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Employment (Cynon Valley)

Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2008

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.