Legislative Programme

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Kevin Brennan: I apologise for being late; we were speaking of fiddling while things are burning—and I was caught up in the House of Lords fire drill.

My constituents will welcome my hon. Friend's announcement. Does he agree that the Government are determined actively to create a culture of work in Wales, which contrasts with previous Administrations, who regarded unemployment as a price worth paying for economic stability? Does he agree that this Government's approach is much better?

Mr. Touhig: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and can tell him that 1,210 young people have joined the new deal in his constituency and 364 are now in unsubsidised jobs. As a result of our initiatives 36,000 young people in Wales have joined the new deal. Since its introduction there has been a 65 per cent. drop in unemployment among 18 to 24-year-olds. We can be proud of that record, unlike the Opposition, which never supported the new deal in the first place.

Police Recruitment

4. Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department about police recruitment in Wales. [2231]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend regularly meets the Home Secretary to discuss a wide range of issues, including the recruitment of police officers in Wales. As I told the House last week, he also met the four Welsh chief constables at the beginning of the year. They were generally content with recruitment in their force areas.

Mr. Jones: I am grateful for that answer. When there is enough money to recruit policemen, we need to ensure that they are of the right quality. We want the police back on the streets preventing crime. I am pleased that the North Wales police authority has decided to put the 66 officers recruited last year and the 33 to be recruited this year out on the streets. My constituents will welcome that.

Mr. Touhig: Indeed. Police numbers in Wales now stand at record levels. In March 1997 we had 6,592 police officers, and we now have 6,873—281 more. The North Wales police authority has 1,444 police officers, and it is participating in a national recruitment campaign that seeks to raise the profile and value of the police service in terms of their status and professionalism. I am sure that we shall get a good response. The authority will also recruit more officers under the crime fighting fund, which will bring in extra money next year.

Small Businesses

5. Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and with the First Secretary of the National Assembly about the survival rates of small businesses in Wales. [2232]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I regularly meet ministerial colleagues, including the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. As my hon. Friend knows, I also regularly meet the First Secretary and discuss a wide range of issues. It is worth noting that for companies registered in 1995, Wales has the second highest business survival rates in the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Lawrence: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware that the Competition Commission is due to report in October this year about banking provision for businesses. That follows its interim finding concerning complex monopolies within the banking sector in the UK. In view of the Wales Federation of Small Businesses report, ``Barriers to Growth and Survival'', which highlights the problems, will my right hon. Friend discuss with his Department of Trade and Industry colleagues the need to act on any recommendations as soon as possible after publication, in order to protect small businesses in Wales?

Mr. Murphy: Yes.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): Can the Secretary of State tell us how many rural post offices—the most essential small businesses—closed in Wales last year, and how many are expected to close this year?

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): And how many closed under the Tories?

Mr. Murphy: I will give the hon. Gentleman the precise figures when we have examined the details. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) has rightly suggested that Governments have had to contend with such closures for many years. However, the proposals that the Government made in the last Parliament regarding the survival of rural post offices are very positive, particularly the way in which we are ensuring that new technology is brought into our rural post offices to provide people with banking facilities.

Alan Howarth (Newport, East): Has my right hon. Friend considered the implications and knock-on effects of the discontinuation of steelmaking by Corus at Llanwern on small businesses in the area? The effects could be grave for suppliers and small contractors, and also for local businesses that depend for their livelihoods on consumer spending power, which will be greatly reduced. Therefore, in his discussions with his colleagues, will he take the greatest care to ensure that all the relevant agencies are suitably vigilant concerning the needs of the small businesses that will be affected?

Mr. Murphy: I accept what my right hon. Friend has said. We both have constituents who have suffered because of the job losses—he many more than me, of course, particularly in Llanwern. I believe that everyone understands that it is not only people who work directly for Corus who are affected, but the small businesses, too—all sorts of businesses, such as hauliers, caterers, and so on. In partnership with the National Assembly and with my right hon. Friend, the local authorities in Newport are playing an active role in trying to overcome the difficulties.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. To prevent any uncertainty, may I point out to the Committee that the original Question 3 was withdrawn yesterday, so every subsequent question has been moved up one number on the Order Paper.

Higher Education

6. Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): If he will make a statement on funding for higher education students. [2233]

8. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): What recent discussions he has had with the National Assembly on student hardship in Wales. [2235]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): The arrangements for funding higher and further education students in England and Wales are working well, with applications for places continuing to rise. Tuition for students from lower income families continues to be free, and those experiencing difficulty with living costs can apply to the Assembly for assistance from access and hardship funds.

Mr. Thomas: In his reply, the Secretary of State did not mention the Rees report. If he has not yet had an opportunity to read it, may I ask him to do so? It makes interesting reading. Of course, if he has not read the report, he cannot agree or disagree with it. However, when he reads it, he will agree with a fact underlined in the report: that despite all the furore about tuition fees—which the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) and I know all about—maintenance grants are in fact the most important issue facing the higher education sector in Wales at present. Does he agree that we cannot sacrifice higher education in Wales on the altar of the Barnett formula? What will he now do in Cabinet to restate, and to allow to be restated in Wales, the need for the further element of a means-tested maintenance grant? If we do not regain that, we will not be able to invest in the future of young people in Wales. That is central to our economic future, along with objective 1 and other things that have been mentioned this morning.

Mr. Murphy: I have read the main recommendations of the Rees report. As the hon. Gentleman knows, some of those recommendations are matters for the Assembly, and some are matters for the Government. The Government will read the report with interest and reflect on it.

Even when I went to university, a balance had to be found between contributions from parents, from the university, and from Government. There has been a huge increase in the number of people who go to university since I went all those years ago, when the rate was 5 per cent—and we want it to rise even further, to 50 per cent. I understand the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, and we will examine the different issues that the report highlights.

Julie Morgan: Will my right hon. Friend agree to speak to his colleagues at the Department for Education and Skills about the main recommendations in the Rees report—which I know that he has read? Does he agree that many of the recommendations are relevant to central Government? Does he also agree that despite the fact that 50 per cent. of students in Wales will not pay tuition fees, it appears that students from lower income households are being put off higher education because of the complications of funding arrangements, or the fear of debt caused by taking on loans? Does the Minister agree that women, mature students and black and Asian students, in particular, are put off going into higher education for those reasons? Will he ask his ministerial colleagues to consider the recommendations?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend has asked an awful lot of questions. First, I shall certainly discuss the matter, and its implications for Wales, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills.

The Rees report touched on the subject of loans, indicating that a much tighter regime was wanted to ensure that people from lower income backgrounds benefit and that the extremely high participation rates in higher education continue. There is no indication of a drop-off in participation; on the contrary, the numbers of people going into higher education have increased.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that in Wales about half of students pay no fee; only about a third pay the full amount.

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