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House of Commons

Monday 23 January 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Severn Electricity Tunnel

1. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what are the implications for the development of Welsh industry of a second Severn electricity tunnel ; and what steps he is taking to secure such a tunnel.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Walker) : This is an operating matter for the industry, but I understand that there is more than sufficient generating capacity in Wales to meet expected demand in Wales well into the next century. The industry, therefore, has no plans to build a second cable tunnel.

Mr. Stern : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply, because the construction of such a tunnel would cause considerable disruption in and around my constituency. Would he, however, bear in mind that given the strength and the growth of the industry in Wales generally, such provision may be necessary at some time in the future?

Mr. Walker : We are, obviously, reviewing this carefully. Certainly, the present trend in Welsh industry is of remarkable expansion. The inward investment in 1988 is to provide 13,600 jobs and the regional grants which were on offer in 1988 involved 31,500 new jobs. Therefore, one has carefully to examine the needs for energy during a period of such expansion.

Mr Gwilym Jones : My right hon. Friend knows well that the tunnel is not the only alternative, because in his former incarnation as the Secretary of State for Energy, he dramatically increased the public commitment to a Severn barrage, which could also include a road crossing. In view of the chaos last week caused by the closure of the Severn bridge, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to the second crossing and state when he expects it to be in place?

Mr. Walker : I am pleased to say that the Ministry of Transport has speeded up the arrangements to obtain the appropriate tenders. I believe that there will be a need for this to be in place as quickly as possible and I envisage that it will be in place by the mid-1990s.

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Water Privatisation

2. Mr. Ray Powell : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what assessment he has made of the impact of water privatisation on the environment of Wales and the health of the people of Wales.

Mr. Peter Walker : The establishment of the National Rivers Authority has been widely welcomed on environmental grounds. I am satisfied, too, that the proposed regulatory regime, under which the successor company to the Welsh water authority will operate, will provide adequate protection for the customer both in terms of quality of service and charges.

Mr. Powell : As a wet in the Cabinet, is the Secretary of State now drying out on the question of water privatisation, or has he been dangled a carrot by the Prime Minister, as a carrot was dangled to the chairman of the Welsh water authority by his predecessor to persuade him to change his mind about privatisation in one weekend? Has the right hon. Gentleman read in today's Independent an article by Jeremy Warner, which forecasts a 20 per cent. increase in water charges within the next few years--and that is before the investors get their greedy hands on our water? Over the past 10 years it has cost 10p to spend a penny. How long will it be before it costs us £10?

Mr. Walker : I warmly welcome the prospect for the first time of the people of Wales having a direct stake in their water company. I welcome, too, the fact that they will be able to arrange investment programmes without constant reviews by the Treasury, which were especially harsh during periods of a Labour Government. I believe that the provisions secure the river system that was created under the last reorganisation of water and that the Welsh people will warmly welcome the opportunity of having their own direct stake in this industry.

Sir Raymond Gower : Is not a respectable percentage of British water already under private ownership? Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether there have been all these terrible consequences because of that fact?

Mr. Walker : No. What is true is that prior to the last major water reorganisation, when a lot of water was in the hands of local authorities, there were enormous increases in pollution, great problems and a failure to invest. It is true, too, that the investment programmes of water authorities have since been affected by the Treasury decisions of all political parties. I believe that a company very much owned by the Welsh people and its

employees--independent and strong--will be a considerable success and an advantage to Wales.

Mr. Livsey : Most people in Wales are opposed to water privatisation, but, nonetheless, it seems as though the Government will try to push this measure through. Has the Secretary of State any practical plans to enable consumers to become shareholders in Welsh Water plc?

Mr. Walker : We will have many plans for all the people of Wales to participate if they wish. I look forward with great pleasure to the hon. Gentleman's party and all the other parties making a commitment at the next election to renationalise the water industry, but I doubt whether they will.

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Sir Anthony Meyer : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Welsh people are extremely pleased and confident in the steps that he is manifestly taking to ensure that, if there must be privatisation of water, the interests of Welsh consumers and the environment of Wales will be fully protected?

Mr. Walker : Yes, Sir. That is an important matter and I am delighted at the conclusions that we have reached.

Mr. Rowlands : Is the Secretary of State aware of the sharp increase in the number of disconnections of water supplies to households? Will the Government introduce a statutory code on disconnections to ensure that the Welsh water authority sends a representative to visit every house to discover whether it is disconnecting water supplies to the frail, elderly or the disabled, because that is what is happening at present?

Mr. Walker : That is happening under a system that the hon. Gentleman wants to protect and retain. I only hope that if that system is working badly now, it will improve under privatisation.

Mr. Raffan : Does my right hon. Friend agree that as the Welsh water authority regards 95 per cent. of the 88,000 acres of land it owns as operational--in other words essential to water supply and water treatment-- and as that land is and will continue to be subject to our planning laws, the threat to the Welsh environment is more imaginary than real?

Mr. Walker : Yes, Sir. It is an understandable ploy to try to create a scare before privatisation--it frequently happens. The present water authority has disposed of land under the present system and I have no doubt that that practice will continue if it considered that it is sensible and correct. I believe that there is no danger on environmental or recreational grounds. In fact there may well be a considerable improvement on recreational grounds.

Mr. Wigley : Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that if Welsh Water plc comes into existence--regrettably it appears that that will be the case--people will not be forced, under any circumstances, to take water meters in their homes, because of the adverse effects that that would have on health?

Mr. Walker : I do not know what policy will prevail on water meters in future. However, such a system has operated in certain places in England for some time, for example in Malvern, and I do not believe that there is any evidence that that system has had an adverse effect on people's health.

Mr. Barry Jones : May I confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that the people of Wales already own the Welsh water authority. Surely in health matters the guiding principle is need before profit. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot accept that, we are in danger of regressing to Victorian standards with major implications for public health in Wales. Will the right hon. Gentleman give me an absolute assurance that, after privatisation, we shall not have a steep rise in disconnections and in prices? Will he also come clean on the future of the Wrexham and East Denbighshire water company? Surely he will not abandon that little £6 million company to the takeover specialists.

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Mr. Walker : The "owned by the people of Wales" argument also could have been applied to electricity and gas when a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to raise an extra £200 million to meet the payments to the International Monetary Fund from gas and electricity price increases. I do not believe that the people of Wales feel that they have any direct control, ownership or participation in Welsh Water when the investment programmes are settled, not by them, but by the Treasury.

I shall consider the detail and the points raised about the Wrexham and East Denbighshire water company. All I can say is that under present arrangements mergers betwen water companies have taken place, but what happens must be in the best interests of Wrexham and Wales.

Rail Services

3. Mr. Anderson : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he last met the chairman of British Rail to discuss rail services in Wales.

Mr. Peter Walker : I met Sir Robert Reid on 12 December 1988 when we discussed a range of issues. I am glad to say that since that meeting British Rail has announced additional morning and evening trains on the Paddington to south Wales line, with an additional 1, 600 seats per day on the evening service out of Paddington from May 1989. Indeed, some extra trains are being introduced this very day.

Mr. Anderson : When the Secretary of State meets the chairman of British Rail he should raise two matters designed to maximise the advantages to Wales of the Channel tunnel. First, because the new terminal will be sited at King's Cross, will he consider the importance of the cross -London link with the west and Wales route? Secondly, if the advantages of the Channel tunnel are to be spread throughout south Wales, will he consider the need for a second freight terminal in south-west Wales, ideally in Danygraig near Swansea?

Mr. Walker : I shall certainly convey those views to the chairman of British Rail. We had a long discussion about the Channel tunnel. British Rail's final schemes have not been fixed and the final decisions have not been taken, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in the view of the chairman of British Rail the potential of freight from south Wales was of considerable advantage to British Rail which is anxious to have good arrangements for the use of the Channel tunnel. I shall convey the specific points raised by the hon. Gentleman to the chairman of British Rail.

Mr. Coleman : Is the right hon. Gentleman really satisfied with his discussions with British Rail about improved passenger services? Is he aware that those of us who use the line from Cardiff to Swansea are experiencing a diminution of the service? Is he aware that not all Inter- City 125 trains terminate at Swansea?

Mr. Walker : I specifically discussed the line from Cardiff to Swansea and its future. I am pleased to inform the hon. Gentleman that the line is doing well and remaining viable and that freight and passenger traffic is increasing. British Rail has plans to improve the volume of service and the availability to passengers on that particular stretch of the line.

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Mr. Stern : When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of British Rail, will he raise yet again the effect of a curfew on travel from Wales via Bristol late at night? For some time it has been impossible to travel back to Bristol at any sensible time in the evening. Would it not be a good idea to reinstate the service, which I am quite sure affects the constituencies of many Opposition Members as well as my own?

Mr. Walker : The service between Bristol and Cardiff was not specifically discussed. I shall certainly look into the matter and convey my hon. Friend's views to British Rail.

European Community

4. Dr. Thomas : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he next plans to visit the European Commission or to attend the Council of Ministers in relation to the particular needs of Wales.

Mr. Peter Walker : I hope to visit Brussels during the next few months for discussions with incoming members of the Commission on matters of relevance to Wales.

Dr. Thomas : How many times has the Secretary of State for Wales attended the Council of Ministers as a United Kingdom Minister? If he has not, done so, why not?

Mr. Walker : I have not done so because, having negotiated with the Council of Ministers on previous occasions, I believe that the best negotiating strength is to have one negotiator. I hold that view very strongly. I know that the hon. Gentleman is in the middle of an election campaign. I am very happy to discuss the considerable investments that have come to Wales, including those parts that he is hoping to represent, as a result of negotiation which I have influenced and in which I have taken part.

Mr. Denzil Davies : When the right hon. Gentleman meets the Commission will he explain that his Government's policy of high interest and exchange rates is now beginning to have a damaging effect on the Welsh economy? Will he also ask the Commission to bring pressure upon Her Majesty's Government at last to join the European monetary system so that we can have lower interest rates, more realistic exchange rates and a better chance for the Welsh economy?

Mr. Walker : In the right hon. Gentleman's views of the current state of the Welsh economy I recognise the eagerness of the Labour party to spread depression at the earliest possible moment. The figures that I gave in answer to an earlier question-- [Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman would like the last three months' figures on inward investment into Wales, it is just possible that the high interest rates affecting some overheated parts of the economy are making firms and industries elsewhere consider the possibility of moving. I am also glad to say that last week interest was expressed in an acquisition of considerable importance in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Sir Anthony Meyer : Setting aside the manifest desirability of Britain joining the European monetary system and exchange rate mechanism, just how much influence does my right hon. Friend reckon Wales would

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exercise in Brussels were we to follow the policies advocated by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas)?

Mr. Walker : The influence is very considerable. I believe that the talks that I shall have with individual members of the Commission, specifically bringing to their attention some of the problems in Wales in various sectors of economic activity, are very important. I believe that the total clout of the British Government in achieving those objectives is considerable and would be diminished if the policies pursued by at least one party in the House were carried out.


5. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he last met representatives of egg producers in Wales ; and what was discussed.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. Wyn Roberts) : Representatives of egg producers in Wales have not requested any meetings with my right hon. Friend, but meetings with officials have been arranged.

Mr. Jones : Does the Minister agree that the confusion that arose following the statement by the then junior Health Minister, which led to disastrous consequences for egg producers and uncertainty among consumers, was the result of Government inefficiency, in that two Departments were giving conflicting advice? Does the Minister further agree that the real lesson to be drawn as a result of this episode is that on issues such as this the Government should speak with one voice and issue clear and unambiguous guideliness to both consumers and producers?

Mr. Roberts : I disagree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question. Uncertainty over the implications of salmonella gave rise to a sharp decline in egg sales before Christmas. In those wholly exceptional circumstances, the Government decided to introduce short-term measures, which have been very effective. The surplus has been removed and there is every prospect of balanced production in the near future. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is close liaison on health aspects between the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. There is similar close liaison between the departments in the Welsh Office that are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : Does my hon. Friend agree that both sides are equally vital : that without the farmer there would be no consumer and that without the consumer there would be no farmer? I believe that my hon. Friend, and his counterpart in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, should be congratulated on introducing the compensation scheme at such short notice. It has achieved fairness for both the producer and the consumer and it has cost the taxpayer far less than was anticipated.

Mr. Robert : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right ; the measures were introduced very quickly and they have been successful. The interests of

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both producers and consumers have been protected as far as possible, and of course, much more will be done in the future.

Local Authority Associations

6. Mr. Murphy : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he last met the Welsh local authority associations ; and what matters were discussed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ian Grist) : My right hon. Friend met representatives of the Welsh counties committee and the committee of Welsh district councils at a meeting of the Welsh consultative council on local government finance on 8 December to discuss the Welsh rate support grant settlement for 1989-90.

Mr. Murphy : Does the Minister agree that in these discussions the district councils in Wales have been pressing for more cash in order to reduce the appallingly high number of people on housing waiting lists in Wales, now at a record 70,000? Does he also agree that house prices in Wales have risen faster than in any other part of the United Kingdom? Does he not accept that housing prospects for young people in the Principality have now reached crisis point?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman knows full well that housebuilding in Wales is reaching a new peak and that over £70 million was voted for new housebuilding in Wales this year. It will have a major impact on housing conditions. I am afraid that waiting lists are a reflection, as much as anything, of social change and breakdown. That is something that does not lie within the Government's remit to alter. Prices are a reflection of demand. Demand in Wales is rising because we have a successful economy. Rising prices are also a reflection of rising earnings, which regrettably are part of the inflationary spiral that we wish to bring down.

Dr. Marek : Will the Minister confirm that housing benefit will continue to be paid to local councils in Wales according to how much, in each year, they pay out?

Mr. Grist : Housing benefit will be made available to councils to meet the cost of economic rents for those in receipt of benefit. We have made that plain from the start.

Health Service

7. Mr. Michael : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what initiatives he plans to take in 1989 to improve the standards of the Health Service in Wales and increase the morale of staff at all levels of the Health Service.

Mr. Grist : Record numbers of patients were treated in 1987-88, and the record level of resources announced recently by my right hon. Friend should enable authorities to do even better in 1989.

Mr. Michael : Does the Minister recognise the inadequacy of that response? Does he realise just how much ancillary workers contribute to the tender loving care that is provided by the Health Service and that their low pay is now a real embarrassment to consultants and administrators as well as to patients and the general public? What does he say to the domestic worker who this

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month told the South Wales Echo that the reward for 18 years' service was to be forced into part-time work and to lose £18 a week?

Mr. Grist : That is a change of song from how badly paid nurses were and remembering how badly paid medical staffs were in the 1970s. The hon. Gentleman changes his tune as it suits him. We have been seeking to ensure that payments in the Health Service go towards patient benefit. Competitive tendering is to the benefit of the patient and the Health Service. We shall continue that policy within the Health Service and local government.

Sir Raymond Gower : Is my hon. Friend satisfied that health authorities in Wales use the money that is allocated to them in the best possible way? Is he aware that the South Glamorgan health authority, for example, proposes to use it in the wrong way? It intends to build an utterly unnecessary hospital in south Cardiff and not to make use of the marvellous facilities that are available in hospitals such as Sully hospital in my constituency. That is the absurdity of the position. Many consultants in the Llandough-Sully area have told me that they regard the proposed hospital for south Cardiff as wasteful, unnecessary and harmful to the Health Service in the county of South Glamorgan.

Mr. Grist : My hon. Friend's support for Sully hospital has been noted for many years. What he said this afternoon will be taken note of by my right hon. Friend in considering the draft strategic plan of the health authority which is before him at present.

Mr. Win Griffiths : Has the Minister had recent discussions with junior doctors? What hours do they work? I believe that their hours are still very long. What has the Welsh Office done in the past year or two to provide resources to cut the hours that junior doctors on call must work in hospitals?

Mr. Grist : It is fortunate for us in Wales that few junior doctors in Wales work the long hours that have been reported in England. We take the matter seriously. Our district authorities convene meetings to look into the matter, and we are monitoring closely. As I said, we do not have the problem that is experienced in England.

Mr. Raffan : When does my hon. Friend expect to publish the study that he commissioned on cancer treatment services for patients in north Wales? What action is the Welsh Office taking to reduce the lengthy time that north Wales patients must wait for cardiological services at Liverpool?

Mr. Grist : I shall write to my hon. Friend on the latter point. On the comprehensive study of cancer services, which was started on 1 September last year, it is a little early as yet for a report, but we shall certainly release it as soon as we can.

Mrs. Clwyd : Will the Minister explain--if he cannot explain, will he order an investigation--the substantial increase in deaths from breast cancer in six out of eight Welsh counties and from cervical cancer in four out of eight Welsh counties over the past 10 years? In view of the alarming figures, is the Minister satisfied that the screening programme in Wales is adequate?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Lady must accept that it is a little difficult to assess matters over the past 10 years when we

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have only just put in place the cervical cancer screening service, which is covering the whole of Wales now, and the breast cancer screening service, which, as she knows, was launched at the headquarters and with the new team in Cathedral road, Cardiff, and will be available shortly. It is a little early to draw conclusions from the past 10 years so I cannot answer her on that.

Mr. Favell : Are there any firm proposals to contract out medical services, following the excellent private sector kidney dialysis unit at Bangor, Caernarvon, which has saved lives and reduced waiting lists? Is that to be done elsewhere in Wales?

Mr. Grist : Certainly, this is a system that we would recommend widely. As my hon. Friend said, it has been spreading through Wales and we hope that it will serve as an example for other parts of the United Kingdom.


8. Mr. Livsey : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what plans he has for improving the A470 trunk road in mid-Wales.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : Our policy for the A470 is to continue to undertake selective improvements to reduce journey times, improve road safety, and remove through traffic from communities. Details of planned schemes will be included in the forthcoming edition of "Roads in Wales".

Mr. Livsey : Has the Minister studied the development of the A9 in Scotland, from Perth to Inverness, which overcame many of the sorts of problems with which the A470 is confronted in Wales? Does he have plans to put into action a programme of a similar type to that for the A9, which has cost historically £240 million for 112 miles of road, as a comprehensive scheme to improve the A470 and bring Welsh communications into the 20th century?

Mr. Roberts : The A9 in Scotland is a far cry from the A470 in Wales, on which we have already spent about £134 million, involving 26 schemes, since 1979. We are due to spend another £43 million on a further 26 schemes which are in preparation. If my arithmetic is correct, those two figures added together are pretty near the figure the hon. Gentleman gave for the A9.

Mr. Ron Davies : Does the Minister accept that improvements to the A470 in mid-Wales will merely make more accessible the land holdings now owned by the Welsh water authority? That being so, does he recognise that they will become more attractive to foreign investment? The safeguards that the Secretary of State announced on 11 January, which were designed to keep Welsh water holdings in Welsh hands after privatisation, will not be successful. Will he bear these points in mind when improving the A470, and take all necessary steps to protect our valuable holdings?

Mr. Roberts : I have already said that we have about 26 further improvement schemes for the A470 in mind. They will help to make that beautiful part of mid-Wales more easily accessible.

With regard to the land holdings of the water plc, as my right hon. Friend has just told the House, the water authority has the power to sell land and the future plc will

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have the same power. But that is subject to planning permission and all the other constraints related to the purity of the water supply.

Disabled People

9. Mr. Wigley : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what steps he proposes to take to improve services for physically disabled people in Wales ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Grist : Wales has often taken the lead in the provision of services for the disabled. We will continue to consult with the main interested bodies over further developments.

Mr. Wigley : Is the Minister aware of the dismay at the length of time it has taken for the Welsh Office to respond to the representations made last July by the Welsh Council for the Disabled and the Spastics Society in Wales? I understand that it will be next month before a meeting takes place. Does he accept that the Welsh Office's planning statistics show that there has been a steady decline in expenditure by social service authorities on services for the physically handicapped over the past 12 years? What will he do to ensure a strategic approach that guarantees fair play for physically handicapped people in Wales?

Mr. Grist : I pay tribute to the discussion document to which the hon. Gentleman referred, to his part in it and to the activity behind it. We certainly take next month's meeting between these organisations and officials in my Department extremely seriously, and I hope that we shall be able to progress from there.

It is a little unfair to say that expenditure has been falling, as there has been an increase of about £3.5 billion in expenditure on the disabled under this Government--a 92 per cent. real increase since we came to office.

Mr. Geraint Howells : I am sure the Minister is aware that the people of mid-Wales have been trying to collect £400,000 to buy a scanner for Bronglais hospital in Aberystwyth during the past four months. Up to now we have exceeded £220,000 in that attempt. Does he have any plans to give us a contribution?

Mr. Grist : My wife is a member of the league of friends of Cardiff royal infirmary and she is doing her best for that hospital. I have visited Gwynedd and viewed its new scanner which, I believe, was opened today. There are voluntary movements all around Wales, which are a sign of the local spirit and of the local communities' support for their health authorities and their health movement. We should like to see a great deal more of that.

Labour Statistics

11. Mr. Roy Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what are the latest unadjusted figures for unemployment in (a) Newport, (b) Gwent and (c) Wales ; and if he will give the equivalent figures for 1979 on the most nearly comparable basis.

Mr. Peter Walker : On 8 December 1988 the number of unemployed claimants in the Newport district, Gwent and Wales were 6,056, 18,200 and 114,533 respectively. Unadjusted figures for 1979 are not available on a basis that enables a valid comparison to be made. I am sure that

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the hon. Gentleman will welcome the continuing downward trend in unemployment in Wales which fell by 24,800 in the past 12 months, and by 59,800 in the past 33 months.

Mr. Hughes : Does the Secretary of State agree that Britain is now regarded as the filthiest country in Europe, with streets littered with litter, junk and graffiti and that there is plenty of evidence of that in Wales? Therefore, would it not be sensible to take people off the dole queue to perform the vital work of clearing it up? It is one thing to keep down the rates, but does the Minister agree that that should not be at the expense of essential services?

Mr. Walker : This Government have a remarkable record of providing jobs in community programmes. I was disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not turn up at the last Welsh Question Time to ask that question. I thought that that was because he was depressed by the progress that has been made. That progress has now accelerated and there has been a terrific improvement in the position in Newport so I hope that, for once, the hon. Gentleman will welcome it.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Does my right hon. Friend agree that in terms of unemployment decreasing, the record in Wales is excellent? Many of us in the south-west, and certainly in Weymouth in my constituency look with great pride at the way in which Welsh people have demonstrated their ability to attract high technology jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the thoughts of the people of Wales should not be on picking up rubbish and litter but on the high technology jobs that the Government have provided?

Mr. Anderson : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Was that not a clear abuse of the House?

Mr. Speaker : It is a United Kingdom Parliament.

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