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Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Employment (Cynon Valley)

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on employment levels in the Cynon valley. (188098)

I have regular discussions with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of issues including employment levels in Wales. Employment is still at record levels, which reflects the success of our policies and our aim to secure employment opportunities for everybody.

First, may I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his rightful place on the Front Bench? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am grateful to him for that answer. As he knows, unemployment has been cut by half in the Cynon valley, but 88 acres of prime land in the centre of the valley were the site of the former Phurnacite plant, and contain a lot of toxic waste. Nearly 20 years after the closure of the plant, the development remains unfinished. When can the people of Abercwmboi expect that eyesore to disappear?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her kind words. She will recall that I answered a question from her on this subject eight or nine years ago. I hope that my answer is a little different this time. I have met the Assembly Deputy First Minister to discuss this issue, and I know that my right hon. Friend has also talked to the Deputy First Minister. There is a strong case for development on that site, and I hope that we can get some progress in Abercwmboi. It is very important to develop what used to be called brownfield sites. In the north of our valleys, and certainly in the Cynon valley, there is a great need to provide employment opportunities, and I hope that we will achieve some success in that.

May I also warmly welcome the Secretary of State to his place? I am sure that he will do a very good job. When he considers employment levels, will he also look into the record levels of people claiming sickness benefits? What is he doing to ensure that those who are capable of working are out in the workplace and not signing on for invalidity benefit?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. He and I share the new town, as it was, of Cwmbran, and I look forward to working with him. He will know that the pathfinder project has been highly successful and that the work of the Assembly Government and of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions together are making an impact on both the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine. He will, I am sure, remember that it was not long ago that unemployment levels in Monmouth and Torfaen were very high. They are now very low.

May I, too, start by warmly welcoming the right hon. Gentleman back to the Front Bench? I am certainly looking forward to our exchanges, as I know that we both share a desire to see Wales prosper. With that in mind, the Western Mail reports today that Wales ranks bottom in the UK for school results and that Rhondda Cynon Taf is one of the poorest performing education authorities in the country—at least a quarter of its lessons are not up to standard. Is he not ashamed that after 10 years of Labour Government our young people, particularly in the Cynon valley, are leaving school without even the basic skills for finding employment?

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind wishes. I look forward to waltzing with her this evening to “Me and my shadow”. As for Aberdare and other valley communities, of course there is still work to be done in education and in upskilling people. I saw the article in the Western Mail this morning. I do not have the slightest doubt that there has been an increase in our schools’ standards in the south Wales valleys. In addition to that, the number of pupils in classes has been reduced and the old schools are gradually disappearing with new ones being built in their place. Although there is work to be done, an awful lot has been done, too.

May I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend back to his rightful place on the Front Bench? I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on the sterling work that she has done over many years to attract business to the Cynon valley. May I suggest that the Secretary of State enters into discussions with the Labour-led Rhondda Cynon Taf authority and the Wales Co-operative Centre? Those excellent organisations have done much excellent work in attracting business and employment prospects to the valleys.

Yes, of course. I know that Rhondda Cynon Taf is doing very good work in that respect. I thank my hon. Friend again for his welcome, and remind him that the last time I spoke from this Dispatch Box he was my special adviser. I know that he does excellent work as Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, and I am sure that the subject that he has raised will be a great issue for the Committee to deal with.

Cross-border Patients

2. What discussions he has had with the First Minister about waiting times for first out-patient appointments for cross-border patients. (188099)

I regularly meet the First Minister, when we discuss a range of issues including NHS hospital waiting times for cross-border patients. The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales and delivering real improvement in the standard of services to all Welsh patients.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but official Government figures show that while 82 English patients are waiting more than 13 weeks for their first out-patient appointment, the figure for Wales is 47,698, so there does not seem to have been a lot of improvement. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is not so much a health postcode lottery, but deliberate Government discrimination against the people of Wales?

No, I cannot agree with that. The hon. Gentleman is aware that nearly £6 billion has been spent on the health service in Wales. However, he raises an important point about cross-border health arrangements. I was surprised to learn that, in 2006, more than 19,000 patients resident in England were registered with a general practitioner in Wales, while nearly 14,000 patients resident in Wales were registered with a GP in England. Whether we are dealing with primary care or waiting times, there must be an arrangement between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of Health, probably an improved protocol on cross-border issues, to deal with any discrepancies. It is fair to say that waiting times in Wales have dropped dramatically over the past year or so and that there are far fewer differences between England and Wales than there were in the past.

I respect the right of the Welsh Assembly Government to determine their priorities in health. We welcome the fact that a third of the patients of the Countess of Chester, which serves my constituency, come to that first-class hospital from Wales. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that quick progress is made on ensuring that there is fair funding for the Countess of Chester hospital?

Yes, I will. My hon. Friend and I discussed this issue only a couple of weeks ago. There are particular problems with dealing with cross-border issues in the north-east of Wales and the north-west of England, and discussions are ongoing about how to deal with them. Of course, the national health service is genuinely national to the United Kingdom and we should not allow cross-border issues to deflect from that basic principle. When the new protocol is agreed, I am sure that it will cover my hon. Friend’s points.

On behalf of Plaid Cymru, may I welcome the Secretary of State to his post?

Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the difficulties with this debate on health provision is that it is bedevilled by both a lack of statistics and conveniently quoted statistics? Will he therefore cause the publication of a set of statistics on the number of Welsh people being treated in England, the percentage of Welsh people being treated in England, waiting times, and costs to local health boards, so that the debate can be properly informed and transparent?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He is absolutely right that statistics should be available so that we can compare notes on the separate systems in Wales and England. I can give him some statistics. As I said, there are just under 20,000 English patients registered in Wales and 14,000 Welsh patients registered in England. However, we need the figures for hospitals, too. When the statistics are compiled, they will be a useful tool to ensure that there is a proper protocol to deal with the issue. I know that the hon. Gentleman, as a north Wales Member, is especially interested in the matter.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Welsh patients waiting for treatment in England are part of the overall waiting list in Wales? Does he also agree that today’s figures show a dramatic decrease in the number of Welsh patients waiting for out-patient appointments and in in-patient waiting times? Will he join me in congratulating all the health workers involved in that improvement?

I certainly will agree with my hon. Friend. A great deal of work has been done in the past couple of years to improve waiting times for people in Wales. Her point about today’s figures is very telling. All Members who represent Wales will appreciate that we do not get the number of letters about waiting times that we used to. There is no question but that the situation is better than it used to be, although that is not to say that we can become complacent.

I too welcome the Secretary of State to his post. He has given distinguished service to Wales and to UK politics.

Many patients in north Wales are worried that they will not have access to neurological services in Walton. My constituent, Mr. Narborough, has to go to Wrexham for artificial limb services, rather than Hereford; young Ieuan Baynhan has to go all the way to Morriston for plastic surgery; and Owen Williams cannot get treatment for ankylosing spondylitis in Bath. Will the Secretary of State emphasise to his colleagues in the Assembly and in Westminster how important cross-border services are, and will he ensure that we bring common sense to bear on the situation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I agree with him that there is a difficulty. Many of his constituents, for example, go to Neville Hall hospital in Monmouthshire, and some cross the border into Shrewsbury and elsewhere. However, we have to put the distances into perspective: a seriously ill person with a rather specialist complaint will inevitably, I suspect, have to travel some distance for treatment. Obviously, the patient him or herself will want the best treatment, but the nearer it is to home, the better. I shall take his concerns up with the Welsh Health Minister.

I am sure that the Secretary of State has seen this month’s report from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, which highlights the difficulty many patients have in accessing services in England. Indeed, one local Welsh health board is unable to commission services at the specialist centre in Oswestry because of funding constraints. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Welsh patients, who, after all, pay their taxes at precisely the same rates as English patients, are entitled to a service of at least equal quality? Does he not share my regret that they are clearly not getting it?

I have seen that report. I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government will consider its recommendations and that Edwina Hart will respond shortly. However, I agree with the general thrust of his question on muscular dystrophy services.

HMRC and DWP Offices

3. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues in HM Treasury on the reduction in the number of HM Revenue and Customs offices in west Wales. (188100)

6. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the effects of restructuring Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs offices in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (188103)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues at Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, including on that very important issue. We shall continue to take a keen interest in the restructuring and its impact on Wales.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Treasury colleagues undertook to have discussions not only with colleagues in other Departments, but with the Welsh Assembly Government, to try to safeguard HMRC jobs and services in west Wales. What progress has been made, and can he report to the House on the matter?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that vital issue. Wales Office Ministers have suggested options—co-location, for example—in meetings and in correspondence with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and others; we have also raised the matter with the First Minister. WAG officials have discussed the option of co-locating offices with HMRC officials, but opportunities for co-location are limited, because HMRC is focused on achieving cost savings and is not taking on new premises. However, co-location may well be a possibility where a building housing an inquiry centre is given up and an alternative building has to be found nearby. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend and others have done to raise this important matter and push the case forward.

May I, through the Under-Secretary of State, add my welcome to the Secretary of State on his return to the Front Bench? He did a lot of sterling work in the north of Ireland, and I am sure that he will do the same for Wales.

The answer that the Under-Secretary of State gave is not good enough in the light of the concern felt across the House. Twenty-eight of the 33 DWP offices to close in Wales are within the objective 1 area, as are 550 of the 750 jobs to disappear from the HMRC sector. More must be done—not tinkering with buildings, but acting to secure those jobs.

Once again, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which is worth putting in context—Wales has now received more than 2,700 posts as part of the Government relocation—but the issue of substance that he raised is important. We understand that the review process is now complete for the Wales urban centres of Cardiff and Swansea, and that last week HMRC told staff that its decision would be announced this Friday. He will understand that I cannot pre-empt the announcement of that decision, but we are all looking forward to hearing it and seeing how it will affect all parts of Wales.

My hon. Friend will be aware that his office has been dealing with the matter for the past 12 months. One of the key issues has been the principle of co-location and joined-up government. The Treasury needs further pressure to consider seriously co-location and joined-up government with other Departments, including Welsh Assembly Departments, as well as with the NHS and even the private sector, so that we can secure those very important jobs, particularly in the area covered by the west Wales and the valleys conversion fund.

My hon. Friend reiterates the case that he and others have been advancing for some time. I am grateful to him for mentioning the role played by the Wales Office in raising the issue of co-location. We await with interest the announcement on Friday, and I know that he and others will continue to press their case hard for the effective use of co-location as part of the strategy.

The Minister will be aware that the issue has been dragging on for almost 18 months. Is he aware of the impact that that is having on staff at HMRC offices— [Interruption.]

Order. The noise level is too high. There should not be conversations. [Interruption.] That goes for Members on the Labour Benches as well.

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker.

Is the Minister aware of the enormous and unacceptable uncertainty facing staff at HMRC offices such as the one in Haverfordwest, which employs 60 people, and the impact that that uncertainty is having on the morale of the HMRC work force, who provide a vital front-line service? When will staff find out whether they will be made redundant, or whether they might be offered a relocation package or work elsewhere? The uncertainty faced by people in my constituency is the most worrying thing for them at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman rightly says that one of the biggest issues at the moment is the uncertainty of people looking at their futures in HMRC. I agree. Any process of reform such as this brings uncertainty, but as I said in response to previous questions, we hope for some conclusion in the announcement on Friday, to which we look forward with interest. He is absolutely right to say that people want to know where they stand as a result of the consultation.

The Secretary of State has spoken eloquently and wisely on these matters in the Welsh Grand Committee, but will the Minister deal with the inconsistency of an objective 1 area losing jobs on such a scale? We are asking for highly paid, highly skilled jobs, but HMRC offices such as the one in Aberystwyth could be reduced to a rump of only three employees. Will he ensure that the outcome of any discussions and the report on Cardiff and Swansea will not prejudice the case of rural tax offices in west Wales, not least because relocation means very little to people in Aberystwyth, Haverfordwest and similar places?

Again, the hon. Gentleman, along with many other hon. Members, has highlighted the importance of the issue right across Wales, not only in west Wales and the valleys, but in the north, south, east and west. I cannot pre-empt Friday’s announcement, but the points that he and others have made have been noted and fed into the consultation. We look forward with great interest to the result.


4. What discussions he has had with Arriva on the performance of cross-border Arriva train services. (188101)

I have regular discussions with representatives of several organisations regarding rail performance in Wales, including Arriva and First Great Western.

Given the Government’s willingness to nationalise failing industries, will the Minister consider nationalising Arriva trains? If not, will he convene a summit with Liberal Democrat MPs, MPs from other parties and interested groups, including Arriva itself, on how to improve the poor service on the Cambrian line, and will he consider practical options such as combining infrastructure and operations management of the rail service?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me down the branch line of nationalisation, but at least not in to the failed sidings of Tory rail privatisation. He raises an important issue about the Cambrian line. In August 2007, the Deputy First Minister announced that the Welsh Assembly Government will spend £8 million on capital improvements on the line between Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury. That funding will be matched by £5 million from Network Rail. Of course, I am always more than willing to meet him and other Members who want to raise issues of vital concern to rail users in Wales.

I speak as the chairwoman of the recently formed all-party group on rail in Wales. In light of the announcement made yesterday about franchise breaches by First Great Western trains, will the Minister meet the company to discuss cross-border issues?

Yes, I undoubtedly will. I congratulate her on her leading role in the all-party group on rail in Wales. I am sure that she will do great service. On the announcement made in the papers today, in consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government, Arriva is to lease on a short-term basis five class 150/1 units to First Great Western that are not currently being deployed, for the Wales and borders franchise, but that sub-lease will be available to meet future demand and can be recalled at three months’ notice. I undertake to meet Arriva and First Great Western to discuss the issue.

Last October, the Under-Secretary of State said that he was keen to see the borderlands line between Wrexham and Bidston electrified, and that is crucial to the north Wales economy. He must be disappointed that the Plaid Assembly Minister totally omitted any mention of the scheme when laying out the Assembly’s transport funding priorities for the next four years. Is that not an instance of Labour having sold out to Plaid in return for propping them up in government, to the extent of sacrificing an important infrastructure project?

Not at all, and I point out that the Welsh Assembly Government and Merseytravel have jointly commissioned Network Rail to undertake a study of the scope and cost of options for a full or partial electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line. The results of the study will be available sometime in spring 2008, and we await them with interest.

Creative Industries

5. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on the contribution of creative industries to the Welsh economy. (188102)

The creative industries make a significant contribution to the economy of Wales, not just through the direct investment of funds in facilities and jobs, but through the creation and stimulation of subsidiary industries and other smaller businesses.

Budding David Leans and Nick Parks at Yale college and NEWI—the North East Wales Institute of Higher Education—are producing film-work and animation-work of the highest quality. The real challenge is to ensure that more people see that work. Will my right hon. Friend meet representatives of broadcasting organisations in Wales and press them to showcase more new talent on our airwaves?

Military Training Academy

I have regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of issues. The defence training academy at St. Athan will be a massive boost to south Wales, providing widespread benefits to the local economy.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. When he next meets the First Minister, will he impress on him how vital it is to provide a road link to the M4 motorway by 2013, so that the whole of Wales can benefit from the record-breaking, multi-billion pound investment in training in my constituency, Vale of Glamorgan?

I am sorry to spoil the party of the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) over there, but the fact is that the Minister will know that Metrix and the Ministry of Defence have just scrapped package 1 of the defence training review. Can the right hon. Gentleman give a 100 per cent. guarantee that package 2 is safe?

No, I cannot give such a guarantee—I am not the Secretary of State for Defence—but what I can say to him is that the preferred bidder for package 2 could still be Metrix, but that package 1, so far as St. Athan is concerned, is absolutely safe, and that £11 billion is to be spent on St. Athan, the biggest ever investment in Wales by the Ministry of Defence.