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House of Commons

Monday 3 December 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Infrastructure, Gwent

1. Mr. Roy Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he has any plans to visit Caldicot, Gwent, to discuss development of the infrastructure.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hunt) : No, Sir.

Mr. Hughes : Does the Secretary of State nevertheless recognise the increasing importance of Caldicot, which is supposed to be the site of the second Severn crossing? Residents who live alongside the site fear the congestion that there will be in the area, particularly on the B4245. Can the Secretary of State give an up-to-date assessment? As for the transport difficulties in the area, residents are calling for a park-and-ride facility at the Severn tunnel junction and a halt at Magor. Will the right hon. Gentleman do what he can to push those projects?

Mr. Hunt : We are pleased to announce the advancement of work on the access road, subject to the satisfactory completion of parliamentary procedures. The access road east of junction 23 at Magor will be used by construction traffic for the second Severn crossing toll

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plaza ; otherwise, it would have used the B4245 through Magor and Undy. I hope that that will reassure local residents. I will consider carefully the hon. Gentleman's other point.

Sir Anthony Meyer : When the Secretary of State visits Gwent to discuss infrastructure, would he care also to discuss with the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) the superstructure of the Labour party?

Mr. Hunt : I am not sure that that will be possible, but the news that the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) is to continue as leader of the Labour party is the best news that I have heard for a very long time.

Mr. Anderson : As I hope that the Secretary of State knows, Caldicot is alongside the Severn tunnel junction and the main through rail route to Ireland. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to look at the European rail network as projected by British Rail, which shows a thick black line along the north Wales route to Ireland and seems to put much less priority on the south Wales route to Ireland? Will the Secretary of State consider that matter in the light of the development needs of south Wales and try to ensure that the south Wales route to Ireland is not neglected?

Mr. Hunt : I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that, subject to British Rail's commercial judgment, it is vital that Wales should get the best possible advantage out of the construction of the channel tunnel.

Tertiary Education

3. Mr. Martyn Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received about the implementation of tertiary education in (a) Clwyd and (b) Wales as a whole.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Sir Wyn Roberts) : The establishment of tertiary education is inevitably linked with proposals by local education authorities to reorganise their secondary provision. I have received numerous representations from members of the public in Clwyd and

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other parts of Wales on a range of issues connected with secondary reorganisation, including the principle of tertiary education.

Mr. Jones : I hope that the Minister supports the principle of tertiary education and that when he receives representations from Clwyd county council for the funding of its proposals he will listen sympathetically and make sure that the authority gets enough finance to put tertiary education properly in place in a way that will work and will help Welsh-medium tertiary provision in Clwyd and Wales as a whole.

Sir Wyn Roberts : Of course I acknowledge that there is a great deal to be said for tertiary education, which has the advantage of combining sixth-form education with further education. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I do not come into the discussions of the proposals in Clwyd or elsewhere. My right hon. Friend comes into them only when proposals are made to change the character of secondary schools, possibly as a result of tertiary education proposals.

Mr. Raffan : As and when my hon. Friend receives approaches from Labour-controlled Clwyd county council for extra funding for tertiary education, will he reject them until the authority has made an effective reduction in surplus places in the primary and secondary sectors?

Sir Wyn Roberts : My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the problem of surplus places. There are 2,779 surplus places in the secondary sector in Clwyd and 44,597 in secondary schools in Wales. I assure my hon. Friend that it is not the practice of the Welsh Office to allocate funds where they are not justified to the hilt.

Dr. Thomas : Will the Minister confirm that he has received the organisation plans for tertiary education in Gwynedd and that Ministers will be able to reach an early decision on the scheme, which for the first time provides for development in further education at Dwyfor in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and at Dolgellau in my constituency? Will he ensure that any plans for north Wales will be integrated between Gwynedd and Clwyd to ensure maximum border participation and so that pre-16 education at Ysgol y Berwyn Bala can be maintained?

Sir Wyn Roberts : I confirm that statutory objections have been lodged to the proposals of Gwynedd local education authority to reduce the age range of Ysgol y Berwyn Bala as part of a proposal to introduce a tertiary system. The case is currently with the Welsh Office and I therefore cannot comment on its merits.

Mr. Michael : It is disappointing that the Minister sounded a little half-hearted about tertiary education. Is he aware of its attractiveness to many young people in Wales? Given our desperate need as a nation to improve the standards of education and training and to breathe new life into them, will he note that the proportion of young people staying on past the age of 16 rose from about a third to almost a half in the catchment area of Coleg Glan Hafren, the new tertiary college in my constituency? Will the Minister give more positive encouragement and take responsibility for providing help and finance for authorities to speed up the introduction of tertiary education in Wales?

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Sir Wyn Roberts : It is not for me to distinguish or discriminate between tertiary colleges, sixth-form colleges or traditional sixth forms, which are all options for consideration by local education authorities. The hon. Gentleman will know that there are tertiary colleges in Gwent, West Glamorgan and South Glamorgan. Gwynedd, as he heard, is considering them and Mid Glamorgan is, I understand, reviewing provision for 11 to 19-year- olds. It is for local education authorities to decide which system is preferable in each case.

National Library of Wales

4. Mr. Geraint Howells : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the future of the national library of Wales at Aberystwyth.

Sir Wyn Roberts : The national library of Wales will continue to operate under the terms of its royal charter, which lays down the objects for its functions. It will receive grant in aid, including capital, of about £5.75 million next year. This represents an increase of nearly 18 per cent. compared with this year.

Mr. Howells : I am sure that the Minister will agree that hon. Members are proud of our national institutions such as the national library of Wales. Will he give a categorical assurance that the library's status will continue for many years to come?

Sir Wyn Roberts : There are no plans to review the copyright status of the national library of Wales. Under that status, it is entitled to claim all publications, but there is no requirement that it should do so. In the interests of efficiency, it is incumbent on the national library and on other copyright libraries to keep their collections policy under constant review.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : I am glad to hear my hon. Friend's excellent announcement of grant in aid. Does not that give the clearest indication of the Government's support for the national library of Wales?

Sir Wyn Roberts : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are not only allocating £5.7 million to the national library next year. We are currently funding the outstore building which is under construction at the library at a cost of £1.8 million. We also footed the bill for some necessary repairs, at a cost of £1.1 million last year. Moreover, back in the early 1980s we financed the provision of a second book stack at the library.

Mr. Barry Jones : Does the Minister of State realise that rumours about departmental closures and downgrading are a source of grave concern to those who support the library and to those who work there? Does he accept that the library is not a luxury but a valuable national resource? Bearing in mind that the next century will be information driven, why does not the hon. Gentleman take a positive view and ensure that the national library is able to make the best use of satellites and fibre optics? Will he show that he intends to support this great national resource 100 per cent?

Sir Wyn Roberts : I think that we have already shown it in the figures that I gave in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones). I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman that the library is a most valuable resource and we are extremely proud of it. I am sorry that

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the staff inspection report, which was an internal document for comment by the Welsh Office and the national library, has been misinterpreted somewhat mischievously. We have already been in touch with the library to discuss modernisation and the use of all modern accessories to knowledge.

Pollution Inspectorate

5. Dr. Kim Howells : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if the Government have plans to expand the staffing and funding of Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution in Wales in 1991.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ian Grist) : At present, Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution has nininspectors responsible for pollution control in Wales. My right hon. Friend will keep the position under review with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Dr. Howells : Is the Minister aware that many people living in communities in south Wales are very worried about the inadequacy of the inspectorate? What promises of future funding can the hon. Gentleman give to allay the fears in communities such as Llantrisant, Baglan bay and Cwmbran? Can he promise a better life in future to those who have to suffer the filthy smog that so often descends on their homes at present?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman questions the adequacy of provision for HMIP. We are determined to ensure that that provision is kept up to the mark and constantly reviewed, and under the integrated pollution regulations there will probably be a requirement to increase the complement of staff.

Local Government Finance

6. Mr. Wigley : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what discussions he has had with local government representatives from Wales on the working of the community charge.

Mr. David Hunt : I have had several such discussions.

Mr. Wigley : In view of the enthusiasm that the Secretary of State and his colleagues showed for the candidacy of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) in the recent leadership election, will he tell the House that he wholeheartedly supports the attempts of that right hon. Gentleman to do away with the poll tax, lock, stock and barrel? Is he aware of the devastating effect that the tax is having on people on low incomes in Wales? Is he aware that, in respect of a third of those due to pay, the cost of collection will be greater than the sums that the authorities will receive? Can he assure us that the poll tax will be brought to an end at the end of this financial year?

Mr. Hunt : No, I cannot, but I wholeheartedly endorse the expressed need for a thorough, constructive and fundamental review.

Mr. Dickens : Does my right hon. Friend agree that when people in Wales or elsewhere choose not to pay their community charge they are saying that they want someone to pay it on their behalf, and that that is really getting up people's noses? Does my right hon. Friend agree that people should pay their way and that those who are not

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paying the community charge are the same people who have been in rent arrears and rate arrears in the past? They want everything for nothing. They want someone else to pay for them.

Mr. Hunt : I completely agree with my hon. Friend that anyone not paying the community charge is seeking to have a free ride at the expense of the rest of the community. I am confident that the vast majority of the people in Wales will pay their community charge.

Mr. Barry Jones : As a Minister of State at the Department of the Environment the right hon. Gentleman tried to reform the poll tax, but in a recent parliamentary answer he confirmed his belief that the poll tax is fair, as he also said on 15 January. Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that the only decent thing to do with the poll tax is to abolish it? As the proud architect of it, does he still support the hated poll tax and does he still support it in Wales?

Mr. Hunt : Not only I but the vast majority of people support the principle behind the community charge--that everyone should pay something towards the cost of the local services that they use. As to the future, the hon. Gentleman will know that Labour's proposal is to return to the unjust, inequitable domestic rating system. If he wants to bandy quotations with me, I am quite willing to enter into a contest. The Leader of the Opposition, describing local rates, said :

"The most unjust of all taxes"--

[Interruption] The Opposition do not like that and I do not blame them. The Leader of the Opposition said :

"The most unjust of all taxes, local rates, take most from those who can afford least."

That is what the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) is proposing.

Mr. Livsey : To use fading terminology, will the Secretary of State abolish the poll tax at a stroke and replace it with a local income tax based on people's ability to pay, as recommended by the Layfield Committee?

Mr. Hunt : The hon. Gentleman will know that when we considered various proposals for local taxation in the Green Paper in the early 1980s, we looked at a number of proposals including local income tax and we concluded that of all the systems then on offer the community charge represented the best, and we then introduced it. However, it is right that, having introduced a new system, we should constantly and continually keep it under review and that is exactly what we propose to do.


7. Mr. Murphy : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he last met leaders of district councils in Wales to discuss housing matters in the Principality.

Mr. Grist : My right hon. Friend addressed members of the Council of Welsh Districts on 18 September, when housing and other matters were discussed. I chaired a meeting of the Welsh housing consultative committee on 9 August.

Mr. Murphy : Does the Minister agree that even on his own figures, 20,000 people in Wales are homeless as we approach Christmas? Bearing in mind that the

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Government have been in office for nearly 12 years, does he accept that that is a disgraceful and crushing indictment of their housing policy?

Mr. Grist : I notice that the hon. Gentleman's council of Torfaen has been able to cut homelessness by 15 per cent. in the 12 months to March, which rather gives the impression that if other councils put their minds to the provision of housing instead of actually building houses, they could make better use of the money available to them--which, after all, increased by 15 per cent. this year over the previous year's figure--and the £2 million which was made available especially to local authorities for homelessness provision. That is the way the hon. Gentleman should look forward.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State for the hard work that he puts in at the Welsh Office. He has become a very good Minister, not least on the subject of housing. What is the latest allocation to Housing for Wales and what will it mean in terms of new houses?

Mr. Grist : I thank my hon. Friend for the very kind start to his remarks. The increase in the current year was 42 per cent. on the previous year, which itself was 30 per cent. up on the previous year. Through Tai Cymru we have been providing adequate provision for housing association build, which many local authorities have been putting to good use by adding more than £17 million of their own money to get joint financing. That is the way forward which we believe would best answer the needs of specific groups whom local authorities are seeking to house.


8. Mr. Ron Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the effect of the current GATT negotiations on the future of Welsh farming.

Mr. David Hunt : Whatever compensatory measures come out of the Commission, we shall work hard to ensure that they are in the best interests of Welsh farmers.

Mr. Davies : Why do not the Government take the opportunity presented by the GATT negotiations to renegotiate the common agricultural policy so that, instead of benefiting bureaucrats and middlemen, it benefits producers and consumers? Is the 30 per cent. currently agreed by the Council the maximum cut that the Government will support? If so, precisely what measures does the Secretary of State intend to introduce so that upland farmers, particularly those in Wales, will be protected from the adverse effects of those cuts?

Mr. Hunt : The figure that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned has, of course, been in place since 1986--a lengthy period. It does not necessarily mean a 30 per cent. cut in prices. I am aware of the difficulties that Welsh farmers face at present and I have discussed them with many farmers on visits to a range of farms in Wales. It is my intention and that of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that, when the GATT negotiations are, as I hope, successfully concluded--let us not forget that agriculture is one of 15 separate issues being discussed in the Uruguay round--we must press for

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the right measures to be introduced to enable Welsh hill farmers in particular to get a good deal out of the Community.

Toxic Fumes, Rhymney

9. Mr. Rowlands : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement about the recent escape of toxic fumes in Rhymney.

Mr. Grist : On Sunday 28 October 1990 there was an incident at the waste disposal site at Rhymney, operated by Euromet Ltd. under a licence issued by Rhymney Valley district council. A chemical drum on the site ruptured, releasing a quantity of noxious vapour. Officers of the Rhymney Valley district council attended the site that evening and the council which, as licensing authority is responsible for the supervision of the activities at the site, subsequently instructed its officers to take action to secure the removal of waste and drums from the site through exercise of its powers under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.

The hon. Gentleman will know from my letter of 19 November that the Rhymney Valley district council is under a specific duty, as licensing authority, to ensure that the licensed activities at the site do not cause pollution of water or danger to public health or become seriously detrimental to the amenities of the locality. Our Department is continuing to keep in close touch with the council's response to this incident.

Mr. Rowlands : Is the Secretary of State aware of the enormous resentment and bitterness in the Rhymney community at the fact that people can dump 6,500 drums of noxious waste in the community without any form of planning permission? Is he aware further that there is considerable resentment at the complacency shown by the Health and Safety Executive and other organisations in that respect? Will he therefore meet the fears and wishes of the Rhymney community by revoking the licence and financially assisting the local authority to clear the site?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman persists, as do others, in avoiding the fact that the matter is in the hands of the local authority. It is most disappointing that, when the Welsh Office has taken the side of local authorities in allowing them to continue to be responsible in such matters, as opposed to what is happening in England, difficulties of this kind occur which tend to undermine that position. It was up to the local authority, which in turn revoked the licence in part--it could have revoked it entirely and closed down the operation, but it chose not to do so--and there is now an appeal to the Welsh Office. The local authority again failed until 6 November to provide information on which the Welsh Office could decide the appeal.

Coal Industry

11. Mr. Denzil Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he next intends to meet the chairman and directors of British Coal to discuss the future of the coal industry in Wales.

Mr. David Hunt : Shortly.

Mr. Davies : Does the Secretary of State realise that British Coal's latest announcement about the Betws

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coalfield and mine means that it has now abandoned the west Wales anthracite coalfield? As west Wales anthracite coal has the lowest sulphur content of all coal west of the Ukraine, and as there is now the technology to develop it, does he agree that the board of British Coal has shown criminal incompetence and, frankly, an awful lack of imagination? If they had been workers, not directors, those concerned would have been sacked a long time ago.

Mr. Hunt : Against the background of my own personal concern for the coal industry in south Wales and as somebody who has been underground at Betws-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Hunt : The right hon. Gentleman should choose his words more wisely. I utterly reject the accusation that he made against British Coal. This is very much a matter for its commercial judgment.

South Wales Coalfield

12. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will give the number of jobs involved in (a) deep mining and (b) opencast mining in the south Wales coalfield.

Mr. David Hunt : A total of 3,200 in deep mining and 1,500 on opencast coal mining operations conducted by the British Coal opencast executive.

Mr. Williams : I noted the Secretary of State's comments to my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) about his personal concern about jobs in coal mining. We in south Wales know only too well what that means. In the anthracite coalfield, from which we come, 3,000 jobs have been lost in the past five years, leaving just 100 jobs at Betws. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that British Coal's policy in our area of Dyfed seems to be very much for opencast coal mining, which is causing ever more environmental damage, and the sites of which are getting ever closer to large villages and communities? Will he ask British Coal to review its policy for the development of our high-quality, low-sulphur antracite resources?

Mr. Hunt : On the first point about deep coal mining, having been underground several times in south Wales, I know the geological problems-- [ Hon. Members :-- "Oh."] Do not let us underestimate the geological problems that face south Wales miners, which have, in many ways, made their task supremely difficult. The question of opencast mining is very much a matter of reaching the right balance between environmental considerations on the one hand and the economic justification for that opencast coal on the other.

Mr. Coleman : I join my right hon. and hon. Friends in their condemnation of the National Coal Board in respect of the deep mining of anthracite. Can the Secretary of State put a figure on the profitability of opencast mining in south Wales over the past three years? Can he also put a figure on the amount of money, in terms of social benefits, that has been put into the communities that are afflicted with opencast mining?

Mr. Hunt : I shall readily supply the figures about the profitability of individual opencast or collective opencast operations, if the hon. Gentleman lets me have his detailed

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questions. British Coal and I should be glad to supply the figures. However, the important point is that while, on the one hand, there is an economic justification for opencast coal--often it is needed to be blended with deep-mined coal to make the coal acceptable to power stations--on the other hand, serious environmental implications must be taken into account. It is important to get the balance right.

Health Authorities

14. Mr. Win Griffiths : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what discussions he has had with health authorities on their current financial situations ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. David Hunt : My officials and I have had many such discussions.

Mr. Griffiths : Would the Secretary of State like to explain why on 31 August the Minister of State wrote a letter to Dr. D. B. Powell of the Princess of Wales hospital in Bridgend stating that the Mid Glamorgan district health authority had underspent according to the figures provided up to 31 July, yet on 10 November the health authority reported in the press that it was £1.2 million overspent? Does he agree that that reflects the position throughout Wales? What does the Welsh Office intend to do about the underfunding of the health service in Wales?

Mr. Hunt : The hon. Gentleman should look at the facts and statistics when he refers to the underfunding of the health service in Wales. When this Government came to office in 1979, the amount spent on the health service in Wales was £481.5 million, and this year it was £1,540 million--more than treble. The financial allocation in Mid Glamorgan for 1978-89 was £49 million and this year the provisional recurring allocation is £160 million. There has been a substantial increase in cash terms and the hon. Gentleman should look at the facts and statistics before attempting to reach conclusions such as the one that he just made.

Hospital Waiting Lists

17. Mr. Flynn : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what initiatives he intends to announce on measures to reduce hospital waiting lists.

Mr. Grist : A number of initiatives to reduce waiting times and lists have already been successfully introduced at a cost of £6 million since 1986. As I told the hon. Gentleman on 29 October, I am currently considering what further means may be appropriate under the new arrangements for contracted health care from 1 April 1991.

Mr. Flynn : Does the Minister recall telling me in answer to a written parliamentary question that he did not know how many patients from Wales were currently being treated in hospitals outside Wales? As at least 3,000 beds are to be closed in the London district and elsewhere in England because of the Government's balance sheet first, patients last policy, how can he assess what will happen to patients on waiting lists in Wales next winter? Will it be a winter of waiting and suffering? Will he confirm or deny the speculation that his job is about to be ditched and that he is to be replaced by a representative of the loony right?

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Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman started sensibly and finished foolishly. He will know that his health authority has been successful in reducing waiting times for urgent in and out-patients during the past 12 months. He should also be aware that calculations have been made about the flow of patients across borders, so that financing can be made available to cover that eventuality. He raised an interesting subject about the movement of patients, which is part of the contractual process to which I referred in my original answer.

Mr. Morgan : Does the Under-Secretary of State agree that one initiative that would cut hospital waiting lists would be to reject entirely the proposal submitted to him by South Glamorgan health authority to close six hospitals, three of them in my constituency? Does he further agree that he was expected to announce his decision on the matter on Friday 30 November, but has delayed his decision by several weeks? Is that a sign that we are to have the worst of all Christmas presents from the Secretary of State?

Mr. Grist : I think that the hon. Gentleman would wish to have a settlement as early as possible--although his last remark perhaps shows that he does not. He must appreciate that I cannot comment on what he said because the matter is under consideration.

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