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Volume 464: debated on Wednesday 10 October 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Cardiff’s Women’s Safety Unit

1. What discussions he has had with National Assembly for Wales colleagues on future funding of Cardiff’s women’s safety unit; and if he will make a statement. (156149)

The Cardiff women’s safety unit does a fantastic job in helping the victims of the abhorrent crimes of domestic violence. The Assembly Government and the UK Government are committed unreservedly to protecting vulnerable women and prosecuting violent partners.

Every year the Cardiff women’s safety unit supports about 1,500 domestic violence cases. I know that the Minister is aware of its excellent work, but is he aware that the unit is facing funding shortages in the short term, as some charitable funds are coming to an end, and in the long term, with funding for the Cardiff community safety partnership being cut by 14 per cent.? Will he speak to the Home Office to ensure that the unit is able to maintain the good work that it does well into the future?

As mentioned by the hon. Lady in whose constituency the unit is located, I visited the unit recently with my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and saw at first hand the very good work that it does. The unit is a model of good practice and provides an invaluable service. This year it received £247,298 core funding from the Assembly Government, which is secure for 2008-09. That is an increase on the original three-year allocation approved in March 2006. In addition, for 2007-08 the Assembly has awarded £63,442 to fund the male helpline, which operates from the unit, and that is an increase as well. The Assembly is considering its budget plans for future years, but I applaud the work that the unit does and the secure funding that is in place.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the pioneering success of the women’s safety units in halving the number of repeat offences of domestic abuse? That has been achieved about by their pioneering system of holding multi-agency conferences on all cases of high-risk domestic abuse. Is my hon. Friend aware that this system has been copied in 70 areas of the UK, and that Wales has been leading the way in this regard?

Absolutely. It would right and proper to say that we recognise the work of my hon. Friend in taking the initiative forward from its instigation. Yes, the multi-agency risk conferences are not only innovative but are proving their effectiveness. We hope to see more and more of them across the UK. It is worth pointing out the Government’s commitment to specialist domestic violence courts, of which there are eight in Wales and more to come in the UK. That shows how serious the Government are, both at UK level and in the Welsh Assembly Government.

Does the Minister agree that the women’s safety unit and other groups like it should do more to prioritise preventing the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation? Is he aware that since the law against that was passed in 2003, not a single person has been convicted, and that in Wales there is a danger that thousands of women could face that disgraceful and awful practice?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, but I am sure he is aware that one of the significant feature of the women’s safety unit is the way in which it brings together various agencies and actors from different women’s and male groups in the Cardiff and south Wales areas. They no doubt share the concerns that he expressed, but the core work that the women’s safety unit does in tackling domestic abuse and violence against partners, both male and female, is to be firmly applauded.

Cross-border Rail Links

2. What steps he has taken to assist in the improvement of cross-border rail links in north Wales. (156151)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), take a keen interest in Welsh rail services. This includes regular discussions with ministerial colleagues both in Whitehall and the Assembly Government, as well as with train operating companies and other stakeholders.

In Wrexham we are celebrating the introduction of the first direct rail service to London since 1957, which was announced last month, but we are ever ambitious and we now want the electrification of the Wrexham-Liverpool line. We note with some concern that the rail assessment plan that was issued over the summer somehow made the mistake—I am sure it was a mistake—of putting back the work on that till 2014. Will my hon. Friend have discussions as soon as possible with the First Minister to make sure that the error is rectified?

My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner on behalf of his constituents and north Wales rail. We welcome the new direct service between Wrexham and Marylebone. In respect of the Wrexham to Bidston electrification, the co-operation between Merseytravel and the Welsh Assembly Government to examine the feasibility of improving the line is welcome because it could indeed deliver improved rail links, leading to economic and employment opportunities. I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government are considering the options resulting from the feasibility study. Decisions on the way forward will be for them, but as my hon. Friend has been such a strong advocate of rail issues in his constituency and across the region, I am more than happy to meet him and discuss the matter further.

The Minister will be aware of the recent announcement by the Welsh Assembly Government that it is a priority to improve rail journey times between north and south Wales and to introduce electrification. Will the Minister do what he can to assist Ministers in Cardiff to implement that approach, bearing in mind the huge economic, social and other benefits?

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. On 2 October, the Welsh Assembly Government announced new transport priorities, which include a commitment to examine further improvements to north-south rail travel, including a new fast service with business-class facilities operating southbound in the morning and northbound in the evening. On 3 October, the Welsh Assembly Government launched their freight strategy consultation, which aims to deliver a robust, modern and efficient freight transport system. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s views on board. The plans are exciting and ambitious, and we all hope that they can be delivered.

While welcoming the news about the improvement of railway services in north Wales, may I ask my hon. Friend what impact the recently published rail White Paper will have on railways not only in north Wales but across Wales?

The recent rail White Paper will deliver real benefits for Wales. It discusses improved reliability on long-distance services—Virgin, First Great Western and Arriva cross country—increases in safety and an enhanced network capacity at Reading, which, as my hon. Friend will know from campaigning conducted by her and other MPs, is a pinchpoint on the First Great Western route. Most importantly, the White Paper mentions a 20 per cent. increase in capacity into Cardiff at peak times by 2014. We should applaud the rail White Paper and recognise that it is in no small way due to effective campaigning by Government Members.

I want to return to the question raised by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas)—the electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line, which is extremely important to the economy of north-east Wales. We know that the Welsh Assembly Government were committed to that proposal before the Assembly elections, but now they appear to have shelved the scheme for up to 12 years. Does the Minister know the reason for that change of plan? Was it perhaps a concession extracted from the First Minister by his Plaid Cymru coalition partners to enable them to pursue policies that are likely to find favour in the areas where they are strongest?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the decision is ultimately for the Welsh Assembly Government. However, I have heard what he has said, and we are keen to see the scheme proceed, too. The hon. Gentleman is challenging us on plans for the rail network, but in the past 10 years we have had to deal with the failures caused by the botched rail privatisation by the Tory Administration. Now, rather than offering robust policy alternatives, they are offering us a return to privatisation with threats to break up Network Rail—far from learning from past mistakes, they are condemned to repeat them.

I welcome the additional services proposed by Virgin Trains on cross-border and mainline services. My hon. Friend will know that one of the problems in north-west Wales is the lack of synergy between mainline services, regional services and the ferry port of Holyhead in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend bring together train operators and ferry operators to ensure that we have joined-up thinking and a truly integrated service? And will he agree to meet me to discuss that case in more detail?

Yes, I am open to meeting my hon. Friend and other north Wales Members who are concerned about the matter. I will take up that offer to work constructively with my hon. Friend.

“One Wales” Document

3. What discussions he has had with the First Minister since the signing of the “One Wales” document on the impact of the implementation of that document on the governance of Wales. (156152)

I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Is he aware that several aspects of the “One Wales” document, such as council tax relief for older people and consultation on hospital reconfiguration, originally appeared in the Welsh Conservatives manifesto? Will he guarantee that those proposals will be implemented?

If they are sensible proposals, they will be a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government to implement.

I assume that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), sitting behind him, who said in The Western Mail on 21 September:

“Some Conservatives like myself, and all my fellow MPs, feel we were correct to oppose the establishment of the Assembly and should continue to oppose further powers”

for the Welsh Assembly. I assume that the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett) and Conservative Front Benchers agree with that, as the hon. Member for Monmouth was claiming ownership of all Conservative MPs.

Are not the Welsh Assembly Government to be congratulated on how they dealt with the recent farming difficulties—particularly the single farm payment and the recent health crises? They have been cautious, but practical and swift, in reducing the harm that was likely to be caused to the farmers. Can we now expect a hallelujah chorus of gratitude from the National Farmers Union to the “One Wales” Government?

If there were to be such a chorus, it would be the first. However, I agree with my hon. Friend’s comments on how the Welsh Assembly Government have handled the situation.

Yesterday’s spending review will have a devastating effect on the affordability of the programme set out in the “One Wales” document. It will also show how unfair the Barnett formula is for Wales. If the Assembly review of the formula recommends that it be scrapped, will the Secretary of State campaign for reform and be Wales’s man in the Cabinet, or will he remain true to form and be Westminster’s man in Wales?

I will be both Wales’s person in the Cabinet and Westminster’s person in Wales, because that is my job. The hon. Gentleman has said something extraordinary. Spending, however we define it, has been increased by more than £2 billion compared with the past year, according to the pre-Budget statement yesterday. That is a massive injection: a 2.4 per cent. real-terms increase per year, and an increase over the period of 14.5 per cent. Some £2 billion extra is coming into the Welsh budget; the hon. Gentleman should be applauding that.

We are always interested in what the Secretary of State says in The Western Mail. Given the Plaid Cymru-Labour coalition in the Assembly, how will the governance of Wales be helped by Plaid MPs calling the Chancellor’s settlement for Wales the worst settlement since devolution and the Secretary of State boasting that Wales gets £1,000 more expenditure per head than England and calling Plaid “the enemy”?

Does the Secretary of State agree that in addition to discussions with the First Minister, he needs to have urgent discussions with his coalition partners in this Chamber—or does the proposal and promise of “One Wales” not apply here in Westminster?

For the hon. Lady’s education, I should say that we have a Labour Government here. We do not have a coalition Government with anybody in Westminster, and I am pleased about that.

On the Welsh Assembly Government’s position on the Budget, Andrew Davies, the Welsh Assembly Finance Minister, said yesterday:

“I am confident that we can meet the challenges ahead and deliver our ambitious “One Wales” programme within the level of resources announced this afternoon.”

That compares with a black hole of £5.4 billion in the Tories’ future public financing plans, which would result in savage cuts in the Welsh budget for public services. The hon. Lady should seek to explain that position, not to attack a £2 billion increase—a real-terms increase—in the Welsh budget over the next three years.

Animal Health Measures

4. What discussions he has had with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the cross-border applications of emergency animal health measures. (156153)

The Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on a range of issues, including on animal health measures. The recent crises in animal health and our Government’s reaction prove the seriousness with which we take such issues and that the procedures in place to deal with such sudden events are working well.

The Minister will be only too well aware of the importance of livestock farming to the economy in Wales. He will also know that Wales is designated as a low-risk area for foot and mouth disease. However, what action would be taken if a case were confirmed in Wales?

The Welsh Assembly Government and DEFRA have worked closely on this matter and, as the hon. Lady is aware, many aspects of the powers on animal health measures are devolved to Wales. I applaud the way in which the Welsh Assembly Government have responded. If there were an action, measures are already in place to respond to it, but it is good to stand here and say that we do not fall within the protection zone or need to take such measures.

On farmers, the Welsh Assembly Government are seeking European approval for a lamb welfare disposal scheme, which will be of assistance, and they are also on track to start payments under the single farm payments scheme, as soon as it opens in December.

In view of what the Minister has just said will he ensure during his discussions with the Environment Secretary that the National Assembly is fully compensated for any system of compensation to Welsh livestock farmers? That should happen not least because the foot and mouth outbreak occurred in a UK laboratory—the basis being that the polluter must pay.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that compensation is paid for the culling of livestock and in relation to machinery and equipment affected by disease. This case is different. As DEFRA has done in a different way throughout the rest of the UK, the Welsh Assembly has put in place measures of support for farmers. It is appropriate for DEFRA to do so in England, and for the Welsh Assembly Government to do so in Wales.

Last month, the Secretary of State for Wales incredibly boasted that the Government’s handling of the foot and mouth outbreak had established their reputation for competence. Given that that assertion has been shot to pieces because the outbreak was caused by the Government’s own incompetence, and that many Welsh farmers are facing financial ruin, will the Minister confirm categorically that farmers will be compensated by DEFRA to the full extent of the legal liability and that the costs will not fall on the Assembly budget? We need to know where the money is coming from for our Welsh farmers.

It may be helpful to clarify for the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman that, under the current devolution settlement, there are responsibilities for DEFRA and for the Welsh Assembly Government. I shall outline once again that the Welsh Assembly Government are putting support in place. That is not compensation, but it relates to support mechanisms, including light lambs and their disposal, and ensuring that the single farm payments are on track. That is different from what would have happened if there had been an outbreak in Wales, which currently, I am glad to say, we do not have.

Employment (Swansea)

Up to December 2006, there were over 34,000 people in employment in Swansea East, an increase of over 3,000 in two years.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I am sure that he is aware that one of the fastest growing sectors in Wales is that of information and communication technology. There has been an increase in jobs in that sector in Swansea, East, with companies such as nSure investing and benefiting from the excellent staff and opportunities in Swansea. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be continued investment in this important sector and that we will drive up employment levels even higher?

Yes, indeed. What nSure is doing is very good, and I notice that Swansea is leading the way with RAP International based at the Technium Swansea. Swansea university has a Technium digital base there, and there is a £3 million Boots centre for innovation, designed to assist global researchers and entrepreneurs. That is a good sign that Swansea is leading the way and becoming a city that will make a major impact in the ICT sector, which, as my hon. Friend says, is crucial to the strength of the Welsh economy.

As well as welcoming the increase in Welsh exports, which was published last week, would my right hon. Friend join me in recognising the importance of businesses such as Machynys golf club, which bring money into Wales and provide jobs in the Llanelli area?

Yes, I do, and I visited the golf club with my hon. Friend. It is a good example of a world-class investment that shows that Llanelli and the whole region of south-west Wales is doing very well, compared with how it was more than 10 years ago, during the miserable experience it had under the Tories.

Economic Inactivity

The Government are planning a wide range of initiatives aiming to help those on benefits back into work in Wales, including city strategy pilots in Rhyl and the heads of the valleys, and extending pathways to work to all Wales by the end of this year.

The Secretary of State will know about the recent Bevan Foundation study, entitled “Caring and Working? A Welsh Case Study”, which addresses the barriers that carers face in returning to work. Does he agree that one of the best ways to help carers in Wales and elsewhere is to review the carer’s allowance and significantly improve their respite care? Does he also agree that the Prime Minister’s review of the national carer’s strategy and his excellent initiative to establish a carer’s commission present an ideal opportunity to assist carers and thus reduce economic inactivity in Wales?

Yes, I do. I commend my hon. Friend for his pioneering work in support of carers—he has done a fantastic job. The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004 took up much of that work. The Bevan Foundation publication on caring and working, which I have read, is very interesting and will inform our current debate on a national carer’s strategy and our intention to publish a Green Paper once we have taken the work forward.

Wales has the capacity to become the capital of environmental industries for the United Kingdom and, indeed, Europe. Is the Secretary of State willing to meet a delegation representing environmental enterprises to discuss the potential of tackling economic inactivity throughout Wales at the same time as contributing to our sustainable agenda?

I would be happy to meet such a delegation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that environmental manufacturing and environmental businesses have a vital role in a strong, modern Welsh economy, which we are building in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that economic inactivity in south Wales will be greatly reduced by the military training academy at St. Athan, especially if we get the transport infrastructure right? Is he satisfied with the progress that the Welsh Assembly Government are making on that infrastructure?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary visited in the summer to look into the matter. The St. Athan project is a flagship project for Wales, which will bring in billions of pounds of investment and create thousands of jobs. That shows the value of the partnership between our Government here in London and the Welsh Assembly Government in Cardiff, with Wales as part of the United Kingdom, not taken out of it, as the nationalists propose, or forced to withdraw as a result of the disastrous proposals of the Leader of the Opposition to create first and second-class Members of Parliament.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the transformation in economic success of my constituency. Ten years ago, it was an unemployment blackspot; now it has almost full employment. However, problems remain with economic inactivity. May I draw his attention to the work of the Prince’s Trust and Pembrokeshire college, which are delivering upskilling for young people, 140 of whom are based at the Cleddau activity centre, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary visited in September?

Wearing his other hat as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—

I agree with my hon. Friend that the Prince’s Trust does fantastic work in Pembrokeshire and elsewhere in the country. I also agree that the transformation in the Pembrokeshire economy has been nothing short of miraculous, given the devastation that I remember seeing when I canvassed with him in the early 1990s. Now, more than 1,000 job vacancies have been advertised in his constituency alone. That shows the enormous growth in the economy in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and the fantastic potential for everybody there to do well, for people to get more jobs and to go from strength to strength.

Cancer Treatment

7. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the National Assembly for Wales Government on the treatment of patients from England for cancer in Welsh hospitals. (156156)

I am in regular contact with all my ministerial colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government. The Welsh Assembly Government are committed to providing a world-class health service that is available to everyone, irrespective of who they are or where they live.

The Under-Secretary knows that the geography of Wales makes transport difficult. When, for example, cancer consultants are being withdrawn from Bronglais hospital in Aberystwyth and people in that part of mid Wales have to go to Caernarfon or even across to Shrewsbury for treatment, it causes genuine difficulty. Will he speak to members of the Welsh Assembly Government to ascertain whether the situation can be resolved?

As always, I am more than happy to take up individual issues that are raised. On the Welsh Assembly Government’s commitment, the hon. Gentleman knows that, in 2007, £5.5 billion is being spent on health in Wales—more than £1,800 per person and more than double 1996-97 figures. Cancer services in Wales now receive £4.5 million extra. Record investment is showing record results.