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House of Commons

Monday 21 January 1991

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Mr. Michael : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw your attention to the absence of the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), and other Labour Members who are attending the funeral of the late hon. Member for Neath, Mr. Donald Coleman? The Minister of State and representatives of other parties are absent for the same purpose. I am sure that all of us who must be present today to represent our parties in the House wish to place on record our sense of loss, our appreciation of Donald's contribution to the House over a quarter of a century and our sympathy for his widow and family.

Mr. Speaker : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. I know that the whole House fully understands why Welsh Members cannot be here, and I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) for representing me today at Donald Coleman's funeral.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Secure Accommodation

1. Mr. Flynn : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he next plans to meet the directors and chairpersons of social services departments in Wales to discuss secure accommodation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Nicholas Bennett) : Although my right hon. Friend currently has no such plansa review of secure care policy is being undertaken by my Department.

Mr. Flynn : I welcome the Minister to his new duties, and wish him well.

On a day when the fragility of human life is very much in our minds, I need not emphasise to the House or the Minister--who has lost a constituent who was on remand in Swansea gaol--the supreme importance of this issue. Wales has no secure accommodation in which to put greatly troubled children. I understand that a Welsh Office working party met to consider the question of severely disturbed children in 1981 and 1982 and has yet to report. Will the Minister give us an assurance that he will give urgent priority to the need to provide secure accommodation for such young people, who have suffered greatly?

Mr. Bennett : As the hon. Gentleman said, we have been considering the matter. The review that I mentioned was introduced in August last year. We hope that it will be able to report in the next couple of months, but it is contingent on the Home Office review of young people in prisons. I take the hon. Gentleman s point, however, and I thank him personally for his kind remarks about my appointment.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : South Wales police have told me that 25 per cent. of all crime is auto-related, much of it committed by juveniles who are often on remand awaiting

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sentence for an earlier crime. In the type of accommodation provided in south Wales, juveniles can go in through the front door and no one stops them going out the back door. That is clearly not good enough ; it is quite inadequate. May I press my hon. Friend to take steps as early possible to provide the necessary secure accommodation and thus make a major contribution to reducing the crime rate?

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. It is true that the peak offending age in this country is between fourteen and a half and fifteen, and that auto crimes constitute an important proportion of those offences. This is one of the points that we are examining in the review of secure accommodation.

Mr. Wigley : May I, too, welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities? He may be aware that I lost a constituent in Risley ; he may also be aware that a 15-year-old from Bangor was sent there just before Christmas because of the absence of secure units in north Wales. Can he given an assurance that the needs of north Wales will be taken into account in his review?

Mr. Bennett : Yes, I can give that assurance. All of Wales, north and south, is being considered so that we can decide whether that sort of secure accommodation will be necessary. As I said, however, we must await the review from the Home Office and the associated review from the Department of Health.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about my appointment.

Mr. Allason : Does my hon. Friend agree that, in a civilised society, it is entirely unacceptable for juveniles to be put in adult prison accommodation or for them to have to travel long distances to reach secure accommodation? Is he aware that a large proportion of juvenile crime is committed by the very same hardened young criminals who are in deep need of such accommodation?

Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is clearly not acceptable for youngsters of 14, 15 and 16 to be committed to prison and we want the practice to end as soon as possible. Clearly, however, we must ensure that we have the right sort of accommodation to deal with some of the very hardened cases. I have been particularly concerned about this issue, because one of my constituents hanged himself in Swansea prison only last year. We are pressing forward as quickly as possible.

Mr. Michael : May I join in welcoming the Under-Secretary of State to his new duties? I took an interest in this issue for many years before I became a Member of Parliament. In the light of previous Government replies, does the Minister accept that, because of the present financial burdens on local authorities, it is not enough simply to pass the buck to them and tell them to find the money? Is he aware of the evidence given by the all- party group on penal affairs to the Wolff inquiry which highlighted the need for secure accommodation for young people on remand in Wales? Does he also accept the panel's view that secure accommodation will help only if the Welsh Office faces up to its responsibility to initiate and finance comprehensive action throughout Wales to divert young people from crime and to root out the causes of juvenile crime? Will he take those points into account in his review?

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Mr. Bennett : I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall certainly look at what causes young people to be involved in crime. A range of measures is used at the moment--for instance, intermediate treatment--that do not involve youngsters being put into secure accommodation. We want those measures to be extended as far as possible. As for the hon. Gentleman's question about finance, if we recommend that new secure accommodation should be provided, we intend to look into how it should be paid for.

Pay Rates

2. Mr. Livsey : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on average current weekly rates of pay in (a) Powys and (b) the rest of Wales.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hunt) : The average weekly wage in Powys is £210 compared with £232 for Wales as a whole.

Mr. Livsey : First, may I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) relating to the late Donald Coleman? Secondly, may I take this opportunity to welcome the Under-Secretary of State to his new duties on the Treasury Bench?

Is the Secretary of State aware that average earnings in Wales are 27 per cent. lower than those in south-east England? The figure that he has just quoted for Powys is considerably lower than the Welsh average. Will he confirm that average wages in Powys are the lowest in mainland Britain? What does he intend to do to secure a better quality of employment in Powys so that people can earn higher wages and have a decent standard of living?

Mr. Hunt : On the first point, the thoughts of all of us will be elsewhere this afternoon--with the Minister of State and many of our colleagues at the funeral.

Low average wages in Powys and Wales as a whole are part of our history and I very much hope that we shall make them history. The hon. Gentleman drew an analogy with south-east England. He will recognise that that has always been the case. We should reflect on the fact that during the past five years the average weekly wage has increased by 9.7 per cent. in real terms. That compares favourably with the position in the 1970s.

Dr. Thomas : May I, too, on behalf of Plaid Cymru, associate myself with the expressions of sympathy to Donald Coleman's family and say how grateful we are for his life and work in the House and outside in his constituency.

As for wage rates in Powys and other parts of Wales, has the Secretary of State studied the budget of the Development Board for Rural Wales following its restructuring? Does he intend to extend the boundaries and functions of the board beyond Powys, south Gwynedd and Ceredigion to improve wages throughout rural Wales?

Mr. Hunt : I had the opportunity to discuss the matter with the chairman of the Development Board for Rural Wales only last week. The hon. Gentleman knows that our commitment to the Development Board for Rural Wales is very strong. That is why we have substantially increased its budget. However, we are always considering other means of achieving the objective he describes.

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Mr. Ian Taylor : Will my right hon. Friend clarify one point? When the uniform business rate was introduced, constituencies such as mine in the south-east of England were prepared to accept it if it helped areas like Wales by enabling companies to keep their weekly wages at a relatively favourable rate. Has that system come into practice?

Mr. Hunt : I recognise my hon. Friend's point. A large proportion of the uniform business rate comes from businesses in the south-east, but, as I travel through the Principality, I am constantly reminded how much better the quality of life is in Wales compared with the south-east of England. We want to enhance, and continue to enhance, the environment and quality of life while ensuring that employees in Wales share in the prosperity that we are determined to achieve. The prospects for the medium to longer term in Wales are as good as ever.


4. Mr. Martyn Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what steps he is taking to ameliorate the effects of the recession on Wales.

Mr. David Hunt : The substantial improvements in the Welsh economy in recent years-- [Interruption.] The substantial improvements in the Welsh economy in recent years, for which my predecessors and I take full credit, together with our other partners in Wales, mean that Wales is better placed to withstand the present downturn and to resume its successful growth once inflation is under control. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall respond swiftly to any opportunities that arise to assist in that process of growth.

Mr. Jones : I thank the Secretary of State and I note that for the first part of his answer he did not have a straight face. The deep recession is bound to hit areas such as mine--rural areas--harder and earlier than the rest of the country, as was instanced by the problem with Biddulphs in my constituency, where 50 employees lost their jobs just before Christmas. What will he do in the next few months to help people who lost their jobs at Biddulphs and at other factories and places of work in my area to get back to work?

Mr. Hunt : Although Hansard may not show it, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I was interrupted by a series of heckles from the Opposition Front Bench which I would not want to repeat. I strongly believe that Wales has benefited enormously in the past few years from increased diversification in its economy. It has moved away from the traditional dependence on a few industries to reliance on a far broader base. In their generous moments, Labour Members will recognise and admit that. Naturally, I am concerned about job losses in Wales, but the real threat to jobs is inflation and the signs are that we are bringing it quickly under control.

Mr. Raffan : Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing would do more to prolong or deepen a recession than the introduction of a statutory minimum wage, as the Labour party proposes? Does he agree that that would lead to the loss of as many as 55,000 jobs in Wales, including at least 1,400 in my constituency?

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Mr. Hunt : I agree completely with my hon. Friend. In their more serious moments, Opposition Members will acknowledge the decisiveness of the point that he makes. A statutory minimum wage would be a serious blow to Welsh industry.

Mrs. Clwyd : Does the Minister agree that, as a result of the Gulf war, the recession will be even deeper than expected? Does he agree, therefore, that there must be an ongoing role for the UN Security Council to bring about a quick solution to this conflict, thereby benefiting the economies of Wales and the third world?

Mr. Hunt : I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for managing to introduce the Gulf conflict in a question on Wales. I had hoped that she might pay tribute to the initiative that brought about the Gooding Sanken project at Abercynon in her constituency. I am delighted to announce that in 1990, compared with 1989, when there were 100 inward investment projects, there are 142 inward investment projects, including the project in the hon. Lady's constituency, to which I hope she will have an opportunity to pay tribute.

Mr. Simon Coombs : Will my right hon. Friend compare the economic activity in Wales during this so-called recession with that under the previous Labour Government? For example, will he tell us about long-term unemployment during the past five years? Will he tell me what I should say to my constituents in Swindon who lost jobs in factories that moved to south Wales because of the great help that the Government gave to the people in that previously depressed area?

Mr. Hunt : One of the best pieces of news to come to Wales recently is the fall in long-term unemployment. If I recall correctly, in January 1986, the number of long-term unemployed was about 78,000. According to the latest statistics, that figure has fallen to just under 23,000. My hon. Friend is right to highlight that fact. We shall continue to broadcast it, just as we shall continue our attempts to attract industries to Wales from whichever part of the country or the world they come.

Dr. Marek : The Secretary of State will be aware that the development of the Welsh economy to which he referred is not seen in the Wrexham area, where the Brymbo steelworks recently closed, resulting in 1,200 people losing their well-paid jobs. The county council is seeking to acquire the site for regeneration and redevelopment. If it can agree a sensible sum with United Engineering Steels, will the right hon. Gentleman give that project his blessing and ensure that there is no hindrance from the Department?

Mr. Hunt : I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that Wrexham and north-east Wales have received a tremendous boost from inward investment, but he is right to point to areas of disappointment. Brymbo's closure was certainly a great disappointment to Wales. I asked the Welsh Development Agency to move in quickly to examine the opportunities for the site and that review is continuing. I hope that any local authority that wishes to advance a project will endeavour to work in partnership not only with other local authorities but with the WDA and the Welsh Office.

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Second Severn Crossing

6. Mr. Stern : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the expected increase in economic activity in Wales resulting from the separate southern link to the second Severn crossing.

Mr. Hunt : I believe that the improved communications that will flow from the second Severn crossing will bring significant economic benefits to both sides of the Severn estuary.

Mr. Stern : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I entirely concur with him, at least in respect of the non-Welsh end of the Severn link. Is he aware of the concern expressed in my constituency that one effect of the link will be greatly to increase the traffic debouching from Wales on to the road system at Avonmouth in my constituency and heading for Bristol and the south? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the effects of that traffic are completely taken into account in the Road Traffic Bill?

Mr. Hunt : I am aware of that point, but only because my hon. Friend continually makes representations on behalf of his constituents. He will recognise that these are matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. As soon as I leave the Chamber, I shall take steps to bring them, once again, to his attention.

Mr. Flynn : I assure the Secretary of State that I speak in a serious and generous mood. Does he recall that when he spoke in a serious and generous mood--his moments are rarer than mine--he told the House that he thought that low pay was one of the most serious economic problems in Wales? Although construction of the new bridge may affect the economy, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the great problem in Wales is the poverty not of those unemployed but of those in low-paid employment? Does he agree that the solution that has been successfully applied in other countries by the provision of minimum pay has given dignity and decency to those on low pay?

Mr. Hunt : I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I explained, the Labour party's proposals, as described by my hon Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan), would deal a heavy blow to industry in Wales and would constitute the wrong policy. The sooner the Labour party realises that, the better it will be for the Principality.

Council House Sales

8. Mr. Arbuthnot : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how many properties have been sold in Wales under the provisions of the right-to-buy sections of the Housing Act 1980.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : About 82,340 local authority and new town dwellings have been sold in Wales under the right-to-buy scheme.

Mr. Arbuthnot : May I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend on his well-deserved promotion to his present position? What percentage of houses have been sold under the Housing Act 1980? As I understand it, the percentage of home ownership in Wales is a great deal higher than in many other parts of the

country--perhaps than in any other part of the country. Will my hon. Friend confirm

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that people who own their houses are that much more likely to have a greater commitment to the society in which they live?

Mr. Bennett : I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about my appointment.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right : we have sold 27 per cent. of council stock to tenants, which means that, in Wales, 71 per cent. of homes are in the hands of owner-occupiers. That figure is 4 per cent. above the Great Britain average.

Mr. Alex Carlile : Does the Minister agree that the number of homeless young people in Wales has increased substantially since 1980? If so, to what causes would he ascribe the increase?

Mr. Bennett : I, too, was interested to look at the homelessness figures. The hon. and learned Gentleman will be interested to know that one third of young people who leave home do so as a result of disagreements with their families. One problem is that there is a much greater incidence of the break-up of family life at the moment which leads to young people leaving home.

Mr. Carlile : That is no excuse.

Mr. Bennett : The hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to argue, but the figures show that 33 per cent. of homelessness is caused by people leaving home following family disagreements.

A considerable amount of homelessness has also resulted from the increased divorce rate and resultant family break-ups. We have been taking action on that important issue. For example, we have given eight local authorities more than £2 million in supplementary credit for homelessness. We have also reserved £2.9 million of the cash available to deal with homelessness which is open to bids by local authorities.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : May I put it to my hon. Friend that there is more vacant council accommodation in Wales than there are homeless people? In some areas, there are up to five times as many vacant council houses as there are homeless people on the council's register. What is my hon. Friend doing to make those local councils use their housing stock better?

Mr. Bennett : In general, local authorities in Wales are better at looking after their property than those elsewhere in the country, but I shall certainly ensure that my hon. Friend's remarks are drawn to local authorities' attention. Clearly, it is important that there should be as quick a turn round of void properties as possible, and anyone who is homeless will get very annoyed if he sees local authority properties vacant for any length of time.

NHS Wales : Agenda for Action"

9. Mr. Robert G. Hughes : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement about the "NHS Wales : Agenda for Action" issued in December.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : The agenda for action in the NHS in Wales was published on 19 December 1990. The agenda sets out the key management objectives and the time scale within which they are to be achieved to ensure that the service continues to build on the progress made in the past decade.

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Mr. Hughes : My hon. Friend and I go back a long way, so it is a particular pleasure for me to welcome him to the Dispatch Box and to participate in his first Question Time.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government's policies, which have been most welcome and which will do much to improve services in the hospitals, are part of the plan for action and that the people of Wales will benefit greatly from them? At this difficult time, when we are at war in the Gulf, I assume that a number of Welsh hospitals will make their full contribution should casualties need to be treated. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the hospitals will be able to cope fully with the stress and strain that will come their way and will the hospitals be fully recompensed for the inevitable cost of treating those people?

Mr. Bennett : I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks, but I wish that he had not drawn attention to the fact that we go back a long way because the comparison of the way in which I have aged in relation to him is dramatically in his favour. Perhaps my hon. Friend has a portrait in his attic.

We all hope that there will not be a large number of casualties from the Gulf war which will have to be treated by our hospitals. The Welsh health service is being held in reserve should the number of casualties be too great for military hospitals in England and for the national health service regions there. If any flights are diverted to Cardiff airport, we will deal with those casualties in Wales. We have ensured that facilities are available at St. Lawrence hospital in Chepstow to deal with burns and provide plastic surgery should those skills be needed to treat any casualties from the Gulf war. With regard to my hon. Friend's point about finance, we have already made it clear that any money spent by the health service in Wales to deal with Gulf casualties will be fully reimbursed by the NHS.

Mrs. Dunwoody : Is not there a marked difference between this Government's attitude to the provision of health services and the opt-out of particular hospitals in Wales and the way in which they can find money when pressure arises from the Gulf war? Would not it be better to abandon any question of opting-out any hospital in the national health service so that the whole service is properly integrated and provision can be made for all Welsh patients wherever they are and under any circumstances?

Mr. Bennett : First, there is no question of any hospital in Wales opting out. The proposals made by hospitals in England and in the Pembrokeshire health authority in Wales are proposals not to opt out of the health service, but to become self-governing trusts within the health service in Wales.

Mrs. Dunwoody : Rubbish.

Mr. Bennett : The hon. Lady may say rubbish, but that is a matter of fact. With regard to a comparison of the running of the health service under this Government and under the previous Labour Government, there is indeed a marked difference. Under the last Labour Government, the increase in real-terms spending on the health service in Wales was 1 per cent. a year. Under this Government it is 4 per cent. a year.

Mr. Favell : Will my hon. Friend continue to bear in mind in his new position, to which I welcome him, that what is important with regard to the health service and the

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patient is the quality of service and the speed at which it is delivered and not whether a hospital is self-governing within the national health service or run by the private sector? Will my hon. Friend visit the two kidney dialysis units in Wales that are run by the private sector and were introduced by the former Secretary of State for Wales who is now Lord Crickhowell? Those units substantially increased the number of units offering kidney dialysis to Welsh people which have saved many lives.

Mr. Bennett : I join my hon. Friend in congratulating my predecessor as hon. Member for Pembroke who did such excellent work during his eight years as Secretary of State for Wales.

My hon. Friend was quite right to refer to kidney dialysis and I hope to visit the units to which he referred in the fairly near future. In the six weeks that I have held this office I have visited seven hospitals and everything that I have seen so far illustrates the tremendous job being done by people who work in the NHS and the support that they are receiving from the Government.

Mr. Michael : May I suggest that if the Minister wants the welcome offered to him today to extend beyond today, he should set aside his extreme right-wing views on the health service. Will he specifically tell us how much extra money will be spent on administration as a result of the "NHS Wales : Agenda for Action" especially bearing in mind the Government's appalling record to date with the increase of the administrative burden on the NHS and the number of senior administrators that has been driven up by more than 100 per cent. over a 10-year period?

Mr. Bennett We need no lessons from the Labour party about spending on the NHS. The hon. Gentleman should have listened to the figures that I gave to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) which show that spending on the national health service is now four times as high every year in real terms than it was under the previous Labour Government. We will continue to ensure that the NHS has the wholehearted commitment of everyone in the Welsh Office team and of everyone on the Government Benches. We believe that we are doing an excellent job and we will continue to improve and progress.

Hospital Patients

12. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how many (a) in-patients and (b) out-patients were treated in NHS hospitals in Wales in the most recent year for which figures are available ; and what the figures were in 1979.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : In 1979, 349,695 in-patients and 1,803,728 out-patients were treated in NHS hospitals in Wales. The latest comparable information for the year ended 31 March 1990 shows that 469,928 in-patients and 2,313,309 out-patients were treated. That is an increase of 34 per cent. in in-patients and 28 per cent. in out-patients treated.

Mr. Knox : Does my hon. Friend agree that those figures, above all others, show the improvement in the health service in Wales during the past 10 years?

Mr. Bennett : Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important to make sure that we treat as many people as

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possible in the health service as quickly as possible. People talk about the waiting list. I am concerned to ensure that the times for which people in Wales have to wait to have their operations are brought down as quickly as possible. That is one of the key parts of the NHS "Agenda for Action".

Water Act 1989

13. Mr. Michael : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales which of his powers under the Water Act 1989 he has exercised since taking up his office ; and whether he has any plans to seek to increase those powers.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : My right hon. Friend has used a number of powers under the Water Act 1989, and, with permission, I have arranged for a list to be circulated in the Official Report. He has at present no plans to seek any increase in his powers under the Act.

Mr. Michael : Does the Minister or, preferably, the Secretary of State remember the firm promises that were given by their predecessors on the strict regulation of the water industry in Wales following the passage of the Water Act? Will the Minister explain how any benefit can accrue to water consumers as a result of the purchase of electricity shares, which could not have been achieved without that £31 million-plus purchase? Does he have any powers to investigate that purchase to give the public the full facts of the matter?

Mr. Bennett : Welsh Water is a private commercial company. It is a matter for the shareholders of Welsh Water to decide the investments made by that company. From correspondence that he has had with the Director General of Water Services, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is a limit of 15 per cent. on ownership in the South Wales electricity board and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State retains his golden share in the water industry. Also, it has been made clear to the hon. Gentleman in a letter of 4 January 1991 from the Director General of Water Services that he is content that Welsh Water is doing what is required of it and that, if there is any indication that consumers of Welsh Water will be harmed in any way, he will take action to prevent it.

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