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Local Government Elections

3. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What consultations he has had with the First Minister on the date of the local government elections in Wales. [116423]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Peter Hain): I have discussed with the First Minister my view that, although the date of local government elections is a matter for the National Assembly, it should be combined with the European elections a month later.

Kevin Brennan : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Would it not also make sense if, as well as having the Euro elections and the council elections on the same day, both elections took the form of an all-postal ballot? If European countries can have different systems for the European parliamentary elections, why cannot we in the United Kingdom opt to conduct ours via an all-postal ballot system, so as to increase the turnout and give greater to access to voters?

Peter Hain: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Government are considering this matter and trying to encourage more postal voting. Indeed, many more postal votes were cast in Wales—there were four times

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as many in my own borough—as there were in the last Assembly elections. That is an encouraging trend, but my hon. Friend raises a valid point.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): A commission recently reported on electoral arrangements for local government in Wales and made recommendations about the introduction of voting at 16 and the use of a proportional system for voting. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with colleagues in the Assembly about introducing those recommendations?

Peter Hain: None.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am horrified by the Secretary of State's first response. The local elections were moved by a full 12 months so that they would not be on the same day as the Welsh Assembly elections, and the turnout was a miserable 38 per cent. I know that the Secretary of State is not keen for the people of Wales to have a say in how they are governed, but will he please give an assurance that the local election date will not be moved by another month? Also, while we are at it, let us have a vote on the European Convention.

Peter Hain: I shall come back to the question of Europe in a minute, if you will allow me to do so, Mr. Speaker. On the Welsh side of the hon. Gentleman's question, the turnout in the English local elections was only 30 per cent. The Government are planning to hold the European elections and the English local elections, including the Greater London elections, on the same day next June. There is a strong case for doing the same in Wales. On Europe, this Labour Government have held more referendums than any other Government. [Interruption.] The Conservatives have never held a referendum on anything. The treaty that will come out of the European Convention will be subject to exactly the same parliamentary procedures. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Agency Workers

5. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): When he next expects to meet representatives of employment agencies to discuss the use of agency workers in the small firm sector in Wales. [116425]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have no plans to meet representatives of the Wales and south-west region of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. However, we would be happy to meet them if asked.

Mr. Bellingham : I am sorry that the Minister is not going to meet them in the near future, because has he had a chance to consider the possible impact of the agency workers directive on the recruitment of temporary staff in Wales? Is he aware that the CBI has estimated that the directive could cost more than 60,000

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jobs in Wales alone? Surely, if he and the Secretary of State really want to help manufacturing, they will do all that they can to stop that job-destroying directive.

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter about seven times in the House. He is certainly persistent and diligent in pursuing it, and I do not criticise him for that. Yesterday, at the Employment and Social Policy Council, my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions at the Department of Trade and Industry failed to reach agreement on the Commission's proposals. The British Government's position is that we will continue to work for a directive that gets the right balance between protecting agency workers and protecting their jobs.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Does my hon. Friend welcome the opportunity for the small firms sector that will arise from the welcome news today that Celsa is to restart steelmaking on the ASW site in Cardiff? Will he do all that he can to ensure that the jobs that might be advertised by employment agencies go to redundant steelworkers from ASW?

Mr. Touhig: I do indeed welcome the news that the project that Celsa is engaged in at the former ASW plant in Cardiff is to go ahead. I take note of my hon. Friend's point, and I would say that any agency recruiting workers for Celsa in Cardiff would certainly have to look in the first instance at the former employees of ASW. Their skills are in very high demand, and I have no doubt that the quality work force who were treated so badly by ASW will provide an excellent work force for Celsa.

National Health Service

6. Angela Watkinson (Upminster): If he will make a statement on the national health service in Wales. [116426]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Peter Hain): Under our Government the national health service in Wales has been receiving record investment, and record numbers of patients are being seen.

Angela Watkinson : The Health and Social Care Bill says that foundation hospitals will provide goods and services from the NHS for people in England. Why is Wales excluded, given that 26,000 people from Wales seek treatment in England each year?

Peter Hain: One of the Conservatives' problems is their inability to recognise that devolution was designed to allow different parts of the United Kingdom to do things differently. That is what is happening in Wales. The hon. Lady does not, of course, advertise the fact that the Conservatives believe in 20 per cent. cuts in health spending. [Interruption.] Oh yes, they do. Their leader has advocated those cuts. Moreover, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), a former Secretary of State for Wales, says that 20 per

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cent. is not enough. What does the hon. Lady believe in, and what does the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) believe in?

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): Despite what is said by the knockers in the Conservative party who presided over a long-term decline in the health service, is it not the case that under this Government a record number of new hospitals have been built, a record number of nurses have been recruited, and a new cancer centre has been built at Glan Clwyd hospital in my constituency?

Peter Hain: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the Conservatives, 100 hospitals were closed in Wales. Under Labour, 10 new hospitals are being built or have already opened. We are recruiting 3,500 more NHS staff, an extra 6,000 nurses, an extra 525 consultants and 175 more GPs. That is an excellent record, compared with the dreadful record of the Tories.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): What discussions has the Secretary of State had with colleagues here and in Cardiff about the impact of the establishment of foundation hospitals along the border with Wales? What has been the effect of recruitment of staff from Welsh hospitals, and the treatment of patients from Welsh hospitals in the English foundation hospitals?

Peter Hain: Obviously patients have the right to cross the border in either direction, but we are keeping the matter under close review, and I have already discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Coal Miners' Compensation

7. Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): When the Welsh sub-group of the coal health claims monitoring Group last met; and what assessment was made of the effectiveness of the claims procedures. [116428]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): The Welsh sub-group last met on 7 April, when I was delighted to welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) as members.

The progress on payments under both the respiratory disease and the vibration white finger schemes in Wales speaks volumes for the valuable contribution made by the group.

Mr. Griffiths: I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but could he be a bit more precise and let me know what criteria—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. It is unfair.

Mr. Griffiths: Could my hon. Friend tell me what criteria are used to determine priorities when the miner's

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estate is the beneficiary, and what is the current position relating to payments in Wales and specifically in my constituency?

Mr. Touhig: I can tell my hon. Friend that £4.5 million has been paid for respiratory disease in his constituency, £1.3 million has been paid under the vibration white finger scheme, and £228 million has been paid for respiratory disease throughout Wales. We may not be able to see light at the end of the tunnel, but at least we can see the tunnel for the first time.

The priorities are the oldest miners, the most ill, and the widows. As for estate claims, if there is any indication of a short life expectancy the process may be accelerated and the claim considered more urgently. We will, however, look at cases individually. I pay tribute to the Minister for Energy and Construction, who has been wonderfully supportive in especially difficult cases, helping to secure for our miners the justice that they so richly deserve.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): There is one group of former miners in Wales on which there has been absolutely no progress—not a single penny has been paid. I refer, of course, to those who worked in the private mines. Since those mines were licensed by the National Coal Board, which received a levy on every tonne of coal produced, do not the Government have a responsibility to those men, whose suffering is every bit as real as that of those who worked in the nationalised industry?

Mr. Touhig: I recognise the justice of the hon. Gentleman's point. Our monitoring group has discussed that issue, which continues to be the subject of discussions between solicitors representing the claimants and the Department of Trade and Industry. We have done everything we possibly can to bring the matter to the top of the agenda.

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