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Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2008

1. What recent assessment he has made of employment trends in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (197224)

Employment in Wales continues to be at historically high levels, with 122,000 people now in work in Wales, and unemployment down by 30 per cent. since 1997.

Employment prospects in my constituency, Aberavon, have been significantly strengthened as a result of the recent announcement of £71 million worth of investment in the Port Talbot Corus steel plant and the Tata acquisition of Jaguar and Land Rover. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming these developments, particularly the investment in environmental improvement, which will strongly support the excellent Neath Port Talbot council’s clean air charter? Will he also consider an early visit to my constituency to meet the new managing director of the Corus steel plant, Mr. Chaturvedi, to discuss future employment prospects in the Welsh steel industry?

Yes, I should be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and to show support for his excellent local authority and the initiative that it has taken, involving all sections of the community in maintaining high standards of air quality. May I say how good it is that Tata has invested £9 million at Morfa in his constituency and £60 million in Port Talbot? If that is not a huge vote of confidence in Wales, I do not know what is.

The question on the Order Paper asks for a recent assessment of employment trends. The Minister should be aware that the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics show that the employment rate in Wales has fallen to just 71.5 per cent. and the economically inactive rate has risen to almost 25 per cent. What does the Secretary of State think might be responsible for the dreadful recent rise in worklessness in Wales? Is it the policies of his sclerotic Government here in Westminster, or those of his separatist colleagues in Cardiff?

The hon. Gentleman really should remember what unemployment was like when the Conservatives were in control: we had 3 million people out of work when I came into the House. The figures that I have just given are figures of considerable significance. In his constituency, Preseli Pembrokeshire, for example, there has been a 73 per cent. drop in unemployment since February 1997. The figures speak for themselves.

My right hon. Friend will recall his visit to the new Bluestone project in my constituency which, when all its phases are completed, will employ 600 local people. Does he agree that that is evidence of the success that comes from partnership between the private sector and the public sector in the shape of the Welsh Assembly Government, who have also made a substantial investment in what will be a high quality leisure project employing substantial numbers of people and, most importantly, providing full-time all-year-round work in the tourist sector?

Yes, I was delighted to visit Bluestone in my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is a great project and he is right to point out the importance of the Welsh Assembly Government’s contribution to what will be a major tourist attraction for Wales and a major employer for Pembrokeshire. I am also pleased to point out that my hon. Friend represents the other half of Pembrokeshire, where employment has unquestionably improved over recent years. In his constituency there has been a 71 per cent. reduction in unemployment since February 1997. What a success story for west Wales.

In terms of employment, the public sector is very important in Wales, yet within the space of three weeks Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has broken faith with its employees in Merthyr by announcing further cuts in employment and transferring more jobs to Cardiff. That will have a knock-on effect in Brecon, where the branch is to close in 2011 and many of the employees wished to transfer to Merthyr. How can the staff and customers of HMRC have any faith in its plans when they are changed on such a short-term and arbitrary basis? Will the Secretary of State intervene on behalf of the staff and the public?

I understand and sympathise with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes with regard to HMRC. As he knows, I have an HMRC office in my constituency, and I understand the importance of employment, particularly in what used to be called objective 1 areas and are now convergence fund areas. Certainly, I will continue discussing the matter with the relevant Ministers in the Treasury. The hon. Gentleman will understand, though, that over recent years well over 3,000 jobs in the public sector have come to Wales. That is important not just for the areas that he and I represent, but all over Wales.

It was expected that the office in Merthyr would remain in its current form until 2011. My concern, which I would like my right hon. Friend to express to his colleagues in Government and see how he can assist, is about how the consultation has been carried out. The expectation has now been changed in an arbitrary fashion, without the necessary consultation. I would like my right hon. Friend to assist, if he can, in trying to rectify that position.

I understand my hon. Friend’s position. He can rest assured that I will put his points to my colleagues at the Treasury.

The Secretary of State must be worried that Welsh employment trends are showing a drop of more than 1 per cent. last year. Our military trained strength is also falling, by 3 per cent. this year. More than ever, we need Welsh men and women in our armed services. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the National Union of Teachers’ decision on excluding armed forces personnel from visiting our schools? That will prevent our young people from getting early information about potential employment in the services. Furthermore, will he ensure that that wicked policy is not implemented in Welsh schools?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is visiting Ministry of Defence establishments throughout Wales; I am sure that he will be able to carry the important message that the opportunities that the armed forces present to our young people in Wales are taken up. The hon. Lady can rest assured that we will make those points strongly; my hon. Friend will certainly do so.