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Volume 455: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Ministerial Duties

1. What proportion of his working time in the last six months has been spent on matters relating to Wales. (114700)

I give the job all the time it needs to deliver for Wales and have achieved a phenomenal amount in the past six months, including Royal Assent for the landmark Government of Wales Act 2006, which the hon. Gentleman and his party fought against tooth and nail.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but despite his best efforts, is he aware of the growing concern in Wales that given his responsibilities for Northern Ireland and his interest in becoming the next Deputy Prime Minister, Wales might not be getting the attention that it deserves from its Secretary of State?

Indeed, how would he know? I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on his audacity, given that he moonlights as a local councillor in Kettering. In the future, if his Front-Bench colleagues got their way and we saw second-class status for Welsh MPs, with English MPs restricted to dealing with English legislation, he would not be able even to ask such a question, and we would see the Balkanisation of Parliament, which would be a disaster for the United Kingdom that would lead to constitutional chaos.

Is it not the case that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland recently told the people there that they should be green with envy at the financial settlement that he had got for them? Should not the people of Wales be red with anger at the fact that their representative in Parliament and the Cabinet is not doing the same for them?

The hon. Gentleman has another job as well because he is an Assembly Member. I am amazed that he has the time to come to Welsh questions. I would have thought that he would be on the backs of the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Secretary of State for their disgraceful policy of wishing to break up the United Kingdom by joining an alliance with Plaid Cymru to create second-class status for Welsh MPs. He should be ashamed of himself.

That is last week’s joke.

What proportion of the Secretary of State’s time was spent on Welsh environmental issues? Does he agree that Wales could benefit hugely from the new Energy Technologies Institute’s £1 billion budget? Will he spend time over the next six months lobbying his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to attend a key event at the Centre for Alternative Technology, which is near Machynlleth in Montgomeryshire, that will showcase the potential of Wales to work with and benefit from the new ETI and its funding?

My hon. Friends—rather unfairly, I thought—shouted, “Hello,” at the hon. Gentleman. I thought that he scrubbed up rather nicely, or rather cheekily, in Hello! magazine. I will indeed urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to explore how organisations in Wales, especially the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, which my right hon. Friend visited last August, can contribute to this vital agenda, in which I share an interest with the hon. Gentleman.

RAF St. Athan

2. What recent discussions he has had with colleagues in the Ministry of Defence on the future of RAF St. Athan. (114701)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Defence Ministers on a range of issues, including the current and future use of RAF St. Athan.

I understand that the defence training contract will be announced shortly. If it is awarded to St. Athan, will the Minister tell us what impact that will have on jobs in Wales?

As you know, Mr. Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will make a statement on the defence training review at 12.30 pm. It would not be appropriate for me to speculate on the outcome. However, it is well known that if the St. Athan bid is successful, it will have a substantial impact on Wales. We are talking about more than 5,000 jobs coming to Wales and an investment of £14 billion. If the bid is successful for the Metrix consortium, it will be evidence of the private and public sectors in Wales working together and coming forward with a world-beating bid to provide excellent training facilities for our defence forces.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the new military academy comes to RAF St. Athan, which is in my constituency, it will have an economy-transforming impact on south Wales because we will see the biggest single public investment ever in our country?

Yes, if that is the outcome. Again, I do not want to prejudge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence’s statement at 12.30 pm, but if that is the outcome, it will undoubtedly be the largest public-sector investment in Wales, and possibly in the United Kingdom, as my hon. Friend says. It would put up to £58 million a year into the Welsh economy over the next 25 years. As he says, it would have a transforming influence on the economy of not just his constituency, but the valleys and the Cardiff-to-Newport corridor.

If that announcement is made at 12.30 pm, it will have a devastating impact on my constituency. Will the Minister confirm that the Welsh Assembly Government, through the Welsh Development Agency, have made available £100 million for infrastructure to support the Metrix bid? Does he agree that if the contract, worth up to £16 billion, is awarded to south Wales, it will enhance Labour Assembly Members’ prospects of being re-elected to the Assembly, and therefore of retaining control of the Welsh Assembly?

I had a certain amount of respect for the hon. Gentleman until he made that last comment. The fact is that the Ministry of Defence ensured that the awarding of the contract was subject to a rigorous impartial evaluation process, which means that whatever the outcome announced in less than an hour’s time, it will be based straightforwardly on the quality of the winning bid. To claim that there is some sort of dirty, backstairs deal being done, as the hon. Gentleman implies, demeans him and the party that he represents.

As Wales represents 6 per cent. of the population, but 9 per cent. of the armed forces, is not the most important point about the two contracts, if they are awarded to St. Athan, the fact that we will be providing our troops with what they really need and deserve, namely the very best training, which they need for modern warfare and modern peacekeeping?

Absolutely. Obviously, there are huge economic benefits to the awarding of the contract, but the most important issue, and the reason why the Ministry of Defence went down the road of looking into establishing a defence training academy, is to improve and expand the training for our armed forces. That is the driver behind the decision. The issue is not just the benefits that the decision will bring to Wales but, as my hon. Friend says—and I congratulate him on all his work in dealing with and supporting the Metrix bid—the fact that our forces will have a state-of-the-art defence academy to provide them with the best training possible.

Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Mr. Speaker, I offer an unreserved apology.

We know that we do not always need to disagree in politics, and I know that the Minister and I—I speak for my party’s Front-Benchers—are equally keen that the contract for the training of our forces should be awarded to St. Athan later today. Indeed, I am on record as having supported the bid right from the start, along with colleagues on the other Benches. However, we understand that each Member will fight for their own constituency interests, and should be allowed to do so. Does he agree that such a decision would underline the enormous benefit to Wales of being a full participant in the United Kingdom, and would not have been made at all if the separatists, some of whom sit in the House, who even oppose recruitment to the armed forces in Wales, had their way by tearing Wales out of the Union?

Well, may I tell the hon. Lady that the road that her party seems to be taking in pursuing an English Parliament is actually contributing to the separation of the United Kingdom? Only a few weeks ago, her party in Wales was clearly in discussions about forming a coalition with the nationalists, so perhaps—

Railway Companies

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the performance of railway companies in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (114702)

My right hon. Friend and I regularly meet ministerial colleagues to discuss issues affecting Wales, including the performance of railway companies.

As a south Wales MP, I receive many complaints from constituents about Arriva trains, objecting to long delays, cancellations, services that skip stations when they are running late, and overcrowded trains. Given that Arriva ticket prices have increased by 5.5 per cent. this year—well above the national average for a service that is well below average—what action has the Minister taken, and what does he plan to do, to improve that service?

The hon. Lady criticises Arriva trains, and in the past her comments would have been fair. However, improvements have been made to the Welsh services awarded to Arriva under the franchise. There has been a welcome improvement in the punctuality of Arriva trains, which rose by 6 per cent from the second quarter in 2005-06 to 85.6 per cent. in the second quarter of 2006-07. There is still a long way to go, but substantial investment has been made in the Arriva franchise by the Welsh Assembly Government, including the provision of longer trains and investment in stations so that they can be served by such trains. We will keep a close eye on Arriva’s performance, as we will with First Great Western.

I am sure that my hon. Friend has read reports in The Western Mail about an impending price war between two train companies, which could lead to people with a valid ticket being left on the station, unable to board a particular train. What talks has he had with his colleagues in the Department for Transport to put pressure on those companies to avert such a price war, which would affect people in Llanelli and west Wales, who regularly have to use both companies, as only one of them serves areas west of Swansea?

I will meet the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), to discuss those issues. My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) makes an important point, particularly about the position of Arriva customers who travel beyond Swansea and want to connect to a First Great Western service. We must ensure that we provide joined-up rail services, and further discussions need to take place between Arriva and First Great Western. I will urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to address the problem and encourage the companies to work together more constructively.

I recently made a journey from Swansea to Bangor that took just over 10 hours on Arriva trains that were uniformly dirty and covered in graffiti—an improvement, according to the Under-Secretary. That service receives a public subsidy from the Welsh Assembly Government, but those conditions demonstrate contempt for the paying public. Is he confident that his colleagues in Cardiff understand the meaning of value for money, given the subsidy that they provide?

I am glad that he is not doing so, because it would result in a reduction in the services provided under the franchise. Because of the previous Government’s failure to make any significant investment in our railway infrastructure it will take a long time to achieve the quality of service that passengers expect and deserve. Improvements, however, are on the way. The Government are investing £110 million a week in the rail infrastructure, which will lead to significant benefits in performance. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that those investments have been made in Wales only because the UK Government are prepared to invest in infrastructure throughout the United Kingdom. His policies would cause the break-up of the United Kingdom and end that investment.

Will my hon. Friend join me in condemning the decision made by First Great Western to cancel the important 17.18 peak time service between Cardiff and Swansea? Unlike its fellow Welsh operators, Arriva and Virgin Cross Country, which are among the best performers in the country, First Great Western is among the poorest.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her tireless campaign to try and retain the 3.15 service from Paddington through to Swansea. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had a number of discussions with Andrew Davies, the Minister in the Assembly, and I have had a meeting about the matter with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris). We will continue to press First Great Western for a review of its decision and for a significant improvement in its overall performance. Customers of First Great Western are not getting the service that they deserve and expect. On Sunday I had a four and a half hour journey on First Great Western with no catering available at all. That is unfair not just on me, but on all the other passengers. First Great Western needs to work with the Department for Transport to improve its performance.

Free Bus Travel

4. What discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on implementation of free bus travel across the England-Wales border. (114703)

I have regular discussions with Welsh Assembly Government colleagues on transport matters, including the Welsh free bus travel scheme for over-60s and disabled people.

One of the issues in my constituency is the impact of the national border when bus journeys go across it. I know that the Secretary of State for Transport is making sure that the new framework legislation will enable a seamless transition. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State for Wales could press his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government to take up that framework legislation to ensure that we can have seamless journeys across the English-Welsh border.

Indeed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Welsh Assembly Government Ministers will do that. I congratulate him on supporting bus services, as Mrs. Thatcher once said:

“Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of 26 can count himself a failure”,

and Steven Norris, when Transport Minister, said that bus passengers are “dreadful human beings”. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is contradicting that record.

Over 20,000 elderly and disabled people in Flintshire have benefited from the scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it and similar schemes could be endangered if we ever saw a ragbag coalition of separatist Tories and nationalists running the Assembly?

Indeed. Not only would that policy be under threat, but the entire future of the United Kingdom would be under threat from the Tories’ policy of creating an English Parliament, relegating Scots and Welsh MPs, and presumably Northern Ireland MPs in the future, to second-class status. That is a recipe for the break-up of the United Kingdom and for such policies to be destroyed.

Gershon Review

5. Whether he has met Treasury Ministers and the First Minister in Wales to discuss the effect of the Gershon review job reductions on west Wales and the valleys objective 1 area. (114704)

I met the Paymaster General on Monday to discuss the effect of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ change programme on west Wales and the valleys and Wales as a whole. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have discussed the issue with the First Minister.

I thank the Minister for that useful reply. He will know that nearly 50 jobs have been lost in the Department for Work and Pensions office in Porthmadog and that there are further threats to about 50 in the Revenue office. The loss of 100 jobs in a small town in the objective 1 area is a devastating blow. May I ask him sincerely to redouble his efforts—I know he will—to have the policy changed so that it does not devastate that area of north-west Wales?

HMRC has not announced any office closures. The programme of regional reviews announced in November is a consultation exercise. Published future staff numbers are initial proposals only. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that before withdrawing any office, a full impact assessment will be undertaken, including an assessment of the impact on the local economy. I agreed with the Paymaster General that we would meet again with the First Minister to discuss these matters, but I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), that if we did not have a United Kingdom Government, these issues would not be discussed. His policy on separation of the United Kingdom would deny his—

My hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent service that the Bangor Revenue office provides to the whole of north-west Wales. It employs many of my constituents, but those jobs are under threat. Will he press the Treasury, as I and many other Members have pressed the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that we provide a full bilingual service to people in north-west Wales? The DWP accepted that and moved Revenue jobs from south Wales; now is the time to keep them in north-west Wales.

I can tell my hon. Friend that HMRC recognises the needs of its Welsh-speaking customers, especially during this period of change, and is seeking a better understanding of their requirements across the range of HMRC services. I will discuss that with the Paymaster General and the First Minister when we meet again.

May I reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)? The Minister may be aware that of the 35 members of staff—[Interruption.]

The Minister may be aware that of the 35 members of staff at the Revenue office in Porthmadog, 24 are Welsh speakers. There are another 44 Welsh speakers in the Bangor, Rhyl and Colwyn Bay cluster. Can he confirm that he recognises the importance to people in north Wales of receiving a Welsh language service from the Revenue office? Has he impressed that on his colleague, the Paymaster General?

The hon. Gentleman is right. The Porthmadog office deals with telephone and written correspondence in Welsh. The formal consultation on the future of that office will not begin until after April 2008, so there is plenty of time for representations to be made by Members, trade unions and stakeholders, not only in north Wales but throughout Wales. I assure him that the Paymaster General and I will take up the matter with the First Minister when we meet again.

Police Funding

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Office and the Welsh Assembly Government on police funding in Wales. (114705)

The Government continue to provide huge increases in resources for the police service. The recent announcement of more than £450 million in total funding for 2007-08 represents another good deal for Wales.

In response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety stated:

“We are committed to ensuring that Neighbourhood Policing will be introduced to every community in England and Wales by April 2007, and that every community will have a Neighbourhood Policing team by April 2008.”—[Official Report, 23 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 1679W.]

Given that the police in Wales have said that that will not be possible under the current funding settlement, can the Minister still guarantee that it will be fully funded and fully implemented in Wales?

Of course we want to see neighbourhood policing rolled out right across Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Indeed, under this Labour Government we have had 1,000 more police officers and 1,300 more police support officers in Wales, compared with the consistent cuts in police officers and police budgets under the Tory Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported.

There are more police officers in north Wales than ever before, and the introduction of community support officers has brought neighbourhood policing to streets in Wrexham and other parts of north Wales. Will my right hon. Friend have a quiet word with some of those who are bleating in north Wales to get them to enjoy the benefits of a rising budget rather than the contraction that would be brought about if we ever had a ragtag coalition of nationalists and Tories running Wales?

I could not have put it better myself. Neighbourhood policing in north Wales is indeed of a high standard. It would be put at risk, not only for the reasons that my hon. Friend gave, but if the Leader of the Opposition’s policy of £21 billion of cuts in Labour’s spending plans were implemented.

Does not the Secretary of State realise how hollow his words ring and how out of touch he is with what is happening on the ground? What does he say to people in places such as Abergele and Old Colwyn, who are losing dedicated community beat officers, or our chief constables in Wales, who have to take officers off the beat to fill civilian desk jobs? Where has all the money gone and why does Labour continue to fail to deliver proper policing for the people of Wales?

The truth is that there are 1,000 more police officers and 1,300 more police support officers under Labour, crime has decreased and people see neighbourhood policing that they never saw under the Tories. The clear choice for everybody in Wales at the Welsh Assembly elections in May is voting Labour and against the ragtag, Tory-led, Plaid Cymru coalition that opposes us.