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Wales

Volume 447: debated on Wednesday 7 June 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

Agriculture

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of subjects, including matters affecting agriculture in Wales.

I am pleased to hear about the Secretary of State’s ongoing discussions with other Cabinet colleagues. What precautions are the Government going to take to ensure that Welsh and other British farmers are not penalised in the next round of common agricultural policy reform? It is generally recognised that we have the most productive farmers, and they should be applauded for that. Europe should learn from that and our farmers should not be penalised—in Wales or in any other part of the United Kingdom.

I totally agree with the hon. Lady. It is important that we take forward the CAP reform agenda, and Britain is now acknowledged as leading in Europe on CAP reform. I can assure her that, although we want to introduce such reforms, the intention is not to penalise our own agricultural industry in doing so. It is clear that the reforms already in place have not penalised our farmers, and we want to continue in that vein.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the lifting of the beef exports ban will bring enormous benefits to Welsh farmers? Will he take it from me, as a Member of Parliament brought up on a Welsh smallholding many years ago, that Welsh beef is the best and will be a good ambassador for Wales?

Indeed—I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It may help the House if I remind everyone of what we lost during the past 10 years because of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy disaster, which happened under the last Government, and the resulting beef ban. In 1995, beef exports from the UK were worth £600 million, and 270,000 tonnes of British beef were exported. We have lost all that in 10 years, and we need to regain those markets. I am glad to say that Hybu Cig Cymru is marketing Welsh beef in Europe, and we have been very successful in securing contracts, particularly in Italy.

I agree with what the Minister has just said, but may I draw his attention to another important, current subject: the failure of the fallen stock scheme? This Government would not allow Wales, and north Wales in particular, to be exempted from the scheme, which, for obvious reasons that we warned about at the time, proved impractical. We now have rotting carcases throughout farms in north and mid-Wales, which is bad for biosecurity and human health and, I am afraid, the economy. Will the Minister please speak to his bungling colleagues in the National Assembly?

The issue is the failure of a company that has provided that service in north Wales, and I am assured that other companies are coming in to tackle the backlog. I agree that it is essential that we deal with the biosecurity issue, which is why the Assembly is tackling it by getting other fallen stock companies to clear up the backlog.

Borders mean nothing to animal disease, so dealing with tuberculosis in cattle and cattle movements between England and Wales requires close co-operation between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Assembly Government and the British Cattle Movement Service, as the Minister will doubtless acknowledge. What checks has he made on the co-ordination of data relating to pre-movement TB tests, and what percentage and number of TB reactors have so far been picked up in pre-movement testing in Wales?

I readily accept the need in the cross-border areas for both DEFRA and the Welsh Assembly Government’s agriculture department to work closely together, and my understanding is that that is happening. The hon. Lady will understand why I cannot give her the detailed figures that she has requested, but I will write to her with them.

Asbestos

2. What estimate he has made of the number of people in Wales affected by the recent Law Lords judgment on compensation for asbestos-related illnesses; and if he will make a statement. (74939)

My hon. Friend will recognise that this is an extremely complex area of law. The Government are examining the implications of the Law Lords ruling. It is not possible to provide reliable figures at this stage.

I disagree with the Minister: this is not a complex area of law, and it is up to this Government to legislate to make sure that decent working-class people get what they deserve. Four people die every week in Wales from asbestos-related cancer owing to the negligence of their former employer. What is the Minister going to do about the absolutely disgraceful Law Lords ruling, which deprives working-class people of their rightful deserts?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and other colleagues who are rightly campaigning on this issue. It is a vital concern for hundreds if not thousands of people who have been in contact with asbestos during their working lives. The Government fully understand the concerns expressed about the House of Lords judgment in the Barker v. Corus case and we are sympathetic to the claimants. The judgment raises serious and complex issues and it is important to ensure that we get the right answer. We are therefore exploring all options with the relevant stakeholders to achieve a solution that is fair, but also workable.

We support the Government in dealing with asbestos-related illnesses, but will the Minister also consider dealing with the miners who have dust-related injuries and have not yet received their compensation? I refer to one of my constituents, Donald Watkins of Pontneathvaughn, who has been waiting six and a half years. These miners are becoming older and iller by the day and the same sometimes applies to their widows. Will the Minister cut through the crap and ensure that they get the compensation that they deserve?

I chair the coal health monitoring group for Wales and if the hon. Gentleman will let me know the details of his constituent who has been waiting too long for compensation, I will look into it. I should remind him, however, that this is the biggest industrial injury civil action case that the world has ever seen. Throughout the UK, we have already paid out £3 billion to miners; and in Wales the payment is £565 million. As I said, if the hon. Gentleman gives me the details, I will certainly inquire further into why it has taken so long to settle that case.

I want to reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn). The Barker decision was a disgrace and we must restore the position. The Minister will be aware of the enormous increase in the number of mesothelioma cases both in Wales and the UK more widely. For example, over the last 40 years, the number has increased from 153 to almost 2,000. Will my hon. Friend give his support to other Ministers in calling for an amendment to restore the law to what it was before the Barker judgment?

As I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn), we are very sympathetic to the position that claimants are in as a result of the Law Lords’ judgment in the Barker v. Corus case. We are hopeful that an announcement will be made shortly about how the Government intend to tackle that serious issue.

Welsh Produce

3. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on encouraging the promotion of Welsh produce in England. (74940)

I have regular discussions with the Assembly Agriculture Minister about a range of issues, including the promotion of Welsh food and drinks products to external markets.

If I were to take you, Mr. Speaker, to Dolffanog Fach, or perhaps the Old Rectory overlooking the Tal-y-llyn lake not far from Abergynolwyn in mid-Wales, you would have the opportunity to eat the finest Welsh beef made from Welsh black cattle. We heard about that earlier, but I should not have to take you that far, Mr. Speaker. I could take you to the White Hart in London, but other places do not serve Welsh black cattle beef. What can the Minister do to ensure that England and Scotland enjoy the benefits of the finest British beef—Welsh black cattle?

I am tempted to take the advice that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is giving me and suggest that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) become an ambassador for Welsh produce. He is quite right that Wales produces some of the finest livestock in the world. Welsh black beef, in particular, is an excellent product. The Welsh Assembly Government have processing and marketing grants that assist in the marketing of Welsh produce, not just in England but throughout Europe. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to join me in congratulating the Welsh chef, Bryn Williams, on winning a chance to cook for the Queen’s 80th birthday celebrations, and I am particularly pleased that he will be sourcing all his ingredients from Wales. That is another way of marketing Wales’ excellent food products.

Has my hon. Friend noticed that much Welsh produce is often marketed in England as English? For instance, many of Burberry’s materials are made in the Rhondda, but say “Made in England” all over them. For that matter, some of the best cricket players in this country who play for the English cricket team are actually made in Wales. Is it not time that we were a bit more honest and reminded the cricket authorities that they are the England and Wales Cricket Board? Would it not be nice if my hon. Friend were able to eat some Welsh—

We may have strayed a bit from the original question, but the National Assembly is concerned to promote the Welsh brand and to brand Welsh products—including cricketers, I expect. Several initiatives are under way on food products, and I welcome the opening last month of Lloyd’s dairy in Islington, a recreation of one of the old Welsh dairy shops that used to proliferate in north and west London. Part of the shop specialises in and promotes Welsh organic produce.

Does the Minister agree that fundamental to the promotion of Welsh produce in England is the ability to transport that produce to England in the first place? Does he therefore share my concern at the continuing closure of the A5 trunk road between Maerdy and Dinmael, which was closed with little warning on 26 May and remains closed with no indication of when it will be reopened? Does he share my despair at the incompetence of the Assembly in dealing with the issue?

I accept the importance of reopening the A5 as quickly as possible. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the closure was because of a serious risk of injury from an unstable cliff face. He will also be aware that while most landowners on the old A5, which could provide an alternative route, are co-operating with the Welsh Assembly Government, one has unfortunately decided not to do so at this stage. The matter needs to be addressed quickly and I understand that Andrew Davies, the Minister with responsibility for transport in Wales, is dealing with it as a priority. Its importance is recognised, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to make his views known, I will pass them on to Andrew Davies. Perhaps he should also make a direct approach.

Post Office

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but six out of 10 of the sub-postmasters in my constituency are concerned about the viability of their businesses once they lose the income from the Post Office card account in 2010. That has major ramifications for the wider community across rural Wales, which are some of the remotest communities in the country. I urge the Secretary of State to encourage his colleagues to undertake, at the very least, an urgent review of post office service provision in rural areas, and preferably to scrap the proposals to abolish the Post Office card account.

We are looking closely at the matter, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are providing £150 million a year to support rural post offices, as part of a £2 billion investment in the post office network since 1999. None of that would have been made if his party’s policy of privatising the Post Office had been implemented.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is the Government’s rules on matters such as automatic credit transfer and the failure to support Post Office accounts that have led to post offices closing in rural communities the length and breadth of Wales? Will he apologise to the communities affected and tell us what the Government intend to do now to ensure that the post offices that remain continue to be viable?

I have just described what we are doing. This is a difficult issue, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that it costs the Government 1p to pay a benefit into a bank account, but £1 per transaction to a Post Office card account. I know that in many villages in my constituency and, I expect, in his, there are senior citizens who depend on the local post office, and we want to see them kept open if at all possible. That is why we are providing the investment. But the issue is not as simple as just keeping the Post Office card account, and it is certainly not acceptable to support privatisation of the Post Office, as the Liberal Democrats advocate.

Banks have closed branches in rural and valley communities, and one adult in seven in Wales does not have a bank account. Does not the Secretary of State see that the Post Office card account, which is used by 360,000 people, is vital to combating financial exclusion in disadvantaged communities?

I agree that the card account has played an important role in constituencies such as the hon. Gentleman’s and mine, and that is why we are looking at it so carefully. However, another 25 different accounts, including bank services, can be accessed at post offices. This is an issue that we are going to address.

How do the Secretary of State’s warm words square with what the Post Office chief executive said when he reckoned that he could do without 10,500 post offices? The Government are making that easier by removing income from post offices, and by the end of this month people will no longer be able to buy a TV licence at one. At present, they can use the cheque-and-send service to obtain a passport, for example, from the Bethcar street branch in Ebbw Vale, but will the introduction of the new biometric checks for passports mean that another service is to be lost, under Labour, to post offices and local people in Wales?

Talking of Ebbw Vale, the Labour party in Blaenau Gwent is calling for the Welsh Assembly’s post office development fund to be reopened. That is part of Labour’s commitment to local post offices right across Wales.

NHS

I regularly meet the First Minister and members of his Cabinet. The Assembly Government is investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales, and is delivering real improvements in the standard of services to patients.

The Secretary of State may be aware that many of my constituents are registered with GPs based in Wales, and that they have to wait longer for treatment than others who are registered with GPs based in England. That unacceptable problem was supposed to have been fixed this April, but the decision has now been deferred until next April. Will he talk to his colleague the Secretary of State for Health and to the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that the decision is brought forward to as early a date as possible?

I want to tell the hon. Gentleman how massive the improvements in health performance and waiting times in Wales have been. More than 213,000 extra patients have been seen in Welsh hospitals since we came to power. Waiting times have plummeted since 1997: in the past year, only 30 patients in Wales waited more than 12 months for treatment—a massive cut of nearly 14,500. The aim is that, by March next year, no patient will have to wait more than eight months. By the end of December 2009, the maximum total wait, from GP referral to receiving treatment, will be 26 weeks. That is a massive improvement, and the hon. Gentleman ought to welcome it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the dramatic turnaround in the health service in Wales is due to the hard work of NHS employees there? No patient now waits more than 12 months for in-patient or day-case treatment. Is that not a tremendous tribute to the work of the health service in Wales?

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. When we came to power, people who needed orthopaedic operations, such as ex-miners and so on, had to wait years and years. That was what we inherited, but our investment in and reform of the health service in Wales have caused those figures to plummet. Moreover, since we came to power, we have been able to recruit 450 more consultants and more than 7,300 more qualified nurses in Wales. That is another sign that Labour invests in the NHS, and that the health service in Wales will be safe only under Labour.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Telford and Wrekin primary care trust board plans to withdraw from the process of re-providing Shelton hospital? The lack of mental health provision in mid-Wales means that cutting that vital facility would have serious consequences for the whole of central Wales. Will he make representations to the Telford and Wrekin PCT, which is an English health trust, to protect a service that is crucial and irreplaceable?

I fully accept that for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and for him this is a very serious matter and, of course, I am happy to make those representations to assist him and his constituents to see whether we can resolve the problem.

Sometimes I think that the Secretary of State lives on another planet and does not spend enough time in Wales. With the NHS in Wales £71 million in debt, the former chief executive of the ambulance service claiming that the service is in crisis and that lives are being lost, hospitals such as Withybush, Bronglais and Llandudno under threat, and 60 per cent. more people waiting for treatment than when the Assembly Government came to power, does the Secretary of State think that the Welsh Health Minister is fit for purpose?

That really takes the biscuit. The hon. Lady does not even represent a Welsh constituency. I live in Wales. I am in Wales every weekend in my constituency, so she should not make accusations like that. When she looks at the record of health investment in Wales, plummeting waiting times, extra nurses, extra doctors, improved health performance, and 10 new hospitals being built or already built in Wales under our Government compared with all the hospital closures that the Tories were responsible for, she will realise that people in Wales know that it is only under Labour that the health service is safe in Wales.

2012 Olympics

6. What discussions he has had with the First Minister on maximising the opportunities for Wales from the 2012 Olympic games. (74943)

My right hon. Friend and I, along with the Welsh Assembly Government, are working to maximise the benefits brought to Wales by the London Olympic and Paralympic games. Wales has many excellent training facilities and will offer a warm welcome to visiting teams and their supporters, and I am delighted that the Millennium stadium in Cardiff will host part of the Olympic football tournament.

I am grateful for that answer. Will Ministers in the UK and Welsh Governments realise that, if we follow the example of the Sydney Olympics, where much of the training was done a long way away, there is a great opportunity to use the swimming facilities at Swansea, the velodrome in Newport, the Millennium stadium in Cardiff and, I am sure, the wide range of facilities in Blaenau Gwent? Will they all be put to maximum use and can we have a commitment?

I can certainly give that commitment to the hon. Gentleman. He is quite right that, at the Sydney Olympics, more than £400 million was spread throughout the economy in New South Wales in 2000. We intend to ensure that as much of the benefit as possible is spread throughout the UK—particularly in Wales. As he rightly says, we have a wide range of facilities: the velodrome, the national pool in Swansea and the Menai sailing centre. All those are good potential training facilities for teams and we will certainly push that forward.

The Olympic Delivery Authority has given a commitment that the 2012 Olympics will be the most sustainable ever. Given the strength of Wales’s renewable energy manufacturing industry, such as Sharp UK in my constituency, which makes photovoltaic cells, will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the potential for Welsh manufacturers to serve the Olympics in 2012?

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. He may know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already written to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to push the importance of renewable energy facilities in the new buildings related to the Olympic games. I will be able to give him further information when we meet in the near future.

Pensions

7. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the effect of pensions policy on the people of Wales. (74944)

The pensions White Paper shows that under our Government’s policies, Welsh pensioners can be assured of proper pension provision in an ageing society.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that response. I welcome the Government White Paper, which is building a consensus for pensioners for the future. At present, many pensioners throughout Wales, including in my constituency, benefit considerably from the pension credit. Will he ensure that, during the transition period to the earnings link, pensioners on pension credit do not lose out; and will he further urge the Department for Work and Pensions to campaign vigorously so that there is a greater take-up of pension credits throughout Wales by our neediest pensioners?

We will certainly do that. Indeed, the pension credit has been of enormous benefit to pensioners in Wales and, in particular, to some of the poorest pensioners in Blaenau Gwent, where 4,760 of them have benefited from it. The people of Blaenau Gwent and Wales as a whole need to be told by the Leader of the Opposition whether he will maintain his policy of abolishing the pension credit system.

Does the Secretary of State accept that many people in Wales are disappointed by the Government’s pension proposals and would much prefer a citizens pension that is paid to everyone at a decent level to be a right of Welsh citizenship?

The people of Wales pensioned off Plaid Cymru years ago. It is the Labour party that is providing a future policy for the people of Wales and the United Kingdom so that they can look forward to security and decency in retirement.