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21 Nov 2007 : Column 1169

House of Commons

Wednesday 21 November 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—


1. Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): What his latest estimate is of the percentage of the working-age population in Wales which is in work. [164976]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): More than 71 per cent. of the Welsh working age population were in employment as of September. Some 1.3 million of the Welsh population are now in work, and there has been an increase in this regard of more than 6,000 in six years in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Mr. Crabb: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but he knows full well that whatever increase there has been in overall employment levels in Wales in the past two to three years has resulted from the enormous increase in migrant labour coming into Wales. Given that his Neath constituency has more than 6,000 people on incapacity benefit and more than 1,000 young people not in education, employment or training, when will he shake off this complacency and start taking seriously the problem of worklessness in Wales?

Mr. Hain: What is interesting about that question, which I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has asked, is that incapacity benefit levels tripled in Wales under the Conservative Government. I remember that in my constituency, and in those of hon. and right hon. Friends, people were just pushed out of mining and heavy industry—not into jobs, because they did not exist, but on to incapacity benefit, there to stay. Economic inactivity rates are now falling faster in Wales than anywhere else in the United Kingdom because of the interventionist measures that the Government have taken to give people hope and jobs for the future.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): In the past 10 years, major employers such as General Dynamics UK, Axiom and Brace’s Bakery have invested in my constituency and brought new jobs. A strong economy
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and the fact that Wales, and Islwyn in particular, is a great place to grow one’s business have been a major factor. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must resist those, and the Conservative party in particular, who put forward policies that would deter investment in Wales?

Mr. Hain: I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. Indeed, the Opposition’s policies would take Wales back to the miserable economic situation of the 1980s and 1990s, when unemployment went through the roof, people were put on to incapacity benefit and the economy suffered as a result. He might have been thinking about other Opposition barriers, so I should mention the vice-president of Plaid Cymru. When she proposed last week rejecting the St. Athan defence academy training establishment, the Plaid Cymru annual conference merely noted her proposition. Is that party in favour on that issue or not?

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): On promoting greater employment levels, is the Secretary of State happy with the approaches taken at Jobcentre Plus, particularly to encourage people with special learning needs back to work? I am thinking of those who suffer from autistic spectrum disorders. What approaches are being employed in Jobcentre Plus to help such people back to work? Will he talk to organisations such as Autism Cymru to encourage their work further?

Mr. Hain: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of autism. I have worked closely with Autism Cymru and, when Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with Autism Northern Ireland. Our approach depends on severity on the spectrum of autism. Those on the light end of the spectrum, as it were, can be helped into work, and have been by Jobcentre Plus. Those at the difficult end of the spectrum are more difficult to help, but we continually work with such organisations to try to tackle the problem and to deal with people in that situation.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman will recall that in his alter ego as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions he told the House that

However, the Office for National Statistics labour force survey reveals that the number of young people aged 16 to 19 in Wales who are unemployed rose from 17,000 in June 1997 to 23,000 in June 2007, which is an increase of 35 per cent., and the number of those who are economically inactive rose from 50,000 to 65,000, which is an increase of 30 per cent. Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how such large increases amount to an eradication of youth unemployment? Is it simply that it does not count in Wales?

Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the youth unemployment figures are normally calculated on the 18 to 24 age group, and long-term youth unemployment in that group has been all but eradicated across the UK, as I have told the House previously. There is, however, a particular problem with 16 and 17-year-olds, which is why we are introducing policies to ensure that they stay on in education, training or an apprenticeship. That is the Government’s policy. It is important that we bear
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down on the problem to give new hope and opportunity. He should not talk about youth unemployment. There was mass youth unemployment under the Tories, and if we adopted his policies we would go back to it.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend recall the phrase “Unemployment is a price worth paying”? What assessment has he made of the city strategy pilots in Rhyl in my constituency and the south Wales valleys to combat unemployment and the use of incapacity benefit?

Mr. Hain: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his chairmanship of the city programme in Rhyl, where I saw him at work when I visited. He has brought together a range of employers, the local authority and voluntary groups in a really good strategy for tackling Rhyl’s long-standing problems of inactivity, and they are starting to make an impact. I remember the statement that unemployment was a price worth paying; I think it was made by a former Conservative Chancellor. I also remember statements from other Conservative Cabinet Ministers telling people to get on their bikes and find a job. That is what the Conservatives were saying to the people of Wales.

There are now more jobs in Wales than ever before. Some of the statistics are amazing. Wales accounts for nearly 15 per cent. of the UK’s graduate business start-ups, yet on the population base that figure should be only 5 per cent., so it shows our success in Wales.

Comprehensive Spending Review

2. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on the comprehensive spending review settlements for the Welsh Assembly Government and Wales Office. [164977]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I had constructive discussions with the Chief Secretary during the comprehensive spending review process, which delivered a higher than average settlement for Wales, giving both the Welsh Assembly Government and the Wales Office the resources to deliver on policy priorities.

Mr. Hollobone: The capital gains tax changes announced alongside the comprehensive spending review will be a disaster for Wales. Was not the Welsh shadow Finance Minister, Angela Burns, absolutely right to highlight the damage that will be done to the Welsh economy because 98 per cent. of firms in Wales employ fewer than 50 people?

Mr. Hain: In that case, why do we have one of the best business start-up rates anywhere in Britain? Why do we have the graduate start-up rates that I have just described? Why is the Welsh economy doing much better on exports, economic activity falls and on almost every indicator? I know the Welsh business community, because unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am a Welsh MP. He should talk to Welsh businesses; they say that the Welsh economy is performing better than they can ever recall in their business life. He should talk to them about their prospects rather than try to talk them down.

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Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I welcome the comprehensive spending review as it pertains to Wales, especially alongside the convergence funding that will allow projects in my area to progress. As my right hon. Friend is aware, one such project, supported by the Welsh Assembly Government and Anglesey county council, is the widening of Stephenson’s Britannia bridge across the Menai straits. Will he work with the Assembly Government and the county council to make sure that the project comes to fruition, and that they draw down the correct money so that north-west Wales can enjoy prosperity in the future?

Mr. Hain: Indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that important project. I have travelled over the bridge with him from time to time when visiting the constituency he represents so well. It is important that such infrastructure projects are driven forward, especially with the help of the £3 billion-worth of European convergence funding that benefits his constituency and many others in west Wales and the valleys.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The Secretary of State knows that the Labour-Plaid Assembly Government said that the CSR has delivered the worst settlement for Wales since devolution. Over the next few months, has the right hon. Gentleman any plans to give Welsh Assembly Ministers tax-raising powers, in any shape or form, to plug the gap?

Mr. Hain: I am very pleased that the hon. Lady has asked that question. Not only do I have no power to give tax-varying powers to the Welsh Assembly Government, but the settlement, which was welcomed by the Welsh Assembly Government Finance Minister, speaking on behalf of the whole Welsh Assembly coalition Government, represents spending growth at an annual average real-terms rate of 2.4 per cent. That is higher than the UK average of 2.1 per cent. and higher than for the other devolved Administrations—Scotland is at 1.8 per cent. and Northern Ireland at 1.7 per cent. The hon. Lady should welcome that spending, especially as the Welsh budget is more than double the amount we inherited in 1997.

Mrs. Gillan: The Secretary of State knows that this is not my criticism, but that of his Plaid partners in Wales. I suggest that he speaks to his Cabinet colleagues and his Plaid coalition partners, because he is in fact planning to impose taxes on Welsh road users. The Local Transport Bill gives Assembly Ministers power to impose a tax on all drivers using trunk roads in Wales—power to tax Welsh lorry drivers, Welsh farmers and tourists driving in Wales. Those provisions were not in the draft Bill and have been slipped in at the last moment, probably at the request of the Plaid Transport Minister. As the Government have ruled out a national road pricing—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady should shorten the questions in future. [ Interruption. ] I know that it is a big question. That is what I am saying: she should cut the big questions down.

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Mr. Hain: I regularly speak to Welsh Assembly Government Ministers, and I recommend that the hon. Lady does so too. She might then get her questions a little straighter. The truth is that they have asked for these powers— [ Interruption. ] Is she seeking to deny the Welsh Assembly Government the powers for which they are asking? In that case, she would be unable to see or support the building of the M4 relief road. Probably the only way that that relief road can be financed is through raising a toll, and having the power to do so. I would have thought that she would support that objective given the traffic problems in the Newport-Cardiff area of the M4, which is often brought to gridlock.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The comprehensive spending review also introduced a £1.1 billion environmental transformation fund for the consideration of new energy projects and technology. Inetec, a company in my constituency, has a wonderful new technology that would use food and packaging waste to generate electricity. It would not use anaerobic digestion, as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has proposed. Will my right hon. Friend agree to take the matter up with the Welsh Assembly Government so that that new technology for Wales can be moved forward?

Mr. Hain: I shall happily do that, and I await further details from my hon. Friend. May I take this opportunity to speak on behalf of the whole House, I hope, in saying how delighted I am to see that the Government have announced the go-ahead for the world’s largest biomass plant at Port Talbot? It will be fuelled by wood chips, and will contribute about 70 per cent. of the Welsh Assembly Government’s 2010 renewable electricity targets and involve 150 jobs. That is a very good project.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Dafydd Wigley said that the Plaid-Labour coalition’s days could be numbered due to a particularly tight comprehensive spending review, which will mean the non-delivery of “One Wales” commitments on first-time buyers, pensioners and free laptops for children. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with Welsh Assembly Ministers about whether the Plaid and Labour commitments to the people of Wales can be delivered with the comprehensive spending review as it stands?

Mr. Hain: I did speak to the Assembly Finance Minister, Andrew Davies, and he was pleased with the result. I will just say to the hon. Gentleman that I would not rely on quoting Plaid Cymru leaders of any kind. It is not a reliable guide to anything, frankly.

Child Poverty

3. Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on levels of child poverty in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [164978]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on levels of child poverty in Wales.

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Jenny Willott: Mencap Cymru recently found that Welsh families with a child with a learning disability are missing out on an average of £5,000 a year in benefits. Some miss out on as much as £20,000. In addition, recent news reports suggest that £21 million devolved to the Assembly for support for disabled children has been diverted elsewhere in the budget. Given that those households with disabled children are among the poorest in Wales, what measures are the Minister and Secretary of State taking to improve support for those families and their benefit take-up levels?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Mencap and other organisations play an important role in feeding into the process by which we bring forward policy to tackle child poverty. The hon. Lady will acknowledge that when the Government came to power, 3.4 million children were living in poverty. Since 1998-99, 600,000 have been lifted out of poverty. Our strategy in the UK is to commit to halve child poverty by 2011 and to raise the bar to eradicate 60 per cent. of child poverty by 2020. Huge strides have been made. The number of children in households in the UK with incomes below the poverty line fell by 100,000 between 1998-99 and 2005-06. We are committed to eradicating child poverty, and we will continue with that objective.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that the child trust fund scheme has been welcomed in Wales as a way to tackle child poverty, and that take-up in my constituency at 76.9 per cent. is higher than average. Will he find ways to encourage more parents to use the vouchers so as to raise that percentage even more?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The high level of take-up in my hon. Friend’s constituency is very good news, and she is right that we must do everything we can to encourage higher levels across Wales. The child trust fund is important, but the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), the Liberal Democrat spokesman on these matters, has said in a press release:

However, if the Liberal Democrats are serious about combating child poverty—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not a matter for the Minister.


4. Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government on recent developments in the Welsh economy. [164980]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with the First Minister about all aspects of the Welsh economy. The Welsh Assembly and the UK Government have worked in partnership to ensure that the Welsh economy has grown rapidly to historic levels of output, with record investment.

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