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St David’s Day

Volume 524: debated on Wednesday 2 March 2011

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to debate the designation of St David’s day as a public holiday. It is also a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to belatedly wish everybody a happy St David’s day, or dydd gwyl Dewi hapus.

There have been many mentions of a St David’s day public holiday over the years, but this is the first time in my five years in this place that we have had a debate, albeit a short one, devoted wholly to the subject. This year, I hope that the celebrations in Wales will be much bigger. We celebrated St David’s day yesterday, but we will also vote tomorrow on whether the Assembly should be granted extended law-making powers, and it would be an added cause for celebration this week if, as I hope, we achieve a yes vote.

On that very point, and on the eve of an historic referendum that could give the Welsh Assembly defining legislative powers, does my hon. Friend think that it would be good for the organisation of public holidays in Wales to be within the competence of the Welsh Assembly Government?

My hon. Friend pre-empts my next line. Even with those powers—assuming we are successful in the referendum—the Welsh Assembly Government would be unable to designate St David’s day as a public holiday without the approval of the Westminster Government. A positive response by the Minister today could form part of a memorable Welsh treble, even if the triple crown will, sadly, remain elusive this year.

St David, or Dewi Sant, was renowned for his inspirational qualities as a monk, abbot and bishop. He is renowned for his achievements in spreading Christianity throughout western Britain and among the pagan Celtic tribes that resided there. He was the archbishop of Wales, and his fundamental importance to the establishment of religion in Wales cannot be underestimated. Colleagues in the Chamber will know that and they will understand that those traditions are as important in their constituencies as they are in mine.

St David had particular links with my constituency. He was the grandson of King Ceredig, the founder of Ceredigion. Dewi’s mother, Non—herself reputedly related to King Arthur—was born in the village of Llanon in my constituency and, indeed, gives her name to that village, whose name literally means “parish of Non”. St David was educated at the Henfynyw monastery near the newer village of Ffos-y-ffin, in the middle of Ceredigion.

St David’s day is already an extremely popular occasion for those inside and outside Wales. Yesterday, we had a fantastic service a few paces from this Chamber, and it was good to see the Speaker, the Secretary of State and all the political parties there honouring St David. It was especially good to see the children of the London Welsh school, who, through their dress and their singing for us, showed how vibrant our traditions are. Back home, there were eisteddfodau, a gymanfa ganu and a range of celebratory dinners. There was the legendary cawl. Even Google paid its tribute to Wales’s patron saint. However, we could and should make more of the opportunities with which St David’s day presents us.

I should congratulate the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who introduced a ten-minute rule Bill on designating St George’s day as a public holiday before Christmas. In the debate on his Bill, he mentioned the case for a St. David’s day public day. I am not pushing the case for a St George’s day public holiday, although I am sure there is much support for that in England. My key concern is that a St David’s day public holiday should be a matter for the Welsh Assembly. It is a matter for Wales, it affects Wales uniquely and the decision should rest with the National Assembly.

Has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to border constituencies such as mine? Many of my constituents live in Flintshire, but work for the police, the local council and other agencies in Chester. Many people on the English side of the border, where there is a similar crossover, work in my constituency at the Airbus plant and other plants. What consideration has the hon. Gentleman given to that issue? It should be considered by this Parliament and, potentially, the Assembly.

I understand that point. Although the balance would still be in favour of the National Assembly making the decision, I well understand that transition and flow of people as someone who used to teach in the borders in Powys. Such things mean that people across the border in England are very interested in St David’s day and want to participate in the activities that I mentioned.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing time for the debate. Following on from what he said, I should say that I have been a Member for nearly 20 years, and a St David’s day holiday has been argued for more or less every other year. If the issue remains within Westminster’s powers, nothing will happen. However, things are moving, and the Welsh Assembly should make the decision. This is a matter of great pride. Dewi Sant said that we should be careful to address the small things, but we are not necessarily talking about a small thing; indeed, it is a matter of national pride. Indeed, we are holding this meeting across the way from the Supreme Court, where y ddraig goch was flying for the first time yesterday. The hon. Gentleman is right: this is a timely debate, and I wish him well with his efforts.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. The important message that will, I hope, be heard—certainly in the National Assembly—is that there is wide cross-party support on this issue. As I will explain, all four parties passed a unanimous motion within a year of the National Assembly’s creation calling for a public holiday on St David’s day.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I understand his arguments about the Assembly making the decision, but I represent a constituency that is very dependent on tourism, and businesses there have expressed concern that a bank holiday that is not coterminous with those in, for example, the north-west of England, where so many of our tourists come from, would not give us the economic boost that some of those arguing for this proposal claim it would. That is one of my concerns about a decision being made without any reference to decisions in England.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will come on to some of the concerns that have been raised. I just cite the Welsh Tourism Alliance—I am sure it has as much of an interest in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as it does in many other constituencies in Wales—which supports this move and sees huge opportunities for tourism in particular.

Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), is the hon. Gentleman arguing that St David’s day should be an additional public holiday or that it should replace an existing public holiday?

The Minister will have the chance to reply to my speech in a minute. However, I would point out that this country compares very favourably with others in the world when it comes to public holidays. We have eight public holidays, which is on a par with Australia and the Netherlands. I appreciate the sensitivities about this issue, and there is added sensitivity this year, of course, because of the welcome news of the royal engagement, which means that there will be a public holiday on the Friday, with another the following Monday. However, my cause in this debate is to argue the case for the National Assembly to make a decision about St David’s day on the basis of a full consultation—the precedent was set in Scotland—on the issues and the concerns of business people. The decision should reside with the National Assembly.

There is also considerable public support. BBC Wales commissioned a survey for St David’s day in 2006, which found that 87% of respondents supported the idea of a public holiday for St David’s day, which is perhaps not a surprise. I acknowledge that concern has been expressed by some parts of the business community, but there is generally a good deal of support for this proposal.

As I said, there was a unanimous vote in the early days of the Assembly in 2000 for St David’s day to be a public holiday in Wales, reflecting support for the proposal. Unfortunately, that proposal was not taken forward, and it was explicitly rejected in 2000 by the then Labour Government, who ruled out introducing it unless it was explicitly supported by business. That was disappointing, but, as a result of this debate, I hope that the Government will be willing to discuss the matter with Welsh Ministers in a reasonable manner—something the Minister always does in these debates—and in the spirit of the respect agenda that they rightly hold as their overriding principle in their dealings with the devolved Administrations. I hope that the outcome of the debate will be that the door is open for the Assembly—perhaps the new Assembly after the elections in May—to engage in dialogue with the Westminster Government on this matter and, as the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) said, advance it for next year.

There are some good precedents and the Scottish Government have made St David’s day a public holiday. [Hon. Members: “St. Andrew’s day.”] I am sorry; they have made St Andrew’s Day a public holiday, passing legislation after detailed consultation. However, banks are not required to close and employees are not entitled to the day off, but rather companies can choose whether or not to observe the public holiday, which is either on the day itself or the following Monday if it falls on a weekend. There have recently been calls in the Scottish Parliament for more public bodies and organisations to recognise the holiday, and it seems to have been a popular move but, critically, the debate is happening in Scotland. When the original proposal was made by the MSP Dennis Canavan, his consultation indicated 85% support from the public.

The Scottish Government took a very detailed look at the economic costs and benefits, the level of support from the public and the relationship between holidays and employment and productivity. I am loth as a devolutionist to give advice to the Welsh Assembly Government, but I hope that they would, if given the power to decide on the matter, examine the Scottish model closely, building on the considerable work that has already been done to consider the advantages and disadvantages of a public holiday.

St Patrick’s day became a public holiday in Ireland in 1903. It was granted by an Act of Parliament introduced by the Irish MP James O’Mara. St Patrick’s day remains perhaps the best example of a country using a public holiday to its advantage. It has built Ireland’s profile throughout the world, encouraged many more visitors, and provided a significant boost to the Irish economy. The St Patrick’s festival alone was estimated to have contributed €50.5 million to the Irish economy in 2010, €43.7 million of which came from overseas visitors. I do not necessarily claim that a St David’s day holiday would lead to similar encouraging revenues as St Patrick’s Day, but there are relatively few opportunities for a small country to publicise itself. A national St David’s Day and the boost from a public holiday would really help to put Wales on the map, particularly in the tourism sector to which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) alluded in an intervention. It would also be an opportunity for a more prominent celebration for the Welsh diaspora which, although not as vocal as the global Irish community, is well established across the world. Anything that makes people look at their roots and ancestry, and perhaps even plan a visit to their homeland with their wallets, would be encouraging and welcome.

I understand the concerns of some in the business community. I do not mean the one-man bands, but what one of my constituents called the two or three-man and woman bands—the businesses that dominate much of rural Wales. It is vital to take into account the views of the business community, and I would expect the Welsh Assembly Government to consult the business community and work out the best way to advance the proposal. Even with established bank holidays, there is no automatic right to time off, and businesses can, if they wish, include bank holidays within the statutory holiday allowance. The Scottish Government have set up St Andrew’s day as a voluntary public holiday, with many businesses choosing to observe it as a holiday. I should like us to consider the Scottish model, but it is a matter for the National Assembly.

I want to stress the positive benefits that a St David’s day holiday would bring to Wales and the Welsh economy. The Wales Tourism Alliance supports the idea and has highlighted the benefits: a day when we can show off our culture, heritage and language, among other facets of the country, would be an important shop window for Wales and an encouragement to tourism operatives. As well as the obvious benefits to be gained for tourism from a St David’s day public holiday, it would be an opportunity to showcase Welsh products. To take the food sector as an example, when I became an MP I was able to initiate a Welsh cheese week at Westminster. It might sound like a small thing, but we have excellent cheese producers in rural Wales. We ensured that two cheeses from Ceredigion, Gorwydd Caerphilly and Celtic Promise, were served in this place. The initiative attracted some publicity for the excellence of the products. The following year, the cheeses returned and were joined by Golden Valley ale from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams). I do not know how much of a direct impact that had, but the promotion of excellent Welsh produce is crucial, and a St David’s day public holiday is another opportunity to promote Wales at its best.

For all the concern about the impact of public holidays on the economy—and I respect those concerns—we still have, with eight public holidays, among the fewest of any country in the world. We are level with Australia and the Netherlands and have half the number in Japan and India. In the past, some have suggested that there is a link between a high number of public holidays and a high unemployment rate. The Scottish Parliament information centre did research and looked into those claims during the consultation on St Andrew’s day, and found no obvious correlation between unemployment and the number of public holidays that a country has within the EU.

I hope that the Minister can provide a positive response and that he will argue that the decision should rest with the National Assembly, which would be right. I hope at the very least he will adopt an open-door policy for discussion of the matter with colleagues in the National Assembly, so that we can finally move forward with the decision on whether St David’s Day should be a public holiday in Wales. I will certainly support the campaign.

I shall finish with Dewi Sant’s last words to his followers in a sermon given on the Sunday before he died. Rhygyfarch translates them as

“Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed.”

As the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, who is familiar with the quotation, as many people are, said, the passage continues:

“Do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.”

“Do the little things” or “Gwnewch y pethau bychain” has become a well-known phrase in Welsh, and I hope that the Minister can give us an indication that he plans to do what I consider is a little thing: offering the Welsh Assembly the opportunity to designate St David’s Day as a public holiday. It would be a little thing but would have huge significance back home and bring huge opportunities for the future of Wales.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) on securing the debate, and on very nearly securing it on St David’s day itself, missing by only 24 hours.

My hon. Friend is of course entirely right: St David’s day is hugely important to the people of Wales. He was also right to stress the importance of children in the event, because St David’s day would be nothing without them. All of us who were brought up in Wales will know what a magical day it is for schoolchildren and I am sure we all participated in school eisteddfodau. I remember learning, as a small boy, “Y Cudyll Coch” by I. D. Hooson, and reciting it—to no great success: nevertheless, recite it I did. Right across Wales St David’s day is recognised, and as my hon. Friend said it is not only the focus of school eisteddfods but the occasion for celebratory dinners. Indeed, it is already a day on which there is much celebration, when the Welsh people celebrate their unique culture, language and way of life.

Recognising as I do the importance of St David’s day, it is somewhat sad for me to have to strike the cautionary tone that I think my hon. Friend expected when he made his impassioned speech. My caution is of course that a public holiday on St David’s day, attractive as it would no doubt be, nevertheless would not be without any cost at all. In fact, there would be a considerable economic cost. In the current straitened economic climate, responsible Governments need to bear that in mind.

The economic point is important, but there would also be a cost for the social impact of St David’s day in schools and so on. Not every child in Wales gets the opportunity to celebrate St David’s day at home, whereas almost every child invariably gets the opportunity to celebrate our patron saint in schools and at concerts. Parents take great pride in preparing their children. Between us, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) and I have nine children, and I am sure that his four children and my five all celebrated St David’s day at school yesterday. I believe that there would be a cost if that was lost to communities in Wales.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier, children and St David’s day go hand in hand. School eisteddfods are tremendously important to the culture of Wales, and the St David’s day eisteddfods are a well-established tradition that I would not wish to see disturbed.

On the back of the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy, my four children will be taking part in our school eisteddfod, in ysgol Craig yr Wylfa, but that will be on Friday morning. It is not necessary to hold school eisteddfods on the day itself. Such school events are critical to the future of St David’s day, and they will happen regardless of whether it is a public holiday.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. As I said earlier, St David’s day itself is a magical day in Wales, and the eisteddfods held on St David’s day are equally magical. I, for one, would be rather sad to see the magic of the day lost. However, as my hon. Friend said, it is a matter upon which Parliament will shortly be able to vote, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) is promoting a private Member’s Bill that would create bank holidays on St David’s day and St George’s day. That Bill received its First Reading on 15 December and will have its Second Reading on 13 May. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion will participate in that debate. The Government will make their position on that Bill known in due course.

I return to more hard-headed matters and the unfortunate subject of cost. Bank holidays have an economic impact. A bank holiday across the country would cost in the region of £3 billion in lost wages, on the basis that everyone would be paid for an extra day’s work. Pro rata, the cost in Wales would be £138 million. Of course, we cannot take Wales in isolation because, as the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) pointed out, it will have an impact across the border. That is another factor that will have to be taken into consideration. Frankly, the right hon. Gentleman was entirely right to say that having a bank holiday on St David’s day should be a matter for the House.

The biggest employer in my area is Airbus; it employs about 7,000 people, and I expect that half of them live in England. That would create a dilemma. It could be overcome, but it would still need to be considered—and not only by the Welsh Assembly.

The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right. For that reason if for no other, it is a matter that properly resides with Parliament.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion made mention of tourism. The Government have received a number of calls from the tourism industry to consider spreading the United Kingdom’s bank holidays across the year. Evidence shows that when the Easter holiday falls close to the May day bank holiday, as it does this year, it does not promote the even spread of tourism across the calendar. This year is somewhat unusual because we also have a special bank holiday for the royal wedding. The Government have given those representations careful consideration, and I am sure that the House will be interested to hear that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is working on a new UK-wide tourism strategy, which is likely to include a proposal to consult on moving the May day bank holiday to another point in the year.

I asked the hon. Gentleman whether it was his vision to have an additional bank holiday or whether an existing bank holiday should be moved. If an existing bank holiday was to be moved, we suggest that it would be appropriate to move the early May bank holiday. That would not create a new bank holiday, but there will be consultation on whether it should be moved—for example, to St David’s day. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that there had been representations from groups within the Welsh Assembly that St David’s day should be a bank holiday. That would be an excellent opportunity for those groups and others such as the Welsh Tourism Alliance to make representations to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The Minister puts great emphasis on the economic considerations that need to be taken into account. In weighing those considerations, would it not be good also to weigh the spiritual consideration that it would be a good time for the nation to contemplate the life of our great saint? That might lead to greater individual benefits in the longer term rather than economic ones in the short term.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting argument, and he can put it forward during the DCMS consultation. I am sure that the Department will listen carefully to his spiritual arguments. The Government are not closing their mind to a holiday on St David’s day.

I welcome the tone of what the Minister says. Although many people will be baffled that the Welsh Assembly is not in a position to make the decision, the encouraging news that the consultation is to take place, and the expectation that the Welsh Assembly Government will participate in it, is most welcome.

I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes my remarks. Perhaps we have achieved something this morning.

My hon. Friend spoke of the life of St David. It is probably fair for me to conclude by pointing out that St David was noted for his ascetic life. It is said that he was sustained by a simple diet of bread and herbs and drank nothing but water—hence his being called Dewi Ddyfrwr, or David the water drinker. He is also reputed to have been in the habit of standing neck-deep in cold water, reciting from the scriptures. It is most unlikely that St David ever took a day’s holiday.

Sitting suspended.