Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:24 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Humphreys Baroness Humphreys Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales) 9:24 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate today in response to the devolved issues raised in the gracious Speech. From the outset, I express profound disappointment at the lack of detail about future policies relating to our communities, families and economy in Wales. This is a Brexit programme for government following the Brexit general election, which produced no mandate in Wales for the Conservative manifesto. Although the manifesto made no specific legislative proposals for Wales, it made some specific commitments. Would the Minister care to comment on these?

Little has been heard since the election on the general principle of improving infrastructure in Wales. For many there will be dismay that projects such as the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon did not even appear in the manifesto, and the electrification of main lines appears to have slipped off the Government’s priority list. The worry for many of us is that the lack of reference to Wales in the Queen’s Speech engenders a feeling that Wales is continuing to be ignored and that important decisions for Wales are likely to be kicked into the long grass.

The Conservative manifesto committed to investing in an improved infrastructure for Wales, in particular to modernising our railways. Will the Minister assure me that this commitment has not been dropped and that we can be assured that it will go ahead? The Welsh Government have already developed business cases for major rail infrastructure investments, including Cardiff valleys electrification and, more recently, north Wales main line electrification, and has submitted these to the Department for Transport. On behalf of my fellow users of the north Wales main line and all other routes in Wales, I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on the present status of these projects and the level of UK funding available for them.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have campaigned for many years for the abolishment of tolls for vehicles using the Severn crossings. We are pleased to see this committed to in the Conservative manifesto. I hope the noble Lord will be able to confirm that this is still the case.

The Minister will also be aware of the strong support across Wales for the Welsh language broadcaster S4C. There is widespread appreciation for the success it and Radio Cymru have achieved in meeting the demands of providing Welsh language broadcasting to satisfy a wide variety of viewers and listeners. I would appreciate an indication from the Minister of present government thinking on future funding.

On a related matter, I was interested to read recently that the DUP’s Arlene Foster is reported to have said on the possibility of an Irish language Act:

“If you feed a crocodile, it will keep coming back … for more”.

With plans for an Irish language Act apparently on the table at Stormont, I now suspect that the prospect of a £1 billion inducement will soon convince Mrs Foster that this particular crocodile has a pretty harmless appetite. Experience in Wales has shown that bilingualism brings many benefits in its wake and that there is nothing to fear.

As I said, the gracious Speech is a Brexit programme of work, but it does little to clarify what Brexit means, particularly in Wales. It leaves farmers in Wales still unclear about funding after 2020—funding that would enable them to plan investment in their businesses. It perpetuates their concerns about loss of access to the single market and the customs union, the importance of which to Wales has already been highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy. As their understanding of World Trade Organization rules increases, so farmers’ concerns in Wales about the imposition of average tariffs of 22% on their produce also grows. However, I welcome the inclusion in the gracious Speech of an agriculture Bill to set up a system to replace the common agricultural policy.

The gracious Speech leaves councils in west Wales and the valleys unclear about funding, too. With a GDP at 75% per capita of the EU average, on a par with Estonia and Lithuania, this part of Wales has qualified for EU structural funds since 2000. As with our farmers, 2020 looms as a cliff edge for structural funding. In two and a half years’ time, farmers will need security to continue their businesses. Councils need to be able to plan to continue to build the infrastructure to enable us to grow our economy, but still there appear to be no guarantees from the Government. However, now that we know that the magic money tree has been found and it really does exist, perhaps all my funding fears for Wales are unfounded.