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Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 4 June 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked



What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary about the number of unemployed people in Wales in (a) May 1997 and (b) May 2003. [116421]

Unemployment in Wales is down 45 per cent. since April 1997 and down at least 33 per cent. in every Welsh constituency. Youth unemployment in Wales is down 79 per cent. during the same period and long-term unemployment is down 84 per cent. The Welsh economy is on track for long-term sustainability and prosperity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In Preseli Pembrokeshire, we exceed that figure, with a 46 per cent. fall in unemployment. Despite that, 75 jobs have recently been lost in Milford Haven in my constituency, primarily because of a lack of broadband facilities. Will he please hold discussions with BT and particularly the regulator, which seems to be the stumbling block in this instance, to see whether moves can be made to roll out broadband in Wales to avoid such unnecessary loss of jobs in future?

I shall certainly do that. My hon. Friend makes a good point. Broadband is being rolled out extensively across Wales, but more needs to be done, particularly for rural areas, including Pembrokeshire, and she makes her case very well.

Will the Secretary of State please tell the House what is being done in Wales to increase employment opportunities for those between the ages of 50 and 65? When he replies, will he also tell the House what is happening with regard to the under-employed in the Wales Office?

I shall answer the serious part of the hon. Gentleman's question first. He asked what is being done for older workers. The Government have a strategy in place to assist older workers, including, in particular, those in valley communities who lost their jobs in the days of heavy industry and have found it difficult to get back into work. To that extent, I am delighted that levels of economic inactivity are falling and that there was a 54,000 cut in economic inactivity last year. That is the first time that that has happened for a very long time.

In respect of the Wales Office, I say to the hon. Gentleman that he either wants a strong Wales Office or he does not. Of course, Plaid Cymru wants to abolish the Wales Office as it wants independence for Wales and does not want anybody representing it in the United Kingdom Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that jobs in the manufacturing industry in Wales are crucial to the economy? I am sure that he is aware that a joint report by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Office of Fair Trading about the UK insurance market is about to be announced. Does he agree that some manufacturing companies in Wales will look keenly at the findings of that investigation, because their survival will be decided in relation to the heavy burden of insurance policies on such companies?

The Government are addressing the issue, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to join me in welcoming the 25,000 new manufacturing jobs that have been created in Wales in the past year and, in particular, the reports in recent days that new optimism and opportunity are opening up for Welsh exporters as a result of the strengthening of the euro against the pound. That has provided a big window for Wales, especially in Europe.

On behalf of the Opposition, may I wish the Secretary of State best wishes for his happy event on 14 June?

Since the Secretary of State came to his post, we have seen a massive decline in the manufacturing industry. The latest big name closure is that of LG in Newport, with the loss almost 1,000 jobs. Does he put that miserable record down to the fact that he has not been paying enough attention to Wales?

We have created 68,000 new jobs in Wales in the past year. Employment has increased to record levels from the miserable level under the Tories. Some 25,000 new manufacturing jobs have been created. Yes, the LG closure is a disappointment. The project involved about £247 million of public money and was supported by one of the hon. Gentleman's predecessors, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), then Secretary of State for Wales. It has shown that what we should do is disperse our investment support across a much wider base of economic activity rather than concentrate it in one prestige project, which found that it could not continue its activity because of world demand.

The Minister is not dispersing support, but dispersing manufacturing jobs in Wales—that is the problem. Order books have contracted for the past six months and exports are down for the past four months. Instead of swanning around Europe selling out British interests on the European Convention, should he not be spending more time listening to the voices of manufacturers talking about matters such as the climate change levy and the extra burdens of red tape and offer an apology for the 1 per cent. jobs tax that his Government introduced last April? Manufacturing is in meltdown in Wales, and the Government must act before more thousands of jobs are exported to his beloved Europe.

The hon. Gentleman obviously swotted very hard for that question, but we should stick to the facts. The reality is that for the seventh consecutive month business activity in Wales remains above the British average, that the latest export figures for Wales show a rise of 9 per cent. on the fourth quarter of last year compared with the same period a year ago, and that Welsh companies are doing better than other British companies. The hon. Gentleman wants to run down manufacturing in Wales. I recently visited the finest and largest manufacturing centre in Britain—Airbus in Broughton, which is an example of more manufacturing jobs being created in Wales. Some 25,000 new manufacturing jobs were created last year, compared with the dreadful record of the Tories, who massacred our manufacturing sector.

Defence Aviation And Research Agency


When he last met the Secretary of State for Defence to discuss the progress of the Red Dragon Project at RAF St Athan; and if he will make a statement. [116422]

I welcome the fact that the construction of a new state-of-the-art repair and maintenance facility by the Defence and Aviation Repair Agency at its headquarters base in St. Athan is under way. The DARA development will also be the focus wider plans by the welsh Development Agency to develop a high-tech aerospace park at St. Athan. That leading-edge facility will secure and create around 4,000 new jobs.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. I, too, am delighted to hear that the £80 million super-hangar that is being constructed in my constituency in the Vale of Glamorgan is well on schedule. However, when he next meets the Secretary of State for Defence, will he seek an assurance that during the construction of the hangar sufficient work is directed to DARA from the Ministry of Defence to maintain current manning levels? I fear that if that assurance is not forthcoming, a large number of highly skilled, highly paid jobs could be at risk over the next 12 to 18 months.

I should pay tribute to my hon. Friend. No one has worked harder to secure that development in his constituency. He is a model constituency MP and deserves to be re-elected with a resounding majority at the next election.

As for the matter that he raises, I am aware of his concerns, which he has discussed with several of my ministerial colleagues. I shall certainly bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. In saying that, I should also point out that Wales is currently doing very well out of defence industry contracts, including Oshkosh, General Dynamics and Cogent. The Red Dragon project in my hon. Friend's constituency is the icing on the cake.

Will the Minister actively support a strategy to make Wales a global aerospace centre of excellence, with projects such as Red Dragon in the south and related civil and military aerospace projects in north and mid-Wales, where our regional airport structure and manufacturing companies, such as the beleaguered KTH company, might be well suited?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good and important point. I re-emphasise what I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) about the Welsh Development Agency's development of the aerospace park project at St. Athan. That is central to what the hon. Gentleman wants to achieve. I am sure that, working together in partnership with the Government here in Westminster, a Labour Government in Cardiff and the WDA, we will achieve it.

Local Government Elections


What consultations he has had with the First Minister on the date of the local government elections in Wales. [116423]

I have discussed with the First Minister my view that, although the date of local government elections is a matter for the National Assembly, it should be combined with the European elections a month later.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Would it not also make sense if, as well as having the Euro elections and the council elections on the same day, both elections took the form of an all-postal ballot? If European countries can have different systems for the European parliamentary elections, why cannot we in the United Kingdom opt to conduct ours via an all-postal ballot system, so as to increase the turnout and give greater to access to voters?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Government are considering this matter and trying to encourage more postal voting. Indeed, many more postal votes were cast in Wales—there were four times as many in my own borough—as there were in the last Assembly elections. That is an encouraging trend, but my hon. Friend raises a valid point.

A commission recently reported on electoral arrangements for local government in Wales and made recommendations about the introduction of voting at 16 and the use of a proportional system for voting. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with colleagues in the Assembly about introducing those recommendations?

I am horrified by the Secretary of State's first response. The local elections were moved by a full 12 months so that they would not be on the same day as the Welsh Assembly elections, and the turnout was a miserable 38 per cent. I know that the Secretary of State is not keen for the people of Wales to have a say in how they are governed, but will he please give an assurance that the local election date will not be moved by another month? Also, while we are at it, let us have a vote on the European Convention.

I shall come back to the question of Europe in a minute, if you will allow me to do so, Mr. Speaker. On the Welsh side of the hon. Gentleman's question, the turnout in the English local elections was only 30 per cent. The Government are planning to hold the European elections and the English local elections, including the Greater London elections, on the same day next June. There is a strong case for doing the same in Wales. On Europe, this Labour Government have held more referendums than any other Government. [Interruption.] The Conservatives have never held a referendum on anything. The treaty that will come out of the European Convention will be subject to exactly the same parliamentary procedures. [Interruption.]

Agency Workers


When he next expects to meet representatives of employment agencies to discuss the use of agency workers in the small firm sector in Wales. [116425]

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have no plans to meet representatives of the Wales and south-west region of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. However, we would be happy to meet them if asked.

I am sorry that the Minister is not going to meet them in the near future, because has he had a chance to consider the possible impact of the agency workers directive on the recruitment of temporary staff in Wales? Is he aware that the CBI has estimated that the directive could cost more than 60,000 jobs in Wales alone? Surely, if he and the Secretary of State really want to help manufacturing, they will do all that they can to stop that job-destroying directive.

The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter about seven times in the House. He is certainly persistent and diligent in pursuing it, and I do not criticise him for that. Yesterday, at the Employment and Social Policy Council, my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions at the Department of Trade and Industry failed to reach agreement on the Commission's proposals. The British Government's position is that we will continue to work for a directive that gets the right balance between protecting agency workers and protecting their jobs.

Does my hon. Friend welcome the opportunity for the small firms sector that will arise from the welcome news today that Celsa is to restart steelmaking on the ASW site in Cardiff? Will he do all that he can to ensure that the jobs that might be advertised by employment agencies go to redundant steelworkers from ASW?

I do indeed welcome the news that the project that Celsa is engaged in at the former ASW plant in Cardiff is to go ahead. I take note of my hon. Friend's point, and I would say that any agency recruiting workers for Celsa in Cardiff would certainly have to look in the first instance at the former employees of ASW. Their skills are in very high demand, and I have no doubt that the quality work force who were treated so badly by ASW will provide an excellent work force for Celsa.

National Health Service


If he will make a statement on the national health service in Wales. [116426]

Under our Government the national health service in Wales has been receiving record investment, and record numbers of patients are being seen.

The Health and Social Care Bill says that foundation hospitals will provide goods and services from the NHS for people in England. Why is Wales excluded, given that 26,000 people from Wales seek treatment in England each year?

One of the Conservatives' problems is their inability to recognise that devolution was designed to allow different parts of the United Kingdom to do things differently. That is what is happening in Wales. The hon. Lady does not, of course, advertise the fact that the Conservatives believe in 20 per cent. cuts in health spending. [Interruption.] Oh yes, they do. Their leader has advocated those cuts. Moreover, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), a former Secretary of State for Wales, says that 20 per cent. is not enough. What does the hon. Lady believe in, and what does the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) believe in?

Despite what is said by the knockers in the Conservative party who presided over a long-term decline in the health service, is it not the case that under this Government a record number of new hospitals have been built, a record number of nurses have been recruited, and a new cancer centre has been built at Glan Clwyd hospital in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the Conservatives, 100 hospitals were closed in Wales. Under Labour, 10 new hospitals are being built or have already opened. We are recruiting 3,500 more NHS staff, an extra 6,000 nurses, an extra 525 consultants and 175 more GPs. That is an excellent record, compared with the dreadful record of the Tories.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with colleagues here and in Cardiff about the impact of the establishment of foundation hospitals along the border with Wales? What has been the effect of recruitment of staff from Welsh hospitals, and the treatment of patients from Welsh hospitals in the English foundation hospitals?

Obviously patients have the right to cross the border in either direction, but we are keeping the matter under close review, and I have already discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Coal Miners' Compensation


When the Welsh subgroup of the coal health claims monitoring Group last met; and what assessment was made of the effectiveness of the claims procedures. [116428]

The Welsh sub-group last met on 7 April, when I was delighted to welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) as members.

The progress on payments under both the respiratory disease and the vibration white finger schemes in Wales speaks volumes for the valuable contribution made by the group.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but could he be a bit more precise and let me know what criteria—[Interruption.]

Could my hon. Friend tell me what criteria are used to determine priorities when the miner's estate is the beneficiary, and what is the current position relating to payments in Wales and specifically in my constituency?

I can tell my hon. Friend that £4.5 million has been paid for respiratory disease in his constituency, £1.3 million has been paid under the vibration white finger scheme, and £228 million has been paid for respiratory disease throughout Wales. We may not be able to see light at the end of the tunnel, but at least we can see the tunnel for the first time.

The priorities are the oldest miners, the most ill, and the widows. As for estate claims, if there is any indication of a short life expectancy the process may be accelerated and the claim considered more urgently. We will, however, look at cases individually. I pay tribute to the Minister for Energy and Construction, who has been wonderfully supportive in especially difficult cases, helping to secure for our miners the justice that they so richly deserve.

There is one group of former miners in Wales on which there has been absolutely no progress—not a single penny has been paid. I refer, of course, to those who worked in the private mines. Since those mines were licensed by the National Coal Board, which received a levy on every tonne of coal produced, do not the Government have a responsibility to those men, whose suffering is every bit as real as that of those who worked in the nationalised industry?

I recognise the justice of the hon. Gentleman's point. Our monitoring group has discussed that issue, which continues to be the subject of discussions between solicitors representing the claimants and the Department of Trade and Industry. We have done everything we possibly can to bring the matter to the top of the agenda.

National Assembly Elections


What assessment he has made of the level of voter turnout in the last elections for the National Assembly for Wales on 1 May. [116429]

The turnout in the recent Assembly elections was disappointing and the Government and the Electoral Commission are looking at ways of addressing that issue.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right. The actual turnout for the Assembly elections in Wales was extremely disappointing at 38 per cent. If that had been the turnout at a general election, the House would be bewailing the end of representative democracy. Does it not show that the people of Wales do not believe their Assembly is worth anything at all and that their local government and this House are where decisions are made? When will he understand that devolution is not always the answer to the problem?

Presumably, exactly the same logic applies to the borough of Macclesfield, where the turnout was just 30 per cent.—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman suggest, therefore, that that item of representative democracy should disappear? Of course not.

The hon. Gentleman is a great patriot for Macclesfield—I will not take that from him—and an excellent Member of Parliament but the truth is that turnout in all elections at every level has been falling across the democratic world. It is a great concern and we should all address it seriously.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the reason for the low turnout in the Assembly elections is probably that voters did not believe that the Assembly was relevant to the problems in the communities? If we are to increase the turnout in the next Assembly election, can he advise the leadership of the Assembly to stop wasting money on projects such as the glorified opera house in Cardiff bay, which cost £100 million, and instead spend that money to create jobs in some of the most deprived valley communities?

It is important that we recognise that Cardiff and Wales should be going for world-class excellence in every area. The valley communities that my hon. Friend and I represent are part of that drive to make Wales a world-class nation. In respect of turnout, I do not think that one can draw the conclusion that he has reached. The turnout at the Scottish elections was much lower but the Scottish Parliament has greater powers. The turnout at the last general election was lower than at the previous one. We must address the issue across democratic politics on a non-party basis.

Higher And Further Education


What plans he has to encourage closer links between higher education and further education institutions in Wales. [116430]

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are very aware of the Assembly Cabinet's strategy for reconfiguration within the Welsh continuing education sector. We strongly welcome the progress that is being made towards greater collaboration between higher education and further education institutions in Wales.

Will my hon. Friend continue to study the proposals from University of Wales college, Newport and Coleg Gwent for close integration of the work of the two institutions to enable students in south-east Wales to progress seamlessly to higher levels of skills and qualification, and will he commend that model elsewhere in Wales and the United Kingdom?

I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the important work on closer links between Coleg Gwent and the University of Wales college, Newport. I know that he takes a keen interest in that issue. I also welcome the support being given by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales for that reconfiguration and closer collaboration. A total of £5.3 million is being made available across the principality. I will continue to take an interest in the progress on that work. Those close links are important to the development of education in Wales.



What discussions he has had with National Assembly colleagues regarding implementation of the Broadband Wales programme. [116431]

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend—

That is always wise, Mr. Speaker.

I have regular bilateral meetings with National Assembly colleagues, and Broadband Wales is one of the many subject areas discussed.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker—I was so excited about getting in on Wales questions. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his colleagues in the National Assembly on the roll-out of broadband in Wales, and on the £110 million that has been invested to ensure affordable broadband in the region? Does he agree that the roll-out of broadband is as important in Wales as it is in Scotland, that it is rapidly improving and that a celtic alliance between the two nations should be supported?

The answer is yes, and I welcome the highest talent from all parts of the House to Wales questions.