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House of Commons

Wednesday 16 January 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Research Funding

1. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills on funding for research for universities in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [177783]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills to discuss a variety of issues affecting Wales, and Welsh universities have a vital role to play in meeting the challenges of the future, not only in increasing the knowledge economy of Wales, but in encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation.

Ian Lucas: North East Wales institute in my constituency, which we all hope will shortly be a university, has a proud record of research, particularly in attracting private investment into research. Since 2001, it has raised £2.7 million for its polymer investment programme, 80 per cent. of which has come from the private sector—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make a speech. He can put a question—how’s that?

Ian Lucas indicated dissent.

Mr. Speaker: That is even better still. The Minister can answer now.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I got the gist of it, Mr. Speaker; I am happy to reply. The North East Wales institute has been right at the forefront of research. It has received £120,000 from the research investment fund since 2004-05. In particular, its innovation centre has made remarkable progress through links with Rolls-Royce, Airbus UK, Siemens, Jaguar and DaimlerChrysler. My hon. Friend will continue to receive support from myself and my
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right hon. Friend the Secretary of State; there is no more powerful advocate for the North East Wales institute than my hon. Friend.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Despite the Minister’s professed support for research funding, is he aware of the potential cuts to the physics funding of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which will amount to 25 per cent. over three years, and the detrimental effect that that will have on such institutes in Aberystwyth? Will he continue his dialogue with the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and his colleagues at the STFC in order to find us some alternative funding?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will always continue such discussions, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that in the 2005-06 academic year, for the very first time, Welsh universities accounted for 11 per cent. of UK-wide income from collaborative research, outperforming six of the nine English regional development agency regions. Wales is doing very well in research, but it must do more, and we will continue to support Wales as it drives forward in the knowledge economy.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): The Secretary of State has long been a champion of higher education in Wales, particularly with regard to its support of the knowledge economy. Does my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary agree that the forthcoming inquiry by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs into cross-border issues affords the Wales Office and the DIUS a unique opportunity to give evidence on how we can best address the question of the research funding deficit in Wales? In so doing, we can help to strengthen the link between technology transfer and research funding in order to advance the cause of the knowledge economy in Wales.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed; my hon. Friend’s commitment to higher education and his background in HE in Wales are well known, and the Wales Office would welcome any opportunity to appear before the Welsh Affairs Committee to give evidence to that very important inquiry into the future of skills and knowledge in Wales. I know that he will welcome the recent substantial increase in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform science and innovation budget—an increase from £5.4 billion in 2007 to £6.3 billion in 2010-11. That is positive news for Welsh HE, delivered under a Labour Government.


2. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): What discussions he has had with the First Minister on the manufacturing industry in Wales. [177784]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Periodic ones. I have never known Welsh questions to be so popular, and I welcome everybody.

Mr. Evans: Since the right hon. Gentleman took the position of Secretary of State for Wales in 2002, more than 23,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. Those
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who lost their jobs would not have been reassured to learn that when the Secretary of State should have been looking after their interests he had two jobs and was seeking another, the handling of which was described by the Prime Minister yesterday as incompetent. Given the Secretary of State’s growing lack of credibility and the mire that now surrounds him, would not the best prospect for new jobs in Wales be for him to quit his two jobs today?

Mr. Hain: Thanks for that supporting question. Let me give the hon. Gentleman a quote:

Those are not my words, but those of the Leader of the Opposition only last month.

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): Unemployment in Gower is now considerably less than half of what it was in 1997. However, at the beginning of this week, we learned from 3 Ms, a flagship manufacturer in Gower, that it is reviewing some operations in the Gorseinon factory. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the future of 3 Ms in Gorseinon?

Mr. Hain: I will be happy to do so. I remind my hon. Friend and everybody that Wales is a great place to do business at the moment. Only recently, the Royal Bank of Scotland found that manufacturing output continues to expand. The business climate is excellent. Wales is going from strength to strength, despite global uncertainty and financial instability. Everybody, including manufacturers, should come to Wales, because it is the best place to be.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Given that between June 1999 and June 2007 21 per cent. of manufacturing jobs were lost in Wales, does the Secretary of State agree that it is excellent news that Rigcycle Ltd has bought two quarries in Blaenau Ffestiniog and one in Penrhyn in Bethesda? Will he do all he can with his colleagues in the National Assembly to assist the company to expand even further? Does he agree that, Welsh slate, as a premier product, could do with more advertising worldwide?

Mr. Hain: I completely agree. As the hon. Gentleman knows better than anybody, the opportunity for Welsh slate is great. We should work together—I know that the Welsh Assembly Government will work with us—to advance the prospects of Welsh slate. I congratulate him on his work; we should ensure that the initiative in his constituency goes from strength to strength.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend knows that General Dynamics in my constituency leads a £60 million defence research consortium with the Ministry of Defence, involving the universities of Cardiff, Cambridge and Imperial. What are the Government doing to ensure that the innovative ideas that come from that research benefit manufacturing industries in Wales?

Mr. Hain: My right hon. Friend will remember that I visited that factory with him. It is a fine example of manufacturing excellences in Wales, along with many others, such as the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company—EADS—which I visited, Airbus, the
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Metrix consortium and Visteon, with which I have worked. We will work closely with him and General Dynamics to see what opportunities there are. We will continue to invest in higher education and in skills and high technology to ensure that global companies such as General Dynamics continue to view Wales as an excellent base from which to operate.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): When supporting manufacturing business in Wales, on what basis do Wales Office Ministers decide whether to give a personal endorsement to a manufacturing or other commercial operation in Wales, such as the Cuddy group? Does the Secretary of State have any regrets about the business endorsements that he has made as Secretary of State for Wales in the past two years?

Mr. Hain: I have absolutely no regrets— [Interruption.]—about the business endorsements that I have given in Wales. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The House should allow the Secretary of State to answer.

Mr. Hain: I was asked about the business endorsements in Wales that I gave as Secretary of State. I am proud to visit companies, whether manufacturers such as General Dynamics, construction companies such as Cuddy’s, or financial companies such as Picture Financial, which create more jobs. I have often accepted invitations from hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies. It is right that the Secretary of State for Wales gives his support to the growth and success of Welsh business.

Let me give the hon. Lady a quote:

The CBI Wales director, David Rosser, made that statement only a month ago, speaking from Wales.

Mrs. Gillan: In the light of the Secretary of State’s enthusiasm, will he arrange for the publication of all exchanges with the permanent secretary responsible for the Wales Office that relate to his dealings with businesses, especially those that he has endorsed, so that we can reassure manufacturing business that his Department is both competent and free of bias?

Mr. Hain: Let me say this to the hon. Lady: if she were doing my job, which she wants to do, I would perceive it as her duty to accept invitations from successful Welsh businesses—manufacturers and others—to give them support. Why is she attacking that?

She should applaud the statement that,

It was made by Professor Dylan Jones-Evans, the director of the national entrepreneurship observatory for Wales and Conservative candidate for Clwyd, West in last year’s Assembly elections.

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Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I compliment my right hon. Friend on his effective liaison with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government. What discussions has he had with Welsh Assembly Government colleagues about using the framework powers in the Education and Skills Bill to redress the gender imbalance and encourage more young women to take up apprenticeships and careers in manufacturing?

Mr. Hain: As my hon. Friend knows, we have had regular discussions—I with the First Minister and others with the Welsh Assembly Government—about the Bill. She is right: it is essential that we get more young women especially into apprenticeships. I remember visiting a training centre in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), where I had a discussion with a training official who was trying to persuade young girls to switch from hairdressing into plumbing, making it clear that it offered more opportunities for flexible working and greater wealth. [ Interruption. ] Conservative Members are decrying the opportunities for young women in Wales that this Labour Government are providing, when they should be supporting them.

Local Government Funding

3. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What discussions he has had with the First Minister on financial allocations to local councils in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [177785]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): Regular discussions take place with the First Minister on such matters. The Welsh Assembly Government have delivered, including in their announcement yesterday, a realistic settlement for local government that represents a fair deal for Wales.

Simon Hughes: Given that the Wales Office budget has doubled and that there are £40 million of reserves in the Welsh Assembly accounts, was it incompetence or intentional that the Secretary of State and the First Minister delivered a below-inflation settlement for the 22 Welsh councils, which means that front-line services the length and breadth of Wales will be at risk in the coming year?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I honestly thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to echo the sentiments of the individual who said:

That was said by a spokesman for Powys county council yesterday. The Welsh Assembly will ensure that all councils receive an increase in funds of at least 2 per cent. An extra £4.7 million was announced yesterday by Finance Minister Andrew Davies, which will mean an average rise of 2.4 per cent. Councils such as Powys and Ynys Môn, which had been allocated 1 per cent., will benefit greatly. I honestly thought that the hon. Gentleman might mention that.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): My hon. Friend is right. I thank him and the Secretary of State, who has an excellent record on delivering for Ynys Môn and its
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people, for the flooring in the mechanism. It is important that that flooring continues over the comprehensive spending review period, as the Home Office has provided for police authorities in Wales, so that local authorities can plan year on year and deliver adequate services. Will the Wales Office liaise with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that that happens?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend has been one of the most powerful advocates in recent days and weeks on the issue, and I know that he will have welcomed yesterday’s announcement. We will continue to argue strongly for a fair deal for Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has visited my hon. Friend’s constituency, and so have I. Perhaps I could extend an invitation to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) to visit Bridgend, which has one of the best settlements in Wales, but which is in the shameful position of having the lowest spending on primary schools in Wales. Will he please visit and explain to the Lib-Dem leadership there what it needs to do right?

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): The Minister will know that the funding formula is skewed against rural authorities in Wales, which is why Monmouthshire has had the highest council tax increase of any authority in the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. Will he do something about that—if in a short while he wields greater influence in the Wales Office than he does at the moment?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman fails to mention, as he once again launches into a diatribe against the Welsh Assembly and everything Welsh, that the last three financial years have seen the lowest council tax rises since the council tax was introduced in Wales. What a contrast with the Conservative years.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Despite the small improvements announced yesterday, many councils still face very tight financial settlements that are leading them to consider cuts in services or increases in council tax. What discussions has the Minister had with his Assembly colleagues to ensure that Welsh councils will be able to deliver on the equal pay agenda, so that women who have been disadvantaged for so long can now get equal pay for equal work? Or does he have some other funds for these progressive policies?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman raises a vital point, and I assure him that we raise these issues continually with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers and with the Welsh Local Government Association, whose representatives I met on Monday. There is a determination to deliver on equal pay, as there should be, and we will deliver it—I hope with cross-party support—because we have a Labour-led Administration with Plaid Cymru in Wales, and a Labour Government here.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that the Welsh block grant rose from £6.5 billion in 1997 to more than £14 billion this year. Yes, we need more money, but does he agree that the issue in Wales is how to get value for money from our
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local authorities? What discussions is he having with his Welsh Assembly colleagues to ensure that we get value for money in Wales?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend is entirely correct that we must not only deliver the investment in Wales, as the Labour Government are doing, but ensure that the right reforms and efficiencies are in place. In the Finance Minister’s statement yesterday, he made it clear that the extra investment will go hand in hand with efficiencies, reforms and delivery. I know that my hon. Friend will also welcome the announcement in this budget of in excess of £1.2 billion extra for health; a substantial increase in the number of apprenticeships, with an extra £25 million over the next three years; £6 million extra for alcohol and drug rehabilitation; and £120 million for affordable child care. Why are all those announcements significant? It is because they are being delivered under Labour.

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