Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]
I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the whole House a happy St. David’s day, and I am sorry that I shall be unable to attend the end of the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) has called for a St. George’s day debate, and I shall be happy to wish him a happy St. George’s day on the appropriate day.
This September will mark the 10th anniversary of the momentous night when the people of Wales voted to create a democratically elected National Assembly for Wales, placing decision making in the hands of the people of Wales. The margin of the victory that evening was narrow, but that has not held Wales or the Assembly back. Ten years on, the Assembly has firmly established itself as the voice of the people in Wales. It has earned respect as a centre of innovative policy making, and as it has grown in strength, stature and self-confidence, so, too, has Wales as a whole.
There can be no doubt that Wales is going in the right direction, with a record number of jobs, massive investment in schools and hospitals and a successful Welsh economy. Yes, there are challenges ahead, but the choice facing Wales is how we build on the success of the past 10 years, rather than going back to the failure before then.
The challenge facing Wales is increasingly global. The enlargement of the European Union and the dramatic growth of emerging economies such as China and India is leading to rapid and sometimes unnerving changes in the world economy, but it is creating opportunities, too.
China and India are producing more university graduates each year than the whole of Europe, so competition is increasingly coming not just from low wage costs in their manufacturing industries but from the higher tech, knowledge-based sectors. It is, therefore, more important than ever to harness and build on the huge talents of the people of Wales and to place an ever greater focus on quality and excellence, with everyone who is able to work being assisted with the skills upgrading and training they need to work.
Boosting skills is the key. It means more than simply ensuring that a higher proportion of our young people go into further and higher education. That is only the bare minimum. How can we compete with countries such as South Korea, where 40 per cent. of 25 to 34-year-olds have a degree or equivalent?
The Secretary of State makes an important point. Has he had the chance to read The Western Mail this morning? It states that more than half all adults in Wales have poor numeracy skills and one in four has a reading and writing age of 11 or below. Does not that highlight the scale of the challenge facing Wales and the poor performance of the past 10 years, not success, as the Secretary of State likes to think?
It highlights the fact that there is still a gap to be bridged. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the challenge ahead, but the way to bridge that gap and improve on the improvements of the past 10 years, when there have been considerable increases in numeracy and literacy rates and in educational standards generally, is to invest more in education. The only way to invest more in education is by re-electing Labour in Westminster and in Cardiff Bay.
The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but the Conservatives are committed to a programme of cuts in Labour’s investment plans.
When the hon. Gentleman referred to The Western Mail, I thought he would tell me that the Welsh Conservatives are changing their policy in favour of proportional representation in local government, as they are now proposing. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) agrees with the Welsh Conservative leader, Nick Bourne, who advocates that policy. It is an interesting part of their preparation for coalition, as the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru already favour that policy.
Does the Secretary of State recall writing an excellent book advancing the case against proportional representation? I have read it and I can commend it to the House. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, too, will commend that to colleagues on both sides of the Welsh Assembly.
It is a brilliant book—I am glad that it is on the hon. Gentleman’s reading list and I hope he keeps it by his bed—and that is why we shall not be going down that road in local government. Our Welsh manifesto will contain a commitment not to introduce proportional representation in local government.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is being extremely generous so early on in his speech.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Welsh Conservative manifesto has not yet been published, so any leaks are not worth the paper they are written on. Furthermore, he is on dangerous ground, as from time to time documents that he claims are inaccurate are leaked from his office. If they are inaccurate, so, too, are those published in The Western Mail today.
My right hon. Friend’s analysis of the challenges facing Wales in a global market is right, but does he agree that the construction of a military training academy at St. Athan in my constituency will provide the very skills that he is talking about and that Wales needs for the future?
Indeed, my hon. Friend is absolutely right and I pay tribute to his championing of the cause of the defence training review establishment in St. Athan. More than 5,000 jobs and investment of £16 billion will regenerate not just that area but the wider community in the valleys and surrounding areas—[Interruption.] I am being heckled by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), but I have a series of quotes, which I shall gladly read, showing how Plaid Cymru opposed the role of the defence forces in Wales. Indeed, the party’s president said that all defence establishments should clear out of Wales. There would be a massive cost to jobs in Wales, including at the defence training review establishment at St. Athan, because we should have to send back that decision to the Ministry of Defence.
I will indeed support the Secretary of State on this point. Does he agree that it was absolutely disgraceful that senior members of Plaid Cymru demanded that the military be kept out of schools, when the military offers an excellent base for young people who want to learn the specialist skills that he mentioned? Does he agree that we should all support our armed forces in this country?
I am always reluctant to agree with the hon. Gentleman, because it makes me wonder whether the position that I am taking is correct, but I have to say that he is absolutely right. What also interests me is the fact that the parliamentary leader of Plaid Cymru, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), signed an early-day motion in November opposing the entire defence review programme, and with it the jobs in Wales. I assume that the Plaid Cymru candidate in the Vale of Glamorgan is going to campaign on a programme of “Send the jobs back, repatriate the defence training rationalisation investment, and have a fresh decision in London.”
The Secretary of State knows that my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) signed that motion—as did many Labour Members—because we oppose the principle of privatisation. I was asked to support the consortium bid on behalf of Plaid Cymru and we gladly did so, because it was meant to have cross-party, all-Wales support. To say that Plaid Cymru did not support the consortium is factually incorrect.
Except for the free Welsh army, as my hon. Friend says in his inimitable way.
We must encourage lifelong learning, whereby skills can be improved and updated throughout people’s working lives, allowing workers to move more easily between companies and sectors and making them better equipped to deal with change.
Does my hon. Friend applaud Airbus, which, even in the current difficulties, is moving ahead with its apprentice recruitment programme? Earlier this week, there were 2,500 young people looking to further their careers. Is that not a good example that many other employers in Wales should follow?
Airbus UK, and especially its plant at Broughton, which is the biggest manufacturing centre in the United Kingdom, if not in Europe, sets a standard of excellence for all. It is important that we recognise that the difficulties to which my hon. Friend referred are, as I understand it, going to drive forward Airbus to even greater success in the future as the premier airline manufacturer across the world—especially in competition with Boeing. It is important to put it on the record that the job cuts that, regrettably, have had to be made over the coming four years are in relation to overhead costs, not engineering, production or manufacturing costs, where Airbus expects to expand its production. As part of a decision taken at a European level, there will be extra work to do with wing manufacture, which was previously carried out in facilities in mainland Europe. That is good news for Airbus.
Does the Secretary of State agree that Airbus has been quite good at keeping in contact with the various political representatives and that it can be assured of cross-party support if it experiences difficulties? I think that all Welsh MPs in the Chamber today recognise the crucial importance of the high-value manufacturing and design jobs that Airbus brings to Wales and that help us to remain at the forefront of the international initiative for aerospace development.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Airbus has received, and I am sure will continue to receive, cross-party support because it is the real jewel in the crown of the north-east Wales economy and, in many respects, of the Welsh economy as a whole.
At the same time, Wales must adapt to the huge and growing threat of climate change—the defining challenge of this era and beyond, which puts at risk the very future of humankind. It is predicted that global average temperatures could rise by 5.8° C and sea levels by up to 7.7 m by 2100. As the Stern review highlighted, the impacts of climate change will be economic as well as environmental. Unless urgent action is taken the impact could equate to 5 per cent. of global wealth, rising to 20 per cent. once the terrible human costs are taken into account. The imperative to cut our emissions is therefore not just moral and political, but economic.
Allied to climate change is the challenge of energy security. Over the next 15 years, we will lose 30 per cent. of our generating capacity, as ageing coal and nuclear plants reach the end of their lives. We face a huge energy gap, which must be bridged while curbing emissions and reducing our dependence on imported energy from dangerous and unstable parts of the world. We therefore need a huge push to increase our proportion of energy from renewable sources. Wales is already a major centre within the United Kingdom for onshore wind. With the North Hoyle wind farm, the first major offshore wind farm in Britain, and the proposal for a vast new north Wales offshore wind development at Gwynt-y-Mor, which would power up to 40 per cent. of Welsh homes, we can become a centre for offshore wind too.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, because this is obviously a matter of great concern to both of us, particularly in the light of the statistics that were published today that show that emissions in Wales were higher in 2004 than in 1990. Would he care to comment on those statistics and lay out his vision for how we are going to reduce emissions in Wales in the future?
The hon. Lady is right, but she ought also to bear in mind that we had huge growth in Wales over that period. Growth across the United Kingdom has been nearly 28 per cent., whereas emissions have gone up in single figures. They should not have gone up at all, but the fact that they have gone up by such a small proportion, compared with growth, shows that we are going in the right direction. We have to do more. The climate change levy, which was opposed by her party, is an important part of that, as is the drive towards renewable energy. I hope that she will have a word with her boss, the Leader of the Opposition, and ask him to change his mind about the Gwynt-y-Mor wind farm development. I do not know what the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) thinks about it. The development would involve 250 turbines and would have the capacity to power the electricity needs of 40 per cent. of Welsh homes. It is an important project and I hope that it will get all-party support.
Marine, tidal and other renewable energies also offer enormous potential. The proposal for a Severn barrage, which is currently being assessed by the Sustainable Development Commission, could provide up to 5 per cent., and perhaps more, of Britain’s entire electricity needs—all of it from a clean, green, renewable source. It is an excellent project and I hope that the go-ahead will be signalled in the forthcoming energy White Paper, following an assessment by the Sustainable Development Commission. The project will rely on private sector investment—I have met the consortium behind it—but it will need Government support in respect of planning and other arrangements. I hope that it goes ahead, because it will be a flagship project that will mean that Britain, and Wales, is serious about the renewable energy agenda.
Although I agree with the Secretary of State that we should utilise the energy available from the Severn estuary, does he agree that we must not yet dismiss the alternative possibility of tidal lagoons? It is possible that they might even produce more energy than a barrage. I am not asking him to commit to one or the other, but I would like him at least to keep the door open when it comes to the dialogue that we initiated at a Welsh Grand Committee, so that we can make a comparison between the two alternatives.
I am all in favour of a comparison to get the best option, but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will find—this is the advice that I have received—that the barrage is a significantly better prospect and, in many ways, will intrude less on the estuary, whether we are thinking about shipping or boating life, or wildlife. It also offers the opportunity of a transport link—perhaps a rail link—across to Devon, which could offer big opportunities for Cardiff airport, for example, to act as a gateway into the skies for the south-west and could allow more people to travel to south Wales more easily to see its beauty and to enjoy the excellence of its cities, such as Cardiff and Swansea.
Is it not true that the most effective, long-term solution to renewable energy for Wales is marine power? However, it would have to be introduced—either with a barrage, lagoons, or mills—in combination with a pump storage facility so that water could be pumped up at the off-peak hours to any of the hills in Wales, where the topography is absolutely right for that, and allowed to run down to generate energy at peak hours. A combination of tidal power and pump storage would be a fine solution and the most effective solution for Wales.
Before the Secretary of State moves on from renewable energy perhaps he could reflect on the role that bio-energy can play in replacing fossil fuels and the role that Wales can play in producing those biofuels, particularly biomass. A group of farmers in south-west Wales would like to supply the Bluestone project with heat, but at the moment Welsh farmers, unlike English farmers, do not have the benefit of grants to help with the high costs of establishing such crops. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could make representations to the Minister in the Assembly on that matter.
I shall certainly be happy to look into the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman as a result of my inquiries. I agree that biomass and bio-crops for fuel purposes have enormous potential, and Wales ought to go for that. Farmers have the potential, using wind and other environmentally friendly energy sources, to diversify their businesses and gain benefits. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about Bluestone. It is a fantastic project and environmentally very sound, and this could add to it.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support the changes that we will introduce, which have already been signalled, to ensure that there is less scope for nimbyism— which is rife in the United Kingdom, not least in Wales—to block renewable energy projects. We need to be serious about renewable energy, and that means supporting all the different forms that have been described in the debate so far—tidal, marine current, wind and biomass. If we are not serious, the only future is a nuclear one.
That is among the issues being considered in assessing the viability of the project. The hon. Gentleman asks a legitimate question, but I hope that it does not signal opposition to the barrage. There will in future be no wildlife in the Severn estuary—or pretty well anywhere else—if we are not careful, and if climate-changing emissions continue on their upward trajectory and wreak their devastation.
I very much agree with the Secretary of State that we have to make decisions now about renewable and sustainable energy, but does he accept that one of the problems in the original roll-out of wind turbines in Wales was that it was done with scant regard for local community concern? Is he aware that a cross-party group has been working on Tan 8 plus, as it has been called, to see whether we can build in community concerns to balance the environmental requirements that he has already outlined?
Of course we need to take account of community concerns, and nobody wants to see Wales carpeted with wind farms, but there has to be a recognition of the strategic importance of renewable energy projects. People often say to me, “We don’t like wind power. Let’s go for tidal power.” Any time anybody proposes siting a tidal project off a beach, there is massive opposition from local people. People have to decide where they stand on this matter. We are heading towards a much more strategic planning system, which can bypass such nimbyism.
For the information of the House, I can say that, in terms of the energy that would be produced, the Severn barrage project is equivalent to literally covering Wales with wind farms, so it is a very important project.
With enough support, Wales could become a world leader in renewable technologies, with huge potential also for jobs and business growth, so the impetus for urgent action makes not only environmental sense but economic and employment sense, too. I am therefore very encouraged that Carwyn Jones, the Welsh Assembly Government Minister for Environment, Planning and the Countryside, recently announced that all new buildings in Wales should be zero-carbon by 2011—another excellent policy from the Welsh Assembly Labour Government.
Although I in no way want to downplay the moral obligation of the United Kingdom to do our bit to tackle climate change, is the Secretary of State aware that to make a serious difference in tackling global emissions, we need to see action in countries such as China, India and Brazil? What role does he think Wales can play, given our history of coal production, in helping countries such as China and India, which are adding huge amounts of coal-fired electricity generating capacity every month, to develop clean-coal solutions that will make a difference to climate change in the longer term?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I support him in it. With China opening a new coal-fired power station every week—one a week—its contribution to global emissions will dwarf anything that we are able to do about it. However, what lies behind his question is a great opportunity for Wales in, for example, exporting our clean-coal technology and renewable energy experience so that we can get a much more balanced energy policy in China and other countries, including India and Brazil, to which he referred.
In Wrexham in north Wales, Sharp has recently announced that it is doubling production of photovoltaic solar panels at its Wrexham plant, making it one of the largest such facilities in the world, and very welcome in terms of local employment, too. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for the way in which he has supported that company in its growth.
So much has changed since Labour’s historic election victory of 1997 that it is worth remembering exactly what Wales was like at that time, after 18 years of Conservative rule. Thousands of jobs had been lost, a generation of young people had been thrown on the scrapheap with no chance of employment or access to education and training, and whole communities had been devastated by the rundown of local industries. Children were being taught in crowded classrooms; thousands of people were waiting more than 12 months for in-patient treatment; and crime had doubled. Mortgage rates, bankruptcies and inflation soared as the economy endured the worst two recessions since the second world war.
Wales was also governed by Tory Secretaries of State from English constituencies, like governor-generals, with little knowledge or understanding of our needs, and the same fate awaits Wales if the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham gets into my job in a future Conservative Government, if there ever is one. [Interruption.] Indeed, the hon. Lady would be a governess-general of Wales.
Now, in 2007, with Labour, Wales is heading in the right direction, going from strength to strength. Employment is at record levels, with 133,000 more jobs and 37,000 fewer unemployed than in 1997. Private sector output is up for the 46th month in a row. Major international companies such as Airbus, Logica CMG, Sharp, Toyota, EADS, General Dynamics, Ford and Cogent are thriving in Wales and competing successfully in global markets. As the recent announcement of the £16 billion investment in the defence training academy at St. Athan demonstrates, people now know that Wales can do it.
Investment in the health service is now more than £1,600 per person, double what it was under the Tories. As a result, we have more than 500 more consultants and more than 8,000 more qualified nurses in Wales alone. From 1 April, Welsh Labour’s landmark policy of free prescriptions for everyone in Wales will come into force, giving particular help to those on low incomes with chronic illnesses who are currently deterred from finding jobs by the cost of their prescriptions. From 2 April, another landmark Welsh Labour policy will come into force: the ban on smoking in all enclosed public spaces and workplaces, three months ahead of England, protecting workers from second-hand smoke.
In our schools, class sizes are down, with 1,700 more teachers than in 1998, and 5,700 more school support staff. Since 2002, more than £100 million a year has been invested in school buildings, and that figure is now up to £150 million a year. Welsh Labour’s policy of free breakfasts in primary schools, introduced in “community first” areas from September 2004, has now been rolled out throughout Wales, with more than 600 schools now signed up.
More young people are going on to higher education, and there are many more apprenticeships. Thousands of people who were previously in long-term unemployment, many of them lone parents or disabled, now have the opportunity of employment. Crime is down by a third, and 1,000 more police officers, 1,200 more police support staff, and more than 380 additional community support officers—the figure will rise to 700 later this year—have been introduced under Labour. There are 422 antisocial behaviour orders in Wales, which were introduced by a Labour Government in the face of opposition from many Opposition parties. Antisocial behaviour orders are making Wales safer, despite the opposition of the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats.
Some 50,000 children have been taken out of poverty, with the help of tax credits and increases in child benefit. Child poverty rates in Wales, once among the worst in Britain, have been brought into line with those in the rest of the country. [Interruption.] Of course there is more to do, but if we consider the miserable Tory record, we have made fantastic progress. Over 220,000 working families with children in Wales now receive nearly £3,000 per year, on average, in tax credits. The 30,000 children born each year in Wales benefit from the child trust fund, which was denounced by the Liberal Democrats as a gimmick. Older people in Wales are better off under Labour, with more than 160,000 low-income pensioners having their incomes boosted by about £30 a week or more under Labour’s pension credit. More than 469,000 households in Wales will benefit from automatic winter fuel payments of at least £200—something denied them under the Tories.
Free television licences for over-75s are given to about 190,000 pensioner households in Wales, and as a result of the Government’s Pensions Bill, re-linking the state pension with earnings, about 589,000 pensioners in Wales will benefit. Welsh Labour’s policy of free bus passes for older people and those with disabilities, pioneered in Wales and now being copied throughout the United Kingdom, benefits 530,000 people. Once again, Welsh Labour has led the way.
The Labour Government introduced, for the first time in our history, a statutory national minimum wage. It has been increased by 40 per cent. since its introduction, has been extended to 16 and 17-year-olds, and benefits an estimated 70,000 low-paid workers in Wales, the overwhelming majority of whom are women. We have ended the two-tier work force, repealed Tory anti-union laws and introduced new rights for part-timers, for holidays, and for maternity and paternity pay. As a result of Labour’s Government of Wales Act 2006, Wales will have additional law-making powers from May this year, with the prospect of full primary powers in future, subject to the approval of the people of Wales in a referendum.
There speaks the true voice of Welsh conservatism—opposed to devolution and to more powers for Wales. The tremendous progress that Wales has made is due in no small measure to the leadership of Labour’s First Minister, Rhodri Morgan. Rhodri is a unique character, and everyone in Wales seems to be on first-name terms with him. He towers over the rag-bag collection of Opposition politicians who aspire to replace him. Together with his Assembly Cabinet team, he has helped to put Wales back on the right track, and has laid the foundations for future success.
The progress that we have made owes a huge amount to the strength of the partnership between London and Cardiff since the creation of the Assembly. The jobs, and the investment in our schools and hospitals, were only possible because the Government in London and the Assembly Government in Cardiff are committed to working together in the interests of Wales. The £16 billion investment at St. Athan is just the latest example of the phenomenal results that we can achieve if Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom work together in the United Kingdom. Partnership is the key to our success, and we abandon it at our peril. All that goes to show that a small, clever country such as Wales can be world-class, but only if it is outward-looking and responds to global challenges, not if it is isolated, inward-looking, and retreating into a backward parochialism and separatism.
Working with strategic national and international partners is vital to Wales’s continued prosperity. Wales can respond fully to global challenges only if the United Kingdom and Wales work together and act in partnership. That is the key to success, both for the UK at large and for Wales in particular. Wales benefits from being part of the UK, and the UK benefits from Wales.
The financial link between Wales and the UK is the Barnett formula, but on 21 February, the Prime Minister said that the Labour Government would adhere strictly to that formula, even though its author says that it is past its sell-by date and is outdated. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he supports the Prime Minister on that point, or will Wales get the funds appropriate to its needs, and not just to the number of people who live there?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but his difficulty is that spending per head in Wales is significantly higher than it is in England. That is the dilemma that he faces. If we open up the Pandora’s box of the Barnett formula, it is not clear that Wales would do better as a result, so I urge caution on him. That is why we have no plans to change the way in which the Barnett formula distributes the Welsh block to the people of Wales.
The contribution that Wales made to Britain’s industrial development was a significant factor in our becoming a world power. Welsh manufacturers such as Airbus are the jewel in the industrial crown of the United Kingdom as a whole, and not just Wales. As a result of the partnership within the UK, Wales benefits from public investments that are almost £1,000 per head greater than those in England. The Union is, of course, much more than merely an economic arrangement. Personal and family connections are stronger than ever before, with more Welsh people living in England, and more English people living in Wales, than at any point in our history. Institutions that define Britishness show us what we have achieved together. The national health service was created by a proud son of Wales, Nye Bevan. The BBC is home to many great Welsh broadcasters and great Welsh productions, such as “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood”. Those institutions show how deeply Britishness is ingrained in our shared values, and how Wales has helped to define Britishness. As part of the UK, Wales has clout and influence on the world stage, but in the event of separation, we would be nigh-on irrelevant.
Despite that, the partnership from which we benefit is under threat. Reckless Conservative policies, such as English MPs voting for English laws, would not just consign Welsh MPs to second-class status in Parliament, but would consign the people of Wales to second-class status in the United Kingdom, and so encourage separation. Through narrow party political opportunism, the Tories are working hand in glove with the nationalists and threatening the break-up of the United Kingdom.
What future would people from the Celtic nations see in the United Kingdom if they were barred from full citizenship? What advantage would the people of Wales see in the Union if they were denied proper representation as equals in Parliament? Most dangerously, that reckless Conservative proposal would generate constitutional chaos at the heart of the United Kingdom Government. With different parties holding different majorities on English issues and on UK issues, who would form the Government: the party with the British majority, or the party with the English majority? The reality is that the Government of Britain would become the Government of England. Wales, Scotland, and presumably Northern Ireland, would be denied a voice.
I share the Secretary of State’s enthusiasm for keeping the Tories out of power, both here and in Cardiff Bay. If Labour fails to win an outright majority, and the only way of ensuring a Tory-free Government in Cardiff Bay and the Assembly is to form a coalition with my party, would he be prepared to accept that as the lesser of two evils?
My direct answer to the hon. Gentleman is that we are campaigning for a majority Welsh Labour Government. As he has provoked me on that point, perhaps I might give a few quotes from his party leaders. The leader of Plaid Cymru in the Welsh Assembly, Ieuan Wyn Jones, said in an interview:
“I am perfectly prepared to lead a government—an alternative government to Labour—in the National Assembly”.
When the interviewer asked him whether that would be a coalition Government, he replied:
“I am perfectly willing to do that.”
The only conceivable Opposition that Ieuan Wyn Jones wants to lead, as he told “The Politics Show” on BBC Wales on 10 December, is a Conservative-Liberal Democrat-Plaid Cymru coalition. That is the only alternative to Welsh Labour. After denying on “Dragon’s Eye” on BBC Wales on 22 February 2007 that Plaid Cymru would ever enter a Tory-led coalition, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy was challenged to rule it out categorically. His reply was very interesting:
“We will keep our options open…We will have to see what happens after the elections in May”.
I am happy to intervene on the Secretary of State, who has been talking a lot of rubbish. We are the only party that wants to keep the United Kingdom as a united kingdom, and we want to make sure that there is a strong Wales within a strong United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State comment on his call for the expenses of Assembly Members elected by proportional representation to be cut, because their job is easier? I believe that he was suggesting that we have two classes of politician in Wales.
The comparison is not relevant, but as the hon. Lady has asked me about the matter, I will say that I do not believe that list Members should be able to set up constituency offices in constituencies in which Assembly Members have been elected to do constituency work which is also undertaken by Members of Parliament. It is a matter for the Assembly: I was simply expressing my own view. As the hon. Lady has intervened to raise a matter originally raised by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr, may I offer her some Conservative views on the question of a Tory-led coalition? Nick Bourne, the Welsh Tory leader, said on 6 October 2006:
“There are discussions going on, of course there are, on an informal basis between parties about what is going to happen after the next election.”
I can offer the hon. Lady other quotes if she provokes me even further.
I do not intend to provoke the right hon. Gentleman, but I want to develop his logic. As he thinks that list Members should not have the right to set up offices or receive expenses at the same level as Members elected on a first-past-the-post basis, I assume that he thinks that Members of Parliament who represent Welsh constituencies, some of whose responsibilities have been given to Wales, should not be paid on a par with English Members who retain all their responsibilities in the House.
The hon. Lady is getting into treacherous waters. We are all equally elected in the House to represent our constituents. The burden of the Tory argument, although they never mention it—I wonder why—is to turn Welsh, Scottish and, presumably, Northern Irish MPs into second-class MPs, who would be denied an equal status in votes on matters that affect Parliament. List Members have equal status, voting and representative rights in the National Assembly, but they do not have the same constituency obligations. Why should they be on the same level as constituency Members? I am just expressing a personal opinion. It is not a matter for me, as it will be determined by Standing Orders and the subsequent protocol in the National Assembly for Wales.
Ten years after the people of Wales voted for devolution, there can be no doubt that Wales is going in the right direction. The spectre of industrial decline, unemployment and run-down public services that haunted Wales throughout the 1980s and 1990s has vanished. In its place, we have a vibrant and diverse economy. There are a record number of jobs, with 10 years of continuing growth—never before achieved in our history as a nation—and public services are going from strength to strength. The choice is whether we continue with the economic stability, the partnership with Westminster and the public investment that have enabled Wales to be such a success story over the past 10 years, or whether we cast those advantages aside and risk all that we have achieved by placing Wales’s destiny in the hands of a Tory-led coalition. The plans for such a coalition are well laid. Nick Bourne, the Conservative leader in the Assembly—
I am sure that the hon. Lady will approve of his remarks. He said:
“it is unrealistic to expect us to win an overall majority. In these circumstances, we and other non-Labour parties should be prepared to be pragmatic and work with others to achieve an agreed programme.”
Just as we heard earlier the voice of the Welsh Nationalist leader in the Assembly, so we hear from the Welsh Conservative leader a prediction of his intention to form a coalition against Welsh Labour if it does not secure a majority. That is the choice for the people of Wales. The Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), far from denouncing that unholy alliance with the separatists, has said that he would
“let Nick Bourne and his team decide”.
The leader of the Welsh Conservatives is preparing to align his party with separatists and nationalists in Wales, which is a significant move.
I am ruling it out. There is no prospect of that at all. It is a matter for Rhodri Morgan and Welsh Labour Assembly Members, but I do not think that Welsh Labour would accept it. We shall leave the nationalists to get into bed with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, if that is what they want to do after the election and if the opportunity arises.
The risk of a Tory-led coalition, or a Tory-Plaid Cymru-Liberal Democrat coalition in any guise, would have enormous consequences for Wales. There would be a huge risk to the record jobs and prosperity delivered under Labour; a huge risk to continuing investment in schools and health delivered under Labour; a huge risk to Wales continuing to go in the right direction, as it has done under Labour; a huge risk for businesses, families, children, older people and sick people; and a huge risk for all the people of Wales. If the chaotic infighting and division that we witnessed during last December’s budget fiasco were repeated in a Tory-led coalition Government, a cloud of uncertainty and instability would be cast over Wales. With such an atmosphere of risk, investors who flock to Wales would be driven away. Jobs that are now at a record high would disappear. Wales cannot afford to run such a huge risk.
That huge risk comes not just from voting for the Conservatives, but from voting for Plaid Cymru, for the Liberal Democrats, and, indeed, from staying at home. Over the past 18 months, we have witnessed a dress rehearsal for a Tory-led coalition in the Assembly. Week in, week out, Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the independents vote with the Tories to defeat the Welsh Labour Assembly Government. It is a short step from chaotic coalition in opposition to chaotic coalition in government. No wonder Plaid Cymru is trying to silence anyone who talks about its plans to join a Tory-led coalition, but its attempts to gag Welsh Labour and prevent us from talking about Plaid’s dodgy backroom deals with the Tories will not succeed. No amount of bluster can conceal the fact that Plaid Cymru is plotting to enter a Tory-led coalition. The leader of Plaid Cymru in the Assembly, Ieuan Wyn Jones, has even said, as I reported earlier, that he is “perfectly prepared” to lead an alternative coalition Government.
Will the Secretary of State confirm for the record that the agreement on the budget was made between his party and our party? It was not made between the Tories and us, between the Liberal Democrats and us, or between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. It was a Plaid Cymru-Labour agreement on the budget.
What the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) failed to say is that the Plaid Cymru Assembly group did not even vote on the Budget. They did not have the guts. They did not back the budget or oppose it, but used the opportunity to say that they supported some measures and did not support others.
That is correct. To reinforce my hon. Friend’s point, I remind the House that the previous week, the Plaid Cymru group talked for a few hours about forming an alternative Government—Plaid, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. Then it all fell apart. That is the prospect for Wales that I am warning about.
I have no idea about those discussions. I would expect any Assembly Member who claims credit for a budget going through the Assembly, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon has just done on behalf of his party, to have had the guts to vote for it.
Far from denying that he would put the Tories back into government, Ieuan Wyn Jones, the Plaid Cymru leader, is putting himself forward as Plaid’s answer to Ramsay MacDonald. So let there be no doubt that the groundwork for a Tory-led coalition in Wales has been laid, and sanctioned from the very top, with the Leader of the Opposition giving Nick Bourne his full support—a Faustian pact between the Tories and the separatists, selling the soul of Wales for power and for office.
The only way to stop that happening is for the people of Wales on 3 May to support continued partnership between Wales and Westminster with Welsh Labour and Rhodri Morgan in the leadership. A vote for Plaid Cymru will be a vote to put the Tories in power. A vote for the Liberal Democrats will be a vote to put the Tories in power. But if people vote Labour, they will get Labour. [Interruption.] The choice is between continued economic stability and record public investment under Labour, and a Tory-led coalition running our schools and hospitals. I am confident that the people of Wales will not put their future at risk, or put at risk the progress of the past 10 years. With strong leadership, partnership and hard work, Wales is continuing to head in the right direction, building a better Wales under Labour.
I feel as though I am intruding in a private family spat between Plaid Cymru and Labour. The Secretary of State clearly has not got his facts right, but it is good to welcome him to the Dispatch Box. I am glad that he has managed to take time off from his busy campaigning schedule—I hope every Labour Member has noticed his campaign to be Deputy Prime Minister—and time off from his Aga to join us and make a guest appearance. So little does he ever mention Wales these days, preferring to be referred to as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that I believe that on Sunday Andrew Marr described him in his interview as “the former Welsh Secretary”.
This could well be the right hon. Gentleman’s last St. David’s day debate as Secretary of State for Wales. I, for one, wish him all success with his deputy leadership campaign, as he would certainly be much easier on the eye than the present incumbent. It is so good that the Secretary of State has managed to come to this country from abroad and make his way up to the position that he currently holds. We wish him success in his bid.
Much as I expected, the right hon. Gentleman has not missed the opportunity of the St. David’s day debate to mount his usual ranting attack on our party but, as he said, the Assembly elections will be a bare-knuckle fight with the Tories. We are obviously considered to have made so much progress that in his view we are the main protagonists. Even the Prime Minister believes that the Conservative party has something to offer the people of Wales, as he mentioned my party no fewer than 30 times last weekend.
There is no doubt that the Labour party is running scared from a comprehensive and cohesive campaign that is being run by my colleagues, the Welsh Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly. We are too familiar with the Secretary of State’s biased view of Conservative history, which he dealt us again today. He seems to have a fixation with using facts that are 10 years out of date. He does that to try to divert attention from his party’s inadequate performance. I doubt that the electors in Wales will see his record in quite the same rosy light as he has painted today.
Today is a day for Welsh people to celebrate their culture and identity. I am therefore proud that my party’s support for the Welsh language is well recognised and generally appreciated. It was a Conservative Government who introduced the Welsh Language Act 1993, which has led to the great renaissance in the use of Welsh, and set up the Welsh language TV station S4C. Both those achievements have secured our Welsh culture and identity for many generations to come. We all owe a debt of gratitude particularly to my noble Friend Lord Roberts, who even today continues to play a pivotal role in our party on Welsh affairs.
I also recall the tremendous role that Conservatives played in the construction of the Cardiff bay barrage and the resulting regeneration, which none of us can deny and which we all welcome. It is so conveniently forgotten by the First Minister, who opposed the barrage tooth and nail at the time, and I believe that he was not the only member of the Labour party to do so.
However, I am not ungenerous—[Interruption.] No, I am not ungenerous, and I am sure the Secretary of State and his party, like us, has the best interests of Wales at heart. The trouble is that he and the Labour party have failed to deliver at a time when they have held the reins of power in both Westminster and Cardiff Bay, and now there is no place to hide.
The hon. Lady has run out of things that the Conservatives did for Wales. That was her whole list, was it not? They did something for Cardiff, and they made everybody in the Rhondda watch Welsh television instead of being able to watch Channel 4. Is there anything else that she thinks the Tories might have done for the valleys of south Wales?
I do not need to answer that attack from the hon. Gentleman. This is the same Member who attacked the First Minister, claiming that his NHS policy encourages patients to turn to the private sector. He added that the political cosiness in Wales may mean poorer public services for his constituents. This is a man who criticises his own party as much as I criticise them.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we owe a great debt to the last Conservative Government for all their much-appreciated work building the heads of the valley road and the other major links between the valleys and Cardiff, which enabled all sorts of high-tech manufacturing industries to go there and created a large number of jobs?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of that. Perhaps we should also remind the Secretary of State of the Welsh Development Agency and what it has done for Wales, and of the largest hospital building programme under the Conservatives in Wales.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Let me remind her of the real legacy in constituencies such as mine in the Rhondda—not a single road built from the valleys down into Cardiff by the Conservatives, the mines closed, and 30 per cent. of the population of working age in constituencies such as mine consigned to incapacity benefit. That is the true, shocking legacy of the Conservatives in the south Wales valleys.
That grandstanding from the hon. Gentleman, who is living in the past, is not unremarkable. Quite frankly, I prefer to look to the future, and we are proud of our record in Wales.
It is time for Wales to have an alternative—not an alternative such as Plaid, which would tear Wales out of the heart of the United Kingdom, but an alternative that would put heart back into Wales with a revolution of social, corporate and personal responsibility. In the brief time available, I shall set out some of our hopes and aspirations for this valuable part of the UK.
Despite Labour’s false rhetoric, we are determined as a party to improve the national health service for everyone—and not help the few to opt out. We are committed to the NHS ideal and have ruled out any move towards an insurance-based system. My colleagues in the Assembly have already set out some exciting proposals to improve NHS performance in Wales. They have been making plans so that, if successful in the elections, they can move to ensure safe and speedy access to local and appropriate hospitals, access to modern medicines, improvements in the hospital environment and to promote health and well-being throughout Wales.
We have a vision for the health service and health care in Wales, which trusts the doctors and the nurses—it is they, not politicians, who should be in the driving seat so that they can decide what is best for patients. Let us contrast that vision with eight years of Labour reality. Waiting lists are higher than when the Assembly was created, trusts are facing cumulative debts of more than £100 million, fewer than half of the adult population is registered with a dentist, and the health service is taking on administrative staff at a faster rate than it employs doctors and nurses.
Even Labour’s first initiative, which was to create 22 health boards out of the five existing health authorities, is disastrous. That alone cost the Welsh taxpayer £15 million and has resulted in a duplication of effort and a huge increase in bureaucracy that has since curtailed any chance of increased efficiency and productivity in the service. So bad has Labour stewardship been that even the British Medical Association in Wales passed in 2005 a vote of no confidence in the Labour Welsh Assembly Government, following their mishandling of GP contracts. Our health service is certainly not safe in their hands.
I agree with the Secretary of State that climate change is probably the biggest challenge facing us today in Wales or beyond our borders. It was good to hear that the right hon. Gentleman takes it seriously. He obviously takes it more seriously than the First Minister, who thinks that climate change is a subject of amusement, warranting flippant remarks about the weather. To me and my colleagues, it is a subject of great concern—not least following the publication of the key environmental statistics that I mentioned earlier, which show that emissions are higher in 2004 than they were in 1990. The right hon. Gentleman and I share the same aim on this and he will be pleased to know that Welsh Conservatives have been developing plans to reflect the need to develop and exploit renewable technology by exploring the viability of tidal power, biofuels and hydropower.
Probably because my right hon. Friend took the view that it was a giant bird blender. Just because views are expressed about one scheme, it does not mean that we are—[Interruption.] No, individual views expressed about one scheme do not deny the need to develop and exploit renewable technologies—a subject on which we all agree. We will all have our personal opinions about where we think schemes and projects should be placed. For instance, I would be interested to hear how the Secretary of State feels about the need to evaluate the replacement nuclear facility at Wylfa, which he missed out in his speech. Will he tell us now whether he is in favour of replacing that plant?
I am definitely in favour of a proper assessment, on which I have been working with my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and, indeed, Anglesey council in his constituency, which wants an assessment to see whether it is possible to replace Wylfa, should that opportunity arise.
The hon. Lady says that the Leader of the Opposition was just expressing a personal view, so let me remind the House of his personal view on nuclear power. He says that it should be the last possible option. It may be too late, because some people who advocate a nuclear-free Wales might actually be aiming towards an electricity-free Wales, particularly if we waited for the Tory policy of wait and see.
Sadly, the hon. Gentleman has not seemed to notice that it is his party that is in government. I am surprised that the Secretary of State agrees with me about the need to assess whether to replace our nuclear facilities at Wylfa. Given his history, I would have thought that he would be in favour of a nuclear-free Wales. However, we want an increase in corporate responsibility, which will ensure that business and the Government work together to make those changes that will contribute to a thriving, not a dying, environment.
In the spirit of St. David, it is the little things that count. Our excellent team in the Assembly will be setting out tough standards for recycling and reusing our waste so that we continue to make progress in tackling the mountain of rubbish to which we are all guilty of contributing.
Of similarly great concern is the future of our farming and countryside. The rural economy cannot flourish unless a vibrant agricultural sector is at its heart. Welsh Conservatives believe that farming must be properly valued. We do not want dairy farmers going out of business or large tracts of land abandoned, and we know that farmers must be confident that the Government have a coherent vision for a more prosperous rural economy.
Our plan is to work with farmers in partnership, recognising the vital role that they play in food production and the responsible management of our rural heritage. We also want to encourage new entrants and those who work in land-based industries, and ensure that they have the opportunities for education that meet the modern demands of the agricultural sector.
Our countryside is not just farms, but our wildlife and our stunning national parks and coastal geography. The balance that must be struck by future administrations is to protect that heritage while allowing development to deliver a greater prosperity to as many as possible.
In an answer to a parliamentary question yesterday, it was confirmed that the farm tax on subsidies alone paid by the average family in the country is £10 a family a week—a substantial increase on the previous year. Is the hon. Lady happy to see the average family pay that tax to this industry, or would she like it to be increased?
If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should stand by and allow our agricultural sector to decline, I am not with him. Our farmers deserve our support. However, our countryside is not just farms, but our wildlife and parks. A balance must be struck by future Administrations to protect that heritage, while allowing development to deliver greater prosperity to as many as possible.
Our seaside towns, in particular, deserve much greater attention than they have received under this Administration. They have served generations of holiday makers well in the past and, under Conservative plans, will be given a new lease of life to provide the holiday destinations of the future. With award-winning beaches such as Oxwich bay on the Gower, and as awareness of carbon footprints rises, so too, with some encouragement, could the demand to holiday closer to home. We must be ready to meet that demand.
We must be ready in Wales—here I agree with the Secretary of State—to meet the demands of the ever more challenging globalisation of our world and the competition that is eating the heart out of some of our traditional industries in Wales. We agree with both sides of the House that we must all support Airbus, which provides leading-edge technology and engineering capabilities in our Welsh economy and supports almost 7,000 jobs in Wales. Those jobs also impact on a further 50,000 jobs in the supply chain. I hope that the Government can give us assurances that they will continue to ensure that research and technology, which is vital for this company to secure work in the future, will be available. We need an improving economy in Wales.
I am glad about the hon. Lady’s support for Airbus. Will she also confirm her support for Burberry workers? The campaign to sustain their jobs is being led by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). If she does confirm her support, she might have a word with two of her colleagues who serve on the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) and for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), who appeared in the Committee this week to support Burberry in exporting Welsh jobs.
I think that those remarks are an utter disgrace, because I understand that that is not the position of my hon. Friends; perhaps they will raise that issue in their contributions. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I met Burberry very early on. I am still concerned about the job reductions, particularly in our textile industry in Wales. I went to some lengths to explore all the opportunities—retraining, reskilling, micro-finance and what would be done about the plant. I can give him the assurance that he sought. I have yet to meet the unions, although I have made several approaches in seeking to talk to them about the loss of jobs in Treorchy. It is good to know that he and I agree and care about the future of jobs in Wales, particularly of people who work for Burberry.
The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) spoke of his concern for the Burberry workers and referred to the Welsh Affairs Committee sitting earlier this week. If he had any real concern for the Burberry workers or the thousands of other manufacturing jobs that have been lost in the past two years in Wales, he would be screaming in the face of the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the erosion of our skills base, declining UK competitiveness and the quality of our education system.
I have given way enough, and I think that we have talked about Burberry enough. I want to move on, because the Secretary of State used so much time that everybody in the Chamber will be squeezed in making their contributions. However, I put it on the record that my support for the Burberry workers and my efforts to explore alternative ways in which they could be employed started right at the beginning, even before, I believe, the Secretary of State met the directors and representatives from Burberry.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I want to continue.
We need an improving economy in Wales. No matter what the Secretary of State says, he cannot escape the fact that 10 years of Labour government have left Wales the poorest part of the United Kingdom. That is one point that is curiously missing from the long list of so-called Labour achievements that he read out. Under Labour, the Welsh economy has suffered. For many, the very purpose and benefit of devolution was to enable more suitable policies to be developed for Wales, with the key aim of bridging the wealth gap between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. Since 1999, there has been a range of Government-led activities, but it remains the case that Wales is officially the poorest part of the United Kingdom, and a quarter of Welsh children live in households at or below the poverty threshold.
Labour wants to make its record a key part of the Assembly election campaign, but its efforts have largely failed. Official figures now show a widening wealth gap between the richest and poorest parts of Wales. Despite hundreds of millions of pounds of EU aid being spent in west Wales and the valleys since 1999, the region is now even further behind east Wales in terms of average wealth. West Wales and the valleys are now poorer than when the Conservative party left office in 1997. [Interruption.] Yes, unemployment rates have fallen since 1997, not least due to the increase in public sector employment, but inactivity rates are among the highest in the United Kingdom, and we see a rising trend of inactivity rates among men, while more and more women are going out to work to keep the bodies and souls of their families together.
We will need some radical thinking to help the Welsh economy to thrive again, whether it is re-examining business taxes, incentivising entrepreneurs, improving our transport system or boosting our research and development and science base, Welsh Conservatives will be putting in that effort to raise our economic prospects. We have clearly worked enthusiastically with other parties, despite the Labour party’s efforts to claim sole credit, to support the St. Athan bid, which will bring some of these badly needed jobs to Wales. We will also work enthusiastically against them, however, if we feel that they are damaging and demoralising the work force, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs workers whom I met in Pembrokeshire the other day. The callousness of a Government who claim the credit for job creation in one part of Wales in advance of the elections, and then leave a decision over the future of the Revenue and Customs workers until after the Assembly elections, deserves contempt. It is no wonder that politicians get a bad name.
It is also no wonder that politicians get a bad name when we see one of the most important tasks that Government should execute carried out so poorly that our safety is no longer assured. I refer, of course, to the policing of our country and borders. I am second to none in my admiration of our four police forces in Wales. They carry out a difficult and dangerous job and deserve the support of the Government and the populations that they serve. They also deserve some common sense and responsibility. It is not responsible to make police forces waste time, effort and money on pursuing administrative changes that are then abandoned with a subsequent loss of time and money to those forces. It is not responsible, and it defies common sense, to preside over a system whereby the police arrest suspected illegal immigrants only to find that they are instructed to release them back into the community before processing.
Despite countless promises to review, reform and redress its failings, the Home Office remains clearly unfit for purpose. There is absolutely no point in the Minister trying to blame that on us, as the responsibility rests fairly and squarely on his Government’s incompetent shoulders. I hope that when he makes his winding-up speech, he will address the issue and tell us what his Government have done to ensure that such a security lapse never happens again, either in Wales or elsewhere.
Over the past year, I have listened to the Secretary of State and his colleagues imply that there can be no valid criticism of Labour’s record, because under Labour, there has been record investment. There may well have been record expenditure, but there has not been record performance. We all know that any fool can spend money. There may be new school buildings, but thousands of schoolchildren are leaving school without the basic skills to have a fulfilling future. We read today in The Western Mail, an excellent paper, headlines saying that a quarter of Welsh adults have literacy skills below those of an 11-year-old and that our school buildings in Wales are still falling down. There may be more spending on health care, but waiting lists are still higher than when Labour came to power. I repeat: less than half of all adults are registered with an NHS dentist. Too often, people in Wales have been denied access to modern medicines. There may be more grants coming in from Europe, but 3,500 jobs have been lost since April last year and there is still deprivation and social exclusion across the country.
Record expenditure also comes at a price. The average family in the UK is paying £9,000 more in tax than when Labour came to office. Every homeowner in Wales knows about the cost of revaluation, and today we learn that the enormous increases in council tax in Wales are now likely to push the average bill above £1,000 for the first time. Let us remember all the money that Labour has taken out of people’s pockets; it has helped itself to the money from the windfall tax, the sale of gold, the third generation mobile phone licences and the pension funds—billions of pounds that have been spent, and still Wales is the poorest part of the United Kingdom.
For decades Labour claimed that Wales would be better under its management than under the Conservatives, and that is now patently one of the great political deceptions of our times. As Patrick McGuinness, a former Labour candidate, wrote, Labour is the party that
“has presided over the increase of inequality between the rich and the poor, often in the very constituencies of those who most vociferously complain about the supposed ‘crachach’.”
He adds that it has run a health service that is
“a blight on the devolution project.”
I could not have put it better myself.
The Conservatives now have a new spring in their step. We offer a new, fresh and appealing agenda. The prospectus that will be laid out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) together with me and the leader of our Welsh Conservatives, Nicholas Bourne, will offer hope—much-needed hope that there can be a better future in Wales. We are working for a better future for everyone. As Chris Chapman, who at 19 is our youngest community councillor, in Rogerstone, put it:
“The more I read, the more I was drawn to the…Conservative party—freedom of enterprise, freedom of choice, and freedom of opportunity for all members of society, regardless of their background.”
That is the Conservative message—one of which I think that St. David would have approved.
When 3 May arrives, we will be asking electors in Wales to look at Labour’s record and wake up to the fact that after 10 years it has not fulfilled its promises. I urge them, for the sake of our future, to vote Welsh Conservative for a change—a much-needed change—in Wales.
Anyone would have thought there was an election about.
It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) refer to Rogerstone community council, which abuts my constituency and is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). I assume that she is talking about the highest elected political office that the Conservatives have on a first-past-the-post basis in my part of Wales. We did once have a Conservative on the local authority in my constituency, but that was some years ago.
I believe that Mr. Chapman achieved his high office on the community council having been co-opted on to it. I urge the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) to read the MySpace contribution by Mr. Chapman, as I did recently. Perhaps she could put it into her manifesto. One could not describe it in the House because almost every other word would be inappropriate in parliamentary language.
I look forward to meeting him.
Today, as if we did not know, is St. David’s day, but another famous Welsh monk saint was St. Cadoc, who was the patron saint of our south Wales valleys. I am sure that he would agree with the idea of a Minister for the valleys, which I have been talking about for some time. I echo, in some ways, what the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham said about the importance of ensuring that there are Government offices and that Government activities take place in the valleys of south Wales, and I take her point about HMRC. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has met the appropriate Minister about that, and perhaps he could indicate the result of that meeting when he winds up.
There are some things that we do not necessarily always welcome in our constituencies. One of those is the prison that it is believed might come to my constituency, in Cwmbran. I have met the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), about that, and I have discussed it with the Minister for Social Justice and Regeneration in the Assembly. If there is to be an extra prison in Wales—there is some evidence to suggest that there should be—it should be placed, as the Welsh Assembly Government are suggesting, in an area of high unemployment that it could help to regenerate. There is also a case to be made for a prison in north Wales.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. As he knows—we have discussed this before—there has been a long-standing campaign for that to happen in north Wales. I do not want to damage him politically, but I entirely agree with what he says.
I thank the hon. Gentleman.
The site that has been chosen as a possible site for a prison in my constituency is in the middle of the densest population in terms of housing in the whole of Wales apart from Cardiff. That is because it was a new town. The Government may have chosen it because they own it, as it was previously the site of the police training college. Had they thought about it a little, they would have realised that the price of housing in my constituency—at least the southern part of it—means that the 40 acres on which the prison might go would bring the Revenue some £40 million. They could build one or two prisons with that. I understand that no decisions have been made, and there will be time to discuss the matter in other circumstances and places. However, I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to liaise with their counterparts in the Home Office on this important issue—particularly as the Welsh Assembly Government see a good case for a prison to be put in other areas.
That highlights the question of security and policing in Wales. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to the restructuring of the police forces in Wales. That, of course, has not happened. However, it is important to understand that even though that has not occurred, organised crime and the terrorist threats to Wales have not gone away. The restructuring proposals may have disappeared—I had some sympathy with the view that we should retain our present structure in Wales—but the threats to Wales, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, are the same now as they were before the restructuring document came out.
I speak in another capacity: as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Threats to infrastructure, to centres of population and to great shopping centres do not stop at the Wye valley or the Welsh border. Members will know that the head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, recently indicated that in our country there are at least 200 groupings of people who are actively engaged in plotting to take part in terrorist activities and that as many as 1,600 people may be involved in that. Therefore, we still need to be vigilant. We need to be conscious of the fact that we have to co-operate with other police forces across the border such as Avon and Somerset, and we have to be conscious, too, that terrorism is an issue across the whole of the United Kingdom. As a result, it is important for all our forces in Wales, including the special branches, to ensure not only that they are up to speed, but most importantly that they are strengthened in order to fight the war against terrorism, which could be as difficult for us in Wales as it is in any other part of the UK.
The right hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about the subject. In his expert opinion, what does he make of the proposals by Plaid Cymru to make the police and justice system generally part of the remit of the Welsh Assembly? Does he think that that would enable us and the police force—I ask him this in an open-minded fashion—to fight terrorism in a better way?
I will come to that issue in a few moments.
Obviously, when we talk to people in Wales about the policing of our country, they often, rightly, refer to neighbourhood crime and to antisocial behaviour. We know too that Wales has had a considerable increase in the number of policemen and women on our streets and in the number of community support officers. I understand why it is that, for example, in the Assembly—Edwina Hart, who is the responsible Minister, does a very good job of liaising with the Home Office and in dealing with these matters—the issues of drugs and antisocial behaviour are so important, but that does not mask the fact that those other threats are there.
I come to the point that the hon. Gentleman made. My belief is that we should involve and not devolve with regards to security and policing. There is no need to devolve the powers of the Home Secretary. We have a legal system that is the same as in England. It is different from that in Scotland. There is a strong case for improving co-operation between the Welsh Assembly and the Home Office, a point that the hon. Gentleman’s party made in the Assembly only a couple of days ago. I agree with that because there is room for improvement; there is no question about that. The Assembly has to deal with many issues that affect the police, whether it is housing, education or drugs, so there is a case for co-operation. The Secretary of State for Wales and the Under-Secretary will perhaps be able to suggest to the Home Secretary that there is a case for setting up a joint working party between the Assembly Government and the Home Office to deal with those important issues.
I do not know whether the Home Office will be split in the next couple of weeks. There is a case for separating justice from dealing with terrorism. I do not, incidentally, think that there is a case for MI6 going into the Home Office, but that is another issue for another place and another time. That discussion seems to be the most opportune time to discuss the relationship between Wales and the UK in dealing with the important issue of the threat to our security. All people in Wales would agree with that.
The debate about whether there should be devolution of the police is for another day and not today, and involvement is the right way. The greatest and most important duty of any Government is to protect their citizens from threats, whether external or internal, and Wales has to be part of that.
I conclude by touching on the points made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about energy. I agree very much that we must look at tidal energy from the Severn, but we must be careful where wind farms are placed. There is a balance to be made between the environment and the energy that those farms produce. We delude ourselves if we think that we can have an energy future that excludes nuclear power, but again that is for another day.
Let me start by wishing the whole House a happy—[Interruption.] I was going to say Valentine’s day. That is in the past. Happy St. David’s day; dydd gwyl Dewi dda.
I very much enjoyed the Secretary of State’s speech although unfortunately, as ever, I experienced a dull thud of disappointment when I realised that the Government were not profoundly willing to change anything of great importance; for example, the Barnett formula, which, as has been pointed out, is so out of date even its inventor thinks it needs to be replaced. It is in this context that I offer the Welsh Liberal Democrat vision; I hope it will be an inspiration to us all as we look forward to a healthier Wales in economic and environmental terms and in terms of communities.
Let us start with healthy communities. There is no better international example of what this means than the Fairtrade movement. Fair trade fortnight began on Monday and we all salute the Fairtrade Foundation’s work. The universally recognisable Fairtrade marque helps consumers support people in developing countries to get a fair deal from trade. Although the Fairtrade movement does not apply to UK produce, the concept enshrines the absolute importance of valuing our food producers and sustainable healthy communities. That principle necessarily applies to Wales.
Wales has a proud history of food and drink production and this week I am glad to say that the Commons Refreshment Department is promoting Welsh food and drink in the Commons dining rooms, cafeterias and bars, so that MPs, peers and visitors to Parliament can celebrate St. David’s day in style. We welcome the initiative, none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). The Strangers bar, as some hon. Members will know, is stocking Golden Valley ale from the Breconshire brewery. I applaud the efforts of my hon. Friend. I think I can say that no one in Parliament has done more to promote sales of this beer than he. I salute the sober way in which he has repeatedly stepped forward to the bar to support his local brewery. He has been an example to us all.
While we should highlight our food and drink industry and our tourism strategy and make that one of the key selling points, my concern is that the Britain and London visitor centre no longer has staff dedicated to advising on visits to Wales since the Assembly Government took control of the Wales Tourist Board. Will the Under-Secretary explain why that is the case when he winds up? How can we make sure that we do not lose out, having lost that staff support at a very important centre?
More seriously still, the increasing currency that Welsh food and drink enjoys is not reflected by increased currency to our farmers. In real terms, farmers receive 20 per cent. less for milk than they did in 1988, 19 years ago. One thousand dairy farmers in England and Wales have gone out of business in the last year alone. DEFRA figures show that farmers are getting 34 per cent. less for beef and 30 per cent. less for lamb than they did 19 years ago.
Like my hon. Friend, I congratulate the Fairtrade movement on establishing itself within the consciousness of the British consumer. However, it is strange that people actively seek out Fairtrade tea and coffee and then add milk that has been sold below the cost of production. Does my hon. Friend think that there is a need to have fair trade in this country as well as in third world countries?
My hon. Friend is right. The price farmers receive for their milk can be as low as 16p or 17p per litre. That is more than 4p less than the cost of producing it, yet it is sold in supermarkets for about 55p or 57p per litre.
Meat imports have risen 57 per cent. since 1997. Why? How can the Government allow such exploitation to continue? In government, Welsh Liberal Democrats would take steps to ensure that farmers are not ripped off at the farm gate for the sake of profit at the supermarket checkout. Again, I challenge the Minister to say in his winding-up speech what the Labour party intends to do to try to address the outrageous disparities between the power of supermarkets and that of farmers.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the Competition Commission inquiry into supermarkets? There are three strands to the inquiry. It will look into the issue of small shops, and also, in particular, into farm prices. Will he encourage all the farmers whom he knows to submit evidence to that inquiry so that it can come to a fair conclusion? That is the way forward; it is a very positive way of tackling the problems that farmers face.
The hon. Lady makes a good point, and I hope that farmers will get actively involved in that consultation process. However, I should add that on many occasions farmers have constructively engaged in Government consultations but have been rewarded with no improvement in the proposals being debated. I also lament the continuous apparent efforts of the Government to weaken the milk suppliers’ power in the marketplace, stretching all the way back to the destruction of the Milk Marketing Board.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the hon. Lady’s sensible suggestion and the concerns that I have raised, not least because they affect associated industries as well—hence the announcement of the likely closure of the Aeron valley creamery in Ceredigion, with the potential loss of 44 jobs. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) planned to attend today’s debate, but he has had to travel to that creamery to consider the crisis with management and the very concerned work force. The staff have worked hard to establish well known brands, and the decision that has been made was a bolt from the blue. Our priority must be to protect that factory and similar factories as going concerns, and to establish why yet another firm in the dairy sector has pulled its operations only two years after setting up.
Sadly, despite all their fine words, the Government have done little to support farming. They cut Tir Mynydd payments to hill farmers and ignored the threat posed by new European Union rules on electronic identity for sheep farmers. They also refused to give farmers more bargaining power against the supermarkets. Instead of strengthening the relatively toothless code of practice they have let the balance of power lie with the massive supermarket chains, and instead of introducing a food trade inspector with strong investigative powers they have just sat on their hands.
My colleague, Mick Bates, the Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire, has called for a fair trade Welsh milk co-operative so that farmers can get a fair return for their product. Happily, I hear that there has been some movement on that. It seems that Waitrose is prepared to introduce some form of transparent labelling system that shows the profits of the producer, the processor and the retailer. Does the Wales Office back that scheme, and will it encourage others to follow suit? I very much back the scheme, and Liberal Democrats feel that Waitrose is showing that major outlets have nothing to fear from working more in partnership with the suppliers, on whom they depend for the produce that makes them their profits.
It appears that similar kinds of pressures are applying in respect of the Wales post office network. In many isolated settlements post offices are the social hub, yet Government Departments and agencies have this year cut contracts with post offices, draining support from the network. In the Assembly, Labour failed to back Liberal Democrat proposals to reinstate the post office development fund, which helped to keep more than 100 post offices open between 2002 and 2004.
The Government consultation on closing 2,500 post offices ends next Wednesday. On 6 February, we gave the Minister notice that individual sub-postmasters had not been sent a copy of the consultation document. That might explain why only 15 responses have so far been received from Wales. Why did the Wales Office not make sure that the document was circulated by the Department of Trade and Industry? Is the Wales Office willing to provide more time for reasonable consultation opportunities with the sub-postmasters, who would be happy to make a contribution, and who would have done so if only they had known that they were expected to do so?
I hope that the work that I, others and perhaps the hon. Lady herself have done has raised awareness of the proposals, but given their enormity, it was fair for sub-postmasters to expect the Government to be far more proactive and perhaps to contribute marginally to post offices’ turnover by mailing them a hard copy of the very proposals that could shut down much of our network.
Following our discussions with the Minister, it was agreed that my office in Brecon would contact each post office and send out the consultation documents. As a result, we have already received more than 600 replies—more will be coming in—and I hope to present them to the DTI next week. So my hon. Friend should not be too despairing.
On that point, I thank the Minister for the time that he took to meet us and the sub-postmasters, who felt, as do we, that it was a constructive meeting. I hope that he will take on board the proposals arising from the consultation exercise that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentions. In essence, such proposals can be summarised as creating a one-stop shop where people can buy their TV licence, renew their car tax and pay council tax and other bills. We also encourage the Minister to think creatively about bringing in new business to rural areas. Could post offices be used to process livestock movement forms, for example? Can a concerted effort be made to encourage Welsh councils to use post offices for council tax and rent payments, and perhaps even for the payment of parking fines?
The trend to move local services away from rural and sparsely populated areas is tragically reflected in the threatened closure of local tax offices in regions and constituencies such as mid-Wales, Montgomeryshire and Ceredigion. Do the Government not know that, far from being under-employed, these offices help to deal with the backlog from centralised offices such as that in Wrexham? In fact, they are totally overloaded. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the Wales Office will listen to the case for maintaining those local offices and help us to get the Treasury to think again, not least because the possible reduction in the tax collected could exceed the superficial saving made through such closures. Given that all those offices are fully employed, it is fairly difficult to see how any saving in staff numbers can be made. I hope that the Minister will comment on that issue.
Another sign of a healthy community is how it tackles crime. Welsh prisons were effectively full in 2000; now, they are roughly 140 per cent. above their original design capacity. Over that period, staff to prisoner ratios have fallen, while violence in Welsh prisons has, unsurprisingly, more than doubled. This prison crisis was not unexpected—all the warning signs were there long before the media started covering the issue. In the last four years alone, there have been 900 incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner violence at Parc prison, in Cardiff. Under such circumstances it is extremely difficult to rehabilitate prisoners, and efforts are hampered by the stress caused within the culture of the prison itself. In fact, that might partly explain why reoffending rates have risen from 57 per cent. in 1992 to 67 per cent. today.
In part, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the underlying problem is that we are not dealing with the fundamental causes of crime. The Welsh Lib Dems believe that a healthy community in Wales is one in which those convicted of criminal offences are educated out of crime, helped to move away from drug and alcohol addiction and given the tools to access jobs, thereby reducing the likelihood that they will reoffend. The current problem is that almost the opposite seems to be happening, owing to overcrowding. Adding to the problem is the fact that many convicts and young offenders are more than 100 miles from their natural support networks. They can be based as far away as Suffolk or Newcastle. Such distances necessarily damage the chances of rehabilitating the very individuals on whom we should be working hard to move them away from crime.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats are also delighted to give credit where it is due, and restorative justice programmes and one-to-one mentoring schemes are part of the solution. Given the response by the Under-Secretary to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) recently, the Government appear to be interested in considering such schemes, which have had a significant success rate in moving people off drug addictions and finding them new jobs after their sentences. While prisons can be a school for crime, we have to find other ways to restore the chances for individuals and remove them from the crime cycle.
Five years ago, north Wales was the safest area in Wales in terms of gun crime, and one of the safest in the UK. Since then, gun crime in north Wales has risen fourteenfold, making it the area of Wales most at risk from gun crime, which is now more common than in areas such as Newcastle, Bristol and Hull. I asked the Minister whether he is aware of the White Gold project pioneered in north Cornwall. It is a partnership between the police, youth offending teams and community workers. It has worked quite well and has a track record of reducing crime by as much as 56 per cent., a saving to the Home Office of £500,000. We feel that this model, using a dedicated police unit in partnership with youth offending teams, which could work closely with youth officers in each safer neighbourhood team, could make the difference between those young people reoffending or having a chance to get back on track.
I am aware of the debate, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have a serious and growing gun problem in north Wales. Without having an argument with him or Richard Brunstrom about the specific figures, I think that we have a real opportunity to take a different approach, to learn from the project in the south-west and to apply it in north Wales.
The greatest deterrent to crime is the fear of being caught, but Wales is some 430 police community support officers short of the Government’s own original target. In the last year, we have actually seen police numbers fall by more than 70. Welsh forces have been through enormous upheavals and one can see where some of the resources have been diverted, resulting in the squeeze on funds. The most obvious example is the botched police merger. It was wisely abandoned, but the process wasted more than 30,000 Welsh police force hours. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire can confirm that in Brecon a team consisting of 13 staff, many of them quite senior officers and from all four Welsh forces, was working full time on the merger proposals for up to 10 months—a total, for only those staff, of more than 16,000 police hours. I ask the Minister to confirm that the Welsh police forces, which are suffering from a significant £500,000 funding black hole as a direct result of the merger proposals, will have that money reimbursed, so that they may make good the losses that were not of their doing.
To have a healthy Wales, we also need healthy people. Health care risks becoming ever more remote from communities across Wales, despite the proven advantages of care closer to home. Cottage hospitals provide less expensive bed spaces than the large district general hospitals and they also allow patients to convalesce locally, closer to their families. That has a clear record of speeding recovery times. Improvements in technology also provide us with a serious opportunity to base specialists in central locations, but to deliver the services remotely using the wonders of modern science.
The overwhelming majority of the decisions to close such facilities are in the hands of local health boards, which are meant to make decisions locally and accountably. I appeal directly to those boards not to follow the remorseless pace of centralisation, but to recognise that if we make full use of the available technologies, community health care can be the best health care.
Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the recent announcement of an independent inquiry into how haemophiliacs in Wales were infected with HIV and hepatitis? Will he join me in urging Welsh Office Ministers to make representations on their behalf to ensure that the Department of Health co-operates fully with the inquiry?
My hon. Friend has worked tirelessly in that campaign, and she makes a good, cross-party point. I hope that the Minister will confirm that he will work with her, and with his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly and the Department of Health, to ensure that that preventable and tragic problem is dealt with in the most effective way.
To illustrate my remarks about local hospitals in Wales, I shall give an example from my constituency. There is no justification on earth for the closure of Llanidloes hospital, as that will cost lives, not save money. I had a serious accident in 1998, and the hospital saved my life. Many people would not be alive today without the fast, professional and efficient service that staff there have displayed down the years.
Closing Llanidloes hospital will merely shift patients further afield, and shunt costs to other budget headings. No one on the local health board has yet been able to explain where the cost savings will come from, and that is because they do not exist. Local health boards were supposed to provide local accountability; that was the whole point, but if they are not responsible to local demand, they cannot do their job and be responsive to local need. In the Liberal Democrat picture, local health provision is vital, and I hope that Welsh Office Ministers will use whatever powers they have to work with their opposite numbers in Cardiff to make sure that the tragic closure of essential services is prevented.
That brings me to the third and final element of what we regard as the Welsh health checklist—a healthy environment and a sustainable economy. I am very encouraged that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham and the Secretary of State both said that they are genuinely and seriously committed to the environment. Two key reports in the past six months, the Stern report and the first part of the fourth assessment report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change, have made the case for environmental action more compelling and urgent then ever before. Three certainties arise from those groundbreaking pieces of work—first, that climate change and the environment are, and will remain, of primary concern to humankind for the foreseeable future; secondly, that without concerted action now our lifestyles will have catastrophic knock-on effects on our environment, economies and descendants; and thirdly that, with the right kind of policies, protecting our environment and combating climate do not have to come at the expense of our economies.
On the contrary, combating climate change is an economic opportunity, not an economic risk. The lesson is that, by pursuing a sustainable and healthy economy, we can also preserve a sustainable and healthy environment.
The hon. Gentleman is slightly off beam, as usual. I assume that what he says today will be directly contradicted by Nick Bourne tomorrow. [Interruption.] He needs to settle down. I will answer his question, but he must stop talking, as otherwise he will not be able to hear me.
The aviation industry as a whole generates 3 per cent. of world pollution. The hon. Gentleman will know that I fly aircraft. I very much enjoy it, and believe that that puts me in a strong position to say what I think should happen. I believe that aviation should pay its environmental way, and that the Government should work on an international basis to secure an environmental offset on the fuel used in commercial jets. No such offset exists at present.
My opinion may surprise those hon. Members who know that I am actively involved in the aviation world, but such involvement can be no excuse for environmental irresponsibility. The Government should take the opportunity to be proactive and secure international agreements at a European level to ensure that aviation pays its environmental way. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question.
Wales is peering through a window of opportunity, as it is blessed with many different renewable energy resources, a wealth of environmental expertise and a solid platform of green industries. However, if we do not change direction we will miss out and blow a golden chance to become the green capital of the UK. That would be a terrible wasted opportunity. It is made worse by pressure from Scotland, which has been running a green jobs strategy since June 2005.
Wales’ efforts to generate clean energy are being damaged by our lack of ambitious targets. While the Scottish Executive, no doubt because of the constructive contribution of the coalition Liberal Democrat partners in government, have committed themselves to obtaining 100 per cent. of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015; the Welsh Assembly has still not identified what taking a Welsh share of the UK’s Kyoto commitment means. Nor has it developed a coherent climate change programme. Meanwhile, by contrast, Scotland’s strategy is well under way, and it is likely to meet its Scottish share of its Kyoto commitment.
I do not want to see Wales fall behind on the green agenda. I want to see Wales become the greenest country in Europe. To make it so, we must employ the full range of measures at our disposal. Does the Wales Office have any sympathy with some of the Minister’s Welsh Assembly colleagues who would like to see Wales given power over planning for power stations above 50 MW? We feel that that power is essential if Wales is to unleash its potential to generate clean electricity from renewable sources. Does the Under-Secretary have any sympathy with those in Wales who want power over building regulations also devolved to the Assembly so that Wales can drive forward cutting-edge, energy-efficient building design? We have already heard some promising news about that.
One Government measure that has been mentioned in previous debates, and which I wholeheartedly support, is the forthcoming Energy Technology Institute. The £1 billion-worth of investment that has been pledged from private and public sources could have significant benefits for Wales and, in turn, could have positive results for the overall objective of developing new cutting-edge green technologies. We already have a wealth of experience in the research and development sector of green technologies and techniques. The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth is one such unique organisation, and it is carrying out pioneering work. I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating the CAT on its invaluable contributions.
The same goes for the ground breaking work of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research—IGER—on the sustainable development of biomass crops, which were mentioned earlier. It estimates that up to one tenth of Welsh arable land could be used to grow energy crops as one way of converting from conventional agriculture to energy-related agriculture.
Wales is also home to a wide range of green industries. Entrepreneurs such as Dulas in Montgomeryshire have developed domestic and portable microgeneration units and devices. Intersolar in Bridgend has developed solar energy roof tiles and G24i in Cardiff has developed a highly adaptable solar foil. I hope that Ministers will work to ensure that every effort is made to inform the DTI of the full contribution that Wales could make to the new ETI. I ask the Minister to confirm that he will urge his colleague to attend a showcase event taking place at the CAT later this year, showcasing Welsh green industries, research bodies and non-governmental organisations that could be in line for receiving funds under the ETI and other DTI programmes.
I was also interested to hear of the recent High Court ruling on the Government’s conduct during their energy review. Certainly, the consensus among Welsh stakeholders was in line with the judge’s ruling that the Government had not been open and transparent in their information on nuclear power during the process. We need to restore confidence in the energy review process among Welsh stakeholders in order to avoid the mistakes of the past. I do not like nuclear power, but we cannot afford a failed consultation process that makes it look as if the Government have already made up their mind, as apparently the Prime Minister has, without really listening to what the public want. Nothing can be more pointless than a pretend consultation and a predetermined outcome.
I am disappointed that the Government have decided to delay the introduction of the climate change Bill. Taking action on climate change is something that we all talk about as a matter of urgency. Wales would undoubtedly benefit. What discussions has the Minister had about a timetable for the introduction of that Bill?
Mention of the Severn estuary has already been made. It can provide all of Wales’ energy and one twentieth of the UK’s energy. I simply underline the need not to discount the tidal lagoon technology, which may or may not be better than the Severn barrage. I strongly urge Ministers to have a second look at it. Such technologies could have a fruitful future. It is argued that tidal lagoons could have less environmental impact than a barrage, so I ask only that we have a sensible debate rather than assuming that a barrage would be better than lagoons.
The House is expecting a White Paper on the marine Bill and I hope that the Wales Office has worked with colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry on the potential for Wales to maximise cost-effective electricity generation off the coast of Wales from all forms of renewable marine technology. As a nation, we must discuss the level of coastal protection that Wales can expect in the foreseeable future, in light of rising sea levels and an increased number of storms. We should seize the chance to combine coastal protection measures and renewable marine technologies in a forward-thinking, cost-effective, joined-up strategy to protect the Welsh coast and generate clean energy. My concern is that although the Government talk warmly about environmental strategies they do not always join them up, so we end up with missed opportunities, or half-finished projects, which conflict with one another for funding.
In conclusion, the Welsh Liberal Democrats aim to deliver a holistic healthy Wales, with healthy communities, healthy people and a healthy and environmentally sustainable economy. We are committed to a healthy Wales because we know that it is possible, so if that is what Wales wants it is exactly what Wales will get by voting for the Liberal Democrats in May. We started on that programme when we were in government, and I hope we proved that we were effective in helping to serve Wales in a way that genuinely added value to the quality of life of our Welsh citizens; so if that is what the Welsh people want, I hope that in May they will vote for the Liberal Democrats, who promise to deliver it.
I hope that before the end of the debate one of my more gallant friends will give you a daffodil, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] I now see that you are already wearing a daffodil, but perhaps one of my hon. Friends will offer you a larger one.
It is more than 25 years since I was a Member of the European Parliament, but I recall that we were often given only three minutes to make a speech. It is amazing how much can be said in three minutes. Back Benchers have a time limit this afternoon, although I hope to be much briefer than that. It seems a long time since we discussed the length of Front-Bench speeches in the House, and it is time we did so. I have sat on the Front Bench, but I know, too, that one of the most irritating things for Back Benchers is for Front Bench speakers to go on too long—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]—and my criticism applies to both sides of the House.
I want to thank the Wales Office, because there are many good news stories in Wales, although we would not think so from listening to the Welsh media and reading the Welsh press. Many column inches are devoted to disasters, such as the loss of X hundred jobs. However, this week we have saved 500 jobs in Wales at Ferrari, which is based in my constituency and has shops throughout south Wales. I am grateful to the Wales Office for its assistance, to the Welsh Assembly, my AM colleague, Christine Chapman, and the representative of the bakers union, John Jones, who was optimistic throughout—he was certainly more optimistic than me. I am pleased to welcome the new owner of Ferrari, Cameron Gunn, who is Australian.
I must say that, were it not for the assistance of the Wales Office, and some of the Ministers and officials in particular, we would have had great difficulty. It has meant a lot of hard work, but we have done it quietly and persistently. Every day, and sometimes all of every day, we have been talking to prospective buyers and to people who could assist them. It is a considerable success that 500 jobs have been saved throughout south Wales. The bakery is in Hirwaun in my constituency. Some of the workers have worked in the bakery for 30 years and sometimes whole families have worked there. I am particularly glad for them, because they knew that they had a good product. I kept telling them, “While the customers continue to buy, the workers will continue to bake,” and they have continued to bake, despite the threat hanging over them.
The Ferrari family started baking in south Wales in 1925. Like many other successful immigrants at the time, the Ferraris came from Italy, on boats used for trading Italian timber, which was needed to support the mines of south Wales. The family originally came from the Bardi region and worked as miners when they arrived in south Wales, until they saw the gap in the market and became some of the earliest café owners, along with Sid Doli’s ice cream, Benny’s cafés and many other well-known brands. The company was one of the many examples of the integration and success of migrant families, in an area famous for early integration.
The other subject that I want to talk about briefly is homelessness. I am doing so in a non-partisan way. As somebody who has not been faced with the problem of homelessness in my constituency, to my knowledge, for a long time as a Member of Parliament, I have been shocked recently in Cardiff to see people sitting on the streets, by lifts, wrapped up in blankets, begging. I had conversations with some of those young people and asked what they are doing there and why they are not in some kind of accommodation. Each time, they told me, “The hostels are full.” I find it disgraceful that, in 2007, we should still be faced with homeless people in our communities. Some, of course, are homeless from choice and there will always be people like that in our community. Other people are homeless because they have quarrelled with their parents, or they cannot afford the rent and have lost their tenancy. There are all sorts of reasons.
The situation was brought home to me a few weeks ago by an 18-year-old girl in my constituency. She did not have any previous problems. She was thrown out by her mother and, after some months of living with her boyfriend’s family, she found that she had no alternative but to go out on to the streets to sleep. I was shocked when I discovered that my local council, Rhondda Cynon Taf, was unable to provide accommodation for her because she was not considered to be a priority need as defined by Assembly legislation—despite the fact that she was a vulnerable young woman, sleeping rough on the streets at a time when the police in Aberdare were searching for a man who had committed a serious sexual attack against a woman in broad daylight in the same town only a few days previously.
I was even more shocked to discover that there is not one direct access hostel in my constituency. The nearest one is in Pontypridd and has only 10 beds to deal with the 560 referrals it received last year. For those, mostly young, people who have nowhere to go and who do not meet the priority guidelines, there are few alternatives, certainly in rural and semi-urban areas, other than the sofas of friends and the streets. According to Shelter Cymru, over recent years more people than ever have experienced homelessness in Wales. Recorded homelessness in Wales has been at record levels: more than 20,000 people, 7,000 of whom were dependent children and who were accepted by local councils as homeless in 2005.
Shelter Cymru dealt with 18,632 housing problems last year. There is obviously a need for more suitable accommodation for people who lose their tenancies, but that goes only part of the way to solving the problem. There is certainly a lack of emergency, direct-access accommodation, which is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. In my view more could be done to help people retain their tenancies by providing supported accommodation for those who need it, and social services and tenancy support services. In that way we could greatly reduce the numbers who come through the doors of our local housing advice centres and hostels, and who line our pavements and sleep in our parks.
I commend the work of the Welsh Assembly. It has been much more progressive on this issue than the equivalent authorities in England. The Assembly has really tried to address homelessness and done a great deal to implement preventive measures. However, there needs to be yet more emphasis on such measures, including mediation between parents and children. It is crucial that housing associations, independent housing charities and other services work more closely together. Most people come into contact with the health service and social services before becoming homeless, and it is vital that those services address homelessness at that stage. In addition, there must be an increase in the number of drug and alcohol rehabilitation places, which is still disgracefully low. There must also be increased practical support and training, and emotional support for vulnerable groups such as care leavers and prison leavers.
Let me end on an optimistic note, which is that in my constituency, as in many others in Wales, the percentage of people unemployed has almost halved over the past 10 years. That is a tremendous success, and I compliment my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary on helping to achieve it.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). She speaks with an enormous amount of experience and wisdom.
There is simply no better day than 1 March for a debate on the key issues facing the great nation of Wales. It is timely, too, coming just a couple of months before the Assembly elections, when voters in Wales will have an opportunity to give their verdicts on the Administration here in London and the Labour Administration in Cardiff. My fear for those elections, though, is that the vast majority of voters in Wales will be either too disillusioned or too uninterested to vote at all. For those who do vote, it will be an opportunity to participate in a referendum on the key issues affecting their lives. I do not believe that Welsh people think narrowly about which issues are devolved and which are the responsibility of Westminster; they think about the issues that they care about. The opening remarks of the Secretary of State notwithstanding, on many of the key issues affecting the Welsh people, unfortunately their verdict will be that the Government have failed.
Before I go into depth on those issues, it is probably worth taking a moment to reflect on St. David’s day. St. David, of course, has strong Pembrokeshire connections of which we are very proud. He had many miracles attributed to him, the most incredible of which was performed when he was preaching at the Synod of Llandewi Brefi, where he caused the ground to rise beneath him so that everybody there could see and hear him. I make no such claims for my own powers. We in Pembrokeshire are fond of our association with St. David. It is good to see so many right hon. and hon. Members sporting daffodils today. I love that flower; it is a happy, confident, optimistic-looking flower, rather like the new Conservative party. Of course, wearing daffodils on 1 March is a relatively recent phenomenon.
It is still standing proud. The preferred symbol was, for many years, the leek. The sixth-century Welsh poet, Taliesin, was a great fan of the leek, believing that, if eaten, it encouraged good health and happiness. Whatever the origins of all the quirky practices of St. David’s day, such as the wearing of leeks or daffodils, they are part of the fabric of our heritage. They are the things that help to bind us together as a nation.
Some hon. Members present will be familiar with my views on St. David’s day. I think that it is a special and unique day in the school calendar in Wales. I have respect for Members of all parties who believe that St. David’s day should be a public holiday, but I believe that it is at its best when celebrated in schools. Next week, the Western Telegraph Pembrokeshire and the Milford and West Wales Mercury in my local area will be full of beautiful photographs of little Welsh girls wearing national costume, and lads wearing Welsh rugby shirts, daffodils or leeks. The schools are where St. David’s day is celebrated best. I make a plea to Front Benchers on both sides of the House to resist calls for St. David’s day to be a public holiday. It should remain a special day for Welsh schools.
I certainly believe that St. David’s day should be, and is, a special day, but if the schools argument is the strongest one that the hon. Gentleman has, I point out that kids in schools throughout Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom celebrate Christmas at school. There are lovely photos in the newspapers about Christmas, and schools have a nativity play on days other than Christmas day. The argument has to go beyond Wales; we should make St. George’s day and St. Andrew’s day public holidays, too, so that there is a level playing field, and so that we can celebrate the diversity of the United Kingdom.
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I have talked to many teachers and parents in my constituency who are enormously supportive of keeping 1 March a normal school day. If it was a public holiday, and if we asked schools to celebrate St. David’s day on an alternative day, the opportunities for Welsh children to learn about their national heritage would be reduced. That is just my point of view.
Burberry was mentioned earlier in a cheap attempt to suggest that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and I are unsympathetic to the Burberry workers who are losing their jobs. It is a tragedy for those workers who face redundancy. Anybody who grew up in a household in which there has been worklessness will know what a tragedy unemployment can be.
I was simply quoting The Guardian. I take it that, if its report was wrong, the hon. Gentleman has instructed his solicitors to take action.
On Tuesday, the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs held an inquiry into the closure of the Treorchy plant. It involved robust questioning of the management of Burberry and of representatives of the GMB. I do not recall seeing the right hon. Gentleman there, but a lot of people who were present will have made up their minds about the quality of evidence presented by the GMB and the Burberry management.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), who originally suggested holding an inquiry on globalisation and its impact on Wales. It was a timely recommendation, given the Burberry situation and Tata’s takeover of Corus, and the Committee is finding the inquiry worth while. I applaud the campaigning skills of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who, along with others, has helped to generate a very effective publicity campaign on behalf of Burberry workers. However, it is not simply a question of whether one is against the workers at the Burberry factory and pro-management, or against the management. It is much more complex, as it goes to the heart of the challenges of globalisation and the way in which they impact on Wales.
I was interested to read in the press comments by various celebrities involved in the campaign. I do not question the sincerity of their remarks about Burberry, but if they genuinely wish to contribute to the debate about globalisation and the challenges facing Welsh manufacturers, as well as making critical comments about Burberry management they should ask difficult questions about what is happening to our skills base, the quality of science education in this country and a range of difficult issues. The battle of globalisation will be won or lost on whether the country can innovate and whether our education and skills base is of sufficient quality.
The article in The Western Mail this morning said:
“More than half of the adults in Wales have poor numeracy skills and one in four has a reading and writing age of 11 or below.”
Education and skills standards in Wales remain some of the worst in the UK, and the gap between English and Welsh standards is widening, which is a national scandal. The number of young people not in full-time education, employment or training is higher in Wales than it was in 1997. Those youngsters have fallen through the net of employment and training. The Prince’s Trust in Wales says that 100,000 young people in Wales are simply doing nothing. Across the UK, about 1.25 million 15 to 24-year-olds are not in education, employment or training, which is a national scandal. Exclusions, unauthorised absences and truancy in Welsh schools have all risen in recent years, and that is part of the challenge that we must address if we are to succeed in facing up to the issue of globalisation and the extent to which the Welsh and British economies can continue to prosper and succeed in a globalised world.
Burdens on UK businesses are relevant, too. The cumulative burden of new regulation on Welsh firms since 1998 comes to £2.2 billion, which is an enormous sum for a small economy such as Wales. That figure is based on the Government’s own regulatory impact assessment.
“Economic success is not constant. It requires continuous improvement, and when you look at the weak UK productivity it is clear that we cannot allow the regulatory burden to continue on this upward curve. Small to medium enterprises employ more than half of the UK’s private sector work force. If we want to realise the vision of a UK economy which is competitive, ensuring wealth and opportunities, these businesses need to be supported, rather than stunted by overly prescriptive and burdensome regulation.”
Those are not my words, but the words of the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. Many small companies in Wales, which are the job creators of the Welsh economy, face huge burdens.
It is important that we face up to the challenges of globalisation. It is not just about maintaining our quality of life but about ensuring that we maintain high-quality public services. We have discussed the challenge of climate change, which is one of the key challenges of our time. A key domestic challenge concerns our ability to maintain high-quality public services. In peripheral rural areas of Wales such as Pembrokeshire, critical public services have been eroded, which may be a pointer to the way in which things will develop across the board. Under Labour—the party that claims to be the founder of the NHS—NHS dentistry in Wales has been allowed to wither and, in some parts of the country, services have been decimated.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that only a couple of weeks ago Mill Lane dental surgery in Llanelli had its official opening? That brand new, state-of-the-art dental surgery offers the services of five NHS dentists to a town that encompasses 12,000 residents.
Anyone would welcome five new dentists but, given the shortfall across Wales, that addition is a drop in the ocean. Someone in Pembrokeshire who has access to an NHS dentist is a lucky individual indeed, as the vast majority of people are forced to go private. My constituents have every right to ask why they cannot claim back from the public purse the additional costs that they incur by using a private dentist because NHS provision in their area no longer exists.
What makes my constituents doubly angry about the situation is that they believed the pledge made by the Prime Minister in 1999, when he said that within the next two years everyone would once again be able to see an NHS dentist. They believed that stuff. In Preseli Pembrokeshire in 1997 they supported the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) in droves. The previous Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire was elected with a 9,000 Labour majority. The people of Preseli Pembrokeshire were part of the enormous bank of good will that the Prime Minister inherited in 1997 and which sustained him in his first months in office. He pocketed their good will and has given them nothing in return. They feel badly let down.
People are instinctively generous, I believe. They will forgive honest mistakes. They will even be tolerant of policies that they do not support but which are implemented with integrity. However, they will not forgive false and broken promises. The same pattern of broken promises and lack of transparency is apparent in the proposals to decimate the network of tax and revenue offices in Wales. I have a letter dated 28 July last year from the Paymaster General, in which she stated:
“There are no current plans for closure of Haverfordwest or any other offices in West Wales.”
She signed off the letter cheerily with the comment:
“I hope your constituents will find this letter helpful.”
No, they did not find the letter helpful, because just months down the line they are staring at a massive programme of HMRC office closures, which will lead to the loss of about 70 high quality jobs in my constituency.
We see the same pattern in respect of Withybush hospital, the main district general hospital in my constituency. Time and again my constituents are given specific promises and assurances, from the Dispatch Box or in writing from Ministers, which appear utterly worthless weeks or months later. I refer specifically to an assurance that was given in November 2005 about the future of Withybush hospital by the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who said:
“I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there are no plans whatever to downgrade Withybush hospital. The generous additional funding that that and many other trusts throughout Wales have received—the local health board in Pembrokeshire has received a 28 per cent. increase in the past three years—means that they should be able to manage.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2005; Vol. 440, c. 250.]
Just weeks after that statement was made at the Dispatch Box, proposals were published recommending the closure or the radical downgrading of my local district general hospital. What are local people supposed to make of that?
I am conscious that time is running out, but this will be the story of the Assembly elections in two months and of the general election in two years—
Towards the end of her speech, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) was unwise enough to mention a constituent of mine, whom she quoted as an exemplar of a politician in Wales, the young man whom all others should follow. She thought he was elected, but he is a nominated member of council. I think it is my duty to inform the House a little more about this person. I would not mention him normally. I know that his inspiration in politics is the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), so there is a certain poverty of ambition there.
As the young man has been cited as typifying the brave new world that the Conservatives are offering, we should know a little more about him. He has been kind enough to inform us about himself on the splendid MySpace website. He is remarkably frank. He gives a potted history of his life. He states:
“I’ve evolved from a little whining pussy to a thrill seeking wreckhead to a Conservative who still loves the wreckups.”
He was asked, as part of the formula of the site, about what he had done in the past month. On 16 June 2006 he was asked whether he had taken drugs that month. He said yes. The next question was:
“Have you stolen anything this month?”
and he said yes. He was asked about his ambitions in life, and he said his ambition was politics. Asked why he wanted to go into politics, he said that he wanted it for the power, the flash suits and the money. Here we have a young man who may well become a bit of a cult figure, or a hero—
I have never seen the website and I do not really know the gentleman myself. I presume that there could be something ironic in what he says: if he is after power, money and flash suits, he will not want to follow me on to the Back Benches, as he will not see much of any of those from where I am sitting.
It is painful for me to recall my own experience when I was first elected. The first school I visited was Bassaleg school in my constituency. I was discussing politics in the sixth form and I recall one particularly difficult member—he might have something in common with the young man I have mentioned—who was a bit of a troublemaker in the class. I advised him, in my generous way of helping young people, that the best thing to do in life was to take up politics. That young member is in his place opposite as the hon. Member for Monmouth, so I regard that as the worst political mistake of my life. [Hon. Members: “It’s your fault!”]
In order to convey a somewhat brighter picture of Newport, I would like to mention a few other young people.
I would love to argue more about this, but there is a shortage of time.
I shall mention three other young people in my constituency, whom I remember had some distinction—Richard Whittaker, Adam Brustad and James Sadler, who will be performing in the Meze Lounge tonight a newly written song called “Land of my Mothers”, which is part of the political agenda. There is even a song called, “Lebanon is Burning” and another one about “Animal Farm”. Those are three splendid idealistic young men, marvellous examples of their generation, who believe in things other than what this gentleman I have quoted believes in—drugs, theft, wreck-ups, smart suits and making money. There is an optimistic side, and if people want an exemplar of what young people can achieve, they would be better off in the Meze Lounge in Newport tonight, listening to the first performance of “Land of my Mothers”.
There are just two points that I would like to contribute to the debate. The first is about pensions in Wales, one of my long-standing interests. The Pensions Bill is currently before Parliament, and I want to congratulate the new Labour Government on introducing the classic Labour policy of linking pensions with earnings. Sadly, that will not happen until 2012.
Yesterday I received an astonishing answer from the Government about the state of the national insurance fund, which has to have a contingency fund within it. It is set at 16.7 per cent. The money in the fund as a balance—above what is required—is 62.3 per cent.—nearly four times what the contingency should be. The contingency has never been used in recent years. If unemployment doubled, for example, it would be necessary to use it. Thus we already have in the national insurance fund £38 billion, accounting for the 62.3 per cent. figure that I mentioned.
The question I asked yesterday was what the balance would be in 2012. The answer was the astonishing figure of £74 billion. We have to think about an amount like £74 billion—way over what is required for a contingency. Thus the link between pensions and earnings could be restored tomorrow. The great Bill going through Parliament will restore that link eventually and will greatly benefit women, reducing the period of entitlement for pensions from 39 years to 30 years. However, the answer I received is based on that happening. It is happening soon, so why wait until 2012?
I urge the Government to reconsider the measure, because pensioners want the restoration of that link. In our 10 years in government, I believe that we have had an honourable record. Although the link was not restored, which was a great shame, the other changes made—the pension credit, winter fuel allowance and other allowances—have made up for that. The amount that has been given to pensioners in that time is equivalent to what would have been given if we had restored the link in 1997. The pensioners who need the link restored and the extra money are the ones who were robbed almost every year from 1980 by the previous Government, who made a yearly salami cut in pensions increases by increasing pensions according to prices, not earnings.
I hope that the Government will reconsider that issue in the Pensions Bill. When the Public Administration Committee talked to the civil service colleges about the changes in social security legislation that have taken place in the past 20 years, the point was made that in the 1980s and early 1990s, such legislation was made by putting a finger in the air, finding which way the wind was blowing and doing what was politically correct. After an examination of the evidence, the basis of the Turner report and so on, the Pensions Bill is introducing a policy that I believe should command all sections of the House in the same way as Barbara Castle’s policy did in 1975. There is a chance of working together, but I believe that the amount in the account is now at such a level that we can look for a speedy restoration of the link and not wait until 2012.
On civil service jobs, I am speaking from a position of success in Newport. I recall a story told to me by an American business man who had settled in Wales and received a visit from a journalist from the west coast of America who was looking to write an article about footloose industry and see whether Wales was a suitable place to relocate. She told the business man that she had three questions about Wales as a place for new industry. The questions were along these lines: “Are there problems with the pollution from the coal mines and steelworks?”, “Is it true that if somebody does not speak Welsh, their neighbours are likely to burn down their house?” and “Is it true that social life is poor because the pubs and cinemas are shut on Sundays?” My American friend said, “Goodness me, is this what they think about Wales on the west coast of America?” The journalist said, “No; this is what they told me about Wales when I asked them in London yesterday.”
I believe that one of the greatest obstacles that we have to getting jobs into Wales is the perception not on the other side of the world, but in England. When there was a vote to get the Patent Office into Newport, the choice was between there and Norwich; I would be embarrassed to say how few people chose Newport. That relocation is now the example quoted in the Lyons review as a great success. People came in great numbers, and although they had to be dragged kicking and screaming, they settled happily and liked the area and surroundings, and felt that the whole ethos of life was superior. Those people have stayed since and are now living out their retirement years there, so the project was a huge success. New skills have been learned in the city. Where people were stevedores, coal trimmers, puddlers and sample passers, their grandchildren are now the statisticians and patent examiners. A great transformation has taken place.
We have built up this huge centre of excellence in relocated civil service jobs. It would be ironic if there were now a move out of the city and we lost jobs in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, because it now has 4,000 civil servants and is becoming a mini-Whitehall; those civil service jobs have replaced the jobs that were lost, and it is right that they should be there.
I believe that there is a strong case to be made against the idea of centralising the organisation, perhaps in three sections in Wales. It is currently spread throughout Wales, and I have great sympathy with what the last speaker said about that. We need more than just small face-to-face areas where people can see civil servants. As we heard, HMRC receives a high level of complaints through its call centres. People like to have a face-to-face interview. There are other factors. In Newport we have a very high number of immigrants and other people whose first languages are neither English nor Welsh. That creates difficulties, although there is a section dealing with employers that has a specialist network.
There is a strong argument for keeping these centres going. I understand the pressures that have arisen. Now that the two sections—Inland Revenue and Customs—have come together, they have a certain amount of excess space. There is a powerful case for saying that they must not waste that space and must put it to proper use. I make a plea for maintaining those sections in Pontypool and Newport and letting them grow so that we can build up a public service ethos that was not there to such an extent before, but is now part of the prosperous future for all of Wales.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). I hope that the segment in his speech in which he attempted to raise the consciousness of metropolitan minds beyond this Chamber as to our contemporary Welsh reality is featured on “Today in Parliament”. He certainly gets my vote.
We are on the cusp of a very exciting phase in Welsh politics—not before time, some would say. The Government of Wales Act 2006 gives us an opportunity to secure a comprehensive set of powers in order to transform the quality of life of the people of Wales. Although it is limited in breadth and somewhat complicated in nature—“quasi-legislative powers” is not something that we would write on our banners—it gives us the opportunity to move forward. We would like it to be extended, because certain important areas of public life and public policy need to be addressed.
As has already been flagged up in that august publication, The Western Mail, I want to concentrate my remarks on the issue of policing and youth justice, which has been mentioned by several Members, including the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). After the March elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, the National Assembly for Wales will be the only devolved institution that does not have some responsibility for the criminal justice system and policing, which is being devolved in Northern Ireland.
The Assembly has some responsibility for crime prevention, broadly because of its responsibilities in health, education, housing and so on, and more specifically because of its involvement in areas such as community safety partnerships, domestic abuse, youth work and substance abuse, and its part-funding of the police service in Wales. That overlap means that it is now time to devolve aspects of the criminal justice system, starting with policing and youth justice, where there are clearly matching powers. The right hon. Member for Torfaen mentioned the Home Office, and the review of the splitting of its functions makes this an appropriate time to consider how the National Assembly fits in with the proposed new structure.
Although Wales is not immune to influences across the whole United Kingdom in terms of serious organised crime and terrorism, the pattern of crime is different from that in England. We do not yet have the problem of gang-related gun crime, although I take on board the comments of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). The pattern of crime is more opportunistic than organised, and on a smaller scale. Because of that, we need a different approach akin to that taken in other small countries such as Finland, or that which has been taken in Northern Ireland over the past decade.
We need a new approach, because to some extent the current approach is failing and is not as effective as it could be. I do not regard the high imprisonment rate in the UK as a symbol of success but a symbol of failure. That is not the fault of the current Government alone; it is deeply embedded, and is the fault of successive Governments. The rate is 50 per cent. higher than in France, and 100 times higher than in Finland, believe it or not.
The hon. Gentleman may be coming to this, but does he agree that that is partly because of the abject failure to deal in any coherent and empathic way with the problem of drug addiction in this country? That is all the more ironic given that we were pretty much the model for the rest of the world until about 1974. Until the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the British Government were pursuing fairly strategically coherent policies.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I will come to that matter in my concluding remarks.
I am worried about the position of children and young people who are in custody. As Rod Morgan, the recently resigned chair of the Youth Justice Board, said:
“We know that criminalising young children…is generally counter-productive”.
In some circumstances where young people and children are guilty of grave crimes, they need to be put in a secure closed environment, but for most children and young people it is “criminogenic”—it makes them more likely to commit crimes when they come out than if other interventions had been used. The particular problem of which we are all aware in Wales is that 84 per cent. of children and young people from Wales are imprisoned in England. This month, the Parc youth offender institution is, supposedly, expanding its number of beds from 34 to 64, but that increase has already been swallowed up by the increase in the number of young people and children in Wales in prison. According to evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, the number went up 25 per cent. in just six months last year. That is the pattern across England and Wales. The number of children in prison has doubled over the past decade. Most of the young people and children in Wales are in Ashfield, yet the Youth Justice Board has a target that 90 per cent. of all children should be within 50 miles of their home. It is scandalous—and I know that that view is widely shared across the spectrum.
What should we do? I think that we should create a Welsh equivalent of the Youth Justice Agency of Northern Ireland—a Welsh youth justice board that could get to grips with the problem of a lack of places for children and young people. We should also adopt some of the innovative policies that that agency has been following for some years in Northern Ireland—for example, the use of youth conference orders, which bring the young offender, the victim and the community together to look at the appropriate way forward, based on the principle of restorative justice, which has a lot of support in other parties. That is similar to the reparation orders that were in the Children Act 2004 but are hardly ever used. Because of the nature of community life in Wales, those principles would be appropriate in our setting.
We need to phase out prison, certainly for the under-16s, as recommended over 10 years ago by the former chief inspector of prisons. Other secure environments are more appropriate for young offenders at that age.
The hon. Gentleman is very intelligent and must realise that young people under the age of 16 do not go to prison. They go to a secure environment. For him to talk about prison in that emotive fashion is to perpetuate a certain inaccuracy about the justice system.
Young offender institutions are part of the Prison Service; they are part of the prison estate. That is well recognised. Of course, we have split sites in many cases as well. I argue that there are other more appropriate interventions and that we should be looking at a wider range of residential settings: both secure closed settings and open settings. Prescoed was one such open setting. Because of the problem of overcrowding, that was turned into an open adult site, with all the attendant problems. I would have imagined that the hon. Gentleman had some sympathy in those circumstances.
I turn to the issue of substance misuse. As we know, most crime is drug or alcohol-related. We need to improve and extend the detoxification and rehabilitation facilities and services available for substance misusers. We also need to start to treat misusers not just as criminals but as patients suffering a chronic and debilitating sickness known as addiction. If they break the law to fund a habit, a properly funded and publicly owned probation service should work with other agencies to implement a personal plan to avoid offending, including, where appropriate, the use of medication. In my view, that should include as a treatment option the prescription of diamorphine, or injectable pharmaceutical heroin, in standard doses for long-term addicts. A pilot is under way in three areas of England—London, the north-east and Brighton—and I understand that the preliminary results are encouraging. Clearly, we need to evaluate the pilot carefully, but if the results are positive we need to look at adding this as a treatment option for long-term heroin addicts.
There have been extensive and large-scale studies in other countries—Canada, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland—so there is a body of research for us to draw upon. The German study showed, interestingly, that those prescribed diamorphine fared better in terms of their physical and mental health, and that an average of £8,500 was saved in terms of reduced crime. Two thirds of property crime is heroin-related, which is why the Home Office has decided to look at the pilot in this way.
Medicalising the issue with heroin addiction—other drugs have to be dealt with differently—has another benefit; it changes the perception of the drug among young people. Instead of its being seen as something illegal and in some way therefore exciting, it would be seen as a loser’s drug, or as a medical problem that had to be dealt with. In Zurich, where they have had a 10-year pilot study of the medical prescription of heroin, there has been an 82 per cent. drop in new users, precisely for this reason.
It is important that we stress that this should not be a free-for-all, nor is it legalisation; that is an entirely different debate. It should only be for people with long-term heroin dependency—a last resort for those who have tried and failed with all other forms of treatment, including oral methadone. It should be done only under very strict and stringent medical conditions in close collaboration with the police.
As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, this is not a new policy in the UK; it was known as the British model, and was the basic practice in dealing with heroin addicts from 1926 until 1968. Any GP still has the legal power to prescribe diamorphine or heroin to treat medical conditions, but must have a special licence to treat addicts with injectable heroin. There are currently three doctors in Wales who prescribe injectable heroin to addicts, so it is not an entirely new thing.
The question is whether we have a systematic policy of looking at this matter, because the guidelines are unclear. To be fair, the Government, in their updated drugs strategy in 2002, promised to widen access to prescribed diamorphine for all those with a clinical need, and in May 2003 the national treatment agency for substance misuse said that prescription may be beneficial for some heroin misusers and gave a guarded endorsement of the practice.
I think we lack a clear statement of policy that would give a lead to GPs, who may be receiving mixed messages at the moment about how this fits in with overall policy. If the evidence from the pilot is as encouraging as we understand, we could go forward and take a huge step towards breaking the power of heroin dealers and pushers on our streets. We could deprive organised crime of a core client base and make heroin trafficking unprofitable for the first time. We could free a new generation, and generations in the future, from addiction.
I hope that we can build a cross-party consensus. Deprived areas have thousands of heroin addicts—coalfield communities have a 27 per cent. higher incidence of heroin addiction—and we owe it to those communities, and to the young people of the future as well, to think innovatively, to learn the lessons of the pilots and, if they are positive, to implement a new approach in our communities.
As I consider Wales in the first decade of this new century, I identify one great challenge that we must address, and which is key to our future economic prosperity: the upskilling of our people—giving them the skills that they do not yet have so that we can attract the jobs that we do not yet have. An important milestone towards achieving that is the decision to locate the new defence training academy at St. Athan in the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith). That is not only the right decision for Britain’s armed forces; it is yet another instance of the Labour Government’s commitment to investing in the Welsh economy.
Since 1999, the Welsh economy has grown by 11 per cent.—higher than the UK growth rate of 7 per cent.—and more than 130,000 jobs have been created. The high wage, high growth, low unemployment economy that we in Wales currently enjoy should be contrasted with the economy in the Tory years when there was decay and desperation for our people. They offered nothing to the people of Wales. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) wants to keep awake; he has just entered the Chamber, but perhaps he needs to leave again and have another sleep. The Tories offered nothing to the people of Wales, and the electorate have rejected them time and again, as they will do yet again on 3 May.
The new training facility at St. Athan also underlines the fact that Wales needs to move forward by becoming a knowledge-based economy. The new academy will provide high quality opportunities to grow innovative training schemes through partnerships between universities, further education colleges, Welsh business and industry and the Ministry of Defence. The success of the St. Athan bid serves as a lesson to all of us. In the coming years, in order to remain competitive we must ensure that companies investing and locating in Wales gain added value as a result. Above all, I believe that the training academy, by offering a partnership for Welsh business and industry to access the finest training facilities in the world, should serve as an example to Welsh universities and colleges.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the defence training academy will bring tremendous benefit that will not only be focused on the vale of Glamorgan area, but will spread to the whole of south Wales, and that that benefit will in fact extend as far as Bristol and Carmarthen? It will be of great benefit, the like of which we will not have seen in south Wales in a generation.
My hon. Friend is right. It offers Welsh business and industry and the whole economy of south-east Wales and Severn-side a great opportunity to access first-class training facilities.
If we are truly to build a knowledge-based economy, our universities and colleges must be at the forefront. They have a vital role to play in translating research excellence into commercial innovation. Thanks to Labour’s knowledge exploitation fund, Welsh business has been able to take advantage of the excellent research and technology at our Welsh universities. We must encourage Welsh companies to work more closely with universities and colleges so that they can gain access to knowledge and research to improve their competitiveness. Wales will not be able to survive as a low skill, low wage economy. We knew that when the Conservative party was in government.
We should also take into account that party’s opposition to the national minimum wage, aided and abetted by the indifference of the Welsh nationalists and the Liberal Democrats, and the fact that when it was in power it presided over the destruction of the finest industrial apprenticeship scheme the world has ever known. That is the record that the Conservative party delivered for the people of Wales, and the people of Wales will remember that on 3 May.
I do not doubt the hon. Gentleman’s personal commitment. The point I was making was that when we spent 40-odd hours in this House voting through the minimum wage, Welsh nationalist Members exited themselves and went home to bed.
If the hon. Gentleman is so committed to the interests of the mining communities, I wish he had been on our side when we were fighting his party to give compensation to miners who had suffered a terrible life in the pits. I did not see his party campaigning on our side on that occasion.
When my father went down the pit at the age of 14, in 1925, it was arm muscles that were important. When my grandchildren Rebekah and Jessica enter the workplace, it will be the muscles between their ears that they will need to develop. To put it simply, the people of Wales will have to go back to school if we are to close the skills gap. No one in full-time education today will have a job for life; everyone will have to re-train and re-skill throughout their working lives. For that reason, it is vital that, whatever might follow from objective 1 funding, it should first and last be used to educate and upskill our people. We got objective 1 funding for west Wales and the valleys because our gross domestic product was below that of the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe. At the end of the day, if we have invested heavily in infrastructure projects such as bypasses and multi-storey car parks—worthy as they may be—but not given our people new skills, we will not be better off economically as a country.
Wales needs to keep ahead of the change in the global economy that places a higher premium on knowledge, innovation, research and development. However, the plain fact is that our ability to attract potential investors will be based on the skills of our work force. We have already shown that we can do it. General Dynamics, which has the contract for developing and producing the MOD’s Bowman communications system, came to my constituency despite advice from consultants who said, “Do not go to Wales; you will not find the skills base.” It ignored that advice, and now 700 highly skilled people are involved in research and design. Indeed, the company has spent £1.8 million on training in the past two years. If ever there was a potent symbol of the new Wales, it is the fact that General Dynamics is based at the Oakdale business park, on the site once occupied by the Oakdale colliery.
When I think of entrepreneurship in Wales, I often remember when I was a councillor and 700 jobs were lost at Panteg steelworks, in Pontypool. Ian McGregor was running steel then—he had not got to coal—and he agreed to meet me. I asked if he intended to use funding from British Steel enterprises to provide seedcorn investment to help some of the redundant steel men to set up their own businesses. He was not rude, but he gave me a strange look and said that it had not occurred to him that anybody in Wales would want to start their own business. That was how Wales was perceived in those days—when the Tory Thatcher Government were out of touch and did not give a damn. Every time I walk past that statue out there, my blood runs cold, given what that person did to the economy and people of Wales.
The implementation of the first ever entrepreneurial action plan for Wales, which seeks to put enterprise at the heart of our economic development policy, is certainly a step in the right direction. Wales accounts for nearly 15 per cent. of graduate business start-ups in the UK as a whole. However, more needs to be done to help those who are taking their first steps toward establishing a new business. Projects such as Venture Wales do excellent work in helping people to set up in business, but again, it needs to be better advertised. That means challenging the mindset in Wales. We have done much to eradicate poverty, but we still have to tackle something that, although it was touched on earlier, is rarely talked of: poverty of ambition. To me, poverty of ambition is just as real as the other form of poverty. The great socialist James Maxton once said that poverty is man-made and therefore open to change. Poverty of ambition is an attitude of mind, and it is up to us to change it—to give people hope, self-confidence and self-esteem.
Talented people have said to me that going to college or starting a business is not for them. The task that we face is to equip them with skills and confidence to meet the challenge, set up in business and set out on their own. Those who say that that is impossible should look at the example of Ireland, which in 2003 was called the most globalised economy in the world. We in Wales should be challenging for that title. However, to achieve that we need to focus heavily on using EU funding to provide the skills and technical innovation that modern business needs. I hope that in years to come, rather than talking about the Celtic tiger economy of Ireland, it will be the dragon economy of Wales that others will look to as the best example of the use of European funding.
Come the Assembly elections in May, the choice will be clear. On the one hand, voters can choose a party led by Rhodri Morgan that is committed to a programme of innovation, training and social justice. On the other, they have the Tories who have betrayed Wales in the past, the nationalists who dream of separation but never dare say so, and the Lib Dems who, if jumping on a bandwagon was a crime, would be serial offenders. The message to the people of Wales is that if they vote for the Tories, the nationalists or the Lib Dems—or worse, stay at home—on 3 May, they will wake up to a Tory-led coalition, a marriage of convenience. Wales would be led by a ragbag of mediocre politicians and that would only end in tears. The people of Wales deserve better than that.
A vote for Labour on 3 May will ensure continued growth in public services, prosperity and a new self-confidence in Wales that our forefathers could only dream of, but which we are creating today.
The Secretary of State began with his memories of the night of the referendum. In the words of Max Boyce, I was there. I had campaigned against a Welsh Assembly and voted against it. Had there been another referendum on devolution in Wales, I would almost certainly have become one of the few politicians to vote themselves out of a job.
One of the reasons I stood for the Assembly was because I reflected the clear view of my constituents in south-east Wales and Monmouthshire who did not want a Welsh Assembly because they were afraid that it would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. The Labour party is now trying to cloak itself in the mantle of the Union when it was the one to open up Pandora’s box by embarking on that ill-thought-out constitutional reform. It was ill thought out because we now have a Parliament in Scotland, a power-sharing arrangement that sometimes works and sometimes does not work in Northern Ireland, and an Assembly for Wales—but the Government have not addressed the important issue of what we should do about England. More than 50 million taxpaying constituents in England do not have the same level of representation that we do in the Celtic nations. That is the question that needs to be answered before we go ahead with any further changes to the constitution.
For that reason, I am concerned by calls that I hear from all over the place for more powers for the Welsh Assembly, but that would only increase the constitutional problems and be more likely to speed up the break-up of the United Kingdom. Apart from the constitutional problems—
I am not aware that the Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly has officially published any proposals for the future of the Assembly. By the way, I shall try to keep my speech short. I like to take interventions, but I should point out to hon. Members that it is they who will not be able to speak if they intervene too many times.
One reason why I would not like to see any further powers going to the Welsh Assembly is that it has not proved to be very good at using the powers it already has. For example, it has powers to raise taxation through the back door by capping funding to local government. It has done that by effectively changing the formula around in a way that means that rural areas lose out. Deprivation is calculated based on how many people are on benefits, rather than average incomes, for example. As a result, in Monmouthshire the council tax for a band D house was some £384 in 1997, but that has gone up to almost £1,000 now. The majority of houses have also moved from band D into band E, meaning that people have had an increase since 1997 of some 160 per cent. in their council tax, mainly as a result of the change in formula implemented by the Welsh Assembly.
The Assembly also has powers in the health service, and we have seen what a disaster that has been. The health service in England is far better run than the health service in Wales—
That is not something of which the hon. Gentleman should be proud. Indeed, he should be ashamed of it. It is not that the health service is in an especially good state in England, simply that it is worse in Wales.
In many rural areas, getting an ambulance is like waiting for Godot. Recently, a lady in my area made a 999 call for an ambulance. It turned up three hours later because the drivers had no satnav or maps, and got lost. By the time they arrived at her house, they had run out of fuel. They wanted her husband to fill a billycan with petrol so that they could get the lady to a hospital. That disgraceful anecdote about the ambulance service is only of many that I could tell.
Even more worrying is the second-class treatment suffered by many people in Wales on the waiting lists. A gentleman called Vincent Davis, a constituent of mine, was diagnosed in 2001 with a rare form of cancer and told that he was terminally ill. He was treated at the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead with yttrium octreotide therapy. Three cycles of that reduced his tumour by 50 per cent. and gave him several extra years of life with his family. When his cancer returned, he went back to see his doctor in Wales. His consultant, Mr. Caplin—one of the UK’s leading experts in that particular form of cancer—sent him a letter. My constituent was shocked to be told that the health authority would not fund his treatment because he was living in Wales. I took up the matter with Health Commission Wales, which said that it was not prepared to fund my constituent’s treatment because it had not been approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Subsequently, I showed the commission a letter from NICE’s chief executive, Andrew Dillon, stating that the Department of Health had indicated that it was
“not acceptable for local trusts to use the absence of NICE guidelines as an excuse for not prescribing treatments.”
However, that applies only in England—the Welsh Assembly does its own thing and has said that it will not pay for treatment not approved by NICE.
The treatment that my constituent needs costs £15,000. Health Commission Wales is prepared, in effect, to sentence a man to death for that amount of money by saying that it is not prepared to offer treatment that has not been approved by NICE. That is despite the fact that one of the UK’s leading cancer specialists maintains that the treatment works, and that it has worked on this gentleman in the past. That is a shocking state of affairs, and proves that the NHS does not extend to the UK’s regions, where people get a second-class health service.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sure that hon. Members of all parties have similar stories. Is it not paradoxical that the Welsh Assembly, which appears to operate under financial constraints when it comes to the treatment that he has described, considers it appropriate to devote £30 million to free prescriptions for all patients, regardless of whether they need them?
That is an important point. It is strange that I, a Member of Parliament, can get free prescriptions when others cannot. I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will take up the case that I have reported, as my constituent will be dead in a very short time if no one is prepared to fund his treatment.
That is the background to my opposition to calls for extra powers for the Welsh Assembly. I strongly disagree with Plaid Cymru’s calls for policing and justice to be devolved. Putting to one side questions about whether the Assembly could do a better job and the constitutional issues involved, I tend to agree with what the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) said about involving the Assembly in such matters, rather then devolving them to it. I like to think that I know a little bit about policing. I completed the parliamentary scheme, and some of the training needed to become a special constable. We all agree that terrorism and organised crime are the two big problems that we face, but the proposal to make Wales’ four police authorities answerable to a body that is not the same as the one to which England’s 39 are answerable will not make it easier to tackle either.
I also take issue with Plaid Cymru’s attitude to our armed forces. There are differences in this House about whether we should have gone into Iraq and about our involvement in Afghanistan, but most hon. Members want to support our armed forces. Both the Territorial Army and the Royal Engineers have bases in my constituency—many of their personnel have been in Iraq, or indeed are still there—and I will do everything that I can, wholeheartedly, to support them. I am shocked by calls from Plaid Cymru to keep the military out of schools. We should be celebrating our armed services; we should be encouraging school pupils to join the armed forces, to go out and get a trade and to get specialist skills of the sort that we very much need in Wales. It is a shocking state of affairs when people make such calls.
The Government cannot cover themselves with much glory, either. Our armed forces are not always earning even the minimum wage, especially when they are out on deployment. They come back to accommodation that is sub-standard and would not be suitable in some cases for people who have newly arrived in this country. So the Government have to do a lot more if they want to support the armed services— not simply talk about it, but ensure that they are properly paid and properly housed.
We had a few bizarre history lessons earlier. I was writing down some of the things that the Secretary of State for Wales said about the previous Conservative Government and I am afraid I simply did not recognise the picture that he painted. I was born in 1970, so I cannot remember the late 1960s when twice as many coal mines were shut down by Labour than were ever shut down by Mrs. Thatcher’s Administration—twice as many in four years, I believe, as Mrs. Thatcher in eight. Of course, that is something that the National Union of Mineworkers, the Labour party and the trade unions would rather forget about.
I can remember in 1979 walking past the Royal Gwent hospital, where there was a strike going on. People could not get into hospital because the hospitals were all out on strike. I remember being told by my parents that at the same time dead people could not be buried because the gravediggers were out on strike. The streets could not be cleaned because the roadsweepers were out on strike. The whole country ground to a halt in 1979 and the Prime Minister did not even seem to realise when he came back from the Caribbean that there was some sort of crisis.
The Government try to sell a good story to us. Now they talk about inflation. Of course the figures look low because they do not take into account house prices, council tax and all the other things that people need. Of course the unemployment figures look good because everyone is signing on the sick, which is a very good way of covering up things. Everyone has got a bad back or they are stressed. Of course, the headline figure for income tax looks low because they have allowed everyone to come into the higher tax bracket and they have taxed everything that moves.
The Government talk about their commitment to human rights. What sort of a Government are they who cannot deport serial rapists to Somalia, but can spend £10,000 chartering a jet to pick up a load of people who have been fighting with a terrorist organisation, bring them back to Britain and release them a few hours later to walk the streets, probably even backdating their benefit payments as well? I have no doubt those people are planning their next sojourn to the jihadi front line.
No, my question is slightly different. The hon. Gentleman will remember that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), when he was Secretary of State for Wales, returned some moneys from Wales to London. Would the hon. Gentleman have been in favour of that?
I do not believe that that happened. I think that the hon. Gentleman will discover that what the former Secretary of State for Wales did was a technical accounting trick that allowed him to draw down money for a road scheme that would otherwise have gone back to the Treasury automatically because it would not have been spent during that financial year as surveys were still being done. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that my right hon. Friend did an excellent job in improving transport links to deprived valley constituencies so that real inward investment could go in and real jobs could be created.
The fact of the matter is that the Welsh Assembly under Labour has failed in virtually every area where it has policy control. The last thing that we need to do is to give it further powers. The message to the people of Wales at the Assembly elections is, “If you support the health service, if you want to see improvements in education and transport and, above all, if you want to stop the outrageous increases in council tax that have been going on over the past seven years—160 per cent.—vote Conservative at the next Assembly elections.”
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), if only because it means that he has finished ranting.
I enjoyed the Secretary of State’s opening remarks and especially appreciated his emphasis on the need to tackle climate change. I agree with that priority, so I take this opportunity to recommend to the Wales Office team my private Member’s Bill, which would enable local planning authorities to set higher standards for energy efficiency and low carbon energy sources in their development plans than those in building regulations. The Bill is supported by the Welsh Local Government Association and 270 Members. I am sure that when my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Wales Office have studied it they, too, will be enthusiastic supporters. Perhaps they could have a word with their colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government and persuade them to give the Bill a fair wind from now on.
On St. David’s day, 2007, it is appropriate to look back over the decade since the Labour Government came to power. It is absolutely true, as the Secretary of State said, that an enormous amount has been achieved that has markedly improved the lives of the people of Wales, especially the least well off. Today, my constituency of Gower is a different place from what it was in 1997, when it suffered the scourge of high unemployment, especially among the young, scandalously low rates of pay and acute poverty for a fair proportion of older constituents, and when there was a sense, especially in the old mining and steel villages, of being in an irreversible downward spiral.
That has all changed. People’s lives have improved, thanks in no small part to the actions of the Labour Government and the Welsh Assembly Government. However, I do not want simply to trumpet those successes.
I am sorry but I shall not give way, because if I take less than the allotted time, everybody else will be able to speak.
Central to the concerns of my constituents is the provision of public services, with particular concern about the UK Government’s apparent attitude towards the future delivery of the services for which they are still responsible in Wales. People in Wales are surprised and alarmed that a Labour Government, again and again, look to the use of the private sector and free market competition to provide what have always been regarded as core public sector service responsibilities. People are conscious, and grateful, that Wales has not experienced the worst of that approach in the health and education sectors, because responsibility for them is devolved and the Welsh Assembly Government are not following the English lead, with trust hospitals and schools and the establishment of winner and loser competitions where patients and children are the potential losers.
The National Assembly is to be congratulated on taking quite a different approach, which is based on honouring the public service ethos, building on it and developing services around the strong sense of community, mutuality and local ownership that still exists in Wales. That is the right way forward and I hope the Assembly sticks to it. I am sure it will.
Vital public service functions delivered in Wales are still the responsibility of UK Departments, however, where enthusiasm for moving to a commissioner and contractor structure appears to be strong, even though it is justified by precious little evidence. Like many colleagues, I was contacted by a considerable number of probation workers living in my constituency who cannot understand the rationale for abolishing the national probation service, only to replace it with a competitive market that will take away local accountability in the process. After yesterday’s vote on the Offender Management Bill, I fear that there will be a marked reduction in the quality of service, with the real danger of an increase in reoffending.
Similarly, I have been lobbied by employees at the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency in Swansea who believe that preparations are under way to throw them to the market to reduce costs. Their fear and their belief is that that will be achieved by a diminution in standards if the consultants’ investigations recommend wholesale outsourcing, as they suspect. We have already seen what has happened to the Ministry of Defence in Llangennech, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), where some of my constituents work. Jobs are being rationalised away on the most dubious grounds.
I shall concentrate my brief remarks on what is happening to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in Wales, to which the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) have already referred. The staff of HMRC are disillusioned and angry about what is being done to their service and are trying to secure change before it is too late.
The HMRC is of course a fairly new creation, combining the responsibilities of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. Even before the merger, both the old departments had undergone considerable reorganisation, but nothing had prepared the civil servants for the announcement on 16 November last year of the department’s intention to shed 25,000 jobs across the UK by 2011, closing hundreds of local offices in the process. If that goes ahead, the impact in Wales will be particularly acute, with something like 1,000 jobs at risk. Threatened with closure are the Aberystwyth office, the Haverfordwest office, the Holyhead office, the Llanelli office, the Bridgend office, the Pontypridd office, the Porthmadog office and others. Yet more are proposed for downgrading.
Understandably, the Public and Commercial Services union, which represents the employees affected, is focusing on the impact that that will have on the lives of their members and their families, and the economic consequences for the communities where offices are planned for closure and where jobs will be removed. However, it also makes a powerful case about the likely impact on the work of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and draws attention to how extremely centralising the proposed new structures would be, if and when introduced.
One of the specific functions of HMRC is called debt management and banking—the old collector of taxes role—which involves collecting duties from customers who have not paid their taxes on time and which is to be centralised in Cardiff. That is an alarming prospect when one learns that there is already a backlog of 1 million unworked and unanswered pieces of correspondence in large processing offices, such as Cardiff, around the country. In fact, processing—things such as the capture of self-assessment tax returns and ensuring that pay-as-you-earn customers have the correct amount of tax deducted from pay—will be centralised in Cardiff and Wrexham by 2010. The fear is that that is bound to be bad news for customers throughout Wales.
At least Cardiff and Wrexham are in Wales, however. VAT registration jobs that are now based in west Wales are going to Grimsby and Wolverhampton. Capital gains tax inquiries, which were once dealt with by teams across Wales, are also now to be dealt with by one team in Cardiff. That approach is reflected in plans for many of the HMRC’s functions in Wales. We face the loss of operational intelligence, detection and business services under the departmental plans. The shift is away from the local, towards the centre, and it seems to go against much of recent Government rhetoric.
The union tells me that there is no senior civil servant with direct managerial control in HMRC in Wales. There is no regional or national forum in HMRC in Wales in which management and trade unions can meet to negotiate and find solutions to problems specific to Wales. There is to be new investment in something called local compliance, where staff will have the job of detecting customers who have not paid the correct tax or have not declared themselves to the authorities, but those jobs are going outside Wales.
Indeed, in HMRC, “local” compliance is a misleading description. The local compliance zone for Wales is Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with the top civil servants based in Scotland. The PCS union estimates that the distances involved in covering this structure result in some 100 plane journeys a month by senior civil servants in local compliance alone. The negative environmental impact and the colossal carbon footprint do not just result from air travel. With the new structures, many middle managers now have staff under them from all over Wales and beyond. They are clocking up tens of thousands of road miles trying to keep in regular touch with their juniors.
It is right, however, to say that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs does not exist just to provide jobs for civil servants. Its function is to provide a high-quality service to its customers. Is it fulfilling that function with its new approach and structure? Apparently it is not, if a million pieces of correspondence are lying unanswered, and the constituents who contact me to complain about the weeks that they have to wait for responses to important queries are anything go by. Problem solving will certainly not be helped by removing the link between the customer and her or his local office.
Looking at the proposals, I have a sense of déjà vu. A few years back, before the merger, Customs and Excise decided to remove customs officers from the Welsh ports and to work in future on a basis of risk assessment from centralised England locations. That was a mistake then, and this is a mistake now. Surely it would be far better to think again and set the objective of improving the working of the department on the basis of local services and local management, delivering for local people. That is the direction that we should be heading in and that is the direction that I keep hearing Ministers say they want to head in. Let us make a start with Revenue and Customs and let us get back to properly respecting and valuing our public servants, whether at local, Welsh Assembly or UK Government level.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton). May I say how much I agreed with almost everything that he said, and how much I profoundly disagreed with so much of what the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) said? Were a stranger to listen to the debate—I am sure that there are people who know little about Welsh politics—he or she would find the Secretary of State’s earlier claim that my party elected to go into coalition with the Tories frankly incredible, as the two preceding speeches clearly demonstrate.
We had a debate yesterday outside this place about the purpose of the Welsh day debate. What is it for? Looking at the attendance here today and the number of Members wanting to speak, we see that it is clearly an important forum. I cannot remember in my short time in this place a time limit on speeches in such a debate, which is significant. The debate gives hon. Members from Wales the opportunity to talk about detailed issues in their constituencies, and that is certainly one of the things that I intend to do in my few minutes.
Given that it is St. David’s day, I can tell the House that Dewi Sant said:
“Na ddiystyrwch y pethau bychain”—
“Do not disregard the small things.”
He also said, “Cadw’r ffydd” or “Keep the faith.” I intend to do both in my speech, or at least I will try.
Looking at the purpose of the debate, we see that there is the possibility of scrutiny and review, and of examining something that the Secretary of State has put great emphasis on, which is the partnership between this place and the Assembly. We also have the opportunity to put forward some policies.
I want to scrutinise and review one of the points that has been raised by a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Gower and for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan)—the whole saga of HMRC. I should preface my remarks by expressing my concern that over the last few years we have seen a great deal of centralisation of Government services in Wales. We had a long battle in Porthmadog in my constituency about the proposal that the Department for Work and Pensions office should close, which it eventually did. Its functions have been transferred to a central office the other side of Bangor. That is an actual centralisation and an actual closure. Now we have the proposals to close HMRC offices all over Wales, particularly in Gwynedd, in Porthmadog and Bangor.
I should also say that it is not just Government services that are being withdrawn from what are seen as peripheral communities—they are not peripheral to the people who live there, of course. I hear from my colleague, Alun Ffred Jones, the Assembly Member campaigning in the election in Bethesda, that two banks there, NatWest and HSBC, have closed. The fact that there are now no banks in Bethesda causes particular difficulties to local businesses with what one might think are trivial things, such as getting change in order to be able to give the correct change to customers.
Public service jobs though, such as those in DWP and HMRC, are very valuable to rural communities in particular, where such opportunities are rare. They are steady, long term, pensionable and comparatively well paid in a local economy that is increasingly casualised and part-time. We see valuable jobs migrating to already prosperous centres. HMRC proposes to move jobs to Wrexham, Swansea and Cardiff, so that those centres will grow. That is part of deliberate Government policy.
That raises the question of what sort of co-ordination has gone on between the Government here and the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh Assembly Government is working hard, using hard-won European money to create much needed jobs and prosperity in the west and in the valleys, and that investment is very welcome. At the same time, many good jobs that we need in our areas are being taken away by the policies of the Government here.
An example that rankles with me is the likely fate of the Welsh language telephone line run from Porthmadog in my constituency. The line has highly experienced staff who have been running it for many years. That line is likely to move to Cardiff. As we all know, in Cardiff the labour market is very tight indeed, particularly in respect of those who have the valuable extra qualification of speaking Welsh. I am a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, and last week we heard evidence from British Telecom, which told us that it recently advertised for a Welsh-speaking worker for a good job in Cardiff. There was not a single applicant, yet there are highly experienced people in Porthmadog who, for many years, have run a Welsh language telephone line, which is being shut down. That line is moving to Cardiff, whether or not there are the workers to run it.
In Porthmadog, the staff can provide services in both languages. Two for the price of one is a slogan that works for supermarkets, but apparently HMRC does not see things that way. One has to ask the Government where the language planning is. Where is the co-ordination between HMRC and the Welsh Language Board? As far as I can see, there has been none, yet we are rushing onwards headlong. That is a failure of policy, as far as serving the people of Wales, particularly rural Wales, is concerned, and there has been a failure of co-ordination with Assembly policies, too.
I should like to turn to a proposal on passport services that was little remarked on when it was made a couple of weeks ago. The proposal is that the first interview for passports should be conducted in centres in Wrexham, Swansea, Aberystwyth and Newport, and a face-to-face interview will be required. Interestingly, in the documents published, it was acknowledged that there would be difficulties in Anglesey, Gwynedd and Pembrokeshire, but the system that we are to have in Wales will involve centralisation in Wrexham, Swansea, Aberystwyth and Newport. What is to happen to people from Caernarfon, St. David’s and Amlwch who want passports? We are told in the document that so-called remote areas will be served by webcam links. As I said earlier, remote from where? They are certainly not remote for the people who live in them. On the question of where webcam links will be established, the document says:
“A procurement exercise will be needed to establish the arrangement”.
In large parts of rural Wales, those proposals will be hard to live with, and the only remedy suggested so far is that a procurement exercise should establish the arrangements. That is just not good enough, as hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree.
The other day, I undertook a little exercise: I phoned traveline, an excellent service that gives travel times for bus and train journeys throughout Wales—and England, for that matter. The service is available in Welsh and in English; HMRC should note that. It is run from Porthmadog, just down the road from the place from which the tax line is run. Traveline gave me some times, and I can inform the House that it takes four hours and 35 minutes to get to Wrexham from Pwllheli by bus, and to get back takes six hours. The journey time from Caernarfon to Wrexham is three hours and 25 minutes, and on the way back it is four hours. Those are the sort of travelling times that will be imposed on new applicants for passports, unless the webcam exercise is successful.
As I say, at the moment, the scheme is just a gleam in someone’s eye; a procurement exercise will have to establish the arrangement. I shall give a couple more interesting times. Even from Bangor, travel time to Wrexham is an hour and a half, and the journey back takes an hour and 50 minutes by train. People from the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) trying to get to the passport centre in Newport will have to travel by both bus and train, and the journey would take two hours and 10 minutes, and an hour and 50 minutes on the way back. The webcam links will be important, if and when they are established. Perhaps I am sceptical, if not cynical, in thinking that as the system is introduced those links will be quietly dropped. Scrutiny of a proposal that is little remarked on reveals a policy that is in danger of failing the people of rural Wales, and certainly fails to co-ordinate with the Assembly’s policies.
In the remaining minute or so, I should like to consider the development of policy in future. The Mental Health Bill will shortly be introduced in the Commons, and I hope that the Government will allow the Welsh Assembly the greatest latitude in the measure’s application to Wales. Circumstances in Wales are different, and the health service, too, is different. The measure introduced by the Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive is markedly different from the measure proposed for Wales, and I think that we could do with the Milan principles that were included in the Scottish Bill. Finally, my Bilingual Juries (Wales) Bill is due to receive its Second Reading tomorrow, and I urge the House to give it proper consideration.
I welcome the opportunity to speak, albeit briefly, in our St. David’s day debate. St. David’s day is a day of celebration for the Welsh people, and I shall focus on the announcement on 17 January that the new tri-service military academy, which has been mentioned, will be located in Wales, at St. Athan in my constituency. It is a matter of great celebration, not just for my constituents and south Wales, but for the whole of Wales, as it presents us with an unprecedented opportunity as the biggest ever public investment in any constituency in the UK.
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) referred to the success of the Cardiff Bay investment, but the investment in the military training academy will be 32 times the size of the Cardiff Bay investment. It is worth £16 billion, so it is bigger than the total Olympic bid. As was pointed out to me earlier today, it is by far the biggest single investment since Edward I constructed his castles around the coast of our beautiful country. It offers the people of Wales a huge opportunity, not because of its size or value, but because of its nature. Numerous colleagues have referred to the challenge that we face in a global market of upskilling the Welsh work force and developing a knowledge-based economy. We could not wish for anything better than the investment, which will provide up to 12,000 military trainees with an enormous range of high-quality skills, including aeronautical engineering to mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer sciences, languages, photography and logistics. St. Athan will be a world centre of excellence for military training. Some people may think that that training is just for the military, but they could not be further from the truth. The success of our aerospace industry in south Wales has been predicated on the existence of the military aviation facility at RAF St. Athan for over 50 years.
The spin-offs from the investment could be enormous, as long as we get our act together and get our act right. It presents us with considerable challenges. I have placed on record my thanks to colleagues in all parts of the House for their key contribution in ensuring that we secured the investment, and my thanks to the Welsh Assembly Government. Having worked so well together, it would be a big mistake for us to sit back now and say, “Having won the £16 billion investment for Wales, let us just wait for all these wonderful jobs and opportunities to come to us.” We should be doing the opposite. We have a three to five-year window of opportunity to get our act together to make sure that the people of my constituency, of south Wales and of the whole of Wales benefit from the investment.
We should be setting up taskforces now in local business and industry, in our schools and colleges, and in our local authorities to ensure that we provide what is required to get the benefits of our success. Training programmes need to be thought about now to provide for the 5,500 direct jobs that will be created by the investment, not to mention the indirect jobs, of which there could be a far greater number if we get our act together now.
We should be talking about developing a sourcing policy for the investment—a source Wales policy. By that I do not mean, as I have heard mentioned, that the company that comes in must buy Welsh goods, services, supplies, products and so on. But we should encourage the companies involved in the consortium to source first in Wales. The project will be like a new town created in the Vale of Glamorgan. If the products that the development requires, starting with day-to-day consumer goods and food, can be provided locally, of the right quality and at the right price, they should be purchased locally. That makes good business sense, if the consortium coming in knows what goods and services exist in the community.
Over the next five years we can take practical steps to ensure that we benefit not just in the Vale of Glamorgan, but from Brecon to the coastline and from Monmouth to Pembrokeshire, if we work together as we worked together to secure the investment as team Wales. Now we must exploit all the benefits. One of the big challenges that we face is to provide the right infrastructure to access the site, especially by road. There will be a 600 acre site accommodating just the academy, with 10,000 to 15,000 personnel. The special forces support unit will run alongside that, and the aerospace park will be located within those 600 acres.
The traffic generation from that development will be enormous, so we have to think about building or modernising the roads to facilitate the development and make sure that we get the most from it. We had a setback in February. The Welsh Assembly Government’s plans to retrunk the A48 and the A4226 were lost at public inquiry. The inspector came out against the upgrading of the roads, which was an integral part of the proposal to secure the investment. We know that the roads in the immediate vicinity, 20 km from the M4, are not very good. I was very surprised to be told that an economic spokesperson—or whatever he calls himself—in the Welsh Assembly stated on his blog last week that this was a sweet victory, yet we lost the opportunity to upgrade that access road. I found that hard to believe.
I understand that to be the case.
We must get our policy on roads right and we must do it now. I was delighted to hear Andrew Davis, the Minister for Enterprise, Innovation and Networks in the Welsh Assembly Government announce immediately that he was going to put public transport grants into the A4226 to upgrade this unsuitable, narrow and very dangerous road from the Port road in Barry up to the A48. We were pleased that that money was allocated, but it will not be enough. Consultants have now been invited quickly to produce proposals on direct access to the M4 to facilitate access to the military academy within the five years that it will take to construct and move into it.
My plea this afternoon is for the Welsh Assembly Government—I hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will do whatever they can in support—seriously to consider whether the main artery for the academy could be the original airport link road, running west to east through the south of my constituency, now that the re-trunking of the A48 and the trunking of the A4226 has been blocked and scuppered. We must look into providing realistic alternatives.
As the MP for this constituency, I do not rule out any option. We must provide the best road infrastructure so that we get the benefit from this development. If we do not do that, we will not get the benefit. Worse still, if we do not do it, the benefits will go to people outside our area—the suppliers to the main developers involved in building this 600 acre super-military university, which will be the best there is for military personnel in this country. If we are to meet the timetable and find a cost-effective way of providing a dual carriageway link to the military academy, the only option, in my opinion, is to upgrade the existing Port road, the A4050, to Culverhouse Cross and through to junction 33—not junction 34—of the M4.
Order. There is not a great deal of time left for the debate, so unless hon. Members make their remarks brief, I am afraid that quite are few of them will be disappointed.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will certainly take your advice into account.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith). It has been a great triumph to bring this development to Wales and I share his ambition for the benefits to spread not just alongside the M4 corridor, but throughout Wales, particularly into the valleys and the tops and heads of the valleys, which have faced such difficulty in regenerating. I am thinking particularly of the top of the Neath valley in Pont Nedd Fechan and the top of the Swansea valley in Ystradgynlais in my constituency, which still suffer from the closure of the coal industry and have never really regained the economic vibrancy that they once had.
Hon. Members have covered a number of issues and I do not wish to go back over them, but it seems to me that a theme running through the contributions is that while the Government trumpet localism, what is, in fact, happening is centralisation. As a result, we see local tax offices of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, along with local hospitals, threatened with closure. That certainly applies in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), as four local community hospitals are threatened with closure. Schools and post offices are also threatened and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), there is also a problem with passports. It seems that some wish to reduce costs, but that is at the risk of reducing services, which is particularly worrying for people living in rural and sparsely populated areas.
Certain figures that we have received about community hospitals show that keeping them open to deal with patients is cheaper than providing the service at home. That needs to be looked at again, because if those hospitals close, the bed-blocking problems that arise in district general hospitals will be exacerbated.
I should like very briefly to raise two more issues. First, following the Government’s success yesterday in taking the Offender Management Bill through Report and Third Reading, I am worried about the provision of probation services in rural areas and in my constituency. I have no doubt that the Government will face stronger opposition in another place and I hope that some progress will be made. My message to the Minister in the short time that remains is that he should not set targets for contestability. I hope that he passes that message on to his fellow Ministers. They should not set targets for contestability that will be either unachievable in certain areas or achieved at the risk of bringing in providers who do not have the necessary knowledge and commitment to those areas.
I notice that Turning Point, a large national organisation delivering support for offenders, has welcomed the Bill and said that we could always subcontract facilities to more local organisations. I really do not think that that is the best way forward, however. I visited Powys Drugs and Alcohol recently. It is providing a valuable service, and it has fears about its services being subject to competition, because it has put all its efforts into delivering the service. It finds that when its energies are dissipated by having to apply again and again for contracts, it only weakens the organisation and does not strengthen it or help it provide a better service. I hope that the Minister will take that message on board, and that when the Bill is considered in the other place, some of those issues can be corrected.
The only other issue on which I would like to reflect was raised by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith): the fact that the Competition Commission is now consulting on the role of supermarkets both in providing retail services in local areas and in the supply chain. It is a tragedy that only 13 farmers have replied to the consultation. Some people ask whether the farmers are content with the situation. I can tell the House that they are not content; they are feeling hopeless and weak and doubt whether their contributions will be taken into consideration. I ask the Minister, either with the Assembly or his DEFRA colleagues, to get the message over to the farming community that it can contribute and make a difference, and that its contributions need not be of a technical or academic nature; farmers need simply to reflect the circumstances as they see them in their business, with a lack of returns and increasing costs. As I told farmers in my constituency when I urged them to contribute, “It’s your life and your family. Please get engaged.”
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to secure a Westminster Hall debate on the Deeside hub. I am sure that hon. Members think of nothing else but the Deeside hub, but I can tell them that it is an economic region covering Flintshire, Wrexham, Chester, Wirral, Ellesmere Port and Neston.
Unfortunately, it does not cover Denbighshire, but it is a region that has seen economic growth outstripping even that of south-east England over the past 10 years. Most experts and analysts expect to see that growth continue into the future, but we cannot be complacent and think that that will somehow carry on if we do not invest in our future by investing in industry and business, as well as the work force, including our potential work force. We need to heed the lessons of the past. Under the Tory Administration, we saw our major employers in north-east Wales decimated, our mining industry wiped out, our textile industry suffering the same fate and our steel industry, once the powerhouse of the region, suffering more than 8,000 job losses, which is still the record for the largest number of job losses in the UK at a single plant on a single day. I am afraid that that is the Tory record.
Those were not only years of disastrous Tory Government but years of underinvestment in which we failed to understand or grasp the challenge or the threat of overseas competition. We failed to train and equip our young people with the skills that they needed to be part of a modern and dynamic economy. In areas of high unemployment such as mine, we embedded an attitude that I would describe as poverty of aspiration or ambition. That was particularly true of the young.
Much has changed since those dark days of the 1980s. Earlier this week, I was pleased to attend the launch by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Andrew Davies from the Assembly of the new Toyota Arius in Derby and the joint announcement of further expansion and investment in the Toyota engine plant on Deeside, creating more than 100 new jobs and helping to secure the future of the plant.
That investment has come thanks to a combination of factors: an efficient engine plant that has experienced dramatically rising productivity over recent years; a successful and growing UK economy where companies know that they can invest with confidence and certainty; and, importantly, support provided by the Welsh Assembly Government. That is joined-up government or, more to the point, joined-up Labour government—a Labour-led Assembly working with a Labour Government here to delivery growth and, importantly, jobs in north Wales.
Yesterday, Airbus announced the “Power 8” restructuring programme, which has major implications for more than 7,000 workers employed at Broughton and more than 6,000 workers at Filton, near Bristol. I do not downplay the job losses announced, which represent a reversal, after many years of growth, since the dreadful events of 9/11, which affected the entire world’s airline production business. I am confident, however, that those job losses can be achieved, through discussions with the trade unions, by voluntary means. I will certainly get involved in seeing how we can minimise the impact.
On the positive side, and in sharp contrast to some of the reports that we have seen in national newspapers, the UK remains the centre of excellence for wing and propulsion systems. Broughton has been recognised as a core site within the Airbus business. There will be substantial investment in Broughton to do with the A350 programme. At Filton, the development of a composite design and manufacturing facility means that the UK will retain an involvement in design, manufacturing and assembly for the next generation of wings. I do not underestimate the challenge that we face from Airbus partners in Germany and Spain for such work, but we will be in a position to fight our corner. The important aircraft coming up after the A350 will be the replacement for the A320, which is the workhorse of aircraft fleets around the world.
I am sure that I can rely on support from this Government to ensure that we secure our share of that work, which will be vital for the future. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to press colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to continue to invest in composite technology to secure the future of all our UK plants. I place on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for his work and assistance over recent weeks and months. I am sure that, thanks to his help, we have money to secure a more beneficial outcome than we may have seen and that many in the press thought we were likely to see.
When we hit difficulties, we sometimes lose sight of the great progress that we have made. The West factory at Broughton is the largest factory built in the UK over recent years, costing more than £350 million to build and equip. Overall, we have seen more than €2 billion-worth of capital investment over the past nine years. Although Airbus has hit difficulties with the A380 and the redesign of the A350, and there have been problems with the dollar exchange rate, 2006 was a record year for deliveries of aircraft. We should not lose sight of that.
Where we have had success, we must maintain it, but also look to build on it and encourage others to site in our areas. Thanks to Airbus, we have a cluster of aerospace companies around Broughton—local suppliers including Magellan, Tritech, RD Precision, Metal Improvement Company and Electroimpact. As a result, more than £6 million a week overall is spent in the local economy. I am delighted that, despite the current difficulties, the company is carrying on its recruitment of the next generation of apprentices. Currently, Airbus has over 450 apprentices and over 6,000 have gone through the system in the past three decades—as I said, if only the rest of industry could follow that example. It has a good working relationship with Deeside college, North East Wales Institute and Yale college. Again, that could be used as a model.
I have mentioned that over 2,500 young people attended an event this week looking to become apprentices at Broughton. That shows the confidence that is there. It has been a difficult period for Airbus, but I am sure that we can secure the future.
I wanted to talk about many other issues today, including the steel industry and the need for more affordable housing, but unfortunately they will have to wait for another day, as I am aware that many other colleagues wish to speak.
Following on from the Member for Shotton—the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami)—I will mention a few things that we missed out this afternoon. The communities first programme, which is a creation of the Welsh Assembly through objective 1 funding, is a huge opportunity. We need to look at the creation and the extension of social enterprises. There is a huge opportunity for employment. We must push that as much as we can.
We have heard in the press, and we have all, I guess, had letters sent to us, about the worry that the Olympics may take away some lottery funding from our communities. Obviously, there is concern about community projects that receive lottery funding, which could be threatened. The big one for me is tourism, which is an opportunity for the valley communities that we do not take advantage of. From the Rhondda valley through Caerphilly and Merthyr to what is probably the jewel in the crown, the big pit in Blaenavon in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), there is a massive opportunity. We have an industrial and medical history that is second to none. We have heard today about our links to America and to Italy through the ice cream factories. That is the case in my constituency, too, and we can attract those people to bring money into our localities. That is something that we must look at with some urgency.
In tackling climate change, we should look at the possibility of power generation not just from the River Severn, but from many other rivers throughout Wales. Another issue is industrial estates. We have a number, especially in constituencies such as mine, that are right up on the top of the mountain. Wind generators would be another major way of supplying those estates, away from the national grid as such. That is something that we can exploit in the best possible terms.
I speak in this important Welsh day debate from the perspective of being the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I speak too as a Labour Member representing a constituency that is benefiting from rising investment, record sustained growth and strong prospects for 2007.
My constituency of Aberavon, in common with the rest of Wales, is facing a growing global challenge, and I wish to give some attention to that. When I became Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I expressed the view that our task was to champion the cause of the people of Wales in Parliament and to hold to account not only the Secretary of State for Wales but all other major spending Departments in Wales. It was also my view that we should be as collectivist, if that is the right word, as possible and achieve as much consensus as possible. I thank all members of the Committee for achieving that—most of the time, at least.
One of the virtues of a parliamentary Select Committee is that it can respond quickly to the changing circumstances in Wales and have short inquiries. Our most effective short inquiry was perhaps the one on the future of the St. Athan site and the Ministry of Defence’s new UK-wide training academy. The success of Metrix will lead, as we have heard, to the creation of around 5,000 jobs at St. Athan and contribute about £58 million to the local economy. I congratulate all Members of all political parties on the contribution that they made in that successful campaign, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith).
The Welsh Affairs Committee’s main inquiry last year was on energy, and it was one of the most relevant inquiries that we have ever held. We took evidence on the cost, efficiency and sustainability of existing energy sources in Wales, including nuclear power, wind, gas, oil and coal, and we had additional evidence later on earlier this year on coal. We also looked into tidal, wave, solar, hydroelectric, biomass and geothermal sources. Our recommendations will be taken very seriously during the preparation of the White Paper.
In November, we announced that we were beginning another major inquiry, on globalisation and its impact on Wales. We have begun our inquiry by looking at employment and we have noticed a major issue, skills. I suspect that the skills challenge will be one of the biggest issues to emerge, particularly the leading role of higher education institutions in Wales, and I hope that we will get some evidence from them in due course. The Labour manifesto for the Assembly, “Building a Better Wales”, calls for
“quality jobs in a small, clever country”,
and that is an important theme.
Education is a devolved matter, but I am pleased to see that Welsh higher education institutions have been showcasing their research, teaching and community links here at Westminster at a number of important events. The Committee has been proactive in monitoring the progress of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and, most recently, has been looking at the functioning of the Orders in Council. I look forward, as do all other members of the Committee to working in partnership with our Assembly colleagues on scrutinising them.
I now turn to the steel industry, which is very important in my constituency and other parts of Wales. This will be part of our globalisation inquiry and has been brought into sharp focus because of the takeover of Corus by the Indian firm, Tata. I am struck by the fascinating connections, some personal, between India and Wales. My late father was a keen supporter of the India League, which campaigned for independence with the Congress party. Indeed, Krishna Menon, the first Foreign Secretary in India after independence, spoke in my home village during the second world war. Of course we are well aware of the close friendship over many decades between Aneurin Bevan and Prime Minister Nehru.
I truly believe that our two countries have similar and common values. History and culture are important guides to us, but we must also recognise that we are living in new, changed and challenging times. We face globalisation in steel as in many other sectors where the pace of change is accelerating.
The steel unions want Corus—or should I say Tata—to spend a further £300 million on bringing facilities at Port Talbot, Llanwern and Scunthorpe to a level of production and quality to beat most of the competition from the EU. I share that aspiration, and I was greatly encouraged by the Minister for Trade, who made a positive contribution about the future of the steel industry when he gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee recently.
The Government’s approach to this strategically important industry needs to be constantly reviewed and re-evaluated and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) on her leadership, as chair of the all-party steel group, in identifying climate change measures and public procurement as key issues that the Government must address.
I shall end on an historical note. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on the way in which he has emphasised the importance of the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery. He may not know that one of the finest histories of slave rebellions, “The Black Jacobins” by C.L.R. James, a great writer of West Indian origin, was reputedly completed in 1938 in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, in the Dulais valley. C. L. R. James was, of course, a close friend of that great humanitarian and honorary Welshman, Paul Robeson—who was another friend of Nehru. All three of them would have been fascinated by the new relationship that is now developing between Wales and India.
I suppose it is inevitable that in our debate on St. David’s day we have heard numerous references to what Wales experienced during 18 years of Conservative Government. I know that the Conservatives sometimes do not like us to refer to that, and some of them find it quite funny, but that episode in Wales cast a dark cloud over the country, and only now are we beginning to see some genuine light at the end of the tunnel.
In the 1990s, I edited a pamphlet on what policies a Labour Government might introduce. One of the contributors to it was a young academic by the name of Kevin Morgan, who is now Professor Morgan of Cardiff university. He strongly argued that Wales needed a more diversified economy and much more Government-led investment in the defence sector. He pointed to the fact that there was massive Government-led investment in the south of England and the south-west but very little in Wales, and he was absolutely right.
I am pleased to be able to say that that is now being addressed. Two investments stand out as undoubtedly significant. The first has been referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig): the General Dynamics UK Ltd investment in Oakdale and Newbridge, creating 700 well-paid, quality jobs, linked to the contract for the Bowman communications system for the Ministry of Defence. There is a huge investment—worth £2.4 billion—in the depressed valleys of south Wales. That investment is the thin end of a wedge. It has shown what is possible; it has shown that there is innate vitality in the valleys of south Wales, which is just waiting to be harnessed and tapped. The Bowman communications system has proved to be successful in action, and it highlights what can happen when we make the transition from analogue to digital.
Building on that success, the other great recent triumph has been the award of the defence training academy contract to St. Athan, to which Members have referred. There will be a huge investment of £16 billion. Wales celebrated the fact that we received objective 1 status a few years ago, which was worth £1.3 billion, but the figure for St. Athan is £16 billion, which shows how important the contract won by the Metrix consortium is for the economy of the whole of south Wales—indeed for the whole of Wales, as has been said.
There is one question that I particularly want to ask today: how did that investment come about? Did it come about because of good luck or an act of God, or because the Labour Government saw that the Welsh Assembly elections were coming up? No. That investment was won by St. Athan because it was the best place to invest, and it is the best place to invest because a unique partnership has been established between central Government in London and a Welsh Assembly Government. The Welsh Assembly Government did an enormous amount of preparatory work to ensure that the infrastructure was in place so that Metrix could put forward the best possible bid. That was—objectively—recognised by the MOD, and the contract went to the right place.
It is interesting that a number of people have claimed credit for the contract going to St. Athan. A constituent of mine wrote to The Western Mail; his name is Mr. Nutt, and he is a Plaid Cymru member. He said that it was a fantastic contract—a wonderful contract—and that he and his friends in Plaid Cymru were very pleased to have played a part in winning it. That is a joke. I wrote back to The Western Mail, saying that such was not the case, and that the partnership that was successful was a Labour partnership involving Labour Assembly Members, Labour MPs, a Labour Government in Cardiff and a Labour Government in Westminster. That is what won the bid. What was the response from Plaid Cymru in the pages of The Western Mail? Not one single letter. That is surprising, is it not? Most days, The Western Mail is full of letters from Plaid Cymru candidates and members putting their case, but on this issue they were absolutely silent.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) was kind enough to acknowledge, rightly, the contribution of all parties in this place, rather than making the self-demeaning case that the hon. Gentleman is making.
I am just being objective and honest and telling the truth according to what I heard and saw with my own eyes, which is what we all know to be the reality.
What is more, at a crucial time when bids were being made, the president of Plaid Cymru not only failed to support the bid, but undermined it. On 29 November last year in a BBC Wales radio interview, Dafydd Iwan said categorically that he was against a military presence in Wales. If that is not undermining the defence training rationalisation programme bid, what is? That speaks volumes. It tells us exactly where Plaid Cymru really stands on the defence of this country and defence investment in Wales.
At the election on 3 May, the people of Wales will have the facts before them. They will know that the Labour party in government in Cardiff and in London is transforming the Welsh economy. They will realise that although the work has begun, there is much to do, and I believe that they will look at our record and come to an objective decision about what is the best way forward. I have no doubt that when the people of Wales have a clear choice between a rag-tag coalition made up of odds and sods of the Opposition parties, or a Labour Administration with coherent policies and a vision for the future, they will vote Labour.
I was going to speak for the limit of 12 minutes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I know that you will not let me, so I will try to condense my remarks into two minutes. [Interruption.] Well, if the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman had taken a little less time, we all could have got in. However, I am not going to argue with the Liberal Democrats, because I have some important constituency issues to discuss.
Last week I joined Assembly Minister Andrew Davies on a visit to the new Maes Awyr Môn—to Anglesey airport—to announce the intended operator of the north-south link between Cardiff and Anglesey. It was a very important step in a long political campaign that I have been involved in, working closely with the Westminster and Assembly Governments. The link will provide great opportunities for the people of north-west Wales and Anglesey in particular. A lot of objective 1 and local authority investment has gone into the project, and I hope that it will bring the benefits to the area that we all feel we deserve.
RAF Valley is very important to Ynys Môn not just in military terms—I will discuss that issue briefly in a moment—but for search and rescue. Next year, the United Kingdom search and rescue headquarters will be relocated there. That is to the credit of No. 22 Squadron, which does an excellent search and rescue job. Scheduled flights will run from Ynys Môn and the search and rescue headquarters will be there. Following this week’s announcement by the Ministry of Defence, RAF Valley will also have the contract to service the Hawk T1—the next generation of the fast jet—subject to the contract being completed between Babcock, the civil maintenance operators at the airfield, and BAE Systems. That is good news for Anglesey. RAF Valley is central to the island’s and the region’s economy.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) that Plaid Cymru undermines military and armed forces investment in Wales. Indeed, it is not just a junior member of its team but its president who wants to remove all air bases and military establishments from Wales. The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price)—he is not in his place, but if he were I would still raise this issue—did not have the courtesy to tell me that he wanted to curtail low flying in Wales. Doing so would also curtail jobs at RAF Valley. Of course, the Assembly Member and leader of Plaid Cymru was silent on this issue. In his own constituency, a spokesman said that they wanted to reduce the amount of low flying in the area, which would do away with the jobs. Plaid Cymru cannot have it both ways. Military and defence expenditure in Wales is the fault line in Plaid Cymru, and we are right to expose that before the Assembly elections so that people know that jobs will be secure with a Labour team here in Westminster and a Labour team in the Assembly.
This has been a spirited and interesting debate. It is especially gratifying for hon. Members on both sides of the House that it is actually taking place on St. David’s day. It is important that we should have this annual debate because it gives Members from Wales an opportunity to air issues of interest to the Principality.
The Secretary of State opened the debate in his customary Tory-bashing vein, which sat rather ill with the sanctity of the day and what we know is his true persona as a home-loving Aga owner. That theme was developed by other Labour Members. One might even have thought that an election were approaching. We know, of course, that the Secretary of State’s remarks were aimed over the heads of his audience in the Chamber today at the members of the parliamentary Labour party. We also know, from the Guido Fawkes website, that he has already attracted a great deal of support. I am sure that the inadvertent publication of his list of supporters will not damage his chances.
Several themes developed during the debate and were aired by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) spoke after the two Front Benchers, and his contribution was customarily statesmanlike and thoughtful. He touched on the important issue of security and policing, a theme of great importance in Wales and other parts of the UK recently. I was glad to see that at last the immigration and nationality directorate presence has been restored to Holyhead. Many hon. Members were concerned that for a long time there had been no immigration officers stationed permanently at Holyhead.
I cannot take any interventions because we have very little time left.
A serious concern arose last week, when illegal immigrants were discovered in north Wales and the police were told by the IND to give them a map and send them to Liverpool. There is a significant concern about security in Wales and it was right for the right hon. Gentleman to raise that issue.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) raised many issues in his contribution and many of his themes were taken up by other Members. However, he alone touched to any great extent on the issue of agriculture. We must never forget the importance of the rural way of life to Wales. Agriculture is a vastly important industry and many families have depended on it for their livelihoods for generations. However, there is more to the issue than that. The agricultural communities are frequently also the Welsh-speaking communities and, of course, agriculture has had some very tough times recently. We have had the fiasco of the foot and mouth episode and problems with bovine tuberculosis. Recently, there has been the reduction in support given by the Assembly to farmers in the less favoured areas. Tir Mynydd is being phased out and, in many cases it is all that keeps farmers in those areas going.
As we heard from the hon. Gentleman, dairy farmers in Wales are going out of business at the rate of three a week. That is simply because they can sell their milk only for a price several pence lower per litre than the cost of production. Every time a farmer in Wales goes out of business, the Welsh community is weakened and the Welsh language is damaged. The Assembly could do more to concentrate on agriculture and support the agricultural community.
My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) made an excellent speech, and a number of his themes were taken up by other hon. Members. He was worried about the erosion of public services and the threat to HMRC offices in Wales. The latter point was taken up by the hon. Members for Gower (Mr. Caton), for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams).
Various hon. Members noted that the tendency for increasing centralisation can only be damaging for Wales, where the population is thin and travelling long distances takes so much time. The hon. Member for Caernarfon said that the HMRC office at Porthmadog in his constituency had a face-to-face service in Welsh, and the importance of such a service to the community in that part of the country cannot be underestimated. As many hon. Members noted, it is not good enough to centralise HMRC offices in the large cities. The people of Wales pay their taxes—goodness knows, they pay more than ever under this Government—and they are entitled to a face-to-face service at HMRC offices.
The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) made a speech that departed from the norm. She touched, inter alia, on homelessness, which she rightly called a blight on Wales and the whole UK. Anyone who walks from Parliament up Victoria street after dark will be appalled at the numbers of people who sleep outside Government offices because they have nowhere else to go. The right hon. Lady was right to raise the question of homelessness in the context of a Welsh debate, and I commend her for it.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) spoke about justice and the provision of prisons. He was right to say that we need more prisons in Wales, especially in the north. Solicitors and probation officers from my part of the country sometimes have to travel immensely long distances—their journeys can take a whole day—when they see clients in custody at Altcourse. It is a problem that needs to be addressed.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr also spoke about substance misuse. He rightly said that it should be treated for what it is—a serious illness. One of my concerns as a north Wales Member has to do with the reduction in the availability of residential rehabilitation places. The Welsh Assembly’s shocking decision to fund an automated needle exchange machine—it was to have been situated in a dark alley in my constituency—caused an enormous outcry. The decision was dismissed, but there is no doubt that we need more rehabilitation facilities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) made a characteristically forthright speech, in which he spoke about the Union and the need for caution in the extension of the devolution process. Those are important questions and, given that an election is approaching, I cannot resist the opportunity to mention that there is one party in this House that would cause Wales to be torn out of the Union and become an irrelevant state in an ever more powerful EU. We can well do without that, and it will be rejected by the people of Wales on 3 May.
My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth was also right to highlight the issue of his constituent Mr. Vince Davies, the cancer patient unable to get the treatment that he needs. Again, hon. Members of all parties will have experienced similar problems. We all have constituents who find that they are having to wait longer and longer for treatment, especially if that treatment has to take place on the other side of the border. Waiting lists for treatment at centres of excellence such as the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt hospital in Gobowen are much longer for patients from Wales than from England. My constituents and, I have no doubt, those of other hon. Members make the reasonable point that they pay their taxes and national insurance contributions at precisely the same rate as English patients, so why should they be expected to put up with a second-class service? I find it extraordinary that when elective surgery is taking longer and longer for patients from Wales, and when the funds for such treatments are subject to such exigencies, the Welsh Assembly Government decide that it is sensible to scrap prescription charges for everyone whether or not they can pay for it. One might think there was an election approaching.
Wales is a country that has unlimited potential. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), the Chairman of the Select Committee—without wishing to be accused of sycophancy, I commend him on his chairmanship; he is an excellent chairman—properly touched on the problems that Wales faces. They were also touched on by other hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). We in Wales live in an increasingly globalised society. The threats and challenges to Wales come not just from down the road, down the valley, or the next town, but from a different continent. The evidence given to the Select Committee in the valuable globalisation inquiry pointed to the fact that, sadly, the Welsh education system was simply not keeping up with the challenge.
Last week we heard evidence from witnesses from Admiral Insurance, who pointed out the difficulty in obtaining graduate trainees who were able to write simple business letters. By contrast, in India all Admiral’s basic call centre staff who answer the telephone are graduates. As one hon. Member said earlier, the countries in the far east are turning out graduates at an enormous rate. Wales simply has to rise to that challenge.
We have a good future ahead of us as a country. We can do well. We can avoid the sniping that turns the public off and look towards Wales as a product that we can market, but we will be able to do that only if we have something good to sell. The key to that is education. That is something that everyone in the Chamber agrees on. If we pursue education, training and skills, we will all have a nation we can be proud to call our Wales.
It has been a genuinely wide-ranging debate. I shall try in the time that I have to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) to intervene to make a short contribution. Unfortunately, she was the only. Member who was not called today. I was prepared to wind up in 10 minutes, but the Opposition wanted a little longer.
Wales has shared fully in the unprecedented rise in prosperity that the whole of the United Kingdom has enjoyed thanks to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s superb management of the economy, to which many hon. Members have referred. Wales has benefited from the massive investment in public services under Labour, making up for years of under-investment by the Tories. After 10 years of massive progress under Labour, Wales faces important challenges and opportunities. The new Government of Wales Act 2006 will, from May, provide the Assembly with significant new powers to tackle the challenges ahead such as the rapid changes in the world economy, with the breakneck economic growth of countries such as China and India, and the looming threat of climate change.
My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), my right hon. Friends the Members for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Mr. David), for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) and for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) and the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) all raised issues relating to the economy, the importance of skills and education and the threats and opportunities that are posed by globalisation.
In the past 10 years, 133,000 jobs have been created in Wales and unemployment has fallen by 37,000. There have been huge falls in unemployment in constituencies in the valleys and in the more remote parts of west and north Wales. In my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, unemployment has fallen by more than 70 per cent. over the past nine years. In the dark days when the Conservative Government were in power such figures would have been incredible. If anyone had said there would be statistical full employment in many parts of Wales in 10 years’ time, no one would have believed them.
How has that been achieved? For the past eight years there has been partnership between a Labour-run Assembly Government and a Labour UK Government, with unprecedented investment in Wales by the private and public sectors. The private sector has invested in Airbus, Toyota and General Dynamics, and has made massive investment across Wales because it believes that the Welsh economy and work force will ensure that companies are profitable.
Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Camford on the announcement that it has secured the future of its Llanelli factory? Owing to hard work by the unions, my friend Catherine Thomas, AM for Llanelli, and the Assembly Government Minister for Enterprise, Innovation and Networks, Camford now has a secure base for the future of its car factory in Llanelli.
Absolutely. From the briefings that my hon. Friend has given me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I know how hard she has been working to ensure the continuation of that important manufacturing plant in Llanelli.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn stressed the absolute importance of our education system, and of skills not only for our existing work force, but for the young people who will be entering the work force. I was particularly pleased that in the building for a better Wales documents, the Labour party in Wales announced that it intends to set up a skills academy, which will serve young people going through our education system as well as giving hundreds of thousands of people who are already in work the opportunity to upskill, so that we can compete in the global market.
Like many other colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan emphasised the vital importance, and the huge opportunities for his constituency and constituencies throughout Wales of the £16 billion investment in St. Athan. That project will create jobs and be a university for skills. The private sector will be involved, but as my hon. Friend rightly said, infrastructure support will also be needed and I shall be discussing that issue with Andrew Davies shortly.
The other main issue raised by Members on both sides of the House related to the proposed changes in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Preseli Pembrokeshire, my hon. Friends the Members for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and for Gower and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) all raised that important issue—I may have missed someone. I can tell the House that I met the Paymaster General on 15 January to discuss the concerns that have been expressed by Members from all parts of the House about the effect that there would be on jobs and about the importance of having access to tax officers throughout Wales, particularly in our more peripheral areas.
I also met the Minister with responsibility for the civil service last week to discuss not only those matters, but the Lyons review and the transfer of civil service jobs from, in the main, the south-east of England to Wales. I have arranged a meeting in March between the Paymaster General, myself and the First Minister to discuss the issue again, because I think that there is a real opportunity for joined-up government to address some of the concerns that many Members have expressed. Members will be aware that the National Assembly is also moving its civil servants out of the Cardiff area to more peripheral parts of Wales, and we may be able to link up with that. This is a work in progress. I emphasise again to the House that no decisions have been made on any particular office and that there is a genuine consultation process under way. I hope that colleagues throughout the House will make their contributions.