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Wales

Volume 491: debated on Wednesday 29 April 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Devolution

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the constitutional settlement on devolution in Wales. (270717)

My assessment of the devolution settlement is that the Labour-led Assembly Government are delivering real policies to underpin the lives of the people of Wales.

As a committed Unionist, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he believes that to make devolution work for all the people of Wales there needs to be constructive, open dialogue between Cardiff and Whitehall? In what ways can that dialogue genuinely be improved?

As a committed Unionist myself, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there should be constructive dialogue between Whitehall and Cardiff. That is accomplished in a number of formal ways, including regular meetings between me and the First Minister, and between Ministers and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, together with a dialogue between Members of Parliament and Assembly Members of all parties. It is vital that the people of Wales understand that the best way forward for the Welsh people is through a partnership between this Parliament, the Assembly in Cardiff, this Government and the Welsh Assembly Government.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s observations, particularly his emphasis on partnership. One of the key elements of the Government of Wales Act 2006 is the role of the Welsh Affairs Committee in pre-legislative scrutiny of legislative competence orders. We have worked effectively with colleagues in the Assembly, especially Ministers, and we are committed to increasing that participation and partnership. Does he agree?

Yes, I do, and I think that the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee is, in many ways, more significant following devolution than before it because there is a huge role to play, certainly in dealing with the LCOs—my hon. Friend’s Committee does a good job on that, I know—but also, as the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said, in maintaining a dialogue between Members of Parliament and Assembly Members, particularly by way of scrutiny. The Welsh Affairs Committee does a great job and my hon. Friend does an outstanding job as its Chairman.

As a descendant of Owain Glyndwr and yet another proud Unionist, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he shares my concern at the taxpayer-funded All Wales Convention? It is going round demanding extra powers for the Welsh Assembly, which I and most of the Welsh people know will cost more money and inevitably lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom? What is he doing to ensure that the other side of the argument is put?

I do not think that I need do very much, as long as the hon. Gentleman remains the Member of Parliament for Monmouth. I am not a descendant of Owain Glyndwr, certainly not with a name such as mine, but I agree that the convention should be open to everybody in Wales to put their points of view. It is, in effect, testing the water. If the convention believes that a referendum is necessary, the people of Wales will decide. In the meantime, right across Wales, people have the opportunity to put the hon. Gentleman’s point of view, and indeed the opposite.

Speaking as a Euro Unionist, not a British Unionist, and as a supporter of Owain Glyndwr, but also not as a descendant of his, and in the spirit of partnership between the nations of these islands, what does the Secretary of State think of my party’s proposal that each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom should take its turn in nominating the UK representative as commissioner in the European Commission?

Not much, really, but I do think that there is a case for Assembly and Scottish Government Ministers sharing with British Government Ministers representation at meetings in Brussels, Strasbourg and elsewhere. That has happened over the years and there is an important role to be played. However, in my view, only the sovereign state Government is able to nominate for the role of commissioner.

May I add that I agree with the Secretary of State’s remarks on the previous question?

The reality of the relationship between Westminster and Cardiff Bay is not quite as cosy as the first two questions perhaps suggested. Now he has had a chance to work with the LCO process, and bearing in mind the sudden rush of LCOs coming through, is he entirely happy with the procedures: the scrutiny process, which affects the Welsh Affairs Committee’s work load by giving it a lot of heavy work; and the public and political intervention from the Assembly’s Presiding Officer, or does the system need improving?

I think that the system needs monitoring all the time, and that there is room for improvement all the time. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and members of the Welsh Affairs Committee are considering, for example, how to improve the speed with which LCOs are dealt with. I commend them for that. I note the hon. Lady’s comments about the role of the Presiding Officer, and I will pass on her views when I next meet him.

Cross-border Health Services

2. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on treatment in hospitals in England of patients resident in Wales and in hospitals in Wales of patients resident in England. (270718)

4. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on treatment in hospitals in England of patients resident in Wales and in hospitals in Wales of patients resident in England. (270721)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on such matters. The discussions include the new cross-border protocol for health care services of Wales, which, I am pleased to say, has been agreed between the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government.

I am grateful to the Minister for those comments. He will be aware of the recent Welsh Affairs Committee report on cross-border health policy, to which he referred in his preliminary comments. He will also be aware that there should be clinical excellence for all those who wish to have medical treatment, as close as possible to their homes. Does he acknowledge that that would mean Welsh patients ending up having medical treatment in English hospitals? Will he do all that he can to urge the Welsh Health Minister to abandon her so-called in-country policy, which is causing so much distress to neurosurgery patients in Wales?

The hon. Gentleman is correct in referring to the Welsh Affairs Committee interim report on the provision of cross-border health services in Wales. We have considered that important report, and the Department of Health will respond to all its points in due course. It is important to recognise, however, that devolution is about addressing particular needs. The Welsh Assembly Government have clearly defined and articulated their policy, and we are seeing consistent and radical improvements in the health care of the people of Wales. Obviously, given the unique situation with regard to the Welsh-English border, a close working relationship is needed. I am absolutely confident that the protocol that is now in place and is being implemented will ensure effective co-operation and cross-border flow to the benefit of English and Welsh patients.

The Minister has referred to the difference between health care in Wales and England. With the outbreak of swine flu, and the possibility of a pandemic, is the Minister confident that the people of Wales will get the same treatment as in England?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. Only yesterday, I had a telephone conversation with Edwina Hart, the Welsh Assembly Government Health Minister, and I am absolutely confident that the greatest co-operation is taking place between central Government and the Welsh Assembly Government. I am pleased that she will make a statement to the Welsh Assembly this afternoon outlining her measures in some detail. She is participating fully in Cobra in London, and I am told that £59 million has been earmarked in Wales for effective preparation and response.

I very much welcome the protocol and agreement reached between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of Health on such important cost and funding issues. Does my hon. Friend agree that, prompted by the Welsh Affairs Committee’s inquiry into health and cross-border issues, it is now essential to make it a principle that access by Welsh patients and my constituents to English hospitals must be on the basis of clinical need, not geography? Is it not also important that Welsh Members of Parliament have the opportunity to discuss those issues in this House? That would be under threat if the Tories’ English-only policy were to come into effect.

My hon. Friend makes important points, and I congratulate him on his excellent work to ensure an effective relationship between England and Wales on the important matter of the health service. He stresses rightly that we have a national health service in this country covering both sides of Offa’s dyke, although devolution means that there is a variation on that. The principle of clinical need is cardinal to the operation of the health service in both our countries. I also agree strongly that ongoing dialogue on cross-border health is very important. It is vital that Welsh MPs, in the number that there are, contribute effectively to that debate. We would strongly oppose any attempt, suggestion or move to reduce the number of Welsh MPs, particularly with regard to this important issue.

The Minister referred to the Select Committee report and concerns about the lack of co-ordination between the Department of Health in London and the Welsh Assembly Government, and, in particular, the strains that the previous arrangements placed on clinicians and patients. Is he satisfied that the new protocol, which amounts to an interim protocol, is robust enough and, crucially, transparent enough to assuage the concerns of many of my constituents—and doubtless his—who seek treatment in Gobowen, Frenchay, Hereford and elsewhere? A lot of early misinformation was provided about cross-border health flows.

A revised cross-border protocol for health services has been agreed with the health service in Wales and the Department of Health here in London. It has rightly taken a long time to formulate, because the issue is far from straightforward and both parties wanted to be absolutely certain they were taking the best possible approach. I believe that that is what is now contained in the cross-border protocol, which has been well received. I am confident that it will be effective for patients in Wales and England.

The Minister will be aware of the recent media attention on the concerns expressed by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign over the lack of specialist care in Wales for people with neuromuscular conditions and their difficulty in obtaining treatment in England. The MDC has argued strongly for the establishment of a UK-wide national commissioning group for specialist diagnostic services. Is he willing to approach the Secretary of State for Health to explore the possibility of establishing such a service, which would very much benefit the people of Wales and would be very much welcomed by his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue with regard to muscular dystrophy. By definition, the issue is a cross-border one, and I would of course be more than happy to have discussions with the Department of Health and with Edwina Hart, the Welsh Assembly Government Health Minister. One of the positive things over the past few months has been a growing partnership between health services. It is true that things can be done differently—that is what devolution is all about—but it is essential that in these post-devolution times we have a constructive dialogue at all times. I shall ensure that this issue is taken forward, as he suggested.

Industrial Injuries

3. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the compensation scheme for persons with arthritis of the knee arising from industrial injuries sustained in former Welsh coalfields. (270720)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues relating to the former Welsh coalfields. He and I warmly welcome the announcement made on 15 April by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. From this summer, sufferers of miners’ knee will be able to apply for industrial injuries disablement benefit.

Following the announcement, to which my hon. Friend has just referred, that miners who suffer from beat knee will be compensated, the National Union of Mineworkers in south Wales is warning that some solicitors are trying to cash in by persuading miners that they have to go through them to make a claim. That is untrue, so what are the Government doing to protect claimants from those seeking to make another fast buck on the back of sick miners?

My right hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, to which the NUM in south Wales has alerted MPs; we view with some concern the fact that certain solicitors—one in particular—have written to recipients of vibration white finger compensation and other compensation and offered their services. They are perfectly entitled to do that, but it is very important to recognise that there is no need for claimants to operate through a solicitor, because they can go directly to the Department for Work and Pensions. We must ensure that that message is made crystal clear to all people who have received vibration white finger and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease compensation.

Slate quarry workers have received compensation for dust diseases since legislation brought in by the previous Labour Government in 1979. However, although coal miners have received compensation for emphysema, bronchitis and now for knee injury, slate quarry workers have not. Will the Minister examine this issue with a view to addressing what some people see as an anomaly and what some, myself included, see as an injustice?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue, and he accurately points out that it was a Labour Government who introduced this compensatory measure. Of course, as we all realise, these processes can be extremely complicated and can contain anomalies and gaps. I give a commitment that we will do everything we can to ensure that there is maximum coverage for everybody who desires and is in need of the compensation that is intended.

Further to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), I can tell the Minister that this Sunday a firm of solicitors from Cardiff was touting for business in Grimethorpe working men’s club in my constituency to try to get miners to pay £300 up front for its services in claiming for miners’ knee. Will the Minister join me in frowning on that practice, and will he raise the issue with the Law Society to try to outlaw it?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments, which show that this issue extends way beyond Wales. Solicitors can tout for business in that way, but it is important to recognise that charging £300 or even £345—as in a case that I know of—to expedite a claim is morally wrong, and it is incumbent on all of us to ensure that our constituents know that Members of Parliament will do everything they can to expedite claims and will forward claims to the Department for Work and Pensions, and that no charge will be made.

Unemployment

5. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on measures to reduce unemployment in Wales. (270722)

Last week’s Budget announced a further employment package, building on steps taken in the pre-Budget report to respond to rising unemployment, including an extra £1.7 billion for Jobcentre Plus.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Five years of jobcentre closures and staff cuts have meant that Wales now has 144 jobseekers for every personal adviser, which is nearly double the figure a year ago and means that each adviser has only about 15 minutes a week to help each person into work. Given that unemployment in Wales is likely to rise by a further 50 per cent. over the next year, will the Secretary of State speak to his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that Jobcentre Plus has people in place with enough time to help those who are unemployed find work?

Of course I will, but the hon. Lady will accept that a percentage of that £1.7 billion for Jobcentre Plus will go to Wales, and the whole purpose of that spending will be to do the sort of things that she mentioned, with proper advice and sufficient time to talk to people who come to Jobcentre Plus about their own particular difficulties.

My right hon. Friend will recall the devastation that was visited on communities in west Wales and the valleys during the 1980s and the early 1990s as a result of two Tory recessions. Does he agree that the policies that were followed then were wrong and left a lasting legacy that meant that under the Labour Government we qualified for special European aid? The way to get out of a recession is not to cut our way out, but to grow our way out.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He will know that long-term unemployment was a scourge in the 1980s and 1990s, and that the Government cannot be an uninterested observer. Government, both in Cardiff and in London, must act, and that is the opposite of what the Conservatives stand for.

Further to the question by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott), the Secretary of State will know that last year it was announced that 12,000 jobs would be lost in the offices of the Department for Work and Pensions, the equivalent of losing 200 offices. Some 33 towns in Wales are currently without offices. Given that a further £15 billion of cuts are on the way, how many more jobs will be lost in that sector in Wales?

Obviously we have to try to preserve all jobs, whether in the public or private sectors. The Government measures announced in the Budget include the money for Jobcentre Plus, the money for the under-25s in Wales and the measures taken over the last couple of months, and they are specifically designed to ensure that jobs are protected. Of course, we cannot avoid some job losses, because they are inevitable in a downturn such as this, but we have to do all that we can to ensure that other jobs are available—thousands of jobs are still vacant in Wales—for people to take.

This has not been an easy time for anybody seeking work, and we in Swansea, East have also faced challenges. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that the work that Jobcentre Plus has done is absolutely fantastic. I want to commend the work of our local Jobcentre Plus in Morriston. Will the Secretary of State ensure that publicity and promotion is made available, both for employers experiencing difficulties and for those seeking work, to promote the work of jobcentres?

Yes, of course I will ensure that that message is put across. My hon. Friend does a great deal for the people of Swansea in this regard. She will know, of course, that the Labour party conference met very successfully last weekend in Swansea. All the policies to which I have just referred also refer specifically to the problems faced by her constituents in Swansea, East.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the latest job loss figures from Wales are dire. Unemployment in my constituency has gone up by more than 100 per cent. in the past 12 months. On Friday, I was at my local Jobcentre Plus, which is doing valuable work, but will the Secretary of State say what additional support can be given to those new victims of the recession who need targeted and specialist support? They have a solid and continuous work history, and often a good education, and they might never have been inside a jobcentre in their lives. They need targeted support and they face a very bleak set of circumstances right now.

I quite understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. If he follows the proceedings of the Budget last week and the announcements that followed, he will see that some 7,500 new jobs for young people in Wales could be created by initiatives that the Government have taken over the past couple of days and the money that is going in. At the end of the day, the Government are tackling these issues in a manner that is entirely different from the non-policies of the Opposition.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Secretary of State for Defence about the Ministry of Defence’s policy of sustainable procurement in the defence technical college contract in St. Athan in my constituency? If that policy is adhered to, it will have a dramatic effect on unemployment in south Wales, with planning taking place next month and construction starting next summer.

My hon. Friend is aware that I am in constant contact with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, particularly on the subject of the defence training academy that is coming to my hon. Friend’s constituency. My hon. Friend has done a great job in this respect, and this is the biggest single public procurement project ever in Wales.

On 6 November, the Secretary of State announced that a £150 million investment fund to help businesses would shortly be operated through Finance Wales. The chief executive of Finance Wales said that the scheme had been planned for some time. Why did it take six months to launch it, why was it left until the Welsh Labour party conference to do so, and what does he say to the thousands of people who have lost their jobs in the meantime whose businesses might have been helped by that fund? Does “shortly” mean “when politically convenient”?

I think that the hon. Lady understands that much of the finance that goes into these schemes comes from Europe. That includes money for Finance Wales, and this week—she is aware of this, as she just made reference to it—£150 million of new money has come into Wales as a consequence. She asked what I would say to the people of Wales with regard to these issues of unemployment. I would say that her party was in government for 215 months, and that for 205 of those 215 months unemployment levels in Wales were higher than they are today in Welsh constituencies.

Small Businesses

I am in regular contact with Welsh businesses and key stakeholders in Wales, not least at the all-Wales economic summits that I attend regularly.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and I welcome Government measures such as the exemption on business rates for vacant business properties and the additional time allowed to pay taxes. We still need to unblock bank lending. Will the Secretary of State say what he will do to achieve that in order to help enterprising people through these tough times?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the key to small business success is the unlocking of funds from the banks. In Swansea a few weeks ago, the all-Wales economic summit met leading bankers in Wales to encourage them to do precisely that. In addition, the new enterprise guarantee fund scheme in Wales has already paid out £8 million to help 90 Welsh firms. That is real action for people in Wales.

Heart of Wales Railway

7. What recent discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on developing and improving the Heart of Wales railway line. (270724)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of issues, including railways. I should like to pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) has done in campaigning to raise the profile of this extremely important railway line.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but does he agree that this beautiful railway route through Wales and England is not delivering to its full potential at the moment, especially in green tourism? In future, will the UK Government co-operate with the Welsh Assembly Government in developing a strategy to improve the line?

Co-operation on this issue is vital. I give a commitment that we in the Wales Office will ensure that there is maximum co-operation between the Welsh Assembly Government and the UK Government. However, I point out that the Welsh Assembly’s Rail Forward programme has set aside some £50 million for investment, which implements the political agreement that has been struck.