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Volume 895: debated on Monday 7 July 1975

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Housing Subsidies


asked the Secretary of State for Wales what is the latest available estimate of the cost to the central Government of (a) construction of new local authority housing in Wales, and (b) the repairs and maintenance of local authority housing in Wales for the current financial year; and how these figures compare with corresponding ones for 1974–75.

£21·98 million is to be provided by the Welsh Office towards the cost of construction of new local authority housing in 1975–76. The Housing Rents and Subsidies Act 1975 does not provide for subsidising repairs and maintenance incurred in 1975–76.

For 1974–75 central Government housing subsidies, for local authority new house construction and repairs and maintenance, are estimated at about £17 million. It is not possible to apportion this between the two headings.

Is the Minister aware that there are considerable misgivings in many parts of Wales about a cut-back in the amount of money available for the maintenance and repair of council properties, and that in my constituency this has had, a severe effect on schemes that were to go ahead? Can he assure us that if a cutback has to take place at all, it will be no greater than the 17 per cent. cutback referred to by the Secretary of State on 16th June in a debate on housing, and that every effort will be made to ensure that the areas that most need the money will get the money that is available?

The problem of improving old houses which have been acquired by local authorities is a considerable one which causes concern throughout Wales, to my right hon. and learned Friend and to myself. One reason why the circular was issued was to enable us to stop the present position, to examine it and to see what we can do to improve the especially difficult areas.

Can the Minister tell us whether the figure for new houses constructed includes houses which were originally intended to be for private ownership and which have been acquired by various authorities? If so, can he tell us whether those are broadly on the same price levels or cost the same to local authorities as those which they plan in the normal way?

No. The £21·9 million is the amount provided for the cost of construction of new houses.

Can the Minister assure us that the £21·9 million will result in the Government reaching their target for housing construction? Is he aware that the housing situation is now desperate and that complaints are coming in from all parts of the Principality?

I am certainly aware of the housing problem in Wales. Perhaps the best reply I can give to the hon. Gentleman is to indicate to him that public sector starts for the first four months of 1975 were 3,398, which is a considerable improvement on the corresponding period last year when only 1,979 were started. If the Conservative Party, when in office had done a little more, we might not be in such a bad situation as we are today.

European Community


asked the Secretary of State for Wales how his policies for Wales will be affected by the results of the referendum.

I shall continue to do my utmost to ensure that Wales derives maximum benefit from our continued membership of the Community.

In view of the serious economic situation of the country, can the Secretary of State give an assurance that the Welsh Development Agency and the Welsh Assembly proposals will not be shelved until 1980 or later?

Without going into detail at this stage, can my right hon. and learned Friend give the House an assurance that he has officials who are constantly working and studying the position to ensure that Wales derives the maximum benefit by way of grants and loans from all the Community funds? Moreover, against the background of our present economic difficulties does he agree that this is more important than ever before?

Yes. I immediately reassure my right hon. Friend that the other day the Commission made it clear that allegations that we were not getting what was due to us were wholly unfounded. Indeed, my officials are constantly travelling between Britain and Brussels. There is one there today and he will also be there tomorrow. He was also there last Monday and Tuesday. Two senior officials were in Brussels on 18th and 19th June and further visits are being arranged.

Will the Secretary of State urge his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to reject completely Mr. Lardinois' milk policy, which would be especially disastrous for Welsh farmers and would involve a cut-back for winter milk? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman also aware that this would mean that Welsh farmers will have paid a crippling price for continued membership of the Common Market?

I take note of the hon. Gentleman's remarks and I shall certainly convey them to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who I am sure will do his utmost to ensure that Welsh agriculture is fully, properly and adequately protected.

Is the Secretary of State aware that many Welsh farmers market their sheep and lambs in Oswestry Market? Is he further aware of the importance of sheep and lambs in the rural economy of Wales? In the light of that, will he take this opportunity to indicate to the House what are the main desirable characteristics he would like to see written into the Community regime that is promised for sheep?

There is no need for me to tell the hon. Gentleman that I am deeply conscious, for family reasons, of the importance of Oswestry as a marketing centre. I assure him that in due course my right hon. Friend will be making a statement to the House and representations on the very subject about which he has spoken.


asked the Secretary of State for Wales in what ways Wales is to be represented in the institutions of the EEC.

The interests of Wales, which is part of the United Kingdom, are fully safeguarded through our membership of the Community.

Is the Secretary of State aware that his reply is totally unsatisfactory, especially in view of the fact that small countries in Europe, like Denmark, Ireland and even Luxembourg, have permanent representation in the institutions of the EEC, members in the Council of Ministers and the Commission and an adequate quota of members in the important committees, such as the Economic and Social Affairs Committee? Is he aware that Ireland has 10 members in the European Parliament and Luxembourg has six while Wales has none? Does he not accept that this is due to the fact that those countries have full national status, and will he join with us in pressing for full national status for Wales?

My statement may be unacceptable to the hon. Gentleman but I am sure it is not unacceptable to the people of Wales. The hon. Gentleman's remarks amounted to a demand for separation and an independent Wales. The other countries he mentioned are separate and independent. The last time this matter was put to the test in Wales, his party received the votes of only 10·7 per cent. of the electorate, and that figure went down marginally in three successive General Elections.

Why has the Welsh Office no officials on the United Kingdom delegation in Brussels when there are officials from other Government Departments?

In the post-referendum period I am anxious to ensure that we improve the contacts which already exist between the whole of the United Kingdom, particularly Wales, and Brussels. This is a matter which I shall consider. I want to emphasise that my officials are in Brussels this week, were there last week and have been there in recent months. There is a constant interchange between my officials and various departments in Brussels.

School Leavers (Employment)


asked the Secretary of States for Wales what projects he proposes to initiate under the special powers now available to him in order to provide useful occupation for school leavers who are unable to find employment at the present time.

The powers my right hon. and learned Friend has assumed under the Industry Act 1972 do not enable him to initiate such schemes. However, we will use these powers to the full to create new employment opportunities generally, thereby increasing the jobs available for school leavers.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the number of unemployed school leavers has reached an unacceptably high level even before the end of the school year? What is the outlook for school leavers who will be leaving in the next few days for finding a reasonable job? Is this what the Labour Party meant when it talked about getting Britain back to work? Is it not time that the Secretary of State admitted that the number of unemployed now and the even greater number to be expected next year are due solely to the failure of this Government to tackle the problem of inflation by telling the people that unless they accept a cut in their living standards now they will be without a job next year?

The hon. Gentleman is scraping the barrel on this one. I stress that the Government inherited a miserably stagnated economy from the previous administration and that the Government are currently engaged on the major issue of organising a strategy to defeat inflation.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's own locality, I looked at the figures relating to North-East Wales. They are not good enough. The present Government regard unemployment as something to be defeated and they will take every measure possible to do so—for example, the Community Industry Scheme, the contingency plans of the Training Services Agency and the Training Award Scheme. These are schemes announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and they are making a positive contribution to getting rid of school-leaving unemployment.

Will my hon. Friend, together with the Department of Employment, direct attention to the decline in the number of apprenticeships in Wales, particularly in the construction and engineering industries in the present recession, so that this country will be prepared for the expected upturn in the economy when it occurs?

Yes, I can take that on board. I have mentioned the Training Award Scheme. This is designed to keep the young off the streets and out of the dole queue by, for example, giving a £15 a week tax-free grant so that youngsters can have an apprenticeship training scheme for one year.

If I may take up that last point, is the Under-Secretary aware that in 1972 his fellow Under-Secretary said that he felt especially strongly about school leavers and in the course of a debate put forward specific proposals designed to deal with that situation, and that that was at a time when unemployment was lower than it is now? Will the hon. Gentleman assure me that he will take up those proposals? Does he share the view that his hon. Friend expressed at that time that the unemployment figures are an absolute condemnation of the Government and of their policy?

I have already outlined the way in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment intends to tackle the problem in Wales with regard to school-leaving unemployment. As for the hon. Gentleman's quotation of a remark by a colleague of mine, the record of the previous administration in 1972 was a miserable one.

Local Authority Mortgages


asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the present position with regard to the granting of local authority mortgages within Wales.

My right hon. and learned Friend has suspended local authority mortgage lending for the time being. This and the withdrawal of the general consent to acquire dwellings will enable us to reassess expenditure levels in the housing budget and make any necessary adjustments in the light of the overall housing expenditure situation.

Is my hon. Friend aware that a continuation of this suspension will have a most devastating effect on housing stress, particularly in our older industrial areas, because authorities like my own in Swansea have directed mortgages at the older terrace-type property which building societies will not touch? Therefore, will my hon. Friend try to make this suspension as brief as possible, relax it early and, more particularly, initiate discussions with building societies in Wales in the hope that some building society funds can be channelled into this sector which currently the building societies will not enter?

I assure my hon. Friend that I appreciate that local authority mortgage lending is a very necessary service in Wales, particularly in older industrial areas like his and the constituency that I represent. We hope that the suspensions need last for only a short while to enable us to know exactly how much money has been committed to this sector The problem facing us is that we do not know how much money has been committed to this sphere.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning the building societies. I am already arranging to have discussions to see whether building societies can advance money in areas which up to now they have sought to avoid.

Did the Minister actually say that the Government were not aware of the amount of money spent in this sector? Is he aware that what his hon. Friend just said makes one wonder why the Government persist in allowing councils to proceed to purchase enormous numbers of privately-built houses?

I said "committed". I followed the pattern followed by the previous Government. On this question of mortgage lending, we are not in a position to know exactly how much local authorities have committed to this purpose. If we intend, as I believe we should, to allocate our finance to the areas of greatest need, it is essential for us to know the individual commitments of each local authority in Wales.

Is the Under-Secretary aware—I am sure that representing Rhondda he is—of the great discrepancy between the percentage of owner-occupiers in many parts of Wales and the pattern that may be prevalent in the London area and most of England? For that reason, will he press that we should have policies that respond to these different circumstances, particularly in this instance, so that money can be available for mortgages through the councils for older houses which cannot get money from building societies rather than that all the money is piled up on new housing projects when there may not be land in many parts of Wales for such projects?

It is because we are aware of that point and of the essential differences between the housing needs of Wales and those of England that the policies for Wales do not follow the pattern in England. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that my right hon. Friend responsible for housing in England transferred one-third of the money available for this sort of purpose from home loan mortgages to improvements. We do not believe that this is necessarily the right thing to do for Wales.

Employment (Gwynedd)


asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he is aware of the threat to the employment of road workers and Crosville employees in Gwynedd; and what steps he proposes to take to alleviate the situation.

I am aware of these difficulties in the council's area, but I understand that no formal decisions on job losses have yet been taken.

Bearing in mind that Gwynedd is the fourth highest rated county in England and Wales and that it is therefore contributing very considerably from local resources, is it not clear that the transport grant and the rate support grant for Gwynedd are totally inadequate?

We have had this discussion in the course of the year. The rate support grant for Wales and for Gwynedd is very high. Having regard to the particular point of the transport supplementary grant, which is perhaps of more immediate concern to the hon. Gentleman, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport has already told local authorities that in our consideration of the allocation of this grant for 1976–77 priority will be given to proposals to provide or maintain minimum public transport services in less densely populated areas. I hope that this will be welcomed by the hon. Gentleman.

Does not the Secretary of State realise that the statement which he has just made is totally unacceptable to the people of Gwynedd for the coming year, since workers on road schemes in Gwynedd and those employed by the bus companies will be made redundant this year and money next year or the year after will be too late for many of them? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman understand that the increase in rate support grant for Gwynedd which he announced before Christmas, which was 4 per cent. or 5 per cent. below the average increase for England and Wales, was unsatisfactory and insufficient and that something must be done to prevent the redundancies which are now facing our county?

The hon. Gentleman must be aware that the planning of transport services and the allocation of resources within Gwynedd is a matter for Gwynedd itself. I certainly do not accept the hon. Gentleman's statement, but I say to him, as I have said before—I do not have the exact figures here with me—that the higher proportion of general rate support grant to Wales in relation to that for England includes the figure for Gwynedd itself, which is very high, probably one of the highest in Wales.

Will the Secretary of State agree to look again at the whole problem of our rural counties with above-average road mileages to maintain?

I am always ready to look in relation to future years at the possibility of increasing whatever resources are available in order to ensure that those in greatest need have as adequate access to public finance as is possible. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is now advocating an increase in public expenditure. If he is, perhaps he will make his position clear.

Schools (Truancy)


asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he will institute an inquiry into the problem of truancy in Welsh schools.

A departmental working group has already reported to my right hon. and learned Friend on absenteeism from the schools of Wales. The Welsh Joint Education Committee, teachers' associations and others are now being consulted about this report, which deals with truancy as well as other forms of absenteeism.

Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the truancy statistics which seem to have shocked the journalists came as no surprise whatever to masters and mistresses in Welsh comprehensive schools? Will he now try to ascertain the cause of truancy, and will he look at the raising of the school leaving age to see whether that is a major cause?

I recognise the seriousness of the figures shown in the report. I regard truancy as a distress call and as a missed opportunity to prepare oneself for life. There is no complacency whatever in the Welsh Office on this matter. We shall treat it with urgency and consult widely, returning to the House with measures to get rid of the bad figures which presently exist.

In view of the anxious concern expressed by many experienced teachers in many parts of Wales, especially in the pressure areas, the larger urban conurbations and so on, can the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that his right hon. and learned Friend and all who are involved in the Welsh Office will treat this matter with the utmost urgency with a view to examining and implementing this report at the earliest possible date?

I give that assurance. I can tell the hon. Gentleman also that the South Glamorgan local education authority has itself, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Social Services, initiated a study, and I am awaiting that report as well. I am fully apprised of the correlation between urban areas and high rates of truancy. Finally, I must stress the extreme importance of the contribution that parents can make in this matter.

Road Programme


asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he will list his current order of priority for schemes in the Welsh road building programme in the light of reduced public expenditure.

We are giving priority to the M4 motorway and Britannia Bridge schemes. The order of priority of other schemes is being reviewed.

I am a little perturbed by that reply, notwithstanding my personal interest in the M4 motorway. Against the background of questions about the road programme in Gwynedd and the rural areas, will my hon. Friend give a categorical assurance that the resources which are available for road building will be spread equitably throughout the whole of Wales and not be concentrated on one or two schemes?

Our overall priority in the short term is completion of the M4 motorway. Thereafter, such resources as are available—or the majority of them—will be switched to the A55. I stress again that the Britannia Bridge project is to go ahead. Moreover, throughout Wales schemes under £1 million will also go ahead.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the fairly extensive improvements which are now taking place on the English side of the border on roads into North Wales, coupled with the total failure so far to make further progress with the improvement of the A55, will make the traffic problem along the A55 very much worse in a year or so as the larger flow of traffic comes sweeping into North Wales to meet the congestion which it will there encounter?

I take the point which the hon. Gentleman made in his opening words, but I think that he exaggerates the problem in relation to the A55, because there have recently been some very good improvement schemes there.

May I, on behalf of West Wales, pay tribute to the Secretary of State for his achievement in preserving the priority of the M4, which is the key to our industrial development?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I recollect that he himself made a contribution in that respect in an Adjournment debate on the M4 in April.

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that between 1966 and 1970 the then Labour Government in successive years reduced expenditure on Welsh roads, at a time when they were increasing expenditure on roads in England by no less than 150 per cent.? Will the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and learned Friend do their utmost in these circumstances to resist any major cuts on Welsh roads at present?

The Government's record here is good. We are well aware of the need for good road communications in Wales, especially with reference to the need to safeguard and enhance the provision of jobs.

Opencast Mining


asked the Secretary of State for Wales what discussions have taken place between his Department and the National Coal Board relating to the environmental aspects of opencast mining in South Wales; and whether he will make a statement.

Both under the Opencast Coal Act 1958 and under the Countryside Act 1968 there are obligations on the National Coal Board and the Government to have regard to environmental issues in dealing with opencast proposals. This is a matter to which we shall give close attention when we are consulted.

In view of the likelihood of our entire energy programme being modified by North Sea oil, is it not time that greater weight was given to the environmental disasters which this type of mining precipitates in South Wales? Will the Minister give an assurance that if the National Coal Board proceeds with its present proposals at Abersychan, which would ravage our eastern valley, and if the Torfaen council objects, a public inquiry will be held at which the people of Abersychan will be able to demonstrate and explain their unremitting hostility to the present proposals?

I give an assurance that if the National Coal Board makes application for this sort of development at Abersychan and there are objections by Torfaen or by the county council, a public local inquiry will be necessary and will be held. Moreover, such an inquiry would be necessary if there were a substantial volume of objection from other sources as well.

Unemployed Persons


asked the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received about the increase in the number of unemployed in Wales, and the fewer job vacancies now available in the Principality.

The Welsh Council has expressed its concern to me, and I am aware of the concern of many other organisations in Wales.

Does the Secretary of State recall that he and his colleagues used to assail Conservative Governments month in and month out, and year in and year out, over a very long time when there were far fewer unemployed than there are at present and many more vacancies? Can he imagine the sort of outcry there would have been if a Conservative Government had published such dismal statistics as his Government recently published?

Certainly, we face a serious situation, and the hon. Gentleman is right to recognise that. I am confident that the measures indicated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week will ensure that we tackle the serious problems which face us all—problems about which I warned the House on the first Welsh day last year, when I said that things would get worse before they got better, in view of our inheritance from the previous Government.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we have recently lost a major industrial project which would have given us many jobs in Caernarvon? Is he aware that there were two main reasons, inadequate road network and the cost of water? Is he further aware that there has been an astronomical increase in the cost of water for industry and did he know that a firm in my constituency, Bryncir Woollen Mills, last year paid £54 for water and this year has received a bill for £17,000? In the light of that sort of proposed increase and the effect it has on employment, can the Secretary of State say when he expects to be able to announce the findings of the Daniel Committee?

The Conservative Party set up the Welsh Water Authority and the present board operates under the same Act. It might have been as well if the hon. Member had remembered this when he supported the main Opposition on Thursday in attempting to defeat the Government on the Industry Bill.

Does the Secretary of State think that because he warned of dangers, that is an excuse for the present situation? Does he recall that in 1972 he said that Wales would not tolerate a level of unemployment which was a good deal lower than it is now? Does he think that the people of Wales will tolerate that level because it has been caused by the policies of his Government?

The unemployment figures are grave. I do not, and never have attempted to, minimise the gravity of the situation. Measures are being taken to tackle inflation and I hope that they will be supported by all hon. Members.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) made a very serious charge when he said that a major industry had failed to come to North Wales? I think he was referring to Glaxo, Can my right hon. and learned Friend look at this matter and perhaps talk to the firm's chairman and directors and find out why it failed to come to this area of high unemployment?

I will do that. This issue arose before I took over certain industrial powers on 1st July, but it is right to examine cases where industry is lost. No one is more aware than I of the inadequate road communications in North Wales, but I think it is right to concentrate on certain priorities and get one job properly done at a time to avoid the pepperpot road pattern which exists throughout North and South Wales.

Economic Policy


asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he will ask the Welsh Council to report on the impact of the Government's economic policies on the Welsh economy.

The council discussed these issues at its meeting on 12th May and the chairman subsequently wrote to me. I met a deputation from the council on 30th June for further discussions.

Having achieved simultaneously through his policies the highest level of unemployment in Wales for 35 years and a record rate of inflation, does the Secretary of State now expect that his policies will cause unemployment to rise or fall in the coming months?

I think it is right to expect unemployment to rise in the coming months.

M4 Motorway


asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he will give the latest estimated date for the completion of the M4 motorway; and if he will make a statement.

About 30 miles should be under construction by the end of the year, and most of the motorway should be completed by the end of 1977, but the Bridgend Northern bypass and the Castleton-Coryton sections are unlikely to be finished before late 1979. The section between Baglan and Lonlas is in the initial stages of preparation and it is too early to forecast a completion date.

Is the Minister aware that there is a cynical view in South Wales that this completion date is for ever receding into the distance? When may we expect the results and findings of the inquiry into the section bypassing Cardiff?

I think that the hon. Gentleman's cynicism is a little misplaced. The inspector's report on the Castleton to Coryton section has been received by my Department.

Does the Under-Secretary agree that the date has slipped back under successive Governments and that it is disappointing that it is now even later? Can he give us any date for the completion of the extension work on the Carmarthen bypass and the dual carriageway to St. Clears, which is of equal importance to my constituency and to developments which may take place in the Celtic Sea?

I take on board the importance of any development in the Celtic Sea. We envisage the terminal point of the M4 at Pont Abraham and a much improved road to St. Clears on the A40 and A48.