St David's Day debate speech on Welsh Affairs

Welsh Affairs
3rd March 2022

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I join in the tributes to my hon. Friend Wayne David, who has announced his retirement at far too young an age? There is plenty of life left in him yet. I wish him and his partner Jayne well when, eventually, in some considerable time, perhaps in a couple of years, he stands down from the House. May I also extend that to you, Madam Deputy Speaker? With both you and my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly announcing your intention to leave the House at the next election, we will be poorer on these Benches in the future. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly is not leaving because in one of the last Welsh affairs debates I claimed the title of Tad y Tŷ—the Welsh Father of the House—as the longest serving Welsh Member of Parliament, having sneaked in before everybody else back in 2001 and taken my oath first of the Welsh intake at that time. I know it was dispiriting for all the other Welsh Members to suddenly realise that their hopes of ever being Tad y Tŷ were threatened by my claim to that title.

We meet to celebrate that patron saint of Wales and St David’s Day, and to discuss Welsh affairs, as we usually do each March. As I have said before, this should be a permanent fixture and we should not have to go to the Backbench Business Committee with a begging bowl to ask for this debate each year. As other Members have said, we meet at a time of great peril for Ukraine and for the world. I want to take this opportunity to express the solidarity of the people of my constituency, in Wales’s capital city, with the people of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and the whole of the Ukrainian people. Hon. Members may not be aware, although some will, that one of my predecessors had strong Ukrainian ties. In what can only be described as a temporary historical blip, the voters of Cardiff West broke habits that were decades old and returned a Conservative MP in 1983. I am afraid that the experiment was not a success and after four years they returned to Labour, and have done so ever since, to my considerable benefit. The name of the late Conservative MP for Cardiff West was Stefan Terlezki, who was born in what is now western Ukraine in 1927. I should make it clear that his politics and mine could hardly have been more different, but his extraordinary life story, where he was both enslaved by the Nazis and conscripted into the red army, from which he absconded, is a reminder of the suffering that the people of Ukraine have endured through war in their history. When Ukraine became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he warned of the dangers of maintaining overly close ties with Russia and pressed for Ukrainian membership of the European Union. We now see his fears being realised before our eyes.

Hon. Members also may not be aware of this Welsh connection with Ukraine, but we are learning more about Ukrainian history, perhaps for the first time. For example, the city of Donetsk in Ukraine owes its creation to a man from Merthyr Tydfil, John Hughes. Towards the end of the 19th century, he left the Welsh valleys to start a new life in what was then one of imperial Russia’s industrial centres. In 1869, Hughes, along with dozens of others, embarked on a daunting journey of more than 2,000 miles, boarding eight ships and heading eastwards, ultimately using the opportunity to set up a state-of-the-art steelworks and ironworks of his own in what is now Ukraine. He chose the Donbas region, because of its rich mineral deposits. As word reached the ears of skilled workers, engineers and managers back home, around the site there gradually grew up a thriving town of expatriate Welsh people, which was christened Hughesovka and later Yusovka. It had grown to a population of 50,000 by the turn of the 20th century, although its Welsh influence would come to an end with the Soviet revolution in 1917, after which it was renamed Stalino and later Donetsk. Today, there still remains one part of Donetsk known as Yusovka, and we, as Welsh MPs in the UK Parliament, send a message, across political parties, of solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

However, Wales is the focus of today’s debate and I wish to talk a little about Welsh leadership. The past two years of the covid pandemic have highlighted the issue of leadership and styles of leadership, providing a case study in different types of leadership at a Wales and a UK level. There is no doubt that the people of Wales have been glad to have had my friend and constituency colleague Mark Drakeford as First Minister during the past two years of the covid crisis. His thoughtful, serious and empathetic approach has provided a contrast with the shambolic, chaotic and irresponsible behaviour of the UK Prime Minister; while a bevy of drunken parties, in breach of the Government’s own regulations, were proceeding at the heart of the UK Government, in and around No. 10 Downing Street, the First Minister of Wales was devoting every ounce of his efforts and attention to protecting the Welsh people against the deadly virus, even taking the precaution of occupying a small separate building in his garden to avoid spreading it. Throughout, he was prepared to take difficult, potentially unpopular decisions for the good of the nation. In short, he was faithful to the facts, not a hostage to the headlines—that was the approach the UK Prime Minister, in his desperate desire to not upset the right-wing press, pursued.

We see further evidence of that compassionate leadership in Wales’s response to the Ukraine crisis. As I mentioned in an intervention, the First Minister has made it clear that Wales is proud to be a nation of refuge and has set aside £4 million from the Welsh Government’s own budget for financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. I still do not understand why the UK Government were content until recently to provide passports and privileges to Putin’s pals but are still refusing to waive visas for Putin’s Ukrainian victims in their desperate hour of need. The quality of that Welsh leadership has been reflected in the polls. In a recent poll, in January, in Wales, more than 1,000 people aged 16 and over were asked about leadership during the pandemic and the different approaches that were taken in Wales and England. They were asked which approach they preferred, and 60% preferred the Welsh approach, 17% preferred the English approach, 10% did not know and 13% expressed neither opinion. Other polls have shown that even voters in England preferred the Welsh approach to the covid crisis than the one that has been taken in England. We need to reflect on the whole issue of leadership and what it means, and I think that Mark Drakeford been an exemplar of good political leadership.

I also wish to mention the excellent leadership of Wales’s capital city, Cardiff, by council leader Huw Thomas and his Welsh Labour colleagues. During the pandemic they acted so that no one needed to go hungry, setting up an advice line, and co-ordinating with Cardiff food bank and delivering 13,271 food parcels. On refugees, Cardiff hosted one of the highest numbers of people seeking sanctuary per head of any local authority in the UK; 50% of all asylum seekers in Wales have been hosted in Cardiff in recent years, and the people of Cardiff have been generous in doing this. On the environment, Cardiff has been recognised by the Queen’s green canopy, the UK-wide tree planting initiative for the jubilee, as a champion city. Cardiff Council has planted more than 25,000 trees and started work to increase canopy cover from 19% to 25% of the city. This year, 16,000 trees will be planted in a single planting season.

On culture, the post-covid-lockdown “Live and Unlocked” music gigs at Cardiff castle last August, funded by the council and the Welsh Government and curated by grassroots venues and supporting performers, who have struggled during the pandemic, were a huge success. Successive Purple Flag awards for excellence in the night-time economy have been given to Cardiff since 2019, and £130 million of business support was distributed by the council during the pandemic. The council also adopted a new street-naming policy that I particularly welcomed using Welsh language names by default, with an expert panel proposing names that reflect local history and historic place names. Cardiff Council is working towards parity in the number of English versus Welsh language street names across the city.

That kind of leadership needs to be praised, and I hope that it will be added to at the forthcoming local elections in Wales in May by the candidates for Welsh Labour in my constituency, who I think will all make excellent councillors, including Jasmin Chowdhury, Stephen Cunnah and Susan Elsmore in Canton; Leo Thomson, Kanaya Singh and Caro Wild in Riverside; Peter Bradbury and Elaine Simmons in Caerau; Russell Goodway, Maliika Kaaba and Irene Humphreys in Ely; Laura Rochefort and Peter Jenkins in Llandaff; Helen Lloyd Jones and Tyrone Davies in Radyr; John Yarrow in Pentyrch; and Claudia Boes, Saleh Ahmed and Lorna Stabler in Fairwater. I believe that great leadership requires clear vision, integrity, the ability to see round corners and a willingness to take on difficult decisions. Both the Welsh Government and Cardiff Council have shown that.

I will move on to one final point: the pig-headedness of the Home Office post Brexit on certain issues, and its impact on the Welsh economy and, particularly, Welsh tourism and tourism across the UK. I refer in particular to school trips that are undertaken by children from member states of the European Union. I was formerly a chair of Cardiff castle when I was a member of the local authority in Cardiff. It is a wonderful centrepiece of our capital city, and was bequeathed to the city by the Marquess of Bute and the Bute family. It is a major tourist attraction in Wales and in the city of Cardiff, and a big attraction for coach parties of school children from the continent of Europe, particularly from France, Italy, Germany and other EU countries.

As a result of Brexit, the Home Office has decided that any child visiting the UK on a school trip has to have a full passport. Previously they need only have carried an identity card or some group identity passport. That was all that was required to participate in the school trip. As a result of that decision, it was reported in The Guardian at the end of last year—this evidence was confirmed by Bernard Donoghue, the chief executive of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, at a recent meeting of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee—that 80% of some travel companies’ customers are now going elsewhere than Wales, or the rest of the UK, as a result of the policy.

Craig Williams Conservative, Montgomeryshire
Would Welsh schoolchildren—British schoolchildren—going into the European Union Schengen area in the past couple of decades have got away with a driving licence, or would they have needed a passport to enter?

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
I took many school trips over, and they did not require a passport in order to travel because group travel arrangements can be made within the European Union.

Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)
My hon. Friend is making some really important points. The cultural differences around our country are also made great when we can travel to Europe. I had the great opportunity as a member of the national youth choir, orchestra and brass band of Wales to be able to tour Europe as a child. Artists and musicians are now struggling to tour across Europe because of the visa issue. That point desperately needs to be raised for our choirs, brass bands and orchestras.

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
My hon. Friend and I have raised that point many times in this House, but I want to get to the nub of the issue. This policy is a choice, not a requirement, by the Home Office. It is a choice that is causing significant damage to British business and to our ability to attract these kinds of school trip tours to our country, and it is affecting our visitor attractions. When the Home Office is asked why it is pursuing this particular policy, the answer that it has given to organisations such as the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions is that that is what people voted for in the Brexit referendum. It has a point; I remember seeing that bus, on the side of which was written: “No more French schoolchildren coming to visit our country!” Is that what people really voted for in the Brexit referendum—no more French schoolchildren absconding and taking our jobs; no 12-year-olds stealing British jobs? The Home Office has adopted a ludicrous position, which it needs to revisit urgently.

David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point that tourism is a vital industry in Wales, especially in north Wales and not least in my constituency. My tourism operator constituents are terrifically concerned about the prospect of a tourism tax in Wales, which the Welsh Government seem to think is a really good idea. Does he think it is a good idea too?

Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West
It is a great distraction technique to try to stop me when I was reaching my peroration. It is absolutely irrelevant to the point that I am making. My view has always been, and I have made it absolutely clear, that those sorts of things should be decided locally. People should have the option to decide how best to handle their tourism funding at a local level. That has always been my view, and I would have thought that it is a view that might fit in with Conservative philosophy, rather than centralising everything.

To return to the point that I was making about visitors to Wales, as a result of the policy, as I have said, there has been a significant reduction. It will have a huge impact if we do not have schoolchildren from Europe visiting. As a former teacher, if I had a class of schoolchildren some of whom had a full passport and some of whom had only an identity card, I would do the same as continental schoolteachers are doing now: I would not bring my class, because I would not deprive some of an opportunity to visit while allowing others to take it up, and neither would any teacher worth their salt. Whenever we took a school trip, if someone could not afford it we ensured that, somehow or other, the funds were put together quietly behind the scenes to allow that child to travel. This is a ludicrous example of Lord Frost’s pig-headed Brexit dogma, and it should be stopped. The Home Office should reverse the policy so that children can come and visit Cardiff castle again, and we can have the joy of seeing them on the streets of our capital city.