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House of Commons

Monday 20 March 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Roads Strategy

1. Mr. Wigley : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what discussions he has had with local authorities in Wales on the implementation of his roads strategy, "Roads for Wales : The 1990s and beyond"; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. Wyn Roberts) : There were 160 written responses to the "Roads for Wales : The 1990s and beyond" consultation document, including responses from county, district, town and community councils. Those have been considered in drawing up the new edition of "Roads in Wales" which will be published shortly after Easter.

Mr. Wigley : Does the Minister recall that shortly before Christmas a deputation from Gwynedd visited him to talk about the need for the construction of a bypass on the A487 for the villages of Llanllyfni and Penygroes? Does he recall that at that time he said that he hoped to have further information early this year and that the bypass might then be included in any strategy for roads in the 1990s? Will he confirm that he has had further representations from Gwynedd county council on the matter and that further priority will be given to the construction of the bypass?

Mr. Roberts : I well recall the meeting to which the hon. Gentleman refers. There is no doubt that the A487 in Gwynedd is an important route for north-south traffic. As the hon. Gentleman knows, improvements for the section between Caernarfon and Bangor are programmed. The case for improving the route at Porthmadog and northwards through Penygroes and Llanllyfni to Caernarfon is under consideration.

Sir Anthony Meyer : Is my hon. Friend satisfied that highway authorities, especially Clwyd county council, are taking full advantage of the magnificent achievements of the Welsh Office in building trunk roads by providing proper connections from those trunk roads to coastal areas such as Rhyl?

Mr. Roberts : My hon. Friend is right that that is a matter for Clwyd county council. There is no doubt that the investment of some £500 million in the A55 will be of great benefit to towns along the north Wales coast, but the matter of linking those towns with the A55 will be

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examined in the context of the initiative that my right hon. Friend has asked me to consider in connection with the development of the A55.

Mr. Murphy : Has the Minister of State any plans to improve the heads of the valleys road? Does he not agree that an upgrading of that road would be a great shot in the arm for our valley communities and a major factor in attracting jobs to the part of Wales where they are most needed?

Mr. Roberts : The heads of the valleys road is indeed a fine road, although I am aware that a number of accidents along that road recently have caused concern to right hon. and hon. Members. We are looking at all the roads in Wales which are the responsibility of the Welsh Office, and also at county roads. Where improvement is justified, we shall, of course, seek to progress that improvement.

Training Grant Scheme

2. Mr. Coleman : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received concerning the local education authority training grant scheme in Wales ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : I have recently received a number of representations on behalf of voluntary youth organisations expressing concern that unpaid voluntary sector youth workers do not come within the scope of the local education authority training grant scheme. Similar representations have been made in the past in respect of careers officers, nursery nurses, and other groups whose training costs are not supported under the scheme. Representations have also been received from school governors about the disruption caused by teachers' absences from the classroom to attend training courses.

Mr. Coleman : Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the Welsh Office's position in respect of whether LEA training grants can be applied to voluntary organisations, such as the Boys Brigade, the Scout Association and the Girl Guides Association for the valuable training of their voluntary workers? If the answer is no, will he undertake to revise the Welsh Office circular on that matter so as to permit the necessary financing to be made available to those important organisations?

Mr. Roberts : Those training grants are paid under the Education (Training Grants) Regulations 1987, which define eligible youth and community workers as :

"Youth and community workers employed by a Local Education Authority or a voluntary organisation."

Both we and the Department of Education and Science have always interpreted that as meaning that only paid workers are eligible and that volunteers are not. We have, however, encouraged LEAs to make their own provision from their own resources.

Mr. Morgan : Does the Minister agree that that is part of the pattern of general retreat from the provision of training in Wales and goes along with the decision of the engineering industry training board to close its Cardiff office? We need to be assured that the Minister was consulted about that, as well as about the privatisation of the skill centres. Does he agree that with the prospect of Bosch and Toyota coming to south Wales serious damage will be caused if the Government do not adopt the attitude that real training for real skills can lead to real jobs?

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Mr. Roberts : I was astonished to see the hon. Gentleman's remarks in the Western Mail this morning and I am even more appalled to hear him repeat them in the Chamber. There is no such thing as a retreat from training under this Government. At this very moment, we are seeking to expand training facilities for people in Wales.

Mr. Morgan : Tell that to the Germans.

Mr. Roberts : We do indeed tell it to the Germans, as well as to all other inward investors in Wales.

The hon. Gentleman does not seem to realise that the change in the training board means no more than the removal of administrative jobs from Cardiff to Bristol and that all the training field workers will remain in place as they now are.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Will my hon. Friend clarify the situation regarding grant because many Scout associations in Wales and the rest of Britain are concerned about the apparent change in the grants system for the training of adult leaders? For a number of years an excellent scheme has operated which has been virtually the only support that voluntary organisations have had in obtaining grants to train leaders. Those leaders give up their time voluntarily, but they have expenses to meet as a result of the courses. Can my hon. Friend clarify whether in the past the Government have given the money or whether it has come from local resources?

Mr. Roberts : I can indeed clarify the position. Either we can increase the resources earmarked for the grants, which local authorities would not like us to do or we can reduce, the support for those already within the scope of the scheme, which hon. Members would not like. I repeat that local authorities are free to fund training courses from their own resources for those outside the scheme.


3. Mr. Anderson : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what is his policy regarding the provision of housing by Welsh local authorities.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Walker) : Local authorities assess housing needs and forecast that they will spend £236 million on housing this year. I hope that they will also assess the many advantages to Wales of the new housing provisions, including 100 per cent. mandatory grants for home improvements which will be available to those on low incomes.

Mr. Anderson : The Secretary of State will be aware that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has referred to a time when local authorities, or what he calls "facilitators", will cease to build homes. Will the Minister given an undertaking that Welsh local authorities will still be able to build for general need? Given the enhanced and welcome role of housing associations, does the right hon. Gentleman see a need for the Welsh Office to provide a framework for continuing consultation between Welsh local authorities and the housing associations operating in the Principality?

Mr. Walker : First, I believe that a great deal of consultation will take place. I can only reflect on the figures for the total public sector housing programme, including the housing associations and the new towns,

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which shows that the forecast spend for this year is £286 million compared with £131 million for the last year of the Labour Government.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the groups of council tenants in Cardiff who are considering breaking away from their landlord, the city council? Will he assure me that every facility will be provided to tenants' organisations and Welsh housing associations to ensure that, if they so wish, they can take full advantage of the new freedoms under the Housing Act 1988?

Mr. Walker : Obviously any such move would have to be considered carefully by all those involved. The provisions of the Housing Act 1988 are clear and available to all concerned.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : I am sure that the Secretary of State will recall being reported in the Western Mail recently as saying that he would be announcing more help for people to become owner-occupiers, presumably ‡through incentives for people buying council houses. He will be aware that many long-standing tenants are not proceeding with their purchases and are awaiting details of his announcement. Will the Secretary of State tell the people of Wales what is the status of his announcement and when he will make a statement?

Mr. Walker : I have made it clear that anyone wishing to proceed under the present scheme will not be disadvantaged. When the present scheme was introduced, it was bitterly opposed by the Labour party, and possibly by Plaid Cymru as well, but I am glad to say that many people in Wales in local authorities under the control of different political parties have been able to enjoy owner-occupation as they could not have done if the Opposition's views had prevailed.

Second Homes

4. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received seeking the launch of a campaign regarding arson against second homes and English-owned property in Wales.

Mr. Peter Walker : Over the past year I have received eight letters from the public and outside organisations.

Mr. Williams : Did the Secretary of State notice that during January and February there were no arson attacks even though those are normally the peak months for the arson campaign? There were no attacks until after the Pontypridd by-election, but the arson campaign was resumed within hours of the declaration of the result. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that Meibion Glyndwr has an acute sensitivity to the political diary of the Welsh nationalist party? I remind him that at the outset of the winter, in September 1988, 40 estate agents' properties were daubed with slogans and the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) backed those incidents. Will the Secretary of State therefore treat any requests from the nationalist party for talks about the arsonists' campaign with extreme scepticism in view of the nationalists' duplicitous behaviour?

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. An allegation has been made against a colleague

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of mine. Those were totally scurrilous comments. Will you ask the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) to withdraw them?

Mr. Speaker : No. Every hon. Member must take responsibility for what he says in this Chamber.

Mr. Walker : In so far as such arson campaigns exist, I would not want to accuse any person or organisation of being involved unless I had evidence of that. I welcome the proclamation from all party leaders in Wales condemning such acts of violence.

I hope that we shall all place what is happening in perspective. The incidents over the weekend received a great deal of publicity in certain newspapers. Six devices were involved, none of which caused any serious damage, but they resulted in serious publicity. A person or persons telephoned the media to say that devices would be placed in certain estate agents. Such calls focus media attention on the acts and the people involved have gained considerable media coverage. All of that is against the wishes of the people of Wales. It is a great disadvantage being an English Secretary of State for Wales when it was rumoured in a newspaper today that the person who called the media had an English voice. Only someone hostile to Wales would do such a thing.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the bomb squad officers who successfully defused a bomb in my constituency on Saturday, which had been placed in the main high street where it could have killed and maimed people? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the vicious and nasty terrorist campaign is damaging the image of Wales in the United Kingdom and throughout the world? Does he also agree that we must do all that we can to catch the perpetrators as soon as possible?

Mr. Walker : Yes, but the incidents must be put into perspective. The devices used at the weekend basically comprised a quartz battery operating ignition by a flash bulb connected to a bottle of petrol. The main motive of the person or persons responsible is publicity. I hope that those responsible will be quickly apprehended by the police.

Mr. Wigley : Will the House accept that, as a Member representing a constituency in which a napalm bomb was placed only a couple of weeks ago, in the village of Llanberis, I repudiate the small-minded remarks of the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) and his poisoned chalice? I re- emphasise that all parties in Wales condemn without reservation the arson campaign which took place before, during and after the Pontypridd by- election, and which is worsening now. Will the Secretary of State confirm his support for all-party unity on an issue which should not be used for party political purposes? Will he also clarify his remarks in Llandudno on 7 March, when he suggested that only two people might be active in the campaign and that they might not even live in Wales?

Mr. Walker : Obviously, as the persons concerned have not been apprehended, I do not know the number involved or their identity. However, I know that the devices are similar, as are the voices of those concerned, and that the main motive is always publicity. The hon. Member speaks of napalm bombs and a worsening situation, but I do not

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agree that the planting of five devices of the kind that I have described in order to secure a great deal of publicity should be interpreted as a great national campaign. That is the reality of the scene.

Immunopathology Consultants

5. Dr. Marek : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will give (a) the number and (b) the locations of consultants in immunopathology in Wales.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : There are no consultants in Wales whose main specialty is immunopathology. There are a number of consultant pathologists who have an interest in immunopathology but information on them is not held centrally.

Dr. Marek : Does the Minister acknowledge that there are people in Wales suffering from immuno-deficiencies but that they are not well served? What plans does he have to improve the service?

Mr. Roberts : Perhaps I should confirm to the hon. Gentleman that while there is no consultant in Wales whose main specialty is immunopathology, none has been asked for by any of the authorities. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the AIDS problem, and I can tell him that about £2.5 million has been spent on AIDS-related programmes in Wales since 1985-86. We plan to spend about £1.7 million supporting such activities in the coming year.

Secondary Pupils (Costs)

7. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how much was spent per pupil in secondary schools in Wales in the most recent year for which figures are available ; and what was the comparable figure for 1978- 79, at constant prices.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : In 1986-87, expenditure per pupil in secondary schools in Wales was £1,320. The equivalent constant price figure for 1978-79 was £1,053.

Mr. Knox : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the 1986-87 figure represents an increase of 25 per cent. in real terms? Does he agree that even more could be spent in real terms if surplus school places could be eliminated?

Mr. Roberts : My hon. Friend is right to say that the figure represents an increase of, to be precise, 25.3 per cent in real terms. That is a substantial increase by any standard. There has been a fall in pupil numbers of 14.3 per cent., and that fall is due to continue until 1991. Currently there are about 63,000 surplus places in secondary schools in Wales. If they could be removed, the money could be spent on improving education still further.

Mr. Alan Williams : Does the Minister realise that the figures that he has given the House for increased expenditure per pupil are fraudulently deceptive because of the very reduction in pupil numbers of which he spoke? The capital cost of the whole education system is spread over a smaller number of pupils, which accounts for most of the increase. On the basis of the figures that the Minister has just given, the increase over 10 years is 11 per cent. or just over 1 per cent. per year. Does he regard that as something to be proud of?

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Mr. Roberts : I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's analysis. There has been a substantial increase in spending on education. In the middle of his supplementary, the hon. Gentleman suddenly switched to capital expenditure. In the coming year we shall be providing some £53 million in capital spending on education. That is 11 per cent. above this year's level, and comes on top of a 10 per cent. increase the previous year and an increase of 19 per cent. the year before.

Severn Crossing

8. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what assessment he has made of the potential benefits to the Welsh economy of the southern link to the second Severn crossing ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : Enhanced road communications across the Severn estuary will reinforce the current improvement in economic performance in south Wales, which is resulting in reduced unemployment, a rising trend in investment, record levels of factory letting by the Welsh Development Agency and accelerating industrial and commercial development.

Mr. Stern : I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, which will be welcomed throughout the country. Does he agree that the same benefits are liklely to accrue to the southern end of the southern link, which will be in my constituency? Does he also agree that the increased development that will take place at both ends of the southern link removes the last shred of potential justification for any major road across a possible Severn barrage?

Mr. Roberts : I tend to agree with my hon. Friend that any barrage proposal would be for the far distant future, and I understand that the costs have in any event increased substantially. As for economic benefits deriving from the second crossing, I am sure that the shortened road communications will bring those benefits to both sides of the Severn.

Mr. Roy Hughes : Does the Minister appreciate that proposals are well firmed up to knock off no less than £200 million of debt from the Humber bridge? In the case of the Erskine bridge in Scotland, the debt has simply been forgotten. Why do the Government propose to double the tolls on our Severn bridge? [Hon. Members :-- "Because England lost yesterday."] Is that not a case of racial

discrimination? When will Welsh Office Ministers stand up for Wales?

Mr. Roberts : We are implementing the Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965. I believe that Labour was in power at that time, so it was a Labour Government who imposed tolls on the Severn bridge for a 40-year period. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have been criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has therefore proposed to increase the tolls. An inquiry is currently taking place.

Labour Statistics

9. Mr. Roy Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what are the latest unadjusted figures for

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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 9 February 1989 the numbers of unemployed claimants in Newport district, in Gwent, and in Wales, were 5,953, 18,099 and 112,044 respectively. Unadjusted figures for 1979 are not available on a basis which enables a valid comparison to be made.

Mr. Hughes : Does the Secretary of State appreciate that Newport, with all its advantages, has 12 per cent. male unemployment? The figure in the county of Gwent is 13.8 per cent. Are not those figures horrific? There is much hidden unemployment besides. Does the Secretary of State accept that such great problems cannot be concealed by figures relating to part- time, low-paid jobs for women?

Mr. Walker : First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that question down for every Welsh Question Time. I hope that he will continue to do so for the rest of this Parliament.

Unemployment in Wales has fallen by well over 50,000 in the past two years. Regional assistance offers in 1988, most of which are still to be put into operation, will provide 32,000 new jobs. Inward investment in 1988 reached all-time records of more than £1 billion, with 13,700 jobs. The Welsh Development Agency's factory-building programme also reached an all-time record level. I am delighted at the Government's record in bringing down unemployment.

Mr. Raffan : Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that unemployment in Delyn has been halved during the last two years and that, with the most recent job announcements, it is set to be halved again, thanks in large part to the Government's designation of the Delyn enterprise zone, which the Opposition opposed?

Mr. Walker : Yes. The position is exactly the same in north Wales, mid-Wales and south Wales. I am glad to say that in recent months the decline in unemployment in the valleys has been faster than anywhere else.

Mrs. Clywd : Can the Minister explain why the profit-making utility services department of the Welsh Development Agency at Hirwaun is to be shut and why its functions are expensively to be transferred to statutory authorities, making 70 people redundant in one of the worst unemployment black spots in Britain?

Mr. Walker : Yes--because, in the interests of the hon. Lady's constituents, it is right that all the substantial resources of the WDA, which is spending £130 million this year, should be efficiently and well administered. I much prefer money to go into new factories and new factory building rather than that an inefficient administrative set-up should be allowed to continue.

Sir Anthony Meyer : What is the position on unfilled vacancies?

Mr. Walker : Surveys have shown that the number of unfilled vacancies is three times the number registered at jobcentres. At the moment there are 38,000 unfilled vacancies in Wales. I hope that urgent action will be taken to fill those vacancies.

Mr. Rowlands : Despite what the Secretary of State has said, are there not some worrying signs? For example,

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Rover has laid off people and Hotpoint employees are on a shorter working week. Both are attributed to the rise in interest rates. Does it not mean that for the Chancellor's policy to work, workers in Wales will have to be put out of work again?

Mr. Walker : During the last month there has been a drop of 2,600 in the unemployment figures, despite problems of the type described by the hon. Gentleman. If those problems had not existed, the fall in unemployment would have been very much greater. The fall is substantial. The hon. Gentleman's remarks about training were designed to put off the Japanese and the Germans. Four administrative jobs were to go to Bristol. I am glad to say, however, that inward investment will continue to come to Wales on a considerable scale.

Mr. Barry Jones : On the issue of interest rates, the right hon. Gentleman again is wriggling. I commend to him the excellent report by the 15 boroughs and district councils of the valleys in south Wales on unemployment and economic development. It is a superb document. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to meet the valley councils. He will find that his initiative will be subjected to informed and reasonable criticism. I challenge him to meet the valley councils. Does he recollect that, according to his valleys initiative document, during the three years that it may be in operation 25,000 to 30,000 jobs will be created in the valley communities? Will he give me the basis for that large figure?

Mr. Walker : I shall send the hon. Gentleman the details of that analysis. It is a minor factor when compared with the whole range of valley initiatives. As for meeting the valley councils, they have seen more of me as Secretary of State for Wales on a whole range of individual negotiations than they saw of most other Secretaries of State for Wales when there was a Labour Government. I have arranged for the Welsh Office and each valley local authority to have discussions at regular intervals on the valleys initiative.

Housing for Wales

10. Mr. Murphy : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he next intends to meet the chairman of Housing for Wales ; and what he expects to discuss.

Mr. Peter Walker : I expect to meet the chairman at the official launch of Housing for Wales on 3 April. I expect to discuss the undoubted success that will attend this new body.

Mr. Murphy : Why is the chairman of Housing for Wales also the vice- chairman of the Land Authority for Wales, and why is the chairman of the Land Authority for Wales also the chairman of the Cardiff Bay development corporation? Can we expect to see even more failed Conservative parliamentary candidates running our public affairs in Wales and introducing unpopular Thatcherism into our country by the back door?

Mr. Walker ; I know of no political views of any description which are held by the chairman of the housing development corporation. I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman's remark. The chief executive is a former Welsh Office civil servant. The chairman of the Cardiff Bay development corporation was appointed before I was

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appointed to my present job. The one thing that I cannot be accused of is making party-political appointments as Secretary of State for Wales.

Mr. Coleman : Does the Secretary of State recall the answer that his ministerial colleague gave during the previous Welsh Question Time about homelessness in Wales? Will he discuss homelessness with the chairman? Will he discuss the possibility of using council house sales receipts to deal with the growing problem of homelessness?

Mr. Walker : Quite a few council house sales receipts have been used to that end. Under a Labour Government, there were hardly any such receipts.

Mr. Livsey : When the Secretary of State meets the chairman of Housing for Wales, will he tell him of the housing crisis in rural Wales? What will he do about forming a housing strategy for rural Wales involving affordable houses for rent and affordable starter homes?

Mr. Walker : I am glad to say that, before I have met the chairman, the Housing Corporation has decided to spend quite a lot of important resources on that problem.

Deeside Waterfront Project

11. Mr. Raffan : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the involvement of the Welsh Development Agency in the proposed Deeside waterfront project.

Mr. Peter Walker : The Welsh Development Agency is assisting the local authorities concerned in the area to evaluate the impact of the project.

Mr. Raffan : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the serious concern in north Wales that Tarmac and Clwyd county council have persistently misrepresented the Welsh Development Agency as being in support of the Deeside waterfront project when the agency's stance is one of neutrality? As the area can support only one large out-of-town retail centre and, currently, three such schemes are being proposed locally, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is a public inquiry on the Deeside project, especially now that the Secretary of State for the Environment is insisting on a public inquiry on the Chester scheme?

Mr. Walker : My hon. Friend will understand that I have to wait to see what decisions are made and then decide what actions to take. It would be wrong of me to comment on any potential planning applications. I can confirm that, as with all local authorities, the Welsh Development Agency's role is to assist in the evaluation of a project. That is the task that it is carrying out.

Mr. Barry Jones : May I emphasise that Alyn and Deeside district council, Clwyd county council and Cheshire county council support the scheme? They are supported wholeheartedly by Connah's Quay, Shotton, Queensferry, Sealand, Saltney, Buckley and Hawarden town councils, and others, myself included. Does the right hon. Gentleman remember that, in 1980, 8,000 steel jobs were lost at Shotton? The travel-to-work area still has 9,000 or more people out of work. The project is earmarked to be developed on derelict land which is the

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site of our old blast furnaces at Shotton steelworks. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to hear every side of this important matter.

Mr. Walker : The hon. Gentleman is quite correct--I must hear every side on this important matter. The hon. Gentleman realises that I cannot comment on this potential application, but I promise that I shall consider all points of view very carefully.

Tinplate Plants

12. Mr. Gareth Wardell : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what initiatives he is taking to replace the manufacturing jobs to be lost in the tinplate plants at Velindre, Trostre and Ebbw Vale.

Mr. Peter Walker : At two of the sites mentiond in the question there will be a number of off-setting jobs provided by British Steel. The total number of net job losses is expected to be 700, concentrated at Velindre.

The company has assured me that it is making every effort to see that workers are redeployed and it is confident that it will be able to redeploy many workers to other plants and is hopeful that, subject to the closure agreement, early retirement and favourable terms can be offered to a substantial number of those affected by this rationalisation.

Tomorrow announcements will be made by the Swansea Bay partnership whose co -ordination of efforts will be of considerable importance. A meeting took place with the local district council and the Welsh Development Agency last Friday. British Steel has made it clear to me that it will assist in seeing that the site is used for new purposes ; that it will be involved in job counselling schemes ; and that it will be making every effort to assist in encouraging job opportunities in the locality.

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