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Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Child Poverty

May I first pay tribute to the work of Peter Clarke, the first Children’s Commissioner for Wales—and, indeed, for the United Kingdom—who died recently? I offer our condolences to his family. He worked tirelessly to improve the lives of children in Wales. The elimination of child poverty in Wales by 2020 is a key commitment for the Government and the Assembly Government, and will be incorporated into every aspect of policy.

I echo the Secretary of State’s comments about the late Peter Clarke. Some seven years after the adoption of the target, Peter Clarke dubbed the fact that Welsh children still had the worst level of well-being in the United Kingdom a national disgrace. Will the Secretary of State commit the Government to redoubling their efforts and to working with the next First Minister in the National Assembly, of whichever party? The goal of making child poverty a thing of the past must surely be lifted above the level of mere party politics.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the absolute priority of tackling child poverty. We have a proud record of lifting some 50,000 children in Wales alone out of poverty, and our policies of increasing child benefit, child tax credit and the child trust funds will help with that. As the hon. Gentleman was talking about party politics, I assume that he agrees with Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Leanne Wood, who said recently that she believed that the only way of eradicating poverty in Wales was through independence. On that basis—

Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to see last week’s damning UNICEF report, which showed that children growing up in the UK suffered greater deprivation, had worse relationships with their parents and were exposed to more risks from alcohol and drug abuse than children growing up in any other prosperous country on earth? Given that the rates of child deprivation are worse in Wales than the UK average, is there anything that the Secretary of State can say to convince Members that his party, either at Cardiff Bay or here in London, has a clear strategy to improve the conditions in which Welsh children are being raised?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman cites the UNICEF report; he must know that it contains data more than six years old. If he looks at the real picture, he will see that we have done an amazing amount to lift children out of poverty. Let me remind the House that 240 children are lifted out of poverty every day across the United Kingdom under this Labour Government. During the Tory years, 210 children went into poverty every day. That was the legacy that we inherited, and it is the legacy that we are putting right through our policies for tackling child poverty, which have already lifted 50,000 children in Wales out of poverty.

Ambulance Service

2. Whether he has discussed cross-border issues related to ambulance service provision in north and mid-Wales with Assembly members; and if he will make a statement. (121341)

I have regular meetings with the Assembly Minister for Health and Social Services on a range of issues, including the provision of ambulance services in Wales.

The Minister will know that, a week ago last Monday, the ambulance service in Wales was so overstretched that it had to ask people not to dial 999. Last weekend, when someone was stabbed outside a pub in Maesteg, he had to be taken to hospital in a fire engine because no ambulance was available. Will not the threatened closure of out-patients departments such as those in Tywyn and other hospitals place an even greater strain on the Welsh ambulance service? What can the Minister do to assure people from Lichfield going to west Wales on holiday—and, indeed, the residents of west Wales—that the ambulance service there will not be weakened still further?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned two incidents. The first related to problems caused by the weather in some parts of Wales. The other, which related to the provision of ambulances in the south Wales valleys and their inability to answer a prompt call, is being investigated. The Welsh Assembly Government are taking decisive action to get the ambulance service back on track. The budget for this year has gone up to £109 million—a 35 per cent. increase in three years—and an extra £16 million capital is available this year to invest in 119 new ambulances. The underlying systemic problems are undoubtedly being tackled under the new chief executive, Alan Murray. They cannot be solved overnight, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will shortly meet Brian Gibbons, the Minister for Health and Social Services, and I will take up the points that he has raised. That level of investment can only be sustained, however, by a Labour Government—with a Labour Administration in Cardiff—investing in our health service at record levels.

Is the Minister aware that cross-border pressures will increase if Llanidloes hospital is closed, with an even greater burden placed on the ambulance service as a direct result of reduced health care in the Llanidloes area? Will he discuss with Assembly Ministers the consequences of such a closure, to avert those potentially devastating effects on health provision in south Montgomeryshire, which cannot simply be mitigated through alternative provision elsewhere in Powys or Shropshire?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the consultation in relation to services at Llanidloes is ongoing, and my understanding is that no final decisions have been taken yet. As I said to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), I will meet Brian Gibbons in the near future, and I will take up the point that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has made. Again, I emphasise that the solution to such problems is investment and reform in our health service. Reform is essential if we are to get the modern health service that we all want in Wales, and reconfiguration is part of that.

Is the Minister aware of a recent case in which a constituent waited four hours for an ambulance to arrive on a 999 call, and when it did arrive the ambulance crew expected her husband to go off with a jerry can and get some petrol, as they had run out while looking for the place? Does not that show that we need, first, a better triage system in the hospitals, secondly, a satnav system fitted in all ambulances, and thirdly, an end to the policy of withdrawing ambulances from rural areas and putting them into cities to try to meet the targets that his Government have set?

No, I do not accept that. As I said to the hon. Member for Lichfield, massive investment is now going into the Welsh ambulance service. The problems that have been identified are true of the whole of Wales, because of the systemic failure in parts of the service. The only way to address those issues is to carry on with the record investment in our health service, including the extra £16 million invested in brand-new state-of-the-art ambulances. If the hon. Gentleman’s party, leading a rag, tag and bobtail coalition, ever won in Wales, we would not see that level of investment.

Police/Support Staff

3. How many (a) police civilian staff, (b) police officers and (c) community support officers there are in Wales. (121343)

At September 2006 there were 3,699 police support staff, 7,509 police officers and 384 community support officers in Wales.

That is a highly satisfactory situation, but is it not disturbing that the figures for Scotland are superior in every way to those for Wales and England? Of course, Scotland missed out, happily, on the chaotic futility and waste of the police reorganisations attempted last year. Should not the Secretary of State support the suggestion made by Rosemary Butler, the Assembly Member for Newport, West, that the Welsh police forces should come under the Welsh Assembly? Is not it discourteous of him to dismiss that suggestion with his fatwa?

I am not aware of having behaved in the way that my hon. Friend describes. Obviously Assembly Members, including the First Minister, are entitled to have as a personal aim or ambition the devolution of policing and law in Wales. But that is not Welsh Labour policy or this Government’s policy. As pro-devolutionists, he and I should wait for the consequences of the Government of Wales Act 2006 to bed down, which will take some years, and for the Assembly to be reconfigured appropriately, before we consider any further such moves.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will share my concern that the ability of North Wales police to retain adequate staffing levels at the port of Holyhead has been severely compromised by the cut of £100,000 in Home Office dedicated security posts funding for the coming financial year, which is equivalent to £200,000 when inflation is taken into account. Given that Holyhead is the busiest port of entry into Wales, and that protective services are supposed to be a priority for his Government, what representations is he making to the Home Secretary to ensure adequate security at Holyhead?

There is adequate security at Holyhead. I have discussed the matter with colleagues and obviously we will continue to monitor it, but the hon. Gentleman will understand that North Wales police authority has had record investment over the 10 years of our Labour Government, and has had more police officers than ever before, and more community support officers than ever before. It is one of the best performing police authorities anywhere in the United Kingdom. I would have thought that he would welcome that.

My right hon. Friend will understand why I have to declare an interest in this question. Can he confirm that there has been a 15 per cent. increase in the number of police officers in north Wales since 1997, and does he agree that that has led to detection rates improving year on year since 1997, especially in the western division, which is top of the league for the whole of England and Wales?

I agree with my hon. Friend, whose son is an excellent police officer in the North Wales police authority.

It is all down to his mum, as my hon. Friend says.

My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) is right. There are nearly 1,600 police officers—200 more than when we came to power. There are 76 extra community support officers. Detection rates are going up, sexual offences are down, total recorded crime is down, robbery is down and burglary is down. The North Wales police authority has also been active in applying antisocial behaviour orders. That is a very good record, which we need to build on.

Prison Places

4. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales and his colleagues in the Home Department about the sufficiency of prison places in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (121344)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the First Minister and Home Office colleagues on matters affecting Wales, including prison places. The Government have announced plans to ensure that there are enough prison places across England and Wales.

The Minister will know that there has been a long-running campaign to have a prison facility to serve north and mid-Wales, because at any given time between 650 and 750 people are held elsewhere, in English jails. Will he please intervene as soon as possible, because there is some talk of putting yet another prison facility in Cwmbran, Gwent? The people of Cwmbran do not want it. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) does not want it. We desperately need a facility for north and mid-Wales. Will the Minister please intervene personally in this debate?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that when the Minister responsible for prisons came before the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, he indicated that he would seriously consider any site that came forward in north Wales. I know that one has been proposed, but unfortunately it appears to be too small. We have to put prisons where the demand is, and unfortunately the demand is not only in north Wales but in south Wales. Therefore, sites have to be considered throughout Wales—in south Wales as well as north Wales. However, I will again speak to the prisons Minister. I realise that this is an important issue. If we can identify a site in north Wales, and if the hon. Gentleman or any of his colleagues on either side of the House are aware of any particular site, I will pursue that with the prisons Minister.

I support the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). It is extremely important that north Wales should have a prison if at all possible. Real progress has been made at Altcourse on Merseyside with the introduction of a Welsh unit within the prison, but it is important that individuals should be housed as close to their communities as possible if the rehabilitative effects of prison are to be maximised. Can we please have a prison in north Wales as soon as possible?

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and all I can do in response is point to what I said to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). We must remember that there are currently more than 1,400 male prisoners and almost 200 female prisoners in England, and that the majority of those prisoners are from south Wales rather than north Wales. Therefore, I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that although there is a case for building a prison in north Wales, there is also a case for building another prison in south Wales.

I am sure that the Minister is aware that even under the Home Office’s median projections for the growth in prison populations, between 2006 and 2013 the Government will have to spend more than £1 billion on building new prisons and housing prisoners in Wales. Does he agree that that is completely unsustainable, and that the money could be far better spent in Wales on effective forms of alternative punishment and rehabilitation that actually lower reoffending rates, such as the one2one mentoring scheme in Cardiff?

I take with a pinch of salt what the hon. Lady says, because I remember the criticism that came from the Opposition Benches a few weeks ago about a letter that was sent to the judiciary reminding them of the guidelines that had been set five years ago to try to encourage more community-based punishment rather than prison sentences. Opposition Members said that that was an outrage. However, I agree with what the hon. Lady says: yes, we should be using more community-based punishments, and that is what the Home Office and the Home Secretary are trying to persuade the judiciary and the magistrates to do.

May I start by associating Conservative Members with the remarks of the Secretary of State concerning the sad loss of Peter Clarke, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales?

Given the revelation that almost half the antisocial behaviour orders in Wales are being breached and 13 registered sex offenders are unaccounted for, there is an obvious failure in offender management. With dangerously overcrowded prisons in south Wales and no prisons in north Wales, and with that now coupled with changes to the probation service, does the Minister agree that the new offender managers will have increasing problems in managing Welsh offenders so as to ensure adequate public protection?

The hon. Lady claims that ASBOs are failing, but although 40-odd per cent. of the people who have been given them might end up reoffending, that means that they have proved effective for the majority of those given them. I do not know what her policy is, but is she proposing that we get rid of ASBOs? They have certainly received a lot of support in the community. I must say to the hon. Lady that the constant drip, drip, drip of criticism in relation to our judicial policy and our activities against criminals shows that although her party might have the rhetoric, when it comes to actual policy, nothing comes from the Opposition Benches.

Illegal Immigration

5. What discussions he has had with colleagues in the Home Office on illegal immigration in Wales. (121345)

I have regular discussions with Home Office colleagues. The Government’s policies to tackle illegal immigration are making a real impact.

I am interested not only in what the Secretary of State has just said, but also in his earlier reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), because when I recently visited Holyhead at a busy time of the day when immigrants were flowing into the port, there were no immigration and nationality directorate officers or Customs and Excise officers on duty, and only a handful of uniformed police were present. Amazingly, the special branch officers who were present were having to carry out Customs and Excise duties in the absence of anybody else. Surely that—

The hon. Gentleman speaks from the Conservative Benches, yet the Conservatives have consistently opposed every measure that this Government have introduced to clamp down on illegal asylum applications and illegal immigration. The latest figures show that every half hour—24 hours a day, 365 days a year—somebody is removed. When the Tory party starts supporting the Government in the action that we take to remove illegal immigrants, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be entitled to ask me such a question.

The Secretary of State should know that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) not only speaks from the Conservative Benches, he speaks from personal experience, so the Secretary of State ought to listen. Is he aware—and if not, why not?—that police in north Wales have been arresting illegal immigrants, only to be told by Home Office officials to let them go, giving them instructions, and, I believe, a helpful map, on how to get to the immigration offices in Liverpool? They have been quoting paragraph 23.1 of the immigration and nationality directorate’s operational enforcement manual. Is this not just another farce being played out by the Home Office, but one that this time threatens the safety and security of people in Wales?

The farce is the hon. Lady’s party’s policies. The Conservatives have consistently opposed tough enforcement action on our borders and elsewhere to prevent illegal migration, and they have even voted against, and continue to argue against, the identity cards that will help to deal with this problem. When she comes forward with policies that seriously address the problem, she too will be entitled to ask us difficult questions.

Rural Post Office Network

In December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry set out the Government’s strategy to preserve a national post office network, putting it on a strong footing to deliver a better service today, and increasing its sustainability to ensure that it can meet the challenges of the future.

I also thank the Minister for giving a delegation of postmasters the opportunity to meet him. At that meeting, it emerged that individual postmasters and postmistresses have not been sent a copy of the Department of Trade and Industry consultation document that could so dramatically impact on their future. What discussions has the Minister had with the DTI to ensure that that situation is remedied, and that the views of those so drastically affected can be taken into consideration in the next two weeks?

The Government package, which is now £1.7 billion up to 2011, is there to sustain and rationalise the existing network and ensure that we have a network that serves its purpose. I have already raised the issue that he points out with the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), and I am awaiting a response concerning the distribution of that document.

Does my hon. Friend have views on the antics of Denbighshire county council, which criticises Government support for post offices, yet encourages council tax payers to desert post offices and switch to paying by direct debit?

Yes, I have seen those reports, and it is incumbent on the entire public sector to consider the issue of innovation and how they can use the post office network to ensure that a significant customer base is maintained. I am afraid that without that customer base, the network is no longer sustainable.

What epithets would the Minister use for those of his hon. Friends who voted for money to shut post offices, and then whinge in the newspapers when post offices are shut? There is a name for that, but I will not use it, Mr. Speaker, out of respect for you. What does the Minister say?

The Government have put £150 million a year into the rural network and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. On top of that, there is money for rationalisation and to pay redundancies. The hon. Gentleman must accept that the current number of post offices is unsustainable—a view shared by the National Federation of SubPostmasters. We have to have rationalisation and innovation from the Post Office, in order to provide the customer base that will protect the network.


7. What recent discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on the provision of dentistry in Wales. (121347)

I regularly meet the Assembly Health Minister to discuss a range of issues including the provision of dentistry in Wales. The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in NHS dentistry in Wales and are delivering real improvements in expanding access to dental services to all Welsh patients.

Given that less than half the adult population in Wales is registered with an NHS dentist, and the British Dental Association Wales has said that many dentists are unable to offer care to NHS dentistry patients because they do not have the funding, how does the Minister think it will be possible to fulfil the First Minister’s pledge that everybody who wants NHS dentistry in Wales should be able to get it by 31 March this year?

The investment is going in. Already this year there is an extra £30 million going into NHS dentists and several brand-new practices have been opened. For example, in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire two new independent practices, funded directly by the local health board, are now providing 24,000 patient places. That is the investment being made, but it would be put at risk if we ended up with a coalition led by the Tory party. The investment goes in under a Labour Government: it would be threatened under a Tory coalition.