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Meningitis

2. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): What meetings he has had with the National Meningitis Trust. [72454]

6. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): What recent meetings he has had with the Meningitis Research Foundation. [72458]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael): While I have not met the trust or the foundation personally, my officials have had regular contact with them over recent weeks. I have also invited both organisations to nominate representatives to join the group that we recently set up to examine meningitis in Wales. Both groups were represented at the first meeting. I can promise swift action on any recommendations that come from that group. In the longer term, the issue will be one which the National Assembly will wish to pursue.

Mr. Amess: There have been more reported cases of meningitis recently than there have been for 50 years, and 45 of those cases have been in Wales. As the father of young children, I empathise with those parents who are concerned when their children become ill about what the possible circumstances of that illness might be. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what tangible

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support the Government are giving to the National Meningitis Trust, which is currently beleaguered by telephone calls from concerned parents?

Mr. Michael: I understand the concerns that parents have in such circumstances, for personal reasons. My son had meningitis when he was a university student and for a few days we were very afraid, until we got the news that it was not life threatening. I understand the emotions of people in Pontypridd, for instance, which has seen a large number of cases. However, it is difficult to discover anything tangible that can be identified as linking cases and can lead to preventive and prophylactic action as appropriate. That is why we established a group, which is chaired by a distinguished medical expert, to consider the evidence. Although the available evidence suggests a statistical issue rather than something that can be identified as the cause of the cases that have occurred, we want to go further--for the very reason the hon. Gentleman mentioned--because we need to do everything we can to identify anything that could explain the number of cases that have arisen in a specific area at a specific time.

Mr. Winterton: The Secretary of State's responses are highly satisfactory, as far as they go. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) with his children, I have an interest because of my young grandchildren. However, my interest lies not only in my own family, or with what has happened in Wales. There has also been a meningitis outbreak in Macclesfield, and both the National Meningitis Trust and the Meningitis Research Foundation have been overwhelmed by approaches from anxious parents. The two charities receive some Government assistance, but is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to give additional funds to take the charities through a period during which the demands on their voluntary helpers and paid staff are so dramatically heavy?

Mr. Michael: I understand the pressures that are resulting from people seeking information. It has put pressure on the public services as well. However, in seeking to deal with queries from the public and to provide the help that they need, we must consider the outcome of the work of the group to which I have already referred. If public information and co-operation with the voluntary sector are proved to be necessary, we shall consider acting on the recommendations of the group's report. For now, however, that issue is not at the forefront. The priority is to establish what can be done to identify links on which we can act.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): My right hon. Friend will know that during the recent outbreaks, particularly that in the constituency of the Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), there was a great deal of scaremongering and ill-informed comment. The situation was not helped by certain people who used it for political purposes, which is much to be regretted. Will my right hon. Friend make available sufficient resources for a proper education programme to be developed in schools? The latest outbreak is one of half a dozen in recent years, and the public need to be educated if we are not to have such scaremongering again.

Mr. Michael: My hon. Friend is right. Comments were made that were unhelpful, but some were inspired by

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genuine concern among parents and others. One problem is that dealing with meningitis is not easy. If it were simple to identify a specific strain, action would have been taken long ago. Steps taken include the establishment by the health authority of an outbreak control team, in which experts from the communicable disease surveillance centre and the Public Health Laboratory Service in Wales were involved along with voluntary organisations. I kept in close contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd, as did the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones).

The way in which the public services responded was entirely praiseworthy. They tried to make sure that information was made available as quickly and fully as possible to schools, and there was excellent co-operation between the education and health services. However, we must apply all tests to find out why the number of cases that emerged did so, as we are seeking to do with the advice and help of all available experts.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): We welcome the inquiry, but, to return to what the Secretary of State said earlier, is an appraisal being made of the usefulness of the recent diagnostic invention that can identify strains of the disease?

Mr. Michael: Yes, that is one of the issues that the committee is considering.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The Secretary of State has a deep concern about meningitis following his personal experience, as does the hon. Member for Pontypridd, because of what happened in his constituency. However, Wales has the second highest incidence of meningitis in Europe, and we seek swift action from the committee that is considering that dreadful disease. The group has met once. When will there be some positive guidance for parents who are deeply concerned by the outbreak so that they may be reassured? No one wants to create a panic, but proper reassurance and guidance must be given to the parents.

Mr. Michael: I thank the hon. Gentleman for way in which he made his point. I assure him not only that we will act swiftly on recommendations that come from the group, as I promised earlier, but that the group is tackling its job with a sense of urgency and hopes to report by the end of May. That will be the starting point for action. Longer-term actions are being taken in respect of identifying vaccines. We are not in that situation yet, but that work, with the short-term identification of anything that we can do, will be given the urgency that he seeks.

EU Structural Funds

3. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding matching funding from the Treasury for objective 1 funding. [72455]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael): Once the European Commission and member states have agreed the new structural fund arrangements, the Government will consider the distribution of European receipts for wider programmes. In these discussions,

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I shall ensure that the interests of Wales are pursued vigorously. I hope that Plaid Cymru will support me in that endeavour rather than asking questions that it knows to be premature.

Mr. Jones: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that stricture, but I have listened carefully to his public response on this issue. He has been remarkably coy. For us to assist him, now that he has discounted the reply that the Economic Secretary gave some months ago and says that the situation is different, does he expect the Treasury to be able to give extra cash under objective 1 funding?

Mr. Michael: Yes. The reply of the Economic Secretary was used in a reprehensible way by the Institute of Welsh Affairs. It was a letter that referred to the current situation, as Opposition Members acknowledged during exchanges last week. The reply to the hon. Gentleman's question is the one that I gave earlier. Once the European Commission and member states have agreed the new structural fund arrangements, and we know the dates and figures and so on, the Government will consider the way we meet the requirements of the European Union. The British Government have met those requirements, and I am certain that my Government colleagues will co-operate fully in trying to ensure that we get the best possible deal for Wales within the decision made by the EU.

I must say gently that the hon. Gentleman's party was not originally optimistic that we would succeed in getting objective 1 status. We are on the verge of succeeding in that, and I hope that we will have his support in ensuring that we get the best for Wales.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): What are the figures? Are there proposals to cut the structural funds in the European budget savagely? If so, will the Government oppose them?

Mr. Michael: My hon. Friend knows that the impact of enlargement, with the new countries that were not in the previous round, means that there are considerations that make it difficult to predict figures until we get to the end of the process. The discussions that are going on were mentioned earlier. We maintain a close interest in them and are very optimistic that we will have a positive outcome. We can then get on with the discussion necessary within government to turn the decision into practical action.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Has the Minister considered where he would find the resources to match fund initiatives in areas of Wales that may qualify for objective 2 status?

Mr. Michael: There is much confusion between additionality and matched funding, which makes simple answers difficult. I assure the hon. Gentleman that one of the things that we are doing is considering the strategy for developing the economy of the whole of Wales during objective 1 status and also trying to ensure that there are opportunities for areas outside objective 1 status, which have their own needs, to ensure that the overall strategy works. I assure him that that is at the forefront of our minds.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I hope that the whole House will support my right hon. Friend in his bid

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for objective 1 status, but I, too, am concerned about areas outwith objective 1, such as the coastal strip of Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan, and Cardiff international airport, which is a valuable strategic asset for the whole of Wales and requires development support.

Mr. Michael: Yes. My hon. Friend is right to point to the fact that, outside objective 1 areas, other communities in Wales have needs. Our aim is to do the best for the objective 1 areas that are objectively those in the greatest need in terms of low GDP and high unemployment, but also to be conscious of the needs of other areas in discussions on assisted status and in our economic strategies throughout Wales. I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): In the interests of clarity, will the Secretary of State tell us what discussions he has already had with the Treasury about potential matched funding, should this fortuitous situation come about? Should not such money be available from the Treasury, and would such funding be an appropriate use of funds within the Welsh block?

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman is playing the tune that I asked Plaid Cymru not to play. He is asking questions that cannot be answered until we get to the point. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will have discussions with the Treasury. Both my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary are aware of the likely impact of a decision to give objective 1 status to large parts of Wales. There will then be discussions within the Government. The hon. Gentleman knows full well that that is the way in which these matters proceed, and they will. I shall make sure that we get the best possible deal for Wales in those discussions.

Dr. Fox: Does not that answer betray everything about the Secretary of State's position? It is a perfectly simple question. Has he already had discussions with the Treasury or not? That is hardly a difficult one for him to answer, but he could not give a commitment either on behalf of the Government or on behalf of the Welsh Assembly that it would be appropriate to use the Welsh block. He is not free to make that commitment, should he become the leader of the Welsh Assembly, because he does not have the ability to do so. Nor is he free from the collective responsibility of the Cabinet, which would enable him to be free from Treasury decisions. He is in an unworkable position and he cannot do what he initially said in response to the question that he would do. He cannot pursue Wales's interest vigorously because he has to pursue the interests of the Labour party first.

Mr. Michael: That rather confused question betrays the cynicism and opportunism that the hon. Gentleman brings to the Dispatch Box. He knows full well the way in which the discussions take place. He and his colleagues tried to cast doubt on the Government's ability to get the NUTS 1 boundary agreed in order to achieve objective 1 status. His cynicism then is followed through by his cynicism now. We will make sure as a Government that the best possible agreement is reached to enable the decisions that are made in Europe to flow through to action in Wales in the best interests of Wales.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): The Minister will be aware that my constituency is one of the poorest in

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Wales, with some of the highest levels of unemployment, the lowest incomes and the worst health problems in the United Kingdom. He will also be aware that the future of the constituency is to a great extent dependent on obtaining objective 1 status. While I understand that my right hon. Friend cannot make a statement today about matched funding, is it possible to estimate the kind of moneys that would come from Europe should we obtain objective 1? Lots of figures are being bandied about.

Mr. Michael: Figures as high as £2 billion have been bandied around, but I have to stress that those are guesstimates rather than estimates until we have the final decision and until decisions are made on when the money will come forward. We want to make sure that the opportunity of objective 1 money is used strategically so that it changes the economy for the long term. We must not be in the position that money has come in, we have used it, and we have not changed the economy of Wales. I am certain that that will be one of my hon. Friend's priorities.


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