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House of Commons

Monday 22 January 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


British Rail

1. Mr. John P. Smith : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what recent consultations he has had with British Rail ; and what matters were discussed.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. Wyn Roberts) : My right hon. Friend and I and our officials consult British Rail regularly on a wide range of issues.

Mr. Smith : I thank the Minister for that reply. When he and his colleagues next meet the chairman of British Rail will they discuss the possibility of establishing a passenger rail link to Cardiff Wales airport? I agree with the director of that airport that such a rail link is essential for its future as an international airport. Such an airport is vital to the continued success of the south Wales economy. We must recognise that the cutting edge of business communications is air travel. If we make the mistake of not establishing adequate surface links in Wales we shall fall behind other regions and other countries and we shall not get our fair share of the cake in Europe after 1992.

Mr. Roberts : The hon. Gentleman is, I think, aware that South Glamorgan county council and British Rail are in the lead on this proposal. They examined it last year, but came to the conclusion that there was not an economic case for it. I understand, however, that they are still examining the possibility of running an executive coach from the airport to Cardiff's hotels in addition to the hourly bus service from Cardiff to the airport.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should like to do all that we can to help further the interests of the airport and to meet the economic requirements of south Wales.

Mr. Anderson : Will the Minister ask the chairman of British Rail why it continues to treat Wales as though it were an impoverished cousin, fit only for the hand-me-downs from more wealthy members of the family? Is he aware, for example, that the new high-speed trains that we shall receive in south Wales will come into operation when they are no longer needed, after the electrification of the east coast mainline?

Mr. Roberts : I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. We consult British Rail and we are pleased with some of the things it has done. It is, for example, providing a first-class service from Paddington to and from south Wales. We have asked for extra trains to be provided and

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those trains will be provided from next May. British Rail meets our requirements whenever they are commercially viable.


2. Mr. Geraint Howells : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received about the importation of toxic waste bound for the Rechem incineration plant.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ian Grist) : My right hon. Friend has received a number of representations.

Mr. Howells : I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Can he confirm that the Germans are not keen to install a similar plant in their country as they believe that it is not safe? If that is so, what plans does the Minister have to safeguard the interests of the Welsh people?

Mr. Grist : I think that the hon. Gentleman will know of our proposals in the current Environmental Protection Bill whereby we wish to restrict the importation of waste into this country, although we see a role for dealing with special wastes. I would not care to comment on the activities of an allied Government.

Mr. Favell : It is absolutely vital that such plants should operate safely and, therefore, the new proposed legislation is welcome. Is it reasonable for organisations such as Friends of the Earth to attack companies such as Rechem, which is ridding the world of unwanted chemicals? Surely that company is being a friend of the earth.

Mr. Grist : If we did not have such firms the question would arise as to exactly what would happen to the PCBs and other emissions. Presumably, they would endanger Third world countries which are too poor to have our high technology.

Mr. Murphy : Is it not true that the large profits made by Rechem come from imports and that those profits have declined dramatically in the past few weeks? Is the Minister aware that reports in the business press this weekend have indicated possible insider dealing in Rechem shares? Will he ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to investigate those reports? Does he accept that the only answer to this controversy is a proper, independent public inquiry?

Mr. Grist : After that barrage, I am not quite sure into what the hon. Gentleman wants an inquiry. I do not care to comment on the insider dealings, but I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have noted what the hon. Gentleman said. Only 20 per cent. of the company's dealings come from imported waste and, if there is a fall in the company's profitability, I imagine that it would be of some concern to the hon. Gentleman's constituents who work there.

Uniform Business Rate

3. Mr. Murphy : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received regarding the implementation of the new business rate in Wales.

15. Mr. Flynn : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has had on the Welsh business rate level.

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The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Walker) : I have received a number of such representations.

Mr. Murphy : Is the Secretary of State aware of today's business news in south Wales--a staggering increase in the number of bankruptcies and liquidations of small businesses? Does he accept that the business tax will increase the possibility of such events? Why does he pretend to help industry in Wales but introduce a tax that is universally condemned by all organisations that represent commerce in the Principality?

Mr. Walker : I am well aware of today's commercial news. I have seen the survey done by the Cardiff chamber of commerce and industry which shows that 24 per cent. of firms expect to take on more people in 1990--three times more than those set to reduce their work force--that turnover is 75 per cent. higher than last year, and that firms expect 60 per cent. higher profits. That fits in with an industrial survey carried out by the Institute of Directors, which comes to similar conclusions. We are having record inward investment, record growth and a record drop in unemployment. I am sure that the news that factories and warehouses in Wales will have a 27 per cent. reduction in their business rate will be good news for the Welsh economy.

Mr. Flynn : Does the Secretary of State recall that when he was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food he gave farmers the incredible advice that if a nuclear attack was imminent they should drive their cows into ditches and cover them with a tarpaulin sheet? Is not the advice and protection that he has given to Welsh business men just about as effective as a tarpaulin sheet would be against a nuclear attack? In his long litany of records, the Secretary of State forgot that today we know that there are record bankruptcies among Welsh businesses. Why do Welsh businesses have to pay 5 per cent. more for their business rate than those in England? What will he do about it?

Mr. Walker : Once again, the hon. Gentleman's production of fiction is on the most extraordinary scale. As Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I never made any such remarks, which are a total work of fiction by the hon. Gentleman. Welsh businesses will contribute 20 per cent. of the costs of local government and those in England, 30 per cent. If the hon. Gentleman calls that a disadvantage to Welsh business, that is a funny analysis.

Mr. Burns : When replying to representations he receives about the business rate, will my right hon. Friend tell those people that when the transitional phase is over, the maximum amount by which the business rate can increase in any one year will be the inflation rate? That will be infinitely superior to some of the rate increases faced by businesses in Wales over the past 10 to 15 years. Will he confirm that when we take the business rate and Government funding together, community charge payers in Wales will pay only 15 per cent. of local government finance?

Mr. Walker : My hon. Friend is quite correct--community charge payers will pay only 15 per cent. of local government finance. I am glad that it is also true that the rate burden of factories and warehouses throughout Wales will be reduced by 27 per cent. That should be a cause for celebration in the Principality.

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Mr. Alan Williams : Is not the Secretary of State's early optimism likely to be hit on the head by the very tax that we are discussing? Will he confirm that the interim protection to which he has referred is lost if a firm changes premises? Premises will therefore become more difficult to sell or to rent ; firms wanting to expand will find it difficult to move to larger presmises ; and firms in trouble will find it difficult to move to smaller ones. Is not that contrary to the mobility that is essential to regional policy?

Mr. Walker : The figures that I gave have nothing to do with the transitional arrangements. I know of the right hon. Gentleman's passion to help the valleys, so he will be pleased to know that valleys factories will have their rate burden reduced by 35 per cent.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : Does my right hon. Friend agree that manufacturing industry will benefit particularly from the new business rate? How will that act on the valleys' initiative? As many concerns involved will be smaller businesses, will he give further consideration to the present threshold of £10,000 and increase it to, say, £15,000?

Mr. Walker : We shall keep the present figures.

Factories in the valleys will pay £13 million less in rates, and warehouses £2 million less.

National Curriculum

4. Mr. Rogers : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received about implementation of the national curriculum in Wales.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : My right hon. Friend has received many representations about the implementation of the national curriculum in Wales, most of which have been in response to the numerous consultations he has conducted.

Mr. Rogers : I am not surprised that the Minister has received many representations, because the whole teaching profession in Wales is disaffected with the proposals. Does not the Minister realise that under these proposals teachers will have not only to teach and maintain discipline but to absorb and implement the new curriculum--and to assess and record almost continuously the progress of their pupils? Teachers have been placed in an impossible position without the resources to help them and without the extra manpower to deal with some of the extremely large classes in the Principality.

Mr. Roberts : The hon. Gentleman must remember that more is being spent per pupil now than when we came to office, and that there are fewer pupils per teacher now than then.

We consult after each national curriculum working group has produced its final report, and we consult again at the draft order stage. We realise, of course, that teachers carry a burden but we also have faith that they will see that the work is well worth doing and that they will carry it out.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : When does my hon. Friend expect to make a decision on the applications from a number of schools in my constituency to be exempt from Welsh at secondary level?

Mr. Roberts : We shall be consulting separately on the regulations relating to possible exemptions.

Mr. Barry Jones : Is not the national curriculum causing severe difficulties with staffing and with the teaching of

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Welsh and modern languages? Teacher morale is very low. Why is the Minister so indecisive? He has legislated for major change but provided minor resources. If he does not wake up he will have a serious situation on his hands.

Mr. Roberts : I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. Is he now saying that he is against the introduction of the national curriculum? His party was not when we dealt with the matter in Standing Committee.

As for staff morale, I have explained that teachers have good reason to feel proud of the work that they do. I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that we are raising the additional education support grant and the money available for local education authority training grants from £7 million this year to £10 million in the next.

Sheltered Accommodation

5. Mr. Ron Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how many units of local authority-provided sheltered accommodation for the elderly currently exist in Wales.

Mr. Grist : At 1 April 1989 there were 16,219 units of sheltered accommodation for elderly people provided by local authorities in Wales.

Mr. Davies : Will the Minister confirm that under the new ringfencing arrangements local authorities will have to exclude the costs of warden services from their housing accounts, and will therefore no longer be eligible for housing subsidy? Does he realise that the full cost of warden services will then fall on the poll tax? The Minister's estimate of poll tax in the Rhymney valley of £166 per head has already increased on the basis of the local authority estimate of £225 per head. That seems to generate laughter from the Secretary of State. Will the Minister seriously reconsider those elements of local authority expenditure that should be eligible for housing subsidy?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman overlooks the considerable increase in funds that are being made available next year to local authorities for housing and through the Housing Corporation for mixed housing in sheltered accommodation. The hon. Gentleman can look there for considerable growth. The effect of the pay of wardens on the community charge will be infinitesimal compared with the good that will be done by sheltered accommodation.

Mr. Michael : Will the Minister compare his figure of 16,200 units of accommodation with the anticipated increase in the number of elderly-- 48,000 over the next 20 years--and with the figure for the very elderly, those over 85, of 26,000? Given the emphasis on community care and on people being enabled to live independent lives, will he provide the money to enable local authorities to undertake rapid acceleration in the provision of sheltered accommodation?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman should consider that we have been able to provide the finance for an increase of more than 3,000 units of accommodation for elderly people in the last two and a half years. We shall be able to maintain that rate in future. He will also be aware of the new renovation grants scheme that will considerably assist

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private elderly owners in Wales, of whom we have a high proportion and for whom local authorities will have an unlimited financial draw on the Treasury.

M4 (Port Talbot)

6. Mr. Gareth Wardell : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales in which month in 1991 the two unfinished sections of the M4 in the Port Talbot area will see work commence ; and by which month in 1991 the work will be completed.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : Work on the Briton Ferry-Earlswood and Baglan- Briton Ferry schemes is planned to start early in the period April 1991 to March 1994. The schemes will take two and a half years and three years respectively and are expected to be completed in mid-1994. It is not possible to be more precise at this stage.

Mr. Wardell : The Minister will know that it is a national disgrace that after 10 years of Conservative rule there is still not a single finished motorway in Wales. Will he look again at this to see whether this missing gap in the M4 can be filled before the time period that he mentioned? That gap is a major sore in the economy of south Wales and urgently needs attention.

Mr. Roberts : If it has been a disgrace for 10 years I am surprised that the previous Labour Government did not anticipate building this section of the M4-A48. We have planned extremely well. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have already carried out remedial works at the Baglan roundabout which have eased traffic congestion there. We have further works planned for the two other roundabouts, and here we have work that is estimated to cost £116 million at November 1988 prices. We shall accomplish that work within four years. That is a very good rate of progress for the building of roads.


7. Mr. Livsey : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the taking of soil samples around the Rechem incinerator.

Mr. Grist : My right hon. Friend is considering what further action may be necessary in the light of the results of monitoring undertaken by the Welsh Office and other agencies in the Pontypool area.

Mr. Livsey : Will the Minister authorise comprehensive environmental tests not only of the soil but of grass and meat to test for toxins passing into the food chain? Does he agree that the stock exchange is investigating Rechem share insider dealings and that a Welsh Office public inquiry on Rechem is long overdue?

Mr. Grist : That seems a very muddled supplementary. Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution is currently conducting further environmental soil surveys in the vicinity of various types of incincerators, including that at Pontypool. As I said in my answer, and as the hon. Gentleman will know, we have been carrying out various surveys ourselves and releasing the results to interested parties.

Mr. Alan Williams : Given the poor level of monitoring of the plant by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution and the general lack of confidence in HMIP's work, will the

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Minister note the work commissioned by Torfaen borough council, whose independent analysis shows that levels of polychlorinated biphenyls in grasslands around the Rechem plant are extremely high--50 to 100 times the background? In the light of such findings and of the general concern in the area, why does the Welsh Office refuse to allow a public inquiry into the operations of the plant?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter before, I think in the Select Committee. The surveys carried out by HMIP are the surveys for which we have most respect. We aware of the findings given to us by Torfaen borough council, and that is why we have instituted investigations of our own. We are looking into the findings of all the surveys to decide what step to take next.

Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance

8. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on hill livestock compensatory allowance payments in 1990.

Mr. Peter Walker : We shall announce the hill livestock compensatory allowance rates for 1990 shortly.

Mr. Jones : The Secretary of State will be aware that the value of HLCAs has been eroded by inflation since the last increase in 1986 and that in 1989 incomes in the less-favoured areas fell by 13 per cent. in real terms. He will also be aware that the European Commission's cut will represent a loss to Welsh farmers of £1.2 million in HLCA payments this year. Will the Secretary of State give the House and Welsh farmers an assurance that the Government will make up the difference?

Mr. Walker : The hon. Gentleman knows that last year the Government gave careful conideration to the matter and paid out £30.2 million in allowances. Our latest figures show that net farm incomes on less-favoured area livestock farms rose by just under 40 per cent. on average, partly reflecting increases in output and

lower-than-expected increases in input costs.

Mr. Barry Jones : Will the Secretary of State consider a concerted policy programme to bring greater social and economic prosperity to Wales? Has he carefully assessed the need for a rural affairs unit in his Department--for example, a task force for north Wales? Will he fight harder in Brussels for rural Wales?

Mr. Walker : The hon. Gentleman asks about help for rural Wales. I can only say that the reduction in unemployment, the increased farm income figures that I have just given and the programme for north Wales that we have just announced completely dwart anything that was achieved when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister at the Welsh Office.

Inward Investment

9. Mr. Cran : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what figures he has for the amount of inward investment that took place in Wales in 1989.

Mr. Peter Walker : I am pleased to say that preliminary figures show that during 1989, Wales secured on average

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two projects per week--100 projects, promising 8,252 new and safeguarded jobs and a capital investment of £520 million.

Mr. Cran : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the success of the job-attracting agencies in Wales has been outstanding and that they have beaten into a cocked hat the achievements of the other job-attracting agencies in the United Kingdom? Does he further agree that the quality of that investment is far higher than was the case in the 1960s and 1970s and is unlikely to suffer in the same way as investment in those decades suffered when adverse trading conditions came along?

Mr. Walker : The quality has been very high. An important factor for the Welsh economy is that three of the biggest inward investments of the past two years have been in the Toyota and Ford engine plants and the Bosch motor component plant, which are all under construction and have yet to recruit labour forces. When fully in production, those plants will require a whole mass of component manufacturers to supply them. The investment has been of high quality and will bring permanent benefit to the Welsh economy.

Mr. Roy Hughes : The Secretary of State talks of inward investment. But does he appreciate that today Mitel, which has a large factory in Caldicot, has announced its intention of divesting itself of its 51 per cent. shareholding in that company? Does the Secretary of State realise that the company has pioneered advanced technology? What is to be the future of the work people employed there?

Mr. Walker : I cannot comment on an announcement about the disposal of the ownership of a particular company. However, inward investment into the hon. Gentleman's constituency continues to be made on a considerable scale, as in the past.

Tertiary Education, Clwyd

10. Sir Anthony Meyer : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what proposals have been submitted to him by Clwyd county council for tertiary reorganisation of the schools in Clwyd.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : My right hon. Friend has not received any formal proposals affecting the organisation of secondary education in Clwyd.

Sir Anthony Meyer : As my hon. Friend has a wider area of responsibility than his English counterpart in the Department of Education and Science, will he, when assessing any proposals from Clwyd county council, take into account not only the possible educational advantages of concentrating sixth form teaching in one place but the conceivable social disadvantages of removing from a place such as Abergele the element of a school that provides a valuable service to the community?

Mr. Roberts : Tertiary education is only one option for consideration by local education authorities wishing to rationalise their provision for 16 to 19-year-olds. It would not be right for me to comment on the merits of tertiary education in Clwyd. If the local education authority publishes notices of its intention to abolish sixth forms and there are statutory objections, the matter would be referred to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, for him to determine.

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Mr. Foot : Does the Minister recall the reply that the Secretary of State was ill-advised enough to give me during Welsh questions last time, when I suggested that his best course would be to make his next annual or biannual speech on the catastrophies of the Government's general economic policy in the constituency of Clwyd, North- West? Do not recent events emphasise the truth of that? Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to make special arrangements to visit Clwyd, North-West, not only to speak on the subject of tertiary education, which is very important, but to give his views on interest rates at 15 per cent. and all the other elements of the Government's catastrophic economic policy? We want that speech to be made as soon as possible, and only regret that it was not made last week.

Mr. Roberts : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is welcome throughout north Wales, including the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer), who is very much his own man, and my constituency of Conwy.

Dr. Thomas : Will the Secretary of State and the Minister of State consider the future of tertiary education in Clwyd in the context of the plans that are simultaneously being prepared for Gwynedd? The two counties share a substantial border, and there is a clear need for tertiary facilities along the border to be shared. Will the Secretary of State consider any representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer), who has a distinguished record of public service to his constituents and whom we shall certainly miss if the disastrous course that was inflicted on the Conservative party in Clwyd, North-West is followed?

Mr. Roberts : A tertiary education scheme has already been adopted for Gwent, West Glamorgan and South Glamorgan, and a similar scheme is under consideration for Gwynedd and Mid-Glamorgan. I am sure that Clwyd's proposals will take into account the interests of Gwynedd and that there will be collaboration between the two. I remarked earlier that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West is very much his own man. He has an enormous amount of courage, which we all respect.

Polytechnic of Wales

11. Dr. Kim Howells : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he last met representatives of the Polytechnic of Wales ; and what was discussed.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : Neither my right hon. Friend nor myself have had occasion to meet representatives of the Polytechnic of Wales in the last 12 months.

Dr. Howells : In terms of the sums allocated across all subjects, the Polytechnic of Wales receives half the amount allocated to universities, and about 12 per cent. less than that allocated to British polytechnics in general. The Secretary of State and the Minister for State know the vital role that the polytechnic plays in supplying scientific and engineering expertise to the new Welsh industries. What will be done to ensure that its funding is made commensurate with that role?

Mr. Roberts : We have been increasing the funds available to the Polytechnic of Wales in recent years, and

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one hopes that they will continue to increase. The polytechnic is, as the hon. Gentleman says, of great importance to us as it serves industry in south Wales. I have faith in its future being assured.

Green Pound

12. Mr. Nicholas Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received concerning the effect of the green pound gap on Welsh farming ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Peter Walker : I have received a total of eight written representations ; seven from hon. Friends and hon. Members representing Welsh constituencies, and one from the Wales branch of the National Farmers Union.

Mr. Bennett : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the considerable concern among farmers in Wales about their growing competitive disadvantage compared with farmers in other parts of the European Community as a result of the increasing gap in the green pound? Will he make strong representations to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, saying that this is a matter which requires deep cuts in the forthcoming price round in the EC negotiations?

Mr. Walker : Yes, Sir. I am well aware from experience--my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is also aware of it--that, in a price-fixing exercise, the movement of monetary compensatory amounts is of considerable importance. There is a commitment to remove all monetary gaps and, therefore, MCAs by the end of 1992. When that happens, it will be of great benefit to Welsh agriculture.

Polychlorinated Biphenyls

13. Mr. Denzil Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales whether he will carry out an inquiry into the effect upon the environment of the emissions of polychlorinated biphenyls from the combustion of plastic clinical waste in hospital incinerators in Wales.

Mr. Grist : No, Sir. Such an inquiry would anticipate implementation of the proposals contained in the Environmental Protection Bill which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment laid before the House on 20 December 1989. When it is enacted, NHS incinerators will be required to meet operating and emission standards that will be published and will be enforceable by the relevant local authorities.

Mr. Davies : Does the Minister agree that, when plastic PCBs are burnt--a considerable amount is burnt in hospital

incinerators--biphenyls and dioxins are emitted unless the combustion temperature is extremely high? He mentioned the new legislation. At what temperature should these plastics be burnt to prevent the emission of biphenyls and dioxins?

Mr. Grist : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is undertaking consultations on standards of incineration which it is intended should be introduced later this year.

Sir Dudley Smith : Does my hon. Friend agree that there has been so much controversy about this in Wales that it is a matter of considerable urgency? Will he urge my right

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hon. Friend the Secretary of State to take every step to get the issue moving? Is my hon. Friend aware that the county town of Warwick has been threatened with an incinerator and that there is considerable anxiety about it?

Mr. Grist : My hon. Friend should be reassured by the fact that the power to control and license the incinerator would be given to his local authority by the proposals in our Bill. He would be able to exercise such authority locally. That should give him and his constituents a great deal of assurance.

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