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House of Commons

Wednesday 22 March 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


The unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker having been announced, the Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Small and Medium-sized Enterprises

1. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next plans to meet representatives of the Welsh business community to discuss the impact of central Government regulation on small and medium-sized enterprises in Wales. [59246]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular meetings with representatives of the business community to discuss issues that concern them, most recently during our recent visits to north Wales. In addition, my right hon. Friend will be addressing the CBI North Wales annual dinner in May.

Mr. Bellingham: Will the Minister confirm that business investment and productivity are falling and that England and Wales have both fallen in the world competitiveness tables? Whatever else happens in his discussions with representatives of small and medium-sized enterprises, will he confirm to them that the Government will ensure that Britain keeps its individual opt-out from the working time directive? Will he confirm that to the House today?

Nick Ainger: The hon. Gentleman, who regularly asks that question at Wales questions, still does not accept that Wales is doing extremely well. Welsh private sector output grew for the 35th month in succession in February 2006, according to the Royal Bank of Scotland, and 4,800 businesses started up across Wales in the third quarter of 2005, a rise of 7 per cent. on the previous quarter. Wales is doing extremely well, and small businesses in Wales are doing extremely well.

Alcohol-related Crime

2. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the incidence of alcohol-related crime in the past 12 months in north Wales. [59248]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): It is clear that the Government's approach to alcohol misuse and alcohol-related violence is working, and that police and local partners are getting their tactics right.
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Mrs. Williams: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the press speculation following the passing of the Licensing Act 2003 has proved incorrect? Indeed, the figures from North Wales police show a significant drop in alcohol-related crime. Is that the general pattern throughout Wales? Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating all the divisions of North Wales police on their hard work on the Home Office alcohol misuse initiative, which proves that such measures can pay dividends if we all work as equal partners to ensure that our communities benefit from them?

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that a fantastic job has been done in north Wales by the North Wales police, and I join her in congratulating them. In fact, there has been an 11 per cent. fall in all violent crime in England and Wales during the recent alcohol misuse enforcement campaign. All those lurid allegations from the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru—who formed an unholy alliance on this issue—have proved totally groundless, as the Licensing Act has had a beneficial effect in our local communities.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): One of the lurid allegations that we were making was that alcohol-related crime would increase late at night. I spoke to a representative of North Wales police this morning and learned that, since the Act came in, there has already been a 4 per cent. increase in alcohol-related crime between midnight and 2 am, and a 2 per cent. increase between 2 am and 4 am. Things are not as rosy as the Secretary of State suggests, and what he has said does not add up with what North Wales police have told me. I wonder who is right. Will the Secretary of State also undertake to review the temporary event notices, under which licences can be granted for 10 events a year, simply by giving 48 hours notice to the police?

Mr. Hain: Obviously, I shall be happy to look at that question for the hon. Gentleman. However, I simply do not accept his selective use of statistics, either for north Wales or right across England and Wales, where the picture is very different from all the ritual expectations whipped up by his party, along with its alliance partners in the Assembly, the Conservatives.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): We all know that alcohol-related crime now costs this country more than £7.3 billion a year, and that more than 60 per cent. of male prisoners now have serious alcohol-related problems and need detox and rehabilitation programmes. With Swansea and Usk prisons in the top 10 most overcrowded prisons in England and Wales, how on earth can our Welsh prisons even start to deliver the treatments needed to reduce alcohol-related crime and dependency in Wales?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Lady is right to say that alcohol-related crime right across the United Kingdom, including Wales, has been very serious for a long time. It seems to be a particularly British phenomenon—and a Welsh phenomenon as well, for that matter—and we need to bear down on it. I would remind her, however,
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of what she said before the Licensing Act 2003 came into force. She spoke of "last-minute chaos", and said that the new law would

None of those things has happened. The hon. Lady's sherry glass—or should I say "Cheryl glass"?—is always half empty rather than half full.

Young People

3. Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on funding diversionary activities for young people. [59249]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with Assembly colleagues about matters affecting young people in Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government are investing in a variety of schemes, including the pilot scheme for half-price bus travel for 16 to 18-year-olds and the Cymorth programme, which is aimed at improving young people's life chances.

Mr. Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that the half-fare bus scheme for 16 to 18-year-olds, which is rolled out in Wrexham and Denbighshire, will make it easier for young people to access leisure activities? Will he ensure that he puts forward his view that it should be rolled out throughout Wales?

Nick Ainger: Yes, but before I respond directly to my hon. Friend I want to pass on my and, I am sure, the whole House's congratulations to Michaela Breeze, David Davies and David Phelps, all Welsh gold medal winners in the Commonwealth games. I am sure that their success will be an inspiration to all young people, particularly in Wales.

My hon. Friend is right that the proposal is to roll out the scheme throughout Wales. That is a Labour party manifesto pledge, and it will assist young people to get to leisure activities as well as to training and employment. I am sure that he will agree that activities such as the Digilab IT project, which focuses on young people who gather in Wrexham town centre on evenings and weekends, provide good quality diversionary activities for young people.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Given that calls to ChildLine made by teenagers contemplating suicide have been increasing at 14 per cent. a year, and that the suicide rate among 11 to 17-year-olds in Wales is five times that of England, may I encourage the Secretary of State and the Minister to talk to their colleagues in the Assembly about how they can support more effectively those services in Wales working with young people at risk, such as victims of bullying and sexual abuse? Currently, there are far too many gaps in provision for vulnerable young people.

Nick Ainger: I am more than happy to discuss that matter with Edwina Hart, as it would come under her portfolio as well as Jane Davidson's. Perhaps the hon.
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Gentleman is not aware that young people's partnerships have been set up under every local authority in Wales. Those are made up of various bodies, including the voluntary sector, which impact on young people's lives and can come together to plan and address the issues that he rightly raises. By 2007–08, the Cymorth programme will have a £57 million budget to spend on those initiatives, and I am sure that it can address the issues that he highlights.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the Minister recognise that the provision of diversionary activities is made harder by the Welsh outdoor pursuits industry's increasing fear of litigation—much of which, as we both know, is vexatious and unfounded, but is a huge disincentive to providing adventure-based activities nevertheless? In that context, will the Minister act as a conduit for the industry's concerns by being prepared to convey any recommendations from Welsh outdoor pursuits providers on ways to address the litigation culture, perhaps through the Government's welcome Compensation Bill?

Nick Ainger: The hon. Gentleman referred to the Compensation Bill, currently being considered in the other place, which makes it clear that the social value of activities is a factor that a court can take into account when considering a claim for negligence. That would go some way to reassure those companies involved in outdoor activities. The Bill is only part of a programme that the Government are taking forward to tackle perceptions that can lead to a disproportionate fear of litigation and to risk-averse behaviour. As we all know, the hon. Gentleman is not risk averse—to his own personal cost—but I am sure that he will agree that the Government are addressing this issue. If he wants to direct any organisations to me with particular concerns, I will be more than happy to take up those issues.

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