I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of Welsh Affairs.
As we take this opportunity to debate and celebrate all that is Welsh and our pride in Wales, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from our national team’s sensational last-minute victory against Scotland the other Saturday—do not write off the red team until the final whistle. By the way, I am talking about rugby and politics, not football.
Of course, no one can deny that this year has been tough for us all—families, businesses, communities and Governments the world over. Yet, even in this difficult year, Wales has seen a number of firsts, such as our first Ashes test match and the first time that the UK Cabinet has ever met in Wales. We have showcased the very best of Wales as a great place to visit, to watch world-class sport and to do excellent business.
The people of Wales have also resolved that the rise of racist, fascist organisations must be stopped. These far-right groups first tried it on in Swansea, but then abandoned their vile demonstration plans in Newport and Wrexham in the face of decent, concerted community action. We must not be complacent, however; wherever the so-called Welsh Defence League and the British National party threaten our decent, tolerant communities in Wales, we must all stand together to resist them. I am pleased to confirm that the first ever conference of Unite Against Fascism (Wales) will take place in Cardiff in early March, and I would welcome support from any and all parties in Wales. Together, we must prevail over the poison of racism.
Our main task now is how we secure the recovery in Wales, and the fact that securing the recovery, rather than sliding back from recession into depression, is now on the agenda has not happened by chance. After the worst global recession for 80 years, other economies have experienced far higher levels of unemployment—Spain 19.5 per cent., France 10 per cent., Ireland 13.3 per cent., and America 9.7 per cent. The figure for Wales is 8.6 per cent.
The Deputy First Minister of Wales, Ieuan Wyn Jones, has said that there is “no room for complacency” on unemployment figures. The Secretary of State refers to other parts of the world, but is it not a fact that the unemployment rate in other parts of the United Kingdom is 7.9 per cent., which should be compared with the 8.6 per cent. rate in Wales that he has mentioned? Thus, the comparison also needs to be made with what is happening within the United Kingdom; we should not just make the comparison with other parts of the world.
I am very happy to make the comparison with other parts of the United Kingdom. As I shall describe later, if we were to examine Wales’s performance now compared with what happened during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s under the previous Conservative Government, when the recessions were not nearly as bad as this recession either within the UK or across the globe, we would find that we have done far better on employment and unemployment.
I shall come to those points in due course.
Our Government and the Welsh Assembly Government have painstakingly secured a strong Welsh economic platform to build for the future. Until Spring 2008, Britain experienced an unprecedented period of continuous growth for more than 11 years under our Government, which saw the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product grow by more than 32 per cent. since we came to power in 1997. However, the global financial implosion that followed has hit that enormous achievement for six, and the Government have had to respond, not by downing tools as Conservatives did in the 1980s and 1990s to disastrous effect in Wales, but by active intervention to fill the gap left by the collapse in private sector activity and investment.
Fair-minded people now accept that our Government made the right choices. We saved the banking system, on which every business and household in this country depends—the Tories opposed that action, just as they opposed the fiscal stimulus package, which, among other things, has delivered a £1 billion future jobs fund. That has already created more than 9,900 job opportunities for young people across Wales, stopping them being thrown on to the scrap heap as happened under the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s with most never to work again.
The stimulus package has also delivered the car scrappage scheme. More than 347,000 orders have been taken since the start of the scheme, 17,350 of those in Wales, thus protecting jobs and companies in the automotive sector. It has also delivered the business support schemes, such as the time to pay arrangements, under which more than 11,100 businesses have deferred nearly £155 million of business taxes in Wales alone. That comes as a result of the action that we have taken as a Government—it is all action opposed by the Conservatives.
May I put on record my gratitude to the Secretary of State and his fellow Ministers for the help that they have provided, first in securing Regal Fayre, which is a new company in the town of Montgomery, and secondly, in helping to save 180 jobs in the Shop Direct call centre in Newtown? It is my opinion that the Government’s assistance directly contributed in a positive way to saving those jobs, and I am grateful for the assistance that he has personally provided.
It is not often that we get thanked from across the Floor of the House, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those thanks. He has worked tirelessly on behalf of his constituents and has properly represented them to the Government, and we have been able to help in the way that he has described. I am very pleased for the local work force that that is the case.
We have given real support—real help for real people—requiring rises in public investment without which the Government deficit would be even higher. The irony of the Tories’ opposition to our recent public investment programmes is that the very Government deficit they complain about would have been even higher had we taken their approach, because there would have been more unemployment and greater borrowing to finance people who would have been on the dole instead of in work, earning incomes and paying their taxes.
The Secretary of State has tried to make some reassuring remarks about the size of our deficit. Our deficit is £178 billion—it is even bigger than Greece’s, yet I saw that the Prime Minister was trying to lecture the Government of Greece about fiscal responsibility. There is nothing reassuring and no reason to be complacent about the size of the UK’s deficit—it is a disaster for the country.
Nobody, let alone members of the Cabinet, such as myself, is being complacent. My point is that if we are that concerned—as we all, including the hon. Gentleman, ought to be—about the size of the deficit, why would we make it worse? That is what the Tory policies over the past year would have done and what Tory policies over the coming year would do. If a Government closed down many more businesses and gave many more people the sack—that is what the Tories would be doing—the deficit would grow bigger. Everybody understands that; it is schoolboy and schoolgirl economics. That would be a consequence of Tory policies.
While the right hon. Gentleman is painting such a rosy picture of Labour’s time in office, could he explain why 200,000 children in Wales still live in poverty—as measured before and after housing costs in the Department for Work and Pensions report “Households Below Average Income 2007-08”? Can he also explain why Save the Children claimed last month that 96,000 children in Wales are living in severe poverty under his Government?
It was because we are concerned about the numbers on poverty that we set a target for abolishing child poverty just as soon as we can. What I cannot understand is how the hon. Lady’s policies for cutting child tax credits and child trust funds will help with the well-being of children in Wales. After a period of disastrous increases in pensioner poverty, child poverty and poverty across the board in Wales under the Conservative Government whom she supported, we have reduced the level of poverty for pensioners and children in Wales.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. [Hon. Members: “A point of order?”] I know that this seems odd, because I do not raise many points of order. However, it is an important matter for the historical record when a Secretary of State of Her Majesty’s Government comes to the Dispatch Box and says something that is completely inaccurate. He claimed that a Conservative Government would—
Order. What is a point of order is that when the occupant of the Chair rises any other hon. Member should resume their seat. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is wise to be sparing in his points of order, if he thinks that that constituted one—it is more a matter for debate. He has said something on the record; he must be satisfied.
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman rose, because it is a matter of record what the Tory party’s policies are on child trust funds, child tax credits and other such matters. The Tories were wrong on the recession, and they are wrong on the recovery. Their plans for early and savage public investment cuts would choke off the recovery. They have no plans for growth—they have only a plan for austerity.
Our Labour Government investment has ensured that, despite the worst global economic recession in more than 80 years, we have avoided the spectre of industrial decline, long-term unemployment and run-down public services—those are the kind of problems that Welsh people lived through to such terrible effect in the 1980s and 1990s.
This September, my wife and I will be celebrating our 27th anniversary. In the 1980s, we bought our first house and interest rates were 13 per cent. Mortgage rates varied in the ’80s and ’90s between 13 and 17 per cent., and house repossessions were at a record high. Is not the big distinction that the inflation rate is 3.5 per cent. now, not 13.5 per cent.? That lower rate not only helps couples to stay in their homes, but helps small businesses and the economy to recover.
First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on an excellent 27 years of marriage? He is right to say that many people like him who bought their first house in the late 1980s were immediately plunged into negative equity as a result of the disastrous policies of the then Conservative Government. As I have said, our Labour Government investment has ensured that we have avoided the worst consequences of this recession and that employment levels and other indicators are better than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.
Our record speaks for itself—
May I finish this point? Our record speaks for itself. There are still 95,000 more people in work in Wales than when Labour came into office in 1997. Long-term unemployment in Wales is more than 55 per cent lower than it was in 1997, despite the recession. It is almost 70 per cent lower than it was at the height of the last home-grown recession in the 1990s. Average house prices in Wales are more than 140 per cent. higher than they were when we came to power in 1997. Repossessions in Wales are 39 per cent lower than they were in 1991. The average household has nearly £5,000 more disposable income now than in 1997 and gross value added per head in Wales has risen by 49 per cent. since 1997. In the early 1990s recession, many more businesses failed in Wales, with the company liquidation rate two and half times higher than the current rate. On that high note, I give way to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan).
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way, because it gives me the opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and his wife on 27 years of happy marriage. Many congratulations to them.
It is not good enough for the Secretary of State to say one thing in this place and another outside. Will he get his stories right? I believe that he said on BBC Wales online on 22 April last year that if efficiency savings had been made
“earlier on at a time of rising spending…I think”
“would have been in a better position to move forward.”
Which is it? Have his Administration messed up or does this wonderful picture that he is trying to paint for us now show what has happened? While I am on my feet, let me mention that he said in The Western Mail that characterising the situation as a case of
“‘nice’ Labour reductions in public spending”
“‘nasty’ Tory cutbacks would be a mistake”.
That is a mistake that he is making now.
The planned Tory cutbacks would be nasty in their effect on Wales.
The difference between a Tory Government and this Labour Government is as I have just described: repossessions are relatively low; average house prices are higher; average household income has risen; unemployment is lower; and the rate of business failures is much lower than it was during the home-grown, Tory-induced recessions of the early 1990s and early 1980s, which were unlike the global recession from which we have suffered in recent times. That is the difference between a Tory Government and this Labour Government. A Tory Government leave people on their own, and a Labour Government are on those people’s side.
On the subject of business collapse, does the Secretary of State appreciate what has happened in the petrol filling station arena? More than 111 petrol filling stations have closed in the past five years as a direct result of what the Labour Administrations here and in the Assembly intend to introduce with the business rates revaluations. Increases without any transitional relief, such as that in England, are putting at risk the remaining 572 petrol stations in Wales, of which 206 are in rural areas. One of those is facing an increase in business rates of 725 per cent. How does he expect that business to survive that kind of increase?
I know that there is concern about business rates and the changes in Wales, but 60 per cent. of businesses benefit from those changes according to the Welsh Assembly Government. The reasons for petrol station closures are much broader than the hon. Gentleman suggests, and not least among them are the extremely cheap prices from supermarkets. To my regret—as a result of market forces, not of action by this Government—they are forcing too many local petrol stations to close.
The Secretary of State claims credit for his Government for the fact that this recession is not as acute and difficult as the last one. Individuals have made a contribution, too, by working part time and by cutting their hours. There has been a huge amount of suffering as a result of the recession, but individuals have played their part in helping. I am sure that the Secretary of State wants to congratulate them on that.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do so. I was openly arguing that the recession has been very tough for people; I said that right at the beginning. Individuals have made sacrifices such as working fewer hours and, as a result, having lower earnings, and that has helped us to get through this terrible recession, which has been a worldwide recession, in better shape than we would have been—this is my point—if we had followed the policies of the Conservative Opposition. Had they been in government, everybody in Wales would have been far worse off. That is indisputable.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State, who is being very generous in giving way. I think that I might be the only person in the House who has worked in a petrol filling station—Cymmer Afan petrol station in Cymmer, where I used to live in Wales. Cymmer Afan petrol station had been there for years and was run by a wonderful family, but it closed down just before Christmas. I am shocked by the Secretary of State—I know that he has been busy celebrating his 60th birthday this week, but he should not forget that unemployment is not low in Wales, but high at 8.6 per cent. Forgive me, but I believe that the Secretary of State’s complacency is breathtaking.
The hon. Gentleman will find in the official record, as everyone else in the House will have noticed, that I quoted that figure of 8.6 per cent. earlier in my speech. My point was not that it was not of concern—of course it is. I represent a Welsh constituency where people have lost their jobs. My point is that without Government action and that if we had followed the Conservative prescription, which he supports, of cutting public investment—
I thank my right hon. Friend and hope that he can now get on with the substantive part of his speech. He will recall that in the 1980s, after the terrible onslaught on our basic industries, Wales reinvented itself. The industrial areas of Wales reinvented themselves, and we will do so again. Will he tell the House something about how the Government see the way forward for breaking with the enormous dependence on the public sector? If Wales does not reinvent itself as a home for entrepreneurs, for small businesses and for high-technology industries, we will miss out on the new generation of industries in the future.
I cannot agree more with my right hon. Friend. May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his long service in the House and for his excellent record as a Labour Minister and to express my personal disappointment that he is standing down, although I understand his reasons for that? This will be his last Welsh affairs debate. I agree with him absolutely. A little while ago, I made a speech in the House in which I said that we had to strengthen our private sector and could not rely on the public sector to the extent that we had. However, that requires new investment to support the new industries and businesses of the future and to unleash the entrepreneurial spirit and innovation that we need, particularly in low-carbon industries and the digital economy. That requires Government support—it does not happen on its own. Individual entrepreneurs and small businesses need to grow with Government backing, not to have that support stripped away from under their feet so that they are unable to deliver what they are capable of.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I want to give him the opportunity to set the record straight. I believe that I heard him say earlier that fewer companies have gone to the wall in Labour’s recession. I understand that more companies have gone bust in Labour’s recession than in any other recession since records began. There were 26,978 corporate compulsory liquidations and company voluntary arrangements. That information comes from the Office for National Statistics time series and the Insolvency Service’s “Company liquidations in England and Wales 1960 to present”. Will he confirm that he did not make an error when he said that he felt that fewer companies had gone bust in this recession? I think that these statistics prove that he was wrong in this instance.
What I said—I shall read again to the hon. Lady from my speech—was that in the early 1990s recession, many more businesses failed in Wales, with the company liquidation rate two and a half times higher than the current rate. That is my point—not that the current rate of liquidations is acceptable or that any business failure is acceptable. Things were relatively far worse in the 1980s and 1990s, and specifically in the 1990s in that respect.
Our action both in Westminster and in Wales has delivered real help to individuals, families and businesses across Wales, and we will continue to do that as the Welsh economy recovers. To cut off support now, as the Conservatives and right-wing commentators propose, would wreck the recovery. With oil prices rising, international volatility and the weak eurozone, and with countries such as Greece and Ireland facing serious crises, we must prevent this fragile recovery from sliding back into recession or, even worse, from causing a severe, prolonged depression.
I know that my right hon. Friend supports the idea, as does the Prime Minister, of a Robin Hood tax on global financial transactions that would spread both benefits and risks more fairly. Will my right hon. Friend elaborate on his support for that tax?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. She is absolutely right to say that I have supported the Robin Hood tax, as most fair-minded people have. Indeed, the extent and breadth of support for it has been interesting. It is now backed by groups right across the board, from the Salvation Army to those such as Friends of the Earth, which we would have expected to support it. That is entirely consistent with the Prime Minister’s international leadership in seeking to get an international tax on financial transactions, not least to provide insurance support to prevent the banks from collapsing and having to rely on the public purse in the future. I am glad that my right hon. Friend gave me the opportunity to make those comments.
The Tories have lost all credibility on the economy. First, they promised austerity, until they realised that that did not play well with their focus groups. Then they said they would cut the deficit “further and faster”, but later realised that the sums did not add up. Now they have changed tack again and all they will say is that they will “make a start” on cutting spending. They are making it up as they go along, giving a nod to their baying right and then a reassuring wink to their worried left. They cannot be trusted and they would deliver a decade of austerity and low growth for Wales. They would cut support to the economy, which would lead to higher unemployment, bigger welfare bills and in turn to even higher borrowing and debt. They would bury hope with pessimism and would deliver a decade of austerity rather than the decade of growth that we plan.
In January, Britain emerged from the toughest recession since the 1930s. The growth figure, although modest, combined with the good news that unemployment in Wales fell for the first time since the recession began, means that we can be cautiously—I stress cautiously—optimistic. But things will not be easy; our priority now is to lock in the economic recovery. Access to finance from banks is still a major problem for too many businesses, especially small ones. I heard yesterday from representatives of small businesses in Cardigan whom the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) brought to see me with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). Those businesses are having difficulties with the banks. Far too many businesses are unable to get loans from banks at rates that they can afford. The banks are charging small businesses ridiculously high rates of interest, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion explained to me.
I appreciate the Secretary of State’s comments on this issue. We are all struggling with businesses that are unable to get reasonable credit, but was not the right time for the good Lord Myners to impose certain conditions in that regard when the deal was struck and the money was put into the banks?
We have been pressing the banks. We have done so since the beginning and during negotiations that led to the support, without which the whole banking system would have collapsed. We have stressed that the priority is for the banks to get the money out into the real economy. They have spent most of the time recapitalising themselves. As the hon. Gentleman has raised this point, let me report briefly on the past couple of economic summits that have been convened by the First Minister in Wales with my support and with the participation of a wide range of groups, including businesses and trade unions. One of the most telling points that everyone accepts, given the evidence that we have received, is that local bank managers no longer have—and have not had for the past 10 to 15 years—the autonomy to take certain decisions. That applies even though some of them have built up relationships with local businesses, know them and their directors and know the health of the economy. Instead of being able to sign off loans and continue credit arrangements, they have to pass decisions up the line to someone who sits at a computer, feeds material in and then says no.
I know that it is not fashionable to do so, but I have to report two bits of good news. HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland have recently been quite helpful during detailed negotiations, but they are strapped by the recapitalisation demands on them. Nevertheless, does the Secretary of State agree that had the Conservatives been in government at the time and presided over the collapse of the banking system, there would have been no prospect whatever of economic recovery? It seems to me that that is what would have happened if they had carried out their promises at the time.
Again, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and speaks the truth. At that really difficult moment when the whole of the banking system could have collapsed, after which people would have lost their savings and much calamity would have resulted, if the disastrous policies that the Conservatives advocated had been followed, they would have made things much worse, whereas people accept that our policies have delivered results.
As I have said, it will not be easy to emerge from recession. We need to lock in the economic recovery, but finance from the banks is still a major problem. That is why we have committed another £500 million to the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, thereby enabling more businesses to access it. Currently, more than £33 million of loans have been offered to nearly 430 companies in Wales. Again, that support would be cut by the Conservatives.
I think that bankers have made themselves even more unpopular than politicians in recent times, and that is saying something. I do not like that level of bonuses. The chief executive of RBS has said that he is not taking a bonus. Obviously, the high bonuses for high earners have been restricted in all sorts of ways as a result of Government intervention, but the banks need to explain to the public, whose money has bailed them out, how they can possibly justify those very large bonuses. They need to give those explanations to the citizens of—in this case—Wales.
On the banks, how can anyone take the Tories seriously when they say that they will cut the deficit further and faster, now that they are planning practically to give away bank shares? Their deficit reduction plan is a total farce. As for shares in the banks, the public rightly demand that we should focus on getting back their money—the £70 billion that was handed to the banks by the Government. We were right to bail the banks out because we had to save the banking system so that the recession did not become a prolonged depression. However, it should be obvious to everybody that any responsible Government who are really committed to cutting the deficit and getting those billions of pounds of public money back must not discount those shares but sell them at a time and in a way that will maximise their value to the taxpayer. The Conservatives have merely offered the people of Wales and the United Kingdom an irresponsible and costly political gimmick. By contrast, we have supported businesses and our intervention has avoided unemployment rising as high as many predicted it would. Unemployment in Wales has fallen slightly in the past two months, but we cannot be complacent; unemployment may rise again and every job loss is devastating for those concerned.
We know that young people across Wales have been hit particularly hard by the recession but we will not condemn a generation to unemployment like that in the 1980s and 1990s. To prevent another generation from being lost to work we have extended the young person’s guarantee so that young people receive training and support after six, rather than 12, months, to ensure they have the necessary skills for permanent worthwhile employment. That said, youth unemployment in Wales is still a quarter lower than it was at the height of the early ’90s, and long-term youth unemployment is nearly two thirds lower.
Alongside those measures, we are looking to the future. We are not cutting back, but are investing to promote growth in the new industries of the digital, low-carbon economy that my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) mentioned earlier. We have used the strategic investment fund in Wales to invest in a £44 million high-performance computing institute—a world-class facility to build a world-class Wales. By giving companies in Wales improved access to the latest IT and training, we can ensure that Welsh businesses are able to compete on a global stage alongside other world-leading innovators.
Faster growth means more people going back to work, thus cutting the costs of unemployment and cutting the deficit. If we had walked by on the other side, believing that unemployment was a price worth paying, then the deficit would be even greater and unemployment rates even higher. That is the reality of a Tory recession. We saw it in the 1980s and ’90s—will they never learn?
I say it again: Welsh citizens need a Government who are on their side, not a Government who leave them on their own. That is why we celebrate—
I have given way a lot up to now, and I want to make some progress.
That is why we celebrate, not apologise for, this 10th anniversary of Labour passing the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. It remains one of this Government's proudest achievements, having benefited millions of people. The latest increase in the national minimum wage has benefited over 50,000 workers in Wales alone.
When the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham voted against the national minimum wage, as she did—
The hon. Lady nods her head in satisfaction. Then, wages of as little as £1.20 an hour were common and legal in our constituencies. That is just £1.38 an hour in today’s prices. So when she tries to say that she cares about families and people struggling to make ends meet, we can imagine what it would be like to live on £1.38 an hour today, as might have been the case without the minimum wage.
She certainly did not argue for that. Is she now saying that she was wrong on the minimum wage, just as she has been, and in her current policies continues to be, so wrong on so many other things? The Leader of the Opposition said that the minimum wage
“would send unemployment straight back up”,
but Labour has delivered a rising minimum wage, and more people in work than ever before in Wales.
We also want to take Wales forward as part of a digital Britain. The Conservatives seem ready to cast aside any broadcaster that dares to compete with Rupert Murdoch. We say that sharing a fraction of the BBC’s licence fee—and it is only a tiny fraction— is necessary to help make sure that we get diversity of television news and strengthen local and national media outlets across Wales. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham is muttering into her cups over there, but the Opposition are opposing our support for a new news outlet on Channel 3.
If the Conservatives get their way and refuse to back the pilots with the funding from the licence fee that we support, there is a real danger that Channel 3 will no longer have Welsh news, and that “Wales Tonight” and the other news programmes that it broadcasts will be lost. That funding is only a tiny fraction of the licence fee and, as I say, it is necessary to help make sure that we get diversity of television news and strengthen local and national media outlets across Wales. We want choice for the many and not, as the Opposition would prefer, profits for their rich friends.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I apologise for interrupting. I asked the nice man sitting on his left, who seems to have an advance copy of my right hon. Friend’s speech, whether he was going to deal with governance. I got the impression that he was not, and I did not want to be disappointed about not intervening to ask about it.
As an English Member of Parliament I am very interested in governance, and hope that my right hon. Friend will address this issue. Ministers with primarily English portfolios have taken arbitrary decisions without consulting their opposite numbers in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. As Secretary of State for Wales, will he jealously press the Justice Secretary, who is the custodian of these matters, to ensure that that does not happen?
By way of example, and in conclusion, I refer to the arbitrary decision of the Secretary of State for Health to abrogate and tear up the reciprocal health agreements between the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey, without consulting the Health Ministers in Wales, Edinburgh or Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend has got me on that one. I always admire his energy as a parliamentarian, but this Government have been an enthusiastic devolver of power. We have devolved more powers than any other Government in our history, and of course we respect the rights of Wales, Scotland and Northern, as we do those of the islands that he mentioned.
I cannot for the life of me understand why the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham now opposes the 50p monthly levy on telephone line rentals to finance super-fast broadband everywhere in Wales. How can she justify all the “not spots” in Wales, and all the households and businesses there—such as those whose representatives the hon. Member for Ceredigion brought to see me yesterday—that are now unable to get broadband? How can she justify them falling even further behind while the rest of Britain forges ahead?
In response to the question about governance raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the Secretary of State rightly said that he has been an enthusiastic proponent of devolution. Will he tell the House when he intends to reply to the letter written to him by his colleague the First Minister for Wales?
On broadband, I am heartened by the Government’s apparent commitment to address “not spots”. Many of my constituents live in such areas, so will he say when they can expect to be connected to broadband? At present, they can do that by satellite, but there are some technical limitations to what they can get by that means, which is also tremendously expensive. They will be very encouraged if they can get an assurance that the Government are truly committed to funding the arrival of broadband, especially in small towns and villages such as Darowen and Staylittle.
Indeed we are committed to that. It is precisely to address the future needs of the Welsh economy that the Government want businesses and residents in the small towns of the kind that he and many of us represent to have access to fast, high-quality broadband. We have proposed the levy of 50p a month on telephone line rentals to fund that. I cannot give a time scale, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, especially if he lets my office know which specific areas he is talking about.
Many pensioners—perhaps especially those who live on their own—are not familiar with the iPhones and other mobile telephone technology that both the Secretary of State and indeed I have. Has he calculated how many of those pensioners will be paying this levy? How many business and call centres will pay it, and would it be better for them to relocate to other places?
What is the hon. Lady suggesting—that paying a UK-wide levy of only 50p extra a month should encourage residents and businesses to flee our shores wholesale? How would she address the issue? We get no policies from the Conservatives on these vital questions, whereas we have provided a practical and funded route to delivering universal broadband.
I can take my own mother as an example. She is a Welsh pensioner, and is quite happy to pay the rental. She is on broadband, and emails and texts almost obsessively. I suppose that she is an example of a modern pensioner in Wales, and I know that she is happy to be part of the broadband revolution that the Conservatives oppose.
Under Labour, the Welsh budget has more than doubled from under £7 billion in 1996-97 to nearly £16 billion in 2010-11—a bigger real terms rise than ever in Wales’s history. The Welsh Assembly Government have opened nine new hospitals, and of course introduced free prescriptions. That policy is now under threat from the Tories, but it particularly benefits those people on low incomes or with chronic illnesses who may not have previously been eligible for free prescriptions under the complicated and outdated exemption system.
The Welsh Assembly Government have introduced free primary school breakfasts for more than 900 schools across Wales—also a policy under threat from the Tories. Free bus travel for the over-60s and concessionary rates for people with disabilities have also been hugely successful, with more than 600,000 people benefiting from free travel. That is also under threat from the Tories. In Westminster, we are passing laws to promote equality, tackle discrimination, help vulnerable people with their energy bills, grant equal treatment for agency workers and enshrine in law for the very first time our commitment to abolish child poverty. Those policies were all resisted by the Tories. That is the role of an active Government who care, and that is a programme for a Labour Government who help the many, not a Tory party that wants to help out only a tiny few.
People in Wales increasingly realise, when they add it all up, that they cannot afford to lose this Labour Government. The Tories would be a change that we in Wales cannot afford. Instead of proposing tax breaks for millionaires, we are protecting the most vulnerable. On average in 2009-10, as a result of our tax and benefit changes, pensioner households will be £1,500 a year better off than they would have been if the pre-1997 system had continued. On average, the poorest third of pensioner households will be £2,100 a year, or £41 a week, better off than they were under the 1997 system—due to the Government’s tax and benefit changes.
Our winter fuel payment has risen from £10 under the Tories to £250 for the over-60s, rising to £400 for the over-80s. Again, they are policies offering vital support that could well be cut under the Tories’ austerity programme. Evasive and unfair—that is the Tory attitude to Wales. The shadow Chancellor, through his pay freeze, would on average cut the pay of every nurse and teacher in Wales by about £300 per year—all at a time when those at the top would receive the biggest tax breaks. Under the Tories’ initial proposal for the married couple’s allowance, for example, the highest earners would receive 13 times as much of the benefit as someone at the other end of the income scale. As soon as that proposal came under scrutiny, the Tories buckled, being unable to explain how a mother who was suddenly widowed would become poorer under their married tax allowance policy. They are trying to make policy with a nod and a wink.
We will reduce the public deficit fairly by halving it within four years. We have always said that we will ensure that those with the broadest shoulders bear their fair share of the burden. Those words have been borne out by actions, such as our new 50 per cent. top rate of tax, a pay freeze for top civil service earners and a one-off tax on bankers’ bonuses of £25,000 or more. All those measures have been opposed by the Tories. Instead, they are sticking to their plans to give the 3,000 very richest people an extra £200,000 each in inheritance tax cuts, while delivering savage public spending cuts and a pay freeze for public sector workers.
We have delivered on our spending review promise and increased Welsh funding by £500 million for 2010-11. That is new money, and it would not be going to Wales if the Tories had their way.
The right hon. Gentleman sits in a Cabinet that approved a brutal cut of almost £1 billion to the higher education budget in England, meaning that many thousands of Welsh students who are hoping to study at English universities later this year will be told that they do not have a place. Indeed, they will probably go on the youth unemployment roll, so how does that benefit young people in Wales?
We have asked universities to make efficiency savings, and I do not think that “a brutal cut” is a phrase that any vice-chancellor recognises. Indeed, one Welsh vice-chancellor told me relatively recently that he thought that the measure could be easily absorbed without any of the consequences that the hon. Gentleman describes. Interestingly, the number of people applying to and getting into universities has been rising steadily, including over the past year.
We are in no doubt where the truth lies: the Tories would have an emergency Budget within weeks of entering power and leave Wales as the biggest casualty, with hard-working Welsh people fighting for their livelihoods. The Tories would make savage and swingeing cuts to the public services of Wales, creating a huge rise in unemployment and a collapse in businesses that supply the public sector.
So where else would those cuts fall? The Tories cannot deliver what they promise without slashing investment in Welsh schools and hospitals, Sure Start and large projects such as launch aid for the new Airbus planes at Deeside. Since 1997, and after years of decline in our public services, we have invested in our health service, schools, infrastructure and police force. People depend on those services being well funded and efficient, and in Wales there are almost 7,300 police officers—700 more than in March 1997.
Health spending in Wales has increased under Labour to more than £1,900 per person per year, and that is more than double the 1996-97 Tory figure. GP numbers have risen by 9 per cent. over the past decade, and nursing, midwifery and health visiting staff numbers rose by one fifth. They are all Labour policies that deliver real help to people in Wales. Wales faces a stark choice between securing the economic recovery or wrecking it; building a fair society where everyone prospers or a divided society that favours a few; and protecting front-line services or a programme of savage cuts. That is the choice that people will face in a few weeks’ time.
Our actions will not be painless, but nor will they be reckless. The recovery is coming now because of the action that this Government have taken. However, the recovery in Wales is still fragile, and Tory policies threaten it. Only Labour can secure the jobs and mortgages of people in Wales; the Tories would be a change that we in Wales cannot afford. The red team may be the underdogs, but the blue team are crumbling under pressure, and momentum is as important in rugby as it is in politics. We will keep going to the final whistle on polling day in order to save Wales from the disaster of a Tory Government.
May I begin by paying tribute to our Welsh servicemen and women, who so bravely put their lives on the line for our country? I pay particular tribute to the Royal Welch Fusiliers, currently serving in Afghanistan; to the Welsh Guards, who have recently returned; and to all those Welshmen and women who are serving or have served in other regiments or services. All hon. Members know that we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, and it is right that we begin this St. David’s day debate by remembering them.
This is the last St. David’s day debate before the general election, as the Secretary of State made perfectly obvious, so may I take this opportunity to pay tribute, first, to the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), whom I had the pleasure of facing in this debate last year? I always found him to be most courteous in my dealings with him, and I am glad that he is offering himself up for re-election. I also express my best wishes to those hon. Members who have announced their retirement from the House at the general election. I begin with the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who, sadly, is leaving us to go abroad—[Interruption.] It could be education, education, education, but I am sure that we will welcome him back to the House at some stage.
Although we have not shared political allegiances, I have been honoured to work with the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), the hon. Members for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) and for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), the right hon. Members for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the Father of the House, and the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams).
I pay tribute also to the hard work and dedication of the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis). He, as our Welsh Affairs Committee Chairman, has worked hard in the interests of Wales alongside dedicated Committee members and Clerks. A Committee member with whom I have been pleased to work over the past three years is my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones). No constituency could have been served better by a Member, and it is a pleasure to work with him as part of the Opposition’s team Wales. We both hope to be re-elected, because we have great plans for Wales, and we hope to have the opportunity to put them into effect.
Our St. David’s day debate once again takes place against a backdrop of turbulent economic times. Since last year 21,000 more people are unemployed in Wales, 10,000 are economically inactive, Welsh gross value added has declined further against the UK as a whole and the wage gap between Wales and the rest of the UK continues to increase. Before Labour Members think that I am talking Wales down, may I say that it would be hard to do so more eloquently than the Secretary of State? At our most recent Wales questions he said that Wales was wealthier than Rwanda, and, if any single comment has given us an insight into the Labour Government’s complacency and paucity of ambition for Wales, it was that throwaway remark.
No, we will not talk Wales down. However, as we enter the run-up to the general election—this time, one that not even the Prime Minister can avoid—we need to take a long, hard look at Labour’s legacy in Wales following its 13 years in power, particularly as the Secretary of State is so keen to bring history into all our debates. After more than a decade in charge, there can be no more excuses. Labour’s desperate attempts to blame the Tories simply do not wash any more.
Given the struggling Welsh economy, the businesses and jobs that have been lost, the industries in decline and the lives that have been ruined, and given the waste of money and opportunity and the utter lack of long-term strategy, it is clear to every voter in Wales that we cannot afford five more years of Labour.
The economy, of course, will dominate the election. So many businesses have disappeared from the Welsh scene—Burberry, Hoover, Bosch, Indesit and David McLean, to name but a few. That has left an increasing imbalance between the private and public sectors. The latest figures show that just under a quarter of people working in Wales are employed in the public sector, and it has recently been reported that since 1998, 55 per cent. of new jobs have been either in, or wholly supported by, the public sector. As I remember from a speech that he made when taking his sojourn on the Back Benches, even the Secretary of State has admitted that the private sector in Wales is too small.
Labour, of course, protests that the recession is a global phenomenon; indeed, that is the Prime Minister’s favourite phrase. But there can be little doubt that when the storm hit us, we were not best placed to weather it. Of all the major economies, we were one of the first to enter recession and the last to get out, behind France, Germany and Japan—indeed, behind any G20 country that we may care to name.
It is fair to say that the Government have lost control of the country’s finances. National debt currently stands at £850 billion and is set to rise to the equivalent of £23,000 for every single man, woman and child in Wales. The blame for that appalling state of affairs can be laid only at Labour’s door; after all, it has been in government for 13 years. Even the Governor of the Bank of England said that we went into the downturn with levels of debt that were too high, all because the then Chancellor—now the Prime Minister—failed to put aside anything in the good years, and borrowed as if there had been no tomorrow. The Prime Minister, who said that he had abolished boom and bust, certainly abolished boom—and left us bust.
It is clear that Labour has let Wales down. Even during periods of growth, Welsh gross value added per head continued to decline against that of the UK, from 80.3 per cent. in 1997 to 74.3 per cent. in 2008, the worst performance of any UK region. Agricultural GVA has declined shockingly, by 68.1 per cent. since 1997, its contribution to the Welsh economy falling from 2.2 per cent. in ’97 to less than 0.5 per cent. in 2007.
Manufacturing has stagnated under Labour. Between 1997 and 2007, its contribution to the Welsh economy tumbled from 27.6 to 17.9 per cent. Anglesey Aluminium closed while Labour dithered over energy policy, and 900 jobs have been just been lost at Bosch.
There is a myth perpetuated by the Conservatives that that issue is to do uniquely with energy prices. The hon. Lady visited the Anglesey Aluminium plant. Does she not accept that the contract was being negotiated when energy prices were high? Those prices have now come down and aluminium prices have gone up. Had the company taken the bridging loan offered it by the Government, the jobs would have been sustained. Anglesey Aluminium took the commercial decision to cease production at Anglesey because it had operations overseas.
The hon. Gentleman fought hard for Anglesey Aluminium, but it is fair to say that the Government are the only shareholder in Wylfa, the nuclear power station. If the Government loan was not acceptable to the company, many more discussions could have been had at the time. I am so saddened by the loss of Anglesey Aluminium, particularly as I know that the materials that came out of the factory were excellent and included some of the rarer forms of ingot, including a unique ingot with a hole in the middle which could be extruded to make aluminium frames. The passing of that manufacturing is a great loss to Anglesey and the United Kingdom.
I share the hon. Lady’s regret—deep regret, in my case—that Anglesey Aluminium closed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) knows better than anybody else, we worked tirelessly as a Government on the issue. We put a very generous offer to Rio Tinto and the other parent company in an attempt to save Anglesey Aluminium. We remain astonished that it was not accepted. I do not think anybody is suggesting that the Government did anything other than go to the furthest possible extent in trying to save the company.
I, too, met Rio Tinto representatives, and all I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that there was a lot of dithering at the beginning. Perhaps the offer was too little, too late, or it was not the right offer and was too late.
Nine hundred jobs are being lost at Bosch; that closure, I gather, has been on the cards for a year or more, but I understand that it took until last month for the Labour-Plaid Welsh Assembly Government to get around to holding talks with the company’s management.
After 13 years, what is Labour’s legacy?
Is the hon. Lady aware of the expansion of private companies in my constituency? Last week, I visited Pelican Healthcare Ltd and Great Bear Healthcare Ltd, manufacturers of medicinal products, on the Llanishen trading estate. A vast amount of new building is going on; they were awaiting the arrival from Italy of machinery costing £1.5 million. There is also the big development at Fforest Farm and the development of GE Healthcare. The picture that she paints is not representative of what I see in my constituency.
I have certainly read about them. However, I am also concerned about all those who have lost their jobs. Labour’s record and legacy after 13 years in Wales is the loss of nearly 50,000 jobs since 1998. We need encouragement for the private sector and I thank the Secretary of State for joining me in supporting the proposed developments such as those at Holyhead and Fishguard, which could bring real benefits. Those ports are key employers in Anglesey and Pembrokeshire, and those developments could provide great opportunities for both areas, building on what I hope will be renewed nuclear generation at Wylfa and the big investments that we have seen in Pembrokeshire, such as the liquefied natural gas terminal.
One continuing success story in north Wales is, of course, Airbus. We are close to international women’s day, which I understand the Secretary of State’s Government are just about marking this year, and I particularly want to congratulate the new apprentice of the year, Beth Pickering, whom David Cameron and I met during our visit to Broughton last year. It is good to see another woman moving forward in the business world, particularly in manufacturing.
Wales, too, needs to move forward. I want businesses to grow, inward investment to increase, more people in Wales to work and our economy to be revitalised. A Conservative Government will offer the fresh approach and new direction that is needed. First, we will tackle the debt and set out clear plans to reduce the deficit. That is not an alternative to growth; it is essential to it.
The hon. Lady made the important point that any future Conservative Government would help business. Is she suggesting that a Government of hers would have put in real cash to help Bosch and Anglesey Aluminium, or is she just having a go at the incumbent Governments here and in Cardiff?
I am not going to look backwards at hypothetical questions, because I have had to listen to nearly an hour of hypothetical rubbish from the Secretary of State. Most of the rubbish that he was spouting about what may or may not happen, and what Tory policy is, was from “Fantasy Island”.
We have already outlined some of the steps we would take. We would freeze public sector pay for all but the lowest paid 1 million and cut the cost of Whitehall by a third. I see no volunteering for cutting at Whitehall from the Labour party. We would cap large public sector pensions. Yes, that would be tough, but Labour has made it tough, and someone has to take some tough decisions to regenerate our economy. We would concentrate benefits spending on the poorest and the most vulnerable, and we would tackle the jobs crisis with a comprehensive plan to help people into work.
Hand in hand with this plan are our proposals to support businesses. We would reduce the small company corporation tax rate to 20 per cent. and reduce the headline rate of corporation tax to 25 per cent., reduce the bureaucracy needed to register new companies, remove restrictions on people in social housing on starting up a business, and abolish for a year the tax on the first 10 jobs created by new businesses in the first two years of a Conservative Government.
However, if we are to build a strong and successful Welsh economy, we need not only to create an environment in which the private sector can flourish but to make improvements in the public sector.
If the hon. Gentleman had been paying attention, he would know that we were talking about events that happened more than 12 years ago.
We would give public sector workers the right to form employee-owned co-operatives, giving them responsibility for their own success, sharing the rewards of a more efficient public sector, and letting people take pride in the vital services they provide. That is something that the Secretary of State would not think of in a million years. The choice will be clear at the next election: five more years of Labour debt, bureaucracy and central control, or a new, energetic and revitalised agenda for our economy and for both the public and private sectors from the Conservatives.
I am going to make some progress.
The relationship between the Government in Whitehall and the Welsh Assembly Government is of paramount importance. Approaches in Whitehall differ from those in Cardiff, but it is crucial to the success of devolution, and to the success of Wales, that politicians understand the need to work together. As the First Minister recently acknowledged when appearing before the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, a relationship of mutual respect and good will is absolutely essential, and that works both ways.
It was obvious to me that the Secretary of State had an enormous hole in his speech. He spent most of his time attacking the Tories, but he could not give us any meaningful information about the referendum that the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr asked about. Does the Secretary of State want to intervene to tell me what his plans are for consultation and set out the timing for replying and acceding to the relevant parts of the Government of Wales Act 1998? He could then tell us the details of the consultation and when he expects to be in a position to send a response.
There we have it—answer came there none.
A Conservative Secretary of State for Wales would make herself, or himself, available to answer questions in the Assembly on a regular basis, and a Conservative Prime Minister would do the same. Of course, we would also look forward to welcoming any Welsh Assembly Government Ministers here, as we have in the past, to exchange views on matters affecting Wales. Our approach recognises that the devolutionary settlement is such that Cardiff and Whitehall cannot continue to operate in silos. The scandalous waste of public money over, for example, the Red Dragon hangar shows just how Labour has failed in this regard.
The choice at the next election will be between a party whose leader respects devolution, has visited Wales innumerable times, and wants co-operation in the interests of Welsh families, Welsh jobs and Welsh businesses, and a party whose leader has hardly come to Wales at all and thought so little of the country that he gave the portfolio to the Secretary of State as his job on the side.
Wales has a distinct character and distinct needs, but it is firmly part of the United Kingdom. More than 25 per cent. of the population of the whole of Great Britain live within 50 miles of the border between England and Wales, tens of millions of tonnes of freight are transported across it each year, and thousands of people cross one way or the other for work and pleasure every day. Policies of separatism such as those of Plaid Cymru wholly fail to recognise that and would only damage Wales and its economy further—and Labour are Plaid’s partners in Cardiff.
Conservatives would offer a fresh approach from a leader to whom Wales is as important as every other part of the United Kingdom and a party that will put economic recovery, job creation and people’s aspirations at the top of the agenda. The choice will be clear: five more years of Gordon Brown or the change Wales needs. Let us hope that when we meet for St. David’s day debates in years to come, it is not on a tide of rising unemployment, increasing state interference and bureaucracy and economic misery, but against the background of a growing Welsh economy that is stable, resilient, optimistic and successful under a Conservative Government: a strong Wales in a strong United Kingdom. Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus for next Monday, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and diolch.
I have been trying to work out the first time that I spoke in a Welsh affairs debate. I think that it was 22 years ago, and obviously from the opposite side of this Chamber. I am grateful for, and echo, the comments of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) about those colleagues of ours—Welsh Members of Parliament—who are to leave us when the election is called. They include the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) and some of my right hon. and hon. Friends. We will be particularly saddened by the loss of my right hon. Friends the Members for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), to whom this House, the Government and the people of Wales owe a great debt. I shall personally be very saddened by that.
As an aside, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the issue of the Isle of Man. In County Cavan this week, the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body met to discuss that matter, particularly with regard to the Minister for Health and Social Services in Wales. I have written to my right hon. Friend about this.
The world has, of course, changed. My own constituency has changed over the past couple of years, particularly in the past dozen to 18 months, because of the recession. I do not think that any Member of Parliament representing a Welsh constituency, or indeed a British constituency, could say otherwise. However, there is a world of difference between the arguments about why that recession has occurred. I do not believe for one second that the difficulties we face are the result of what a Labour Government have done between 1997 and now. Of course, there may be differences of view about how economic policy should have been structured, but the idea that the international and national banks did not cause the recession that we are now in will be central to the forthcoming general election. The central lie that is often told about the role of the banks needs to be addressed in the election campaign.
If I look at my constituency now, in 2010, compared with how I remember it in 1996-97, I see that it is a very different place, despite what has occurred over the past dozen to 18 months. I look, for example, at how our older people are treated compared with how they were treated in the years before 1997. I look at the ability of our older people to travel the length and breadth of Wales as a result of the Labour Welsh Assembly Government’s introduction of the travelcard, which, happily, I now possess. The fact that older people are better off is just one example. There is also the winter fuel allowance and the help that the Government have brought in for those in Wales who were desperately poor. The life of a pensioner in the towns and villages in my constituency is infinitely better than it was 14 or 15 years ago.
We can also look at how our schools have flourished. It is not simply that we have more and better schools, and more teachers: our schools have grasped technology through the use of computers and the internet. My local education authority is leading the way in Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently went to Cwmbran and saw how the internet is used by our pupils. There has been a transformation in Welsh education.
There are more hospitals and more police than ever before. That transformation is a direct consequence of the actions of the Labour Government, the Assembly and Welsh local authorities.
Of course, there have been difficulties with jobs, but can anyone honestly say that the number of jobs that have been created over the past decade is not infinitely better than what happened the decade before that? We should bear in mind what has happened in my constituency over a quarter of a century. When I came into the House in 1987, people relied for their income on the steel and coal industries—heavy industry. My constituency suffered the loss of some 10,000 to 15,000 jobs in a 10-to-15-year period, but all of them were replaced. The unemployment rate before this recession hit us was lower than since records began. Although all those jobs were lost, jobs in the retail sector and the new industries, such as technology, engineering and the food industry, all came to my constituency, and our young men and women were employed in greater numbers than ever. Had we not created those jobs and had the Conservatives been in power, this recession would have hit Wales much harder. Wales has been transformed because of Labour government, and our constituencies have been transformed. That is the message that we must put forward when we fight the election in days to come.
The other thing that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly emphasised is that the difference between this recession and the recessions we had before 1997 is that the Government, in conjunction with the Assembly Government and local authorities, have done something about it. Let me give just a few examples from my constituency. Following the Government tax deferral policy, 310 businesses in Torfaen deferred tax amounting to £6 million. The redundancy action scheme in Torfaen has helped 320 people, and seven companies that were in considerable difficulty have been helped by the ProAct scheme, which is widely admired beyond the shores of our country.
The enormous contribution that the Labour Government have made in the past decade and what is on offer from the Conservatives reflect the stark choice to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred. If we thought for one second that—even in this recession—there are not companies in our constituencies that are being imaginative, greatly innovative and aspirational, we would be wrong. I shall give just one example. LS Design in Cwmbran in my constituency is a small high-tech company that employs local people in high-quality jobs. It is very much involved with General Dynamics, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn played a great role in bringing to our south Wales valleys and his constituency. It would be significant for LS Design if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales could tell my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary of the importance—in terms not only of the defence of our nation, but of the defence of jobs in Wales—of the future rapid effect system programme. LS Design is linked to General Dynamics. Were the FRES programme to be awarded to the latter, as I hope it will be, the former company’s picture would be much brighter. I understand that it could employ double the number of people it currently employs, because it would have doubled the turnover. That is one example of how we can ensure that investment comes to companies in our Welsh constituencies.
If the FRES programme goes ahead, there will be a significant impact in that it will ensure that our troops in Afghanistan will be better protected than they are at the moment. In that regard, I should like to mention Trooper James Prosser of The Royal Welsh Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan last year. His mother, Sarah Adams, has been a doughty champion and fighter for the rights of our troops there, particularly Welsh troops. I am glad that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to the fact that our Welsh troops in Afghanistan are fighting hard. They deserve the support they get from both sides of the House.
Before I conclude, I should like to speak about the M4. The M4 is the lifeline of south Wales and in many respects, the south of England. In the past dozen or more years, we have spent a great deal of money on our transport systems and infrastructure in Wales and England. However, post-devolution, I sometimes doubt the wisdom of the co-ordination between the UK Department for Transport and the Welsh Department for the Economy and Transport when it comes to dealing with our motorways.
To certain extent, it could be argued that the M4 has ceased to be a motorway, because at least 20 miles of it—a very important stretch and an economic lifeline for south Wales—between Newport and London is now subject to major roadworks and 50 mph limits. Indeed, the whole motorway structure of our first city, Cardiff, and of Newport, is now almost under construction. I wonder about the co-ordination between the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government on that. Travel is costly to business and difficult for the economy in these times. It now takes me at least an hour longer to drive to London than it did 21 years ago. It is very important that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State liaises with the Secretary of State for Transport to see what can be done.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have not so much as a dual carriageway in Montgomeryshire at the moment, and that the problems are compounded by the apparent obsession with 50 mph speed limits in open areas. Does he agree that when the Secretary of State for Wales considers the issue of the M4, it might be useful if we can finally have a more strategic approach to connecting north, south and mid-Wales by road? That is decades overdue.
That is a very important aspiration. However, given that the great bulk of the population of south Wales is affected by those restrictions, there is a greater impact on local commerce and business. That point needs to be addressed.
That was a minor gripe compared with the benefits that the people whom I represent—who I hope will re-elect me—have accrued as a consequence of having a compassionate and caring Government for the past 12 years. I believe that the only answer to the economic ills caused by the banking recession is investment and renewal. Given that the Conservatives are promising an age of austerity, such investment and renewal is conceivable only with the election of the Labour Government who work with a Labour-led Assembly.
As always, it is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), to whom I pay tribute for the friendliness and support he offered in his two tenures as Secretary of State for Wales. He visited my constituency at the depth of the current recession to meet small business owners who were struggling and gave them assistance and encouragement.
I am pleased to say that all the small businesses that attended that meeting are still in business, which is a tribute not only to the people who run those businesses and those who work in them, but to the support that they received. One of those businesses is struggling at the moment, but its customers are very keen that it continues to operate, and we are hopeful that that will be the case.
It is a pleasure to speak in this St. David’s day debate. As it is the last one before the general election, I pay tribute to all right hon. and hon. Members from Wales. I have been able to agree with some of them—but not others—from time to time, but I know that all their energies and enthusiasm are directed towards the well-being of Wales. I thank them, because we are able to get together and share solutions, and shared solutions are the best way to make progress.
I also thank the shadow Secretary of State for her tribute to the young Welsh men and women who have served in our forces abroad, not only in the Welsh regiments and the Welsh Guards, but in the special forces—especially those from my constituency—who are sometimes forgotten because of the difficult nature of the work that they undertake. Despite my constituency being land-locked, some young people have also served in the Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is probably the last occasion before the election on which we will concentrate on Welsh affairs, other than Welsh questions, which I anticipate will take place before then, although we cannot be entirely sure of that. Although I generally enjoy contributions from the Secretary of State and his shadow, I thought that today they gave rather dispiriting performances which showed that a general election is probably overdue. The arguments have been made so many times, and as I go around my constituency and the rest of Wales, I get the impression that people have made their minds up and want a general election as soon as possible. A new mandate is needed to rejuvenate and freshen this place. I shall talk about several disappointments, not to try to cast blame or aspersions, but in the hope that when we have a new Parliament and Government some of these issues will be revisited and a better conclusion will be reached for the people of Wales.
In the past, the Barnett formula was considered boring and of little importance, but it is now becoming a much more important political consideration. However, after 13 years of Labour Government in Westminster and almost 11 in Cardiff, the Welsh population are really struggling for finance to address the needs of the nation. The concept of the Barnett squeeze is well understood now, and although I appreciate that it will probably be of less importance given the likelihood of lower public expenditure, that is no reason to leave it unaddressed. When I look at statistics on health needs in Wales, it is clear that a formula that is based on population and not on need is unfair not only to Wales but to other regions across the UK. The case that I make for a reform of the Barnett formula is not a selfish one on behalf of Wales, but for the whole of the UK and the needs of the people.
I am concerned, for instance, that the figures appear to show that spending on education in Wales is £500 less per pupil than in England. The figures for educational attainment in Wales are not very encouraging and can be put down to the lower investment in Wales than in England.
I am sure that we all welcome the unanimous vote in the Welsh Assembly on the referendum on additional powers. I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to set a date for that referendum before the dissolution of Parliament. I listened to the Conservative point of view on this matter, but it was not clear whether that procedure would be put in place under a Conservative Government. We did not hear any confirmation, but it is strange that the Conservatives in Westminster and in the Assembly oppose the housing legislative competence order, given that they voted unanimously in favour of the referendum. The leader of the Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly is not the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, who is in favour of a transfer of further powers, including powers over housing. It seems hardly logical to oppose the transfer of powers through the LCO, but to support the transfer of powers as a whole through the referendum.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the opposition of the Conservatives on the Select Committee was founded on evidence, which both the Under-Secretary and the Welsh deputy Housing Minister confirmed, that there is no policy objective to abolish the right to buy. That being the case, it was wholly illogical to apply for powers that include the power to abolish the right to buy.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that any proper reading of the legislative competence order shows that it would transfer powers to the Welsh Assembly Government to undertake the huge task of improving the range of affordable and available housing in Wales and dealing with homelessness. That is why it has the support of Shelter Cymru and other organisations. There is no abolition of the right to buy. There is the option of a mechanism to address the lack of affordable rural housing, but it would be used in very restricted circumstances in rural areas such as Pembrokeshire and Gwynedd. But the fundamental question is why the Conservatives are opposing powers being taken by the Assembly in an area—housing—where it already has responsibility, but wants a little more flexibility to be able to carry out the tasks before it.
I will read it, but it is incredible to me—when I became a Member of Parliament in 2001, I did not think that housing would be an especially big issue in my area—that almost a third of the people who come to my surgeries do so because they have housing difficulties. If the Welsh Assembly had more powers to address those issues in my constituency—and others—it would be very welcome.
I agree with my hon. Friend whose constituency is very similar to mine in geography and social profile. Does he agree that we in Powys really need these powers to be devolved? If the Conservatives carry out their threat to try to resist that, it will run counter to everything that he and I have been trying to do to address social housing problems and homelessness in our constituencies.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point—it is the point that I am trying to make—but there is also a point about how illogical it is to try to obstruct this progress when it seems that most parties in Wales would like further powers, which would include those powers anyway.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being generous. It would be interesting to hear from the Conservatives, on the record, whether they will veto the housing legislative competence order in the wash-up negotiations, because they have the power to do that—[Interruption.] Yes, says the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones). I think that I heard a mutter from a sedentary position.
From the Liberal Democrat Benches, I certainly cannot answer on behalf of the Conservative party—we will see what happens in the wash-up, which will be viewed with great interest by Members of the House and people living in Wales.
Employment rates in Wales are the third issue that I want to touch on. We have argued about whether 8.7 per cent. unemployment is high, higher or whatever, but my point is that an unemployed person is 100 per cent. unemployed. Sometimes, when we talk about statistics, we tend not to address the individual circumstances that desperately affect people’s lives. Anything that we and the Government can do to improve employment is obviously hugely important. Yet we have had enormous closures, sometimes in traditional industries, such as the steel industry in Wales, and the signs for employment and manufacturing in Wales—I have seen figures on manufacturing employment in Wales—are not encouraging.
On some of the rural issues, we have campaigned long and hard for a rural fuel duty rebate. That has been taken up by other countries in the European Union, and it is within the Government’s competence and power to address. Indeed, Italy, France and Greece have gone down that route. We recently had a debate on that issue in Westminster Hall, which was led more by Scottish Members than by Welsh Members, but it is an issue about which both areas feel strongly, and anything that the Secretary of State or Minister can do to intervene with the Treasury would be well supported.
In general, rural areas experience reductions in services from, for instance, post offices. There are now fewer than 1,000 post offices in Wales, which I think is a fairly iconic number, and more than 300 have closed recently. At the moment, I am trying to find a way to keep a post office open in Abercraf, in my constituency—I am working with the miners’ welfare hall, so that we can move it there. We desperately need flexibility within the Post Office to ensure that those novel and innovative solutions can be achieved.
To return to housing, it is not surprising that there is a rural exodus among the Welsh youth, given that housing prices are so high. As a result of young people leaving villages, schools, doctors’ surgeries and other essential services are closing. It is a Catch-22 situation.
The Liberal Democrats look forward to the taxation system being reformed to make it much more progressive and less regressive. I am sure that many hon. Members are dealing with individuals who are trying to get back into employment but who are finding that the loss of benefits and the kicking-in of income tax at very low rates preclude some of them from re-entering employment, because they would be financially worse off as a result. Our party’s proposals for a personal allowance of £10,000 and taxing people who claim their income in terms of capital gains would be a way towards a progressive taxation system.
Rural broadband provision is another area in which Wales lags behind the rest of the UK, and certainly many businesses in my constituency, and across vast swathes of Wales, are single-person operations requiring access to modern communications and technology.
I shall turn quickly to agriculture. The Government’s agreement to set up an ombudsman—it has the support of other parties, too—is a huge step forward for an agricultural industry that has been hampered by being uncompetitive when supplying the main supermarkets. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) will soon be taking forward his private Member’s Bill, and I hope to be there to support him. I also hope that the Government can find a way to support it and to work with him to bring a really effective ombudsman and regulatory system to an area that has been difficult in the past.
Finally, I turn to a personal, constituency issue. Daniel Morgan was murdered in London nearly 23 years ago; he was found with an axe in his head in a pub car park. His mother lives in my constituency. When Daniel was murdered, she was rung at 4 o’clock in the morning and told that her son was dead, but the policeperson making the phone call was unable to give any other details, except to say that she would have to come to London to find them out. That was at 4 o’clock in the morning. She was living on her own and did not know how to get to London. I am pleased to say that she and her other son, Alistair, have ensured that Daniel’s case has never stopped being looked at, and I, and my predecessor, Richard Livsey, have been taking it forward for 15 years or more.
Four people are now in custody, awaiting trial for Daniel Morgan’s murder, and we look forward to Mrs. Hullsman, his mother, having at least some sense of closure and justice. However, the sad thing is that Mrs. Hullsman, who is now over 80—she was 59 when she heard that her son had been murdered—thought that the trial was going to take place last September, but it is now going to take place this September. The delay and agony caused to the family by that delay has been horrific, and if something can be done to speed up the judicial system, so that closure can be given to the family, it would be fantastic. Mrs. Hullsman, her son Alistair and I will keep campaigning for that, because it is an injustice that should be put right.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are coming to the end of a Parliament. It has not been a happy occasion for Parliament as a whole, but I look forward to a new Parliament that will be reinvigorated and that will work for the interests of Wales.
I am afraid that daffodils are in short supply at the moment. Very few of us have been able to get the real thing, but some of us have made an attempt and compromised, with at least a flash of yellow on our coats. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) must have a good arrangement with the flower lady in the House of Commons then. Things are a bit difficult, but I hope that in future we will see large bunches of daffodils brought in for this debate for Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant, or St. David’s day. I would also like it to be held on 1 March, but we never seem to manage that.
I would like to reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) said in his speech about how Wales has improved over the years, particularly under a Labour Government. I first became an elected Member in 1979, when the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) was in Brecon and Radnorshire, which was in my European constituency. I hope that I do not embarrass him, but I was very grateful for his help at that time. We remain good friends, even though we are on opposite sides of the Chamber, and I hope that he might help me in other campaigns some time in the future.
When I was first elected, as a Euro MP, there were big job changes in steel and coal. I remember the devastating effect of that, with Llanelli and Swansea being in my European constituency. I was continually taking groups of steel workers threatened by closure—something that ultimately became a fact—to protest in Brussels. I also remember the Social Affairs and Employment Commissioner being aghast that the UK did not seem to have a social policy to cushion the effects of unemployment, which was gradually growing in the steel industry. Almost every other country in the European Community at that time had a social policy. We did not, and we were strongly criticised for that by the Commissioner at the time. In fact, when 5,000 comparable steel workers in Germany lost their jobs in the Ruhr, almost every one had another job to go to. Unfortunately, that was not the case in Wales, or indeed in the rest of the UK. Fortunately, attitudes are now very different.
I was then elected to this place in 1984, in the middle of the miners’ strike, in a by-election. That was a time when we did not have to knock on doors, as all the people we wanted to canvass were sitting outside their doors, because they were not at work. The effects of the miners’ strike and the lack of either a social policy or any compassion towards those miners, who were fighting for their jobs, were evident. I took a Conservative colleague to my constituency, at his request, to see the effects of the miners’ strike on the people of the Cynon Valley. He came away shocked, and I remember clearly what he said: “People look different. They look ill. That is not what the kind of conservatism that I understand should be all about.”
The right hon. Lady is making some interesting comments, but does she not also accept that the strike was called without proper consultation of National Union of Mineworkers members—had they been properly consulted, it is likely that they would have voted against it—and that that is what caused a lot of the damage?
The leaders of the miners’ strike at that time predicted that the coal mines were going to shut. They were fighting for their very existence. It was important that they engaged in that fight and drew attention to the fact that those jobs were going to go. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the Prime Minister at the time—the leader of his party—was hellbent on bringing the miners’ union down, by whatever means, and the miners knew it too. There were criticisms to be made of those leading the miners’ strike, and they were indeed criticised subsequently. Nevertheless, they were right in their interpretation of what was going to happen to their industry.
No, let me continue. I saw the effect of being out of work on those people in the Cynon Valley. It was an effect that lasted for many years afterwards, because they had to borrow money to pay mortgages and to live. There were also soup kitchens, which I and several of my colleagues here in the Chamber were involved in, just to try to feed people who could no longer afford to feed their families.
People who have lived through that kind of situation realise that much more compassion is now shown towards people who are unemployed, or who might become unemployed, and that cushions are in place to assist them. It is therefore not surprising that people like me, who have lived through those years, feel that a Labour Government have done much better by my constituents than the previous Tory Government did. I was in opposition for 18 years, as a Euro MP and, later, when I came here, so I know the difference. I am sure that most of my constituents still appreciate that difference as well.
Another thing that has happened in the valleys is that the environment has changed, partly because some of the older industries have gone but also because of the greater appreciation of the need for a good environment. The Phurnacite plant was in my constituency when I was first elected, for example. It had seven large chimneys that spewed smoke of different colours into the air. The health of the people living in the area and of those working in the plant was affected by that. Indeed, a test case is going through at the moment involving people who worked at the Phurnacite plant at Abercwmboi. The environment has now changed beyond recognition, making it a much more pleasant place to live. I am grateful to our Government for making that possible and for concentrating a great many resources on improving the environment for the people there.
There are many other things that I would like to talk about. The position of women has also changed in Wales. There are far more women in Parliament now, certainly on this side of the House. I hope that there will be more women on both sides after the next election. It has been a long, hard battle for women, as I know full well, and I was pleased when more women came from Wales to join me here. I hope that the number of women MPs from Wales will continue to grow after the election. I should like to pay tribute to my colleagues who are retiring at the election. I thank them for their friendship and for all that they have given to the House while they have been here. I will not name them individually, but they know who I mean.
I want to pick up on some of the points raised by the Secretary of State for Wales earlier. I have already mentioned the Robin Hood tax. The people of my constituency feel strongly about a number of issues at the moment. There is still anger about the role of the banks in the financial crisis, and about the unacceptable levels of pay. The recession that we have been through—and that I hope we have now seen the back of—has affected people’s jobs and mortgages, and in all sorts of other ways.
The recession was caused—or at least made worse—in part by the global financial crisis. I believe that that was caused by the irresponsible practices of global banks and financial institutions, and by economies relying too much on that financial sector. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, people understand that the collapse of the whole banking sector would have been disastrous for the economy, and that the Government were right to bail out the banks to prevent that from happening. That much they go along with.
Let me just finish my argument, please. Then I will happily give way.
What most people think, and what common sense tells us, is that, after all that taxpayers’ money had been used to prop up the banks, the deal was that the banks would look again at how they did things, and that they would start to behave more responsibly. As the Secretary of State said, people do not understand how the Royal Bank of Scotland—the majority of which is owned by the taxpayer—can make a loss, as announced today, and at the same time argue with a straight face that it needs to pay substantial bonuses. Last year, I introduced my own Bankers’ Pensions (Limits) Bill, which would have addressed the absurd pension packages being awarded to failed bank executives. Therefore, I very much welcome the one-off bankers bonus tax introduced by the Government. Even better than a one-off tax would be a tax on every year’s bonus round.
We should go further still. I fully support the idea of a Robin Hood tax on global financial transactions, which could be used to address the causes of global poverty, to fund some of our own public services, or just to underwrite the financial system so that it is in a position to bail itself out in future. That is one of a number of measures that could inject a little more responsibility into the financial system. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has said that he supports the idea, as long as he gets global support for it, and I hope it will become a reality.
The right hon. Lady mentions the failure of the banks. Does she share the view of the Governor of the Bank of England that had the regulatory regime that was in place not been in place, and had there been an overarching responsibility on the part of one regulator, the failures of the banks would have been nipped in the bud? On bank bonuses, is she aware that in the case of the Royal Bank of Scotland, they are to be confined to employees earning less than £39,000 a year, and that the Prime Minister has indicated through his spokesman today that those bonuses are in line with what he approves of?
I find it quite amusing to be lectured on regulation by a party that has constantly argued against regulation and in favour of deregulation. I cannot take the hon. Gentleman seriously when he makes such a point. Instead of making personal points to the Prime Minister, why does he not talk about the economy to the Prime Minister when he next has the opportunity?
I was wondering whether the right hon. Lady would refer to the fact that the UK economy is overly dependent on the financial sector, as she pointed out earlier. However, it was her Government who were in charge at the time when manufacturing in Wales was completely decimated and the over-emphasis on the financial sector came about.
Does the right hon. Lady share with me a sense of wonderment at the cheek of the Conservative party for criticising the current regulatory system, which, to some extent, allowed the banking collapse, given that the Conservative Government created that very system?
At least we have support from one section of the Opposition.
We should also explore the idea of a high pay commission, which could be modelled on the Low Pay Commission. It would look at the effects of very high pay—people earning millions of pounds in salaries and bonuses—on the economy and wider society. Very large inequalities in pay, and people earning very high pay, distort the economy and are bad for the well-being of society. The Government needed to be there to prevent the collapse of the banks and its impact on the economy, but they also need to be there to support people when they are struggling and require help. The Tories simply do not understand that. I was here in the 1980s and ’90s and remember their attitude towards people then.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State observed, for the Tories unemployment was a price worth paying, despite its devastating consequences for individuals and communities. I do not believe that their attitudes have changed at all since then. I think that when the Tories talk about cutting state involvement in people’s lives, they mean cutting support for people. I think that the difference between a Labour and a Tory Government—which is becoming all too apparent—is that Labour understands that when people are struggling they look to the Government for support, and understands that Governments can be a force for good.
In my constituency, 8,200 families are receiving child or working tax credit. In April, a £65 increase in the child element of child tax credit will benefit more than 200,000 families in Wales. More than 4,000 pensioner households in Cynon Valley receive pension credit. There are also winter fuel payments of £250 for the over-60s and £400 for the over-80s, along with, this winter, cold weather payments of £25 a week.
More people have kept their jobs and more businesses have kept going because of the action taken by the Labour Government throughout the recession. The rate of job losses during this recession has been four times lower than it was in the 1990s. In Cynon Valley, the new deal job schemes have created 3,390 jobs since 1997. Other schemes, such as the future jobs fund, are helping people into jobs rather than throwing them on the scrapheap as the Tories did. Labour is supporting young people by guaranteeing an education or training place for those aged up to 18, and a job or training place for 18 to 24-year-olds who have been out of work for six months
On Monday, along with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, I shall visit the Cynon Valley whisky-producing factory in Penderyn. I shall then attend a “topping-out” ceremony for the new Cynon Valley neighbourhood hospital, which is due to open in April 2011.
All that represents a Labour Government at Westminster, a Labour-led Government in Wales, and a Labour council in Rhondda Cynon Taf delivering real public service improvements.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). She is a powerful voice for Cynon Valley, and also a persistent and tireless champion of the rights of women and other oppressed groups living under authoritarian Governments and dictators in different parts of the world. She has won my respect and admiration for both those aspects of her work.
So far, this St David’s day debate has largely followed the pattern of previous such debates, and, indeed, our debates in the Welsh Grand Committee. The Secretary of State always leads with a highly combative and partisan speech, engaging in heavy historical revisionism and distorting the Opposition parties’ track records and policies. Members of his party then take up the theme, and usually end up looking back to the 1980s and 1990s and comparing the record of previous Conservative Governments with what they consider to be that of the current Government.
I would caution against that, and I intend to use the next few minutes to inject some corrective content into the discussion. First, however, I wish to join other hon. Members in paying tribute to all the Welsh servicemen and servicewomen who are serving in Afghanistan. During the recent recess, my constituents learned that Lance Sergeant David Greenhalgh, of north Pembrokeshire, had been the latest Welsh soldier to be killed in action in Afghanistan. He was killed on Saturday 13 February in Lashkar Gah, aged 25. He was an outstanding young man, and he will be remembered with the deepest honour and respect. I think all hon. Members will agree that the young Welsh men and women out there represent some of the finest role models for all Welsh people at this time.
The context and backdrop for this year’s St. David’s day debate is, of course, the crisis in our public finances. I should emphasise the word “crisis” because nothing the Secretary of State had to say on the matter got close to recognising honestly the challenge this country is facing, with the disaster that has been visited on our fiscal affairs and the state of the public finances. The projected deficit is a truly enormous £178 billion. That is an unprecedented sum: the country has not had a deficit like it before. Frankly, for the Secretary of State to try to reassure us that somehow under a Labour Government it can be halved or eliminated within four years, without giving any real idea of how they will do that, does not cut it. The truth is that within two years the interest we will be paying on our national debt will be approaching £60 billion a year, which is more than the Ministry of Defence and education budgets combined. We will be spending more on servicing our debt than on educating our children and young people, and on defending our borders.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend has had an opportunity yet to read the text of the excellent lecture given last night by the shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). It contained some fairly grim analysis, including the fact that if the off-balance-sheet liabilities such as public sector pensions are included, we are well on the way to having a level of debt amounting to more than 90 per cent. of GDP, and that the interest payments on that debt could rise above 10 per cent. of GDP within 10 years, and to almost 30 per cent. in 30 years. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) agree that those predictions—which are made by some very eminent people who understand economics possibly better than we do—are alarming?
I am very alarmed at those statistics; in fact, I find them horrifying. The true state of the public finances is appalling. Who will pay for this? Frankly, it will not be our generation; instead, it will be the nation’s young people, and the children after them. Indeed, I think that one reason why there has been such a tone of complacency about our public finances this afternoon is that it is not the generations represented in this Chamber today who will end up picking up the bill.
Young people are among the biggest victims of the current recession. We need only consider the increase in youth unemployment in the past two years to realise that. They are victims of this recession not only because of unemployment, however; they are victims of an unsustainable and irresponsible increase in public spending that has brought us to this position, because the truth is that, contrary to what the Secretary of State tried to make us believe, the massive deficit we are facing is not just a result of the banking crisis. There was a large, growing and unsustainable structural deficit in the public finances even before the bank bail-out, and that did not get addressed. Young people will end up paying for this.
Two weeks ago, I spoke to a year 12 group at Ysgol Bro Gwaun in Fishguard as part of its Welsh baccalaureate studies. The students told me that in a previous class they had been addressed by a speaker from Swansea university, who had given them a very sobering message indeed about how tough things will be, particularly this year and next year, for young people wanting to go to university, because of the cuts that have been visited on the higher education budget. The truth is that Welsh young people will have to fight harder than before; they will have to achieve higher grades than ever before to win places at university. Many hundreds, or thousands, of Welsh prospective students will find out later this year that they cannot pursue their desired course at university or that they have not got a place at a college or university of their choice. Many will instead find themselves adding to the youth unemployment statistics. The truth is that the higher education budget has been singled out for a massive cut already. The Secretary of State did not elaborate on that, but he is a member of the Government and Cabinet that made that decision three weeks ago. Almost £1 billion will be cut from the English higher education budget over the next three years, and that will have a direct impact on Welsh prospective students.
I wish to reinforce that point. The knock-on effect to which the hon. Gentleman refers means that the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, which is a part of Aberystwyth university, is having to comprehend the prospect of up to 70 job losses. That is a tragedy for not only the young people, but the associated local economy. This is a very serious issue.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, as ever. This Government are desperate to cling on to this bogus narrative that a re-elected Labour Government would mean continued spending and investment and that a Tory Government would mean savage and irresponsible cuts. That narrative is just not credible for two reasons. The first is that every serious commentator and analyst who examines the state of the public finances knows that cuts across the board will need to be made in the next few years—those cuts will be very severe for some Departments and will have a direct knock-on effect in Wales.
I shall now speak slightly parochially as the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, because the second reason why this message from the Government is not credible is because constituencies such as mine in rural west Wales have been living with Labour’s cuts for the past 10 years. We know what cuts look like because we have been living with public service cuts.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is the only one in Wales that has been immune from the near total decimation of NHS dentistry that Wales has seen under a Labour Government. This Labour Government have destroyed NHS dentistry in rural Wales. More than 4,500 people in Pembrokeshire are waiting for an NHS dentist, and some of them have been waiting for three or four years.
The Labour Government have cut the rural post office network to ribbons in the past few years. Rural villages throughout west and north Wales have lost amenities and that has had a massive impact, particularly on the elderly who live in these communities. The near total decimation of the rural tax office network in Wales has happened under this Labour Government. We have lost Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in Haverfordwest and, indeed, most tax offices in rural west and north Wales.
I remember visiting local employees of HMRC with my hon. Friend several years ago and complaining about those closures, because they have affected not only the people who used to work in those offices, but people who are desperately trying to pay their taxes. We should not underestimate the amount of pain that has been caused and we must remember that this was happening during the so-called good times under this Government.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The great paradox that people in my constituency do not understand is why, when public spending was being ramped up so rapidly, they did not see the benefit of it and instead saw cuts to important local services. If Labour wishes to bring its election campaign to west Wales to argue that a Labour Government would mean continued spending and a Tory Government would mean cuts, it will not get far with the people of Pembrokeshire. I say with no disrespect to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) that Labour faces the prospect of not having a Member west of Swansea after this coming election, because of what it has done to rural west Wales.
I conclude by making a few remarks about transport infrastructure. I have spoken before about the inadequate state of the road network connecting west Wales to the rest of the United Kingdom. The A40, which is the principal route running east-west through my constituency, forms part of the strategic European road network linking the west coast of Ireland with continental Europe, yet the people who use that road and make the long journeys—I am thinking of the lorry drivers to whom I have spoken—say that the very worst section of that continental route is the bit through Pembrokeshire. It is a single carriageway, it is overused and it is dangerous.
Pembrokeshire contains a quarter of the UK’s remaining oil refineries, the liquefied natural gas plants that will provide up to 20 per cent. of the UK’s gas supply, and two major ferry terminals, yet this pathetic single carriageway A40 goes through it. Labour in Westminster and Labour in the Assembly has been completely resistant to any argument put to it by the business community, Assembly Members, MPs or local authorities for improving, upgrading and dualling that section of road. I am sick and tired of seeing Labour Ministers make the journey down to my constituency to have their photographs taken at the new LNG sites, the oil refineries and the other developments in my constituency, and to praise those developments, given that they will not listen to the views of the management of these companies—the foreign investors who have pumped money into these projects—who say, “For goodness’ sake, why can’t we improve the transport infrastructure?” Part of the reason why is that as we now have the Welsh Assembly, a Cardiff-centric body is making the decisions about transport spending. Pembrokeshire and other parts of west Wales are a blind spot for the Welsh Assembly.
As it happens, I agree that the A40 should be upgraded. I argued that as a Welsh Transport Minister and I hope that it will be addressed when resources allow, although for the life of me I cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman can think that under a Conservative Government the Welsh Assembly Government will have the resources necessary to upgrade roads, let alone those to west Wales. Since he paints such a dismal picture of life in Pembrokeshire, may I ask him why long-term unemployment in Preseli and south Pembrokeshire is 82 per cent. lower than it was when Labour came into power and why long-term youth unemployment is 67 per cent. lower? That is a sign of success, not dismal misery.
It always has been. We have spoken before about the unemployment figures, and I welcome the drop in unemployment in my constituency. I grew up at a time when unemployment was a lot higher than it is now. I am the first to put my hand up and welcome the fall in unemployment, largely on the back of some big investments from the private sector. Let me make the point again. These people who are pumping the money in are American, Malaysian and French; they come from all over the world because they recognise the strategic importance of Milford Haven as an energy hub. They all say to me and to the chief executive of my local authority that we need better transport infrastructure. That is the message I want to leave with the Government, but I fear that we will need a change of Government to get any serious movement on the issue.
I am probably the only Member on the Government Benches seeking to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, in today’s debate who, by deliberate decision, will be retiring at the coming general election and who will not be here at the next St. David’s day debate. At the outset, may I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), the shadow Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for the kind things that they have all said about those of us who will be retirees at the next general election? I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and my hon. Friends the Members for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) and for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones). They have all made a considerable contribution to this House in the time that they have been here. I pay tribute, too, to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price). He and I have clashed many a time over the years but I have no doubt about his passion for, and commitment to, making good the lives of the people of Wales.
I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to all our colleagues who are retiring, but may I pay particular tribute to him? He was a terrific Wales Office Minister serving my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and serving me, and he has served this House for 15 years. I fought with him in his by-election—I was his minder. The fact that he is standing down represents a real loss to this House and to Wales and I wish him all the best in the future.
I thank my right hon. Friend. When I came and stood at the Bar of the House he stood on one side and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen stood on the other—I had the two apostles, Peter and Paul. When I got to the Table of the House, they abandoned me and I was left on my own after that. I thank them anyway.
The first time I spoke in this Chamber was on 2 March 1995. I had been elected to Parliament on 16 February in a by-election and I took the opportunity of the annual St. David’s day debate to make my maiden speech. I spoke then from the Opposition Benches and I remember laying into the appalling record of a discredited Tory Government who were systematically destroying and tearing apart society in Wales. With the passage of time, it is easy to forget the state of the country as we inherited it when we came into government in 1997. When I spoke 15 years ago, schools were struggling to deliver education with budgets that had been squeezed by Tory Government cuts. As for our health service, a hospital serving my constituency appealed to the public not to come to the casualty unit because there were not enough doctors to deal with emergency cases.
I have no doubt that is important to compare records on the NHS. The Labour party founded the NHS—resisted by the Conservative party. We built and sustained it; all the Conservatives have done to it when they have been in government is to damage it.
When I re-read the speech that I made 15 years ago—as I did the other day, not out of vanity, but to check what I had said—it made me go a little cold, because in spite of the desperate circumstances that people were in at that time, the then Tory Government proved that they did not give a damn. We had an NHS that had been driven almost to breaking point, despite the superb commitment of doctors and nurses, and the people who suffered most throughout the UK were those who relied entirely on the NHS for their treatment. My constituents were among the worst affected.
Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore share my despair regarding the report that has emerged today, which states that six out of the seven new local health boards in Wales are to go more than £43 million over budget? That is, of course, under a Labour-run Welsh Assembly Government. It appears that those budgets are under great pressure and that those boards will not be able to balance the books or ensure high patient standards.
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about budget difficulties in the health service, which are inevitable because demand will always be greater than can ever be satisfied. Nevertheless, more money has been pumped into the health service under Labour Governments than was ever pumped in when the Conservative party were last in government.
My constituency, Wales and the UK have all been transformed in the past few years compared with the situation when I came here 15 years ago. Even now, however, the Tories have not learned any lessons. They look back on the years when they were in government as some sort of golden age. Frankly, they simply have not changed. While every country in Europe wants to maintain investment in the economy in the coming year, they say that if they are elected, they will start making cuts on day one. The Conservative party is the very same party that advocated standing aside and letting banks go bust, the very same party that was prepared to stand aside and see families evicted from their homes because they could not pay their mortgages, and the very same party that was prepared to see people thrown out of work because of a lack of Government support for business and industry. All that would be accelerated and would cause even more grief if they were to come into government and make sweeping cuts to public services.
In 1995, I lamented the fact that we had no general hospital in Islwyn. Between 1993 and 1994, 30,000 people from my constituency went to the nearest out-patient department 15 miles away in Newport. If anything shows the change and the great investment that Labour Governments have made, it is the fantastic 21st-century hospital at Ystrad Fawr on the border between my constituency and that of the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David). Since 1999, investment in the NHS in Wales has nearly doubled, and investment in new buildings and equipment has trebled. There has been major investment in schools, with a massive rise in the number of nursery school places. There are smaller class sizes and we have new buildings and equipment, as well as extra teachers. For the working families I represent, education has been a pathway out of poverty—secured by a Labour Government. For me, that is the fundamental difference between a Tory Government and a Labour Government. The Labour party stands by the people, whereas the Tory party stands idle and lets the people suffer.
It is all very well to look back—and it is especially tempting now, at my time—but it is also important to look forward. These have been great, reforming Labour Governments, whose one great legacy has been their attempts to eradicate poverty in every form. The great socialist James Maxton once said:
“Poverty is man-made therefore open to change”.
The Government have embraced that idea and have done much to try to reduce poverty. There is much more to do. The two poorest groups in our society are at the extreme ends of the age range—pensioners and children.
If tackling poverty is indeed the Government’s principal aim, will the right hon. Gentleman concede that they have failed abjectly in Wales? It is the poorest region of the country, and four of the five poorest local authority areas in the whole UK are based there. Does he acknowledge that that is a complete, abject and utter failure?
The point is that we have continued to invest to reduce poverty and improve communities. That investment did not exist until this party came into government, and it will not exist if it were to cease to be in government.
Yes, too many children still live in poverty. We can all quote figures, but what does poverty mean for children? It means that they do not have regular meals or decent clothes, and that they do not live in decent accommodation. It means that children do not have the right equipment for school, or the inclination to use it. Poverty also means that children, as they go into adulthood, expect to fail even before they get started.
One aspect of poverty—the poverty of ambition—is not often reported in the newspapers. The problem is not easy to quantify but, if we do not tackle it, we will not progress and improve our society. All too often, I have heard people say, “Going to university or starting a business? Not for the likes of us.”
I well remember visiting a primary school in my constituency. The headmaster told me, “Do you know, Don, when I came to the village, nobody expected anything from me? No one had gone to university, or had the ambition to do so. They believed that university was not for the likes of them.” He told me, “I said to a lady last week, ‘If you work with me, your lad is going to university.’ She said, ‘You’re off your b….. head!’” The headmaster added that the lad in question was inquisitive, intelligent and articulate. He said, “If they worked with me as a family, he would go to comprehensive school and be on his way to university.” Poverty of ambition must be eradicated. The task that we face is to equip people of all ages with the skills that they need, and the self-confidence to say, “Yes, university is for me. Yes, I will start and invest in and build up my own business.”
That task will not be easy. It calls on us to have a change of mindset and be bold and radical, but it also means that we have to provide training throughout life. It is absolutely critical to our economic future that we invest in training and upskilling our people. In the US, 80 per cent. of people in work have been back in a training situation since leaving school. The figure in Germany and Japan is 56 per cent., but it is only 30 per cent. here. That is the measure of how far we still have to travel to improve training and opportunities for our people.
For us to compete, we need to give our people the skills in IT and engineering that will attract investment. We must also get a head start in the coming green revolution and all the new technologies that will accompany it. We need to give our people in Wales the skills that they do not yet have in order to create the jobs that we do not yet have.
I have always felt that the real challenge is not just Welsh, but global. We are part of a world where powerful new economies such as China and the Asian nations will challenge and then overtake Europe and the US. I welcome that challenge, as should we all. We cannot bury our heads in the sand: it is absolutely vital that we are ready, willing and able to meet that challenge head-on. There is no future for Wales—or, for that matter, the UK—if we try to compete for low-skilled, low-paid jobs. They will go where money and wages are cheapest. It is as simple as that.
Our real competitive advantage will be our knowledge base, and our capacity for innovation. In simple terms, we have to be smarter, quicker and more adaptable than our competitors. The world is undergoing a new industrial revolution—the knowledge revolution, fuelled by the pace of technological change. Wales must be at the forefront of that change.
The only way that countries such as Wales will be able to compete is by retraining and upskilling our people. We have to keep ahead with innovative ideas, and we must exploit those ideas fully in order to improve our skills. That also means opening up the excellent research facilities at our universities, so that small and large businesses can take advantage of them.
In my maiden speech, I said that my constituents and, indeed, people throughout Wales wanted work, not benefits. They wanted opportunities to enrich their lives through education, and no one will leave education today and have a job for life. Everyone will have to retrain and reskill throughout their working lives, and no one should sit at home surviving on benefits if they can work. Indeed, if we are to achieve the goal of ensuring that people throughout Wales have jobs, not benefits, we must face up to the challenge of the knowledge revolution.
Even though we live in a global economy, there are those who believe that we should embrace a narrow, nationalist and separatist agenda. They claim that Wales is so different from England that we would have a better future if we were independent but in Europe. They used to cite Ireland and Iceland, but people do not do that anymore; indeed, all of us have constituents who have lost their life savings in the collapsed Icelandic banking system. All the fantasies about an independent Wales simply do not stack up, because the world economic downturn has proved that the arguments for independence are intellectually, politically and economically bankrupt, and we should have nothing whatever to do with them. There is no logic in Wales leaving a British union of 60 million people to join a European Union of 350 million.
The Labour party leads the Welsh Assembly, and the policies that the Assembly implements are those of the Labour party. There might be one or two add-ons from some of the other, minor people, but it is a Labour-driven and Labour-led Assembly. After the next election I have no doubt that it will be a Labour-majority Assembly.
We must continue to be positive about the British Union and the European Union. Europe, and all that it represents for us, means that we have to be a self-confident and outward-looking country, because Europe, which had an important role in our past, will have an important role in our future. The people I have had the privilege of representing in this House for the past 15 years know the meaning of struggle. Even now, despite the great improvements in public services, family incomes and the quality of people’s lives, many face problems and worries because of the recent recession, which we are now coming out of. I spoke to traders in Blackwood high street in my constituency last week, and they are finding things tough. Despite that, there is a determination to get through our troubles. There must always be optimism.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen referred to General Dynamics, and I well remember trying to persuade that company to go to Wales and, in particular, locate in Islwyn when we were losing jobs in the steel industry. While I was telling the bosses of General Dynamics here in London that Wales was a good place in which to invest and grow their business, others were saying that Wales was a step away from the soup kitchens, because we were losing those jobs in steel. The company is now established in my constituency, there are more than 800 jobs and it is an employer of regional significance. I echo my right hon. Friend’s words and wish it well in its bid to secure the FRES contract, upon which the Ministry of Defence will soon decide.
No matter how difficult the road ahead may seem and no matter how hard it is to come to terms with the adversity and setbacks that we all face, we must not lose the faith that we, as a nation, will come through the current economic difficulties. There is still a strong community feeling in the valleys of my constituency—a feeling of belonging. Generations of families in the valleys have been tested in the white heat of the furnace of struggle and hardship over the years. Our fathers and mothers all went through that struggle, but, like people everywhere, the people I know, represent and live among want the best for themselves, their children and their grandchildren. They want work, not benefits, opportunities to enrich their lives through education and a decent standard of living and a decent health service.
People in Islwyn, like people throughout Wales and the United Kingdom, will soon have to make an important choice about the future of our country. It will be between a future with fairness and social justice at its heart and one that puts the recovery, public services and jobs at risk. The people will have to decide between a Tory party that will jeopardise the economy and risk our health service, education system and jobs, and a Labour party that will sustain the recovery and protect our public services.
My name will not be on the ballot paper in Islwyn when the general election comes. However, I feel sure that people there will choose once again to support the Labour party, which will ensure that they have a future. I feel sure that they will not turn to the same old Tories who let them down in the past. I fervently hope that, like the people of Islwyn, the people of the United Kingdom will have the good sense to return a Labour Government.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). We might not always see eye to eye on politics, but no one can doubt his passion, consistency and deep commitment to his people in Islwyn. I take this opportunity to thank him personally for the kindness that he has shown me and my family during my time in the House.
St. David’s day is approaching, so this is a good time for Welsh people to look back and look forward—as a Welsh nationalist, I am certainly in the business of looking forward rather than back. I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who is travelling to Cardiff for an engagement this evening and cannot be with us this afternoon.
We are approaching St. David’s day, Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant. As a non-commercial break, there will be a service on Monday at St. Mary Undercroft. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) will be reading, as will the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). This year, I am glad to say that Mr. Speaker has also consented to read during the service. I hope to see as many hon. Members there as possible.
St. David, or Dewi Sant, said that we should keep the faith, do the small things and be joyous—those were his injunctions. It might not be easy to carry them out in the current circumstances, for in the past year we have seen unprecedented economic turmoil and great difficulties, particularly in the financial sector.
It would be remiss of me not to begin by noting the tragedy of the continuing war in Afghanistan. Our service personnel have faced death and injury over many years, as have so many of the Afghan population. In making that point and extending my sympathy to the families involved, I wish to emphasise the Plaid Cymru policy. We have repeatedly opposed the war. We have called, and call now, for a phased withdrawal, peace negotiations and the installation of a United Nations peacekeeping force.
I turn to the domestic front. The banks have started paying enormous bonuses again, but unfortunately the people of Wales have yet to reap the full and disastrous effects of the economic whirlwind brought on by the barely controlled financial sector in the City of London. So few of the people of Wales benefited from that sector, although we are, of course, paying for it now.
I repeat a point made my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy that there was an opportunity to put more controls on the banks at an earlier stage. The Royal Bank of Scotland is, of course, publicly owned, and it is a disgrace that it seems ready to pay out so much money in bonuses. The people in Wales and the UK will come to their own opinion about that.
Like me, the hon. Gentleman is really disappointed to see those large bonuses being paid out, particularly from banks that have received taxpayers’ money. However, does he not acknowledge that, had the Government not taken an interventionist role in the banking and financial institutions, there would have been great turmoil for ordinary citizens in his constituency and mine? To have sat back, done nothing and left things to the market would have been an even worse path to follow.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman in that respect, but I would look at the whole piece and go a bit further back to the rip-roaring days when people were carrying shed-loads of money out of the City of London, which was allowed to happen without sufficient regulation. Points could have been made earlier on about the way in which the banks, having received all this public money, with one of them being largely publicly owned, should have acted as regards bonuses.
I am not disagreeing with the hon. Gentleman, but in the lobby briefing this morning—we all receive “Gallery News” in our e-mails—it was pointed out that the Royal Bank of Scotland has agreed to give bonuses to people earning less than £39,000 a year, the lowest-paid members of staff. The briefing said that that was entirely in line with what the Prime Minister has been saying. The lobby spokesman said that RBS is a very good example of having taken on board what the Prime Minister has been saying on bank bonuses. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that news, as I do.
I do not want to prolong the debate about the British banking system, but I gently highlight to the hon. Gentleman something that has been made clear to me by those in the banking system—that they regard bonuses as a traditional part of how they remunerate their staff. In order to get away from this situation completely, they will have to change their system completely, because it does not look good. However, I am cautious about completely condemning bonuses, because, as the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) has rightly pointed out, the banks seem to have listened to the Prime Minister’s advice.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point.
There have already been increases in unemployment in Wales and, despite the efforts of the Government in Cardiff and, to be fair, the steps taken by the Government here—the future jobs fund is a welcome step—further increases in joblessness loom. As we in Wales are so heavily dependent on employment in the public sector, any cuts in the public sector will have a disproportionate effect. We are determined to foster and grow the other part of the Welsh economy—the part that generates the wealth. I am glad to pay special tribute to the work of the Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, who has shown real talent in a big, and possibly the most onerous, job in the Welsh Government.
Let me look at the local situation in my own constituency. Last week, I visited a company called Welcome Furniture, which has rescued a furniture-making business in Caernarfon that crashed, mainly because it was Irish-owned—the acknowledged difficulties in the Irish economy meant that the subsidiary in Wales also faced difficulties. With a great deal of short-term help from the Welsh Assembly and the local authority, the business has been able to re-establish itself, and it now employs 77 people, which is more people than it employed previously.
Unfortunately, in the past year we have seen the loss of a large public sector project that would have generated large numbers of jobs in my constituency, as well as in Ynys Môn and other areas. I am referring, of course, to the prison project in Caernarfon. It was a particular disappointment that that was abandoned. The Welsh Affairs Committee looked into prison provision several years ago, at my suggestion, and we were very pleased to see the announcement about the prison in Caernarfon. The Committee is looking at the matter again, and we will be reporting on it. No doubt the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) will refer to that in his speech.
I shared the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment when the Caernarfon project did not go ahead, and I backed the attempts by him and members of the Welsh Affairs Committee to ensure that there was a prison in north-west Wales. He will be aware that Isle of Anglesey county council and I have led a delegation to the Ministry of Justice to find suitable sites in Anglesey. Would he support any proposed development there?
I certainly support the prosperity that would come from such a project, which would spill over into my constituency. What is more, it would hopefully provide the prison facility that we have needed in north Wales for such a long time. I would like it to contain a facility for young people and one for women, but we await the announcements.
The people of Caernarfon, both the minority who were against the prison—a number had legitimate fears, although I believe that they could have been assuaged—and the rather larger group in favour, all engaged in reasoned and adult debate, and we did the necessary preparatory work in both the public and private sector. The latter was keen to take part. I pay tribute to Gwynedd county council, under the leadership of Dyfed Edwards. The prison project in Caernarfon might be no more, but any prospective investor in Arfon can be confident of meeting a positive and expert response, and it is definitely open for business.
In the past year we have also seen the passing, at last, of the Welsh language legislative competence order, which was of particular satisfaction to me and to many people across Wales who have been campaigning for a long time for the emancipation of the Welsh language. I was particularly glad of the positive contribution made by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, the Welsh Language Society. It has its campaigning methods and its work to do, and its tactics are not the ones that I would choose, but its contribution to the consideration of the LCO should be a matter of pride to it. It showed yet again that it is in the forefront of positive and creative thinking about the future of the language, and it certainly has a great deal more work to do in that field. I hope that soon, a Measure will be published setting up a language commissioner, which would be the first such step by the Assembly. There will be many more to be taken afterwards.
The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), who is unfortunately not here this afternoon, scored a success yesterday with his Bill regarding marriage in Wales. It took about 10 minutes to pass through its Committee stage and attracted brief contributions from a large number of Welsh Members—it was a good-humoured occasion. I have no truck with envy, but I point out to Ministers and the official Opposition that my Bill to allow the registration of births and deaths in Welsh enjoys wide cross-party support and support across Wales. In the coming year, it would be fitting if the House were to match the Welsh Assembly Government’s positive steps in legislating on the Welsh language by making available parliamentary time for what I claim is a most worthwhile Bill. While I am on the subject of my own efforts in this field, I point to my proposed bilingual juries Bill, which also commands support across Wales, significantly so in the legal profession.
It would be remiss of me not to note the quickening pace of change in the legal profession in Wales. We now have a Welsh circuit and a growing body of Welsh law. All the more reason, therefore, to establish a Welsh jurisdiction and make policing in Wales the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government.
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady and I am very glad that there was co-operation on both sides of the House and in the Welsh Affairs Committee when we addressed that matter, which we have hopefully done successfully.
Less positively, I must note the problems with the housing legislative competence order, which has still not passed after some 32 months. The Welsh Affairs Committee raised some fundamental points about the first version, but as a Committee, we acted quickly—there are sometimes complaints that matters are held up by the Committee, but I do not believe that that happened in this case. Of course, there has been a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing between Cardiff and London, which I am sure will be the subject of the Committee’s forthcoming report on Wales and Whitehall. Perhaps the Chairman of the Committee rather than I will say more about that.
The evidence that the Committee took, which is publicly available, shows a lack of awareness of the nature of devolution among civil service personnel in London. Interestingly, Rhodri Morgan said that dealing with Whitehall was like being the First Minister of the last colony. That may be a Rhodri-ism, but it is very revealing. We must struggle on with the LCO system, but many in Wales and in this House look forward to the referendum, and the establishment—at last—of full and proper law-making powers for the Senedd in Cardiff.
Looking forward to the election, Plaid Cymru has a number of policies on key issues, including child poverty, but I should like to talk about pensioner poverty and our living pension policy. According to Age Concern, older people say that tackling pensioner poverty and reforming the struggling care system are top priorities for them, so let me put this plainly: ending pensioner poverty should be at the top of the agenda for any party of government or any aspiring party of government, and Labour and Tory alike have failed to some extent in that respect over many decades. Indeed, coming up to the general election, the London parties seem obsessed with outbidding one another on cuts to public services and privatisation agendas.
The point is that so much of the policy debate is about English policy, but, for example, health and education—two major issues—are devolved to Wales. By the same token, of course, they are devolved to England, so it is a two-way street. By the way, I never hear people in Wales complaining about quasi-devolution to England; they seem much more concerned with devolution in Wales. The truth is that in the crucial matters of health and education, this Parliament often acts as England’s Parliament. The Leader of the Opposition might pledge on billboards not to cut the NHS, but he should add, “in England”, which would clarify the matter for people in Wales.
Indeed it would, but the public debate so often seems to be on features of the NHS in England. Perhaps that will change as the election approaches.
On the care at home Green Paper, which is another concern of older people, the UK Government have long promised to do something about the cost of care, dating back well into the last century. The Green Paper that was rolled out could apply directly only to England, because care is devolved, but then disability living allowance and attendance allowance came to the fore, and it was said that they could be used to pay for care. The implications of the Green Paper for Wales were unclear. Vulnerable people in Wales who depend on the DLA and attendance allowance were alarmed by press reports, some of which were extremely unclear, and many of which did not refer to the England-only nature of the proposals. Those proposals have changed steadily, and I understand that now the intention is that, for existing claimants and those over 65, the DLA and attendance allowance will be looked at for those in England only. I look forward to the Government explaining this issue further.
The Conservative proposals for residential care costs are even more irrelevant to Wales, given that they depend on the taking out of insurance policies at a cost of £8,000—although the figures are disputed and others say that the real costs would be somewhat higher. There would be a problem for Welsh pensioners who depend on the retirement pension. Age Concern says that all older people should enjoy an adequate standard of living, but 119,000 Welsh pensioners are living in poverty. That is why we would introduce our policy of a living pension, to bring together the pension credit and the current retirement pension, which would be paid for out of the tax relief that now goes to higher rate taxpayers on their pension contributions.
This will be a very important election. All the polls now point to a Parliament with no party in overall control, so there will be an opportunity to hear the voices of the people of Wales which are so often submerged in the big party battles in this place.
I said earlier that St. David had several injunctions for us, including the exhortation to be joyous. I am afraid that my speech has been somewhat pessimistic, but I am by nature an optimist, and I have a deep belief in the ability of the people of Wales to overcome difficulties. We are survivors, as demonstrated by our mastery of the elements of the industrial revolution, the overcoming of the terrible depression of the 1930s and the relative prosperity of the 1960s and 1970s, and our coping with the disaster of Tory rule under Mrs. Thatcher and then under Mr. Major. However, we can be much more than survivors if we so choose. There is a carping tendency in Wales. We can talk ourselves down, but I do not want to be part of that.
I am a great admirer of Idris Davies—I suppose that I should call him the socialist poet—the author of “Gwalia Deserta” and “The Angry Summer: A Poem of 1926”. I should point out to the right hon. Member for Islwyn that Idris Davies was also a Plaid Cymru member, at least in his last days. He was remarkably prescient. In his poem “The Telephones are Ringing”, he may have been foreseeing recent events in this place when he says:
“The telephones are ringing
And treachery’s in the air.
The sleek one,
the expert at compromise
is bowing in Whitehall”.
I, too, am fond of Idris Davies’s poems, and one of his more famous ones was “When we walked to Merthyr Tydfil”. Of course he would not have needed to walk there had there been a Conservative Government, because we invested millions of pounds in the Heads of the Valleys road and other dual carriageways to allow new industry to get into those valleys.
The hon. Gentleman now has the headline for his next press release.
Idris Davies was often viewed as the poet of the depression, but he had some very funny things to say as well. I came across a poem about the people who have a tendency to talk Wales down:
“They don’t like Sunday concerts
Or women playing ball
They don’t like William Parry much
Or Shakespeare at all.
And when they go to Heaven
They won’t like that too well,
For the music will be sweeter
Than the music played in Hell.”
I am not one of those looking for the miserabilist option. I do not say, “That is not for us, we cannot do it.” That is the Welsh voice, the half-mocking self-doubt combined with the blind fervour that we deserve better, that we can do better. The second tendency is the one that we should foster, and that is the duty of every democratic representative from Wales.
We should not always say no, or refuse change. Instead, we should set the abilities and the aspirations of the people of Wales free. We have a duty to make and remake our nation, and that is a duty that I commend to the Welsh Members of this House.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate held on St. David’s day. It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams). I want to echo many of the points made, particularly from the Labour Benches, and to wish all retiring Members all the best for the future—they have been good friends and comrades.
Like the hon. Member for Caernarfon, I am an optimist and have great hope and confidence in what we can achieve in Wales. I do not play down the amount of suffering during the recession in my constituency, but despite all that I see great signs of hope. As I mentioned earlier, my constituency has seen a growth in the number of private companies and jobs, and last week I visited the partially built positron emission tomography—PET—scanner in the Heath hospital, which will be one of the most advanced scanners in the UK and the world. It is able to detect cancers and other diseases at a very early stage, because it detects the movement of cells. It is a miracle of engineering. I visited it and thought it one of the most advanced mechanisms of medical discovery in the world—and it has been built for the Health hospital and the health service in Cardiff. That is a huge tribute to what we can achieve.
Recently, I also visited many schools in my constituency to look at the new three to seven-year-old learn-through-play foundation phase. Huge resources have been put into that, and it is a delight to visit. Most of all, visiting the foundation phase classes, I was struck by the huge enthusiasm of the teachers. They said, “This is what we have always wanted for education. We want children to learn in this way, when they can express themselves.” I am sure that it will be of long-term benefit to the children in Wales.
Those are just a few of the things that have given me this feeling of great optimism recently. However, I want to use most of my contribution to concentrate on one particular constituency issue—the big threat to the Llanishen reservoir in my constituency, and the threat to Cardiff as a whole. The threat has been of development and of concreting over part of the Llanishen reservoir, and the newest threat is of draining the reservoir. I have been campaigning on this issue for eight years, and I am sure that everybody here is probably fed up with hearing me mention it. I remember raising it at nearly every session of business questions when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was Leader of the House.
I am sure that most people here would have thought that this issue was settled and do not want to listen to me going on about it again. However, we are in a difficult situation. Western Power Distribution, which is a subsidiary of Pennsylvania Power and Light, has spent eight years trying to build a housing estate on Llanishen reservoir. Several planning applications have failed and there have been several appeals. There is no permission to build, and the plans are contrary to the existing council policy and the local development plan. The plans have also been strongly opposed by the local reservoir action group, and I would like to pay tribute to its present chairman, Andrew Hill, and its past chairman, Ted Thurgood, for their magnificent efforts in opposing the development.
Cardiff, unlike some cities, does not really have a green belt, but has four green wedges that follow the rivers that enter the city. Those green wedges go right down into the centre of the city, which gives the opportunity for many people in Cardiff to benefit from greenness, even if they live right in the centre of the town. Llanishen reservoir is based in one of these wedges, and development has always been forbidden in the Nant Fawr corridor. Despite the council’s policy to keep the corridor for nature and greenery, WPD has engaged in eight years of attrition, seeking to build on, and now drain, the reservoir.
The reservoir is a hugely attractive amenity. Cardiff council has a sailing school there, where youngsters learn to sail, and it has unique water, which is absolutely pure, being made up entirely of rainwater. If someone falls out of the boat into Llanishen reservoir, there is no fear of suffering the effects of pollution.
Last Friday we received a telephone call at my office. It was reported to me that there was a lot of commotion up at the reservoir, so I went there personally and saw that pipes had been delivered and a unit set up. There were two security guards, who refused to grant me entry, and preparations for the draining of the reservoir had begun. WPD’s justification for draining the reservoir is based on a 2008 report by a Dr. Andy Hughes, a dam engineer employed by the developer. The only recommendation in the report that is legally enforceable by the Environment Agency does not require the emptying of the reservoir. We fear that WPD is proceeding to drain the reservoir in order to make its planning application more likely to succeed.
Mark Acford, the enforcement officer in reservoir safety at the Environment Agency in Exeter, confirmed in writing to WPD on 18 February that Dr. Hughes’s report does not specifically require a draw-down of the reservoir in the interests of safety. We now know that Dr. Hughes had inaccurate information. He thought that a draw-down would enable pipes at the bottom of the reservoir to be inspected for safety, but it is now known that those pipes are encased in concrete. He had also been told that there were regular leaks from a pipe that leads out from the reservoir, but that pipe has never leaked.
Because it was known that Dr. Hughes had based other suggestions that a draw-down was needed on incorrect information, RAG, the local action group, commissioned one of the most experienced and qualified water engineers in the country, Mr. Chris Binnie, to prepare a review of the situation. His detailed report, which is now fully in the public domain, is adamant that the emptying of the reservoir is not needed, either on safety grounds or to carry out the required survey. Mr. Binnie confirms in his report that he has spoken to Dr. Hughes on several occasions and had a meeting with him. Binnie confirms in his executive summary on page 2 that Dr. Hughes has said that
“based on the information provided by RAG, he”—
“should reconsider his recommendations,”
but that he has
“been instructed by his client not to communicate”.
Binnie says that Hughes was unaware when he wrote his report in 2008 of the new information now to hand, which makes emptying the reservoir unnecessary. However, despite formal requests, he is refusing to review his recommendations.
We are therefore in a difficult situation. The threatened draining of the reservoir will have dire consequences for people in my constituency and in Cardiff generally. The youth sailing centre would be out of action for eight years, which is how long it would take to fill the reservoir up with rainwater. The ecology of the reservoir would be lost. It contains 300 million gallons of pure rainwater. There would be a threat of pollution to the streams that lead into Roath Park lake, with 10,000 cubic metres of silt being discharged.
There would also be likely structural damage to the clay core of the dam if it was left empty for a long period, as clay must be kept wet. Fissures or cracks would develop, and in those circumstances it would be easy for a leak to spring and the reservoir never to be refilled. That is important because the reservoir is now a listed building—the entire structure has been listed by Cadw—so any risk of damage is a criminal offence. Binnie says that if the reservoir was empty for six months, it could be damaged. Some precautionary action must be taken. In my view, the council or Cadw have the grounds to take out an injunction because of the damage that could be caused.
The fundamental issues are that Hughes is refusing to reconsider his report in the light of new evidence. That raises issues about his professional integrity. RAG did not criticise his initial report on the grounds that he had incorrect information, but the two reasons that he gave for draining the reservoir are no longer valid, and it seems that Hughes is being muzzled by his client. I am pleased to have the opportunity to lay that out publicly today. I feel strongly that something must be done. Two engineers are fundamentally disagreeing about the way ahead, and one engineer is refusing to consider new evidence. Is there any way in which the Secretary of State could intervene, or ask Welsh Assembly Ministers to intervene? Perhaps the Institution of Civil Engineers could appoint an adjudicator to consider both reports. We need a cessation of draining while a review takes place. We need a stay of execution.
I strongly believe that Cardiff city council has the power to issue an injunction to stop the draining of the reservoir, because its sailing school is threatened. I also think that Cadw could issue an injunction to stop the damage being done to the listed building. Many of my constituents feel very strongly about this, and there is a strong campaign being run by the local newspaper, the South Wales Echo. Many people have written to WPD’s parent company in the United States to highlight the strength of feeling, not only in my constituency but in the whole of the Cardiff area, that this reservoir and its area of natural beauty—which includes a site of special scientific interest—should be preserved. WPD has power and money. It has put up its dreadful steel fences and brought in its security guards. It seems absolutely determined to destroy this listed monument in the SSSI, which is part of the Nant Fawr corridor and is one of the features that gives Cardiff its uniqueness.
I am glad to have had the chance to put this situation on record today. I am appealing to the Secretary of State to see whether there is anything that he can do. There are many other important issues affecting my constituency, but I have chosen this one because it has touched so many people in Cardiff, North, and because of the many aspects—recreation, beauty, greenness and wildlife—that are so important for communities.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and allowing me to respond briefly. I am well aware of her passionate defence of the reservoir; I recall her raising the subject regularly. I will certainly look into the matter carefully, as Secretary of State, and in any case raise it with the First Minister, as she has requested.
I am grateful for this opportunity to say a few words. I should like to follow up on points raised by the right hon. Members for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I have a great deal of respect for both of them, and I shall miss the right hon. Gentleman. It was slightly disappointing, however, if not entirely surprising, that both of them chose to repeat a rather one-sided view of the economic history of this country of the past 20 years.
The right hon. Lady seems to forget that people in Wales suffered far more in the 1970s, when interest rates were higher than they ever were under a Conservative Government. The industrial chaos that was wreaked by the previous Labour Government is mirrored by the financial chaos that has been imposed on us by the current one. She also gave the House a rather one-sided view of the miners’ strike. She forgot a couple of key points. First, the Labour Government of Harold Wilson closed down far more mines than the Conservative Government of Mrs. Thatcher. Secondly, the miners were not given any opportunity to vote on whether they wished to go on strike, in Wales or anywhere else, during that strike. They were being used by the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers to try to bring down a democratically elected Government, just as they were used in the early 1970s. It was for that reason that the miners’ union leaders did not get the support of the Government, or of leading members of the Opposition either.
The Secretary of State made pretty much the same speech that he always makes, attacking Conservative policy on everything that happened during the 1980s while skimming briefly over the record of the Labour Government of the past 12 or 13 years. I do not want to rehearse all the economic arguments, the arguments about the health service and so on. I just want to draw his attention to a few key cases in my constituency that demonstrate the failure of Labour in Parliament and in the Welsh Assembly.
The Secretary of State spoke first about the economy, and rightly so. He painted a rosy picture. One thing he certainly did not mention was the Severn bridge and its impact on the economy in Wales at the moment. He must be perfectly well aware that the Humber bridge has had a freeze put on any increases in tolls as a result, the Government said, of the bad economic crisis. I have looked at the matter, and users of the Humber bridge pay roughly the same as users of the Severn bridge, although the charging mechanism is slightly different. I cannot understand why people living in the Humber area of England can escape a rise in fees—I wish them all the best and I do not criticise the Government for that—while Welsh people, especially those living in south Wales who commute over the Severn bridge every day, are being treated like second-class citizens and are not being given the same rights as people living in the Humber area. Could it be that there is a Labour marginal seat in Humber, and that the Government are simply trying to buy votes? I would welcome clarification from the Minister with responsibility for that.
I go around my constituency speaking to people in business, and they do not recognise the rosy picture painted by the Secretary of State. I recently met David Bone, an engineer and the director of Ocean Resource Ltd, which creates designs for oil refineries and wind farms. He is a successful entrepreneur and a man who is actually doing things that can help to build the economy. He tells me that he has contacted the Welsh Assembly on numerous occasions to discuss aspects of grant funding, and that he has never even received the courtesy of a reply. I find that absolutely reprehensible. I have spent a long time talking to him, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. He tells me categorically that he has corresponded with Ministers in the Welsh Assembly and that none of them had the courtesy even to write back to him, which is extraordinary.
Mr. Bone also raised the issue of the green economy, which we all agree needs to be developed in this country. Wales could be a beacon of excellence for green jobs. He raised concerns about the Energy Technologies Institute, which is partly funded by Government money and ought to support industries in the United Kingdom, but appears to spend a lot of its money supporting industries from other parts of Europe. If we are serious about developing the green economy and green jobs, we need to ensure that any public money from British taxpayers is spent on British businesses.
On training and so on, the rosy picture that the Secretary of State paints does not correspond with what is seen by my constituents. In that regard, I want to raise the issue of apprenticeships. Recently, a 20-year-old, Damien Radnor of Raglan, came to see me. He is a very enthusiastic, intelligent and articulate young man, who looked around and realised that the country had a shortage of electricians. He spent two years in a local college near Monmouthshire—just outside my constituency, but that is not important—training to become an electrician. He needs to spend a further year working as an apprentice, with an electrician, to complete his course in college. Despite his having written to more than 40 people—I have seen the letters—all have had to turn him down. They are not taking on apprentices, for a variety of reasons: employment legislation makes it difficult; there is no real money to support employers who want to take on apprentices. Consequently, everyone’s time and money is being wasted. This young man gave up a well-paid job to study, and spent two years of his life and a lot of money on the process. Presumably, the college course would have been subsidised in some way by the Government, so taxpayer’s money was being spent as well. At the end of it, a bright and enthusiastic young man, who wants to go out and work and is willing to write to everyone he can think of, is unable to get a placement as an apprentice. The Secretary of State may shake his head, but I could introduce him to that young man, and I assure him that that is exactly what has happened. More needs to be done to help young people who want apprenticeships.
We have heard, of course, about the national health service. Someone said that it had been invented by Labour in the teeth of opposition. That is the sort of one-sided view of history that Labour Members get away with all too often. The reality is that people were not dying in the streets before the health service was formed. Moreover, it was not really a Labour Government who invented it. If anything, it was invented by a civil servant called Beveridge during the second world war. It was accepted by Members in all parts of the House that the national health service, in one form or another, would be introduced after the second world war regardless of who won the election. A health service was already functioning—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may shake their heads and laugh if they want to.
The social policies devised by Beveridge, which were introduced by the Labour Government in the NHS more than 60 years ago, were opposed by the Conservative party at the time. That is a fact and is on the record of the House, and the hon. Gentleman ought to acknowledge it.
I will give way in a moment, because I am not afraid to debate the real history of this country with anyone.
There were probably arguments about the way in which the health service would be introduced, but there is no doubt that no Member wanted to see people dying in the streets, and that had not happened before the introduction of the national health service. It did not happen afterwards either, but I am afraid that thousands of needless deaths are taking place now. I am not talking just about the recent ones that we all know about. This has been going on for far too long, and one of the reasons, I believe, is that anyone who tries to make any criticism of the NHS is immediately accused of wanting to get rid of it, although in fact most Conservative Members want to see it function better.
I hold the hon. Gentleman in high regard, and I am grateful to him for giving way. I should say, however, that Beveridge—who was a Liberal—would quite evidently have failed in his ambition to introduce the NHS had the Conservatives won the general election in 1945. The hon. Gentleman has accused other hon. Members of rewriting history, but what he has said constitutes the most flagrant rewriting of history that we have heard all day.
I look forward to returning to that piece of history on another occasion, but now I want to talk about the present.
I am a user of the NHS. All my children were born in NHS hospitals, except one who was born at home with the help of NHS staff. One of my children has had to spend consecutive Christmases in hospital, once in eastern Europe and once in the United Kingdom. The staff in both hospitals were superb—I have no complaint whatsoever about them—but the standards in a not particularly prosperous part of rural eastern Europe were at least as good as those in Abergavenny.
In that hospital in rural Hungary my daughter had her own room, as did everyone else. There was always a doctor on the ward, never more than a few paces away, 24 hours a day. That is not the experience of people who come into contact with the NHS in the United Kingdom. So please let us not tell ourselves that the NHS is the envy of the world. It is not. There are problems with it, and we should not be blind to them. We should not allow ourselves to ignore any criticisms of the organisation of the NHS for fear of criticising the staff, and I should make it clear that I do not in any way criticise the staff.
Let me give an example of how the health service is letting people down. Another of my constituents, 93-year-old Reginald Lewis, who is in the Severn View residential home in Chepstow, asked me to raise his case in the House today. He served in the armed forces, he has worked all his life, and he is paying his own fees at the nursing home of £1,700 a month. He has an open leg wound. He says that the nursing staff have been excellent in trying to treat him, but his condition is simply not getting better. He went to see a doctor, and was told—a 93-year-old man who had served in the armed forces—that he would have to wait six to 12 months before anyone from the NHS would even look at the wound or do anything about it. That is absolutely disgraceful.
Finally, as issues affecting elderly people were rightly mentioned earlier, I shall now raise the issue of pensions. The Secretary of State was responsible, in one of his many previous guises, for setting up the Pension Protection Fund, which comes into effect when companies go bankrupt by, effectively, taking over the pension scheme and paying people 90 per cent. of their pension. It is not a bad idea to give the Secretary of State credit where it is due, and some is due in this instance, so I shall give it to him without any malice. However, he seems to have overlooked one important point: a lot of people whose companies went bankrupt and whose schemes were taken over by the PPF have been let down because prior to working in the companies that went bankrupt they had other jobs.
Mrs. Jordan came to see me about this matter. She had worked for a different company for a number of years, and she transferred her pension rights into the new company, which then went bankrupt. It was taken over by the PPF and she was told she would get a pension of about 90 per cent., which is £13,000 a year. That was not good news for her, but neither was it a life-changing disaster. The PPF subsequently discovered a legal loophole, however, which allowed it to reduce her pension by the amount that had been paid in from the previous company, because when the PPF takes over a scheme, it takes over only that scheme, and only the pension rights paid directly into the company that has gone bankrupt are credited to the individual, not any previous pension moneys from other companies that have been paid into the scheme of the company that has gone bankrupt. Effectively, therefore, Mrs. Jordan has been robbed of a large sum from her pension, and the capital money has gone to the PPF, which is using it for other things. I acknowledge that that point is a little complicated, but there will be many people who are in the same position as Mrs. Jordan in that as a result of this loophole they have lost out on money that is rightfully theirs. We should not be using legal loopholes when dealing with paying people’s pensions. We should be looking at what is right and fair, and doing the right thing by people.
I have probably spoken for long enough, as I want every hon. Member who wishes to do so to be able to contribute. I shall conclude by echoing the words of a previous, well-known Labour leader. What will happen if Labour gets re-elected again? Based on the experience of my constituents, I warn you not to try to set up a business; I warn you not to try to better yourself by going to university or trying to get an apprenticeship; I warn you not to get ill; and I warn you not to get old.
May I begin by paying tribute to all the Welsh members of our armed forces in Afghanistan, particularly those who, sadly, have been killed in the service of our country, including Corporal Dean John from my constituency? We should also not forget their families, many of whom are very active in voluntary organisations. For example, Dean’s mother, Mrs. Deborah John, is very active and doing outstanding work in our area in the well-known organisation SAFFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association.
We should also remember the work of the Royal British Legion. I am sure many Members on both sides of the House would join me in endorsing the RBL general election manifesto. Many of my constituents have drawn it to my attention, and I am delighted to endorse that manifesto. Two of them, Tom Fellows and Roger Sheppard, have been doing some excellent work in recent years. I wish to draw particular attention to two policies in the manifesto, which have already been referred to by many Members:
“Make the NHS priority treatment system work for veterans with injuries caused by Service in the Armed Forces”
and, tackle poverty among older veterans and widows.
As many Members have said, this Welsh day debate provides us with a welcome opportunity to reflect on our work over the last year and to look forward to the future. In the past year, we all looked back on what I, and many Members on both sides of the House, would call a decade of achievement in democratic devolution, or as my distinguished predecessor, Lord Morris of Aberavon, rightly and often termed it, the repatriation of power to Wales.
I am proud to say, as an enthusiastic supporter of democratic devolution, that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which I chair, has had a growing and always benign role in that process, both scrutinising Government policy and, in more recent times, working with our Welsh Assembly colleagues on pre-legislative scrutiny of LCOs. In a remarkably busy, almost frenetic, five years, the Committee has held 43 inquiries, ranging from the mammoth globalisation inquiry that took place over 18 months, where we called senior Burberry executives to account, to the one-day sitting on the Legal Services Commission. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) for her work in that field. When we held that inquiry we successfully called Government Ministers to account. I should add that 25 of these inquiries took place in the past two years, when we were also undertaking our LCO work.
It has been an exceptionally busy last year for the Welsh Affairs Committee. About half our work over the past 12 months has been on scrutinising LCOs and thus devolving further powers to the Assembly. As we have heard from other hon. Members, these included the Welsh language LCO, which has now received Royal Assent and has paved the way for new Measures relating to the Welsh language to be passed in the Assembly. The publication of our enlightened and unanimous report was arguably our greatest achievement over the past five years. The environment LCO has also completed its progress and will enable Wales to lead the way in tackling pollution and litter and in encouraging recycling.
The Committee recently reported on its 15th LCO and has now completed work on all the LCOs that have been laid before the House. That is surprising, given that two years ago many people outside this House would not have believed that we could have done this work. Despite much doom and gloom in those quarters—people were daunted by what they described as “complexity” and did not understand that all legislative processes are complex—we did win through in the end. I wish to thank all the members of the Committee for their dedication and commitment to completing this scrutiny work in a timely and very thorough fashion. Whether the latest LCOs complete their remaining parliamentary stages will depend on the date of the general election, but my Committee has worked hard to make sure that they have every chance of doing so.
I am pleased that our work has been recognised elsewhere, and not only in debates in this House. For example, it was recognised by Sir Gus O’Donnell, the head of the civil service, when he gave evidence to us recently as part of our current inquiry into the relationship between Wales and Whitehall. It will be the last major inquiry that the Committee undertakes during this Parliament, but it will also be one of the most important. It was inspired by a short inquiry that we completed last year into the decision by the Legal Services Commission to scale down its operations in Cardiff. That decision was taken without consulting the Welsh Assembly Government or the Wales Office, and with no regard to increasing legal divergence post devolution. As a result of our inquiry, the LSC has not implemented its planned changes and is reconsidering its decisions. That is just one example of a decision being made centrally with no proper awareness of its potential impact on Wales.
Equally, we have also heard about decisions being made in Cardiff without full regard for the impact they may have on those needing to cross the border regularly. We have continued to investigate cross-border services for people who travel between England and Wales for health care and education, as well as the quality of cross-border transport links. We believe that our work in this area has improved access to hospitals and colleges for those living near the border, who have sometimes suffered from gaps in provision when the different policies of the UK Government and Welsh Assembly Government were not properly joined up.
We were particularly pleased to have the opportunity to take evidence jointly with the Assembly’s Enterprise and Learning Committee on cross-border rail links. I warmly welcome the announcement, as I am sure that colleagues from all parties will, that the great western main line between Swansea and London is to be electrified, as our Committee strongly recommended shortly before the announcement was made. We will shortly publish a follow-up report to our cross-border inquiry.
The evidence we have taken during our current inquiry into Wales and Whitehall has shown that devolution requires both Cardiff and London to be committed to communicating properly with one another and considering the impacts of their policies at both ends of the M4. Wales’s interests must be considered when UK policy is developed, but the communication problems we have uncovered do not go only in one direction. It is important not only that Members of this House understand that, but that the media should convey that message. I think that the situation is improving, with greater awareness being shown by all parties, perhaps as a result of some of my Committee’s inquiries—and I am sure that our forthcoming report will contribute to improving relationships still further.
Let me now make some positive observations about the coming period on the basis of recent oral evidence given to our Committee. First, we had a very constructive evidence session with the Welsh Assembly Government Minister for Health and Social Services, Mrs. Edwina Hart. It highlighted the possibility that Wales could take a lead on the health and rehabilitation of veterans across the UK. It was an illuminating evidence session and I can see Members nodding in agreement about how important Mrs. Hart’s evidence was. Her strong desire to work with the Ministry of Defence and with other devolved Administrations provided a policy possibility that the Committee warmly welcomed and that it will consider closely if we have the good fortune to be Members of this House in the new Parliament.
Secondly, the willingness of senior civil servants to give frank and insightful observations on strategy and performance in our Wales and Whitehall inquiry was another recent welcome development. The process of devolution needs transparency and constant analysis as well as self-criticism from politicians and officials alike. Now that they have come out of the shadows, so to speak, we want to encourage these senior civil servants to come under the spotlight regularly—perhaps appearing before us once a year.
I am sure that senior civil servants, whether they are in Cardiff Bay or Whitehall, will wish to be measured by the watchword of universities throughout Wales: “Goreu Awen Gwirionedd”, or “The best inspiration is truth.” That has certainly been the inspiration of our Committee in its service to the people of Wales. It has been a privilege to have chaired it over the past five years. We have benefited from constructive working relations with two Secretaries of State and two First Ministers. I pay tribute to them all and to the dedicated and professional work of Select Committee staff.
In conclusion, let me join others in paying tribute to all right hon. and hon. Friends and Members who are standing down at the next general election. In particular, may I pay personal tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), a successful Wales Office and Defence Minister who has worked so hard for miners’ compensation and for our veterans? His insightful and independent thinking will be sorely missed in the House, and we all admired the contribution that he made to the debate earlier. I wish him and Jennifer well in the future. If he stands for public office again elsewhere, I have offered to be his election agent.
I echo the observations that have just been made regarding our retiring friends.
If people did not have problems, we would not have jobs, and we sometimes forget the point that David Lloyd George, who was unquestionably the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th century, made when he said:
“The finest eloquence is that which gets things done”.
That is never truer than in periods of economic trouble, and these are tough times. In Montgomeryshire, we have been very busy with closures, with downsizing and with trying to prevent the worst effects of the recession from taking hold. Indeed, we have recently had problems with the potential loss of another 180 jobs, and it has been almost a full-time occupation to try to protect them.
There have also been threats to our local high schools. The Conservatives leaked a document that caused considerable upset and panic because it suggested that high schools might be closed. There is always an ongoing threat to services in our local hospitals, which remain open in name but which still suffer, to an extent, from reduced services because the health board seems to want to save money by taking away cherished and long-loved local facilities. There is a virtual absence of mental health services; there is an ongoing dispute about wind farms in the area; there are questions about flooding; and there is gridlock in Newtown as a result of new traffic arrangements. There is even talk of some kind of enormous monster living at Clywedog dam. I shall return to those issues later.
With a general election looming, it is natural for us to look briefly at what is on offer. I think that I am fairly clear about what we get with the Labour party. It has been in government and we know its strengths and weaknesses. Incidentally, something that has almost been forgotten is the difficulty that the Secretary of State for Wales experienced when he had to take a back seat after various accusations were made about him. As I said then, it is a great shame when pressure from opponents in the media can force the temporary demotion of good politicians. I am very pleased that he not only cleared his name but recovered his original position. That was the just outcome of some very unjust accusations.
We know what Labour offers—I suppose there has been some debate about that today—but I am very concerned that we do not really know what the Conservatives offer. That must be a matter of concern to me as I consider what could happen to my constituents should there be a Conservative Government. There tends to be a sense of defeatism locally at times from the Conservatives in Montgomeryshire about various matters, and I see the same attitude reflected here in Westminster. It is an attitude not of delivery but of criticism, but that is not what our country needs or what my constituents want.
I have never got very excited about discussions on the Boundary Commission, but the Leader of the Opposition seems to have set the hare running by making some heady claims about constitutional reforms that would require a reduction in the number of constituencies. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have said something about that as well. My difficulty with that and other policies is that they always seem half-baked. We do not get the detail and we do not really understand what the specific intentions of a Conservative Government would be, so we are forced to look at the past. When it comes to the banks, I am extremely concerned that the act of electing a Conservative Government, would, by its nature, cause a second recession. We know, from what the Government have had to respond to from Conservative Members, that if the Tories had been in charge during the banking collapse, the banks would have been left to fail.
There was a degree of vacillation in their policy, but the Tories seem to want to make a virtue of the fact that they would not have supported the action to protect the banks taken at that time, and in extremis, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman and want to put him out of his agony. The leader of my party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), has said that he wants to reduce the number of politicians and the size of Parliament, which has burgeoned and got too big. Like me, however, he has also said that Wales will not be disproportionately represented at Westminster. It will be represented in exactly the same way as any other part of the UK.
I was in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency the other day with our candidate there, Glyn Davies. We were discussing this matter, and it is a comfort to know that under a Conservative Government Wales will always be represented in this place on exactly the same basis as any other part of the UK. I hope that that puts the hon. Gentleman out of his agony.
I am sure that the whole House is grateful for that clarification, but I am slightly disappointed, as I thought that the hon. Lady would clarify her party’s position on the banks. All the evidence suggests that the economic policies being promoted by the Conservative party over the past two years would have had a catastrophic impact on the British economy, and thus on the constituents of Montgomeryshire.
Actually, it will take a little longer, as it is a very worthy document. It proposes a
“new system of financial regulation, with the Bank of England back in charge of controlling the overall level of debt in the economy”,
“new fiscal policy framework, with an independent Office for Budget Responsibility”.
The document also makes it clear that phase 1 of our approach will be the independent OBR, and phase 2 an emergency Budget within 50 days. On phase 3, it says that
“over the Summer we will work flat out to conduct the detailed departmental Spending Review for the years after 2011”.
I recommend the lecture for the hon. Gentleman’s reading.
It is my birthday next week, so perhaps the hon. Lady will send me a bound copy. If she does, I assure her that I will read little else between now and 6 May.
Once again, however, the hon. Lady remains silent on the core point that I am making—had the Government been Conservative, the banks would have failed. A Conservative Government would have stood by and done nothing to prevent that.
We need to go back to the evidence. About two decades ago, the pound started falling in the exchange rate mechanism. What did the Conservative Government do? They threw away £12 billion, because they were vacillating and did not know what they needed to do to protect sterling. That cost my constituents £20 million in one afternoon. So we do not have to go very far back to see that, when faced with a high-pressure decision that needs to be made in a hurry—exactly as happened with the banks—the Conservatives failed to come up with the goods.
The hon. Lady can believe anything she wants, but the record shows clearly what was said at the time. My judgment is that the banks would have been allowed to fail, had there been a Conservative Government in charge. That would have stopped us being a banking behemoth in the world, and turned us into an economic banana republic. This country’s economic credibility would have failed.
The outcome could be even worse, now. Perhaps the hon. Lady will correct me if I have misunderstood the Conservative promise to sell off shares in the banks owned by the Government. They are the very asset that stand to pay off a large proportion of the debt. We all understand how that works: the shares were bought at a very low price and they will accrue value over time as things—hopefully—improve.
We are talking about the shares accruing value to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds. We do not need to be economists to work out how the value gained should be used, as the matter is self-evident, but we need to think twice when the economic policy of a Government in waiting is to sell off the assets when they are cheap.
There is another irony. How many times have we heard the Conservatives criticise the former Chancellor and current Prime Minister for selling gold when it was low in value? In my judgment, that was a mistake, but the Conservatives are about to commit an even bigger mistake by selling those shares at this time. That could cost the constituents of Montgomeryshire as much as £200 million.
There is another problem. If the Conservatives sell off those shares, they will have to find money from somewhere, but how will they make it? With a colour photocopier? I do not think so. They cannot depend on alternative sources of income, and they will not have an opportunity—a magic box—to print money in order to fill that void. If they sell off the shares cheaply, the practical consequence for Montgomeryshire, Wales and, indeed, the whole country will be a tax increase higher than the one we already anticipate. We would also be likely to see more severe cuts in public services.
I did economics at university for a period, and I see very clearly that we cannot pretend to have money that does not exist. Will Conservative Front Benchers please, therefore, clarify the economic logic—let alone the morality—of selling off the very shares on which any Government of any colour will depend in order to accrue assets to pay back some of the debt? I am happy to give way if the hon. Lady can do that.
I was also confused earlier, because I did not receive a satisfactory answer to my question about the minimum wage and a minimum income. For a long time, the Liberal Democrats have supported the idea of a minimum income, and for one glorious moment I thought that the Conservatives supported it, too. If I put together the answers that I received, however, it seems that under a Conservative Government the Montgomeryshire public could depend on neither serious support for the minimum wage nor support for a minimum income. I do not know where that would leave the least well-off in my constituency, but it leaves me very worried that the safety net, which has been introduced and has been quite successful under this Government, would be removed.
I am very fond of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who is an outstanding character. We have had some entertaining times together in his constituency and he is welcome to come to mine any time he likes, but for him to accuse others of rewriting history and then declaim that the Conservatives supported the idea of a national health service is probably the most laughable commentary since Lieutenant-Commander Woodroffe’s inebriated BBC broadcast from the royal naval review at Spithead in 1937. [Interruption.] Which I thoroughly recommend.
I am sure that YouTube will get a spike this evening.
The idea that the national health service is safe in Conservative hands ignores the lessons of history and the thousands of beds that were lost under the previous Conservative Administration. I have had to work very hard with local communities over the past 13 years to protect what we have, and I just do not believe that it would be easy to do so under a regime that, presumably, would have some bearing on Conservative policy and, at least, distantly echo past Tory behaviour.
I suspect that I would be quickly ruled out of order if I were to follow the line that I want to. The hon. Gentleman is fair-minded, and he and I have supported important road safety campaigns in Abergavenny in order to prevent people having to use NHS facilities, but surely he does not believe that prior to 1945 people were left to drop dead in the street. I do not believe that, not least because one of my grandparents was a doctor, and they made a point of ensuring that all those who needed health care got health care, whether they could afford it or not. It is a calumny on all those who served as doctors prior to 1945 to suggest otherwise.
There is a contradiction in the hon. Gentleman’s comment. First, he implies that we do not need the NHS, and perhaps that is a more prescient observation of the Conservative party’s true feelings towards the NHS than anything else that has been said. Secondly, and to answer his point directly, there was rudimentary provision for the general public before 1945, but the whole point of the NHS was that people who could not afford health care died sooner. Indeed, as a direct result of the NHS, life expectancy has measurably improved in this country.
We did not have an NHS in the 14th century. If we look not at the 14th century but at the early 20th century, we see a direct relationship between wealth and life expectancy. Sadly, there still is one to an extent, but the differential has been reduced.
It is interesting that we are arguing about whether we should have an NHS or not. That, I am afraid, is the debate that we might have under a Conservative Government. I do not suggest that, realistically, the Tories would demolish the NHS, but there would be much greater dependence on the private sector, and the differentials would increase. There is no private hospital in Montgomeryshire, and most of my constituents could not afford to go to one. I am concerned that our difficulties with access on a cross-border basis to the Royal Shrewsbury hospital would increase if that change of Government took place.
My other concerns relate to other issues, although I shall not go through every single one. Wind turbines are a big issue in my constituency. I am on the record as being sceptical about the benefits of having mass wind farms plastered all over my constituency, given that they produce a relatively minuscule amount of power in comparison with the disruption that they cause.
There is a particular problem with the transportation of the thousands of lorry loads that go through my constituency. I have sought clarification in the past, but I still do not know whether there would be a change in policy if there were a change of Government. I would be very happy to praise the Conservatives, if they said that they supported my position—that is, that my constituency should not be modified into one giant wind farm.
I happen to be pro-nuclear, although my party is not; I hope to persuade others in my party to take my position. I am sure that wind turbines on the scale that I am talking about will do more harm to my constituency than good for the environment.
I have problems with TAN 8 as well. The first is the presumption that the hon. Gentleman has described. The second is the designation of specific areas, which necessarily masses wind farms in places such as mid-Wales. I hope that I will persuade others in the Chamber to take a new look at wind turbines, which generate the most expensive electricity that we produce. As I have said, I see nuclear power as an alternative. I certainly do not see turbines on the scale that I am talking about as doing anything other than harming the aspect of my community and causing disruption for up to seven years, while they are constructed—and for relatively little benefit.
Incidentally, I applaud Plaid Cymru’s elegant solution to the nuclear debate: as I understand it, the party is implacably opposed to nuclear power, except on Anglesey. I salute the tidiness of that position.
What action should we take to resolve the issues in Montgomeryshire? It is a matter of hard graft. All Members know how demanding our case loads are as a direct result of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. However, I can report some good news, which I mentioned in an earlier intervention. Newtown was looking at 180 job losses as a result of Shop Direct’s downsizing of its call centres. Following considerable work with Shop Direct, Joy Jones, the outstanding mayor of Newtown, and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which has been very proactive, I am happy to report that Shop Direct has changed its position and postponed any closure until December. That gives us room to breathe. I hope that we can find a long-term solution with Shop Direct or with another company that takes over the business.
The outcome is also a credit to Ministers. I came to the Wales Office in urgent need of support, and I am happy to say that the Secretary of State and Under-Secretary could not have been more helpful; I am really grateful for their support. I should also mention the Prime Minister, who expressed his support at Prime Minister’s questions and took action behind the scenes. That was a cross-party success story and 180 people still have their jobs thanks, in part, to the Government’s work.
Similarly, I got support from Ministers in the case of Regal Fayre, a new company setting up in Montgomery that could produce up to 100 jobs in time. It was a collaborative effort, in which Finance Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government were very supportive. Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State for everything, also supported us and made some direct interventions when we were having trouble with finance.
Now let me say something that is slightly unfashionable: I found RBS very helpful on this occasion. It relaxed some of its conditions in order to make the loan that was required. That took months to arrange, but had RBS not come good in the end, we would not have these jobs. Not everything that the banks are doing is all bad. I am pleased to report that another small business facing closure was helped by HSBC personnel coming to a meeting—I was there as well—and renegotiating the debts of that business. There are some glimmers of hope and good examples of the banks responding to the political direction that has been requested by the Government.
I have to make a point of a very parochial nature. Despite rumours to the contrary, Carpetright in Newtown is not closing, so could people please stop going in there looking for the closing down sale? The people there are perfectly happy, and it is probably a rumour spread by somebody else.
On schools, I hope that we have a period of calm in Powys when we look at the issues on a more rational basis. The councillors ultimately have to make the decision, but it seems clear to me that no high school in north Powys should be closed. The bigger threat is to the sixth forms, and that is where the debate most usefully lies. I am pleased to see that local community groups, parents and teachers are leading the campaigns in each of the six high schools in my area, which is as it should be. The less politicised and the more rational this is, the better for all concerned.
I am very concerned about mental health provision in Powys. We cost ourselves far more than we save by not having appropriate mental health provision in mid-Wales. I hope that over time Ministers can have conversations with their opposite numbers in Cardiff to see whether we can make a direct intervention and provide a much more acceptable level of service.
Newtown is currently suffering gridlock, because the council “improved” the traffic management in the centre of the town. When it switched the lights on, it more or less switched the traffic off. An appreciable part of the work over the next few days will be trying to convince it to go back to where we were before with a roundabout instead of lights. Such issues are not glamorous, but they preoccupy MPs most of the time. I may have to call on Ministers once again if the council is intransigent and bloody-mindedly refuses to heed the obvious distress of a community that is unable to drive from one side of a small town to the other.
The election will obviously be on 6 May, and we all look forward to a new Parliament and the new challenges that it will bring. For my part, I can only conclude with the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), who turned to me earlier and said, “Actually, this is a pretty wonderful job, isn’t it?” For all the difficulties, troubles and challenges, I still think that it is a noble profession. It is still an honour to serve here, working together with my local Assembly Member, the gentle giant, Mick Bates, and his soon-to-be-successor in 2011, Wyn Williams, the outstanding politician of his generation, who are up for the challenge. I am proud of my team in Newtown and proud of the constituency that I represent, and I hope to do even more if that is the will of the people of Montgomeryshire.
It is always interesting to follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who always aims to entertain, if not to inform us about Liberal Democrat policy. I am reminded of a story about the late Lord Howells. When he was the Member for Ceredigion, he announced at a public meeting that Liberal Democrat policy on water was that it should all be free. Afterwards he was challenged about this and told that it was not Liberal Democrat policy, and he said, “No, but it should be.” I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman is following his policy in that regard.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) referred to his first contribution to the Wales day debate back in 1988, which reminded me of my first such contribution in 1993. I am not sure whether it was on 1 March, but it was close to it. I could not make a very positive contribution, because of the situation that my constituency was in. The second recession under the Conservative Government had hit my constituency particularly hard. From 1981, Pembrokeshire basically stayed in recession. There was a second recession in the early 1990s, and by January 1993, the Pembroke and Tenby travel-to-work area, which is basically the south Pembrokeshire part of my constituency under its current name, had the worst unemployment not only of any part of Wales but of any part of the UK. More than 2,600 people there were claiming unemployment benefit.
I think back to those days, when I looked for help for my people in my constituency who were facing repossession and those who had lost their jobs, and help was there none. The Government did not change the rules on support for mortgage interest payments, as the current Government have—the waiting period was 39 weeks then, and now it is 13 weeks. That has been a major contribution to keeping people in their homes. There was no future jobs fund and no new deal then, and so no real help for the unemployed. It was a tragic period for many individuals who lost not only their job but their home.
The difference between that home-grown recession and the global recession that we have faced over the past 18 months is that Government reactions have been a world apart. I am absolutely confident that the measures that have been taken, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State listed—the car scrappage scheme, the tax deferral, the future jobs fund, help for people to stay in their homes and so on—have had a significant impact on reducing the effect of the recession. As others have said, even after this deep recession, unemployment levels are still a lot better than they were back in the 1990s.
The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) said that we always get such arguments in these debates and in the Welsh Grand Committee, but it is worth remembering that the policy decisions in the two circumstances were completely different. They were taken by two different Governments and, as I have said, the way that Government decisions have helped people in the current experience is worlds away from what happened in the early 1990s.
I do not recognise the description of some parts of Wales that certain Opposition Members have given when talking about their constituencies. As I have travelled around Wales, as an individual Member and formerly as a Minister, I have seen the investment that has taken place on an unprecedented scale. I can give examples of services that have been provided in my constituency and elsewhere. There is the new Tenby college hospital, the £8 million refurbishment of the Pembroke Dock hospital, the new A and E at West Wales general hospital, the brand-new £30 million-plus Carmarthen high school, the upgrading of primary schools and the building of new ones in Jeffreyston, in Pembroke Dock and throughout the area. There has been huge investment in Pembrokeshire college, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. New schools are being built; there is a new A and E unit and other development at Withybush general hospital; and a brand new leisure centre recently opened in Haverfordwest. That is my experience of west Wales.
The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire complains about the need to upgrade the A40, but as I speak, a completely new section is being upgraded. Admittedly, it is not a dual carriageway, but unfortunately, the traffic flows do not require one. I would have loved to see a dual carriageway there, but I am a pragmatist. We get what we can afford, and unfortunately, we do not have the resources to dual that section of the A40.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the port of Holyhead is now linked via the A55 all the way to Chester, but for a period in the 1980s, it stopped on the Anglesey side of the bridge—it was not completed by the Conservatives owing to a lack of money. It took a new Government to deal with that, albeit under the private finance initiative, which I was uncomfortable with, but we now have a completed A55. It is therefore a little rich for Conservatives to say that they are all for linking ports by dualling roads, when they had 18 years to do so but failed.
Indeed. My hon. Friend makes his point very well.
We can be incredibly proud of what we have achieved in the past 12 years or so. We have seen real improvements in the quality of the services that are provided to our constituents, including in health and education, and we have been able to encourage employment. That we have maintained relatively low interest rates has been a huge assistance to small businesses. Back in the 1990s, interest rates were 15 per cent., and mortgage rates were even higher, which had a huge impact on our constituents’ quality of life and the viability of businesses. There has been a big change, and we ought to be honest with ourselves about that.
The deficit that we face is clearly a major issue. As a member of the Treasury Committee, I have heard of the effects and causes of the global recession in individual economies in the United States—which the Committee visited a couple of weeks ago—Frankfurt, Austria and Hungary. There was a common theme. Countries throughout the world recognise, thank goodness, that at the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there was co-ordinated action, which was led, I must say, by our own Prime Minister. The major part he played in forming a consensus and driving through the necessary action is acknowledged around the world. The good news is that the world responded in a co-ordinated way, and that we did not enter a serious depression, which we easily could have done. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, banks could have closed, and people might not have been able to withdraw their deposits, or get cash from cash machines. That was the reality we faced in autumn 2008, but co-ordinated global action prevented those things from happening.
There are two reasons for that, the first of which I have raised before in the House. Because of the crisis that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers, it is not recognised to the extent it should be that from late 2007 to mid-2008—less than a year—we had the biggest spike in energy prices the world has ever seen. Oil went from around $70 a barrel to nearly $150 a barrel, which was unprecedented. That had a serious impact, as did the rises in commodity prices for food, other forms of energy and materials such as metals. Following that serious global problem, and building on it, came the credit crunch and the global banking crisis. We must tackle that issue. We must try to prevent the commodity exchanges getting out of control as they did. There is something wrong when the Governor of the Bank of England writes to the Chancellor to inform him that the consumer prices index has risen to 3.5 per cent. and one of the three reasons he gives is that oil prices went up by 70 per cent. in 2009—during the deepest recession that we have seen. Energy prices should have been falling as demand was falling. Oil prices should have been falling or at least not reached their current level.
We need to tackle this problem globally and have complete transparency on the commodity exchanges so that we do not have the speculative activity that has caused that particular problem. The good news is that the US and other countries consider this to be a major issue and the IMF is also looking at it. It will take co-ordinated global action.
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) mentioned the RBS bonuses, and said that only those earning less than £39,000 would receive a bonus—
Well, the Lobby briefing was wrong then. Those earning less than £39,000 will receive their bonus in cash. Those earning more will receive their substantial bonuses in the form of shares paid over three years, but if their performance over that time is deemed to have fallen off, the bonus will be clawed back. The overall performance of the institution will also be taken into account.
Those arrangements are in line with the G20 recommendations. However, the bonus culture has to change. There is a massive disconnect between the financial services industry and the rest of the real economy. People stand aghast when institutions that have caused them personally to lose their jobs, see their businesses close and, in certain circumstances, lose their homes, still have a culture of so-called performance-related pay, with massive bonuses, the like of which is not replicated in any other industry. If someone is paid £250,000 or £500,000 and their wages are doubled, tripled or even quadrupled, I cannot see how they can work any harder. There are only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week. I cannot see how these huge alleged incentives can actually act as any incentive at all.