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Volume 525: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Big Society Initiatives

1. What recent discussions she has had with (a) ministerial colleagues and (b) the Welsh Assembly Government on big society initiatives in Wales. (45731)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have discussed a wide range of issues concerning the big society in relation to Wales with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who has responsibility for civil society, and Carl Sargeant, the Minister for Social Justice and Local Government in the Welsh Assembly Government.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will he comment on the important role that local authorities in Wales can play in encouraging the big society?

Local authorities can do much to help roll out the big society. Smart and intelligent councils are already doing so by recognising that big society initiatives can complement services that they provide and vice versa. I recently visited Pembrokeshire, where many good neighbour schemes have been set up to provide help and support for individuals who would otherwise be isolated. Pembrokeshire county council has appointed a scheme co-ordinator who offers advice to groups that want to establish such schemes.

On Saturday, I saw the big society in all its glory in Anglesey with the opening of the scouts and guides hall. That project brought together the public and private sectors and volunteers, but public funding was key. Will the Minister ensure that funding is given to the Welsh Assembly so that such schemes can carry on? Next Tuesday, he will be able to see the big society in all its glory on Anglesey day here in the House of Commons.

As I said, I have held discussions with Carl Sargeant, who is the Minister responsible for such matters in the Welsh Assembly Government. We are taking that work forward. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the big society bank will be available for the whole of the United Kingdom. There is no reason why Welsh groups should not apply to it for funding.

My hon. Friend will be aware that many people in Wales want to take advantage of the opportunities that the Government are offering, but that they may need mentoring. Will he appoint somebody in his Department, perhaps by seconding a civil servant, to assist people who have ideas to take forward the big society?

All ideas are gratefully received. The Government will ensure that there is a network of big society facilitators throughout the country. As many as 5,000 will be appointed in due course.

The WCVA has reported that half the 750 charities in Wales state that they will see a drop in their income next year. Is not investment from the big society bank just a matter of jam tomorrow?

There is no doubt that we are going through difficult economic times, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Unfortunately, third sector organisations are affected by that. I believe that the £200 million that will be available through the big society bank will be of immense benefit to third sector organisations in Wales.

The Welsh people are a shrewd lot, and they have quickly seen through the big society scam. Since £1.8 billion was cut from the Welsh Assembly budget, leaving councils with a shortfall of many millions of pounds, charities such as People First, which works with people with learning disabilities in the Rhondda Cynon Taff area, have been on the verge of closure. That is throwing more people on to the record unemployment numbers in Wales. As Dawn Price of People First put it to me:

“How can we take part in a Big Society when our funding is being so cruelly cut?”

I realise that some Opposition Members have huge difficulty with the proposition that people should be allowed to organise their own lives in the way that best suits them, rather than such matters being delivered top-down by big Government. However, there are signs that it is slowly dawning on the Leader of the Opposition at least that the big society may be rather a good idea. When he launched Labour’s policy review recently, in which I think the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) played a part, he said:

“We have got to take that term ‘big society’ back off David Cameron”.

Devolution of Powers (Referendum)

2. What assessment she has made of the outcome of the referendum on devolving primary law-making powers to the National Assembly for Wales. (45732)

4. What assessment she has made of the outcome of the referendum on devolving primary law-making powers to the National Assembly for Wales. (45734)

I welcome the clear yes result announced on 4 March. The vote in favour of primary law-making powers for the Assembly will enable the Welsh Assembly Government to get on with the job of delivering better public services in Wales.

I thank the Secretary of State. I note that there are now 20 devolved areas of policy for the Welsh Assembly and that Scotland has had similar powers for many years. Has she had conversations with other Ministers about the commission that we have been promised, or preferably legislation, so that only English MPs can vote on English laws that affect English residents, and thereby maintain the parity—

I think my hon. Friend is referring to what is known as the West Lothian question, or as we sometimes call it in Wales, the West Clwydian question. I have had words with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and as he informed the House on 15 December, the Government will make an announcement this year on plans to establish a commission to consider the West Lothian question.

Can the Secretary of State provide a timetable for the introduction of a Calman-style inquiry, as per the coalition agreement, and will she undertake a full consultation on the matter?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When we established the coalition Government, we committed in the coalition agreement to establishing a Calman-like process for the Assembly. I will announce further details on that in the coming months.

The Secretary of State has just said that there will be a commission on the so-called West Lothian question. Does she personally believe that Welsh Members of Parliament should have fewer voting rights in this place, particularly bearing in mind that her Government have cut the number of Welsh MPs by 25%?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is important that every vote is of an equal weight in this country. I am sure he would not want me to revisit arguments that have been well made and exhausted in the House.

When the commission is established, it will need to take into account the Government’s proposals for House of Lords reform, the changes to the way in which this House does business and the changes to the devolution settlement in considering potential solutions to the West Lothian question.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the resounding yes vote in the referendum on 3 March? As she knows, I legislated on behalf of a Labour Government for primary powers for the Assembly in 2006, and we are delighted at this historic day for Wales. I hope she is too.

The shadow Secretary of State must have been asleep when I answered the question in the first place and said that I welcomed the yes vote. I said that specifically during the passage of the Government of Wales Act 2006, when I sat in his position. I am also delighted that, despite prevarication, it was a Conservative-led coalition Government who delivered that referendum for the people of Wales.

Does the Secretary of State accept that given the nature of the yes campaign, it is clear that the vast majority of people in Wales wish to remain part of the Union? As a proud Welshman and a proud Unionist, I believe as strongly as other Members that something must be done about the West Lothian question, to stop Welsh MPs voting on matters for which they have no responsibility.

I, too, am a devoted Unionist, but I recognise that the yes vote does not mean that the Welsh devolution settlement will stand still. It is a living object, which is why we are establishing a Calman-like process to examine the future of the Welsh Assembly and how we are governed across the UK, specifically in Wales.

Broadband Projects

3. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on expenditure on broadband projects in Wales. (45733)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular meetings with ministerial colleagues on issues that affect Wales, including broadband projects. I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome, as I do, the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 10 February that we are providing £10 million of funding to support the extension of superfast broadband to Pwllheli and the surrounding areas.

I thank my right hon. Friend. Does she agree that due to the remote and rural nature of many parts of Wales—like many parts of my constituency—it is vital for businesses in rural communities to have effective broadband?

Yes, I agree that broadband is extremely important for rural communities. Indeed, it is arguably more important in the countryside than in our towns and cities. It enables people to run businesses from rural locations with no competitive disadvantage, and farmers in particular urgently need broadband to file their returns.

Although I appreciate and welcome the announcement of the broadband pilot, bizarrely made at Wrexham and not in the House, I represent the Pwllheli area among other parts of west Wales and I have no doubt that it was to due to pressure from the Deputy First Minister. Can the Minister tell me precisely which areas of my constituency will be included in the pilot and which will not?

The right hon. Gentleman gives the pilot a rather strange welcome—a rather curmudgeonly one, I would suggest. As he knows, the rural area around Pwllheli is intended to be included in the pilot, from which we hope to gain important knowledge on the further roll-out of broadband across Wales.

The economic renewal plan in Wales set out to provide high-speed links to all businesses by 2015 and all houses by 2020, and as the Minister knows, under the “Wi-fi Wales” initiative, there are plans to enable free wireless connection to all publicly owned buildings in Wales. What support will the Minister and the Secretary of State give to those plans? There is currently huge criticism of the Wales Office, but if they get stuck in on that, they might silence some of their critics.

It is fairly clear that the right hon. Gentleman does not keep in touch with his colleagues in the Assembly, because very recently, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I hosted a trilateral meeting between the Deputy First Minister and the Minister with responsibility for broadband via video link from the Wales Office in Gwydyr house. We are fully engaged in this process, and it is quite wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that we are not.

The Welsh Assembly Government have offered a grant to people in not-spots throughout Wales. Can communities get together to use such facilities to provide a community solution, rather than individuals finding their own solutions?

Yes, indeed. The proposal is that hubs should be provided in communities, but the technology that may be used thereafter will not be specified, so wi-fi or other appropriate solutions can be used depending on the nature of the area.

Inward Investment

5. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on measures to attract inward investment to Wales. (45735)

7. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on measures to attract inward investment to Wales. (45737)

Clearly, with so many of our companies in Wales having strong links with Japan, and given that some of our inward investment comes from there, I am sure the whole House would like to join me on behalf of Wales in sending our deepest condolences for the appalling tragedy.

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on measures to attract inward investment to Wales. Last month I hosted a trilateral meeting between the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the UK Minister responsible for trade and investment to discuss how we can work together to bring much-needed investment to Wales. We will be meeting again shortly.

Does the Secretary of State agree that Wales has much to offer business, as the Welsh Affairs Committee heard yesterday from Sir Terry Matthews? Can she also tell us what she is doing to work with the Welsh Assembly to bring inward investment to Wales?

Although it is too early to prejudge the outcome of the Committee’s inquiry on inward investment, a clear message on skills emerged in oral evidence last week. That message was consistent with the conclusions of the earlier cities report. Certainly, I will see how the UK Government can work with the Welsh Assembly Government to encourage more inward investment, because Wales is a great place to do business.

In the last couple of weeks, a number of strong foreign trade and investment visits have been made to Wales, particularly from India and the US. Does the Secretary of State agree that those are vital for Wales, and that we should maximise the opportunities that they present?

It is very easy to agree with my hon. Friend on that, because we need to maximise the opportunities that such visits present. Wales’s share of UK inward investment projects halved in the past decade from 6% to 3% and we need to act quickly to reverse that. It is therefore important to work across Government Departments in Whitehall, together with the Welsh Assembly Government, so that we have a cohesive programme for attracting inward investment.

With unemployment reaching a 17-year high this morning—up to 8.7% in Wales—where is the Secretary of State’s plan for growth?

I am tired of Members talking Wales down. The message that has just gone out from the hon. Gentleman is not a positive one. The unemployment figures were announced this morning. Although I have given them a cautious welcome because the economic inactivity rate continues to fall, I want people to know that we have a willing and able work force and that Wales is open for business. It is about time the hon. Gentleman joined me in talking Wales up.

It emerged in the Welsh Affairs Committee’s visit to Germany that vital inward investment opportunities were not being taken up by UK Trade & Investment because of the abolition of regional development agencies in England. Does the Secretary of State accept that this may represent a major opportunity for Wales and if so, what is she doing about it?

I had a particularly good meeting with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the Minister responsible for trade. I am keen that we should have some joined-up government, because we have not been taking advantage of all the opportunities that exist. After the Assembly elections we shall have to take that forward with the new Welsh Assembly Government, and I know the current Welsh Assembly Government have been looking at rationalising their offices abroad and having a more comprehensive programme—one that is engaged with UKTI, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Foreign Office, and the Wales Office. Together, we will have a stronger presence.

Block Grant Settlement

6. What recent representations she has received on the mechanism for calculating the block grant settlement for the Welsh Assembly. (45736)

I thank the Minister for that reply. In 2009, the Holtham commission concluded that the Barnett formula was no longer fit for purpose and was in need of urgent reform. Does the Minister agree that the Barnett formula should be replaced with a mechanism based on need?

It is fair to say that everyone recognises that the Barnett formula is nearing the end of its life. However, it is necessary to stabilise the public finances before we consider the formula. In the wake of the vote in the Welsh referendum, the coalition will establish a Calman-like process for the funding of the Welsh Assembly.

Earlier the Secretary of State said that the devolution settlement was a moving object. Will the commission to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred consider whether the Welsh Assembly should be given tax-varying powers?

It is important that the Welsh Assembly should be accountable for its activities, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that nothing is ruled out.

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber and they are very noisy. It is most discourteous. Let us have a bit of order.

Fuel Prices

8. What assessment she has made of the effect on the Welsh economy of recent trends in the cost of fuel. (45738)

Over the last few months I have made an assessment of the impact of the recession on rural areas, including the effects of rising fuel prices on businesses and families in Wales. We recognise that businesses, individuals and families are struggling with the rising cost of fuel, and we are looking at how we can help.

Following on from the Minister’s assessment, what representations has he made on extending the Government’s fuel duty rebate for the islands of Scotland and Cornwall to large tracts of rural Wales, where sparsity, economic dependence and inadequate public transport make this a pressing issue?

I agree that it is a pressing issue in large parts of rural Wales, such as my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can tell the House that I have written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to press for the extension of the pilot to rural areas in Wales.

In April last year the price of a litre of petrol in Flintshire was 116p. Can the Minister tell me what it is today and how much of the increase is due to the VAT that he imposed?

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the last time I filled up in Colwyn bay the price was approximately 133p. He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has indicated that these are matters that will be considered in the Budget next week.

But is the Minister aware that the dramatic rise in petrol and diesel prices is crippling motorists in Wales, especially those on low or middle incomes? In many Welsh communities people have absolutely no choice but to drive, and with wages frozen or falling, inflation high and today unemployment in Wales surging up, they are getting desperate. Will the Government reverse the VAT rise on fuel? It is what business wants, what motorists are crying out for, and what Wales and the whole of Britain needs.

Given that I come from a rural constituency, I am acutely aware of the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I would remind him that the escalator that is due to kick in next month is Labour’s escalator, and this is a matter that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be looking at.

Upland Farming

9. What recent discussions she has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on upland farming in Wales. (45739)

I have regular discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government on a range of issues affecting Wales, including the farming industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I recognise how important the rural economy is to Wales and take a close interest in matters affecting it, including farming on the Welsh uplands.

Does the Minister agree that the Welsh Assembly should work well with the Government to ensure that we have a clear strategy for upland and dairy farming, and that that objective would be more easily met through the introduction of an adjudicator to examine abuses of power in the retail sector?

Yes, indeed; I agree that the Welsh Assembly Government should work closely with the Government here in Westminster. My hon. Friend will be aware that it is the Government’s intention to establish a groceries code adjudicator to oversee disputes between retailers and suppliers.

Getting animals to market is important for upland farmers in Blaenau Gwent. Does the Minister agree that east-west road improvements are vital for boosting the heads of the valleys economy? Will he update us on the road improvements between Brynmawr and Abergavenny, and tell us when they will start?

It would appear to me that those are matters for the Welsh Assembly Government, but if the hon. Gentleman would care to write to me, I will consider the matter further.

Energy Policy

10. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and Ministers in the Welsh Assembly Government on energy policy in Wales. (45740)

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of issues, including energy policy. Last week, I was pleased to call the first Welsh Grand Committee debate on energy since 2008, which gave right hon. and hon. Members a chance to debate in detail that issue, which is of vital importance to Wales.

As a result of the last Government’s policy of burying their head in the sand when it came to energy, we are facing the real prospect of power cuts. Does the Secretary of State agree that building new power plants in Wales is essential for energy security, industry and job creation?

Energy is certainly a key priority of this Government and we are working hard to ensure that the UK, including Wales, has an energy infrastructure that is fit for the 21st century.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the exciting plans of the Welsh Assembly Government to generate enough electricity for every home in Wales from non-barrage marine sources offers Wales an energy future, like that of Ireland and Scotland, that will be nuclear free and renewables rich?

I am not sure that I caught the drift of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I have always welcomed the work that is being done to enable Wylfa A to continue to generate low-carbon electricity for a further two years until 2012. I was also delighted that Wylfa was chosen as the site for a potential new station in the future.

This Government have put the environment at the heart of their energy policy. Last week, I attended the launch of Norman Electrical Ltd, a small business in my constituency that is working with households and businesses to invest in renewable technologies. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming such start-ups and do what she can, with colleagues, to help Wales to become central to the renewable technology sector in the UK?

Yes, I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the company in her constituency. If all 26 million households in the United Kingdom take up our green deal over the next 20 years, employment in that sector could rise from its present level of 27,000 to something approaching 250,000, working all around the UK to make our housing stock fit for a low-carbon world.

Public Sector Job Losses

11. What recent estimate she has made of the number of jobs to be lost in the public sector in Wales as a result of the reductions in public expenditure in 2011-12. (45741)

A forecast of public sector job losses was published last year by the Office for Budgetary Responsibility. This was based on UK-wide macro-economic data, and no regional breakdown is available. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I remain committed to working with ministerial colleagues to minimise the impact of the reductions in public expenditure that we are having to make on Welsh workers and their families.

The Government’s impact assessment relating to the closure of Newport passport office includes the statement that

“we will also pay £3m redundancy…which may create a short term boost in trade for the local economy.”

Is this the Government’s new alternative growth strategy?

The line to which the hon. Lady refers is in every economic impact assessment that has been prepared in connection with the current process. That consultation will not be finished until Friday, and all options remain open.

Rail Network (South Wales)

12. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on electrification of the rail network in south Wales. (45742)

The statement made on St David’s Day by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport was excellent news for all parts of south and west Wales. This £1 billion investment will deliver all the benefits and improvements of an electrified railway to Wales, with faster acceleration, greater comfort and cleaner and greener travel. The decision to extend electrification to south Wales recognises that improved rail infrastructure and lower journey times are vital components for delivering a successful economic recovery in Wales.

What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the number of new jobs that will be created in Wales as a result of the electrification programme?

I hope that the electrification of the rail line, which was launched and announced with full funding by this Government, will bring the much-needed inward investment into Wales, resulting in the many jobs that we need.