22 Oct 2008 : Column 287

22 Oct 2008 : Column 287

House of Commons

Wednesday 22 October 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—

Cross-border Health Services

1. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the use made by patients resident in Wales of health services in England. [227707]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wayne David): Wales Office Ministers have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues including health matters. The border between England and Wales does not represent a barrier to the provision of health care; rather it illustrates that, although there are distinct elements of the health service in both countries, we are still one nation in our commitment to universal access to health care for all our people.

Mr. Bone: I thank the Minister for his response, but I am afraid I shall have to disagree with it. In Wales, 20 per cent. of patients—one fifth—must wait more than 14 weeks to be admitted to hospital, whereas in England the proportion is only 5 per cent. Why are Welsh patients treated as second-class citizens in the context of the national health service?

Mr. David: With all due respect, that is not the case. Waiting times on both sides of the border have fallen dramatically. Nine out of 10 patients in Wales are seen within four hours in accident and emergency departments, while 90 per cent. fewer in-patients and 99 per cent. fewer out-patients wait more than 22 weeks for appointments than was the case a year ago. In short, the position has improved dramatically, and there is great comparability between Wales and England.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that his ability, the ability of other British Ministers and, indeed, the ability of Back Benchers to engage in any discussions on cross-border health issues would be dramatically reduced, or even ended, if the Conservatives’ proposals for English votes on English issues went ahead?

Mr. David rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has asked a question that the Minister cannot possibly answer.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Many of my constituents must travel across the border to obtain health provision. The Welsh Affairs Committee’s interim report stressed the need to border-proof that provision.
22 Oct 2008 : Column 288
How will the Minister, working with his Assembly colleagues, ensure that we do not have what feels like a second-class service, with different waiting times for Montgomeryshire constituents and English residents? I know that the Minister wants to put an end to that differentiation, but it is real and it is felt by my constituents.

Mr. David: Although the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred is an interim report, it is very well balanced and we look forward to fruitful discussion of it. In a broader context, discussions are taking place about the cross-border control protocol, and I am pleased to say that the recent discussions have been extremely productive. As I am sure he will appreciate, this is a complex matter, but I expect the improved protocol to be finalised before too long, and we hope that it will be implemented by the end of the year.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend to his post. I know that, having grown up in my constituency, he has all the abilities and capacities to do an excellent job in his new role.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the NHS in England is carrying an unfair burden in relation to young people in the Parc young offenders’ institution? Because the Assembly does not provide an “inreach” child and adolescent mental health service for the prison, those with mental health problems are required to go to England, where the English NHS gives them support. Will my hon. Friend meet me, as a matter of urgency, to help resolve the great injustice that is being done to young people in Wales?

Mr. David: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. I do indeed come from her constituency.

In general terms, I am aware of the situation that my hon. Friend has described. It is an important issue that requires the attention of both central Government here in London and the Welsh Assembly. I certainly give a commitment to meet my hon. Friend as soon as possible, as a matter of urgency, to discuss her concerns.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does the Minister realise that as well as waiting longer for treatment, Welsh patients cannot gain access to important drugs such as Tarceva which are available elsewhere in the United Kingdom? Does that not make a mockery of the national health service, which has become a regional health service under the Welsh Assembly? What does the Minister propose to do about it?

Mr. David: That is completely untrue. Let me emphasise that we do, very much, have a national health service for all our people. Of course I know full well that the hon. Gentleman is against devolution as a matter of principle, but the essence of devolution is allowing the devolved Administrations to respond to specific needs in specific parts of the country, which is what the Welsh Assembly Government have been doing very effectively. That does not mean, however, that we question the integrity of the national health service over the country as a whole. I believe that the two can operate together, as has been the case.

22 Oct 2008 : Column 289

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I, too, welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new post. No doubt he will be very busy, which will keep him out of mischief for a long time.

As a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I am sure that the Minister will want to join me in paying tribute to the hard work of the staff who have resolved many of these cross-border questions in the interim report. There will, of course, be a full report in due course. However, does he think it would be wise to open up the can of worms of the health costs to the Welsh Assembly Government and the people of Wales of people retiring from England to north Wales?

Mr. David: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind welcome, and I am sure that he is right to say that I will be extremely busy in my post. The issue he touches upon will undoubtedly require my attention. However, I should stress that the health service budget in Wales has increased dramatically over the past few years. That is true, too, for the current budget: the draft budget from the Welsh Assembly Government again proposes an increase that is far in excess of the rate of inflation. I therefore think that there is plenty of scope within that broad expansion of finance to address the issues the hon. Gentleman is concerned about.

Minimum Wage

2. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the First Minister on increases in the minimum wage. [227708]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I have regular discussions with the First Minister about all aspects of the Welsh economy, including the minimum wage, which is one of the most important employment rights, provided by this Government for all workers, both in Wales and the whole of the UK.

Mrs. Williams: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will be aware of the importance of tourism in my constituency. Does he share my view that the minimum wage makes a significant contribution to the development of responsible employment in the catering and tourist industries, and does he share my joy that it was this Labour Government who legislated on this matter, for which workers in this country have been fighting for 100 years?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, I do share my hon. Friend’s joy about the minimum wage, which, as she says, we introduced. As she also said, it particularly helps those in the tourism and catering industries, which are especially important businesses in her constituency and north Wales in general. Government plans to amend the regulations so that tips can no longer count towards the payment of the minimum wage are especially welcome, and are a credit to the trade unions and newspapers that campaigned for that. That is, of course, very important for those businesses and industries to which my hon. Friend refers.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): Increasing the minimum wage alone will do little to help the 11,000 newly unemployed people in Wales from this year, or the poor and elderly households who are struggling with rising food and fuel bills. Given that 12,000 construction jobs have been lost in Wales over the last
22 Oct 2008 : Column 290
year, which is more than for any other part of the UK, what measures will the Government put in place to create green jobs to tackle the problems of the loss of construction jobs and increasing fuel poverty in Wales?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let me gently say again that I am not expecting a statement to be read out. Members are asking supplementary questions, and they should not be read out. [Interruption.] Well, it looked to me as if the hon. Lady was reading.

Mr. Murphy: I cannot agree with the hon. Lady that the minimum wage is of no importance. It now stands at £5.73 per hour, and it is important in ensuring that people in Wales get proper wages. She should also bear in mind that, not that long ago, people in the tourist and catering industries, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) referred, were being paid less than £2 an hour, so the minimum wage is important in our general economy.

2012 Olympics

3. Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): What discussions he has had with the First Minister on Wales’s contribution to the 2012 Olympics. [227709]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wayne David): We continue to work with Cabinet colleagues and the Welsh Assembly Government to maximise the potential benefits to Wales of the 2012 Olympic games. We are confident that the overall impact of the Olympic and Paralympic games will be enormously beneficial to Wales. I am also sure that we would all like to extend our congratulations to all the Welsh Olympic and Paralympic athletes on their wonderful success in Beijing.

Dr. Francis: I thank the Minister for his reply. I welcome him to his new post—his promotion is well deserved—and may I say on behalf of the Welsh Affairs Committee that we look forward to working with him? I am sure he will agree that the best way to give a warm Welsh welcome to the London Olympics and Paralympics is to ensure that the physical access and facilities, particularly for competitors with disabilities and spectators with disabilities, are of the highest standard. Will he assure the House that he will raise this important matter of equality with the Welsh Assembly Government, the Minister for the Olympics and all the sporting bodies at the earliest opportunity, as we are about to have evidence sessions on it in the Welsh Affairs Committee?

Mr. David: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and, indeed, I look forward to working closely with him in his role as Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee.

The Welsh Assembly Government are using the pre-games training camps agenda to offer accommodation providers best practice advice on disability access and to raise the profile of accessible transport. The Olympic and Paralympic villages are being designed from the outset as accessible and inclusive communities, complying with both the spirit and intent of all the relevant legislation. That is as far as competitors are concerned, but I can say that the same will also apply to spectators.

22 Oct 2008 : Column 291

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): If we want Wales to be taken more seriously as a potential partner in helping to deliver the 2012 project, does the Minister agree that it would help if the Football Association of Wales dropped what looks like insular, narrow-minded opposition to fielding a United Kingdom team at those games, despite FIFA’s strong assurances that such a side would pose no threat at all to the independent Welsh national side in European and World cup competitions?

Mr. David: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The Prime Minister is keen for the country to have a football team at the 2012 games, but there is clearly some work to be done to reassure the football associations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we will continue our dialogue in a positive way.

Overseas Bank Accounts

4. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): What discussions he has had with the First Minister and ministerial colleagues on deposits made by Welsh local authorities in Icelandic bank accounts; and if he will make a statement. [227710]

5. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on risks to holdings by Welsh public institutions in foreign-based banks. [227711]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I have regular discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not least during the regular meetings of the National Economic Council. I have also had discussions on the issue with the First Minister, the Welsh Assembly’s Finance Minister and Local Government Minister and representatives of the Welsh Local Government Association. In addition, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales attended the meeting last week between the Minister for Local Government, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and the English and Welsh Local Government Associations to deal with this important matter.

Mr. Llwyd: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that lengthy and perhaps unenlightening reply. He will realise, as a responsible Secretary of State, that the whole issue is not to be left at the feet of the National Assembly, since the investments were made under Treasury rules with Treasury encouragement, and the liquidity injection is not being “Barnettised”. It should therefore be dealt with in this place, and I ask him to fight Wales’s corner on this issue.

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that I shall certainly do that, but it is a matter both for us in the United Kingdom Government—he is right to point out the Treasury’s role—and for the Welsh Assembly Government, who are directly responsible for local government finance in Wales. I must tell him that the first issue is that we must try to get the money back from the Icelandic banks. As he knows, intense negotiations for that to happen are taking place.

Of course, if there are financial problems in the nine local councils affected in Wales—there is nothing to say that there are problems at the moment—the Welsh
22 Oct 2008 : Column 292
Assembly Government assure me that they will step in to help. The hon. Gentleman should be assured that we are working very closely together on what is an important issue.

As far as the Treasury guidance is concerned, it always stressed the balance between security and breadth of investment on the one hand and ordinary investment on the other.

Andrew Selous: There have been reports that at least three Welsh universities have more than £8 million at risk in Icelandic banks. Given the resource constraints that those universities already have, what impact does the Secretary of State think that this matter will have on higher education in Wales?

Mr. Murphy: I hope that there will be none, and that the negotiations between the Treasury and the Icelandic Government and banks are successful, but of course we await the results of those. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Bank of England has already given £100 million to the banks in Iceland to try to resolve the issue. The point is not unimportant, but as in the case of local authorities, we are not going to see a collapse of service. In the case of councils, there will not be immediate rises in the council tax for this reason, but we must obviously watch the matter carefully and do our best to get the money back.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Iceland is the 10th most prosperous economy in the world and Wales should follow its example—that was the advice given by nationalist Assembly Member Helen Mary Jones earlier this year. Unfortunately, the nationalists who run my council listened to her and put £15 million into Icelandic banks. Now unsure whether they are going to get the money back, they are having to raid balances for £11 million to deliver Labour’s promise on equal pay. What advice has my right hon. Friend got for my constituents in those circumstances?

Mr. Murphy: My advice is that they should vote Labour.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that local authorities in Wales and across the United Kingdom should make a greater commitment to the people’s bank—the Post Office—by making large deposits of their money in it, securing the UK post office network, rather than risking it in the meltdown of the banks, which is the advice for independent small nations that Plaid Cymru wishes to follow?

Mr. Murphy: Yes, I would encourage all Welsh depositors to consider the Post Office as an excellent place in which to place their money.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Auditor General for Wales has a duty to scrutinise the finances of public bodies. Does the Secretary of State have discussions with him and if so, what specific advice has he given on foreign investments to public bodies?

Next Section Index Home Page