This week I chaired a number of debates as part of my duties as a member of the Panel of Parliamentary Chairs. Ruth Jones MP for Newport West secured a very important Westminster Hall debate to consider the UK Government’s new funding streams which have replaced EU structural funds post-Brexit. In particular, the effect that the Community Renewal Fund (CRF) and the Levelling Up Fund (LUF) will have in Wales. Ruth opened the debate stating that the Prime Minister has let Wales down, and quoted Mark Drakeford “a plan made in Wales without Wales”. That the two new funds should be transparent, fair and balanced, and the process should not be in competition with home nations and regions of England, but that both funds fail in these respects. Ruth is a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee and she quoted from a recent evidence session which found that: the new funds will not be enough to replace existing EU funds; there is insufficient communication; the bidding system is unclear; decision making is confusing; the competition procedure not welcome; the timeline is too short (deadline next week); and Welsh Government (previous administrators of EU funds) will be by-passed. During the evidence session, the Under Secretary of State for Wales, David TC Davies, thought that the Welsh Office would be involved, but the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government, Luke Hall, thought that his Department would be administrating the funds. Ruth urged Minister Luke Hall, who was responding for the U.K. Government in her debate, to explain all the issues she raised. Gerald Jones MP Responded as Shadow Wales Minister and stated that we will always welcome extra funding to Wales, but the Welsh budget is still lower per person in real terms than it was in 2010. Gerald criticised the centralised Whitehall approach, which by-passes devolution and 20 years of the Welsh Local Government Association working together with Welsh Government to deliver successful regeneration projects all over Wales. Caerphilly CBC, which covers two and a half constituencies, and has some of the most deprived communities in Wales, has been excluded from the priority list for the CRF which is mind boggling. And the £8 million provided for the UK Government’s Free Port schemes is little compared with the £25 million given to England. Gerald asked the Minister specific questions: why Caerphilly and Bridgend had been excluded from the priority list; will the criteria for the CRF be the same for the U.K. Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF); will the Minister reconsider deprivation as a factor; will funding be allocated on a Local Authority basis rather than on a constituency basis and will the Minister reconsider working in partnership with Welsh Government and Local Government. Minister Luke Hall stated that his UK Government were committed to its levelling up agenda across all regions of the UK. The LUF was worth £4.8 billion across the UK and that Wales would get 5% of the £800 million allocated to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over 21/22 and 24/25. That he wanted Local Authorities and communities to be directly involved; the new funds allow cross border bids; 17 of 22 Local Authorities are on the priority list; the short timeline was designed to get Local Authorities to put a move on; the £125,000 to each local authority was to encourage them to develop a new relationship with UK Government and where he thinks appropriate he will consult with the Welsh Office. From a chair’s perspective, it looked as though both sides of the debate were talking past each other.
The next debate was secured by Jamie Stone MP Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross asking the BEIS Minister Paul Scully about delivery charges in the Highlands and Islands. Whilst chairing debates it is always a pleasure to learn about new topics. People in the Highlands council pay an average £14.67 more than people in the south of Scotland. Resolver found that delivery rip off charges are the second biggest complaint, behind online shopping. Jamie suggested to U.K. Government Minister Eddie Hughes that people across the four nations are upset about their experiences. In 1840 the penny post guaranteed that a letter arrived anywhere in the UK for a flat rate penny charge, and a parcel cost slightly more. Jamie suggested that: the two governments (U.K. and Scotland) should work together and sort it out; fix the roads and invest in infrastructure; use local delivery firms; that firms should be transparent with customers about delivery charges; introduce a flat rate fee that does not discriminate regarding postcodes and legislation to impose Royal Mail standards on delivery firms. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for BEIS Eddie Hughes responded on behalf of the UK Government. The Minister stated that the UK Government recognises that delivery costs can be higher when reaching some parts of the UK but should be based on the real costs of transportation and has ensured access to an affordable, consistently priced postal service under the Royal Mail. That consumer protection laws are robust and state that information given by traders to consumers regarding delivery costs must be up front and transparent. And breaches of this law should be reported through deliverylaw.uk but the UK Government has no role in interfering with business decisions, and the market is hugely competitive. That the Consumer Protection Partnership runs a dedicated working group of consumers, trading standards, and government representatives, including Scottish Government, and will continue to look at this issue. Ofcom is conducting a review of its future regulatory framework and will publish its consultation of postal services later this year. The Minister said that his priority is continued enforcement of the law and he thanked all postal workers who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to keep us all connected.
The next debate was moved by Tim Loughton MP East Worthing and Shoreham on the future of the learned societies at Burlington House. The society of Antiquarians, the Geological Society, the Linnaean Society, the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Royal Society of Chemistry form the learned societies who have been in Burlington House in Piccadilly since 1850. These charities have preserved our histories, furthered our understanding of the world, and promoted discoveries and advances in the field of science, history, astronomy, natural history and earth sciences. Burlington House was where Darwin explained his theory of evolution. However, the future of the learned societies is threatened because their landlord, the UK Government’s Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, has increased their annual rent by 3,000% in the past 10 years, and are set to double it in the next decade. When the learned societies signed the lease in 2005, they accepted that by 2085 they would be paying a commercial rent, but would have 45 years to adapt to a new model of income. But the increase started after 7 years and the learned societies haven’t had time to adapt. The lease prevents additional income generation through subletting or opening a cafe. They conducted a public value contribution analysis by PwC in 2019 and the result found an annual public benefit of £47,368,500. The UK Government has proposed a rent freeze, a rent holiday, and adjustments, but the rent is now unaffordable. Since 2019 the rent has increased by a further 39% at a time worsened by the pandemic, and the U.K. Government needs to produce a long-term, fair, and sustainable settlement. The official opposition spokesperson Jeff Smith MP Manchester Withington made the point that many businesses are struggling with commercial rents as a result of the pandemic and the UK Government has issued a code of conduct for landlords to encourage them to negotiate with tenants to find a workable solution for both parties and in this case the UK Government, as landlord to the learned societies, needs to lead by example. The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Eddie Hughes MP stated that he could not refer in detail to the ongoing negotiations, but the UK Government wants to continue working closely with the learned societies to ensure that they remain in Burlington House. From the chair that sounded like a fudge.
On Wednesday I attended the AGM of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Olympics and Paralympics and was honoured to be re-elected as vice-chair, along with Lord Colin Moynihan and Baronness Tani Grey-Thompson. Sir David Ames MP was re-elected as chair. We discussed the forthcoming Tokyo Olympic Games to be held next month, and the possibility that we may hold a reception for the GB Team later in the year, should pandemic restrictions permit. I suggested that we should invite Lynn “The Leap” Davies from Nantymoel, who won his long jump gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games with a 8.23m jump that is still a Welsh record. Lynn and I trained together many years ago when we were both based at the National Sports Centre in Cardiff.
As a life member of the British-American Parliamentary Group, I attended a confidential webinar hosted by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) with Congressman Adam Schiff, Chair of the US House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, entitled “The Threat to Liberal Democracy”. Adam Schiff and I became friends when I visited Washington in 2015 as part of a UK Parliament working group to study the US legislative process. Adam visited Neath later that year and enjoyed a tour of my constituency meeting many people. Adam stayed in the Castle Hotel, which flew the American flag during his stay. My dear friend Hywel Francis, who tragically passed away in February 2021, played a prominent role in organising a reception in Seven Sisters RFC, with Onllwyn Choir, and Bronwen Lewis put on a special concert for Adam in Dove Workshop, Banwen. Adam and I have kept in touch and it was so good to see him on the call. I’m sure that when travel restrictions are lifted, Adam will visit Neath again.
As a member of the Employers Initiative on Domestic Abuse (EIDA), I attended a teams meeting panel discussion hosted by Thames Water. Elizabeth Filkin, Chair of EIDA presided over the event. We heard from Nicole Jacobs, the first Domestic Abuse Commissioner, whose role has now been enshrined in the Domestic Abuse Act which has received its Royal Assent. Steve Maule, Moderator at EIDA, Leanne Wood from Vodaphone, Chris Luff Watford and West Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce. The Domestic Abuse Act will be implemented across criminal justice systems and agencies later this year, and the panel discussed what the Act would mean for employers. Several of its measures set out support for employees disclosing abuse, or for colleagues who suspect a member of staff is being abused. EIDA has a fact sheet on its website and will produce regular updates as measures of the Act are implemented.
On Saturday, as a Labour and Co-operative Party MP, I presented my report of the work of the Co-operative Parliamentary Group to the Wales Council Co-operative Party zoom meeting. The Co-operative Parliamentary Group has continued to campaign for protection for retail workers against the violence, threats and abuse that they suffer in the workplace, and tabled amendments to the UK Government’s Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill that would introduce specific offences for assaulting retail workers. The UK Government’s response, that the current provisions are sufficient, is contrary to the weight of evidence. Preet Kaur Gill MP, chair of our Co-operative Parliamentary Group has lead the official opposition to the UK Government’s damaging cuts to the foreign aid budget, calling for a recommitment to the 0.7% target. At a time when the world’s poorest are suffering from so many problems, such as the pandemic and climate change, these cuts are undermining our efforts to tackle many global challenges. We have called on the UK Government to adopt President Biden’s proposal for a global minimum corporation tax rate, and have continued our campaign on Food Justice. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world and no one should go hungry, yet people are struggling to feed themselves and put food on the table, because of the UK Government’s pernicious policies. At the Wales Council Co-operative Party zoom meeting we said a fond farewell to our wonderful Deputy General Secretary and Wales Regional Officer of the Co-operative Party, Karen Wilkie after 26 years of dedicated service. Before the meeting, I delivered an engraved Welsh Slate plaque, a gift voucher (so that Karen can buy a pair of her favourite Doc Martin boots!) and a bunch of flowers to Karen’s neighbour. During our meeting Karen answered her door to her neighbour who gave Karen her surprise presents. Members of the Wales Council would have loved to have been there physically, but this was second best. To say that Karen was thrilled is a massive understatement, and we all wish her well for the future.
I was pleased to be able to speak in a Westminster Hall debate this week on the importance of the steel sector. Steel is a foundational sector across the UK and is particularly important in Neath Port Talbot county borough where the local economy depends on the supply chains that it creates. Port Talbot’s steelworks reaches all the surrounding communities and thousands of Neath constituents have worked there, know someone who works there, or work in its supply chain—my father did. To say it has been a difficult few years for the steelworkers in Neath Port Talbot would be an understatement. Competing in a global market, the absence of anti-dumping tariffs, the lifting of lesser duty rates and rising UK energy prices have conspired to create uncertainty and fear. Over 2,000 local jobs have been lost since 2014. Steel and the steel industry are vital to Wales and its economy. The idea that the steel sector does not have a future is unthinkable, but our steelworkers are as robust as the steel they make. They have bounced back from every adversity so far—but the situation is about to get much worse.
I recently signed a letter with colleagues to the UK Government on the recent Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate recommendations on the existing steel safeguards, which, if implemented, could be catastrophic for the UK steel sector. The lifting of safeguards would open up UK markets to trade diversion and have a negative impact on the remaining measures. The interconnected nature of UK steel means that a threat to one product category will have consequences for the others. This is the first major trading test for the UK in post-Brexit times, and the UK Government must establish a fair-trading environment for the UK steel industry and our communities. In contrast to their UK equivalents, the Welsh Labour Government has been standing up for steel, making an £8 million commitment to help secure a £30 million power plant at Port Talbot; offering £17 million of support for skills development; investing in energy efficiency; planning to reduce carbon emissions; and offering research and development funding for new product development. At critical times, the Welsh Labour Government has provided direct financial support to sites right across Wales, protecting our jobs and communities.
Labour’s chosen topic for one of last week’s Opposition Day Debates was the subject of the failures in the justice system. The backlog in the Crown Court is at record levels of more than 57,000 cases – and sat at 39,000 even before the pandemic began. The backlog has been exacerbated by the pandemic but it was created by the Conservatives closing half of all courts in England and Wales between 2010-19 and allowing 27,000 fewer sitting days than in 2016. Labour called for a package of emergency measures during the pandemic, including mass-testing in courts, the extension of Nightingale Courts, reduced juries until restrictions were lifted – all of which the UK Government ignored. Labour is now calling for a guaranteed 33,000 extra sitting days and more Nightingale Courts to clear the backlog. As a former barrister, I know how hard former colleagues have been working to continue supporting clients and how hard court staff have worked to keep the justice system afloat. A decade of underinvestment and undervaluing of the work that is done in the justice system has led to this crisis. A functioning and efficient legal system is vital to our democracy and to fairness. The UK Tory Government must put the investment into the justice system where it is needed most and fix this crisis so that once again, our legal system is a strong defender of justice and fairness.
As always, if you have any questions or issues that fall under my role as an MP and want to get in touch, please do not hesitate to drop us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01639 630152. My staff are working from home to comply with the social distancing measures, but, as always, we remain there should you need to get in contact with us.
I hope you stay well, and remember – observe social distancing, wash your hands regularly and keep Wales safe.