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Welsh Grand Committee
Wednesday 24 April 2002
[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chairman: I wish to call as many hon. Members who have tabled questions as possible. I therefore ask that all hon. Members ask brief supplementary questions and that Ministers give concise answers, as I am sure that they will.
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): What discussions he has had with Whitehall colleagues and the First Secretary of the National Assembly concerning the effects of the Postcomm proposals for competition on postal services in Wales; and if he will make a statement.
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): Postcomm's document ''Proposals for effective competition in UK postal services'', which was issued on 31 January, has been subject to public consultation, and the Government have consistently encouraged stakeholders to make their views known to Postcomm. We would expect Postcomm to take due account of all the views expressed and to consider their implications. We will obviously follow those discussions closely.
Hywel Williams: I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. In the past few months, the Pontypridd and Wrexham parcel depots have been closed. The rural postal network is under threat, and Postcomm's proposals have put the jobs of ordinary working people in the Post Office at risk. Yet I note from an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) that the Secretary of State has received no correspondence from Consignia and held no meetings with it in the past 12 months. Given the threat to the Welsh postal service, should he not have taken a more active interest in the matter?
Mr. Murphy: In fact, I have had lots of meetings, including with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I have also discussed the matter with the Minister of State at that Department, the First Minister and the general and regional secretaries of the Communication Workers Union.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, aware that the present situation cannot continue, because Consignia is losing about £1.5 million a day. There must be a more efficient service, and I hope that Consignia's new chief executive—I shall try to ensure that we meet him, as the hon. Gentleman suggested—and the trade unions will work together to provide a decent postal service in Wales.
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Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a letter that I received from Posten, the Swedish state postal service through my interest in the issue? It states:
''Competition in our case has acted as a spur for increased efficiency and innovation, and has led to considerable benefits for Swedish postal service users.''
Will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that, despite such assurances from other state-owned postal services, there are genuine concerns about jobs and the postal network? Will he continue to take those up with the DTI?
Mr. Murphy: Of course I will. I understand that there are special circumstances in Wales, not least in rural areas. However, if the situation has become so bad that Consignia is losing huge amounts of money, the point is surely to put that right.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning Sweden, because there is no doubt that competition will improve the efficiency of services. At the same time, however, we must do our best to safeguard jobs. The postal service has been hugely important for many decades, but something has gone wrong if so much money is being lost. Of course we want a universal postal service and to safeguard our rural networks, but the present situation cannot continue.
2. Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): If he will make a statement on the safeguards introduced by the European Union to protect the Welsh steel industry following the recent introduction of tariffs by the United States of America.
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): The Government will stand by our steel industry and communities in combating the unjustified and deeply regrettable action by the United States. We pressed for, and welcome, the introduction from 29 March of provisional safeguard measures to protect European Union industry against diversion of trade from the United States. We also fully support the European Commission in initiating World Trade Organisation action against the United States. May I add that I know that my hon. Friend has worked very hard on the matter?
Dr. Francis: I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. He will know that the all-party parliamentary group on steel has recently been established and has met with widespread support in both Houses. Many Welsh Members of all parties have been prominent in establishing that group. Will the Secretary of State meet members of the group to discuss ways of safeguarding the industry and its communities in Wales, to reaffirm the principles of free and fair trade and to ensure that we avoid sliding into a state of economic nationalism?
Mr. Murphy: Of course I will give that commitment. I am a member of the all-party group on steel, so, in a sense, I will be meeting myself. Some weeks ago, the First Minister and I met Dr. Bodman, the United States Deputy Secretary for Commerce, when he visited Cardiff, and we impressed on him the
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significance of the points that my hon. Friend has just raised.
3. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): When he last met the First Secretary to discuss proposals to assist the Welsh tourism industry.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with the First Minister and other Assembly Ministers on a range of issues including the tourism industry in Wales.
The year 2001 was very difficult, to say the least, for Welsh tourism, with both foot and mouth and the tragic events of 11 September. I therefore welcome the new £10 million advertising campaign of the Wales Tourist Board, its biggest ever campaign, which will boost the number of visitors to Wales.
Mr. Llwyd: I thank the Minister for that reply, but I have to say that many people who operate in the industry do not believe that the Government give them sufficient assistance. I know that the budget is constrained, but tourism is a very important industry in Wales, so I ask the Minister again to redouble his efforts to ensure that, in partnership with the National Assembly for Wales, we can develop further the great potential for tourism. Tourism is now probably the biggest employer in Wales, and it offers not poor seasonal jobs, but good jobs when it is done properly and sustainably. I urge the Minister to do what he can to strengthen the economy by assisting the tourism industry.
Mr. Touhig: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance because as I have travelled around Wales, including the hon. Gentleman's beautiful constituency, in the past few months, I have been impressed by the efforts of the tourism industry to combat the problems that it has faced. I was especially impressed by the number of people in his constituency who offer not seasonal jobs, but employment throughout the year. That is the sort of investment we want. The Wales Tourist Board, the objective 1 projects and the Assembly have put about £30 million into projects to develop tourism, but the Government will continue to give as much support as possible to the Assembly, because tourism is a vital industry in Wales. We have a good story to tell about visiting Wales and we will do all that we can, working with everyone possible, to say, ''Come to Wales. It's a great place for a holiday.''
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): Does my hon. Friend agree that the actions of members of Cymuned over the Easter bank holiday, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and bordering on the constituency of the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), were disgraceful? Whatever the Government and the National Assembly do to promote tourism in Wales, such actions do not help. Last weekend, we saw graffiti in the constituency of the hon. Member for Caernarfon, saying, ''Cymru i'r Cymry. English go home.'' What does that do for the tourist industry in Wales, which was on its knees last year as a result of foot-and-mouth disease?
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Mr. Touhig: Every decent Welshman and woman would condemn the actions of Cymuned. People in Wales are not inward looking. Wales has a great story to tell about its industry, including tourism, and it is important that all of us show the good face of Wales. Anyone who says, for any sort of political advantage, that there is anything wrong in bringing English people into Wales is totally wrong. We reject that. We in the Labour party are internationalists and socialists, and we believe that Wales should be opened up to everyone. It is important that all of us who are elected to public office stand as one in condemning actions and statements such as those that my hon. Friend described.
4. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary on affordable housing in Wales.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend and I have regular meetings with the First Secretary to discuss a range of issues including the provision of housing. Affordable housing has been, and continues to be, a high priority for the Assembly.
Kevin Brennan: Is my hon. Friend aware that house prices in my constituency have rocketed over the past 12 months? They have gone up even faster than the Labour party's spending on the national health service. Families find it increasingly difficult to afford houses and the council and housing associations to provide affordable housing for rent in Cardiff. Will he agree to liaise with Government colleagues and the First Secretary to examine ways of ensuring that the affordability of housing in urban areas is given greater policy priority?