The Secretary of State was asked—
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had numerous discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is responsible for political and constitutional reform, on matters affecting Wales in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Government’s proposals for electoral reform are founded on the principles of equality and fairness, and it is clearly fair that votes cast at parliamentary elections throughout the United Kingdom should be of broadly equal value, including in Wales.
There are currently approximately 170,000 people missing from the electoral register in Wales. On Monday, the hon. Gentleman’s colleague the Deputy Prime Minister announced that the Government are considering ways of putting those people back on the register. Will that happen before or after the Boundary Commission’s freeze date in December?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the Labour party did not address that matter when it was in government. The vital consideration must be to ensure that all votes are fair and that all voters are fairly registered, and that will be the principle on which this Government proceed.
How can the Minister and the Secretary of State possibly justify cutting proportionately three times as many Welsh MPs as English MPs, creating monster constituencies in rural Wales and geographically impossible ones in Welsh valleys? Instead of ramming through those changes, why will not the Government maintain the existing system of public inquiries that has protected local interests for generations?
I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman takes that view. I would have thought that he would be as anxious as Government Members to ensure that votes cast in general elections are fair and of equal value. As it stands, votes in certain parts of the country are worth significantly more than those in other parts. So far as constituency boundaries are concerned, I remind him that they will be determined by the impartial and neutral Boundary Commission, with which I have already had discussions.
But the Minister and the Secretary of State have presided over rigging the situation in advance. Is the Secretary of State proud that by slashing the number of Welsh MPs by fully a quarter from 40 to 30, she is the first Secretary of State for Wales in history to reduce Wales’s voice in Parliament? Why is she also the first Secretary of State to refuse a request for a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee? Does she not understand the anger about that among Welsh MPs of all parties, including hers? We demand a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee so that our constituents can see what is being done to them.
Again, the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. Our position, to which I would have thought he would be signed up, is that votes across the country should be of equal validity. The current position is that they are not. On holding a Grand Committee, I imagine and hope that he and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David), will be present at the meeting that we have convened this afternoon to put their concerns forward.
I have had several discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the importance of S4C and Welsh broadcasting in general, and I will continue to do so to ensure that Wales receives a broad range of programmes about and for the people of Wales. I have also had discussions with the senior management at S4C.
I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. Does she agree that given its programming for children, its substantial forward spending on planned programmes and the profound sociolinguistic effect that it has, S4C is in no way just another television channel that happens to be in Welsh? It is not a Welsh version of Dave TV, nice thought that is.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. From what I have seen of S4C, it is a television station that continues to meet the needs of Welsh speakers by providing programmes and services through the medium of Welsh. It is fair to acknowledge that it is dealing with some internal problems at the moment, but I have been impressed with the range of services that it provides, particularly to people who are learning Welsh. He may know that I visited the set of “Rownd a Rownd”, where I was extremely impressed by how we are bringing on young acting talent in Wales through that soap opera. I was impressed with the cast and the production team working on it.
The Secretary of State will also be aware of the significance of the independent TV production sector and the importance of its relationship with S4C. The sector was recognised in a Select Committee report in the previous Parliament as one in which Wales excels. Extensive cuts could jeopardise that. Will she continue to make the robust case to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about the scale of the potential cuts?
I will continue to do that on a regular basis. One thing that is so exciting about the Welsh economy is our huge potential in the creative industries. There is tremendous potential between the BBC and ITV, which is expanding its news coverage, and S4C, but our broadcasting industry must face the reality of the budget within which we must work, thanks to the previous Government’s mismanagement of the economy. However, I stress that the television industry is the place for independent companies to do business.
I have already held discussions with my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary on a number of military issues that affect Wales, and I have arranged to speak to him again during this two-week sitting of Parliament. I also wrote to him specifically on that issue in July, highlighting the importance of Airbus to the Welsh economy.
During the election, a number of Tory candidates in north Wales published leaflets that contained a pledge from the then Leader of the Opposition, who is now the Prime Minister, that that project would go ahead. Is that pledge still valid? Is it worth anything?
I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in such matters, and so he should, because Airbus employs, I believe, more than 6,500 people at the Broughton plant in his constituency. The order book for the A400M currently looks very healthy, with orders for more than 180 aircraft worldwide and at least 22 for the UK. I am confident that the position is secure.
The Secretary of State is right to concentrate on the importance of military activity and training in Wales. Will she therefore ensure that when she next meets the Defence Secretary, she stands up for the RAF in Wales, and bases such as RAF Valley, which has had substantial investment in the past 10 years? They serve the economy locally, but they will also serve our country well in future.
The hon. Gentleman should know that I have deep affection for RAF Valley, having done my armed services parliamentary fellowship scheme with the RAF. I was even privileged to sit in the back seat of several fast jets, courtesy of some first-class pilots. The RAF has a special place in my heart, and I can certainly assure him that I will always speak up loudly for RAF Valley.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Cabinet and ministerial colleagues, and we regularly meet the Association of Chief Police Officers Cymru, Police Authorities of Wales, the Welsh Local Government Association and other interested parties to discuss matters affecting policing and law and order in Wales.
With Welsh police forces facing budget cuts this year of more than £6 million, which is a real threat to front-line policing in constituencies such as mine, will the Minister tell the House how much it will cost to elect and fund the proposed directly elected police commissioners in Wales?
The hon. Lady will know that we have had to impose budget cuts to make a start on sorting out the appalling economic legacy that we inherited from the Labour party. Elected police commissioners will not cost a penny more than the police authorities that they will replace, and they will add the considerable value of ensuring that there is a democratic link between the electorate and those responsible for overseeing the police.
The Police Minister indicated that police authorities could make savings by reducing overtime, but police authorities such as Dyfed-Powys have already reduced overtime to a minimum as a result of previous efficiency savings. Will the Under-Secretary of State for Wales convey that to the Police Minister, and ensure that not all police authorities are dealt with on the same basis, so that peculiar requirements are taken into consideration?
The Government clearly recognise that any cuts present challenges to our police, as they do to other front-line services, but they also present an opportunity to refocus policing priorities and operational requirements. The Welsh police authorities have already shown an excellent lead by combining procurement, to the extent that they have saved more than £3.5 million in the last financial year, and I hope that that pattern will continue.
Following on from the Minister’s earlier response, the Local Government Association estimates that the cost of these police commissioners will be £50 million, or the equivalent of 700 police officers. Does not he agree that it would be perverse to introduce these superannuated sheriffs at the same time as making cuts in neighbourhood policing?
As I have already indicated, the cost of the police commissioners will not be a penny more than the authorities that they replace. The hon. Gentleman may like to know that I have already held a meeting with the Welsh Local Government Association. I have also seen the letter to which he alludes, and I have passed it on to colleagues in the Home Office. I reiterate that it will not cost a penny more than the police authorities that the commissioners will replace.
Winter Fuel Payments
Winter fuel payments provide assurance to older people that they can keep warm during the colder winter months by providing significant help with fuel bills. As announced in the Budget, winter fuel payments will continue to be paid for 2010-11, which will benefit some 680,000 people in approximately 494,000 households in Wales.
I wish to put to the Minister a question that was raised in a meeting of the over-50s group in my constituency last week. The Prime Minister gave assurances about safeguarding benefits for the elderly and the winter fuel payment during the election, but we now hear rumours that the qualifying age may be increasing from 60 to 66, or possibly more, and that the basic winter fuel payment could be cut by £50 for new recipients or £100 for the oldest. What merit should we give to those statements that were made during the election?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the coalition agreement makes it clear that the Government intend to protect the winter fuel payment. It is clear that the age at which both men and women get winter fuel payments will move in step with the equalisation in entitlement to the state pension, but I reiterate that the coalition agreement makes it clear that we intend to protect that payment.
I have regular discussions with many ministerial colleagues to ensure that we support Welsh businesses. I have already met with CBI Wales twice, and I have quarterly meetings planned with the CBI along with other business organisations in Wales, so that the issues affecting individual companies are fed directly into coalition Government policy.
Over the last 10 years, Wales became the poorest part of the United Kingdom under the Administration of Labour both here at Westminster and in Cardiff bay. A recent Oxford Economics report suggests that over the next five years Wales will create only 4,000 new jobs. Given that Wales will have the same macro-economic conditions as every other part of the UK, is not that a sad indictment of the Administration in Cardiff bay and the legacy of Labour?
My hon. Friend has experience of the Welsh Assembly Government and the Welsh Assembly, so I will leave his comments to stand. I agree with him that the situation that we have inherited is shocking across the UK, and it is especially sad in Wales because gross value added per head is the lowest out of all the UK nations and has been that way since 1998. However, I want to be optimistic about the Welsh economy and I have recently visited some very successful businesses that are investing in Wales and looking at creating jobs, including Corus, Sharp and Ultrapharm—the latter is producing wheat-free healthy lifestyle products for Marks and Spencer. I have been impressed by the number of jobs that are starting to appear in the Welsh economy, and I want to encourage more businesses to come and do business in Wales.
With the public sector cuts inevitably having a disproportionate effect on the Welsh economy, what countervailing measures is the right hon. Lady arguing for with the Treasury to stimulate private sector growth in Wales?
I am sad that the hon. Gentleman has to ask such a question, but he knows that he has to because the last Government left this economy in tatters, and it has fallen to this coalition Government to put the economy back together again. As he well knows, we are providing an environment in which business can do business in the UK. We are reducing corporation tax by a penny each year, which will give us one of the lowest corporation tax regimes in the European Union, we have reduced the taxation regime for small companies, and we have incentives on national insurance for entrepreneurs setting up businesses. I can assure him that we are doing everything that we can to create a healthy environment in which businesses and private business can prosper.
The hon. Lady knows that the deficit needs to be tackled immediately, and it was her Government who left us in this dire financial situation. Of course, I cannot pre-empt anything that might happen in the comprehensive spending review, but I recognise the vital role that public sector contracts play in the prosperity of businesses across Wales, and I know that the economy is heavily dependent on the public sector, so I have already made representations to the Treasury, and will continue to do so. However, I am afraid that the financial mess we are in was the responsibility of her party.
Public Expenditure Reductions
My right hon. Friend has regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of topics, including the reductions in public spending necessary to tackle the deficit.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his interesting and brief response. Will he actually answer the question more fully by commenting on the fact that the latest employment outlook survey says that employers in Wales expect to decrease staffing levels in the next few months by 8%, and that the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales has said that
“it’s not surprising that small firms might be planning staff reductions”,
and that is due to major public service cuts? Will he for once speak up for Wales and accept responsibility for the situation that his Government are creating for communities in Wales?
I am glad to see that the hon. Lady recognises the appalling financial legacy of her Government. Under the last Government, unemployment in Wales increased by 60%, from more than 82,000 to 130,000 in the last 10 years. We can restore the Welsh economy and return life to it only by allowing the private sector to grow. On that basis, we have introduced measures, such as the national insurance holiday, that will stimulate significantly the private sector in Wales. Wales cannot rely on the public sector alone.
National Assembly Powers
I have had regular discussions with the First Minister and ministerial colleagues on the proposed referendum on the law-making powers of the National Assembly for Wales. Indeed, I discussed it with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on Monday.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. Does she agree that, as devolution develops, we will need a fair constitutional settlement across the United Kingdom, and is it not the Government’s intention, therefore, to address English votes for English laws, and indeed English and Welsh votes for English and Welsh laws?
My hon. Friend knows that our approach to constitutional matters is informed and underpinned by our commitment to the Union and devolution and our conviction that power should rest in the hands of those we serve. Indeed, we have committed, in our programme of government, to establishing a commission to consider what has become known as the West Lothian question, and we are working to take that forward.
When the Secretary of State eventually comes up with a coherent and intelligible question for the referendum on further powers for the Assembly, will she be asking the Electoral Commission to carry out a further consultation on the question she will place before the House?
I feel that I should say to the hon. Gentleman, “Listen very carefully, I will say this only once,” because I heard an interview that he gave on the radio in which it appeared that he had not listened to the answers that I gave at the last Welsh questions. Can I just tell him that I have—[Interruption.]
I am very grateful to the Electoral Commission for its report and the 10 weeks of examination that it gave to the question that was designed by the project board. On Monday I worked with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and I have considered its findings. We have all agreed that we should accept its findings and take forward the preamble and the question that has been put forward, on an objective and independent basis, by the Electoral Commission, and I shall be making a further statement to Parliament.
Expenditure Reductions (Policing)
Both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Cabinet and ministerial colleagues on policing matters in Wales. We recognise that reductions in budgets will be challenging to our police forces, but will also present opportunities to refocus policing priorities and make operational efficiencies.
I thank the Minister for his response. Given how successful the Safer Caerphilly community safety partnership has been in substantially reducing crime and antisocial behaviour, will the Secretary of State give an assurance that she will fight any plans to cut funding for next year?
The question of funding for the police is a matter that will have to await the comprehensive spending review, but I am heartened by the comments of the National Audit Office and the Wales Audit Office about how it should be possible to effect reductions of £1 billion without any effect at all on front-line policing.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I attach great importance to rural communities in Wales and the economic challenges that they face. The Wales Office has set up a taskforce of officials to look at the rural economy and see what we can do to support and encourage growth in our rural areas.
I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend is contributing to that economic renewal and I hope that he will continue to do so in years to come. The Wales Office is currently consulting groups that represent businesses and the rural economy, to gather their views on what we can do to help them grow in these challenging times. I have already held meetings with a number of interest groups, including the farming unions, and I look forward to taking that work forward over the autumn.
There is a company in my constituency called Desk-Link. Unfortunately it is going through difficult times. Since January, many of the staff there have been paid late. Some workers have found that their tax and national insurance contributions have not been paid. Will the Minister ensure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Jobcentre Plus assist my constituents in getting the support to which they are entitled?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the prisons Minister in July to discuss prison capacity in Wales.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the current financial crisis means that a new prison in north Wales is now a distant probability? If that is the case, what discussions has he had with the Ministry of Justice about rehabilitation services in prisons in England that currently service prisoners from north Wales, and in particular for those prisoners who have Welsh as their first language?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have recognised for some time the need for a prison in north Wales. These are matters on which we have made representations to the prisons Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), but clearly the question of whether one is affordable will have to await the comprehensive spending review.
I have recently visited a number of venues associated with the leisure industry in Wales, and I have seen at first hand some of the preparations being made for the 2010 Ryder cup. I have been impressed by all the hard work that will make this event a great Welsh success, and I am sure that, like the people of Newport, we are all anxious to see this fantastic event tee off in three weeks’ time in Wales.
This is a wonderful, unique opportunity for us to show off our city of Newport and the rest of Wales. Will the Minister guarantee that she will do everything she can to ensure that there is a full legacy from the Ryder cup for the young people of Newport, Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom?
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The Ryder cup is going to be fantastic in Wales and I would urge Members to encourage their constituents who enjoy golf to visit this fantastic venue. The legacy fund already involves a £2 million investment by the Welsh Assembly Government, and it has so far distributed £1.5 million in grants for various projects across Wales. This is an event for Wales that all the political parties can come together and support wholeheartedly.