Budget Statement and its Implications for Wales

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Mr. Murphy: I am conscious of the hon. Gentleman's considerable interest in such matters because of his constituency being, if not the most, then among the most rural in the whole of Wales—indeed, I shall refer to it later. He can rest assured that I will take up those matters. The points that he has made are on the record and will be taken up with the appropriate Ministers.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): I congratulate Pembrokeshire county council on having been so successful in issuing licences as quickly as possible under the licensed movement scheme. However, given this morning's news of a suspected case in St. Clears, I know that many Pembrokeshire farmers will be especially concerned. Will the Secretary of State press the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to consider losses from cattle becoming more than 30 months old as direct, not consequential, losses? Those farmers who have kept their cattle as near to 30 months as possible have taken a responsible attitude by feeding them on grass, not on waste vegetable matter, which is another option. Those losses are as direct as if the animals had caught foot and mouth themselves.

Mr. Murphy: I am aware of my hon. Friend's interest in the matter. She represents a large, rural constituency and I am disappointed that the disease has now spread to the part of west Wales that she represents. I cannot give a categorical answer at present to the points that she has raised, but I will raise them with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

National Minimum Wage

8. Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): How many women in Wales he estimates will benefit from the increase in the minimum wage. [152757]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): Although figures are not available on a gender-specific basis, it is estimated that at least 80,000 people in Wales will benefit from the latest increase in the national minimum wage. It is hoped that the increase will help to bring the gender pay gap to its lowest ever level by ensuring that the vast majority of those who benefit from it will be women.

Ms Morgan: Does my hon. Friend agree that the impact of the minimum wage will be much greater in less affluent regions of the United Kingdom, such as Wales and the north-east of England, than in other areas? Does he also agree that the minimum wage is already making an impact on the gender pay gap and that it will hugely benefit the many women in Wales who have worked for low wages for many years?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend makes two valid points. First, Wales will benefit more than many other regions from the minimum wage. Secondly, she echoes the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) that women especially will benefit from the national minimum wage.

I am pleased that the Government have introduced the national minimum wage. My right hon. and hon. Friends should be proud of having voted for it. I gently remind the Committee that the Conservatives did not vote for it, the nationalists could not be bothered to vote for it and the Liberal Democrats wanted to introduce it on a regional basis.

Miners' Compensation

9. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): When the Welsh monitoring group on miners' compensation last met; and if he will make a statement. [152758]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I established the Welsh sub-group of the coal health claims monitoring group to address coal health issues in Wales and to report back to the Great Britain-wide group. The Welsh group had its second meeting on 12 February. It was attended by the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), and it proved once again to be extremely constructive. I am convinced that the measures that it has discussed, and the actions that it has agreed to take, will further speed up the processing of coal health claims. The next meeting of the Welsh group is scheduled for a week today.

Mr. Williams: One of the great problems with the miners' compensation scheme is the availability of consultants. Healthcall expected them to be able to handle about eight claims a day, but they can only get through about four claims because of the incredible amount of paperwork and bureaucracy with which they have to deal. Justice Turner instructed that trials be held using nurses or health service officials to pre-read some of those documents. What has been the result of those pilots, and what in general is being done to improve the availability of consultants and to make better use of their time?

Mr. Murphy: I agree that the number of consultants is a hugely important factor in the success and the speed of the scheme. As he is aware, the court case indicated that consultants must be involved in the assessment, but that creates difficulties because there are not many consultants in Wales. I understand that Healthcall has attracted consultants to Wales from other parts of England and next week's meeting of the monitoring group will discuss a report from Healthcall on the pilot scheme to which my hon. Friend referred. He is aware that 27,000 compensation cases in Wales must be dealt with. So far, £1 million a day has been paid out in the UK, whereas £29 million has been paid out in Wales.

Mr. Llwyd: What representations has the Minister made concerning the injurious effect of the assessed clawback on compensation claims?

Mr. Murphy: That is an important issue about which the hon. Gentleman has been concerned for some time. I have made representations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security and so far three proposals are being discussed with the Government and the claimants' solicitors. The first is that the Department of Social Security would issue nil certificates for interim payments if there were no clawback and the present assumptions tended to be overestimates. That will allow the Department for Trade and Industry to make larger and faster payments. Secondly, claimants will be asked to swear a statement of truth about when the disease started, which removes the need to search old medical records before payments can be made. Thirdly, certificates will be valid for 26 weeks instead of eight. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, negotiations can take longer than eight weeks; if they do take longer, there will be no need to obtain a new certificate. Those proposals are being considered by the solicitors and will be dealt with next week.

Hospital Waiting Lists

10. Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): What discussions he has had with the Health Secretary of the National Assembly regarding hospital waiting lists. [152759]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I meet regularly with the National Assembly Health Minister to discuss the national health service in Wales. The subject of waiting lists is, of course, often on the agenda.

Mr. Walter: I am surprised that the Minister does not express despair that, although the Government were elected on the promise to reduce waiting lists across the UK by 100,000, according to the latest figures from the National Assembly, they have increased by 11.5 per cent. in Wales alone. The number of those waiting more than 18 months for an out-patient appointment—zero in my constituency—has gone up from 1,400 to 4,800, which is an increase of 243 per cent. The figure for those waiting more than six months for an appointment has gone up by 714 per cent. Does the Minister not think that something should be done about that?

Mr. Hanson: The something that is being done includes, for example, the extra £1.35 billion for health that the Chancellor of the Exchequer allocated in the comprehensive spending review last year. That will add extra investment to the national health service in Wales this year, next year and the year after, to ensure that waiting lists are tackled and that patients are dealt with. The Chancellor also provided an extra £100 million on Wednesday. Occasionally, there are difficulties with waiting list figures, but those figures are now on a downward trend. How would the Conservatives' proposed tax cuts ensure that public spending reached people through the health service in Wales? I doubt that they would, which is why there is a big difference between the Conservative and Labour parties.

Budget Implications for Wales

11.3 am

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the matter of the Budget Statement and its implications for Wales.

I do not know when the general election will be called, but this may be the last sitting of the Welsh Grand Committee before it happens. In the light of that possibility, I want to pay tribute to you, Mr. Jones, for your unique service to your constituency and Wales during the past 30 years. I also want to pay tribute to the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who will be leaving representational politics—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Sir J. Morris), the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). In addition, there are other right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the House but who will remain in representational politics—the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), my right hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), and for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) and the hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones). Whatever our political differences, there has been considerable agreement—certainly since I became a Member in 1987—that together we have a special duty to represent Wales in the House of Commons. That duty is in no way diminished as a consequence of the establishment of the Assembly. I therefore pay tribute again to all those right hon. and hon. Members who will leave the House during the next few months. I shall look a right fool if there is not an election before the summer, because I will have to say all that again. We shall wait and see.

This is the first meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee in Wales since the establishment of the National Assembly. That in itself is significant because it highlights the partnership that must exist between the Government in Westminster and the National Assembly in Cardiff. All those whom we represent in the House of Commons are represented jointly by us and by members of the National Assembly. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) in whose constituency we now are. Although this great county hall was the county hall of Gwent, it lies in the county borough of Torfaen and in the constituency of Monmouth. If he manages to catch your eye, Mr. Jones, my hon. Friend will doubtless make some points about his representation of Monmouthshire.

I have asked hon. Members at some point during the day—not now, of course, as they are listening to me—to look out of the window at the great view up the eastern valley of Torfaen, or Gwent, as it used to be called. Since the middle of the 19th century, the economic development of our south Wales valleys, and this one in particular, has brought about a huge change in the way that people work. When my great-grandfather came from Ireland to this valley he worked in the iron industry, which became the steel industry. When my grandfather and father started working, they worked in the pits. Many thousands of people who had worked in the iron and steel industry went on to become coal miners.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams) referred quite rightly to the problems of compensation for miners. Only 20 years ago, tens of thousands of people still earned their livings underground. Not one person in this valley now works in a pit. In view of the dangers that miners have to endure, that is a good thing, but it means that well-paid jobs have been lost. The change came about during the past 30 or 40 years.

Manufacturing companies came into our valleys, particularly those associated with the car industry, and they, too, have seen changes during the past few years. Those changes would have been noticeable to anyone who drove, as they might have done, from north and mid-Wales to south Wales, past what was British Nylon Spinners, which became ICI Fibres, and then past what was Parke-Davis and Warner-Lambert, glimpsing in the distance the Royal Ordnance factory in Glascoed, the British Steel works in Panteg and the two great Girling works.

In the past 15 to 20 years, about 10,000 jobs have gone in those industries, but that must be set aside what has taken their place. One can look across the valley at the new electronics, high-tech and service industries. Far from there being no jobs in this valley now, there are more. Some, admittedly, are not so well paid, but many are. That shows that economies can change dramatically. It is the job of government, by which I mean the Government of whom I am a member and the National Assembly, to manage that change.

 
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