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Wales

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 5 November 1997

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The Secretary of State was asked

Job Creation

1.

What progress has been made by the Welsh Development Agency in meeting its target in respect of jobs created being based outside the eastern M4 corridor and the A55 corridor. [12375]

One of the WDA's strategic targets for 1997–98 is to create or to safeguard 12,500 jobs within Wales, of which not less than 50 per cent. should be outside the eastern M4 and A55 corridors. The agency recorded 7,870 jobs created or safeguarded up to the end of September, of which 4,018—or 51 per cent.—were outside the eastern corridors. Recently, I met the agency's board and told it of my particular concern about the Pembrokeshire economy.

Will my right hon. Friend continue to keep it in mind that, in recent years, parts of Wales have suffered a battering, particularly my constituency of Preseli Pembrokeshire? Defence establishments and a Gulf oil refinery there have closed and the power station in neighbouring Pembroke has also been shut down. Will he do all that he can to bring inward investment to west Wales to tackle the local economic crisis?

I most certainly will. I am conscious of the fact that unemployment in my hon. Friend's constituency is 50 per cent. higher than the Welsh average. It is important that we use the resources that are available to us as effectively as we can. I have made it clear that the Welsh Office, the WDA, training and enterprise councils and local authorities should work together in partnership. That team approach is the only way to extend economic prosperity not only to Pembrokeshire but to the whole of Wales.

Will the Minister give us all an assurance that, as the WDA examines reconfiguring itself in relation to regional development agencies and so forth, all Members representing parts of Wales will be able to make an active contribution to that debate?

I have had discussions with the WDA and it is already discussing with the Land Authority for Wales and the Development Board for Rural Wales the configuration of the new economic powerhouse. As the hon. Gentleman already knows, I am more than prepared at any time to listen to any representations that he, or any other parliamentary colleague, wishes to make to me.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, surprisingly, one of the main impediments to the attraction of large inward investment to south-west Wales has been the shortage of large flat and suitable sites? Will he ensure co-ordination between the WDA, the Welsh Office and local authorities so that that impediment is removed?

I most certainly will. My right hon. Friend knows that the Velindre site, in which he has taken a particularly close interest, and the Cleddau Bridge site are two of the strategic sites that have been identified. I shall do all that I can to ensure that those sites are promoted for large inward investment.

It is all very well for the Secretary of State to talk about WDA targets for attracting inward investment away from the A55 and M4 corridors, but an article in one of today's newspapers mentions a damaging row between himself and the President of the Board of Trade about who should have the final say on aid packages to attract inward investment. Therefore, will the Secretary of State for Wales clear up this issue: who does have the final say over inward investment issues? Is it himself or the President of the Board of Trade, or will it be the Assembly?

The targets of which the hon. Gentleman is so scornful were set by my predecessor as Secretary of State for Wales, who is now leader of the Conservative party. I am quite happy to tell the hon. Gentleman the Government's position. It was clearly set out in the White Paper, which was endorsed in September. There will be an agreed relationship between the Department of Trade and Industry, the Welsh Office and the Scottish Office—a concordat will be established. That will be the basis on which the relationship between the DTI, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament will operate.

Education

If he will make a statement on the progress of legislation affecting education in Wales. [12376]

The Government have already brought in legislation to fulfil their election pledge to phase out the assisted places scheme. In addition, we shall shortly present to Parliament legislation containing measures on higher and further education and on raising standards of education for every pupil in schools in Wales.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will know of the tremendous economic significance for south-west Wales of Swansea university and Swansea institute. Is he aware of the great concern among academics and other employees in those centres of learning about the current financial position? That was reflected in a letter that all Welsh Members of Parliament received from the heads of the higher education institutions in Wales. They warn of dire consequences if the current shortfall in finance continues. I do not think that they are crying wolf—what does my hon. Friend think?

I visited Swansea university last Friday. It is a fine university. Under the Conservative Government, universities in Wales faced a growing financial crisis. That is why I am pleased—

Just wait for it. I am pleased to announce for next year an additional £10 million for higher education in Wales. That new investment will match proportionately the package announced in England recently. I hope that this money, allocated despite constraints on public spending, will show that the new Labour Government backs Welsh universities. They are critical to our objective of building a high-quality, world-beating economy in Wales.

Does the Minister agree that education will be one of the main priorities—if not the main priority—for the Welsh Assembly? Is there not an opportunity to design an education system, educational policies and patterns of provision in Wales that are distinctive and that correspond to Welsh needs? I think in particular of curricula as well as organisation. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Welsh Assembly will be seriously empowered in influencing the pattern of education provision in Wales from 1999 onwards?

Yes, I can confirm that. The new Government have made an auspicious start by publishing the first-ever education White Paper for Wales covering schools. Next year, we shall publish the first-ever education White Paper covering lifelong learning. That is a sign of our intention to establish a distinctive educational agenda for Wales that meets the interests and values of Wales.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about the additional money for higher education in Wales. Is it new money, or is it money from elsewhere in the education budget? If it is from elsewhere in the budget, where is it coming from?

It is not money from elsewhere in the education budget—it is additional money, which has come in part from the up-front funding from the introduction of student fees for tuition.

Welsh Assembly

3.

If he will make a statement on the outcome of the vote on a Welsh Assembly. [12377]

The Government put their proposals to the people of Wales in a vote on 18 September. I am delighted to remind the hon. Gentleman that the people of Wales recorded a yes vote. There was a massive 30 per cent. increase in the yes vote compared with 1979. The swings in the south and south-east were truly remarkable, from barely 12 per cent. in favour in West and Mid Glamorgan in 1979 to more than 55 per cent. in favour now. In Gwent and South Glamorgan, the yes vote rose from well under 10 per cent. to more than 40 per cent. We now have a unique opportunity to improve the governance of Wales and I look forward to introducing legislation at the earliest opportunity. We have a mandate, but it is important that we continue to broaden and deepen our support.

Does the Secretary of State accept that—although he tried so hard in that answer—almost three quarters of people in Wales did not support the proposals, which can hardly be described as the settled will of the people of Wales? In those circumstances, it must be right for the legislation to be scrutinised carefully. Will he give an undertaking that any Bill dealing with the proposals will be introduced in the House and not in another place, and that it will be considered, as a constitutional Bill, on the Floor of the House? Is it not surprising that we have yet to see the Bill published, and is that not a rather dismal reflection on the stewardship of the matter?

Not at all. The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues, and I shall try to deal with them. In the referendum of 18 September 1997, 25 per cent. of the people of Wales voted against the proposals. He has no basis on which to claim that those who did not vote in the referendum were expressing opposition. I cannot give him the guarantee that he requests on introducing the Bill into one or another House, because that is a matter for the Government's business managers. I can tell him, however, that I am anxious that there should be proper scrutiny of the legislation as it passes through the House. I have always made it clear that I expect the Bill to be published by the end of this month. I made that statement at the start of the legislative process, and I am happy to repeat it today. I expect the Bill to be published before the end of this month.

Does my right hon. Friend expect the Assembly to meet in north Wales—for example, in the county of Flintshire? Does he expect the Assembly to have plans to improve road and rail communications between the north and the south, bearing in mind that many people in the north think of Cardiff as a faraway place?

Those are interesting questions, but they deal with matters that the Assembly itself will have to decide. The purpose of devolution is to empower the Assembly to deal with those matters relating to Wales that are best dealt with in Wales. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), is examining ways in which we can improve road and rail links between north and south Wales—an important matter. As for the Assembly meeting in north Wales, it will have the right to choose where to meet. I certainly expect the Assembly to have its headquarters in Cardiff, but there will be a north Wales committee. The Assembly may well decide to meet in various parts of Wales when it wishes to examine matters of current concern.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the historic result of the referendum and the establishment of a Welsh national assembly. Does he agree that one of the main reasons why people voted yes was the Assembly's potential for developing the economy of Wales, not least in the context of reorganisation of the Welsh Development Agency and other agencies dealing with industry?

In that context, will the Secretary of State give the House a categorical assurance that the powers that have been enjoyed by the Welsh Development Agency to attract inward investment to Wales will not be undermined by the action of other Ministers, and that the power will be there to do the much-needed job of raising Wales's gross domestic product from the current 83 per cent. nearer to 100 per cent? We are at the bottom of the league table of regions and countries in Great Britain, and we shall need those powers, and more, to get a solution.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman—I congratulate him on achieving that new status—that the economic future of Wales was central to the devolution debate. I pay tribute to the work done by members of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats in achieving the yes vote, which was an historic performance by all three progressive parties in Wales.

The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the powers that will be available to the Assembly to attract inward investment and deal with other economic development matters. I remind him of the statement made in "A Voice for Wales"—the White Paper on which the referendum campaign was based—which was:
"Financial assistance to industry will remain subject to common UK guidelines and consultation arrangements to be set out in a published concordat."
That is my policy, and that is the Government's policy. I strongly support it.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be far better if Opposition Members ceased to refight the battles of this summer, accepted that the people of Wales have asked for a Welsh Assembly and contributed constructively to the establishment of a democratic institution which we all want to work? Does he agree that there is no point in fighting old battles and that we have to look forward?

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. He has for many years made known his views known on Welsh devolution. I am delighted that he, like many other people in Wales who had reservations about the proposals, now accepts the outcome. I agree that it is a great pity that the Conservative party in England does not talk to the Conservative party in Wales. The Conservative party in Wales, what little there is, has now accepted that there is no turning back the clock. It wants to play a constructive part in building the new democracy, and it is a pity that Conservative Front Benchers do not learn some lessons from it.

Does the Secretary of State recall that, on the morning after the vote, the Prime Minister scrubbed his celebration visit to Cardiff—which, incidentally, had voted no—and in Downing street told journalists that he would now listen to the people of Wales? Does the Secretary of State accept that, whatever else they might do, the votes revealed the real and legitimate fears of people in certain parts of Wales that a Welsh Assembly would permanently ride roughshod over their interests? What listening has been done since 18 September, and what fundamental changes are proposed to the plans—or was it just one more bit of prime ministerial hollow rhetoric that he will ignore by riding roughshod over the voice of the people of Wales?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is stuck in a time warp. Politics has changed, and the vast majority of people in Wales now understand that there will be a new democracy. No prime ministerial visit was arranged for Wales for 19 September. What I remember from 19 September was my announcing the Government's determination to proceed with the devolution plans on the basis that it was a very good morning for Wales.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I propose to create an advisory committee, which will consist of representatives of all political parties in Wales. I am delighted that members of Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, as well as representatives of business, industry and the voluntary sector in Wales, have all undertaken to co-operate in the process. I hope that, if the right hon. Gentleman is sincere in his protestations about building a consensus and listening to people with reservations, he will, in turn, be prepared to play a full part in the process.

Is it not good that we have an example of yet another manifesto commitment being delivered and endorsed by the people? Is there not now a new obligation on the Conservative party to recognise that the people of Wales have endorsed the proposal and an obligation on the other place to recognise that it is not elected and should have no place in seeking fundamentally to alter what was proposed by the Government and endorsed in the election and the referendum?

I am delighted to be able to agree with my hon. Friend. I refer him to an article in the Western Mail this morning, which appeared under the heading "Devo-vote linked to surge in optimism". The London editor of the newspaper says:

"A wave of optimism is sweeping across Wales as consumers indulge themselves in a pro-devolution spending boom celebration".
The article reports an economist as saying:
"The pro-devolution votes have unleashed an unprecedented wave of optimism in both Wales and Scotland".
The only people who are going to be left behind are those on the Opposition Front Bench.

Special Advisers

4.

What role his special advisers played during the referendum campaign in Wales. [12378]

My special advisers played an active role supporting my ministerial colleagues and me throughout the referendum campaign. Their wide-ranging duties included analysing policy, advising on presentational matters and liaising with Members of Parliament from my party and those in other parties and campaigning groups in Wales that supported the Government's policy. They were both pleased to be on the winning side.

Would not the right hon. Gentleman's account of the work of political advisers in the campaign be fuller if he drew attention to the fact that one of his special advisers telephoned Blaenau Gwent council, asking it to put pressure on the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith), saying that if he did not co-operate, access would be denied—or possibly even granted—to the right hon. Gentleman? Is not that attitude to constitutional propriety more reminiscent of the late Mr. Fawkes, whose happy demise we shall be celebrating today? Does the right hon. Gentleman have confidence in a verdict that gave him such a very small majority, obtained only through a massive expenditure of public money and by strong arming his hon. Friends?

I am afraid that the allegations to which the hon. Gentleman is referring are ancient history. Let me remind him that both my special advisers were properly employed in line with the Cabinet Office advice of 20 May. As I have said, they carried out a wide range of duties. The hon. Gentleman will be particularly interested to know that, on those occasions when it would have been unwise of me to use my car, my special advisers arranged taxis for me.

House Building

5.

What representations he has received concerning the building of extra houses in Wales. [12379]

I have received the Welsh Local Government Association's housing manifesto for Wales, which urges an increase in social housing provision.

Does the Minister agree with the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning that the green belt is up for grabs?

There is no such thing as the green belt being up for grabs in Wales. Under current planning guidance in Wales, there is no green belt. However, earlier this summer, I wrote to all Welsh planning authorities asking them to consider those places where it would be appropriate to have green belts because of the danger of one settlement running into another.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the release of capital receipts by the Government will provide a great boost to the building of local authority homes, if local authorities wish to build? Will he welcome that release of capital receipts for authorities such as Flintshire, which is ploughing money into new house building and refurbishments this year?

Under the capital receipts initiative, more than £9 million will be available this year and more than £33 million in the next financial year. Local authorities will be able to put forward proposals on how that money might be spent. They will be able to provide more new houses if they act together with housing associations, bringing in private capital. One way or another, the capital receipts initiative is good news for housing and people in Wales.

Beef Crisis

When he last met representatives of the farming unions to discuss the beef crisis in Wales. [12380]

My right hon. Friend and I met both farming unions in Wales on Friday 30 May and again just over a week ago. Welsh Office Ministers and officials have had discussions with both unions on numerous occasions.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I also thank him for his contribution to this morning's debate. I particularly welcome the Government's initiative on attempting to lift the beef ban, which was made more difficult by the actions of the previous Conservative Government. Does he recognise that there are immediate concerns in the beef industry about the over-30-months scheme, the green pound and the value of sterling? Can the Government do anything in the short term to alleviate those real problems?

I can give no categorical, cast-iron assurances of significant action in the short term, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that, although we are not yet convinced that there is a proven case for tackling any aspect of the green pound revaluation, we have given an undertaking to continue reviewing that. We have until next January to make final decisions on most aspects of the green pound revaluation. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to keep that under review.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many farmers in Wales deplore the Opposition's negative attitude to Europe? Many farmers know that agricultural policy is inextricably linked with European policy. Does he agree that it is high time that the Opposition took a more realistic approach to Europe?

That is certainly the case. It is a pity that the previous Government were so anti-European—virtually at war with Europe. This Government have much improved relationships with Europe. They will be further improved next week, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will visit Brussels for discussions with, among others, the Agriculture Commissioner.

Order. Let me remind hon. Members that they can ask only questions for which the Government are responsible. The Government have no responsibility for what the Opposition do.

Higher Education

7.

What meetings he has had with students to discuss higher education in Wales. [12381]

I am due to meet the president of the National Union of Students, Wales at the beginning of December. I recently met a deputation of students in my constituency.

I am sure that, in addition to many hon. Members, many students in Wales will be interested by the Minister's answer to Question 2, in which he admitted that a large portion of the money that was to be allocated to universities in Wales would come from raising tuition fees for students. Is that not absolute hypocrisy, given that, during the general election campaign, the Prime Minister said categorically that student fees in higher education would not be raised?

The Prime Minister did not say that. It is a bit rich for Conservatives to complain about the situation in higher education. They reduced many of our universities in Wales to near bankruptcy. Under the previous financial regime, they saddled students with huge debts. We are introducing a new system that is fair to students, to parents, to universities and to our country. It will establish higher education on a sound basis and give our students the opportunities that they deserve.

I believe that my hon. Friend is aware of a letter from the Department for Education and Employment to his office in Cardiff alleging serious irregularities in the use of European social fund moneys at Gwent tertiary college. Will he investigate those allegations and make a statement to the House?

I am aware of the allegations. My officials are keeping me informed about the progress of the investigation.

Local Government Finance

8.

What steps he will take to assist local authorities facing reductions in local services. [12382]

We are well aware of the financial pressures on local government in Wales and will do what we can in the forthcoming revenue settlement to recognise them, although the room for manoeuvre in 1998–99 is relatively small.

Will the Minister consider removing the cap on local government expenditure in Wales to enable local communities to benefit from not having their services under the extreme pressure that they face at present?

We in the Welsh Office have had a constructive debate with the Welsh Local Government Association and, in particular, with the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government Finance. A package of proposals has been put forward to which Councillor Shaw from Powys county council made an invaluable contribution. We are considering those proposals. On the basis of our last meeting, we believe that there will be a way forward in this difficult year and that, while it will not lead to the removal of capping, there will be sufficient room in the system to keep everybody happy at least for the coming year.

Nhs Trusts

9.

What progress has been made by his Department in reducing the number of NHS trusts in Wales. [12383]

The Welsh Office is currently consulting on proposals to create a single ambulance trust for Wales, and hon. Members for Welsh constituencies will have received a copy of the consultation document. In addition, a finalised plan for reviewing the number and shape of the other NHS trusts in Wales is due to be completed by April 1999. The document was distributed on 30 September. A copy of the project plan has also been placed in the Library of the House.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. How will he get round the problem that will be caused in the Cardiff area by the likely proposal to merge the two big hospital trusts, University Hospital of Wales and Llandough, given that their expected deficit at the end of this financial year will be more than £7.5 million? That is equivalent to 35 per cent. of the total expected deficit of all the trusts in Wales. Does my hon. Friend agree that in the Cardiff area it is not so much a question of NHS trusts as NHS bust?

I have every confidence that the management of both trusts will be able to bring the projected deficits down this year and will continue to ensure that their trusts perform well for their patients and in terms of financial efficiency. As for which trusts may or may not combine, or the shape of services after 1999, I have no predictions to make.