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Rights of Way

3. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): What percentage of rights of way in Wales he estimates will be free from obstruction on 1 January 2000; and what further steps he plans to take to ensure that 100 per cent. are free of obstructions. [66271]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Jon Owen Jones): Of the public rights of way that were surveyed between 1992 and 1997, 53 per cent. were free of obstruction at the end of 1997 and a further 24 per cent. were considered usable. The Countryside Council for Wales is funding programmes that are improving that by a further 1,500 km, or 4 per cent of the total, each year. In future, that matter will become the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales.

Mr. Bennett: I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that, as more than 18 million people in the United Kingdom enjoy walking, and many of them do that in Wales, it is important that the target set for the millennium of having all rights of way free of obstructions is met? What will be done in Wales to increase access to the countryside, which is important for tourism?

Mr. Jones: I agree that we should have an ambitious target, but I do not agree that it is worth keeping a target if it is not possible to meet it. The target of making rights of way free of all obstructions by 2000 is clearly not likely to be met. What is more, it is good policy not to have that as a target that we must meet, but rather as a continuing task. There will always be a need to invest in access to the countryside. The Countryside Council for Wales is investing almost £1 million in grant in aid to local authorities to improve access to the countryside. In addition to that, we are investing £300,000 over the next three years to develop national trails. I expect to be able to approve a proposal for Ffordd Glyndwr in the next few months, which will be a national trail running right through the heart of Wales.

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National Assembly

4. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): What is his Department's budget for promoting the elections for the National Assembly for Wales. [66272]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael): Some £2 million will be spent on the information campaign for the National Assembly elections. I am sure that members of all parties will agree that it is important for people to be fully informed on the powers and responsibilities of the Assembly and to be encouraged to vote.

Mr. Gray: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Will he submit the budgets for the approval of the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life? If he does not agree to do so, does he not risk falling foul of that committee in precisely the same way as he did over the misuse of public funds spent on behalf of the Labour party during the referendum campaign?

Mr. Michael: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the requirements will be met to the letter. I know that he simply means to cast a slur, but it is not justified. We will take advice whenever it is necessary and make sure that it is fully observed.

Mr. Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the far-reaching nature of the powers of the National Assembly and the difficulties that we face in Wales because of the absence of a national printed press and difficulties with television reception, it is entirely right and proper that public money should be spent to promote knowledge of this important institution? It will change the nature of this place and the civil service.

Mr. Michael: My hon. Friend is right. Objective information will be provided highlighting the date of the elections; for example, there will be a telephone helpline, which I launched on Monday.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): Will the Secretary of State agree to investigate information that is coming through about promotion of the National Assembly by the BBC and other media whereby the conventions under the Representation of the People Act may not be adhered to regarding equal time for all political parties? If that is so, would not that be unfair and not in the interests of democracy in Wales?

Mr. Michael: Although it is not a matter for me, I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman that the requirement for fairness in broadcasting during the pre-election period is crucial. If the hon. Gentleman has specific concerns, I shall be happy to look at them and to ensure that they are raised in the appropriate quarters. It is for the broadcasters to ensure--I hope that they will do so--that they observe the rules to the letter and are fair in all their coverage.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in promoting the Welsh Assembly, there is a golden opportunity to promote a modern

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institution that takes into account family-friendly working practices and child care for all those who work and represent within the Assembly?

Mr. Michael: Yes, that is a very good point and it is our intention to do that. However, an Assembly being family friendly suffers, to some extent, the same problems as this House. Those who live a long distance away in north or west Wales have an interest in concentrated periods of longer hours whereas those who live nearer have more of an interest in limitations on the length of the day. I know that, once elected, the Assembly Members will want to engage in discussions on that. Being family friendly in the way suggested by my hon. Friend is part of our thinking in the discussions that I am having with civil servants in preparing the way for the arrival of the Assembly.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The permanent secretary has estimated the full cost of the Assembly in the first year as being £121 million, including, £10 million for the cost of the Assembly building, £20 million for new staff and offices, £28 million for the official opening ceremony and staging the elections and now £2 million to sell this piece of flagship legislation to the public. We were told that we were being fanciful when we said that the Assembly would cost £100 million over five years. That figure has now been exceeded and expenditure is above the White Paper estimate on which people voted. When will the Secretary of State get a grip on this expenditure, which is running away with itself, and ensure that the money is spent in a far better way, on the people of Wales, instead of on politicians and bureaucrats? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order. The conversations are far too noisy. It is churlish of the House not to listen to what hon. Members are saying.

Mr. Michael: Hon. Members were probably asking themselves what on earth the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) was on about. He has picked up on figures that were reported inaccurately. In fairness to The Western Mail, it carried a letter, signed by the permanent secretary to the Welsh Office, correcting the figures that he has just used. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman reads that letter before allowing his anger to become even more synthetic.

EU Representation

5. Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): What response he has made to the recommendations of the working party, set up by his Department, on improving links between Wales and the EU; and if he will make a statement. [66273]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael): In December, I published the report of the informal working party. I warmly welcomed it as contributing to the on-going debate on improving links with Europe and sent a copy to each Welsh Member of Parliament. I have taken a number of initiatives to promote Wales in Europe since I became Secretary of State and I shall continue to do so. I have made it clear in everything that I have said that our relations with Europe and Wales's profile in Europe are central to

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everything that the Welsh Office does before the Assembly comes into being and will be central to the work of the Assembly.

Mr. Wigley: Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he will accept and implement the almost 50 recommendations in the report? Will he address in particular the suggestion in paragraph 8.5, which says that Welsh Office officials have not been adequately involved in committees and meetings in Europe and asks for greater emphasis to be put on that? What proposals does he have to strengthen the Welsh Office presence in the United Kingdom permanent representation office in Brussels--UKREP--which was also recommended in the report?

Mr. Michael: I have already taken steps along those lines. I was in Brussels 10 days ago when I discussed with UKREP and with commissioners how to improve Wales's profile in Europe. UKREP is positive about the points that we discussed and we shall be co-operating with our permanent representatives. The report has already been before several bodies. The task force on Europe had a two-day session at the beginning of last week to look again at the onset of objective 1 and other issues concerning our relationship with Europe. I intend to take those points forward during the next month.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the functions that the Secretary of State currently exercises in Whitehall and in Europe will be transferred to the Assembly once it is established and will be exercised by the First Secretary of the Assembly, not by the Secretary of State for Wales?

Mr. Michael: The vast majority of the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales will transfer to the Assembly. Some functions will remain with the Secretary of State for Wales. All those issues will be dealt with in the transfer of powers Order that I shall bring forward shortly. That will make clear the details. I understand the point that my right hon. Friend is making.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Why did the Government refuse to give the Welsh Assembly the right to question the Secretary of State for Wales after a meeting of the Council of Ministers?

Mr. Michael: I am not sure what sort of abstruse point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. The vast majority of the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales transfer to the Assembly, to which the First Secretary and the Assembly Secretaries will be fully accountable. They will answer questions and will deal with the issues in much more detail than I and my two ministerial colleagues can.

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