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House of Commons

Wednesday 25 February 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


London Local Authorities Bill [Lords]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [7 January].


Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): What assessment he has made of recent employment trends in Wales. [155768]

8. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the level of employment in Wales. [155775]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I am sure that all hon. Members wish to join me in a tribute to John Charles, who was one of the greatest Welsh sportsmen of all time and an international football legend.

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The labour market in Wales continues to perform well, and better than the average for all United Kingdom economic regions.

Dr. Francis : I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. He will know of the recent TUC report, "Full Employment: The Next Steps". It identifies one of the key factors that contribute to economic inactivity in Britain as the inability of unpaid carers to access work opportunities. He will also know that there are 350,000 carers in Wales, of whom 22,000 are in his and my local authority area. Given that 80 per cent. are of working age and that 80 per cent. of those wish to work, will he consider meeting carers' organisations, especially Carers Wales, to explore strategies to assist carers, especially parent carers, to access learning, training and work opportunities?

Mr. Hain: I shall be happy to meet such a delegation and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work on behalf of carers. It is especially welcome in our part of south Wales because of its long tradition of industrial illness and injury, which means that the caring role in areas such as Neath Port Talbot is vital.

Paul Flynn: The Government's employment record has been a triumph and follows the great success of the relocation over the years of civil service jobs to my constituency. We want more jobs to relocate there. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a major concern about the future of call-centre jobs and the possibility that they could be siphoned from Wales to the Asian subcontinent? Is that the fire in the basement of the Welsh economy?

Mr. Hain: I acknowledge the danger of call-centre jobs going, for example, to India. However, they are being replaced by higher quality call-centre jobs and other jobs so that, as my hon. Friend said, Wales has the highest employment for decades and the lowest unemployment for 28 years. Unemployment in Wales soared to 168,000 under the Conservative Government; it is now only 41,000 and falling. The programmes that have helped to make unemployment fall will continue under our Labour Government.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Yes, unemployment is down, but, as I am sure hon. Members know, manufacturing employment is also down. There is also a skills shortage. Will the Secretary of State do two things? First, will he ensure that those who lose their manufacturing jobs have the opportunity to retrain for jobs where there are skills shortages? Secondly, I have heard a rumour that the Government are considering allowing 14 to 18-year-olds to leave school and do vocational training for part of the week. Will he ensure that such a provision is rolled out to Wales so that our youngsters have the opportunity for proper vocational education?

Mr. Hain: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's conversion to examining the facts for a change. He acknowledges that unemployment is falling and employment is increasing. Economic inactivity is declining in Wales as a result of the excellent Labour policies that the Government and the Welsh Assembly

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Government are pursuing. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that a skills shortage persists and that it must be tackled. I would welcome any ideas that he has about that. Encouraging youngsters to spend at least part of their week in vocational work is a good idea, because it means that we will have more trained plumbers, tradesmen, bricklayers and electricians. That is part of the Government's programme. However, the £1 billion of cuts that the Tories are planning are not part of our programme. They would massacre tens of thousands of jobs in Wales.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Is the Secretary of State familiar with the report, "Not gone but forgotten", produced by Sheffield Hallam university on real unemployment in rural and north-west Wales? It shows that the average claimant count in Wales is 2.6 per cent. and that the figure for real unemployment is 11 per cent. The claimant count in Gwynedd is 2.7 per cent. and the real unemployment rate is 7.6 per cent. Conwy has a real unemployment rate 9.7 per cent., while Anglesey has a whopping real unemployment rate of 12.1 per cent. When will the Government be honest about the statistics, and when will they do something about those shocking and disgraceful unemployment figures?

Mr. Hain: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to salute the fact that his constituency has experienced the tenth biggest fall in unemployment in Britain as a result of this Labour Government's excellent policies. He correctly identifies the still troubling amount of economic inactivity, which historically has been high in west Wales and the valleys. It is, however, starting to decrease for the first time in many years, and the programmes that we are introducing will continue that trend. I am sure that he wants to join us in driving that process forward.

Denzil Davies (Llanelli) (Lab): My right hon. Friend may not have heard this yet, but in the past 24 hours a car component factory in my constituency, which is traditionally known as Camford Pressings, has announced about 90 redundancies. Many of those jobs will, in the vogue jargon, be "outsourced" to what have been described as low-cost economies in eastern Europe. Should the request be made, will he meet a small deputation from unions and management to see whether we can alleviate the consequences of that decision?

Mr. Hain: I would be happy to meet such a delegation. I know that my right hon. Friend fights very hard, and I will join him in fighting for every job in his constituency and, indeed, throughout Wales. The difference between the current situation and that of the 1980s and 1990s is that if people are unfortunate enough to face losing their jobs there are now more opportunities to find alternative employment. We can at least look forward to that prospect, but we shall seek to safeguard those jobs and any others that he brings to my attention.

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Richard Commission

2. David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): If he will make a statement on the Richard commission on devolution in Wales. [155769]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): The Richard commission was established by the Welsh Assembly Government and I understand that it is expected to report to them at the end of March.

David Burnside : I know that the Secretary of State agrees with me that lessons learned from devolution should apply to the whole of the United Kingdom and that the lessons learned in Wales are particularly important. Does he agree that administrative devolution based on the Government of Wales Act 1998 has moved from the corporate local government model to an accountable committee system combined with a voluntary coalition with collective responsibility? Does he expect the Richard commission to recommend that approach as an improvement to the operation of the Welsh Assembly? Can my part of the United Kingdom and, indeed, any other part of the United Kingdom learn lessons from that? If the approach works and is accountable, it should be applied to all parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Hain: If there is a lesson for his part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—it is that people should work together to make devolution and the Northern Ireland Executive work, and the hon. Gentleman's party should encourage that process. Developments in Wales are interesting and worth studying. The settlement has evolved under Rhodri Morgan's Government, who have established Cabinet government that differs from the original corporate design, but it would take constitutional change to complete that process.

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm his previously stated position that the recommendations of the Richard commission should be judged by their impact on the governance of Wales and on service delivery in Wales, and not by other factors?

Mr. Hain: I will favour change if a persuasive case is made for it. In particular, changing the arrangements governing the Assembly must produce a better quality of life for people in Wales. I am not in favour of constitutional "anoraking" and the chattering classes in Wales pushing forward constitutional change for its own sake. If there are changes that offer a better deal, we should adopt them.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to John Charles, who led Wales to its only appearance in the World cup finals.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): So far.

Mr. Wiggin: Indeed. Among his many achievements, John Charles played for Hereford United, where he scored more than 100 goals. His widow, Glenda, survives him, and our thoughts are with his family.

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Did the Secretary of State agree with the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, when he said that further powers for the Welsh Assembly need not necessarily be approved in a referendum, because that does not tally with the Secretary of State's words on 5 November, when he said:

Mr. Hain: It is clear to me that if a full-blown Scottish solution—with a separate legal system, tax-varying powers and all the other accompanying powers—is proposed for Wales, it would require a referendum. However, there is much difference between that situation and the existing one, which would allow change to be introduced without necessarily requiring a referendum. That is the point and that is the position that Rhodri Morgan has endorsed.

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply, because his remarks on Scotland have been a little confusing. On 13 January, he said:

But on 27 January he said:

Does the Secretary of States stand by that last remark?

Mr. Hain: The only person who appears to be confused by those two statements is the hon. Gentleman. I have been clear that if we have a full-blown Scottish solution, including tax-raising powers and all, a referendum will be required. I said that that was in the realms of speculation because I have no idea what will be in the Richard commission's report. I do not know whether it will recommend that solution or another one. When the report is published, we will consider it. In the meantime, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman, as shadow Secretary of State for Wales, was consulted by the shadow Chancellor about the cuts of £1 billion that are planned for the Welsh budget.

Mr. Wiggin: I think that the Secretary of State ruled out many things in that answer. Has he ruled out a reduction in the number of MPs? On 13 January he said:

It seems that he will not wait for Lord Richard to report: he has already made up his mind on that subject.

Mr. Hain: I am entitled to express a point of view as Secretary of State for Wales and to defend the position of the 40 excellent MPs, including the Plaid Cymru Members, who are entitled to represent their constituents here, if they are lucky enough to win. I am

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puzzled by the question. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that under a Conservative Government he would welcome a reduction in the number of MPs in Wales?

Mr. Wiggin indicated assent.

Mr. Hain: He nods. We should certainly wait for the Richard commission's report, but a number of key principles are involved, one of which is a referendum on a full-blown Scottish solution, and that is irrefutable. Another is that I do not believe that a persuasive case can be made for a reduction in the number of Welsh MPs, and I will continue to argue that case, even if he does not support it.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend accept that when the Labour Administration in the Assembly set up the Richard commission, they were in reality contracting out policy making to other political parties? Have the other political parties been equally generous and allowed us to make policies on their behalf? Will he be very surprised if the conclusions of the Richard commission reflect the views of Rhodri Morgan, the person who set it up?

Mr. Hain: I have talked to Rhodri Morgan about that and I can assure my hon. Friend that he has no more idea of what will be in the Richard commission's report than I do. I also assure him that there will be no contracting out of the final decision on any changes recommended by the Welsh Assembly Government to Westminster. The decision will be taken in the first instance by our Labour Governments and, in the second, by this Parliament. We will retain the ultimate say on whatever changes need to be made as a result of the report's recommendations—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. It is very unfair on Members.

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