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17 Mar 2010 : Column 865

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the creation of the new Trinity St. David university, based in my constituency, which will act as a strategic hub in the regional framework, linking with Swansea Metropolitan university, Coleg Sir Gâr and Pembrokeshire college, and thereby creating a dynamic learning and skills powerhouse for post-16 education in south-west Wales? Also, is this not one of the key developments that could be put at risk by-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think we have understood the question. We now need to hear the answer.

Mr. David: The answer to that last question is, of course, yes. It is vitally important that we continue to invest strategically to make sure that we develop the capacity of our people to the full. As we come out of the current recession and look to the future, it is essential that we invest in higher education and research and development, and that is happening through partnership between this Government and the Welsh Assembly.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): It seems that the Minister is content with a situation whereby Welsh universities-Bangor, Aberystwyth and the rest-are short-changed by £41 million in research money per year, as identified in the Welsh Affairs Committee report on cross-border public services. Is this not yet another case of throwing millions of pounds at people who already have, and ça ne fait rien for the rest?

Mr. David: Well, let us be clear that investment in higher and further education-and education generally-in Wales is gathering momentum and continuing apace. It is extremely important that that happens, because we recognise that investment in skills, education and research and development is the bedrock on which our recovery must be based. That is why public expenditure is so important. That is what we believe in; sadly, Conservative Members do not.

St. Athan Defence Training College

5. Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on preparations for the construction of the defence training college at St. Athan. [321810]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wayne David): May I begin by paying tribute to the excellent work that my right hon. Friend has done over a number of years and wish him well in his retirement?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has discussed with the First Minister the significant economic benefits that the defence training college will bring as the single largest defence investment in Wales.

Mr. Touhig: As we celebrate St. Patrick's day, we should all remember, of course, that St. Patrick was a Welshman born in the county of Gwent.

The defence training college will greatly increase the defence footprint in Wales, and will lead to the creation of large numbers of highly paid and highly skilled jobs, but will my hon. Friend confirm whether
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it is still the Government's policy to allow private companies to buy training packages from what will be a world-class facility?

Mr. David: I confirm that the Labour Government's policy remains unchanged: bona fide defence organisations will, of course, have the opportunity to use this excellent £12 billion facility. May I also emphasise that this is the single largest defence investment Wales will have ever seen? Labour Members are fully committed to it, and I only wish that Opposition Members were equally committed.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): If the Government press ahead with the construction of this defence training college, how will Ministers address the fact that a recent survey by the Public and Commercial Services Union suggested that 74 per cent. of civilian instructors will be either unwilling or unable to relocate from Shropshire to Wales because of the difference in house prices?

Mr. David: The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing and consistent opponent of this exemplary defence establishment, which is most unfortunate. [Interruption.] Labour Members are full-square behind it. We recognise that this will be a huge investment for south Wales. [Interruption.] It will be a massive boost for the Welsh economy, providing thousands of jobs and, most importantly, first-class training for our armed forces.

Mr. Speaker: Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place on both sides of the Chamber. It is very unfair to the Member asking the question and to the Minister answering it.

Devolution Settlement

6. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on the question of the devolution settlement under the Government of Wales Act 2006; and if he will make a statement. [321812]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): We regularly discuss how the Government of Wales Act 2006 is delivering powers for the Assembly-so far, in 58 different areas over the past two years.

John Robertson: Are there discussions on taxation powers for the Welsh Assembly? What we have learned in Scotland is that although we may already have them, they are never used by any party and are actually a waste of time.

Mr. Hain: There has been no pressure-certainly from the Government side-to introduce tax-varying powers for the Welsh Assembly Government. As my hon. Friend has said, they have not been used in Scotland to date.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Why is it right for an English Minister to sit as judge and jury on the question of bilingual juries? Should this not be a decision made in Wales for Wales by a Welsh Government elected by the Welsh people?

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Mr. Hain: I understand the passion with which the hon. Gentleman asks the question. The issue that Ministers have had to grapple with is balancing the right and desire of Welsh speakers to have bilingual juries with ensuring at the same time that random selection is maintained. This is part of a continuing dialogue as we move into the future.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): On his own website, the Secretary of State says that it is "clear" to him

and that further powers should not be granted

Given these comments, will he be accepting the referendum request currently sitting on his desk, or, like so many of his colleagues, will he be waiting for any decisions to be taken by an incoming Conservative Government?

Mr. Hain: As the hon. Lady very well knows, Labour is the party of devolution. We are the only party that has delivered any extra powers for Wales, and I, as Secretary of State, am proud that I legislated in the 2006 Act for the option of a referendum to deliver full law-making powers for the Welsh Assembly Government, and in time I am sure that that will come about. Specifically, as she has asked, work is continuing among my officials in response to the First Minister's request under the 2006 Act to take this process forward, so that a referendum can be called as and when it is required.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Welsh Affairs Committee has completed all its pre-legislative scrutiny of the legislative competence orders that have come before it. [ Interruption. ] Can he give an assurance to the House that he will make every effort to ensure that these orders complete all their remaining stages before the Dissolution of Parliament? [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The House really must come to order. The Chair of the Select Committee has just asked a question and it really is the height of discourtesy for him not to be heard.

Mr. Hain: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee in taking forward record levels of scrutiny and speeding this process through. It is our Government's determination that all the legislative competence orders that have been effectively scrutinised by his Committee will get Royal Assent. There is a Statutory Instrument Committee next week, and I hope that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) will co-operate in speeding those through. Yes, in the wash-up negotiations, I hope that the Opposition will back the Welsh Assembly Government's policy and the LCO to deliver policies to tackle lack of housing and homelessness in Wales, which they are threatening to block.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Before the House rises for the election, will the Secretary of State be willing to share a date for a referendum on further devolution of powers?

Mr. Hain: This is a matter for consideration after the general election. All the parties agree with that, and that is the position made clear by the First Minister only yesterday.

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Economic Activity

9. John Howell (Henley) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the level of economic inactivity in Wales. [321816]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wayne David): The latest labour market statistics show the economic inactivity level in Wales falling by 9,000 in the last quarter. This is the largest fall in the United Kingdom.

John Howell: When one analyses the unemployment figures, one finds that 100 people a day were made unemployed in Wales in the three months to January of this year. Is the Minister not ashamed of that and of the lack of drive on fixing the Welsh economy?

Mr. David: Employment figures in Wales are higher than they have been for a long time and compare very favourably with the situation in Wales under the previous Conservative Government. The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about economic inactivity, which has fallen by 0.5 per cent. in Wales. That is enormously significant. I remember what happened to economic inactivity when the Conservatives were last in power: all the pits were closed, and a generation of the work force was thrown on to the dole and forgotten about. That will never happen again, under us.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Despite the worst global recession for more than half a century, the level of unemployment in my constituency is 57 per cent. lower than it was in 1992. Does the Minister agree that investment, such as the £635 million at RAF Valley, will provide apprenticeships and new quality jobs in the future, and that that would be under threat if the Conservatives ever came to office?

Mr. David: My hon. Friend is right to cite what is happening at RAF Valley and the defence investment that is taking place there. Such investment is not only happening with the defence training college at St. Athan; it is happening in many other parts of Wales, including the RAF Valley establishment in north Wales. That reinforces the fact that the level of employment in Wales is 100,000 higher than it was under the Conservatives, and we will continue to ensure that creating jobs is our priority.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked-


Q1. [322418] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 17 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): I know that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the three members of our armed forces from 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment attached to the Household Cavalry Regiment Battle Group who have lost their lives in Afghanistan this week. Their bravery and the sacrifice they have made for the future of Afghanistan
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and for the security of the British people will not be forgotten. Our thoughts today are with their families and loved ones as they receive this very sad news.

I am sure that the House will also want us to pay respects to Dr. Ashok Kumar, who sadly died this week. He was a tenacious campaigner and a passionate advocate for the people of Teesside, and his expertise and wise counsel will be sorely missed at all times in this House.

Tony Baldry: I am sure the whole House would wish to support the Prime Minister in his condolences for the tragic loss of the lives of British servicemen, who died doing their duty, and in his comments about the death of Ashok Kumar, who was a genuinely decent colleague.

The Prime Minister told the Chilcot inquiry and the House that defence expenditure rose in real terms every year. The House of Commons Library has now produced figures that clearly show that that assertion is simply incorrect. This is the first opportunity the Prime Minister has had in the House to set the record straight. Will he now do so? Will he also write to Chilcot to ensure that the inquiry's record is also corrected?

The Prime Minister: Yes, and I am already writing to Sir John Chilcot about this issue. Defence spending rose from £21 billion in 1997 to about £40 billion this year; it rose every year in cash terms. For a number of operational and other reasons, the real-terms rise in the defence budget was 12 per cent. over the past 13 years. Because of our expenditure on Afghanistan and on Iraq we have spent £17 billion more than the defence budget, but because of operational fluctuations in the way the money is spent expenditure has risen in cash terms every year, in real terms it is 12 per cent. higher, but I do accept that in one or two years defence expenditure did not rise in real terms.

Q14. [322431] Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab): The nine Sure Start children's centres in my constituency are doing an exceptional job. One head teacher, whose school has a centre attached to it, has told me that it would be a massive backward step to restrict access to that centre in any way, so can my right hon. Friend assure him and me that we will not do that?

The Prime Minister: We have opened 3,500 Sure Start centres in this country; that is a children's centre open in almost every community of the country, available to all families and to all children. That is a major transformation of children's services since 1997, and it would be a very sad day if an all-party consensus could not be reached on the fact that what we do for our under-fives is an essential element of early learning and an essential element of the development of their potential. The Conservative policy to cut back on Sure Start children's centres -[Interruption.] I think they protest too much, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the Opposition said that Sure Start centres would be better targeted at the deprived communities of this country and not the 100 per cent. who need them.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the soldier from 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment who died at Selly Oak on Monday after serving his country in
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Afghanistan and to the two other soldiers from the same regiment who were killed yesterday? Anyone who has been to Selly Oak knows the brilliant work that the staff do there and everyone should pay tribute to them. The sacrifice of these soldiers should never be forgotten.

May I also join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Ashok Kumar, who died at a young age? He was respected on both sides of the House for his hard work representing a constituency that he loved and campaigning for the causes in which he believed. The House has lost a great representative and our thoughts should be with his friends and family at this time.

Before I go on to my other questions, may I thank the Prime Minister for his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry)? In three years of asking the Prime Minister questions, I do not think that I have ever heard him make a correction or a retraction. The fact is that if one looks at defence spending figures or defence budget figures, there have been years when there have been real-terms cuts, and at last the Prime Minister has admitted it. On a day when he has had to admit that he cannot get his own figures right, perhaps we should not have to listen to him talking about Conservative policy.

Let me turn to the strike that threatens to disrupt travel for thousands of people this weekend. Lord Adonis says that it will

When the Prime Minister was asked about it, he said, "It's the wrong time." Will he tell us when is the right time for a strike that threatens the future of one of Britain's biggest employers and best companies?

The Prime Minister: I would have thought that every person in this House would want to see a resolution to the dispute as quickly as possible. My thoughts are with the customers of British Airways and with those who depend for their jobs on the success of British Airways and our other airlines. That is exactly why, at this point in time, I want the sides to get together and to discuss these issues- [ Interruption. ] The Conservative party and others may wish to laugh about this issue, but I think the important thing is the advice that I gave to the management of British Airways and to the unions, which was to take a deep breath, keep calm and keep talking about the issue. I do not think that an industrial relations dispute should be brought into the House of Commons in this way. It is our- [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are at a very early stage and Members must not get overexcited. They should try to keep cool and keep the noise down.

The Prime Minister: It is our desire to work, we hope, with the Conservative party and other parties so that we can reach a resolution on the issue.

Mr. Cameron: One word can sum up that answer: weak. It is not advice that is required, but some leadership. Let me ask the Prime Minister this: this weekend, management and non-unionised workers will be doing everything they can to keep British airways going, so will he join me in urging Unite members to join them by crossing the picket line, going to work and getting this business moving?

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