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House of Commons

Wednesday 11 November 2009

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Pensioner Poverty

1. Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on steps to address pensioner poverty in Wales. [298039]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wayne David): Government policies since 1997 have significantly reduced pensioner poverty in Wales, and across the United Kingdom. Working closely with the Welsh Assembly Government, our policies will continue to reduce pensioner poverty and promote dignity in later life.

Jenny Willott: I found living on the basic state pension just for one week, last week, extremely difficult. According to AXA research, 64 per cent. of people expect to rely on the state pension entirely for their retirement, which will result in double the number of pensioners in Wales living in poverty by 2033. Will the Minister work with his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions and the Welsh Assembly Government to raise the state pension to lift 200,000 people out of poverty in Wales?

Mr. David: With all due respect, what the hon. Lady has to remember is the tremendous amount of work that has been done by this Government to raise pensioners out of poverty and to help the poorest pensioners. Incidentally, I read the article in The Western Mail that includes quotations from her, and I must tell her that the poorest pensioners are not on £95 a week. Not one pensioner is on less than £130 a week. In addition, they get free prescriptions for drugs and free eye tests, there are free TV licences for the over-75s and there is free bus travel and dentistry for the over-60s. A lot of work is being done, and that good work will continue.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): I am sure that many of the pensioners in need in Wales will have worked a lifetime in heavy industry, and at this stage in their lives, when they need money, they would welcome the sort of compensation for pleural plaques that those in Scotland and Northern Ireland will receive. Will the Minister make representations to other Whitehall Departments to ensure that this anomaly is kicked out?
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Mr. David: I hear what my hon. Friend is saying, and of course, I recognise what terrible diseases pleural plaques represent; constituents of mine have suffered from them. He can be certain that the Government will do everything legally possible to help those people.


2. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on the state of the Welsh economy. [298040]

4. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on the state of the Welsh economy. [298042]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I have regular such discussions. The bold, decisive and radical action that we have taken together over the past 12 months has ensured that this recession has not turned into a depression.

Mr. Holloway: Construction output is falling at about twice the national average in Wales. What can the Government do about that?

Mr. Hain: What we would not do is what the Conservative party would do, which is cut public investment. We have invested and we are continuing to invest £20 billion, some of which is coming into Wales, in construction and other infrastructure projects in order to fill the gap left by the private sector's inability to invest, given the worldwide financial crisis. Those are the polices that the Government are following and we will continue to follow them, despite the criticism by the Opposition.

John Howell: The three contenders for Rhodri Morgan's job appear to have only one idea between them for the economic recovery of Wales, which is tapping into Welsh universities. Although that is important, does the Secretary of State think it is a sufficiently comprehensive approach to the Welsh economy, or an example of Labour's inadequate response to Wales in a recession?

Mr. Hain: I realise that the hon. Gentleman has had to be briefed by somebody for this question, but it was pretty poor briefing. The truth is that the three excellent quality candidates-they are some of the highest calibre politicians in Wales-standing for the leadership of Welsh Labour are all committed to programmes such as ReAct, which seeks to support people who lose their jobs, and ProAct, which seeks to support people so that they do not lose their jobs, all of which are publicly funded by the Welsh Assembly Government. Those policies would come under severe threat if the Conservatives won the next election, because they are committed to massive public spending cuts in Wales.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): Employment prospects in my constituency and throughout south Wales would be greatly enhanced if the Corus Margam new mine were to proceed. Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that the Wales Office, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Department of Energy and Climate Change work together to ensure that all
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the practical assistance that can be made available to Corus is made available, so that the 35 million tonnes of excellent coking coal in the Margam area is made available?

Mr. Hain: I will certainly do as my hon. Friend asks, and I commend him for his action in support of the workers there. The project is very exciting: the idea is to create a Margam deep mine that will produce the coking coal that Corus needs, creating 500 highly skilled and well-paid jobs in the process. We have set up a taskforce, together with the Welsh Assembly Government and other relevant Whitehall Departments, to try to take forward this exciting project for sustainable coal production and for the sustainability of Corus's Port Talbot steelworks, which make such a massive contribution to the Welsh economy and the British economy as a whole.

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): Now that planning permission has been granted for the defence technical college at St. Athan-at seven times the size of the millennium stadium, it is the largest development of its type ever in Wales-what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact of this, the largest vocational training centre in the United Kingdom, on the Welsh economy?

Mr. Hain: It will have an enormous impact on the Welsh economy, and I commend my hon. Friend for his hard work in seeking to take that forward. On Remembrance day, we might ask the Opposition parties whether they will give an absolute commitment to support the project-[Hon. Members: "Answer!"] I am answering. This will create the best and most highly skilled armed force training anywhere in the world. It is a world-class facility that will put our soldiers in a better position than any other military force across the world, and it needs all-party support. Perhaps the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) will give that support.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): The number of net job losses in Wales announced today represents 20 times the number lost in Lehman Brothers in London. If that is the case, why have manufacturing companies in Wales received just a fraction of the support that the Government have invested in the bail-out of the City of London?

Mr. Hain: I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would commend Welsh businesses and manufacturers on the fact that we are outperforming the UK average for exports, and the fact that employment in Wales is still 90,000 higher than it was when Labour came to power. Of course, manufacturing across the world has suffered as a result of the global financial crisis. That is why he ought to support the Government in the investment that we are continuing to take forward to support businesses and the economy, and to ensure that the recovery is sustained and that we return to the growth that we saw for 10 years under the Labour Government before the credit crunch.

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend recall that in January 1993, at the depth of the last Tory recession, the claimant count in Wales stood at 140,000? Last month in Wales, after the most sustained and deep
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global recession, it stood at only 78,000. Does not that show that the package that the Government and the Welsh Assembly Government have put together of a fiscal stimulus, bringing forward public investment, was absolutely the right policy, and that yet again the Opposition got it wrong?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State will, I know, focus his answer on the policy of the Government, not that of the Opposition.

Mr. Hain: I will be happy to do so, Mr. Speaker, not least because we have policies that are working, unlike the policies that so dismally failed Wales in the 1990s and 1980s. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) said, we have learned the lessons from the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s. That is why we are investing, and it is vital for the Opposition parties to unite with us to continue to take forward that investment, instead of proposing sometimes savage cuts in the Welsh budget that will hit not just health and education but support for the economy, too. That would hit jobs. For all the difficulties with unemployment, unemployment is still significantly lower than it was during the 1980s and 1990s, because of this Government's action.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): On Armistice day, I want to pay tribute to all our servicemen and servicewomen from Wales, and in particular to the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh, currently serving in Afghanistan. We are for ever in their debt and safer because of their sacrifice, their bravery and their dedication. They can count on the support of all of us in this House.

As a new nuclear power station at Wylfa would provide much-needed quality jobs in an area devastated by the closure of Anglesey Aluminium, I am pleased to endorse the Secretary of State's welcome for the project. However, what discussions has he had with the First Minister in the Assembly, who has contradicted him and is opposing any new nuclear build in Wales?

Mr. Hain: I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to our soldiers, especially on Remembrance day. As for the nuclear power project on Anglesey, Wylfa B, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has lobbied me hard on this. We are working together to ensure that we can take it forward. I am very pleased that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has prioritised it, and I know that the Welsh Assembly Government candidates standing for the Labour leadership, and therefore for the First Minister's position, have all supported the Wylfa B project. I shall continue to work with them, whoever is elected, to take that forward.

Mrs. Gillan: But there is a real problem with the Secretary of State's party's position. He is supporting Wylfa but the First Minister is against it. I admit that Mr. Jones-the frontrunner to succeed the First Minister-is in favour, but the Labour Assembly Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing, Jane Davidson, is against it and wants a public inquiry. Are not these dangerously mixed messages to be sending out over such an important project for the Welsh economy?

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Mr. Hain: No, not at all, because the decision is taken by the UK Government. It has not just my backing but that of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and the Prime Minister, and it also has the redoubtable backing of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn. We intend to take the project forward in the future, and I am sure that when we do, it will have the backing of the Welsh Assembly Government. I would like the hon. Lady, instead of giving us mixed messages on the defence training college and other crucial projects in Wales that need Government support, to join me in backing them.

Social Care Green Paper

3. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the implications of the social care Green Paper for people in Wales. [298041]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wayne David): As my right hon. Friend is aware, the Government are carrying out a detailed consultation on the social care Green Paper. The Government's aim is nothing less than the creation of a national care service, and where there is overlap with the Welsh Assembly Government there will be full co-operation.

Ann Clwyd: As my hon. Friend knows, 17 per cent. of people in my constituency are on incapacity benefit-one of the highest percentages of disabled people in the UK. Many people are concerned that the proposed changes will threaten their allowances. Will he assure them that they will not be worse off under the proposals?

Mr. David: The whole issue of the reform of the welfare state is extremely topical, and incapacity benefit is one element of that. I know that a number of hon. Members are concerned about attendance allowance, but there is an important principle that needs to be stated. Whatever the outcome of the consultation, people receiving attendance allowance at the time of reform will receive an equivalent level of support and protection under any new system. We will make changes to attendance allowance only if we can support people's care needs better in the new system. That is our objective.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): The Minister talks about consultation, but I asked his colleague the Secretary of State for Health the other day about what consultation was being undertaken. There was full consultation in England, but in Wales there was only some consultation with unnamed Assembly officials. Is he satisfied with that, when the very future of attendance allowance and disability living allowance for older and severely disabled people is probably in jeopardy?

Mr. David: The national care service will encompass all parts of the UK. Detailed consultation is taking place in all parts of the UK, and in the next week or so I will meet Gwenda Thomas, the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services. We will talk about what consultation there can be in Wales, how the ideas of the Welsh Assembly Government can be fed into our deliberations, and how we can make sure that we are all pulling together in the same direction for the benefit of the people of Wales.

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Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): When my hon. Friend has those discussions, will he please raise the concerns of my blind constituents about whether they will continue to receive disability living allowance when they reach the age of 65?

Mr. David: The Government have already ruled out incorporation of disability living allowance for the under-65s. However, I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes and I will make sure that her comment is fed into the representations and discussions that take place.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The Minister will be aware of the consternation that the consultation has caused in Wales and throughout the UK. It is becoming much clearer that the Government will not have the opportunity to act on the consultation before the election, and that they are highly unlikely to have the opportunity to do so after it. Will the hon. Gentleman therefore talk to his colleagues and ensure that the consultation is scrapped? In doing that, he would give some comfort to vulnerable people in Wales.

Mr. David: With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that we can scrap the consultation, which is vital if we are to tackle one of the biggest social issues of our time. We cannot pretend that these issues will go away: they cannot go away, and Labour Members are determined to get the policy right. That is why we are having the consultation. It is fundamentally central to our approach, because we believe in helping people to live in dignity in their own homes-unlike the Opposition, who would rather shift people into residential care homes.

Welsh Defence League

5. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the activities of the Welsh Defence League. [298043]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Both the Home Secretary and I are strongly opposed to the racist, fascist policies of the Welsh Defence League, and I commend the Welsh people who united so effectively to drive that vile group out of our communities.

Paul Flynn: Following the empty threat from that phantom organisation, was it not marvellous to see the way that Newport Christians, Muslims, Jews and political parties united in a magnificent vigil and demonstration that proved once again the marvellous record of racial harmony and solidarity in our city?

Mr. Hain: I agree; it was fantastic that the whole leadership of the people of Newport combined to say that we do not want such a nasty, racist and poisonous influence in our community. It is worth reminding the House that some of the individuals who lead the Welsh Defence League and its equivalent-the English Defence League-have serious criminal convictions for violence and other nefarious activities. They are not the sort of political groups that we want anywhere in our communities in Wales.

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Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): I fully endorse the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), because when faced with the vile threat of the form of racism that the Welsh Defence League is peddling, we in Swansea were united: myself, other politicians and citizens in Swansea stood firm against that and said quite clearly, "We don't want it here. We are a community, and we'll stand together with everyone in the community." Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating those people who stood together?

Mr. Hain: I will happily do so; my hon. Friend, too, was right there on the front line, saying on behalf of the people of Swansea whom she represents that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said at the time, the presence of the Welsh Defence League in Swansea is not welcome, and that we will continue to campaign hard not only to drive those groups out of our communities but to deal with the problems of housing and job insecurity that they seek to exploit on behalf of their vile beliefs. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are still far too many private conversations taking place on both sides of the Chamber. I understand that right hon. and hon. Members are keenly anticipating Prime Minister's questions, but this is a very solemn day in the national calendar, and I appeal to Members to behave in a way that reflects credit on the House.

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