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House of Commons

Wednesday 2 April 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—


1. Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of employment trends in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [197224]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): Employment in Wales continues to be at historically high levels, with 122,000 people now in work in Wales, and unemployment down by 30 per cent. since 1997.

Dr. Francis: Employment prospects in my constituency, Aberavon, have been significantly strengthened as a result of the recent announcement of £71 million worth of investment in the Port Talbot Corus steel plant and the Tata acquisition of Jaguar and Land Rover. Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming these developments, particularly the investment in environmental improvement, which will strongly support the excellent Neath Port Talbot council’s clean air charter? Will he also consider an early visit to my constituency to meet the new managing director of the Corus steel plant, Mr. Chaturvedi, to discuss future employment prospects in the Welsh steel industry?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, I should be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and to show support for his excellent local authority and the initiative that it has taken, involving all sections of the community in maintaining high standards of air quality. May I say how good it is that Tata has invested £9 million at Morfa in his constituency and £60 million in Port Talbot? If that is not a huge vote of confidence in Wales, I do not know what is.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): The question on the Order Paper asks for a recent assessment of employment trends. The Minister should be aware that the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics show that the employment rate in Wales has fallen to just 71.5 per cent. and the economically inactive rate has risen to almost 25 per cent. What does the Secretary of State think might be responsible for the dreadful recent rise in worklessness in Wales? Is it the policies of his sclerotic Government here in Westminster, or those of his separatist colleagues in Cardiff?

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Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman really should remember what unemployment was like when the Conservatives were in control: we had 3 million people out of work when I came into the House. The figures that I have just given are figures of considerable significance. In his constituency, Preseli Pembrokeshire, for example, there has been a 73 per cent. drop in unemployment since February 1997. The figures speak for themselves.

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will recall his visit to the new Bluestone project in my constituency which, when all its phases are completed, will employ 600 local people. Does he agree that that is evidence of the success that comes from partnership between the private sector and the public sector in the shape of the Welsh Assembly Government, who have also made a substantial investment in what will be a high quality leisure project employing substantial numbers of people and, most importantly, providing full-time all-year-round work in the tourist sector?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, I was delighted to visit Bluestone in my hon. Friend’s constituency. It is a great project and he is right to point out the importance of the Welsh Assembly Government’s contribution to what will be a major tourist attraction for Wales and a major employer for Pembrokeshire. I am also pleased to point out that my hon. Friend represents the other half of Pembrokeshire, where employment has unquestionably improved over recent years. In his constituency there has been a 71 per cent. reduction in unemployment since February 1997. What a success story for west Wales.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): In terms of employment, the public sector is very important in Wales, yet within the space of three weeks Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has broken faith with its employees in Merthyr by announcing further cuts in employment and transferring more jobs to Cardiff. That will have a knock-on effect in Brecon, where the branch is to close in 2011 and many of the employees wished to transfer to Merthyr. How can the staff and customers of HMRC have any faith in its plans when they are changed on such a short-term and arbitrary basis? Will the Secretary of State intervene on behalf of the staff and the public?

Mr. Murphy: I understand and sympathise with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes with regard to HMRC. As he knows, I have an HMRC office in my constituency, and I understand the importance of employment, particularly in what used to be called objective 1 areas and are now convergence fund areas. Certainly, I will continue discussing the matter with the relevant Ministers in the Treasury. The hon. Gentleman will understand, though, that over recent years well over 3,000 jobs in the public sector have come to Wales. That is important not just for the areas that he and I represent, but all over Wales.

Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): It was expected that the office in Merthyr would remain in its current form until 2011. My concern, which I would like my right hon. Friend to express to his colleagues in Government and see how he can
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assist, is about how the consultation has been carried out. The expectation has now been changed in an arbitrary fashion, without the necessary consultation. I would like my right hon. Friend to assist, if he can, in trying to rectify that position.

Mr. Murphy: I understand my hon. Friend’s position. He can rest assured that I will put his points to my colleagues at the Treasury.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The Secretary of State must be worried that Welsh employment trends are showing a drop of more than 1 per cent. last year. Our military trained strength is also falling, by 3 per cent. this year. More than ever, we need Welsh men and women in our armed services. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning the National Union of Teachers’ decision on excluding armed forces personnel from visiting our schools? That will prevent our young people from getting early information about potential employment in the services. Furthermore, will he ensure that that wicked policy is not implemented in Welsh schools?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is visiting Ministry of Defence establishments throughout Wales; I am sure that he will be able to carry the important message that the opportunities that the armed forces present to our young people in Wales are taken up. The hon. Lady can rest assured that we will make those points strongly; my hon. Friend will certainly do so.

Regional Pay

2. Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential effects of introducing regional pay arrangements in Government agencies and services in Wales. [197225]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular meetings with ministerial colleagues to discuss matters of such importance to Wales. We need to give careful consideration to all the potential effects of regional pay to ensure that our pay policy promotes economic growth in all parts of the UK.

Nia Griffith: My hon. Friend will be aware that after the decline in the coal and steel industries in the ’80s, we are at long last beginning to see the benefits of regeneration and growth in the local economy, and we need to do everything we can to keep that momentum going. Will the Under-Secretary agree to meet me to discuss the detrimental effect that regional pay could have on employees and the economy in general in my constituency?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend makes important points. On my recent ministerial visits to her constituency, I have seen the work that she has done to promote jobs in the local economy. The Secretary of State for Wales discussed the issue of regional pay at a recent meeting with the Lord Chancellor, and my right hon. Friend and I will continue to raise Members’ concerns about that issue. In response to my hon. Friend’s request, I should
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say that we will be more than happy to meet her and other colleagues who wish to raise the issue with us.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The convergence fund areas are there for a purpose: to raise the gross domestic product within those areas. Yet regional pay policy will depress salaries in those areas. Which is it going to be? Is it not time for some joined-up thinking? I know that the Secretary of State has made representations, but I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). We need to redouble our efforts on the issue, because it could be very detrimental to many areas of Wales.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman recognises the representations that we have already made, and we will continue to make them. The civil service currently has regional flexibility in its pay systems, and the Department for Work and Pensions has four separate pay zones. However, that Department, for example, has no plans whatever to introduce low-level regional pay for Wales.

In the wider context, the key is to address, foster and encourage the development of a strong private sector as well, with well paid jobs in Wales, so that the pay arrangements reflect the wider labour market fundamentals for the work force—not least, recruitment and retention. None the less, we will continue to take these issues up and make representations.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Rather than bringing in regional pay for some civil service jobs in Wales, would it not be more sensible for the UK Government to move even more civil service jobs to Wales, and thus help fill the empty floors in the Llanishen tax office in my constituency?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend raises an important point about the reallocation of public sector jobs to Wales. Although the current issues are controversial, it is worth remembering, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that more than 3,259 jobs have been relocated to Wales from central areas of England. We are the third highest receiving area in the whole of the UK for public sector jobs, thanks to that relocation. However, my hon. Friend makes a fair and valid point, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will continue to listen to the concerns expressed and make representations as appropriate.

Cross-Border Patients

3. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on hospital waiting times for cross-border in-patients. [197226]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s continued interest in this issue over some time. I can tell him that my right hon. Friend and I regularly meet the First Minister and the Minister for Health and Social Services to discuss a range of issues, including hospital waiting times, for cross-border patients. The Assembly Government are investing record amounts in the NHS in Wales and are consistently delivering real improvements in the standard of health care for all patients.

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Mr. Bone: Prime Minister Blair told us on 30 November that nobody was waiting more than six months for an NHS in-patient operation. Today, 2,788 Welsh patients and 239 cross-border patients are waiting more than six months. Why have things deteriorated so much under the current Prime Minister?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Actually, I can correct the hon. Gentleman slightly—there is improvement, not deterioration. The latest figures, for February 2008, show that in the last year alone the number of Welsh patients waiting for in-patient or day-case treatment in an English hospital has dropped by more than 22 per cent. and that the number of Welsh patients waiting for up to 36 weeks for an out-patient appointment in an English hospital has dropped by nearly 20 per cent. We appreciate that there is more work to do, but we are heading in the right direction.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): On Monday, the Welsh Affairs Committee visited the Walton centre and Alder Hey in Liverpool as part of our ongoing inquiry into cross-border health services. Those two establishments are centres of excellence and an integral part of the national health service for the people of north Wales. We were told that for all serious illnesses patients were treated equally whichever side of the border they resided on. Does the Minister agree that to meet the expectations of the future we need to strengthen the links between general hospitals in north Wales and those centres of excellence to ensure that we get the best patient care, based on clinical need, not geography?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend and other colleagues in north Wales have made strong representations on this issue. My right hon. Friend and I are convinced that the outcome of the ongoing review, which I understand will report in July this year, should arrive at a sensible and measured approach that delivers for patients in north Wales, and throughout Wales and the region. That is what we are looking for. I am assured that no decision has yet been made on the future of neurosurgery, but we do listen, and I am sure that my hon. Friend, too, makes those representations directly to Welsh Assembly Government Ministers.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): But will the Minister join me in condemning those who would worry, perplex and even frighten sick people in Wales with their exaggerated and sometimes unfounded allegations about problems with cross-border services—not because of concern for the health of our people, but as a proxy for their opposition to devolution?

Huw Irranca-Davies: All people in this House, and elsewhere, would want to ensure that decisions on health care are reached democratically and in the interests of the patient, and that is best done in a mood of calm, considered, deliberate attention to detail. That is how we would want things to proceed. If there is scaremongering, we would all, in this House and elsewhere, urge people to desist from that and look at the situation rationally.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extremely important that Welsh MPs should be entitled to ask questions about the treatment of patients in England, and will he reject absolutely the Tory proposal to stop us doing so?

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Huw Irranca-Davies: I do indeed agree. My hon. Friend makes a point about the role of Welsh MPs and their power to represent their constituents in this place in all matters. People will still come through to all MPs’ advice surgeries to raise these issues. We have democratically elected institutions both here and in the National Assembly for Wales, and it is important that the voices are heard in both places.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): My constituents are often told that because they live in Wales, they have to wait longer than the English patients of Shropshire hospitals. It is not hard to imagine the frustration and suffering that that causes my constituents. What can the Minister do to ensure that Montgomeryshire folk with health problems are not made to feel like second-class citizens when they go to those hospitals? How can he ensure that we get parity of treatment across the border between Montgomeryshire and England?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a strong supporter of devolution in principle, and one of the outcomes of devolution is that different approaches to primary, secondary and acute care will be adopted. In this House and elsewhere, we all want to see the best treatment for all our patients, and we are heading in the right direction. I hear the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, however, and other Members have expressed them as well. We want waiting times to come down, but we also want to see the massive investment that Labour has put into health, in primary care and elsewhere, paying dividends, and that process is working under this Government.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): As of yesterday, the combined target waiting time for out-patient and in-patient treatment in England has been reduced to 18 weeks, whereas in Wales the equivalent target is 44 weeks. Given that the Assembly Government spend more on health than England, one might have thought that the reverse would be the case. Could the Minister explain why the Assembly Government have apparently made a policy decision to require Welsh patients to wait more than twice as long for treatment as English patients?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The policy decision of the Welsh Assembly Government is to invest in health care, including waiting times, which are falling. As of January 2008, only three patients were waiting more than 36 weeks for in-patient or day-case treatment, compared with 3,485 in January 2007. We are not complacent, and we know that we have to go further, but the difference between 3,400 patients waiting and three waiting is evidence that we are going in the right direction.


4. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet governors of prisons in Wales to discuss combating drugs in prisons. [197228]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and others on a range of offender management issues, as well as on prisons in Wales.

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