I beg to move,
That this House has considered Welsh affairs.
It is important to have a Welsh debate in the House of Commons. As you will know, Mr Speaker, when one goes into Central Lobby, one is surrounded by four large arches. The arch that leads to the House of Commons has St David on it. It is therefore appropriate that we are having our St David’s day debate in the House of Commons this year.
Although time is a bit tight, I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate. I make a plea to the Government and to their successors—I hope that there is a Government of a different colour in 2015—to reinstate a Welsh affairs debate in Government time, because post-devolution, there are many important matters that Welsh Members wish to debate. Many of those are cross-border issues, many concern reserved powers and many reach us as individual Members of Parliament in our constituency surgeries and when we make visits in the constituency. This is a traditional debate that goes back many decades.
I believe Wales to be an integral part of the United Kingdom, and I hope that it will remain so for many decades and centuries. I speak in this debate, as will many Members, as a Welsh patriot—an outward-looking Welsh patriot. I make no apology for being pro-Welsh, pro-British and pro-European Union. Above all, I am pro-Anglesey. I am proud to represent the island community of Ynys Môn, the mother of Wales, in this, the mother of all Parliaments. I see no contradiction in being pro-Welsh, pro-British and pro-European Union. I feel no less Welsh by being pro-United Kingdom and no less British by being pro-European Union.
It is in that context that I want to make my opening remarks, particularly as this Parliament has been preoccupied with separation and divorce. I am speaking, of course, of the Scottish debate about independence, which has been pushed by the nationalist agenda. I am also speaking about the separatists on the Conservative Back Benches, who have been pushing for exit from the European Union. Indeed, they are the tail that has wagged the Conservative dog throughout most of this Parliament, with the Prime Minister trying to steer a very—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) want to intervene? He is making remarks from a sedentary position.
I accept that those are legitimate debates to have in this House and in this democratic society. Nevertheless, I believe, as I am sure do many Members, that those debates are causing instability in the United Kingdom and in the European Union. I believe that to be bad for business and bad for our economies, whether local, regional or national. We heard just today that businesses in Scotland are concerned about the instability that is being caused by those debates and the movements towards separation and divorce.
The head of Shell has warned quite clearly that the talk of separation is causing a lack of the stability and clarity that businesses need in order to invest. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) says “Dutch” from a sedentary position. I worked as a British merchant seaman and many people from Wales work on British vessels. We are proud to serve under the red ensign as British seamen, bringing many pounds to the local economies throughout Wales.
Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House what the credit agency Standard & Poor’s recently said about the finances of an independent Scotland, and about its take on the current finances of the British state?
I will make my own speech. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make such points—[Interruption.] He can laugh, but I do not speak for the Scottish National party, and I certainly do not speak with a nationalist agenda. That is the point I am making, and I will make my own speech in my own way. The hon. Gentleman prompts me, however, to mention local independent polls from Wales and the United Kingdom, which claim that some 5% of the population of Wales want an independent Wales, and separation and divorce from the United Kingdom. The question was asked because of Scottish independence, and I accept that the figure rises to 7% if Scotland were to have independence. I make that remark because I feel it is important for the 95% who want to remain in the United Kingdom to have their voices raised in this House in a proud and co-operative way.
I do not know who the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but when I speak to chief executive officers of international companies, they say in private that they want stability in the United Kingdom so that they can invest in it—in all parts of it. I referred to the European Union and I am consistent on this issue. Businesses have been telling me in public, in private, and in Select Committees, that they want stability to make those huge investments to help the economies of the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and he puts the issue to bed. We are not just talking about foreign individuals who may be chief executives of companies; we are talking about skilled, well-paid jobs and investment that will boost the economies of Deeside, Bristol and other parts of the United Kingdom. Business leaders at events with Airbus that I have attended have been clear that they are investing in Europe. That is why they want to invest in the United Kingdom, and they choose Deeside because it has an excellent skilled work force. I want that to continue and for many other parts of Wales and the United Kingdom to benefit from that as well.
The Welsh dimension to the constitutional debate in this Parliament has concentrated on the Silk commission, but I am being honest with hon. Members when I say that not one constituent has raised that with me as an important or pertinent issue for them. They do, however, raise important issues about public services and the cost of living, and they talk about international affairs—we had an excellent debate on women in Afghanistan today. People send us here to talk about real issues that affect them.
I speak as a proud pro-devolutionist and I supported devolution in 1979. Many fellow travellers have come along since that time, including the Labour party. To me, however, real devolution is about empowering people throughout our country. It is not about the simple transfer of powers from one institution in Whitehall to another in Cardiff Bay; to me it is about empowering people in Cemaes bay in my constituency, and in Colwyn bay, Cardigan bay, and many other parts of Wales. It is not just about the boring constitutional issues that we, the political elite, are bogged down with and a few commentators are talking about.
I want to talk about the real issue of developing a stable and growing economy in Wales as part of the United Kingdom and the European Union, and I will mention two things that affect businesses and people in my constituency: energy and tourism.
On energy, I very much welcome the fact that we are getting a consensus on the big energy issues, for reasons that I gave earlier including the stability that businesses crave so that they can make huge investments in the future. I welcome the Secretary of State’s support for Wylfa Newydd and his conversion to offshore wind. I shall put this mildly because I want the consensus to continue, but when the Secretary of State worked alongside me on the Welsh Affairs Committee I recall him being concerned about the consents under the previous Government. He now backs those schemes and even claims credit for them as the flagship of the coalition Government.
I take that point, and the Secretary of State may now find that an attractive view from his window, but at one time he did not want it to go ahead. He would not have been able to see it from his window, nor would he have been able to meet many of the targets that we are making progress towards in a low-carbon economy. I have always thought that offshore wind has a great future, although I am a little less certain about onshore wind, because of the sheer size of some of the turbines.
Given that offshore wind normally needs a strike price of about £150 per megawatt-hour, is the hon. Gentleman as happy to argue that people should be willing to pay more for their electricity as he is to argue for those wind farms to be built?
We need a mix. We need a base load and we need variable energy. If we do not have interconnectors and we are producing too much energy in the summer, when peak demand is less, we cannot switch off nuclear power stations and it is expensive to switch off gas. It is easier to switch off variable supplies such as renewables can provide, including wind. There is an initial cost, but those costs are coming down, and I believe that with economies of scale—as with the strike price for nuclear or for any other renewable—the price will decrease as the sector matures. In the long term, bills will be cheaper if we get a steady supply of low carbon energy.
Nuclear power is also part of the mix. I welcome the conversion of the Secretary of State to wind power and the conversion of the Liberal Democrats to nuclear power. I hope that that means that the three larger parties, two of which form the Government now and one of which I hope will form the next Government, will be consistent in the future.
It is up to Plaid Cymru to defend itself. As I have been provoked into raising the issue, I will say that it is important that all the larger parties here and the larger parties in the Assembly—of which Plaid Cymru is one—show their support. In my opinion, a party cannot claim to be in full support of a technology if its leader says that she wants an energy future without nuclear power. The leader of a party cannot say that to business leaders and then say that she supports the jobs. We need to support the development of the technology. On Plaid Cymru’s website, which I get little notes about occasionally, the energy spokesperson says that it wants 100% renewable energy by 2035—there is no mention of nuclear. That is a clear indication that Plaid Cymru opposes nuclear as part of the energy mix in the future. That will be an issue for the general election as we make progress on the building of Wylfa Newydd. I hope that that answers the Secretary of State’s intervention.
The hon. Gentleman says, “Tag team!”, and I will come to that issue in a moment.
Yesterday, I and other Members of Parliament held an event on Britain’s nuclear future. None of the Plaid Cymru Members came, but it was attended by apprentices and graduates from Wales, who have jobs on the Wylfa site. The Welsh Government, the local authority and the UK Government have put aside moneys to train young people, giving them the opportunity to have a quality job. This policy, which is supported by parties in this House, will enhance local economies. It will benefit my area socially and culturally, as it has done for some 40 years.
The hon. Gentleman is always kind when somebody seeks to intervene. Energy is a contentious issue, and there are divisions within all parties on every aspect of energy policy. For instance, how would he be responding if the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) was in his place this afternoon?
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West and I do not agree on nuclear power, but I will tell the hon. Gentleman who does agree: the Labour leader in the authority in my constituency, the Labour First Minister of Wales and the Leader of the Opposition, who was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. The Labour party has continuity, with party leaders proudly saying what its policy is. The leader of Plaid Cymru does not support this policy, but expects the people in my area to vote for it, which is disingenuous and wrong. Energy is a big issue in general election campaigns. Of course there are individuals, but we expect leaders to provide leadership and clarity not just for the country but for investment.
The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) has come in and is speaking rather loudly. Does he want to intervene?
I was not planning to intervene, but I understand that Labour has some difficulty regarding further powers for Wales. The Scottish Parliament is not very powerful. Why would the hon. Gentleman not want the Welsh Assembly to be at least as powerful as the Scottish Parliament is today?
I have made no comment on that. The hon. Gentleman does not understand that I have been supporting devolution since 1979. I believe in a devolved Administration, but the issue is not about more powers. If he had been in the Chamber earlier, he would have heard me say that people do not raise the issue of more powers with me as a constituency MP.
I am not giving way again, because the hon. Gentleman was not here earlier. He was speaking loudly and that is why I let him intervene, but I need to finish my remarks. If he had been in earlier, he would have heard exactly what I said.
As a pro-devolutionist who goes further than my party on many issues—[Interruption.] A pro-devolutionist is someone who believes that powers should be devolved not just to Administrations, such as those in Edinburgh or Cardiff, but to the people in their local area. I do not believe that many people want independence. That is what the polls tell me. I think we will move towards the Scottish Parliament model when the people of Wales require it, and I will be arguing for those powers at that time. The powers that people want now are economic: they want to improve their cost of living. That is the debate we had when the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar was not here.
On energy, we need continuity. The young people I met yesterday are Britain’s future. They are Wales’s future and they are my constituency’s future, too. They will get high-paid, quality jobs by working in the nuclear industry. They are the model young Welsh Europeans of the future and they want a stake in that future. They are proud to be Welsh. One of them is going to Twickenham on Sunday, where he will be supporting the Welsh team in its efforts to regain the Six Nations championship. They are proud Welsh people who are proud to be part of the United Kingdom. That is who I meet on a day-to-day basis, and that is who I have come here to represent.
North Wales MPs met Centrica this week, which will be making a substantial investment in offshore wind. We need to encourage that. I make a plea to the Secretary of State that, along with north Wales MPs, he makes the strong argument that the benefits go not to other parts of the United Kingdom, but to close by north Wales. We have the port facilities and the skilled labour force to retain thousands of quality jobs in our region and it is very important that we do so. The port of Holyhead needs investment, but unfortunately Stena is concentrating on the wrong things. It is talking about cutting the wages and conditions of crews when it should be investing in the port so that it can fulfil its potential and secure the extra business that will create thousands of quality jobs in the future. I hope that the Secretary of State will meet me so that we can speak with one voice on that issue.
I want to say a little about tourism. Wales as a product is of an international standard, but we are competing against the rest of the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. Let me again issue a plea to the Secretary of State and the Government. Our near neighbours, the Republic of Ireland and France, have cut the rate of value added tax to boost and stimulate the economy—
No, I will not give way again.
Ireland and France have done that for a very good reason: they have done it because business has been asking them to do it. There is no reason why any part of the United Kingdom could not benefit from a cut in VAT. An application could be made to reduce it, and that would stimulate the economy.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that VAT on tourism should be reduced, as indeed should VAT on building, renovations and repairs. In 2008, ECOFIN decided to allow countries to reduce VAT to 5%. What did the Labour Government do about that from 2008 onwards?
No request was made to me. If it had been, I would have lobbied for such a reduction. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. However, I have found—and I am sure that he will agree with me about this—that the hike in VAT to 20% has had a negative effect on spending in many areas. Local businesses tell me that. Hon. Members should not listen to what I am saying; listen to them. There is a good campaign across the United Kingdom for a cut in VAT on tourism.
One leading business person told me that whenever he takes his partner, son-in-law and daughter out for a drink, he has to take the Chancellor of the Exchequer with him, because 20% of the bill goes to the Treasury. That cannot be right. Other European Union member states are enjoying a VAT reduction, and have benefited from hundreds of thousands of extra jobs and from investment in tourism.
I certainly did not abstain on any vote on this. I have been in favour of reducing VAT. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) may smirk, but businesses in his constituency have contacted me about this very issue. Either he wants to make knockabout party points, or he wants to stand up for businesses in his area. Unlike him, I voted against raising VAT, because I believe that it is a regressive tax which cuts business investment. When the Government talk about reducing taxes, they forget that they have hiked up value added tax. The businesses of this country are raising that issue with me, which is why I think it legitimate for me to raise it here today.
I want people to come to Wales to work, to live and to visit. I want home-grown businesses to grow and flourish, welcoming the investment that we receive from the rest of the United Kingdom, the rest of the European Union and the rest of the world. I want Wales to become the place in which to do business. I want it to be a destination, and I want its young people to flourish in the future. That will happen if we are pro-Welsh economy, pro-Britain, pro-Europe and pro-business.
I agreed with many of the things the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said, although I disagreed in certain important respects. I agree that of course it is possible to be proud to be Welsh, proud to be British and at the same time proud to be European, but when I say I am proud to be European, I mean I am proud to be part of the Europe that gave us the renaissance and the enlightenment values that have spread democracy over all the world and which people across the world look up to—[Interruption.] Yes, even if they do not seem to be following them in some parts of the world. What I am not proud of, however, is the European Union, because that is an entirely artificial construct which is completely undemocratic and, in the manner in which it goes about its business, is going against the values that Europe has given us over many hundreds of years. But I am, of course, proud to be Welsh and proud to be British.
Being proud to be Welsh does not mean having to give absolute support to the Welsh Assembly and to support giving it extra powers every couple of years, which is what seems to be happening at the moment. I sometimes wish I was as good at being able to predict the movement of the stock market as I am at being able to predict what is going to happen whenever somebody sets up a body to look at giving more powers to the Welsh Assembly. As I made clear in a Welsh Affairs Committee meeting, it was obvious from the start—before Mr Silk, who I admire personally, although I suspect I disagree with him politically on many things, traversed Wales, speaking at empty village halls the length and breadth of the nation—what was going to happen: at the end of the process, Mr Silk was simply going to recommend giving yet another tranche of powers to the Welsh Assembly, which is exactly what has happened.
Does the hon. Gentleman see any benefit for the Welsh tourism industry if the Welsh Assembly or a Parliament in Wales had powers over VAT? Could it cut VAT to compete with independent nations such as Ireland or France, which were cited by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)? Is it not bizarre to complain about something and then not want the power to do anything about it?
No, I think that, as people on different sides of the political fence recognise, great difficulties would be caused if, in an area where most people live along the border, one side cut VAT while the other kept it at the original level. That differential would create enormous economic problems. What I would be interested in doing is looking at the economic case for a cut in VAT for tourism across the whole of the United Kingdom, or at least across all those bits that wish to remain in the United Kingdom, and retain the benefits that come from that.
When we consider what the Assembly has actually managed to achieve, we should be very cautious about giving it further powers, particularly over policing, which is what is being discussed as a result of Silk 2. Let us consider the areas where the Welsh Assembly already has complete powers, such as inward investment. Inward investment has been a disaster over the years since the Assembly was set up. We went from being one of the most successful regions of the United Kingdom in attracting foreign inward investment to being the second lowest region. There are a number of reasons for that, many of which we heard when the Select Committee investigated this issue. We heard stories about people who were set up in so-called embassies in other parts of the world but could not even speak the language of the country they were supposed to be selling Wales to, and people who were not seen or heard of. We heard stories from Brussels that, while Scotland—to be fair—and Yorkshire and other regions of the United Kingdom had been very successful in raising their profile, nobody had ever heard of anyone from Wales. At the same time we have had problems with education, which is an important factor when companies decide where to locate. I believe there is also an issue with energy, which the hon. Member for Ynys Môn also mentioned and which I shall come back to shortly. Certainly, however, the record on inward investment has been a complete and utter disaster.
Education is now a story not just for the Welsh papers, but for the national papers. The PISA—programme for international student assessment—results were a disaster for those of us who have children in the state education system, as I do, and I went through it myself in Wales in the 1980s. The latest GCSE results for English came out today. I quickly looked at them on the BBC website and apparently they are much worse than expected, although the Welsh Assembly is once again quick to try to distance itself from the poor results.
I believe there is a particular problem, which was summed up by Lee Waters. He worked, I believe, for a number of Labour Ministers in the Welsh Assembly. He is a man of many qualities, but not voting Conservative is not one of them; it is a shame that he does not. He hit the nail on the head today in an article in The Times when he wrote about the fact that the Welsh Assembly was deliberately trying to do things differently in areas where it had the power just because it could—not because it could do a better job, but simply to try to show that it was not going to follow what England does.
Ministers might not like me saying this, but if we compare what has gone on in England with what has gone on in Wales, we can see that the English education reforms have simply built on the reforms that Tony Blair put in place but was unable to carry out. I read his memoirs with great interest, and I was struck by the way in which his health and education policies were reflected almost exactly in the policies that were in the Conservative manifesto. It is therefore quite bizarre that Labour subsequently attacked our policies so vigorously, given that the ideas came from Labour itself.
I very much welcome that, of course. It is not particularly surprising, however, because reforms such as the introduction of academies, the use of the private sector and the better use of inspections were all being suggested by Tony Blair. He started to implement them under Andrew Adonis but, for one reason or another, was unable to complete them. It is not in the least bit surprising that Labour Members now recognise that we have built on their reforms, and extended and widened them a little. Why would they want to go back on them? The problem is that we have two Labour parties in the United Kingdom. In England, we have a sort of new Labour, which to some extent recognises the need to deal with business and the private sector, if only so that it can get taxes off them in order to spend them. In Wales, we have a kind of old Labour, red in tooth and claw, that still has not woken up to the fact that the 1970s finished about 40 years ago.
There are certainly differences. I will speak for myself, and others may follow. I think I am right in offering my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman. Has he recently had a child? He is looking a bit worried—perhaps it was someone further along the Opposition Benches. [Interruption.] I am told that it was actually the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). My congratulations to him. He, too, will no doubt be experiencing the state education sector in Wales shortly.
My recommendation is that we look at what has gone wrong in that sector. There are not enough schools inspections, and far too much notice is given of those that are taking place. That practice has been done away with in England. I worked with the police for many years, as Members know. We could not have a situation in which a policy custody unit was told weeks in advance that it was going to be inspected; people just turned up and did it. That is how it should be with schools, and with hospitals. That is not what is happening in Wales, however.
I have been told by head teachers, and by schools improvement officers, that it is difficult for people to go in and assess how a teacher is doing in a classroom because the unions do not like it. Similarly, the unions do not like league tests, or testing of any other sort, and they are making it very difficult for people to go in and make the kind of changes that are required.
I spent 12 years working in the classroom, and I am still a paid-up member of a teaching trade union. My experience of the unions is that they were certainly not obstacles to the inspection regime. I want to probe the hon. Gentleman a little further on the question of education in Wales. What does he see as the main explanation for those PISA results, and for the failings in English literacy and mathematics in particular? Will he tell us what the main failings are that he has identified, rather than giving us the kind of jargon that he was articulating just now?
I do not think that I was using jargon; I was spelling it out in fairly simple English. But okay, I will give the hon. Gentleman a list of things. First, I am told that it is difficult for head teachers to go in and assess teachers. They are allowed to do it only a couple of times a year, and they cannot simply walk into a classroom. I have been told that by two senior educationists in Wales, working in totally separate schools, over the past few weeks. Either they are wrong or the hon. Gentleman is wrong.
I have also been told that schools get a great deal of notice before an inspection takes place, and I think that is wrong. Inspectors ought to be able to go in without any notice whatsoever and find out what is going wrong. I know for a fact that when I was in the Welsh Assembly the unions and everyone else seemed to be totally against testing, but testing is a good thing. If my children are failing in tests, I want to know about it and to get involved. There is also a problem with sickness, whereby too many teachers are taking too many sick days in schools in Wales and that is not being properly investigated afterwards by the personnel departments. It is also far too difficult to get rid of bad teachers who are not up to the job. That situation can occur in any walk of life, but in most others someone who is not up to a job will be got rid of by someone higher up. That does not seem to happen in teaching. I do not think all that is jargon; those are fairly simple matters.
May I make one last point on this, which is the most important one of all? In England, there is a recognition that parents have a right to have some say over their children’s education, and they can exercise that most drastically by taking their children out of the state system and putting them into some kind of an academy. As a parent, I welcome that, because it is my taxpayer’s money that is being spent and I ought to have a say. If the school is not up to the job, I ought to have the right to take my child out and put them somewhere else. I do not have that right in Wales, and that is taking away an incentive for teachers to improve.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, which is interesting in terms of the direction that the questions are coming from. Does he share my concern that the hands of the Liberal Democrats, and even those of Plaid Cymru, are not necessarily clean in this area, because they will have been part of the coalition during some of the formative years, when some of the education policies were put in place?
I respect the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman makes those remarks, but I spent 12 years in the classroom and no head teacher was ever prevented from inspecting any lessons I undertook. Does he think that he could add to his list the issue of resources? Our Government have addressed that in part through the pupil premium, and Liberals in Wales, along with Labour colleagues, have pursued a similar policy there. That has been a good measure. Resources are important, but so, too, is maintaining properly motivated and confident staff. One challenge to this Government in Westminster is to retain that well-motivated staff, because the jury is out so far on that.
I am grateful to my friend—I am not sure whether he is an hon. Friend, a colleague or what under this coalition, but he is that—for the compliment. I agree that both those matters are important. On resources, the Government have rightly made cuts to all sorts of departments, except to foreign aid; I could launch into another speech on that, but will not do so. Generally speaking, the Government have had to make cuts—we have done so rightly—to try to balance the books, but we have not cut money to the Welsh Assembly. The amount of money that it has had overall has increased slightly, although people there will try to argue that when inflation is factored in it is not quite as much as it once was. So that is certainly not an issue that can be laid at the door of either of us in this coalition Government. Of course I completely agree that it is important that staff are motivated, and I would regret it if anything were ever done to stop that happening, but there is a difference between de-motivating people and allowing them to get away with things.
May I just move on to health, Madam Deputy Speaker, because it is the other big area of which the Welsh Assembly has control?
Order. The hon. Gentleman may certainly move on to health and to his other subjects, but I am sure he must be considering the fact that he has spoken for some time and that many other Members wish to speak. I do not suggest that he stops immediately, but he might like possibly to accelerate his next few points.
I would certainly not want to deprive the House of the wisdom of hearing from anyone else from the Principality, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I wonder whether there is some way you could indicate to me for how much longer you think I should detain the House.
I will try to be brief. I do not even need to say too much about health, because much of it has been said by Labour Members who have been affected. Suffice it to say, a member of my own family has been very badly affected by the second-rate service that we are getting in Wales. In England, people requiring cataract treatment can expect to be seen in 18 weeks. In Wales, it is 36 weeks, so people have to wait for twice as long. The Welsh Assembly are failing to meet even their own poor targets. When I last checked, some 300 people had been waiting more than 36 weeks for cataract treatment, which could easily lead to people going blind. That is an absolute disgrace.
The hon. Gentleman needs to make the distinction. Surely he means not the Welsh Assembly but the Government. If there are health or other issues in the UK, it is the responsibility not of the Parliament but of the Government of the particular Parliament or Assembly.
That is certainly true, and a variety of parties have been in government and should take responsibility, but the Conservative party is not one of them. The Conservative Government in London have overall responsibility for the economy, which affects Wales, and have done a superb job in cutting the deficit, dealing with the way in which benefits were being handed out to one and all, and getting people back into work. That is something of which we can be enormously proud.
We need to look at issues such as the Severn bridge, which was debated yesterday. I thank the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for making such important points on which there could be cross-party agreement in Wales. Something needs to be done about the tolls, and it needs to happen as soon as the concession ends.
Finally, to go back to the points made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, we all agree that manufacturing and developing our manufacturing industry are important, but I disagree that that can be done by an overuse of renewable energy, which actually leads to higher overall energy costs. One of the things that manufacturers need now is low energy costs. America, for example, which has halved its energy prices, is seeing manufacturers coming back from places such as the far east. I hope the Government will think carefully about swallowing any more of the green propaganda, which has led to a demise in manufacturing in Wales and elsewhere.
Overall, we have a great deal of which we can be proud. The Labour leader has said that he wishes to learn lessons from Wales. The lesson is that if a person votes Labour in Wales, they will get longer waiting lists, their children will not get as good an education and they can forget about inward investment. If that is the lesson that he wants to shout out to everyone in the run-up to the election, I wish him every success.
Order. The House will be aware that there are a great many Members who wish to speak this afternoon and a limited amount of time in which they can do so. I therefore have to impose a time limit on Back-Bench speeches of seven minutes.
That ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, necessary as it is, shows how truncated what used to be the great St David’s day debate, which has been held in this House since 1944, has become. It has been reduced to an hour and a half with seven-minute limits at the tail end of a Thursday. Of course it is not St David’s day today. It is the feast day of St Colette of France, a well-known mediaeval saint and, among other things, the patron saint of pregnant women.
I want to talk not about pregnant women but about a serious matter that is becoming a scourge in Wales, in my constituency and across the United Kingdom. I refer to the absolutely inappropriately misnamed legal highs. I have no doubt that there are many Members who have some knowledge about the people who sell such substances to our constituents. In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), we have suffered the scourge of legal high shops, or head shops. There is one in Pontnewydd in Cwmbran and one in Newport.
Since the shops have opened, there has been an increase in the number of youngsters between the ages of 14 and 17 affected by these particular drugs, according to the accident and emergency department at the Royal Gwent hospital. Between 2012 and 2013, the Gwent drug interventions programme in Cwmbran tested 500 people in police custody for legal highs, 70% of whom came back positive. In an attempt to deal with those serious issues, the two shops were raided last October. Five people were arrested and 58 different substances were seized and sent for testing. The shops were temporarily closed, but they are now back, and another one has opened on Osbourne road in Pontypool, further up the valley in my constituency.
We can look at the websites of these dreadful places, as young people undoubtedly do. This is just one example. The owners of the shop ask the question, “What are legal highs?” and the site states that they
“are substances made from assorted herbs, herbal extracts and ‘research chemicals’. They produce the same, or similar effects, to drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, but are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. They are however, considered illegal under current medicines legislation to sell, supply or advertise for ‘human consumption’. To get round this sellers” –
that is, the owners of the shop themselves –
“refer to them as research chemicals, plant food, bath crystals or pond cleaner.”
The site concedes that the effects of these so-called legal highs are no different from the effects of those that are illegal.
One product called “Exodus Damnation”, which is currently advertised on the shop’s website, was the cause of a near fatal heart attack suffered by 17-year-old Matt Ford in Canterbury. In Pontypool in my constituency, 176 people signed a petition saying that the shop should not be opened. Their views were strongly expressed to the police and local authorities, all of whom could do absolutely nothing. It is simply not right that our councils, our police forces and our law enforcement agencies can do virtually nothing to stop such shops opening and poisoning hundreds and thousands of young Welsh people with these appalling so-called highs.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on an important subject. Does he also agree that the long-term health implications of the substances that some young people are taking should also make us extremely worried? We do not know what is in them and that could lead to serious problems in the future.
Indeed, we do not know that. People have been temporarily blinded by such substances and have had large lumps come out on their bodies, and it could be that in the long term they will suffer even greater illnesses.
One of these groups of shops, called Chill South Wales, has a Facebook page on which it promotes its products. The most recent post is an image of four children’s cartoon characters with a range of drugs paraphernalia. We have looked at the list of 394 Facebook friends; many of them are still at school and some are as young as 12. Those young people have no idea what they are taking and no way of knowing the possible dangers or the long-term health risks. These products are just as dangerous as illegal drugs, if not more so as people unwittingly think that they are safe because they are legal and are being sold on our high streets. That could not be further from the truth.
To be fair, I think the Government are doing what they can by using temporary class drug orders to ban substances as they come along, but it is a game of catch-up: as soon as one substance is banned, another appears in the marketplace. More than 250 substances have been banned, but more are appearing at a rate of one a week.
The Home Office review is to be welcomed.
As a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, I visited a forensic lab just outside London and was shown a selection of the drugs that had been confiscated in the few weeks before our visit. The system is now privatised and those I spoke to reported that they found it very difficult to keep up with the novel substances as they were imported, mainly from China. Is the right hon. Gentleman content that the Government are putting enough money into the forensic service to keep up with these novel drugs?
I certainly think that many more resources need to be put into this and we should use all available avenues to alert and warn our young people of the dangers of these drugs. Our schools, colleges, education services and local authorities must do all they can to let people know how terrible, dangerous and toxic these drugs are.
We must certainly consider giving local authorities special powers to close down the shops and I think that we should legislate to do so. Perhaps we could adopt the model they have in New Zealand, where the onus is on suppliers to prove that the substances are safe. A lot more thought must go into this.
Today’s debate is, of course, about Wales, and this is an ideal opportunity for the UK Government and the Welsh Government to work together, as they have different responsibilities but the same aim of trying to deal with these terrible things. I have worked with my local Assembly Member, Lynne Neagle, on this matter. I believe that there is a case for the Secretary of State or the Minister to contact their counterparts in Cardiff Bay to see whether we can tackle this appalling abuse. One great advantage of a Welsh affairs debate is that we can raise such issues on the Floor of the House of Commons, which since devolution has not been quite so easy to do. I am sure that our constituents do not see the distinction when it comes to the Welsh Government being in charge of health and the United Kingdom Government being in charge of criminal justice. Both Governments need to ensure that we deal with this terrible plague affecting our young people in Wales.
For me, as the MP for Montgomeryshire, there is no more enjoyable political experience than speaking in this Chamber in a Welsh affairs debate linked to St David’s day. In fact, I have moved from my usual place on the back row because I wanted to make my speech as close as I am ever likely to be to the seat from which Lord Roberts spoke—his attitude to Welsh affairs was very similar to mine—and indeed from which spoke the most extraordinary Welsh politician of the last century, David Lloyd George. He led a Conservative-Liberal coalition a very long time ago. I enjoy visiting his museum. I promise not to indulge in the kinds of rhetorical flourishes he used when speaking in the House.
I am hoping to make a speech without any sour notes, if possible.
My main political interest over recent decades has been the interests of Wales. I am unashamedly a Welsh politician. For many years I was involved in developing the Welsh economy—a new economy for Wales after the devastation of the beginning of the last century—by working with the Welsh Development Agency, the Welsh Tourist Board and the Development Board for Rural Wales. Through the late ’80s and early ’90s, those organisations did a magnificent job in developing the Welsh economy. I think that they were wound up too soon. Clearly, all quangos are wound up in the end, but I think they were wound up before the job was done, a decision that was taken, I believe, on the basis of prejudice, rather than evidence.
I am intensely proud of being a Welshman. It influences my politics in virtually everything I do in this Chamber. I simply do not accept that to be independently minded, to be culturally and linguistically proud, to be emotionally linked to our Welsh history and to be aware of our distinctive nationhood should ever be the preserve of Welsh nationalists, of Plaid Cymru. It is, and must always be, a part of Conservative philosophy.
There are a million issues I could speak about, but I will touch on just a few. The first is an economic view from rural mid-Wales, where I live. We know that Wales is not a coherent geographical unit. Economically, north Wales is always linked to the north-west of England, mid-Wales is linked to the midlands and south Wales is linked to the M4 corridor. I think that we should challenge the judgment of investing in links between north and south Wales, and not just on the basis of economic benefit, but on the cost-benefit analysis. During my years in the National Assembly, I always thought that there was an element of wanting to develop Wales as a geographical region, rather than just looking at the cost, as with the A470 and the A483. I think that is a real objective, because developing Wales as a coherent unit is important in itself.
Mid-Wales warrants much better treatment that it receives from the Welsh Government, and this is a long-term issue. Wales has an area in the middle between north Wales and south Wales, and it has always been a battle to develop the same awareness of mid-Wales as of the other two areas. We must focus on mid-Wales so that it brings the other two areas closer together. I have always thought there was a case for more investment in mid-Wales to create a unified Wales rather than just for the benefit of individual projects.
Mid-Wales is not just an area to put wind farms—they do not bring much economic benefit to the local economy—and which can then be forgotten in terms of industrial development. Given some political views—certainly not mine—in Wales, that is a danger, and we should challenge it.
My hon. Friend and I worked together on the Development Board for Rural Wales. In Newtown and Welshpool, where investment was focused, there is a residue of manufacturing, as there is in Brecon. Would such investment not bring great benefit to rural mid-Wales again?
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. We worked together on the sort of development that not just transformed mid-Wales, but brought north and south Wales closer together. That is a point I wanted to make in this debate.
Wales should be developed not just as an economic unit, because it is important to develop it as a political entity. That has probably always happened throughout history, but it has certainly gathered pace in recent decades. The Secretary of State has taken delivery of the Silk commission’s report, which came in two parts. There will be other opportunities to talk about it, but it makes two particularly important recommendations.
The first part of the report recommends that significant income tax powers should be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. When the commission was set up, its main purpose in my opinion, and I think in the Government’s opinion, was to give the Assembly financial accountability so that decisions were made on raising money and spending it. The debate would then be the same as in every other democratic body imaginable and include raising money. Unless they accept that responsibility for raising the money they spend, the Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly will not become a real governing body or a proper Parliament. That is hugely important.
Surely an issue that is allied to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about tax-raising powers is nurturing and growing the economy. I would argue further that the Republic of Ireland was behind Wales economically 100 years ago, but it has leapfrogged Wales and Scotland. The reason is that the Republic of Ireland had the power not just to tax and spend, but to see which parts of its economy it wanted to nurture and grow. Wales will not be able to do that until it has powers equivalent to those in the Isle of Man, the Republic of Ireland, Denmark and so on. Essentially, it needs the power to be at the helm and to make its own decisions for its own people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I want the Welsh Government to become a proper Government with sharp debate so that debates about the budget engage Welsh people. They would take much more interest in a Welsh Government with tax-raising powers.
The First Minister of Wales has put some blocks in the way, but I sense that after the result of the Scottish referendum those blocks may be resolved. There are three parties in Wales that are generally supportive of this principle, but Labour seems instinctively not to be. I do not know what the shadow Secretary of State’s view is, but I suspect that he is not greatly in favour of devolving income tax powers to the Assembly because of the responsibility it carries. I would plead with him to change his opinion. Let us see devolution develop as it should. This is the next obvious step in the process of devolution, and we must get a grip on that.
In my last 36 seconds—I would have liked to have had20 minutes—I want to touch on a cross-border issue that I have raised before. We have to stop devolution damaging the interests of Wales. We talk about education and health, but the issue that is particularly relevant to me is the cross-border road schemes that would go ahead without devolution but are now unable to go ahead because England is not willing to commit money to its half of such schemes as there is no economic benefit for it. We have to develop a relationship with the Department for Transport to stop that damaging Wales, as it currently does.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for the opportunity to debate Welsh affairs today. I want to raise two issues relating to employment in my constituency.
However, let me begin by strongly agreeing with the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on the problem of legal highs, particularly in Gwent. That issue very much came home to me on Sunday, when I was with my kids in a corner of a park in Newport and saw dozens and dozens of empty legal-high packets of all shapes, sizes and colours, with enticing graphics on the front. As in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, premises in Newport were closed down; I believe they were part of the same operation. As a result, I went to a briefing by the team in Gwent police who are dealing with this issue and working extremely hard on it with the local authorities. When the Home Secretary came into post, she promised swift action on legal highs. However, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, it is an extremely difficult issue involving hundreds of different substances and thousands of different sellers. The legislation is out of date and we are playing catch-up. We need to give local authorities and the police the tools to do the job, not least because people have absolutely no idea what they taking, and we are very much storing up health problems for the future.
I want to talk about the economy in Newport. In recent times, we have heard much from the Government and their Welsh team about how things are improving in Wales, with the recovery under way and things getting easier. Of course, I welcome falls in unemployment in my constituency, although youth unemployment remains unacceptably high, but beneath those figures there is a different story. It is still the case that about 300,000 Welsh workers earned below the living wage in 2012. I would like to say a very big “Well done and congratulations” to Newport council for its decision last week to implement the living wage.
In Wales, we have seen the largest increase in the UK in the number of people who want to work more hours but cannot find them due to the Tories’ failed economic policies. Some 65,000 people are deemed to be under-employed in Wales. Only this morning, a young girl came into my office in Newport and talked about how hard it was for her family because her father’s hours had been reduced from 40 to 14. That is the reality for many people in my constituency.
In recent weeks, there has been bad news for employment in our city of Newport. First, there were the job losses at the Avana bakery—the Secretary of State has been involved with this—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). The bakery announced that it would possibly lose up to 650 jobs following the loss of a contract with Marks and Spencer. Secondly, we learned that there is a threat to public sector jobs at the Ministry of Justice shared services centre in Celtic Springs. Then, only this week, we heard the very hard news that 123 jobs are under threat at the Orb steel works, which has a long history of steelmaking in my constituency and is a subsidiary of Tata Steel. At the MOJ and Orb works, there are things that the Government could do to step in, and that is the focus of my remarks.
This week’s announcement that Tata Steel will be restructuring the work force at the Orb steelworks may lead to the loss of 83 direct jobs and 40 contractors’ jobs. That is really hard news for those workers—and their families—who have worked extremely flexibly over the past few years. These are skilled jobs that we can ill afford to lose from Wales. It is an extremely challenging time for the steel industry in Wales, and this announcement underlines that. Demand for steel is down, imports from outside Europe are up and steel manufacturers are being hit by higher energy costs. The price of electricity for steelmakers in the UK is about 38% higher than in France and 56% higher than in Germany. Those are massive differences and they are hitting our industries. UK producers also pay levies and taxes such as the carbon floor price and the renewables obligation, but German and French steelmakers—not to mention those outside Europe—are largely protected from those. The accumulative impact is that we are putting UK steelmakers at a competitive disadvantage, with customers seeing UK energy costs as a particular problem.
I know that the Government have accepted the arguments that high energy prices impact on UK manufacturers and that the most energy-intensive industries should be protected from rising green taxes. However, what has been done so far is not enough to mitigate those costs or reverse the manufacturers’ fortunes. In the Budget, the Government need to take more action on high energy costs, the carbon price floor and renewables obligations, which are hitting us really hard, particularly in Wales, at a time when demand for steel is down.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I very much agree with him. I know that time is running out, but we need Wales Office Ministers urgently to press the Treasury on that matter in advance of the Budget.
The Government are also potentially to offshore Government jobs from the MOJ shared services centre in Newport. I am very reliant on the public sector in my constituency. People in the public sector have had their wages frozen and there has been a sustained attack on their numbers. In fact, in the recent Centre for City report, Newport came bottom for employment growth in the private sector.
Was it only in January that the Prime Minister said that we must become the “reshoring nation”? You would not think so, because only weeks later his Ministers are embarking on a path that could lead the MOJ shared services centre into a contract that will allow offshoring. The Newport office employs about 1,000 staff in back-office functions. The Cabinet Office and the MOJ want to privatise those jobs, and so far nothing has been said by Ministers to alleviate fears. In fact, the Justice Secretary told me:
“To be a competitive and viable business…needs to be in line with other companies of this kind, which often see non-customer facing transactional roles being sourced offshore. The creation and operation model…reflects government guidelines with off shoring being a feature of many successful public sector contracts.”
If the Prime Minister is so keen on private companies reshoring jobs, why is his Government so keen on offshoring Government jobs? The situation is ludicrous. Will Welsh Ministers tell the Cabinet Office and the Justice Secretary that, especially in the light of other job losses in Newport, these are good public sector jobs that we really need to keep in Newport?
To end on a positive note, the Welsh Government’s deal with Pinewood Studios to bring a new film studio to Newport is very welcome and a good boost to us locally, as is the Welsh Government’s setting up of the reNewport taskforce, which has recently come up with lots of innovative ideas for improving things in Newport. It has been warmly welcomed and has harnessed much local enthusiasm.
Last but not least, I welcome the announcement about the NATO summit in September. We are looking forward to that and I am also looking forward to working very closely with Wales Office Ministers to maximise its impact on the community and employers of Newport.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and thank the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and his colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), for making the application to the Backbench Business Committee. I very much agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) said this morning during business questions and what the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) has said about the need to re-establish this as an annual debate on important matters in Wales, ideally as close as possible to the day we celebrate our patron saint.
This year, the promenade in Aberystwyth may be rather more familiar to Members as a result of the media interest in the storms that lashed the west Wales coast. Not just Aberystwyth was affected; Borth, Clarach, Aberaeron, Llangrannog and Cardigan all faced the brunt of the storms. I take this opportunity to thank all those in our communities—the voluntary sector, council workers, the emergency services—who did such sterling work to get us back on our feet. One Saturday morning stands out: 150 local residents physically cleared debris off the promenade to make it smart again.
I thank the Welsh Assembly Government for their response: as the Minister responsible, Alun Davies quickly came to see what was going on; £1.5 million has been pledged to the county for renovating the promenade; and Mrs Hart and Mrs Hutt have announced £560,000 for promoting the tourist sector. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who I know took a great interest in what was going on. He has been in touch with the county council in relation to military support being made available when storms hit again, which has also been much appreciated.
At the time, there was much local speculation about whether funding would be forthcoming from the EU solidarity fund, and I asked a question in the House about that. It would be useful if the Secretary of State clarified whether a request was ever made by the Welsh Assembly Government to access European funds, whether the substantive fund or the regional fund. I go further to suggest that if we believe in devolution—and I very much do—the responsibility for such matters as flood protection and the alleviation of flood damage rests with the National Assembly for Wales, so should the Welsh Assembly Government simply wait for the Westminster Government to act, if they can under European Union criteria, or should they make a request? I am not sure whether such a request has been made, but either way, the resources made available by the Welsh Assembly Government to Ceredigion have been much welcomed, as, I repeat, has been the interest shown by the Secretary of State.
Ceredigion is open for business—the promenade in Aberystwyth is open for business—and like the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, I want to use this opportunity to talk about the tourist sector. We are all aware of the triangular tour made by visitors to Britain—a few days in London, off to Edinburgh, down to Stratford-on-Avon and back to London before jetting off home to wherever they have come from. Somehow, Wales is often overlooked in the tourist sector. If that is a problem for Wales generally, it is certainly a problem for those of us on the periphery of Wales. Despite our coastal path, the agri-tourism sector and the beauty of the Cambrian mountains, generating tourism is a real challenge, partly because of transport infrastructure, but also because of the costs to visitors.
That matter needs to be set in the context of the importance of tourism and the real potential for growth. Some 3,000 jobs in my constituency are dependent on tourism. The potential for growth was identified by a British Hospitality Association report, appropriately subtitled, “Driving local economies and underpinning communities”, which suggested a 5% cut in VAT for the hospitality sector. That issue is not unique to Wales, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies)—I emphasise the hon. Friend—who said that he will look at the effect of making a 5% cut across the whole United Kingdom. He is right that we need to do that, and I urge Welsh Ministers to make that case for the United Kingdom to their colleagues in the Treasury. It has been estimated that we could create another 2,000 jobs in my constituency and another 20,000 jobs across Wales by 2020. There is huge potential, but Wales of course relies on tourist industry jobs: 8.3% of our jobs in Ceredigion and 8% of our jobs in Wales are dependent on the tourist sector. There are precedents, not least in Europe, where 24 of the 28 member states have such a policy.
I have not made any such assessment, but if the hon. Gentleman looks at Hansard for the debate on VAT and tourism in Westminster Hall a couple of weeks ago, he will see the figures that were produced. There will of course be a hit on the UK economy in the first year, but we need to consider the gains that will accrue thereafter. I most strongly commend that point to my Front-Bench colleagues.
I want briefly to talk about rurality in general, and the extent to which the rural dimension is considered by policy makers in Whitehall. I must say that the Welsh case is strongly represented throughout Whitehall by Welsh Ministers, but the rural dimension can sometimes be overlooked. For example, accessing work capability assessments is a challenge in rural areas such as mine, where there is limited public transport. I suggest that a disproportionate number of my constituents have missed appointments and suffered penalties as a consequence of living in rural areas.
We have lost tax offices. Aberystwyth lost its tax office under the last Labour Government and is now losing its tax advice centre. Instead, west Wales will be served by a roving team of experts from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We are losing face-to-face contact and expertise on the ground. It was anticipated that VAT returns would be made to HMRC online, but 20% of my constituency is yet to get broadband.
The hon. Member for Monmouth rightly raised concerns about the health service. We have lost our consultant and midwife unit, which is something that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) will relate to. The Welsh Labour Government are much more interested in the urban agenda than in the challenges that we face in mid and west Wales.
We could talk endlessly and there are many more points that I want to make. I hope that we have such a debate again, particularly so that there is another opportunity to talk about rural Wales.
Thank you very much.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), who is not in his place, I bemoan the lack of the St David’s day debate, which has been held since 1944. When Aneurin Bevan spoke in this place in 1944, he said that there were no Welsh problems, only problems. The wonderful thing about the Welsh day debate that we are missing is that it allows us to bring up issues that usually go unnoticed in this House. Today, I will bring up the issue of truancy in schools.
Truancy is not simply a matter for schools; increasingly, it affects the whole of society. It is a complex issue. It is not simply about pupils skipping school to go to the park with their friends, but is often a sign of deeper problems at home and, in some cases, of abuse. If a pupil truants from school often enough, they will be excluded. They will thereby miss out not only on a worthwhile education, but on the support network that schools provide. That can result in people falling in with the wrong crowd and getting into trouble with the police, making them less desirable to potential employers.
When I visit schools in my constituency, I am always impressed by the level of pastoral care that students receive. Head teachers have told me that for some students, that care is arguably more important than traditional classes. For many students, the support that they receive in school is invaluable. That is why exclusions and truancy are serious issues.
Over the past few years, the Welsh Government have done an incredible amount of work to prevent schoolchildren from being permanently excluded. Just 102 pupils were permanently removed from Welsh schools last year, which is almost 100 fewer than in 2009-10, when there were 200 exclusions. That is a step in the right direction. However, I will focus today on what is known as “soft exclusion”.
The number of temporary exclusions is still too high. There were 17,508 temporary exclusions in 2011-12 in Wales alone. More research and data are needed to explain why that is occurring. In October 2009, my predecessor, Lord Touhig, asked a parliamentary question about what research the previous Government had done on the effects of exclusion on pupils. He was told that no research had been commissioned. Sadly, that is still the case. What do young people do when they are excluded temporarily? Do they miss out on work? In reality, we just do not know.
In preparation for this debate, I read a report by the charity, Barnardo’s, which did some research on the use of unlawful exclusions. That is when schools ask parents to keep their children away from school without providing a formal notification of exclusion. Local authorities know nothing about such exclusions. There is obviously not a huge amount of data in this area, which is unfortunate, but the Barnardo’s study is based on anecdotal evidence.
I shall quote from the report. One parent said:
“From year 7 the head of year would phone me to say he’d been excluded, but no time scale would be mentioned. A letter would arrive two days later telling me how many days it was. There was no work set or given.”
The report heard evidence from parents of a lack of dialogue between schools and families, which leaves the pupils falling behind. One parent said:
“The head of year would ring me and say they were thinking of excluding him. Sometimes there would be a letter. It takes two days or more to arrive and it would say work would be set two days after that, but by then the exclusion time would have passed.”
The police in Blackwood say that the problems in the market area are caused mainly by young people who have been excluded, whether temporarily or permanently. That demonstrates the drain on police resources and the wider effect that this issue has on society. I was even alarmed to find, shockingly and tragically, that pupils with special needs accounted for a little over 60% of all exclusions in Wales in 2012-13, and those with school action and school action plus special educational needs had the highest rate of permanent exclusions at 0.6% per 1,000 pupils. A report by the charity Ambitious about Autism found that four in 10 children with autism had been informally excluded temporarily.
The hon. Gentleman raises extremely important points. Does he share my concern that some local authorities in Wales have a policy not to statement children? The statementing of children can be extremely important in some cases, to provide the right level of support that will ultimately prevent exclusion in special needs cases.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is the point I was trying to make. There is a lack of research and data, and if more children were statemented and we knew what was going on, we would be able to address the issue.
If such things are happening on a large scale, the Government need to look into it and investigate further. Why is it happening? Is it because schools are not equipped to deal with autistic young people? The Barnardo’s report I mentioned earlier contained a statement from a parent with an autistic child:
“There are teachers who manage him fine, and those who don’t sympathise with his situation. Sending him home for 3 days is not the best option and there’s no discussion of strategies for managing his behaviour. Reasons vary, but generally he’s sent home once every 3 weeks.”
In my constituency we are extremely fortunate to have an excellent autism unit at Risca community comprehensive, and the support students receive is fantastic. The same is also true of Coleg Gwent at Crosskeys, where pupils go on to become independent live-in students. Perhaps there are areas across the country not so fortunate, but excluding children from schools on the basis that staff cannot cater to their needs is to me completely unacceptable. What concerns me is that no data on these informal exclusions are held centrally. I would like some form of Government investigation into how prevalent the issue is in schools, not only in Wales, but across the UK.
How vast is the problem? It seems to me that we simply do not know, although we do know that more than 10% of 16 to 18-year-olds are not in employment, education or training, compared with 23% of 19 to 24-year-olds. To me, those figures are unacceptable. It is all very well trying to score political points, as some of us have tried to do today, but we must understand why the figures are so high.
Charities and organisations understand this problem much better than I do. Catch22 is a social business that does an excellent job of getting young people into the habit of attending school and following a schedule. Speak to Catch22 and it will say that when young people play truant and eventually drop out of the mainstream education system, it is important that their aspirations are rebuilt and that character and resilience are developed. Those are interesting ideas, and the Government need to work closely with those fantastic organisations to find a long-term solution to the problem.
With so many young people leaving school with no future plans, we must think about how we can create opportunities for people who may have fallen out of mainstream education. No Member of this House wants young people to be excluded from school and never to reintegrate into society, and there are apprenticeship schemes that focus not on academic achievement but on learning a genuine worthwhile skill that will help a participant stay in work for years.
In my constituency, I speak all the time to businesses with excellent apprenticeship schemes. Last week I met Hafod Quarry in Abercarn, which told me about a five-year scheme that essentially guarantees employment in the industry for many years. Pensord Press in Pontllanfraith and Joyner PA in Risca offer similar apprenticeships that develop skills and lead to full-time work. There are, however, businesses that have told me that they cannot recruit young people locally because they do not have the so-called “soft skills” of communication, turning up on time and completing tasks. Those who played truant and left the education system at an early age are most likely to struggle with those essential skills. If someone without those skills is put in front of an interviewer, they simply will not get the job. That is why it is so important we get the issue right now.
Our education system needs to set up Welsh youngsters for the future, and I do not think unlawful exclusions are part of that. I would like something that my predecessor asked the previous Labour Government for almost five years ago—concrete data and a definitive study into levels of exclusion in schools and the reasons for truancy. Without that we are doing our young people a disservice. In light of the evidence available, expulsion should be the last resort while all avenues are investigated to address unacceptable behaviour in our schools.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I rise to speak as a passionate Welshman who enjoys Welsh history, our proud culture and the contribution that many Welshmen have made to the history of Wales, the UK and beyond. I will try to be positive, and I will ask my questions in a positive spirit.
Whatever people’s opinions of devolution in 1997 after the referendum, there was a genuine hope across all political parties that devolution would work and make a difference. It provided a great chance to make a difference and develop a Government who could respond to changing needs, react to problems as they emerged, and take decisions much closer to the electorate.
My main subject today will be the reputation of Wales, my worry that its governance is damaging that reputation and the consequences of such damage. It is easy to say, after one four-year term of governance, that reforms were established but there has not been enough opportunity to see the outcomes and benefits. After a second term, that argument gets somewhat weaker and we would expect to see some benefits. But after nearly 15 years, we should really be seeing some positive outcome from devolution, such as the “devolution dividend” as it was called at one time.
Sadly, in so many areas, if not almost all areas—I am trying to think of one where I am wrong—the relative position of Wales has fallen back, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. I do not want to be party political in making that point, but I seek an acceptance that Wales is now the poorest part of the UK. That was not the case before 1997. As a result, the challenge of attracting investment and creating entrepreneurship is so much greater. It is so much more difficult to attract investment to the poorest part of the UK, because the gross domestic product and the value of the spend is not as high. The reputation of Wales is therefore key.
I am following my hon. Friend’s argument closely. Does he agree that part of the problem is that Wales has a legacy of ill health from heavy industry and a legacy of economic inactivity because of the loss of those industries? That has never been reflected in the Barnett formula so those needs are still unmet in Wales.
I accept part of that, but I would also look to areas that have a similar legacy but are not the poorest parts of the United Kingdom. Those are the very same points that, it was argued, would be corrected by Adminstrations that would take decisions much closer to the people. I speak as a pro-devolutionist—I am not against the institution, I am against the governance, the way in which the institution has worked and how policy has been set.
Does my hon. Friend agree that parts of the United Kingdom, such as Northern Ireland, are poorer than Wales, but achieve better outcomes in areas such as education? It must be partly, if not wholly, the responsibility of the Government of the Welsh Assembly that things are so bad there.
My hon. Friend is right, because a culture developed in which everything was judged by the amount of money that was put into it, rather than the outcomes that were derived from the investment.
When we talk about reputation, we need to accept that the way in which Wales is currently reported is not positive. I am very saddened by that, but it is largely because the column inches in the press tend to focus on health and education. They are essential to attracting inward investment, because middle and senior management would have to use the national health service and send their children to the schools. That must be added to the way in which Wales is perceived and the challenge that we have in attracting investment thereafter.
Let us focus on education, because without doubt a nation’s future is built on the quality of its education. In the past few years alone, there has been a determination to develop different qualifications, sometimes for the sake of being different, as my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) mentioned earlier. When there was a drive to introduce greater rigour in GCSE outcomes, in Wales we saw political intervention. In England, politics was kept out of it completely, and the policy direction was set for greater rigour and stronger assessments of standards. In Wales, there was a determination to change that.
What worries me most, as the father of a 10-year-old, is that qualifications in Wales could be seen to be secondary to their counterparts in England. I really hope that, for those who gained GCSE qualifications last year, employers will accept Welsh qualifications as being of the same standard as those in England. However, there was an upgrade in more than 1,000 cases, and that may make employers and higher education institutions question them. For example, the Welsh baccalaureate is not accepted by some universities, and that is sad. That reputational damage is now being perpetuated by the outcomes of what the programme for international student assessment judged to be tragically lower standards. As we seek to attract investment to turn the economy around, the quality of public services is essential.
I hope the hon. Gentleman does not feel that I am just trying to look on the positive side, but he must be aware that Cardiff university is a Russell Group university and that it accepts students from the Welsh education system. It also has two Nobel laureate prize winners.
Cardiff university is a fantastic university. The funding structure in Wales is starving the university of funding, as compared to its counterparts in England. The question we need to be asking ourselves is this: how can Cardiff university maintain its standards and status when, because of the different funding structure, there is more funding going into higher education in Wales? That is another sign of the reputational damage being caused by the decisions that are being taken.
The hon. Gentleman says that he wants to show some respect for devolution, but could he be a little more impartial with the facts he employs? Will he tell us, for example, whether he accepts that the Welsh Government should be congratulated on a fall of just 250 in the number of students applying to university in Wales, when the fall in England has been 25,000—a hundredfold difference?
That is the sort of response that does not get us anywhere. I am looking for an intelligent debate to accept the reality of the situation. Unless we accept the reality, we cannot take the intelligent decisions needed to make changes.
In the time that remains, I want to mention health. I had hoped that yesterday was a turning point. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) made an extremely powerful contribution to the debate yesterday. Two weeks earlier, we had learned of data she had brought to the attention of Professor Sir Bruce Keogh. He wrote to his counterpart in Wales, seeking to probe the data that had been shared with him. The response came from a politician, rather than a clinician, who was furious and said that this was an attempt by the Conservative party to
“drag Welsh NHS through the mud”.
The reality, however, is that Sir Bruce Keogh stated in the e-mail that he did not know enough about it, but thought there was a potential smokescreen. There needs to be an intelligent debate, otherwise its reputation will be damaged further.
Order. Members will be aware that this has been a lively debate with many interventions. Interventions lengthen speeches, however. If everyone is to have the chance to speak this afternoon, I have no choice but to reduce the time limit to four minutes.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this St David’s day debate.
Let me remind the House, as I like to on these occasions, of the strengths of Blaenau Gwent and the challenges that it faces. We have a proud cultural and political heritage. We gave the United Kingdom its precious national health service, and we have a strong record of serving our country in the armed forces. The Brecon Beacons national park is on our doorstep, and our industrial legacy of coal and steel is a proud one. Yet in the last decade there has been no alternative large-scale industry to take the place of steel and coal. There has been investment in transport, health and education, but our readiness for development has been cruelly coincidental with a worldwide recession and a reduction in the public sector employment that has been so important in Wales. We know that our Welsh valleys communities are resilient and look after their own, but we need jobs.
I want to talk about transport, jobs and education. The year 2014 has not brought the glad tidings for which we hoped. Unemployment has risen, and Government action is needed to deliver the jobs and growth that will secure our economic recovery. The heads of the valleys line has been greatly improved in recent years, but work is still needed on the Gilwern to Brynmawr section. The council and the Welsh Government have reopened the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff railway line, but it needs to be electrified and redoubled. In December I asked the Chief Secretary to the Treasury if he would consider bringing forward the electrification of the south Wales valleys lines, but we have heard nothing so far.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point.
Another important rail improvement is a new spur line to Abertillery. On Facebook this week, I was told that
“the youngsters in Abertillery need to be given the same access to employment as young people everywhere. The rail link is vital for the valley.”
I find the young people in Blaenau Gwent eager to work, but lacking in opportunity and experience. Along with the local jobcentre, I shall be hosting a seminar later this month for local employers, much as my hon. Friend did. I hope that they will sign up to offer work experience to our under 21s. The longer people are out of work, the more difficult it is for them to find work again and make ends meet.
As might be expected, when investors do come to Blaenau Gwent with a project, we take it seriously. The proposed development of a motor sport facility, the Circuit of Wales, in my constituency represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity. When I first heard the proposal for a racing track in the clouds I was sceptical, but having now watched “Top Gear” too often, I have a better understanding of the petrolheads who want an exciting circuit rather than an old airfield track.
It is, of course, important for the business plan for the circuit to stand up to scrutiny, and the Welsh Government have done the due diligence on it, but because of planning complications, there is a delay. Although this will be a largely private sector investment, United Kingdom Government support is still needed. The Welsh Secretary—fair dos—has repeatedly indicated support for the Circuit of Wales, but it still has no Treasury support. The Circuit of Wales developers believe that the UK has underinvested in motorsport infrastructure, as they foresee a significant demand for new facilities to meet the needs of modern motor sports. They are working hard to recruit the investors who are needed for this £250 million, 800-acre proposal. That is the key test. The developers now need to put together a portfolio of financial support, and they have my wholehearted backing for that endeavour. I hope that the Minister will continue to be positive about the proposal, especially in view of the Government’s proposal for a new public-private partnership.
Finally, let me stress the importance of education, which is paramount if we are to look forward to a brighter future in Blaenau Gwent. Our education system must give all pupils the tools that will enable them to succeed, in Wales and in our global world. If Blaenau Gwent is to enjoy the 21st century, we need investment across the board, and that means improved transport, sustainable jobs, and a first-class education system.
St David famously instructed his followers on his deathbed to do the little things, and he probably understood that I would have only four minutes to speak, so I shall focus my comments on two steps that I would like to see in the forthcoming Budget. I have confidence that one of them will be in it because it was announced in the autumn statement: two reductions in employer national insurance contributions. In my constituency between January 2013 and January 2014 unemployment fell from just over 900 to just over 600, but more importantly the number of 18 to 24-year-olds who were unemployed and claiming benefit fell from just over 300 to just over 200. However, that does not hide the anxiety of those who are desperate to get into employment and are still finding it difficult to do so.
One of the reductions in employer NICs is to reduce every business’s contribution by £2,000. That will be especially advantageous to small businesses, which are so typical of rural Wales. In particular it will encourage those who are perhaps sole traders—just one-man or one-woman bands—to take on their first employee. I am hoping that will encourage them to do so.
The other reduction in employer NICs is that no employer contributions will be paid for employees who are under 21. That will be a great incentive for businesses to take on young people, and in particular apprentices—and this week is apprenticeship week.
I am confident that that measure will be in the Budget, and I am given to understand that the other measure might also be in it. I therefore ask the Secretary of State and the Minister to insist it is kept in the Budget if they see it any draft documents. I have raised on a number of occasions the plight of people who are off-grid—who do not get mains gas. Their energy costs are very high because mains gas is the cheapest form of fuel. Instead, they have to depend on heating oil, liquefied petroleum gas, solid fuel and sometimes electricity to heat their homes. Also, they do not get the dual fuel tariffs that people who receive both gas and electricity on the grid can benefit from. I understand that giving some respite to people who are off-grid may be considered, and I can make some suggestions in that regard. One of them is to give a subsidy so that the national grid can connect those communities that do not have the benefit of mains gas. All the communities of Howey, Llangynidr, Abercraf and Talgarth in my constituency would greatly benefit from mains gas, and that would have a great input into reducing fuel poverty.
Carmarthenshire has a very proud history. Some say it has a claim to be the birthplace of Welsh democracy, which is a reference to Carmarthenshire’s role in delivering a yes vote for the National Assembly in the successful 1997 referendum. However, a dark cloud has been hanging over local democracy in Carmarthenshire for far too long, with a ruling cabal of senior officials and executive board members repressively running the council, stopping democratic debate by the full council, pressurising local journalists, smearing opposition politicians, coercing a council chair who dared defy instruction and making financial arrangements to enable the chief executive, a man who earns almost £4,000 a week, to avoid paying his fair share of tax. A seemingly permanent back-room deal between Labour and so-called independent councillors—or the closet Tories as the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) describes them—means elections are unlikely to lead to political change. At the last local authority elections, my party won the largest number of seats convincingly, achieving over 10,000 more votes than our Labour opponents. It is the same discredited personnel at the helm, however.
Given the number of mentions that Carmarthenshire has had in the Private Eye “Rotten Boroughs” column, one might think that the executive board members would have got the message. However, unrepentant, the council and the executive board are moving towards darker waters. That is what happens when we have a toxic combination of weak executive board councillors and powerful senior officers. The warnings relating to recent events could not have been clearer. Local papers have lost advertising revenue, which could bankrupt their businesses, for daring to criticise executive board decisions. We have seen the steady erosion of the democratic process, with powers being taken away from councillors and put into the hands of unelected officers, and with the executive board rubber-stamping decisions and, to all intents and purposes, operating as the political wing of those senior officers.
In the past month, a report from the independent Wales Audit Office has found that the executive board was guilty of sanctioning two unlawful payments for the benefit of the chief executive. Those payments totalled more than £50,000. One relates to the granting of a legal indemnity which enabled the chief executive to counter-sue a local blogger. The second relates to a tax dodge involving the redirection of pension contributions into the pocket of the chief executive. The report was damning, and any politician with a sense of integrity would have done the honourable thing and instigated an urgent investigation into the implicated officers before resigning on the spot themselves. Instead, we got a deliberate propaganda campaign from the publicly financed press department of the council to discredit the Wales Audit Office, and threats and smears against opposition politicians.
Last week, the people of Carmarthenshire were subjected to a farcical extraordinary meeting to discuss the Wales Audit Office report. The executive board commissioned a QC, at a potential cost of thousands of pounds to Carmarthenshire ratepayers, to discredit the Wales Audit Office’s findings and protect its leaders from votes of no confidence.
This has all been happening at a time when the executive board is pushing through huge cuts to council services and increasing council tax by almost 5%. The Labour party in Carmarthenshire is pushing through the privatisation of care services, increasing charges for school meals, reducing assessments for children with special needs, making financial cuts to welfare advice services and extending and increasing charges for social care, as well as introducing a range of other regressive measures.
It is a matter of pressing concern that, despite being relieved of his duties, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire county council will continue to be the local returning officer for the forthcoming European elections. The Electoral Commission has confirmed that position. I fail to understand how an individual who is no longer at his desk due to a police investigation can be responsible for the democratic processes in my county. The same applies in Pembrokeshire, unless events in that great county have changed the situation today, and I ask for immediate ministerial intervention.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this debate, and I fully endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) has just said.
My party wants Wales to be an independent country. We know that will take time—we just have to accept that—but that is no reason to abandon the aim. Some Members will be familiar with the Welsh saying, “Ara’ deg mae dal iâr”, which means “You catch hens slowly.” We, the Welsh, have been here on these islands for a very long time—independent for most of the centuries, incorporated for the rest—and we are not going anywhere any time soon. We therefore need to discuss this among ourselves, as a self-aware nation, and agree on what power we want.
In this context, the examples from the mainland of Europe and from Scotland are useful and instructive. Last night, I was talking to the Catalan counsel general. The Catalans have been told by Madrid that they cannot hold a referendum on independence. One Spanish politician went so far as to threaten them with military occupation if they dared to press for their freedom. So hundreds of individual communes have instead held local referendums, which demonstrated overwhelming support for independence. We also saw the extraordinary demonstration in Barcelona last year, when more than 1 million people crowded the streets of the capital to call for independence. A national referendum is due there in the autumn, and we will watch the outcome with interest. I have also been talking to the Basques. There, the peace process has made great strides, but the Government in Madrid are now dragging their heels. Getting the peace process on track there is vital to greater autonomy, which is perhaps why the Madrid Government are acting in that way.
In Scotland, to the disgust and dismay of some politicians in this place and commentators in the City, and to the delight of others, our colleagues in the Scottish National party are defining what it means to rule themselves while retaining an inter-dependence of equals in these islands and on this continent. The SNP’s opponents cry, “Foul! Not fair! If you want independence it must be on our terms.” Politics and international politics are about negotiation, as we are seeing in Paris and Brussels today. In Wales, we have a problem with taking responsibility—some of us are too resigned to being victims. I will say this for now: power to spend without the responsibility of raising the money is corrosive, as we have seen in Wales, and to the extent that the draft Wales Bill leads us to take responsibility for ourselves it is much to be welcomed.
The shadow Secretary of State, speaking as a historian, said of the decline of Wales:
“I attribute it to 150 years of history, industry, the legacy of change, the demographics of our country, the distance from London and the simple truth that Wales has a greater relative need than many parts of England, which requires a greater degree of expenditure.”—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee, 23 January 2013; c.21.]
That is all very germane, but hon. Members will have noted immediately that this statement contains no agency. These woes appear have been visited upon us passively— by accident almost. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) is not unsophisticated; he knows full well that historical events do not just happen. So I look forward to our debates on the Wales Bill and perhaps a more piercing analysis of our predicament from those on the Opposition Front Bench. Who knows, a clearer analysis might even lead them to change their stance, which is seen by many here and in Wales as one of delay at all costs.
This is the Welsh affairs debate, but we are also today considering the role of women, so I wish to spend time looking at the role of women in Wales. MPs had the opportunity today to invite a young person—a young girl—from our constituency to join us, to shadow politicians and to see how we worked. That is very important and Amy Edwards, a young girl from Bryntiriion comprehensive school in Bridgend, spent the day with me. I asked that school to send someone because I was particularly impressed by the young girls there and their eagerness to participate in political discussion and debate, and to ask for more information and to gain greater understanding.
I was horrified when I saw the Equality and Human Rights Commission report “Who runs Wales?” I do not know how many hon. Members have seen it, but it sets out a clear message that Wales remains a country where those taking the major decisions that have an impact on all of us remain, overwhelmingly, men. We need to set clear targets for public and private sector board appointments. We need to make sure that our women are educated so that they can take on the positions; so that different issues will be discussed and different viewpoints heard; so that we reflect the whole of the population of Wales; and so that politicians are in tune with the population we serve. We have a wealth of talent in Wales, but sadly we are still neglecting nearly 50% of it.
In Wales, only 28% of police officers are women, but it gets worse at the top, where only 12% of chief constables are women; 77% of those working in health are women, but only 10% of health chief executives are women; 72% of people in local authorities are women, but only 18% of local authority chief executives are women. Teaching is no way to the top for women either, because 75% of all schoolteachers are women, but only 57% of head teachers are women. Even in the third sector only 36% of the leadership are women. The media are no better, with only 33% of senior management teams being women and only 22% of the editors of our daily newspapers and weekly nationals being women. The figure for the trade unions is only 36%. We must recognise that in the history of Welsh politics—since 1536—there have been only 13 female MPs. It is only because the Labour party used all-women shortlists that Labour has now increased its number of female MPs. Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives, from whom we have heard a great deal today about their aspirations for Wales, have never had a woman MP for Wales.
We are about to lose two important women MPs from the Labour Benches. I look forward to having two, if not more, female MPs representing Wales, so that the voice of the women in Wales can be heard from these Benches and we can clearly represent the whole of Wales.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this debate today. It has been an extraordinarily wide-ranging debate, as is traditionally the case with St David’s day debates. Many Members rightly highlighted the importance of having time in this House to debate the issues of Wales. I think that we can all agree that in the past three years, insufficient time has been spent on debating Welsh matters. Ignorance of the realities in Wales has perhaps grown in this House as a result. I hope that we have done something today to redress that imbalance and to shed some light on the issues, as I hope to do in my short remarks.
My hon. Friend made a particularly enlightening and topical opening to today’s debate. He talked about the need to reflect the fact that people in Wales have shared identities in that they are both Welsh citizens and British citizens. Indeed, they can play rugby for Wales and for the British Lions—they can captain either team and still feel themselves to be British and Welsh. That is something that I feel very strongly about and that I hope everyone in this House supports. My hon. Friend also said that we need to capitalise on the great economic strengths of our country, and especially on the energy and tourism potential of Wales. I entirely endorse all that he said in that regard.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) reminded us of the history of the St David’s day debate. He even told us that this was the day of St Colette, the patron saint of pregnant women. At this point, I cannot help but congratulate Kate Groucutt, who is pregnant and leaving my office. She has been the special adviser to the Welsh Affairs team over the past few years.
More importantly, but slightly surreally, my right hon. Friend talked about the problems in his constituency of head shops, which sell legal highs. The problem is massive and growing in communities such as his and mine, and we must get to grips with it notwithstanding the difficulties of legislating in this complicated area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) talked about the economy of Wales, and highlighted two issues in her constituency that have wider implications and ramifications across the UK. The first was the loss of steel jobs at the Orb works, due to the inordinately high energy prices that companies in Britain are paying compared with their European competitors. I am sure that we all understand that we need to get to grips with that matter not just for individual consumers of energy in this country but for vital foundational industries.
The second was the problem of offshore jobs. My hon. Friend highlighted the irony of a Government who claim to be seeking to reshore jobs overseeing the offshoring of Government jobs in the Ministry of Justice shared services centre in Newport. You could not make it up, Madam Deputy Speaker, but it is what is happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) raised the important issue of truancy and called for improvements in the way in which our schools deal with challenging children in Britain, and I entirely agree with him. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) also talked about the economy and threw his weight behind the proposal for a motor sport track and arena in Blaenau Gwent, and I support him on that, as I know the Secretary of State does. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) talked about women in Wales and the need for others to promote the talents of women within Wales. She highlighted the fact that the Labour party has done that in the National Assembly, where women make up almost 45% of all groups, and here in Westminster, where the Labour party stands alone in having a significant proportion of female members—32% of the current parliamentary Labour party. We need more, but it is a good start and better than what we are seeing from the Government.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) talked about local government and the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) talked about devolution and suggested that I should be sophisticated and enlightening when addressing it myself, and I shall seek to do so at an appropriate moment.
Government Members told us that they wanted to be respectful and positive—I think those were the words—about Wales and then failed to offer a single respectful and positive word; that was certainly the case for the Conservative Members. There were a number of positive remarks made by Liberal Democrat Members, such as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who congratulated the Welsh Government on their investment in flood defences in Wales; £4 million has been invested, in distinct contradiction to the direction of travel in Westminster where we have seen £97 million cut from flood defences, as confirmed last week by the Office for National Statistics. Perhaps that is why we did not see the same degree of problems in Wales as we did elsewhere.
The hon. Members for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) were particularly jaundiced in their view of Wales and highlighted the volume of column inches about what they saw as poor public service performance. They bemoaned the fact that Wales was getting such bad press, but they know full well why Wales is getting a bad press and it is not because of the performance of Welsh public services and certainly not a fair representation—
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but mortality rates, cancer waiting times and A and E access are just three examples; diagnostics in the health service are another. Those are fundamental issues that are dominating the UK newspapers because of poor performance in Wales. Is that not a sad situation?
He says the Princess of Wales, where risk adjusted mortality indices improved by more than 20% over the past three years. We have seen significant improvements in mortality indices in Wales and he will know that people cannot do what he and his colleagues have done—and worse, what the Prime Minister has done on 29 occasions in this House—and take out of context extraordinarily complex mortality statistics and use them as a means to smear the Welsh NHS. Only this week, I was confronted with the reality of that smear campaign when I was contacted by members of the Welsh NHS work force to ask me—
No, it was not a union. Somebody working in the NHS contacted me on their own behalf to ask what they could do to stop the Tories’ smear campaign dragging the reputation of the Welsh NHS through the mud. Members do not need to take my word for it; they could take the words of doctors in Wales. The British Medical Association in Wales said very clearly that this was “a wicked”—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary says from a sedentary position that this is about the trade unions, implying that it is somehow connected to the Labour party. He knows that that is not the case; he knows—[Interruption.]
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The BMA has said that the claims are a “wicked slander”, perpetrated by people in whose interests it is to undermine the NHS, to perpetuate the myth that there is significantly worse performance in the NHS in Wales, compared with England. It is not true, it has not been true in the past and it will not be true in the future. What is true is that Welsh workers and the Welsh people are suffering lower wages, higher job insecurity, higher energy prices and greater difficulties as a result of this Government’s economic mismanagement of this country. In contrast, the Labour Government in Wales have delivered economically. They have delivered a lower unemployment rate in Wales than in the UK as a whole. I conclude by congratulating them on that.
May I take this opportunity to wish you, Madam Deputy Speaker, a belated happy St David’s day? It is, in fact, the end of St David’s week. I commend the Backbench Business Committee and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for recognising the importance of having such a debate and securing it. I echo what he said about the importance of being proud of our dual national identity—being both Welsh and British. It is something he understands, I understand, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) understands and clearly, and most importantly, Sam Warburton understands.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn focused his contribution largely on the economy, and rightly so. One of the joys of this office is that I have the privilege of travelling the length and breadth of Wales, meeting some of our world-leading companies, visiting the small and medium-sized enterprises that are very much the backbone of our economy and hearing inspirational stories of lives that have been transformed by securing employment.
Wales has a proud industrial history. At the height of the industrial revolution, Wales was at the forefront of technological advances. It retains many innovative industries, from large multinationals, such as Airbus and Tata Steel, to small but dynamic niche market companies, such as Torquing in Pembroke Dock. We must have a thriving private sector, confident to create employment opportunities, innovate and expand into new markets.
If Wales is to be a country where companies grow, invest and take on new people, the Government must create the right conditions to allow that to happen. That means cutting business taxes, reducing red tape and fixing the banking system. As a consequence of the measures we have put in place, corporation tax in the UK will be down to 20% in 2015, the lowest in the G20, and our red tape challenge means that by the end of this Parliament there will be fewer regulatory burdens on businesses than there were when we came to power in 2010. All that is good for Welsh businesses, but if we are really to succeed, we need the Welsh Government to work with us here in Westminster.
In order to compete in a global market, we must also ensure that Wales has a highly skilled and educated work force. However, the recent PISA results, which my hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) quite properly touched on, show that in education Wales is sadly falling further behind the rest of the UK and is internationally uncompetitive. The First Minister recently admitted that the Welsh Government had taken their eye off the ball on education in Wales. Well, admission of fault is a start, but what parents and employers now want to see, as my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan said, is an early start on improving educational outcomes in Wales.
Crucial to economic success is infrastructure. This Government recognise the importance of high-quality infrastructure in a modern economy. Despite the difficult economic circumstances we inherited, we have made it a priority to invest in infrastructure upgrade. We have invested in energy, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn kindly acknowledged, in transport infrastructure, with the electrification of the south Wales railway lines, and in first-class broadband, with an announcement of £57 million of investment and, most recently, another £12 million to ensure that the hardest-to-reach locations will be served. Once completed, we will have achieved a truly remarkable transformation. Wales will be part of one of the finest broadband networks in Europe.
Hon. Members made a number of important points that I would like to deal with as far as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth is concerned about more powers for the Welsh Assembly, which I found quite surprising, coming from him. Nevertheless, we will shortly introduce the Wales Bill, which will give additional powers to the Welsh Assembly and, most importantly, will introduce for the first time a degree of accountability on the part of the Welsh Government for the money they spend. That can only be a good thing, and was welcomed by several hon. Members.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) raised the important issue of legal highs. It is not new, and I remember raising precisely the same issue with his right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) when he was Home Secretary. This is a priority. We are working across Government and with delivery partners to tackle the elicit supply of and demand for legal highs. Legislation is only part of the solution and we are targeting those drugs on all fronts.
We are seeking to reduce demand by raising awareness of their dangers not only among those who take them, but among family members and parents in particular, making it difficult to obtain and supply them, and ensuring that statutory services can provide effective treatment and recovery. I do not in any way seek to downplay the significance of the problem. I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this important issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) raised the issue of mid-Wales. He said that it needs better treatment, and that it is a battle to develop awareness of it. As someone who is married to a lady from mid-Wales, I would not seek to overlook that part of the world. I agree with him entirely about cross-border routes which, as he knows, we are working on.
The hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) also spoke about legal highs, and raised the important issues of Avana bakeries and the Orb steelworks on which my office is engaged, as she knows. I fully understand the concern she expressed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) raised the issue of the recent storm damage and specifically whether the Assembly Government had made a request for assistance under the EU solidarity fund. Some inquiries were made by the Assembly Government with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but no direct request for assistance was made.
The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) raised the important issue of exclusions. I refer him to a constituent of mine, Colette Ryan, a teacher at ysgol Emrys ap Iwan in Abergele and an inspirational lady. I would be pleased to discuss the matter with him at a later time.
There were other important contributions and I apologise to hon. Members for not dealing with them specifically because of shortage of time. I am sure that hon. Members across the House are united in their desire that Wales should become more prosperous, more successful and, most of all, that we should continue to be proud to be Welsh.
May I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, a canny Scot with an English constituency, for impartially overseeing our debate on Welsh affairs? I was proud to move the debate and to be a co-sponsor with the hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who could not be with us today because of a pre-arranged engagement.
We had 12 Back-Bench contributions and two Front-Bench winding-up speeches, all of them valuable. The debate was over-subscribed, which is proof that we need an annual full-day Welsh debate in the House. The Leader of the House is in his place and taking the issues on board.
I teased the Chamber about the anti-European views of Conservative Back Benchers and the pro-independence view of Plaid Cymru. The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) did not disappoint in his contribution. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) suggested that Welsh Members are victims. I see us as full participants, not victims in any way.
When the Secretary of State talked about broadband in Wales, he gave a great example of where the Welsh Government are leading on such matters, working with the UK Government, with funds from the European Union, and with the private sector. We are all working together for the good of Wales. We in this House must be proud of our Welshness and of the fact that we are an integral part of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, as well as pro-Europeans. In May, if you want a pro-Welsh, pro-British, pro-European party, vote Labour.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Welsh affairs.