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It is a great pleasure to follow the very assured maiden speeches of the hon. Members for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and for Wrexham (Sarah Atherton). I wish them well. As a fellow Welsh woman MP, may I say to the hon. Member for Wrexham that I very much look forward to her contribution to the annual St David’s Day Welsh debate, which will be held after recess? I am also sure that the all-party beer group will be extremely interested to hear the views of a brewster.
The headlines this week have been understandably dominated by the Government’s decision to move ahead with HS2. This will present not only new opportunities, but significant challenges for the Government in seeking to address the imbalance between the economies of the nations and regions of the UK. I will begin with the opportunities that have arisen, particularly as an hon. Member for a constituency and a city that produces steel and trains.
As Ministers will be aware, phases 1 and 2 of the HS2 project combined will require 2 million tonnes of steel, including for tracks, train components, bridges, tunnels, gantries, wire and more. That means there will be huge procurement opportunities for steel producers across the UK, including in south Wales. I hope that the Government will act to ensure that high-quality UK steel products are used for HS2 wherever possible. It is crucial that Ministers use this opportunity to give our steel industry the vote of confidence that it needs and deserves in extremely challenging times. I will re-emphasise that point to the Government with the members of the all-party group on steel, which I co-chair with Holly Mumby-Croft.
I also urge Ministers to look to Newport-based train builders CAF Rail UK to produce the trains that are needed for this major infrastructure project. Train production has been up and running at the site at Llanwern since 2018. I have been fortunate enough to visit the factory to see some of the exceptional units being built for West Midlands trains and Northern. The company has received great support and investment from the Welsh Labour Government and already employs a skilled workforce of around 250 people, which is set to grow to 300 in the near future. CAF has the potential and the capacity to produce trains that are at the cutting edge of modern rail technology and offer travel speeds of over 360 km an hour. That makes CAF a perfect fit for HS2, and winning the contract for this major project would be a real boost to our local economy, which has been hit hard recently by the sad news of job losses at Orb, Liberty, EnerSys and Caldicot Tinmasters.
HS2 provides new opportunities to be grasped and I will continue to raise the points that I have made today with Ministers over the weeks and months ahead. However, it is also important to highlight, as Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford rightly did this week, that the announcement to proceed with HS2 brings the Tory Government’s historical under-investment in Welsh rail infrastructure into sharp and unflattering focus. Wales accounts for 11% of the UK rail network, yet since 2010, we have received only 2% of rail enhancement spending. In the meantime, the UK Government have cancelled electrification to Swansea and blocked the Welsh Government from providing much needed additional cross-border services that would benefit my constituents who commute from Newport and Severn Tunnel Junction to Bristol. That disparity in investment needs to be addressed urgently if the Prime Minister’s pledge to “level up” the nations and regions of the UK is to be seen as anything other than grandstanding bluster. Wales has been the forgotten nation on rail infrastructure spending and this must end. We also need a new station for Magor and Undy and I pay tribute to the fabulous Magor rail group for its fantastic campaign. I hope that that progresses shortly.
In this end-of-term Adjournment debate, I will also touch on some other issues affecting my constituents. The system of claiming benefits through the special rules for terminal illnesses is still completely unfit for purpose. As Members across the House may be aware, those living with debilitating terminal conditions such as motor neurone disease still have to prove that they have a life expectancy of six months to access benefits. In the case of an unpredictable condition such as MND, that is almost impossible and it forces vulnerable people to spend the last months of their lives filling in lengthy forms, attending assessments, meeting work coaches and waiting months for payments. Equally degrading and cruel is the three-year benefit award, which means that anyone who lives with a condition like MND for over three years loses their benefits. That means that people who are extremely ill—in some cases, completely paralysed or unable to speak—are receiving letters telling them that their benefits are being stopped unless they make a new claim. We have to ask ourselves if this is the sort of country that we want to live in.
In July last year, the Government announced a review of the benefits system to support people who are terminally ill. Six months later, there is little sign of progress, other than the launch of a survey for clinicians and a claimants’ roundtable. The disruption of a general election may have played a part in the delay, but it is still taking far too long. We owe it to them, their families and everyone living with such awful diseases to reform a benefits system that is currently insulting and inhumane. The former Member for Bridgend, Madeleine Moon, did excellent work on this issue in the last Parliament and I intend to pursue it in this one.
I have also been contacted by constituents about the roll-out of the IR35 off-payroll tax. As hon. Members know, there are huge concerns about what that could mean for contractors around the country. Thousands of workers will be unfairly taxed as employees with no employment benefits, including sickness pay, holiday pay and maternity or paternity rights. During the general election, the then Chancellor promised a review of the IR35 legislation, but instead the Government have decided to go ahead with the off-payroll tax and have announced only a consultation on the implementation of the reforms. Just yesterday, contractors were in Parliament in numbers to protest and lobby. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jesse Norman , said in reply to a Treasury question that I asked this week that he was not aware of big companies making blanket decisions on IR35—yet I say to him that my Twitter feed says otherwise. Contractors rightly feel that the Government are not engaging with them about how they will be affected by these changes. Ministers need to listen now, which means pausing the process and working with the industry to undertake a proper review.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to take part in this debate. Like other honourable Welsh Members, I look forward to taking part in another debate in about two weeks’ time, and I wish everyone a productive recess.