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31 Mar 1999 : Column 1071

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Post-devolution Responsibilities

1. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): If he will make a statement on the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales after devolution. [78059]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael): After devolution the Secretary of State for Wales will be a member of the United Kingdom Cabinet, with responsibilities for ensuring that the needs and interests of Wales are taken into account in its decisions.

Mr. Winterton: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his brief reply. I assume it means that he will become a very junior member of a future Labour Cabinet. But will not devolution bring about a massive and unprecedented transfer of power from his office, and will not his accountability to the House, which he stressed in his reply--accountability in regard to agriculture, health, education and other matters--be minimal? How does the right hon. Gentleman feel that he will best be able to represent the interests of the people of Wales in this House, bearing in mind the limited powers that he will have?

Mr. Michael: I do not see how a representative of a party that has no Welsh representatives in the House can have the cheek to talk about power or representation.

As usual, the hon. Gentleman has made the wrong assumptions. The Secretary of State will be an important member of the Government, because the United Kingdom Cabinet will retain responsibility for all sorts of legislation affecting the people of Wales, not only in terms of England and Wales but in terms of the United Kingdom as a whole, and in wider terms. The voice of Wales will continue to be heard. What devolution will do is this: it will put decision making for people in Wales into the hands of representatives elected by the people of Wales to sit in the Assembly. I think that that will prove a very effective way of ensuring that the people of Wales are given the best possible public service, and the best possible representation from those whom they elect.

Sir Raymond Powell (Ogmore): Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the partial responsibility of MPs, particularly Welsh MPs, for Welsh devolution and the setting up of the Welsh Assembly? I accept that my right hon. Friend's continuing membership of the Cabinet will be very valuable to the Welsh nation, but now that he has announced the date of the Assembly's first sitting, will he be kind enough to invite Welsh MPs who have not been elected to the Assembly to attend that function?

Mr. Michael: I agree that Welsh MPs, especially members of the Labour Government, have delivered to Wales an Assembly and an opportunity to be properly represented in the future. [Interruption.] I hear grumbles

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from those sitting on one of the Opposition Benches. I remind them that the Labour party is the real party of Wales.

I certainly accept that the relationship that develops between the Assembly and Welsh MPs will be extremely important, and that there will need to be appropriate opportunities for members of the two bodies to meet.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): In his answer to the main question, the Secretary of State correctly said that he would be Secretary of State in a Union Cabinet and a Union Parliament. Does he agree that, according to that logic, Members of this Parliament should be able to question the Secretary of State on all aspects of policy, not simply reserved matters?

Mr. Michael: The hon. Gentleman should surely accept that devolution and the establishment of a Welsh Assembly will strengthen the United Kingdom and the Union, in that appropriate decisions will be made at a Welsh level, and there will be accountability on the part of those elected by the people of Wales. As for what questions are appropriate for the Secretary of State for Wales, I think that legislation and the rules of the House of Commons will determine that.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): What is the answer?

Mr. Michael: It is absolutely clear in the legislation. The hon. Gentleman obviously has not been following events in the House, let alone outside it.

Dr. Fox: There can be little clarity when the Secretary of State does not know what subjects the Secretary of State should answer questions on; but on a broader matter, does not the fact that hon. Members from all parts of the UK will be required to raise the taxes that the Welsh Assembly will be responsible for administering leave something of a deficit of scrutiny? How does the right hon. Gentleman intend to rectify that and to give Members of the House, who are responsible to all electors for raising taxes, a say in how that money is spent?

Mr. Michael: Yet again, the hon. Gentleman is fighting old battles. It is typical of the Conservative party's attitude to the election. Its leader in Wales, a former hon. Member, seems to be entering that campaign to try to pull the Assembly down, rather than to make it work for the people of Wales, which should be everyone's responsibility.

The hon. Gentleman should know that many issues, including much legislation and the Welsh budget, which will be voted on by Parliament are matters for the Secretary of State, on which he will answer to the House.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): On that very point, will the Secretary of State confirm that one of his main responsibilities will be to secure adequate resources for the needs of the National Assembly for Wales, not least to deliver on items such as the pledge card promises that were produced in Llandudno on health and education? Will he confirm that those pledge card promises are old promises that have already been made in London?

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that, whoever is governing in the National Assembly in Cardiff, that money will be available--that it will be available not just to the Labour party, but for all the people of Wales, to be administered by the Assembly?

Mr. Michael: The pledges that have been made by the Labour party show what will be delivered by the Labour party. It is interesting to note what the right hon. Gentleman and his party stand for: separatism and dividing the United Kingdom, rather than strengthening the Union as well as the voice of the people of Wales. In terms of achieving the finances that are necessary for the Assembly and for Wales, I have full confidence in the present Secretary of State for Wales and in any future Labour Secretary of State for Wales.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): I do not want to be mischievous, but I wonder whether, when he looks at his responsibilities, the Secretary of State will also look at the responsibilities of Members of Parliament? In view of what will be a big job-sharing exercise and an obvious diminution in our responsibilities, will he consider whether our salaries should be lowered?

Mr. Michael: I note that my hon. Friend may need to declare a lack of personal interest in the subject. I am sure that he does not intend to be mischievous, but I can assure him that the partnership between Members of Parliament and Members of the Assembly will be important. It is important that both Members of the Assembly and Members of Parliament work very hard to ensure that it is a positive and creative relationship. I know that many Members of Parliament, including some who were not necessarily enthusiasts for an Assembly, have already started to build such a relationship with those in their constituencies who hope to represent the same party in the Assembly.

Job Losses

2. Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): If he will make a statement about recent job losses in Wales. [78060]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Although recent job losses in manufacturing in Wales are extremely regrettable, overall the Welsh economy continues to grow, and last year Wales had a net gain of 21,000 jobs.

Miss Kirkbride: Has there not been a turnaround in the number of jobs being created and lost in Wales? Is not part of the problem the fact that the Government have introduced the minimum wage and adopted the working time regulations? This afternoon, the House will hear more about regulations to be imposed in relation to family crisis leave and parental leave. Every employer and federation agrees that all those things add costs, burdens and regulations to business. They are unwelcome and will add to the problem in the Principality of a lack of employment and job opportunities.

Mr. Hain: I cannot blame the hon. Lady for being out of touch with business opinion in Wales, but she is. Business in Wales enthusiastically welcomes the Government's policies and is working in partnership with us to support our initiatives.

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I am pleased to be able to announce three new schemes to assist small businesses in Wales, many of which were decimated by Tory Governments. The first is a £2 million Welsh Development Agency small loans fund. The second is a £2 million British steel industry small equity packages and loans fund. The third is a £6 million WDA and National Westminster bank venture capital fund to finance innovative developments that focus on new technology. We are supporting businesses in Wales--just as the Tories destroyed their prospects.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli): Is my hon. Friend aware that in the 36 months to February, unemployment in Llanelli fell by 25 per cent., and by about the same amount in neighbouring constituencies? However, in the 12 months to February, the drop has been minuscule in Llanelli, while in surrounding constituencies, including the Minister's own, there has been an increase. Does this not show that manufacturing industry is beginning to feel the pressure of recession and contraction? Will the Welsh Office make urgent representations to the Bank of England to seek a further substantial reduction in interest rates to reduce the pressure?

Mr. Hain: My right hon. Friend is correct. However, unemployment under the Labour Government has fallen to the lowest levels in living memory. At least a quarter of the world is in recession and world growth has halved. Our manufacturers are having a difficult time, but the Government are supporting them in every way possible. There was a net growth of 21,000 jobs last year, despite the fact that most of the world is in a difficult economic situation.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): I am sure that the Minister is as concerned as I am by the loss of manufacturing jobs. On his recent visit to the United States of America, was the Secretary of State able to persuade a manufacturing investor to come on to the site at Ystradgynlais, where, in April, 750 people will lose their jobs at the largest manufacturing plant in my constituency? Would the Minister visit the plant with me to give some hope to employees who are reaching the end of their tether?

Mr. Hain: I have visited the plant recently, and I have been in close contact with the stewards. I have also been responsible for setting up a task force that is carrying through a nine-point action plan to provide alternative job and training opportunities. The Lucas workers suffered a grievous blow when their jobs were withdrawn at very short notice, but we are working to increase investment in the Swansea valley. We were able to announce 500 more high-tech, high quality jobs at the bottom of the valley last year. We have raised the future of the site with the owners, TRW and Lucas, in conversations in America and here.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I am that unemployment in Wales has at last been discovered by the Conservatives? Does he, like me, regret the fact that it was not discovered 20 years earlier? Given the prospect of job losses in west Wales, can the Minister assure us that the resources needed in Wales will be made available so that we may

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exploit the advantages of the welcome introduction of objective 1 status, on which the Welsh Office is to be congratulated?

Mr. Hain: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is selective amnesia on the Tory Benches about the devastating impact of Tory policies on jobs and businesses in Wales. We are driving forward new job opportunities in the Swansea area. Only yesterday, the Secretary of State announced an initiative supporting Visteon in safeguarding and protecting hundreds of jobs in the area. We are also working with the Swansea Bay partnership and others to assist south-west Wales. I am confident that Wales will be able to draw down the funds that it needs under objective 1 status, which has been admirably won by the leadership of the Labour Government.

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