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House of Commons

Monday 19 February 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


British Railways Order Confirmation Bill

Read the Third time, and passed.

Oral Answers to Questions


Home Ownership

1. Mr. Gow : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how many houses and flats owned by local authorities have been sold to their former tenants since May 1979 ; and what proposals he has to extend the opportunities for home ownership within the Principality.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Walker) : Over 79,000 dwellings have been sold to sitting tenants by local authorities and new towns in Wales. We are encouraging local authorities and housing associations to undertake a range of low-cost home ownership schemes. The most important initiative is the introduction by the Development Board for Rural Wales of the experimental flexi-ownership scheme, which allows tenants to buy their homes at a weekly outlay broadly the same as their rent payments.

Mr. Gow : Is not the opportunity for the extension of home ownership at the heart of the Government's policy? Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us hope that his new initiative in Wales will be followed elsewhere in the kingdom?

Mr. Walker : There is no doubt that the initial reaction to the flexi-ownership scheme launched only a couple of months ago has been one of enthusiasm by the tenants. The principle certainly needs to be examined and I hope that one day it will be applied to the whole country.

Mr. Alan Williams : What advice would the Secretary of State give to those who followed his earlier advice to buy their home and who now find themselves caught in a Government-created trap, at their wits' end trying to meet higher mortgage payments and dreading the arrival of the first poll tax demand, yet knowing that they will have lost their right to be rehoused if their house is repossessed?

Mr. Walker : I have no doubt that, if that is the case, the Labour party will revert to its policy of trying to stop the sale of council houses, as the right hon. Gentleman did when he was a Minister at the Welsh Office. However, I believe that all 79,000 are delighted with their purchase.

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Mr. Wigley : Does the Secretary of State realise that many people who have bought their council house--we all want maximum home ownership-- find it next to impossible to keep up their mortgage payments and that many are back on waiting lists for council houses? Those waiting lists have almost doubled in some parts of Wales. What will the Secretary of State do about it?

Mr. Walker : I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not believe that many people who bought their council house at an enormous discount are back on the waiting lists. The majority of the 79,000 are delighted. I hope that the numbers will extend considerably in the coming years.

Mr. Murphy : Does the Secretary of State accept that the proposals of Housing in Wales, Tai Cymru and housing associations in Wales are wholly inadequate to deal with the problems of housing for at least 70,000 people who are on waiting lists in the Principality? What about the 6,000 or 7,000 homeless people? Cannot the Secretary of State see that the people of Wales are looking to him for some way out of this misery?

Mr. Walker : No, Sir. I am proud that in the lifetime of this Government there has been an enormous improvement in the housing stock of Wales, which dwarfs anything achieved by our predecessors.

Standard Spending Assessment, Clwyd

2. Dr. Marek : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what are the specific reasons for the standard spending assessment per capita in the county of Clwyd being the lowest in Wales.

Mr. Peter Walker : Standard spending assessments for 1990-91 have been calculated to reflect as accurately as possible the relative position of every local authority in Wales.

Dr. Marek : Is the Secretary of State aware that although the consultations might have involved the county councils, no one in Clwyd, particularly on Clwyd county council, can see why the standard spending assessment should be so low? It is plain daft. This is a serious matter. Members of Clwyd county council want to see the Secretary of State and one of his Ministers about it. Will he agree to meet them?

Mr. Walker : It was not just a matter of discussions with the county councils ; the standard spending assessments for 1990-91 were fully discussed and agreed by Welsh local authority associations. Clwyd might be dissatisfied with some factors, but, as a proportion of its relevant population, it has fewer pupils to teach and the second lowest unemployment rate in the counties. Clwyd county council should see how it can save by efficiency, instead of making extraordinary estimates, such as it is making now.

Sir Anthony Meyer : Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be general acceptance of his view that there is scope for increased efficiency, but that nevertheless Clwyd finds itself a victim of the change in formula? Is he further aware that within Clwyd, the district of Rhuddlan is simultaneously being hit in exactly the same way by the change in the method of calculating the formula? I hope that he will pay careful attention to that.

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Mr. Walker : My hon. Friend will agree that, if the Government sit down with local authority associations to try to agree a formula to assess needs and those associations agree to that formula, the Government cannot do much more.

Regional Development Fund

3. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what is the total value of grants which Wales has received from the European regional development fund in each of the last three years.

Mr. Peter Walker : Figures for European regional development fund assistance committed in Wales in each of the past three years are as follows : 1987, £57.8 million, 1988, £63.3 million and 1989, £28.8 million. The decline in 1989 was due to delays in Commission approvals. That will result in a rise in commitments in 1990.

Mr. Knox : Does my right hon. Friend agree that those grants play an important part in helping to create more jobs in Wales? Is he satisified that the source of those grants is sufficiently well publicised?

Mr. Walker : Yes. The fund has played an important part and the Welsh Office has done a great deal in endeavouring to negotiate a range of grants for the benefit of Wales.

Dr. Kim Howells : Will the Secretary of State ensure that whatever EC grants are available are used to help to remove the Albion colliery tip above the village of Cilfynydd, which is just a few miles down the valley from Aberfan? That village is threatened by the old Albion tip, which is causing grave discomfort to many of my constituents, who are also worried about their property.

Mr. Walker : Irrespective of European grants, it is obviously important that all those concerned take the action that is required. I understand the hon. Gentleman's deep concern. As he knows, that matter is a basic responsibility of Mid Glamorgan county council. It has applied for grants to take certain action and the Welsh Development Agency has speedily agreed to give those grants--I believe that it approved them today or last week. I shall certainly keep a close watch to see that all the assistance needed by that county council is given.

Mr. Livsey : On the RDF, what will the Secretary of State do about the integrated operations initiative put forward by Powys, Gwynedd and Dyfed? That initiative has been accepted as worthwhile by the Welsh Office and by the EC, but, apparently, it is now being blocked by central Government. Will the right hon. Gentleman do something to ensure that that initiative stays at the front of the queue instead of being pushed back?

Mr. Walker : It is not a case of pushing back the initiative. Important negotiations and a change of emphasis are taking place in the Community. We certainly do our best for all the applications.

Cleddau Bridge

5. Mr. Nicholas Bennett : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what financial assistance has been provided since 1979 to Dyfed county council in respect of the capital costs of the Cleddau bridge, Pembrokeshire.

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The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. Wyn Roberts) : The Government made a £4 milion interest-free loan to Dyfed county council in 1979. No assistance has been provided since then.

Mr. Bennett : Although I welcome the £4 milllion loan provided by the Government, is my hon. Friend aware of the considerable annoyance felt in Pembrokeshire because my constituents must pay 50p every time they cross the bridge when the rest of the road system is free? Why have my constituents been singled out for such an imposition when the rest of the road system is provided from taxation?

Mr. Roberts : I assure my hon. Friend that his constituents have not been singled out, but Cleddau bridge is owned and operated by Dyfed county council. The policy on tolling operated by the present Government is the same as that operated by successive

Governments--that users who enjoy the exceptional savings in time and money made possible by estuarial crossings should contribute directly to the costs involved through the payment of tolls.

Mr. Gareth Wardell : Would the Minister care to tell the House how long the missing link in the county of Pembrokeshire on the M4 has been delayed because of the expenditure on roads by the former Secretary of State for Wales?

Mr. Speaker : Will the M4 go over that bridge?

Mr. Wardell : Yes.

Mr. Roberts : I am happy to assure you, Mr. Speaker, that the section of road to which the hon. Gentleman referred is far from Cleddau bridge. The hon. Gentleman should know, however, that we have eased congestion along the Baglan to Lonlas section by improving the Baglan roundabout. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman has not travelled that way recently. We have plans to improve all three sections between Baglan and Lonlas.

Labour Statistics

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

Mr. Peter Walker : On 11 January 1990, the numbers of unemployment claimants in the Newport district, Gwent and Wales were 4,754, 14,051 and 90,349 respectively. Unadjusted figures for 1979 are not available on a basis that enables a valid comparison.

Mr. Hughes : There have been at least 23 changes in the method of compiling unemployment statistics, all of which have reduced the overall total. Is poll tax yet another secret weapon in the Government's armoury to reduce the figures? The cost of collecting rates in Wales was £9 million, whereas poll tax will cost more than £25 million to collect, the cost of which will have to be borne by the charge payers. Is not it sheer hypocrisy by the Government to lecture our local authorities on financial prudence when they behave in this way?

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Mr. Walker : The income for the local authority in Newport must greatly benefit from the fact that unemployment there was 92 per cent. higher at the time of the general election than it is now.

Mr. Denzil Davies : Is not the Secretary of State aware that there are 120,000 fewer industrial employees--involved in manufacturing, production and making things--in Wales now than there were in 1979? Is it any wonder that income per head in Wales is lower than in 1979 and that we are the poorest region in Britain?

Mr. Walker : As the right hon. Gentleman knows, because the figures that he has just mentioned were given in a reply by me, the main drop involves those employed in the coal industry. I am glad that in the past three years there has been a big increase in the number of jobs in manufacturing. I am also pleased--obviously the right hon. Gentleman is not --that there has been an enormous increase in the number of jobs in the service industries. Many people in Wales delight in the fact that there is an enormous increase in both industries.

7. Mr. Jack : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how many people were employed in Wales in (a) 1979 and (b) in December 1989.

Mr. Peter Walker : In September 1989, the latest date for which information is available, there was a civilian work force in employment in Wales of 1,158,000. In September 1979, the figure was 1,160,000.

Mr. Jack : My right hon. Friend's interesting answer reflects some of the problems with which he has had to cope in the restructuring of the Welsh economy. Can he be more specific and tell the House some of the initiatives that he has taken to boost employment in manufacturing and service industries? What programmes will he be pursuing in the next 12 months towards those objectives?

Mr. Walker : If one takes into consideration the increased numbers in higher education in Wales compared with 1979, the figures for 1989 were higher than the 1979 ones. I am delighted that a range of initiatives have brought the financial services to Wales and a great deal of overseas investment. During the past three years Wales, with 5 per cent. of the population, has had 20 per cent. of all the inward investment into Britain.

Mr. Foot : Does the figure that the Secretary of State gave mean that the Government have just got back to the employment figure for Wales that existed in 1979 when he, along with his associates, ran an election campaign to say, "Labour isn't working"? Will he respond to the invitation that I have given him many times, to make in Wales the speech that he occasionally makes in England, and give the figures of how much has been poured down the drain through the huge numbers of unemployed that have existed throughout the past 10 years? Those figures are still very high and much higher than in many parts of England.

Mr. Walker : As the right hon. Gentleman knows better than anyone else, pits closed on a large scale under Labour Governments, as well as Conservative Governments. In the past 10 years there has been an enormous drop in the numbers employed in both the coal and steel industries, yet, in spite of that, this year there are as many people in employment as there were in 1979. I am glad that there is a great diversity of jobs, mainly in the private sector.

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Mr. Bill Walker : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the difference between the time of the Labour Government and today is that those in work are working for companies making profits, so their jobs are much more secure than they were under the Labour Administration?

Mr. Walker : Perhaps the most important fact for Wales is that it now has a diversity of job opportunities that it never had before.

Local Government Finance (Advertising)

8. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how much has been spent in total by his Department to advertise and provide information on the poll tax in Wales.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : I expect the total expenditure on information relating to the community charge to be around £400,000 in 1989-90.

Mr. Jones : Now that we know that the average poll tax for Wales will be at least £47 higher than the Government's estimate, and that the Government's only response is the ridiculous idea of rate-capping Welsh local authorities that have never been accused of overspending by any Government, why do not the Government accept that all their plans for propaganda for the poll tax to persuade the people of Walls that it is a wonderful tax have been an abject failure? Should not the Secretary of State join his colleague, the Secretary of State for the Environment, and, rather than rate-cap Welsh local authorities, go cap in hand to the Treasury to get more money for them this year, to save hard-pressed Welsh ratepayers from this ridiculous tax?

Mr. Roberts : The hon. Gentleman has knowledge that I do not have-- we do not know what the individual community charges will be ; all we know is what we read in the press.

As for capping, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has made the position absolutely clear. Of course, we do not like the tremendous increases in spending that are proposed--we were talking about Clwyd county council a few moments ago. It is proposing to spend about 14 per cent. more in the coming year than it did this year--and this year it spent 9 per cent. more than the previous year. As for the information that we have given, we have published guides for households and for students about the community charge rebate, and four more leaflets are on the way, all of them in two languages.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : In that information, will my hon. Friend continue to make it clear that those who benefit most from the community charge are the least well off in Wales--despite the attacks mounted on the people of Wales by local councils that set the community charge at unnecessary and ridiculously high levels?

Mr. Roberts : We all know that single pensioners and single parents will certainly benefit from the community charge. There is an excellent rebate scheme, and we have published a guide to the community charge rebate.

Mr. Rowlands : The Minister has admitted that he is ignorant of what is going on in Welsh local authorities. It

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is now mid-February ; will he tell us whether there is any possibility or probability that the Government intend to rate-cap any Welsh local authority?

Mr. Roberts : The hon. Gentleman knows only too well that we enjoy a particularly favourable position in Wales, in that the average community charge that we anticipated was about £100 less than the average anticipated in England. He also knows that the percentage of grant that the Government give local authorities in Wales is considerably higher than it is in England.

Mr. Barry Jones : Have not the Government underprovided our excellent local authorities in Wales by about 4 per cent? If the Government resort to charge capping, will they not be attacking, in effect, the Conservative-controlled Vale of Glamorgan district council and independent- controlled Montgomery council? If charge capping takes place, the consequences will be cuts in schooling, housing and social services.

The Secretary of State is seeking an alibi. He is passing the buck to our councils, but he is to blame for introducing a poll tax that the people of Wales do not want.

Mr. Roberts : The hon. Gentleman really cannot have it all ways. He is afraid that we want to restrain local authorities from overcharging their community charge payers. He would far rather allow the tremendous increases that we read about in the press to be imposed by local authorities. If he has any care for the electors and community charge payers, he should join the Government in urging local authorities to reduce their spending and their community charge. We all know the truth : local authorities are raising community charges as much as they possibly can and hoping to blame the Government for the outcome.

Local Government Finance

9. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what is his latest information on the level of poll tax to be levied by (a) Carmarthen district council and (b) Dinefwr borough council ; and what is the average for all the local authorities so far notified in Wales.

Mr. Peter Walker : I have received no such information.

Mr. Williams : Is the Secretary of State aware that Dyfed has the lowest average male earnings of any county in Britain? What has he to say to the 20,000 or 30,000 people in my constituency who are on low pay, live in very ordinary homes, are not eligible for any rebates and who will lose heavily when the poll tax bills arrive?

Mr. Walker : Expenditure was based on a 7.1 per cent. increase on last year's budget, and only 15 per cent. of all local government expenditure in Wales will come from the poll tax. The hon. Gentleman should explain to his constituents how lucky they are.

Mr. Rogers : I am amazed that the Secretary of State is ignorant about what is happening in local government in Wales. I am sure that he realises that many local authorities, including my own county council of Mid Glamorgan, have already set the level of poll tax. Those councils will now have to struggle for the resources to rebuild and reopen the Rhigos mountain road at the top end of the Rhondda valley, which has collapsed as a result of recent bad weather. Under the previous rating system,

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a Welsh Office scheme gave 75 per cent. over and above a penny rate to cope with emergencies. Will the Secretary of State assure me that such money will be immediately forthcoming under the new system to open this vital road, which is the Rhondda's only access to west Wales, the heads of the valley and even into the midlands?

Mr. Walker : That is a separate question and I shall look into the details.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Would my right hon. Friend care to speculate on the howls of outrage that will be uttered by people all over Wales if Labour's proposals for a roof tax are introduced? Under that tax, people would be charged not only on the basis of the capital value of their home, but on the basis of their income. Much unfairness would arise, because after a national Labour Chancellor had fleeced the taxpayers, 400 local chancellors would do the same at the town halls.

Mr. Walker : One notices the total confusion and muddle in the Labour party on this matter. It is certain that if a Labour Government handled a new roof tax in the same rather ruthless way as they handled the rate support system, the people of Wales would have a bad time. When people throughout the Principality discover that they will have to pay a tax based on the capital value of their house, they will be very distressed.

Mr. Barry Jones : I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Conservative Cabinet invented the wretched poll tax. Did not he undertake in Cabinet to impose that unjust tax on the people of Wales? His name was on the poll tax Bill as it was dragooned through the House. These fairy tales from the right hon. Gentleman will lead to electoral disaster for his party. He will be remembered in Wales as the man who brought an unjust tax, the poll tax, upon our people. The poll tax and the right hon. Gentleman's endeavours to promote it are a stain on his ministerial reputation.

Mr. Walker : In fairness to the hon. Gentleman, he has no ministerial reputation. We have introduced one poll tax. The shadow Cabinet of which the hon. Gentleman is a member has had three different types of roof taxes. We all look forward to seeing the detail of the one that he supports so that people throughout Wales can examine it.

Teachers' Pay

10. Mr. Butler : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what information he has as to the hourly pay of supply teachers and home tutors in (a) West Glamorgan, (b) Gwent and (c) Wales as a whole ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : Local education authorities have considerable flexibility on the pay of supply teachers and home tutors. They are not required to notify the Welsh Office of their local arrangements.

Mr. Butler : Does my hon. Friend accept the recommendations of the interim advisory committee which, if implemented, would eradicate the discrimination against supply teachers in counties in Wales as outside?

Mr. Roberts : I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that we accept the recommendations of the interim advisory committee--including those related to teachers on

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short-notice contracts. As a result of those recommendations, the pay of supply and other teachers on such contracts would be calculated on the same basis as that of full-time or regular part- time teachers.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : Is my hon. Friend satisfied with recruitment to teacher training courses in Wales?

Mr. Roberts : On the whole, yes, and I am glad to tell my hon. Friend that initial recruitment to the public sector training institutions in Wales exceeded the target by more than 17 per cent. That augurs well for the future and implies that teaching is still viewed as an attractive career.

Dr. Thomas : The Minister's statement will be very welcome to all part-time or supply teachers. Is he satisfied that sufficient resources are available to Welsh local education authorities to employ the part-time and supply teachers required to ensure that the national curriculum is fully implemented?

Mr. Roberts : A survey of teaching in Wales showed that the vacancy rate is about 1 per cent., which is similar to the rate for England and Wales combined. We are keeping a careful eye on the position and are doing our utmost to ensure an adequate supply of teachers. Other matters, including the employment of part-time and supply teachers, are for local authorities.

Health Authorities

11. Mr. Win Griffiths : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what plans he has to meet the chairman of the Welsh health authorities ; and what matters will be discussed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ian Grist) : The date and agenda for the next meeting have not yet been determined.

Mr. Griffiths : The Minister is aware of my concern that Dr. Joan Williams and Mr. David Else, who are employees of Mid Glamorgan health authority and shareholders and company directors of Medical Diagnostics Limited, and Dr. Stephanie Matthews and Dr. Keith Davies, who are employees of South Glamorgan health authority and shareholders and directors of Lifecare Advanced Medical Limited, have serious direct conflicts of interest between the income-generating work in the Health Service and their involvement in private companies. Will the Minister issue guidelines for the chairmen of Welsh health authorities making it clear that such activities fall well beyond the scope of acceptable private practice and will not be allowed in future?

Mr. Grist : Health authorities, as employers, are responsible for ensuring that their employees' private interests do not conflict with those of the authorities. We are considering whether further guidance is needed to guard against the risk of conflict.

Mr. Geraint Howells : Will the Minister meet representatives of local authorities in mid-Wales, as many of them are keen to establish a Mid Wales health authority based on Bronglais hospital, Aberystwyth?

Mr. Grist : I know of the hon. Gentleman's concern for his local hospital, but I believe that he has been taken in by people who have raised unnecessary scares about it. East Dyfed health authority does a first-rate job.

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Community Care

12. Mr. Michael : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what estimate he has made of the cost to local authorities in Wales of implementing the community care proposals contained in the recent White Paper on community care.

Mr. Grist : As we have made clear in the White Paper "Caring for People", the resources to be made available to local authorities in Wales to implement the new framework for community care will be determined in this year's public expenditure survey, following consultations with the local authorities which have begun.

Mr. Michael : The Minister did not answer my question. Does he accept that in coming years, the increasing number of elderly people will require extra resources? Does he further agree that care in the community will cost money and must not be implemented on the cheap? Will he guarantee that the Government will make available enough money to enable local authorities in Wales to bear the burden that is being transferred to them by the National Health Service and Community Care Bill which is currently in Committee? Will he also ensure that such finance is ring-fenced, so that there will be no doubt about the resources available to look after our old people?

Mr. Grist : As the hon. Gentleman is, with me, a member of the Standing Committee, he must be aware that the Government have every intention of ensuring that their policy works to the benefit of the old and dependent in society. We do not believe that resources should be ring- fenced because we put our trust in local authorities. Of course, we shall take into consideration any action that might have to be taken in the future, but at this stage we have faith in local authorities.

Mr. John P. Smith : Will the Minister take this opportunity to comment on the shortfall in respite care allowances? My constituents are unable to take advantage of hostels for the mentally and physically handicapped because the abolition of the board and lodging allowance has penalised dependants. People do not receive the same amount of benefit if, to have a break, they put their dependants into respite hospitals.

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman will know that this is a subject for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security rather than for me. He will be aware of the increased funding by the Welsh Office for the mentally handicapped and the mental illness strategies.


13. Sir Anthony Meyer : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what response has been received to the publication of "The A55--The Road of Opportunity" ; and what further sections of the road will begin to be improved in the next financial year.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : The response to the publication of the document "The A55--The Road of Opportunity" has been very favourable. We will be announcing details of major trunk road schemes planned to start in 1990-91 in the Welsh Office commentary on the 1990 public expenditure White Paper due to be published in March.

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