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Genetically Modified Crops

3. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): What mechanisms exist to communicate representations made to his Department concerning genetically modified crops to other Departments. [78061]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Jon Owen Jones): The Welsh Office maintains regular contact with other Departments that have an interest in genetically modified crops. Any issues arising from representations made on the subject are communicated to and discussed with those Departments as appropriate.

Mr. Baker: Given that the Welsh Assembly will have responsibility for agricultural matters, will the Minister clarify for the House what responsibility the Welsh Assembly will have for licensing and approving GM crops in trial sites and elsewhere? Will the Welsh Assembly have some flexibility in dealing with the matter? If so, will the Minister guarantee that the same environmental safeguards as currently apply across the UK, or even stronger ones, will apply in Wales under the Welsh Assembly?

Mr. Jones: The use of genetically modified techniques is a fast-moving science with huge potential benefits. There may be risks--which of course need careful assessment--but the Government's priority is to safeguard public health and the environment. Ensuring that the risks are properly assessed will be a United Kingdom function rather than a Welsh Assembly function.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the very serious concern in my constituency about two applications--by AgrEvo UK and Pioneer Genetique SARL, in collaboration with Monsanto--to release genetically modified organisms, in relation to oilseed rape, in Monmouthshire? May I assure him that there is great concern that adequate safeguards have not been applied, and about the effect that such a release might have on biodiversity? May I assure him also that I have formally objected to the applications to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales?

Mr. Jones: I can well understand that there are concerns, and that my hon. Friend shares them. The Prime Minister

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has established a ministerial group to oversee developments on the subject. As a first step, the group has commissioned a thorough examination of our regulatory framework. The group will report soon.

I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that, if we are to assess the environmental impact of genetically modified crops--which are likely to become an increasingly common sight, if not in the United Kingdom, then in other countries--we have to undertake properly monitored and independently assessed field trials, to ensure that we get the best scientific knowledge.

Council Tax

4. Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): If he will list the band D council tax rate for each local authority for 1999-2000 and the percentage increase in each case for (i) 1998-99 and (ii) 1997-98. [78062]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Jon Owen Jones): As the information requested is too extensive for an oral answer, I have arranged for the hon. Gentleman to be sent the details in tabular form, and for a copy to be placed in the Library.

Mr. Hughes: First, will the Minister tell the House why the council tax figures for Wales were given to the press before they were given to Parliament? Will he then explain why council tax increases--which, in December, Ministers predicted would average 7.5 per cent.--turned out to be about 8.5 per cent.? Will he also explain why, on average, the increases are higher in Wales than in England? Will he also explain why--for the second year in a row under the Labour Government--the increases are more than twice the rate of inflation for everyone except those who are on council tax benefit? Whom should Labour voters blame--local councils, or Labour Ministers and the Labour Westminster Government?

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman's carping is very familiar to the House. The reality is that we have seen an extremely good settlement for local government in Wales--the best for very many years. Central Government support for local government is 4.8 per cent., which is well above the rate of inflation. Government support has also allowed a record increase in service spending--15 per cent. over 3 years, and a £145 million increase in the next year alone. That is more money for schools, more money for social services--[Interruption.] I know that the hon. Gentleman does not want to hear this--it will adversely affect the Liberal Democrats' likelihood of winning any elections--but additional resources of £300 per person in Wales over the next three years come as very good news indeed.

Tax increases in Wales are lower than they were last year. Moreover, tax levels in Wales are far lower than they are in England, although service spending in Wales is significantly higher. It is a good deal for Welsh local council tax payers.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Would the Minister care to comment on the formula which determines how much central Government money goes to local authorities? That formula discriminates against the poorest communities in Wales and puts authorities such

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as mine in Blaenau Gwent at a massive disadvantage. I accept that we inherited the formula from the previous Government, but will the Minister give a commitment to look at it again so that the poorest communities get the biggest amount of money from central Government?

Mr. Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. The Secretary of State and I met local government leaders, including those from my hon. Friend's constituency, in the past few days. Although we have agreed a formula with Welsh local government, it may well be unfair particularly towards areas such as the one represented by my hon. Friend. We agree that we need to work towards a new formula which better reflects real spending needs. Moving towards that formula is likely to take more than one year and the Secretary of State has, therefore, indicated that we need to address the anomalies to which my hon. Friend referred. Hopefully we will be able to do that in the next financial year.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): Is this not just another example of Labour pandering to the rich and clobbering the poor? Does the Minister not realise that the tax cuts being given to the richest in society are being paid for by the poor of Blaenau Gwent and Holyhead, in my constituency? Why does not the Minister ensure that there is more money from central Government for local authorities instead of making the poor local taxpayers pay for tax cuts for the rich?

Mr. Jones: The formula is agreed by local government across Wales, including the hon. Gentleman's area. We have agreed that we need to reform the formula. The hon. Gentleman must accept that money does not grow on trees. If we take money from one pot for use elsewhere, that money has to be denied to existing spending priorities such as health.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): On a point of order, Madam Speaker--

Madam Speaker: Order. I can take points of order only after questions and statements.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The Minister has just said that this is a good settlement for Wales. When will he join the real world? In Blaenau Gwent the council tax increase will be over 13 per cent., in Anglesey it will be 11.9 per cent., in Merthyr it will be 11.4 per cent., in Powys it will be 10.2 per cent., in Rhondda it will be 12.2 per cent. and in Wrexham it will be over 10 per cent--all this at a time when people are facing a standstill in their pay, or increases of 2 to 3 per cent.

One group who may be able to pay the council tax increases this year will be Members of the Welsh Assembly. I understand that an announcement is being made at 3.30 pm today--at the end of questions--about the rate at which Members of the Welsh Assembly will be paid. Why was that statement not made this morning so that hon. Members could have questioned the Minister about it? We now have to wait a whole month before we can scrutinise the pay of Members of the Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Jones: This is a good settlement for Wales for the reasons I have given. It allows local government to spend

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more money on schools and social services. It is considerably more money than was ever allowed by the Government supported by the hon. Gentleman.

Steel Industry

5. Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What new proposals he has to improve the competitive position of the Welsh steel industry. [78063]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): With the world collapse in the demand for steel the Government's commitment to the economic stability that our policies have already achieved is even more important in improving the competitiveness of the Welsh steel industry.

Mr. Flynn: The recent record of the Welsh steel industry is one of the great unsung success stories of industry. More steel is being produced in Wales than ever before. There is a 25 per cent. increase in the sales of Welsh steel and nearly half of all the steel being produced in the United Kingdom is made in Wales. In spite of that, Welsh steel makers are facing hostile and unfair competition which has brought about the regrettable job losses today in Newport and west Wales. Will the Minister redouble his efforts to guarantee that the Welsh steel industry has not merely a proud, successful past but a brilliant future?

Mr. Hain: Yes, I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will do exactly that. We are working closely with British Steel to provide technology and training support and with the European Commission to tackle discriminatory dumping measures and illegal use of state aids. The British steel industry--especially the industry in Wales--is an example to the world and we want to work with it to protect its future and safeguard the jobs in it, despite a massive reduction in the demand for steel world wide.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): What representations is the Welsh Office making to the Treasury to ensure that the euro does not continue to be devalued and that the Bank of England sets the interest rates that are right for British industry?

Mr. Hain: We have the lowest long-term interest rates for 40 years and mortgage rates are the lowest for 33 years. Compare that with the Tory Government's period of office, when interest rates were at record levels, the steel industry was badly hit and other businesses in Wales and throughout Britain were devastated.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): May I tell my hon. Friend that Shotton steelworks is to lose 150 jobs even though it is competitive, productive, breaks all records and has a loyal work force? Can I persuade him to tell the arrogant, faceless bureaucrats of Brussels that the assisted area status that we have should not be lost? Will he remind them that in 1980 we lost 8,000 steel jobs overnight and that we have yet to rebuild our economy, so we need assisted area status to the end of the century and beyond?

Mr. Hain: I am aware that the steel industry in Shotton is grateful for my hon. Friend's continued hard work on

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its behalf. We are working closely with the industry to ensure that it has a positive future, and to ensure that the measures about which he complained are tackled as soon as possible.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Is the Minister aware that the Treasury proposal for an energy tax would hit the British steel industry and British Steel in particular extraordinarily hard? Recent figures suggest that the Government propose a discount of £5 million for a tax that will cost British Steel £200 million. In the light of all that has been said about the extraordinarily difficult competitive position of British Steel, will the Minister guarantee that the energy tax will not be imposed on it in that discriminatory way?

Mr. Hain: We will certainly not impose any tax, let alone an energy tax, in a discriminatory way. I am aware of the problems that high energy users, such as steel, face. For that reason, the Deputy Prime Minister is meeting to consider and consult on the matter. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will also be consulting on it. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order: it is far too noisy.

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