2 Nov 2005 : Column 809

House of Commons

Wednesday 2 November 2005

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Rail Freight

1. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): What representations he has received on encouraging rail freight in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [22525]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): As part of the public consultation on the draft Transport (Wales) Bill, I received several comments about rail freight. I support the Welsh Assembly Government in encouraging the carriage of more freight by rail.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Given his comments, will he please use his   good offices to ensure that the Conwy Valley line is   strengthened for freight? A freight support grant is available, but I understand that there may be a complication on the Cheshire side. That needs to be addressed before the slate waste disposal scheme can work. It is very much a win-win scheme, which uses slate waste for building materials. It will be good for the environment and in every way. I urge him to do what he can to assist the project.

Mr. Hain: I am happy to do that and to agree with the hon. Gentleman. The scheme is dear to his heart and that of his constituency and I support it, as do the Welsh Assembly Government, who are looking into the costings that Network Rail has provided. So far, the five grant-supported projects for freight on rail in Wales have taken about 24,500 lorry journeys off Welsh roads each year. That bears out his admirable point about the environment.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I welcome the   reduction in the use of road haulage, but does the Secretary of State accept that we are still under-utilising the rail network in Wales? For example, far too much road haulage goes into mid-Wales when there is a perfectly acceptable rail line. Would he be willing to
2 Nov 2005 : Column 810
hear representations about how local people and experts in mid-Wales, who understand those matters, envisage the enhancement of rail freight in and out of mid-Wales?

Mr. Hain: Either the Under-Secretary or I will be happy to see the hon. Gentleman about that and to hear any representations. However, I am sure that he acknowledges that the Government are spending a huge amount of additional money on investment in the railways. Indeed, we are spending £87 million every week to improve the railways. There has been a 37 per cent. increase in the amount of freight moved by rail since we came to power. That figure will continue to rise—I hope that it does in Wales, too.


2. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the importance to the Welsh economy of the A14 road. [22526]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): None specifically about the A14, but I recognise that it is a route of strategic importance used by hauliers travelling between Wales and the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe.

Mr. Hollobone: Kettering may not be in Wales, but it has an annual eisteddfod. The Under-Secretary is right to identify the A14 as a major strategic road. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity of the next discussion in Cabinet about the UK roads network to press for urgent measures to relieve the congestion on the A14 around Kettering?

Nick Ainger: The hon. Gentleman knows that in his Adjournment debate the Minister for Local Government responded to his concerns about the road. The A14 is part of the trans-European road network. It has a strategic role in connecting the ports of Felixstowe and Harwich not only with Wales, but various parts of   the UK. I understand that the Highways Agency is   considering the possibility of widening the A14 Kettering bypass. That should tackle the problems that he highlighted.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Understanding, as the Under-Secretary does, the importance of the road network to the Welsh economy, does he agree that dualling the A40 through Pembrokeshire is vital for the long-term economic success of our county? Does he further agree that the Welsh Assembly's decision not to support that important project is economically illiterate?

Nick Ainger: No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's assessment, given that the bulk of the upgrading of the A40 is in my constituency, as he well   knows. Although I have some sympathy for the arguments that have been presented, the cost benefits of dualling the section all the way from St. Clears to Haverfordwest do not stand up. It is far better to get the improvements in place as quickly as possible at a reasonable cost so that we experience the benefits of the road improvement.
2 Nov 2005 : Column 811

Office Allowances

3. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Pursuant to his oral answer of 20 July 2005, Official Report, columns 1240–41, what discussions he has had with the National Assembly for Wales Government on the use made of office allowances. [22527]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Periodic ones. I believe that regional list Assembly Members are abusing taxpayers' money by setting up rival offices to constituency Members by whom they were defeated to help them to reverse the results next time.

Ian Lucas: Members' allowances in this House have been in the news during the past week. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be vigilant in ensuring that expenditure incurred by Members of Parliament is used to serve our constituents rather than to promote the particular interests of individual political parties?

Mr. Hain: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It   is significant that, of the 20 list Assembly Members   representing regions of Wales rather than constituencies, 15 have established constituency offices, funded by taxpayers, in the seats where they were last defeated, in order to run campaigns to try to reverse those results. That is a misuse of taxpayers' money. It is interesting that in Scotland and New Zealand, there are different—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Can the Secretary of State explain why this is his responsibility?

Mr. Hain: Because the Government of Wales Bill will deal with this matter when I introduce it in a few months' time.

Mr. Speaker: Then we will deal with it when the Government of Wales Bill comes before us.

Welsh Language Act

4. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): If he will make a statement on the application of the Welsh Language Act 1993 to the work of (a) central Government Departments and (b) other public bodies. [22528]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): Government Departments are not required to have a Welsh language scheme. However, it is our practice to observe the principle that, in the conduct of public business in Wales, the Welsh and English languages should be treated on a basis of equality. Public bodies that provide services in Wales can be required by the Welsh Language Board to prepare a Welsh language scheme.

Michael Fabricant: I thank the Minister for his answer and I am grateful for the fact that he supports the Welsh Language Act, notwithstanding the fact that Rhodri Morgan and others voted against it at the time. Does the Minister acknowledge that there are many people such as myself, who had a Welsh-speaking mother, who would dearly love to learn the language that was
2 Nov 2005 : Column 812
originally the British language? Will he join me in praising organisations such as the many Wlpans, and Nant Gwrtheyrn on the Llyn peninsula, which provide training of that kind?

Nick Ainger: I congratulate all those who have been part of the remarkably successful turnaround in the fortunes of the Welsh language. It now plays a more prominent role in our national life than at any time in living memory. According to the 2001 census, 21 per cent. of the population of Wales can now speak Welsh, compared with 19 per cent. in 1991. Twenty-six per cent. of people under 35 can now speak Welsh, an increase of nine percentage points on 1991. In 2006, Welsh will also appear on all UK passports.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we have demonstrated a commitment to the Welsh language, with even more people speaking it and being encouraged to speak it, without feeling that their Government and the people who look after them are not interested in it? Since 2003, the Assembly has invested £28 million in achieving the goal of a truly bilingual Wales and I think that we should applaud that.

Nick Ainger: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Some of those who argue for a new Welsh language Act should be very careful. The reason that the language has had this renaissance is that the existing legislation is not prescriptive and places no statutory requirements on the private sector. Those who argue for new provisions should be careful, because trying to impose such statutory requirements on private businesses would be detrimental to the progress that we have made.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Following the chaos surrounding the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's failure to produce a Welsh version of the licensing application form, will the Minister consider including in his bluffer's guide to devolution—which I understand he is circulating among his Cabinet colleagues—an idiot's guide to the Welsh Language Act, so that no further abuse by central Government of the Welsh language can take place?

Nick Ainger: There was certainly no abuse by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in relation to the Licensing Act 2003. It worked very productively with the Welsh Language Board, over a very short period, to address that particular problem. Currently, nine Government Departments have approved schemes, and the Department for Constitutional Affairs and Her   Majesty's Revenue and Customs are actively preparing schemes in consultation with the Welsh Language Board. The board has issued notifications to a further three Departments—the Department of Health, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Central Office of Information—to bring forward Welsh language schemes.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Why did the chairman of the Welsh Language Board write that it

2 Nov 2005 : Column 813

Is it because Rhodri Morgan's plans to absorb the Wales Tourist Board, the Welsh Language Board and the Welsh Development Agency are in tatters? Despite the   rude response thrown back at the Secretary of State, will the Minister again give Rhodri Morgan the helpful advice to think long and hard before proceeding?

Nick Ainger: The hon. Gentleman might not agree with the proposal to bring the Welsh Language Board within the direct remit of the Welsh Assembly Government, but colleagues on the Labour Benches and on the other side of the House want to end the quango state in Wales. That is part of that programme. Bringing the work of developing and promoting the language into the Welsh Assembly Government will ensure that that is mainstreamed across all aspects of government and activity in Wales.

Bill Wiggin: Why does the Minister not agree that Rhodri Morgan's plans are in tatters? The Minister talks about the quango state, but the Assembly voted to send back the plans for the Welsh Language Board until the functions were properly explained. Jane Hutt refused to confirm whether the Wales Tourist Board will be replaced by a Welsh Assembly Department for tourism and leisure, and recently the Secretary of State told the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) that the   Welsh language is in better health than it has been for a long time. I hope that it is in better health than the people of Wales, as the number of fluent Welsh speakers is only just larger than the number of people on health waiting lists.

Nick Ainger: Those are obviously matters for the Welsh Assembly Government, but they have made it absolutely clear that the merger is there to strengthen the support for the language across government in Wales and to improve democratic accountability. The motion that the Tories, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats supported, in some unholy alliance, only asked the Assembly Government to do what they intended to do in any case—that is, deal appropriately with the regulatory functions of the Welsh Language Board.

Next Section IndexHome Page