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House of Commons

Wednesday 27 February 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—

Employment (Cynon Valley)

1. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on employment levels in the Cynon valley. [188098]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I have regular discussions with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on a range of issues including employment levels in Wales. Employment is still at record levels, which reflects the success of our policies and our aim to secure employment opportunities for everybody.

Ann Clwyd: First, may I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his rightful place on the Front Bench? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am grateful to him for that answer. As he knows, unemployment has been cut by half in the Cynon valley, but 88 acres of prime land in the centre of the valley were the site of the former Phurnacite plant, and contain a lot of toxic waste. Nearly 20 years after the closure of the plant, the development remains unfinished. When can the people of Abercwmboi expect that eyesore to disappear?

Mr. Murphy: I thank my right hon. Friend for her kind words. She will recall that I answered a question from her on this subject eight or nine years ago. I hope that my answer is a little different this time. I have met the Assembly Deputy First Minister to discuss this issue, and I know that my right hon. Friend has also talked to the Deputy First Minister. There is a strong case for development on that site, and I hope that we can get some progress in Abercwmboi. It is very important to develop what used to be called brownfield sites. In the north of our valleys, and certainly in the Cynon valley, there is a great need to provide employment opportunities, and I hope that we will achieve some success in that.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): May I also warmly welcome the Secretary of State to his place? I am sure that he will do a very good job. When he
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considers employment levels, will he also look into the record levels of people claiming sickness benefits? What is he doing to ensure that those who are capable of working are out in the workplace and not signing on for invalidity benefit?

Mr. Murphy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. He and I share the new town, as it was, of Cwmbran, and I look forward to working with him. He will know that the pathfinder project has been highly successful and that the work of the Assembly Government and of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions together are making an impact on both the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and mine. He will, I am sure, remember that it was not long ago that unemployment levels in Monmouth and Torfaen were very high. They are now very low.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): May I, too, start by warmly welcoming the right hon. Gentleman back to the Front Bench? I am certainly looking forward to our exchanges, as I know that we both share a desire to see Wales prosper. With that in mind, the Wester n Mail reports today that Wales ranks bottom in the UK for school results and that Rhondda Cynon Taf is one of the poorest performing education authorities in the country—at least a quarter of its lessons are not up to standard. Is he not ashamed that after 10 years of Labour Government our young people, particularly in the Cynon valley, are leaving school without even the basic skills for finding employment?

Mr. Murphy: I thank the hon. Lady for her kind wishes. I look forward to waltzing with her this evening to “Me and my shadow”. As for Aberdare and other valley communities, of course there is still work to be done in education and in upskilling people. I saw the article in the Western Mail this morning. I do not have the slightest doubt that there has been an increase in our schools’ standards in the south Wales valleys. In addition to that, the number of pupils in classes has been reduced and the old schools are gradually disappearing with new ones being built in their place. Although there is work to be done, an awful lot has been done, too.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): May I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend back to his rightful place on the Front Bench? I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on the sterling work that she has done over many years to attract business to the Cynon valley. May I suggest that the Secretary of State enters into discussions with the Labour-led Rhondda Cynon Taf authority and the Wales Co-operative Centre? Those excellent organisations have done much excellent work in attracting business and employment prospects to the valleys.

Mr. Murphy: Yes, of course. I know that Rhondda Cynon Taf is doing very good work in that respect. I thank my hon. Friend again for his welcome, and remind him that the last time I spoke from this Dispatch Box he was my special adviser. I know that he does excellent work as Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, and I am sure that the subject that he has raised will be a great issue for the Committee to deal with.

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Cross-border Patients

2. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What discussions he has had with the First Minister about waiting times for first out-patient appointments for cross-border patients. [188099]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I regularly meet the First Minister, when we discuss a range of issues including NHS hospital waiting times for cross-border patients. The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales and delivering real improvement in the standard of services to all Welsh patients.

Mr. Bone: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but official Government figures show that while 82 English patients are waiting more than 13 weeks for their first out-patient appointment, the figure for Wales is 47,698, so there does not seem to have been a lot of improvement. Does the Secretary of State agree that there is not so much a health postcode lottery, but deliberate Government discrimination against the people of Wales?

Mr. Murphy: No, I cannot agree with that. The hon. Gentleman is aware that nearly £6 billion has been spent on the health service in Wales. However, he raises an important point about cross-border health arrangements. I was surprised to learn that, in 2006, more than 19,000 patients resident in England were registered with a general practitioner in Wales, while nearly 14,000 patients resident in Wales were registered with a GP in England. Whether we are dealing with primary care or waiting times, there must be an arrangement between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of Health, probably an improved protocol on cross-border issues, to deal with any discrepancies. It is fair to say that waiting times in Wales have dropped dramatically over the past year or so and that there are far fewer differences between England and Wales than there were in the past.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I respect the right of the Welsh Assembly Government to determine their priorities in health. We welcome the fact that a third of the patients of the Countess of Chester, which serves my constituency, come to that first-class hospital from Wales. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that quick progress is made on ensuring that there is fair funding for the Countess of Chester hospital?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, I will. My hon. Friend and I discussed this issue only a couple of weeks ago. There are particular problems with dealing with cross-border issues in the north-east of Wales and the north-west of England, and discussions are ongoing about how to deal with them. Of course, the national health service is genuinely national to the United Kingdom and we should not allow cross-border issues to deflect from that basic principle. When the new protocol is agreed, I am sure that it will cover my hon. Friend’s points.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): On behalf of Plaid Cymru, may I welcome the Secretary of State to his post?

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Does the Secretary of State accept that one of the difficulties with this debate on health provision is that it is bedevilled by both a lack of statistics and conveniently quoted statistics? Will he therefore cause the publication of a set of statistics on the number of Welsh people being treated in England, the percentage of Welsh people being treated in England, waiting times, and costs to local health boards, so that the debate can be properly informed and transparent?

Mr. Murphy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He is absolutely right that statistics should be available so that we can compare notes on the separate systems in Wales and England. I can give him some statistics. As I said, there are just under 20,000 English patients registered in Wales and 14,000 Welsh patients registered in England. However, we need the figures for hospitals, too. When the statistics are compiled, they will be a useful tool to ensure that there is a proper protocol to deal with the issue. I know that the hon. Gentleman, as a north Wales Member, is especially interested in the matter.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that Welsh patients waiting for treatment in England are part of the overall waiting list in Wales? Does he also agree that today’s figures show a dramatic decrease in the number of Welsh patients waiting for out-patient appointments and in in-patient waiting times? Will he join me in congratulating all the health workers involved in that improvement?

Mr. Murphy: I certainly will agree with my hon. Friend. A great deal of work has been done in the past couple of years to improve waiting times for people in Wales. Her point about today’s figures is very telling. All Members who represent Wales will appreciate that we do not get the number of letters about waiting times that we used to. There is no question but that the situation is better than it used to be, although that is not to say that we can become complacent.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I too welcome the Secretary of State to his post. He has given distinguished service to Wales and to UK politics.

Many patients in north Wales are worried that they will not have access to neurological services in Walton. My constituent, Mr. Narborough, has to go to Wrexham for artificial limb services, rather than Hereford; young Ieuan Baynhan has to go all the way to Morriston for plastic surgery; and Owen Williams cannot get treatment for ankylosing spondylitis in Bath. Will the Secretary of State emphasise to his colleagues in the Assembly and in Westminster how important cross-border services are, and will he ensure that we bring common sense to bear on the situation?

Mr. Murphy: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I agree with him that there is a difficulty. Many of his constituents, for example, go to Neville Hall hospital in Monmouthshire, and some cross the border into Shrewsbury and elsewhere. However, we have to put the distances into perspective: a seriously ill person with a rather specialist complaint will inevitably, I suspect, have to travel some distance for treatment.
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Obviously, the patient him or herself will want the best treatment, but the nearer it is to home, the better. I shall take his concerns up with the Welsh Health Minister.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): I am sure that the Secretary of State has seen this month’s report from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign, which highlights the difficulty many patients have in accessing services in England. Indeed, one local Welsh health board is unable to commission services at the specialist centre in Oswestry because of funding constraints. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Welsh patients, who, after all, pay their taxes at precisely the same rates as English patients, are entitled to a service of at least equal quality? Does he not share my regret that they are clearly not getting it?

Mr. Murphy: I have seen that report. I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government will consider its recommendations and that Edwina Hart will respond shortly. However, I agree with the general thrust of his question on muscular dystrophy services.

HMRC and DWP Offices

3. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues in HM Treasury on the reduction in the number of HM Revenue and Customs offices in west Wales. [188100]

6. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the effects of restructuring Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs offices in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [188103]

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 at Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, including on that very important issue. We shall continue to take a keen interest in the restructuring and its impact on Wales.

Nia Griffith: My hon. Friend will be aware that Treasury colleagues undertook to have discussions not only with colleagues in other Departments, but with the Welsh Assembly Government, to try to safeguard HMRC jobs and services in west Wales. What progress has been made, and can he report to the House on the matter?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that vital issue. Wales Office Ministers have suggested options—co-location, for example—in meetings and in correspondence with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury and others; we have also raised the matter with the First Minister. WAG officials have discussed the option of co-locating offices with HMRC officials, but opportunities for co-location are limited, because HMRC is focused on achieving cost savings and is not taking on new premises. However, co-location may well be a possibility where a building housing an inquiry centre is given up and an alternative
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building has to be found nearby. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend and others have done to raise this important matter and push the case forward.

Mr. Llwyd: May I, through the Under-Secretary of State, add my welcome to the Secretary of State on his return to the Front Bench? He did a lot of sterling work in the north of Ireland, and I am sure that he will do the same for Wales.

The answer that the Under-Secretary of State gave is not good enough in the light of the concern felt across the House. Twenty-eight of the 33 DWP offices to close in Wales are within the objective 1 area, as are 550 of the 750 jobs to disappear from the HMRC sector. More must be done—not tinkering with buildings, but acting to secure those jobs.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Once again, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which is worth putting in context—Wales has now received more than 2,700 posts as part of the Government relocation—but the issue of substance that he raised is important. We understand that the review process is now complete for the Wales urban centres of Cardiff and Swansea, and that last week HMRC told staff that its decision would be announced this Friday. He will understand that I cannot pre-empt the announcement of that decision, but we are all looking forward to hearing it and seeing how it will affect all parts of Wales.

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that his office has been dealing with the matter for the past 12 months. One of the key issues has been the principle of co-location and joined-up government. The Treasury needs further pressure to consider seriously co-location and joined-up government with other Departments, including Welsh Assembly Departments, as well as with the NHS and even the private sector, so that we can secure those very important jobs, particularly in the area covered by the west Wales and the valleys conversion fund.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend reiterates the case that he and others have been advancing for some time. I am grateful to him for mentioning the role played by the Wales Office in raising the issue of co-location. We await with interest the announcement on Friday, and I know that he and others will continue to press their case hard for the effective use of co-location as part of the strategy.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): The Minister will be aware that the issue has been dragging on for almost 18 months. Is he aware of the impact that that is having on staff at HMRC offices— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The noise level is too high. There should not be conversations. [ Interruption. ] That goes for Members on the Labour Benches as well.

Mr. Crabb: I am grateful, Mr. Speaker.

Is the Minister aware of the enormous and unacceptable uncertainty facing staff at HMRC offices such as the one in Haverfordwest, which employs 60 people, and the impact that that uncertainty is having on the morale
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of the HMRC work force, who provide a vital front-line service? When will staff find out whether they will be made redundant, or whether they might be offered a relocation package or work elsewhere? The uncertainty faced by people in my constituency is the most worrying thing for them at the moment.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman rightly says that one of the biggest issues at the moment is the uncertainty of people looking at their futures in HMRC. I agree. Any process of reform such as this brings uncertainty, but as I said in response to previous questions, we hope for some conclusion in the announcement on Friday, to which we look forward with interest. He is absolutely right to say that people want to know where they stand as a result of the consultation.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The Secretary of State has spoken eloquently and wisely on these matters in the Welsh Grand Committee, but will the Minister deal with the inconsistency of an objective 1 area losing jobs on such a scale? We are asking for highly paid, highly skilled jobs, but HMRC offices such as the one in Aberystwyth could be reduced to a rump of only three employees. Will he ensure that the outcome of any discussions and the report on Cardiff and Swansea will not prejudice the case of rural tax offices in west Wales, not least because relocation means very little to people in Aberystwyth, Haverfordwest and similar places?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Again, the hon. Gentleman, along with many other hon. Members, has highlighted the importance of the issue right across Wales, not only in west Wales and the valleys, but in the north, south, east and west. I cannot pre-empt Friday’s announcement, but the points that he and others have made have been noted and fed into the consultation. We look forward with great interest to the result.

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