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House of Commons

Wednesday 1 December 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


United Reformed Church Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

English/Welsh Border

1. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): What discussions he has had with (a) other members of the Government and (b) the National Assembly to ensure co-ordination of decisions affecting communities on the English/Welsh border. [98876]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I have frequent discussions with my colleagues in the Government and with the members of the Cabinet of the National Assembly for Wales on a variety of issues. Co-ordination of decisions affecting communities on the Welsh/English border is a matter for bilateral discussion between the Assembly and the lead Whitehall Department. I would become involved if I were asked to intervene or to help to resolve a difficulty. I have received no such request.

Mr. O'Brien: In the light of that general position, will the Secretary of State answer a specific and current question of real concern to my constituents who live on the Welsh border? In the interests of co-ordination, now that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has announced that beef on the bone is safe, can I have an assurance that Griffiths butchers in the high street in Farndon in my English constituency and its rival, 200 yd away, in the high street in Holt in Wales, will be treated equally and will not be prosecuted for selling beef on the bone from yesterday?

Mr. Murphy: I wish both butchers well, obviously with a slight preference for the Welsh butchers. Following the decision by the chief medical officers for all the countries in the United Kingdom, there will be consistency in their recommendation. It rests with the

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individual Administrations to put the lifting of the ban into practice. That is the desire and the wish of the Welsh and the English Agriculture Ministers.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): May I remind my right hon. Friend that the communities of Itton, Devauden and St. Arvans in my constituency, which are very close to the border, are deeply concerned and disturbed by the decision of Forest Enterprise Wales to sell Chepstow Park wood for a private holiday development? The wood is in an area of outstanding natural beauty. When he has meetings with Ministers from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and with Welsh Assembly Secretaries, will he reassert the fact that the Government's policy is to have a moratorium on the sale of large-scale forests and say that Forest Enterprise should put a stop to the sale?

Mr. Murphy: I am very conscious of the problem, as I am a Gwent Member myself. My hon. Friend has raised the matter on several occasions. I have raised it with the First Secretary, who in turn is discussing it with Forest Enterprise. I know how important the matter is to my hon. Friend and I am convinced that there will be a satisfactory outcome to the campaign that he has led so effectively.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): Will the Secretary of State consider the situation in parts of Powys, where there is a lack of co-ordination of the bus services crossing the border to cities and towns in England? There has been a breakdown in funding and some of the services have stopped running. Many people living in remote areas cannot get to the cities and towns. Will he also note that I had a meeting on Monday with Shropshire county council, Herefordshire county council and the Highways Agency about the refusal of road signs on the A49 in England, running along the border, to market towns in Wales?

Mr. Murphy: I have taken great note of what the hon. Gentleman has said. He highlights the important point that it is essential to have co-ordination and cross-border co-operation between the National Assembly and the appropriate authorities on the English side of the border, to ensure that we have the most efficient public transport and road systems.

New Deal

2. Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): When he plans to meet the head of the Employment Service in Wales to discuss progress with the new deal. [98877]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): I have had regular contact with the director of employment services to discuss progress on the new deal and other welfare-to-work issues in Wales, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State plans to meet the director in the near future.

Mr. Rowlands: My hon. Friend will be aware of how the new deal has revitalised employment services in Wales.

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Will he seriously consider transferring the adult training programmes that are currently with the TECs to the employment services, or at least ensure that the forthcoming Bill on reorganising training will allow that possibility?

Mr. Hanson: The Bill has not yet been published, but when it is, those points will be taken on board and considered seriously. As it happens, I am meeting the director of employment services in Wales tomorrow, and we will certainly discuss those issues. I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunity to consider them as the Bill progresses through the House.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that there is no evidence whatever that people in Wales get jobs through the new deal for young people that they would not otherwise have secured, and plenty of evidence that people who go through the new deal do not secure jobs at the end of their course, what assessment has the Minister made of the cost to public funds of 1,710 young people in Wales going through the new deal only to end up going through the revolving door of benefit dependency?

Mr. Hanson: Some 22,030 young people aged between 18 and 24 have entered the new deal in Wales since its inception, and some 10,109 have secured jobs. That is 10,109 people who have secured jobs that the hon. Gentleman would not have had them secure. He would have had them face further unemployment. The real issue is the cost of unemployment, and how much it cost in the Conservative years. This Government are committed to ensuring that people are in productive, long-term employment, and the new deal is a great contributor to that aim.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister about the plight of disabled people in Wales? How many people with disabilities have been able to take advantage of the new deal and how many have found jobs that are unsubsidised?

Mr. Hanson: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Some 3,416 disabled people have joined the new deal since its inception, and the new deal for disabled people in the eastern valleys pilot area has seen some 221 people secure full-time employment. The new deal is about giving people the opportunity to learn new skills, to have an opportunity to contribute to society and to gain full-time employment. The scheme works for disabled people, young people and older people in the pilot in north-east Wales, and in the extensions announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer--but the Conservative party would scrap it.

Block Grant

3. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): When he last met the First Secretary of the National Assembly to discuss the block grant. [98878]

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The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I meet the Assembly First Secretary on a weekly basis to discuss a range of issues.

Mr. Swayne: Can the Secretary of State tell us how much match funding he has managed to acquire for objective 1 status? Can he assure us that that will have no impact on the block grant?

Mr. Murphy: It is fair to say to the hon. Gentleman that had the matter been left to the previous Government there would have been no objective 1 funding in the first place. It is important to understand that the commitment that was made in getting objective 1 status, which was echoed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he said that he would not let Wales down, sets the context for our enjoyment of that status.

The hon. Gentleman knows, because it has happened for several years, that all such matters will be taken into account in the comprehensive spending review. However, it is clear that objective 1 status for Wales means that we will go into the next century with a revitalised economy and a reskilled and retrained people.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): When my right hon. Friend discusses the block grant with the First Secretary, will he tell him that I want £25 million of it for my airbus workers, so that we can have a Welsh input into the A3XX project? I would also like my right hon. Friend to say that I need £530 million of repayable launch investment, because that would bring 1,400 jobs to my constituency, which we could share with cross-border communities in Cheshire.

Mr. Murphy: My right hon. Friend has been assiduous in making the case for funding for the new project at Broughton. I visited the plant in his constituency recently, and I understand that it is one of the biggest in the United Kingdom--certainly in Wales--and employs people from both England and Wales. I have met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to discuss the issue and I will discuss it with the First Secretary on Monday next week.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): The Secretary of State will recall that some three weeks ago he gave me an undertaking that he would raise with his Cabinet colleagues the question of the unfairness of the Barnett formula in connection with the division of European structural funds. Does he have an announcement to make on that; and can he apprise the House of the progress he has made on the issue?

Mr. Murphy: I have no announcement to make to the hon. Gentleman or to the House on the issue, because we are in the process of considering the comprehensive spending review for the coming years. However, I repeat what I said in the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs--it is important for everyone to realise that the awarding of objective 1 status to Wales is unique. It was not anticipated when the previous CSR was announced, so the new one will have to take account of the new circumstances.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): When my right hon. Friend next meets the First Secretary, will he raise

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with him the issue of that part of the block grant that goes to theatre and education? Will he convey the anger felt by communities throughout Wales that some of the block grant money is being used for a drama strategy that is described by the chairperson of the Arts Council as a tragedy that will harm some of the most deprived communities? Will my right hon. Friend remind the First Secretary that yesterday evening the Welsh parliamentary Labour party demanded an inquiry into the spending of that money?

Mr. Murphy: Like my hon. Friend, I am a Gwent Member of Parliament. I value what the Gwent theatre in education scheme has achieved over many years. My hon. Friend was able to secure an Adjournment debate this morning on the matter, in which he expressed his anger in a robust way, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards). My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has already taken up the matter and he and I will discuss it with the First Secretary at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): The House will have noticed that the Secretary of State ducked the question from my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), so I shall ask him an easier one. He will be aware that, because of the overspending by four local authorities, the Welsh Assembly has put a surcharge on all the other local authorities of between £59 and £79. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the block grant is sufficient to meet the needs of local authorities in Wales?

Mr. Murphy: I believe that there is sufficient money in the block grant to meet those needs, but it is not for me to say how the block grant should be shared to meet those needs. I shall raise the point with the First Secretary, but this is essentially a matter for the National Assembly.

Mr. Nigel Evans: The block grant is the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Wales. If funds are insufficient to meet local authorities' needs, that would certainly be a matter for him. When the Secretary of State meets the First Secretary, will he apprise him of the fact that the Government of Wales Act 1998 did not give the Welsh Assembly the power to raise taxes? The Assembly does not have the power to impose a fine on every council tax payer of between £59 and £79 to cover the overspending of which all but one of the Labour local authorities in Wales are guilty.

Mr. Murphy: What the Assembly has is the power to distribute the block grant according to the devolution settlement. Devolution means that the Assembly has to take its own decisions. That is what the House--and the people of Wales--voted for.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): When my right hon. Friend next meets the First Secretary, will he stress the importance of the transport element in the block grant? Will he remind the First Secretary and the Transport Secretary in Wales that yesterday the Government and the House expressed their support for the reopening for passengers of the Vale of Glamorgan railway line?

Mr. Murphy: I will certainly convey that good news to the First Secretary.

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