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House of Commons

Wednesday 5 July 2006

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Allied Steel and Wire Pension Scheme

1. Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): What discussions he has had with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions on the occupational pensions of former Allied Steel and Wire workers in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [81346]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had a number of discussions with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions. The Government announced in May a large expansion of the financial assistance scheme, which will directly assist the Allied Steel and Wire staff.

Jenny Willott: In the Allied Steel and Wire case in the European Court of Justice, the Government have applied for temporal limitation so that only those involved directly in the case can benefit from a positive judgment. Can that be seen as an admission of guilt by the Government, and what is the Minister planning to say to his constituents who used to work for Motherwell Bridge and who have lost their pensions as a result?

Nick Ainger: As the hon. Lady says, the matter is before the European Court of Justice and the Government are reluctant to comment in any detail on the temporal limitation. However, it is interesting to note that no one raised any legal objections in the oral hearing in the court when the Government applied for the temporal limitation. I assure her, as a Cardiff Member, that, whatever the outcome of the ECJ decision staff at Allied Steel and Wire will not be affected, by the temporal limitation.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The Minister will know that we have suggested a comprehensive audit of unclaimed assets in the financial sector as a possible way of squaring the claim of ASW workers with the protection of the taxpayer. Will he undertake to press the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for such an audit?

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Nick Ainger: For 18 years, the Conservative Government did absolutely nothing to address this issue. The financial assistance scheme has been expanded from £400 million in 2004 to £2.3 billion starting from this October. It will provide substantial assistance to Allied Steel and Wire staff and it has been widely welcomed, including by their trade union, Community. We accept that there are issues that have to be resolved in the European Court of Justice, but we are confident that the scheme that is now in place will go a long way towards providing protection for staff who have lost their pensions. On top of that, we have the Pension Protection Fund, which will provide long-term security for people who have invested their savings in occupational pensions.

Child Poverty

2. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the impact of child tax credits on reducing child poverty in Cynon Valley and Wales. [81347]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Since 1997, an estimated 50,000 children have been lifted out of poverty in Wales, including in Cynon Valley, where more than 5,000 in-work families are benefiting from child tax credit.

Ann Clwyd: As my right hon. Friend will no doubt acknowledge, child poverty is still a problem in Wales. However, the Conservatives opposed tax credits and the minimum wage, and oppose almost anything that helps the poorest families. Those families would have been far worse off if the Conservatives had been in power.

Mr. Hain: Not surprisingly, I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. We have seen 700,000 children lifted out of poverty right across the United Kingdom, but she is right: we still need to do more. We have increased child benefit by a record amount and we have improved entitlement to maternity and paternity leave for new parents—all measures opposed by the Conservative Opposition. We have also created extra places in nursery and child care. All those programmes would be put at risk by the Tories’ plans for public spending cuts in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the cost of administering those tax credits? Would that money not be better spent on reducing poverty among children in Wales?

Mr. Hain: Child tax credits, like the employment tax credits, have an administrative cost, but they target the resources on those most in need, including children in Wales and right across the United Kingdom—and, I dare say, also in the hon. Lady’s constituency. The Conservatives’ repeated attempts to sabotage the programme—they opposed it in the first place and they would like to scrap it—would leave thousands of children in Wales and hundreds of thousands of children across the United Kingdom destitute, as they were when the Tories were last in power.

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I must say that for a Labour Member to raise the issue of tax credits is like the captain of the Titanic offering guided tours of the hole in his boat. Is the Secretary of State aware that in Powys alone last year one in three tax credits awarded were overpaid, leaving nearly 5,000 people to pay back £4.3 million to the Revenue? Those errors are seriously harming our most vulnerable families. When will the Government get to grips with this malfunctioning system?

Mr. Hain: Witty jousting is no substitute for a serious policy. As the hon. Gentleman knows, a serious policy of tax credits has helped families and people by the thousand in his constituency of Montgomeryshire and by the tens of thousands throughout Wales. The Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Opposition and Plaid Cymru have put forward no coherent alternative to that anti-poverty programme, which, as a Labour Government, we are proud to have led.

Police Force Mergers

3. Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): If he will make a statement on the timetable for the merger of Welsh police forces. [81349]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in the House on 19 June that he did not intend to lay any orders for enforced police force mergers before the summer recess.

Mark Williams: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Yesterday, the Welsh Affairs Committee heard repeatedly from the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety that the Government remained firmly attached to an all-Wales police force, yet we have also heard about an extended period of consultation. Will that consultation include a full examination of what the Minister described as “innovative alternatives”, including the federated model that the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) has been advancing, or is this another example of game, set and match before the match has even started?

Mr. Hain: I am not sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen has made that point, but I will certainly check. It is significant that no chief constable—especially Barbara Wilding, the chief constable of South Wales police force, which is the largest in Wales—has supported the idea of a federation. She makes the compelling point that that would not work. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary advanced the original case for a single police force in Wales to bring together capabilities for tackling the huge new threats of serious and organised crime, drug dealing and terrorist activity. The problem with the Liberal Democrats and other critics of the policy is that they do not have a serious alternative for dealing with those new threats, and until they produce one, no one will take their criticism seriously.

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Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I am still slightly unclear about the Government’s position. If the police authorities and, perhaps, the chief constables were to come up with a viable alternative, would it be accepted as something for consideration and discussion, or will we just have a merger because there is absolutely no other choice? If there were a viable alternative, would the Government’s mind still be open?

Mr. Hain: Obviously, we want to ensure that we proceed with as much consent as possible so that we can tackle the new threats. As I said, no one has yet provided an alternative that would deal with those threats or deliver the capabilities to measure up to them. Of course we are not going into this with a closed mind. The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety made it clear to the Welsh Affairs Committee the other day that he thought that some of the handling of the matter over recent months could have been better, so he is now ensuring that that happens. None of the four chief constables to whom I have spoken—I am seeing the North Wales chief constable next week—has come up with an alternative. If someone does, of course we will not have a closed mind to it, but I do not see an alternative at the moment.

NHS Operations

5. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): When he last met the Secretary of State for Health to discuss the number of Welsh patients waiting more than six months for an NHS operation in an English hospital. [81352]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): I regularly meet Health Ministers and the Assembly Health Minister. The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales and delivering real improvements in the standard of services to all Welsh patients.

Mr. Bone: I thank the Minister for his answer. On 30 November last year, the Prime Minister stated that no one would wait more than six months for an NHS operation. The latest figures show that 120 English patients have been waiting for more than six months at an English hospital, yet 786 Welsh patients have been waiting at an English hospital for more than six months. Clearly, the Government’s claim is completely false, but there also appears to be discrimination against Welsh patients.

Nick Ainger: The latest figures show that 768 Welsh patients have been waiting more than six months for treatment in an English hospital, and that represents a significant reduction of 14 per cent. on the previous year. The number of out-patients waiting for treatment in English hospitals has fallen by 43 per cent. Waiting times are plummeting throughout Wales. We are meeting targets on reducing waiting times, and that is a result of the massive investment that is now going into the health service in Wales. We will be spending £5 billion this year, which represents a rise of over 80 per cent. since 1999. That is £1,600 a person. We now have 450 more consultants and 7,300 more nurses,
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and our budget for new hospital buildings will go up to £309 million in the next financial year. That is a record of which we are proud. Waiting times are coming down significantly, and it is a record of real achievement.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Many of my constituents are treated in English hospitals. Will my hon. Friend give me an absolute assurance that he will support my right to ask questions on their behalf about their treatment? Will he assure me that in no circumstances he will take that right away, which is what Conservative Members have suggested?

Nick Ainger: As my hon. Friend is well aware, the Conservatives intend to treat Welsh and Scottish MPs as second-class citizens in the House. I can assure him that he will still be able to put questions to the Department of Health and the Wales Office, which would not be the case under the Opposition, who are proposing to create a second tier of second-class MPs. That is outrageous.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The target waiting time for English patients at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt hospital at Gobowen is six months. For Welsh patients it is 12 months, so will the Minister please explain why my constituents, who pay their taxes and national insurance contributions at exactly the same rate as English patients, should be expected to wait in pain for six months longer?

Nick Ainger: As I stated to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), significant and massive investment is aimed specifically at reducing waiting times. Where we have an arrangement with an English hospital, discussions are ongoing about waiting times, the costs of operations and so forth, but I can assure the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and his constituents that much of this year’s £5 billion going into the NHS is targeted on reducing waiting times. Waiting times are plummeting in Wales, as they are in England. Indeed, it is a record of achievement.

Post Offices

6. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): What discussions he has had with colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry on the number of post offices in Wales. [81353]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Numerous ones.

Mr. Llwyd: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that enlightening answer. From 1998 to December 2005, 331 post offices—one in every four—closed in Wales. A further avalanche is expected with the loss of the TV licence contract and the phasing out of card accounts. Yet the main campaigning tool in Blaenau Gwent was a Labour petition to re-open the post offices. Was that not a rather cynical exercise that saw through by the people of Blaenau Gwent?

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Mr. Hain: Talking of Blaenau Gwent, I do not think that anyone takes the hon. Gentleman seriously any more.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that in some instances post offices close because the postholder is retiring and the property is no longer available? Will he discuss with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry whether, when it is difficult to find a building to carry on a post office service, it would be possible to provide a mobile service so that our constituents do not suffer?

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend makes a fair point and a compelling argument that mobile post offices could be slotted in to fill gaps in the circumstances that she describes. That could provide a viable alternative in many rural areas across Wales. I will certainly take up her request and do as she asks.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): In Brecon and Radnorshire, 6,800 people hold post office accounts and the demise of the facility will lead to financial inconvenience and reduce the viability of post offices. On top of that, Rev. Marian Morgan from New Radnor reports to me that a recently re-housed homeless person is unable to save up for a TV licence because the savings scheme has been abolished, and he will have to travel 10 miles to the nearest town to get his TV licence. In those circumstances, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the continuing viability of rural post offices?

Mr. Hain: This is a real issue, as it was under the previous Conservative Government, when 3,500 post offices closed, mostly in rural areas. It has been a continuing problem for all Governments as a result of different consumer patterns and so on. However, we need to do as much as we can to deal with the sort of examples that the hon. Gentleman describes in his constituency, which is largely rural. That is why we have made unprecedented investment since 1997 of more than £2 billion to help maintain the post office network. That includes £150 million this year. We look to provide what extra support we can.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Post Office card accounts and credit unions have successfully helped people in Wales to stay out of debt. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and I held a recent workshop on financial exclusion, which was targeted at people in the Ogmore and Bridgend constituencies. One of the suggestions that people attending the workshop made was that we should build greater links between credit unions and post offices, whereby additional income could come in to post offices and credit unions could provide access to low-cost loans. Will the Secretary of State examine the potential in Wales to build on that partnership?

Mr. Hain: I would be happy to do that. I am a member of my local credit union in Neath Port Talbot. Credit unions do an important job, and there is scope for those who use post offices for banking services to bring extra income and customers into post offices,
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especially as credit unions offer low interest rates to many people on low incomes. As my hon. Friend suggests, it is a win-win situation for credit unions and local post offices.


7. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What recent meetings he has had to discuss agriculture in Wales. [81354]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): My right hon. Friend and I have regular meetings with both ministerial colleagues and colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government on a range of topics, including agriculture.

James Duddridge: The Under-Secretary will know that roadkill badgers are currently being tested for TB. What discussions has he held with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the results of those tests and will he make a statement to the House about them?

Nick Ainger: DEFRA and the Assembly Government are working closely together on bovine TB. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Welsh Assembly Government are testing roadkill badgers, and the results of that study will be available in September or October. Once it is made available, a decision will be made about the next step to take in Wales on bovine TB.

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