HC Deb 19 April 2000 vol 348 cc965-7
4. Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

By how much, in real terms, the cost of running his office, or its predecessor, in (a) London and (b) Cardiff has changed since May 1997. [118436]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy)

The cost of running the Welsh Office in 1997–98 was £70 million. For 1999–2000, the cost of running the Wales Office is estimated to be around £2 million. Costs in London and Cardiff are not held separately.

Mr. Pickles

That is a most interesting answer, and one difficult to comprehend against a virtual doubling of Welsh Office staffing. People want the answers to two questions: how were those accounting figures arrived at, and how can the right hon. Gentleman justify costing more and delivering less?

Mr. Murphy

Most people in Wales want to know whether their interests are properly represented in Westminster and Whitehall. On the hon. Gentleman's specific points, the figure of 26 staff for my office, which was suggested before devolution, was an early rough estimate. When I became Secretary of State, the staff complement was 37, and I expect it to be around 45 by the summer. The figure of 58, which is in the annual report, is a notional one. That number is allowed for in the budget, but I shall ensure that every post is subject to the closest scrutiny before any appointment is made. It is vital that Wales is properly represented at Westminster, and that can be done only if my office is adequately staffed. It is the smallest Department in Westminster, and is smaller than some district council chief executive's departments in Wales.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Conservative central office costs the taxpayer £3 million in Short money? Does he agree that the Wales Office offers the taxpayers of Britain a much better bargain?

Mr. Murphy

Anything is a better bargain than Conservative central office.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

The Secretary of State is of course aware that the House is considering several important Bills, including the Local Government Bill, the Care Standards Bill and the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, that will affect Wales. How many of his staff have been allocated to ensure that, during the passage of such Bills, sufficient care is taken that they are properly drafted to take into account the needs of the Assembly and that proper amendments are made in Committee?

Mr. Murphy

About 13 of the staff to whom I have referred give advice on the whole range of Government and Assembly policy, and about a dozen are included in the Parliamentary branch and as special advisers. In addition, a part-time legal adviser deals with such matters. Furthermore, officials are seconded from the Assembly to deal with legislation.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

The Secretary of State will have to give the House a better explanation of his staffing levels than he has done to date. Page 11 of the annual report states that the number of his staff is going up from 34 to 61. Even if that is a notional figure and the number rises only to 58, that is one heck of an increase.

Page 9 of the White Paper "A Voice for Wales" states: The Secretary of State will retain a small team of civil servants to support his work. That was the White Paper on which the people of Wales voted in the referendum. Will the right hon. Gentleman fully explain to the House why there has been such a U-turn?

Mr. Murphy

I have already explained to the House the importance of maintaining a staff that is adequate and satisfactory, both to protect the devolution settlement and to liaise with Cardiff. By no stretch of the imagination could the number of people employed in my Department—they include messengers, paper handlers, receptionists and drivers—be regarded as big. What is important are the big issues with which we are dealing at present—including the question of the children's commissioner, on which I note that the hon. Gentleman did not want to comment. Such issues are hugely important—that is what matters to the people of Wales.

Mr. Evans

The Government must have known all that before the devolution referendum. We accept that the Secretary of State now has one fewer Minister in his Department, but the number of special advisers has doubled, and the number of his staff will double. Furthermore, the Welsh Assembly grows like Topsy, with four special advisers for its First Secretary. The cost of the Welsh Assembly building—thank goodness, that is on hold—was initially estimated at between £12 million and £17 million; it is now between £26 million and £30 million. Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the additional costs for staff in his office? That money could supply 30 extra police or 70 extra nurses. Is it not far better to invest money in front-line services to help the people of Wales, rather than pampering the Secretary of State's virility by boosting the Murphy empire in London?

Mr. Murphy

Empire! I am not much of an emperor. If the hon. Gentleman is talking about helping front-line services in Wales, perhaps he should refer, for example, to the £112 billion extra for the health service that came from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's recent Budget. However, a more important point in the context of his remarks is that either he wants Wales to be represented at the Cabinet table and on 22 Cabinet Committees and wants the House to take Welsh legislation seriously, or he does not. Obviously, he does not.