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House of Commons

Monday 17 July 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


United Medical and Dental Schools Bill [Lords]

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


Labour Statistics

1. Mr. Ray Powell : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what are the most recent figures for male and female unemployment in the Ogmore constituency, Ogmore borough, Mid Glamorgan county areas and the total in Wales ; and what were the equivalent figures in June 1979.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Walker) : On 8 June 1989, there were 1,981, 3,080, 14,919 and 68,021 unemployed males in the Ogmore constituency, Ogwr borough, the county of Mid Glamorgan and Wales respectively. The comparable figures for unemployed females were 626, 1,147, 4,727 and 24,783. Unadjusted figures for June 1979 are not available on a basis that enables a valid comparison to be made.

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Mr. Powell : All Opposition Members will be grateful to the Secretary of State for finding time in his busy diary to answer Welsh questions. I am grateful for his comprehensive answer to my question. I am sure that many unemployed people in Wales will be shouting hallelujah because unemployment is coming down. Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that unemployment will come down to the figure that he and his Government inherited in 1979? Will he bear in mind the fact that many people who are now unemployed could be employed in the Health Service as doctors, nurses and auxiliary workers? If he were to consider the views that Opposition Members would like to express to him in the Welsh Grand Committee--

Mr. Speaker : Briefly.

Mr. Powell : This is my last point, Mr. Speaker. Will the Secretary of State mark in his diary 19 July or 26 July for a debate on the Health Service?

Mr. Walker : I shall answer the parts of the hon. Gentleman's question that were in order and then, if Mr. Speaker permits me, I shall answer the points that were out of order. The hon. Gentleman will be delighted that in the first year that I had the privilege to be Secretary of State for Wales, unemployment in his constituency fell by 17.5 per cent. He will be even more delighted to know that last year it fell by 23.7 per cent. Such progress in reducing unemployment has never been seen in his constituency or in Wales.

Mr. Raffan : I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his latest inward investment success and the major part that he played in bringing the Toyota engine plant to Shotton in the constituency of the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, who could never have brought it there had he tried. My right hon. Friend did so without costing the taxpayer a penny. How many jobs will be created by that project in the engine plant itself and among local component manufacturers and service industries?

Mr. Walker : The Toyota engine plant is an important investment. In fairness to the hon. Member for Alyn and

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Deeside (Mr. Jones), he was enthusiastic and delighted about the decision that the plant will be in his constituency. It presents enormous opportunities for component manufacturers and shows the world at large that north Wales can offer a good labour force, good communications and good facilities. As a result, I hope that there will be much more inward investment in the months ahead.

Mr. Rowlands : Is the Secretary of State aware of the announcement in the past few minutes of the proposed closure of the Merthyr Vale pit at Aberfan? That is one of the worst acts of industrial vandalism perpetrated in the south Wales coalfield. Is he aware of the investments and developments that he has supported and the efforts that have been made to reach targets? I know that he made representations about the future of the colliery a few weeks ago. May I plead with him to intercede at the highest level with the chairman of British Coal to try to get the decision reconsidered?

Mr. Walker : I understand the real distress and anxiety of the hon. Gentleman at the announcement affecting his constituency. Like the hon. Gentleman, I heard of the announcement literally only half an hour ago because the meeting with the miners ended around lunchtime. He also knows that I conveyed the information with which he provided me to the chairman of British Coal and asked him to consider the representations carefully. I will have a look at the detail of the announcement and see what matters arise.

Mrs. Clwyd : I join my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) in expressing concern about the closure of Merthyr Vale. Many people in my constituency who have lost their jobs in the coal industry not once or twice but three times, and they will be made redundant again by this announcement. Is the Secretary of State concerned by the recent report of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, which shows that the Cynon valley ranks third in the country for the death rate among men? Is he aware that the Cynon valley has the highest male unemployment rate for Wales? Does he now accept the link between unemployment and ill health? What is he going to do about it?

Mr. Walker : I am sure that unemployment causes a range of health problems. However, in the Cynon valley, as in other parts of Wales many health problems are connected with the coal industry. It has been a major factor in ill health in a number of the valley regions, including the hon. Lady's constituency. There is a connection with employment and with unemployment.

Mr. Barry Jones : In support of my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, I ask for urgent help regarding the grave closure faced by the community. Recognising the importance of the Welsh Development Agency to employment creation in Wales, may I ask the Secretary of State to explain why the two suspended officers of the west Wales office of the Welsh Development Agency were allowed to continue their plans for the management buy-out? Why were they allowed to believe that they had the support of the agency, with which they say they had six months of detailed discussions?

Mr. Walker : I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Welsh Development Agency has made clear its attitude to

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the offer by the management of one part of the agency and that it has constantly rejected that proposal. As the hon. Gentleman knows, while I have had responsibility, I have increased massively the activities of the Welsh Development Agency. I am pleased to say that its budget for this year alone is more in cash terms than the total amount spent by the agency in the whole period of office of the previous Labour Government. The agency has an important and positive role to play and I am pleased to say that it turned down those proposals.

Education--Industry Links

2. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the progress being made to establish better links between schools, training and industry in Wales.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. Wyn Roberts) : A network of eight advisers, operating within local education authority boundaries, has now been appointed. They are actively encouraging all employers in their areas to participate in creating new or strengthening existing links with educational establishments and to contribute towards the prime objectives of providing work experience for all young persons before they leave school and business experience for teachers.

Mr. Jones : In view of the close relationship between economic and industrial development, and the special training needs of the work force, does the Minister now agree that the responsibility for education-industry links and special training in Wales should be transferred to the Welsh Office?

Mr. Roberts : We have anticipated the hon. Gentleman to a large extent, in that my right hon. Friend and the Welsh Office have a responsibility for training in Wales and work closely with the Training Agency. We are actively involved with the training advisory group in setting up training and enterprise councils.

Mr. Rogers : In examining the link between industry and training, will the Minister consider carefully some of the activities in the Polytechnic of Wales--an institution of which I am proud, having been chairman of the governors for eight years? With the publication of the National Audit Office report this weekend, will the Minister find out whether other senior people in the polytechnic have been involved in activities in which taxpayers' money may have been wasted?

Mr. Roberts : As a former chairman of the governors, the hon. Gentleman knows full well that responsibility for staffing lies with the local authority and that dealing with the two cases involved is and has been a matter for that local authority.

Welsh Development Agency

3. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if there are any plans under consideration for the privatisation of part or all of the functions of the Welsh Development Agency.

Mr. Peter Walker : The agency has constantly reviewed the scope for increasing private sector involvement in the range of its activities, in accordance with its statutory responsibilities and the policy guidelines laid down by the

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Government. Accordingly, over the past year-- as in previous years--it has sold assets worth some £12.5 million to private sector interests. It has also contracted out its legal, press and information services and it has announced an intention to seek the adoption of utility services by the statutory providers on a number of its estates.

Mr. Williams : May I express my anxiety about the circumstances surrounding the suspension of the two officers who have been removed from west Wales? Were not those two men guilty simply of jumping the gun and making public proposals that the agency is considering in a larger way? Will the Secretary of State confirm whether there have been detailed discussions between the WDA and Barclays de Zoete Wedd Ltd., the merchant bank arm of Barclays bank? There have been tremendous comings and goings during the past six months. Will he confirm that the agenda includes hiving off services, more private funding--with perhaps a 50-50 public-private structure--and possibly even outright privatisation?

Mr. Walker : No, Sir. The proposals of the two officials were for a straight management buy-out of the services and assets operating in one region of the WDA. There are constant examinations with, I would guess, all sorts of advisers about gearing up the money coming into the WDA from the private sector. If successful proposals and suggestions were put forward, I expect that the hon. Gentleman would warmly welcome them.

The WDA is an important agency, carrying out enourmously important functions. If the main desire was to see that it was sold off to somebody quickly, there would not have been the enormous increase in activity that there has been during the past two years. The hon. Gentleman is totally wrong. If there are any ways in which we can bring more money into Wales by gearing up the activities of the WDA, I hope that hon. Members of all parties will welcome them.

Sir Anthony Meyer : Is it not all too typical of the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) that he is fussing about the structure and ownership of the organisation when what really matters are its functions and activities and that it should continue to attract industry to Wales and to promote industrial development within Wales?

Mr. Walker : During the next few years, the WDA is committed to firm programmes with a considerable dimension, including the biggest-ever derelict land clearance programmes, and the biggest-ever advanced factory building programmes, and we must not forget the range of services that it is providing at present. As I said in answer to an earlier question, in the coming year alone we shall be spending more money on the WDA than was spent during the previous Labour Government's entire period of office.

Mr. Coleman : I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about the security of the Welsh Development Agency, but will he go a little further? On behalf of the Conservative party and Conservative Members, will he now recant their actions which, had they succeeded, would have prevented the setting up of the Welsh Development Agency, in which the right hon. Gentleman now takes so much pride and pleasure?

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Mr. Walker : I have been the biggest user of the Welsh Development Agency of any Secretary of State since it was started, so the hon. Gentleman should enthusiastically support the manner in which I have given it a considerably expanding role and a new dynamism which never attained under the Labour Government.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is nothing wrong with employees of an organisation such as the WDA making suggestions about what could be better privatised? Such employees may be well placed to offer their employers advice on those matters. May I urge my right hon. Friend, if necessary, to continue to examine all such proposals on the basis of what is best for the achievement of the WDA's objectives and for the taxpayer who has to pay the bill, rather than following dogma for dogma's sake?

Mr. Walker : I knew nothing of those proposals until they were announced by the press. Officials of the WDA knew of them and had rejected them, and a number of my officials knew that the rejection had taken place. The proposals were firmly rejected at an early stage there was great surprise in the WDA and the Welsh Office that such proposals were eventually made.

Mr. Barry Jones : If the right hon. Gentleman did not know, he should have known. He has given us wriggling answers. Is it not the case that the two west Wales officials simply jumped the gun by making public a proposal that the WDA was examining in a wider way? Does that explain why the WDA finance director spent time with the privatised National Freight Corporation? Will the Secretary of State explain those matters?

Mr. Walker : The WDA is perfectly free to explore any ways of bringing more private capital into its activities. I see nothing wrong with that. I should be surprised if it was the Labour party view that the WDA should refuse gearing or additional investment for Wales on the grounds that it was tainted because it came from private enterprise. The only proposals for the WDA involve continuing its present activities. The proposals made by the two men to whom the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) referred had nothing to do with the sort of proposals that the WDA had been examining.

Milford Haven Business Plan

4. Mr. Nicholas Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he expects the Welsh Development Agency to publish the Milford Haven business plan ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Peter Walker : This is a matter for the WDA and the South Pembrokeshire and Preseli district councils which are jointly working to identify opportunities within Milford Haven for developing existing businesses and encouraging new ones. I am advised that they expect to launch their Milford Haven concept early in the autumn.

Mr. Bennett : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the present problems affecting the west Wales office of the WDA will have no effect on the timing and announcement of the Milford Haven business initiative?

Mr. Walker : Yes, I can.

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Mr. Barry Jones : On the west Wales WDA buy-out proposals and the questions that the Secretary of State did not answer, was a prestigious merchant bank--BZW--involved in drawing up plans for privatisation?

Mr. Walker : It may have been involved in drawing up plans to bring private participation into a range of WDA activities. I see nothing wrong with that.

Rail Services

5. Mr. Anderson : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he next expects to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss rail services in the Principality.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : My right hon. Friend is in frequent correspondence and discussion with senior staff of British Rail at regional and national level. He expects to meet the chairman again soon.

Mr. Anderson : In the light of the incompetence shown by the chairman and his senior staff in the current rail dispute, can we in Wales have any confidence that they will show the necessary dynamism or vision in respect of matters of great importance to Wales such as the electrification of lines and preparing for the Channel tunnel? If the Prime Minister does the dirty on the Secretary of State for Wales, can we expect him to apply for the job of chairman?

Mr. Roberts : I understand the hon. Gentleman's position as he is sponsored by the National Union of Railwaymen. However, he will be aware that the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen have accepted the 8.8 per cent. offer. I am sure that the House will come to its own conclusion about British Rail's conduct of its affairs. With regard to the Channel tunnel, the hon. Gentleman will know that British Rail has been conducting meetings throughout the land with a view to preparing a document, outlining its plans, for publication before the end of the year.

Mr. Win Griffiths : When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman of British Rail will he suggest sending a task force to France to see how the French are linking their railway system into the Channel tunnel and emphasise to him the need for direct rail links from south Wales to the main continental centres?

Mr. Roberts : I am sure that British Rail will take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We are well aware of the preparations on the other side of the Channel. However, preparations are being made in this country.

Mr. Raffan : Is my hon. Friend aware of the great concern in north- east Wales, particularly among business men and industrialists, that the Welsh Dragon does not stop at Flint or Prestatyn, although it stops at Stafford, Lichfield and Nuneaton? Will he suggest to the chairman of British Rail that the Welsh Dragon either stops at more stations in north- east Wales or is renamed the English Unicorn?

Mr. Roberts : I am well aware that the train does not stop at Flint, but British Rail tells me that that is for a good reason--that very few passengers get on or off there.

Mr. Wigley : How can they get on or off if the trains do not stop there?

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Mr. Geraint Howells : The Minister will be aware that there are two major railway stations in my constituency--Aberystwyth in Cardiganshire and Fishguard in north Pembrokeshire with its vital Irish connection. The next time the Minister meets the chairman of the board will he press him to spend more on those two stations to make sure that they can play a major part in the economy of Wales? Will the Minister write to me afterwards?

Mr. Roberts : These matters are among those that are discussed with British Rail. I am well aware of the position of those ports and their importance not only to the hon. Gentleman but to the whole economy of west Wales. I am also aware of their importance in trade with Ireland.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Will my hon. Friend have a word with the chairman of British Rail about the quality of service between Swansea, Milford Haven, Haverfordwest and the other stations in Pembrokeshire where we are forced to suffer 25-year-old diesel multiple units? They are filthy, hot in summer and cold in winter and do not have enough accommodation for passengers' luggage on this holiday line. Will he also tell the Opposition that their continued support for the National Union of Railwaymen against the passenger has meant that my constituents have been unable to keep hospital appointments in Swansea, Carmarthen and London on the days on which the railways are not operating?

Mr. Roberts : I can tell my hon. Friend that British Rail is investing at a record level--some £781 million in the current year-- and that is due to increase over the next three years. I hope that some of the money may find its way into some of the services that are being criticised in Wales.

Mr. Michael : As the Minister previously acknowledged the success of initiatives by Mid Glamorgan and South Glamorgan county councils with British Rail in opening new stations and new services, does he recognise that the spending plans of the Government and the high inflation rate for which the Government are responsible imply a real cut this year of £104 million, or 20 per cent., in British Rail's external financing limits? Is that not the cause of most of the complaints that have been made by hon. Members? Does the Minister accept that this constraint and his refusal to put in more Welsh Office money is undermining the public interest? Will he offer more money to expand local services and reopen lines such as the Vale of Glamorgan line, with a spur to Cardiff Wales airport to benefit the whole region, as was argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith)?

Mr. Roberts : The hon. Gentleman is clearly not in touch with the Labour county council of south Glamorgan. It is entirely up to that council whether to make a proposal about the Vale of Glamorgan line.

Mr. Michael : Not true.

Mr. Roberts : The hon. Gentleman says "Not true." I defy the hon. Gentleman : the statement that I have just made is true.

Countryside Commission

6. Dr. Thomas : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he last met the chairman of the Countryside Commission ; and what issues were discussed.

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Mr. Wyn Roberts : I spoke to the chairman of the Countryside Commission last week when we discussed the proposed merger of the commission and the Nature Conservancy Council in Wales which has been widely welcomed.

Dr. Thomas : May I widen that welcome? Of course, we welcome the fact that the Government have established an independent conservation body for Wales which the previous Labour Government failed to do. How does the Minister see the merger of the two bodies taking place? For example, is it the intention that the two existing advisory bodies should remain in place until the transition in 1991? Is it the intention that Professor Gareth Owen and Mr. Meurig Rees should remain as chairmen of the advisory bodies until 1991 to ensure a smooth transition? Will he ensure that the body will be a statutory agency that is entirely accountable to his Department?

Mr. Roberts : I certainly confirm the latter point. With regard to the first point, the hon. Gentleman will know that the progress of reorganisation requires legislation. Meanwhile, we shall consult the various bodies that are involved in this merger in Wales. At present we have two advisory committees and it is our intention to make them an executive body.

Mr. Ron Davies : Does the Minister recognise, however, that the welcome is not entirely unqualified, especially as the purpose of the merger is to ensure that there is no independent conservation voice on matters which will be within the remit of the new body in Wales? Can he give a guarantee that the body will be free from direct political control? As most conservation bodies have an international dimension, can he tell us whether the new body will be present at international conferences? If so, will the Welsh Office now be responsible for ratifying international conventions in so far as they apply to conservation issues in Wales?

Mr. Roberts : Issues that require to be addressed at United Kingdom national or at international level will continue to be the responsibility of the central bodies in England. I think that that is a wise move on our part. The single body that we shall have in Wales will be concerned with Welsh matters.

Marginal Land Farms

7. Mr. Livsey : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales why certain marginal land farms in Wales have been excluded from the latest less- favoured area status review.

Mr. Peter Walker : All those farms whose owners or occupiers put forward representations or appeals against exclusion from the LFA, after the 1984 extension, had their cases fully considered during the recent review. Some 974 farms satisfied the initial land quality tests and, of these, 500 satisfied the strict economic and demographic criteria laid down by the EC. A case to include those 500 farms in the LFA has been submitted to Brussels.

Mr. Livsey : Does the Secretary of State agree that it is extremely unfair that only half of the farms that were originally passed are now included--500 of them, in Dyfed, Clwyd, Gwynedd and Gwent--and that none of the 139 farms submitted for Powys is included at all? Does

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he agree that that is a disgraceful situation which he and his Department should investigate immediately and put right?

Mr. Walker : No, Sir. The Commission's proposals were that the basis of stocking rates should be one livestock unit per hectare. I decided to put forward proposals which go for a higher stocking rate than that as I believe that there was an argument for so doing. We have put forward all those cases which submitted not just one, but 1.2 livestock units per hectare. I am afraid that no application in Powys had a stocking rate of less than 1.57 livestock units per hectare. There is no way of negotiating that with the Commission under the present proposals. To do so would damage my negotiating position, which is to seek an extension of what the Commission proposed.

Mr. Flynn : Is the Secretary of State not concerned that these marginal lands and other lands in Wales may have been treated with the fungicides identified by the United States as causing an additional 100,000 cancer deaths? Is he aware that those fungicides will not be tested or examined in the Harpenden, Hertfordshire laboratory in Britain possibly for 10 years, because staffing there is 25 per cent. below strength? How much longer must we go on eating food treated with chemicals that have not been properly tested and which present a threat to our lives?

Mr. Walker : I hope that before this matter is properly examined the hon. Gentleman will not yet again create an enormous scare which may not be well founded. As his question has nothing to do with this application to the European Commission, I shall reply to him separately.


8. Mr. Jack : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what economic effect will result from the completion of road improvements on the A55 ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Peter Walker : Economic opportunities in north Wales will be greatly enhanced by the dualling of the A55, which will improve accessibility between north Wales, including Holyhead, the motorwork network and continental Europe. Journey times between Bangor and Chester will be reduced to around one hour.

Mr. Jack : I thank my right hon. Friend for that excellent answer, which shows clearly the Government's commitment to the development of the infrastructure of north Wales. Can he tell the House how much all the works will cost, when they will be completed and their effect on inward investment into north Wales?

Mr. Walker : We believe that the cost, at current terms, will be about £550 million. The work will be completed in the mid 1990s. The impact is already considerable. I believe, for example, that decisions such as that of Toyota to come to the area, and the substantial reductions in unemployment along the length of the A55 over the past two years have been influenced by that improved communication.

Mr. Alex Carlile : Bearing in mind the eulogy that the Secretary of State has been able to give about the benefits of the A55 to north Wales, will he adopt a similar strategic

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approach to the Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth route, so that mid-Wales and west Wales can gain the same strategic economic benefits?

Mr. Walker : I am delighted to say that the road improvements throughout the Principality including mid-Wales and west Wales, when one considers their use, density of traffic and population, show that Wales has done exceedingly well compared with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Second Severn Crossing

9. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how many representations he has received on the proposed changes to the routes of the approach road to the second Severn crossing on the Welsh side.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : At the recent public exhibitions at Caldicot and Rogiet, 24 representations were recorded. Those and all other views will be carefully considered before a final decision is taken on the route.

Mr. Stern : Does my hon. Friend agree that the proposals for changes to the route on both sides of the Bristol channel have been largely welcomed? Indeed, there is a general belief that the road should now go ahead as quickly as possible. Does my hon. Friend further agree that the one thing that might possibly hold it up would be any attempts to hold down the toll regime on either of the new bridge or of the old one to less than economic levels?

Mr. Roberts : My hon. Friend is well aware that the increase in toll charges is still subject to inquiry and decision, but certainly we are most anxious that the second Severn crossing should go ahead. We have expedited as far as we can the appointment of four consortia as full tenderers, and we hope that the successful tenderer will be announced around the end of the year.

Mr. Roy Hughes : Why did the Secretary of State conspire with Cardiff to have Newport removed from road signs on the M4 motorway? Does he appreciate the harm that has been done to the commercial interests of Newport, which has a more favourable geographical location on the eastern seaboard than Cardiff? Those signs had been there for 25 years--many years before Cardiff even had a motorway--so why were there no discussions with Gwent county council or Newport borough council before the signs were removed? Is this yet another example of open government, and what is the Minister doing to remedy the situation?

Mr. Roberts : I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Newport is still very much on the map and is becoming more so as the Government continue in office and continue to bring more industry and new development to Newport. The hon. Gentleman is right that the directional sign for Newport has been removed at one point, but the reason for that was that when the sign was put up the M4 did not reach Cardiff. Hon. Members who represent Cardiff will agree that it is important that Cardiff should also be on the map.

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