May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be here again today to debate the government’s fourth legislative programme.
When I last came here, just over a year ago, I made clear how committed I am to working closely with the Welsh Government, this Assembly and Welsh business to bring to Wales the infrastructure investment, the jobs, and the growth that are part of our long term economic plan.
And over the last year, that co-operation has delivered real results.
Work is progressing on Wylfa Newydd on Anglesey; we have confirmed a £212 million investment in a new prison in Wrexham; and today’s labour market figures confirmed that there are 10,000 more people in work in Wales than there were a year ago.
Delivering for Wales
As this will be the last Secretary of State’s address to this Assembly in this Parliament, I want to begin by reflecting on what this government has delivered for Wales since we took office.
We have delivered all the commitments in our programme for government specific to Wales, including:
- enabling the 2011 referendum on primary law-making powers for this Assembly. Since then 14 Acts of the Assembly have received Royal Assent
- establishing the Silk Commission which has now fulfilled its remit.
I would like to place on record once again, my thanks to Paul Silk and his commissioners for their diligence and hard work. We are of course presently legislating to implement the commission’s first set of recommendations.
We have also agreed with the Welsh Government a process to address any future convergence in funding levels between Wales and England.
These commitments demonstrate the government’s commitment to devolution and to making devolution work well. But they are only a part of the story.
By raising personal allowances, we are cutting income tax for over 1.2 million people in Wales - worth up to £805 a year by the end of this parliament - and by April next year we will have taken 155,000 people out of tax altogether.
We have cancelled the fuel duty rises planned by the last government, including the one planned for September this year, so that fuel is now 20 pence per litre cheaper for the owners of 1.75 million vehicles in Wales than it would otherwise have been.
We commenced delivery of our long-term economic plan in 2010 and we have stuck to it – a plan which is delivering jobs, investment and economic growth.
It is a plan that has replaced the debt-fuelled false prosperity of the last government with sustainable growth driven by the private sector, so that there are now more people in work in Wales than ever before.
This is a government that has delivered for Wales and which, through our ambitious fourth legislative programme outlined in the Queen’s Speech, continues to deliver for Wales.
This programme will continue the process of building a stronger economy and a fairer society.
We will strengthen the economy by giving small firms better access to finance, cutting more red tape, helping business expand overseas and by boosting investment in infrastructure.
The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill will help the 193,000 small firms in Wales by making it easier for them to obtain finance. It will provide fair access to the £230 billion spent in the UK each year in the form of public procurement contracts and increase the availability and sources of finance for businesses that want to invest. It will also set deregulation targets to reduce the red tape that continues to inhibit small business growth.
The private sector in Wales has already created 93,000 new jobs over the last four years but we recognise there is still more we can do to reduce the barriers that constrain the ability of businesses to start up, innovate and grow.
And to provide further help to businesses and their employees, we will simplify the payment of National Insurance for self-employed people through the National Insurance Contributions Bill and clamp down on those who avoid making payments on behalf of their workers.
Through the Infrastructure Bill we will increase investment in infrastructure and enhance the United Kingdom’s energy security and independence.
Subject to consultation, this Bill will support the development of gas and oil from shale and geothermal energy, potentially delivering the equivalent of up to 4 billion barrels of oil over the next 20 years. It will also introduce the right for communities to be offered the chance to buy a stake in new, commercial renewable schemes.
A key priority for the government will be to build an economy that rewards those who work hard. The Pensions Tax Bill will give much greater choice and flexibility for people at the point of retirement to decide how they spend or invest their pension savings.
The Private Pensions Bill will introduce innovation into the private pensions market, giving people saving for retirement the choice of joining collective schemes that pool risk between members.
By 2037, fully a quarter of the population of Wales will be over 65 - some 292,000 more people than there are now – and it is right that they should have as much choice as possible in how they save for retirement and how they access the benefits they have saved.
We are also continuing our work to build a fairer and safer society.
We will bring forward a Childcare Payments Bill to help working families with childcare costs, by giving support equivalent to basic tax relief up to a maximum of £2,000 a year for each child.
The Serious Crime Bill will give law enforcement agencies more powers to deal with serious and organised crime and to ensure that those who commit serious crime do not profit from those crimes. The Bill will also strengthen the protection of children by making it explicit that the offence of child cruelty includes cruelty which causes psychological harm.
The Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill will reform and strengthen the complaints system in our Armed Forces and will ensure that we are able to provide more assistance for the charities and benevolent organisations that give so much vital support to personnel in our armed forces.
The Modern Slavery Bill will strengthen the law to prevent slavery and human trafficking, and to improve support for victims of such crimes. The Bill will create an Anti-Slavery Commissioner to ensure a more co-ordinated response to law enforcement. Of course, Wales has its own Anti-Slavery Coordinator; we commend the creation of that office and are now working with the Welsh Government to explore how the provisions of this Bill will connect with that important role.
The Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill will ensure that the one million people in Wales who volunteer their time to help others and those that provide help in emergencies such as the floods that affected communities such as Aberystwyth and Colwyn Bay last winter are better protected in the event of legal action if anything goes wrong.
Through the Recall of Members of Parliament Bill we are introducing a mechanism by which MPs can be recalled in the event of serious wrongdoing. Whilst it is intended that this Bill will only apply to Members of Parliament, I have written to the Presiding Officer here asking for her views on whether a recall mechanism would be appropriate for Members of the Assembly.
My colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland has written in similar terms to the Scottish Parliament, and the responses we receive will help inform our approach to recall in the context of the devolved legislatures.
And finally, the Wales Bill will continue its parliamentary passage in the new session, delivering more powers over taxation and borrowing to this Assembly and the Welsh Ministers, and giving the Assembly the competence to determine its own budgetary procedures. I feel sure that you will welcome these powers and have no doubt you will exercise them wisely, to encourage more growth and prosperity in the Welsh economy.
Working with the Welsh Government
Many other Bills in the programme also have implications for Wales, and my office is working with other Whitehall departments to ensure that Welsh interests are fully taken into account as the legislation is developed.
We are a government that is committed to ensuring that devolution works, and we are fully engaged with the Welsh Government those Bills which touch on devolved matters.
And wherever Legislative Consent Motions may be needed, we will work with the Welsh Government to ensure its support.
Mr Deputy Presiding Officer, the government’s legislative programme builds on the work we have done since 2010 to deliver our long-term plan to build a stronger economy and a fairer society.
It is a programme which will benefit people in Wales, as it will people right across the United Kingdom.
It will help strengthen our Union and clearly shows the benefits we all derive from being part of a strong and United Kingdom.
It will continue the momentum of sustainable economic growth that we have seen over the last year, driven by a resurgent private sector.
This is a legislative programme that delivers for Wales and I commend it to you today.