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House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
Welsh Grand Committee Debates

Government’s Legislative Programme

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Martin Caton
Ainger, Nick (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales)
Brennan, Kevin (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Bryant, Chris (Rhondda) (Lab)
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon Valley) (Lab)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)
Davies, Mr. Dai (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind)
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth) (Con)
Flynn, Paul (Newport, West) (Lab)
Francis, Dr. Hywel (Aberavon) (Lab)
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Hain, Mr. Peter (Secretary of State for Wales)
Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Havard, Mr. Dai (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Minister for the Middle East)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Ogmore) (Lab)
James, Mrs. Siân C. (Swansea, East) (Lab)
Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Morden, Jessica (Newport, East) (Lab)
Morgan, Julie (Cardiff, North) (Lab)
Murphy, Mr. Paul (Torfaen) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Price, Adam (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Smith, John (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Watkinson, Angela (Upminster) (Con)
Williams, Mr. Alan (Swansea, West) (Lab)
Williams, Mrs. Betty (Conwy) (Lab)
Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon) (PC)
Williams, Mark (Ceredigion) (LD)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
Alan Sandall, Chris Shaw, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Welsh Grand Committee

Wednesday 13 December 2006


[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair]

Government’s Legislative Programme

Motion made, and Question proposed [this day],
That the Committee has considered the matter of the Government’s Legislative Programme as outlined in the Queen’s Speech as it relates to Wales and Public Expenditure in Wales.—[Mr. Hain.]
2 pm
Question again proposed.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): It is something of a tradition in Plaid Cymru that, when we respond to the Queen’s Speech, we say that there is “not a lot in it for Wales”. Of course, there is a great deal in it for Wales because nearly everything in it applies to Wales, as was said this morning, but I think that we can safely say this time that there is not anything specific in it for Wales. That gives us the opportunity to range over several issues that are relevant to Wales, and I intend to do that this afternoon, considering specifically the Mental Health Bill, which is a particular interest of mine.
Perhaps I should say briefly that we are disappointed by what was not in the Queen’s Speech. We would, for example, have liked some reference between the Queen’s Speech and now to the points that I raised in questions this morning. How will the Secretary of State consider each application for Orders in Council? There will be an evidence session next week in the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, to which we look forward, but a question surely remains in everyone’s mind about how the veto, if there is to be a veto, will be operated—perhaps not by this Secretary of State, but a future one. For a brief moment this morning, I thought of our Secretary of State, Khrushchev-like on the Front Bench, taking his shoe off and banging the Dispatch Box.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): My hon. Friend is showing his age.
Hywel Williams: Indeed. I quickly put the image out of my mind, but there is a real question about the veto. There was also no reference to the Barnett formula. That is an old one, but a very important question, although I will not go after it this afternoon.
There are regrets, certainly among many of my constituents, that the Government have again said nothing about the tax credit system, of which I think all hon. Members have had mixed experiences. I can think of at least two cases involving my constituents. One woman had 62 letters in one month, each noting a different amount that was owing. Tragically, another young woman said that she had had a bill for £9,500. She burst into tears, saying that she earned only £8,500 a year. She was clearly distressed. The Treasury has taken some steps to improve the system, but much more needs to be done.
I extend a guarded welcome to the Pensions Billand the Welfare Reform Bill. Both have profound implications for Wales and we shall address those. We shall address them on Second Reading of the Pensions Bill and, we hope, in Committee. We in Plaid Cymru are very much in favour of a citizen’s pension, which would be set at a liveable level and financed by rolling other payments together. I was disappointed that the other day the Chancellor of the Exchequer again made no mention of the tax relief given to higher rate taxpayers, which amounts, according to conservative estimates, to about £12 billion. We are in favour of redeploying that away from higher rate taxpayers to the generality of pensioners, so that that pot of money can be shared.
There are high levels of long-term sickness and disability in Wales. I think that all hon. Members have experience to varying degrees of constituents in those circumstances. Obviously, employment is a way out of low incomes and the poverty in which some people with a long-term illness or disability live. However, if the Government’s measures are to be applied evenly across Wales, they will hit some constituencies harder, because of long-term sickness and disability. I am thinking of valley seats, where there are high levels of sickness and disability and fewer jobs. Unemployment has come down, but sanctioning people by telling them to return to work when perhaps work is not so easy to find strikes me as inequitable. We must consider in detail how the proposals will work.
I will refer briefly to a couple of other Bills, starting with the forthcoming child support Bill. Most hon. Members would agree that there has been long-term dissatisfaction with the Child Support Agency. Many of my constituents have had bad experiences with it; they have not got their money, and fathers have not been pursued. There has been constant background suspicion that the CSA was going for the easy cases—the low-hanging fruit—and pursuing fathers who were co-operating to some extent with the system, not those who had disappeared.
I shall take this opportunity to praise the individual workers in the CSA, who have done a marvellous job in the circumstances. I would particularly like to mention the Welsh language line, which is based in Birkenhead and has been useful to me and many of my constituents.
Mr. Llwyd: My hon. Friend knows that a statement was made today on this subject. Much of what wassaid was welcome, for example, that the private arrangements between mother and father can now become the set agreement for the CSA. I am sure that my experience is common to many in the Room, and I am concerned that the self-employed are getting away with it. I wonder whether they will still get away with it, because the only change is that they will have to deliver their Inland Revenue accounts. Everybody knows that the less scrupulous self-employed person creams off a lot of money before the accounts go in, so I wonder whether we need to be a bit more robust. That discussion is probably for another day.
Hywel Williams: That is a pertinent point. Women have told me, as they have told other hon. Members, “My ex-husband is driving around in the new 4x4 vehicle, has a nice house and is paying me nothing.” That experience is common, so the new arrangements will have to be kept under close scrutiny.
I want to refer briefly to the Offender Management Bill. Hon. Members know that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs is examining prisons and the experiences of Welsh prisoners. We held an interesting evidence session last week, when the head of the north Wales probation service told us that problems are already appearing with the end-to-end managementof prisoners. Someone convicted in the courts in Caernarfon might be held at Altcourse, which is the other side of Liverpool, and the probation officer from Caernarfon would then be responsible, end-to-end, for the management of that person. One case might take him an entire day because of travelling to Altcourse for a meeting. I hope that the Home Office “rural proofs” these issues—that is the fashionable term—because the geography and road system in Wales mean that there are real problems about how the Bill will be implemented if it is enacted.
I have an interest in the Mental Health Bill, although not a formal one, in that I used to be an approved social worker. At one time, David Hinchliffe, who was a distinguished Chair of the Select Committee on Health, and I were the only two former ASWs in the House. We would sometimes catch each other’s eye across the Chamber when a fatuous remark was made. My beady eye would occasionally fall on some hon. Members.
I was pleased to sit on the Joint Committee on the Draft Mental Health Bill two winters ago. As hon. Members will know, it largely rejected the draft Bill. There are many difficulties with the new Bill as well. I emphasise that I am in favour of compulsion. Some people think that the whole system can be managed with little compulsion, but I am in favour of it. Having sectioned people, I know the intense distress that people experience when they are in psychotic states. At that point, they have to be compelled. This is not a Second Reading debate, so I will not discuss that point in detail.
I want to examine some particular Welsh issues. It has been suggested that we might have had a Welsh mental health Act. Scotland has its own legislation and arrangements, and the evidence that we heard in the Joint Committee suggested that they work well. They are not dissimilar to the arrangements in England and Wales, but they are tailored to the Scottish situation. One difference is that the Scottish legislation contains a statement of principles—a straightforward statement of how the Act will be implemented for people with a mental illness. That is understandable and symbolically useful, as are statements on treating people fairly and without discrimination.
A proposition on such statements was put to the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) during consideration of the draft Bill by the Joint Committee. The Minister’s response was revealing; after not answering the question several times, she said that we could not have a statement of principles on the face of the Bill because principles might change. That is an interesting understanding of the word “principles”. So we might want a statement of principles if we had a Welsh mental health Bill.
Health is now a devolved issue and around 95 per cent. of health matters are handled in Cardiff so there is a good case for Welsh mental health legislation. The NHS has diverged and there are clearly now at least four national health services in the UK, as shown by some of the academic research. England has gone its own way and one need only mention the private finance initiative. There is a good case for a mental health Bill for Wales as we have our own unique NHS and it is therefore disappointing that the Bill as it stands does not provide for framework powers to be passed to the Assembly so that it can legislate.
Resources are a particular problem in Wales and some hon. Members know that, when the Joint Committee looked at the mental health system in Wales, it was judged, on the basis of the evidence, that the framework employed in Wales was at least four years behind England. That has a lot to do with spending, and health remains the Cinderella of the health service in England and in Wales. We need to tailor the law to fit the circumstances.
I have doubts about the Government’s proposals for supervised community treatment orders following detention in hospital as they would make it compulsory for people to be treated in the community. As the orders follow detention, they would have to be clearly defined and be mainly for treatment. One of the problems is that they may be employed as a means of keeping a patient on a leash: people are out under a compulsory order for treatment, but might be sent back if things do not turn out well.
The other problem is entirely practical. It has been suggested that people on such orders might attend day centres where they would be seen for perhaps eight hours a day. They may also be compelled to attend day centres. That is one thing in the middle of Birmingham or London, but it is entirely different in Powys, Caernarfon or for someone living at the far end of the Llyn peninsula in my constituency, whose day centre is in Bangor. That is not a reasonable proposition.
The question is whether to have a law that is fair in principle, but in some ways unfair in application. If we consider the Mental Health Act 1959, which preceded the 1983 Act, we appreciate that it is undesirable for people to be sectioned under emergency powers. The proportion of emergency sections compared with the more considered 28-day sections in England was 25:75. Most people received the services of a psychiatrist before being sectioned. The situation in Wales was exactly the reverse: 75 per cent. of people were sectioned merely by a social worker or their nearest relative and a family doctor, who did not always have great expertise in psychiatry. Since the Mental Health Act 1983, things have improved markedly. However, there is still a problem in rural Wales and I would have liked the Bill to address the problems of rurality. They are not peculiar to Wales yet the Bill is based on an urban model.
The 1983 Act states that the sectioning applicant—the social worker—should communicate in a reasonable manner with the person who is being sectioned. In parts of Wales, that has been interpreted as conferring certain language rights on the patient, so that if the patient wants to be sectioned in Welsh that should be facilitated, if possible. My English is good enough, but if I were sectioned, I would like to be sectioned in Welsh. It is a serious point in Wales, given our language. The Bill contains nothing about communication in respect of that role. As it amends the 1983 Act perhaps that is not important, but it is an issue for Wales.
There is a case to be made for a Welsh mental health Bill, but this is not it. However, the fundamentals will not change and eventually, as a Welsh health service develops, we will need more legislation that is properly tailored to the Welsh situation.
2.17 pm
Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I should first like to draw the Committee’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, especially in relation to the Bevan Foundation and the fact that I am a vice-president of Carers UK.
We come to the debate recognising that Wales faces many global challenges. The most immediate for us are the twin challenges of climate change and education, both of which are addressed in the Queen’s Speech. How we tackle these challenges will determine whether we prosper or decline. I suggest that we should characterise our approach as embracing a global Wales rather than a fortress Wales strategy. It is to the credit of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, that we subscribe very firmly to a global Wales strategy. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) for initiating that expansive outward-looking, visionary approach.
The Committee’s first major report of this Parliament was on energy in Wales. I believe that our report was balanced and challenging and that it anticipated much of the Stern report on climate change. Indeed, it highlighted the potential of the diversity of renewable energy resources in Wales and commended the pioneering work of the centre for alternative technology in Machynlleth.
It has become a truism to say that we should all think global and act local. The Chancellor certainly believes that, which was why he said last week in his pre-Budget report:
“Economies like ours have no choice but to out-innovate and out-perform competitors by the excellence of our science and education, the quality of infrastructure and environment, the flexibility of our economy, and our levels of creativity and entrepreneurship.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 306.]
He also emphasised:
“The single most important investment that we can makeis in education”.—[Official Report, 6 December 2006; Vol. 454,c. 313.]
All the imperatives reaffirm the critical need for greater lifelong learning opportunities. The voice of British higher education, Universities UK, recently identified the country’s long-term economic challenges as productivity, an ageing work force and global competitiveness. It recognised that the ageing work force needs personalised, flexible part-time study and increased continuing professional development.
I was recently struck by the similarities in the approach to education policy between Wales and South Africa. I had the privilege of meeting Theuns Eloff, the vice-chancellor of the new North-West university in South Africa, who was a key player in the peaceful transition of his country from apartheid to democracy. The university is based on four campuses, has 40,000 students and is dedicated to the same values that we embrace in Wales—regeneration, widening access and equality.
However, do we in Wales and the UK recognise in the new global economy in which 4 million Chinese people graduate every year that, in the words of the Leitch report,
“A radical step-change is necessary”?
The Welsh Assembly Government certainly have the vision. Their document “The Learning Country 2: Delivering The Promise”, throws down a challenge to all Welsh higher education institutions, stating that
“HEIs will be expected to put in place strong outreach activities to widen access. The focus once again should be on the 20 per cent. who are the most disadvantaged and hence the least likely to attend higher education.”
The Welsh Assembly Government, along with leading educationalists such as Professor David Reynolds, recognise that, for historical reasons, Wales has generally lagged behind England in all-round educational performance. It is specifically recognised that further education is a Cinderella sector, that work-based learning could and should be far better developed and that there is still a proportionately lower spend on higher education than in England, largely from the days of the LG factor. It is important to know whether the Chancellor’s good news on capital budgets for schools and colleges will be translated to Wales in real terms, and I look forward to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary’s comments on that.
Recognising everything that I have mentioned is commendable, but the Welsh Assembly Government know that Wales needs a major step change, as envisaged in the Leitch report, which states that
“where skills were once a key driver of prosperity and fairness, they are now the key driver. Achieving world class skills is the key to achieving economic success and social justice in the new global economy.”
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and we all appreciate the contribution that he has made to education and higher education. Does he share my concern that there are few people in the permanent inspection teams in the Welsh education inspections set-up who are trained in or who have taught science? Does he have concerns about that part of the process of improving education in Wales?
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Prepared 15 December 2006