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27 Jan 1999 : Column 323

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

National Assembly

1. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): What plans he is making to hold regular meetings with the First Secretary of the National Assembly; and how frequent he expects those meetings to be. [66268]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael): Regular meetings will be held to ensure that the Secretary of State for Wales is fully aware of the views of the National Assembly for Wales on relevant issues. For the first few weeks following the establishment of the Assembly, I shall have to talk to myself quite a lot. I have made it clear that that period will be brief, essentially to smooth the process of transition--in weeks rather than months. Thereafter, I shall certainly work hard to achieve a partnership for Wales with the new Secretary of State.

Mr. Luff: It will be very convenient for the Secretary of State to be able to talk to himself in the mirror when he is shaving in the mornings, but does he agree that, in the long run, there will be a considerable inconsistency between the First Secretary and the Welsh Secretary if the posts are filled by the same individual? The Welsh Secretary would be bound by collective responsibility, unlike the First Secretary, which would make a mockery of devolution.

Mr. Michael: It is clear that the hon. Gentleman, whose interest in devolution is new and welcome, did not listen to my answer. Precisely for that reason, I have made it clear that I intend to step down as Secretary of State for Wales, after a brief transitional period, to concentrate on my work as First Secretary. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is the right thing to do.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West): I accept the theoretical point that meetings arranged with oneself are terribly easy to set up--it can be done in a nanosecond--but does my right hon. Friend accept that meetings between two people might be of greater value? Does he also accept that the most significant point behind that question is how Welsh Office civil servants--the Westminster and Whitehall hook-up civil servants, who will serve the on-going functions of the Secretary of State; those who will serve the democratic Assembly; and those who will serve the First Secretary and the Cabinet of the Assembly--will be retrained, or given a new culture, according to which of those functions they will carry out?

Mr. Michael: I find that, when listening to one's first thoughts, it is sometimes wise to ponder a little rather than to think for only a nanosecond before acting or speaking. I have made it clear that, as soon as the functions are in place, it would be sensible, and right, that the First Secretary and the Secretary of State for Wales should be different people, so that they can fulfil those different functions. That is my intention.

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I am pleased with the positive response of civil servants to the challenge posed by the Assembly. They understand the new nature of the relationship between them and Members of the Assembly, as compared with the current arm's-length relationship with Members of Parliament. The civil service will be doing things in a new way that will be exciting for Members of the new Assembly and for the officials who work for it. The distinction between the new responsibilities and responsibilities to the Secretary of State and this Parliament is well understood.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the long-drawn-out leadership battle between him and the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), which is now coming to the Floor of the House, is destroying the opportunity for proper debate on the real issues affecting people in Wales? When will that leadership battle end, so that we can get on to important policies such as health, education and economic development?

Mr. Michael: I regret the synthetic way in which the hon. Gentleman phrased his question. He well knows that it is the battle for leadership within the Labour party that is interesting. He also knows that the Labour party is delivering on promises made at the general election, and that it is the only party that is able to do that for the people of Wales. In the run-up to the arrival of the Assembly we will concentrate on building a strong economy in Wales, providing jobs for our young people, improving health, improving standards of education and creating safer communities. That is what our people want to hear from us.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): When my right hon. Friend engages in those very important and regular meetings with himself, will he remind himself of the valuable role played by Sully hospital, which is in my constituency and which serves my constituents and his very well, and has for many years? When the future of that hospital is considered by himself, will my right hon. Friend remember the important role that it plays?

Mr. Michael: I could hardly overlook the importance of Sully hospital, given that my hon. Friend is a consistent and long-standing advocate of it. Over the years, he and I have looked at the interests of both Sully hospital and Llandough hospital, which received a charter mark yesterday. I am sure that my hon. Friend will share my pleasure at the recognition of the work of the hospital staff. Certainly, I understand the high priority that he gives the future of Sully hospital.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): Leaving aside the presumptuousness, both personal and party, of the Secretary of State's initial answer, may I ask why--in the same Government--it is considered unacceptable for the two jobs to overlap in Scotland, but acceptable for them to do so in Wales? What is the essential difference between the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly that makes that so?

Mr. Michael: I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would know the answer to that. I believe that he has many jobs. I believe that, in the Opposition, he is supposed to be Mr. Scotland as well as Mr. Wales, Mr. Northern Ireland and goodness knows what else.

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He should know full well that the nature of devolution in Scotland is different from that in Wales, and that the transition period--which will be short--needs to be managed carefully.

When I first went into local government in 1973, there was an 11-month shadow period before responsibilities were taken over. The Assembly will take over its responsibilities very soon after the election. It will be important to manage that transition, in order to ensure that the Assembly starts off effectively and on a sound footing.

Dr. Fox: I am sure that the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) will be grateful for his right hon. Friend's confused boost to his own campaign.

Surely my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) is entirely right: it is not possible for someone both to be the independently minded leader of a Welsh Assembly and to subscribe to collective responsibility in Cabinet. Those roles are mutually exclusive, and should be separated from the outset, as they have been in Scotland. Would not the Secretary of State do a great service to the whole concept of devolution in Wales by making that clear from the start?

Mr. Michael: The only confusion is in the hon. Gentleman's mind. I have made it clear that it is for precisely those reasons that I intend to stand down from my Cabinet role once the Assembly is in place, in a short rather than a long time. I have been saying that for two and a half months; the hon. Gentleman is obviously deaf.

The role of Secretary of State for Wales needs careful consideration. It changed dramatically in May 1979--[Hon. Members: "1979?"]--when a Labour Government began to breathe life and vigour into it. That contrasts with the activities of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who sent moneys and resources back from Wales to the Treasury.

Bus Services

2. Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): If he will make a statement on the provision for urban and rural bus services in Wales for 1999-2000. [66270]

7. Ms Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): If he will make a statement on the provision for urban and rural bus services in Wales for 1999-2000. [66275]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): In future, that will become the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has increased the budget for bus subsidy grants by over 120 per cent. to £5 million in 1999-2000. That is on top of the support provided by local authorities out of their own budgets, and represents a massive boost for bus services throughout Wales.

Mr. Ruane: Does my hon. Friend agree that £5 million investment--I use the word "investment" rather than the word "subsidy" advisedly--will have an economic as well as an environmental impact? The west ward of Rhyl, in my constituency, has the lowest car ownership in Wales. In 14 months' time, 600 jobs will be created six

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miles away. If we do not have efficient, reliable, affordable public transport to convey my constituents to the business park, they will be denied jobs.

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend has made his point effectively. Our new strategy to support public transport will have not just an environmental but a considerable economic advantage, not only to companies but to employees. That is in contrast to the shambles that we inherited from the Conservative Government, whose bus policy reminded me of the present shadow Cabinet: always behind the times, and consisting of a lot of old bangers falling apart.

Ms Lawrence: Is my hon. Friend aware that nearly all the 1,800 companies that currently receive bus fuel duty rebate use standard diesel fuel? In the interests of the environment in Wales and of oil refinery jobs in Milford Haven in my constituency, will he impress on the Chancellor of the Exchequer the importance of providing incentives for those companies to use ultra-low sulphur diesel?

Mr. Hain: I will certainly draw my hon. Friend's question to the attention of the Chancellor. She always makes her case effectively on behalf of her constituents. I particularly commend Elf Oil in her constituency for the effective way in which it has promoted ultra-low sulphur diesel because that will help to green motoring throughout Wales and, indeed, Britain.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): The Minister and the Secretary of State have of late been trumpeting throughout Wales the fact that there will be free bus travel for pensioners if and when Labour takes control of the National Assembly for Wales. When I asked the Minister how much that would cost, he told me, in a written answer, that he did not know, but that it would come from local authorities' present budget. That is downright dishonest campaigning.

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman is usually courteous and I find him almost always well informed on policies before the House. On that policy, he is completely misinformed. We are negotiating with the bus operators and with local authorities to achieve the best possible deal for pensioners in Wales, for the public purse and for bus services throughout Wales.

It is a radical and exciting policy. From this year, all pensioners in Wales will be able to travel for half fares throughout Wales; that is an achievement of the Labour Government. In the following two years, a Labour- controlled National Assembly for Wales will be able to move towards free fares for pensioners on buses throughout Wales. That will be welcomed by pensioners, many of whom are trapped at home and unable to get out because they do not have access to a car. The policy will be an enormous boost to their opportunities.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does the Minister accept the continuing importance of ensuring an integrated system for bus, rail and other public transport? I acknowledge that the money will make a difference, but does he accept that it is still less than 1p per day per resident in Wales? In that context, will he accept

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representations from those involved in the bus and rail industries to talk about how they would like the Welsh Office to help them to integrate their transport systems?

Mr. Hain: I chair the Wales transport advisory group, on which bus operators and others, including local authorities, are represented. Through that channel, which is unique to Wales, we have made much progress in achieving effective and coherent public transport policies for Wales. We have introduced many changes already, but I will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said.

For the first time, we have put £11 million into integrated transport packages throughout Wales. That was never done by the last Conservative Government, who turned their back on public transport in favour of a manic support for the private motor car. The policy will enable the hon. Gentleman's constituents and others to have real choice: to use the car if they wish, but to have available a high-quality choice of other transport if they want to use it.

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