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Wales

Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked—

Livestock Movements

1.

What recent discussions she has had with (a) ministerial colleagues and (b) the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales on the effects of the six-day rule on agriculture, with particular reference to effects upon agricultural shows and festivals; and if she will make a statement. [109785]

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular bilateral meetings with ministerial colleagues and, of course, with the First Minister. They cover a number of issues, including agriculture. The six-day rule has freed up the movement of livestock while ensuring that risks to animal health are kept to an absolute minimum.

I see from today's Order Paper that the Secretary of State is referred to as female. Perhaps I can understand the Table Office misunderstanding which party he stands for. He is new Labour here and very old Labour in Neath. However, to question his gender is another thing.

The people of Wales have been waiting for months and months for the six-day rule to be adapted. Agricultural fairs will be ruined in the coming months, and many will be cancelled. That is ruinous for agriculture, bad for the rural economy and terrible for morale. Is it no wonder that the people of rural Wales will reject Labour tomorrow?

Saying that Labour will be rejected in Wales tomorrow is about as convincing as recruiting Attila the Hun to the peace corps. However, I have sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman says about the six-day rule. The veterinary advice that we have is strongly against providing additional exemptions to the rule. It is felt that adding further options would make it more complex. The six-day standstill strikes a balance between allowing industry to operate efficiently and preventing further outbreaks of the disease, and that is what we all want. However, I recognise the impact that the rule is having on small agricultural shows.

Should not the Minister disregard the manic hyperbole from Plaid Cymru and consider the reasons why foot and mouth spread in this country in a way that it did not spread in Holland, France, Ireland or Scotland? It spread because of excessive and unnecessary movements in which more than 1 million animals were in contact with foot and mouth before the disease was detected. Is it not right that non-essential movements of animals should be restricted not only to ensure that any future outbreak of foot and mouth is confined to a small area, but to guard against other animal diseases such as blue tongue virus and swine vesicular disease?

I take note of my hon. Friend's point, but I reiterate the advice that we have been given by veterinary officials. The six-day rule is appropriate and strikes a proper balance between the risks. We certainly do not want to return to the problems that we had a few months ago.

Answers to my parliamentary questions show that the ban on on-farm burial of fallen stock, which is to come in tonight, is not based on solid evidence. Given that the Government have not researched the risk assessment regarding that method, are they and the Minister willing to respond to representations from representatives of Welsh farming about the fallen stock regime that it would like to see? Can he assure us that the Government will show flexibility in the months ahead in their proposed new scheme, given the uncertainties that we all know exist?

As the hon. Gentleman says, the European Union legislation comes into force tonight and tomorrow. It will ban routine on-farm burial and the burning of animal carcases. My colleagues in the Assembly continue to work on a national fallen stock scheme, but I will certainly accept the representations to which he refers and make sure that they are passed on to colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and at the National Assembly.

Excluded Pupils

2.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary of the National Assembly about the numbers of permanently excluded pupils from secondary schools in Wales. [109786]

My right hon. Friend regularly meets the First Minister and I regularly meet the Assembly Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning to discuss a range of educational issues.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he share my concern that the largest percentage of excluded pupils in any area in Wales is in the Caerphilly county borough where the local authority is nationalist controlled? Does he also share my concern that many of those excluded pupils are on the streets of the borough engaging in antisocial behaviour because the local authority does not provide adequate alternative educational provision?

I am aware of my hon. Friend's point, and I deeply regret the fact that the borough that he and I share, which is run by the Welsh nationalist party, has one of the highest figures for exclusion in Wales. The average figure for Wales is 1.7 per cent.

However, I want to make it clear that my colleagues in the Assembly are putting together a package of £500,000 for the next three years in which they are looking to pilot projects to establish the causes of pupil disengagement. My hon. Friend is right to say that youngsters who are excluded from school cause antisocial nuisance problems right throughout our borough. I made that point when I spoke at the NUT Cymru dinner at Harrogate recently. I believe that we have to work hard, as the Government are doing, in partnership with the Labour-led Assembly in Cardiff to ensure that we put in the resources to tackle the problem. I also believe that it starts in the home. Parents have a responsibility to see that their children go to school.

Youth Offending

3.

What recent representations he has received on measures to address youth offending in Wales. [109787]

I have received representations from a number of sources.

I thank the Secretary of State for his usual enlightening reply. Will he comment on the statement made by Edwina Hart that has come to light during the recent campaign in Wales? She said:

"The public sector in Wales does not provide any drug and alcohol rehabilitation places".
In light of the fact that drug-related crime has increased by 13 per cent. in Wales during the past year and given that youth offending is unfortunately part of that culture, what will he do to ensure that drug rehabilitation places that are funded by the public sector will be available in every part of Wales?

I was with the Home Secretary in Cynon Valley a few months ago to take forward an extra investment of several hundreds of thousands of pounds precisely to deal with the drug programme: not only clamping down on drug traffickers but dealing with rehabilitation. There is record investment throughout Wales as a result of the extra investment and spending that the Labour Government are putting into Wales.

While I strongly endorse what the Government are doing to prioritise the tackling of antisocial behaviour, may I ask them through my right hon. Friend to ensure that resources are available to enable the police to provide more uniformed foot patrols in areas that are especially afflicted by antisocial behaviour and that antisocial behaviour orders may be speedily made and, once made, upheld?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. Wales has one of the first pilots on antisocial behaviour, which is taking the agenda forward. The Government are determined to clamp down on antisocial behaviour. It is a real plague in many of our communities in Wales: on estates and elsewhere in many of our valley communities and throughout the nation. That is why our anti-crime and antisocial behaviour strategies are being implemented, and we should receive more support from Opposition parties for our work to clamp down on the problem.

The Secretary of State for Wales knows that persistent youth offending has shot up by 58 per cent. and that more young people are the victims of crime themselves. Only proper funding will sort out the problem. The chief of Dyfed-Powys police force has complained about the switching of funds from rural parts of Wales to large urban areas in England. Was he not right to say that the inane, reassuring Home Office press releases stating that funding is sufficient should be entered for the Booker prize for fiction? If the Government ever capture the Iraqi information Minister, perhaps they can employ him to read out some of those press releases. When will they ensure that proper funding for our rural areas of Wales is achieved?

That was very well rehearsed, was it not? The charge comes from a Conservative party that would cut spending by 20 per cent. right across the board.

The hon. Gentleman says rubbish, but let me quote the Leader of the Opposition from 30 December 2002:

"20 per cent. savings across the board in Government spending …That's what we're looking at".
What would that mean for crime in Wales? Nearly 1,400 police officers would be sacked. There would be 20 per cent. cuts to the police force at a time when our Labour Government have been responsible for the recruitment of 600 extra police officers. The Leader of the Opposition visited Cardiff and south Wales last week to campaign for the Conservative party. A passer-by—

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that one of the most effective ways in which to deal with youth offending is to empower young people in their communities? Will he join me in congratulating the community first programme in my constituency which has several young people-led projects that are reaping dividends and giving ownership to young people in their communities? Does he agree that only the return of a Labour Government in Wales on Thursday will ensure that we have the sustainable financing for such programmes?

Yes. I was in Holyhead in my hon. Friend's constituency on Monday morning, and there are many excellent projects to tackle antisocial behaviour. I was also in the constituency of my Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), yesterday where an important project involving community safety wardens is taking place as a result of record investment from the Labour Government in partnership with the Labour-led Welsh Assembly. After 1 May, majority Labour control of the Assembly will allow us to take that programme forward.

Financial Support (Business)

5.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary of the National Assembly on financial assistance for Welsh companies. [109789]

I thank the Secretary of State for such an insightful and helpful response.

Although I wish the First Secretary of the National Assembly every success in creating jobs for workers in Wales, will the right hon. Gentleman raise the concerns of my constituents who work for Aircraft Materials Ltd. who face redundancy because the company is relocating to Wales with the help of regional selective assistance from the Welsh Assembly? When he meets the First Secretary will he tell him that it is a waste of taxpayers' money to move jobs from one part of the UK to another—and to stop poaching English jobs?

The answer to that is an emphatic no. The alternative plan for Aircraft Materials Ltd., which is a US-owned company, was to locate the jobs in the United States. Under the rules applied rigorously and scrupulously for regional selective assistance, we were able to safeguard those jobs and increase them in the rest of the UK instead of allowing them to be exported to the US. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that, although I understand his concern as a constituency Member of Parliament.

Although Corus is not a Welsh company, it has a substantial presence in Wales. Will my right hon. Friend assure not only the First Secretary but all of us that should Corus ask the Government for financial assistance, it will not be ruled out, given that it would be unthinkable for Britain, and Wales in particular, to be without a steel industry?

I agree with my right hon. Friend and we will consider what we can do, both through the National Assembly and elsewhere, to ensure that we have the most competitive and excellent steel-making company in Britain, including, of course, Wales.

The Corus announcement yesterday was excellent news for Port Talbot. There are to be an extra 35-plus jobs and a huge investment to increase production from 3.7 million to 4.7 million extra tonnage. At least the reduction in jobs at Llanwern was relatively small. Obviously it was unwelcome given that the Llanwern workers have been battered and bruised over so many years by Corus. It was good at least to see a secure and sustainable future for both Llanwern and Port Talbot. That will have the full support of the Labour Assembly and a Labour Government.

On a number of occasions over the past nine months, I have written to Assembly Government officials drawing attention to the alleged financial irregularities at Elev8, a call centre based in my constituency that the Secretary of State recently visited. The company went into receivership yesterday, with a loss of more than 60 jobs. Is not that yet more evidence of the failure of the Labour-Liberal Administration to bring jobs to all parts of Wales? What does the future hold for the Amman valley, which he and I represent?

The hon. Gentleman really should stick to the facts and stop relying on smears. The truth is that unemployment in his constituency has been cut significantly. Employment across Wales increased by nearly 60,000 last year. He should be attacking the unemployment in the Tory years rather than Labour's efforts to increase jobs because we have cut unemployment substantially.

I did visit the call centre and what has happened is regrettable, but the fact is that new jobs are being created all the time in our valley constituencies and right across Wales. The hon. Gentleman should stop talking down Wales and support the investment and efforts that are being made to start-up businesses all over the country.

If financial assistance is given by the Welsh Assembly to companies such as Corus, what assurances can the Secretary of State give us that that money will be used to secure Welsh jobs, and that it will not go into the pockets of fat cat directors to further enrich themselves and sacrifice workers throughout Britain?

As far as I am aware, Corus has not asked for any support in terms of extra grant aid or any other facility that could be approved by the Welsh Assembly or by the Department of Trade and Industry, but no doubt we would consider such a request if it came. My hon. Friend is right. There is a revolt by shareholders and pension fund representatives at the way that representatives and directors who have failed in their jobs often walk away with huge bonanzas. That is not acceptable, and it is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is examining the matter. With reference to the workers who are to lose their jobs at Corus, that is a particular attack on their rights, and it must not be allowed to continue.

With regard to Welsh business's lack of growth, is it not the case that the Government are the problem, not the solution? We have had the national insurance tax increases that have just clobbered Welsh businesses, the climate change levy, the landfill tax, fuel tax increases, business tax increases and red tape that means, on average, 15 new regulations on business every working day. It is no wonder that we have seen some huge job losses in Wales since the Government came to power. When will the Government get off the back of business and give it a chance?

When will the hon. Gentleman rely on facts instead of rhetoric? That is the question. Let us look at the facts. Three thousand more businesses were created in Wales last year. There has been a higher startup rate of businesses than in any other region of the United Kingdom, owing to Labour's support policies for Welsh businesses. There is a lower failure rate of businesses than in any other region of the United Kingdom, owing to the support that the Labour Government are putting into the Welsh economy. That is a record to be proud of, compared with the Tory record of record bankruptcies, record high unemployment and record collapse in manufacturing across Wales.

The Secretary of State says, "Let us look at the facts", so let us do so. We have had Welsh agriculture on its knees under the present Government, and Welsh manufacturing has been decimated. It is incredibly difficult to get objective 1 money because it is so difficult for small businesses to work through all the red tape. The Federation of Small Businesses chairman, Gwyn Evans, has stated that public liability insurance premiums are crippling small businesses because they have shot up in price. One beneficiary of the insurance increases that are crippling business is the Government, who take a percentage of the premiums in tax. While the Chancellor is laughing all the way to the bank, do the Government feel no embarrassment about their windfall tax gain, or do they just consider it a nice little earner, like all their other stealth taxes?

What would happen to Welsh businesses that are in receipt of a great deal of grant aid and support from the National Assembly and the Government when the Tories cut spending on Welsh businesses by 20 per cent.? There would be massive, savage cuts in support for businesses right across Wales. What have we done for small businesses? We have abolished stamp duty to cut the cost of property purchases in areas of Wales, we have enhanced appreciation allowances to cut the cost of land clearance and tackling dereliction, and there is the prospect of enhanced capital allowances to cut the cost of initial investment, and community investment tax relief to cut the cost of risk capital. The Government are friends of business, creating more businesses and more jobs in Wales than ever before. A record level of employment was created last year, with a 60,000 rise in employment in Wales as a result of the Government's excellent policies.

Tourism

6.

If he will make a statement on the tourism policy for Wales. [109790]

Tourism is a major contributor to the Welsh economy. It contributes some £2 billion per annum and provides employment for around 100,000 people in Wales.

What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that the Welsh tourist industry is protected from the SARS virus, which is spreading across the world? That needs to be taken into consideration, especially after the Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis.

Advice has been issued to schools and colleges in Wales on pupils returning from infected areas, and we are following the policy recommended by the World Health Organisation to the letter, making sure that the issue is treated responsibly, but without raising unnecessary alarm, and that has resulted in a situation where just six cases have been reported—none in Wales—and all of those are on the road to recovery.

Does my right hon. Friend recall the hugely successful eurozone experiment at Llangollen's musical eisteddfod last year, and does he agree that early entry into the European monetary system would help and enhance tourism throughout Wales?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his experiment at the international musical eisteddfod in Llangollen last year. I shall be visiting the festival this July and I look forward to a similar experience. Obviously, the United Kingdom will benefit from joining the euro when the economic circumstances are right, and that is why we shall not rush into this recklessly, but will do so carefully, after the Chancellor has made his economic assessment, and only if that economic assessment is positive.

Winter Fuel Payments

7.

What discussions he has had with colleagues in the National Assembly Government on the impact of the winter fuel payments on pensioners in Wales. [109791]

At a meeting before the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury confirmed that 117,600 households in Wales with someone aged over 80 would benefit from an additional £100 winter fuel allowance on top of the existing £200.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the additional £100 for the over-80s on top of the £200 original winter fuel payment, the pension credit and free local transport in Wales for pensioners will ensure that every pensioner in Wales will turn out and re-elect a Labour-led Administration in tomorrow's ballot?

I am sure that that will be the case. We know that the Tories would scrap the winter fuel allowance and cut all the extra support that we have provided for pensioners, including free television licences for the over-75s. In respect of—

Dee Estuary

8.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary about the Dee estuary. [109792]

My right hon. Friend has regular meetings with the First Minister to discuss a variety of issues.

The Dee estuary is a place where significant industrial activity sits alongside extremely important environmental sites, and the cockle fishing industry is a significant commercial activity, with equally significant ecological implications. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging that for the next cockle fishing season we have a more strictly controlled issue of licences, and that in the longer term we have a regulatory order that balances the interests of all sides of the argument?

I support my hon. Friend in encouraging sustainable development of this activity, but control and management of the Dee cockle fishery is the responsibility of the Environment Agency, which has proposed putting in place a regulatory order to manage the cockle beds, including licensing a much smaller number of gatherers. That is now being considered by Ministers at DEFRA and at the Assembly, and at the appropriate time they will submit a formal application.

Agriculture

9.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales regarding agriculture in Wales. [109793]

My right hon. Friend has regular meetings with the First Minister and I meet the Assembly Agriculture Minister and DEFRA Ministers to discuss a variety of issues, including the future of agriculture in Wales.

The Minister will appreciate the importance of agricultural shows in helping to restore the fortunes of livestock farming in Wales, many of which take place within a few days of one another, and the six-day rule for the movement of animals will cause a serious problem with a reduction in the number of exhibits, rendering some of them unviable. Will the Minister consider making an exception to the movement of animals to agricultural shows in Wales this year?

I understand the hon. Lady's point, which the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) made earlier, but the veterinary advice that I have is strongly against providing any exemptions to the six-day rule. The view is that the rule provides the best balance between ensuring a limited amount of animal movement and protecting the industry from future problems of the sort that have beset it in the past year or so, so I cannot really offer any hope that that can change.