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House of Commons

Wednesday 22 March 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

PRIVATE BUSINESS

City of London (Ward Elections) Bill [By Order]

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be further considered on Wednesday 29 March.

Oral Answers to Questions

WALES

The Secretary of State was asked--

Housing

1. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): When he last met the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales to discuss allocation of funds for housing in Wales within the block grant. [114262]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I meet the First Secretary regularly. We discuss a range of issues.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Secretary of State for that helpful answer. No doubt he worked very hard on that one.

The Local Government Bill contains somewhat compelling incentives to transfer existing housing stock to registered social landlords, but is it the Government's policy to force councils to continue with those transfers, even when it is not financially viable or helpful to them?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that those matters are ultimately for the Assembly to consider, but, of course, they have been considered in England and, as far as I am aware, in Scotland, too. Options are available. There is no compulsion because there is a variety of ways in which to deal with housing: responsibility can be given by a local authority to an arm's-length company or to a registered social landlord, or the matter can be dealt with in some other way.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): There is some anxiety in my constituency among Flintshire county councillors, notably Ron Hill and Ron Hampson, who want decaying council estates that were built after world war two to be endowed with new windows, central heating and new doors to make them warm, damp free, modern and up to the standards of this century. Will my right hon. Friend have a quiet word with the First

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Secretary to express the wish that some of those estates be modernised urgently? If he sees him, can he ask him again for £25 million in Airbus grant?

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. He may rest assured that I readily convey his remarks and those of other right hon. and hon. Friends to the First Secretary when I meet him. I agree with my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd): housing is an important matter for our communities, especially as a large amount of housing stock is ageing. It is a question of being able to look at priorities and planning for the future.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Does the Secretary of State agree that, for every pound that is spent on the new Assembly building, a pound less can be spent on housing? In that vein, will he join me in congratulating the new First Secretary on breaking from the old First Secretary and announcing today that he is suspending any development on the new building pending another review? That is a good start, but the block grant for spending on public services can be further protected if the Secretary of State persuades the First Secretary to scrap any replacement for what already exists and works adequately.

Mr. Murphy: It would be beyond my powers or responsibilities to tell the First Secretary or the Assembly what to do. It is for the Assembly to decide how to spend its money. I understand that the First Secretary is reviewing the whole position of the new building in Cardiff. I am sure that he is doing that with prudence in mind.

Local Government

2. Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): What discussions he has had with the Welsh Local Government Association about the Local Government Bill [Lords]. [114263]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): Both my right hon. Friend and I have had discussions with representatives of the Welsh Local Government Association about the Local Government Bill. On 25 February, I addressed a meeting of the Welsh Local Government Association co-ordinating committee.

Mr. Jones: Is it true that the First Secretary, Rhodri Morgan, has insufficient powers to deal with the abuse of allowances in Cardiff, whereby the new leader of Cardiff council receives an allowance that is three or four times greater than that of any other leader throughout the United Kingdom? If it is true, what will the Minister and the Government do to amend the Local Government Bill to give the Welsh Assembly sufficient powers to deal with the issue, which is of widespread public concern?

Mr. Hanson: As my hon. Friend may be aware, under clause 88 of the Local Government Bill, the Assembly will have the power to make regulations to require councils to set up an independent panel to review councillors' allowances. The Government are looking at the feasibility of including a provision in the Bill to enable

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the Assembly to set up an all-Wales panel. The Assembly has certain powers under existing legislation to examine that issue.

I recognise that, at the moment, local government has the autonomy to set its own allowances. However, like my hon. Friend, I think that councils and their members should bear in mind their responsibilities to the electorate and exercise their judgment with care and prudence.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am interested in that response. I agree with much of what the Minister has said, but, with all the talk of modernising local government in the Local Government Bill, is he not embarrassed that there is a dose of good old-fashioned Labour greed? I am talking about Russell Goodway, the Labour leader of Cardiff council, who receives £58,000 and is the highest-paid councillor in Britain, working a three-day week.

There is another point here, too. When eight Labour councillors refused to back Russell Goodway's £58,000 salary, initially, they were suspended. Will the Minister say what discussions he is having with his colleagues about introducing some true democracy into the Labour party in Wales? Earlier today, Russell Goodway said:


Does the Minister agree with that?

Mr. Hanson: I remind the hon. Gentleman--he may have forgotten--that, in 1995, it was a Conservative Government who changed the legislation and allowed councillors to set their own allowance levels. Labour Members will look after the Labour party, and the hon. Gentleman should look after Conservative-controlled councils--such as Westminster. Although he may not be aware of it, the Labour party in Wales has upheld the appeals of the members who were suspended and has asked the council to review its expenditure on councillors' allowances. I reiterate that councillors and Members should bear their responsibilities to the electorate and exercise their judgment with prudence.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): When my hon. Friend next meets the Welsh Local Government Association, will he tell it to get on with the fundamental review of the whole revenue support grant arrangement--which, over a number of years, has led to the most extraordinary distortions in council tax figures, and has particularly led to huge increases in some of our poorest authorities?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He will be aware that the Assembly and the Welsh Local Government Association have examined the formula and agree that it needs revision. They are examining how they will develop a new formula, to be agreed and in place for next year's financial settlement.

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Livestock Industry

3. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): What discussions he has had with the First Secretary on the future of the livestock industry in Wales. [114264]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I meet the First Secretary weekly and we discuss a wide range of issues, including the future of the livestock industry in Wales.

Mr. Winterton: Will the Secretary of State for Wales accept that the livestock industry is in severe crisis? Is he aware that the deadline for the British Government to claim agrimonetary compensation is the end of April? Does he agree that such compensation is one very good way of assisting the livestock industry? Is he also aware that all other European Union states claim their full allocation under agrimonetary compensation? Will he claim the full amount for livestock farmers in Wales and give an assurance that he has no intention of reducing support for hill farmers?

Mr. Murphy: A considerable amount of support has been given to hill farmers. The hill livestock compensatory allowance for Wales was increased by £15 million, from £42 million for this year and for last year. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point on agrimonetary compensation. However, he will be aware that £88 million has been paid to farmers in this country because of the high cost of the pound, and that, over the past number of years, much more than that has been paid. He will also be aware that the Prime Minister intends to hold an agricultural summit next week, at which there will be representatives from the farming community in Wales and all those matters will be discussed.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): May I repeat the question, in a slightly different way, that has just been asked? It is reckoned that farmers in Wales are owed £45 million in agrimonetary compensation for 1999-2000. Although the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned years prior to that year, we are talking about the current financial year, which is just ending. Farmers in Wales are absolutely on their knees. Will the Secretary of State go to that summit with the Prime Minister and advocate very strongly that farmers should receive the money that they have failed to get in the marketplace in the past 12 months because of the high pound? I am very surprised that the Chancellor did not deal with that subject yesterday.

Mr. Murphy: I understand the problems that are caused by the high cost of the pound and by exchange rates. The hon. Gentleman is aware that we have to examine many other issues in trying to ensure that, in the years and decades ahead, Wales continues to have a viable farming industry. That objective will form much of the agenda in Downing Street next week, when I am sure that the point that he has made will be made forcibly by the farming communities themselves.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Will the Secretary of State confirm that he or a representative from his Department will be present at the farming summit in Downing Street on 30 March? In the absence of

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the agrimonetary compensation scheme that has been requested from the Opposition Benches this afternoon, what other proposals will be taken to that summit?

Mr. Murphy: I can confirm that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be present at that summit and he is aware, of course, that the dairy sector in Wales has serious problems. The National Farmers Union met in my office some weeks ago on that matter, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has also met the union. We will emphasise the importance of trying to do something to help the dairy sector in Wales, by examining promotional campaigns for milk and in other ways as well.


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