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Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Single Farm Payments

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to resolve the payment of outstanding single farm payments to cross-border farmers. (146371)

I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my predecessor, to whom I pay tribute, have held regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on matters affecting Wales, including farming. I understand that of the 518 cross-border claims under the 2006 scheme, all but 25 have been processed for full or part payment.

May I be the first person on the Conservative Benches to congratulate the Minister on his elevation? In view of the Secretary of State’s multi-tasking, I expect that he will have a heavier load than usual. I am grateful for his answer. Will he please ensure full co-operation between the National Assembly for Wales agriculture department and the Rural Payments Agency for farmers whose farms straddle both sides of the border? My constituent Mrs. Christine Jones of Llanfairwaterdine did not receive her 2005 payment in full until the end of last month.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for those kind words of introduction to the Dispatch Box and I am sure that I will greatly enjoy the role. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did outstandingly well when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I have no doubt that he will be equally good in command of the Department for Work and Pensions. On the substance of the question, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be close co-ordination between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Rural Payments Agency and the Welsh Assembly Government. Just to bring the House up to date and to be clear, in Wales, for 2006, 315 of the 323 farmers on the Welsh side of the border have been full or part paid, and, in England, 178 out of 195 have been full or part paid. We will make sure that we work closely together to ensure that everybody receives their payment.

May I say, llongyfarchiadau i’r gweinidog newydd? The real scandal of the single payment is that it costs the average family in Wales £450 a year in farm tax. Is not the problem that the single payment is almost a payment for life for farmers, even if they stop farming altogether? One farmer in Wales recently left farming and sold his single payment allocation to a speculator. Should we not stop that scandal and make sure that the single payments, which are rip-offs for the taxpayer, are phased out?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words of llongyfarchiadau, which for the purpose of the translators is “congratulations” in Welsh. Diolch yn fawr iawn—thank you. I can confirm that the complete amount paid for the single farm payments is, for 2006 alone, more than £219 million. We are on track and on target with that. Although I cannot wholly disagree with his comments, I assure him that we will work to make sure that the farming community and the wider rural economy in Wales is protected for the future and safeguarded.

Neighbourhood Policing

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on neighbourhood policing levels in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (146375)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. There are 22 community safety partnerships in place in Wales. Does he agree that those partnerships are having a real impact on our local communities by tackling crime and antisocial behaviour? Can he give an assurance that the funding for those partnerships will be safeguarded?

I agree that the multi-agency approach has a big impact on local crime. Record amounts of funding are going in, as they have done throughout our period of government—unlike the Conservative record in government. The figures speak for themselves. Recorded crime in Wales is down 3 per cent., total violent crime is down 1 per cent., burglary is down 10 per cent., theft and the handling of stolen goods is down 5 per cent., and theft of and from vehicles is down 3 per cent. The only thing that is up is detection rates.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency and across Wales? They are not only making our streets safer through high-profile policing, but are working together with agencies such as the county council and Communities First to tackle the causes of crime and are developing things such as the multiball centres in Llwynhendy and the Morfa. Will he make sure that we have adequate talks with Home Office Ministers to ensure funding for our neighbourhood policing teams across Dyfed-Powys?

I will certainly do all that I can and I hope that my hon. Friend will support that. I am pleased to inform her that the Dyfed-Powys police force is on track to have a dedicated neighbourhood policing team embedded in every area by April 2008. I congratulate her on her work to support such initiatives.

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that as the funding settlement for the police in Wales is 3.6 per cent. this year, yet police inflation is 5.1 per cent., there is an obvious funding gap? As is typified by the situation in north Wales, that will lead to a recruitment embargo, or stop, for at least three years. Neighbourhood policing partnerships have been very successful, but will he please ensure that they can continue to be so and that the funding gap is addressed?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that unlike under the Conservatives, there will be total funding of more than £450 million this year, which is up 17.3 per cent. in real term terms since 1997. Owing to that funding, we have 677 police community support officers, including in north Wales, and 1,000 police officers, including more in north Wales. That is why crime is falling and people feel safer in their communities.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his reappointment and look forward to working with him and his Minister on the new powers that have been devolved to the Assembly. Does he still support the amalgamation of the four Welsh police forces?

Before I answer that question, may I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment? I also pay tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who is sitting behind him, who carried out his long stint in the job very well. May I also pay tribute to my former deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger)? He did an outstanding job and is one of the most popular Members in the House on a cross-party basis.

The amalgamation of all four police forces in Wales is not on the Home Secretary’s agenda, and I am quite happy with that.

Eighteen months ago, four of my constituents—Maurice Broadbent, Dave Horrocks, Wayne Wilkes and 14-year-old Tom Harland—were killed in the worst cycling accident in UK history. My right hon. Friend visited the site of the accident and met parents and the North Wales police to discuss the inquiry. Coroner John Hughes concluded his inquiry last week and was highly critical of North Wales police and Conwy county borough council’s gritting department. Will my right hon. Friend ask to meet Conwy council and North Wales police to discuss the results of John Hughes’s coroner’s inquiry?

I will certainly be happy to explore the matter with my hon. Friend and to work jointly with him to address the situation. He is right that I visited the site of the accident with him. The accident was one of the most appalling and tragic that I have ever had the misfortune to experience afterwards. The Rhyl cycling club is a fine club involving youngsters and many others. It has high standards and traditions, and it is devastating that it has been affected in such a way.

May I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), since the accident happened in my constituency?

The Secretary of State will appreciate that additional demands are likely to be made of the police in the light of the security situation. On Monday, his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave a commitment to the House that she would work with police forces throughout the country to ensure that adequate funding was made available for dedicated security posts. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he will make representations to the Home Secretary with a view to ensuring that any diversion of resources to security policing will not impinge adversely on the community policing budgets of Welsh police forces?

There is no intention that that will happen; both functions are equally important. At this sensitive and critical time, especially, we must ensure that all necessary resources are diverted towards dealing with the security threat. However, of course, community and neighbourhood policing, which is especially strong in north Wales, must be protected at all costs.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the key to the success of neighbourhood policing is likely to be the work of police community support officers? The key reason why their introduction has been a tremendous success is that they, unlike fully-trained police officers, are not continually pulled off for other duties. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Home Secretary to ensure that police community support officers and their work are not diluted by giving them other tasks, or taking them out of the local communities to which they have been allocated?

I will certainly write to my right hon. Friend about that, and I pay tribute to the work that he did in the Home Office right at the beginning of our time in government in getting police community support officers on track. It was an innovative Labour policy that has proved hugely successful and popular across the country.

Is the Secretary of State not a little bit concerned that evidence is already emerging that police officers who are part of the very worthwhile neighbourhood policing initiative are being diverted to other urgent, important police tasks? Is there not a risk that the enthusiasm shown at the launch of the neighbourhood policing initiative will dissipate quickly, as policemen are diverted elsewhere? Is that really sustainable?

I do think that it is sustainable, because the officers’ primary purpose is to assist in neighbourhoods, and to be a visible presence on the streets. They are meeting that purpose very effectively and are giving reassurance and support to local communities, as was the original objective. Obviously, if there is an emergency or a crisis, it is all hands to the pump, as the hon. Gentleman would expect.

Defence Training Academy

3. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the impact of the defence training academy on the south Wales economy; and if he will make a statement. (146374)

I have regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of issues, including the defence training academy, which is the single biggest investment in the history of Wales. It is the result of a strong partnership between our Government in Westminster and our Assembly Government in Cardiff, and the result of the work of colleagues such as my hon. Friend, who has worked tirelessly in promoting the merits of St. Athan.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he satisfied that everything is being done to ensure that the south Wales economy gets the maximum benefit from that record-breaking investment? In particular, does he remain confident that the road transport infrastructure for the academy will be in place by the time of its opening in 2012 or 2013?

It is important that the road access is in place, and I hope that it will be. I know that the Welsh Assembly Government and Transport Ministers are working hard on that, along with others. There will, of course, be a full transport impact assessment as part of the planning procedure relating to that important investment. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the project will be a huge boost to the local economy. It is estimated that it will bring 5,500 jobs, and 1,500 jobs during the construction period. The spending input will mean about £58 million extra for the local economy over the life of the project, which is a long period.

Given that the right hon. Gentleman stood at the Dispatch Box at the beginning of March and criticised Plaid Cymru in the strongest terms for its hostility to defence-related investment in Wales, will he explain why his party in Cardiff bay is negotiating a grubby deal with Plaid Cymru, and will he tell the House what steps—

Does the Secretary of State agree that all-party support for the project was vital to securing it for Wales, and will he agree to work with the Department for the Economy and Transport Ministers in the Assembly, whether they belong to my party or his, so that we can get the maximum benefit to which the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) referred?

Of course we must all pull together to make sure that the project is a spectacular success for the south Wales economy, and not just for the constituency that my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) so ably represents. Of course all parties must work together. Speaking of who might be the Minister with responsibility for the economy, at least we were not negotiating a grubby deal with the Tories.

I have the hon. Lady’s name down to ask a question now. Perhaps the Whips will keep me informed of what question the Front-Benchers want dealt with. I call Mark Pritchard.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker; I welcome this opportunity. In addition to the problems that the road infrastructure projects are causing for the future of the defence training academy, the Secretary of State will know that many of the defence training personnel from RAF Cosford, whom he hopes will relocate to RAF St. Athan, are unable to do so because of the differential in house prices. How does he think that that will affect the future of the project?

Clearly, it is important that those who are transferring to St. Athan bring their skills and their opportunities. It is a great place to live and to work. The whole area is a wonderful place to live. The regeneration of south Wales following the decline of coal mining and heavy industry provides a marvellous location for people to work and to enjoy a quality of life that is among the highest anywhere in Britain.

Whatever one’s private thoughts about Welsh nationalism may be, it is surely right that there has been universal support for the deal in St. Athan from all the political parties, including the independent Member of Parliament—

Order. What has that got to do with the matter before us? Nothing. It has nothing to do with it.

Welsh-speaking Workers

5. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial and Assembly colleagues on measures to safeguard the rights of Welsh-speaking workers. (146376)

I can confirm that my predecessor had regular discussions with colleagues in both the UK and the Welsh Assembly Governments on a wide range of issues, including the Welsh language, and I intend to continue such discussions.

I am grateful for that answer. Thomas Cook is the latest in a long line of companies to blunder into bad personnel decisions and public relations disasters on the language issue. As the company states in a letter to me, it never intended to ban the use of Welsh, but at the same time it says that the preferred language in some cases is English. The private sector is clearly confused about the matter. Does the Minister agree that the Welsh Language Act 1993 needs to be reviewed and reformed, if only for the benefit of the private sector?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that the First Minister announced a legislative programme on 6 June and also announced that there would be an Order in Council on the Welsh language in the autumn. In the Wales Office we are closely monitoring the situation with Thomas Cook, and we know that the Welsh Assembly Government Minister responsible has requested a meeting with the company. I also know, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, that Thomas Cook has entered discussions with the Commission for Racial Equality and the Welsh Language Board in relation to its Welsh language policy. All hon. Members will welcome that approach.

Mr. Speaker, I apologise for any misunderstanding with the Chair.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State on keeping not one but two jobs in the Cabinet, and say diolch yn fawr to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) for his courtesy to me during his time in office. May I also say half a goodbye to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), and extend a warm welcome on behalf of the official Opposition to the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) to their new positions on the Front Bench for Wales.

Does the Minister acknowledge the importance of the Welsh Language Act, which has done so much to protect and enhance the position of the Welsh language, and also acknowledge the main advocate and architect of that Act, my right hon. Friend Wyn Roberts, the noble Lord Roberts of Conwy? Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the dedication that Lord Roberts has shown to Wales throughout his long and distinguished public service career, and wish him a long and happy retirement?

I add my sentiments to those of the hon. Lady and welcome her back to her position. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would echo the sentiments as well. Yes, there has been a great deal of cross-party support for the Welsh language. It is worth remembering the successes, which include the fact that since 1993 Government Departments and public bodies have introduced 423 statutory and 53 voluntary Welsh language schemes. Over 37 per cent. of children between the ages of three and 15 speak Welsh, and there is an 80,000 increase in the number of people in Wales who can speak Welsh. That is to be applauded.

Prison Overcrowding

6. When he next expects to meet representatives of the Prison Service to discuss prison overcrowding in Wales. (146378)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my predecessor have held regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on matters affecting Wales, including prisons. The Government have announced further plans to ensure that there are enough prison places throughout England and Wales.

I congratulate the Minister on his new appointment. Is he aware that very large numbers of Welsh prisoners are starting their sentences as mild drug abusers but coming out of prison as hardened drug addicts? What assessment has he made of the impact of overcrowding on the capacity to deliver effective rehabilitation programmes?

We are monitoring the situation closely. To clarify, this is an area of retained powers, not a devolved matter. Since 1997, the Government have increased prison capacity by nearly 20,000 places, and in 2007, capacity will increase further by 2,200 places. On top of that, a new capacity-building programme will deliver 8,000 new places by 2012, so we are well on the way to addressing the issue of overcrowding.

When I met offenders recently in Rossett churchyard, it was clear that they were carrying out purposeful work in tidying up the graveyard for the benefit of the local community. Does my hon. Friend, whom I welcome to his new position, agree that the key to reducing the prison population in Wales is to impose tough, non-custodial, alternative sentences, so that the local community can benefit from those who commit crime in the longer term?

My hon. Friend speaks a lot of sense, and I pay tribute to those involved in the scheme that he mentioned. It is undoubtedly right that a progressive agenda must look at the issue of non-custodial sentences as well. We must also consider the issue of driving down crime. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, in Wales recorded crime is down 3 per cent., violent crime is down 1 per cent., burglary is down 10 per cent., and theft from vehicles is down 3 per cent. Only detection rates are going up.

Is the Minister aware that South Wales police are having to transport, house and feed at least seven prisoners a day because of prison overcrowding, a total of 570 since the start of the year, at a cost of over £250,000? What impact will that have on the ability of South Wales police to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour?

The hon. Lady draws attention to the use of police cells for the custody of prisoners. It is not ideal, but Operation Safeguard is a well-established and tried-and-tested agreement between the National Offender Management Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers to hold prisoners in police cells instead of prison custody at times of high population pressures. It is a pragmatic approach, but the answer to overcrowding is, as I have already said, to tackle the root causes of criminal activity and to build new prison places, which we are doing.

Train Services

7. What discussions he has had with First Great Western trains on the December 2007 timetable consultation. (146379)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who has been tenacious in pressing the concerns of First Great Western's customers—especially those living west of Cardiff. My predecessor met First Great Western on 20 June, and I will continue to follow developments closely.

When my hon. Friend meets First Great Western, will he ensure that the consultation being undertaken is a real one, not a paper exercise? For too long in south-west Wales, we have fed information to First Great Western, but nothing happens. We are a little tired of that and we want consultation to take into consideration our needs and aspirations.

My hon. Friend continues to be a powerful advocate on behalf of rail passengers in Wales, and I can assure her that we will press hard for this to be a meaningful consultation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to First Great Western, seeking assurances on these issues, and our talks with First Great Western will continue. We intend to ensure that the consultation is meaningful.

The fourth prize in a recent charity auction in my constituency was a pair of First Great Western first class return tickets to London. I do not think that I dare travel First Great Western, but if the Minister would like them, I will gladly give them to him.

I do travel regularly on First Great Western—every week—and on Arriva trains as well. It is unacceptable that First Great Western’s performance in the third quarter of 2006-07 was the lowest of all the long-distance operators. In a recent passenger focus survey, 72 per cent. of First Great Western passengers expressed their dissatisfaction. However, First Great Western has given commitments, and we will continue to press it for massive investment in the routes that it serves through to south Wales and look for the results. Let me also pay tribute to the Welsh Assembly, which, among other things, is investing more than £50 million to enhance capacity in the Valley Lines network. We must not forget about the feeder network either.