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House of Commons

Wednesday 21 May 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. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Welsh Assembly Government on the contribution of VisitWales to the UK tourism strategy. [205949]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I meet regularly with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on that and a range of other issues. The House will be pleased to note that VisitWales is working closely with VisitBritain to maximise the potential opportunities for tourism in Wales. VisitWales’s campaigns in activity tourism and business tourism have generated an extra £43.3 million and £31 million respectively for the Welsh economy in 2006-07.

Mark Pritchard: I am on record as saying that the best two-week holiday that any person inside or outside the House can have is a week in Wales, preceded by a week in Shropshire en route to Wales. Given the latest figures from the Welsh Assembly Government showing that room bookings in Wales are down by 5.3 per cent. and restaurant bookings are down by 13.4 per cent., why are the Welsh Assembly Government cutting the Welsh tourism budget by £74 million?

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman reflects the excellent tourist product that is on offer in Wales, as well as in Shropshire. The Conservative shadow spokesman, the Assembly Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, has said:

I am sure, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the November announcement of the tourism review to provide a deeper understanding of the current and future needs of tourism in Wales, the action plan currently being developed, which is designed to improve Wales’s competitive position, and the surveys that show a high level of general confidence
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in tourism in Wales, a determination to succeed and an intention to invest in the quality of the tourism product. We are doing a good job in Wales on tourism.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): The Minister will know that some of the most important visitor destinations in north and south Wales are the quarrying and mining museums. The oldest is the Welsh miners museum at Afan Argoed country park in my constituency. I am proud to say that I am its president. The Welsh Assembly Government give considerable support to mining and quarrying museums. May I suggest to the Minister that he initiate discussions with appropriate UK Ministers to develop strategies to ensure that those fine educational and tourist resources in Wales are better known throughout Britain and the world?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I would be happy to discuss further those interesting ideas of how to promote the Welsh and wider UK mining heritage. I know my hon. Friend’s prominent position—in fact, I am sure that I have been lobbied on the very worthy miners museum in his constituency. As he mentioned the Welsh Assembly, he will have noted the free funding for the Big Pit mining museum, which is one of the most excellent innovations in providing free entrance to the museums of Wales. However, I would be interested in meeting him and speaking further about those interesting ideas.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Given the importance of the Preseli bluestones to the Stonehenge world heritage site, will the Minister have a word with the Ministers responsible for transport and culture in this country and with the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that progress is made on the new visitor centre at Stonehenge, so that it includes proper education about the site and its relationship with the important sites in Wales?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman is a dogged and determined campaigner on behalf of Stonehenge. In fact, I have been in Adjournment debates as a Back Bencher when he has persistently pushed the issue. His comments are noted, and I am sure that I will reflect them in my discussions in the margin with other Ministers.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab): My hon. Friend has visited the Pontcysyllte aqueduct in my constituency, and I know that he knows that it is up for world heritage site status this year. Does he agree that achieving that status would be a major asset to tourism in north-east Wales?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed; I am reminded of my visit to the Pontcysyllte aqueduct every day when I drink my coffee in the Wales Office from a Pontcysyllte commemorative mug. I am proud to confirm that the Pontcysyllte aqueduct and canal have proceeded through the technical check phase of the UNESCO world heritage award and will now be evaluated by a UNESCO-appointed assessor to determine whether they will be shortlisted. I thank again all those who have worked so long and hard and who have put so much effort and dedication into campaigning to get the
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aqueduct recognised as a world heritage site. We in the Wales Office wish it the very best of luck, and I am sure that the House does too.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Tourism is very important in Wales, employing, as it does, about 10 per cent. of the total work force. However, the Welsh Assembly Minister with responsibility for tourism announced a fall of nearly three quarters of a million visitors to Wales last year compared with the previous year. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced, through the comprehensive spending review, a 20 per cent. cut in VisitBritain’s funding over the next four years. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in DCMS and emphasise the need for VisitBritain to play its full part in getting visitors into Wales?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My honourable colleague is right to note the importance of tourism to Wales, in terms of jobs and economic impact, and the important interrelation between VisitWales and VisitBritain. That point is well made. Last year, there was almost a triangulation of relevant factors. We undoubtedly had an appalling summer—that was true across the UK—and the pound was an issue. Also, the previous year was unusually good, which was welcomed by everybody. We all hope, therefore, that what seems like a slump is temporary and that tourism will be brought forward. However, I note the hon. Gentleman’s comments, and they will be reflected in my discussions with other Ministers.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): What discussions has my hon. Friend had with his colleagues in the Department for Transport and in the Welsh Assembly Government about the future of the Severn bridge tolls? It is hardly a welcome to Wales to be faced with a charge. Furthermore, the charge cannot even be paid by credit card, which can put many foreign visitors in extreme difficulties.

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend may be aware of the current review that will report in the autumn on toll charges on the Severn bridge. I commend her, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) and others for campaigning long and hard on this issue, but we have to give the review time to consider it and report back.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The tourism spend in Wales over the last four quarters fell by almost 9 per cent., whereas it increased by 4 per cent. across the UK as whole. The Minister has acknowledged that last year was a difficult year, but visitors to Wales spent about £159 million less last year than they did as long ago as 2000. We all acknowledge the crucial importance of tourism to the Welsh economy. Does the Minister agree that tourism in Wales should be promoted by properly qualified industry professionals and not by civil servants? Does he agree that, in hindsight, the decision to scrap the Wales Tourist Board and absorb it into the Welsh Assembly Government has proven to be nothing short of catastrophic?

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Huw Irranca-Davies: As someone who comes from a tourism and leisure background, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the brand identity of the Wales Tourist Board, but that is not the same as saying that it cannot do an equally good or even a better job in its current role. Everyone will acknowledge that last year was difficult—it was difficult across the UK—but as I said in my opening remarks, strategies and action plans are in place. We hope that Wales tourism will drive forward in the future to have a resurgence of its success of recent years.

Personal Debt

2. Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What steps the Government are taking to reduce levels of personal debt in Wales. [205950]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): The Government are committed to helping families in Wales through the current global economic challenges.

Mrs. Moon: Figures published by the Office for National Statistics show that people who experience mental distress are three times more likely to be in debt. In its report, “In the red: debt and mental health”, Mind calls on financial services bodies to provide training and guidelines for staff who deal with people with mental health problems. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Welsh institutions such as banks, bailiffs and building societies could benefit people with mental health problems in Wales if they provided such training?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, I strongly agree. I shall draw the attention of banks and building societies in Wales to the very important report that my hon. Friend mentions, which explores the relationship between debt and mental health. When that is combined with the work of Citizens Advice and the trading standards agencies in local authorities, we can specifically help individuals in those ways, particularly individuals with the problems that she has outlined. We must deal with those people with great compassion. I shall bring this matter to the attention of those bodies.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): But the Government are not helping people with debt; they are pushing families further into debt. Council taxes have almost doubled over the past 11 years, petrol now costs £1.20 a litre, with another 2p increase in the pipeline, and the vehicle excise duty increases will hit families living in Wales who have family cars. Will the Secretary of State lobby the Prime Minister to scrap both those taxes?

Mr. Murphy: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be coming back to the House of Commons with the pre-Budget review to deal with all these issues. The Chancellor has looked at the question of helping people with debt, and about 1.1 million people in Wales will benefit from the £120 for basic-rate taxpayers. It is also important to understand that all of us who represent Welsh constituencies are aware of the issues relating to family finances—including fuel, food, gas and other energy bills—but there is a limit to what a Government, of any
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party, can do. We must undoubtedly do our best to ensure that the families we represent are best served by the Government, but much of this is a matter for international negotiation—in relation to oil prices, for example, and to food. However, I accept the fact that these are important issues and that we have to try to address them.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Absolute salaries in Powys have gone down by an average of 4 per cent. in the past 12 months, at a time when inflation has meant that people in that area are, on average, 7 per cent. worse off. At the same time, the spectre of negative equity is rearing its ugly head again. What comfort and practical support can the Secretary of State offer to those people who are facing repossession, on what looks like the brink of a recession in Montgomeryshire and in Brecon and Radnorshire?

Mr. Murphy: I accept the fact that families in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and in all Welsh constituencies, are facing these difficulties. However, I do not think that we are facing anything like the repossession problems that we faced in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The work that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is doing in dealing with the mortgage lenders is important, as is the work of the Welsh Assembly in helping to provide a supply of affordable housing. We need to accept that these issues reflect great global challenges, but the Government and the Assembly will do their best to ensure that the people in all our Welsh constituencies are able to face them.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): But does the Secretary of State truly realise how tightly family incomes are being squeezed in Wales at the moment? Since 1997 the taxes on every family have risen by £5,400, and the poorest 20 per cent. of households now pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes than any other group. Is he at all surprised that personal debt in Wales is rising under his Government?

Mr. Murphy: I am not surprised that there are problems with family finances, because of the matters to which I referred in answer to earlier questions. As a valleys MP and a Welsh Member of Parliament, when I compare what was happening when I entered the House in the late ’80s with what is happening now, I remember that there were tens of thousands of people out of work in Wales, that inflation was running at 15 per cent. and that interest rates had gone through the sky. The problem of debt at that time was hugely more difficult than it is now.

Mrs. Gillan: But the Secretary of State knows that the people in the valleys are not interested in a history lesson about the 1980s; they are interested in what is happening to their pockets now. Wales under Labour is the poorest part of the United Kingdom, and any financial attack on the lowest paid affects huge numbers of people. Today, we have learned that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the Chancellor’s quick political fix of compensation for the abolition of the 10p tax rate has backfired, and that 18 million families in the United Kingdom—many of
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them in Wales—will still end up paying more tax. Why is the Secretary of State standing by and allowing his Government to push Welsh families, who are already struggling, deeper into debt?

Mr. Murphy: I am sure that the hon. Lady will accept that Wales saw the biggest percentage increase per head in gross disposable household income of all the United Kingdom countries and English regions between 1999 and 2006. It was up nearly 40 per cent., compared with 33 per cent. across the United Kingdom. So we have got better off in Wales over the past 10 years. I accept the point that she is making about the problems with family finances, but I would like to point out to her that over 1 million people in Wales—22 million basic-rate taxpayers in the whole of the United Kingdom—will benefit from the changes brought in by the Chancellor last week. Furthermore, 8,000 more people in Wales are in work now than last year. That is in contrast to the thousands of people who were out of work in Wales when the Conservative Government were in power.

Pathways to Work

3. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the implementation of the Pathways to Work Programme in Wales. [205951]

5. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the implementation of the Pathways to Work Programme in Wales. [205953]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I welcome the pathways to work programme in Wales, which now extends beyond the original pilot areas of south-west Wales and the valleys to include the whole of Wales. Access to this personal support service across Wales is successfully helping those with health problems or disabilities to find and retain jobs.

Ian Lucas: The centre for disability studies at Wrexham’s new university has identified that the biggest challenge facing individuals who are not in work is the attitude of some employers towards people with disabilities. What more can the Government do to encourage employers in areas with powerful local economies, such as Wrexham, to do more to recognise the abilities of disabled people and to give them more opportunities to work?

Mr. Murphy: I accept my hon. Friend’s point and we are committed to taking steps to help people with health problems and disabilities. I greatly welcome the work of the North East Wales Institute in that regard. Let me tell my hon. Friend and the House that in his constituency, in comparison with August 1999 and last year, there was a 9 per cent. reduction of claims for incapacity benefits. Many of those were disabled people who actually wanted to work and to get into the workplace; in an area like north-east Wales, which is thriving, they want to be able to add their contribution to society.

Mrs. Williams: My right hon. Friend and his Cabinet colleagues will be aware of the concerns expressed by ex-servicemen and women in Wales when they end up
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on benefits. Will the pathways to work programme in Wales help such men and women as they face those hardships?

Mr. Murphy: It most certainly will. My hon. Friend will understand that since its inception in December last year, the provider base pathways programme has seen more than 310 people finding a job in Wales. Some of them will have been in the category to which my hon. Friend refers and about 120 of them were in north and mid-Wales.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): However, the pathways to work scheme in England is formally linked to the Department of Health’s own access to psychological therapies programme. What similar arrangements are in place in Wales for jobless people, particularly for those with mental problems, and what progress has been made in that respect?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the English situation. In Wales, of course, where health is devolved, that is a matter for the Welsh Department of Health and Social Services, as well as the UK Government Department. I will make sure that I talk to Edwina Hart, the Welsh Health Secretary, about the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as a result of the pathways to work programme, incapacity benefit levels are falling in Wales for the first time in a generation? Does not that provide a stark contrast with the miserable record of the Tories, who tripled incapacity levels in Wales and elsewhere in Britain? Would it not be devastating if the Tories ever came back to attack people in Wales again?

Mr. Murphy: Indeed it would. I think that I said in reply to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) that people in Wales understand what it was like under a Conservative Government. It is not just the politicians who say that, as the chief executive of HSBC bank in Wales, Mr. Alan Jarman, recently said:

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