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Volume 517: debated on Wednesday 3 November 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

Court Closures

1. Whether she has had discussions with the Secretary of State for Justice on the likely effects on Wales of her Department’s proposed programme of court closures. (20323)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are fully engaged with our colleagues at the Ministry of Justice on these proposals. We both met the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), in September and further meetings have been arranged.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that reply. Will he tell me when exactly he met his colleagues and what he discussed? Which courts did he say should not close?

I and the Secretary of State met the Under-Secretary in September. We have another meeting arranged for 10 November. We discussed all the courts in Wales that I am sure the hon. Gentleman is concerned about.

May I make the point that since the hon. Gentleman and his colleague have been in post, we have lost the investment in St Athan, we have lost the investment in the south Wales railway line, we have lost jobs in Newport and we have lost the north Wales prison? What on earth are they doing for Wales?

It is in fact inaccurate to say that we have lost either St Athan or the north Wales prison. I would have thought, frankly, that the hon. Gentleman, as a lawyer, would be more concerned about the administration of justice. That is the primary concern of our Department and of the Ministry of Justice.

May I thank the Minister for all he is doing to try to right the terrible economic wrongs foisted on us by Labour Members? In doing so, will he also take account of taxpayers’ money that has been spent on Abergavenny court before making any final decision on it?

Yes, indeed. Both the interests of justice and the interests of taxpayers’ money will be fully considered.

National Assembly for Wales

2. What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Government policy on the funding for the National Assembly for Wales determined in the comprehensive spending review. (20324)

I have discussed the comprehensive spending review with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Cabinet colleagues. The spending review sets out how the Government will carry out Britain’s unavoidable deficit reduction plan. We have secured a fair settlement for Wales. It is now for the Welsh Assembly Government to decide how to manage the reductions, reflecting their own policies and priorities.

The UK Government refuse to review Wales’s funding settlement, despite four independent reports highlighting the inequity of the Barnett formula, until the proposed March referendum. Will the Secretary of State explain the link between legislative competence for the National Assembly and funding for the Welsh Government, because under the terms of the Government of Wales Act 2006 they are distinct bodies?

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that there have been two recent reports to the Welsh Assembly Government by Gerald Holtham, both of which I have looked at and discussed with the First Minister. We are still waiting to see what the response is from the Welsh Assembly Government to the second report from Gerald Holtham and it is right and proper that we should wait and see what the Welsh Assembly Government say first. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the details in the coalition agreement are quite clear. We have said that the Barnett formula is coming towards the end of its time, but we have a priority to put this economy back into shape after it was left in such a disgusting mess by the outgoing Government.

On what date was the Secretary of State informed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport of his plans to change the status of S4C?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have many meetings with the Culture Secretary on S4C. I have discussed the future of S4C on many, many occasions.

You will have noticed that she did not answer the question, Mr Speaker. The day before the comprehensive spending review, on the evening of Tuesday 19 October, the BBC’s Nick Robinson first broke the news that S4C was to be joined with the BBC before the S4C authority had even been informed. It is not clear from her answer whether the Secretary of State knew what the Culture Secretary was planning before Nick Robinson did or whether, like the rest of us, she found out from him. It saddens me that she has absolutely no influence in the Cabinet. She failed to stand up for S4C, she failed to stand up for the defence training college, she failed to stand up for the Anglesey energy island, she failed to stand up for the Severn barrage and she got a terrible deal for Wales out of the comprehensive spending review. I am sorry to say that she is failing Wales abysmally. If she is not going to fight for Welsh jobs, she should not be in her job.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back to his place on the Front Bench. For a brief moment during the elections for the shadow Cabinet, I thought we were going to be robbed of his charm and wit in Welsh questions, but that is not to be the case.

The Conservative party initiated the legislation on the Welsh language, which helped to put S4C on the map, and I have always supported S4C, both as the shadow Secretary of State for Wales and now as the Secretary of State. The deal for S4C is that it has firm funding for the next four years, and there will be meetings to ensure that it remains independent and continues to make a valuable contribution to Welsh language broadcasting.

Order. As I want to make some progress down the Order Paper, we must have shorter answers, so I shall cut them off if necessary.

Perhaps I can help the two Front Benchers. In a written answer to a question to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, I was told that he and others were informed of the S4C decision

“in the days leading up to, or at the time of, the spending review and licence fee settlement announcements.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 413W.]

Can our Secretary of State be a little more precise, or is her memory deficient—tactically or otherwise?

No, my memory is not deficient. I assure the hon. Gentleman that S4C has been so important to me that I have been supporting it through its troubles. He will be well aware of the precipitate departure of the chief executive. I remember going out clearly at the Eisteddfod and backing S4C and saying that it had a great broadcasting future and was secure in our hands. It has now secured its financial deal, the details of which will come later.

Severn Bridge (Toll Exemptions)

3. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on an exemption from Severn bridge toll charges for serving armed forces personnel. (20325)

I have regular meetings with ministerial colleagues regarding transport issues in Wales. I recently met the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), to discuss the Severn bridge tolls. In particular we discussed the possibility of offering various discounts once the concession ends.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we ought to honour our armed forces by giving them concessionary fares, as happens in France and the United States?

We certainly ought to honour our armed forces. The issue with the Severn bridge is that it is currently managed by a concessionary company, Severn River Crossing plc, and that the concession is likely to continue until 2017. Until then, discounts are entirely a matter for the company, but when the concession ends the Government will be responsible for tolling and might well consider further concessions.

Does the Minister agree that the tolls act as a tax on the economic gateway to inward investment in Wales? Will he consider reducing the tolls for the maintenance charges when the Severn bridge comes into public ownership in 2016 to encourage inward investment and prosperity at a time when the Welsh have been hit so badly by the comprehensive spending review?

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. Clearly there would be more of an economic barrier if the crossing were not there, but he is right that when the concession comes to an end in 2016-17 it will be possible to review the tolls and see whether, for example, they should be charged only in one direction or both.

Child Poverty

4. What plans she has for discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government on the likely effects on child poverty in Wales of the outcomes of the comprehensive spending review. (20326)

I have regular meetings with the First Minister about a range of issues relevant to Wales. We are firmly committed to tackling poverty and improving the lives of low-income families. Through decisions we have taken in the spending review, we are demonstrating that the best way to tackle child poverty is to address the root causes of poverty—entrenched worklessness, economic dependency and educational failure.

What representations has the Secretary of State made to her Treasury colleagues about the child trust fund, to which the Assembly continues to contribute? Page 42 of the Conservative party manifesto committed the Government to continuing to support the child trust fund for the poorest third of families, but that commitment is being ripped up by the Bill that is currently before Parliament.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the cuts we are being forced to make are not these Government’s cuts but have arisen from his Government’s mismanagement of the economy. We certainly want to help disadvantaged children now, when they need our help, and it would simply be wrong to defer that help for 18 years. We have had to take difficult decisions regarding the child trust fund, but the record deficit has made it unaffordable. The problem with the economy at the moment is that his Government broke it and we have to fix it.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the substantial increase in child tax credits announced in the June Budget will do substantial work to address child poverty not only in Wales, but right across the UK?

The hon. Gentleman knows that to change the prospects of all children through the new fairness premium of £7.2 billion over the spending review period is exactly what this Government want to do. It includes a £2.5 billion premium to support the educational development of the poorest pupils.

It is not simply in respect of child poverty that people in Wales are worried; whole towns in Wales are now worried that the Government have them in their sights. We are used to it, of course, in places such as Merthyr—in the 1930s, the Tories proposed to close it down completely and move people to the colonies—but I wonder whether Wales Office Ministers share the view of the Work and Pensions Secretary that people there, in Merthyr and in the valleys, are workshy and should simply get on a bus and find a job.

The hon. Gentleman knows that, with our packages of welfare reform, we are trying to lift people out of lives of dependency. The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) asked about child poverty, which had been increasing under his Government since 2005. Is the hon. Gentleman not ashamed of the previous Labour Government’s record on the matter?

Order. I think that the Secretary of State will have intended to welcome a new occupant of the Opposition Front Bench.

Constitutional Reform

5. What recent representations she has received on the implications for Wales of the Government’s proposals on constitutional reform. (20328)

My right hon. Friend and I have received a number of representations, and we have also discussed with the Welsh Assembly Government and other interested parties the implications for Wales of the Government’s programme of constitutional reform. Fairness throughout the United Kingdom is the underpinning principle of those reforms, and the Government have moved fast to introduce the constitutional reforms needed to restore confidence in Britain’s political system.

We all understand the idea of a maximum time limit of two months for responding to Select Committee reports, but we do not have to go for the maximum; we can respond earlier. Will the Minister explain why his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did not respond to the Welsh Affairs Committee’s report on the constitutional reforms in time for those comments to be considered while the relevant Bill was being considered on the Floor of this House?

As the hon. Lady will know, the Committee’s report was only recently received. The Wales Office will do it justice by giving it full consideration and providing a mature and considered response.

Seaside Towns

6. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on the economy of seaside towns in Wales. (20329)

My right hon. Friend has had regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on all issues affecting the Welsh economy, including the vital role that the prosperity of seaside towns plays. The Government are committed to working with the Welsh Assembly Government to promote Wales as both a tourism and an investment destination, so that seaside towns prosper as we deliver sustainable economic growth.

What assessment has the Minister made of the effect on seaside towns, especially Welsh seaside towns such as his and mine, of what Boris Johnson calls the “Kosovo-style” clear-out of people on housing benefits in inner cities?

I can fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern that after 13 years of Labour government the west ward of Rhyl became the poorest and most deprived area in the whole of Wales. In so far as benefits are concerned, the most important aspect of the matter is to ensure that housing is available in the west ward of Rhyl and in other parts of his constituency.

Does my hon. Friend agree that tourism is a key part of the north Wales economy, and as such is it not inexplicable that the Assembly Government’s economic renewal plan does not mention tourism at all?

Yes. Tourism provides £4 billion per annum to the Welsh economy, and it is essential that we do as much as we can to encourage it. However, the north Wales coast regeneration area fund will also utilise private funding, and that is a Welsh Assembly Government initiative of which we approve.

Employment Opportunities

7. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on steps to increase employment opportunities in Wales. (20330)

May I apologise, Mr Speaker, for not welcoming the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) to the Front Bench? I am so incensed by the previous Government’s treatment of the economy that it quite passed me by, but I would not want any impoliteness, and I welcome him warmly to the Front Bench.

I have had regular discussions regarding increasing employment opportunities in Wales with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and he is as committed as I am to ensuring that the Welsh economy benefits fully from new growth in the economy.

Wales, and Newport in particular, have provided a successful and welcoming habitat for jobs that were relocated from London. Would it not be a great shame if the present cuts hit disproportionately Welsh areas, resulting in the reversal of that very successful process? Will the Secretary of State renew her efforts to persuade Government that a cut of 250 jobs at the Newport passport office would seem especially devastating if they understood the local situation?

The hon. Gentleman knows exactly how I feel about the issues concerning the immigration and passport office, because I was delighted to welcome him and the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) into the Department to meet the Minister for Immigration and me to discuss its future. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: Newport is a city that ranks third in the Lambert Smith Hampton study of the best office locations outside London. We have businesses there such as Admiral, Wales and West Utilities, and even the HM Prison Service shared service centre. I can assure him that I will make my best efforts to protect all the jobs in Newport that I can, and to promote Newport among my colleagues as a good place to which to relocate.

The Driving Standards Agency is planning to close its Cardiff office, with the loss of 80 jobs, partly as a result of the cost of office rental. Since the Government own a huge office estate in south Wales, will the Secretary of State work with colleagues to undertake an audit of that office space to see if it can be better used more efficiently in order to save jobs?

I would be very willing to give that undertaking to the hon. Lady. In fact, if she writes to me with any details, I will be pleased to take it up with my colleagues. She should be aware, however, that I am talking to all the Departments right across Whitehall, as I did right at the beginning when I was first appointed, to suggest that Wales is a great place for them to relocate their expensive offices from other parts of the country. [Interruption.]

As usual at this time on a Wednesday, there are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. It is very unfair on the Member asking the question and the Minister answering it, and it is also rather discourteous to the people of Wales.

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill

8. If she will discuss with the Leader of the House the convening of a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee to discuss the matter of the effect on Wales of the provisions of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. (20331)

As I explained to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues yesterday, there is no need for a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee on this issue. Hon. Members have had adequate opportunity to discuss the implications for Wales of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, including five days of debate in Committee and two days on Report and Third Reading, all on the Floor of the House.

I see that Ministers are not answering again. When the Secretary of State refused, in an unprecedented way, to have a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee, was her principal reason for doing so to snub Welsh MPs or simply to sabotage the Prime Minister’s respect agenda—because she succeeded in both?

The hon. Gentleman well knows that far from treating him and his colleagues with disrespect, there was in fact a meeting specially organised for Welsh Members of Parliament attended by the Bill Minister, the Secretary of State and me. There has been ample opportunity for discussion of this Bill on the Floor of the House, as the hon. Gentleman well knows.

Rail Projects

9. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on funding for cross-border rail infrastructure projects; and if she will make a statement. (20332)

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I have regular meetings with ministerial colleagues to discuss a range of issues affecting Wales, including transport. We recognise that improved rail infrastructure is a vital component for delivering a successful economic recovery in Wales, and we are working hard with the rest of Government to ensure that this is achieved.

Given that the great western main line is one of the UK’s busiest, can the Secretary of State assure me that Labour’s commitment to electrify the line between Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea by 2017 will be honoured?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we recognise the importance of enhancing railway infrastructure to meet demand, and that is why the Government are investing £14 billion of the Department for Transport’s £30 billion budget over the next four years in the maintenance of our railways. There will be further announcements on railway investment, and I very much hope that all the representations that have been made on the electrification of that part of the railway will find favour with the Secretary of State for Transport.

Will the Secretary of State turn her attentions also to the transport infrastructure in mid-Wales and the train connection between Aberystwyth and Shrewsbury? We have been waiting a long time for an hourly service and a direct service to London, which requires Assembly funding. Will she look sympathetically on the Assembly’s bids for funding for that train route?

I happen to have a meeting with the First Minister tomorrow, so I can assure my colleague that I will raise the matter with him. As he knows, the Welsh Assembly Government and Network Rail have invested £13 million in enhancing the Cambrian line from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury. That collaboration has led to a huge investment as part of the national stations improvement programme, which I hope my colleague will welcome.


10. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport on the future funding and management of S4C. (20333)

My right hon. Friend and I have had regular meetings with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics Media and Sport and with the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), who is responsible for culture, communications and creative industries, to discuss these matters. The Government remain committed to the future of Welsh language programming and of S4C, and we regard S4C’s settlement as fair and proportionate to the cuts that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is being asked to make.

Does the Minister agree with the leader of the Welsh Conservatives that there should be an independent review of S4C?

The Welsh Conservatives’ proposal is, of course, that S4C should have a good, viable and vibrant future. It is for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider whether there should be an inquiry.

Decentralisation (Local Communities)

11. What recent discussions she has had with the First Minister on proposals to decentralise powers to local communities. (20334)

My right hon. Friend has regular meetings with the First Minister on all issues affecting Wales. I will meet the Assembly Government’s Minister for Social Justice and Local Government tomorrow.

As the people of Wales may shortly vote for additional powers to be devolved to Wales, and as the Government take forward their localism agenda, does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that as many of those powers as possible are devolved down from the Assembly to local communities and councils?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right to the extent that I find huge enthusiasm among stakeholders in Wales for the Government’s big society agenda, which seeks to devolve influence down to the lowest possible level. For that purpose, I will be having a meeting with the Minister for Social Justice and Local Government to discuss how the Welsh Assembly Government can participate in the process.

How will the removal of the right of local communities to appeal to the Boundary Commission through public inquiries enhance the power of local communities?

These are matters on which the hon. Gentleman has had plenty of opportunity for debate on the Floor of the House, and he has made his full contribution. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. It is a veritable commotion. I want to hear Mr Philip Hollobone.

Departmental Budget

12. Whether she plans to amend the administration and staff costs in her Department’s budget for 2010-11. (20335)

My Department’s budget for 2010-11 was fixed as part of the comprehensive spending review. On costs within my Department, since taking office I have been exploring ways to find efficiency savings and have already achieved significant savings on rail travel and hotel accommodation.

Does the Secretary of State have any plans to reduce the number of days taken in sick leave by staff in her Department, so that it is the best in the public sector?

I am not aware that there are different rates of sick leave in my Department from any other, but I will undertake to my hon. Friend to have a look at the records in my Department and return to the point in writing to him.

My Department stands up for Wales, unlike the previous Secretary of State, who stood back from Wales, allowed it to become the poorest nation in the UK and then compared it to Rwanda.

Economic Support

13. What recent discussions she has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on Government support for the economy in Wales. (20336)

I have had regular discussions with both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister on a range of topics, including working together to deliver strong, sustainable growth to the Welsh economy. We will continue to have discussions on supporting home grown enterprise and looking at attracting more foreign companies to invest in Wales. I will be establishing a Wales business advisory group to ensure that I am fully apprised of issues affecting Welsh businesses and what they need to help bring about growth.

Does the Secretary of State agree that streamlining regulation and stimulating the private economy will be essential to the Welsh economy?

My hon. Friend needs very little reply except to say that I wholeheartedly agree with him and will do my best.