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21 Nov 2007 : Column 1175

Dr. Francis: I thank the Minister for that reply, and I am sure that he will agree that one of the best ways to tackle the twin challenges facing the Welsh economy today—economic inactivity and low skills levels—is to support the excellent work being done across Wales by many organisations. In my constituency, they include the Shaw Trust in Llandarcy, Remploy in Baglan and, in particular, the New Sandfields Aberavon development trust, whose Strides project, in partnership with Sandfields comprehensive school, has done so much to assist the skills levels of young people.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree entirely, and my hon. Friend is right to point out that a genuinely partnership approach is being adopted. That is why employment in Wales is at historically high levels, with 1.334 million people now in work. As a result of this Government’s policies, Wales is attracting record levels of investment, and that has led to consistent growth in employment levels. In partnership with all sorts of organisations, Wales is becoming truly world class.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Gross value added is now recognised as a key economic indicator. If the UK average is taken to be 100, Wales stands at 78 while west Wales and the valleys languish at 65, despite seven years of objective 1 funding and expenditure of £1 billion. The main reason for that is the absence of involvement by the private sector. What conversations will the Minister have with the Welsh Assembly to ensure that the private sector gets more involved with convergence funding to make it more successful than the abortive objective 1 funding?

Huw Irranca-Davies: By way of answer, let me say that incapacity benefit claims have fallen by 9 per cent. in west Wales and the valleys, and the figure for Wales as a whole is even higher. The strategies to turn the existing problem around are firmly embedded, but I agree entirely that the private sector must get involved. It is noticeable that private sector output in Wales has risen for 45 successive months, from March 2003 to October 2007, but it is true that we must also get the private sector involved with convergence funding.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): One of the most significant developments in the next few years will be the St. Athan defence training academy, on which we hope that building will start in the next two years. We have already won the first package, so will the Minister do everything in his power to make sure that the Ministry of Defence understands the benefits of bringing the second package to Wales as well? That is supported by everyone on the Labour side of the House, but will he make sure it is supported by everyone on the other side as well?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The success of the academy depends very much on strong and coherent cross-party support and leadership. The massive investment in the new St. Athan defence training academy, worth billions of pounds, shows that the Government have given Wales a huge vote of confidence and is a sign of the country’s bright economic future. Thousands of jobs will be created when construction of the academy is complete, and they will come on top of the 1,500 jobs created
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during the construction period. We must continue to show consensus and leadership at all levels on this matter.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Can the Minister confirm that, when the Varney review on corporation tax cuts reports in the next few weeks, any tax breaks offered by the Government to businesses in Northern Ireland will also be offered to businesses in Wales?

Huw Irranca-Davies: There will be a level playing field on that issue. I reiterate the comments that have been made about St. Athan and elsewhere: we would welcome the hon. Gentleman’s help in ensuring that there is coherent, joined-up cross-party support for St. Athan.

Benefit Claimants

5. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on reducing the number of people claiming benefits in Wales. [164981]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): We have the objective of reducing the number of people claiming benefits in Wales, by getting them into work.

Nia Griffith: I welcome the fact that our programmes are enabling people to come off benefits and into work, but what reassurance can the Secretary of State give that the recipients of disability living allowance who suffer from a progressive disease will not be subject to unnecessary stress by examinations under the right payment programme, as that will both cause them tremendous distress and waste staff time?

Mr. Hain: Clearly, people, possibly including my hon. Friend’s constituents in that predicament, who are severely disabled should be helped and supported on benefit and not forced into any old job, but we are changing the capability assessment under which people’s potential to work is medically assessed, to ensure that they are supported and given the maximum opportunity. More and more disabled people are working with the help of our Government’s policies, and incapacity benefit levels have fallen by 12 per cent. in her constituency as people have moved off benefits and into work.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that supporting youth projects is a key way of getting more people into work? Will he join me in condemning the Liberal-Tory alliance on Wrexham council, which is systematically targeting the poorest wards in Wrexham by closing down facilities that help young people into work?

Mr. Hain: Indeed. I am horrified by the Liberal Democrat council’s performance in Wrexham, and I hope that it will be swept out of power next May. I am delighted at Labour’s recent stunning by-election victory in Wrexham, overturning a Liberal Democrat majority of 231 in the Stansty council ward.

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Legislative Competence

6. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What steps he is taking to increase the National Assembly for Wales’ legislative competence. [164982]

8. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What steps he is taking to increase the National Assembly for Wales’ legislative competence. [164984]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): We are committed to giving the National Assembly for Wales new law-making powers under the provisions of the Government of Wales Act 2006.

Michael Fabricant: Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), does the Secretary of State not realise that damage will be done to tourism by allowing taxation on all vehicles that enter Wales? That is what will happen if the framework powers go ahead. Why are these actions being taken, given that there has been no proper consultation?

Mr. Hain: I do not accept anything that the hon. Gentleman has said. As I explained patiently to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), the Conservative spokesman for Wales, the truth is that the measures for which the Welsh Assembly Government are asking Westminster to grant will enable them, for example, to impose a toll like the one that has been successfully operated on the M6 from Birmingham towards Manchester, in order to fund the M4 relief road. The hon. Gentleman might know—he might not, of course—that there is severe traffic congestion in the Brynglas tunnel and elsewhere on the M4 on the stretch from the Severn bridge to Cardiff. These measures are not meant to impose nationwide tolls in Wales or anything of the kind that he suggests; they are specifically targeted to help in specific instances, including the M4 relief road.

Mr. Vara: Does the Secretary of State foresee any circumstance whereby primary legislative power will be transferred to the National Assembly under the Government of Wales Act 2006 in this Parliament?

Mr. Hain: I have made it clear to this Parliament in taking the 2006 Act through its passage that I think that that is unlikely, and I have said all along that I am in favour of calling a referendum on full law-making powers, which I support and put into the Bill, when we are likely to win it. I do not think that there is any point in calling a premature referendum, which would produce a repeat of 1979, rather than the success, albeit narrow, that we achieved in 1997. We need to build a consensus for a yes vote across all parties, and I want to be part of achieving that.

Planning Bill

7. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): What discussions he has had with the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly Government on the implications for Wales of the forthcoming planning Bill. [164983]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): I speak regularly to ministerial colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government on the implications for Wales of the Government’s legislative programme, including the planning Bill.

Mr. Llwyd: The planning Bill is, in effect, undemocratic. It will take away from local people the right to cross-examine infrastructure proposals. Will the hon. Gentleman take time to discuss the matter with Assembly Ministers, who are very concerned about the way in which the Bill is going to be presented?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I disagree with the idea that the Bill will take away powers. It will implement proposals set out in the White Paper “Planning for a Sustainable Future” to streamline and improve planning. It is another Government proposal that fulfils our commitment of devolving legislative competence to the National Assembly for Wales via framework powers. The consent regime for significant infrastructure projects will respect the existing devolution settlement. The infrastructure planning commission will decide whether to grant consent for projects in Wales only if the existing consent regimes are not devolved.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [166251] Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): Before listing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Captain John McDermid of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, who was killed in Afghanistan last Wednesday, and our condolences also to the families and friends of the two service personnel who died yesterday in a helicopter crash in Iraq. We owe them and others who have lost their lives a deep debt of gratitude.

I am also sure that the whole House will wish to send our warmest congratulations to Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip on their diamond wedding anniversary yesterday. They have both devoted their lives to public service and we pay tribute to them again today.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Ann McKechin: May I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy by the Prime Minister?

Many people in my constituency and throughout the country will have been very concerned at the announcement yesterday about the loss of millions of data records from the child benefit office. Can my right hon. Friend assure me and the House that he will take every possible step to ensure the protection of the data of our citizens, not only in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, but across Government?

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The Prime Minister: I profoundly regret and apologise for the inconvenience and worries that have been caused to millions of families who receive child benefit. When mistakes happen in enforcing procedures, we have a duty to do everything that we can to protect the public. That is why bank accounts are being checked now for fraudulent activities and why the banks have agreed to look back to 18 October and beyond to check whether there have been any fraudulent activities—and there is no evidence of that happening. That is why the banking code will ensure that there are no losses suffered by anybody who receives child benefit if there is fraud in their accounts—and again there is no evidence of fraud.

It is also why we have set up the review by the chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers into the procedures that have been followed. I can also say to the House today that I have asked the Cabinet Secretary and security experts to ensure that all Departments and all agencies check their procedures for the storage and use of data. As the House may know, last month I also set up a review to be chaired by Mark Walport of the Wellcome Trust and the Information Commissioner jointly, to look at the security of personal data in both the public and the private sector. They will look at the work of Government agencies and Departments. We will give the Information Commissioner the power to spot-check Departments, to do everything in his power and our power to secure the protection of data. In other words, we will do everything in our power to make sure that data are safe.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Captain John McDermid, who was killed in Afghanistan last Wednesday, and to the two service personnel who were killed when their RAF Puma helicopter was lost in Iraq last night. They all died serving our country.

I also join the Prime Minister in congratulating the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on their diamond jubilee. They have had a remarkable life together, and a life of public service.

Millions of people will today be worrying about the safety of their bank accounts and the security of their family details, but they will not just be worried; they will be angry that the Government have failed in their first duty—to protect the public. Does the Prime Minister think that the matter should be treated as an isolated incident, or does he believe that there is wider, systemic failure and a lack of leadership at Revenue and Customs?

The Prime Minister: It is precisely because we have to check all procedures, not just in HMRC but in all departments, that I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to conduct a review. There is also the review that will be conducted by the chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers into HMRC itself. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that there is no evidence of fraudulent activity taking place, and that this was a failure in implementing the proper procedures. It is important that he should know that the procedures that should have been followed are these: only authorised staff must be allowed access to protectively marked information; information must not be removed without appropriate authorisation; and encryption should be used whenever any information is being sent. Those were the procedures. They are in existence now, and they should have been operated.

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Mr. Cameron: It is all very well holding reviews, but the Government have had 10 years to sort out the department. I have to say to the Prime Minister that if a junior official in an organisation can access so much information and send it not once, not twice but three times, that is evidence of systemic failure. Last year there were more than 2,000 breaches of security at Revenue and Customs. In May this year, 8,000 families needing tax credits had their bank details revealed, and later in the year details of 15,000 taxpayers, including private pension information, were lost in the post. The Government said at the time:

Clearly, that was completely wrong. Does the Prime Minister accept systemic failure in the department?

The Prime Minister: What I accept is that the review must look at all the procedures that are adopted by HMRC, but it must also look at other Government Departments and agencies. In relation to the case that the right hon. Gentleman is quoting—that of Standard Life—yes, a review was done, and it proposed that there be changes in both encryption and audit. The problem was that the information that was lost was lost on October 18, and the procedures that should have been followed were not followed. Let me just tell him— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: I think that the House should know that under the “Manual of Protective Security”, which all departments are obliged to follow, any data that are sensitive will attract a protective marking—“restricted/confidential”—and should be encrypted when in transit. There is absolutely no doubt that that is the procedure; it just was not followed, and that is what the investigation has got to look at.

Mr. Cameron: But this has been going on for years. [Interruption.] Yes, let us look at what happened in September 2005, two years ago: Revenue and Customs lost vital data about savings from one of its clients, UBS. The data were stored on a CD-ROM and were not encrypted. The data went missing from a Revenue and Customs office, and what happened? Revenue and Customs claimed it was a one-off incident in a single office. That is what I call systemic failure—when procedures are not followed over and over again. HMRC was the Prime Minister’s department. He insisted that it paid child benefit, and he increased its scope. Clearly there is a problem with its security, its privacy, its culture and its leadership. Does the Prime Minister feel at all responsible for this?

The Prime Minister: The Leader of the Opposition should know that his party supported the changes that we made to HMRC. The National Audit Office reported on the changes that we brought about and said the performance of HMRC had not been adversely affected. The adjudicator for HMRC said that the changes had not had any negative impact. I have to ask the right hon. Gentleman: what if we had followed his advice at the last general election? He proposed that we cut expenditure on HMRC. His report—the James review that he put into his manifesto—said that his party should cut £660,000 million by what they called the “Rationalisation of data processing”. It was he who recommended further cuts.

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