TUESDAY 15 OCTOBER 2002
Mr Martyn Jones, in the Chair
RT HON PAUL MURPHY, a Member of the House, Secretary of State for Wales, ALISON JACKSON, Head of the Wales Office and MR JOHN KILNER, Principal Finance Officer, Wales Office, examined.
(Mr Murphy) Well, Mr Jones, can I thank you, first of all, for your welcome and your colleagues and introduce to you Alison Jackson who here is the head of my Department and John Kilner who is head of the finance and administrative branch of the Department. Can I say that I do not think we have been in this room before and it is a bit echoey but I am sure that will have no affect at all on the answers or, indeed, the questions. In answer to the first question you posed to me - what do I think were the main achievements of my Office over the period covered by the report - I think that the most important achievement of the Wales Office, not just in the year under discussion but in terms of all the years that the Office has been in existence, is to ensure that devolution is bedding in, that there is a transition from what we knew under the old dispensation when my predecessors in two ministers ran the business of Wales from the United Kingdom Government into the new one endorsed by the people which means the devolution settlement, which is not just about an Assembly in Cardiff but is about what happens here in Whitehall and Westminster too in relation to that Assembly and in devolution terms. I think the first and sometimes unnoticed achievement is that that settlement continues to run smoothly. Inevitably there are going to be blips from time to time, hitches, disagreements between a department and the Assembly, disagreements between the Assembly and a department, that is the nature of things. I think that were we to cast our eye over the year in question there has been a huge amount of consensual working between the Assembly and between the Government and Parliament on a huge variety of different issues so that we can ensure that the people that we jointly represent with the Assembly have a better quality of life. That is the first point. That is achieved through a number of ways. It is achieved through membership of, in my case, the 14 Cabinet Committees and Sub-Committees. It is achieved through the business of the House, whether it is in the business on the floor of the House affecting Wales, as far as questions, the annual St David's Day debate, other debates, whether it is achieved through the workings of this Committee, the Welsh Affairs Committee, or whether it is achieved through various meetings of the Grand Committee which meets from time to time and so on and especially it is achieved through the legislative process because it seems to me that the inquiry upon which you and your Committee are embarking on is how we deal with primary legislation affecting our country in Wales, how is that dealt with in joint working between ourselves and the Assembly. In the year in question you will be aware, of course, that a number of hugely important Acts of Parliament have passed which involve my office in a considerable amount of time and work, in liaising first of all with the relevant Assembly ministers and the Welsh Assembly Government generally but also, of course, with our fellow ministers in other departments here in Whitehall too and then, of course, how that has an impact upon the parliamentary scene. Those particular Acts of Parliament, if I can just recall them, Mr Jones, would be the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professionals Act, which is transforming the way in which health is administered in Wales. A very good example of the Government and the Assembly delivering through partnership was Don Touhig, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, was the Wales Office Minister responsible for guiding the Welsh clauses through Parliament. He worked closely with colleagues in Cardiff and of course he went to the Assembly's Health and Social Services Committee as well to discuss the legislation. Secondly, there was the Education Act 2002. That implemented various provisions for Wales, including steps to deliver the Assembly's distinctive agenda in their own White Paper called The Learning Country. Thirdly, and something in which this Committee played a vital role, the draft National Health Service Wales Bill where indeed we were pioneering a new system of dealing with legislation for Wales which meant that there was scrutiny and pre-legislative consultation both in Cardiff through the Assembly and yourselves in the way that you held your own inquiry into that Bill. It was a hugely successful means of delivering legislation through partnership but also involving members of this House of Commons through your Committee. Another small but important example is the Order which replaced the Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce, the Rural Payments Agency. It was vital for Wales that the change in responsibility for processing agricultural payments went smoothly. There was close co-operation between my office and Assembly staff and DEFRA. There were, of course, other Bills too which had an effect on Wales. The Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, the Homelessness Act 2002 where the Assembly took regulation linking powers to prescribe classes of persons from abroad who may be allocated housing accommodation. The Child Concessions Eligibility Act 2002 which also gave the Assembly various powers and the Adoption of Children Bill. As well as that there were other Bills of course which had an effect on Wales but those are the ones specifically related to the Assembly. In addition to that of course secondary legislation is passed in this place, including the Order which dealt with the elections for the National Assembly for Wales. Finally, of course, an issue which doubtless you will return to later is the whole question of finance. A critical aspect of my role is of course to ensure that we get a decent financial settlement for Wales. Now of course the actual Comprehensive Spending Review when it was announced fell outside the actual Departmental Report that we were referring to but the negotiations leading up to it were not. As you may well imagine there were literally weeks, indeed months, of negotiations which occurred between myself and the Assembly and of course the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary on the final Comprehensive Spending Review. Those, Mr Jones, are some of the achievements of the Department which I have outlined. It is for others, not least this Committee but others outside in Wales to judge for themselves as to whether the Government through my office is serving Wales well.
Chairman: Thank you very much, Secretary of State. I think the stress you made about the legislative process is an important one because we are looking at that. We have been taking part in it and we have to get it right. It does seem though, so far at any rate, that we are making great strides in that area. I am pleased to see your part in that has been very important.
(Mr Murphy) It is certainly my role to see if there is something which has occurred in Wales which is of considerable importance in terms of, in this case, employment and pension law as to be able then to report that back to my Cabinet colleagues. In this particular case, of course, you will be aware because you met me on the general issue, not on the Allied Steel issue but the general issue of pensions, that we are now awaiting, very shortly, a Green Paper on pensions. Obviously I cannot go into details of discussions and negotiations within Government prior to that but you and the Committee may rest assured that the Welsh point of view is put forward, particularly in so far as it affects Welsh workers in this case who were treated in a very difficult and poor way. You can rest assured, Chairman, that these matters are conveyed to my colleagues and of course in the process which then surrounds the consultation following the publication of the Green Paper that I am quite convinced that Members of Parliament representing Welsh constituencies will certainly make their points known and indeed those representing Cardiff constituencies will make their points known so far as the ASW is concerned.
(Mr Murphy) It would not be right for me to pre-empt what is going to be in the Green Paper and what is coming out other than to say that my colleague, Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Works and Pensions, has made absolutely clear that the White Paper will be based on fairness and will be based on security and retirement. Those are two overriding overwhelming aims which will form the basis of that Green Paper. Of course it is a Green Paper which is about consulting as many people as possible to make the pensions system better than they have at the moment. You and other Members representing Cardiff, including some of us incidentally on a constituency basis who also represent people who work in the ASW, and certainly in the steel industry, will have felt in the last few months acutely the shortcomings of some of these systems that we have currently.
(Mr Murphy) As I say, I cannot comment on what is going to be in the Green Paper. Certainly the points affecting your constituents and some of mine will be points I believe that need to be considered in the light of the Green Paper.
(Mr Murphy) The details I will ask Alison Jackson to deal with because obviously I do not deal with the ins and outs of the Stationery Office. I simply want to make two or three points generally to you. First of all that all Government departments are required to issue departmental reports. You will see that in our case the cost does not differ tremendously from others because you and others around the table who are politicians, who have to get their election addresses printed every so often, will know that if you get your election addresses printed for 100 it is probably almost as cheap to get 1,000 printed because you have to have a small run or a large run. The cost of it is not so much in the numbers but in the setting up process of the document in the first place. Secondly, of course, we do have a unique position where we have to publish our document in two languages and that has an impact, obviously, on the cost as well. Have you any further comments?
(Ms Jackson) Yes. There are more copies produced than the 300 which come to the Wales Office. The actual natural selling price of this year's report would be £25.95. What happens to the other copies is that the Stationery Office produce a boxed set of all departmental reports which are sent to various public libraries and other organisations. So the additional Wales Office reports will be part of that boxed set and distributed by the Stationery Office. The 300 are the ones that are distributed by the Wales Office.
(Ms Jackson) I think it was a consideration that this is the kind of price that people will be willing to pay. It is a matter for departments to decide whether they propose to subsidise the cost of their departmental report. In the past the Wales Office has always chosen to subsidise the cost so that people who wish to purchase them can do so at what we think is a reasonable price. If the Committee feels that this is not the right way for us to approach it and that we should charge an economic price we would consider the Committee's views certainly.
(Mr Murphy) What page are we on now?
(Mr Murphy) Yes.
(Mr Murphy) Yes. The Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002 part 2 Leasehold Reform where the Assembly took regulation making powers for a right to manage companies. That was just one example under that reform. Obviously we will write to the Committee, Chairman, with more technical details of that. This is in line with all legislation which is England and Wales where there is a great deal of internal discussion and correspondence and sometimes negotiation between Assembly ministers and officials, certainly at official level but sometimes at ministerial level depending on the nature of the issue, between departments of Government and departments within the Assembly. The legislation after it has been drafted has to come before the legislation programme committee of the Cabinet, of which I am a member, and prior to that, of course, there has to be agreement between the Government and the Assembly on the policy issues which are reflected in the process. That means that a great deal of work could be done, as it were, behind the scenes before ever the Bill is produced. The Assembly has to be satisfied that legislation which has been enacted is going to be such that it is going to work properly and well in Wales. Obviously the Government has to be satisfied too that in preparing the draft legislation and preparing the Bill that it is properly dealt with for the whole of the United Kingdom.
(Ms Jackson) I was not closely involved in the detail but I remember that there was quite a lot of discussion about the nature of freehold and leasehold tenure in Wales, about the kind of mix that there was and the different kinds of tenure and whether the legislation actually met the requirements of the differences between Wales and England. I am afraid if you want more detail I will have to go to the member of staff who dealt with it.
(Mr Murphy) We can come back to you on the detail. In general not just this Act but lots of others, some of which may appear on the surface to be highly technical, do require a great deal of liaison with the Assembly both at official and sometimes at ministerial level. The big beasts, as it were, last year in the legislative programme covered education and health. There were two bills on health, one on education but there were others which I outlined to you as well like homelessness and travel concessions and adoption of children, all of which will require liaison between departments. Now where sometimes we find there is need for me to intervene is sometimes where there may be disagreements where I need to talk to a minister either in the Assembly or in Whitehall to overcome these problems.
(Mr Murphy) Yes, which NHS Bill?
(Mr Murphy) Legislation as you will discover when you go through your inquiry, and are already discovering, legislation for Wales comes in two or three different forms. It can come sometimes in the secondary legislation which myself and my colleagues will put through the House in the usual way or it can come through parts of England and Wales Bills or in Wales ordinary legislation. To give you an example, the Children's Commissioner for Wales was originally established with a Care Standards Act which was an England and Wales Bill but the Children's Commissioner Act as it became, specifically the Welsh one, extended the powers and functions and responsibilities of the Children's Commissioner. Now the reason why it came through on the first was clearly that we wanted as a result of the Waterhouse Report a swift decision in terms of getting legislation to appoint the Children's Commissioner. That was the key recommendation of the Waterhouse Report. There was a vehicle going through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the Care Standards Act, however there are sometimes occasions when a Bill is very big, such as the NHS Reform of Health Care Professionals Act, which was a very big Bill, and we wanted also there to review powers to restructure the health service in Wales. It was an opportunity that was presented to us. At the same time the devolution settlement of course requests that I ask the Assembly for its own bids for Wales only legislation. The National Health Service Wales Bill was a result of a direct inquiry by me to the Assembly and a request from the Assembly to me that they wanted their own piece of legislation on the National Health Service Bill. The other thing, of course, which I think made the second Bill quite rightly separate is that it gave us that unique opportunity which I have referred to of having this very special scrutiny and consultation surrounding a Bill which I am not sure could have happened in quite the same way on an England and Wales Bill in the way that it did. I think as we develop we may well find ourselves having similar sorts of scrutiny on the Welsh clauses of an England and Wales Bill but here was an opportunity given to us by the Assembly, which they requested - they requested this Bill - and the Government and Parliament agreed to that request and we have that draft Bill.
(Mr Murphy) My role is I suppose both. I have to ensure that there are good relations between the National Assembly and this Parliament and Government. As I said earlier this remarkable historic period we have just gone through and the way Wales has been governed in the last two or three years and in the years ahead is a very important role for me. At the end of the day I am not the Assembly's spokesperson, that is not my job. The people who speak for the Assembly is Rhodri Morgan and his ministers. Obviously I talk to Rhodri Morgan almost every day of a working week. Most of the time, nearly all of the time, we will agree on different things. When I took this job up in 1999 one of the first things I said was there will be occasions when the view of the Government and the view of the Assembly may well differ even though in this case it is the same party because that is the nature of institutions; they can but they are very rare. If I just give an example. One example, topically, was on fox hunting where the Assembly by vote decided that they would like the Assembly to have powers regarding fox hunting. That was not a view that the Government had, the Government believed that because this was essentially a criminal justice matter it should be a matter for England and Wales and on that occasion, I know, I did not agree with what the Assembly was saying because my Government, of which I am a collective part and have direct responsibility, said otherwise. That is very, very rare. On most of the occasions we will arrive at a consensus. I am not the spokesperson to the Assembly, that is the First Minister and the ministers, that is their job, but obviously I have to look after the interests of Wales which more often than not include the Assembly and the people of Wales as far as my judgment allows.
(Mr Murphy) The actual way in which it is monitored is either personally through membership of committees, the relevant Cabinet committees, so either myself or the parliamentary under-secretary. We are members between us of about 22 Cabinet committees and ministerial committees. The chances are that there is hardly a subject which will be considered by the Government in terms of legislation which go before a Committee where either myself or a deputy in the department is not a member of that Committee. So that is the first way in which it is done. The second one is through the very elaborate system of inter-departmental correspondence where we may go through 300 inter-departmental letters per week which will cross our desks on policy development and also on the impact of any policy developments on Wales both from Government departments and from the Assembly. So that is the mechanism by which we do it. Basically it is watching out all the time for the impact of any legislation upon the Welsh people. As you rightly say that can be criminal justice bills. Some other examples that we have had in the period covered by the report: the European Parliamentary Elections, the Land Registration Act, Sex Discrimination Election Candidates Act, Police Reform Act, the Proceeds of Crime Act, the Draft Communications Bill. There are lots of them, all of which have different impacts upon the Welsh people. So far as the Assembly is concerned of course even if they have not got a direct responsibility for an issue there will be related responsibilities. So, for example, in any Bill which the Home Office proposes to deal with crime or drugs or the proceeds of crime, even though police is a reserve matter and so is criminal justice because the Assembly deals with crime prevention, for example, and rehabilitation through the health service, there is a close working relationship between myself, my office and the relevant ministers, in this case it would be Jane Hutt and with the Home Office it would be David Blunkett and his ministers too. So there are lots of other bills which would not on the surface be specifically referred to as a Welsh Bill or an England and Wales Bill but are Bills which of course affect the three million people who live in Wales and for which all of us collectively, including yourselves on the Select Committee, have responsibility.
(Mr Murphy) If I can say that it is actually both because if you are on a standing committee you are representing your constituency because you are a member for wherever it is. Inevitably you will be representing your part of the world because if you come from the North East of England and you are sitting on a standing committee then inevitably your experiences in your own constituency and your own area will have an impact upon your thinking. Most importantly I think a Welsh Member of Parliament is a United Kingdom Member of Parliament and has every right to sit on any committees, it seems to me, that the House of Commons chooses to set up. We cannot split ourselves up and imagine us to be something else. We are elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that is our Parliament and we are members of it. I do believe, as it so happens, that in practical terms it is very useful to have a Welsh voice on as many standing committees as is possible because a Welsh voice post devolution working through a Welsh Member of Parliament is, I think, always useful. Now, of course, it is particularly useful on bills which have an England and Wales impact and without specific Welsh clauses. There are lots of bills but I think on the other bills too the experiences which we as Welsh MPs can bring to a committee can be nothing other than valuable and important.
(Mr Murphy) I think that we have done a reasonable job at that. Obviously we can always do with more. I think that the combination of ourselves doing what we have to do, working in conjunction with the Assembly, because the Assembly too, of course, monitors legislation as it affects not just its own specific responsibilities but where there are side effects, and I have just described to you crime for example, crime issues, there the Assembly will take a great interest in what goes through, working together. Although sometimes, as we will doubtless talk about later, there have been strains upon the staff because of the way in which the work pans out. For example, if you get a large number of clauses or, indeed, complete Welsh bills, something which will happen at the same time, and sometimes that does happen, in the parliamentary year you will find that there may be two or three or even four bills affecting Wales happening at the same time, that is common, and then you add that to Welsh questions and everything else that is happening, that of course means inevitably with a limited number of staff that we will not be doing as much as we would like to if we did not have those strains upon us. Clearly it is better if we can avoid those strains by having people who work specifically on particular issues.
(Mr Murphy) I hope you do. At the end of the day any organisation or government department has to look at priorities within the timescale. The way as all of us know this place works that can sometimes be very difficult.
(Mr Murphy) It is a role with which you will be not unacquainted from another life but also, of course, in your particular case because you represent one of the biggest steel making constituencies in the United Kingdom, you will understand, as indeed all Members of the Committee will understand, the significance of the steel industry upon Wales, not least my own constituency as it happens. During the run up to the decisions made by Corus regarding the run down of staff in Llanwern and Ebbw Vale and indeed Shotton and Pontardulais, there were constant meetings held in my office between Corus, including Sir Brian Moffatt, on more than one occasion, and between the ISDC and myself, between myself and the ministers in those days, Stephen Byers, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alistair Darling who was then Secretary of State for Works and Pensions over the Government package. I think between us we were able to ensure the needs of the redundant Welsh steel workers were taken into account in the Government's response. Also I held with the management frequent meetings with the First Minister in order to co-ordinate the Government and the Assembly's packages of support. One example of that is on the introduction by the Government of the ISERBS, European scheme, which is about £2,500 paid to each redundant workers and a series of measures through the Employment Service to help match workers to new jobs. That included providing funding for the Job Transition Service, which extended to all sites affected by Corus, and establishing one stop shops on site. I continue to keep abreast of those developments. I regularly speak, only a couple of weeks ago, for example, to the General Secretary of the ISTC and others and of course with the Assembly, with the First Minister and the Economic Development Minister, to regenerate those former steel making areas, some of which of course are in my own county. I think too that the liaison between Government through the DTI, DWP and the Assembly on the other hand is helped by my office and we saw that happening in practical terms during the announcement of those redundancies in Wales. They had a devastating impact upon Welsh communities and Welsh workers but at the end of the day we had to ensure that we looked after, first of all, the people who were affected by the redundancies through the various packages we could offer and, secondly, through the communities which were affected by the redundancies through the regeneration schemes. It was, I believe, a classic example of a good working relationship between the Government on the one hand and the Assembly on the other in trying to do our joint best for the people who have been so badly affected and for those areas, including my own, which have been affected by those redundancies.
(Mr Murphy) Yes, I would, because at all levels, including meetings with the Prime Minister on the issue, I was involved personally in those discussions and in all the negotiations which went on and also, of course, in co-ordination, if you like to say, between Government but also between Government and the Assembly.
(Mr Murphy) The first thing it has done, of course, is to continue to give special status to that area in terms of being an enterprise zone and that in turn gives certain opportunities to people who wish to look for jobs in a way which is different from other parts of the country. In addition to that, of course, we work very much in co-operation between government departments and the Assembly, for example on the creation of a railway line which has now been rebuilt between Ebbw Vale and Newport and Cardiff because that, we believe, is going to be so important to the economic regeneration of an area with which I am hugely familiar since I have worked for 17 years of my life in that town in the further education college there. Incidentally, we also of course work with the Prince of Wales who went there last year, to my old college, where he brought together the local authority, trade unions, the steel industry and other developers to try and work out through his own Prince's Trust and other initiatives how best to deal with the problems facing Ebbw Vale. I went back to Blaenau Gwent only a fortnight ago when I met with the Assembly member and the local authority leaders there and I believe that the co-operation between the Council, the Assembly and the Government coming to terms with what was an enormous blow to that community has been tremendous.
(Mr Murphy) That is the key to it, I think, that you have to manage a changing economy, and that is the economy that your Dad and my Dad knew all those years ago, the one which is entirely in South Wales at least, but also to a certain extent in North and East Wales as well, based upon coal and upon steel. That has gone in terms of the diversification of industry changing to heavy engineering, for example, and in a way that is changing too. In my own constituency I see this enormous shift from a coal and steel constituency to one involved in making brakes, for example, to one now which is involved in high-tech and different types of new technology and new industry. The bottom line I suppose is that I have got 3.6 per cent unemployment in my constituency. That is replicated throughout the whole of Wales constituency by constituency. The change which needs to be managed is going to be very painful for individuals and I think that the experiences that we have gathered over the last 18 months, two years, regarding Corus showed us that now we have got a model, a Team Wales if you like, in which we can bring people together in the event of any difficulties like we have just faced. We can bring together the Jobcentre Plus, ELWA, WDA, Careers ales, the Rapid Response Service, all of these people coming together to deal with specific problems affecting the areas which have been affected in the way that we have just described. I think the long term key to all this - and I am sure everybody in the Committee will agree - is that you have a much more diverse economy than we had in the past, that you rely much more heavily on small and medium sized businesses than on great big ones, because if they go, as in Ebbw Vale's case, - when I started work in Ebbw Vale in the early seventies 10,000 people were employed in the same steelworks. When they closed it this year a thousand people were made redundant, a lot of people, but not compared with what it had been, 10,000 people and before that more than that - the impact upon a single community of something like that happening (and North Wales members here will remember Shotton as a classic example and the impact that had on the community) is that you have to diversity into smaller and medium sized concerns so that you cushion any blows on communities.
(Mr Murphy) The establishment of a Wales and Border franchise is first of all a priority for the Assembly and one which has my full support and sympathy as the Secretary of State for Wales. My role in all this has been the key to the proposal at the forefront of consideration by the Strategic Rail Authority and my ministerial colleagues as well as ensuring that policy developments take account of the particular transportation needs of Wales. I think that the old DETR and now the Department of Transport are acutely aware of the specific problems and needs of Wales. That is why the Wales and Border franchise is well advanced. It will be possible for the SRA to announce the successful bidder of that franchise in spring 2003 with the successful candidate becoming operational in the autumn. There are four short-listed companies who have stated that they will make their best tenders by January 2003. Of course infrastructure is important in terms of the rail structure of Wales but this is also hugely important in terms of ensuring that we can get a decent railway service in Wales and we work closely with Sue Essex, who is Development Minister in the Assembly, - a good minister, I might add, - with the Department of Transport and before that with the DETR.
(Mr Murphy) Yes. We have been very much involved over the last number of months in discussing this issue with them, including by way of meetings. They I know are looking at their own responsibilities with regard to rail and they have not finalised the proposals yet but obviously when they do my colleagues and I will look at them very carefully. Until we have the Assembly's considered proposals on their responsibilities within their transport policy it would probably be premature for me to speculate on that, so we await that. They do take integrated transport very seriously in the Assembly, as all of us who live and work and represent Wales do, because of the nature of our country. That is why there has been a full involvement by the Assembly. They are looking at the future as well and we await their response.
(Mr Murphy) There are differences between Scotland and Wales, which was evidenced by the way this was all structured in the first place, but I really would not want to get into any detail on that until I have seen the proposals which the Assembly put forward. As I say, it would be wrong for me to pre-judge that or be premature in what I say whilst they are considering it.
(Mr Murphy) I believe these views are held by some members of the Assembly. There is a Welsh person who is on the SRA. The Scottish comparison is not quite straightforward. They have got a lot more internal routes than we have in Wales. As I say, let us await the proposal.
(Mr Murphy) First of all, as the member of the relevant Cabinet committees on these issues, it is important for me to be able to put the specific problems of Wales in the context of the relevant Cabinet Committee. Because of that I then wanted to see what those problems were and so I held a number of meetings with a number of key stakeholders. That is what they call them these days, stakeholders. They include the representatives of the Communication Workers Union, the General Secretary in fact, Postcomm, Postwatch Wales, Consignia, Cabinet colleagues and the First Minister, and of course a number of Members of Parliament, including the Member for Aberavon, Dr Francis, so that I could gauge what the feelings were of all those people in terms of where they felt the changes needed to be dealt with in the Post Office network. As you know, a formal requirement has been placed on the Post Office by the Government to maintain the rural network and to prevent avoidable closures. At Cabinet committee meetings I have raised the uniqueness of the rural network in Wales, which is the hub of rural communities, and the importance of maintaining it. What I have also done though is explain to my colleagues that we have in Wales probably a unique situation in the valleys of South Wales which could be regarded as being both urban and rural, in other words urban villages. The nearest equivalent I guess would be perhaps the pit villages of the north east of England. We do have a situation in large parts of Wales which you could not really call rural but which are not quite big towns either where the Post Office plays an extremely important role. Each of us who represent valley constituencies would be able to give dozens of examples of that. We must not forget either that the cities and the large towns have their own individual problems with regard to post offices, but the ones that particularly come to mind are the rural communities and the Welsh and urban villages, in particular those in the South Wales valleys. My job is to be able to ensure that in the decisions that Government makes regarding post offices they look at those particular features of Wales. You will be aware that the Government is fully committed to modernising the Post Office network. We have made the largest ever investment in the Post Office, £500 million on ACT automation, and in 2003 universal banking services are being implemented, with more to follow. The main high street banks and the Nationwide Building Society have agreed to provide access to their basic bank accounts as part of the universal banking services. In addition to that the National Assembly itself is involved in these issues because they have certain responsibilities too in ensuring that communities survive in the rural areas and also that those people who are most vulnerable in our rural but also in urban villages and elsewhere, and perhaps in our inner cities too, are looked after as best they can be. In summary I have held many meetings over many hours on the question of post offices.
(Mr Murphy) The point I was trying to make was this. I cannot save every single post office in Wales; no-one can say that, because post offices come and go anyway for all sorts of reasons. The issue in a more general sense is the recognition of the post office as being so important to the life of a community. I was not brought up in a rural area but I was brought up in an urban village and I knew how important that was, particularly in those areas where that is accompanied by a considerable number of examples of deprivation. In those places you have to look at whether there is a large number of old people, people who are disabled, people who cannot travel and so on. Those things have to be taken into account. What I am saying is that the Assembly and the Government together are looking very closely at those issues from a specific Welsh point of view where there are differences between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom in the nature of our topography and the economic well-being of Wales.
(Mr Murphy) That is a very imaginative idea. We do have to look at different ideas like that. I think that the isolation of some of our Welsh rural communities is probably greater than it is in England. The distances that people have to travel are probably greater. I have often thought that we under-use our schools, for example, in our villages and in urban villages as well, and that they ought to become in many ways the centre of village life in a way that they have not been in the past. Many decent village schools have perhaps been under-used. You may rest assured that that point will be put across to my colleagues.
(Mr Murphy) We have had a look at different examples of how that can happen. Of course, you always have to match the overall cost against the usage of those particular services. I think that the Post Office itself in a local, sometimes remote, isolated community plays a much wider role than simply dealing with stamps and all the rest of it. It deals with contact, particularly for the elderly community of that village. It goes beyond those particular issues. There is a recognition of that. I think the universal backing idea goes very much towards that too. I think too that the Assembly probably will have a role to play in the sense that it is responsible, for example, for local government which affects the lives of so many people and how that then relates into government services and so on.
(Mr Murphy) The Government position has not changed since we responded to that recommendation. We agree with the Committee that it is important to recognise that Objective 1 status does not automatically entitle the Government or the Assembly to introduce state aids in West Wales and the Valleys. If I remember rightly, the committee asked me a question on this in Cardiff some months ago, Chairman, when you were chairing with one arm in a sling, and we looked at the different measures which will benefit Wales, such as extending the stamp duty exemption to cover all non-domestic transfers in disadvantaged areas, the Community investment tax credit, the research and development tax credit, and of course, interestingly and topically, the Chancellor announced it in a northern seaside town recently the enterprise communities, which I shall be discussing with the Chancellor over the next few weeks and how they affect Wales, because doubtless enterprise communities will have an impact upon Wales and those communities which need a boost in terms of ensuring that they get more enterprise, more entrepreneurs, and that in a way, like the stamp duty exemption, will cover lots of wards in Wales which previously were not covered by these things.
(Mr Murphy) They have requested the general issue, as you know, because we pointed it out to you before, and it is linked into Objective 1. At the moment the Assembly is considering a request in a letter which I have sent to them as to what they would like to see the Chancellor introduce in the course of his review, which is normal practice, so I am awaiting further information from the Assembly as to what they would want. My guess is that they would be likely to repeat their request but we must await the formal letter.
(Mr Murphy) On the first point, I hope I have not been wasting my time over the last hour in saying to you what I do. From time to time I get journalists, occasionally work experience people, coming to my office to see what I do. Perhaps you should come and do the same one day, but that is another issue.
(Mr Murphy) On the JMC, some are publicised and some are not. The idea of a Joint Ministerial Committee is sometimes to bring ministers together to discuss matters of huge importance which are dealt with in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by devolved governments and by the United Kingdom Government for England. For example, on 22 October the period covered by this report, the JMC met on health, on 8 November on Europe, and on 7 March on Europe. Since the report was published we have had a further one on Europe, another one on equality and there will be a general one not too long away to look at the whole question of what is happening on the devolution scene. There are others too. When those meet, incidentally, joint communiqués are issued to the press and to the public as to who was there and what we discussed and what the issues were that were so important that we had to deal with. Then there are others which meet in confidence. Sometimes it is important that they do that because occasionally we have to meet to discuss issues which may be highly sensitive and those generally are dealt with but which it is better from the point of view of the members of the committee to deal with them in that way. Incidentally, that excludes all the bilateral meetings that are held, which of course are not necessarily called Joint Ministerial Committees but there are lots of bilateral meetings which are held. For example, I meet bilaterally and my deputy meets bilaterally with Assembly ministers literally every week to discuss various issues. You could say that they are Joint Ministerial committees; we are both ministers and we meet jointly as a committee, but it is not classified formally as the others are. Secondly, the devolved administrations also of course meet between themselves, which is something that we wanted them to do. I know, for instance, that the Health Ministers meet from time to time with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In addition to that the devolved administrations meet with other ministers under the aegis of the British-Irish council and the Good Friday Agreement, and they have been meeting on a number of occasions in that guise. Similarly, I know that all the agriculture ministers meet quite regularly from the devolved administrations but it probably would not be classified technically as a Joint Ministerial Committee although that is what it is. As well as the formal JMCs meeting therefore there are informal bilateral meetings.
(Mr Murphy) The first one of course is the Comprehensive Spending Review. That takes place, as you know, not just at the actual timing of the spending review; it does not happen in July every couple of years. It does not work like that. What happens is that the discussions, the negotiations, that lead up to the Comprehensive Spending Review are very intense, very detailed, and it is in that role that the first and perhaps most important part of my role of finance is concerned. In the second Comprehensive Spending Review what was particularly significant for us in Wales was the exemption which was given to Objective 1 structural funds to be over and above the Barnett formula. It was the first time it happened where we decided as a Government that it was such an important issue for Wales that, contrary to what had happened for 20 years, those structural funds would be over and above the money that would go into Wales for its everyday use. That is probably the classic example of how we dealt with the issues of negotiating the block grant and there are others, but that is probably the one that is most well known. The second one is that between Comprehensive Spending Reviews there are often calls on the reserve and I want to give you an example of that. It is then for me to keep a very close watch upon calls upon the reserve from England to ensure that we in Wales will get our consequential and fair share of what is happening. We did it, for example, on flooding a year or so ago. The formula does not automatically operate in these circumstances and a case has to be made. That case has to be made by me working with the Assembly. For example, when credit approvals were provided to support local public service agreements with English local authorities, my Office intervened to ensure that we had equivalent funding in Wales. There are also other examples which I could give you in writing. That is the second part of my role. The third of course is as a member of the Government, a member of the Cabinet, in ensuring what our Government's priorities are in the first place. From our Office in Wales and the Assembly the emphasis, for example, on health and on education, which has been an area on which the Government puts priority, I know is also our priority in Wales. If more is to be spent in England on health and education I obviously welcome that because I know too that we have the same priorities and consequentially we will have more money for the National Assembly as we have done historically. Those are the three main areas.
(Mr Murphy) The answer is yes, of course. Although the Barnett Formula is formulaic, had the formula been used under Objective 1 then there would not have been extra money from Objective 1.
(Mr Murphy) I always encourage representatives of Welsh constituencies to influence me on a variety of things.
(Mr Murphy) The consultation period ended on 11 October and we are now in the process of carefully considering the responses we have received. We will then submit a final draft approval by the Welsh Language Board, hopefully this side of Christmas. We want to consider the consultation process. It is not easy to say how long it will take to consider all those comments, it depends on the detail involved, but I want to get it as quickly as possible. Of course, representatives of Welsh constituencies also have a copy of that draft report.
(Mr Murphy) We have to be fair to the people who were consulted in that we have to give proper weight to the points that they have put, but as quickly as possible and I would hope before Christmas.
(Mr Murphy) I will make sure it is as quick as I can. If I know it is going to be too slow you will be asking me questions about the same thing before very long, so I take your point.
(Mr Murphy) Because we are based in London as much as we are based in Cardiff, we have difficulty sometimes in taking translation because the Assembly itself has the first call upon its own translators, although they are very helpful to us, to be fair to them. Sometimes we have to go out and get translators in. I think there will always be examples where we can improve but I think we have done very well as you rightly read out in 5.5 there.
(Ms Jackson) I think that that sentence is an acknowledgement that we are not perfect. There will be occasions when one of the few Welsh speakers in the London Office is out at meetings or not around and we will not be able to put a telephone call through to them. There are occasions when timetables of publication documents which ought to be bilingual slip and the Welsh language version comes out after the English language version. We do not claim that we succeed 100 per cent in everything that we do but we will continue to make an effort to reach 100 per cent. I do not think that there is any particular reason to change the policy. The implementation of the policy sometimes through force majeure does not happen as we would wish it to.
(Ms Jackson) We are still going first of all to the Assembly's translation service but we now have back-up in that we are in touch with Welsh language translators in London who will do the work if the Assembly is unable to do it for us. The Assembly, as the Secretary of State said, are indeed very helpful but the pressures on them are getting very tough and so we are doing more with external translators.
(Mr Murphy) As you know, the White Paper now forms the Nationality and Immigration Bill and as such is in its final stages with the Lords Report Stage which commenced I think on 9 October. Since the publication of the Departmental Report the reference to any specific language in the White Paper has been removed. In order to gain British nationality knowledge of a language for the purpose of naturalisation is required. This language is in the majority of cases English but knowledge of Welsh or, for that matter, Gaelic, is permissible. The final draft of the Nationality and Immigration Bill does not specify either the English or the Welsh language. For all public sector purposes in Wales the Welsh language enjoys statutory equal status with English. Although I would expect to see few, if any, applicants for British nationality claiming to qualify through the knowledge of Welsh rather than English, we needed to ensure this was an option because of the status of Welsh. We are keen to ensure that wherever a migrant lives in the United Kingdom he or she will have access to language tuition of a uniform standard which meets the aim of providing awareness of what it means to be an active citizen. In some parts of Wales the ability to have knowledge of the Welsh language is of course very important. The Bill is now more flexible and allows immigrants to qualify for naturalisation via an appropriate language because that was a hugely important thing to be able to put through in the legislation so that the status of Welsh is recognised, even though not many people take it up in the nature of this Bill, and also the importance within education. That was the purpose.
(Mr Murphy) Yes.
(Mr Murphy) Yes, I think it is. I believe it to be absolutely the case that because it was in the White Paper the Bill is predicated on the basis of Welsh and English having that core status.
(Mr Murphy) As you know, I have no executive functions with regard to broadband related issues in Wales. That is the responsibility of the Assembly and the DTI. As a member of the Cabinet I am consulted on proposed Government policies which may impact on the rollout of broadband facilities to areas of Wales where there is currently insufficient access to those facilities, for example, policies which affect the regulatory and pricing framework for broadband provision ro financial or fiscal incentives for investment. Broadband is crucial, as I know you believe, to the success of our economy in Wales and public services as well as raising people's skills and knowledge. I think it is so very important for those areas in rural Wales but also those areas which have been affected, for example, the ones we have just described in terms of lost jobs, where broadband, the new technology, I believe can mean more jobs to people in Wales as well as greater interest. My officials are in constant contact with Assembly officials to ensure that I can give informed consideration to any proposed initiatives which this Government puts forward. DTI officials also maintain very close and regular contact with Assembly officials and I make sure that those are smooth relationships. All of us welcomed Andrew Davies's announcement of £100 million investment which will bring this latest technology to 310,000 extra homes and 67,000 extra businesses. Lastly, Don Touhig visited the Radiocommunications Agency in Cardiff to be briefed on the role of the agency and future developments, so there is very keen interest, making sure that lines of communication are open between the Assembly and the DTI and the Government are fully supported.
(Mr Murphy) No. Alison will explain that one because she is the Champion.
(Ms Jackson) As far as the e-Champion in the Wales Office is concerned, I think that my two main concerns are that the public should be able to deal with us electronically if they wish and that is certainly possible. As you know, we do not deliver services to the public but any communication that we have with the public can be done electronically just in the same way that it can be done by letter or by telephone and we have targets for responding to people's e-mails which we mostly meet. There are one or two that slip but in general we meet those targets. As far as internal procedures are concerned, I am anxious particularly with our two sites in London and in Cardiff that we should do as much business as possible electronically, so, for example, we have a document management system where the 250-300 letters a week that the Secretary of State was speaking about are scanned on the day they arrive on to our document management system so that they are instantly accessible to the people who have to brief on them in Cardiff as well as in London, and they are available to anybody who needs to consider them. We also, in formulating advice for the Secretary of State, extensively use electronic systems so that we can make amendments to each other's documents and make sure that we get the right thing. We are also logged on to the Government knowledge network so that we have access to all the briefing information that is on that. As far as the more general work of e-Champions in Government is concerned and in developing the policy, we do not procure our own IT. That is partly because we are too small but also because it makes good business sense for us to be connected to the Assembly's system, again to have access to all the information that is available from the Assembly. As far as that is concerned I certainly see the papers that go round to the e-Champions but the work of integrating the Assembly and therefore the Wales Office system into the Government's e-policy is done by the Assembly e-Champion. I do get consulted on various policy developments. For example, I had some input into the Merlin project which is the re-tendering of the Assembly IT to make sure that the specification meets our needs as well as everyone else's.
(Ms Jackson) As far as correspondence replied to by e-mail is concerned, that has not been part of our record, as it, John?
(Mr Kilner) No.
(Ms Jackson) We have met the targets on that one. As far as correspondence generally is concerned, at the moment over the last three months we have achieved 100 per cent. We have by various means brought ourselves up to what we ought to be doing.
(Mr Murphy) Not bad, is it? It was 50 per cent in the last Departmental Report, now up to 80 and we hope for 100 per cent.
(Mr Murphy) If we had we would not tell you.
(Ms Jackson) Everybody occasionally clicks on the wrong name in an address book but the Assembly global address book now has separated out the Welsh Assembly Government, us, the Presiding Officer and Members so it is quite difficult for e-mails to go seriously astray.
(Mr Murphy) Stick to letters.
(Ms Jackson) It happened to us quite seriously in our first year but since then people have been extremely careful.
(Mr Murphy) Stick to letters and telephone calls.
(Ms Jackson) No. The e-Champions within departments are senior members of staff whose responsibility is to ensure that the department operates electronically within the Government guidelines and continues to make progress towards that. My responsibility is making sure that the Wales Office has that general policy. When it comes to the detail and the technicalities we rely, as I say, on the IT provisions in the Assembly under our service level agreement and it is they who get specific training.
(Ms Jackson) Again, in the same way as letters are copied to people before they are sent for them to be checked, e-mails, if they are responding to members of the public, are not sent until they have been checked by somebody. Internal e-mails are never sent to just one person. There is always somebody else copied on the copy list who will read the e-mail and check it as it goes.
(Ms Jackson) As far as letters which go out to members of the public are concerned, and if Members of Parliament wish to communicate with us by e-mail, those e-mails will be accurate; they will be checked carefully. The e-mails that go between members of staff, by the time anything is issued that will go to ministers or go out in public, accuracy will have been guaranteed.
(Ms Jackson) I think that most departments have an e-mail policy which would ensure that anything that goes outside the department is accurate.
(Mr Murphy) As you know, Chairman, the independent review which I announced to the House last year and to this Committee to look at the staffing arrangements of the Department recommended between nine and 13. I came to the conclusion, as we were up to cover on numbers in the office, that seven would do the work that would be required to ensure that we had a smooth operation. Most of those people will be dealing with the parliamentary committee and other work. One of them will strengthen office management and therefore enable other staff better to do their own jobs. I think it will be sufficient; I hope it will. As I said earlier on, the nature of this Office, like the nature of all the territorial departments, to say the least in Northern Ireland, is that we see a changing world. We do not know from year to year exactly how many bills we are going to have to deal with until the Queen's Speech is finally announced; we do not know what crises will emerge, for example, when we had the problem with Corus which Dr Francis referred to earlier, but we hope that this will do the trick and that the advice that ministers get, and indeed the advice that Members of Parliament get, from the Office will be the best they can possibly have.
(Mr Murphy) None.
(Mr Murphy) We have never been at complement in the three years we have been in existence and I would like to see first of all what the situation would be if we were at complement and with the seven extra, and then obviously I will come back to this Committee and explain the situation to you when I see how we go. I just think it is sensible at this stage to see whether going a good way towards the nine that they were asking for is sufficient and then, if we feel we still have a difficulty, obviously it is an issue. I just think that at the moment we should have a very careful look at the structures within the Department and I have spent many hours with Alison and with her colleagues on this to make sure we get this right. We came to the conclusion that we think we can get it right by employing the seven but clearly time will tell. As I said earlier to Ms Morgan, the situation changes from time to time, does it not, in terms of what faces us as departments and we just have to take it as it goes.
(Mr Murphy) It is worth examining but we would have to balance it out with the cost of employing somebody full time compared with the costs that we now incur with regard to translation and weigh that up.
(Ms Jackson) I do not think we have enough work for a full time translator, Mrs Williams. We get very few letters from the public in Welsh. The main document we translate is our Departmental Report and although there is the website we do not put enough on that for there to be enough work for a full time translator.
(Mr Murphy) In other words with the cost element we would probably still be better off at the moment by going out to get things translated for us.
(Mr Murphy) That is an alternative.
(Mr Murphy) I would not disagree with anything you have said. First of all, it certainly is not the case that anybody who is disabled we say should go to Cardiff. That is not the case at all. The reality is that most of my meetings regarding representation from people in Wales are actually held in Cardiff as it happens because if I meet Welsh organisations and Welsh groups then clearly it is going to be easier for them to meet me in Wales than it is up here. That does not mean to say that we do not need similar access in Gwydyr House. What have we done since we met last? We have had a lot of help from Dr Kevin Fitzpatrick who visited Gwydyr House and although he is not an access expert he gave us a lot of important advice on how to tackle those issues. Dr Francis knows how significant a person he is in Wales on disabled issues. Secondly, we had a look at how best we could alter the front of the building, which is the proper way into the building. Wheelchair users could independently arrive at the same door as is used by able-bodied visitors and staff. I am pleased to say that from our most recent meetings with English Heritage, which is the problem, of course, because it is a Grade II listed building and you cannot easily alter what is a very difficult and rather small entrance, the result is the possibility, if you have seen the building works associated with the Ministry of Defence and the car park outside of it, of using that side, but we would prefer the front. It would be possible to do that. In the meantime we still accept that until that decision is taken we have a responsibility to wheelchair users, and so we have made available something called a Stairmate which we purchased as an interim measure, which is a wheelchair, and we have trained four of our staff to use it. It cost us just over £4,000. The Committee will be able to look at that afterwards. This is a specially devised wheelchair which is used in circumstances like this where access is very difficult. We do not see this as a permanent solution to the issue but one that we can look at in the interim. We have done that; we have got four people who can use the chair who have actually used it; disabled people have used this. We are now going to go on further with our discussions with English Heritage. You should also bear in mind of course that wheelchair access is important but it is not the only aspect of the services for the disabled. We are looking at ways in which we can make it easier for visually impaired people to come in to the building. We cannot paint the steps white because of the nature of the building but we can have white strips put on them so that, for example, it is easier for visually impaired people to come in. We are also conscious of those who cannot hear properly. We are looking at all the different areas and think there has been considerable progress since last year, but it is not finished yet. However, it is delicate because of the nature of the building.
(Ms Jackson) One of the problems we have as well as the English Heritage issue is that the platform in front of the door, which probably Members do know, is not wide enough for it to be safe for somebody to come out of the lift which raises you to that level to go on into the building, in that there are an extra two steps into the building and if you were to bring those two steps out forward then the platform is not wide enough for there to be safe egress from the lift, so there are practical problems as well as heritage problems.
(Mr Murphy) Yes.
(Ms Jackson) When we wrote the report we were at a difficult stage in our negotiations with Westminister City Council and English Heritage so it reflected our pessimism which has turned to optimism since.
(Mr Murphy) Yes, I think it could be interpreted the wrong way but I think Alison made it clear that there had been considerable development since that was written by way of optimism in terms of being able to have proper access for wheelchairs. The point now is of course that you could visit us in a wheelchair. We do have facilities which would allow you so to do. Had it been an ordinary office it would be very straightforward, but it is not. The point is, as Ms Morgan said, that we very much getting there now, but I do accept the point about the wheelchair. It was dated at that time because we had not got good news but now things are much better.
(Ms Jackson) No.
(Mr Murphy) Not only have I visited it; I opened it. I do take the point that perhaps Alison or John or whoever might be appropriate could spend a useful afternoon down there having a look at the facilities they have to offer.
Chairman: Those are all our questions, Secretary of State. It has been a very useful session. I know that Mr Wiggin is looking forward to shadowing you in future and I think it is a very interesting precedent. Thank you very much indeed.