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House of Commons

Wednesday 15 November 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of Newcastle Upon Tyne Bill [Lords]


Message to the Lords to acquaint them therewith.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Aviation Industry (South Wales)

1. Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): What assessment he has made of the impact on the aviation industry in South Wales of the possible relocation of aero-engine jobs at RAF St. Athan to the south of England; and if he will make a statement. [136862]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): Mr. Speaker, as this is the first Welsh Question Time since you became Speaker, may I, on behalf of all Welsh Members, wish you well in your office?

The workers at St. Athan are employed by the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, responsibility for which lies with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

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I understand that this proposal is subject to formal, confidential consultation between the Defence Aviation Repair Agency and the trade unions.

Mr. Smith: Will my right hon. Friend meet the Secretary of State for Defence at the earliest opportunity, to discuss not only the possible loss of jobs but the proposal to move DARA from RAF St. Athan to Cardiff airport? I understand that that could result in as few as half the work force being invited to move with DARA, leaving far too few personnel to run the biggest military support base in western Europe. If that hare-brained proposal was accepted--I doubt that it will be--thousands of jobs would be at risk. I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to do all in his power to put a stop to it.

Mr. Murphy: As I said previously, DARA has proposed a transfer of engine overhaul work, which comprises about 165 civilian staff, to another site in Hampshire. That is the only firm proposal of which we are aware that poses any threat to jobs, and it is subject to full consultation. I understand my hon. Friend's concern, and I shall certainly raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Fuel Duty (Hill Farmers)

2. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): When he last met representatives of the National Farmers Union in Wales to discuss the impact of fuel duty upon hill farmers. [136863]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): In the past few weeks, I have met representatives of both the main Welsh farming unions and discussed a wide range of issues, including fuel duty. I have also met a delegation of farmers, hauliers and others, led by Mr. Brynle Williams.

Mr. Chope: If, as he claims, the Secretary of State has been meeting hill farmers, why was he not able to secure a better deal for them in the Chancellor's recent statement? Did he read the evidence to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry from Mr. Pratt, a hill farmer in the Brecon Beacons, who said that his total net income last year was £1,600 and that, as a result of extra taxes on fuel, his costs have already increased by £2,654 this year? Why should Mr. Pratt have to pay the highest fuel taxes in Europe so that the national health service can be subsidised?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman's last comment was unworthy, as I am sure that all the farmers in Wales are conscious of the need to make sure that the NHS and all our public services are properly funded.

To answer the hon. Gentleman's first question, using figures that are based on cash income--the best reflection of the genuine day-to-day position of Welsh farmers--the estimated cash income for Welsh hill farmers for this financial year was £20,000. That figure is down by 5 per cent. on that of the previous year. However, I appreciate that that is an average and that, within those figures, there are considerable difficulties for individual farmers. I must say that, thanks to the Conservative party's

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economic policies, many of my constituents were forced in the 1980s and much of the 1990s to live on incomes that were well below the level that I have cited.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): In my right hon. Friend's talks with hill farmers on the impact on their livelihood of fuel duty, was there any discussion of the decisions of the previous Government, with their totally London-centric, overbearing attitude of omniscience? They pushed aside the advice of the chief medical officer of the then Welsh Office that there was something badly wrong with the handling of the BSE crisis. If they had listened to Wales, hill farmers would not have half the trouble that they have today.

Mr. Murphy: All of us have read the report and are conscious of the fact that officials in the Welsh Office at the time were extremely diligent in the advice that they gave. As it turned out, their advice was timely but, unfortunately, it was not followed by their colleagues elsewhere in Whitehall--although I guess that is a matter for another debate.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): Mr. Speaker, as this is your first Welsh Question Time as Speaker, I echo the personal good wishes of the Secretary of State.

Hill farmers and all those who live in rural Wales have been severely affected by the 34 per cent. increase in fuel duty that has occurred since the Government came to power. Hill farmers cannot take their sheep to market by public transport, and those who live in isolated rural villages have to use their car to go to work, to take their children to school and to go shopping. The Chancellor has not cut the duty on fuel--he has created the mirage of ultra-low sulphur fuel. How many filling stations in Wales stock ultra-low sulphur petrol, and how many does he estimate will have it by April next year?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman seems to forget that Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom were governed for two decades by the Conservative party. Many of the difficulties that are now facing us in Wales are a direct consequence of decisions taken by the hon. Gentleman's colleagues.

On the availability of low sulphur fuels, the hon. Gentleman knows that low sulphur diesel is generally available and that decreases in the duty on low sulphur petrol will come into effect in March next year. We are assured by the industry that that fuel will be available throughout the United Kingdom, including Wales.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): After 50 years of generous and very large subsidies for farmers in this country, how is that farmers in New Zealand, who have not received a penny in subsidies for the past 15 years, can produce meat, have it transported across the world and offer it on the British market at a lower price than that charged by farmers in Wales? Is not the truth that subsidies are not the answer to but the cause of farmers' problems?

Mr. Murphy: Happily, it does not fall on my shoulders to answer questions on New Zealand agriculture. Although I accept my hon. Friend's point, I am sure that he is aware that the farming community in rural Wales faces genuine problems, which the Government are doing their best to overcome.

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Rail Services

3. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions on rail services to Wales and the west country. [136864]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I have regular discussions with my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Transport.

Mr. Heath: Must not Isambard Kingdom Brunel be turning in his grave at what has happened to God's wonderful railway? There have been broken rails, a criminally dangerous signalling system at Paddington and clapped-out locomotives that simply break down half the time. Do not the people of Wales and the west country deserve a better railway system? Will the right hon. Gentleman make it his business to talk to his colleagues and to authorities in Wales, and on the other side of the bridge in the west country, to ensure that we have the railway system we deserve?

Mr. Murphy: I could not agree with the hon. Gentleman more, especially because, many years ago, I had the privilege of fighting his seat in the west country. As I am now Secretary of State for Wales, he will be aware that I failed to win that seat.

The task facing this country is to get a safe and efficient railway system working at full capacity as quickly as possible. That imperative was made crystal clear to railway companies by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Transport. The whole House is aware of the serious problems in Wales and the west country. The regulator has said that by next Monday there will be a sustainable timetable, so that people will be conscious of the amount of time they have to spend on trains. By the end of this week, I hope to have further information on how best to repair track and ensure the safety of the system. I hope that the bulk of repairs will have been completed by Christmas.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Does my right hon. Friend accept that our constituents want railways to be run as a public service, whereas those who currently run railways are interested not in providing a service but in making a quick profit?

Mr. Murphy: I am sure that most hon. Members believe that many of the problems that we are currently facing were the direct result of the ideological and misguided policy of railway privatisation, which was carried out by the Conservative Government during their final years in power. They were warned that privatisation would be a disaster, and that turned out to be the case.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): I, too, offer you our congratulations on your appointment, Mr. Speaker, and wish you well in your responsibilities.

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there have been improvements in the rolling stock on the north Wales line recently and that Virgin Trains will again introduce new stock, next year? Does the right

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hon. Gentleman acknowledge that if the best use is to be made of the new rolling stock, we need to upgrade the line in north Wales?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that there are plans to upgrade the line between Crewe and Bangor. Will he impress on Railtrack and the Strategic Rail Authority the need to extend the work to Holyhead?

Mr. Murphy: I could not agree more. Our railway system across north Wales, and the section of the trans-European network from Ireland to England, is one of the most important links between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom, as well as between different parts of Wales. I hope that the Strategic Rail Authority will take that into account in considering bids for the single franchise.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the removal of all Virgin services to north Wales constitutes major discrimination against my constituents and others? Yesterday, two people from north Wales wanted to travel to the House of Commons to attend a reception connected with lupus, a serious medical condition. The only way in which they could have come to London was by reserving seats, and that facility was not available to them, although it is available on some Virgin services between London and other parts of the country. Will my right hon. Friend please undertake to investigate this unsatisfactory state of affairs?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is, of course, right about the inconvenience caused to her constituents, which is also experienced by Members and their constituents throughout Wales. As she knows, following a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister last Thursday, Railtrack announced that the bulk of the necessary track repairs would be completed by Christmas, and the remainder by Easter. It also announced that the industry planned to publish a national track recovery plan this Friday--which, as I have told the House, will include details of a sustainable timetable that will come into force next Monday.

The main problem is the lack of reliability. Even if it takes longer to travel from one place to another, ensuring that people know how long the journey will take constitutes a big improvement in itself.

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