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15 Jan 2003 : Column 667continued
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I meet the First Minister to discuss a range of matters, including school transport.
Mr. Edwards : Does my hon. Friend accept that the current law allows gross overcrowding on scheduled buses taking children to school and that, although overcrowding may have been a factor in the Vale of Glamorgan bus crash, it was within the legal limits? Does he agree that bus companies exploit the law and that local authorities enter into contracts in which overcrowding is in-built? Will he commend Monmouthshire county council for trying to address the problem? Does he agree that where Monmouthshire leads, the rest of the country should follow, although legislative action may well be needed?
Mr. Touhig: I am sure that the entire House was profoundly saddened by the death of 12-year-old Stuart Cunningham Jones in a bus accident in Cowbridge just before Christmas, and our sympathies go to his family. I take note of my hon. Friend's point. Last year, he secured a debate in Westminster Hall on school transport that went some way in helping to overcome the problem in Monmouthshire. The three-for-two concession allows transport operators to have three children in a seat that, in normal circumstances, would take two people, but they must be sure that the children can physically sit in the seats. There is no statistical evidence that the concession puts children at greater risk, but new legislation ensures that since 1 October 2001 all new buses coming on to the road are fitted with seat belts, and that will lead to the death of the three-for-two concession, to which I look forward.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): Many school children in Wales still have to rely on their parents for transport to school because of the lack of public transport, and that increases congestion, road danger and CO2 emissions. Will the Minister discuss with the First Minister whether all school children in Wales can have access to public transport to school?
Mr. Touhig: There is a formula for funding public transport and children's transport to school, and, in Wales, local authorities have been generous in going beyond the formula and providing additional transport facilities. The Government are committed to a massive investment in public transport. In partnership with our colleagues in the Labour-led Assembly, that will benefit children, ensuring that they travel to school as safely as possible.
Bob Spink : Is the Minister aware that the National Assembly is forcing local authorities to bear the costs of means-testing the elderly on the services that they provide to them? Does he agree that those costs will lead to cuts in services, and will he try to stop the National Assembly forcing those costs on to the local authorities?
Peter Hain: No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The National Assembly is providing extra care for elderly citizens on top of free bus travel, free eye tests and all the other initiatives that have been taken by the Labour-led Assembly to support not just pensioners but all citizens in Wales.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): I endorse what my right hon. Friend says, but will he look at another aspect of pensioner living standards in Wales, in particular the plight of the former Allied Steel and Wire workers from Cardiff? Will he join me in welcoming the fact that Celsa has announced that it will reopen the steel plant in Cardiff and create several hundred jobs? Will he pledge to use his considerable reputation as a fixer and problem solver to look at the whole issue of the loss of the occupational pensions of hundreds of workers from Cardiff?
Peter Hain: I acknowledge the important points that my hon. Friend makes, and he will be involved in an important meeting next week with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to take the matter forward. The plight of the pensioners of Allied Steel and Wire in Cardiff is extremely important and we shall work hard to solve it.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Are not pensioners in Wales doubly disadvantaged because they face an extended means test as a deliberate effect of Government policy but are also less able to contribute to occupational pensions because of the lower rate of economic activity among older workers in Wales, 61 per cent. of whom are economically active compared with 75 per cent. in London and the south-east?
Peter Hain: We are injecting record help for pensioners in Wales. In October, an extra 250,000 pensioners in Wales will benefit from the pension tax credit, which will support thrifty, hard-working pensioners, some of whom have small savings or a small occupational pension. That is part of an increase in support that, by October, will bring pensioners in Wales between #21 and #30 extra on average a week. The hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that, and the fact that, if his plans for an independent Wales were ever introduced, all that support would disappear.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): I am aware of this ongoing matter. Issues related to the current guarantee arrangements are under discussion by the Department of Trade and Industry and the trustees of the mineworkers pension scheme and the British Coal staff superannuation scheme. As a representative of an area in which many former miners live, I will certainly continue to take a keen interest in this matter.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank my hon. Friend for his response. I do not underestimate the influence of the Wales Office among his Cabinet colleagues. I therefore urge him to continue to push strongly on this issue so that we get more money back into the pockets of miners and their families and into the mining communities, too.
Mr. Touhig: As the House will be aware, the Government guarantee that miners' pensions will rise in line with inflation even if the pension scheme were in deficit. The Government, of course, have a 50 per cent. share of the surplus from the pension scheme. Any changes to the pension scheme, as far as I am concerned, should benefit the pensioners, the miner pensioners and their widows. That should be our top priority.
Mr. Bryant : I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that the rail operators in Wales seem to find it impossible to provide a decent railway service after rugby matches at the millennium stadium. Is he also aware that the last train leaving Cardiff for the valleys is at 10.30 pm, well before most shows at the new millennium centre will finish? Is not it time that we banged some more heads together to make sure that the millennium centre does
Peter Hain: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, last night, I was told by both the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority and the Minister for Transport that, despite all their efforts, the necessary return London services to the England-Wales international next month could not be provided. That is a bitter disappointment. The rail companies have failed abysmally to provide the standard of service that Wales and Cardiff expect, and I have told them that they had better get their act together. Meanwhile, I have been promised temporary arrangements, including extra rail shuttles to Newport, to link with additional coach services. The 10,000 English fans who usually return by train, however, will be guaranteed a warm Welsh welcomeincluding in the Rhondda, I am sureif they decide to stay overnight in Wales in many of the communities that will welcome them.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The Secretary of State knows that the Strategic Rail Authority is looking to cut, under the new franchise for Wales, rail services in coalfield areas and the rest of Wales by 10 or 20 per cent. He has made much of the fact that we cannot get back out of Cardiff after hours, but what does he say about this huge reduction in services promised for Wales? With regard to the Strategic Rail Authority, will he insist that there cannot be any reduction in the funding for, or provision of, rail services in Wales?
Peter Hain: As the hon. Gentleman knows, funding for rail services across Britain, including Wales, has been rising from the abysmally low level that we inherited in 1997. Over a two-year period, it has risen from #3.1 billion last year to #4.3 billion next year. Certainly, the issue that he raised will be addressed.
Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): The Secretary of State will recognise that one way of overcoming deprivation and regenerating communities such as Blaenau Gwent is to improve the communication system. Although we welcome the planned reintroduction of the railway service between Ebbw Vale and Cardiff, does he accept that the plans are inadequate as long as they exclude Newport, where many of our people work, while many people come from Newport to Blaenau Gwent for jobs and leisure opportunities?