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House of Commons

Monday 5 December 1988

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Queen's Speech (Answer to Address)

Mr. Michael Neubert (The Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household) reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address as follows I have received with great satisfaction the loyal and dutiful expression of your thanks for the Speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.Oral Answers to Questions


Housing Waiting Lists

1. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will give the number of people on the housing waiting list in (1) Carmarthen district and (2) Wales for 1979 and at the latest available date.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ian Grist) : Information on the number of people on housing waiting listis not held centrally.

Mr. Williams : Why will the Government not provide us with that information? Are they covering up and deliberately withholding embarrassing information? Does

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the Minister agree with the housing organisations SHAC and Shelter that the estimated number of homeless people in Wales has doubled since 1979, and that more than 6,000 families and single people are now homeless?

Is the Minister aware that 2,000 people are on the housing waiting list in the Carmarthen district? The Government's policies do not allow the district council to build houses even though it wants to do so. Why are the Government so heartless and irresponsible towards the homeless?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman does the Government an injustice with his first question. The figures are produced by different authorities in different ways and are not comparable. That has been so for a long time. Indeed, local authorities prefer to produce their own figures in their own way.

During the past two years 61 local authority houses and 398 private houses have been built in the Carmarthen district, compared with 35 and 187 respectively during the last two years of the Labour Government.

Mr. Gwilym Jones : What estimates does my hon. Friend have for additional rented accommodation that will come on to the housing market as a result of the new Housing Act?

Mr. Grist : We expect that a great deal of money will be made available through various means--for example, pension funds, insurance companies, housing associations and others--to expand the private and public rented sectors for socially rented housing.

Mr. Anderson : Is it not daft that no central figures are available so that the Welsh Office can assess the overall need? Will the Minister consider with some humility the figures for Swansea, where more than 4,000 people are on the waiting list--a three-year high--where there has been no new build because of Government policies and where there is a reducing housing stock because of council house sales? Is he aware that increasing numbers of people are falling behind with their mortgage payments and are having their houses repossessed? They look to the council

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to provide them with houses, but it cannot do so. What advice does the Minister give the council in those circumstances?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman should be aware that there is new build in his city. His council should find the means to use flexibly the powers that other councils use for new build. It is not true that there has been a fall in the housing stock because of the right to buy? The housing stock remains exactly where it was--it just happens to be owned by people who were previously its tenants. They have a stake in the hon. Gentleman's city that they never had before.

Nurses (Grading)

2. Mr. Win Griffiths : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received on the new grading structure for nurses.

Mr. Grist : I have received 11 letters from Members of Parliament, a trade union, individual nurses, and members of the public.

Mr. Griffiths : Does the Minister acknowledge that, despite the total increase in funding available for the new wage settlement, the Government have made several strategic errors? First, in the pay review, they did not make any allowance for midwives' extra training. Secondly, they influenced health authorities, at least those in Wales, to review their own review of the pay structure. That has resulted in some nurses in the Mid-Glamorgan health authority area receiving altered forms giving their new gradings, and their gradings being reduced because of the cash limit imposed by the Welsh Office? Will the Welsh Office confirm that such an exercise did take place and that Mid-Glamorgan had to reduce the gradings that were offered to many of its nurses?

Mr. Grist : First, all the demands that were made on the grading structure were met by the Government. There was no cut at all. Every penny was paid that was agreed by the grading structure. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned midwives. Of the midwifery sisters on G grade, 86.7 per cent. have a rise of £1,925 to £3,025, which is rather above that of charge sisters and those with whom they are compared. There has been a slight mistake in thinking that, under the agreements that were reached with the unions, midwives have actually been done down. They have not.

Sir Raymond Gower : What use has been made of the appeals procedure that was agreed by the various unions at the onset of this matter?

Mr. Grist : The appeals system has been started. Each health authority is organising it, according to the agreement that was originally reached. I urge all trade unions involved to abide by that, not least because a warning has been given by most health authorities that they will not consider appeals while people are striking and demonstrating. Quite reasonably, most hon. Members would agree.

Mr. Rogers : Does the Minister accept that severe problems are arising out of the regrading? However the grades were set out, and however fair they might appear, the allocations within grades are creating anomalies. Many people, particularly those on lower grades, have

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received pennies in rises, not the pounds that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. Will the Government look at that matter? Will they remember that the appeals procedure is so long-winded that few appeals have been heard in Mid-Glamorgan?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman should appreciate--I hope that he will pass this on to others--that the appeals procedure should be carried out with good will. There is no intention of doing anybody down. Nobody is being paid pence. Nursing auxiliaries on A grade are getting a rise of between £435 and £445 a year. That is the very bottom level. Many nurses and staff have been somewhat misled about what to expect and about what they will receive in their pay packets any day now.

Sir Anthony Meyer : Is it not a fact that the overwhelming majority of nurses are getting substantial rises, many well in excess of £1, 000 a year? Would not almost every profession in the public service regard such rises as very generous?

Mr. Grist : The rises are not merely remarkable--rises of 45 per cent. in real terms, on average, since the Government came to power--but they compare quite astoundingly with the 20 per cent. real fall in value under the Labour Government.

Mr. Michael : The figures sound nice, but, as the Minister has given such inadequate answers to hon. Members, will he answer a nurse who has written to me? She asks :

"Where is the 18 per cent. rise the nurses are supposed to have had? As one of the NHS nurses I can assure you I have had 4 per cent. along with the majority in Cardiff royal infirmary."

She goes on :

"We feel that Maggie Thatcher or the south Glamorgan health authority"--

[Interruption.] She went on to state that she felt that the Prime Minister

"or the south Glamorgan health authority has trampled on the nursing profession yet again."

We know who is trampling on the nurses. Will the Minister answer her?

Mr. Grist : I am happy to congratulate my neighbour on his new position, but I cannot congratulate him on his question. Even if his correspondent were to have received the 4.2 per cent. rise, she would have had a rise of about £500 a year. She would have been at the top of her grade. The lady who wrote to the hon. Gentleman should wait until she gets the next pay settlement. Perhaps she will be surprised.

Rural Housing

3. Mr. Livsey : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he has any plans to provide housing for local people in rural Wales.

Mr. Grist : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced an increase to £1 million in the funds available to local authorities in rural areas with a high concentration of second homes to purchase homes for sale or rent to local people. Housing for Wales will devote a substantial proportion of its development programme to rural areas, as the Housing Corporation has already done in Wales.

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Mr. Livsey : Will the Minister acknowledge that £1 million is wholly inadequate to tackle the problem, but merely acknowledges that there is a problem? It will provide only 50 houses at £20,000 each, and it is impossible to find a house at that price in rural Wales. It is impossible for local people either to buy or rent them. Does the Minister agree that there should be a crash programme of building of affordable housing for first-time buyers and for those in the rented sector? In the Brecknock area 1,000 people are on the housing list, and in Crickhowell alone there are 100. Urgent action is needed. Will the Minister join me in calling for a housing forum in rural Wales next summer, and will he come to it?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on one aspect that he might like to explore further, and that is that his local authority should be more flexible and adventurous in the use of its powers. I was disappointed the other day when his planning officer made it clear that the authority seemed to have underestimated the powers which the various Acts had given him. If the local authority used the money available, mixed it with private money and worked with Housing for Wales, it could provide many more houses for rent than it may appreciate.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett : When representatives of Pembroke council come to see my hon. Friend, will he bear in mind proposals for a rural housing initiative, similar to that already introduced for the Valleys by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales? Will he point out to rural authorities that in many cases their restrictive planning policies are stopping derelict buildings from being brought back into use because of the conditions that they impose on those who occupy such buildings?

Mr. Grist : I hope that that will not be the case, but I agree that we would be sympathetic to an approach from any local authority that wishes to be designated under this scheme.

Dr. Thomas : Will the Minister join me in condemning all forms of violent action allegedly on the issue of housing problems in Wales? Will he consider the need for a concerted housing policy which takes account of the needs both of those who wish to purchase property and those who wish to rent it? Does he realise that his Department, by failing to have an integrated policy, is contributing to the housing crisis? Will he look to England, where the work of the rural development organisations with the housing associations has produced a much more coherent policy than has the Welsh Office?

Mr. Grist : Housing for Wales understands--as the Housing Corporation before it did--the differences between Wales and England, in that 25 per cent. of the funding was invested in rural areas of Wales as opposed to England, so England has a long way to go to catch up with our record on that. The hon. Gentleman referred to the stupid but mainly criminal activities of certain individuals or groups. They do immense damage to the good name of Wales, they harm the cause which their perpetrators purport to support and they are wholly foreign to the peaceable welcoming attitude of most Welsh people. I am glad to have his support.

Mr. Raffan : In order to increase the supply of start-up homes for local people in Wales, will my hon. Friend discuss with housing associations the introduction of a

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building and selling at cost policy, provided that land can be made available at a reasonable price? Is he aware that under such a policy the difference between the cost and market value of a property, if sold on to an outsider, can be retained by the housing association to generate yet more low-cost housing?

Mr. Grist : Entry into low-cost home ownership through such flexible methods is exactly what we seek to encourage, and Housing for Wales will be taking a similar line. We hope that local authorities will join in this programme.

Local Authority Associations

4. Mr. Murphy : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he last met representatives of local authority associations in Wales ; and what topics were discussed.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Walker) : I met representatives of the Welsh Counties Committee and the Committee of Welsh District Councils at a meeting of the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government Finance on 24 October. The main topics discussed were the provision of Welsh rate support grant settlement for 1989-90, the 1988 report of the grant distribution sub-group, the Rate Support Grants Act 1988, provision for community charge preparation costs, and the consultation paper on capital expenditure and finance.

Mr. Murphy : Why will the Secretary of State not listen to district councils in Wales, which have told him that his capital allocations for the implementation of the poll tax fall well short, by many millions of pounds, of the amount required and which are, in any event, loans, the repayment of which will place a great burden on future community tax payers in Wales? Does the Secretary of State not realise that the money would be better spent on reducing housing waiting lists, improving school building and helping to improve road systems? When will he admit that the poll tax is an imposition on the people of Wales and is deeply resented by all who live there?

Mr. Walker : First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new appointment and wish him a long and happy life there. He mentioned the allowances for the poll tax. In fairness, if he speaks to the district councils, they will inform him that when they put forward their original proposals on revenue I not only listened to them but pointed out that I thought that they had not requested enough. They applied for more because they had made a mistake in their calculations, which I pointed out. No one could accuse me of not listening. I not only listened, but told them how they should change their applications. The capital assumptions will be reasonable. The total per head allocation in Wales compares favourably with what is being provided in England. I can understand differences of opinion on the poll tax, but the hon. Gentleman will find that many people in his constituency and elsewhere will be considerable beneficiaries from the change.

Mr. Morgan : What is the right question to produce the now standard Cabinet answer that Cardiff, like Edinburgh, is a flourishing city? In seeking to find out which question will produce that non-sequitur, I shall ask the Secretary of State whether he thinks that the

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Chancellor's high interest rate policy will have a devastating effect on the efforts of local authorities in Wales to bring in industrial development.

Mr. Walker : The effect will be nowhere near as adverse as it would be if we returned to the level of inflation under the last Labour Government.

Roads (Expenditure)

5. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what has been the total spending by central Government on roads in Wales since 1979 ; and how many miles of motorway and trunk roads have been laid since that year.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. Wyn Roberts) : Expenditure on the improvement and maintenance of trunk roads and motorways since 1979 exceeds £1 billion. In addition, over £290 million has been provided to Welsh local authorities as transport supplementary grant for improvement of their roads. Twenty-two miles of motorway and 112 miles of trunk road have been provided.

Mr. Knox : Does my hon. Friend expect that expenditure will remain at a high level during the coming year? Does he expect many new contracts to be let during that year?

Mr. Roberts : We expect expenditure on roads to remain at a high level. Twenty two miles of trunk road are under construction at an estimated cost of £290 million. We expect to let a contract for one scheme costing over £10 million before the end of the current financial year.

Mr. Gareth Wardell : Will the Minister give a guarantee that the M4 will be completed by 1992?

Mr. Roberts : The hon. Gentleman is aware that one section of the M4 to which we have yet to attend--the stretch between Baglan and Lonlas--will be attended to as soon as possible. We shall probably put the contract out in sections, starting next year.

Mr. Raffan : Does my hon. Friend agree that, for the Government's massive investment in the A55 to be cost effective, adequate access or link roads to the expressway must be constructed? Does he agree that such roads are top priority, and will he do his utmost to impress that point on Clwyd county council?

Mr. Roberts : I am well aware of the point that my hon. Friend is making and of his interest in the connecting roads in Clwyd. We are discussing road programmes with Clwyd county council and I shall ensure that his point is borne in mind.


8. Mr. Geraint Howells : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he has any plans to visit Brussels to help secure the future of the European sheepmeat regime.

Mr. Peter Walker : I am well aware of the importance of sheep production to the rural economy and, in particular, to the hill and upland areas of Wales. I intend to play an active part in assisting my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the important negotiations on the review of the sheepmeat regime.

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Mr. Howells : Is it not regrettable that the Government will not allow our Secretary of State, who has full responsibility for agriculture in the Community, to go to Brussels? However, there is one ray of hope--I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware of this--in that the French sheep breeders have at last seen sense and are keen to introduce a sheepmeat regime, similar to ours, in France. As the Secretary of State is responsible for our present sheepmeat regime, will he now go to Brussels to talk to the French and others to safeguard the present scheme?

Mr. Walker : I should be perfectly happy to go to Brussels and, indeed, may well go to Brussels--there is no difficulty about my going there. As a tolerably old hand at negotiations in Brussels, I advise the hon. Gentleman that there are considerable advantages in having one negotiator rather than two. However, there are also advantages--my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods agrees with this--in my being present and if for certain talks and negotiations in Brussels he would like me to be there, I shall certainly be there.

The position of French sheepmeat producers has changed from time to time over the years, but that of the French Government has not changed. So far in negotiations there is not much sign that the French Government are changing their view. What is vital is that a scheme emerges that will ensure that, if anything, we get better access to the European market for our sheep production ; that there is no discrimination against United Kingdom producers ; that the income, especially of sheep producers in the hill areas, is maintained at a sensible level so that they remain viable, and that any transitional changes will not create difficulties during the transition.

Mr. Ron Davies : Does the Secretary of State recognise that the present sheepmeat regime will do nothing to meet the estimated £200 million that will be lost to Welsh farmers this year as a result of the current high interest rates? Given the Secretary of State's reported speech to the Carlton club, when he referred to the Chancellor as "incompetent" because of the impact of high interest rates on industry, and if the Secretary of State is to represent the true interests of the people of Wales, does the right hon. Gentleman think that he has any honourable course of action other than resignation?

Mr. Walker : While I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will ever gain admission to the Carlton club, had he done so, and listened to my speech, he would have found that the version of my speech that appeared in The Observer was totally an invention of The Observer.

Mr. Barry Jones : May I, too, congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the wide publicity that yesterday's press gave to his criticisms of the Chancellor of the Exchequer? We agree with him in that. In relation to sheepmeat, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Welsh farming fraternity want to see him in Brussels more often, standing his corner, fighting hard and being on guard against opportunistic continental farmers?

May I ask him, as our Agriculture Minister, what advice he is giving to the people of Wales on eggs and salmonella? Does he agree that the Under- Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), should be relieved of her office following her

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careless remarks at the weekend? Is the Department of Health not worried and is the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food not rather complacent?

Mr. Walker : First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election to the shadow Cabinet. I am sure that we are all relieved that at long last the Labour party has a Welsh spokesman in the shadow Cabinet.

I should like to thank him also for his kind and generous remarks, which have given me great confidence in my negotiating skills when I go to Brussels. I am glad that the view of the Welsh farmers is that I would negotiate well on their behalf, and I am also glad that that view is so enthusiatically supported by the hon. Gentleman. It is vital to get a good sheepmeat regime for the future, in the same way as we have had a good regime in the recent past. I have no reason to believe that we will not be successful in that endeavour.

Professional, Industrial and Commercial Programme

9. Mr. Gwilym Jones : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how many persons have benefited from the professional, industrial and commercial programme in Wales ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Wyn Roberts : I refer to the answer that I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) in March this year, when I said that some 6,800 individuals were receiving updating or retraining and that the past two years had seen a 40 per cent. increase in the number of PICKUP courses and a 100 per cent. increase in the number of students benefiting from those courses.

The programme continues to have considerable impact, and the numbers of persons benefiting are steadily increasing. A survey of short vocational courses in the public sector further and higher education establishments in England and Wales is being carried out and the results will be available in 1989.

Mr. Jones : I know from my hon. Friend's answer that he fully appreciates the importance of the PICKUP programme. Will he take this opportunity to say what more will be done in the future to promote it?

Mr. Roberts : We have spent about £380,000 promoting the PICKUP developments in 1987-88 and we expect to spend another £261,000 in 1988-89. We are certainly giving PICKUP courses a high priority in Wales. We have two full-time PICKUP development agents and their support staff are funded by the Welsh Office. Funds have been provided for every local authority higher education institution and university college to appoint a PICKUP co-ordinator-- [Interruption.] I am sure that the entire House and Wales will have noted the hilarity with which the Opposition regard training and retraining in Wales.

Council House Rents

10. Dr. Marek : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he has any plans to advise local councils to increase the rents of council tenants in Wales.

Mr. Grist : It is for local authorities to determine actual rent increases according to their own circumstances.

Dr. Marek : Does the Minister recognise that Wrexham Maelor borough council is a good, value-for-money oriented, efficient housing authority, with a good standard

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of repairs, low rents and a housing revenue account which stands on its own and is not subsidised by the general rates fund? That being so, why is the Minister threatening to make that local authority increase its council rents by, in effect, threatening to withhold housing benefits and thus risking the poor subsidising the poorer?

Mr. Grist : The hon. Gentleman must explain that to me, because, as I said in my answer, it is up to local authorities to set their own rent levels. That is so both under the present regime and under the regime that we propose to introduce.

Environmental Problems

11. Mrs. Clwyd : To ask the Secretary of State for Wales whether he will make a statement on his priorities in dealing with environmental problems in Wales.

Mr. Peter Walker : Our aim is to prevent undue risks to human life and health, to protect the natural environment and to improve public amenity, particularly in those areas with the worst environments.

Mrs. Clwyd : Is the Secretary of State aware that one of the worst industrial polluters remaining in Britain is in the Cynon valley? Is he aware of the considerable anxiety felt by the local council and by local people because the company intends to introduce the mild heat treatment process, which it claims will improve the environment? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that process, which operates in Hamilton in Scotland only, has caused considerable environmental difficulties? Will he also confirm that planning permission is needed before the process is introduced in the Cynon valley?

Mr. Walker : I am fully aware of local feeling about pollution from the phurnacite plant. I gather that the worst of the remaining Disticoke batteries were closed down last week and will remain so permanently. I understand that that will bring about some immediate improvement.

The company's applications regarding its future methods will, of course, be a matter that the inspectorate must consider fully. If the method has been used elsewhere and has failed, obviously that will be within the knowledge of the inspectorate, which could then impose its views as to whether the proposed method is desirable.

The hon. Lady is aware that I have previously discussed this matter with her. There always has been a balance of view in the locality as to the importance of the jobs involved as opposed to the environmental situation created by the phurnacite plant. I have to seek the advice of the inspectorate on these matters and, obviously, to listen to the opinions of the local authority. I shall do that.

Mr. John : Does the right hon. Gentleman share my disappointment that the Queen's Speech contained no promise of legislation to impose tough controls on industrial polluters? Does he accept that, on the jobs front, our experience is that if firms want to produce, they will? If they do not, no amount of anxiety among local people about pollution will stop them. In the past nine years, no firm has ever given a damn about the well-being of the locality when trying to preserve jobs.

Mr. Walker : To take the example that we have just been discussing, shortly after I became Secretary of State I

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discussed with the Coal Board what it intended to do about improving the environment. It had committed itself to a heavy capital investment programme to do that. I took that attitude to get both the improved environment and the jobs. A balance must always be struck, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the environmental consequences can have not only an adverse effect on the immediate locality but a long-term adverse effect on inward investment in the locality.

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