HC Deb 26 February 2004 vol 418 cc457-507

[Relevant documents: The fourth Report from the welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2002–03, "The Primary Legislative Process as it affects Wales", HC79 and the Government Response thereto, The Second Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2003–04, "The Work of the Committee in 2003", HC178, and Minutes of Evidence [The Wales Office Departmental Report 2003],, HC883, Session 2002–03.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. — [Mr. Ainger.]

3.6 pm

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain)

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this debate in front of your good self, Madam Deputy Speaker, one of our proudest women representing Wales in Parliament—

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)

From north Wales!

Mr. Hain

My Parliamentary Private Secretary reminds the House that you are from north Wales, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I start today by paying tribute to two great servants of the Welsh people here at Westminster whom we have lost during the past year. Lord Williams of Mostyn was a good friend, a highly valued Cabinet colleague and a man of both the sharpest intellect and the wisest wit. He put his great talents to use in the service of Wales and both the Government and the people of Wales miss him greatly. Lord Islwyn was a great fighter for his constituents, who took part in this Welsh day debate on many occasions. He was very proud when Newport was awarded city status by Her Majesty the Queen in 2002.

I also wish to pay tribute to John Charles, an international football legend and one of the greatest Welsh sportsmen of all time, who well merited his nickname of the gentle giant. He had a distinguished international and league career, was a most versatile player and was one of the first British players to make his mark in the Italian league. My sincere condolences go to his family and friends on the loss of a true Welsh gentleman on and off the field.

I also wish to pay tribute to all those Welsh men and women of our armed forces serving in Iraq, and in other conflict zones around the world and, in particular, I offer sympathies to the families of those who died in the service of their country, including those from my home village of Resolven. Last week I had the pleasure of visiting Maindy barracks in Cardiff to meet Brigade Commander lain Cholerton, and be briefed on the excellent work of the Royal Regiment of Wales. I am sure that every Member of the House would wish to join me in recording our thanks for the dangerous and demanding tasks that they carry out on our behalf.

During this past year as Secretary of State I have taken forward my pledge to work with the Assembly to build and promote a world-class Wales, with a highly skilled, high quality economy and top class public services—a Wales determined never to be second best—and we have a good story to tell. In the past, when the world did badly, Wales did much worse. Today, in a period of global economic uncertainty, Wales has done much better: we have more jobs, greater growth, low interest rates, higher public investment and sustained stability. We have the lowest public debt almost anywhere in the world; the lowest interest rates since 1955; the lowest inflation since the 1960s; and the lowest unemployment for 25 years. Of all the major economies, the British economy has been the fastest growing, despite the worst global slowdown for nearly 30 years.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)

The Secretary of State notes the increasing economic success of Wales, as he sees it. In the light of that fact, will he accept the view of the National Assembly that we should have a public holiday on 1 March, St. David's day? The right hon. Gentleman would be in a strong position to suggest that to the Cabinet and I know that it would have cross-party support and the approval of the National Assembly. Will he consider the point further?

Mr. Hain

I shall consider the idea further and keep it under review. If a serious, argued case were to be presented to us, based on full consultation with the business community, taking into account the economic impact on the Welsh economy vis-á-vis the English economy, we should give it even more careful consideration than we were able to do last year or the year before.

The employment rate in Wales is up by 0.7 percentage points since December 2002. Wales has also seen a fall in the rate of economic inactivity—hidden unemployment—which is down by 0.3 percentage points since December 2002. Wales has 28,000 more people in work than this time last year, 4,000 fewer people inactive in the economy and for the nine months to December 2003 business activity accelerated at its fastest rate. Average earnings were up 3.9 per cent. in 2002–03, so employment and earnings are rising together, which show: that we are on the right path to close the prosperity gap.

I remind hon. Members of the words of the then Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr Hague), who warned in this very debate seven years age: There is no question but that Labour's policies would reduce employment, and they would certainly reduce employment opportunities for the future in Wales."—[Official Report, 27 February 1997; Vol. 291, c. 458.]

Chris Ruane

Eat your words.

Mr. Hain

I agree. No doubt, we shall hear similar dire predictions from the Opposition today, and I have no doubt that they will prove to be just as inaccurate and fatuous.

That economic success is the result not of good fortune or chance circumstances, but of a strong partnership between the Government in Westminster and the Assembly Government in Wales. It represents a complete break with the boom-and-bust, stop-go economic policy of the previous Government and a rejection of the isolationist, mist, confrontational approach of the nationalists. Both have failed Wales in the past and both would fail Wales in the future.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

Does the Secretary of State agree that there are employment black spots in Wales? Job cuts in localities can create local recessions, so does he agree that the Assembly and Parliament must ensure that we do not neglect communities that depend on one large employer? As he knows, that is exactly the problem in my mid-Wales constituency.

Mr. Hain

I am aware of the problem in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, especially as we sought to rescue the factory concerned. We must constantly try to provide alternative employment patterns and opportunities.

What is the practical effect of our hard-won economic stability? It has meant that thousands of Welsh men and women who were without work in 1997, and thousands who would have had no hope of work under a continuation of the economic policies of the previous Government, now have jobs. Claimant-count unemployment in Wales has fallen by 45 per cent. over the past seven years. Welsh gross domestic product per head increased by 15.6 per cent. between 1997 and 2001. Wales is closing the gap with the UK on economic activity, and we are on the right path to close the prosperity gap with other parts of the country, with the third fastest rise in earnings in Britain in 2002–03. It means, too, that more than 50,000 unemployed people in Wales have found employment through the new deal—a programme that the shadow Chancellor has described as "an expensive failure", and which his party is pledged to abolish.

I challenge the right hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues, including the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), to visit, as I did before Christmas, the Disability Action Crust in Llandarcy, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), to see the work it is doing through the new deal programme to equip people with sight difficulties for the world of employment, and then to tell me whether he still thinks that the new deal is an expensive failure.

Thanks to a member of the Liberal Democrat staff in the Assembly, we now know, from their draft manifesto, that the Liberal Democrats intend to scrap the new deal. Although it is not yet St. David's day, the Liberal Democrats already have a leak, but perhaps next time they might consider circulating their draft manifesto to all Labour Members of Parliament and not just to Labour Assembly Members. It is an insult to the House that Labour Members of Parliament were not included in the circulation list.

It is important that we focus on the proposals in that document and their implications for Wales. The Liberals describe the new deal as a waste of time for unemployed people who only need superficial help". It also says that the Liberal Democrats would get rid of the child trust fund, which the Government are introducing to ensure that, in future, all children have a financial asset at the start of their adult life—[Interruption.] This is an equality issue, yet on the basis of that document the Liberal Democrats will be going into the next election proposing to rob Welsh babies of up to £500 each—the 30,000 Welsh babies born every year who would attract that money.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the manifesto shows, once and for all, that the Liberals are just the Tories in disguise?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend puts the point eloquently; he is right.

It is instructive that the Liberal Democrats choose to oppose two of the most radical and transforming measures that the Labour Government have introduced: the new deal and the child trust fund. Another radical measure, the national minimum wage, is benefiting tens of thousands of people in Wales. Let us not forget that the Leader of the Opposition opposed its introduction because he claimed it would cost 1 million jobs. In fact, since it was introduced, more than 1.5 million additional jobs have been created across Britain.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the best investment that can be made for young children is at the start of their lives? Holding on to £250 until they are 18 is a wasted opportunity; the real benefit would be felt when the children are very young.

Mr. Hain

I do not know what the definition of the start of one's life is if it is not to be a baby. That is when we are providing for children to receive up to £500, and that will help many thousands of Welsh babies born into low-income families. Over the years, that figure can be added to through public funds and contributions from relatives, to provide a protected asset when the young people reach adulthood. It will enable Welsh babies born into deprived backgrounds, like many of those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and mine—especially in the south of my constituency—to have a decent start in life, which they do not have at present. In other words, it is an equality measure that the Liberal Democrats want to chop.

Average mortgage rates are less than half their level between 1979 and 1997, meaning that home owners in Wales are spending much, much less of their budget on housing costs. An objective 1 programme has already created 22,000 gross new direct and indirect jobs and safeguarded 30,000 more, yet it seems that hardly a week goes by without the Opposition parties putting out a press release attempting to belittle or discredit that programme. They hate it when Labour policies are successful. They love running Wales down, instead of honestly acknowledging that Wales is on the up. I say to them: look at the evidence in your own constituencies—

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)


Mr. Hain

And to the hon. Gentleman, who does not have a Welsh constituency, I give way.

Mr. Evans

But unlike the Secretary of State for Wales, at least I was born in Wales.

The Secretary of State says that we hate it when the Government are successful, but I hate it when they are not successful. Will he spend some time talking about the council tax rises under the Labour Government over the past seven years?

Mr. Hain

I remember when the local government boundaries were redrawn by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who preceded the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks as Secretary of State for Wales. Council tax increases in my Neath constituency started to take off under the Conservatives, owing to a dreadful, miserable local government settlement, from which we have been trying to recover. We are putting record investment into local government, compared with the cuts, which the hon. Gentleman supports, that the Conservatives introduced in Wales and elsewhere.

Mr. Evans

Is that it?

Mr. Hain

We seek to reduce council tax increases. In Wales, the increases are among the lowest for years, because of the investment that we are making.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new spending assessments of the National Assembly Government, which the Conservatives opposed, help deprived areas such as mine by as much as £7 million a year? Plaid Cymru and Tory Assembly Members refused to support those new arrangements to help deprived communities.

Mr. Hain

That is another example of a shameful attitude of the Liberal Democrats and, especially, the Conservatives in the Assembly. Look at the projects that would not have come into existence and the jobs that would not have been created if it were not for a Government who were prepared to negotiate at the heart of Europe to secure objective I status, together with an Assembly Government who were able to draw together partnerships across the public and private sectors to implement the programme.

The truth is that the nationalists cannot stand to see an example of partnership working between different tiers of government in Europe, at Westminster and in Wales. They know that the success of objective I would mark the failure of their outdated ideology. An independent Wales cut off from the rest of Britain and isolated from the rest of Europe—that is their objective 1.

The Welsh economy still faces many challenges, but we are better placed than for many years to overcome them. Unemployment is still too high. Levels of entrepreneurship are still too low. Our work force must become more highly skilled. We need more research and development activity and stronger links between our higher education institutions and Welsh business.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Lab)

On the need to upgrade skills, does my right hon. Friend agree that both Opposition parties' plans to eradicate the new deal would compound skill shortages and do nothing to help to "upskill" our population in Wales?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend is only too right, because in her constituency, in mine and in those of all Welsh Members, including the Opposition, the cutting of the new deal would deprive thousands of people—disabled people, lone parents and long-term unemployed and young people—of the opportunities to work. However, in every area, the Government and the Assembly in Cardiff are working together to address the big challenges that we face.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC)

The Secretary of State mentions the comparatively low level of R and D activity in Wales. Could not the UK Government perform a function in that respect? We have only one Government-funded research centre in Wales, compared with 20 in Scotland. Surely Wales is not getting its fair share of Government-funded research at the moment?

Mr. Hain

One of the things that we are considering in the Lyons review is the relocation of public sector jobs to Wales, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to identify such opportunities. I assure him that we will certainly consider most carefully any research and development opportunities that arise.

Those who are still isolated from the labour market have been targeted for personal assistance and advice through the employment action zones and the new incapacity benefit pilot scheme that covers the Bridgend and Rhondda Cynon Taff areas.

From April to November 2003, the Assembly and the Welsh Development Agency assisted more than 3,300 business starts through the entrepreneurship action plan, and Finance Wales has secured more than £7 million in first phase funding to support start-ups and early stage investment in small and medium-sized enterprises.

The Government have introduced a new range of R and D tax credits, anti prestigious R and D facilities, such as those of General Dynamics, are choosing to locate in Wales. I foresee opportunities for Wales in renewable energy products, and I have welcomed Sharp's recent decision to invest in the production of photovoltaic cells for solar energy at its production site in Wrexham. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for helping to secure that investment. That is in addition to existing exciting projects, such as those based on the Baglan energy park.

Over the coming 15 years up to 5 million jobs could be outsourced from European Union countries and the United States combined to countries that are only now industrialising and see king to catch us up. That is a considerable challenge for us, and it is essential that we accept that our education and training system is central to our ability to respond, as a nation, to such economic challenges in the coming decade and a half. Investment in science and skills is the key to meet the challenge of outsourcing and to ensure that we have a high-quality economy, with high employment and the high skills to underpin it. For that, we need an enabling Government in Westminster and Cardiff, not a minimalist Government who seek to draw back and to cut and chop, as the official Opposition would do.

The Government made clear from the start the priority that we attach to the role of education in our society. As parents and teachers will testify, the investment that we have made and the reforms that we have pioneered are bearing fruit. Utilising that extra investment, and following its own distinctive agenda, the Welsh Assembly Government are developing a world-class education system in Wales, which provides quality learning and ensures that all children have the means to realise their full potential.

Infant classes are at historically low levels. Teacher numbers have increased year on year, with nearly 960 more teachers in maintained schools than there were four years ago. Of those pupils in their final year of compulsory education, 51 cent. achieved five or more GCSE grades at A to C, or vocational equivalent, last year—5 per cent. higher than in 1998. Schools across Wales are piloting the exciting new Welsh baccalaureate qualification.

We have recast and modernised the structure of post-16 education in Wales. The Assembly has introduced learning grants to provide guaranteed additional financial support for students in further and higher education, and we are devolving to the Assembly the right to take vital decisions about the student support system for further and higher education students domiciled in Wales, as well as the tuition fee regime.

I am delighted that higher education institutions in Wales are outperforming the UK average in attracting a wider social mix of students and working with groups and communities that are under-represented in higher education, but the Assembly Education Minister, Jane Davidson, shares this Government's desire to ensure far greater access for the children of low-income families than has been the case in the past. I am afraid those children can expect no comfort from the Opposition.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) has made it clear that the Conservative proposals for higher education funding are based on reducing the number of university places, so thousands of Welsh youngsters would be denied the chance to go to university. On average, about 500 youngsters in each of our 40 Welsh constituencies would be blocked by the Tory proposals from going on to higher education: Tories blocking new talent, Tories blocking new opportunities—the same old Tories doing Wales down again.

Mr. Evans

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hain

I want to make progress because many other hon. Members wish to speak.

In health, a sustained period of investment has led to real improvements in treatment. In 2004–05, the Assembly Government have been able to allocate almost 95 per cent. more to the health budget than was spent when we inherited it from the Conservatives in 1997. As a result of that increased investment, there are now nearly 19 per cent. more NHS staff in Wales, including 30 per cent. more whole-time-equivalent hospital consultants and nearly 16 per cent. more qualified nurses. Nearly 200,000 more patients were seen in 2001–02 than in 1996–97.

There have also been significant decreases in the number of people having to wait long periods for targeted procedures—cardiac, orthopaedic and cataract surgery—as was demonstrated by the latest figures released yesterday. However, all that hard-won progress in rebuilding public services in Wales is now threatened by the shadow Chancellor's announcement that he intends to slash an estimated £1 billion from public spending in Wales, leaving a black hole in our finances that would inevitably lead to service cuts and tens of thousands of job losses throughout Wales—a £27 million cut per Welsh constituency from the Conservatives.

I challenge the hon. Member for Leominster to tell us today—I hope that he will do so from the Dispatch Box shortly—whether he was consulted on that £1 billion cut in spending for Wales. Exactly where should the axe fall?

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con)

The Secretary of State misrepresents what the shadow Chancellor said. As this is an intervention, I will explain very briefly that if the Government continue to spend at greater rate than the economy grows, they will have no choice but to increase tax. We believe that that is the wrong thing to do. We will not increase tax. That is why he is misrepresenting our policy.

Mr. Hain

The shadow Chancellor is not even proposing any difference in taxes until 2011. Meanwhile, in the first two years of a Conservative Government, if they were to be elected at the next election, there would be a two-year cash freeze. I quote the shadow Chancellor: For all other spending than health and education… which is a 5 per cent. real terms cut in the first two years… with further real-terms cuts in each area until 2011…a £1.5 billion cut in defence. That would have affect lots of jobs in Wales and many of my hon. Friends' constituencies.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab)

I fear that my right hon. Friend is too generous to the Opposition, because defence cuts will almost certainly have a disproportionately adverse effect in Wales. The proposal for a freeze is a disaster and will do enormous damage to defence now, not in the future. It will be factored into decision making, and is reckless and outrageous.

Mr. Hain

Indeed, there will be a £1.5 billion cut in defence, a £900 million cut in Home Office and criminal justice spending, a £600 million cut in transport—what will happen to our railways and buses?—a £400 million cut in housing, a £2.4 billion cut in local government, which will affect council tax, and a £250 million cut in international development. That is just for starters, and we will not get anything in return, such as tax cuts that would at least offset the cuts that the official Opposition would make. Which schools will be closed in Wales, and how many teachers will be sacked? Which hospitals will be shut and how many nurses will be sacked—[Interruption.] Ah, they say that they would maintain health and education spending, but they would rob the health budget across Britain by £2 billion to fund their patient passport scheme and a similar school passport scheme. That would allow rich patients to take money out of the national health service and go down the road to a private hospital. The NHS will be robbed of much-needed funds so that those people can top up their ability to pay.

How many nurses will be sacked? How many bus and rail services will be chopped? How many thousands of Welsh defence-related jobs will go, and how many Welsh companies will close? In general, we know the answers to those questions because we have been here before in the miserable decades under the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s. By contrast, our Labour Government have built a strong economy and are investing in our children's future. However, we must protect our communities. Strong communities have been a feature of our way of life in Wales, whether in the urban centres of the south and north-east or the rural villages of the north and west.

The Leader of the Opposition recently told us that Welsh communities "revived very considerably" under Margaret Thatcher. What planet is he living on? Welsh communities were decimated by Thatcherism, and life and hope was drained from them by 18 years of economic mismanagement, neglect and misery. Our Labour Government have revitalised them with new jobs, new public investment, objective 1, the Communities First programme, and by reviving the public transport network. That is why we have increased the numbers of police officers in Wales by more than 760, and introduced more than 110 community support officers. Progress has been encouraging—crime in England and Wales has gone down by 25 per cent. since we came to power and the chances of becoming a victim of crime are the lowest for 20 years. Too many people's lives, however, are still plagued by antisocial behaviour. Vandalism, graffiti, dumped rubbish, fly-tipping, abandoned cars, relentless noise and nuisance have a long-lasting and corrosive effect on the quality of people's lives.

Many people, especially those living on their own, feel that there is little that they can do to tackle those problems, but the truth is that the community, working together, can take a stand against antisocial behaviour and deliver change. The Government have made provision for antisocial behaviour orders, which prohibit specific antisocial actions, and acceptable behaviour contracts. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 includes measures to give local authorities permission to apply for antisocial behaviour orders, disperse groups causing harassment or intimidation, widen the use of fixed-penalty notices and place restrictions on the ownership and possession of airguns. The Government cannot, however, do everything on their own. We have given powers to local authorities and the police, and now people must work together both to reassert our traditional community values of respect for one another, and to ensure that we do not allow a minority to spread fear and distress in their area.

This is a time of great opportunity for Wales —opportunities for work, opportunities for business, opportunities to learn. Employment has risen to record levels, and new markets in eastern Europe and across the world are opening to Welsh businesses. Higher education is becoming available to people from low-income families who never had the chance to study before. We also have an opportunity to renew the community values for which Wales is renowned. We aim to ensure a diverse, vibrant society in which, through tolerance and respect for one another, people are able to shape their own lives and fulfil their individual potential. The evidence of the past 12 months is clear—we are moving forward, and Wales is changing for the better. By working together, our Labour Governments in Westminster and Cardiff are making the difference.

Madam Deputy Speaker(Sylvia Heal)

Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

3.35 pm
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con)

Before the Secretary of State got into his usual stuff, he made some important comments, particularly about Welsh men and women who had passed away. We, too, would like to pass on our condolences to the friends and family of John Charles, Members of the other place and other Welsh people who served our country so well.

I do not want to talk Wales down—the Secretary of State usually accuses me of doing so—but I shall examine exactly what is going on in Wales. We heard from the Secretary of State exactly how much has been put in, but we must look at what is coming out. It used to be thought that the NHS was the envy of the world, and all that it needed was a touch more cash. That myth has been well and truly scotched. The Welsh Assembly Government have increased the Welsh health budget by 40 per cent., to £4.55 billion, which is £822 per capita, compared with £740 in England. That is the largest health budget in the UK, and has not altered the status of the Welsh health service as the worst in western Europe. The truth, proven by the Labour Government's huge increases in tax and spending, is that it still fails to fulfil patients' wishes. That is not the fault of the doctors, nurses or even the administrators, and it is not that they do not try to do their best. The mountain of rules and regulations has become a barrier instead of a method of improvement.

Lembit Öpik

Is it not the case that we have difficulties in the Welsh health service because when the Labour party took office they insisted on carrying out the Conservatives' bankrupt health policies for three years?

Mr. Wiggin

I think that we all agree that that is nonsense.

It is finally clear that more regulations from Whitehall or Cardiff will not reduce the length of time that people must wait for treatment. Since the Assembly took over responsibility for health in Wales in 1999, waiting lists have escalated rapidly. Overall, 307,608 people are on a waiting list for treatment, 40,000of whom have waited over 12 months, and 14,815 people in Wales have been waiting over 18 months. The divide with services across the border—Welsh people are disadvantaged simply because they live in wales—is unacceptable. How can the Labour Government in Wales have got it so wrong? How can this be allowed to happen and continue?

Only by trusting the people, both patients and professionals, can we reverse that trend. At the moment, the state runs health care in Britain, but we want that control to pass to patients. Even under this Government, there an proposals that will deliver real improvements to health in Wales. However, what is needed, and what the Conservatives will undertake, is the removal of the mass of regulations so that patients are allowed to make the choices that will determine where and when they go to hospital. We will give patients a passport to health that will provide that freedom of choice and control, as well as allowing the medical profession more flexibility and freedom in handling the individual requirements of a modern population.

Albert Owen

On health passports, can the hon. Gentleman explain to people in my constituency who are on fixed incomes how far they would have to travel and how much of their own money they would have to put towards those passports?

Mr. Wiggin

One of the dangers of this is that people misunderstand the fact that having extra freedom does not mean that they have to use it. People would not lose anything. If they decided that they did not want to change—[Interruption.] I am trying to respond to the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen). If they wanted to travel further, they would be free to do so—they cannot at the moment—but if they chose not to take advantage of that, they would not have to. This is about giving extra freedoms, not taking things away. I think that the hon. Gentleman s constituents would agree that he should support that.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab)

Is that the same as the freedom for everyone to send their child to Eton?

Mr. Wiggin

I do not believe that it has ever been illegal to send one's child to Eton. The hon. Gentlemen's intervention is extraordinary—clearly, he did not go there.

Welsh Conservatives recently announced their five-point plan to rescue the Welsh NHS from its relentless decline. They will channel money directly to NHS trusts, with a fundamental review of NHS structures; reduce bureaucracy in the Health Minister's Department; encourage and reward NHS trusts that meet targets and tackle financial deficits; use spare capacity at NHS and private hospitals in England and hospitals abroad to reduce waiting lists; and make bitter use of the private finance initiative for a programme of hospital building.

People want to become doctors and nurses because they believe in caring for others. We have first-class professionals who want to respond to the needs of the patient but are unable to do so because they are operating within a second-class system as Ministers' targets, bureaucracy and directives unnecessarily take away their freedom to deliver quality care. That must change. Something must be done quickly for the health service to deliver quality medical care for the people of Wales. At the current rate, the total number of people on waiting lists in Wales will hit 0.5 million in six years and 1 million by 2024.

Waiting lists are not the only measure of Labour's health care failure in Wales. For example, 4,802 patients were left for more than 12 hours in accident and emergency between October 2002 and September 2003, compared with 1,517 the year before. Of the 10 UK health authorities with the worst health care records, six are in Wales. That means that the proportion of people in Wales who are too ill to work is 23.37 per cent.; in England, it is 17.93 per cent.

The repair bill for NHS buildings in Wales stands at more than £465 million—a figure that has risen by £147 million since 1999. The Labour Assembly Government's pledge to spend £550 million on modernising GP surgeries and hospitals will not even cover that growing backlog of repair costs. Jane Hutt may want to tackle waiting lists more than anybody else, but it is not her good intentions that count. Her good intentions to tackle certain diseases, increase bureaucracy and set up 96 administrative groups are making the lives of many people in Wales worse because they have no control over health treatment.

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab)

Assuming that the hon. Gentleman's facts and figures are entirely accurate, does he recognise that the Assembly has a good record in terms of its orthopaedic initiative? When that started in 2001, more than 2,000 people waited for more than 18 months—now, only 15 do so.

Mr. Wiggin

I am delighted to hear that a waiting list has fallen, but the sad thing is that they are not all falling. When we consider what is best for the people of Wales, as we should in the debate in honour of St. David's day, we should look at all the waiting lists—cherry-picking one good statistic is not the right way to sell the benefits of Jane Hutt. I am citing the statistics for the whole of Wales. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to that, because I should point out that they are all taken from parliamentary answers to the Wales Office or the Department of Health.

It is the consequences of Labour politicians' actions, not their intentions, that matter. It is important that control should be passed to patients, giving them the opportunity to choose where and when they are treated.

There has been a huge escalation in crime in Wales. However, because of the changes in crime recording practices, it is difficult, but not impossible, to assess Labour's record on crime since 1997 without the police whining, as did the north Wales chief constable, that it is unfair. Those changes were down to further Whitehall interference. However, because three out of four of the Welsh police forces introduced the national crime recording standard prior to its official introduction on 1 April 2002, we have one year where we can compare crime statistics without causing confusion or being accused of being misleading or unfair. According to the Home Office, during the past year, overall crime in Wales has risen by 21 per cent., with a 20 per cent. rise in north Wales and a 22 per cent. increase in south Wales. Over the past year, throughout Wales there was a 44 per cent. increase in violent crime; in north Wales, the increase was 52 per cent. Violent crime has risen almost twice as fast in Wales as in Greater Manchester or London.

In addition to those increases in crime, Cardiff prison is recorded as overcrowded and exceeding its maximum capacity, and 1,580 Welsh prisoners are in English prisons because there is not enough prison capacity in Wales. Despite that, the Home Office wrote to me in answer to a parliamentary question saying that there are no plans to build any more prisons in Wales, but that accommodation requirements will be kept under review. Clearly, accommodation requirements for Welsh prisoners are far exceeding capacity. Bearing in mind the importance of families in preventing reoffending, there should be plans to build more prisons in Wales so that families do not have so far to travel.

Mr. Hain

On the hon. Gentleman's points about crime, he will know that the chief constable of North Wales police wrote to him challenging in the strongest terms the statement that he made at Welsh questions last month. The chief constable wrote: The way in which you have done this is not merely misleading and unfair but also wrong. The true facts tell a very different story. He went on: I expect politicians to help manage down the fear of crime in our communities, not to stoke it up with grossly erroneous and highly misleading selective use of statistics. Will he apologise to the chief constable of North Wales police?

Mr. Wiggin

Is the Secretary of State seriously suggesting that if crime statistics are going up we should tell lies about it? I will not do that. Is he also suggesting that the chief constable of North Wales police was happily reading Hansard, or can he confirm whether he encouraged him to see the statistics to which I referred? [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] I cannot withdraw, because I have not had a reply from the Secretary of Sate. Can he also say whether we should ignore facts that are produced by the Home Office?

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman should withdraw that statement, because the letter from the chief constable of North Wales police arrived unsolicited to him, and was copied to me and no doubt to others who are interested. I put it to him directly: will he apologise to the chief constable of North Wales police? What is his reply in relation to providing a misleading impression through erroneous statistics, as the chief constable said? In fact, there has been progress on all recorded crime for north Wales—it is 4.4 per cent. down. Recorded burglary of dwellings is 15.9 per cent. down, recorded violent crime is 4.5 per cent. down, and recorded vehicle crime is 5 per cent. down. Those are the figures that are provided, and he ought to apologise to the chief constable and the people of north Wales.

Mr. Wiggin

This is very interesting. Let me quote what the Secretary of State said about the chief constable of North Wales police. On the BBC's "Question Time", he rejected Brunstrom's view on the sale of heroin. He said: It is appalling that a high ranking police officer or anybody can suggest that hard drugs including heroin can be dished out like confetti and made available to children and adults. Drugs can turn a once healthy individual into a miserable dependant… I am appalled at the suggestion heroin, which is capable of causing such human misery, should be legalised and sold on street corners". I do not believe that the Secretary of State has had a conversation with the Home Secretary about the concerns of the chief constable of North Wales police that were given as an example. I do not believe that the Secretary of State was wrong when he was critical of the chief constable. If I am in a position to quote Home Office statistics, however, and if those statistics are given to me in written answer to parliamentary questions, he should talk to his colleagues in the Home Office, not criticise me for quoting what I am given by his Government.

Mr. Hain

The hon Gentleman has had a letter from the chief constable of North Wales police about an allegation that he originally made across the Dispatch Box on the Floor of the House. The chief constable has asked him to withdraw his allegations, and the misleading impression and erroneous picture that he presented. The chief constable deserves a reply, as does the House, because the hon. Gentleman made those allegations at the Dispatch Box. I remind him that the subject was not heroin, but crime statistics.

Mr. Wiggin

I have written back to the chief constable, but I do not see how any Member of the House should be denied from quoting the written answer that he gets in reply to a question to the Home Office. How can a Member of the House be expected to withdraw statistics given to him by the Government? It is therefore impossible for me to withdraw, and I do not recall that the chief constable of North Wales police asked me to do so. He made those comments that the Secretary of State quoted, but I do not believe that it is possible to withdraw Home Office statistics. However much the Secretary of state would like it to be otherwise, the fact remains that overall crime in Wales has risen by 21 per cent., with a 20 per cent. rise in north Wales. That is what the Home Office is telling everybody, and that is what I am telling the Secretary of State. It is no good his asking me to withdraw that, because I cannot undo the crime. If I could, I would. I cannot deny that crime has gone up.

Mr. Hain

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, and I shall not detain him any more after this, but I want to quote from Richard Brunstrom's letter to him. It said: I expect politicians to help manage down the fear of crime in our communities, not to stoke it up… You have been unfair to North Wales Police specifically. The growth in our crime figures is due entirely to better recording practices"— [Interruption.] He continues: we have been externally audited by the Audit Commission and found to have the best recording system in England and Wales". Either the hon. Gentleman is jeering at the chief constable of North Wales police, or he is responding to the charges that the chief constable made about his comments, which he should withdraw.

Mr. Wiggin

It is absolutely ridiculous to try to spin the chief constable's letter in that way. If crime is going up, I will not try to mislead people in Wales. The Secretary of State should not even suggest that the chief constable is right on that. Of course we should not be putting fear into people's minds, but neither should we be denying it when things are going wrong. The Secretary of State is very much out of order in suggesting that anyone should deny the facts, given that in a parliamentary answer—

Lembit Öpik

Just for the record, is the hon. Gentleman telling the House that not one single per cent. of the increase in recorded crime results from the recording method? Is he saying that it is all a genuine increase in actual crime?

Mr. Wiggin

That is important, because there is now a difference in the way in which crime statistics are recorded, which the Government have implemented. That is why I chose carefully the crime statistics from 2001–02 to 2002–03.

Chris Ruane

That is cherry-picking.

Mr. Wiggin

It is not, because those are the statistics drawn up after the change that the Government made to the way in which they are recorded. If the chief constable of North Wales police does not like the way in which the facts are put out, he should complain to the Government who changed that, not complain about people reading them out, as I did. He should complain not about the facts, but about the Government who make the rules change.

I should like to go on about the way in which the chief constable of North Wales police has behaved. That letter was unworthy of him. He should spend more time pursuing criminals rather than pursuing politicians.

Chris Ruane

He is.

Mr. Wiggin

No matter how much Labour Members might like to portray me as a criminal, at this stage I am not—[Interruption.] Well, I shall not be visiting north Wales and breaking the speed limit, that is for sure.

On education in Wales, testing for schoolchildren in English and maths at key stage I was abolished in 2002. Recently, the Welsh Assembly review group on the national curriculum recommended that key stages 2 and 3 be phased out, leaving only one formal set of tests for children before their GCSEs. We believe that the tests should be retained. Testing at 11 and 14 is important, provided that the tests are conducted properly, because they highlight schools that are not meeting required standards. It is not a case of naming and shaming schools, but if a school is failing, its pupils will fail. That must be put right. If there is only one set of formal examinations before the age of 16, there are not enough chances to put that right.

Education funding in Wales is in crisis. There was shock and anger in mid-Wales at the beginning of this year when it was announced that there would be a 2 per cent. cut in the education budget—which amounts to £1 million—to make savings across the board. However, there will still be a 9.5 per cent. increase in the Powys council tax.

Instead of dealing with failure to meet targets at key stages 3 and 4, the Labour Members of the Welsh Assembly have been busying themselves with free school breakfasts. Dr. Chris Howard of the teaching union NAHT Cymru has aptly labelled the Assembly Government's scheme a "dog's dinner". Teachers are dedicated and committed, but cannot perform to the best of their ability because of a system that hinders, rather than helps, them. Parents should be able to decide which school would provide their child with the best education. Every parent has the right to expect that their child will fulfil their potential, but for that, we need an education system that caters for the talents of each child. That is why the Conservatives in power would provide a better schools passport to give parents a wider choice.

The Secretary of State talked about employment. Wales is the least profitable region in the United Kingdom, and a recent CBI statement declared: Welsh business is the least optimistic in the United Kingdom with firms blaming the Government for failing to support them properly". We need to get rid of the targets, initiatives and strategies, and give people freedom to use their own talent and enterprise. Endless targets result in wasted effort and increased costs, which have an impact on real life for millions of people. Wales is full of talented people who deserve to make the best of their lives, but they cannot do so at present because of the constraints and barriers imposed on them by the state. Wales is also full of missed opportunities.

The Secretary of State persistently emphasises the higher employment figures. In the past year there has been a welcome increase of 61,000 in the number of jobs, which has taken the Welsh employment rate to 72.1 percent. Such increases, however, must always be weighed against the fact that the employment rate still lags behind the UK average of 74.5 per cent. It is also important to remember that 45 per cent. of jobs created since 1997 are in the public sector, funded by the taxpayer, although the public sector accounts for only 22.2 per cent. of employment. That is unsustainable unless the Government revise their strategy on the private sector. Increasing the number of taxpayer-funded jobs cannot help to sustain a more competitive economy.

It has been estimated that 10,000 call centre jobs will be lost in Wales. Currently 24,000 such jobs contribute £400 million to the Welsh economy. The expected loss will have a substantial impact not only on the lives of the 10,000 made redundant—let us not forget them—but on an important sector of the Welsh economy. While I differ from the Secretary of State's view that the Welsh economy will benefit from the loss of 10,000 jobs, I hope that he will stick to his later, contradictory, statement that he would fight for every call centre job in Wales.

Mr. John Smith

How would the hon. Gentleman stop the outsourcing of call centre jobs in Wales? What policy would he introduce?

Mr. Wiggin

The most important cut to be made is in red tape. We need to get rid of the extra burden that makes call centre jobs more competitive abroad. Many companies still find it convenient to have call centres in the UK. We should be thinking about how they manage to do that, rather than writing off jobs. We must not forget how important call centre jobs are to Wales.

The situation is no better for the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing output in Wales is down by 4.2 per cent., and the number of manufacturing jobs fell by 3,000 between September 2002 and September 2003. Since 1997, 30,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. The manufacturing sector now accounts for just 17 per cent. of gross domestic product, compared with 21 per cent. in 1997.

Mark Tami

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is not talking Wales down. If he were, God knows what we would be hearing. Will he now look at the positive side of manufacturing in the country? The employment by Airbus at Broughton of 6,000 people doing highly skilled jobs will make the factory the largest manufacturing plant not just in Britain, but in western Europe. Is that not a great achievement for Wales? Will the hon. Gentleman stop knocking Wales, and start talking about the positive developments there?

Mr. Wiggin

I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. Yes, let us be pleased about everything that is going well in Wales; let us just be sad that there are not more positive things we could say. It is important to talk up the good stuff, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reason, if for no other.

The trouble is that the overall picture is not as rosy as the one presented by the hon. Gentleman, and someone is responsible for that. Indeed, a group of people are responsible. I refer to the Welsh Assembly Government, and to our Secretary of State here. They are in a position to do even more, but they are not doing it, so I shall continue to stress what a shame it is that there are not more great examples like that given by the hon. Gentleman.

The number of Assembly civil servants has increased by 65 per cent. since 1999, to 3,861. The number of officials employed by the Welsh Assembly Government has risen by 37 per cent. since 1999, and costs have increased by 50 per cent. to more than £90 million. It recently emerged that £10.1 million had been spent since 1999 on civil servants' travel expenses and "subsistence allowances". The picture of the employment sector in Wales is not a rosy one. It is vital that the Government do not neglect the private sector any longer.

In 1999, west Wales and the south-west valleys qualified for objective I status because their gross domestic product per head was 74 per cent. of the European Union average. Their status has since significantly declined to just 68.6 per cent. of the EU average. West Wales fares worse than the former East German cities of Dresden and Leipzig, which have a GDP per head index of 69 per cent. and 72 per cent. respectively. That is an appalling record, and the objective 1 project cannot boast the successes that it should be able to boast.

In 2001, the Assembly set targets to regenerate the Welsh economy over the next 10 years. They set the target of taking the Welsh GDP of 80 per cent. to 90 per cent. by 2010. The latest figures show that it is now 78.7 per cent., so it has gone backwards. They now claim that 90 per cent. was not a target, but an aspiration.

Objective 1 is in a cash crisis. Applications total £100 million, and there is believed to be a shortfall of £20 million in the pathway to prosperity funding pot. The Economic Secretary recently announced that he would have to dip into other departmental budgets, and it was also confirmed recently by the Department of Trade and Industry that the Labour-controlled Welsh Assembly spent less on European projects in the first three years of the programme than the Conservatives did when they were in government. Hope was offered to Wales last week, when it was announced that the poorest parts will qualify for six more years of European funding when objective 1 ends in December 2006. Obviously, the fact that they still qualify for aid shows the Government's failure to capitalise on the existing objective 1 programme. I hope that plans are already being put in place to ensure that the extra £931 million is not wasted for the second time.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

Does the hon. Gentleman remember that it was the Conservative Government who opposed objective 1 status for Wales? Does he also realise that, because moneys are being spent so well in Wales, the European Commission has given the Welsh Assembly an extra £57 million?

Mr. Wiggin

The last time I gave way to the hon. Gentleman on objective 1, he tried to catch me out. The truth is that, if it had not been for the Conservative Government's changes to the structure in Wales, it would not have qualified for objective 1 funding, so that is enough nonsense form him. I had hoped that he would use his intervention to confirm whether such plans have been put in place, but of course he could not.

The people in such deprived areas of Wales deserve better. They deserve to receive the financial regeneration that is rightly mine—I am sorry, that is rightly theirs, not mine. The situation on taxation brings no more good news for the people of Wales. Since 1999, the average band D council tax in Wales has risen from £602 to £837. People in Neath Port Talbot—the Secretary of State's constituency—pay the highest council tax in the land.

Mr. Roger Williams

Does the Conservative party support the abolition of the council tax and the introduction of a local income tax?

Mr. Wiggin

What a shame the hon. Gentleman does not talk about paying less tax, but just about a different way of collecting it. If only he could get it into his head that it is not the council tax that people object to: it is the size of it that they resent. If the Liberal Democrats recognised that, they might make some progress, but I sincerely doubt that.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have asked the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) whether, with four properties, he would benefit from a non-property-based council tax.

Mr. Wiggin

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, who represents the Liberal Democrats, has turned a pale shade of pink in embarrassment, and rightly so.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con)

While we are on the subject of Liberal Democrat policy on council tax, does my hon. Friend think that the Liberal Democrats are in danger of going back to a situation that it is not helpful to be in, as the Conservatives learned to their cost? If we had a local income tax, everyone in a household I with a taxable income would be liable. Would not that lead to certain difficulties that a previous Conservative Administration experienced to their cost?

Mr. Wiggin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do not want to rake over too many of the coals on the poll tax. The great thing is to learn from one's mistakes, and the Liberal Democrats have learned nothing from ours.

The threat of local income tax is extremely dangerous, because the Liberal Democrats have failed to understand that people who do not have their income paid in the United Kingdom are still liable to pay council tax, but would fall out of the brackets to collect local income tax. They have also ignored the huge bureaucracy necessary to collect local income tax. Those are two reasons why local income tax will remain a Liberal Democrat fantasy, as it should.

The 40 per cent. increase in council tax since 1997 has made people feel low and constrained, whereas low taxes give people the opportunity to make their own decisions. It appears that Wales is not fulfilling its potential. That is because of the number of constraints imposed and the lack of energy from the Labour Government in both Wales and Westminster. Sixty stealth taxes, countless regulations and ridiculous amounts of red tape are all tying up Wales and leaving it to struggle against Government interference.

The people of Wales need to break free, to be given the opportunities to follow their own path and to be rewarded for their hard work.

4.5 pm

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab)

I am delighted to contribute briefly to our customary debate to mark our national day—and incidentally also my birthday. [HON. MEMBERS: "How old?"]

Mr. John Smith


Mr. Jones

I thank my hon. Friend for that.

Principally, I should like to bring the House up to speed on what the Select Committee has been up to over the past 12 months. Since the last St. David's day debate, we have published two major reports, on our inquiries into the primary legislative process as it affects Wales and the empowerment of children and young people in Wales.

I shall first address our inquiry into the primary legislative process. In undertaking the inquiry, the Select Committee did not seek to comment on the devolution settlement for Wales. Rather, we decided to consider the effectiveness and efficiency of the current process of passing legislation for Wales in this House.

First, our report made a number of recommendations to the Government to improve the consistency of approach to conferring powers on the Assembly and to improve access to information on Bills affecting Wales. I am pleased to report that the Government broadly welcomed those recommendations.

Secondly, the Committee made recommendations that addressed the current limitations on joint working between the House and the National Assembly for Wales. In particular, we recommended that the procedures of the House should be amended to allow for more joint working between the Welsh Affairs Committee and the committees of the National Assembly on issues of mutual interest. The report also called for an annual joint meeting between the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Grand Committee.

My Committee also called for a mechanism for Assembly Members to be able to register formally their views on legislation passing through Parliament that directly affects the Welsh Assembly's remit. After our last meeting with the National Assembly's Panel of Chairs, the Presiding Officer of the Assembly and I sent a joint letter to the Procedure Committee, reinforcing the support of both the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Panel of Chairs for formal joint working, which the Procedure Committee is now considering. The Committee also gave evidence to that effect to the Richard Commission, which I understand is to report in the near future. The Committee looks forward to hearing Lord Richard's views on the issue.

Finally, on a personal note linked to this inquiry, I reiterate a previous request that Members of the National Assembly be given reciprocal passes for admission to the House of Commons, a courtesy currently extended to Members of our House when visiting the National Assembly in Cardiff bay.

The other major inquiry undertaken by the Welsh Affairs Committee related to the empowerment of children and young people in Wales. It focused on political participation; citizenship and active communities; diversity; youth justice; the United Nations convention on the rights of the child; and the relationship between the National Assembly for Wales and Westminster on policy development. In total, we held eight oral evidence sessions and took evidence in Wales on three occasions during the course of the inquiry.

Throughout the inquiry, the Committee held informal meetings with young people from across Wales, and it took formal evidence from young people on two occasions—from sixth-formers at Pantycelyn school and from the Welsh Youth Assembly, otherwise known as Funky Dragon. Young people also attended evidence sessions alongside adult witnesses as representatives of organisations directly involved with children and young people.

Incidentally, right hon. and hon. Members will be pleased to know that when we took evidence from representatives of Funky Dragon in this House they made parliamentary history, as it was the first time a witness had given evidence in the Welsh language to a Select Committee in the House itself.

In summary, one of the report's major conclusions was that the current limits of the remit of the Children's Commissioner for Wales do not best serve the interests of Welsh children and young people. The Committee therefore recommended that the commissioner's powers be extended to cover all non-devolved matters, and a suitable vehicle for that change could be the Bill to establish a children's commissioner for England.

The Welsh Affairs Committee is engaged in a wide-ranging inquiry into manufacturing and trade in Wales. It has taken evidence on three occasions and has a full programme of evidence sessions to complete in the next few months.

Albert Owen

On empowerment, another of the Committee's important conclusions was that 16-year-olds should be given the vote. Does my hon. Friend think that an important issue, and will he encourage the Department for Constitutional Affairs to take it on board during its inquiry?

Mr. Jones

Absolutely, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. That was one of our report's main conclusions, and although we heard evidence from both sides of the argument—including from young people who thought that the voting age should not be lowered—on balance, we recommended that the voting age be lowered to 16. I apologise for omitting that point, but it is difficult to include everything in my speech.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason why we were convinced that the voting age should he lowered to 16 was that the young people who put the case for lowering it tended to be those who had experienced some form of struggle in their lives, and who had taken part in different campaigning groups to improve the condition of their environment, or of a particular group of people? It was their enthusiasm and the way in which they expressed their views that strongly influenced us.

Mr. Jones

My hon. Friend is indeed right, and one reason why I was convinced by that argument is that, generally speaking, young people aged 16 are still in education, so their involvement and interest in the voting process can be maintained by having mock elections in schools, whereas a couple of years after leaving school they might well lose that interest. I hope that that change will serve to increase participation, which is the purpose of our report, as she will remember.

On the manufacturing and trade inquiry, last October the Committee paid a successful visit to Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York, where we met many prominent US companies that are significant investors in Wales. It was useful to learn exactly why foreign investors are prepared to come to Wales. Once published, the report will be a useful tool in ascertaining what attracts inward investment to Wales, and what must be done to secure jobs and continuing prosperity for the Welsh people.

On wider issues relating to the role of the Welsh Affairs Committee, we were particularly interested to note the Liaison Committee's recommendation that Select Committees should play a much more prominent role in pre-legislative scrutiny in this House. That is a task that the Welsh Affairs Committee takes seriously. It scrutinised the draft National Health Service (Wales) Bill in 2002, and the draft Public Audit (Wales) Bill in 2003. The draft legislation set out the Government's proposal to create a more unified public accountability framework for Wales. Our report was published last July, in time for the debate on the draft Bill in the Welsh Grand Committee, and the Government's response to it welcomed a number of our recommendations.

Six of our 34 formal meetings were held in Wales, and we also held many informal meetings with individuals and organisations in Wales. During the past year, we met nearly 300 representatives from throughout Wales—from Llandudno, Bangor, Rhyl, Llandovery, Ammanford, Llanelli, Swansea, Cardiff and Newport.

The Welsh Affairs Committee plays an important role in developing relations with the National Assembly for Wales, and it consults, the Assembly wherever possible. During 2003, the Committee took evidence from the Assembly Ministers for Finance, for Local Government and Public Services, and for Health and Social Services. In addition to those formal meetings, the Committee held informal meetings, with National Assembly committees and Ministers during our inquiries into railways in Wales, manufacturing and trade in Wales, and—more recently—Customs and Excise in Wales. The Committee also meets the National Assembly's Panel of Chairs twice a year to develop closer working relations and links. I am delighted to report that progress is being made in a range of areas.

I turn to an issue that is going to dominate Welsh politics during the next few months: the publication of Lord Richard's report on devolution in Wales. I wish to make it clear that, on this issue, I speak in a purely personal capacity and not as chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee.

None of what I have to say should be seen as a criticism of the Assembly; quite the contrary. It is, in my experience, a fair and accurate description of the sentiments of the people of my constituency and northeast Wales about further devolution that they need to be convinced of the very real benefits that devolution is bringing. I made this point to the Richard commission when members of the Select Committee gave evidence, and added that the onus remained with those who advocated major changes to the devolution settlement to demonstrate that the current arrangements were not working for the Welsh people.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)

The hon. Gentleman's earlier remark—that his constituents were not satisfied with the way in which the National Assembly is working—is surely evidence that it is not working very well. Would he expect a three-legged racehorse to win the Derby? Clearly it would need four legs to win the race The National Assembly needs greater powers to succeed and to convince his constituents.

Mr. Jones

I could not hear half of what the hon. Gentleman said. Would he like to intervene again?

Hywel Williams

The hon. Gentleman's point—that there was dissatisfaction in his constituency with the way in which the Assembly works—could be evidence that the Assembly needs more powers, rather than, as it is sometimes termed, "time to bed in" or whatever.

Mr. Jones

That is a position that one could take but, frankly, that was not the point I made. The Assembly is doing a lot of good, but my constituents do not know about it. That could be the fault of the Assembly, which may not be selling itself to my constituents, but it is a great danger, as I shall go on to explain.

The Welsh Affairs Committee has already recommended areas where there should be further devolution to make the Assembly work better. However, I do not think that any major change would receive widespread support. The current arrangements are working and developing in imaginative and novel ways, but if the Richard commission advocates major change, the arguments should be tested in a referendum of the Welsh people, particularly if those changes involve primary legislative or tax-raising powers. Any demands that the commission makes would not only be overwhelmingly defeated in a referendum, but sadly could put back further devolution for Wales for a generation or more. That would be a tragedy for Wales and would have serious implications for the development of the government of Wales in the future.

In recent weeks, some have attempted to draw a comparison between the likely outcome for the future governance of Wales and the situation that existed in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday agreement. This comparison is not correct, either in substance or from an historical perspective. Wales and Northern Ireland are completely different entities in terms of governance, both in the past and now. The Good Friday agreement, which, we must not forget, was an international peace accord, was the basis for ending conflict in Northern Ireland. The referendum that ensued was on an all-Ireland basis, north and south.

Without wishing to give the House a history lesson, from the foundation of the Northern Ireland state in 1921 until 1972, Northern Ireland had its own Parliament at Stormont, with its own Prime Minister and Cabinet. Due to the worsening security situation that existed in the early 1970s, our then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, imposed direct rule from London. Even though direct rule was opposed, Government Departments dealing with the judiciary, health, policing, the prison service, education and other matters remained in place but under the aegis of successive Secretaries of State. That is not the case in Wales. There is no comparison to be made, and I urge right hon. and hon. Members not to make such a mistake.

Finally, all of us must not forget that there are people in Wales who are anti-devolution and who, if a referendum were held, would demand an additional question to be put on the referendum paper: whether the Assembly should be scrapped. I do not want that under any circumstances and I do not believe that any hon. Member in this House would want that.

4.18 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

May I first associate myself with the comments made about John Charles, who made a great contribution and was a credit to Welsh football, which is experiencing something of a renaissance?

Secondly, I apologise for the condition of my daffodil. I was impressed by the adhesive qualities of the Secretary of State's daffodil but I cannot wear mine due to what might be called a wardrobe malfunction. I shall donate it to charity after the debate.

Thirdly, I wish to point out the relative dedication of the political parties to Wales. Obviously, zero per cent. of the MPs here are Welsh MPs from the Conservative party, which has no Welsh MPs—

Mr. Evans

I am Welsh.

Lembit Öpik

That is despite the protestations of the sorely missed hon. Gentleman. As I look across to the Government side, I see that only about a third of Labour Members with Welsh constituencies are in their places. By comparison, 50 per cent. of Plaid Cymru Members are present, but, in stark contrast, 100 per cent. of Liberal Democrat Members with Welsh constituencies have turned up today. I may once have said, "Never mind the quantity, feel the quality", but today the Welsh Liberal Democrats have quantity and quality.

Hywel Williams

I should like to tell the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is in Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) informed the House that he had to travel back to his constituency because of the weather conditions. Thus, in terms of the number of Plaid Cymru Members available, we have 100 per cent. attendance.

Lembit Öpik

The implication, as I reflect on our relative destinations, is that Plaid Cymru Members suffer worse weather conditions than the rest of us. I wish them all speed to get home. For the record—I know that irony does not translate well in Hansard—I stress that I meant those comments jocularly. [Interruption.] I also feel that I am particularly well qualified to discuss the weather in Wales, but we shall move on.

The Welsh Assembly enjoyed a brief halcyon era of successful Government under the Liberal Democrat-led coalition. Sadly, it has fallen into darker times as the six Lib Dem Assembly Members look on sadly at the missed opportunities as the Assembly struggles on under a Labour-led Administration. I shall first discuss devolution, then assess Labour's performance against some of its pledges, followed by a brief assessment of the other parties, and I shall conclude with the Liberal Democrat response to the issues facing Wales.

First, on devolution, Labour Members seem to have drawn daggers over it. Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister, told the Assembly on 3 February 2004 that it would be better if we had primary legislative powers and it would give us more capability to do good work for the people of Wales. However, the Secretary of State for Wales wrote: The Government believes that the current settlement does provide an adequate framework for integrated and consistent policy-making in Wales. He then told the commission: I personally am very open minded about the case for change. That is just about consistent, but what that means logically is that he may be persuadable, but the Government are not.

Meanwhile, Carwyn Jones, the hard-working Assembly Member for Bridgend, told The Western Mail in reference to other devolved institutions in the UK that it makes no sense at all for the Welsh body to be the only one without primary law-making powers. If the Isle of Man can make its own laws, why should the Welsh Assembly not be able to? Yet the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) told the Richard commission that "it could be argued that the Assembly has not exploited in full its secondary legislative powers and added: it is too early to make a judgement about moving towards primary law making powers. The position is even worse, because the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) said: There should be no power of Primary Legislation for the Assembly. Then hon. Members from north Wales got together en bloc and said: We believe the present arrangements are working satisfactorily and there is no pressing need to make major changes". Unlike the Secretary of State for Wales, other Government operatives are more forthright in their opposition to devolution. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas)—tipped as a potential future leader of the Labour party, as are all hon. Members, potentially—said: I do not think there is a case for, certainly at the moment, conferring primary legislative powers upon the Assembly". If there is any doubt about where the Government stand, one need look only at the comments of the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), who is already a parliamentary aide to the Prime Minister, so I suspect that he discusses these matters fairly regularly with him. He added his voice to the opposition to further devolution in supporting the secret document, which was leaked to the Prime Minister. It states: We wish to make it clear that we regard the present constitutional arrangements as a settlement specifically endorsed by the people of Wales in a referendum. The tone of that leaked letter to the Prime Minister is quite clear. Nineteen Back Benchers wrote to the Secretary of State for Wales to tell him that the Assembly should not be able to make its own laws unless Welsh electors gave their agreement.

Meanwhile, local Labour party branches are also at odds. The Bargoed and Gilfach ward of the Labour party in Caerphilly constituency wrote to the commission, saying: The branch therefore feels that there is no case at present for expansion of powers. Yet Mumbles Labour party wrote: The branch were on the whole disappointed at the powers that the Assembly was established with, and wanted it to have more. The Llandaff branch of the Labour party in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) flatly disagreed, saying: These policies need to be further developed and fully implemented. The whole situation is summed up by Cam branch of the Labour party in the constituency of the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, which added grimly that no additional powers should be given to the Assembly without the full agreement of the National Labour Party, the Government and the people under a referendum. The picture does not look rosy and convincing for the party of government to support the kind of powers that Liberal Democrats always felt the Assembly should have been given at the time of its establishment. The Labour party ought to have a big conversation with itself about devolution, to provide clarity so that those who are pro-devolution, such as Welsh Liberal Democrats, can seek positive partnerships rather than wait for a moribund Labour party to decide whether it has the courage to continue with devolution.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

Would it not be simpler for the hon. Gentleman to say that the Labour party is having an honest debate?

Lembit Öpik

It is fantastic to see an honest debate in the Labour party on this issue. It is not for me to cast aspersions on the honesty or integrity of any hon. or right. hon. Member. Many of us feel that the Scottish Parliament was given the sort of powers that the Welsh Assembly should have been given from the start. The Assembly's ability to make a positive impact on Wales and the voters of Wales is restricted by its limited powers. I ask the Minister to give an assurance that the open and honest conversation that is being conducted in the Labour party is concluded soon enough to enable us to move forward constructively once the Richard commission reports.

Mr. Wiggin

Would it not be sensible to wait for the commission's report before having that debate?

Lembit Öpik

The Richard commission should form the foundation of the report but many of the comments that I quoted were responses to a request from the commission for feedback. It is right to have an open debate, but my concern is that if Labour does not decide more positively to support devolution, the Assembly will suffer.

In its 2003 Assembly manifesto, Labour said that it would abolish all prescription charges.

Ian Lucas

By 2007

Lembit Öpik

I do not want to misrepresent the party: Labour said that that was not a first-year pledge but would be phased in. Labour is a late convert to free prescriptions, welcome though the conversion is, because that was originally a Welsh Liberal Democrat policy. We insisted that the partnership agreement included pledges to freeze prescription charges and make them free for under-25s—policies that were successfully delivered.

Until a few weeks ago, Labour resisted attempts by a Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly member, Kirsty Williams, to remove prescription charges for people with long-term chronic illnesses. Labour's policy is to reduce charges by a proportion each year. People in need of help and with chronic illnesses such as arthritis may have to wait a few years alongside individuals who are not in such great need, but it is a start and I am pleased that Labour's conversion is leading to action.

Mr. Roger Williams

Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour in the Welsh Assembly, particularly Jane Hutt, seem unable to respond to the recommendations in the Wanless report, which would give impetus to improving the Welsh health service?

Lembit Öpik

Indeed, and there have been other frustrating instances of communication difficulties between Jane Hutt and Ministers in Westminster. It is a shame that her office did not treat that important report appropriately. Incidentally, I was once waiting for a reply from Jane Hutt after a big story appeared in the press. My office got a call the day after, and we were told that we would receive the letter that I was waiting for immediately. The letter was sent—but to Kirsty Williams, and not to me. Most people can tell us apart, I think.

Mr. Williams

My hon. Friend is not pregnant.

Lembit Öpik

For one thing, I am not pregnant, as my hon. Friend says.

The police have told me and my hon. Friend that they are worried about the fact that mach of the increase in their funding has been absorbed by the additional mandatory responsibilities that have been given to them. For example, the Dyfed-Powys force suffered a real-terms cut in the money available to fight crime.

In Montgomeryshire and in Brecon and Radnorshire, we are blessed with a fairly low crime rate. However, I hope that the Minister will accept that, with the best will in the world, the police may not he able to achieve the targets set for them because of cuts in the disposable part of their income that they would use for delivering those improvements. I look forward to hearing the Minister's perspective on that when he responds to the debate.

Labour also said that free bus travel for the over-60s and disabled people would be extended, and that a scheme would be developed for half-price bus travel for 16 to 18-year-olds. However, what was claimed to be an extension of free bus travel turn; out to be merely a continuation of another policy initiated by the Liberal Democrat-Labour partnership It is hardly groundbreaking not to scrap a scheme.

Liberal Democrats would go further in giving 16year-olds power, and I shall respond briefly to what was said a few moments ago. Our policy is that 16-year-olds should be given the vote. There is no justification for patronising them by pretending that they lack the responsibility and judgment to vote. At that age, they can pay tax, get married and raise children, but they cannot vote. That is preposterous. We would change that as soon as we came to power

Labour said that they would rule top-up fees out for Welsh universities. In fact, they have done so only for the duration of this Assembly. That is only one year longer than the time within which the fees can theoretically be introduced across the rest of the UK, so it is not much of a promise. The Labour promise is really rather empty, but the Liberal Democrat policy is clear: we do not support the introduction of top-up fees across Britain, and we absolutely refuse to support them for Wales. The Secretary of State criticised the Conservatives for their policy of restricting access to higher education, yet there is no question but that, for many people, enormous debts are a significant disincentive to entering university.

If I have reservations about the Conservative party's policies, I have no doubt that the Labour party is guilty of introducing a tax on learning. It means that people are considerably better off on the dole than they would be if they chose to better themselves at university. I lament what is a great betrayal and a broken promise. It makes it difficult for politicians of all parties to win the trust of the public, who feel deeply betrayed by the scrapping of a manifesto promise.

On health, there has been significant investment in hospitals and in GP surgeries, but the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) was right to say that the health service in Wales faces huge problems. It is not clear whether there has been some double counting in respect of the money already invested. Although we are told that £560 million has been devoted to improving school buildings and that £550 million has gone on modernising GP surgeries and hospitals, it is not clear that that money has not been spent already. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that when the Government talk about the school buildings investment, they are not including the £300 million over three years that has already been committed for that purpose. It is not clear that the money is all new, nor where it will come from in the budget for Wales.

I turn now to the other parties' plans for Wales, beginning with the Conservatives. It is possible that they will make cuts worth £ 1 billion, but the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), has said that he wants to protect spending on health, education and pensions. With respect, I cannot see how his figures add up. Will the hon. Member for Leominster confirm what the proposals will mean for Wales? Would the Conservatives abolish the Assembly? The Conservative leader, speaking in the debate on the Bill that became the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997, likened the Welsh Assembly to a meeting of church wardens.

Mr. Wiggin

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik

In the anticipation that the hon. Gentleman knows what I am going to say, I give way to him.

Mr. Wiggin

I find it extraordinary that the Liberal Democrat spokesman should even begin to suggest that we would abolish the Assembly—no one in my party has said that. On anything to do with devolution, we are waiting for Lord Richard to report, and the hon. Gentleman should do the same.

Mr. Roger Williams


Lembit Öpik

I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Williams

Would my hon. Friend like to remind the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) that the Conservative Assembly Member for the Monmouth constituency has done more than think about the issue—he has spoken about it as well.

Lembit Öpik

I thank my hon. Friend for his insightful contribution. I shall quote the leader of the Conservative party, who said: Unlike the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly will not have tax-raising powers. It will not have the power to legislate on local government, on health, on education, on housing or on transport. If the Scottish Parliament is like an English parish council, how would the Prime Minister describe the Welsh Assembly? Would he describe it as a meeting of church wardens? … What will be the position of the Scottish and Welsh Secretaries of State? How will they occupy themselves in the Cabinet? Will they make the tea or do some photocopying, or will they just sit sniggering together like middle-aged versions of Beavis and Butthead?"—[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 732.] Not an enthusiastic endorsement of devolution, is it?

Chris Ruane

Which one is which?

Lembit Öpik

One question is who would be Beavis and who would be Butthead; the other is whether the hon. Member for Leominster backs his leader's view of the Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Wiggin

It is extraordinary that in such a serious debate the hon. Gentleman is quoting bizarre examples and calling hon. Members names, when we should be discussing achievements in Wales. It is nonsense to use quotes from the past.

Lembit Öpik

I agree with the hon. Gentleman if he is saying that his leader's comments about the Welsh Assembly are ridiculous and inappropriate. I hope that he will bring the matter up in a private meeting with his leader because that approach is the wrong way to deal with the Welsh Assembly.

The hon. Gentleman condemns the Labour party and the Assembly for their failure on health policy—I have issues with it too—but it is worth remembering that the Conservatives presided over a record cut in hospital beds in Wales, which is one reason why we have today's problems.

Plaid Cymru pretended for a long time that it was not in favour of independence. In fairness, it has come clean and said what we believed it to think—it is in favour of independence. I am not opposed to independence in principle. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] How can I be? I am an Estonian nationalist who supported the independence of Estonia from the former Soviet Union. I am not against independence in principle; I am against it in practice.

In my judgment, independence is a bad policy for Wales. There is a tendency to demean Plaid Cymru simply because of its position on separatism. Given that it is no longer being contradictory or hypocritical about its commitment to independence, I respect its candour. Those in Wales who seriously think that independence is the most important thing for Wales should, of course, support Plaid Cymru. Independence would be economically bad for Wales and would provide insufficient cultural or identity benefits. We can have a rational debate on that.

I am not trying to score a point; I am just trying to set up a level playing field. Now Plaid Cymru has described what their single key issue is, we can have a sensible, rational debate and the public can judge whether they support separatism.

Adam Price

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's candour. He thinks that independence would be economically bad for Wales, but does he recognise that the Union has been economically disastrous for Wales? What is his proposed alternative?

Lembit Öpik

Wales currently benefits from the Union and there is a net flow of income to it. If it were independent, it would not only lose direct support from the Westminster Government but suffer damage to various trading links because it would have a different currency from the rest of the UK. I have to assume that Plaid Cymru would either join the euro or create some other currency, perhaps with the hon. Gentleman's face on it. If the currency in Wales was different from that of the rest of the UK, there would be practical problems. I do not want to discuss; that at present, but we could hold a sensible debate on the matter, which would inform the public and enable them to make a decision. I hope that we can at least give Plaid Cymru credit for being honest about what it stands for.

The Liberal Democrat approach to Welsh issues was summed up well by my colleague Mike German, an Assembly Member and the Deputy First Minister when we led the coalition. He said: I'd like to look forward to 2004 with optimism. I'd like to see Wales, powered up and flying down the main line. I'd like the First Minister to offer a vision for Wales. to say what powers he wants for the Assembly, to have a clearly thought-out action plan for the health service and to be clear about how to get the best deal for Wales to create jobs in the poorest areas. For the sake of those on low and fixed incomes, I d like the UK Government to be bold, scrap the unfair council tax and replace it with a local income tax, clearly based on people's ability to pay. And I'd like the First Minister of Wales to lead that charge on behalf of the people of Wales. In broad terms, that sums up the Liberal Democrats' vision.

Adam Price

We have all read the manifesto.

Lembit Öpik

Indeed. We were so excited by our manifesto that we could not help sharing it. We also hope that the 30 Labour Assembly Members who received the manifesto will be so impressed that they will defect to the Liberal Democrats and cause a change in the Administration, thereby ending the scourge of tuition fees in Wales.

Many issues relating to Wales have already been mentioned and we do not need to go into policy discussions. High on the list of those issues is dental treatment. Mrs. Wendy Gill recently moved to Newtown with her family and she cannot get dental treatment. She has always taken care of her teeth hut, as she rightly points out, it costs more in the long run to allow people's health to decline. I am sure all Members share that concern.

We must also be concerned that, last year, 600 people queued to take up places in a new national health service dental practice in Carmarthen. When another new dental practice opened up in the county, its location was kept secret for fear of similar scenes. This is 21st-century Wales, not the 1950s Soviet Union. People in Wales and throughout the UK deserve better than that.

General practitioner vacancies are at an all-time high; 190 posts are vacant at present—almost 10 per cent. Given the prospect of tuition fees and ever increasing debt, there is a diminishing likelihood that that figure will improve. The biggest problem is waiting times and we are all familiar with concerns about them.

I want to highlight a specific problem in the border area that I have previously raised with Ministers. Constituents feel—indeed, they can see—that there is different treatment in Wales and England. I have already informed the Secretary of State that I am awaiting the breakdown of the figures to support the claim made by the Royal Shrewsbury hospital that it is not appropriate for it to provide various treatments for people from mid-Wales. In effect, the hospital says that Powys local health board owes it money. Unfortunately, the hospital is taking a long time to provide those figures and I am concerned that the reason it is dragging its feet may have to do with the veracity of its claim. I hope that I receive the figures and that we can all recognise the need to address those differentials. We cannot pretend that we shall win people's confidence when there are such obvious differences in treatment.

We can all list individuals who are waiting for health treatment. A Mr. Vaughan became so frustrated that he went private so that he could have the hernia operation for which he had been waiting. That is paying twice for health care—once through tax and once through private fees. We must deal with that.

Many people in rural areas continue to feel marginalised. If my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, he will speak about farming. However, despite post office closures, the concerns of elderly people that they will lose their pension books and the threats to rural schools, there is some good news. I am encouraged by the Government's help to BT to implement broadband. We have benefited from that in Montgomeryshire. That is a good example of getting people to work from home.

Another problem—a negative—is that digital television is the only way that some people can receive public service broadcasting, but it seems that the Solus card, which is designed to give people public service broadcasting through the digital network, is not currently available. I raised that issue in Welsh questions yesterday, and the Secretary of State was positive and affirmed his commitment, but I hope that I can work with Ministers to get a result.

On another matter that affects all hon. Members, I wish to refer to my concern for a chap called Des James, whose daughter tragically died—I think at the age of 18—when she was serving at the Deepcut Army barracks. I will not go into detail because the issue is slightly at variance with what we are discussing today. I simply want to say that the many parents in Wales whose children have gone into the Army have a right to know that the Army's duty of care is being appropriately administered. I hope that we will soon see a report from the Surrey police about the circumstances surrounding Cheryl James's death. Inasmuch as that affects Welsh families of people in the Army, I hope that we can have a dialogue with Ministers.

I like working with colleagues from other parties, but it is the duty of the Liberal Democrats, as the effective Opposition in Wales, to point out where Labour could do better. I regard politics as a competition, not a war, but I believe that the public are best served when we accept feedback in the spirit in which it is offered. The Welsh Liberal Democrats offer an approach to achieve that aim. If our approach—a less confrontational style of politics, with a positive commitment to partnership—is welcomed by the public of Wales, that is exactly what they will get by voting Liberal Democrat.

4.46 pm
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend) (Lab)

On the day when we look at the affairs of Wales, it is already apparent that, to a certain extent, we are at one step removed. I shall start with our function as the body that passes the Welsh block to the Assembly, using the Barnett formula. Although no hon. Member has mentioned that yet, it is relevant to many comments made about the health service in Wales because the Barnett formula depends on passing the relevant money from the health service budget in England to the health service budget in Wales. We all know that the health of the population in Wales is far worse, and therefore in need of far greater investment, than the health service in England. In fact, Labour and Tory Administrations in the past have provided more money from the Welsh block to the Welsh health service than happens, pro rata, for health spending in England. That is a difficult starting point when we consider the health service.

The health service in Wales faces a long-term problem—it goes across the lifetimes of many Governments—but one thing that we can say is that no other Government in Wales, for Wales, have invested so much in the health service. While the Assembly has been in existence, health spending has increased by 50 per cent. in cash terms—I guess that that must be worth more than 30 per cent. in real terms—and the number of dental, medical, nursing, midwifery and health visitor staff has increased by just under 2,000 full-time equivalents. Under the Labour Administration, the number has increased by more than 2,200; under the Tories, although dental and medical staff increased by nearly 700 after 1990, the number of nurses, midwives and health visitors decreased by more than 1,500—a loss that we could not really stand if we were to deliver a better health service in Wales. At the moment, 65 per cent. more doctors and 35 per cent more nurses are in training than were when Labour came to power in 1997.

Unfortunately, the record for beds is not good. Under the Tories, from 1990, more than 4,000 beds were lost, at a rate of more than 700 a year. Under Labour, that rate has been significantly slowed—about 1,000 beds have been lost, at just over 200 a year—and I am pleased to say that we have increased the number of acute medical beds by nearly 200. The plan is to carry on increasing them.

Mr. Wiggin

I am pleased to hear someone defending the health service in Wales, but can the hon. Gentleman tell the House why one in 10 people in Wales is on a waiting list if things are going so well?

Mr. Griffiths

I shall come to that later.

Bed occupancy is a significant measure of the effectiveness of the health service in Wales. Under the Tories, it averaged 77 per cent. in the 1990s, but under Labour, it has averaged 80 per cent., and in some of the better trusts it is above 85 per cent., although I would argue that that puts a strain on the delivery of an effective and high-quality service. There have been great improvements in out-patient attendance in Wales. Under the Conservatives, it increased in the 1990s by about 8 per cent. a year, and under Labour it has increased by slightly more. On average, 13,000 more patients are seen every year than was the case in the Tory years. However, that has not had a significant impact on waiting lists, which have undoubtedly grown.

There are a multitude of reasons for that increase. A major factor is that accident and emergency attendance in Wales has increased much faster than in England—the rate is 19 per cent. faster in Wales. I have seen a couple of different figures for emergency admissions. One increase is 33 per cent. higher than the figure in England, and the other is 40 per cent. higher. However, the increase is high, and it has had a big impact on elective lists. Elective list activity has gone down in the past few years, although out-patient attendance has increased significantly.

We have seen what Wanless said about the health service in Wales, and there was particular praise for the development of public health and primary health care policies. However, there was also significant criticism of the health service in Wales, such as insufficient acute beds-that is being worked on—wasted resources, which is a serious issue, duplication, misuse of skilled personnel, and the provision of inappropriate and inefficient services. The Assembly is committed to respond to those issues, but there is a big question mark about whether we are moving quickly enough in using the extra resources to tackle the problems.

Wanless made some telling comparisons with the north-east of England, whose industrial past, population and current make-up are similar to those of Wales. The report pointed out that Wales spent 5 per cent. per head more than the north-east. It said that we had 8 per cent. more nurses, midwives and health visitors, and 17 per cent. more beds per head of population. The average stay in hospital was 15 per cent. longer, 9 per cent. more per head was spent on prescribing, and 12 per cent. more items were prescribed per head.

We can obviously learn lessons from the north-east, and we need to do so. This is only a guess, but the 5 per cent. difference in spending per head must be worth about £100 million. Just over three years ago, I spent a little time studying the way in which costs were worked out in the health service. I found that, for 1996–97, if all trusts in Wales using the 100 most frequent treatments hit the Welsh average, there would be a saving of £30 million. If they hit the average of the best three trusts, there would be a saving of £100 million. That could have a significant impact on what is happening in Wales.

Some staff in hospitals that are not providing effective and efficient services should move to new-buy hospitals. In south Wales, and to some extent in north Wales, hospitals are sufficiently close for that to be done. We need to concentrate our activities on those hospitals that provide the best and most efficient services. That requires hard decisions. I was disappointed when the Assembly, instead of making it official policy to make those changes, said only that they might be made, because they are necessary if the health service in Wales is to be more effective. When I look back on the 15 months or so for which I was a Minister in the Welsh Office, with responsibility for health among other things, I sometimes wish with the benefit of hindsight that I had done this or that differently. Now, we have to grasp the nettle.

Some excellent developments are taking place in Wales, but there are still significant areas in which the Assembly will have to take action if we are to ensure that the significant additional resources put into the health service in Wales an; used effectively to improve the health and speed up the treatment of those on waiting lists

4.56 pm
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)

The provision of affordable and good-quality housing is clearly one of the major problems facing Wales, especially in rural areas such as my own. The competition for houses almost guarantees that local buyers will be priced out of the market. For example, last summer Gwynedd county council surveyed house prices in the Llyn peninsula and found that the salary multiples allowed by building societies meant that no one on an average wage could afford a single house. In other words, many residents were shut out of the housing market.

A quarter of holiday homes in Wales are to be found in Gwynedd, a largo proportion of which are in my constituency. In some communities, such as Abersoch, around 65 per cent. of houses are second homes. Prices have risen steeply in those areas in the past year or so, no doubt catching up with prices in England. But the rate of house price inflation in some parts of Wales, including my constituency, has been as high as 30 per cent.—for example, in Pwllheli. my home town. Needless to say, the growth in wages has not kept up with that huge growth in house prices. That makes it increasingly difficult for local people, particularly first-time buyers, to access the housing market. Although house price inflation is apparently slowing in parts of England, no such trend is discernible in rural Wales—or, for that matter, in Cardiff and other urban areas. Doubtless the price disparity between England and Wales will cause that to continue for some time, and house price inflation in Wales will continue at a high rate. That is very significant, as I will explain later.

The National Assembly Government recognise the existence of the problem. According to an answer given by the Secretary of State to the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas), the Assembly is spending £56.4m in Social Housing Grant to assist the provision of affordable housing."—[Official Report, 17 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 735W.] So the Assembly is clearly doing something, but is it enough?

Significantly, the Assembly's Environment, Planning and Countryside Committee undertook an investigation into the matter, and it produced a report in February, entitled, "Planning Aspects Associated with the Provision of Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities in the Countryside". The Committee points to the rapid and huge increase in house prices, particularly in coastal areas, in areas of great natural beauty, and in rural northern and western communities.

It states that that has effectively locked local people out of the housing market. It makes recommendations regarding greater flexibility for planning authorities to respond, and it recommends that options already open to planners should be clarified so that local authorities know where they stand. In areas where there is acute pressure on the housing market, it also calls for new policies on new build that favour local people where need is robustly proved, which, I contend, applies to a large part of my constituency and many others.

So far, so good, and I hope that those changes, however marginal, will be useful in future, if adopted. Will they have a fundamental effect, however, on affordable housing provision in Wales? I fear that they will not, because of the Chancellor's proposals on tax relief for self-invested personal pensions and self-administered personal pensions in relation to investment in second and further homes. I fear that much of the good work that the Assembly might do, and the good that further changes might effect in rural Wales, will be undone as a result of those forthcoming Budget proposals.

Before I turn to that part of my speech, may I draw the House's attention to the nature of housing stock in Wales? It remains in a poor state, with a huge potential repair bill. Much of our housing; is pre-1919—much more than in England. I have looked for recent figures, but they are difficult to access. In 1996, at any rate, 35 per cent. of housing stock in Wales was pre-1919, compared with 25 per cent. in England. There is certainly a need for new build in Wales, but repair and renovation are more important, especially in constituencies such as mine, where, on the whole, we have enough houses already—in fact, we have a surplus of them, many in the holiday home market.

If new build is needed in Wales, and renovation needed even more, it is significant that new build is nil rated for VAT whereas repairs attract the full rate. If we are looking for a VAT regime that fitted the circumstances in Wales, it should be the other way round—repairs could, at least, be rated lower, if not nil rated. Under the current VAT regime on repair of houses, Wales loses out. I will not ask the Secretary of State or the Minister to take the matter up with the Treasury, however. I have already made inquiries, and the prospects of a beneficial change in the VAT regime for Wales on repair of houses are also probably rated at nil. When someone in my constituency fixes the roof, puts in a toilet or fixes the damp, they pay 17.5 per cent. more than someone who builds a new house. We do not need that many new houses; we are losing out.

The Government's proposals for the Budget on SIPPs and SAPPs were published in December, and consultation goes on until 5 March. I believe that those proposals will have an extremely negative effect on the housing market in Wales. What are they? The Chancellor intends to extend the ability of pension schemes to invest in residential property. That may sound innocuous, but it means that investment in residential property will attract tax relief at up to 40 per cent. In simple terms, if someone with that sort of personally administered scheme invests £100,000 in a second, third or fourth home in A ales or anywhere else, that £100,000 will attract 40 per cent. relief. On my simple arithmetic, someone would therefore get a £100,000 house for £60,000, which seems a very good bargain. Furthermore, it is intended that when the value of that house is realised, it will be free of capital gains tax. That is quite a bargain for people investing for the first time in SIPPs and SAPPs—tax relief on the purchase, and the sale is free of capital gains tax. With huge house price inflation in Wales—30 per cent. in one year £100,000 would be converted into £130,000 in one year.

In addition, in some wards, such as Abersoch in my constituency, purchases of houses up to £150,000 are free of land stamp duty tax. That is a huge bargain. Second, third, fourth or fifth homes are free of tax at every point, whereas the help available to first-time buyers is virtually nil. That is entirely wrong.

Have the Government any idea of the effect on the housing market in Wales? When I asked the Secretary of State whether any assessment had been made of the effects on the second home market, he answered that none had. When I asked the Treasury what effect there would be on the market in general, it answered that the market would rule. Will wealthy pensioners from England invest in Wales? At a return of 30 per cent. a year in house price inflation, with 40 per cent. off the purchase price and with no capital gains tax to pay, any sensible investor will invest in Wales rather than in England, where the return is 8 per cent. on current house price inflation.

The Treasury has apparently told the press in Wales that very few people will apply for those advantages. I think that that will not be the case. and that the proposals need to be resisted. It would be good for Members on both sides of the House, considering the effect on first-time buyers, if we all resisted those proposals before 5 March. I appeal to hon. Members to do so.

5.6 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), who speaks with authority on housing in Wales, having been a lecturer in social work and a special adviser to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs.

I have a comment on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), the Chairman of the Select Committee, on the Committee's support for the principle of reducing the voting age to 16—a point also made by the hon. Member for. Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). I certainly agree with that aspect of his speech, but one aspect of Liberal Democrat policy that I cannot support now, although I probably have supported it in the past, concerns aspects of electoral reform. I was one of those who believed that the Welsh Assembly should have an element of fair representation, and I supported the election of additional members. I even supported one of my colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), in his paper on the current system, but a few years later I feel profoundly disappointed with the way in which the additional Member system is working in Wales.

In my constituency, I try to tell people that they have five Assembly Members, not just one, and that every square inch of Wales is represented by one twelfth of the Assembly. That is an enormously important resource that could be used for effective representation, but I fear that the Members elected on the additional Member system are not the resource to work on the strategic issues and debates that affect south-east Wales—for example, whether we should have an international airport—and the area's serious problems.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who was good enough to come to my constituency last week.

Mr. Wiggin

He lives there.

Mr. Edwards

My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), as the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, came to my constituency for a couple of big conversation events. He also visited a local factory in my constituency that specialises in recycling, and which is now under threat because of the Government's possible failure to implement the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, which would allow printer cartridges to continue to be recycled.

I want to draw all hon. Members' attention to that matter, because I am sure that most Members and their constituents wish to recycle their printer cartridges. However, because certain companies, such as Hewlett Packard, insert chips that make it either uneconomical or impossible to recycle the cartridges, there is a danger that we will create a printer cartridge mountain, because they will have to go for landfill if they cannot be recycled or remanufactured. The insertion of those devices is anti-competitive and against the interests of the environment, and I urge the Government to look at that issue, which has cross-party support. I am grateful that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State considered that when he visited my constituency last week.

In recent months, I have been particularly involved in the debates on higher education. I was not able to speak on Second Reading of the Higher Education Bill, but I felt strongly about the issues involved, having worked in higher education in my professional life. I would be the first to admit that I was very much opposed to many of the Government's proposals before we secured a number of improvements. I never liked the idea of variable fees, or the idea that students aged 17 would face a menu of prices for different courses. The universities now say that, in practice, there will be very little variability, and that most courses will be pitched at around £3,000. I certainly support some of the measures that the Government have introduced and the modifications that they have made. These include the increase in the grant to £1,500, as currently exists in Wales. the transfer of fee remission to the grant, and the abolition of up-front fees in favour of a contribution after graduation.

My proposal would be to try to get away from the notion of variable fees and to introduce a standard contribution on graduation. It would be known as the standard contribution because it would be fairly standardised and it would be only a contribution to the costs of higher education, to be paid on graduation. I accept that some universities do not want all their courses to be pitched at the £3,000 level—which is what I would call the standard contribution—and that they should be allowed to discount it. In those circumstances, I accept that there should be a discounted standard contribution, or even that it should be waived. That would remove the entire menu of prices from courses. I would ask the Government to consider that proposal, which was also proposed by Sir David Watson, the director of my former university, the university of Brighton.

Last week, I attended a local livestock market in my constituency. It was very encouraging to see the greater optimism in the farming community. Three years ago, we were in the depths of the foot and mouth outbreak, and some sectors of the farming community have certainly improved since that time, including the lamb and beef sectors. The dairy sector, however, remains very bad. Farmers whom I met last week complained that they barely make any money on the sale of raw milk. This problem results from the great power of the supermarkets and the relative weakness of the individual producer.

When the Welsh Affairs Committee considered the livestock industry a few years ago, it recommended a code of conduct between retailers such as the major supermarkets and the small producers. I wish that that code of conduct was much tighter, and that our farmers could get a better especially in the dairy sector, so that they could improve their position in the market. Many are involved in co-operatives, but not all. The power of the co-operatives could be increased if the code of practice were stronger. It was, however, most encouraging to see the greater optimism in the industry.

In my constituency there is a proposal to close the livestock market in Abergavenny, and it has now been decided that the site will be redeveloped. There is concern about establishing a new market, and I have given a commitment to the farming community throughout the time since I was re-elected in 1997 that I would campaign for a new livestock market. I sincerely hope that the right decisions will be made about this, and that it will be located in a place that will serve the farming community of Monmouthshire and other areas of Wales as well as the border areas of England. It is essential that a richly traditional farming community such as Monmouthshire should have the infrastructure of a modern livestock market; it would be a great boost to the industry.

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to this debate; I know that many other hon. Members would now like to speak.

5.14 pm
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), with his understanding of rural and farming issues; he represents a constituency that is contiguous to my own.

I would like to say a few words about agriculture and the situation in rural areas. However, I hope that the House will bear with me if I first mention a particularly important constituency issue, which I would like to bring to the attention of the Minister and which I have already let him know I shall speak about. Hon. Members will be aware of the outbreak of potato ring rot at Middlewood farm, which belongs to Mr. John Morgan, in my constituency. Here I must declare an interest: I have taken advice from the Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards, and entered in the Register of Members' Interests the fact that I own land at Tredomen Court, along with my wife. From time to time Mr. John Morgan rents some of it to grow potatoes.

I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), who demonstrated his intricate knowledge of my interests as they appear in the register, and of the practical support that I give to the provision of affordable housing in rural areas.

The potato industry is particularly important to Great Britain. In most years farm-gate sales reach about £600 million, and a large amount is added to that by the proceeds of wholesale, packaging and retail. The processing industry is huge: the production of processed mash, frozen chips, and crisps and other savoury snacks take the farm-gate figure to nearly 10 times as much.

Britain has an excellent record on plant health owing to the combined efforts of growers, inspectors at ports, and Government officials. Three years ago the Government proposed to end tests on potatoes imported for seed production; the National Farmers Union objected, and the tests were reinstated. Seed imported for growing on for ware—for human consumption—is subject to limited random testing, but every consignment imported for seed production is tested for brown rot, although only one in three of those is tested for ring rot. The test for ring rot involves examining 200 tubers from each consignment, which consists of between 10 and 20 tonnes. There is an 80 per cent. chance of ring rot's being identified in a consignment that has 1 per cent. infection. Fewer than 0.5 per cent. of the tubers that John Morgan imported from Holland were infected, and under the present testing regime there was only a 67 per cent. chance of identifying infection. Given that ring rot can reduce potato yields by more than 50 per cent., it is questionable whether the present system of testing is robust enough to protect the British potato industry.

Every single piece of evidence has shown that John Morgan has a very good record on biosecurity. He has full and accurate records of purchases, harvesting, testing and sales. All potatoes that have left his farm for seed have been traced and accounted for. Mr. Morgan imported seed from Holland, whit h is a leading country in breeding new varieties of potato to meet modern market demands. The Provento variety, along with seven other new varieties, was grown at the request of a major customer. All varieties are kept separately. It is clear that the success in containing the disease to one farm is due entirely to John Morgan.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw)—who is responsible for plant health—issued a press release welcoming the containment of the outbreak and paying tribute to the co-operation with the industry. It also speaks of the substantial Government resources committed to the containment exercise". What it says is true, but only to the extent that large-scale testing by the Plant Health and Seed Inspectorate was able to show that there had been no spread of the disease, and that was because Mr. Morgan's records had enabled all potato movements to be tracked. The containment was due entirely to his efforts.

The net result is that Mr. Morgan has £450,000 worth of seed potatoes on his farm, which have been grown to the highest standards of biosecurity, and that—through no fault of his own, but owing to his meticulous approach to plant health—have been rendered worthless because the Government have insisted on either their destruction or their limited use for human consumption. As the potatoes were grown specifically for seed, they are the wrong size for human consumption, or for processing. They are therefore practically worthless.

Ring rot is a notifiable disease, which the Government have rightly identified as being potentially devastating to the British potato industry. Nevertheless, it is iniquitous that property that has been obtained legally should be confiscated by the Government, or restricted by the Government to a less valuable use, with no compensation being provided. It seems wrong to me that an individual who has been an example to the agriculture industry on biosecurity should have to bear the burden for the whole nation. Hon. Members should be in no doubt that this is a personal tragedy for this family, especially for the son, who has become the driving force of the business and wants to take it on.

The potato business is notoriously volatile. Last year many growers made large losses. This year prices have been higher, because of drought on the continent and currency fluctuations, and some profits were to be made. The Minister has signalled that a lessons-learned inquiry will be instigated. I am sure that one of its conclusions will be to commend John Morgan for his high standards of husbandry. I hope that it will also find that individuals whose actions have limited and mitigated the effect of disease outbreaks should not have to bear the financial burden of their actions.

I do not want to pre-empt any recommendation of the inquiry that is being undertaken, which may recommend Government compensation or the establishment of an industry scheme to safeguard these people, but the Government have increased the cost to my constituent by requiring him to dispose of these potatoes at great cost and rigorously to clean his premises and machinery.

As the Minister has said, this is a one-off incident and there is only one loser. This is a UK issue with a Welsh focus, and I ask the Secretary of State to facilitate a meeting between John Morgan and either the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Carwyn Jones, the Minister for Environment, Planning and Countryside in the Welsh Assembly to review Mr. Morgan's personal position, as any recommendation of the inquiry will not be retrospective.

At the moment,Mr. Morgan has incurred not only the expense of growing last year's crop and the possibility of the expense of disposing of that crop, but he is unlikely to be able to engage in potato growing of any sort this season. He is a substantial employer of local labour and local agricultural contractors, so his absence will have a big effect on the local economy. No one is looking to make money out of this situation. Contrary to Mr. Stephen Hunter's comments at the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when this subject was being considered, no one in their right mind would claim to have a case of a notifiable disease or deliberately infect their produce to claim compensation. All I am asking on behalf of my constituent is that he is able to speak directly to the politicians who will make the decisions that will have a dramatic effect on his business and personal life. He is currently engaged in a legal dispute with the suppliers of the infected potatoes, but that may not be resolved for two years. In the meantime, his business is in jeopardy. I ask the Minister to help me to arrange that meeting.

5.22 pm
Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab)

Like the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), I shall concentrate on a constituency issue. Coincidentally, it focuses on a failure to test a food product.

Two years ago in our Welsh day debate in the House, I focused my remarks on the problems created in the Burry inlet cockle fishery by the apparent presence of diarrhetic shellfish poisoning. Things have moved on since then, and the Food Standards Agency, which is responsible for the regular testing of shellfish in our waters, has come under scrutiny and, to say the least, has been found wanting—most recently by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I congratulate that Committee, and the Sub-Committee that considered this issue, on the valuable work that it undertook and the quality of its succinct report.

It is impossible to raise issues of the British cockle industry without thinking about the terrible tragedy in Morecambe bay on 4 February, when 20 cockle pickers were killed. We are all still shocked by those deaths, and I am sure that we all feel for those poor people and their families. At least that is how I assumed we all felt until I listened to the "Today" programme this morning.

We have open shellfisheries like Morecambe around the Welsh coast, and pickers can come from anywhere and gather cockles. However, the Burry inlet is not one of them. It is a regulated fishery, administered by the South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee, where only a limited number of licensed gatherers can collect cockles and the amount each of them can take is controlled, as is the size of the cockles taken. That cockle fishery has always been an example of good, environmentally sustainable practice, with the cockles being gathered using hand rakes and very hard work. While other shellfisheries throughout the UK and Europe have turned to the use of heavy equipment from boats or large tractor rakes, pickers in the Burry inlet have stuck with traditional methods. That means that it is the only cockle fishery in the UK that remains open for 12 months of the year—at least, it did before the summer of 2001.

The Burry inlet until then was not only environmentally, but economically sustainable, providing a decent livelihood for more than 40 families in north Gower and leading to the establishment of a sizeable co-operative cockle and laver bread factory, as well as other family processing units in the Penclawdd and Crofty area. In addition, of course, there are cockle gatherers and processing facilities based on the other side of the estuary. On average, some 3,500 tonnes of cockles have been taken from the estuary each year.

In early July 200 a regular test recorded a positive result for something called diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, a condition whose name speaks for itself. That was on the north side of the estuary. It was followed the next day by a similar result for the south side.

For the next 14 months the entire fishery remained closed, barring a few weeks when there were some negative results and the gatherers were allowed back. During that period the cockle gatherers were, of course, in a desperate situation, and they were asking some serious questions.

The first question was: "Why does the whole fishery have to close when there is a negative result in just one part of the estuary? Why can't the inlet be zoned as some other shellfisheries are?" The Food Standards Agency eventually, after more than a year, gave way on that matter. Zoning was allowed, and gathering started again, because usually one zone or other got a negative result.

The second question the gatherers asked was: "If these cockles are poisonous when they are taken for testing, how come no one has ever got ill?" It must be remembered that after the cockles are taken for testing, provided the previous test was negative, it takes several days for the results to come back. If the tests are positive, a closure order is imposed. That means that for some days supposedly contaminated cockles are put on the market, but there hive been no reports of illness in customers buying them. Even more significant for the gatherers was the experience of their own families, who continued to eat considerable quantities of cockles that were said to be poisonous without any evidence of illness ensuing.

The gatherers also pointed out that the incidents of so-called diarrhetic shellfish poisoning were not occurring in circumstances that were usual for the problem—extended periods of sunshine and an accompanying increase in algal bloom. Eventually the Food Standards Agency acknowledged that it was not a normal DSP outbreak so it changed the classification to "atypical".

The industry started asking questions about the testing regime that produced the results and two factors started alarm bells ringing. First, the positive atypical diarrhetic shellfish poisoning results started coming in immediately after responsibility for algal testing and monitoring for England and Wales transferred from the Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen, to the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in Weymouth. Secondly, the positive results started coming in for shellfisheries around the English and Welsh coast, from us in the west round to the Thames fishery in the east all at the same time as the transfer. Yet at the same time, Scottish cockles, which were still being tested in Aberdeen, were consistently getting negative results in their DSP test, and cockles collected by the Dutch gatherers off the Netherlands coast, just 60 miles away from the Thames fishery, were still all clear and indeed were being imported into this country.

While many shellfisheries were affected, none was as badly hit as the Burry inlet, which even after it was zoned had each of its three zones closed for many weeks at a time, inevitably affecting the number of cockles gathered and the quality of the cockle beds, which need regular picking to be maintained.

If we look at what the testing, under the EC shellfish hygiene directive, actually involved before and during the period in question, what we find is illuminating. The test method used was and is the mouse bioassay, whereby shellfish extract is injected into mice. As I have said, after the work for England and Wales was transferred to Weymouth the explosion in positive results occurred. However, something was different from the usual DSP: the mice were dying much quicker and positive results were sustained over a much longer period than normal.

The transfer to Weymouth meant that in the UK three different laboratories were now carrying out tests: Aberdeen for Scotland; Weymouth for England and Wales; and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland. it eventually became clear that different testing techniques in conducting the mouse bioassay were being used at each of those laboratories. That followed an audit by Professor Hugh Makin, who also showed some poor scientific practice and a lack of quality assurance. Most amazingly, there were even different approaches to determining whether a particular test result was negative or positive.

Dr. Godfrey Howard, who had been responsible for shellfish hygiene testing for England and Wales when it was conducted in Aberdeen, gave significant evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, reporting that his laboratory had come across the atypical test response on occasions since before 1995. It believed it to be the result of solvent carry-over in the test procedure, which was termed as "false positives" in Aberdeen. Since November last year, a common method has been established in the three laboratories. Coincidentally—or perhaps not—since that time no positive atypical DSP results have been reported.

I should like to conclude by drawing the House's attention to a couple of quotes from the Select Committee report, to which I have already referred. I recommend that my hon. Friend the Minister read them over the weekend. The report states: The FSA was slow to recognise that the atypical results merited further investigation, slow to take account of the industry's suggested explanations and was slow to investigate the possibility that the methodology could be at fault. The flaws highlighted in the methods applied by the laboratories, even if they do not explain the atypical results, suggest that the FSA should, at the very least, have paid closer attention to quality control in its investigations. These delays have means that this crisis has been unduly prolonged. I particularly welcome the following recommendation: The Government should consider what avenues are available to it to compensate shellfish harvesters and processors for their loss of earnings during prolonged closures. It is clear that this Government agency has badly let down cockle gatherers throughout England and Wales. These recommendations set out the way forward for rebuilding this small but important industry. We need to implement them with urgency and commitment for the whole shellfish industry, but no one needs that to happen more than the cockle pickers of the Burry estuary.

5.31 pm
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

I have agreed to speak for only five minutes to allow somebody else to get in, but your disappointment will hopefully be relieved, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by the fact that it will all be quality stuff. [Interruption.] Yes, I shall depart from my normal level of speaking. I want to talk about only two things: the Richard commission and the North Wales police chief.

I do not know why the Richard commission was set up in the first place. As we know, the Welsh Assembly was created by only a narrow majority on a lacklustre turnout, so spending £1 million on such a review is money wasted. The Assembly has to do a lot more to gain the confidence of the Welsh people. It did not get off to a very good start; indeed, every time I open the newspapers to read about the Assembly there are only bad news stories, many of which are self-inflicted. There was its incompetent running of the national health service—the out-patient waiting list has risen dramatically—but there were also some petty things. It had huge debates on foreign affairs, over which it has no domain, and on where Members should sit in the Assembly. And of course, there was the fiasco of the Welsh Assembly building. The hole in the ground cost £8 million, and its only defence was, "At least we're better than the Scottish Parliament, which cost £400 million."

All the political parties have been debating what we should do about the Welsh Assembly and whether it should be given extra powers. The question of whether it should be scrapped was raised, and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said that there are some within my own party who are very "devosceptic". He was referring to David Davies, the Assembly Member for Monmouth, who is indeed a devosceptic. Only two people are more devosceptic than him—his parents Peter and Kath. They are the only parents I know who tried to campaign their son out of a job, and they did so with vigour and heart-felt clamour. However, David Davies secured a huge majority at the last Assembly election, which was a first-past-the-post election, so he speaks on behalf of the vast majority of his constituents, at least.

We know that some people have strong feelings about the Assembly one way or the other, but it could do better. If the Richard commission suggests that it should have extra powers—goodness forbid that it recommends taxation-varying powers—there will have to be another referendum. If there is another referendum, there will be a clamour for including on the ballot paper the question of whether the Welsh Assembly should exist at all. So people should be put on warning that if we have another referendum, it will be about not just extra powers, but the whole gamut of the Assembly.

Secondly, I want to talk about the North Wales police chief. He is a colourful character who regularly dominates the pages of the Daily Mail. When he is not reading that, he is doubtless writing to the Secretary of State for Wales and to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin). He is obsessed with two things:the legalisation of heroin and, so far as I can make out, all sorts of drugs; and the speed cameras of he which seems to be in charge. He seems to be in favour of. speed on the one hand, and against speed on the other. He should make up his mind. The policy on speed cameras is completely insane; he is obsessed with them.

I have asked for an independent audit of the cameras to ensure that they are put in blackspot areas, as the last thing we want is for those speed cameras in effective areas to lose public support. I have received letters from people who have been booked for doing 33 mph in a 30 mph zone, and from people who feel that they are always looking at the speedometer instead of the road and are afraid that they will have an accident.

In Lancashire, the number of fatalities went up last year when the number of speed cameras increased by 100. We need balance to ensure that we retain public support, which the police need to help them solve other crimes. Also, as much vigour needs to be shown in terms of cameras that protect against car crime as in dealing with speeding. We know that speed kills and that in the wrong weather conditions a 40 mph zone is probably too high. Drivers also need to show some discipline.

There are a number of other matters on which the House knows I would have spoken had we more time, but I decided to concentrate on two; the need to be careful with regard to the Richard commission and the need for some sanity in the question of speed cameras in Wales.

5.36 pm
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab)

I have decided to focus my remarks on crime. There are two major reasons for that. First, my postbag shows that it is a great concern to some constituents. Secondly, the Government have instituted programmes to tackle crime and I believe that success is evident.

My contact with the criminal justice system begun at an early stage of my working life; I had better explain that, lest I create the wrong impression. Leaving school at 16, I went on to the secretarial staff of the late Emyr Thomas, solicitor, who was clerk to the justices in Caernarfon. Several years later, I became chair of the Mon-Gwynedd victim support scheme. Victims have first-hand, and often highly distressing, experience of crime and we rightly recognise their needs.

The perception of crime for those without first-hand experience is frequently exaggerated by poor data and misleading reporting. We have a part to play in that, and it can be for good or ill. Concerning data, I believe that the British crime survey is acknowledged as authoritative and a world leader in tracking crime trends. On the other hand, until recently the police had recording methods that under-reported crime. The police schemes and the British crime survey were not comparable and I know that the chief constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, recognised that.

In short, the police under-reported crime, which is why our chief constable was an early enthusiast for the new police scheme, the national crime recording standard. He ensured that North Wales was an early participant in the new scheme. Now North Wales police have a more reliable system of reporting crime. When externally audited by the Audit Commission, North Wales police were found to have the best recording system in England and Wales.

What is the result of the data? Contrary to the perception in some quarters, crime is falling. Alongside that, however, it is notable that, in north Wales, detection rates are increasing. For example, detection rose from 28.8 to 31.5 per cent. for the period April to January between 2002–03 and 2003–04. I frequently meet officers in North Wales police and I have no doubt as to their commitment to protecting our citizens. They deserve our support; not only through legislation to assist them, but in correct reporting. Parliament has reformed the criminal justice system and the Government will continue to bring forward measures to further reform the system.

On 18 February, Llandudno in my constituency hosted the first North Wales criminal justice board conference. In his address to the conference, John Grant Jones OBE—the chair of the board—pointed out that crime has fallen for seven years. Persistent offending had also fallen and the number of offenders brought to justice was increasing. He added, however, that nearly 73 per cent. of the public believe that crime is increasing. He clearly saw that misperception as a challenge, and I am sure that the board, the agencies, the police and we in Westminster should also rise to that challenge.

To show what is happening in my constituency, I mention a meeting that I had with the central divisional commander at Llandudno two weeks ago. The introduction of a divisional burglary action scheme has already had a positive effect. In three of the four months since its inception, the number of burglaries reported decreased by more than the targets and the number of burglaries detected also surpassed those targets. The trends are good, and I know that the officers will do their utmost to ensure that those positive trends continue.

I have already mentioned my involvement with victim support, and I welcome the publication last December of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill. During my time with Mon-Gwynedd victim support, I was very conscious of what victims and volunteers told me. They believed that the perpetrators were receiving better treatment than the victims. Victims and their families were not given enough information at the right time; and they did not receive adequate support as they faced the daunting task of appearing as witnesses in court. That is changing. The Bill is central in putting victims first. It will ensure that they receive the help, support and protection that they need. The Bill will build on the Government's ongoing reform of the criminal justice system. A key part is to allow victims to take their case to the Parliamentary ombudsman if they feel that the code has not been followed by the criminal justice agencies.

I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary could explain whether the proposals in the Bill will help a young lady who was assaulted in an unprovoked attack while on holiday in north Wales recently by a young male and a young woman whom she had never met. The incident was captured on CCTV and an off-duty police officer witnessed it. The victim's injuries necessitated medical treatment and she may suffer long-term effects after her ordeal. The offender escaped a custodial sentence: he managed to get off lightly, while the distressing experience will remain with the victim for the rest of her life. She feels aggrieved at out the magistrates' decision and feels strongly that her case shows that the victim is secondary to the offender.

My postbag tells me that my constituents also feel badly let down by magistrates. They tell me that the police investigate complaints thoroughly but that the perpetrators, as in the case I have mentioned, are often dealt with far too leniently at the magistrates court. Antisocial behaviour can no longer be tolerated. The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 was born out of individuals, communities and agencies sharing their experiences.

Reflecting successful outcomes in my constituency, it has been said for some time that crime reduction partnerships need strengthening and, indeed, more financial resources, but money is not everything. To those areas in Wales that have not moved forward speedily enough in pursing applications for antisocial behaviour orders, I say that they should get their act together, and think of their communities and individuals who are suffering. That is why they are involved in crime reduction partnerships.

I welcome the opportunity to talk about the record of the police and crime detection in north Wales, and I look forward to hearing the Under-Secretary's response.

5.43 pm
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

This has been an interesting debate, in which many contributions have been made—[Interruption.] I am told that I have not been in attendance, but hon. Members will have noted that I have been in my place for considerably longer than the Secretary of State for Wales. Having said that, he has two jobs and must he torn by being able to devote only part of his time to the concerns and interests of the people of Wales.

The Government's lamentable failures are not simply exemplified in, or typified by, Wales. Wales fails more than the rest of the United Kingdom as a result of the Government's policies. It would be wrong of me to claim the expertise in Welsh matters of right hon. or hon. Members who have sat for Welsh constituencies for many years but I believe in the Union, so I care about and believe in Wales. As a Member of this Parliament, I have responsibility for the people of Wales, in the same way that I have responsibility for people in other parts of the kingdom. I make no apologies for making a few humble remarks about Wales and the Government's failure to deliver for the people of Wales.

Fifteen small schools have closed in Wales since May 1999 and the Minister will know the impact on small communities. As a Member of Parliament representing a rural constituency, I know that schools are at the heart of villages. When a small school fails, the community suffers. There has been a 2 per cent. cut in the education budget for mid-Wales this year. Labour has failed to meet the targets for key stages 3 and 4. For the Secretary of State to defend in the House today Government policy on tuition fees was flagrant, appalling and an abuse.

I was the first of my family to attend university, helped by a grant. If the Government have their way and introduce punitive fees and tap-up fees, tens of thousands of children from working-class homes will not go to university as I was able to do. The Government, understandably, are sensitive about their tuition fees policy. A considerable number of Labour Members do not support it. The Secretary of State offered statistics about education in Wales but they were all measurements of input, not output.

I acknowledge that the Government are spending 40 per cent. more on health than in 1999 but waiting lists have doubled since devolution and currently total 307,608—well over 10 per cent. of the population. Almost 40,000 people in Wales wait more than 12 months for treatment, compared with 188 people across the border.

The Secretary of State chose his words carefully in talking about Government successes in targeted areas singled out for special treatment. Those statistics are no comfort to the sick and needy people waiting for operations that fall outside those criteria and their families. The Secretary of State must answer to them and to their representatives from Welsh constituencies who sit in this Chamber.

The hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) said that the chief constable of North Wales was enthusiastic about the method for reporting crime but simultaneously lauded the British crime survey and commented on misconceptions about crime levels. That survey is based on perceptions and understandings. One cannot claim that there is a definitive guide to crime, then observe that there are misconceptions about the facts. I was amazed that she contradicted herself in consecutive sentences.

Mrs. Betty Williams

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hayes

Because I have been so harsh on the hon. Lady and she is so charming, I happily give way.

Mrs. Williams

I said that there were some misperceptions among the public about crime detection in north Wales.

Mr. Hayes

I understood the hon. Lady but the British crime survey is a reflection of perceptions about crime.

The Library informs me that in 1998–99 to 2001–02, before the method of reporting was changed, violence against the person in Wales rose 13.7 per cent, and that, in those same years, robbery rose 20.8 per cent.

The truth is that the picture is, of course, mixed. However, before the method of reporting crime changed, there were significant rises in crime in critical areas. They damaged people's lives, and it is no wonder that people are fearful about crime. In Wales, the number of special constables has fallen, just as it has fallen in the rest of the kingdom under this Government.

On farming, I was pleased to hear what the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) had to say. He is always a doughty defender of farmers' interests, and he spoke with great authority on a subject to which other hon. Members contributed.

Farmers have suffered a dreadful plight since this Government came to power in 1997. Last year, 700 jobs in Welsh farming were lost. The National Farmers Union has said that the average income on Welsh farms in January 2003 amounted to little over £9,000. The situation was much worse for the many farmers who fall below that average. Other problems include bovine tuberculosis and the plight of the dairy industry. The Government pretend that they will deal with those matters through reforms to the common agricultural policy, but that cannot be done.

In summary, I say that although the Government are spending in Wales, they are also spinning, squandering and failing there. As Aneurin Bevan said, we do not need to look at the crystal ball when we have the record book. The Government's record book is a sad one—sad for the people of Wales, for the Welsh Members, who, I acknowledge, represent their constituents honestly, and for the kingdom. On this St. David's day debate, I hope that all hon. Members will stand up for the people of Wales and, to a man and woman, condemn the Government and this part-time Secretary of State.

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

Once again we have had an excellent and wide-ranging debate. Geraldus Cambrensis—Gerald of Wales—wrote of the Welsh in 1183 that in set speeches they are so subtle and ingenious that they produce… ornaments of wonderful and exquisite invention both in words and sentences. Clearly, there are some ornaments among the Opposition Members who have taken part in today's debate, which reminded me of those words.

The greatest Welshman in history was, of course, Aneurin Bevan. He spoke in the very first Welsh day debate here in 1944, and talked of the great problems facing Wales at that time. He said: I spent most of my adult life in the shadow of unemployment because the basic industries happened to be situated largely in south Wales. Our problem was to try to get enough political leverage to secure attention to our difficulties." — [Official Report, 17 October 1944; Vol. 403, c. 2313.] What he said was right then, and would have been right during those 18 dark years of Tory rule. But Nye Bevan would see a different Wales today. The story that emerges from the speeches made by Labour colleagues in this debate shows that, under a Labour Government, Wales is changing for the better.

Unemployment used to be the blight on our communities, and it was once described by the Tories as price worth paying. While this Government have been in office, it has fallen to 41,000, from 168,000 under the Conservatives. We are tackling the problem of unemployment in Wales. That does not mean that jobs have not been lost. Of course that has happened, but we are also working together to ensure that we bring new, quality jobs to the people of Wales.

It is not just in our economy that is doing well. There is a greater confidence in Wales, and the BBC presenter John Humphreys said recently: There is a vibrancy and confidence about Wales that I can never remember. That confidence in the people of Wales stands in stark contrast to the whingeing, carping tale of doom and gloom being spun by Opposition parties.

We have heard today of the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee, and I my tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd. South (Mr. Jones) and the work of the Committee in the past year.

The Queen's Speech this year was good for Wales. Not only did it contain the Public Audit (Wales) Bill, there was also the Fire and Rescue Services Bill and the Higher Education Bill, both of which will have important Welsh clauses. Other Bills with important implications for Wales include the Children's Bill, the Civil Contingencies Bill, the Housing Bill, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill and the Traffic Management Bill. Two draft Bills, the Charities Bill and the Transport Bill, are also important for Wales.

All of those measures bear testimony to this Government's commitment to devolution and to giving the Assembly in Cardiff the opportunity to produce policies best tailored to Wales. I do not doubt they will be vigorously debated by hon. Members in this House.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) spoke at length, and he was entertaining. I commend his website to my hon. Friends, which shows him posing with Labour Ministers—he also finds room for pictures of his hairdresser and of the owner of his local Indian restaurant. However, his website does not include any pictures of members of the shadow Cabinet—he has impeccable taste and has gone up in my estimation as a result. A speech by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the Conservative party chairman, calling for a return to the values of Thatcherism was on his website until recently. In Wales, we know about the values of Thatcherism: the Conservatives closed 70 hospitals and 271 pits, decimated communities and put thousands of Welsh people on the dole.

The hon. Gentlemen discussed the NHS and said that he wants greater power for patients. He wants patients to have the power to start paying for the NHS, which would happen if the Tories were to return to power. The patients' passport would mean that patients would pay £1,900 for a cataract removal, £4,600 for a hip replacement, £5,700 for a knee replacement and £8,500 for a heart bypass. He discussed waiting times but ignored yesterday's figures, which show an across-the-board improvement c n waiting times.

The hon. Gentleman in discussed crime, but after the letter from the chief constable of North Wales, no one can take him seriously. His suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales prompted the chief constable to write that letter is a slur, a disgrace, and unworthy of a Front-Bench spokesman. It should be withdrawn.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) made an excellent contribution. Whether or not we agree with him, he was forthright about the Richard commission and the chief constable of North Wales. We enjoy his contributions, and he is missed from the position that he used to occupy on the Conservative Front Bench.

I shall move from the diffident Tories to our own daffodil Tories. Robert Kennedy said: One-fifth of the people are against everything all the time. Time after time, the Welsh nationalists prove that he was right. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) made an important point—he asked questions about it a while ago—-about affordable housing in his constituency. There are around 15,500 second homes in Wales, which comprises less than 1.5 per cent. of the housing stock, and the figure is declining overall. He discussed how the Chancellor's Budget proposals will affect pensions and holiday homes. The important point is that if a member of a small, self-directed pension scheme were to use its funds to buy a holiday home for their own use or for the use of their families, they would be subject to a tax charge and would not benefit.

The Liberal Democrats managed to dredge up a few points that they have not already e-mailed to the Labour party. Once again, they proved that it is not only their asteroid policy that is focused on otter space. They have given us promise after promise after promise, which proves that their commitment to the environment is consistent—the extra money that they have pledged has been recycled time after time.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) is a constitutional anorak, spending 10 minutes of his time discussing the Labour party's excellent debate on the Richard commission. I advise him to wait until the Richard commission reports.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) raised an important matter. I regret that I have not received the note that he planned to send to me; as soon as I receive it, I shall get it touch with him.

A number of my hon. Friends made important comments, and I am sorry that I cannot address all of them in my response.

We have come a long way since the first Welsh day debate in 1944. The story of Wale; in that 60 years is a tale of ups and downs—ups under Labour and downs under the Conservatives. Today, I see a confident partnership in Wales between Labour working in Government in Westminster and Labour working in partnership in the Assembly. Time and again, the people of Wales have been presented what a choice between Labour representatives, Tories, the nationalists, who would isolate us, or Liberal Democrats, and the important point is that they choose Labour. The story of Wales as a nation of success, prosperity, and social justice is a Labour story delivered by Labour Governments and supported by Labour Assembly Members and Labour Members of Parliament. We have a good record, and when we go before the people of Wales in a couple of months' time in the European and local council elections, they will give Labour a resounding vote of confidence once again.

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