Welsh Grand Committee
Wednesday 28 November 2001
[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chairman: I wish to call as many people as possible, so I ask hon. Members to ask brief supplementary questions and Ministers to provide concise answers.
The Secretary of State was asked—
National Economic Development Strategy
1. Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): What discussions have taken place with the First Secretary to ensure the effective implementation of the national economic development strategy.
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I meet the First Secretary regularly on a range of matters.
Mr. David: I am grateful for that positive response by my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that the indivisibility of the British and Welsh economies shows that the measures that the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced in his pre-Budget report, including new support for research and development, and widening the 10 per cent. corporation tax band for small businesses, will have an important impact on ensuring that the national economic development strategy in Wales is implemented effectively?
Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend has given me the answer to his own question, but I very much agree with him. We cannot distinguish between the success of the British and Welsh economies, in so far as the strength and stability of the economy of the United Kingdom has a good effect on the economy of Wales. I particularly welcome his point about research and development, because that is a central part of the national economic plan that the Welsh Assembly will debate in the forthcoming weeks and months.
2. Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside): If he will make a statement on the operation of the new deal in Wales.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): The new deal has been a success story in Wales. More than 81,000 people have benefited from the scheme and so far 42 per cent. have found new jobs. Last week I was in Caerphilly, where I presented the 25,000th youngster who had entered the new deal with a certificate to mark that occasion.
Mark Tami: I thank the Minister for that response, which demonstrates the remarkable success of the new deal in addressing unemployment in Wales through investment amounting to some £30 million this year. Is he aware that the level of commitment by the Government has enabled Wales to achieve higher success rates in the new deal than Scotland or England?
Mr. Touhig: I can tell my hon. Friend that unemployment in his constituency is at a 20-year low. The north-east Wales district Employment Service is hosting a tailored pathway scheme to help 18 to 24-year-olds into work through the new deal. He is right to point out that in Wales we have had greater success than other parts of the UK. Indeed, of those who joined the programme and secured jobs, 42 per cent. have been successful in Wales, compared with 40 per cent. in England and 38 per cent. in Scotland.
New Deal (Over-50s)
3. Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): What assessment he has made of the impact of the new deal for the over-50s in Wales.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): It is for the Department for Work and Pensions, the Employment Service in Wales and the Wales new deal taskforce to assess the impact of the new deal for the over-50s in Wales. However, my officials regularly observe meetings of the new deal taskforce, and I shall attend one in Cardiff early in January.
Mr. Smith: May I tell my hon. Friend that the new deal for people of 50-plus in my constituency has been a great success? There has been a 28 per cent. fall in the number of people over 50 who are unemployed, and 14 new placements have been made in the past month alone. That has been a big success with what was probably considered the most problematic group of unemployed people in the labour market.
A more difficult group is the long-term unemployed, who are sometimes considered unemployable, and are very difficult to get back into work. Can we apply the same successful methods to employing that lost generation, who were so damaged by the Thatcher era?
Mr. Touhig: I can tell my hon. Friend that two positive new deal 50-plus events recently took place in his constituency, one of which attracted 200 participants and 20 companies. Morrisons held an event that resulted in the employment of 17 people, nine of whom had disabilities; three other people got jobs elsewhere. In Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, 82 people have joined the new deal through the 50-plus scheme, and work is continuing on that. I recently met members of the action team in Carmarthen who are pioneering important projects to find new and innovative ways of helping those over 50 get back into work.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): We welcome the extension of the new deal to the over-50s as an important addition to the package. Does the Minister accept that the real problem facing people in that category is age discrimination? They have skills and abilities, and could easily fit into new jobs and have a better a role in the workplace if the Government outlawed such discrimination. Having disallowed a private Member's Bill on the outlawing of age discrimination, do the Government have plans to introduce legislation that outlaws age discrimination on the same basis as sex discrimination? That would give the over-50s in Wales not only the new deal but the best deal.
Mr. Touhig: I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question—that people who are 50-plus have found great difficulty in returning to work. The Government schemes have been positive measures and combat age discrimination to some degree. Before I came to this place, in my previous incarnation, I remember employing people who were 60-plus. They did good jobs and in our industry, that worked out successfully. It is important to take on board the need to ensure that those who are 50-plus are not written off, but are given a new chance. New deal plus is making a contribution to that; we have made a start.
4. Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): What discussions he has had with the Assembly First Secretary concerning the future of post offices in the deprived areas of Wales.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend regularly meets the First Secretary to discuss a wide range of issues relating to deprived areas in Wales.
Mrs. Lawrence: My hon. Friend may be aware that the money available for rural post offices in deprived areas in Wales is provided directly by the Department of Trade and Industry, but the £4 million available to urban post offices in deprived areas is part of the block grant to the Assembly. When he meets the First Secretary, will he impress on him the need for passing that money down to urban post offices in deprived areas such as Hubberston in Milford Haven, in my constituency?
Mr. Touhig: I will, and I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will take those comments on board. Last November, a formal requirement was made that the Post Office maintain the rural network, and steps are being taken to avoid closures in both urban and rural areas. The latest figures from the Post Office show that closures in urban and rural Wales are slowing down considerably.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Is the Minister aware that many post offices have arrangements with banks, so that bank facilities can be directly accessed, but that some, including NatWest, have not yet entered that scheme? Will he do what he can to ensure that, at least in Wales, banks that are not yet involved are willing to participate on a trial basis?
Mr. Touhig: Yes, I shall certainly do that. In my constituency I collaborated with NatWest, when it closed a branch, in transferring its services to the local post office. Across Wales there are far more post offices than banks, and we need to retain access to banking services if we possibly can.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn): My hon. Friend will be aware that in January many members of the European Union, including Ireland, will join the single currency. Does he agree that there is an opportunity for post offices in deprived areas such as the ferry ports of Holyhead and Pembroke, to take full advantage of that—through bureaux de change, for example? That would also help post offices in the surrounding rural areas.
Mr. Touhig: I certainly hope that the Post Office will respond as my hon. Friend says. When I recently visited Holyhead with him, I became aware that about 2.5 million visitors from the Republic of Ireland pass through it each year. It would be beneficial to the local economy if more of them could be persuaded to stop and use Holyhead services. We hope to achieve that.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Bearing in mind the fact that more than 100 post offices have closed in the past three years—and the importance, as the Minister said, of maintaining the network—and the fact that that affects Wales disproportionately worse than the rest of the UK because of the rurality factor, what initiatives are the Minister's office pursuing in the Welsh framework to maintain the important network for our communities?
Mr. Touhig: In April to June this year, 12 post offices closed in Wales—two in urban areas and 10 in rural areas. The latest figures from 5 November show that the trend has begun to slow. My right hon. Friend and I will do everything we possibly can in discussions with our colleagues in the Assembly, working in partnership with the Administration there, to persuade the Post Office to take advantage of the initiatives that the Government have put forward. We will also work to fund the support, so that we can maintain the network. I am very conscious of how important it is to so many parts of rural Wales.