Welsh Questions: "An extraordinary thing has happened"

The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness appears to have arrived at Westminster, and with it a first chance in three months for MPs to question the secretary of state for Wales.

The subjects were familiar. Both the Conservatives and Labour wanted to talk about the economy; Labour also wanted to highlight the impact of cuts in housing benefit. Plaid Cymru focused on constitutional change and the Barnett formula and the three Welsh Liberal Democrats, er, stayed silent. (Jenny Willott was there but as a whip stayed silent, Roger Williams and Mark Williams were in their constituencies).

The vocabulary was equally familiar and if your Welsh questions bingo card contained "savage cuts" (Peter Hain), "(Barnett) consequentials" (Elfyn Llwyd) and "in due course" (David Jones, inevitably) you may have had a full house before noon.

Mr Llwyd wanted to know why Wales won't get a share of the £42bn HS2 rail project spending in England. The answer was the same as before the summer recess - it's deemed to be of UK importance and will benefit Wales.

"In due course" was the latest guidance offered by David Jones on the timing of the UK government's response to that Silk commission report suggesting Wales should get the power to vary some taxes.

Welsh political anoraks will recognise this phrase as the same one offered by Mr Jones when asked the same question in July or indeed in November last year. Mr Jones put the delay down to the consultation on the devolution of stamp duty land tax, consultation on which ended one month ago tomorrow.

The liveliest exchanges came over changes to housing benefit, what the UK government calls the abolition of the "spare room subsidy" and its opponents call "the bedroom tax".

Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith asked Wales Office Minister (and Whip) Stephen Crabb:

"Will he confirm for the record whether, according to the government's own figures, Wales is hit harder than anywhere else in the UK? As he mentioned the disabled, will he tell us how many disabled households in Wales are hit by the bedroom tax?"

Stephen Crabb: "We have had this question before. Wales is not hit harder—to use the hon. Gentleman's terminology—than other parts of the United Kingdom. What is remarkable is that he still clings to the mythical economics of plan B. More than anybody else in the opposition, he argues for more spending, more borrowing and more debt, all of which is a road to poverty for people in Wales."

Owen Smith: "The government's own impact assessment states that 46% of households in social housing in Wales have been hit by the bedroom tax, which is a higher proportion than anywhere else in Britain. Those are the government's own numbers. The bedroom tax will also hit 25,000 disabled families. "

Mr Crabb said the UK government was making more than £7m extra to Wales for discretionary housing benefits: "We recognise that it is a challenge and a difficult period for people going through our changes to housing benefit, but we are supporting local authorities in Wales to help Welsh people through that transition."

That didn't satisfy Mr Smith, who later rushed out a press release accusing the minister of getting his facts wrong. He said the DWP's own impact assessment (see page 10) suggested a higher proportion of households in social housing in Wales would lose out than in Britain (31%).

I put Mr Smith's argument to the Wales Office, which declined to comment.

A few minutes later, question time ended with Speaker John Bercow's summing up: "An extraordinary thing has happened. The appetite for interrogation of hon. and right hon. Members seems to have dried up. We have completed all the questions and we have had the answers."

Messrs Jones, Crabb, Smith and Llwyd will be back next month, or in due course, as the Wales Office calendar might put it.