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House of Commons

Wednesday 24 March 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Affordable Housing

1. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): What representations he has received on the provision of affordable housing in Wales; and what discussions he has had on this with the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales. [162542]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I receive representations from time to time on this subject. It and other matters are discussed regularly with Ministers in the National Assembly.

Mr. Llwyd : I thank the Minister for that less than illuminating reply. He will know that in the debate in the Welsh Grand Committee this morning there was considerable consensus on the problems of affordable housing in Wales. Is he prepared to meet colleagues and me, as well as Members from other political parties, to discuss that important issue and see whether we can come up with answers to this serious problem?

Mr. Touhig: I welcome the comments that the hon. Gentleman made to me in the Welsh Grand Committee and, I believe, his support for what the Government are trying to do as a result of the Barker report, which was published last week. The Government have already introduced an exemption from stamp duty on property transactions under £150,000 in designated areas, which benefits 363 disadvantaged areas in Wales. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, when enacted, will require local planning authorities to take on board community views when they prepare local development plans. A number of initiatives are in the pipeline, but it would be beneficial to have a widespread discussion about how to overcome that difficulty in Wales.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend appreciate the fact that in a constituency such as mine the cost of housing is high, and every effort should be made to encourage housing associations to help people who do not necessarily want to rent to part-rent,

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part-buy. Such initiatives by, for example, the Gwerin housing association are most welcome. Can my hon. Friend speak with the First Minister to see how such schemes can be encouraged?

Mr. Touhig: I welcome the point that my hon. Friend makes, and commend the homebuy scheme produced by the National Assembly. There is no limit on the proportion of resources that local authorities can spend on homebuy schemes, and rural authorities have allocated £2.6 million to them this year. Such initiatives are important, because we must try to make sure that more people can access affordable housing; and I believe that they will be beneficial.

Special Constables

2. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the number of special constables in Wales. [162543]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about matters affecting Wales. Together with police officers and community safety officers, special constables play an important part in modern-day policing, and the Government have recently announced plans to increase their numbers.

Mr. Amess : The Minister will know that there is great concern among the public about the lack of visibility of those responsible for law enforcement in this country. In view of that, and the fact that the number of Welsh special constables has been cut by 50 per cent. since 1997, is the Minister content? If he is not, what are he and his Department doing about it?

Mr. Touhig: The Government have launched a national television campaign to recruit extra specials, but in Wales we have a record number of police constables, and we also have 126 community support officers. We are pushing forward with a recruitment drive for specials, as I said, but it ill behoves an Opposition Member to comment on police numbers, because when the leader of his party was Home Secretary, police numbers declined by 1,000.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): Representing a Welsh constituency, and knowing what goes on in Wales, may I ask whether my hon. Friend is aware of the successful launch of an initiative by North Wales police to recruit more special constables? Its target is 25 new recruits a year, and is he aware that it is on target to meet that figure?

Mr. Touhig: Yes, I am aware of the efforts made by North Wales police. Specials play a key role in representing their local communities in the police service, gathering important community intelligence to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. In addition to 588 specials, we now have 7,366 police officers in Wales, together with 125 community safety officers, which is a record.

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Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): There are only 588 special constables in the whole of Wales, and I was disappointed by the Minister's rather complacent answer. Is he still prepared to maintain that nobody in his Department did anything to prompt the letter from the chief constable to me from which he quoted last time we had Welsh questions—nobody?

Mr. Touhig: That is a grave and serious allegation, and there is no basis at all for it. I made the point to the hon. Gentleman in the last Welsh questions that my right hon. Friend had nothing to do with the letter from the chief constable, and I reiterate that that letter had nothing to do with the Wales Office. I urge him to withdraw that remark immediately.

Mr. Wiggin: Can I withdraw a question, Mr. Speaker? The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety admitted that the views of the chief constable of North Wales were contrary to Government policy. The wife of the deputy chief constable of North Wales has called for a Home Office inquiry into the way in which the chief constable handled allegations against her husband that may have led to his suicide attempt. Will the Minister support her call—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That has nothing to do with the question before us.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): The issue of special constables was raised by a very able young constituent of mine called Alistair during a recent visit by Baroness Scotland to Pencoed school, as part of the big conversation. While I applaud the work that is now going on to recruit special constables, will my hon. Friend join me in stressing the element of partnership? It is not only special constables but community support officers, the increasing numbers of police and the community who have a role in making the sort of communities that we all want.

Mr. Touhig: As I have travelled around Wales, I have been greatly encouraged by community activities involving the police service and other organisations, community groups in particular, aimed at building stronger and better communities and overcoming some of the types of antisocial behaviour that many of our communities face. I pay tribute to the police service for the important part they play in that.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Special constables in my area are aware of the greater burden being put on them with very little reward. That is not surprising, considering the appalling financial settlement that Dyfed-Powys police received in the latest police financial settlement. Will the Minister comment on that?

Mr. Touhig: I do not believe that Dyfed-Powys had a bad settlement at all. Funding for the police properly remains a top priority for the Government, and there has been an increase of £403 million, or 4.2 per cent. in cash terms, for 2004–05. The police service faces considerable demands on its work force in terms of the responsibilities they carry out, but the Government,

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working in partnership with our colleagues in the Assembly and with local authorities, have made sure that the police service is well funded.

Renewable Energy

3. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): If he will discuss with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the establishment in north Wales of a research centre for the manufacture of renewable energy products. [162544]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I will certainly raise that with ministerial colleagues, because the Government are committed to their target of producing a far greater proportion of the UK's energy supply from renewable sources, with north Wales making a key contribution to that goal.

Ian Lucas : In the past fortnight my right hon. Friend visited the Sharp manufacturing plant in my constituency, where photovoltaic cells for the whole of Europe are to be produced. Is he aware that in Germany more than 130,000 jobs in the manufacture of photovoltaic cells have been created in the past five years? As we are looking forward to more house-building projects in the UK, is not the time right for seizing the initiative on photovoltaic cells, developing research and providing the infrastructure to make sure that when new houses are built, they are supplied with renewable energy sources constructed in Wales?

Mr. Hain: I agree with my hon. Friend. May I say how impressed I was with Sharp's new investment, creating 90 jobs, to build photovoltaic cells in Wrexham, when I visited the plant with him? It is a path-breaking initiative which, I hope, will create a centre of excellence in north Wales of the kind that he describes. He is right that we should find a way—this was raised in the energy White Paper of last year—of designing into new-build housing projects photovoltaic solar energy and other renewable energy sources.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): In Germany, a price was set for the sale of renewable energy into the market. That is not the case in this country, and we do not even have net metering to allow householders to generate their own electricity, if necessary, from small-scale embedded renewable energy. As a former Energy Minister, what is the Secretary of State doing in discussions on the Energy Bill, which is shortly to come before the House, to ensure that we have opportunities for job creation in Wales for wind generation, tide and wave generation and the very useful photovoltaic cells being produced?

Mr. Hain: I welcome the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I know that he has taken a close and informed interest in these matters. We want Wales to become a centre for green energy. We need to focus on the issues that he raises, which is why the Government have made available nearly £350 million for support for renewable energy projects right across Britain. Wales should claim its share of that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned wind power. It is important that there be greater support from local communities and local authorities for planning consent

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to take forward wind power projects. Wales has a great deal to offer if we are to take a lead in renewable energy in that way.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Does the Secretary of State recognise the mounting concern that the Government will not meet their own renewable energy targets? Does he share the concern that not enough investment is being made in that industry, and admit that far too great an emphasis is being placed on wind farms to generate electricity, rather than any other form of new technology?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that complementing wind power are biomass, photovoltaics and solar energy. An exciting new initiative called wave dragon is being developed around Milford Haven, involving a partnership between a Welsh company and a Danish company, which seeks to harness the power around the coasts of Wales using the newest technology. There are many different renewable energy opportunities in which the Government are providing a lead. May I say, in the nicest possible fashion, that the shadow Chancellor plans to cut support for renewable energy and other such programmes in the Department of Trade and Industry?

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