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Wales

Volume 401: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked

Drugs

1.

What recent assessment he has made of measures to create effective local anti-drugs partnerships in Wales. [102968]

Tackling the problem that drug misuse causes is an issue that is extremely important to me and to the Government. I am aware that the drug and alcohol action teams currently working in Wales will be integrated into the 22 Welsh community safety partnerships. We believe that that is a progressive way forward.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he will be aware that it is no exaggeration to say that drugs are systematically undermining the social fabric of many valleys communities, especially former mining communities. I am sure that my hon. Friend will also agree that the answer to the problem must lie in establishing strong local partnerships between all the agencies involved. In my constituency, however, Rhondda Cynon Taff—which is meant to take the lead in establishing the new anti-drugs partnership—has played no part in making sure that we have a strong approach to deal with the issue. Is that because of political failure, and will my hon. Friend make sure that RCT gets its act together soon?

I am aware that there have been problems with the operation of crime and disorder partnerships in Wales. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) raised the matter in a Westminster Hall debate a little while ago. I can tell my hon. Friend that £5 million has been provided since 2001 to the communities against drugs initiatives to support projects across Wales to tackle drug-related crime, and to disrupt the drug markets. I will, of course, ensure that my hon. Friend's comments about his local partnership are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

The Home Office initiative Operation Tarian is proving a great success in the south Wales valleys. However, will the Minister have a word with the Secretary of State and perhaps liaise with the Home Office about the fact that the Home Office is contributing only £50,000 to that very important initiative? Unfortunately, that means that £3.2 million must be drawn down from other National Assembly budgets, including rehabilitation budgets. We already know that there is a huge waiting list in Wales for those resources. In some south Wales valleys, the typical waiting time is 18 months. With the best will in the world, I ask the Minister to liaise with the Home Office about bringing in some more money. Otherwise, it seems to me to be almost self-defeating.

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about Operation Tarian. It is an important initiative. It was started by police authorities in south Wales, and it is supported by colleagues in the Assembly, and by funding from the Home Office. Indeed, I was involved in discussions with colleagues when the operation was set up. The House may not be aware that South Wales police were involved in a large operation last week. Heroin, crack cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy were seized, and 83 people were arrested. Operation Tarian is making an important contribution to the intelligence gathering that is needed to combat the problem. However, I take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I shall make sure that the appropriate Departments are made aware of it.

I recently held talks with Wrexham magistrates, at which I learned that there has been a very positive response to the imposition of drug treatment and testing orders. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential for people to understand that substantial funding is necessary to safeguard the orders and make them effective? Will not any suggestion that funding might be reduced undermine one of the ways that we are beginning to get to grips with the scourge of drugs in our community?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Substance abuse is not a simple problem. We must do everything that we can to break the cycle of drug misuse and criminal activity, but we must concentrate on three other initiatives—education, to prevent drug and substance misuse; treatment, including treatment for people who commit crime; and rehabilitation, to break the cycle. This year, £3 million has been allocated to drug and alcohol initiatives in Wales to enable 1,000 more people to access community detox facilities. We will need to expand that initiative, and I believe that my colleagues in the Assembly are working with the Home Office with that objective in mind.

Drugs are a bigger menace in Wales today than they were just five years ago. More people are hooked and dying, and the treatment for those who need it is totally inadequate. So what did the Government do? They demoted the drugs tsar, and then abolished the post. They removed all targets for reducing the number of people taking hard and soft drugs, and then reclassified cannabis from a class B drug to a class C drug. They have left the police and public confused about the law on the use of drugs. Even the annual drugs report has not been published since 2001. Is not the problem the fact that the Government do not have a strategy for dealing with drug abuse? Until they get one, more young people are going to get hooked, and to die. Is not it time that the Government got a proper strategy for drug abuse?

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Government have provided £27 million of support for local initiatives across Wales. My colleagues in the Assembly provided a further £18 million over the next three years for initiatives, and the new community partnerships will work along those lines.

It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to make further demands when his party is committed to a 20 per cent. cut in public expenditure. What would that do for tackling the drug problem in Wales? His colleagues will have to give that answer to the people of Wales on 1 May, when once again they will be rejected.

Severnside Airport

2.

What recent representations he has received concerning a proposed Severnside Airport. [102969]

I have met representatives of the Severnside consortium, who briefed me on their proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend recall receiving from me representations that show that there is considerable opposition to the current proposals for Severnside airport on a man-made island in the Severn estuary? There is opposition from Monmouthshire county council and no support from the 18 airlines, including British Airways, that I have contacted, and I found majority opposition from the residents of Portskewett and Sudbrook in my constituency when I undertook a full household survey. Will my right hon. Friend study those representations and recommend to the Department of Transport that the proposal be rejected?

I will certainly study those views. I am well aware of the concerns of residents in his local area, not least because he brought them to my attention a few weeks ago. In the consultation exercise that is being carried out by the Department of Transport—a White Paper will follow later this year—full account will be taken of environmental, safety and economic issues, as well as of the views of local residents. The Severnside consortium has an ambitious plan to relocate traffic from the south-east of England to that area, but the views of local residents must of course be taken into account.

Does the Secretary of State still support the concept of a regional air service with Cardiff as its hub?

Yes, I do. Regional airports already play a vital role in Wales and should play an even more vital role right across Wales, from north to south and from east to west. There is great potential for increasing air traffic in that way.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that international airports are good servants but atrocious neighbours? Would it not be right to use the Severn estuary, with its almost unique quality of having the second highest rise and fall of tide in the world, to generate electricity in a clean, benign and nonpolluting way?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am a keen enthusiast for renewable energy. The Severn estuary barrage was one of the issues that we examined during our consideration of the energy White Paper. It is hugely expensive, but there are opportunities for utilising tidal and wave power, and the Welsh coast and the Severn estuary may represent such an opportunity.

Local Government Finance

3.

What discussions he has had in March on the effects of proposed council tax increases in Wales in April 2003. [102970]

My right hon. Friend and I have discussions with many people and organisations about matters affecting Wales.

Will the Minister give us the latest information on the likely average increase in council tax in Wales in the current year? Does he agree that people in Wales particularly resent high increases if they feel that decisions are largely taken in Whitehall and the Wales Office, not by their local councils? Would he be willing to allow the Welsh Assembly to have power over the way in which local government finance is raised in Wales, and will he consider local income tax as a much fairer alternative?

That is a very interesting proposition. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is hoping to stand for the office of Mayor of London. As he campaigns on this issue, he will no doubt explain to the people of London why the Lib Dem council in Southwark, supported by the Tories, has hiked the council tax by 9 per cent. He should compare that with an average council tax rise in Wales of 8 per cent. The message is simple—Lib Dem and Tory councils cost more: vote Labour on 1 May.

Has the Welsh Assembly had time to reflect on its decision to delay council elections for one year? In future, might it decide to allow council elections to concur with Assembly elections, as in Scotland? That might have a beneficial effect on council tax rises.

I am not sure that I want to be led down that road. When the Assembly decided to delay the next council elections, there were extensive discussions among all parties. A decision was taken and I do not believe that the Assembly has any intention of changing the decision at this time.

In 1997, people living in a band D house in Merthyr Tydfil paid £569 in council tax. When they receive their council tax bills in just a couple of weeks' time, they will be paying £1,003. Does the Minister think that a reasonable increase?

Some of us have longer memories than others. In the last two years of the Tory Government, council tax band D in Wales went up by 32 per cent. This year—thanks to the support of this Labour Government, working in partnership with the Labour Assembly—councils have received an extra 9 per cent. in support for public services. As I said earlier, the average council tax rise in Wales is 8 per cent. this year. One council, of course, has imposed a rise of well above that: Conservative-run Vale of Glamorgan, backed and kept in power by the nationalists, is putting up its council tax by 10 per cent. That is a clear message to the people of the Vale of Glamorgan come 1 May.

I asked whether it was a reasonable increase; I infer from his answer that the Minister thinks it is. In Blaenau Gwent, for instance, council tax has gone up by 78 per cent. since 1997. This year, people there face an 11 per cent. increase in their council tax, which will go up to £975. In Neath, the constituency of the Secretary of State for Wales, the increase since 1997 has been 56 per cent. In Cardiff, people face a rise of 12 per cent. this year, which is four times the rate of inflation. How are people on fixed incomes supposed to pay those huge rises? Do they cut down on food, stop going out or turn the heating off? Those are real questions for people. What advice would the Minister give them when they open their council tax bills in just a few weeks' time?

The hon. Gentleman could at least do us the courtesy of getting his figures right. The figures are 9 per cent. and 11 per cent. for Blaenau Gwent and Cardiff.

What would public services in Wales be like if they were subject to a 20 per cent. cut? Let me tell the House what they would be like. We would have one in five nurses taken out; one in five hospital wards closed; one in five teachers got rid of; one in five police officers got rid of; £155 million worth of cuts in every—[Interruption.]

Order. Perhaps the Minister will not mention the election in Wales any more. He has used up his ration.

Rail Services

4.

What recent discussions he has had with National Assembly Secretaries concerning rail services in Wales. [102971]

Regular ones, to ensure improvements are made.

I welcome the £2.5 million that the Assembly has allocated to improve railway stations in Wales, but does the Secretary of State accept that if we want to improve rail services we will have to attack the Reading blockage, the signalling problems at Slough and the flooding in the Chipping Sodbury tunnel? Those factors are the cause of many of the delays. Will the Secretary of State discuss this issue with his Westminster colleagues and press for improvements? What we need is partnership, and not the drawbridge mentality of the nationalists.

I could not agree more. These issues are being addressed through the record investment that is going into improving our railways. That includes investment in the Paddington to south-west Wales line. We are doubling our investment in rail infrastructure and rail services over the coming two years. If we got a Conservative Government back, they would cut rail investment by 20 per cent.

The very active and positive Cambrian coast railway liaison conference is made up of members from all parties and from none. They have been working hard but are continually disappointed that the small amount of investment needed to improve services on the Cambrian coast is withheld. Will the Secretary of State assure us that those services will be improved, as the cross-party Cambrian line support group has requested so often?

We are certainly anxious to see further support and investment to improve rail services right across Wales, including the Cambrian service. We shall look at that. However, if nationalist policies were pursued and Wales was made independent, Wales would be bankrupt and—

The Secretary of State will be aware of the fact that Virgin Trains reneged on its proposal to run seven through trains from Holyhead to London from September of next year. Will he agree to meet a delegation of business men and stakeholders from my constituency so that we can put pressure on Virgin Trains to reconsider that decision, which will have a serious impact on tourism and the economy of my area?

I shall be happy to meet that delegation, because I know of my hon. Friend's concern to improve rail services. Indeed, the people of Holyhead and people throughout Anglesey deserve improved rail services, which is what they will get under the Labour Government. I shall be happy to take up my hon. Friend's request.

While the Minister is being generous, and given the unsatisfactory service north to south and east to west in mid-Wales, will he be willing to accept representations from rail user groups about what might be done to improve the frequency and reliability of the service? Will he also give us an assurance that the Government have no plans for a real-terms cut to the subsidy for rail services in that area?

We are increasing rail investment by record amounts. I know of the hon. Gentleman's concern about rail services in that area, and the Strategic Rail Authority is proposing additional services for the heart of Wales line, which will improve services in mid-Wales. I do not know how many other requests to meet delegations on rail services I shall get, but I shall be happy to receive the hon. Gentleman's.

Given that sometimes it is a wonder that we get to London—[Interruption.]

Sometimes it is a wonder that regular rail users get to London on a Monday or get home on a Thursday. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State call in the SRA, Railtrack and all the train operators to thrash out a strategy to get rid of all the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) referred to earlier?

As a regular user of that service, I am well aware of the difficulties and how often delays occur. However, we are dealing with record under-investment over nearly 20 years of Conservative rule, which will take time to turn around. Investment in our rail services is being doubled over the next few years. That will continue for the rest of the decade and we shall see improvements on the London to south-west Wales line that will benefit my hon. Friend and me.

Terrorism

5.

What discussions he has had with (a) the National Assembly for Wales and (b) local authorities in Wales on contingency planning for a terrorist attack on nuclear installations in the Bristol channel. [102972]

The lead responsibility for counteracting terrorism lies with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. However, security at civil nuclear facilities is a matter for the Department of Trade and Industry. The UK's civil nuclear sites apply stringent security measures, regulated by the DTI's Office for Civil Nuclear Security.

Both the Wales Office and the Assembly are involved in national arrangements for dealing with the effects of any civil emergency. Within Wales the Assembly works jointly with local authorities to maintain a state of preparedness.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that 15 years ago, when we were fighting proposals for the Hinkley C pressurised water reactor, we were told that the chances of an aircraft hitting a nuclear installation were so negligible as to be irrelevant? Few people would take that view now, so is the Minister satisfied with the contingency arrangements for nuclear installations, which, on Severnside, are the most concentrated in the country? Is he satisfied with the resources for the National Radiological Protection Board and is he sure that the emergency services on both sides of the Bristol channel are able to cope with a catastrophic emergency?

The companies operating civil nuclear installations have always been required to have in place robust, detailed and well-rehearsed plans to respond to any radiological release. The plans involve emergency services and local authorities in the surrounding area and are regulated by the nuclear industry's inspectors, as the hon. Gentleman is probably aware. The arrangements were significantly enhanced following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Contingency plans were tested against the threat posed by a major incident in a live exercise at Bradwell on 10 May last year. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must always continue to maintain very high vigilance and a very high regard for those installations and ensure that they are properly cared for and properly protected, and I believe that we are doing the right thing in that respect.

Does the Minister accept that the best long-term defence against terrorist attacks on nuclear installations is to rid Britain of its civil and military nuclear roles? What can we learn from the disaster at Chernobyl, as a result of which not only that community but even farms throughout Wales were devastated?

Until yesterday, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) was responsible for homeland defence. Who is now in charge of that?

Those matters are, of course, ultimately the responsibility of the Home Secretary.

Climate Change Levy

6.

What recent representations he has received about the effects of the climate change levy on manufacturing industry in Wales.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has received a number of representations from individual companies and groups representing business, including the CBI.

Will the Minister confirm that, on its introduction, the Treasury said that the climate change levy would be broadly neutral for business, that manufacturing has, in fact, suffered a £90 million net tax hit, that Wales is particularly hard hit with 28 per cent. of its gross domestic product dependent on manufacturing and, furthermore, that the Engineering Employers Federation's counter-proposals would lead to greater reductions in energy use and a lower cost to business in Wales and elsewhere? [Interruption.]

The Government are committed to making Britain one of the most competitive business environments in the world. That has been demonstrated by the fact that our tax burden on business and industry is the lowest of all our major competitors, but we recognise, too, that business and industry must make a contribution to improve and protect our environment. I mentioned in my initial answer to the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met representatives of the CBI. The director of the CBI in Wales fully understands the Government's position; nevertheless, my right hon. Friend took on board the points made by the director with regard to the climate change levy and, as a result, he is in discussion with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the climate change levy has been a problem for Corus? He will be acutely conscious, as I am, of the difficulties currently facing Corus. Will he join me in praising the achievements and spirit of the whole work force at Llanwern? Will he undertake to examine urgently, with colleagues in Wales and Whitehall, whether any aspect of public policy unnecessarily disadvantages Corus in doing its business? If he identifies one, will he act swiftly to deal with it?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has been involved in detailed discussions with the management of Corus and other Ministers about the company's concerns. He carried on that job of work from the former Secretary of State for Wales, who also played an important part in helping to secure a package when Corus announced its job losses. The Government will work in partnership with colleagues in the Assembly and with Corus in every way possible to avoid any further job losses at Llanwern.

Will the Minister specifically consider offering further concessions to the steel industry in relation to the climate change levy and take into account the industry's concerns about the effect of the landfill tax? Can he confirm that the UK Government have sought approval from the Commission for emergency state aid on a contingency basis, which the Dutch Government have already done?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government have made available £30 million a year in incentives for organisations that volunteer to take part in the UK emissions trading scheme. We are working with the industry and colleagues in the European Union to ensure that we are doing the right thing and that that does not impact adversely on business and industry in Wales. I think that we are doing a good job in that respect.