Pre-Budget Statement (Implications for Wales)

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): It is not just the fate of post offices in deprived areas, but the fate of post offices in general that concerns me. Can we ensure that the Government are not giving with one hand and taking with another? Will the Minister give an assurance that no supplementary business rates will ever fall on any post office in Wales?

Mr. Touhig: That would be a matter not for me but for the Administration in the Assembly— but I can say that the Government are committed to maintaining the nationwide network of post offices. Indeed, we accepted all 24 recommendations of the performance and innovation unit report, which was published last year, and as a result £270 million of new investment will go into the service in the next three years.


5. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What consultations he has had with colleagues in other Departments with regard to Cardiff's bid to be European capital city of culture 2008.[16513]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I have discussed it with Ministers in the United Kingdom Government and with Ministers in the National Assembly for Wales.

Kevin Brennan: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree with me, and with the ``Productivity in the UK'' report, which was published this month by the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry, that there are strong links between the economic performance of cities and their surrounding regions, and that recent academic work suggests cities can underpin the success of regional economies as a whole? In any discussions with his colleagues and other Departments, will he emphasise the fact that in recent years Cardiff has, as we all know, successfully held important sporting events such as the rugby World cup and the Network Q rally, and political events such as the European conference—and that it can also hold cultural events successfully if is given the chance? Will he emphasise that point to them?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, of course I will. My hon. Friend is right to draw the Committee's attention to the bid by Cardiff, our capital city, to become the European capital city of culture in 2008. Cardiff may soon be the British capital of rugby, if we do reasonably well, as we did last week—we may not have won, but it was not a bad match. As a vibrant capital city it has a unique profile, and it is also the capital of a country with a distinct cultural language. The Assembly and I—and, I am sure, the other members of the Committee—are backing the bid.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Can the Minister tell me what role the visual arts centre in Cardiff, and the $7 million of public money invested in that building, will play as a part of Cardiff's bid as the city of culture, to emphasise to our friends throughout Europe how popular the arts are?

Mr. Murphy: I know that this is a matter very close to my hon. Friend's heart, and he may rest assured that I will raise it with the Minister for Culture, Sport and Welsh Language in the Assembly.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): As we all know, Cardiff is a suburb of Swansea. Will the Minister therefore give a shout of surprised joy at the fact that in spite of the traditional rivalry between the cities, Swansea city council, on behalf of the citizens of Swansea, has pledged its total support for Cardiff's bid, so this really is an all-Wales effort?

Mr. Murphy: Of course I do not agree with my right hon. Friend's first point, but I very much take to heart what he said about Swansea's support for Cardiff's bid.

Audit Commission

6. Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): What recent discussions he has held with the Audit Commission concerning its work in Wales.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I intend to meet the Comptroller of the Audit Commission shortly, to discuss the full range of his organisation's work in Wales, including the fruits of the Audit Commission's strategic consultation paper, ``Delivering Improvement Together'', and its role in promoting best value in local Government.

Mr. Jones: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that the whole Committee will agree that the Audit Commission does invaluable work in independently assessing how public money is spent, and ensuring that we get good value for that public money. In my right. hon. Friend's talks with the Audit Commission, will he have time to discuss its document, ``Changing gear'', which was published in September? The document states that of the local authority services surveyed in England and Wales, in England 63 per cent. were likely to improve the level of service, whereas in Wales only 33 per cent. were likely to do so. Will he ask the Audit Commission what the problem is with local government services in Wales?

Mr. Murphy: There is no question but that I shall discuss that document and other matters with the Comptroller of the Audit Commission. I take my hon. Friend's point regarding comparisons to heart. On Monday, I met the Assembly Minister for Finance, Local Government and Communities, the chair of the Welsh Local Government Association and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. We discussed improvements in efficiency, effectiveness and delivery in local government services in Wales. The Assembly and the Government take that matter seriously, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it.

Steel Industry

7. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What recent discussions he has held with the steel industry about steel workers' safety[16515]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I regularly meet representatives from Welsh industry, including representatives from the steel industry, to discuss a range of issues affecting business in Wales.

Paul Flynn: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) for the quiet and sensitive way in which he has sought to bring solace to the bereaved in the steel works community in south Wales, which stretches along the coastal belt and into the valleys. When I first worked in the steel industry in 1953, conditions were hellish and accidents were tragically common. There have been huge improvements in safety over the years, but when the inquiry is complete and we know the cause of the recent accident, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State work to ensure that safety is the prime priority, and there are no rival considerations? I am sure that he will.

Mr. Murphy: I could not agree more. My hon. Friend has a long history of involvement in the steel industry; indeed, he worked in it for many years. I also agree with his remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, who did a tremendously important job in helping the tight community in Port Talbot to face its terrible tragedy. Some weeks ago I visited Port Talbot, and I assure my hon. Friend that when the inquiries are complete—the sooner, the better—I will examine them carefully. In the meantime, we sympathise with the families who have been bereaved and those who are ill, and we await the outcome of the inquiries.

Livestock Markets

8. Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): What discussions he has had with the Agriculture Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales about reopening livestock markets in Wales. [16516]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): The responsibility for reopening the livestock markets lies primarily with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales remains closely in touch with developments and is working with the Assembly Minister for Rural Affairs. Discussions are currently taking place with the wide-ranging interests that are concerned about the future of the livestock sector.

Hywel Williams: Does the Minister agree that there is a pressing need for markets to be opened, particularly for cattle? With exports restarting and prices beginning to rise, can he tell us the prospects for reopening the markets before Christmas?

Mr. Touhig: I share the hon. Gentleman's welcome for the fact that the export markets are starting to open up again, because it is important that we renew the markets that we lost during the foot and mouth crisis. The Assembly recently published a future strategy for farming, which sets out its vision for the development of farming. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about livestock markets, because in my constituency there are several hill farmers who are finding it difficult to continue their business. I have discussed the matter with the Assembly Minister for Rural Affairs, because auctioneers and others deliver valuable help to farmers and the farming community. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that the markets will reopen by Christmas, but the matter is under constant review and we shall do everything that we can in our discussions with both DEFRA and colleagues in the Assembly to try to achieve that as quickly as possible.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): Does the Minister agree that many of the difficulties experienced during the foot and mouth campaign were a result of the extended chain of communication involving DEFRA, the Assembly and the people working on the ground? Does he also agree that decisions on the livestock market would be better taken by the Minister in Cardiff, having regard to advice received from local people and without the advice, and confusion, of DEFRA?

Mr. Touhig: There are difficulties where there are longer lines of communication than would otherwise be acceptable, but the working relationships between Ministers in DEFRA and the Minister for Rural Affairs in Cardiff have been very close. They and their officials have met many times to try to solve the problems. There is an on-going discussion about the difficulties with lines of communication, but our first priority is to ensure that we eradicate foot and mouth disease.

Pharmacy Services

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Prepared 28 November 2001