Previous Section Index Home Page

A couple of weeks ago the Minster for Employment and Welfare Reform came to my constituency to speak at an employment summit. Everyone who attended recognised that the Government, in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government, had achieved enormous success in reducing unemployment in the south Wales valleys. In Wales as a whole there are now more people in work than ever before.

However, everyone at that meeting also agreed that there was still a lot to do if we are to achieve full employment. The pathways to work programme underlines the fact that the central task is successfully to tackle the issue of economic inactivity. Unfortunately, in the south Wales valleys, because of the legacy of heavy industry, a huge number of people are languishing on incapacity benefit. Those are people who were written off by the Tories when they decimated the coal industry and now this Government have the task of breathing new life once again into communities and individuals who have been ignored for so long. Let me be clear: we are not talking about people who are lazy or workshy, as some of the Tories would have it. These are proud people who have been treated with contempt by consecutive Conservative Governments. Our task today is to work with our people to provide support, encouragement and real opportunities.

Nowhere in Britain is the problem of economic inactivity more entrenched than in the area at the heads of the south Wales valleys. Recently, the Bevan Foundation indicated both the scale of the problem and some innovative ways forward. Undoubtedly, one of the problems in helping people off welfare and into work is the topography of the area. From Blaengwynfi in the west to Blaenavon in the east, there are what the writer Gwyn Thomas once called the gulches of south Wales—deep ravine-like valleys, running from north to south. The problem with such topography is twofold. First, it makes it very difficult for industry to locate, and secondly, it makes it very difficult for people to travel to work, especially if they have to travel east-west rather than north-south.

In one of the Welsh Assembly's Committees that looked at economic inactivity in Wales, the lack of transport was correctly identified as one of the main barriers to work. Transport was also referred to time and time again at the employment summit that I referred to earlier. Only the other day, a constituent explained to me how he was faced with the difficulty of travelling from his home in the village of Graig-y-Rhacca across the Rhymney valley to his place of employment just south of Ystrad Mynach. That is a classic example of how just one individual had difficulty in travelling east-west rather than north-south.

In many valley communities poor public transport is part of the fabric of life. A large number of communities do not have passenger rail links and in many cases buses do not service industrial estates and business parks. Where business parks are serviced, bus timetables rarely reflect shift-working patterns. Owning a car for many people is a practical necessity. Those unable to afford a car are frequently left immobile and isolated. Limited access to personal transport is a labour market barrier often cited by new deal participants.

In the long term, the answer is to improve public transport, and the Welsh Assembly Government,
28 Mar 2007 : Column 1512
through their newly devolved powers, are working hard on that. In the short term, car ownership or access to cars is the only way to enable many people on benefit to secure employment. Of course we should be concerned about carbon emissions, but this is one of the rare cases where car ownership would have a positive social advantage.

In that respect, Working Links, a public-private partnership, is engaged in truly path-breaking work. In the valleys of south Wales, Wheels4Work and Wheels2Work are two unique loan schemes that provide cars, commercial vehicles and scooters free of charge to people requiring personal transport to enable them to get work. Today, the two initiatives have some 80 vehicles and have helped over 400 people into employment.

There is also the question of helping individuals who want to work when they have particular disabilities or conditions. I cite the example of a constituent of mine, Anthony Wilson. Anthony is a young man who suffers from epilepsy. He found a part-time job in the next valley and was supported by Jobcentre Plus, but Jobcentre Plus was unable to help him with his transport costs. Because of his condition he needed a taxi to get to and from work. Working Links was able to provide assistance and 12 months later Anthony Wilson is still in work. Fortunately, in my area we have Working Links, which complements the work of Jobcentre Plus, but it does not have contracts everywhere, so there are gaps that need to be filled.

One of the features of the past couple of years has been the increasingly positive partnership between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Welsh Assembly Government. My suggestion is that we need to consider how best to deepen that relationship; the will is there but we need to look into how the relevant legislation and regulations can be modified and fine-tuned to enhance the relationship. We need to consider in particular whether we need enabling legislation to allow the WAG to intervene in DWP programmes to provide more transport opportunities. Under the Government of Wales Act 2006, the National Assembly for Wales has the opportunity to propose legislation that can then be handled speedily by Parliament.

I hope that due consideration will be given to my proposals. Problems due to transport difficulties are more widespread in the south Wales valleys than in any other part of the country. Devolution is about finding particular solutions to particular problems. This is a problem particular to the south Wales valleys, which is why I propose that consideration be given to the Welsh Assembly gaining the ability to intervene more proactively in the welfare to work agenda.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Wayne David, Mr. Don Touhig, Ann Clwyd, Mr. Dai Havard, Nia Griffith, Chris Bryant, Julie Morgan, and Chris Ruane.

Employment Assistance (Wales)

Mr. Wayne David accordingly presented a Bill to empower the National Assembly for Wales to make provision about transport opportunities for long-term incapacity benefit claimants who have gained employment; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 88].


28 Mar 2007 : Column 1513

Communications Allowance

1.22 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move,

Mr. Speaker: With this we will take the motions on Notices of Questions, etc. During September, Select Committees (Reports) and Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund.

Mr. Straw: If I may, I will begin by offering congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—on his appointment earlier today by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as Deputy Leader of the House, in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths).

I should like to deal first with the three motions that are pretty uncontentious, Nos. 4, 5 and 6. The motion on notices of questions in September makes permanent the arrangements that we agreed on an experimental basis last September for taking written questions during September. They seemed to meet the approbation of the House, so I hope that Members find the motion acceptable.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I apologise to the Leader of the House for intervening so early in his speech, but will he clarify a point in the second paragraph of the motion? It states that the

I assume that means just one Minister, in fact the Leader of the House, and not that each Minister in each Department can set separate days.

Mr. Straw: It is indeed one Minister. The reason why the motion was worded in that way is that the precise days in September we need to prescribe will need to take account of such things as party conferences, but the Minister will be the Leader of the House.

Motion No. 5 relates to Select Committee report embargoes and extends the embargoed period allowed from 48 hours to 72 hours to take account of weekends, publication on a Monday or on a Tuesday after a bank holiday, and so on. I cannot believe that we will spend a lot of time on that motion.

Motion No. 6 makes provision for the appointment of a beneficiary from the Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund to the trustees. Sir Graham Bright, whom
28 Mar 2007 : Column 1514
many of us remember as a distinguished Member of the House, has been suggested by the Former Members Association, which does good work on behalf of former Members, and I hope that the House will accept that nomination.

I come now to the communications allowance. Last November, as the report on the communications allowance sets out in paragraph 1, the House resolved by a majority of 91 to agree the principle of instituting a communications allowance. The Members Estimate Committee was asked to bring forward more precise proposals for the House to approve, which are before us today. The Committee set out what an allowance should cover, how it should operate and a proposed level. It proposed an allowance for the purpose of assisting Members

as agreed by the House in November, with the scope described in its report and subject to rules and guidance updated from time to time by the Committee. It proposed that the allowance should begin at a level of £10,000.

The purpose of the allowance is, above all, to contribute towards public understanding of what Parliament is for and what it does—something which, as the Committee highlighted, has become a high priority. In 2004, the Modernisation Committee observed:

In 2005, the Hansard Society Commission, chaired by Lord Puttnam, declared:

In 2006, the Power report concluded that

One does not have to sign up to every one of those propositions to accept the basic message that it is important for the health of our democracy for the public to know more about what we do. A survey commissioned last year by the Committee on Standards in Public Life found that although 85 per cent. of people believed that it was “extremely” or “very” important for MPs to explain the reasons for their actions, only 23 per cent. of people believed that most MPs actually do so.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Can the Leader of the House clear up a point that is troubling me? If my memory serves me correctly, the original proposals for the motion we are debating were made in the aftermath of the 2005 general election, when it was found that certain Members of Parliament had possibly abused the paid-for postal system to make mass mailings. Can he relate that to what is being proposed today and reassure the House that the motion is not a retrospective justification for that misbehaviour?


28 Mar 2007 : Column 1515

Mr. Straw: It is certainly no retrospective justification for any misbehaviour. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Committee on Standards and Privileges, chaired by his right hon. Friend who is sitting behind him—

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young).

Dr. Lewis: My hon. Friend is the fount of all wisdom.

Mr. Straw: As ever.

The Committee investigated at least one complaint, possibly two, about a Member. I think that it found against the complaint and made some observations about the operation of the system in respect of paid-for envelopes. Another decision will be made in parallel with the proposal today, if the House agrees it—Mr. Speaker has already indicated that he will cap the provision of paid-for envelopes at £7,000. As I shall spell out, it will not be possible for Members to use the communications allowance—if it is approved—to purchase additional paid-for envelopes. Although this is a matter of some controversy across the parties, not least my own, I accept—and I have done from the moment that I got this job—that it is unacceptable for there to be no limit on the amount for paid-for envelopes.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a disconnect with the public and that it is important for MPs to communicate with their constituents who contact them? I have received a referendum signed by 8,500 of my constituents on Canvey Island against a major accident hazard site that is proposed for the island and which concerns them greatly. The referendum had a massive turnout of 68 per cent. of the total voting population of Canvey Island, and 99.5 per cent. of the people voted against the proposed liquefied natural gas plant. That is now going to appeal. I must write to all those people to tell them what happened to their petition and what they must do next to write to the inspector to make sure that their rights are upheld. That is 8,500 people I will have to write to perhaps twice this year. How am I going to be able to do that within the allowances?

Mr. Straw: As it happens, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, I know his constituency, including Canvey Island, well. There are probably a higher number of hazardous sites in his constituency than in any other constituency that I can think of, certainly in the south of England. We all need to be grateful, even though we do not realise it, to the constituents of Canvey Island, because it is through those sites that such vital services are provided to the rest of the country. I have been trying to do the mental arithmetic: £7,000 should provide 21,000 or so envelopes, which would still cover his requirements. However, in addition the Members Estimate Committee makes it clear in its recommendations that, in such circumstances, he would be able to write to people who had written to him by way of a petition, and he would be able to make use of the communications allowance in so doing if he wished. Overall, it is a better and a clearer system. The problem about the paid-for envelopes was that their use just grew. There has been no proved
28 Mar 2007 : Column 1516
allegation of abuse of the system, but it cannot be acceptable for any particular budget item not to have a cap on it.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, far from a justification for high spending, the proposed financial cap of £10,000 and £7,000 represents a significant reduction in the resources available to higher spending Members, if one relates the figures back to the Members’ allowance table for 2005-06, where some of our colleagues managed to exceed £30,000?

Mr. Straw: I accept that.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Overspending Members.

Mr. Straw: Higher spending Members.

I should say to the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) that the great advantage of interventions—some would say the only advantage—is that one can get the truth from the officials’ Box in answer to a previous intervention while one is listening to the next one. The accurate answer to his question is that he could both use the communications allowance and top that up from the incidental expenses provision and, I am told, to a degree from staffing virement. So, he will be all right. I care about his constituents.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD) rose—

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con) rose—

Mr. Straw: If the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) will allow me to make a little progress, I will then give way to her and the hon. Lady for somewhere in Worcestershire.

John Bercow: Bromsgrove.

Mr. Straw: Bromsgrove—a fine place.

The communications allowance will assist Members with making the idea of Parliament and the work of its Members better understood. The Committee explains that the allowance would cover costs for Members of

The Committee continues:


Next Section Index Home Page