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Assembly Funding

3. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): When he last met the First Minister of the National Assembly to discuss the funding of its functions. [4193]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I meet the First Minister regularly on a range of matters, including funding issues. I also recently met the Assembly's Finance Minister, Edwina Hart. Tomorrow, the Assembly will debate its annual Budget.

Mr. Griffiths: I thank my right hon. Friend, his Under-Secretary and his staff at the Wales Office for the excellent relationships that have been developed with the Assembly and the way in which the Department acts as a bridge with the Assembly, as exemplified by the flexibility on the Barnett formula that enabled the extra funding for objective 1. Will my right hon. Friend consider more flexibility for other functions of the Assembly, because needs in Wales have been shown to be much higher than those in other parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Murphy: I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. On Monday, Edwina Hart, the Welsh Assembly Finance Minister, announced a further £17 million to support Welsh local authorities. Today, the Government are providing about £1.2 million for Wales, which results from extra money from the Department of Health in England. In recent months, extra money for Wales has included up to £2 million for rate relief grant, more than £2.5 million related to foot and mouth disease, and more than £2 million from the invest-to-save budget. We have also offered to clear outstanding housing debt when local authority stock transfers take place. Potentially, that is worth up to £300 million, and is in addition to the extra £100 million given last year for education and health, and for tackling crime, especially drug crime. All that comes on top of the spending review in 2000, and of the comprehensive spending review before that.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Does the Secretary of State agree that the Assembly does not need a new building to carry out its functions and that it would be better if the money earmarked for that project went into public services, and especially the health service?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Richard Rogers Partnership, the architects of the Assembly building, has issued a statement today, which refutes a statement made by the Finance Minister on 16 January? She said:

The Richard Rogers Partnership refutes that statement, and accuses the Finance Minister of refusing to meet to discuss the matter. We are talking about a lot of taxpayers' money. Will the Secretary of State therefore offer to meet the First Minister, to sort out the problem?

Mr. Murphy: May I first congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to the shadow Cabinet? He knows that this is a matter for the Assembly itself to decide. It is time that all hon. Members understood that

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devolution is here to stay, and that it is for the Assembly to decide whether to have a home of its own—just as we have our own home in the House of Commons.

With regard to the Richard Rogers Partnership, I understand that the Finance Minister is to write to all members of the Assembly—including those in the Conservative party. However, the House must bear in mind what I told my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths): extra money—hundreds of millions of pounds of it—has gone to the Assembly for precisely those public services about which the hon. Gentleman spoke earlier.


4. Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): What discussions he has had with the First Secretary of the National Assembly on transport in Wales. [4194]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend regularly meets the First Secretary of the National Assembly to discuss wide-ranging current issues affecting Wales, including transport.

Transport generally is a matter for the Assembly, although railways, air and ports remain, generally, the responsibility of the UK Government, working closely with the Assembly. I am keen to continue dialogue with the Assembly and Cabinet colleagues in order to determine how best we can meet the transport needs of Wales.

Mr. Caton: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the people and economy of Wales were especially poorly served by Railtrack, until it was taken into administration 10 days ago? Will he undertake to work in partnership with the Assembly to press the new company when it is set up to invest in the rail infrastructure that we so badly need in Wales? In particular, will he emphasise the need to improve the track west of Cardiff, so that in the 21st century our inter-city trains move faster than Stevenson's Rocket on its first test run?

Mr. Touhig: As a regular user of the rail network, I understand—and share—the frustration passengers have had to put up with over past years. The Government are committed to working in close partnership with the Assembly and other stakeholders to improve the railway system. That is why, to achieve that improvement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has committed £30 billion to the network over the next 10 years.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): Given the difficulty experienced by Railtrack, will the Minister say what discussions he is having with the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions about the progress on the single rail franchise for Wales, and especially about improvements to the service in rural areas, such as the heart of Wales line that is so important to my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire?

Mr. Touhig: Our colleagues in the Assembly attach considerable importance to developing the new Wales and borders rail franchise and the opportunities that will be

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derived from that for improving the whole rail structure and support in Wales. I have met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and the Assembly's Minister for Environment, Sue Essex, to discuss the all-Wales franchise. We have also had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport, and discussions are continuing. We hope to make progress.


5. Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of the National Assembly on education in Wales. [4195]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend has met the First Minister on a number of occasions recently to discuss education in Wales.

My right hon. Friend and I have also had meetings and discussions with the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning in Wales to discuss the forthcoming Education Bill.

Dr. Francis: I warmly welcome the National Assembly's discussion document, "The Learning Country". Does my hon. Friend agree that the foundations for such a learning country are being achieved by many schools in Wales, particularly Cymer Afan and Sandfields comprehensive schools in my constituency? Does he agree that our learning country will be achieved only if we base it on the principles of equity, lifelong learning and citizenship?

Mr. Touhig: I congratulate Cymer Afan and Sandfields schools on their achievements. It shows what can be done with resources, commitment and the vision of good teachers. The opportunities for all our citizens afforded by a programme of lifelong learning is obvious to us all, and I believe that the publication of "The Learning Country", to which my hon. Friend referred, as well as that of the White Paper, "Schools Achieving Success" contributes to the continuing debate on improving the standards of education that we all want to see.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The Rees report on student finance, commissioned by the Welsh Assembly, clearly recommended the abolition of student tuition fees in the interests of widening access to higher education. Would the Minister be willing to promote the abolition of student tuition fees to the Department of Education and Skills in its review of student finance if called upon to do so by the Welsh Assembly?

Mr. Touhig: Our core objective is to get more people into higher education. The review of student support was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills on 4 October. The Government recognise that the fear of debt can act as a barrier to those wanting to go into higher education—that is why we are having a review.

I am aware of the Rees report, which I think is very constructive. It contains 54 recommendations, which the Assembly is considering. The report does not recommend that students make no contribution to their higher education. However, I believe that that report and the

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Assembly's response will undoubtedly form part of the consultation announced by my right hon. Friend on 4 October.

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