Welsh Affairs

Published date : 03 March, 2022
It is a great honour to speak in such a wide-ranging and overwhelmingly good-humoured annual debate on Welsh affairs. Before I get properly under way, I associate myself with the remarks that all hon. Members have made about the current situation in Ukraine, which distresses us all very greatly. The Scottish and Welsh Governments have used the powers they have to assist as well as they can. In this fast-moving situation, we are all looking to come up with the best possible outcomes for Ukraine. I associate myself with the calls for the UK Government to open routes that allow more people to come to safety and sanctuary in these islands.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on securing this debate, and I hope everybody in Wales and the Welsh diaspora enjoyed a very happy St David’s day on Tuesday. I assure our Welsh friends that, despite recent events at the Principality stadium—I am sure you share my distress in equal measure, Madam Deputy Speaker—we bear no grudges. Hearing the speech by the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) about the amount of rugby development work going on, particularly in the younger generation, it is perhaps no surprise that Scotland has had such a dismal run of results in Wales recently.

In addition to our sporting links, Wales and Scotland have strong historical and cultural ties going back many centuries. Many of our traditions are shared. If the House will permit me, I offer my own modest example. When I was a student at university, I had a good friend called Carwyn, who achieved some measure of fame going around Wales playing the harp to put himself through his studies.

Carwyn and I met in Cardiff and we decided to go out busking. Carwyn had his harp and I had my violin. We went up to Cwmbran, where we did quite well—we made about £30 in an hour, with which we were very happy. We then headed up to Brecon and made about £70 in an hour, with which we were even happier. The following day I was coming over to see friends in London, so we decided to go busking in Weston-super-Mare once we got over the bridge, and we made the grand total of no pounds and no pence in the two hours we were there.

I bear no grudges against the good people of Weston-super-Mare, and perhaps some day I will go back without my violin. I am not sure where that leaves us, but our combined Scottish and Welsh cultural efforts certainly seemed to find more fertile ground in Wales than on the other side of the Severn bridge.

A debate on Welsh affairs is an opportunity not just to reflect but to look forward. The 2021 Senedd election, for the first time, enfranchised 16 and 17-year-old voters, just as we did in Scotland at the 2014 referendum. It amplified the voices of young people in the political system, allowing them to have their say on important issues. Perhaps just as importantly, it allowed what we might call the devolution generation to pass its verdict on the shared and sometimes competing visions for Wales we have heard expressed this afternoon.

The election late last year yielded a working relationship between Labour and Plaid Cymru. Plaid is not in government, but that cross-party co-operation reflects the relationship that the Scottish National party now has in government with the Green party in Holyrood. It just goes to show how parties’ setting aside differences, establishing their common ground and working together on delivering a common purpose can be an incredibly positive way of working, rather than having some of the crude majoritarianism we sometimes see in legislators closer to where we are now, who are able to press on despite a minority share of the vote.

That agreement, certainly when viewed from Scotland, has resulted in a hugely ambitious policy programme: extending free schools to all primary school pupils; extending childcare to all two-year-olds, setting up an expert group to create a national care service, free at the point of need; taking action on housing—on unaffordable housing and ending homelessness; exploring the creation of a shadow broadcasting and communications authority for Wales to address concerns about fragility in the media and the attacks we have sadly seen on the independence of the print and broadcast media; and, perhaps very significantly, working on plans to reform the Senedd, based on having 80 to 100 Members, to allow for better scrutiny of matters that comes under the auspices of the Assembly, and a voting system that is at least as proportionate, if not more proportionate, than the one that is there now, with some gender quotas, which can really begin to transform the debate in politics. Although I am sure that neither party will have achieved everything out of that agreement that they perhaps desire, all told it is a very broad package of social, economic, cultural and environmental measures, which can help to reinforce the foundations of society in Wales as a modern, prosperous, socially just, confident, inclusive and outward-looking European nation.

The devolution generation might like what they see their Government doing in Wales, just as our devolution generation like what they see in Scotland, but the evidence is mounting that they are far less likely to be enamoured of what they see being done in their name in Westminster, under the current Government. Like most things, that comes back to the problems we are facing as a result of the hard Brexit that has been inflicted on us. Neither Wales nor Scotland were given a seat at the negotiating table and our voices were marginalised. We were told to just suck it up—again, that comes back to the crude majoritarianism I mentioned. That approach displayed a complete lack of respect, not just for the devolved institutions, but for the Union itself—I say that as someone who is avowedly not a Unionist. It seemed to me to tear at the very fabric of what many of us, even if we did not support the Union, thought it had at its heart and what it was all about. Through the likes of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, the remit of devolved powers is being undermined by the UK Government, whether we are talking about not transferring, as we were told would happen, all the powers that were invested in Brussels back to the devolved institutions; simply arrogating the ability to spend, overrule and overreach in respect of the properly devolved structures of governance; ignoring the lack of legislative consent motions; tearing up the Sewel convention, which was such an important part of embedding relations between Westminster and devolved Parliaments and Assemblies at the outset; and undermining the strategic approach that comes from having devolved government working closely with local authorities by simply trying to create bypass streams of funding.

Nowhere do we see that more than in the “levelling up” agenda. I have to say that it is going to take a considerably greater amount of money than has been indicated to date to compensate for the loss of economic opportunities as a result of Brexit and for the loss of structural funding and individual grants programmes that were supported by the European Union and were done in partnership with devolved Governments and local authorities, rather than being done to them. It is going to take a great deal more than what we have heard and seen so far to tackle some of the deep-rooted economic and structural inequalities that we see across the UK. Let me give an example on the shared prosperity fund. I am happy to be corrected on it if I am wrong, but I do not think I will be. Seven out of 10 of the most deprived local authorities in Wales have yet to see any funding coming through. The situation is only marginally better in Scotland, where about six in 10 authorities are failing to get anything through that process.

That takes us to a really fundamental problem: the UK is one of the most geographically unequal of all the OECD nations, with a political and economic system that is skewed very heavily towards London and the south-east. Success breeds success, but so many parts of the UK are performing below their potential because of the way that we choose to structure our politics and the economy. To give an example, gross value added per head in Wales in 2018 was just 72.8% of the UK level, which is pulled up considerably by the heft of London and the south-east. It is important to recognise that Wales is not necessarily the outlier; it is London and the south-east, because of the pull of the capital city effect.

There are, however, other long-term reasons for the disparity which are equally applicable to Scotland, such as the legacy of rapid deindustrialisation through the ’80s and the failure of successive UK Governments to use the powers that they possess in order to alter that picture. Research and development is one such area that seeds success for the future. The Office for National Statistics has data that shows that London, the south-east and the east of England accounted for 42% of total UK R&D funding in 2017. In 2019, that share of the cake had risen to 54%. Meanwhile, Wales in 2019 managed to gather in only 4% of that, which is lower than we would expect from the population share. We have to ask some serious questions about why that is and how it will be addressed, because it certainly will not be addressed by levelling up, or by the modest increase to R&D spending that the Chancellor announced in his recent Budget.

Any commitments to invest in infrastructure would carry far greater weight had the Government not, as I said earlier, bypassed aspects of devolution and the established funding formulas. In Wales, we have a particularly egregious example of that when it comes to HS2, the building of which will diminish Welsh competitiveness at the expense of those regions that will benefit. I am happy to be corrected if wrong, but HS2 also sits outside the funding formula, meaning that the Welsh Government will not even get the benefits of the proportionate spend that could be put into extending the electrification to Swansea, electrifying the valley lines, or any of the other major infrastructure investments that could really unlock potential in parts of Wales that are crying out for it, and make transformative changes to infrastructure from north to south. Members might expect me to say this, but I do not think that active interest from Whitehall is really needed in order to do that, or more of the self-serving cant that we sometimes hear that devolution is somehow misused whenever the Welsh or the Scots have the temerity to vote for more non-Conservative politicians than Conservative ones. What is needed is to give our devolved Governments the tools they need to get on with the job.

In that regard, I particularly commend the suggestion of my good friend the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) when he spoke of Crown estate devolution. He spoke of the £700 million that has come to Scotland from the latest licensing round for offshore wind, but that is only part of the picture. A significant part of that, once the offshore wind farms are up and running, is the additional revenue stream per megawatt-hour of electricity generated that will be able to be directly invested in public services. That is exactly the sort of empowerment agenda that could really start to bring benefits to Wales, just as it hopefully will in Scotland, in terms of supply chains—tackling the world’s environmental problems, ensuring an independent funding base for public services in Wales, and giving our politicians the ability to get on with the job.

My party has long argued that the UK’s fiscal settlement is simply not fit for purpose, and the pandemic has really taken that argument out of the abstract and into reality. In his speech, which I listened to closely, the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Simon Baynes) spoke of the money that had come in Wales’s direction as a result of the pandemic. What I did not hear him say was that the Welsh Government, like the Scottish Government, had to wait for decisions to be taken on the English response to the pandemic before those moneys were generated through the Barnett formula and transferred. That made it much harder than it ought to have been to plan the public policy response in Wales and Scotland—and, incidentally, in Northern Ireland—to the pandemic. A Government who were confident in their stewardship, not just of government but of the Union, would surely look to see how they could overcome such frictions instead of perpetually demanding gratitude when a sclerotic and creaky system of funding eventually coughs and splutters its way into life to deliver the money that it was always designed to supply.

Scotland and Wales have been on quite a political journey since the Parliaments opened their doors. In my own party, we certainly stand in solidarity with the entitlement of people in Wales to exercise their right to self-determination; to choose the form of Government that is best suited to their needs; to choose their own future; and to have their choices accepted without hesitation or qualification from the UK Government. I hope that we can all agree in this place, as democrats, that how far and how fast Wales and Scotland continue on that direction of travel ought to be a matter for the Scottish people and the people of Wales to express for themselves, and for themselves alone.


May I intervene on that?


The Secretary of State is nothing if not prescient, on that point at least. Of course there may have been a slim majority in Wales for Brexit, but does he honestly think that has exempted Wales from any of the problems that have afflicted the rest of the UK from that, and if a referendum were held tomorrow would he truthfully expect that result again?

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