Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn) : I shall not be as specific as the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), nor as broad-ranging as some of the earlier contributors to the debate. I have considerable sympathy for the predicament of the hon. Member for Cynon Valley. No doubt she well recalls that I spent more than a month there as parliamentary aide to the Conservative candidate during the by-election at which she was elected. I sympathise with the hon. Member for Cynon Valley because of the environmental problems of her constituency. I want to say a few words about both industry and the environment, the subjects for debate today. The Gracious Speech makes clear the Government's determination to

"continue to promote enterprise and to foster the conditions necessary for sustained growth of output and employment." Increasing enterprise and increasing growth of output and employment are evident throughout the Principality of Wales. I wish to quote from two pieces of mail that I received at the end of last week. I hasten to add that neither of them is an off-the-record briefing from Mr. Bernard Ingham or from Conservative Central Office. Both are highly objective assessments of what is currently happening in the Principality. The first example is from the regional newsletter of the Welsh Development Agency, Link '88 :

"Wales is now one of the fastest growing regions in the United Kingdom in terms of securing new jobs WINvest is the best performing inward investment team in the country ... regarding property, the Agency is increasing significantly its expenditure following vacancy rates falling to their lowest level for many years."

The second quote comes from a leaflet announcing a seminar on "Money for Growth" from four local enterprise agencies in the county of Clwyd, of which my constituency is a part :

"Clwyd is booming! Stories about major companies moving into or expanding within the County are a weekly occurrence. British Aerospace, Continental Can, Kimberly-Clark, Pilkington, Japanese firms such as Hoya and Optec--the roll call is impressive. Not since the sixties has the economic climate here looked so good."

Column 504

Delyn, in my constituency, has the fastest falling unemployment rate of the 38 parliamentary constituencies of Wales, just as Wales has one of the fastest falling unemployment rates of any part of the country. In the past year unemployment in my constituency fell by 31 per cent. ; in the past two years it has gone down by nearly 50 per cent. The Gracious Speech modestly pledges that the Government will continue that trend. In Delyn that trend is not continuing ; it is accelerating.

Since June, a further 1,000 jobs have been announced and more announcements are in the pipeline. Delyn is but a microcosm of the Principality--

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : Come on!

Mr. Raffan : The hon. Gentleman can make his speech later. It does not suit the hon. Gentleman's party political interests to see Wales doing so well because that will mean no Govan in Wales. The hon. Gentleman is well aware that he will have to fight very hard to cling on to his own seat because of the economic boom in the Principality, which has also affected his constituency.

In the past year, the unemployment rate in Wales has gone down 21 per cent. and in the past two years it has fallen 32 per cent. Wales, like Clwyd, is booming. The Principality's economy is being dramatically transformed. Stories of new companies moving into or expanding in the Principality are a weekly occurrence. Last month, Ford announced the biggest ever investment in the Principality, which is also the biggest ever single investment by any motor manufacturer in the United Kingdom--£725 million, or £715 for every household in the Principality. That money will create and safeguard 2,500 jobs. NFC Contract Distribution in Chepstow has announced a £16 million investment, which will mean 240 jobs. Bluebird Toys has announced a £12.4 million investment at Merthyr which will create 400 permanent and 200 seasonal jobs. March Race Electronics has announced a three-year expansion in Talbot Green and in Aberdare which will lead to a total of 1,350 jobs.

Wales has 5 per cent. of the United Kingdom's population, but it has achieved a 20 per cent. share of inward investment projects. That is the highest share of any area in Britain, higher that the 16 per cent. share obtained by the south-east. I am sure that the hon. Members for Cynon Valley and for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones) would not argue with that. The Government are fostering that growth. They are encouraging it by a larger than ever investment in industry and in the WDA. In 1988-89, the level of assistance to Welsh industry is a massive 39 per cent. more than planned.

Of course there are still black spots and the valleys, in particular, have serious problems. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales announced his valleys initiative in June. That initiative has led to a record factory building programme, a record urban programme, a record house improvement programme and a record derelict land clearance programme, all being carried out by a Conservative Government. In June the then shadow Secretary of State for Wales tabled a motion--he was sacked a month or so ago and replaced by his sacked predecessor. It is almost as difficult to keep up with the shenanigans within the Welsh Labour party as it is with EastEnders ; the plot is as complicated as are the

Column 505

personalities. In June the then shadow Secretary of State for Wales tabled a motion to try to shore up his sagging position which said : "That this House deplores the unacceptable level of deprivation and disadvantage in Wales."

I agree with the hon. Member for Cynon Valley that that deprivation and disadvantage is no more evident than in the valleys. I agreed with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) when he made that point in his speech. But why did the last Labour Government do nothing about it? They had the opportunity. It is no use the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen saying, as was said today, "It was 10 years ago." It is as though they think that 10 years' penance is sufficient to erase their record. It is as though they think we should all be infected by the amnesia which has broken out in epidemic proportions on the Opposition Benches. It is as though they expect us to forget when Labour was last tested in office. But why should we? Why should we forget how Labour performed when it was last tested? The Labour Government failed abysmally and they did nothing for their own areas in the valleys. It was left to this Government to act.

We cannot be accused of party political advantage as a result of our valleys initiative. After all, the dozen or so seats there are held by Labour with majorities varying from that of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers)--God knows how he does it--of more than 30,000 to that of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John)--which is marginal!--of 17,000. It is not as though we will benefit in party political terms from the valleys initiative.

The Opposition cannot stomach the fact that we have done something for their political heartland that they never did. They cannot stomach the fact that we have improved the environment, the quality of life, employment and industrial opportunities which the Labour Government lamentably failed to do when they had the chance. We still have serious problems within the Principality--but they are the problems of success. When we had the Welsh day debate earlier in the year, and in June when we discussed deprivation and disadvantage in Wales, I mentioned that parts of the Principality were suffering from serious skills shortages. In my own constituency there is a shortage of metal workers and sewing machinists. Local surveys need to be undertaken so that we can match skill shortages with the necessary training.

Now, in addition, we are facing labour shortages. One of the fastest- expanding companies in my constituency is having great difficulty in recruiting female labour, despite the fact that 802 women there are registered as unemployed. Last Thursday, the chairman of the Wales tourist board made exactly the same point when he spoke at the annual general meeting of the North Wales tourism council. He said that demographic changes will lead to a very marked reduction in the number of young people entering the labour force. Schemes must be devised to attract married women and retired people back to work. In Wales we always say that water is a "burning" issue. It dominated the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs during the 1979-83 Parliament. That Committee produced a massive report on water. It also played a significant part in the last Parliament when the Committee carried out an inquiry into coastal sewage pollution in Wales.

Column 506

In 1984, when we were taking evidence from the chairman of the Welsh water authority, during discussions on the authority's capital works programme, I asked him :

"Perhaps you would rather be in the position of a private company so that you would then be able to borrow according to your needs?" He replied :

"The proposition has immediate appeal."

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) said at the beginning of the debate on the Loyal Address :

"the water industry has for too long been restricted in its ability to raise capital to meet the rising standards, expectations and increasing obligations that have been heaped upon it."--[ Official Report, 22 November 1988 ; Vol. 142, c. 9.]

Privatisation will free the water authorities from the constraints of the Government's external financing limits so that they can borrow more money as they require and thus accelerate their capital programme. That point-- the need for freedom from Government financial constraints--was made by the Plaid representative and was argued eloquently earlier in the debate by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). It is of particular importance to the Welsh water authority because it has the longest coastline of any water authority in this country and faces tremendous demands on its capital programme. The authority has 112 outfalls discharging into coastal waters, a quarter of the total for England and Wales. Only 6 per cent. of those are less than 10 years old, 75 per cent. are more than 20 years old and 40 per cent. are more than 40 years old.

I am strongly in favour of water privatisation, but time does not permit me to give further arguments in support of this measure. I hope that I shall have the chance to do so on Second Reading of the Bill and I hope that the hon. Member for Ynys Mo n will be here to listen to me again on that occasion.

It is no use the Labour party saying that we could free the water authorities from the EFL and that the capital programmes could be accelerated without privatisation. Why did that not happen under nationalisation? The Labour party did not do it when it had an opportunity to do so between 1974 and 1979. Nationalisation has not served the consumer well, but privatisation will.

8.31 pm

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mo n) : Despite the excited hype of the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan), the Government's legislative programme for the current Session shows that they pay scant regard to the real problems facing people in Wales. While Scotland and Northern Ireland are given separate treatment--albeit not in an acceptable form--in terms of legislation, Wales is given no special consideration. Nothing set out in the programme will alleviate the economic problems in many parts of Wales, which have not been described by the hon. Gentleman. He did not mention the collapsing morale in the Health Service, the precarious position of the Welsh language, the scandal of youth unemployment and the enormous problems facing our old people, many of them in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, who face another winter wondering whether to spend their pension allowance on food or adequate heating.

I wish to concentrate tonight on the proposal to sell off the electricity supply industry, having regard to the fact that there is a nuclear power station in my constituency and a proposal to build another. We have been told that

Column 507

there will be an application for planning consent for a PWR station in the spring of next year. The people of Ynys Mo n want to know whether the privatisation of the industry has any implications for the current and proposed nuclear power stations.

Since the Government published their White Paper in February this year, we have witnessed an unedifying power struggle between the Department of Energy and the CEGB over the structure of the electricity industry after privatisation. That has particular significance for nuclear power. The people of Ynys Mo n feel very much like pawns in this struggle and, as any chess player knows, pawns are often sacrificed as either side moves in for the kill. My constituents, including those who work at the present power station, believe that they are being kept constantly in the dark, with no power to influence events, while decisions over which they have absolutely no control are being taken.

Eventually, when decisions are taken, both in terms of legislation in this House and in terms of the specific application for planning consent for a new nuclear power station, they will be taken without sufficient regard to their opinions, their jobs, and their welfare. It is their lives, their jobs and their safety with which the Government and the CEGB are playing, yet their views are being disregarded.

The fundamental question is whether nuclear power has a future after privatisation. As the Government have been so reluctant to disclose their plans in advance, we--the people who now feel so powerless--have had to look to leaks in the press for information and, according to the press, the portents for nuclear power do not appear to be good unless, as we have heard many times today, there is a hidden subsidy for the nuclear programme. That is the paradox that faces the Government.

The Government have a manifesto commitment to privatise the industry and they also claim to have a strong commitment to maintain the nuclear programme. The Secretary of State acknowledged in his evidence to the Select Committee on Energy earlier this year that the commitment to maintain a nuclear programme has had a substantial impact on the chosen structure of the industry. In other privatisation cases, the Government have maintained that privatisation would mean more secure jobs and a better service to consumers, and that competition would lead to lower prices. The Government know that they cannot claim that with the sale of the electricity supply industry and the Secretary of State himself acknowledged, again in evidence to the Select Committee, that the Government were advised from a marketability point of view that, if the nuclear power component were too large in any particular company, it would be difficult to market.

We also have the experience of the United States, where they stopped building nuclear power stations in the 1970s. Evidence submitted to the Hinkley Point C' inquiry confirms that view. In evidence an electricity adviser to several large United Kingdom companies said that there had been no orders for nuclear plants in the United States for a decade. All those ordered between 1974 and 1978 have since been cancelled. In the United States, nuclear power has caused widespread financial difficulties and depressed share prices of utilities.

When the Secretary of State was questioned on these matters by the Select Committee, he was remarkably coy about the full cost of maintaining a nuclear programme, which could not be left entirely to private industry. How

Column 508

can the Government claim that privatisation means a better choice for consumers and that an element of competition in the electricity supply industry will lead to lower electricity bills, when it is now clear that institutional investors are baulking at the idea of investment in an industry which has a commitment to provide 15 to 20 per cent. of its energy through nuclear power? How does the Government's free enterprise approach of letting the market decide square with the fact that nuclear power cannot continue as an important sector of the electricity supply industry unless there is Government support or the cost is passed on to the consumer, leading to higher electricity charges?

A leader in The Independent put the case starkly. It stated : "If the Government was really committed to market economics, it would buy its nuclear plant from France, and shut the British nuclear construction industry completely. The Government does not have the courage of its convictions when it comes to nuclear power, and we are going to be left muddling through with a typically unhappy British compromise."

A further report, published by Saloman Brothers investment advisers, said that the main problem with nuclear power was the unknown cost. The cost of decommissioning nuclear power stations was not yet known because it had not been done on a large scale. Sir Philip Jones, the chairman of the Electricity Council, said in evidence to the Select Committee :

"All I am suggesting to you is I think it is likely that a private company may well find or may consider the financial and social risks not ones which it would put at the top of the list in support of nuclear and, therefore, in one way or another the nuclear component will need to be underpinned."

The recommendations of the Select Committee show very clearly that it was unhappy with the way that the Government had approached legislation on that matter. It was concerned about the timescale that the Government had imposed to privatise the industry and said : "Electricity is too important an industry for the country to gamble that everything will come out right."

However, perhaps the most damning indictment of the Government's legislation in terms of the privatisation of the electricity industry was when the Committee stated :

"The Government has singled out only two factors to justify its decision : security of supply and party manifesto commitment to a continung nuclear programme. It has glossed over the industry's economics, ignored the industry's external costs, and still cannot be sure that the favoured PWR technology is the best available." How do the Government find their way out of the dilemma? We are told through the press that there is to be a so- called nuclear tax. Is that the Government's answer to the strong warning from the CEGB that it would not accept the risk of building nuclear reactors after privatisation? We are told in leaks to the press that the Bill will require all independent producers above a minimum size to levy a nuclear surcharge on their customers.

There are implications for employment within the industry after privatisation. There is considerable concern at the Wylfa power station in my constituency over the employment of outside contractors and the threat to existing full-time jobs in the short and medium terms. One of the significant arguments used by the CEGB in its case for a second nuclear power station in the area is the economic benefits that would flow from a large investment. It is clear that privatisation would destroy that argument.

Column 509

Why are the Government still determined to privatise the electricity industry when they face all the problems that are inherent in its transfer to the private sector? They cannot guarantee adequate competition. They are not applying so-called market economics and they cannot guarantee that consumers will obtain cheaper electricity in the long run. I am driven to the conclusion that in this instance, as in so many others, the Government are interested only in their own ideological dogma, and in this case it is clearly divorced from reality. Would it not be far better to leave the industry in the public sector, where such an important utility should be, and give it sufficient resources to carry out adequate research into alternative forms of energy supply? That would provide the Government with the diversity of energy sources that they claim they are seeking desperately to achieve.

8.42 pm

Mr. James Cran (Beverley) : I am pleased to see the reference in the Gracious Speech to

"firm financial policies designed to bear down on inflation." It is of course legitimate for Opposition Members to say that the rate of inflation has increased, but I am satisfied that action is being taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer-- [Interruption.] --and by the Government generally to reduce it. I shall be happy in a year's time to confront Opposition Members who are now trying to barrack me. I am clear, having seen the effects of the inflation that was created by the Opposition when they were in government in three regions of the United Kingdom--the north of England, the west midlands and Scotland--that there is no greater killer of jobs or the prospects of companies than inflation. As I have said, I am certain that inflation will have been reduced in a year's time.

I am delighted also to read in the Gracious Speech that the Government

"will continue to promote enterprise".

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) that in economic terms the regions of the United Kingdom are doing extremely well. In fact, the northern regions are doing better than the southern regions. Like my hon. Friend, however, I believe that we require to encourage home- grown companies in all regions of the United Kingdom. I say this because it is a fact that when a recession or downturn comes along, subsidiaries of large companies tend to disappear like snow on a spring day.

I am pleased to see the reference in the Gracious Speech to the need for more training for the work force. It is clear to anyone who examines these matters that the economy is moving at such a speed that in some areas companies are beginning to run out of labour, and not only skilled labour. There is a need to bring the long-term unemployed back into employment, and companies, in self-interest, will dictate that this happens.

Before 1979, I saw companies with low morale in the regions of the United Kingdom. There were companies that could not overcome opposition anywhere in Europe or the world. Companies were overmanned and under-performing. Senior managers would use every excuse on the face of the earth to justify their companies' under-performance. Those excuses are all too reminiscent. I used to hear about a strong pound and too powerful unions. We do not hear the union excuse now. It was said

Column 510

that energy costs were too high and that wage claims were too high--it seemed that companies were unable to resist such claims before 1979. I think that I am entitled to say that since 1979, however, the industrial recovery, notwithstanding the tactical difficulties that may be encountered from time to time, has been nothing short of miraculous. That owes a great deal to the eight Gracious Speeches which preceded the one that we are now discussing. There will be some Opposition Members who disagree with me, and they should examine the facts. If they read the regional economic reports of the CBI, which deal with every region of the United Kingdom, I challenge any Opposition Member to find a reference that suggests that any of these areas are worried about their economic performance. I shall save hon. Members a great deal of time by saying that no region has that worry. In addition if Opposition Members examine the facts--it is clear that they do not often do so--they will find that this year alone there has been a 7 per cent. improvement in productivity growth. Every year since 1979 there has been, on average, a 4.5 per cent. improvement.

I believe that the success of the Government's industrial policy has also been based on a rejection of protectionism. That is something of which Opposition Members are exceedingly fond of talking. They like to talk about artificially protecting United Kingdom industry from the competition outwith this country. I reject that notion. I am delighted that the Government have rejected it in the Gracious Speech and in the ones that preceded it. It is clear that the Government accept, as I do, an open international market place. One manifestation of that approach is that since 1986 United Kingdom companies have invested about £24 billion in the United States, western Europe and Australia in addition to the record amount of capital investment that has taken place within the United Kingdom.

It is no good Opposition Members shaking their heads. What I have said is fact. We know that £20 billion has been invested in company acquisitions in the United States, £3 billion in western Europe and £ billion in Australia. Conversely, 500 successful bids have occurred within the United Kingdom involving foreign companies. The United Kingdom need not fear overseas investment in the same way that overseas countries need not fear an inflow of United Kingdom investment. Far too many people-- many of them are on the Opposition Benches--seem to ignore the facts of merger policy. We have the usual Pavlovian responses from Scottish Members, and as far as I can see there is not one Scottish Opposition Member in the Chamber.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West) : The hon. Gentleman cannot see very far.

Mr. Cran : It seems that there is one. That is splendid. He might have the opportunity to express his point of view once I have expressed mine.

Mr. Clarke : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cran : I shall give way once I have made my position clear. Whenever a major Scottish company is threatened by take-overs in any way, the first thing that happens is Scottish flag-waving chauvinism. That comes to the fore irrespective of financial or industrial logic. That is exactly the same approach that we hear from Opposition

Column 511

Members who seem to want a fortress Britain in terms of industrial policy to repel all industrial boarders. When they say that, they do not acknowledge the right of the Americans to say exactly the same, bearing in mind the amount of investment that we have made in America. The Americans could say exactly the same--that if we do not allow their companies to buy into our country, why should they allow our companies to buy into theirs? If we all retreated to such a policy we would all be worse off. The Government are correct to want the free movement of capital--inwards and outwards.

The Government must therefore re-establish what they mean by merger policy especially as they relate to foreign companies. I believe that that merger policy has absolutely nothing to do with trying to save companies from predators whether those predators come from within the United Kingdom or elsewhere. In most of the Scottish cases that I can think of, the predators come from overseas, which I believe to be an irrelevant factor.

The Government must also re-establish the fact that merger policy has absolutely nothing to do with insulating inefficient management or, generally speaking, cocooning them. Merger policy has everything to do with encouraging competition which at the end of the day protects the consumer. I look forward to the legislation referred to in the Gracious Speech, which states :

"Legislation will be introduced to reform the law on mergers." It is clear to me that that is what is required to get the law right and to air in this House and elsewhere exactly what we mean by merger and competition policy.

8.51 pm

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe) : I want to deal with one of the main aspects of the Gracious Speech, the environment. However, the subject for today's debate is environment and industry. Some parts of the Gracious Speech, in particular the references to changing section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972, will make it far more difficult for local government to support local industry. That support is very important in areas like mine and in the area represented by the hon. Member for Beverley (Mr. Cran), because county councils have done a tremendous job in encouraging industry. My district council has played its part through support for industry and through the enterprise boards which have been established by many Labour-controlled local authorities. That funding under section 137 is threatened, and I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the representations from local authorities before the proposals are finalised.

The two major proposed privatisations--of the electricity and water industries--have major environmental implications and consequences. Before I deal with the consequences, I want to consider the Government's so-called commitment to the environment.

The Nature Conservancy Council has done a marvellous job in identifying and protecting important wildlife habitat sites. However, that organisation's budget is being cut by 5 per cent. this financial year. That does not seem to be a commitment to green issues from a Government who are prepared to slash the budget of their foremost body in terms of protection of the environment. That 5 per cent. cut will almost certainly be passed on to the voluntary conservation bodies which do so much to manage reserves and sensitive environmental sites.

Column 512

The existing legislation as it applies to sites of special scientific interest is not by any means sufficient or strong enough to protect those sites at the moment. Until March 1988, 166 SSSIs had been damaged, in particular by agriculture. Another main culprit was development.

That brings me to one of my main fears about the privatisation of the water industry. One of the great attractions of the water industry is its large tracts of land. Many people interested in purchasing sections of the water industry must have their eyes on that land and its potential for development. That is a serious threat when we consider what has happened in previous privatisations, in particular the British Aerospace purchase of the Royal Ordnance factories, which were purchased, not for investment purposes or to strengthen them, but to develop the land and sell it off and so make a quick killing through asset stripping. I do not believe that the provisions in the Water Bill protect many of those very scenic tracts of land from such exploitation.

We must also consider the question of access to that land. Large areas of water authority land are currently managed as nature reserves. Will that management continue, and will the voluntary bodies managing them at the moment continue to have access and co-operation? What about charges for the many thousands of people who use water authority land for recreation, including boating, angling or simply for walking? Will their rights be protected?

This debate should have given the Government an opportunity to tackle some of the major environmental consequences of the electricity and water industries. We all know that there is a serious problem with acid rain. We also know that there is a serious problem with regard to the investment needed in our generating capacity. We are also aware that more research is required to develop alternatives. It is no use the Secretary of State talking about nuclear power as the answer to the greenhouse effect. I do not believe that wall-to-wall nuclear power stations is the answer. It is a gimmick to try to justify nuclear power now that we know that the economic arguments do not stand up to examination.

No one involved with the conservation movement could be reassured by the Minister's opening speech, particularly as it was made by the Minister who put forward the idea of privatising nature reserves and who said that property developers are not in it for financial gain. No one can have confidence in his comments.

We need controls in other areas such as the importation of toxic waste. In my constituency we are surrounded by redundant ironstone mines. They are ideal places in which to dump toxic waste. Already a private company has made approaches to use one site, Roxby Gullet mine, as a dump for refuse and waste. The mines have been overgrown for many years and they are sites of particular interest. They are important ecological sites and they could be developed for the benefit of wildlife, the ecology and local people. They could also be developed to enhance the environment and the community.

At the moment there is too weak a restriction on the people who wish to exploit those sites for personal gain. There is too much of the creed of greed and not enough guarantees for the future of the environment and our whole ecological system.

I should like the Government to carry out some of their environmental promises, but unfortunately I am not convinced because their deeds do not match their words.

Column 513

Perhaps the Minister will confirm that in a recent EEC meeting of Environment Ministers to discuss proposed directives to protect SSSIs and important ecological sites the only two countries that opposed the directives were Spain and this country. It does not give much support to claims that the Government are interested in green issues when they are one of only two European Governments trying to frustrate progress on the protection of the environment.

I hope that when the Government talk about green issues they are talking about genuine progress and protection, and not about the gullibility of those who believe that they are doing something. 8.59 pm

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport) : I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my hon. and learned Friend the Minister responsible for water and planning are present, because I too wish to speak about environmental issues. In an excellent speech earlier this evening, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson) explained that the suburban environment was being seriously damaged by the wish of conservationists to conserve the open countryside at any cost. He told us how, in his constituency, gardens were disappearing, playing fields were being built on and all available open space was being developed.

That is happening in the north as well. When I was first elected as Member of Parliament for Stockport there was a farm in my urban constituency ; that has now gone. Is a farm any less valuable because it happens to be within a town boundary? In the south of my constituency, a nine-hole golf course that has been operated for years by one of the major employers, Mirlees, is about to disappear as well. Surely that, too, is no less valuable because it happens to be within the town boundary. People living in towns also want open spaces in which their children can play and they can walk their dogs.

Affordable housing, especially for the young, is affected by excessively tight controls. Over the past two or three years northern Members have watched fascinated as southern Members have argued about their housing problems. In the south, Labour Members have suggested more council housing- -although, judging by much of the council housing south of the river here, goodness only knows why. Certainly we do not want any more such housing in the north. The Liberals appear to support anything favoured by their constituents and to attack anything not favoured by them. My colleagues in the south seem to be evenly divided between those who want no kind of comprehensive development--they use the phrase, "the concreting of the south-east", although goodness knows how the whole south-east could be concreted--and those led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who say that the Conservative party is the party of home ownership and that it is essential to provide affordable housing for the young.

I must say that I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. A report prepared recently for the Association of District Councils by Bristol university estimated that half the families in the south-east do not earn enough to buy a small starter flat, of which the

Column 514

average price is now £62,000. That is not good enough, says my right hon. Friend. He said at the Conservative party conference : "Our duty as a party must be to allow for sufficient homes to be provided to house decently all our fellow citizens."

That must indeed by our prime aim. It must certainly come before the conservation of the open countryside at any cost.

The selfishness of those who are prepared to deny the young a home to conserve their own uninterrupted view is breathtaking. That is certainly not what we want in the north where, alas, prices now seem to have taken off. I do not want the "I'm all right, Jack" attitude that appears to have been prevailing in many parts of the south to be applied to my constituents and their children.

Like my right hon. Friend, I understand the importance of the green belt and the narrow belt surrounding existing developments. I do not want those areas to be concreted over, and I should like the derelict land in our cities recycled, but there is a limited amount of that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North said earlier, it is not recycling derelict land to build on gardens, to erect concrete blocks within feet of bedroom windows and to obstruct every piece of open space in the suburbs where so many thousands live.

The danger signals in the north are there for all to see. The latest property market report of the Inland Revenue valuation office shows an extraordinary increase in the price of building land over the last year, with 57.5 per cent. of that increase in the north-west, 109 per cent. in Yorkshire and Humberside and 127 per cent. in the east midlands. Just picture the effect of those increases on the price of new houses in the north. New houses are so often the choice of the first-time buyer. Picture also the effect on the quality of that type of housing. If the price of land is doubled, people will still have to buy houses, but the quality will go down.

Many of those who live in the country say that they do not want modern houses to be built there because they are not of the right quality, but if the price of land is doubled it will result in poor quality housing. The price of land, therefore, must be controlled and brought down. The only way to do that, as with anything else, is to increase the supply of land. That is the choice : tight planning controls, thereby pricing young people out of the housing market, or relaxing the planning controls, with the result that our children will have the same opportunities as we enjoyed.

9.6 pm

Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich) : The future of our country is inextricably linked to its industrial development. I intend to concentrate on one thing that the Government can and must do to enable all our citizens to participate fully in our industrial society and to enable it to grow and compete. They must encourage the development and skills of the work force and enable the skilled members of our society to take advantage of the jobs that are available.

We recognise that some action has been taken to address skills shortages. City technology colleges may make a welcome contribution, but one vital area that may not seem to be of immediate importance will, on closer examination, be ignored at our peril. I refer to child care.

Child care--particularly nursery education--is vital to industry in two fundamental ways. First, without proper care for their children during working hours many able,

Column 515

qualified and committed women are unable to work. Either they stay at home or they take menial or mundane jobs that have no other recommendation than that the needs of their small children can be accommodated.

Secondly, without taking more seriously the education of the under-fives, we place at risk our future development as a society. The foundations for every academic discipline can be found in early childhood. Children's learning is extremely complex, but recent evidence suggests that the proportion of learning and problem solving before the age of five is colossal--far greater than we appreciated in the past. Computer experience and second language development should start as early as the age of three. Other European countries are taking that course, and we must consider taking it, too.

Women in the work force is becoming an increasingly topical issue as the penny begins to drop that, with the impending demographic changes, the decline in the working age of the population and the increase in the number of dependent pensioners, there will be a shortage of workers in all spheres of life. Recent estimates suggest that by 1993, 50 per cent. of all girls leaving school will have to be recruited into the National Health Service just to make ends meet.

It is not only socially desirable to enable everyone to participate fully in society and in the labour market--women as well as men--but it will be economically imperative in the near future. There is a great reservoir of skill and ability available that is largely untapped at present--that is, women with children. Many mothers simply do not even contemplate working because they know that finding good, affordable childcare is almost impossible. Where good childcare facilities exist, they are invariably characterised by long waiting lists and prohibitively high costs.

There have been signs that the Government are beginning to respond to the need for strategic planning to avert the worst problems of the shortfall in the labour market in the future but, characteristically, there seems to be a feeling that, with the right exhortation, the invisible hand will provide.

It is perhaps hard for a Government who are rooted in so-called Victorian values to be seen to be encouraging women with children to go back to work. I do not expect action that is motivated by a commitment to equality of opportunity from the Government, but the economic case for childcare for working mothers is unanswerable. We now have less than half the number of places in state nurseries that we had in 1945 and only one in five of our children receives proper nursery education. It is time that we committed more of the country's wealth to measures that will not only assist the development of a more skilled and economically active work force in the long run, when the children taking advantage of nursery education come to maturity, but will, in the short term, enable the current skills of women to be fully used.

The Government must be aware of the report on childcare provision that was prepared by Bronwen Cohen for the Equal Opportunities Commission, as part of the European Commission's study. The Government must know about it because they have been deliberating on it for a long time and have, as yet, declined to tell us their formal response. I regret that we have had to wait for labour scarcity to provide the lever to press for the provision of nursery education, but however that nursery education is achieved, it will be welcome.

Column 516

The report stresses how poor our record is compared with the record of our European competitors, not only in terms of the quantity of provision, but the quality. The report suggests a number of targets that we should set ourselves to improve dramatically the provision of childcare, both to benefit the child and to enable mothers to work if they want to. The first target is that we should provide places in nursery schools for 90 per cent. of four-year-olds and 50 per cent. of three-year olds by 1993. The cost of that would rise to about £650 million a year by 1993 if all those places were funded directly. That is not an outrageous demand--in fact, it was first established in 1972 in a Department of Education and Science White Paper, when the Prime Minister was Secretary of State. The question that we should ask ourselves is not whether we can afford it, but whether we can afford the loss of human potential, both in terms of the working mothers we could make available now, and in the skill of the work force in 20 years' time. The provision of nursery education is not only right but cost-effective.

The Government could facilitate the provision of pre-school daycare and nursery education in various ways. Tax incentives are always an effective means of generating greater private sector interest in new ideas. Tax incentives for joint employer or workplace nurseries would undoubtedly succeed in increasing childcare provision. Adding an incentive to provide places for women without jobs to enable them to train or to return to their education would be to go one step further. One immediate thing that the Chancellor could do is to abolish the mean-spirited tax on employees who benefit from nurseries provided by their employers.

I return now to the vital importance of the educational quality of under- fives provision. I refer to learning through creativity and play, not to cramming in inappropriate primary classes for three and four-year-olds, but with the intelligent, informed expertise of teachers who are specially trained to deal with that age group. That is what is required. Young children should not just be shelved and kept from harm, entrusted to those who are incapable of really understanding their needs, development and potential. They need a high ration of caring, intelligent and well-educated adults and the provision of play if they are to reach their full potential in later life. We need trained adults who are accountable to parents and governors, not just well-meaning do-gooders who are playing school with live children. We need more than just nine-to-three provision. We need an extended day facility where required. What jobs are available between 9.45 and 2.15 for the mothers of children currently in most state nurseries?

As international comparisons starkly show, children who have the chance of pre-school education benefit in later years with greater confidence and a more positive attitude to learning. Damage done by the age of five, especially to a child's self-esteem, may be irreparable. Improving the lamentable statistics on the number of children receiving pre-school education is a vital step in building a motivated, skilled and flexible work force.

We all talk about improving standards in education. No one is absolutely sure how to do that, but one irrefutable way is to take the education of under-fives far more seriously. A comprehensive national policy for children and for educational provision for the under-fives

Next Section

  Home Page