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House of Commons

Wednesday 14 November 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): What discussions he has had with the First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales on transport in Wales. [12466]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I meet the First Minister of the National Assembly regularly to discuss wide-ranging current issues affecting Wales, including transport. Transport generally is a matter for the National Assembly, although railways, air transport and ports remain, generally, the responsibility of central Government, working closely with the Assembly on matters affecting Wales. I am keen to continue dialogue with the Assembly and Cabinet colleagues to determine how best to meet the transport needs of Wales.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for that reply. Does the Secretary of State agree with the director of the Confederation of British Industry of Wales, who said that we cannot continue to grow the economy at the speed that we would wish while 70 per cent. of the population is served by a two-lane motorway? What plans has the right hon. Gentleman to increase road capacity in Wales?

Mr. Murphy: As I said, the matter of roads is for the Assembly to consider. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that the last spending review was an extremely good one for Wales. It meant that much more money could be spent on roads in Wales, including the £25 million that was announced only last week for all the local authorities in Wales.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): When my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister, will he raise the serious overcrowding on the bus service between Llandogo and Monmouth? Sixty to 70 children a day have to travel on a scheduled bus service run by Stagecoach, which refuses to put on an extra service unless it is paid for by the county council, even though it already receives two subsidies for

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the service. Does he accept that the three-for-two rule allows unacceptable overcrowding for pupils under the age of 14?

Mr. Murphy: I am very much aware of my hon. Friend's campaign on the matter. I know that he raised it in an Adjournment debate in the House, and that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is raising it with the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning in Wales, Jane Davidson. I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that local education authorities are obliged to provide transport that is non-stressful, because if it were stressful, it could interfere with children's education.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Can the Secretary of State tell the House why Railtrack is not progressing with the essential improvements to the Cambrian line and Cambrian coast railways, even though, as his colleague in the National Assembly must have told him, the Assembly is allocating a substantial sum to those improvements? Why are people in Wales getting such a bad deal from the Government over railways?

Mr. Murphy: I think that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the people of Wales got a bad deal from the previous Government when they privatised the railways. The Cambrian line upgrade has not been scrapped. The investment has been provided by the Assembly and the Strategic Rail Authority. It is scheduled for the period 2002 to 2006. Because Railtrack is in administration, it cannot make a decision about when the work will be carried out, but the investment will be forthcoming.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): Does my right hon. Friend welcome the announcement by P&O that it will move its main Ireland ferry service from Liverpool to Mostyn docks and the part played by the National Assembly for Wales in that excellent move?

Mr. Murphy: I certainly welcome the fact that the National Assembly put some £17 million into Mostyn docks. I know that my hon. Friend is particularly interested in those improvements to the economy of north-east Wales. Developments at Mostyn docks over the past few months and in the future will make an enormous difference to the economy of his constituency and to north Wales in general.


2. Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): What discussions he has had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on measures to assist people who live in flood-prone areas within Wales. [12467]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and those discussions cover floods and related matters. I have had recent discussions with colleagues on flood defence matters. I also represent Wales on the rural taskforce.

Mr. Barker: I thank the Minister for that answer. Is he aware that up to 120,000 homes along the Welsh coastline are still at risk from flooding if there is a repeat this winter

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of last year's heavy rainfall? Furthermore, up to 50 per cent. of the families in those homes are unaware of that risk. Given that, will he admit that the paltry £14 million that has so far been made available to Welsh flood committees is totally inadequate? What plans has he to make further immediate provision?

Mr. Touhig: The unprecedented flooding last October was the worst for half a century or more. My colleague Ministers in the National Assembly provided £6.5 million to local authorities to help clear-up operations and to make damaged services secure again. An additional £15 million is being made available to local authorities to carry out major repairs and improvements over the next four years. Last autumn's flooding provided a severe test of the flood warning arrangements, but they proved to be robust, having just been upgraded. The system did very well in the circumstances. Most importantly, not a single life was lost, and we are all thankful for that. Some 10,000 homes throughout England and Wales were affected by flooding, but as a result of good flood defence measures, 300,000 homes were protected.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside): Is my hon. Friend aware of the considerable work that is being done in my constituency to combat flooding? Flintshire county council in particular has made the issue a priority. However, does he agree that the need remains for greater co-operation between local authorities, water companies and the Environment Agency to deal with the matter effectively?

Mr. Touhig: It is essential that there is very close co-operation between the statutory and local authorities. I am aware that there have been problems in my hon. Friend's constituency, but I believe that the measures that are being implemented and the funding that is being provided will help to overcome them. If he is concerned about a specific problem, I ask him to write to me about it, and I shall take it up on his behalf.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Is the Minister aware of the despair, upset and sheer emotional distress that many home owners feel when their homes are flooded? Does he accept that his policy has so far been woefully inadequate? Is he aware that the Institution of Civil Engineers concluded last week that spending on flooding needed to be doubled and went on to describe Government policy in this area as piecemeal and short term? Ministers are fond of bleating about how advantageous our membership of the European Union is, so why will he not claim some of the money that is available from the European Union to member states for this purpose, thereby helping to alleviate—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Touhig: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment to his Front-Bench position. It is not for me to comment on the length of his questions, but he has certainly shortened the winter. I do not accept the view that the Government have not done a great deal to overcome the problems that we faced last year. There is a short-term programme of repairs and renewals to ensure that we avoid the problems this year. There is also a long-term programme of initiatives, which includes the

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carrying out in England and Wales of a DEFRA-led flood defence review. My colleagues in the Assembly are taking part in that consultation and we expect to have the results by Christmas.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): May I remind the Minister that despite his assurances about the unusual floods that we had in October, the town of Ruthin has suffered severe floods twice since then? I witnessed them. Even the Welsh Local Government Association, which is friendly to him, says that £50 million of new money is required to put things right in Wales. So far, there has been £15 million, plus the £6 million. That is not even halfway, so will he please redouble his efforts and ensure that we protect these societies and the people in them?

Mr. Touhig: I note the hon. Gentleman's point. It is in all our interests to help communities such as Ruthin, which were blighted by the events of last October. I believe that the Assembly is working very progressively with local authorities. As I said, it has provided £15 million to fund schemes for the next four years. I think that that will make an important contribution. There is never enough money to do all the work because there is always a problem: when the crisis is staunched in one area, problems can arise in another. I believe that the discussions between my friends in the Assembly and local authorities mean that steps are being made in the right direction. We will do everything that we can to ensure that if there are difficulties this winter, we have the resources in place to overcome them.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The Minister will know that many rivers have their sources in Powys, including the Usk, the Severn and the Wye. Is he aware that, a couple of years ago, the Secretary of State for Wales and I held a meeting with the Environment Agency to reduce water levels in the Clywedog dam and thus reduce the risk of overflow at peak times? That reduced flooding. Is he willing to facilitate further such meetings to extend that successful scheme to other reservoirs in the interests of reducing flooding both in Wales and in parts of England?

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I would be most willing to use my services to facilitate such a meeting.

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