HC Deb 12 March 2003 vol 401 cc346-96
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

I have now to announce the result of the Division deferred from a previous day.

On the Question of social security, the Ayes were 279, the Noes 58, so the Question was agreed to.

[The Division Lists are published at the end of today's debates.]

3.48 pm
Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right to mention the growth in the Welsh economy that has taken place during the last five or six years. He was also right to mention the dramatic fall in unemployment that has occurred in most of our constituencies. In Llanelli it is now half the level in Germany, and I suspect that the same applies in many if not most constituencies.

My right hon. Friend was courageous to point out that economies in the euro area are in a much worse state. I believe that when he was a full-time Foreign Office Minister he used to travel around Wales extolling the virtues of the euro; but the Welsh, being sensible people, did not really listen.

We have better growth than the euro area partly—perhaps wholly—because of the Government's policies and the sensible economic policies of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, we have not solved all of Wales's economic problems, and no one believes that we have done so. We cannot solve in a short time the problems of a country whose infrastructure was built up over 100 years, but practically disappeared within 10 years; however, a good start has been made. We were told during the Assembly elections that it was to be an economic powerhouse. Without wishing to show any disrespect to it, that was one of the more exaggerated statements that were made. Sadly, these days no Government can be an economic powerhouse, given the global economy, the constant pressure on costs and the movement of industry to low-cost areas. It is far more difficult than it was in the 1940s or 1950s for a Government to interfere or intervene, in order to rebuild an economy such as Wales's; however, a good start has been made.

On the other hand, we should not fool ourselves: Wales is still one of the poorer areas of Britain. Some four or five years ago, I looked at budget figures showing the income raised and expenditure spent in Wales. Those figures will have changed, but I doubt whether the underlying position will have changed very much. On taking a percentage of the gross domestic product from those figures, the difference between income raised and expenditure spent—the Maastricht-type deficit-was 15 per cent. One does not have to be a slavish follower of balanced budgets or of the growth and stability pact to know that Wales on its own—I am not making a political point—simply could not finance or sustain a deficit of 15 per cent. It saddens me, as it undoubtedly saddens most of us, to note that according to the figures, Wales still has such a substantial deficit. One priority for the future should be to try to increase the wealth generated in Wales, and thereby to try to fund more of our public expenditure within Wales.

There are those who want to change the Barnett formula. I have no objection to that, although I have yet to see any positive alternatives. I suspect that those who want to change it are looking to obtain more money for Wales—I doubt whether they would be very happy if a new formula produced less money—but were we so to change it, the 15 per cent. deficit would undoubtedly increase. In the past four or five years, public expenditure in Wales has probably grown by between 4 and 5 per cent.; in the next few years, it will certainly grow by that amount. The economy is growing by 2 to 2.5 per cent, so I suspect that current figures would show that the deficit is even higher than 15 per cent. I am not saying that that should not be the case, but that is the reality of the position in Wales. We could use that as the benchmark in examining the progress of the Welsh economy, in order to establish whether it is improving.

Leaving aside the economic consequences of such a deficit, there are also constitutional consequences. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned increasing the powers of the Welsh Assembly. In looking at that issue—as the Richard commission is—we must also consider the financing behind it, because in effect, there would be a considerable democratic deficit. If we transfer more power from this Parliament to the Assembly in Cardiff bay, it will spend more money but we will have no control over how it is spent. Yet much of the money that will be spent in Cardiff bay is raised not in Wales, but by taxpayers in other parts of the United Kingdom, and although Members such as I represent Welsh constituencies, we represent those people as well. I doubt whether it would benefit Wales to have such a total dependency culture. Nor would it benefit democracy if we in this House, who have to vote on the use of other people's money, were not to be consulted at all, and the money were simply transferred.

I hope that the Richard commission will take that into account. I am not suggesting that one cannot change various anomalies, but major transfers of power from this House to the Welsh Assembly must take account of the economic democratic deficit that would be created because Wales does not raise enough money to finance public expenditure.

The main consequence of that deficit is that we must make every effort to increase wealth in Wales so as to produce more income to pay for our infrastructure. That is not easy: we are an economy that depends heavily on public expenditure. I am not proposing cuts in that expenditure, as we have to have it, but the growth in public expenditure in the past few years has probably been greater than the growth of the economy. Expenditure on health and education has grown, but the growth in welfare expenditure—such as income support, housing benefit and the working families tax credit—reflects the relative poverty of the Welsh economy.

We all welcome the working families tax credit. It is needed in Wales, which has a low income base. However, it subsidises our fairly low wages, and I do not believe that it is sustainable in the medium or long term. Governments sometimes have to retrench. Recessions happen, not necessarily for internal reasons. An economy that is so dependent on what may be called subvention payments, however necessary, does not promise to be sustainable in the future.

I hope that we do not get carried away with the growth that has been achieved. I am sure that we will not. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right to point out the successes, but we need more companies in Wales that make more money and create wealth. Of course, we need the public expenditure as well, but on its own that will not provide the wealth creation that the market sometimes can produce.

One area of growth in the Welsh economy is quangoland. We have quangos, executive agencies, non-governmental public bodies and governmental public bodies, although all of them exist throughout Britain, not just in Wales. We also have a strange entity that I find difficult to understand—the not-for-profit company. I am sure that other hon. Members receive in their mail from time to time glossy sheets of paper describing the creation of another new not-for-profit company. Such sheets usually have lots of logos at the bottom, saying that the new not-for-profit company is in partnership with lots of other such companies.

I am not sure what not-for-profit companies do. I do not know whether they spend their money wisely, and I am not sure about their accountability, but the not-for-profit company is a very post-modern, new-Labourish concept. What Wales needs is profit companies, not—and I hope that the House will excuse the double negative—not-for-profit ones.

Still, not-for-profit companies exist, and no doubt some perform a useful function. However, they do not come on their own. I am told that they come with social entrepreneurs—another concept that I, in my old-fashioned way, find difficult to understand. I suppose that the social entrepreneur is another post-modern, new-Labourish concept. I suspect that many are more social than entrepreneurial, as they are receptacles for much Government money.

There is no doubt that we must keep our eye on the growth of bureaucracy in Wales. We are a country that loves the committee, and the partnership fits into our culture nicely. We love to sit down and talk about such things, but we must be careful and remember the need for wealth creation.

Whatever their faults, the mining industry, the steel industry and the manufacturing and farming sectors created wealth in Wales. Somehow or other, we must make sure that we get into the new wealth-creating industries and we should not believe that by distributing money to all the various bodies that I have described, we will, in the end, improve the basis on which the Welsh economy is built.

Mr. Simon Thomas

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about getting wealth-creating companies into Wales, but we must ensure that that wealth is not sucked out of Wales, as happened in the past. The right hon. Gentleman mentions mining, steel and farming, but the money from those sectors went out of Wales and into other institutions. The one valid job that we have—whether in an Assembly or a Parliament in Wales—is to ensure that that money is retained within the Welsh economy.

Denzil Davies

I accept much of what the hon. Gentleman says. Much of the investment in mining, steel and iron was made by people who came from outside Wales; naturally, they took their dividends back to where they came from. It is certainly important that we try to generate local Welsh industries to produce the wealth to fund infrastructure and public expenditure. A good start has been made but we must not get carried away. There is much still to be done.

4 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I intend to talk about health and the economy. First, I refer Members to Labour's 1999 manifesto and the pledges therein. Many have said that those pledges were hostages to fortune—there were no ifs or buts—because they announced that by the end of the Assembly term, no one would wait more than six months for their first out-patient appointment. In 1999, the figure was 21,828; today it is 82,574. The manifesto said that no one would have to wait more than 18 months for in-patient treatment. In 1999, the figure was 2,197; it is now 4,715. Targets are supposed to be attainable. The doubling or quadrupling of waiting lists is not acceptable, and breaking a promise to end waiting lists is not acceptable. It was probably not possible to meet the 1999 manifesto promise and, perhaps, it was misleading, but the increased waiting times are catastrophic failures, condemning thousands to wait in pain and misery. At last week's Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister proudly said that we have a situation whereby there is not a single waiting list national indicator, in-patient or out-patient, that is not better than it was in 1997." —[Official Report, 5 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 812.] He was talking about the situation in England.

Waiting lists in the health service are not the only problem. The number of NHS beds has fallen every year since the Assembly came into being, a drop of about 300 over that period. There are fewer full-time GPs in Wales, with vacancies for 130. We need to train 200 a year to replace those who are retiring or leaving; currently the level is 120. Things are improving slowly and, with the new training facility at Swansea, I hope that they will improve further, but we are struggling against a strong tide of disaffected NHS workers.

Albert Owen

The hon. Gentleman says that things are improving. Will he acknowledge that he is talking about an all-Wales situation and that, in north Wales, the situation is a lot better than in the rest of Wales? He is doing his and my constituents a disservice by talking down that area when they are working hard and providing excellent services in comparison with the rest of Wales.

Mr. Llwyd

I am trying to speak on an all-Wales basis, as the hon. Gentleman said. I will not go into figures about north Wales because I am not utterly sure—

Albert Owen

They are better.

Mr. Llwyd

I accept that he says that there is an improvement.

We in Plaid Cymru believe that health is as much about well-being as about illness; therefore, we need to have a revolution in the way we think about health. It follows that we cannot expect the Department of Health alone in Government to do all that is necessary for Wales to ensure that it is a healthy country. Health and social services are resources of the community and the community is a resource in terms of the aims of health and social services.

I shall suggest some things that might happen after I May to improve the position. We should put in place retention and recruitment measures for health professionals, including nurses, dentists, GPs and consultants. We should end the current Government's target culture, which merely steers funds away from more long-term strategic planning and empowers the system operating over the patient in such a way that it perpetuates the vicious cycle of poor services.

We should practise aggressive health promotion to prevent disease and illness and focus on primary care, since, of course, 90 per cent of care is delivered at this level. We need to direct strategy and funding towards community-based organisations and initiatives, including incorporation of the voluntary sector into national administration and planning. Of course, we must urgently tackle the "inverse care law", which means that those who most need care are least likely, under the present circumstances, to have it.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Llwyd

I am moving on to talk about the economy, and I regret that I will not take another intervention at this stage.

The First Minster of the National Assembly was proud to boast in November last year that 33,000 jobs have been created in Wales since November 2001. That figure dropped by 8,000 to 25,000 when he was quoted a few days later in the The Western Mail. Be that as it may. In 1998, the average wage in Wales was 89 per cent. Of the UK average. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State, and agreed with much of what he said about the economy generally. Welsh workers, however, are getting 11 per cent. less than other workers in the UK. By the end of 2002, the level of their pay was worse: just 86 per cent. of the average. If we translate that into hard facts, a 3 per cent. decline has cost us about £100 a month each. If the First Minister's Government had kept things as they were, the average Welsh worker would be£25 a week better off. That is the true cost of this Government's current economic strategy.

What of the 17,000 manufacturing jobs that have been lost in Wales since 1999? The true cost of that is seen in the appalling statistic that, unfortunately, a third of Welsh children now live below the poverty threshold, five years after the Labour Government said that that would be tackled properly. Labour still pretends to look after the socially inept and socially excluded, but voting Labour has an economic and social cost. The gap between the rich and poor in Britain is widening. Welsh gross domestic product figures show that, per capita, the current figure of 82 per cent. of the European average is likely to drop even further during the next few years.

The Welsh Assembly Government have based their economic targets almost entirely on narrowing the gap in economic prosperity between Wales and the rest of the UK. The Chancellor refuses to acknowledge the regional need, and refuses full Treasury match funding under objective 1. I know that there have been arguments in the past about that, and there will undoubtedly be arguments about it in future. The hard fact, however, which anyone in any political party in the National Assembly will admit, is that full match funding is not occurring. We are not drawing down sufficient money, and we are not taking advantage of objective 1 as we could do.

That means that Wales is forced to find from its own finances-the health, education and social services budget-about £100 million a year to finance objective 1. There is neither match funding for objective 1 from the Treasury nor operating aids as an additional tool that would stimulate business growth in objective 1 areas. Despite the constant boasting, nothing has transpired from the current co-operation between London Labour and Cardiff Labour. The Westminster Labour Government continue to ignore the needs of Wales, as did previous Tory Governments. To rub salt in the wound, it is the Welsh Labour Government who reject a regional economic policy in Wales. There are neither regional direction nor regional employment targets.

The main aim of objective 1 and "A Winning Wales" is to increase comparative levels of GDP. No official statistics are available for Wales since 1999, however, which is disgraceful. That suits London Labour, of course, because the regional GDP figures remind everyone of the inequalities in the UK economy. It also suits the objective of Cardiff Labour, because every independent report indicates that, in spite of objective 1 status, the gap is widening between Wales's GDP per capita and that of the rest of the UK, and that the coalition has failed to change that.

The Chancellor was a strong supporter of the regions, and he probably still is. When he was in opposition, he regularly and tirelessly requested information about regional selective assistance from the Conservative Government. Unfortunately, that is no longer any concern of his. Payouts in 1997–98, when Labour came to power, were £295 million, two and a half times the estimated figure for 2002£03. The share of regionally targeted business support won by Scotland and Wales has fallen sharply in the past 10 years.

Before somebody asks what can be done, I suggest—in the cross-party way in which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) always deals with such matters—the following points for consideration. Plaid Cymru believes that we should create seven economic regions in Wales, more appropriately reflecting the economic and social patterns, and develop a sustainable economic development strategy in each region, together with set job targets. Within each region, we should identify special development centres that will provide the focus for economic growth in the area. That should give people quality job opportunities, provide social infrastructure and help to stem the outflow of young people. They frequently end up in Cardiff, which is that city's gain but the rural areas lose out.

Albert Owen

The hon. Gentleman mentions a difference between London Labour and Cardiff Labour, but is there not a difference between London Plaid Cymru and Cardiff Plaid Cymru? The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who is not in his place, proposed that we move the capital of the United Kingdom to Liverpool. Is the hon. Gentleman proposing that we should move the capital city of Wales to Caergybi or Anglesey?

Mr. Llwyd

The hon. Gentleman knows that the comments made by my hon. Friend were not serious. If the hon. Gentleman had taken enough of an interest to read my hon. Friend's point in context, he might have understood it. As usual, he was not there for the debate, but if he had been he might have understood the point.

Our vision is of creating some major counterpoints in Wales to provide a magnet effect for industry and to kick-start the economy in all parts of Wales. Some of us who have been here a while remember the arguments with the Welsh Development Agency and the need to shift inward investment from the south-east corridor and the north-east to west Wales and the rural areas. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) would agree with the need to do that, especially since the Development Board for Rural Wales has gone. Policies were amended and people said, "Yes, it will be done, it is now part of our policy and half the moneys and half the effort will be put into those areas." Precious little effort was put in. It was far too easy, for example, for somebody behind a desk in the WDA to say, for example, "There are 4,000 unemployed within travelling distance of Newport. Let's get the semi-conductor plant in and soak up 3,000 jobs immediately." That is good luck for Newport, but bad luck for the rest of Wales. In one stroke, that person would achieve his or her targets for the next 18 months. That happens too often. We need to look strategically at the needs of the whole of Wales, not just some sectors of it.

We should set up in the Assembly a jobs unit that would take over the strategic and policy-making roles of the WDA and ELWa—Education and Learning Wales. The latter is greatly discredited and I wonder what job it is doing at the moment. The jobs unit would identify areas and sectors of potential economic growth in each regions and set targets for job creation. We need to improve access to finance for businesses that will boost the Welsh economy—not just large amounts of finance, but smaller amounts as well. The problem with the current regime is that if someone wants a small loan from the WDA, it is not interested. The loans have to be big. Some 90 per cent. of businesses in Wales are in the small and medium sector: they do not want several million pounds but £10,000 or £20,000. That does not interest the people at WDA, and that is not good enough. We need to cater for everyone in the business sector. It is important to focus on home-grown, Wales-based businesses, so that we can provide the maximum benefit for the Welsh economy.

We need to identify businesses with high growth potential and focus specialist funding on them so as to create a base of 10 to 20 fast-growing Welsh companies. I agree with the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies) on that point. Wales has one listed company per 130,000 people, but Scotland, for example, has one for every 30,000 people. Scotland is doing considerably better. We need to identify high-growth sectors and to focus resources more effectively on developing businesses within those sectors. I am thinking of businesses in optoelectronics and auto electronics, high-quality food, renewable energy and sustainable tourism—for all of which Wales is well placed.

We need to get objective 1 funding back on track, cut the length of time for applications, cut the numbers of committees and partnerships, and get the thing moving, encouraging local firms to gain more and more public sector contracts. Hat could add £3 billion to the Welsh economy. We have to unlock the potential of the south Wales valleys and create a specific strategy for infrastructure, communications and environmental improvements to develop the valleys as an area of polycentric growth. We need to keep pushing for operating aids, which have been promised but not delivered by the Welsh Assembly Government. We will fight for Wales to receive the maximum possible operating aids to stimulate growth in indigenous businesses.

The unemployment situation in Wales has improved—it would be wrong of me to deny that—but much needs to be done. The figures for gross domestic product show that we are still slipping behind. The right hon. Member for Llanelli highlighted many things that have still to be done. It behoves us all to strive to close the gap so that no longer will we be the poor relations of the United Kingdom. One way of doing that will be to elect a Plaid Cymru Administration in Cardiff in May. At this moment, that seems extremely likely.

4.16 pm
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)

I apologise to right hon. and hon. Members for not being here for the opening speeches. This debate was changed from last week to this week, and I wrote to Mr. Speaker to point out that I was a Privy Council appointee to the disciplinary committee of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons—it was a quasi-judicial meeting that I was not able to leave.

I shall raise several issues, all of which are of great importance to Wales. I want to address the important principle of this House discussing more draft legislation for Wales. As Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, I believe that our Committee has some experience of those matters. I want to tell the House about some of the advantages that would derive from an extension to our discussions of primary legislation for Wales. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, the Health (Wales) Bill was an excellent start to the concept of draft legislation for Wales. The Welsh Affairs Committee was charged with providing the main pre-legislative scrutiny on behalf of this House. Even though I say it myself, the Committee did a good job of fulfilling the obligations set by the Government.

I pay tribute to the Health and Social Services Committee of the devolved National Assembly for Wales, which mirrored our responsibilities. All in all, the process was a huge success. It proved that Cardiff and Westminster can work in tandem in the interests of Wales and for the benefit of Wales. That is why more draft legislation would be welcome. The Welsh Affairs Committee greatly welcomed the chance to lead on the draft Health (Wales) Bill and now looks forward to fulfilling the same task on other draft bills.

In anticipation of the Government heeding my call, I would like to raise an issue that I have raised with the Serjeant at Arms in recent months, and will continue to press for. I would like this House to enter into a reciprocal arrangement with the National Assembly for Wales so that Members of both the Parliament and the Assembly may have security passes allowing them access to each other's buildings. Members may be interested to know that I and members of my Committee have security passes that allow us to gain access to the Assembly building in Cardiff. That came about because we spent a lot of time in the Assembly, taking evidence, meeting with Members and attending Committees. It makes excellent sense for MPs to have passes. Unfortunately, however, we cannot return the favour to Assembly Members. I find that very embarrassing. I am asking for a change not just as a reciprocal courtesy or a nicety, but as a practical convenience for Members of the Assembly who regularly visit this House on formal business. I look forward to the Secretary of State taking up this issue with the House authorities on behalf of Welsh Assembly Members. It is more than just a gesture; it is rapidly becoming a practical necessity. I look forward to a positive outcome.

I should like to give a brief outline of an element of work undertaken by the Welsh Affairs Committee that is not usually mentioned in the Chamber but, none the less, forms an important strand of scrutiny of the Executive by the House in respect of Wales. I refer to my Committee's scrutiny of the Wales Office's annual departmental report. As hon. Members know, a core function of the Committee is to take evidence on the departmental report. Unfortunately, for the sake of this annual debate, the report is invariably published nearly 12 months too late. I assure the House, however, that my Committee takes evidence on matters contained in the report and questions the Secretary of State closely on matters as they affect Wales.

For example, following the publication of last year's report, the then Secretary of State answered questions on Corus's restructuring of steel production in Wales. Sadly, that is a topical subject following the news that broke earlier this week. We also questioned him on how he monitored the potential impact on Wales of Bills introduced in the House. Other subjects included the Wales and Border rail franchise; post offices in Wales—both urban and rural; and the Welsh language scheme. As the House can see, they are all issues of great importance, and I look forward to the publication of the current Secretary of State's first report, which I hope we will receive in the not-too-distant future.

It may surprise some of my hon. Friends if I offer thanks to a Welsh nationalist Member, the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), who is sadly not in his place. I was recently successful in securing a Westminster Hall Adjournment debate on employment in north Wales in which the hon. Gentleman and I had an interesting exchange about call centre jobs in Caernarfon. To put it in a nutshell, he complained that his constituency was not attracting enough call centre jobs. I intervened in his speech helpfully to point out that that was probably because the call centre companies had commissioned market research and concluded that some regional accents are more user-friendly than others. The fact that there is only one call centre in Caernarfon has nothing to do with Government policy and more to do with what the companies that run call centres perceive to be acceptable. My Committee initially discovered the research when it took evidence in our investigation of inward investment in Wales.

Interestingly, after the Westminster Hall debate the hon. Member for Caernarfon took it upon himself to rush out a press release to local newspapers castigating me for being less than generous about the Caernarfon accent and alleging that I had said that it was "second class". If he senses some reluctance on the part of inward investors to put their money into north-west Wales, I suggest to him in all sincerity—

Mr. Llwyd

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has been here a long while, but evidently does not understand much about how this place works. If he is going to attack my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), should he not have given notice of that?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It would certainly be in accordance with the conventions and etiquette of the House to give notice in advance if sharp, critical comments are to be made about another Member. No doubt, the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) will consider his remarks in the light of that ruling.

Mr. Jones

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that ruling. I did not think I was making sharp comments about the hon. Member for Caernarfon; I was defending my position on the matter. The hon. Gentleman was in his place but left as I got up to speak, so I am embarrassed by his absence rather than by the fact that I was raising the matter. I had assumed that he would be here, but he has left the Chamber. I apologise for the fact that he did not know that I was about to mention him in my speech, but it is difficult for me to anticipate his movements.

I was trying to point out that the reluctance of inward investors to put their money into north Wales had nothing to do with accents, but more to do with extremist members of Plaid Cymru and others—I do not include the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) in this—who espouse anti-incomer and anti-English views to their economic detriment.

Mr. Simon Thomas

The hon. Gentleman said that he was not present for the opening speeches. Had he been present, he would have heard me intervene on the Secretary of State to point out that an independent review by the GMB judged the Plaid Cymru-controlled authority of Gwynedd, which I think is the area to which he is referring, as having the third or second best rate of economic development in the country. His calumnious words have no basis in fact whatsoever. He should know that a new call centre has just opened in Caernarfon selling books throughout the United Kingdom.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We might try to steer the debate into calmer waters. Mr. Speaker accepted what the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) told him about needing to be absent. Considering the hon. Gentleman's seniority and role in Welsh affairs, it was perfectly proper to call him at the time that he was called. He has said nothing in reference to hon. Members that I judged to be out of order, although I always appeal for moderation of language at any time.

Mr. Jones

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I find the intervention by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) rather strange. I was making the point that in my Westminster Hall debate, the hon. Member for Caernarfon did not acknowledge that there was a huge upturn in economic activity—in fact, he did precisely the opposite. I am sorry that he is not present, but he did not even acknowledge what the hon. Member for Ceredigion just confirmed. There has been a huge amount of economic investment, but it happened under the Labour Government. It was churlish of the hon. Member for Caernarfon not to do that because the debate was about economic development and unemployment in Wales.

Youth unemployment in Caernarfon has gone down by 89 per cent. Caernarfon has done better than my constituency, which has experienced a reduction of 85 per cent. Caernarfon's overall unemployment rate has gone down by 43 per cent., which is better than that of my constituency, which has gone down by 31 per cent. However, the hon. Member for Caernarfon implied that that was not good enough. He must accept that we have a right to find out why he thinks that things could be better.

Mrs. Lawrence

What does my hon. Friend think about Plaid Cymru's alternative budget, published on 11 April 2002? It proposes abolishing the upper limit for national insurance contributions, restricting personal allowances to the standard rate, introducing a new 50 per cent. top rate on taxable income, and increasing the basic rate of income tax. Does he think that that will assist economic development in Wales generally?

Mr. Jones

Obviously I do not think that it would, but the document implies that Plaid Cymru would tax the rest of the UK just to fund investment in Wales. Given the party's separatist agenda of splitting Wales from the UK, I doubt whether the UK Government would allow the input of £13 billion from the Exchequer to Wales. Plaid Cymru Members would spend their time better by persuading those in their back yards to let go of the 1930s attitude of the founder of Welsh nationalism, Saunders Lewis. He hated the English-peaking people of these islands and had regular con tact with Mussolini.

Paul Flynn

Having been taught by Saunders Lewis—I think that I am one of the few people in the House who knew him—I recognise him as one of the greatest literary figures in Wales. He was a man of genius and vision, and such slurs are cheap and unworthy of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Jones

I was talking not about Saunders Lewis's literary abilities but about his contact with nationalist movements in Europe. That has nothing to do with his writing, which I am sure is very good.

On the antics of the nationalists, a headline in The Sunday Times of 2 March screamed at readers, "Rail union plans to ditch Labour and fund Plaid Cymru". The article went on to say: Britain's biggest rail union is preparing to sever a century-old link with Labour". I shall not read it all because the story turned out to be absolute rubbish. I asked my office to contact the RMT last week about its intention to ditch Labour and fund Plaid Cymru". The reply was most interesting. My office was told unequivocally: It is complete codswallop! There is absolutely no substance to that story!

Albert Owen

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. Jones

I am afraid that I cannot, as I am about to be cut off.

If the nationalists are mounting a charm offensive on the unions, they should not tell untruths about senior union leaders, especially two weeks before such leaders are due to speak at their conference at their invitation. If the nationalists wants to be seen as donning the mantle of the people's party in Wales, they clearly have a great deal to learn.

4.30 pm
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I am sure that he would be delighted to attend our conference on Saturday in Llangollen in his constituency, where he would hear for himself the words of the RMT leader, who could explain exactly his views on the future funding of the Labour party.

Mr. Martyn Jones

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman so early in his speech. I am grateful to him for telling me that, because neither he nor any of his hon. Friends had told me that they were going to my constituency on that day. If he issues an invitation and he tells me where, I shall be delighted to welcome him to my constituency.

Mr. Thomas

That was an invitation. I should be delighted to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the conference—despite the fact that that part of Llangollen will be Plaid Cymru territory for a short period. I am sure that he recognises that before Saturday there are still several days in which right hon. and hon. Members could have given him notice of their presence in the town.

I am delighted to follow the hon. Gentleman not because of what he said, most of which was absolute rubbish, but because I want to talk about a feature of the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee. Hon. Members who have served in this House much longer than I—possibly including the hon. Gentleman—will remember that about 10 years ago the Committee conducted an investigation into planning policy in Ceredigion. As a result, for the past seven or eight years, planning decisions that are out of line with the county of Ceredigion's local plan have been referred latterly to the Welsh Assembly and previously to the Secretary of State. That is in recognition of Ceredigion county council's failure to uphold planning policy and to act in accordance with planning guidelines. In the next few minutes, I shall explain to the House that the situation has not improved since the Committee's report. Indeed, it is about to worsen considerably.

The collusion cabinet in Ceredigion—I would not call it a coalition—led by the independents but, unfortunately, supported by the Liberal Democrats has just produced a unitary development plan for the county that utterly fails to take into account the county's needs and the views expressed by its residents. We have had a draft version and then a deposited version of the plan, to which about 10,000 objections were made. The independents and the Liberal Democrats who try to run Ceredigion county council have failed to accept any of those objections and have pressed on regardless with a unitary development plan that the vast majority of residents hold in contempt.

It is worth hon. Members hearing a little of the reasoning—mine, at least—behind why those councillors are prepared to continue with a development plan that is so unacceptable to the people of Ceredigion.

Mr. Roger Williams

I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman has said about the preparation of the unitary development plan in Ceredigion. Will not it reach a public inquiry at which people's objections can be heard by an independent inspector?

Mr. Thomas

It will; I look forward to that public inquiry and to hearing the councillors' justification for their proposals. However, the hon. Gentleman surely would not close out the need for a democratic process before a public inquiry. Any responsible local authority should hear the views of its local people, especially when they are forcefully expressed in such numbers. I am sure that he would not wish to ignore that.

I believe the process by which the unitary development plan has been arrived at in my county to be fundamentally corrupt—and I use my words advisedly. There has been a distortion of the planning process to the benefit, real and potential, of individuals. Those individuals happen to be councillors, so we must ask who will benefit from the plan in Ceredigion.

Lembit Öpik

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas

Not at the moment, I regret, but perhaps if I have time later.

The planning process arrived at the conclusion that 6,500 new homes were needed in Ceredigion by 2016. How can a rural county support 6,500 new homes? What effect will that have on Welsh-speaking communities? What proportion of those new homes has been designed for local need? What proportion has been designed for social need? What proportion has been designed to go with economic development? What proportion has been designed to meet the needs of the student population in Ceredigion? All those questions need to be considered when we examine the unitary development plan for the county.

The matter was the subject of an expose on "Week In, Week Out". We in Ceredigion are all grateful to the BBC for that expose on the planning processes that led up to the unitary development plan. How was it that so much extra land was allocated for housing in Ceredigion, and by what process was the figure of 6,500 new homes arrived at?

I held a public meeting with the leader of the council, Councillor Dai Lloyd Evans. The meeting was called by the Farmers Union of Wales, which opposed the plans; when farmers oppose land allocation plans, one knows that something needs looking at. At the meeting, the local planning process was explained: local councillors walked round their wards with the planning officer and identified the land that would be good for housing. That was then put into the local plan for development. The council took the plan forward as the deposit version, and the whole council agreed the plans for the entire county.

There are two fundamental problems with that, which is why I say that the whole process has been corrupt. First, local councillors who went round their wards allocating land for housing had some of their own land allocated for housing. They did not declare an interest until after the whole plan was approved and discussed at individual ward level. My argument is that they should have declared an interest when they first allocated land that included their own land for housing development in Ceredigion.

Secondly, the process is a nightmare. As any hon. Member knows, there is a local needs assessment planning process with guidelines from the National Assembly for Wales, which looks at local needs in terms of communities, and builds up from that the overall housing needs of the county. In the case of Ceredigion, one cannot depend on people of a certain age who have fought uncontested elections for the past 30 years deciding what proportion of land in the county should be allocated for housing, particularly when that land includes their own.

That land included the council leader's own land. He allocated for development land in his ward that he owned, and told the "Week In, Week Out" programme that he saw nothing wrong with councillors making money on the back of land that was being developed under the local plan. That was before he had declared an interest in that land. The process has, therefore, been corrupt from beginning to end.

Lembit Öpik

I would be interested in having a conversation with the hon. Gentleman outside. Can he confirm, for the record and for the avoidance of doubt, that he is not referring to a Liberal Democrat councillor? I should be grateful if he would make that clear.

Mr. Thomas

I made it clear who ran the local authority in Ceredigion. I have named only one councillor so far. The record will show that he is an independent councillor. Whether Liberal Democrats had land allocated in any ward for housing is a matter for the record to show. I do not intend to speak about that.

In an attempt to throw some light on a difficult situation, I have commissioned an independent report on the unitary development plan in Ceredigion, which I hope to publish next week. The report has been written by Mark Tewdwr-Jones, who, as many hon. Members know, is one of the foremost authorities in planning issues in Wales. He is a reader in spatial development at the Bartlett school of planning at University college London and has recently worked on two projects for the National Assembly for Wales. One of the projects dealt with second homes and he is currently working on a language planning project. His examination of the plan is fairly forensic. Although it is not yet available in its full version, it would be useful for me to tell the House what it has revealed to date.

First, the report has revealed that no local housing needs assessment has been made, as I have already alleged. Secondly, it points out that the local plan produced by Ceredigion depends on things called language impact assessments to protect rural communities. It says that those assessments as yet have no basis in planning policy and that Ceredigion county council has done no assessment of how they might work in that context. Thirdly, the report points out that Ceredigion has used something called the Norfolk model for working out student numbers in the county, but has not detailed how that model, which is literally a model from Norfolk, can work in an such an area.Finally—this is important not least in terms of socialjustice—the report has shown that the unitary development plan sets out no information about how much housing should be set aside as social or low-income housing or for the needs of local communities.

In other words, a huge amount of land—sufficient to provide more than the 6,500 houses to which the local development plan refers—has been set aside without any allocation whatever on the basis of local need. The expectation and fear is that that land will simply be developed in a piecemeal way with maximum profit for the landowner and minimum benefit to the local community.

The unitary development plan has now gone to the National Assembly, which has placed several formal objections, as indeed has the Welsh Language Board. I understand that the plan was very close to being called in by Sue Essex, as the environment and local government Minister, because she was so concerned about some elements of it. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) intimated, there will almost certainly be a public inquiry into the plan. More to the point, however, is the fact that that whole process will not happen until next April or May. Of course, that is when local government elections will occur both in Ceredigion and Wales as a whole and when a different Administration will—I hope—take over in Ceredigion and throw this ridiculous plan out on its sorry backside.

There is one final sorry chapter in the history of the plan: the use of public office by Cabinet members in Ceredigion county council—and by one councillor, Ray Quant, in particular—to carry out a nasty political witch hunt against the Plaid Cymru leader on Ceredigion county council, Councillor Penri James. Councillor James was accused of breaking an agricultural restriction on his home. Indeed, the county council began enforcement action against him, and him only, out of 500-odd people in Ceredigion who were in the same position. The local government ombudsman investigated the matter and Councillor James was cleared. The officers eventually saw sense and reined back their more extreme councillors, and enforcement action was not taken against him. Unfortunately, however, the campaign of personal vilification against him has continued in the press in a series of letters from Councillor Quant. That has served only to besmirch and reduce public trust in the whole planning process in Ceredigion.

The House has previously examined in detail, through the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the planning processes in Ceredigion and found them severely wanting. I think that it is appropriate and right for me again to bring before the House on the occasion of this Welsh affairs debate the fact that things have not improved. I remind hon. Members in all parts of the House that the same individuals are involved and that the council leader who was found so wanting 10 years ago is the same one whom we now find wanting in the planning process. The Under-Secretary used to have responsibility for planning in Wales and, although he no longer has such direct responsibility, he has a direct line into the Assembly. I ask him to ensure that he is fully appraised of developments in Ceredigion and to talk to Sue Essex as the Assembly Member responsible for those matters in Ceredigion. I ask him to ensure one thing. Whatever happens in the planning process in Ceredigion and in the final decision on allocating X amount of houses or land—it is important that we allocate new land for housing—I ask him to ensure that that process is seen to be above board, and above all else, is seen not to involve personal gain at the expense of our communities.

4.45 pm
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

It is a privilege to be able to contribute, albeit briefly, to this important St. David's day debate. I want to start by repeating the comments of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who said that as this is a Welsh affairs debate we should all be mindful of the Welsh service men and women who are in the Gulf. We all hope that they will not be engaged in military action, but if they are our thoughts will be with them.

I intend to focus on the subject of Y Ddraig Goch, or the red dragon—not the red dragon on our national flag, but the Red Dragon project in my constituency—but I want first to talk about one or two points that have arisen so far.

I agree with the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about how great it is to be Welsh and the success that we have recently enjoyed in Wales. One cannot open a newspaper without seeing a great Welsh film star or pop star—or even a great Archbishop of Canterbury. We should also recognise that that success attracts other success, and pay tribute to the adopted Welshmen who chose Wales instead of other countries. The name that comes to mind is that of John Fashanu, that well known Nigerian ambassador for sport and first-class soccer player, who could have had the choice of several Premier league or higher division clubs, but chose, just before Christmas, Barry Town football club—an excellent choice.

Lembit Öpik

Will the hon. Gentleman celebrate the BBC's decision to broadcast League of Wales football scores on "Grandstand" for the first time in the history of Wales, which was the result of a campaign run by myself and the BBC all-party group?

Mr. Smith

Given Barry's position in the league, I naturally welcome that decision.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State talked about the great economic success that we have enjoyed in Wales over the past five years. That is undeniable. Unemployment has decreased and opportunities have increased, and a huge redistribution has taken place through a combination of the introduction of the working families tax credit and the minimum wage. That has affected Wales enormously owing to its weak position in terms of incomes compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. We have benefited more than practically any other region of Britain except Northern Ireland. It has been a hugely successful policy.

In one area, however, we have not done enough. Welsh people who work are the hardest-working people in the whole of Europe. They work longer hours and have fewer holidays. Trade union rights have been improved—that is right, and they should continue to improve—but it is time we addressed the issue of holidays. As this is a St. David's day debate, I return to the subject of a public holiday on St. David's day. We can use any excuse to give Welsh workers more time off, because they deserve it—they should have more leisure time and more time with their families—but what better reason is there for doing that than to celebrate our patron saint?

Mr. Roger Williams

Would not one of the best excuses to give Welsh working people a holiday be the fact that it is a Liberal Democrat policy in the partnership Government of Wales?

Mr. Smith

Had I known that, I might have thought twice about suggesting it. However, this is an important matter. The Minister will be interested to hear that on St. David's day itself, on Saturday, I carried out a poll among my constituents, and there was a 100 per cent. response in favour of the call for a public holiday on St. David's day. I am sure that he will take that into consideration.

We have introduced some huge benefits, including the minimum income guarantee for our pensioners, the working families tax credit and one that has been very important for my constituents—the stamp duty exemption in less-favoured areas. Five wards in my constituency have benefited directly from that exemption, but unfortunately many of my constituents, like those of other hon. Members, have been unable to do so because the Inland Revenue, through its website and in response to telephone inquiries, continues to issue the advice that they are ineligible—because it is using out-of-date postcodes. There have been scores of inquiries in my constituency and we have recovered thousands of pounds for people who purchased houses since November 2001. We should take that matter up with the Treasury to ensure that people benefit from that exemption.

Another important matter for Wales was the announcement last week by the Department of Transport that for the first time, the Civil Aviation Authority is to be given a statutory responsibility for the health of airline passengers. I understand that this is the first time that such a responsibility has been given to an aviation regulator anywhere in the world. It is especially welcome in Wales, as two years ago the tragic deaths of a number of young Welsh people raised public concern about the problem of deep vein thrombosis among long-haul air travellers. I am thinking of the tragic deaths of young Emma Christoferson, as a result of a return flight from Australia, and of my constituent John Thomas, while returning from his honeymoon in Honolulu. That case began my involvement with the DVT campaign two years ago, although I knew little about the condition at that time.

The steps that the Government have taken are welcome. They have also announced the creation of an aviation health unit at CAA Gatwick, to be funded by a levy on the aviation industry and the airlines. The budget of £200,000 a year is modest, but it will ensure that there is a focus on public health concerns. The unit will be the first port of call for people who have concerns. Those steps are modest but they will be important in enabling us to discover the extent, incidence and causes of thrombo-embolic disease among air passengers, which is also the purpose of our campaign. We are still a long way from discovering those things because the necessary research has not yet even begun. I hope that it soon will.

My main focus is on the announcement on Tuesday 25 February of the go-ahead for the red dragon project at RAF St. Athan in my constituency. The project is not purely parochial; the benefits will spread throughout Wales. We shall all be able to take advantage of the project.

The decision was courageous; the project is the first of its type in the world, and there was a great deal of difficulty in obtaining Treasury approval. The Defence Aviation Repair Agency, made up of NARO, the Naval Aircraft Repair Organisation, and MGDA, the RAF Maintenance Group Defence Agency, achieved trading fund status in 1999. In April 2004 it will become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence, trading on the open market. It will no longer be dependent on vote money but will operate entirely on customer income. The organisation will be owned by the MOD, but run purely on commercial lines.

Getting the organisation together has been a long haul; it has taken five years and there have been many obstacles. It could not have been achieved without devolution, without the crucial role played by the Welsh Assembly Government. Interdepartmental differences in Whitehall would have delayed the necessary decisions indefinitely. However, the ability to work in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Minister for Economic Development, Andrew Davies, and with the Welsh Development Agency, which played a crucial role in bringing the project into being, has allowed it to happen.

The project will turn the biggest military base in the whole of Europe, a 1,000 acre development, into a unique aeroplane hangar—a superhangar. It will cost £80 million, and the work has already started. It started as the marquee came down the other Tuesday morning. There will not be another hangar like it in the world. It will not only be capable of taking in up to 47 fast jets for repair, but will be adaptable to take just about any aircraft, from a C-130J at one extreme to small helicopters or commercial planes—Boeing 737s would fit into it—at the other. It will be able to meet any demand in the military aviation market.

Alongside the hangar, an aviation business park will be built on this gigantic air force base, which had become largely redundant under the cuts made by the Conservative Government, who reduced defence spending by more than 30 per cent. In real terms. The development is a tribute to the Ministry of Defence, the Welsh Assembly Government and, most importantly of all, to the Wales Office Ministers, without whose constant direct intervention to push the project forward, it would never have happened. There will be nothing like this facility anywhere in the world, and it is in Wales. It will give the Welsh aviation and aerospace industry a critical mass that it has never had before, and it will become a centre of excellence in third-line military aviation—that is, garage maintenance.

I have to declare to my colleagues that the capacity in this market is almost limitless, if for the wrong reason—the fact that the military aviation business throughout the world is one of the most inefficient in existence. We have been courageous enough to commercialise ours. We have not privatised it; that was on the Tory agenda, and it would have been a disaster. The industry has to remain under the umbrella of the defence services, as the situation in Iraq illustrates. It has to have a surge capacity—which many private businesses do not—so that it can meet the needs of our front-line forces and pilots on demand. This was the best way to achieve that, and I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and the Welsh Assembly, on this courageous decision. It will put Wales on the military aviation map. I also congratulate all my right hon. and hon. Friends on helping us to get the project in the first place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I would like to say to the House that, given the time available, if everyone were to take their maximum allocation, there would be many disappointed hon. Members. Perhaps a certain amount of mutual co-operation would assist in enabling everyone to participate.

4.58 pm
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall certainly take that advice to heart.

There are some 30,000 births a year in Wales.

Gareth Thomas

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not one to make frequent points of order, but with the greatest respect, I seek your ruling on this. Is it in order for an Opposition Member to be called in this Welsh debate when he has not even been present for the opening speeches, given the pressure on the Government side for people to be called? A great many of us have been waiting anxiously to be called. I realise that there is a 14-minute limit, and I simply seek your guidance on that point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should not question the decision of the Chair in that respect. The Chair always has to try to achieve political balance in a debate. Mr. Speaker has made clear—most recently in a letter to hon. Members—the basic courtesies to be observed. Equally, it is recognised that, with the pressure under which hon. Members work, having to be in more than one place at a time—we have already had an example of that explained to us today, and I also know that hon. Members have had duties in Westminster Hall-there has to be some relaxation of the very strict rules of courtesy that we normally try to achieve in the House.

Mr. Swayne

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There are 30,000 births a year in Wales, or 750 in each constituency. Maternity services are vital both in themselves and in colouring many young people's impression of the health service. That impression is marred by the current shortage of midwives in Wales. In Swansea NHS Trust, 11.4 per cent. of vacancies are for midwives, and have been unfilled for more than three months. Across Wales, long-term vacancies for midwives account for more than 3 per cent. of all vacancies. That impacts on the care that can be given to women in Wales, and inevitably reduces the choice available to women.

Birth is a natural experience for women—[Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but many women wanting natural births in Wales have to opt for intervention, whether a Caesarean birth or something less invasive, because there are insufficient midwives. An expectant mother who has opted for a natural birth may go into hospital and find on arrival that there is not a dedicated midwife to help her through childbirth. Instead, there is one midwife looking after three women, having to dash between three delivery rooms, so the expectant mother does not have the one-to-one supportive relationship that she was expecting. As the availability of midwives is a problem, it is highly likely that she will opt for an interventionist birth.

It is extraordinary that, although 20 per cent. of women express an interest in having a home birth, in Wales, only 2 per cent. have such a birth. I suspect that that is largely a consequence of the shortage of midwives in Wales. Pregnancy is not an illness.

Julie Morgan


Mr. Swayne

I am afraid that I shall not give way, as I wish to be brief and take up as little time as possible.

Pregnancy is not an illness. It is a perfectly normal experience for women, who should be made aware of the choices available to them. The shortage of midwives in Wales has resulted in an inability to provide those choices, so women's options are restricted. From 2000 to 2001, nearly a quarter of the babies born in Wales were delivered by Caesarean section—an increase of 5 per cent. in five years. That figure is 5 per cent. higher than the figure for England, which itself has a high Caesarean birth rate—much higher than the rest of Europe, for example. Not only does the rest of Europe have a much lower level of Caesarean delivery, but that level is stable, whereas in England, and even more so in Wales, it is unstable and rising, from a much higher initial base.

Caesarean deliveries involve a much higher cost both to the health service, in terms of intervention, and to the long-term health of the women involved. I am sure that there is a connection between the shortage of midwives in Wales and the high rate of caesareans. More skilled, one-to-one midwife support is needed; women receiving the present level of care are much less likely to experience normal vaginal births. I hope the Minister will tell us what the Government are doing to deal with the midwife shortage.

Lembit Öpik

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Swayne


I hope the Minister will also give me the figures relating to breastfeeding in Wales. Although the Royal College of Midwives specifically requested me to ask that question, I have a personal interest: my wife is a breastfeeding counsellor for the National Childbirth Trust. Perhaps the Minister could at least give me the latest figures in writing. I know that there is a relatively high rate among those beginning to breastfeed, which tails off markedly after a few months.

As the Minister doubtless knows, the first week of April is real nappy week in both England and Wales. What are the Government doing to promote the use of "real nappies" in Wales? The issue is particularly important to low-income families, who spend a significant proportion of their income on nappies in supermarkets. It also has landfill implications. We are storing up problems with nappies that are not biodegradable. Hospitals should make parents aware of the perfectly acceptable, less expensive "real nappy" alternatives, which are biodegradable and environmentally friendly.

5.7 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower)

I shall concentrate on the fight against poverty that has taken place in Wales over the last six years and the situation of low-paid people and their families, and make a couple of helpful suggestions.

Poverty affects every part of the United Kingdom, but all the statistics and our own observations show that the problem has been particularly acute in Wales for many years. Our gross domestic product is historically lower than those in England and Scotland, more people suffer from limiting long-term illnesses, and more claim related social security benefits. A higher proportion of the population receives meals on wheels, incomes are lower than those in both England and Scotland, and more income is derived from social security benefits. Things have improved in recent years, but we have not eliminated those comparative disadvantages, as others have pointed out.

A great deal has been done since 1997, both by the Labour Government here in Westminster and Whitehall and by the Labour-led Government in the National Assembly. The first big difference, for which both levels of government can take a share of the credit, is the reduction in unemployment. Unemployment in Wales is at its lowest for 25 years. We are all contributing information about our own constituencies today. In Gower, the overall unemployment figure is down to 3.1 per cent. Just over 1,000 people still receive jobseeker's allowance: that is too many, and there is much more to do, but in 1997, about twice as many people in my constituency were on the dole.

Since then, we have suffered our share of factory closures and job shedding, which has been traumatic for individuals and families; but there has been none of the desperation that was so evident in the same towns and villages when miners, steelworkers and others were thrown on the scrap heap under the Tory Government, with little prospect of alternative employment. The new deal, welfare-to-work tax credits, better child support, objective 1 and sound economic management have all contributed to those historic reductions in the jobless figures, and to the 61,000 new jobs created in Wales last year alone.

There have also been targeted attacks on poverty in particular groups, such as pensioners, the poorest families and the most deprived and disadvantaged communities. Again, it is action by the UK Government and by the National Assembly that is making a difference. There have also been specific measures to help the working poor through the tax credit system, and through the introduction of the national minimum wage.

Like many Labour Members from the 1997 intake, I remember the vote to secure the minimum wage, after an all-night sitting, as a high point of that first Parliament. I suppose that it was especially significant for many Welsh Members, because Wales contained some of the worst low-blackspots in the country. Research by the Low Pay Commission in south Wales in 1998 showed that 27 per cent. of employees in Fishguard, in the west, got less than £3.50 an hour, and that 25 per cent. in Monmouth, in the east, got less than that figure. In the run-up to the 1997 general election, I remember visiting jobcentres in my constituency and noting down the worst cases. One example was, "Security guard required: £2.80 an hour; must have own dog." However, what appalled me even more than the worst cases was the sheer number of jobs for which the going rate was less than £3.00 an hour.

Julie Morgan

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is, and always has been, a gap between women's and men's earnings, and that although it has reduced, it is still a major issue that needs to be tackled in Wales?

Mr. Caton

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She is sitting next to me and has clearly read my speech, because I was about to point out that the national minimum wage has made a real difference in my constituency. In particular, it has made a real difference to women in my constituency, especially those whose work involves caring for other people, such as the young or the elderly.

The national minimum wage remains a notable achievement, but it has two weaknesses that we should now address: it does not apply to everyone to whom it should apply, and it is not enough. The people who are wrongly excluded from the minimum wage are young workers: 18 to 21-year-olds get a reduced rate, and 16 and 17-year-olds are not covered at all. When the Welsh Affairs Committee undertook its inquiry into social exclusion just over two years ago, we argued that the principle of equal pay for equal work should apply to young people, just as it should to everyone else. The evidence that we received then taught us that some unscrupulous employers would employ workers aged under 18 only to avoid paying the minimum wage. At that time, some were paying as little as £2.00 an hour. We called for the minimum wage regulation to apply to all workers aged over 16, and at the adult rate.

The Committee is conducting an inquiry into the empowerment of children and young people in Wales, and the minimum wage issue has come up both in formal evidence, and in more informal discussions with young people during our visits to Wales. Of course, I cannot predict what our report will say when it is published, but this inquiry gives us a new angle. One reason why we looked into the empowerment question was the concern that so many young people appear to be disengaged from their communities or from wider society-and that includes, of course, democratic politics.

A factor that has already been brought to our attention as a potential contributor to such disengagement is many young people's perception of how they are valued by society. All too often, they feel that they are not listened to, and that their contributions are undervalued in various ways. The message that they get from the current minimum wage rules is that they are second-class citizens. Now is the time to make the minimum wage embrace all working people, and to increase it in such a way that it makes a greater contribution to the incomes of the families of low-paid workers.

Compelling evidence for such an increase emerged in December, in the form of research commissioned by Unison from the family budget unit at the university of York, and by the national centre for public policy at the university of Wales, Swansea. I shall not go into too much detail, but the unit has established a methodology to calculate weekly minimum cost needs, taking into account food, clothing, housing, transport and all the other costs involved in maintaining a family at a range of standards of living. At the bottom of the ladder—level 1—is what is called the "low cost but acceptable" standard. The researchers have identified and costed the components of a minimum living standard designed to promote good health and enable lower-paid households to reach their full potential. It is tight, but more than survival standard. It recognises, however, that the income needed to reach that standard will vary according to where people live, as costs vary considerably between different parts of the country.

The study published in December looked at the net incomes required to avoid poverty by one and two-parent families in my home town of Swansea, each with a boy aged 10 and a girl of 14. The incomes needed varied from £252 a week for a lone mum working 17 hours a week, to £310 for a two-earner couple.

The good news is that, with working families tax credit, all the Swansea households with at least one person in full-time work were above that low-cost but acceptable threshold. Although the same was not always true in respect of part-time work, the Government's objective of decent incomes for families with work is in considerable part being met.

The bad news is that the current minimum wage level, and the consequent reliance on working families tax credit, means that the poverty trap is almost inescapable for some families. As long as they are receiving the working families tax credit, the most that such families can gain from every extra pound earned is 31p. Two-parent households in Swansea paying basic rate income tax would need above-average male manual earnings to escape the poverty trap and benefit by 68p for each extra pound earned. The lone mother needs close to three times average female manual earnings.

Unison has translated the £10 minimum needed for a minimum acceptable living standard for the one-earner family with two children into approximately £5.10 per hour. Is that so much?

The Low Pay Commission will re port again in the near future. I welcome this afternoon's commitment by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to increasing the minimum wage. The figure of £5.10 an hour is the sort of amount that we need to secure to make a real difference to low-paid workers in Wales and across the UK.

5.17 pm
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)

It is a great privilege and honour to take part in this St. David's day debate, even though it has been delayed. Before I make my own comments, I should like to respond to some matters raised by other hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is no longer in his place, but I am sure that the House listened with great attention to his description of the problems encountered in Ceredigion in ensuring that the planning process is carried out properly and honestly. Before I was elected to the House, I read the report from the Welsh Affairs Committee on rural housing. It dealt with the planning process as well, and made some good recommendations with which I agreed. Although the hon. Gentleman said that the cabinet in Ceredigion unitary authority was led by independents, with Liberal Democrat support, none of the councillors mentioned by him were Liberal Democrats. I am sure that he took great thought before he made his contribution, but I wanted to put that on the record.

The debate has touched on manufacturing industry. There is great concern in Wales about the future of Corus and the huge redundancies that could happen as the company contracts. On a smaller scale, the Llanidloes aluminium casting company, KTH, looks like it is heading towards closure. That will have a huge impact on communities in the area. The company employs so many people in the local work force that its decline is very worrying, as is the fact that so many of the jobs have gone to parts of the EU and enlargement countries that have lower wage costs. That highlights what many hon. Members have said, which is that we need high-skilled, high value-added business to come to Wales. That will ensure that we will not be as vulnerable to such competition as we are now.

Members have spoken of the importance of air transport to Wales. It has been overlooked for a number of years but economic development in Wales would have been much more rapid if it had been available. It will make Wales a much more inviting place to put one's business.

Lembit Õpik

As my hon. Friend says, KTH is closing. Does he agree that there is a great opportunity to invest in mid-Wales to enhance opportunities for air travel at, for example, Welshpool airport, which—I observe wistfully—might be a good venue for British Airways to relocate its operations?

Mr. Williams

The Minister will have noted that and will make representations. A little village outside Llandrindod called Llandegley now has a huge sign saying, "Welcome to Llandegley international airport, terminals one and two." That may be someone's aspiration, which may take more to achieve than my hon. Friend's suggestion about Welshpool.

There has been political merriment today about ambassadors from Wales, but Wales has benefited over the years from an international outlook. We have had a huge amount of international inward investment that has benefited us greatly. Wales has a history of involving itself on the international stage and should not be too shy in encouraging that as we gain long-term benefits.

Mr. Evans

But it is costing £2 million to set up embassies when we already have embassies throughout the world; they are called United Kingdom embassies and high commissions. Should not Wales be working through those?

Mr. Williams

If we are to be serious about getting added inward investment into Wales, we have to put serious amounts towards that investment, which will he beneficial in the long run. The payback period will he short.

I want to turn to three issues that affect my constituency, Wales as a whole and the UK in general. The first is the criminal justice system and the importance of individuals having ready access to that system. The rights and privileges of individuals cannot be safeguarded unless they have the opportunity to defend themselves against charges of which they believe themselves to be innocent. I am thinking particularly about victims.

The Government have said that they are putting the rights of victims and witnesses at the heart of the criminal justice system. Yet, in my constituency and rural Wales as a whole, magistrates courts are closing, which makes it difficult for victims or witnesses to get to court without undertaking long and difficult journeys because so little rural public transport is available.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also a problem for magistrates in my constituency who have to travel considerable distances? Following the centralisation of magistrates courts, that problem is likely to get worse.

Mr. Williams

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. In Llandrindod magistrates court, the youth court was closed. Two magistrates who had been trained and had a particular interest in youth justice work resigned because they now have to travel more than 30 miles to get to a youth court and were not prepared to continue making the great sacrifices that magistrates make to provide those services.

Recently, I took a delegation to meet the Minister from the Lord Chancellor's Department with responsibility for magistrates courts and was accompanied by the hon. Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)—as well as my hon. Friend the Member forMontgomeryshire (Lembit Õpik)—to make points on this issue. We were advised that the county council, as the funding body, must make representations if the decision to close Ystradgynlais and Llandrindod is not to be a foregone conclusion.

I have grave doubts about the way in which magistrates courts committees operate. I do not know how accountable they are to the general public or how they perform their deliberations and consultations. The impression that was given—falsely, I think—by the magistrates courts committee is that investment in the courts in Newtown and Brecon may be lost if we oppose the closure of Ystradgynlais and Llandrindod. It is important that those courts remain open so that the criminal justice system is available to everybody in those areas. I hope that the Minister will join us in making representations on those matters, too.

I would like to turn to an issue that I raised with the Minister in a debate in Westminster Hall a couple of weeks ago: two-tier employment in public services that have been externalised or privatised. That has occurred in my constituency, and, I am sure, in other hon. Members' constituencies. In my constituency, residential homes for the elderly were externalised to BUPA. Although the staff who were transferred under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 to BUPA had their rights, conditions and pay retained, anyone employed afterwards was employed under much poorer conditions.

For example, the basic rate of pay for carers from the protected staff was £5.50 an hour, whereas, for BUPA staff, it was £4.20 an hour. It gets much worse than that. For protected staff, the Sunday night working rate was £12.86 an hour whereas BUPA staff were on the flat-rate minimum wage of £4.20, which the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) mentioned.

Not only that, the protected staff had 27 days' holiday plus eight bank holidays, whereas the BUPA staff had only 20 days. One can imagine the difficulty of staff working together on such differing rates of pay and conditions. It does not lead to good relationships among the work force. Those on poorer pay and conditions were not so loyal to the establishment in which they were working, which led to a greater turnover of staff. Hon. Members will agree that the quality of life of those in residential homes depends on building relationships between staff and residents. Obviously, that cannot be done if there is a great turnover of staff.

I was therefore very pleased when the Prime Minister announced that he would deal with the two-tier system of employment. On Thursday, I believe, a code of conduct will be published for local authorities in England, under which contracts for externalised or privatised public services will ensure that not only transferred but new staff have the same pay and conditions. I understand the problems in this regard, but, unfortunately, the press release states: The Code will not apply retrospectively to any contracts which have already been advertised or entered into. The Government intends to publish statutory guidance on this for local authorities in early March. Those who are locked into organisations that have already had contracts with local authorities seem more beleaguered and isolated than ever. I understand that Edwina Hart's office in the Assembly is considering the code of practice with a view to establishing it, or something better, in Wales. Will the Minister consider whether there is any way of dealing with people in such establishments who are on very different rates of pay and conditions from those who were originally transferred?

5.29 pm
Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)

I know that many of my hon. Friends are anxious to make a contribution to this important debate and I am glad that the convention of having an annual Welsh debate has been observed, even in the context of these difficult times internationally. This debate is taking place closer to St. Patrick's day than to St. David's day, but we all know that St. Patrick was rumoured to be a Welshman.

I was glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to open the debate. He has made a considerable impact in his new job and has been able to bring his considerable flair, energy and communication skills to it. He follows in the distinguished footsteps of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), whose great reserves of patience and diplomacy are now being put to such great use in Northern Ireland in an attempt to restore the devolved institutions there. My hon. Friend the Minister also does an excellent job getting around Wales—he has been to north Wales on many occasions and I hear good reports of him.

It is important to acknowledge that devolution is working. We are getting a dividend from having a democratic, directly elected institution in Wales. Some of us, including myself, express frustration and exasperation on occasion at the way in which policy is formulated in Wales. As someone who is comfortable with the direction of the Westminster Government—putting the emphasis on investment and taking a robust approach to the need to reform public services—I sometimes feel frustrated, but I am glad that the campaign, in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State played such an important part, was successful. I seriously believe that devolution is working.

The last four years have been difficult, but we are seeing a real difference. That is because the Labour group in the Assembly is working in partnership with the Labour Government in Westminster.

Hywel Williams

Does the hon. Member agree with Mr. Rhodri Morgan that there is clear red water between the Labour-Liberal Government in the National Assembly and the Administration here?

Gareth Thomas

I am relaxed about any differences. It follows the logic of devolution that the Assembly will take its own path, but there is a strong partnership between Labour in the Assembly and Labour in Westminster. Long may that continue.

We know that on the horizon is a report from an institution called the Richard commission, which is considering the powers and efficacy of the Assembly. We know, too, that the chattering classes—or the Pontcanna pundits, as they may be described in Wales—many of whom are from various academic boltholes, such as Cardiff and Aberystwyth universities, are obsessed by the need to gain parity with Scotland. As a committed devolutionist, I think that we should be very cautious about calling for further powers for the Assembly at this stage. It is a new institution that has to prove itself. We should adopt the test of whether any extension of powers would improve the quality of life for the people we serve. Would it mean better schools and hospitals? If not, it would not pass the test. We have to be pragmatic and cautious.

We are in an election period and I am sure that the electorate in Wales are interested in constitutional issues, but I intend to keep my powder dry. I expect that we will have a robust debate about further powers for the Assembly formulated by Labour members. We must also bear in mind the fact that Wales and England have separate legal systems and I cannot see how we could easily accord further primary legislative powers to the Assembly.

Very often, these debates concentrate on the negative comments of Opposition spokespersons. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) was rather less negative than usual. In the Tea Room earlier, I had a little joke with him, saying that his speech would be something approaching a whingeathon. It was not—because even he has to give credit where credit is due. The Government have been a big success for Wales. Wales is benefiting from sound management of the economy. We have heard some of the statistics from the Secretary of State: we have had the longest period of low inflation for 40 years; long-term interest rates are at their lowest since the 1960s; and new business growth is high and the survival and growth of small businesses is excellent. That is good news and no mean achievement. Contrast that with what happened under the Conservatives. In 1997, inflation was up at 10 per cent. and interest rates were at a very high level of between 10 to 15 per cent. Unemployment was also high. We should not underestimate the fact that unemployment has fallen considerably in Wales. In my constituency, it has fallen by 63 per cent. The new deal and the minimum wage have made a real difference.

We can be justifiably optimistic. I know that a national characteristic of us Welsh is that of being somewhat melancholic, but I feel that we can be optimistic about the prospects for the Welsh nation, the Welsh economy, and the people of Wales whom we serve. It is a great time to be Welsh. The creative industries are doing well. We have massive extra public spending that is making a great difference to the health service, especially in my part of the world. There have been considerable achievements in education. The prospects are good and there is nothing wrong in talking up Wales. We should be positive.

I want to mention a few figures that relate to the Conwy and Denbighshire NHS Trust. I pay tribute to the excellent work of the management team—in particular, to Hilary Stevens, who is the chair of the trust, and to Gren Kershaw. In the trust, no people have been waiting for more than 12 months for in-patient treatment. In-patient waiting list targets are being met in a wide range of areas—orthopaedics; ear, nose and throat; general surgery and many others. For Abergele hospital and Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, it is a good news story.

On the economy., my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) has been active in promoting the St. Asaph business park. Many of my constituents work there. Let us not forget Airbus and let us pay tribute to Lord Barry Jones. Many of us consider him to be a great example. He has brought his considerable oratorical and people skills to bear and he has put Airbus on the map—as has his distinguished successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami). Broughton is good news and Airbus is good news, for the whole of north Wales. Broughton has brought huge inward investment to the area, with a big investment in skills and opportunities. It is a genuine good news story.

I will wind up now because I know that my hon. Friends want to contribute. Let us talk up the Welsh economy. The future is good; the future is Labour.

5.38 pm
Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

I will exercise discipline to try to give the rest of my comrades the opportunity to speak. It is a great privilege to contribute, as the first Member elected in 2001 to have the opportunity to speak in this debate.

I want to talk about employment and economic activity. Official unemployment rates are dropping dramatically in Wales—in my constituency and elsewhere. That has been because of the success of the new deal and so on. It is also because of new employment. There are many positive things that I could say about the Welsh economy—there have been new opportunities that have gone beyond simply manufacturing jobs. For example, the General Dynamics investment in Oakdale with the Bowman radio project has brought science to the area. The Canadian ambassador made the point very well to me. He said that, "If you have got science, you can get science." Part of the problem in Wales is that we have not had the higher-order activities in terms of the employment base that we need. We should continue to try to get that.

Oshkosh is developing its investment in Llantrisant to build heavy vehicles. If we can attract other Ministry of Defence investment contracts that are available, they could help to provide a new dimension to the vehicles economy in Wales and lead to the development of the heavy vehicle sector. Many good things are happening, so I certainly do not want to talk Wales down.

I come from and live in the valleys and the difficulty that we face is that of economic inactivity. Merthyr is said to have the greatest problem in that respect, with 28 per cent. of the real unemployment rate according to the studies carried out by Sheffield Hallam university. That problem needs examination and action is taking place. Members of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions visited my constituency last week, and I was glad to welcome them. We considered what could be done to help disabled and incapacitated people back into work through projects such as workstep.

The Committee met people from the local job service and some of the brokers involved. It visited the Merthyr Tydfil Institute for the Blind, which might sound like a strange place to visit. However, the institute goes beyond its terms of reference and makes a major contribution not only to Merthyr Tydfil but across the valleys by taking forward the workstep programme. I took my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who was then in the Treasury team but who is now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to the institute a year ago. As a result, extra investment has gone in to try to cure the problems that we face and that are the result of a legacy that I do not have the time to explain. I am sure that everyone knows the reasons for it.

New Members of Parliament have created opportunities ourselves. Several of my comrades and I commissioned research from the Bevan Foundation to try get a view as to what could be done and not just a measure of the angle of dangle of deprivation. We tried to get an idea of what policy initiatives could be taken to find solutions to the problems. The report should be published soon and I look forward to seeing it. I have not prescribed what it should say, so I shall be interested to read its conclusions. However, I know that it will say that investment is needed in the upper valleys.

Investment has gone in along the M4 corridor in Wales, but we need a strategic development plan that considers the development of the heads of the valleys and of the crescent across the old Welsh coalfields. That area needs sustained investment. In Merthyr, we will bring in the university of Glamorgan to create links with lifelong learning so that the community can develop a view of what it can do itself and how to achieve that. Our young people are back at work, but we need to develop the circumstances in which economic inactivity is addressed. To do that we need redistribution—I am not afraid to say the word. Indeed, redistribution is going on, and some Conservative Members have spotted that. They do not like it, but I think that there should be a damn sight more redistribution.

We should also consider the tools that we need to achieve our aims, which include operating aids and the extension of employment zones. In Merthyr, we have a great problem with people on incapacity benefits, but we do not have Jobcentre Plus. Some of the tools and techniques need to be brought forward. We need step changes as well as incremental progression. Objective 1 is helpful, but what will come after it? We need to consider that issue.

My predecessor in this place wrote a book entitled "Something Must Be Done", a phrase that originally came from a member of the royal family. He talked about sporadic and episodic investment in the valleys. We do not need that. We need sustained investment, and the Wales Office and its Ministers are well placed to help as brokers. We will bring the report that I have mentioned to the House so that it can be examined by all the Departments of the United Kingdom. We shall also take it to the Assembly, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be able to act as a broker. Because he also represents us in Europe, I hope that he will be able to take our suggestions to Wales, the United Kingdom and Europe.

5.44 pm
Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon)

The debate on Welsh affairs always affords us a time for reflection. One of my constituents recently gave me some advice. He quoted a distinguished predecessor in the House, Aneurin Bevan, as saying: Instead of living in a Wales that possesses you, create the Wales you desire". In that spirit and as a representative of a steel constituency, I want to reflect on the centrality and importance of steel, despite all the problems that have, and continue to, beset it.

As recently as December 2000, in the document "A Strategy for Modern Manufacturing in Wales", the Wales TUC highlighted the modern advanced nature of the industry. The report said: With plants in Wales producing record amounts of quality steel with much fewer workers than even 10 years ago, it would be hard not to recommend steel as a shining light for manufacturing. The announcement this week that Corus is once again reviewing its UK operations with the possibility of, as it calls it, "significant capacity reductions", causes much anxiety and deep concern, especially in steel communities.

I welcome the positive comments made this week by the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in support of steel. We all know that steel has a vital and strategic role within Welsh and British manufacturing. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales to pledge that he will work to ensure that there are no further cuts in capacity in Wales, and in so doing secure the long-term future of Shotton, Llanwern and Port Talbot.

Despite the current internal and external problems of Corus, especially in relation to the sale of its aluminium production in Holland, the economic indicators for Welsh and UK steel are promising. The exchange rates in relation to the euro are increasingly more favourable. The demand for steel in the UK is buoyant and strengthening, especially in the construction industry, and steel prices are stabilising and improving. Industrial relations are good, as evidenced by the recent significant efficiency savings in Welsh plants. Llanwern is in profit, and Port Talbot and Shotton are performing well.

Steel workers in the UK are widely acknowledged as the most efficient in the world. In my experience, there is a growing optimism despite the trauma of recent capacity cuts and the explosion in the No. 5 blast furnace in Port Talbot. The rebuilding of that furnace in record time symbolises a rebirth of the Welsh steel industry. The new furnace very recently broke its production record by producing 33,000 tonnes of liquid iron during the month following its formal opening by the Prince of Wales. That was one of many records recently broken at Port Talbot in the hot mill, the cold mill and the "capl" line. Improved consistency in operations and in quality have been recorded.

That sense of optimism for steel communities is also represented by the community leadership provided by the steel unions in highlighting the importance of skills enhancement and lifelong learning. The Iron and Steel Trades Confederation training arm, steel partnership training, has led the way in many centres from Shotton to Ebbw Vale and Newport. In my constituency, unions have come together with educational providers to form the Port Talbot union academy. Again in my constituency, as a result of support from the Wales union learning fund of the Wales TUC and the Welsh Assembly Government, Amicus and the local authority, Neath Port Talbot county borough council, have created a unique work-based learning initiative at the new Baglan learning centre. It is therefore critical that the Governments in Cardiff and Westminster work in partnership with the Welsh steel industry as never before to secure its long-term future by pledging, by every means possible, to secure all productive capacity throughout Wales.

I began with the importance of reflection. As an historian, I am only too well aware that as the Welsh economy diversifies, there is potential for what is called cultural tourism, especially in the valleys of south Wales. That will be highlighted in a report by the Welsh Development Agency and in a report that colleagues and I commissioned, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) referred, which will be published by the Bevan Foundation later this month.

I recently heard the new Archbishop of Canterbury reflecting on what he called "political virtue", and how he defined that from the poetry of Waldo Williams, whose verse, in his words, exemplifies the Welsh double commitment to the local and the international in a framework passionately seeking peace". We meet at a time of local and international crisis. We should reflect in a Welsh way on that political virtue and that political legacy of the local and the international community, which we all share.

If we are to develop cultural tourism in Wales, we could start by reflecting on the lives and ideas of two Welsh political thinkers who were both modernisers in their own ways. First, there was Richard Price of Llangeinor, friend of the American and French revolutions of the 18th century, who gently advised his American friends to conduct the kind of foreign policy that would make the United States respected in the world.

Secondly, there was Henry Richard of Tregaron, a Liberal Member of Parliament for Merthyr. He was known as the apostle of peace. He initiated a debate in this House on 8 July 1873. His motion, which was carried, called on the Government of the day to contact foreign powers with a view to the improvement of international law and the establishment of a permanent system of international arbitration. In his own modernising way, he was a Welsh visionary who anticipated the necessity of the United Nations decades before its emergence.

Today of all days, we should reflect on the political virtue of striving to secure the local—in our Welsh communities that are dependent on steel and other employment—and the international by securing peace through the United Nations. By doing so, we would achieve Aneurin Bevan's dream of a Wales we all desire.

5.52 pm
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside)

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to talk about manufacturing and training. I shall try to be brief to allow as many other hon. Members as possible to speak.

Manufacturing accounts for 31 per cent. of gross domestic product in Wales—11 per cent. more than in Britain as a whole. It is clearly a key sector of our economy. Some would have us believe that manufacturing is dying on its feet and not really part of our future. Manufacturing is and always has been a dynamic sector of the economy. Innovation and change have always been part of its growth and, in some areas, part of its decline.

Thirty years ago, the manufacturing base in my area was dominated by the steel industry, which employed more than 12,000 people, and the textile industry. By the 1980s, both those industries—the area's main employers—were devastated. Shotton Steel still holds the record for the largest single loss of jobs at one plant on one day. I hope that no other area ever has to suffer holding that record. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) spoke of the fears that are again surrounding the 12,000 jobs in the steel industry.

Steel and textile manufacturers needed to change and innovate, but importantly, both also needed the time and the economic stability to accomplish that. We are all aware of the Conservative party's economic policies, which meant that there was no such chance. The industries suffered the same fate as many other manufacturers during the years of the Thatcher Government.

Life is never easy for manufacturing, as I am sure every manufacturer would tell us. Manufacturers would also tell us that they need economic stability—an environment where they can plan for the future in the knowledge that they are not on the edge of another boom and bust, as we saw under the Tory Government. In Wales, as in Britain as a whole, work force productivity remains a major concern. We will improve it only if manufacturers invest not just in new technology but in their work force. Equally, our education system must work more closely with industry to equip our young people and some of our older people with the skills and know-how that they need today.

Productivity gains are rarely made by people working longer or harder; they are made by people working smarter. About 30 per cent. of employers in Wales state that they suffer from skills shortages. Many more suffer from skills gaps in matching skills with the appropriate job. We need to tackle the problem in a number of ways.

More than 13,000 people in Wales are taking up modern apprenticeships. Many of those young people will secure employment in manufacturing, putting their new skills into practice. I welcome the modern skills diploma for adults, introduced by the Welsh Assembly, which is delivering an apprenticeship-style training scheme for the over-25s in employment—a vital group in our work force whose training needs we have tended to ignore. Training and retraining those in employment is key to improving productivity.

In my area, Deeside college has done a great deal of work to tailor its training packages to the needs of employers, not offering the one-size-fits-all solution that characterised further education in the past. Deeside college recently won the Queen's anniversary prize for its work with business and industry. Much credit goes to the college principal, Will Edmunds, for that achievement.

As unemployment is, thankfully, very low in Alyn and Deeside—less than 2 per cent., thanks to the economic stability delivered by a Labour Government—work-based education and training is of paramount importance to our economic growth and regeneration. We must therefore ensure that its availability and success are not held back. ELWa must receive the level of financial support that it needs for training in the workplace via the further education institutions. It will receive the necessary investment only from a Labour-run Assembly that makes education a priority.

One of Deeside's largest and most successful partnerships is with Airbus, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) spoke. It is probably the largest modern apprenticeship scheme in western Europe and is a good model that other companies and colleges could follow. At present, 274 apprentices are undergoing various forms of training, with a further 80 new recruits hoping to start in September this year.

Airbus has a high retention rate—above 90 per cent. One major factor is the opportunities for apprentices. More than 70 per cent. of the senior management is made up of former apprentices, including Brian Fleet, director of manufacturing, Airbus UK. That important point demonstrates that an apprenticeship not only leads to a good quality job, but opens opportunities to progress in the company, even to the top levels of management.

Airbus rightly views training as a form of investment. Employees should be seen as valuable assets. Too many employers view employees as a form of disposable costs—something that can be put aside at the slightest change in the market. After the events of 11 September, which severely affected the market for airliners, one of the first things that Airbus did was to write to every apprentice in the company guaranteeing their job. Other British manufacturers would have written to apprentices telling them that they no longer had a future with the company. We have lost so many good people who could now be skilled workers, because they have been cast aside at an early stage.

The company's recruitment strategy has led to a growing number of female apprentices coming through the system, in an industry that has traditionally been male-dominated. I was pleased that this year the apprentice of the year was a woman. The company's commitment to training and the value it places on the work force are an example to other companies in Wales. Importantly, the partnership between the company, the college and the schools is producing well-trained people for good quality jobs.

As in Britain as a whole, education spending in Wales has risen significantly under Labour—a real-terms increase of some 6 per cent. in 2003–04 over the current year, with planned investment rising to a record £1.4 billion by 2005-06. That level of commitment is needed if we are to improve standards and produce youngsters able to work to the requirements that modern value-added manufacturers are looking for. Schools, colleges and universities have a major role to play in promoting a positive image for manufacturing and engineering. Too many youngsters still view a career in that sector as less valuable and important than one in the white collar, office-based professions.

If we are to ensure that success is guaranteed, we need continuing investment in education and training. We must see real improvements in this area.

6 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity briefly to contribute to this debate. I am pleased that we have an opportunity to concentrate on domestic issues in Wales. At the moment, whenever I speak to constituents or other people in Wales, they talk about the international situation, so I am glad that we can concentrate today on domestic issues, which should not be forgotten.

As many other right hon. and hon. Members, including the Secretary of State, have said, the great achievement that the Labour Governments in Westminster and Wales have achieved is the drop in unemployment in Wales, which has fallen by 40 percent. since 1997. Wales has had the biggest increase in employment of any region in the UK and the biggest fall in inactivity. Other hon. Members have mentioned what has happened in their constituencies. In mine, there has been a fall of 46.6 per cent. in unemployment, which is tremendous. The equivalent figures are minus 80.9 per cent. for youth unemployment and minus 84.8 per cent. for long-term unemployment, so it is clear that we are now reaching all parts of the labour market. That achievement is a tribute to the Labour Governments here and in the Assembly.

St. David's day was recently celebrated and last Saturday was international women's day. I attended the launch in the old library in Cardiff of a book produced by the Honno press and edited by Professor Deirdre Beddoe. Some remarkable contributions were made by women who read out extracts about experiences in their lives in Wales. We heard contributions from Elaine Morgan, Molly Parkin and Jane Salisbury. Many women in the audience had contributed to the book, including the mother-in-law of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), who made a tremendous contribution. All of the women had remarkable stories to tell. While listening today to various hon. Members talking about the great achievements that Welsh people have made in becoming stars in sport, film and other areas, I thought about the women who read to us about their experiences last Saturday. In many cases, those experiences were very ordinary, but they were a tremendous tribute to the wealth of talent that we have in Wales.

I thought that it would be interesting briefly to consider the position of women in Wales today. It is probably very much as hon. Members will imagine and as the jobs situation in Wales has always been stereotyped. In 2002, 46 per cent. of women were in part-time occupations, compared with 9 per cent. of male employees. That has not changed much. Women account for 69 per cent. of administrative, secretarial and consumer services occupations, while men account for 80 per cent. of skilled trades and plant and machine operators. A similar divide has existed for many years in Wales, so the situation has not changed very much.

As other hon. Members have mentioned, however, the introduction of the national minimum wage has increased the wages of thousands of women and part-time workers. That is a tremendous achievement. Along with devolution, the introduction of the minimum wage was one of the great ambitions of Keir Hardie, and we have brought those two things about. So far, we have failed in reforming the House of Lords, but perhaps we can achieve that in the future. The minimum wage has helped thousands of women in Wales and, on its introduction, it narrowed the pay gap between men and women by 3 per cent. Nevertheless, there still is a pay gap. In 2002, full-time women workers earned 13.4 per cent. less per hour on average than male full-time employees. That is grossly unfair.

In discussing the rise in employment and how well we are doing economically in Wales, we must bear in mind the disparities that still exist, especially between women and men. One of the main priorities of the Government women's unit here and the equal opportunities unit in Cardiff bay is to try to close the pay gap between men and women in Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government are putting their own house in order by carrying out a pay audit and planning over three years to equalise the pay of women and men, and they are setting money aside to ensure that that happens. Some Departments here are doing the same. Private bodies are being asked to undertake voluntary pay audits, but I am not sure whether that will work out in the long term.

The position of women in terms of employment has been improved by the introduction of much more child care. Many more child care places are available in Wales, although they are still too expensive for some women to be able to take advantage of them. Maternity and paternity rights have been increased and great efforts are being made to help people to manage the balance between their family responsibilities and work. That is crucial.

Hywel Williams

On child care, does the hon. Lady agree that the problems in rural and dispersed areas are a significant barrier to women taking up employment? Can she suggest how those difficulties could be addressed?

Julie Morgan

I agree that the provision of child care in rural areas is a key issue. The solutions that apply in urban areas do not apply in rural areas, where there has to be far greater emphasis on child minders and on provision for smaller children. The child care group in the Assembly is considering that.

I want briefly to welcome two initiatives in Cardiff that have come about as a result of the partnership between the Labour Governments here and in the Assembly. One of those is the opening of the new ambulatory care unit in Heath hospital in Cardiff, which is the biggest of its kind in the UK. It means that 4,000 people will receive treatment for minor surgery much earlier than they would have done. Opposition Members throw a great deal at us about health, but there have been enormous improvements. That particular development will be a huge asset to the people of the region around Cardiff.

Another initiative is the women's safety unit in Cardiff, which has had its funding secured by money from the Home Office and from the Welsh Assembly. It is a tremendous step forward in looking after the safety of women in Wales who suffer from domestic abuse.

6.8 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

To experience at first hand the ugly reality of the threat that has come again to Wales as regards steel jobs, one has only to visit some of the four newly derelict sites in Wales. It is an eerie experience to go to Llanwern, which I know well. When the steelworks was laid out brand new in 1962, it was shining, vibrant and exciting, with the best people from steel plants all over Britain. Now, those gigantic structures are still standing, but they are silent and rusting where once there were jobs and prosperity. We should think about what has happened to the lives of thousands of our constituents. Not only have they lost their jobs and the scrap of dignity that comes from having a job, but the job itself has gone, because the skill has been destroyed. They have nothing to look forward to and no expectation of a similar occupation for their children. We have suffered grievously in Wales. In 2001, we lost 3,000 jobs, and now the sword of Damocles is hanging over our communities again. It is right that we should say in this debate that it is an awful threat that could have devastating effects on many of our constituents.

That situation is not the fault of the steelworkers. In recent years, they have been part of an incredible success story for the steel industry in Wales; they have adapted, rationalised, and shared and lost jobs. At one time, there were 9,000 jobs at Llanwern. That number went down to less than 3,000, yet the workers achieved record production of steel of record quality.

The main message that the House should send today is that we are anxious about the current situation for the industry and want the Government and the Assembly to do their utmost to ensure that steel jobs are saved and that there continues to be work in the industry.

My final point is on energy production. The most promising form of renewable energy in Wales—the most benign and non-polluting form—was not mentioned in the recent presentation made by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Indeed, it was hardly mentioned in the White Paper. That form of energy is tidal power, which is not intermittent, like solar or wind power, but continuous. The tides around our coasts produce constant pulses of energy, which could provide valuable baseload electricity.

Many of us have supported the erection of barrages over the years. The barrage at La Rance has been a great success and produces the cheapest electricity on the planet. However, the environmental impacts, such as the disturbances to shipping and the effects on wildlife and tidal flows, mean that barrages are no longer the way forward. Lagoons are a far more effective way of tapping tidal energy. There are plans for three in Wales: one at Swansea, one off the north Wales coast and one at Uskmouth.

We must embrace such developments, which are the only way that Britain will reach its energy targets by 2010. Lagoons can be built cheaply; they are low cost and are not blots on the landscape. They are especially of interest in Wales, where it is likely that the first tidal lagoons will be built. They take only three years to build and will give us clean, non-polluting, inexhaustible British power.

6.13 pm
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn)

As a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I am pleased to be called to speak in this debate.

One of the Committee's main inquiries recently was into transport in Wales. Although we investigated all modes of transport, I shall concentrate on ports and internal Welsh air services, as roads are a devolved issue. I shall do so in a positive light, given the exciting developments that have already occurred throughout Wales and those that are likely to occur in future.

I shall not be able to afford that generosity to the railways, however—and I say that as someone who regularly travels with my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on the west coast service from Holyhead to Euston. Although I welcome the increased UK spending, from £2.1 billion in 2001–02 to £4.3 billion in 2005–06, performance and reliability are not good. There is a general feeling that the fragmentation of the rail industry is hampering recovery, after more than 20 years of under-investment. The component parts of the industry—Railtrack, Network Rail, the regulator, the Strategic Rail Authority and the rail operators—merely seem to blame one another when confronted with difficulties.

There are great concerns about the west coast main line service. On 9 October 2002, the SRA published its west coast strategy. Under the heading "North Wales", it states: From 2004 there will be a London-Holyhead through 125 mile/h Voyager service every two hours. There are further options to review the overall pattern of services on the route, including integrating the London timetable with services between Birmingham/Manchester and the North Wales Coast. That fine strategy was echoed by the chief executive of Virgin Trains in his evidence to the Select Committee and in a meeting with the north Wales group of Labour MPs.

Excellent! That meant seven return journeys to the capital of England from north-west Wales. But in 2003, in a letter to me and other MPs and stakeholders, from which I shall quote selectively, the SRA stated: The original plans by Virgin Trains were to provide a total of seven services each way between North Wales and London, but it has now become apparent from more detailed analysis that this level of services cannot be delivered to North Wales as originally planned … The core problem is that an inadequate number of units were ordered originally to operate the enhanced level planned by Virgin Trains, including its services to Holyhead … The current assumption is that there will be three or four new 125 mph trains each way from … 004. Why has Virgin Trains been awarded record compensation and made huge profits when it is unwilling to fulfil its original commitment?

Hywel Williams

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the planned level of service is little better than the service from north Wales that we have at present, which is tempting people like me, who are committed users of the rail, to use cars? That is a disaster for Virgin Trains and for the environment, as well as for the economy in north Wales, because of the disincentive effect of such a poor service on inward investment.

Albert Owen

I agree that the proposed service, as outlined in that last letter from the SRA, is not going to encourage people to use the railways. The new trains might be faster, but they might also be smaller and have less capacity than the present ones. That, too, is a great worry.

The port of Holyhead is a major employer in my constituency, and it obviously relies on an efficient rail service just as much as it does on the new enhanced road service that has been developed since 1997 under the Labour Government. In recent months there has been excellent news of record investment in the port. Some £13 million has been invested in its infrastructure, and a £3 million objective 1 grant will be topped up with private cash, showing that objective 1 really is working for north-west Wales. I am going to make an overtly political point here, because whenever the Assembly Member for my constituency of Ynys Môn—the president of Plaid Cymru—gets to his feet in Cardiff, hesays that there is no evidence of objective 1 working in north-west Wales. Yet that same individual is happy to have his photo taken outside the port with the managers, saying how good the delivery is locally for Anglesey. That says a lot about the double standards of the president of the party of which the hon. Member for Caernarfon is a member.

This investment will secure jobs and create new jobs, creating a world-class port—the largest on the westernseaboard of the United Kingdom and the fourth largest in the UK-which is dubbed the European Celtic gateway. This new investment has already been earmarked as a catalyst for a further £33 million in road, port and town improvements. Some 2.5 million passengers travel through the port of Holyhead each year, and the planned expansion under objective I will result in a further 347,000. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) for his help in ensuring that the objective 1 bid was successful. Cruise liners berth in the port of Holyhead because it has excellent 24-hour tidal usage. Marine development is also taking place there, and it is well placed strategically to serve the Irish sea offshore wind industry, which I know will please my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). Investment locations close to the port are also planned. This proves that investing in our transport infrastructure and our ports results in good news.

In my remaining time I shall talk about air services—I realise that other hon. Members wish to speak. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has been very helpful in supporting my bid for the Anglesey airport at Valley. The Liberal Democrats have also assisted us in our bid to get a link between north-west Wales and the south-east. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Transport, in a statement to the House on the future of air transport in the UK on 23 July, said: Because two thirds of passengers living in Wales fly from airports in England, the consultation covers improved surface surface links to airports in both Wales and England, and looks at the potential to start up internal flights within Wales, which would improve access where surface journeys are lengthy."—[Official Report, 23 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 848.] Anybody who has travelled on the A470 knows how lengthy the journey is between north and south Wales.

Will the Minister in his winding-up speech reassure me that the idea of an airport in RAF Valley, with which he is familiar, will be part of the consultation, so that we can advertise the facilities there? If we are looking for a model in which an RAF airfield has been used commercially, we need go no further than Newquay and RAF St. Mawgan, which is now a major and successful airport on the periphery of Cornwall, bringing thousands of tourists to the area and helping to stimulate economic regeneration. I want to echo that in north-west Wales.

6.20 pm
Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly)

The future of Wales depends on the success of our economy. We have heard a great deal over the years about objective 1 status for west Wales and the valleys, and it is extremely heartening that genuine results are being achieved in that programme. For example, 579 projects in Wales are funded by objective 1 resources, and £336 million has already been allocated to those projects. In my constituency of Caerphilly, the Tredomen business park, the new sports hall in Abertridwr, the new training courses at Ystrad Mynach college, the youth cyber cafe in Bargoed and many other projects have been funded by objective 1 moneys. That is one of the main reasons why there has been a dramatic 36.9 per cent. reduction in unemployment in Caerphilly. I was delighted by the announcement two weeks ago that 300 jobs would be created in Caerphilly with a new computer manufacturer. The previous week it was announced that 149 extra jobs would be created by three employers. That is tremendous news, and it is a fair reflection of how well the economy is doing in major areas of south Wales.

My constituents' quality of life is improving dramatically because of the policies of central Government and the National Assembly. More jobs have been created, and there are more training opportunities, more policemen on the beat and better health provision. However, there is still a huge problem: Caerphilly county borough council, a nationalist-controlled local authority. It is not just me, the people of Caerphilly and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State who say that it is a problem, but the external auditors.

A few weeks ago PricewaterhouseCoopers prepared a devastating report that said quite clearly that Caerphilly county borough council was underperforming, and was one of the worst local authorities in Wales. In a third of all performance indicators the local authority was in the bottom 25 per cent. The report singled out poor education standards, and also said that the authority's social services regime was appalling. That nationalist local authority lacks coherent policies, vision and a sense of social purpose. It claims to be a listening council, yet only the other day, despite the presentation of a petition signed by 1,000 people against the location of a waste transfer station in the village of Bedwas, it went ahead, completely ignoring public opinion.

The person who has to take responsibility for that underperforming council is the leader of the council, Councillor Lindsay Whittle. There is a saying in Caerphilly—"Antisocial behaviour is a real problem". It is, but it comes not from disaffected young people, but from an underperforming local authority. Lindsay Whittle, the leader of the nationalist council, having made a complete mess of the local authority, now wants to stand for the National Assembly for Wales and represent Caerphilly. I can tell the House that he has tried and tried again to secure a parliamentary seat, and lost every time. I can also tell the House that he will fail to be elected to the National Assembly.

As we go into the elections we must not rest on our laurels, for although much has been achieved in Wales we should look to the future and what we might achieve over the next few years. We should concentrate on tackling economic inactivity, as my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) has said. That means doing three things. We need innovative policies: we need, for instance, to develop intermediate labour markets to bridge the gap between welfare and work. We need more complementarity between policy areas such as health and economic development. Finally, we need better coordination between the Assembly and central Government, particularly the Department for Work and Pensions. I am confident that those things will be done in the future.

I can honestly say that I am proud of the Assembly's achievements since 1999. We have a proud record there—and, indeed, in central Government. I have no doubt that on 1 May we will secure a Labour majority in the Assembly—and we will, of course, hold Caerphilly.

6.26 pm
Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

I join the Secretary of State in congratulating Rowan Williams on becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. Anyone with the good sense and decency to oppose a war in the Gulf deserves to be listened to. I am sure that Rowan Williams would support those of us who say there is something wrong with our priorities when we are willing to devote some £ 1,750 million to preparing for war when that money could be used in communities not just in Wales but throughout the United Kingdom, to provide better homes, hospitals and schools. Indeed, the list is endless, but we could certainly use a lot of that money in Blaenau Gwent. It would enable us to transform our communities.

We have real problems in Blaenau Gwent, many of which—such as bad health and poverty—areinterrelated. Everyone now accepts that although the national health service needs more money, and although we welcome the extra money that has been provided, tackling bad health is not enough: poverty must be tackled as well, and we have poverty in abundance in Blaenau Gwent. If we are to tackle poverty, we must tackle the causes of poverty, one of which is unemployment. Our unemployment rate is still unacceptable. We have lost big manufacturing plants-Bosal, Faurecia and Wyvern Furniture. We have lost the coal industry, and more recently we have lost Corus—and, indeed, the steel industry.

It is interesting to hear the Secretary of State talk of possible further redundancies at Corus, and the need to try to persuade the directors to change their plans. In my opinion, talking to Corus is an utter waste of time. It was set up for one reason and one reason only: to asset-strip the industry—and in that regard it has been successful. Sadly, while the directors became millionaires overnight, the people who built the steel industry and took pride in it were thrown on the scrapheap. The Labour Government are doing as much as possible to begin to rectify that wrong.

When we fought the 1992 election we used the slogan, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". I supported that slogan, and with it in mind I consider that what Corus has done for the steel industry constitutes a criminal act. I think, and I know that the rest of my community shares this sentiment, that we should jail the directors—jail the lot of them. They have not only inflicted a terrible crime on my community; they are increasingly doing the same in communities throughout the United Kingdom.

It is clear that this Labour Government have done many good things to begin to rectify poverty, of which the minimum wage is one. If we build on that, it will be the most important legislation produced by this Government since we came to power in 1997. The Government have also negotiated objective 1 funding, and the central Government public spending settlement for the Welsh Assembly is certainly one of the best for Wales that I can remember since becoming involved in politics. Sadly, much still needs to be done, and the Welsh Assembly needs to change its priorities in terms of how that money is spent. It is true that many good things have been done. In my community there is the reintroduction of the passenger rail service, the Cwm bypass, the redevelopment of the old Dunlop Semtex site, and the proposed new hospital. However, we must compare that with the money that is being invested in the millennium arts centre in Cardiff bay: £100 million, and a £2 million a year subsidy for ever and a day. The cost of that arts centre far outweighs all the investment in the projects that I have mentioned.

Another problem that my local authority faces is the local government formula, which determines how much money goes to each local authority. Each local authority throughout Wales produces broadly the same range and level of services. However, council tax levels vary widely, with the poorest valley region often having to pay nearly twice the lowest level. Indeed, the valley regions suffer the highest levels of deprivation in Wales. For the poorest communities in Wales to have some of the highest council tax levels is an unsustainable position.

Whatever criticisms I may have of the Welsh Assembly are as nothing, however, when compared with my criticisms of the nationalists. We all remember valley communities asking the Welsh Assembly two or three years ago for some form of damping grant, to begin to rectify the wrongs and deal with the deprivation that they face. Sadly, the Welsh nationalists refused to vote for that additional money. They refused to support an initiative that gave more money to communities such as ours.

I suppose that the nationalists are in a somewhat difficult position. Deep down, they believe not in a partnership between the Welsh Assembly and this Parliament, but in separation and independence. I know that they are reluctant to put that argument, but it is difficult for them to hold back their enthusiasm for it. Some years ago, their glorious leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, said: Labour are clearly unable to win a general election and self-government for Wales is the only answer. I think that he got that slightly wrong.

Sadly, Ieuan did not tell his good friend Cynog Dafis, who then said: Plaid's aspirations remain full self-government … the status that used to be called independence. Not to be outsmarted, Ieuan hit back and declared: I think self-government now needs to be redefined. I much prefer to use the term "full national status."

That seemed to resolve the problem and to overcome some of their difficulties. However, in a nationalist leaflet that was distributed to my home a few days ago—it was one of the first, if not the first, in the party's attempt to win the constituency—Ieuan declared that what his nationalist party stands for is "self-government". So national self-determination, home rule and the many other phrases that the nationalists have used in their lifetime have suddenly been thrown out of the window. They now accept that they stand for self-government, and as Cynog said, self-government actually means independence.

People are not stupid, and they understand what the nationalists are all about. No matter what words they use to hide their true feelings, the party wants Wales to be separated from the rest of the UK. That would be counter-productive. We must realize that there is no difference between unemployed people in south Wales and those in London, or between unemployed steel workers in south Wales and those in the north of England. Rural workers in mid-Wales are no different from rural workers elsewhere in the UK or England.

The problem is not one of nationality. We must change the system under which we live. Sadly for the nationalists, what they argue for would cause further problems for us as a community. It would split one part of the UK from the rest, when we should be united in recognising who the enemy is. The English are not the enemy. The enemy are the Coruses of this world, and such companies are raping our communities, as they were raped many years ago.

6.36 pm
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

It is a tremendous honour to wind up such a well-attended and wide-ranging debate. Hon. Members from all of Wales have contributed, and I shall try to do them justice.

Contributions were made by the Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies). The hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence), for Montgomeryshire (Lembit öpik), for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) also spoke. There was an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) about the important subject of midwifery and childbirth in Wales—an important subject but, sadly, a short speech.

Other speeches were made by the hon. Members for Gower (Mr. Caton), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), for Caerphilly (Mr. David) and for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith). The last named made a weighty contribution.

My personal fondness for Wales began when I attended Bangor university and served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. All our thoughts will be with our service personnel in the Gulf, especially with those from Wales.

I was delighted when the hon. Member for Aberavon said that my constituency, being on the borders, had a real Welsh name and he was kind enough to mention that that name is Llanllieni. In the true spirit of bilingualism, I thought that that would look very good next to the word "Leominster" on the annunciator screen. You can imagine my disappointment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when the powers that be in the House told me that such a gesture of unity with Wales was not allowed. I hope that you will look into that rather strict rule.

The Government have a passion for devolution. That is clear from the amount of money, time and effort that they have put into forming and funding the National Assembly. It is a shame that their enthusiasm for the institution has not been more widely shared by the people of Wales. Indeed, the coming Assembly election will be a litmus test for the Labour party in Wales and the Welsh Assembly itself.

Before the siren voices of the nationalists call for more powers, I believe that the Welsh people will give credit where it is due. If they feel that the Assembly has used its powers wisely and credibly, I hope that they will turn out in support. Last time, turnout was only 46 per cent. If people see the Assembly as a stepping-stone for independence, they will be hesitant in their support. Hon. Members have rightly voiced their reservations, based on the problem that revenue earned in Wales does not equate to revenue spent in Wales.

The Government have other problems to deal with in Wales, as well as across the UK. Their railway policy has changed dramatically. The Wales and Borders franchise has been delayed for bureaucratic reasons. That is unforgivable, particularly when the Government and their Liberal Democrat helpers have gone to so much trouble to blame previous Conservative Governments for difficulties with rail travel. Now we have the Labour-created Strategic Rail Authority—

Lembit Öpik

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wiggin

No, I will not.

The hon. Gentleman spent his speech telling us how important it was to be inclusive and not personal and then decided to attack Conservatives by quoting directly. He always does that.

In my constituency, we still do not have disabled access at Leominster station, so it is particularly disheartening when we find that the Labour-created Strategic Rail Authority is taking trains out of service and cutting£312 million from the rail budget. It is time for the Government to take some responsibility for undermining our railways.

Everyone in Wales, in some way or other, is a victim of the way in which the Government run Welsh affairs. I wish to turn to crime—[Laughter.] Solely for the duration of the debate. Crime is another issue on which the Labour Government have failed. It is no secret that crime in Wales has risen significantly since Labour assumed power in 1997. There has been a 27 per cent. increase in robberies, a figure that has grown steadily and continues to do so. From 1998 to 2002, violent crime rose by 13.7 per cent.

Those figures contrast with the fact that, since 1997, there has been a steady decline in the number of special constables serving in Wales. In 1997, there were 1,150 special constables, which decreased in 1999 to 940, in 2000 to 811 and finally to 701 in 2002. How can reducing the number of serving special police constables in Wales possibly be conducive to reducing crime in Wales?

Increased gun crime and the illegal drugs trade are serious issues throughout Wales. The Western Mail reported that, in Gwent, firearms offences increased by more than 64 per cent. last year. Again, how can a reduction in the number of serving special constables be helpful in that regard?

I now want to turn to health, another example of how, despite taxes going up in this country, public services do not appear to be getting any better. The Conservatives continue to press the Government on the rising waiting lists and GP shortages in Wales. The Government, with their Lib Dem coalition partners in Cardiff, appear to be oblivious to the horrendous waiting lists in Wales, which have risen by an average of 1,000 people every month since 1997. The number of people waiting over 18 months for in-patient treatment has risen by 240 per cent. since 1997, while the number waiting over six months for out-patient treatment has grown by a staggering 1,300 per cent.

The Welsh Assembly coalition has broken an important promise. They vowed that these waiting lists would be eradicated by the end of Labour's first Assembly term. We find that the Government have less than two months to fulfil that promise; it seems highly unlikely that they will. The latest figures, published last year, reveal that 1,747 NHS posts have been vacant for three months or more. That represents an 18 per cent. increase on the figure published just six months earlier.

Despite all the overwhelming evidence that the Government's tax-and-spend policy is not working, the Welsh Assembly Government are continuing to press ahead with further plans to restructure the health service and further bureaucratise and regulate the activities of hard-working doctors and nurses. Jane Hutt, the Welsh Assembly Health Minister, promised that this so-called restructuring would be cost-neutral. The crystal-clear reality is that there is nothing neutral about it at all. As we learned from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley, it will cost Welsh taxpayers at least £15.5 million.

Economic issues in Wales must cause extreme concern to us all. A recently published report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, "A new regional policy for the UK", shows that Wales has the second lowest level of business start-ups in the UK, the third highest unemployment rate, the third lowest levels of income and the highest percentage of people on sickness or disability benefits.

In manufacturing, the situation goes from bad to worse. Welsh manufacturers have been the victims of sharper falls in new orders than the rest of the UK. Orders fell by 24 per cent in Wales, compared with 19 per cent. in Scotland, the next worst affected area. That contradicts the Secretary of State's assertion that the Welsh economy continues to hold its own against the UK regions. Furthermore, the Welsh economy has lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs over the past year. I note yesterday's foreboding of a strong chance of closure of the Corus steel plant in Port Talbot, with the potential for another 3,000 jobs to be lost—[Interruption.] I am delighted if that is not the case, but that is what I read in the newspapers. That is what is published. I confess that I find it hard to reconcile such a gloomy outlook with the remarkable picture that the Secretary of State claims that he can paint of the Welsh economy.

The CBI in Wales also points out a stark picture and states: Welsh output … is predicted to decline over the next four months …business finances are significantly under pressure. This partly reflects the difficult economic climate, but policy-driven cost increases, including business tax rises, have also played a key role. If that is not proof that the Labour Government are a business-wrecking Government, nothing is.

I turn to the impending council tax increases. It is not only business that the Government are taxing into the ground but the ordinary people of Wales. Council taxes are set to increase by a staggering 14 per cent., which is yet another example of the Chancellor's tax-and-spend policies. The Welsh Assembly Government persist in telling us that council tax increases are nothing to do with them but are at the discretion of individual local authorities. The trouble is that local authorities must pay for the extravagant, wasteful policies initiated by the Assembly, not least the ridiculous, monstrous waste of money that is the plan for the new Assembly building in Cardiff bay.

The bottom line is that this Government, in their capacity at Westminster and in the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff, have failed the people of Wales. The Government's approach to so many issues—crime, health, education, industry, agriculture, local government—is fundamentally flawed. Their policies are failing the people of Wales because they do not work.

What would it take to reverse that pattern of decline in Wales? There is only one answer: a radical rethink of how Government policy is implemented in Wales, and a radical revision of the approach that this Government have taken. That radical revision and new approach can come only from the Conservative party. Only the Conservatives have the vision to take stock of what is happening in Wales and reverse the decline by radically changing the policy approach.

6.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig)

This debate has once again demonstrated the important role that Welsh matters play in the affairs of the House. I am delighted that so many Members have taken the opportunity to contribute to a wide-ranging debate. Let me remind hon. Members of the progress relating to Wales that we have been making in this place in the last year.

The Health (Wales) Bill has come before Parliament: the first Wales-only Bill to be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. Other Bills containing important provisions for Wales, such as the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill and the Local Government Bill, have been debated. In the post-devolution world, therefore, Wales's voice at Westminster remains strong, which is what the people of Wales want: a strong voice in Parliament and an influential and strong voice in Government. They would not support proposals from other parties to dilute that influence and weaken Wales's voice. The Tory sham of supporting devolution while constantly sniping at it is not the answer, nor is the nationalists' efforts to undermine it in their claims for separation and for the break up of Britain. The Liberal Democrats agree with everybodyb—as they always do, depending on whom they are speaking to—and have no answer either.

Many of the speeches today have reflected the progress that the Government, working in partnership with the Labour-led Assembly, have made over the past year.

Mr. Win Griffiths

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Touhig

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not do so, as I must try to make many responses.

Let us make no mistake: we have a good story to tell. I am far happier talking about the record of our Government than about that of our rugby team at present. Confident and ever-optimistic, however, I believe that the Welsh rugby team, like the phoenix, will rise from the ashes.

There are over 60,000 more people in employment in Wales now than there were a year ago. The agricultural and tourism sectors are making a strong recovery from the setbacks of previous years and exciting projects in both private and public sectors are being developed across Wales, such as Airbus, DARA. at St. Athan, the Wales millennium centre, the Baglan energy park, and the proposed film studios near Bridgend.

General Dynamics' investment in my constituency is another success story. The Labour Government, working in partnership with the Labour-led Assembly, are delivering results in better jobs and more prosperity for the people of Wales. Those examples are part of our success story and they show the partnership between a strong Labour Government in Westminster and a Labour-led Assembly.

I wish to highlight three areas in which I have personally witnessed the benefits of that partnership in recent weeks. Only last Friday I attended an event to mark the new deal helping 50,000 people into work. I remember the Opposition saying that the new deal would not help to reduce unemployment. What do they say now about the 50,000 people in Wales who have jobs as a result of Labour's new deal initiative? They have no answer. Secondly, we are delivering results in fighting crime. Our investment has delivered a record 600 extra police officers in Wales and overall crime levels are down by 15 per cent.

Thirdly, by working together, we are delivering compensation to miners, and their widows and families, whose lives were damaged by working in the coal industry. Under the two miners' compensation schemes, we have seen almost 25,000 claims settled and £281 million paid out. We are now paying out £3 million a week to miners and their widows in the Welsh coalfields. However, there is much that still has to be done and we must not give up until justice has been delivered to all our miners and their families.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) talked about the problems in manufacturing, and I agree that it has had problems. However, 20,000 new jobs have been created in manufacturing in Wales. One in eight jobs in manufacturing have been created since 2000. The Welsh economy is now much more diverse than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Public investment is important to that, and it is enabling the building of new schools and hospitals as well as providing work in the construction industry. What would a 20 per cent. cut in public investment do for the economy of Wales? Not much. The hon. Gentleman also complained about the council tax. As a result of the support given by this Government to our colleagues in the Assembly, funding for councils in the next year will increase by more than 9 per cent. in Wales, which is almost three times the rate of inflation. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) mentioned council tax increases, but one of the biggest increases is in the Conservative-run Vale of Glamorgan. Its council tax will go up by 10 per cent.

It is important that we ensure that funding goes to our local authorities to deliver improvements in services. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley also expressed concern about waiting lists, but 200,000 more people have been treated in Wales since Labour came into government. We have had to correct 18 years of under-investment. We remember the Conservatives in government, when 70 hospitals were closed between 1979 and 1997 and 8,000 general acute beds were lost as a result of their policies. The hon. Gentleman is also clearly at odds with the Tory health spokesman in the Assembly who has said that the NHS needs extra resources, which should be funded from taxation. That is not what the Tories say when we increase national insurance to fund the health service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) made two important points. She talked about the exciting Petroplus project in her constituency. I recently visited it and I wish it every success. She also mentioned the Bluestone development, which is an important tourist initiative. I hope that the planning authorities will do everything possible to speed up the decision on that development.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit öpik) outlined the achievements of the National Assembly, and they are Labour achievements. Labour promises were made and delivered by the National Assembly.

Lembit öpik

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Touhig

I regret that I cannot give way, because I have to respond to so many contributions to the debate.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies) talked about the economic problems that we still have, but he acknowledged that we have made a good start. He made a powerful case for exercising caution before making the further constitutional changes advocated by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) also raised the issue of waiting lists. Long waiting lists are not acceptable and my colleagues in the Assembly are taking steps to meet that challenge. Vast sums of money are going into the NHS, and reforms are being made, so that we can deliver. My colleague Edwina Hart, the Assembly Minister for Finance, Local Government and Communities, has called in Derek Wanless, who will carry out a review of NHS spending in Wales, and we look forward to that.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the problems of match funding. Well, this Government said that we would not let Wales down when we won objective 1 funding, and we did not. The spending review in 2001–02 delivered above-Barnett consequentials for funding in Wales, and we have benefited from that. His criticism of the WDA was unfair. The WDA is setting higher targets; next year, it aims to create or safeguard 48,000 jobs in Wales. That is important to the Welsh economy and we should welcome it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) welcomed the way in which pre-legislative scrutiny has been handled. He mentioned the Health (Wales) Bill in particular and I thank his Committee for its work. I suspect that further work for it will be coming down the track.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) raised concerns about his unitary development plan. New legislation that is going through the House may help his constituency, but I was very concerned about his remarks. If he has not already done so, I suggest that he brings these matters to the attention of Assembly Ministers. I will undertake to ensure that a transcript of his comments is passed on to Assembly Ministers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) welcomed a number of measures, such as the working families tax credit and the minimum income guarantee, mentioning the benefit that they have brought to his constituents. I pay tribute to him for his campaign to improve the health of air passengers on long-haul flights. He has done a tremendous job.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) popped up and made a contribution. He was concerned about maternity services. His party, when in Government, presided over a 25 per cent. cut in nursing and midwifery training. That is his party's record. We were left to clean up the mess and to overcome the nursing shortages that we inherited. Our target is to employ 6,000 more nurses in Wales by 2010. We are on target.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) spoke about the dramatic cut in unemployment in his constituency and about the importance of the minimum wage. I agree with what he said. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) spoke about KTH at Llanidloes. I know that Team Wales has been asked to see what it can do to save those jobs. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas) mentioned that today's debate is closer to St. Patrick's day than St. David's day. He should not worry too much about that because St. Patrick was a Welshman. He came from Gwent. I know that for a fact.

My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) talked about economic inactivity. He is right: 300,000 people in Wales are economically inactive. We have to use projects such as workstep to find ways of getting them into work. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) spoke passionately about the steel industry in his constituency. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will do all that we can to help to protect the jobs at Corus in Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) spoke about the importance of manufacturing, training and modern apprenticeships, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) spoke about equal pay. I share her hopes and aspirations on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) reminded us of the suffering inflicted on communities as a result of steel job losses. That suffering has been all too stark in parts of Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) raised important issues to do with rail transport. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David) welcomed the improvements in his area as a result of objective 1. He also highlighted the fact that we have a terribly badly run Welsh nationalist council in Caerphilly; we have good officers and staff in Caerphilly but a lousy council leadership that is failing the people of Caerphilly. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith) welcomed the minimum wage. It is right that we should build on that.

People in Wales face a choice on 1 May. They can return a Labour Administration to the Assembly, based on our record of managing a sound economy and improving the health and education services. They can choose a Wales that is going forward and working in partnership with the Government here in Westminster—a Labour Government that is undoing the legacy of the Tory years. That is choice that they face. We want no more Thatcher policies in Wales. We will ensure that the people of Wales understand that as we come towards the election.

There is something else that people will have to remember in a few weeks' time. Our own daffodil Tories, the nationalist party, would take us back to the time of Redwood and Thatcher. The nationalists' choice is a path of separation and isolation, leading to mass unemployment and a divided society. The nationalists' vision is a Wales of elites and divisions—a country savaged by unemployment and cut off from our closest friends and neigh hours just to satisfy the delusions of an extremist nationalist elite. The people of Wales will certainly turn that down. That vision is a nightmare.

On 1 May, the people of Wales will have a choice of returning a Labour Administration or of returning a Tory Administration that is committed to 20 per cent. cuts in public expenditure. They will have a choice of returning a Labour Administration in Wales that will give Wales a world-class economy, or of returning a nationalist party that will cut Wales off from the rest of the United Kingdom, leaving a barren outcrop of deprivation, unemployment and poverty. Labour wants a Wales in which the people of Wales can be confident of their future. I believe that the people of Wales will make the right choice on 1 May. I believe that they will turn out in their thousands to elect a Labour Administration in Cardiff.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.