Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement

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Mr. Ruane: There is no one else there.

Mr. Wigley: I cannot answer for other members of the coalition, because they have not yet turned up—although, presumably, they are happy to be represented by those who are here. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. The Committee knows that the right hon. Gentleman is entitled to a hearing.

Mr. Wigley: Thank you, Mr. Jones.

One of the groups that has suffered unacceptably in recent months and years from the failure of Government policy is mainly made up of pensioners and comprises former coal miners and widows of coal miners whose compensation has still not been paid. When I was in Wrexham the week before last, I was told that, up to November, only two cases had been handled of the hundreds that await compensation. How can the Secretary of State say with a straight face that everything in the garden is rosy for pensioners, when the Government have treated so abysmally former coal miners and their widows, who are the most deserving of all?

The Chairman: Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows that that intervention was too long. Interventions must be brief.

Mr. Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman knows that everyone here, from all political parties, are conscious that the miners' compensation must be paid as speedily as possible. He need not tell me about that. My father and grandfather were coal miners, I represent a coal-mining constituency and I have visited constituents who are claiming that compensation. He must also be aware that, if it had not been for the Labour Government, those cases would never have been settled and the biggest compensation claim ever agreed would not have been paid out to coal miners and their widows. About 27,000 are eligible for that compensation in Wales. He is also aware that we decided in the past couple of weeks to ensure that a monitoring group will meet in Wales as well as here in London to consider the different measures. He must not for one second believe that those of us who represent mining constituencies and ex-mining constituencies are not worried about the matter. We are doing our best to ensure that the process is speeded up.

Mr. Ruane rose—

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda) rose—

The Chairman: Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers: I am pleased that my right hon. Friend responded in that way. It is only a short time since the court judgment, and considering that more than 120,000 applications were received and the huge problems experienced in establishing some of the claims, the process has gone reasonably well. We are bitterly disappointed that in areas such as the Rhondda and south Wales valleys the process is not immediate, but I wish that people would not make cheap political points out of something that I should have thought was beyond politics.

Mr. Murphy: I accept my hon. Friend's point. However, all of us who are trying to resolve the problem would benefit from constructive ideas on how we could improve payment to claimants. We shall no doubt return to that issue as the week goes on.

Although we announced some £420 million to cover objective 1 spending in Wales, the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), now the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary, told the House in February that a future Tory Government would scrap the structural funds programme. Indeed, the entire objective 1 saga tells us all that we need to know about our opponents. The Tories were the party that so damaged the economy of west Wales and the valleys that we qualified for objective 1 in the first place. Such was their hostility to the very idea of an active regional economic policy that they refused to apply for European aid. Now they are committed, so we are told, to scrapping that aid so as to increase the European rebate.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I fear that the Secretary of State has used a little licence in suggesting that any of my right hon. or hon. Friends stated that when returned to power the Conservatives would scrap objective 1. We are committed to the present Government's spending plans. It is this Government who have not provided any new money but used European money and said that that is their contribution to objective 1.

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman must raise the matter with his right hon. Friend the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary so that it can be made perfectly clear that we have heard a commitment today, in this Room, from the representative of the Conservative party, that it agrees with structural funding.

Members of Plaid Cymru told us that we would not secure objective 1 status. They subsequently said that if we did do so we would not receive funding for all the parts of Wales for which we in fact did. They then told us that Europe would not approve those objective 1 plans, but it did. Subsequently, they said that we would not receive the money, but we have done so. Every time they were wrong.

Although a strong economy is the foundation stone of the Government's achievement, it is only one aspect of our determination to modernise and strengthen our society. Our legislative programme shows just how determined we are to match the opportunity economy with a responsibility society, and part of that responsibility is our commitment to fighting crime together.

Last Wednesday, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who is not present but who I am sure will arrive, told the BBC that the problems tackled in our crime Bills are not real but are merely perceptions. That reveals that in many respects our opponents in Wales do not live in the same world as us. Those with rural constituencies and those of us who represent valley seats or towns or cities all know that the problems of violent crime, especially among young people, and especially associated with alcoholism, are encountered throughout Wales.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Is my right hon. Friend worried about the proposed increase in spending for his area and for my area of Gwent for next year, which is 4.4 per cent., compared with that proposed for other areas in Wales, such as the North Wales and the Dyfed-Powys police, which will receive increases of more than 6 per cent? Has not the argument being made about the slight increase in crime in rural areas distorted Government policy to the extent that they are getting a huge increase compared to the towns and valleys of south Wales, where crime is still two to three times higher than in rural areas?

Mr. Murphy: I take my hon. Friend's point. I am meeting the chief constables soon to discuss those matters, but I am not sure that I agree with his last point that crime is not a factor in rural areas.

Mr. Flynn: I did not say that. Of course crime is a factor in rural areas. It has increased in rural areas as it has in some categories of urban areas, but if we compare the two, the crime rate in rural areas is still far lower than in the valleys or urban areas. Consideration has been made in the proposed figures, which I understand are not final, and the pressure exerted, quite legitimately, on the problems of rural areas has distorted the budget for next year that the increase in all areas is a good one, above inflation and we can take credit for the increase in every part of Wales. However, there is a distortion in the allocations, which unfairly penalises the valleys and towns in Wales.

Mr. Murphy: Obviously I shall take up that matter with my hon. Friend, and when I meet the chief constables. I take his point about his own town, which has had its own difficulties in the past few years. The detection of crime by the Gwent police force is so high that sometimes the figures are distorted.

The concerns of ordinary people about yobbery on our streets are very real. Ordinary decent people want the law to be on their side. They want an end to anti-social public drinking. They want the police to have the powers necessary to close down pubs that are at the centre of violence and other trouble. Ordinary, decent people in Wales want us to take action against drug traffickers and car thieves, and we are doing all that we can to tackle those problems.

Our measures on police and vehicle crime are not the only steps that we must take to reinforce the responsibility society. We must legislate to regulate the private security industry. Violent crime is, as my hon. Friend has said, a particular problem in Wales and there can be no excuse for the sometimes random acts of violence committed by bouncers and other private security guards.

We will introduce a Health Bill to modernise and strengthen the national health service, and to provide for free nursing care for the elderly. Part of our long- term plan is to strengthen the health service. We will act to ban tobacco advertising and phase out tobacco sponsorship. That is another long-term measure that is much needed, because 20 per cent. of all deaths in Wales are tobacco-related. We have already published a Bill to give hon. Members a free vote on the future of hunting with dogs. We recognise that foxes are vermin and have to be controlled, and we will be discussing those matters with the Assembly if the Bill makes progress. We also recognise the very real strength of public feeling on the issue. That is why there will be a free vote in the House.

Mr. Wigley: I certainly welcome the proposed ban on tobacco advertising. As for the Hunting Bill and other legislation to which the Secretary of State has referred, can he clarify which Bills will have a Welsh content that will allow the National Assembly to vary the details? On Friday, the First Minister pointed out that there were four such Bills. Will he clarify which four? The Hunting Bill is presumably one, but can he point them out as he refers to the other Bills?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, of course I will. I have already touched on the health Bill, which will have Welsh implications, and I will point out the others as I go through them. Indeed, the next is one such Bill: we will legislate to increase the rights of the holders of long leases. That has long been a particular Welsh concern. We will bring in a separate homes Bill to make buying and selling houses easier and to provide more help for homeless families, of which there are 3,500 in Wales at present. Again, that is a matter about which we must liaise with the National Assembly.

In Wales, we are demonstrating one particular and special aspect of the responsibility society—the responsibility that we owe to our children. The Labour manifesto for the 1999 Assembly elections contained a commitment to the establishment of an independent Commissioner for Children. The creation and extension of that role is something of which Labour Members can be especially proud. Our commitment to extending the commissioner's powers shows that we are serious about making the devolution settlement work. That settlement, which was approved by the people of Wales in a referendum, maintains the responsibility here for primary legislation in Wales. However, it also imposes on us a responsibility to give the Assembly the tools that it needs to do its job of improving public services in Wales, to which we are committed. Incidentally, that commitment is not necessarily shared by the Conservative party. I have obtained a copy of its briefing for Members of Parliament on our legislative programme, which makes it clear that it has no intention of giving the Assembly that responsibility, or extending the role of commissioner. It states that a commissioner's advocacy role should be confined to

    those in the care of local authorities and some other services.

As usual, the Conservative party has missed the bus, as that role is already in the Care Standards Bill.

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Prepared 11 December 2000