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House of Commons

Wednesday 23 January 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Staff Budget

1. Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): If he will make a statement on the budget for staff in the Wales Office. [27057]

5. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): If he will make a statement on the number of civil servants in his Department. [27061]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): For the period since April 2001 the average staff of my Department has been 44 full-time equivalents. The running costs budget of the Wales Office is £2.279 million for each of the financial years from 2001–02 to 2003–04. Staff pay normally accounts for about two thirds of running costs.

Mr. Duncan: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Is he aware that as the Wales Office staff complement continues to multiply, manufacturing industry in Wales is in crisis and jobs are haemorrhaging everywhere, it seems, other than inside the Wales Office? Does he not accept that increased staff numbers are no substitute for delivery on the long-broken pledges to the people of Wales?

Mr. Murphy: On the increase in numbers, I can tell the hon. Gentleman, who has huge responsibilities as the only Conservative Member representing 112 Scottish and Welsh Members of Parliament in the House of Commons, that in 1999-2000 I had 38 people working in the Department, last year the number was 45 and this year it is 44. Those are hardly huge numbers.

On manufacturing, the hon. Gentleman might be aware that in today's edition of the Western Mail, the Cardiff chamber of commerce is reported as saying that the Welsh economy has returned to a firm footing, and in manufacturing in Wales, sales are up, confidence is up and orders are up.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): May I say to my right hon. Friend that the people of Swansea certainly have no complaint about that? Indeed, we have every

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praise for the Government's willingness to move part of the Pensions Service for Wales to Swansea, creating 500 good quality, permanent jobs in an area of high unemployment.

Mr. Murphy: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those comments. He is absolutely right to say that the Department for Work and Pensions move to Swansea has led to a considerable increase in employment. May I tell him that in his constituency, the claimant count is down by 1.1 per cent., and in Swansea, West it is down by 0.5 per cent? The House should know that the latest figures on employment in Wales indicate that unemployment is down by 7,000, the claimant count is down by 500 and employment is up by 6,000 since the last count.

Mr. Robathan: I thank the Secretary of State and his Department for their courtesy in giving me a week's notice that my question was grouped with Question 1, because that is very unusual with other Departments. May I pick him up on his figures? I have figures from civil service statistics which say that staff numbers in the National Assembly for Wales went up by over 20 per cent., whereas the number of his civil servants increased by over a third. Can he tell me exactly what improved service the people of Wales are getting from the increased numbers of civil servants in the National Assembly and in his own office?

Mr. Murphy: Obviously, it is for the National Assembly to answer the hon. Gentleman on the matter that he has just raised. However, on public services, I believe that the money obtained from the Government by the Assembly means that billions of pounds have gone into the health service, education and local government.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, aware that the purpose of the Wales Office is to ensure that the devolution settlement is protected, that the block grant is negotiated and that legislation affecting Wales is steered through this place. Only this Session we have had special Bills on health and education which affect Wales. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that at the last general election his own party was very much in favour of the retention of my office. That is something on which all parties in Wales agree, on the basis that we have to ensure that Wales is properly represented in the Cabinet and at all levels of government.

Denzil Davies (Llanelli): The report in the business section of today's edition of the Western Mail, to which my right hon. Friend referred, shows that optimism in manufacturing in Wales is now at a two-year high. Does not my right hon. Friend agree that it gives the lie to those—including, sadly, some Ministers—who constantly denigrate the currency of the country in which they live?

Mr. Murphy: I shall not be drawn into that argument by my right hon. Friend. I simply say that the claimant count in his constituency, Llanelli, has dropped by 1.1 per cent. The news that we have received for manufacturing industry in west Wales will benefit his constituents and many others as well.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): How many of the Secretary of State's staff are working on objective 1

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projects and financing? Does he agree that his Department will be measured on its success or otherwise in attracting objective 1 funding to Wales? Does he share my concern about the fact that Labour local authority areas such as Ogmore receive less money from objective 1 than those under Plaid Cymru control, and will he direct his staff's attentions to that?

Mr. Murphy: The claimant count in the Ogmore constituency is down 1.7 per cent. and it has experienced one of the biggest unemployment reductions of any Welsh constituency. The hon. Gentleman's party never believed that we would get the objective 1 money, but we did, and there is about half a billion pounds extra in the block grant as a result of the decisions taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. He said that he would not let Wales down. We will not let Wales down either.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that in every other arena in the private and public sectors, offices are becoming leaner, more efficient and cost-effective by using new technology? Are not Wales and the Wales Office lagging behind the rest of the UK? Is he aware, for example, that only 27 per cent. of homes in Wales are connected to the internet compared with 45 per cent. in London and 35 per cent. in the rest of England? Therefore, should he not urgently consider ways to reduce the number of pen-pushers in his office and in the Welsh Assembly and use the savings to increase the number of people and services online in Wales?

Mr. Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman is a little confused as to who does what in terms of the Wales Office and the National Assembly. We are talking about staff figures of 30 or 40—a tiny number that includes typists and people who answer the phone. My office is a slim operation and I have made it clear to the Welsh Affairs Committee that I am anxious to ensure that outside advisers have a look at the office to see whether people are being over-worked or under-worked, whichever might be the case.

I shall write to the Committee about the result of the outside investigation in some weeks, but on the basis that I know that all the people in my office work very hard and very diligently. They are responsible for the legislation affecting Wales that goes through this place and they work every hour of the day. It is important for Members of the House to understand that.

Hospital Waiting Lists

2. Mr. John Baron (Billericay): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister regarding central Government support for reducing waiting lists in Welsh hospitals. [27058]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet the First Minister to discuss matters relating to the NHS in Wales. While the policy on waiting lists in Welsh hospitals is a matter for my colleagues in the National Assembly, the Joint Ministerial Committee and regular informal contacts

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ensure that there are opportunities to share best practice between the operation of the health service in England and in Wales.

Mr. Baron: I thank the Minister for that reply, but given that the number of people in Wales waiting more than six months for their first out-patient appointment has increased eightfold since 1997, and given that the Secretary of State for Health yesterday appeared to want to disown Wales entirely, what responsibility will the Secretary of State for Wales take for resolving the looming crisis in the health service in Wales?

Mr. Touhig: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, as at 30 November, the number of people waiting for in-patient care in Wales has dropped. Indeed, the number waiting more than 18 months to be seen has fallen by over 4 per cent. What is important about reforming, changing and improving the health service in Wales is that the Labour party is committed to putting in the resources and the reform, but his party is not. Instead, it is committed to cutting public expenditure, which would mean a deterioration in the health service in Wales.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): Is my hon. Friend aware of the latest health statistics on my constituency released by the Conwy and Denbighshire trust? There are no in-patients waiting over 12 months, no orthopaedic in-patients waiting over 12 months and no cataract patients waiting over four months. Will he join me in congratulating Conwy and Denbighshire trust's management and staff on that magnificent achievement?

Mr. Touhig: Yes. I endorse what my hon. Friend says and I can tell him and the House that my colleague in the Assembly, the Minister for Health and Social Services, has introduced a number of innovations to tackle the problems of waiting lists in Wales. Under her innovation and care programme, every trust now has an out-patient improvement manager and new booking systems are being developed using patient-focused bookings whereby the patient agrees to the hospital appointment time. A pilot system is being developed to prioritise patients waiting for orthopaedic treatment. It could be a forerunner of systems for other waiting lists in Wales and it is a progressive and welcome attempt to tackle the problems that we face in the health service.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Is the Minister aware that the Welsh Assembly has, only today, announced the waiving of £41 million of loan repayments by Welsh NHS trusts and health authorities? Does he agree that that money can be used to address issues such as waiting times and other problems in the health service? Finally, does he agree that, whatever the people of Ogmore may decide, they would be advised to choose between the deliverers rather than the whingers?

Mr. Touhig: I am aware that my Assembly colleague, the Minister for Health and Social Services, has announced today that NHS trusts and health authorities can start the new year on an even keel because she has written off the debt to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I endorse what she has done. It is important to ensure that the resources be provided for front-line care services.

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Currently, £3.5 billion is being spent on the health service in Wales—£49 million extra as a result of the Chancellor's pre-Budget report.

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I have no doubt that when the electors of Ogmore come to make their choice, they will elect a candidate who represents the party that is working for Wales—the real party of Wales, not the whingers.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Although I welcome the increased health expenditure in Wales by the Government, does the Minister accept that hospital waiting lists could decrease dramatically if the Assembly stopped wasting money on projects such as the millennium arts centre in Cardiff bay and instead invested that money in the health service? Would that initiative have support in my hon. Friend's constituency, or are people queuing up in his surgery demanding yet another arts centre in Cardiff bay?

Hon. Members: Answer.

Mr. Touhig: I take note of the point that my hon. Friend and neighbouring Member of Parliament makes. The millennium centre will have a major economic impact across Wales, as it will attract tourists and employment and create industries in a fast-growing sector of the Welsh economic scene. We must bear in mind the fact that the Assembly's contribution to that project, which I think is about £37 million, is dwarfed by the £3.5 billion that is being spent on the NHS in Wales—a further £49 million as a result of the pre-Budget report. It is important that we continue to invest large sums in the health service and accompany that with the reforms that will be enacted as a result of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill, which has just finished its passage through the House.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I do not know whether the Minister has had time to read the curt and offensive remark his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made yesterday about "not doing Wales". He said that one of the pleasures of his life was that he had nothing to do with Wales at all. What are the Minister and his right hon. Friend doing about the health crisis in Ogmore, for example? The Princess of Wales hospital is short of 140 members of staff. Perhaps he, too, is happy to wash his hands of Welsh health problems.

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman's reaction sometimes paints a poor picture of the Welsh people; we do have a sense of humour and we can afford a little laugh at ourselves sometimes.

On the Princess of Wales hospital in Bridgend, I am aware that the candidate for the separatist party in Wales in the Ogmore by-election made that allegation yesterday, but so far we have not been able to trace the source of that information. As far as we are concerned, the health service in that constituency is doing very well, with a new hospital, the Royal Glamorgan general hospital, nearby. I think that the people of Ogmore will recognise that a Labour Government and a Labour-led Administration will

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deliver improvements to the health service in Wales. The hon. Gentleman's party will be thoroughly trounced and rejected come 14 February.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): But it is a Labour Secretary of State for Health who said yesterday:

With 750 nursing vacancies, 10 per cent. consultancy vacancies, a massive increase since 1997, in those seeking a first hospital appointment, elective surgery being cancelled as bed spaces run out, and even accident and emergency patients having to wait several hours for treatment in both the Heath and Llandough hospitals in Penarth, does the Minister agree that if the buck does not stop with the Secretary of State for Health, it must stop with the Prime Minister?

Mr. Touhig: I am always in favour of the Welsh people being confident and taking pride in themselves.

Sometimes the hon. Gentleman takes the biscuit. He supports a party that is committed to massive cuts in public expenditure. What would that do for the national health service in Wales? His party's record in government of running the NHS in Wales was one of hospital closures, fewer doctors, fewer nurses and fewer people treated. That situation is now being reversed, and he should rejoice in the fact that we are investing more in the health service in Wales and making a positive difference to the health of the people of Wales. It is about time that he gave credit where credit is due.

Mr. Evans: I do not rejoice in the fact that in Wales under the Labour Government we cannot say the words "national health service" unless they are followed by the word "crisis." Even senior Labour Back Benchers do not believe that the ill thought out health reforms will help. One health trust last week cancelled 25 operations at short notice, and waiting lists continue to soar.

In the Prime Minister's 1999 party conference speech, he stated that everyone would be able to see an NHS dentist by 2002. In Abergavenny, the waiting list to see an NHS dentist now includes 441 people. We know that, because the person at the bottom of the waiting list has been complaining in his local newspaper, the Abergavenny Chronicle. That person happens to be the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards). Is it not about time that the Minister said sorry to him, and to everyone else in Wales who happens to be waiting on ever increasing NHS waiting lists?

Mr. Touhig: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman comes here month after month and does not learn anything. The cancelled operations occurred in Merthyr, when 25 patients had their hospital appointments cancelled owing to winter pressures. In an organisation that last year treated 667,000 people, there are bound to be problems and cancellations. We regret that, and we are sorry for the patients involved, but we are investing the right amount of money in the health service to improve it.

With 72,000 constituents, has the hon. Gentleman never had to cancel an appointment? The hon. Gentleman is being invidious when he carps month after month about

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the problems of the health service in Wales, but offers no practical solutions. All he offers is cuts, cuts, cuts in the health service.

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