Budget Statement

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Mr. Touhig: Affordable housing is an issue in both urban and rural areas. My colleagues in the Assembly have made available £51 million of social housing grant to help local authorities to increase the availability of housing stock. It is important to continue to do that, because for many people a house is their biggest purchase. We must ensure that affordable housing is available. It is difficult even in conurbations such as Cardiff, which attract huge inward investment, to make sure that we can deliver what my hon. Friend is asking for. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will work with our colleagues in the Assembly to do everything possible to make affordable housing available in cities such as Cardiff, as well as in the rural parts of Wales.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Does the Minister realise that the one thing that is rising faster than house prices in Cardiff, West is the council tax on those houses? Does he appreciate that when the Labour party came to power, the council tax in Cardiff was £486, whereas today it is £691? What discussions is he having with the Secretaries of the Welsh Assembly to find out what is going wrong? Will he now take some of the responsibility for the fact that people are paying council taxes that have risen by more than one third during the past four years?

Mr. Touhig: Council tax rises are a matter for local authorities. I served on a local authority for 20 years

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and took that responsibility very seriously. However, if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that councils are doing something wrong by raising council taxes, will he tell us which services should be cut—education, social services, transport, meals on wheels? Let him tell us. We have heard many times in the Welsh Grand Committee and in debates in the Chamber that Conservative policy is to cut, cut and cut public services.

European Funding

5. Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): What recent discussions he has held with the Secretaries of the National Assembly to ensure the success of objective 1 projects in rural Wales.[49437]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I meet the First Secretary regularly to discuss a range of issues, including progress with the objective 1 programme. Responsibility for that programme lies with the National Assembly. I am advised by Assembly colleagues that, at 21 March, over 800 objective 1 projects had been approved, worth a total of over £340 million in European grants. More than £78 million of objective 1 grants has already been paid out by the Assembly. It is not for me or for Assembly Ministers to ensure the success of individual projects. Objective 1 funding is administered via a competitive bidding process, which ensures that all worthy projects have equal access to funding.

Mr. Thomas: The Secretary of State will know that approval for objective 1 projects is only the first step. Making them work requires a partnership approach. I am sure that he will be as disappointed as I am that the apprentice training project at Aberporth in my constituency has suffered a body blow due to the recent withdrawal of MOD funding. Nevertheless, there is an opportunity to progress that project if we can persuade the private company that is connected with it to become more involved and to work with Education and Learning Wales and the other agencies in order to keep apprentice training and an objective 1 project in Aberporth. Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that ConnectIT is prepared to continue training in Boscombe down in England, due, according to its response to a union official, to the more central location? Does he share my concern that if private companies have that kind of attitude, we shall not be able to create any jobs through objective 1 in rural Wales?

Mr. Murphy: I would not necessarily agree with the pessimism expressed by the hon. Gentleman at the end of his question, but I entirely agree with him otherwise. I had fruitful meetings with the First Minister, and with ELWa and ConnectIT in Cardiff and London some time ago. We have been in correspondence and held meetings on the subject, and I am glad that the Assembly is looking to consider projects that will plug the gap left by the decision to withdraw apprentice training. As to Boscombe down, I was not aware of the details. I shall consider those matters and come back to the hon. Gentleman with more details.

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Primary Education

6. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): If he will meet the First Minister of the National Assembly to discuss primary education in Monmouthshire.[49438]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I meet regularly with the First Minister and other Ministers to discuss a range of matters, including primary education.

Mr. Edwards: My hon. Friend may be aware that the strategic review of education in Monmouthshire has exposed the fact that a number of schools are being closed in the Abergavenny area. One of the reasons is the number of surplus places, but that is a function of class size. To the credit of the National Assembly, Jane Davidson has indicated that class sizes in primary schools will be reduced to 25 pupils per class. Will my hon. Friend urge the First Minister and the National Assembly to pursue the policy of 25 pupils per class in the primary sector in order to reduce concerns about surplus places, and thereby increase the level and provision of education for all our young children?

Mr. Touhig: I am aware that the Monmouthshire local education authority is currently conducting a review of education provision in the area, especially in Abergavenny. The LEA is required by statute to consult widely on proposals for altering education provision. In the event of statutory objections being made when the LEA publishes its proposals, the Assembly's Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning will have the final decision. In my experience as a councillor, I have had difficulties and problems with closed schools, so I fully understand my hon. Friend's point. I shall ensure that his problem is brought to the attention of the First Minister and the Assembly's Education Minister.

Job Losses (Manufacturing)

7. Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): What discussions he has had with colleagues in Whitehall and the First Secretary about job losses in manufacturing in Wales.[49439]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I meet regularly with my ministerial colleagues to discuss a range of issues, including manufacturing employment in Wales.

The Government recognise that this is a particularly tough time for manufacturers in the United Kingdom, due to the slowdown in the world economy and the weakness of the euro. However, those problems are not confined to the UK or Wales. I am pleased to note that Wales is posting the fastest fall in unemployment of any region or country in the UK.

Mr. David: I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that manufacturing is tremendously important to the Welsh economy, particularly in areas such as my constituency. He will know also how difficult it is for exporters in Caerphilly to export to European markets. In the light of that, will he join me in urging the Prime Minister to hold a referendum on entry into the single currency as soon as practicable?

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Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend may rest assured that when the time comes the Prime Minister and I will be on the same side.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Which side is that?

Mr. Murphy: May I also say, more seriously, that I understand the problems that people face in my hon. Friend's constituency; but were he to take a longer-term view, he would know that in 1997 in Caerphilly, 2,853 people were out of work and that that figure has now reduced to 1,666—a drop in unemployment of 4.7 per cent. That is reflected in all constituencies in Wales. There have been job increases in my hon. Friend's constituency; National Britannia, Independent Community Living, B and Q, Creditsafe UK Ltd. and others have brought jobs to Caerphilly . I understand my hon. Friend's point, but there is no shadow of doubt that the last decade has seen a rise in employment and confidence in the people whom he represents.

Red Dragon Project

8. Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): What assessment he has made of the number of jobs that will be created and protected by the red dragon project at RAF St. Athan.[49440]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): Project red dragon aims to safeguard some 2,500 DARA aero-engineering jobs at St. Athan. In addition, the proposals to create an aviation centre of excellence at the RAF St. Athan site could attract and sustain a further 2,000 jobs.

Mr. Smith: I am sure that the whole Committee will want to welcome this enormous boost to the Welsh economy. It is one of the biggest investments in aerospace for some time and will make DARA one of the biggest aerospace employers in Wales. It will result in the building of one of the most modern hangars in the world, capable of servicing up to 47 fighter aircraft and other military aircraft, including Lynx and Chinook helicopters.

However, when investment, jobs and prosperity come to an area it creates problems. There will be pressure on community facilities such as local transport and schooling. Will my hon. Friend assure me that when he next meets his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence he will ensure that the local communities are consulted at every level about this development so that everybody gains from it?

Mr. Touhig: Yes, I can give that assurance. While we welcome the developments to which my hon. Friend refers, because investment in such high-skill, high-tech, high-pay jobs is our future, it is important that we take account of the impact on the community and the environment. I shall ensure that my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence take on board those points. I am aware that my hon. Friend has other concerns and I shall communicate them to the MOD as well.

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Prepared 24 April 2002