to be done in relation to Cardiff station. This Government are investing in rail in a manner that simply did not happen under 13 years of Labour government. If the proposal from south Wales meets the Government’s expectations, it will be looked at in a constructive manner.

Jo Stevens
In April’s Welsh questions, the Minister told the House:

“The European Union makes a massive contribution to the Welsh economy: it is our largest trading partner; it supports thousands of jobs; and it ?provides significant investments for projects all around Wales.”—[Official Report, 13 April 2016; Vol. 608, c.340-341.]

Four months on from the referendum result, what is the Secretary of State’s Brexit plan for Wales to replace that trade, those jobs and that infrastructure? Where is that plan, and when are we going to see it?

Guto Bebb
I remind the hon. Lady that the people of Wales voted to leave the European Union. I stand by the comments that I made four months ago, but it is important to point out that the Wales Office has been going around Wales and talking to stakeholders, identifying the opportunities as a result of Brexit and trying to provide reassurance. I hope that the hon. Lady will at least welcome the commitment made by the Chancellor to support European funding projects in Wales and agricultural funding in Wales. Those are underwritten proposals from the Treasury that Opposition Front Benchers should welcome.

 

Tourism:

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab)
5. What steps he is taking to encourage increased tourism to Wales. [906616]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Guto Bebb)
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his time as shadow Secretary of State and thank him for his contribution at the Dispatch Box in that role.

As the House will know, tourism is vital to delivering economic growth in Wales. It has been a great year for inbound tourism in the UK and in Wales, with day visits increasing by 24% in the last 12 months.

Paul Flynn
Will the Minister pay tribute to the magnificent tourist attractions in Newport—Tredegar House, the wetlands, Celtic Manor, the splendid Roman baths and amphitheatre—all of which increased tourist numbers last year by up to 70%? Will he confirm that visitors to all parts of Wales always praise the warmth of our hospitality?

Guto Bebb
I clearly agree fully with the comment about the welcome in Wales. In particular, I pay tribute to the South Wales Argus and its “We’re Backing Newport” campaign, which highlights the fact that Newport is not just a great place to live, but a great place to visit.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)
With B&Bs such as the Old Rectory on the Lake and the Ty’n y Cornel in Tal-y-llyn under new management and prepared, I hope, to do bar mitzvahs and gay weddings, does the Minister not agree with me that Welsh B&Bs offer a warm welcome to the English?

Guto Bebb
I agree with my hon. Friend that Welsh bed and breakfasts offer a great welcome, whether people are English, Welsh or any other nationality. They are a key part of the Welsh tourism offer, and they are to be applauded for the work they do.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD)
I associate myself and my colleagues with the tribute to the people of Aberfan on the 50th anniversary.

In a previous life, the Minister was a very passionate supporter of the campaign to reduce VAT on tourism. He has made some very pronounced comments about that campaign in the past. Does he stand by them? More importantly, what representations will he make to the Treasury to make such a case to benefit tourism in our communities?

Guto Bebb
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right in saying that I am a politician who advocates lower taxes, so I welcome the fact that this Government have cut national insurance contributions for small businesses and are cutting corporation tax for small businesses. There is a case to be made on VAT for many sectors of the economy, and that case will be made by the Wales Office, but there are no promises, I am afraid.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con)
Does the Minister agree that one dividend of Brexit has been the fall in the pound against the euro, meaning that holidays in Wales are now 15% cheaper for our European friends?

Guto Bebb
Certainly I am more than happy to agree with my hon. Friend that tourism in north Wales has done extremely well over the past few months. Last week I spoke to hoteliers in Llandudno, who were saying that they have enjoyed 90%-plus occupancy during the summer, so there has been a Brexit dividend in that respect.

 

Arriva Trains Franchise:

Louise Haigh (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab)
7. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the Arriva Trains franchise renewal. [906618]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Guto Bebb)
The in-principle agreement between the Welsh Government and the Department for Transport to devolve the Wales and Borders franchise was announced on 21 November 2014. We are engaging constructively with the Welsh Government to enable them to achieve the successful procurement of the next Wales and Borders franchise in October 2018.

Louise Haigh
Labour has tabled an amendment to the Digital Economy Bill, which will write free wi-fi into the renewal of any rail franchise. Does the Minister agree that this requirement would be welcomed by passengers in Wales and should be included in Arriva’s next franchise agreement?

Guto Bebb
This is a fair point. That would be appreciated by passengers in Wales. As part of the devolution package, that is something to be agreed between the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government, but I am sure they will have heard the hon. Lady’s comments.

 

Rural Broadband:

Sir Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con)
8. What plans his Department has to work with the Welsh Government on extending the roll-out of broadband in remote rural areas of Wales.

[906619]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Guto Bebb)
Ensuring rural areas of Wales benefit from our broadband roll-out is one of my key priorities. The UK Government have supported investment in broadband across rural Wales, including £14.2 million in Powys and £13.9 million in Gwynedd. The Secretary of State recently had positive discussions with the Welsh Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and the Minister for Science and Skills on future work to roll out broadband in Wales.

Sir Henry Bellingham
I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree with me that superfast broadband is a key driver for successful diversification in remote rural economies, and does he agree that it is time BT Openreach raised its game?

Guto Bebb
I am sure the mailbox of every MP would highlight the fact that it is time for BT Openreach to raise its game. On the importance of broadband to rural economic development, I can only agree fully with my hon. Friend. In my constituency of Aberconwy we have a call centre in Llanrwst, which is only in place as a result of the broadband roll-out encouraged by this Government’s funding.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC)
In a Twitter message to me, the director of BT in Wales said that the

“vast majority of rural Wales, including Arfon, can already access superfast broadband”.

Does the Minister agree with her?

Guto Bebb
The “vast majority” is perhaps overstating the case, but the improvement over recent months has been spectacular, with rates of 90%-plus in many rural counties. There is still more work to be done, but in terms of rural broadband we are going in the right direction in Wales and the UK.

Hywel Williams
The main superfast broadband line passes the community of Crymlyn in my constituency, literally at the bottom of the people’s gardens. Many of these people run businesses from home and need to access substantial documents, but the download speed in Crymlyn would be an embarrassment even in the previous century. When will the Minister, or his Labour confederates in Cardiff, actually do something to remove this huge barrier to prosperity and economic growth?

Guto Bebb
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the investment in his own constituency, which is approaching £12 million. There are still issues in relation to broadband roll-out in Wales, but sometimes we have to recognise that what has been achieved is tremendous. We are slightly ahead of the situation in England, which is something we should all applaud. However, I make no bones about the fact that more and faster broadband connectivity in Wales is crucial. The Wales Office will carry on pressurising BT Openreach to ensure that that is achieved sooner rather than later.

 

 

The debate is also available online at https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2016-10-19.

Image credit:  Diego Delso  Available at:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Palacio_de_Westminster,_Londres,_Inglaterra,_2014-08-07,_DD_030.JPG