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House of Commons

Wednesday 2 July 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—

Digital Inclusion

1. Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): What steps he is taking to promote digital inclusion in rural areas in Wales. [214274]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): As both Secretary of State and the Minister responsible for digital inclusion, I am working closely with the Assembly and the other devolved Administrations to develop a new digital equality action plan. It will address issues for those living in rural communities, and I hope that it will be published later this month.

Hywel Williams: People without access to broadband are as excluded and disadvantaged as their counterparts in the 1950s who scrambled around with candles and kerosene lamps while everyone else had power at the turn of a switch. I have taxed BT about the problem many times, for instance in a letter that I wrote on 28 April to which I have still not received any acknowledgement or reply. Has the Secretary of State, in both his roles, had any discussions with his counterparts in Scotland, where I understand that BT advertises broadband availability 13 km from the exchange, compared to 6 km in Wales? How can that be done in Scotland if it cannot be done in Wales?

Mr. Murphy: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I shall make a point of talking to my colleagues in the Scotland Office and, when appropriate, to the Scottish Executive as well.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about parts of Wales which are not yet up to speed with broadband, and I can tell him that the Welsh Assembly Government take that very seriously too. They have provided funds for the upgrading of some 35 telephone exchanges in Wales which the companies believed were not profitable, but which the Welsh Assembly Government considered important to ensuring that broadband reached every part of Wales, including rural areas. They have also introduced a registration system for those who cannot access broadband, and 1,500 people and firms have already contacted Cardiff. The fact that take-up of fixed-line telephones and broadband in rural areas in Wales is higher than it is in urban areas demonstrates that there is a call for it.

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Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Hundreds of people in Pembrokeshire have found that they cannot access broadband because of antiquated line-sharing devices, even when the local exchange is enabled. BT cannot tell me how many other households are affected by the problem, and seems to have no strategic plan for upgrading the infrastructure. Does the Secretary of State think that the tens of millions of pounds of public money that BT has received to roll out broadband in rural areas is money well spent?

Mr. Murphy: I think that BT is spending the money properly in Wales, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, particularly in the context of my first answer. I shall be meeting BT next week to discuss these issues, and I shall make a particular point of mentioning Pembrokeshire. Later this year the Assembly Government will undertake a tendering process to choose a supplier to provide broadband infrastructure and services in what are known as “not spots” in Wales, and they expect the contract to be awarded next year. This is an important issue, and I will take it up.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): When the Secretary of State meets BT next week, will he mention not only Pembrokeshire but Ceredigion? I am sure he will endorse the work of Ceredigion county council, which carried out a survey of “not spots” to identify the gaps in the system, but will he also endorse the comments of the Mid Wales Partnership about the need for “urgent planning and investment” to improve high-speed internet connections? I am particularly interested in the business case: a number of small businesses feel that they are being impeded by the lack of action to deal with the problem.

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is right. I take account of the fact that, in rural Wales particularly, many people work at home and need their computers. They need to be online, and in a position in which they can benefit from the new technology, for their businesses to work. When I meet BT, I shall be sure to discuss the problems of Ceredigion as well as those of the other counties in Wales.

Drugs (Prisons)

2. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet the Secretary of State for Justice to discuss drug abuse in prisons in Wales. [214275]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I regularly meet ministerial colleagues and others to discuss a variety of issues, including prisons. The Prison Service drug strategy introduced in 1998 has had a positive impact on drug use in prisons. The number of positive drug tests continues to fall, while the number of successfully completed treatments continues to rise.

Mr. Bellingham: Why are young criminals going into Welsh prisons as mild drug users and coming out as hardened addicts who then reoffend to feed their habits? Other countries, such as the United States, Sweden and Germany, are making substantial progress in ridding their prisons of drugs. Why can we not do the same here, and why cannot Welsh and Justice Ministers get a grip and take the matter seriously?

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Huw Irranca-Davies: People tend to read and listen to some of the more salacious stories of drug use in prisons. The hon. Gentleman has raised an important point, but let me emphasise again that we are actually succeeding. The bare facts are that 8.6 per cent. of mandatory drug tests yielded positive results in 2006-07 compared with 20 per cent. 10 years ago, and positive testing for use of opiates has fallen by more than 25 per cent. in the past 10 years. I realise that tabloidese headlines make cases of drug use into huge stories, but the actual trends and evidence show that the drug programmes in our prisons are working.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): How can it possibly make sense to reclassify cannabis and increase the sentence for cannabis users from two years to five years when not a single prison in the country is free of the open use of heroin and cocaine? Is it not true that we will be sending cannabis users into prison to be discharged as heroin addicts?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend has regularly raised these issues, but I hope he will also welcome the advances that have been made. More than 7,500 drug treatment programmes were completed in prisons in England and Wales in 2006-07, which is 1,500 over target. Although I know that my hon. Friend will continue to advocate his case very forcefully, the programme that we have in place in prisons is undoubtedly proving effective.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I listened carefully to the Minister telling us the statistics on improvements, but that is not what the Prison Officers Association or the National Association of Probation Officers believe. A lifer recently asked to be taken from an open prison in Wales back into a closed prison because the temptation to go back on heroin was so great. There have been numerous similar examples in recent months of people requesting to go back into closed conditions because of the ready availability of heroin. I realise that it is a big problem, but, frankly, a bit more effort needs to be put in.

Huw Irranca-Davies: This is an important point. Constant attention, constant resourcing and focus are required to turn the situation around. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that we must keep up the effort and keep pushing harder. That is true, and hon. Members who have raised that point are pushing at a genuine issue, but we are going in the right direction. We will always have to do more, and when there are instances such as those the hon. Gentleman reports, we must work to address them, but we are pushing in the right direction—and, I must say, doing so for the first time in many years and after decades of underspending in prisons.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Parc prison in my constituency has effective medical and psychological support for those who are struggling to cope with their drug addiction, but does my hon. Friend agree that social support is also vital to tackling the issue—to make contact with and enable good visits from their families, and to help people to learn to play and read with their children?

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Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that there is not a single line of attack on this issue. She is a supporter of, and a regular attender at, Her Majesty’s prison Parc, with the Parc Supporting Families group, which does excellent work. Parc prison has consistently low results in random drug testing: prisoner drug abuse levels average below 6.5 per cent. as against the target of more than 15 per cent. Therefore, I welcome the work going on, particularly within the wider ambit of support for families and for resettlement, and I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend and others in supporting that.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The Minister is painting a rosy picture. Over the past three years, despite a 30 per cent. increase in prison drug cases reported to the police, the proportion of prosecutions for drug offences in prison has dropped from 24 per cent. to 18 per cent. of all reported cases. How many drug offenders in Welsh prisons have been prosecuted over the past three years, and when will this Government truly use the legislation to clean up our prisons and end this drug culture on the inside?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Again, I say to the hon. Lady, who speaks from the Conservative Front Bench, that this is a genuine issue that we are all struggling to grasp. We want offenders who enter prison to come out having turned their habit around so that they can be resettled, and the trends are going in the right direction. I hope she will welcome the funding for drug treatment in prisons, which has doubled from £12.7 million to £24 million in 2008-09, and will further increase to £39 million in 2009-10, and to £43 million in 2010-11. Not only are the trends going in the right direction, but we are putting our money where our mouth is to make sure that that is right for prisoners.

Dee Estuary

3. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the environmental status of the Dee Estuary; and if he will make a statement. [214276]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I have regular discussions with the First Minister on a range of issues, including marine and environmental matters. The Dee estuary is of huge importance to wildlife and the environment, and I welcome its bid to become a special area of conservation site.

Ben Chapman: May I tell my right hon. Friend how much I welcome the Dee Estuary Cockle Fishery Order 2008, which came into force yesterday? It has the potential to provide a safe and sustainable fishing environment, as opposed to the over-exploited and unsafe one that existed before. As he has said, the Dee will continue to be a vastly important site that requires a balance between ecology and economy. Will he assure me that that balance will continue to be struck and that he will monitor the estuary to ensure that, not least in relation to dredging?

Mr. Murphy: I too welcome the Dee Estuary Cockle Fishery Order 2008. Coming into force in July, it will ensure that we have a sustainable and safe fishery in the
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estuary. My hon. Friend first asked me a question on this issue on 27 June 2001, and I am glad to say that at last we are reaching the point at which the Dee estuary will become a special area of conservation. That will boost the local economy as well as protecting local wildlife, and I look forward to answering more questions from my hon. Friend on this very important issue.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): In the same context, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the Marches estuary and the proposed fresh-water lake for periods of potential flooding in the Llandrinio area? Is he not aware of the damaging environmental consequences of the Environment Agency’s proposals to flood a part of my constituency, as opposed to the positive comments he was able to make about the Dee estuary? Will he look into the overwhelming objections of my constituents to being involuntarily flooded out for the sake of flood mitigation downstream?

Mr. Murphy: It is a long way from the Dee estuary and cockles, but I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue that he raises, as I know that it is very important to his constituents.

Hospital Waiting Times

4. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on trends in waiting times for residents in mid-Wales referred to hospitals in England for operations; and if he will make a statement. [214277]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): I have regular discussions with Welsh Assembly Ministers and the Department of Health to discuss the important issue of the delivery of health services between England and Wales. Indeed, only last month the First Minister of Wales gave evidence on cross-border services to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs.

Michael Fabricant: Does the Minister accept that there is a real problem for patients in mid-Wales who need to go to hospital in England, especially to the hospital in Oswestry? I know of a lady who lives near Llanegryn in the Dysinni valley, not far from Tywyn. Four years ago she developed a crumbling hip, but she had to wait—as her doctor said—until it became agony before she could be referred to hospital. Now, 32 weeks later, she is still waiting for a hospital appointment, and she is not alone. What steps can the Minister take to prevent that from being repeated elsewhere?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Long supplementaries are unfair to other hon. Members.

Huw Irranca-Davies: It is important that the concerns of constituents, from whichever constituency, are raised in the House and through their MPs, but the hon. Gentleman is right to raise the important issue of cross-border treatment of in-patients and out-patients. Progress is being made. We have to deal with the individual instances and drive down waiting times. On both sides of the border, waiting times continue to fall significantly. In May 2006, 768 Welsh residents were waiting more
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than 22 weeks for in-patient treatment, but in May 2008, only one person had waited for that long. For out-patients, in May 2006, 940 Welsh residents were waiting for more than 22 weeks, but zero patients were waiting in May 2008. We are making progress, but individual cases need to be taken up so that patients do not have to wait for a long time.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): In respect of health services in mid-Wales and elsewhere, would my hon. Friend care to comment on the announcement today of £100 million of additional funding for health services in hospitals and for palliative care? What effect will that have on patients from mid-Wales and the rest of Wales? Does he agree that that is an excellent example of good practice by the Welsh Assembly Government as we celebrate 60 years of our NHS?

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed; the NHS was of course the brainchild not only of a great individual in Wales, Nye Bevan, but of great people who came together with the founding principles of a health service that was free at the point of delivery and available for everybody. Today’s announcement of £100 million of funding for improvements to hospitals and palliative care is wonderful news for mid-Wales and elsewhere. That funding includes £12 million for the development of a north Wales cancer centre, £23.5 million to develop mental health facilities in north Wales and £66 million for a new hospital in Mountain Ash. We on the Labour Benches are convinced that not only was the NHS undoubtedly one of the biggest significant issues of the post-war Labour Government but it will continue to be maintained and to prosper under a Labour Government, both here and in the Welsh Assembly Government.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): When Welsh patients compare their experiences with those of their English neighbours, they know that they are second-class patients because of the extra time that they have to wait for procedures. Will the Minister tell me when Welsh patients will have equal treatment to English patients?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the patient outcome should be excellent on both sides of the border. We can look at the innovations that the Welsh Assembly Government have made in primary care, too. In many things, they are leading the way. We do not have a divided health service. Under devolution, we have two Administrations working hard to deliver the founding principles of the NHS. We will continue to do so. That is why we are seeing waiting times falling in England and in Wales. That is why we are seeing continued investment in health in England and in Wales. That is why we are seeing the refurbishment of accident and emergency units and new-build hospitals in England and in Wales. The future of the NHS is safe in Labour’s hands.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The Minister is right to mention the cross-border inquiry, in which the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs is involved. Part of the evidence that we have received shows that there is a concordat between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of Health. Does he agree that that needs to be strengthened further to include local health
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bodies on both sides of the border? Finally, does the Minister agree that it is important that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and I can debate Welsh and English matters in the House of Commons and that any Tory proposals for English-only would debar us from doing that?

Huw Irranca-Davies: My hon. Friend raises two important points. I am pleased to say to him and to the House that the cross-border protocols that the Welsh Affairs Committee had been considering are subject to constructive engagement between Welsh Assembly Government officials and Whitehall officials. We hope for rapid progress and we hope to deliver something that will benefit patient outcomes by April next year. Those measures will be in place. On the issue of Welsh MPs’ being able to speak on health issues, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot have a two-tier system whereby Welsh MPs are precluded from speaking on issues that people bring to their constituency offices. We will ensure that that does not happen.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The Minister says that there is no divided health service, but he will be aware that Hereford Hospitals NHS Trust is now refusing to operate differential waiting lists between English and Welsh commissioners, so Powys local health board is obliged to employ a consultant to advise it on who should be treated first. That consultant happens to be based in Hereford hospital. Does not the Minister agree that that is a ludicrous state of affairs? Will he press the Welsh Assembly Government to ensure that patients from mid-Wales are treated at their local hospital, Hereford, on exactly the same basis as patients from England?

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about trusts’ engagement across the border and cross-border protocols. We must undoubtedly get that right, because we want patients on both sides of Offa’s dyke to have good health outcomes. He asks whether we will continue to engage with the Welsh Assembly Government and UK Health Ministers on the matter. Yes, we will. The Wales Office has a pivotal role in that, because we want the same thing: Welsh patients and English patients having good health outcomes and not being tied up in any disagreements through cross-border issues.

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