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Volume 496: debated on Wednesday 15 July 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Manufacturing Industry

1. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Welsh Assembly Government on the performance of manufacturing industry in Wales. (285606)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular meetings with the First Minister on the Welsh economy. We are working closely with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that the Welsh manufacturing sector receives all the assistance necessary for it to emerge from the global economic downturn well placed to meet the challenges of the future.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the good news for my constituents in Cardiff, North? Quotient Bioresearch is to take over the business of GE Healthcare, thus saving 75 highly skilled jobs, many of them belonging to my constituents in Whitchurch. In addition, the company is to invest up to £15 million in a new facility in Cardiff. Is that not a vote of confidence in manufacturing in Cardiff and the rest of Wales?

Indeed it is. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the hard work that she has done on that and other issues in her constituency. I am aware of the announcement and I welcome the fact that £15 million is to be invested and 75 posts are to be saved. That shows that we are wholeheartedly committed to helping people and businesses in Wales through the economic downturn, and that we always put the Welsh economy on the road to recovery—unlike the last Conservative Government, who let tens of thousands of young people become a generation of lost workers. We are being proactive in helping the economy to get through these difficult times, and that is the truth.

Is the Minister aware of the excellent work conducted by the support unit at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, together with Lord Mandelson’s office? It helped to secure a very substantial loan from the Royal Bank of Scotland so that a new manufacturing operation called Regal Fayre can be set up in the town of Montgomery. Will the Minister pass on my thanks, specifically to John Stewart in that department? Will he also praise the Royal Bank of Scotland for living up to its requirement to support new business? Finally, may I, through the Minister, ask whether the Secretary of State for Wales will consider opening that new plant, which is a real success story and will lift the town of Montgomery out of recession?

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned some very good news; I have seen his early-day motion 1877 on the subject. The Secretary of State has been very involved and has made what appear to have been effective representations. I say on my right hon. Friend’s behalf that I am sure he would be delighted to open the facility, which is another clear example of how the Government are being proactive to make sure that in every part of Wales, in every sector of the economy, we are doing everything possible to ensure that we get through this economic downturn as quickly as possible.

Last month, when I asked the Secretary of State why France, Germany and even Italy had delivered on their automotive assistance programmes while our £2.3 billion scheme, which was announced back in January, had not paid out a penny, he said:

“The money is coming through”—[Official Report, 10 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 777.]

In a written answer to me last week, a Business Minister confirmed that still not a penny in loans or loan guarantees had yet been given to support the industry. Is a grand announcement followed by seven months of inaction this Government’s idea of being proactive and providing real help now?

Let us be clear about the effectiveness of the measures being taken. The car scrappage scheme is being very effective; it is having an effect on the automotive sector and a positive impact on British Steel and Corus. It is extremely useful. We also need to recognise that we have—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for having to interrupt the Minister. A practice is growing up in which Opposition Front Benchers ask a question and then witter away from a sedentary position. That is not acceptable, and I do not want it to happen again.

The reason the Opposition are wittering away, as you so correctly put it, Mr. Speaker, is that they do not like the answers. The answers show clearly what the Government are doing effectively in intervening in the Welsh economy. We have mentioned the car scrappage scheme; let us also not forget that the future jobs fund will create 150,000 jobs across the United Kingdom as a whole—about 7,500 in Wales—with an investment of about £50 billion. That is effective. There is also the ProAct scheme, from which 63 companies and nearly 4,000 workers benefit, and the ReAct scheme. All those measures contribute materially to improving the lot of the people of Wales and improving the Welsh economy.

Aluminium Production

2. What recent discussions he has had with (a) ministerial colleagues and (b) the Welsh Assembly Government on aluminium production in Wales. (285607)

At least the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) was not Twittering in the House.

I commend my hon. Friend on his tireless efforts on behalf of the workers of Anglesey Aluminium. As he knows, I have had regular discussions about the future of the company with colleagues in Government and the First Minister, as well as with Rio Tinto and the unions.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply and for his efforts, as well as those of UK Government Departments and the First Minister on behalf of the Welsh Assembly Government. Does he agree that although these are very difficult times, the parent companies of Anglesey Aluminium in my constituency, Rio Tinto and Kaiser Aluminium have a moral and social obligation to accept the generous offer that the Government have made—nearly £50 million—to assist them through this difficult period so that they can continue to commit to the work force and the local economy for the next 30 years, as they have indicated?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. We have put nearly £50 million on the table as a result of cross-Government collaboration, including with the Welsh Assembly Government, and that should be taken up by Rio Tinto and Anglesey Aluminium. Many businesses would give their right arm for that kind of support. Anglesey Aluminium and its parent companies have benefited from decades of loyal work on the island, and I hope that these companies will think again. Meanwhile, we are exploring all options to try to secure employment in that factory.

No one will underestimate the importance of aluminium smelting to the island of Anglesey, but other smaller companies throughout Wales, such as Kaye in Presteigne in my constituency, which is involved in aluminium casting producing components for the automotive industry, have been badly affected by the recession. The scrappage scheme introduced on the continent has been very successful, and Kaye has benefited from that because it exports most of its production. However, the scrappage scheme in this country has not been so successful, and it is due to end in March 2010. Will the Secretary of State make representations to the Treasury and to his colleagues in Cabinet to ensure that the scrappage scheme is extended and enhanced to increase car sales throughout the UK and to allow companies such as Kaye to see a way through the recession?

We will certainly look at the hon. Gentleman’s request and bear it in mind, because the company is an important local employer. However, the truth is that the car scrappage scheme has had a big effect on new orders for cars. The de-stocking has ended and a lot of car plants are now starting to produce again, and it is partly because of the Government’s action that that has happened.

Health Care Provision

3. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on co-ordination of integrated health care provision across the England-Wales border. (285608)

The UK and Welsh Assembly Governments have worked closely together to agree the revised protocol for cross-border health care provision. I have long promoted the integration of conventional and complementary health care. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work as chair of the all-party group on integrated and complementary health care.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Did he, in his discussions with the First Minister, refer to his work as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the pilot study there? Has he discussed the cost-effectiveness of integrated health care? Will he be discussing that with the new Secretary of State for Health in England?

I have discussed with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the success of the pilot to which the hon. Gentleman refers, which I established as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between 2006 and 2008 and which had spectacular results. As a result of doctors being able to prescribe complementary health care free on the NHS, some two thirds of participating doctors agreed that their patients’ health had improved. About half the patients took fewer painkillers, half took less conventional medication, including prescriptions, and two thirds had less time off work. This is therefore a win-win situation. I hope that the pilot will be extended to England, to Wales, back into Northern Ireland—because the new Government there have not extended it—and to Scotland.

Will my right hon. Friend have discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that there is a strong relationship—as strong as ever—concerning orthopaedic surgery, especially with Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt hospital in Oswestry? I have to declare an interest, as does the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), because about 12 years ago we were patients there. It is important for patients in north Wales and mid-Wales to be happy in their minds that the relationship will continue.

I agree with my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Minister and I will certainly bring that up with our counterparts in Cardiff. It reflects the fact that waiting times are coming down in Wales, that patient care has been improving, and that there are more nurses, doctors and health care staff than ever before, all of which would be put at risk if the Conservatives came to office with their savage cuts policy.

I have recently had discussions with representatives of north Wales GPs about the practice of placing in institutions people who have complex medical needs, often psychiatric needs, without adequate referral or adequate support services being in place. Will the Secretary of State discuss with his colleagues who have responsibility for health in England the possibility of writing to health and social services bodies prevailing on them to refer properly and to provide proper services when they place people with complex medical needs in Wales?

I am obviously concerned to hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will certainly take that matter up. If he cares to write to me with any specific instances, I will be happy to make representations on his behalf.

The Secretary of State will know that the report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs on cross-border health services identified the inadequate payment of English hospitals by the Welsh Assembly Government as one of the principal barriers to the timely treatment of Welsh patients. To what extent does he regard it as part of his role to co-ordinate discussions between the Department of Health and the Welsh Assembly Government, with a view to ensuring that English hospitals receive fair payment and Welsh patients receive fair and timely treatment? To what extent is he actually doing so?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a protocol has been agreed that is designed specifically to deliver what he is asking for. If he knows of any shortcomings, I am happy to make further representations. That is my job. However, the protocol achieves what he wants, and I hope that it is working effectively.

Training and Employment

4. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on measures to promote training and employment in Wales. (285609)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions on training with Ministers, including the First Minister. Investment in training is key to ensuring future prosperity in Wales and placing Wales at the heart of economic recovery.

Does my hon. Friend believe that the future jobs fund could be used for a suggestion by my constituent Gerald Hughes to set up a scheme in which young people would take part in training and preparing for floods by dealing with flood defences and by learning how to fill sandbags and help people whose homes are flooded? Will my hon. Friend meet me to see whether that can be taken up in other areas of Wales as well?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is absolutely right that the future jobs fund is extremely important to the UK, and especially Wales. There are more than 200 bids nationally, and we will examine the Welsh bids closely in the very near future.

My hon. Friend makes a good suggestion with regard to young people, because it is extremely important that we do everything possible to ensure that young people benefit from as many Government schemes as possible. There is a clear contrast between the commitment that we have given to young people and what happened under the previous Administration, when young people were forgotten about and a generation was literally ignored.

Finally, my hon. Friend mentioned that flood prevention schemes are important. I know that that certainly is the case in her constituency because of the River Loughor. Her suggestion would be a good example of using the future jobs fund for the needs of young people and the particular needs of her constituency.

Does the Minister agree that employment and training will be badly affected in Abergavenny as the result of the closure of Hill college? Will he speak to the Welsh Assembly Government about reinstituting the money that they have slashed from Coleg Gwent’s budget, which has brought that closure about?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, discussions have taken place as far as that college is concerned, but a tremendous amount of investment has taken place in further education in Wales. There have also been a number of schemes, such as the ReAct programme, that have fitted in well with what has been delivered by further education colleges in Wales. Such co-ordination and symmetry is absolutely essential to ensuring that education expands to benefit the population as a whole, and we must do our utmost to ensure that there is training and retraining for all people.

The Minister will know that work has already started on the £1 billion, 2,000 MW gas-fired power station at Pembroke, in my constituency, and that there will be up to 2,000 construction jobs. A local firm, Dawnus, has already won a contract and is employing local labour. Will he join me in encouraging other Welsh and UK contracting companies to bid for work on the power station, so that we maximise the number of local jobs and UK jobs for UK workers?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend that, the fact that a new power station is being built in his constituency is a massive vote of confidence in the local economy. Indeed, that very point was made in The Economist only a few weeks ago. On his specific point about employment, there is a marvellous opportunity for the work force of the area and the region. We in the Wales Office are certainly doing our utmost to ensure that local people derive the greatest possible benefit from that investment. To highlight that fact, I know full well that my hon. Friend had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Monday to discuss the matter. He can be assured that we are fully behind him on it.

The defence training project at St. Athan would bring huge opportunities to Wales. Will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State is co-ordinating with the Ministry of Defence and that the pre-contract agreement letter will be issued to the preferred bidder this week, on time on 17 July—or will the Government delay that?

The hon. Lady is correct to stress the importance of that investment to Wales. It will be the largest single investment ever in the Welsh economy. The defence technical college will be of tremendous benefit, not only to the Welsh economy but obviously to the United Kingdom armed forces. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State fully recognises the importance of that; he has had discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence and they are going forward together. The hon. Lady can rest assured that we recognise the importance of the project for Wales.

Police (Funding)

5. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on allocations of funding to police forces in Wales. (285610)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular meetings with Home Office Ministers and, as a member of the National Policing Board and the National Crime Reduction Board, I am involved in discussions on a range of policing issues, including funding. The funding settlement that we have provided for the next three years clearly reflects the Government’s continuing commitment to improving policing and further reducing crime.

South Wales police is facing possibly the worst financial crisis of any force, due to systematic underfunding under the police funding formula and the lack of extra funding for capital city policing. It is already closing four police stations in central Cardiff and now the new head of the Association of Chief Police Officers has warned that police officer cuts are likely. Will the Minister make urgent representations to his Home Office colleagues to ensure that South Wales police finally receives extra funding for policing the Welsh capital city?

It is important to put the hon. Lady’s question in context and recognise that the number of police officers in Wales has increased by almost 1,000 in the past few years—a significant improvement. Throughout the length and breadth of Wales, including south Wales, people will testify to the fact that they want more proactive local and neighbourhood policing and that it is being delivered. I recognise the hon. Lady’s points about the situation in south Wales, but let us also be clear that her Liberal party colleagues on the local authority in Cardiff have been reluctant to make the necessary increase in precept, which would allow proper funding. I am meeting the chief constable of South Wales in the near future to discuss her concerns and I am sure that she will mention the need to discuss the possibility of designating Cardiff as a capital city.

In these days when finances are so important to the police, we must praise their work at community level. That key role is recognised in the Building Britain’s Future document. In my constituency of Swansea, East there are several community organisations, such as J.R. GroundForce in Blaenymaes and Portmead, which do a brilliant job. During the summer recess, will the Minister visit that excellent community project, which works hand in hand with the police in my constituency?

Yes, I am aware of the excellent work that is being done in Swansea by the police, my hon. Friend and local authorities working together to create a strong community partnership to ensure safer communities. I am well aware of the Blaenymaes and Portmead community endeavours. I would be more than happy to visit her constituency and perhaps some of those projects in the summer recess.

European Structural Funds

6. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on distribution of European structural funds in Wales. (285611)

As a result of the Government’s efforts, European structural funds have made a huge contribution throughout Wales, with some £1.54 billion awarded in the last spending round generating more than £3.8 billion in investments.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response and for his brave decision in 1998 to include Denbighshire and Conwy in the objective 1 bid for Wales. We were left out and my right hon. Friend included us. Over the course of objective 1 funding, we hope to draw down £500 million in those two counties alone. Why did the previous Conservative Government not draw down objective 1 funding, despite the closure of Shotton steelworks, and the decline of agriculture and traditional seaside tourism? [Interruption.]

Order. There is a real hubbub of private conversations on both sides of the House. It is unfair to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and to the Secretary of State who is about to reply.

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. Indeed, it was his persuasive case on that issue, put together with his colleagues, that allowed us to extend the boundary to include his constituency. Yes, he is absolutely right: because of their anti-European stance, our predecessors in government refused to draw down the enormous funding available for west Wales and the valleys, first under objective 1 and now under convergence funding. If they got back into power, that funding would be at risk again. That is the choice facing the people in my hon. Friend’s constituency and right across west Wales and the valleys.

Economic Inactivity

7. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the level of economic inactivity in Wales. (285612)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We will not let short-term job losses turn into long-term unemployment, nor will we allow communities to be scarred by worklessness for a generation once again.

The Secretary of State is right to mention long-term unemployment, because Wales was disproportionately affected by the loss of traditional industries, which took place as long ago as the ’80s. Certain regions of Wales are still suffering from that, so will he redouble his efforts with the Welsh Assembly to ensure that further education is funded and that there are no cuts? That is the way forward.

Yes indeed. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the period of Conservative Government in the 1980s and 1990s devastated communities right across Wales, including in my constituency. That is why, this time, compared with the 1980s and 1990s, we are investing in people, new jobs and skills, including in further education colleges, to ensure that the recession of this period is not as devastating as the misery that was caused in the 1980s and 1990s.

The latest unemployment statistics show that young people in Wales are among the hardest hit of any group in this recession. They are bearing the brunt of the downturn. Youth unemployment is going up and the pool of those not in education, employment or training is going up. Young people are also being hit as apprenticeships are being cut, as jobs are being lost, so could the Secretary of State please tell us today what he is doing to help Wales’s young generation in 2009?

Yes, I am very happy to. First, the Welsh Assembly Government have announced a £20 million package to support new apprenticeships. Secondly, we established the future jobs fund. Thirdly, we have guaranteed help for all young people aged 18 to 24 who have been claiming jobseeker’s allowance for 12 months. That will provide opportunities for young people, who I agree are facing genuine problems at the present time—a stark contrast with the 1990s and 1980s, when a whole generation of youngsters was thrown on to the scrap heap by the hon. Gentleman’s Tory Government.

Armed Forces Day 2010

8. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on plans for Armed Forces day 2010 in Wales. (285613)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I were both very proud to have played a part in Armed Forces day 2009. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces. I have already had many discussions with Ministers about the preparations for next year’s Armed Forces day, and I am very pleased that the 2010 national ceremony will be held in Cardiff.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. During this year’s armed forces celebrations, veterans’ organisations in Bridgend and Porthcawl held wonderful celebrations. Will he ensure that the Assembly Government help to co-ordinate and promote the various towns and local communities that will want to hold their own celebrations on that national day next year in Wales?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very good point indeed. It is important to have effective co-ordination in national celebrations, but a lot depends on what happens at the local level. One of the things that we have been doing successfully is having negotiations not only here in London, but with the Welsh Assembly Government and local authorities. I am sure that, in preparing for next year’s Armed Forces day, those discussions will continue and bear fruit.

As part of those celebrations across Wales and beyond, will the Minister make a specific commitment to endorsing the work of the Royal British Legion and, in particular, the huge amount of pastoral work that it does in supporting ex-servicemen across the country? We are talking not just about an act of remembrance, but about an act of celebration of work that is ongoing.

One of the good things about Armed Forces day, and Veterans day before it, is the close co-operation with the Royal British Legion. I pay tribute to the commitment that the Royal British Legion has displayed, and I am sure that those discussions will continue to be effective in planning for the future. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right that Armed Forces day is not simply a celebration of the tremendous commitment that our armed forces have shown in the past, but a celebration of the dedication that they display today.

Steel Industry

9. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the future of the steel industry in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (285614)

Order. Once again, there is far too much noise from both sides of the Chamber. It does not look or sound very good to the public.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Wales has a long, proud history of steelmaking, and the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government remain committed to supporting the industry. We fully recognise that these are difficult times, but my hon. Friend can be assured that this Government stand four-square alongside the industry.

I thank the Minister for his reply. In order to build on the very good relations that have long existed between the steel unions—led by the largest union, Community—and the employers, Corus, will he and the Secretary of State consider working with the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government to call a Welsh steel summit to ensure the long-term security and integrity of steelmaking in Wales?

I know that the UK-level steel summit has been extremely successful, and I believe that my hon. Friend has made a good point. Wales would certainly benefit from having a similar summit, bringing together Corus, the union Community, members of local communities and everyone who has a stake in the future of the industry. I certainly believe that that would be useful.