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Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Council Tax Benefit

1. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Welsh Assembly Government on proposals to transfer responsibility for council tax benefit to local authorities. (54352)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had discussions with Cabinet colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of issues, including welfare reform.

As the Minister may know, there is a great deal of concern that people in Wales will struggle to get council tax benefit if the Welsh Assembly refuses to devolve the benefit to local authorities in Wales, as the Government are doing in England. Will he work with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that council tax benefit is devolved to either all local authorities across the UK or none?

Localisation of council tax benefit is part of the wider package of reform set out in the Welfare Reform Bill, which will ensure that work always pays. We are indeed committed to full consultation with the Welsh Assembly Government on the devolved implications of the reforms. The Assembly Government will no doubt wish to consult when they have developed their own policy options, but ultimately it is for them to decide how the delivery arrangements are put in place in Wales.

Devolution Funding

2. What progress has been made on the Government’s commitment to undertake a process similar to the Calman commission on devolution funding; and if she will make a statement. (54353)

4. What progress has been made on the Government’s commitment to undertake a process similar to the Calman commission on devolution funding; and if she will make a statement. (54355)

12. What progress has been made on the Government’s commitment to undertake a process similar to the Calman commission on devolution funding; and if she will make a statement. (54363)

Following the yes vote in the referendum on further powers, we have started to consider the scope and form of such a process. Now that the elections to the National Assembly have taken place I intend to discuss the process with other stakeholders and the First Minister. May I also take this opportunity while I am at the Dispatch Box to offer our congratulations to Carwyn Jones, who is currently considering forming the Welsh Assembly Government and has the largest party in the Welsh Assembly?

Our priority in Wales and elsewhere right now is to ensure that the deficit is under control. However, now that Ministers in the Welsh Assembly have more power, is it not right that they should be financially accountable for those powers as well?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. There is indeed a body of thought that believes that with the power to spend public money should come accountability, and this is certainly a matter that we will be looking at. However, this is not something that should be entered into in haste, and I intend to engage fully with the Welsh Assembly Government on the matter.

The national border between north-east Wales and Chester is almost unique in that it passes through an urban area, with large numbers of people travelling in both directions every day for health care, education and employment. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the remit of the review specifically includes looking at the impact of devolution on such cross-border services?

I thank my hon. Friend that question too, because he knows that we in the Wales Office have been concerned about cross-border issues and their impact on health in particular. I cannot guarantee that that will fall within the scope of the Calman-like process, but I assure him that I will take into consideration any representations that he or any other Member wishes to make to the Wales Office.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that reforming the thoroughly discredited Barnett formula to take a fair and transparent needs-based approach for the whole of the United Kingdom would help Wales and England?

The Government’s commitment to a wider review of the Barnett formula is clear, but stabilisation of the public finances comes first. I think we all recognise that the Barnett formula is coming to the end of its life, but we will consider a change to the system only once we have put the public finances in order. There was a good reason why the predecessor Government to this one made no changes to the Barnett formula in 13 years. It is not something that can be achieved in haste, only to be regretted at leisure.

May I ask the Secretary of State to take great care when she deals with these issues? As she knows, there is really no appetite in Wales for tax-varying or tax-raising powers—the resource base is not there—and even if there were, we would have to have a referendum in Wales for such powers, as happened in Scotland.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because I always remember sitting and listening to him give evidence to, I believe, a House of Lords Committee looking at the Barnett formula. He said that there was no case for reviewing it because it had served well. The fact that the last Government repeatedly ruled out reforming the Barnett formula means that any reforms must be looked at carefully. He is quite right that giving tax-raising powers would involve another referendum, which is something that this Government would look at carefully, because I am not sure whether Wales has an appetite at the moment for another referendum.

The Calman process in Scotland had a wider remit than merely to consider funding arrangements. Given the Labour party’s opposition to decoupling Westminster and National Assembly constituency boundaries, would it not make sense to base the make-up of the fifth National Assembly on 30 regional and 30 constituency Assembly Members?

That is a very interesting thought. Hon. Members are well aware that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 broke the link between Assembly constituencies and parliamentary constituencies. I have agreed that we need to look carefully at the implications of having constituency boundaries relating to different areas and regions for UK and Assembly elections in Wales. I am taking the hon. Gentleman’s question as a recommendation that we have 30 first-past-the-post seats and 30 elected on a list system, and I will look seriously at that suggestion.

Does the Secretary of State think that the Calman process will be as beneficial for the Tories in Wales as it was in Scotland last Thursday? Will she also congratulate Carwyn Jones on polling Labour’s highest ever Welsh Assembly vote, which included taking Cardiff North—about the safest Conservative seat in Wales—and beating the Liberal Democrats in Cardiff Central and Plaid Cymru in Llanelli? Will she ensure that if any financial concessions or flexibilities are offered to Scotland by her Government, as is now being suggested, Wales will receive equivalent benefits to compensate for the horrendous cuts that the Government are imposing on Welsh citizens?

The right hon. Gentleman is on dangerous ground here. I do not want to engage in any sort of triumphalism or tribalism, to use the words of Carwyn Jones. The right hon. Gentleman will note that I came to the Dispatch Box to congratulate Carwyn, because I have worked well with him over the past 12 months. May I just remind him that the Conservative vote went up to 25% in Wales and the number of our seats went up to 14? We are now the second largest party in the Assembly, and the right hon. Gentleman had better think again before he starts taking us on.

I know that the hon. Members for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) will disagree with the Secretary of State on that, because Labour won the Assembly seats in their constituencies with thumping majorities. If, as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury suggested yesterday, Alex Salmond is to get the borrowing powers that he is demanding, as well as the ability to reduce corporation tax, how will increasing borrowing fit with her Government’s preoccupation with reducing the deficit at all costs? Furthermore, is not her Conservative-led Government playing into the hands of separatists by promoting separate economies?

I would never play into the hands of separatists; I am a devoted Unionist, as I hope the right hon. Gentleman is. Before the Assembly elections, he and his party consistently boasted that they would win a majority in Wales, and I consider failing to do so a significant failure for him and his leader. On the question of separatism, however, he will know that my door is always open, and I would hope that we could join in common cause on this matter. He and I, and his party, support the United Kingdom and I want to ensure that all steps taken by the Wales Office will reinforce the United Kingdom. I see him nodding, and I am grateful for his acknowledgement that he would join me in that cause. I am sure that we can work well together on that.

Departmental Efficiency Savings

Since taking office, we have explored a number of ways to find efficiency savings and we have achieved significant savings, particularly on rail travel and hotel accommodation.

Is it the Minister’s intention that the Wales Office should be the most efficient Department in Whitehall? If so, how confident is he that that can be achieved?

We are certainly moving in that direction. Since taking office, we have introduced a rule that no Minister or official should travel first class. That has saved us nearly £92,000 and more than halved our rail costs this year. We have achieved 36% savings under a new Government contract for booking hotel accommodation, and we have halved the number of ministerial cars. From this month, we will no longer have the Jaguar in Wales that the Secretary of State’s predecessor ordered.

Big Society Initiatives

5. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on big society initiatives in Wales. (54356)

I have discussed a range of issues concerning the big society in Wales with the Minister for civil society, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd) and the Welsh Assembly Government Minister for social justice. I am due to have a further discussion concerning the big society bank with my hon. Friend next week.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that response. Will he share with us his anticipation of when the big society bank will be up and running in Wales?

We are certainly moving in that direction. My hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for civil society announced this week that the big society bank is being established; £200 million of moneys in that bank will be available on a wholesale basis for charities in Wales.

Many women in Wales who are approaching state pension age are presumably part of the Government’s big society in that they have reduced their hours to undertake caring responsibility for elderly parents and grandchildren. They now find themselves having to work up to two years longer with little time to prepare. Does the Minister understand how betrayed these women feel by this dereliction of public duty?

I am sure that the hon. Lady will also recognise that the economic legacy we inherited from Labour means that it is absolutely necessary that everybody should play their part in contributing to economic recovery. That means, sadly, that there will have to be an extension of the retirement age. I hope that she will explain that to her constituents.

Broadband Infrastructure

6. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on improving broadband infrastructure in rural Wales. (54357)

I have discussed improving broadband infrastructure across Wales with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers. Indeed, I arranged and hosted a meeting between the broadband Minister and the former Deputy First Minister to discuss joint working.

I would like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the important work she is doing in this vital area. Many studies, including those by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the OECD and the World Bank, have highlighted how broadband immeasurably enhances economic growth. In my own local authority of Cheshire East, faster broadband is a key element in the economic development of rural communities. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what assessment has been made of the economic benefit of enhanced broadband access in rural Wales?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I know that he has a great deal of expertise in this area. An independent estimate in 2009 projected that superfast broadband in the UK could create up to 600,000 jobs and add £18 billion to GDP. We are working closely with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that Wales benefits fully. Based on the population share, we estimate up to 30,000 new jobs being created and a possible £900 million of additional wealth being generated in Wales.

I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in congratulating Virgin Media on rolling out in Swansea this week the fastest broadband speeds in the UK. It is not just a rural problem. We have heard about the economic case. How quickly can we roll out these speeds to other parts the Principality?

I was particularly pleased that we were able to announce on 10 February £10 million of funding to support the extension of superfast broadband to Pwllheli. I know from working with colleagues in the DCMS and the Welsh Assembly Government that more announcements on this front will be made later this year. The hon. Lady is quite right on this issue, and I am particularly keen because broadband take-up in Wales is at 64% in comparison with 71% in the rest of the UK. Broadband take-up in rural Wales, however, is in excess of that in urban Wales, so I am very pleased to welcome Virgin Media’s announcement.

The Secretary of State will be aware not only that rural areas have slower and less reliable broadband, but that our constituents in those areas have to pay a lot more for it. Ofcom is currently investigating lowering the price that BT can charge internet service providers for wholesale broadband because it feels that prices are too high in rural areas. Will she make representations to Ofcom on behalf of people in rural areas to ensure that they, as well those in urban areas, secure a fair deal?

I had some difficulty in hearing the whole of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I should be happy to meet him to discuss the problems of rural broadband. He has always been a well-known champion of rural areas, and I am sure that if anyone can help me to make a case for bringing down costs in those areas, it will be him.

Order. I remind the Secretary of State that she must face the Chair. However, she was not alone in her difficulty. Far too many noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber in which I have no interest whatsoever. I must tell the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) that I want to hear Mr Hywel Williams.

Health and Social Care Bill

7. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government on cross-border implications of the provisions of the Health and Social Care Bill. (54358)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have discussed the Health and Social Care Bill with ministerial colleagues and with Welsh Assembly Ministers.

We do not impose competition on the health service in Wales. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that patients in north Wales are protected from the potential chaos caused by competition in the health service in England?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the problem has existed for some time. I remember sharing a platform with him to discuss the issue of the Walton centre. Decisions affecting the NHS in Wales are rightly a matter for the Welsh Assembly, but this Government are committed to working with Ministers in Cardiff and Whitehall when health care provision for Welsh patients is under discussion.

Many of my constituents depend on services commissioned from Hereford hospital for the meeting of their medical needs. Will the Minister meet me, and a representative of the Department of Health, to establish how that commissioning will proceed in future?

I think that that would be premature at this stage, but I am pleased about the decision to refresh the existing cross-border health services protocol for a further year, until 31 March 2012.

The Minister will be aware that one of the other destabilising effects of the Health and Social Care Bill is the abolition of the National Patient Safety Agency, whose job was to monitor patient safety in England and Wales. In England its job will be taken over by the national commissioning board, but what provision has been made for transferring its responsibilities in Wales to ensure patient safety? If the job is given to the National Assembly, will extra funds be made available for the purpose?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the existing cross-border protocol is supported by an annual transfer of funds—currently £5.9 million—to the Assembly Government, and an additional payment of some £12 million was made in the last two financial years. These matters will have to be discussed with Welsh Ministers once the new Assembly Government has been established.

Great Western Main Line

8. What estimate she has made of the number of jobs to be created in Wales as a result of electrification of the Great Western main line to Cardiff. (54359)

The electrification of the Great Western main line will create thousands of job opportunities in the UK manufacturing and service supply chains, and Welsh companies will be well placed to take advantage of those opportunities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the project will be good for jobs, not just in Wales but throughout the United Kingdom? Will she make contracts available to the many first-class English construction and engineering firms, such as those in Harlow, many of which are small businesses?

I was very pleased when we were able to announce the electrification, which will indeed help to provide jobs not only in Wales but in other parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that there will be many opportunities for businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency, as well as throughout Wales, to be involved in the process. Certainly the Wales Office will do all that it can to facilitate that.

Good transport links are vital to economic success. Will the Secretary of State undertake to deliver electrification of all the valley lines, including the line between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we identified electrification of the valley lines as a key priority as part of the development of the business case for electrification. As he will also know, I have said that I stand ready to work with the new Welsh Assembly Government and the Department for Transport to facilitate the electrification of those lines. I shall certainly examine the case for electrification of the Ebbw Vale line, which he has made to me before.

Tourism Promotion

9. What recent representations she has received from tourism operators in Wales on Government financing for tourism promotion. (54360)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have met representatives of the Welsh Tourism Alliance and North Wales Tourism to discuss a range of issues affecting the tourism industry, and we have both visited a number of tourism-related businesses across Wales in the last year.

As the Minister will know, the tourism sector in Wales is extremely important for the economy of Wales. He will also know that a large part of the sector comprises small and medium-sized enterprises—such firms employ about 90% of the people of Wales. What initiatives is he pursuing to expand this all-important sector?

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. The Welsh tourism industry is worth some £3.5 billion to the Welsh economy. Responsibility for promoting tourism in Wales resides with the Welsh Assembly Government, of course, but VisitBritain has established a new £100 million overseas tourism marketing fund, with £50 million being provided by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. That marketing programme is due to launch to consumers this month and aims to deliver an extra 4 million visitors to the UK, many of whom will, of course, visit Wales.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but may I press him on one point? He and the Secretary of State were lobbied on the need for a cut in value added tax on tourism services so that we can compete fairly with our friends in Ireland and France, for example. Please will they engage with the Treasury on this matter?

Nuclear Industry

Nuclear energy is an important component of our future energy security and carbon reduction plans. It will therefore continue to have a future in the UK’s energy policy, and I hope that a new build at Wylfa will play a key role in creating new jobs in Wales.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in lamenting the record of the Labour party, which failed to promote the latest generation of nuclear technologies and thereby put our energy security at risk?

As my hon. Friend knows, this Government have said that nuclear could be part of the future energy mix, and he will know personally of my attitude towards Wylfa continuing as a nuclear power station, with new generation at the site.

Does the Secretary of State agree that new power plants in Wales are good news for energy security, industry and job creation?

That is an easy question for me to answer. I welcome the work that has been done to enable Wylfa to continue generating low-carbon electricity for a further two years, and I am delighted that the site has been chosen as a future new site for generation. [Interruption.]

Order. Let us have a bit of hush in the Chamber for the Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, Mr David T. C. Davies.

In light of the comments of the Committee on Climate Change, which has said that nuclear represents the most cost-effective way of delivering carbon-free electricity, will the Secretary of State support the plant in Anglesey as a means of protecting future generations of homo sapiens?

Once again, this is a very easy question to answer, but I nevertheless thank my hon. Friend for asking it. There is now a growing consensus of opinion right across the board in Wales that Wylfa in Anglesey would be an excellent site for future nuclear generation.

Given that an enormous amount of time and money has been put into studying tidal energy in the Severn estuary, what efforts is the Secretary of State making to take forward the plans for that and ensure they do not get lost?

The hon. Lady knows that throughout the years when I have been both shadow Secretary of State and now Secretary of State for Wales, I have been very supportive of all the work that has been done, particularly on tidal lagoons, as well as in examining the case for the Severn barrage, which has, of course, been put to one side for the time being. I can assure her, businesses in her constituency and our research institutes that we will always consider that option for future generation in and around the Welsh coast.

In addition to the fear of a Welsh Fukushima, the cost of new nuclear is such that the only new nuclear power station in the world is already three years late and £2 billion over budget. Why does the Secretary of State not concentrate on the immense power of the tides in Wales, including the second highest rise and fall of tide in the world, and give us energy that is clean, safe and eternal?

The hon. Gentleman has been consistent, but he has asked questions on this matter of the Minister with responsibility for energy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), and of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and he knows very well that the Government’s view is that tidal energy has a part to play in our energy programmes of the future, but so, too, has nuclear.