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Wales

Volume 81: debated on Monday 17 June 1985

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Housing Starts

1.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales what is the figure for housing starts in the public sector in Wales for the first quarter of 1985.

Four hundred and twenty-three public sector starts were reported for the first quarter of 1985.

Is the Minister aware that his reply will not bring much comfort or hope to the homeless and the ill-housed in Wales? Will he give figures for public sector housing starts in Brecon and Radnor? Will he also give the figures for that area and for Wales as a whole in the same quarter of 1979?

I cannot give a precise answer about Brecon and Radnor, but if the hon. Gentleman tables a question I shall try to answer it. The majority of local authorities are spending the greater part of their money on renovating houses. That is one reason why they are not spending on new building.

Is the Department encouraging authorities to make provision for the elderly and the disabled and for others with special needs?

Local authorities are concentrating on building for people in special need, but their priority at present remains the renovation of existing stock, both public and private. Under this Government about £500 million has been spent on renovation. The number of homeless has not increased as some Opposition Members seem to suggest.

When will the Minister recognise that the only steps taken by the Government in this vital matter have been negative, such as imposing VAT on home improvements and reducing the amount that local authorities may spend out of receipts from the sale of council houses? How can the Minister be a party to such decisions when housing in Wales is deteriorating so badly, as the Welsh media have vividly illustrated in recent weeks?

Although public sector starts are only 6 per cent. up on last year, I am glad to say that private sector starts are about 25 per cent. up on the same period last year. I am also glad to say that 1,631 starts were made in the relevant quarter.

Will my hon. Friend welcome the statement, quoted recently in the Western Mail by Mr. Lewis of the House-Builders Federation in Wales, drawing attention to the significant upturn in house building starts and to the fact that 3,000 extra jobs could result from it?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The private sector is taking the lead in meeting the demand for new housing, and there is considerable demand. We particularly need housing for executives if we are to attract industry to Wales, but there is also considerable activity by the housing associations, which are responsible for more than half the public sector starts to which I have referred.

The Minister, with his usual brilliance, has anticipated my question. Will he itemise the number of housing association starts? How does that figure compare with what the housing associations have told him they could do?

The total number of completions by the Housing Corporation and housing associations under this Government is about 10,000. Housing starts in the first quarter were about 200 by local authorities and 200-odd by housing associations.

Land Authority For Wales

2.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he will review the functions of the Land Authority for Wales.

A review of the functions of the Land Authority for Wales is scheduled to start in September 1986 as part of my Department's regular programme for the review of non-departmental public bodies.

During this review will my hon. Friend look carefully at the Land Authority's functions in relation to developments which are disputable and may be in conflict with the county structure plan? Does he accept that the real job of the Land Authority for Wales is to enable complex developments, such as urban centres in Cardiff and north Wales, to go ahead, and that it has no business helping to despoil the countryside?

The review will cover all aspects of the authority's operations, but at this stage I see no objection in principle to its involvement in green field sites.

Colliery Closures

3.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales when he last met the chairman of the National Coal Board to discuss colliery closures.

I met the chairman on 9 May and discussed a range of matters relating to the coal industry in Wales.

That answer is typical of the Secretary of State's lethargic attitude. Is he not aware that, in all probability because of such an attitude, the Labour party is forging ahead in the Brecon and Radnor by-election and that it now has an 8 per cent. lead? Is he also aware that since the Government were elected in 1979, in my constituency alone there has been the closure of the Caerau and Coegnant collieries as well as the Wyndham/Western colliery last January? The St. John's colliery in Maesteg is now threatened with closure as a result of the right hon. Gentleman's attitude and the fact that he condones the attitude of the chairman of the NCB. What is the right hon. Gentleman really doing to try to save jobs in Wales? That is what Labour Members want to know.

Before the coal strike began, which the hon. Gentleman encouraged throughout, deep mine losses in south Wales were around £95 million a year. It looks as though last year's losses have almost doubled to £160 million. Therefore, miners have thrown away the equivalent cost of the new Margam mine. It is hardly surprising that the amount of investment one that would like to see in the coal industry is less than it could be because of that strike encouraged by the hon. Gentleman.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that had Scargill's political strike not taken place, some of the Welsh collieries would not have been closed and the coal industry would have been financially better off? However, because of that 12-month political strike, some of those collieries must now close and production has been disrupted. People have been turned against people, neighbours against neighbours and families against families simply because of this political strike.

I have already pointed out that the strike added greatly to the area coal board's losses and directly resulted in a number of faces being lost, which will not be re-opened.

Did the right hon. Gentleman see the headline in The Times on Saturday stating:

"Miners face £10 million benefit loss"?
How much of that figure relates to Welsh miners, and will he discuss this matter with the NCB chairman? Is it not deplorable that there should now be an argument about whether any redundancies should be voluntary? Cannot the right hon. Gentleman do something to fulfil the pledges which he and other Ministers made during the strike?

I did not see the report to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, but I shall take a look at it now that he has drawn it to my attention. I believe that the pledges given by the coal board and the Government during the strike are being met, and I am told by the NCB chairman that he expects the greater number of job losses in south Wales to arise either through voluntary redundancies or by offering alternative employment in other pits.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it ill becomes the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) to talk about job losses in his constituency as a result of the strike which he supported, but which 70 per cent. of the miners in the constituency were against?

It would clearly have been much more desirable if there had been a ballot at the outset to decide whether the miners wanted to go on strike.

In answer to a question that I tabled, I was told that NCB (Enterprises) Ltd. has in prospect only 300 jobs, while over the same period 1,800 jobs are to be lost. In addition, every day and every week, hundreds of redundancies are announced in all our constituencies. How will the job gap be filled? Will the right hon. Gentleman review his efforts and those of the Welsh Development Agency and everybody else to see whether we can bridge the growing jobs gap?

It is absurd to suggest that all the job losses in the coal industry will be replaced by the jobs announced or encouraged by NCB (Enterprises) Ltd., but it is a matter for congratulation that in the short time that this organisation has existed it has been able to provide loans to create more than 300 job opportunities. That is a good start.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the price of electricity is every bit as much a matter of concern both to individual voters in Wales and to job prospects, and that the price of electricity depends directly on coal costs?

That is true, and it is also true that the price of coal will be one of the factors that will influence the CEGB in deciding on its energy sources and all the other energy users deciding whether to use coal. The mining industry can do a good deal in deciding where it has markets and in seizing the opportunities that undoubtedly exist.

How can the Secretary of State expect the coal industry to be profitable in Wales if the Government continue to refuse to invest? The Coal Board has offered only £25 million of investment to south Wales over the next year and the NUM says that at least £300 million is needed. Secondly, when does the right hon. Gentleman intended to announce investment in the Margam project, as everybody in Wales is expecting such an announcement?

The Government have provided record sums for investment by the NCB. The hon. Lady knows that the Government do not decide on individual investments, which are a matter for the NCB. The NCB is continuing with its detailed planning for the Margam project, although it has taken no financial decisions yet.

Outside experts tell us that for every job lost in the coalfield, at least one other job will be lost outside. What is the assumption of the Welsh Office in this respect?

Undoubtedly, there is a multiplier effect on job losses, just as there is a multiplier effect when new firms come and create new employment, but I should not like to quantify that multiplier effect.

We have had evasive replies from the right hon. Gentleman. Is it not unjust that the south Wales coalfield produces 8 per cent. of coal but receives only 5 per cent. of investment and has only one high-tech coalface? Does he not understand that the south Wales coalfield needs an advocate and a protector in the Cabinet, otherwise by the 1990s there may be only 1,200 workers in the coalfield? Should not the right hon. Gentleman be that advocate? Why is he so lugubrious about coal in south Wales?

Coal closures under this Government and during my period of office have not been at the same rate as under Labour Governments, who closed pits in south Wales on a massive scale. There can be no doubt that there would be a better future and more investment for the coal industry in south Wales if it were not for the substantial losses—losses which were doubled or more because of the strike, which the hon. Gentleman encouraged.

Connah's Quay Power Station

4.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales if, when he next meets the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board, he will raise the future of Connah's quay power station.

The station closed last year with the loss of 400 important jobs. When wall the site be cleared, and will local labour be used in the station's demolition? Will the site be used for housing, industry, leisure or a mix of all three? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the site is owned by the community at a reasonable cost? It is speculated that the new crossing of the Dee will emerge at the site of the power station. When will road building for the crossing begin?

The power station site occupies about 650 acres on the banks of the Dee. No decisions have been taken about the eventual use of all this land, although at present there is no shortage of land in the area for industrial development.

Welsh Language Education

5.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he is satisfied with the co-ordination of Welsh language education at nursery, primary, secondary and higher levels to ensure the best use of resources available for Welsh language education.

I have no reason to suppose that individual local education authorities, whose responsibility it is, have not made provision for Welsh language education appropriate for their areas. I have, however, received representations from various organisations and individuals on the Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg proposal for a Welsh language education development body. We are currently considering these representations, and we hope to announce our conclusions before the summer recess.

I welcome the Minister's announcement that active consideration is being given to this proposal. Does he accept that there is a wide body of support for such a proposal, which is put forward by the Welsh Language Society and runs across party lines? In looking for a new formula to get the best value for money from what is spent on the Welsh language, is it not necessary to ensure that those local authorities which do most for Welsh language education are not penalised by the rate support grant formula? Does he agree that funding through such a body could overcome the difficulty? Will he bear this actively in mind over the next few weeks?

I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that there are statutory problems. I shall not come to a firm view until I have considered all the representations put to me and all other relevant factors. I should emphasise that I have no intention of changing the present statutory framework within which local education authorities have responsibility for the provision of Welsh Language education in their areas.

I am meeting representatives of six Welsh language organisations, led by Undeb Cenedlaethol Athrawon Cymru and including representatives of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, shortly to hear their further views on these proposals.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Urdd on its excellent recent eisteddfod in Cardiff? From my observation, it was a first-rate example of all that is best in our Welsh culture. It was a tribute to everyone involved, under the chairmanship of Mr. Malcom Thomas, for a great deal of excellent voluntary effort, especially by teachers.

I agree very much with my hon. Friend. I might add that the Government's support for the development of the Welsh language is not in question. We have considerably increased the resources earmarked for the Welsh language, including Welsh language education.

I agree with the Minister. The Urdd is doing magnificent work in Wales for the young people, and none of us wants to see the Welsh language withering on the vine of the 21st century. I commend to the Minister the existing consensus on the language in Wales, though there is no room for complacency. What are the prospects for the language in the heartland of Wales—in Dyfed and Gwynedd? What specific measures is he taking to enhance the language?

There is provision through special grants for the language, and we encourage it in every way through the local education authorities. I think that this is the right policy for the Government to pursue, and we have pursued it vigorously.

House Improvement Grants

6.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales how many house improvement grants were awarded in Wales (a) between February 1974 and April 1979 and (b) between May 1979 and the latest date for which figures are available.

Between January 1974 and March 1979 a total of 52,768 home renovation grants of all types were paid. Between April 1979 and March 1985 the figure was 92,726.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I must confess that I am a little surprised that the figure for the earlier period was quite so high. What has been the average annual spend on housing grants under the two Administrations?

I am not surprised by my hon. Friend's surprise. Of the applications made between January 1974 and March 1979, one half were paid in 1974, which means that they were submitted and approved during our period in office. This Government have been spending about £80 million per annum on renovation grants, compared with £29 million per annum under the last Labour Government.

Have the Government postponed the idea of abolishing grants and moving towards improvement loans, or are they about to abandon them too? Before the Government consider abandoning either of those policies, will they at least meet the guarantee that they gave 50,000 Welsh home owners that they will pay the grants to which they are entitled under the existing system?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that we have published a Green Paper and that consultations upon it will take place until 30 September. The Green Paper makes it quite clear that anybody who applied for grant during the relevant period will continue to receive it, irrespective of what happens as a result of the Green Paper.

The time taken to deal with grant applications depends entirely upon the priority given to them by local authorities. As I said earlier, local authorities are currently spending three quarters of their total housing resources upon renovation.

Does my hon. Friend agree that improvement grants have been a means of extending capital ownership and capital wealth throughout society and that in many ways they are comparable with the sale of council houses?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have extended home ownership by the sale of council houses. I am glad to be able to tell him that 42,262 council house sales have been accomplished under this Government. We have also spent a considerable amount on the renovation of both private and public sector housing, about £275 million having been spent upon the public sector.

When will the Government recognise that in all Welsh towns there are huge waiting lists for improvement grants because so many of our people are living in substandard accomodation? The Green Paper's proposals are not the answer to the problem. Why do not the Government at last decide to engage in a major housing drive instead of persistently waffling about tax cuts, which never materialise anyway?

We are pursuing a very active housing policy and have achieved record figures of council house sales to sitting tenants. The Government are undoubtedly meeting the wishes of people in Wales by selling council houses to sitting tenants, and I am delighted that at long last the Opposition have embraced this policy. The Government are also pursuing a very active renovation policy. We have spent about £500 million on renovating the housing stock of the public and private sectors.

Primary Schools (Expenditure)

7.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales how much was spent per pupil in primary schools in Wales in the most recent year for which figures are available; and how this compares with the figure for 1978–79, at constant prices.

At 1983–84 prices, spending per primary school pupil in Wales was £655 in 1978–79 and £758 in 1983–84, an increase of 15 per cent.

Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the people of Wales are aware of the Government's excellent record in increasing the amount of money spent per pupil, in real terms, in Welsh primary schools? If not, what steps is he taking to ensure that they are made aware of it?

I have issued invitations to every local education authority in Wales to come and discuss with me, in a constructive spirit, the problems of resource management. I take every opportunity to get across the facts. There have not been any massive or savage cuts. Neither I nor the Welsh Office underestimate the problems of resource management and we accept that they must be grappled with. However, we must get away from some of the Opposition's rhetorical nonsense.

Does the Minister realise that the complacency of his answer is not justified by the evidence of what is happening in our schools? The capitation allowance given to head teachers of primary schools, particularly in the county of Powys, shows that they do not have enough money to buy the paper, crayons, materials and other equipment that are required if primary school children are to be taught properly.

The hon. and learned Gentleman obviously did not listen to my answer. I have already said that I am not complacent, but, rather, concerned about the failures of resource management. Head teachers have made precisely that point to me, but provision is made by the local education authorities and not by central Government. Consequently, to say that we do not give them enough is to fly in the face of the facts and of the figures produced by the local education authorities themselves.

How many children are being affected by the teachers' dispute? Can my hon. Friend say what the effect would be on school buildings, textbooks and education budgets if a settlement were made that was above the Government's guidelines?

I can reply to that point quite simply and succinctly. Although we have been through an era of falling school rolls, the drop in the number of teachers has been significantly less. The fall will vary in different local education authorities. However, I must put the matter bluntly, as both the House and the profession should know that one teacher's salary would buy a lot of chalk, books and other modern technological aids to education.

Is the Minister aware that the figures that he gave could be viewed in a different light if such things as school meals, the standard of school cleaning and the capitation allowances were all taken into consideration? Will he admit that the facts are quite different? The hon. Gentleman must be aware that the council in Clwyd has frozen all teaching posts and that, as a result, the September term will be a disaster for teaching? Is the Minister happy that one of the councils over which he has responsibility with regard to grant holdback—I refer to Clwyd—should have been forced to adopt such a position?

The council has been forced to do so as a result of its own policies. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman has said, there has been a sharp rise, in constant terms, in educational expenditure in Clwyd. In view of the facts supplied by that local education authority, I must say that the hon. Gentleman's points have no validity.

Does the Minister appreciate that recent HMI reports do not bear out the optimistic picture that he is trying to portray? Will he bear in mind that conditions in the teachers' dispute are deteriorating and that morale among teachers is at an all-time low? Discipline is also crumbling in our schools. When will the Government launch an initiative to settle this very nasty dispute?

I must make it clear that I have no direct responsibility with regard to the teachers' pay dispute. However, I utterly reject any Opposition suggestion that I am complacent. I propose to meet all the local education authorities to discuss the problems against a background of facts, not rhetoric.

Courtaulds (Greenfield Plant)

9.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement about Her Majesty's Government's representations to Courtaulds plc. regarding its proposal to close its plant at Greenfield.

Plant closures of this kind must be for the commercial judgment of the company, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have urged the chairman to make all possible efforts to mitigate the consequences in the areas affected. I know that he is considering how the company can help.

Now that detailed negotiations have begun between Courtaulds and Delyn borough council, will my right hon. Friend continue to impress upon Courtaulds that it has obligations to the community that I represent and that it must—in his words—clear away debris and dereliction and assist in the task of new job creation? Should not Courtaulds also pay back the £2·8 million of public money invested in the modernisation of Greenfield between 1979 and 1981?

As my hon. Friend knows, I have made clear my views on the obligations of Courtaulds. Indeed, my hon. Friend has just referred to remarks that I made in the Welsh Grand Committee. There are established rules for the clawback of regional development grant. I expect that some of the grant may be eligible for clawback, and it is something that we are discussing with the company.

The loss of the Courtaulds jobs is a hammer blow to the north-east Wales economy. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not give a major cash boost both to the Welsh Development Agency and the Mid-Wales Development Agency rather than submit them to real-term cuts? They are underfunded and need more powers to face the problems with which they are asked to deal. May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that during the past four months Wales has lost 4,000 manufacturing jobs, and that since he took office Wales has lost 131,000 manufacturing and construction jobs? What is he doing in the Cabinet to obtain a change of policy that will give hope to the people of Wales?

It is characteristic of the hon. Gentleman that all he wishes to do is to throw money in every possible direction. On Courtaulds, we have been having detailed discussions with the local authorities, and others involved, on specific proposals for the area. I expect to make an announcement about the measures to be taken within the next two or three weeks.

Labour Statistics

10.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales what is the level of unemployment in the county of Gwent at the latest available date; and how this compares with the figure in June 1979.

On 9 May 1985 there were 28,898 unemployed claimants in Gwent. A comparable claimant-based figure for 1979 is not available. The figure for registered unemployed in June 1979 was 14,065.

Do not those figures tell their own story? Have we not recently witnessed the ineptitude of the Secretary of State on LSI Logic, which has ended up in West Germany? We also note that the right hon. Gentleman has accepted a 150 per cent. increase in toll charges on the Severn bridge, together with redundancies at Girlings and Standard Telephones. That has happened following six years of catastrophe. Is it not time for the right hon. Gentleman to pack up?

Since 1983 the number of overseas projects secured by WINvest totals 29, promising more than 2,000 new jobs and also safeguarding more than 2,000. That means that more than one third of the total of overseas projects are going to Wales. They include such firms as the Parrot corporation at Cwmbran, Signalex at Newport, Celatose at Ebbw Vale, Texmo at Newbridge, Control Data at Ebbw Vale and British Alcan at Newport. The truth is that Gwent has especially benefited from a very considerable flood of new investment.

Countryside Commission

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Meirionnydd rant Conwy (Mr. Thomas) to ask his question, I remind him that it is an open question, and I hope that he will bear in mind my ruling of 14 February last year.

11.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales when he next expects to meet the chairman of the Countryside Commission.

My right hon. Friend has no immediate plans to do so since I met the chairman of the commission Sir Derek Barber and the chairman of the Welsh Committee as recently as 11 June.

Welsh Development Agency

12.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales how much capital was made available by the Welsh Development Agency to industries between 1978 to 1980 and 1981 to 1984, respectively; and what information he has as to the number of new firms established as a result in Wales between the same dates.

In the financial years 1978–79 to 1980–81 the Welsh Development Agency undertook investments of £10 million. In the years 1981–82 to 1984–85 the figure was £24 million. These investments were made in 300 companies, but a breakdown into new and existing firms is not immediately available.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for such an encouraging reply. Is it not a fact that the WDA has not only done excellent work since it began but is expanding? While we must not be complacent about the expansion and about the 300 companies that have received grant to the tune of £24 million, does my right hon. Friend agree that, had it been left in the hands of the Socialists, that would never have been achieved?

I should emphasise in respect of the figures that I have given, that increasingly the WDA in its investment function is acting as a lead to the syndication of funds by venture capitalists and the financial institutions generally and, therefore, the total scale of the investment led by the WDA is much higher than the figures to which I have referred.

Owner-Occupation

13.

asked the Secretary of State for Wales how many dwellings in Wales were owner-occupied at the latest convenient date; and what were the comparable figures for 1955, 1964, and 1979, respectively.

At December 1984, 733,000 dwellings, 66 per cent. of the stock, were owner-occupied, and 630,000, or 59 per cent., in 1979. Figures are not available for 1955 and 1964, but in 1961, 48 per cent. of the stock was owner-occupied.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a remarkable increase and demonstrates the success of the Government's policy to spread owner-occupation and ownership of property not only in Wales but in the whole of the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am delighted to tell him that the Government see scope for a further increase in owner-occupation. Our low-cost housing initiatives and shared ownership schemes are designed to promote home ownership still further.