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House of Commons

Wednesday 6 June 2007

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Severn Estuary (Electricity)

1. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on Government support for a reappraisal of the options for generating electricity from the tidal flow in the Severn estuary. [140334]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I have had discussions with Cabinet colleagues, and I am keen to see the Severn barrage go ahead, as tidal power represents a massive untapped, clean, green energy source.

Nia Griffith: Will my right hon. Friend seek commitments from UK Cabinet and Assembly colleagues to ensure that Welsh universities have the support to enable them to develop sustainable technologies—such as those harnessing wave, tidal or river current energy—in order to generate electricity and to help bring research and development jobs and manufacturing jobs to Wales?

Mr. Hain: We certainly want every opportunity to be explored. I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest and support. The Severn barrage could create up to 35,000 jobs over the nine-year construction period, half of them in areas surrounding the Severn estuary. It is anticipated that in the longer term about 40,000 permanent jobs would result from the barrage, which would lead to economic regeneration in terms of recreation, transport, housing, industrial and commercial property, tourism and infrastructure development. My hon. Friend is right that renewable energy has enormous potential not only to fight climate change but to strengthen the economy and to create more jobs.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Further to the question of the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), will the right hon. Gentleman also make sure that in-depth research is undertaken into the possible use of tidal lagoons in Wales, bearing in mind the New Zealand experience where that is a huge component in the energy mix?

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Mr. Hain: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in that issue, and the Sustainable Development Commission is looking into it. However, previous assessments suggest that a lagoon alternative in the Severn would produce less than a third of the generating capacity of the barrage, and in addition the barrage would save about two and a half times more carbon dioxide emissions than a lagoon. Prior to any further investigations at least, the barrage therefore appears to me to be a much better bet, and it would also offer the opportunity of a transport link between Taunton and south Wales, which could be of enormous benefit on both sides of the Severn.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The Severn estuary is an internationally important site for wild birds. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that we protect the habitats that would be affected by the proposal, and that that must be taken into consideration before any development goes ahead?

Mr. Hain: Yes; my hon. Friend raises an important point. The European Union birds and habitats directives must be considered in relation to the project. However, I should draw it to the House’s attention that the experience at La Rance river in France is that biodiversity can increase as a result of the construction of a barrage. Also, if we are not prepared to take bold steps to fight climate change, biodiversity will be, in a sense, a secondary matter. That will be the case if we get the terrible consequences to life on this planet that would come from climate change, which can be avoided by the adoption of projects such as the Severn barrage, which could create up to 5 per cent. of the UK’s electricity-generating needs.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): While I welcome tidal energy in the Severn estuary, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is enough tidal power off the north Wales coast to offset the need for a replacement nuclear power station in Anglesey? However, given that all bar one of the Labour deputy leadership candidates said on “Newsnight” that they support more nuclear power stations, including the right hon. Gentleman, how can anyone seriously believe that the second nuclear consultation is not destined to be as big a sham as the first?

Mr. Hain: It is not a sham. I have always made it clear that if a nuclear new-build is necessary in order to keep the lights on, it would be irresponsible to rule that out. As the hon. Gentleman knows, no one is more enthusiastic about clean, green renewable energy than me. Indeed, I often have scraps with Liberal Democrats about wind farms and other sources of clean, green energy, because they are in favour of green energy in principle, but in practice differences can arise. However, I think that we can work together to make sure that Wales benefits from all forms of energy. Sometimes there is a demand for a replacement nuclear power station. That is the case in Anglesey. The local council and my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) support a replacement of the existing nuclear power station, and they deserve to be supported.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I very much thank the Secretary of State for those remarks. I support a rich and diverse energy mix, including tidal power.
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However, will the Secretary of State assure me that funds and support will not be diverted from established and emerging options into one big project, such as the Severn barrage? If we are serious about security of energy supply and lowering carbon emissions, we need a rich energy mix.

Mr. Hain: We do, and we need our energy to be developed and sustained as much as possible in home-grown forms, so that we are not dependent on fossil fuels imported from abroad, including from many unstable areas of the world. So this is not just a climate change but a security of supply issue. However, I see no conflict here between strong renewable energy and considering the nuclear option in Anglesey, for example, if that is appropriate. The Severn barrage is a privately funded project; the construction companies—McAlpine, Balfour Beatty and others—that formed a consortium intend to fund it privately. Indeed, that is the point: there would not be a big draw on public funds.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): Will the Secretary of State assure me that despite the obvious, early and absolute backing for the Severn barrage scheme given in answer to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), the Secretary of State is not going to rule out investigating tidal lagoons? Has he had the opportunity to read the research produced by Friends of the Earth showing that the generation cost from tidal lagoons is more economically beneficial than that from the barrage; and will he give this House and the people of Wales an absolute assurance that he will carry out full investigations into the environmental impact of the barrage and of the lagoons, and not rule out the lagoon option at this stage?

Mr. Hain: I can assure the hon. Lady that I am not ruling it out; indeed, the Sustainable Development Commission is looking at this option. However, the facts are reasonably clear—unless they are contradicted by any further study—that the barrage would generate masses more power and is lower in emissions, and there are other benefits. The risk in the Severn area of flooding, especially as sea levels rise, is enormous, and the barrage would clearly help by providing a much securer environment for local houses and businesses. It also offers the exciting prospect of a transport link, with Cardiff airport being just round the corner. So there are benefits, which is why there is a lot of support in the south-west of England for this proposal, especially along the coast. The local regional development agency, for example, supports the idea of a barrage. So that is where my preference lies, but obviously we will look at the evidence.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): However bold the Severn barrage project is, we must not ignore the opportunities along other parts of our coastline. In Swansea, particularly Swansea bay, the lagoon has captured people’s imagination and there is a great deal of support for it. There should be more localisation of power generation. Does the Secretary of State agree?

Mr. Hain: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, Wales is supremely well placed to harness the benefits of tidal and wave power because we have such an extensive coastline, including in the Swansea bay
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area, which provides a great tidal power opportunity. We should look at all options there, including the one that she mentions.


2. Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on Welsh priorities in respect of the medical training application service. [140335]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): My right hon. Friend has regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on a range of health issues. I understand that Wales has opted out of using MTAS for recruitment, and that the Department of Health had no difficulty with its doing that.

Hywel Williams: When I tackled the Secretary of State for Health on this matter some two weeks ago, I asked her where in the application form there was a reference to the qualification of being able to speak Welsh. Her answer was, I am afraid, woefully inadequate. Will the Minister take this matter up with the Department of Health, given that there are shortages of Welsh-speaking doctors not only in general practice but in paediatrics, psychiatry and geriatrics? There is a pool of Welsh-speaking doctors—not only in Wales—who could be recruited.

Nick Ainger: I saw the exchange between the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State for Health, and I can tell him that the current recruitment system in Wales does allow for applicants to complete their form and then be interviewed in the Welsh language, provided that they inform the recruitment panel in advance. As we are interviewing every applicant, there is that clear opportunity for them to make the case that they have this additional benefit—it clearly is a benefit in many parts of Wales—of being able to communicate with their patients in Welsh. When I have discussions with Edwina Hart, the new Welsh Assembly Health Minister, I will raise this matter.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I welcome the fact that we are not going to be using in Wales a scheme that has been described by the British Medical Association as a disaster. Can the Minister assure us that any alternative that we do use will rely on doctors’ experience and their proven ability to make people better, and not on their ability to write 150-word vignettes full of jargon, or even—dare I say it?—the ability to speak Welsh?

Nick Ainger: Well, the hon. Gentleman gives us his usual rant, but the system that is now being used in Wales—in which every applicant will receive an interview—has been warmly welcomed by the Welsh deanery and the BMA Welsh junior doctors committee. The process is working well in Wales and we now have more than 2,200 doctors in training in Wales. The number of training places in Wales will rise from 261 last year to 320 next year. The investment in doctors’ training and medical students is proving to be a great success, and that is why we are seeing substantial improvements in the quality of care being provided in Wales and in England.

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Hospital Waiting Times

3. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): If he will make a statement on hospital waiting times for Welsh patients in hospitals in England. [140336]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales and are delivering real improvements in the standard of service to patients. Waiting times for Welsh patients in English hospitals are falling.

Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to the Minister for that optimistic response. The Royal Shrewsbury hospital supplies tremendous service to Welsh patients, especially those from mid-Wales, but why do Welsh patients have to wait 29 per cent. longer than English patients for routine elective operations and 39 per cent. longer for a first out-patient appointment?

Nick Ainger: The facts are that there are no Welsh patients waiting more than eight months for treatment in hospitals, including the Royal Shrewsbury, compared with 900 a year ago, and in the past three years the number of Welsh patients waiting for more than six months for a first appointment at an English hospital has fallen by 61 per cent. Those are significant improvements. Yes, further improvements can be made, but the Welsh Assembly Government will spend £5.5 billion on the health service in Wales next year, amounting to £1,800 per person, something that could not be achieved by the hon. Gentleman’s policy of sharing tax cuts with public service investment. That would mean a £21 billion cut.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Much progress has been made in reducing waiting times for patients from Wales attending hospitals in England. In Wrexham, visits to the Countess of Chester and Gobowen hospitals have much shorter waiting times. I suggest, however, that there be close discussions with the new Welsh Health Minister on that issue and on cross-border funding issues. I suggest that my hon. Friend also discuss the matter with the new Assembly Member for Wrexham, Lesley Griffiths. I may have omitted to mention the fact that Wrexham was a Labour gain—

Hon. Members: Hooray!

Nick Ainger: Indeed. I congratulate Lesley Griffiths on her recent success. My hon. Friend is right that the investment in the health service in Wales is delivering real improvements and waiting times are falling. Local health boards in Wales need to talk to hospitals in England about local packages of care, but given the money that is now going into the health service in Wales, finance should not be a problem.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The Minister mentions that the target waiting time for elective surgery is eight months. In fact, as I am sure he will agree, that is the target waiting time for in-patient treatment. The combined target waiting time for Welsh patients is a total of 68 weeks, whereas for English patients it is 31 weeks. Can the Minister explain why Welsh patients—who after all pay their taxes at the
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same rates as English patients—should be expected to wait in pain for an additional 37 weeks? Is that a policy decision by the Welsh Assembly Government, or is it incompetence?

Nick Ainger: As I said earlier, no Welsh patient is waiting for care in an English hospital for more than 12 months, compared with 900 last year. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman look back at the figures for 1996-97, which were substantially higher than those for last year. No patient in Wales waits longer than eight months for in-patient care, which means that many of them actually receive care long before the eight-month target time.

Cross-border Issues

4. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the National Assembly for Wales’s legislative programme as it relates to cross-border issues. [140337]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): The First Minister will announce later today the Welsh Assembly Government’s strategic and legislative programme for the coming months. He has already announced in plenary on 25 May that he will bring forward proposals in relation to child poverty, affordable housing, climate change and better access to health care.

Mr. Evennett: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. How closely do the Labour Government in Westminster intend to involve Westminster MPs in scrutinising Welsh legislative issues? Is not the Secretary of State concerned—as Opposition Members are—that such scrutiny opportunities for Westminster MPs are limited to statutory instruments, secondary legislative bodies and Welsh Committees? What can he do to give more scrutiny by the House?

Mr. Hain: I very much support the principle of scrutiny, particularly pre-legislative scrutiny, which I took forward in my previous post as Leader of the House. The Welsh Affairs Committee has the opportunity to pre-scrutinise matters and only yesterday produced a valuable report, which noted that the whole House could be involved. Although it is a Welsh Members’ Select Committee, other Members have the opportunity to give evidence to it and to contribute to the scrutiny process. There are other ways of achieving that, too.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s positive comments about our report. Would he be prepared to appear before the Select Committee to discuss the matter more fully? Like him and the whole House, we are keen to ensure that there is thorough scrutiny of all framework powers going through the Welsh Assembly Government.

Mr. Hain: Undoubtedly, the introduction of Orders in Council, as provided for in the Government of Wales Act 2006, to give the Assembly the opportunity to take extra measure-making powers is an important advance, and my hon. Friend’s Committee will have a valuable pre-scrutiny role. He referred to framework powers, as
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did the report, and my right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) have also raised the issue on the Floor of the House. It is an important issue, and an explanatory memorandum will of course accompany each proposed framework power in an England and Wales Bill and will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. We need to make sure that a full explanation is provided by the Welsh Assembly Government so that Members have the chance to look at what they are being invited to endorse in a Bill.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): In discussing with the First Minister his proposals for climate change legislation, will the Secretary of State ensure that the First Minister is fully aware of the controversial cross-border issues that will arise over proposals for the Severn barrage? Will the Secretary of State and the First Minister ensure that before they proceed they visit the barrage de La Rance at St. Malo, where they will see how over 40 years, and to generate only 3 per cent. of the electricity of Brittany, the environment has been devastated and biodiversity has been sterilised? The impact of the barrage on that part of France has been devastatingly bad and there will be great opposition to the Severn barrage on those grounds alone.

Mr. Hain: That is not my understanding, but obviously if the hon. Gentleman wants to put evidence before me I shall be happy to look at it. As I understand it, the evidence shows that La Rance river, which is the only equivalent project that I know about, has seen an increase in biodiversity. Given the support for the proposal in the south-west, from Bristol down to Taunton, including the regional development agency and local authorities, I think the Severn barrage could be of enormous benefit environmentally and in every other way.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I am not sure that the Secretary of State will have time to visit the Rance project; after all, he did not have time, or was unable, to attend the opening of the Welsh Assembly yesterday. However, will he find time to ask the First Minister how he can claim to be leading a listening Government in Wales when he has not discussed his legislative programme with the other parties and did not even attend the televised debate between party leaders on the legislation last night? Is not the truth that Labour continues to take Wales for granted even when it has lost its majority and lost its authority?

Mr. Hain: This is from a Welsh Conservative party that did extremely badly at the 3 May elections and that has consistently lost ground in Wales over the past 20 years because of its anti-Welsh policies and the way in which unemployment went up and bankruptcies and public spending cuts increased in Wales under the Tories. All that would lie in Wales’s future if Tory Ministers took power away from a Welsh Assembly Labour Government. Tory Ministers back in power and in charge of Wales is not something that the people of Wales want.

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