Previous Section Home Page

Column 1232

Kingdom GDP, than it was during the last year of the previous Labour Government in 1979. The latest figure shows a further fall of 1.4 per cent., so we are still worse off now in relative terms than we were in 1979. I can understand the Secretary of State's reticence to accept the basis of that argument, but it is odd, is it not, that he is always prepared to take credit when anything goes right. That does not happen very often, but when it does, he is anxious to take the credit.

There is another great paradox. The Secretary of State is a great devolutionist. He wants policies made in Wales. He is quite happy to develop a distinctive agenda for health, local government or education, but it must be his own agenda. He is quite happy with devolution, provided that it allows him to practise his own maverick right-wing views. Somehow, we are supposed to place the state of the Union in great peril if those self- same decisions that he now takes in secrecy are taken openly and publicly by the elected, accountable representatives of the people whom those decisions affect. The Secretary of State still has to explain why an assembly in Northern Ireland will help to secure the future of the Union, whereas a similar proposal for Wales will endanger that same Union. No doubt, the Secretary of State will argue that he is answerable to Parliament.

Mr. Redwood indicated assent .

Mr. Davies: It is true. I am glad that we have a basis for agreement. However, I wish to examine what happens in practice.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman might be interested in a reply that I recently received from the Secretary of State, after I asked him how often he had been to the Council of Ministers on behalf of Wales since he had been in post. The answer is, not once. The second paragraph of his letter stated, "But when I was Minister for the DTI, I went there very often." That is an insult to the people of Wales.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman makes his point very cogently. I shall examine the Secretary of State's argument that he is answerable to Parliament, because that is his defence of the policies that he operates. Last year, on legal advice, he was forced to accept, against his own previously stated wishes and instincts, the recommendation of the Countryside Council for Wales on the future of eight acres of land at Mostyn docks on the Dee estuary. In order to exact his revenge for that defeat, he decided to cut the budget of the CCW by more than 16 per cent.-- more than £3 million--and required it to obey a series of detailed prescriptions. He did not even consult his own quango, let alone other conservation organisations in Wales. Undoubtedly, they would have told him how deeply damaging his ideas were. That was devolution in action, albeit over a decision that never would have been taken in a democratic framework.

Mr. Redwood: Devolution in action is what would happen if the hon. Gentleman and Welsh local government wanted some of the functions that they could carry out transferred to them from the Countryside Council for Wales, which is the kind of body that he

Column 1233

normally criticises. Why will he not support me in the true devolution that was the purpose of my plans for the CCW?

Mr. Davies: Because devolution as currently practised, and as it has been practised since the Welsh Office was created by a Labour Government, has involved a policy of successively devolving matters from central Government Departments to the Welsh Office. The Secretary of State chooses to use the powers devolved to him by virtue of his office. For example, he chose unilaterally to distribute the budget for the coming financial year for Wales--almost £7 billion in public expenditure--without reference to the people of Wales--

Mr. Redwood: Rubbish.

Mr. Davies: It is not rubbish. The Secretary of State does not stand for election in Wales and he does not listen to the majority of the elected representatives of the people of Wales, to Welsh conservation organisations, to Welsh local government or to Welsh industry. I doubt if he even listens to his Welsh Back Benchers. He can claim no mandate in such matters.

Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman should withdraw that remark. Of course I listen to Welsh public opinion all the time. I meet all the bodies that he has mentioned on a regular basis and I spend a lot of time travelling around Wales finding out people's opinions. I also listen to Opposition Members and Conservative Members who represent their constituency interests. That is the basis of the policies that I put before the House, in a democratic process approved by the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Davies: I am glad that the Secretary of State has said that he is prepared to listen to the views of the people of Wales, because the people of Wales spoke yesterday in the Western Mail poll: only 12 per cent. of them were satisfied with his conduct of government. If he pays attention to the results of that poll, on the basis of his own statistical arguments, why does he not resign and give the people of this country a chance to get rid of him and his crew?

The only defence that the Secretary of State has offered for the form of devolution that he practises is the notion that he is answerable to Parliament. But let us look at what happens in practice. On 14 December 1994, I asked him in the House about his intentions towards the CCW. He refused to answer. He did not even avoid the question; he simply refused to answer it. On 30 January in the Welsh Grand Committee that met in Cardiff, specifically charged with considering Welsh public expenditure, the Secretary of State was again asked that question directly. He specifically refused to give any information whatever, let alone to debate or to try to justify his actions.

The right hon. Gentleman has been asked the question 16 times since he took his decision. Sixteen parliamentary questions have been tabled asking him about the consequences of and the justification for that decision, and 16 times he has avoided answering for the consequences of his actions. The Secretary of State cannot maintain that he is answerable to those elected to the House of Commons to represent the people of Wales.

The decision that the Secretary of State took was a horrendous gaffe, which led to justified public outrage. If he really listens to the people who express views to him,

Column 1234

I refer him to a report in The Independent on Sunday on 19 February-- [Interruption.] It is interesting, and I hope that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, who is supposed to have some responsibility for such matters at the Welsh Office, will listen carefully.

The article said:

"In an unprecedented move, the leaders of 22 top environment, heritage and scientific bodies, representing a combined membership of 4 million people, have written a joint letter to Mr. Major warning him that his Cabinet colleague's policies threaten to cause breaches of the law.

This follows exclusive reports in the Independent on Sunday last month that cuts imposed by the Welsh Secretary were causing severe reductions in protection for wildlife and habitats . . . The signatories of the letter"--

those are the people whom the Under-Secretary wishes to laugh at-- "include Sir Angus Stirling, director general of the National Trust and chairman of the Royal Opera House, Peter Melchett, the executive director of Greenpeace, Barbara Young, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Richard Morris, director of the Council for British Archaeology, Dr. Franklyn Perring, president of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, and Colin Logan, chief executive of the Youth Hostels Association.

They attack both Mr. Redwood's decision to slash the budget of . . . the Countryside Council for Wales--which has successfully opposed him over several major schemes--and the way in which he went about it, which they say is `undermining confidence and generating suspicion'."

Is that the action of a Secretary of State who listens to the people of Wales, when he is condemned by such a range of bodies?

Mr. Dafis: There is a connection between the letter that the hon. Gentleman has read out and the fact that the Secretary of State was recently awarded the booby prize at the green awards ceremony a fortnight ago.

Mr. Donald Anderson: Who won?

Mr. Dafis: Modesty prevents me from answering that question. There is an even better reason for giving the Secretary of State the booby prize than what he has done to the Countryside Council for Wales. In February last year, the Prime Minister published a sustainable development strategy for the United Kingdom. The Scottish Office then announced the formation of an advisory group on sustainable development, which was a very important development, but the Secretary of State for Wales failed to announce the formation of such a body for Wales. Several times in correspondence I have asked him to do so, yet he has still failed to act. That represents a failure even to begin to tackle the enormous challenge that sustainable development will pose to Welsh society and to the Welsh economy in the future.

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman is right. Although of course I take issue with the quality of the Secretary of State's decision, I am now arguing about the process whereby that decision was taken, and the fact that, having taken it, the Secretary of State is not answerable to the people whom it will affect and has not even consulted the people for whom he has statutory responsibility. That is

Column 1235

the case that I am making at the moment-- although I understand the case that the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) is making.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Gwilym Jones) rose --

Mr. Davies: I would rather not give way to the Minister. Mr. Jones rose --

Mr. Davies: In previous debates, the Under-Secretary of State has shown a casual regard for the truth, but I hope that today he will demonstrate that he is prepared to be the honourable gentleman that we call him when we use the term by which we address each other in the House.

Mr. Jones: I had not meant to bring up that aspect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the House well knows that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) cannot usually manage to answer my attacks, so all that he can do is accuse me of lying. That is the height of his powers of public debate. Will he be so kind as to confirm that the article in The Independent on Sunday that he quoted, which I have read too, made no mention of the ludicrous April fools day claims that that newspaper had previously made about Snowdonia being privatised? While he is doing that, will he also confirm that the Secretary of State gave increased spending power to the CCW exactly in line with what it had asked for?

Mr. Davies: On the substance of the case, the Secretary of State took two decisions that severely affected the CCW's ability to discharge its statutory responsibilities, to such an extent that the scientists--the people employed by the CCW and charged with advising the Secretary of State --are making it clear that their ability to perform their statutory legal functions is being prejudiced. That is a measure of the financial cut that the Secretary of State has imposed.

The Secretary of State also sent those people a detailed management prescription. I have a copy of that, and I have seen how the right hon. Gentleman, defying the advice given to him by his officials in the Welsh Office--they knew what damage would be done--wrote to the CCW imposing his decisions on those people and overriding their scientific judgement. That is what happened. If the Secretary of State's proposals had been carried through, there would have been a very real threat to the future ownership of our national nature reserves in Wales. That is a fact.

It so happened that enough people involved in the CCW were prepared to blow the whistle. It so happened that the representatives of 4 million people were prepared to draw the matter to public attention. It so happened that enough people were prepared to ring the Chief Whip's office and the Prime Minister's office to ask who the lunatic in Wales was who wanted to privatise Snowdonia. Only as a result of that public outcry did the Secretary of State withdraw his proposals.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North referred to the green ribbon awards for parliamentarians. It was reported earlier this week that the Secretary of State wanted to leave his mark on Wales, and he went to Dyffryn gardens to plant a giant redwood that will last for

Column 1236

3,000 years. I suspect that that tree will last longer than our memory of a Secretary of State who wanted to privatise Snowdonia. The right hon. Gentleman got the booby prize in the annual green ribbon awards, but I do not suppose that somebody who last year publicly fantasised about being Mr. Blobby will find being Mr. Booby too disconcerting.

It is a sad commentary on the whole process when the varied, fragile, precious and unique Welsh environment is in the hands of someone so manifestly unfit to hold that responsibility.

Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman should accept that I met the whole board of the Countryside Council for Wales. I granted the CCW the amount that the board said it needed to meet its obligations, and the board members clearly stated that the CCW could meet all its statutory obligations.

Mr. Davies: Why on earth have we then had the conflict between the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary? Why did not the Secretary of State give a clear account of his actions when we debated the matter on 14 December, on the 16 parliamentary occasions since then when it was raised, or during the Welsh Grand Committee on 30 January?

I accept at face value what the Secretary of State has said this afternoon because he is an honourable man, and I know that he would not want to mislead the House. I shall seek advice from those who monitor closely the work of the CCW. If the right hon. Gentleman has been in error in assessing the impact of the budget cuts on the CCW, I hope that he in turn will recognise that, and take the necessary steps to restore those cuts to the CCW.

Mr. Redwood indicated assent .

Mr. Davies: I see that the Secretary of State is nodding. We have a clear picture of a Secretary of State who is isolated in Cabinet and adrift in his own party, and whose perception of Wales is far removed from reality. There is a great gulf between the aspirations of the people of Wales and the right hon. Gentleman's own self-serving political agenda.

Mr. Wigley: Is not that the nub of the problem? It is not so much that the Secretary of State is not a capable or hard-working man, but that he does not and cannot represent the balance of political will and the aspirations in Wales. Given that the Conservative party has not had a majority of the Welsh seats in 120 years, is not the impossibility for the present system to deliver democracy to Wales seen most clearly? Does not that point underpin the whole argument about why it is necessary for us to have our own democratic Parliament in Wales?

Mr. Davies: I fully endorse the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman that we make no personal criticism of the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] If the Secretary of State thinks that I am being unkind now, he should see me when I am being serious. The case against the Secretary of State is that his ideology is alien to the ideals that we hold in Wales, and the system that allowed him to be appointed, and that holds him to be accountable, is defective. That is the case against him that I have made today. His perception of Wales is far removed from reality.

Column 1237

I believe that there is a growing consensus in Wales, which recognises personal choice and asserts equal opportunity. That consensus wants to build public services and nurture the concept of community. It is a consensus which recognises our identity and wishes to safeguard our heritage. It wishes to operate through a democratic and pluralistic framework. That consensus excludes the Secretary of State and his party, but it will prevail as soon as the people of Wales have a chance to vote for it.

6.34 pm

Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy): The annual Welsh day debate on the Floor of the House is--quite properly--an occasion for state of the nation speeches, although I am somewhat surprised to find Newt Gingrich added to the Welsh pantheon quite so soon.

First, I welcome the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and, at the same time, bid farewell to his predecessor, Neil Kinnock, who was elected to this House in the same year as I was, in 1970. The right hon. Gentleman had a distinguished career here, rising to the leadership of his party, and we all wish him well as a Commissioner in Europe. Of one thing we can be certain: he will never forget that he is Welsh.

The debate has begun interestingly enough. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State opened with a tour d'horizon of Wales, referring to some of the favourable developments in the Welsh economy--the continuing fall in unemployment, the remarkable buoyancy of our inward investment, and so on, which were also mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Question Time today. There is not much doubt that if we are able to keep down inflation, the prospects for sound and sustainable economic growth in Wales will remain good. That is important to all of us in Wales, and it is even more important for us than it is for the more prosperous parts of the United Kingdom.

I fully appreciate the remarkable transformation which has taken place in the Welsh economy in the past 15 years or so. We now have a firm foundation for continuing growth, especially in modern manufacturing industry. I am aware--as are other Members--of the long way we have to go to achieve the levels of prosperity attained by certain other parts of the United Kingdom and by Europe.

I am accustomed to hearing Opposition Members highlighting statistics which show that Wales is trailing the league in one aspect of life or another, and I am as concerned as anyone about the reality behind the figures, especially those relating to comparative income levels, and I fully endorse every genuine effort to improve those matters over time. However, having listened carefully to the speeches of Opposition Members over the past few months, so far as I can see it is only the Government who have any real policies of substance to deal with the situation rather than short-term palliatives to deal with current deficiencies and inadequacies in the Welsh economy. I greatly welcome what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had to say about the development that he foresees in information technology in Wales. I am delighted to tell the hon. and learned Member for

Column 1238

Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) that the Development Board for Rural Wales is one of the few prominent organisations in Wales already on the Internet system.

Mr. Alex Carlile: I share the right hon. Gentleman's welcome for the fact that the Development Board for Rural Wales is on the Internet, but we have yet to hear any policies from the Government that will help to arrest the decline in the biggest industry in rural Wales, which is agriculture, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said. What advice would the right hon. Gentleman give the Government, who have produced nothing on the subject today, as to the policies that they should introduce to ensure the survival--it is now a question of survival--of the sheepmeat industry in upland Wales?

Sir Wyn Roberts: I believe that the hon. and learned Gentleman was present yesterday when we heard the chairman of the Development Board for Rural Wales talking about the prospects for rural Wales. The need for development to compensate for the decline in farming, which has been going on for a considerable time, was one of the subjects that he covered. On the present state of the sheepmeat regime and sheep farming, I am surprised that the industry is surviving as well as it is--despite the bans and obstacles to the export of sheep, which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is doing his utmost to deal with at a European level.

The Opposition are fond of recasting existing Government policies in what I would call Sedgefield-speak and then claiming them as their own. Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) did not mention Labour's attitude to the inward investment which has produced some tens of thousands of jobs for Wales. I do not think that he mentioned it at all; yet inward investment brought some 110, 000 jobs to Wales between April 1983 and April 1993 and a further 10, 000 between April and December 1993. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about unemployment and I agree about the importance of that subject and the need to do everything that we possibly can to reduce it. One of the ways in which the Government have been very successful in reducing unemployment is by attracting inward investment. The question is this: why did the Labour party not commit itself to supporting the Government's inward investment policies?

Mr. Ron Davies rose --

Sir Wyn Roberts: Before I give way to the hon. Gentleman, I have two other questions for him to answer.

Mr. Davies: On that question--

Sir Wyn Roberts: I have two more questions that the hon. Gentleman will have to answer and I intend to press him on this.

Should the Opposition come to office, will the present policy on inward investment be continued or abandoned? We are entitled to know. Secondly, the Welsh Office export promotion policy has brought millions of pounds' worth of orders to small and medium-sized Welsh businesses, enabling many of them to expand and take on more employees. What is the Labour party's policy on that? Welsh business needs to know, and so do its employees. Thirdly, I recall the Opposition, and the hon. Member for Caerphilly in particular, placing some

Column 1239

emphasis on the encouragement of local business formation. We heard nothing about that today. Is that policy extant or is it defunct? We are surely entitled to know.

Mr. Davies: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way at last. I wanted to focus my remarks on one aspect of Welsh affairs, which I did, but I must draw his attention to the fact that the last Labour Government started the process of inward investment and established the Welsh Development Agency, which has been so successful in bringing about many of the achievements to which he referred. The right hon. Gentleman bitterly opposed the establishment of that agency when he was in opposition under the last Labour Government.

Sir Wyn Roberts: We have still not had an assurance that the hon. Member for Caerphilly will continue the inward investment that the Government have so successfully pursued over the past 15 years.

Mr. Davies: Yes.

Sir Wyn Roberts: The hon. Gentleman tells me that the answer is yes and I am delighted to hear it. That is the first time we have had any such assurance from the Opposition.

The question of how the continued reduction in unemployment achieved by this Government is to be maintained is a key issue and it is of prime importance to the people we represent. It demands a proper answer from the Opposition and we have certainly not had one today or in any other debate that I have attended. I must warn the hon. Member for Caerphilly that there is a black hole in his economic policy. It is all very well to talk of reducing unemployment, but he must tell us how he intends to do it. It is no use simply assuming that the progress made under this Government will continue automatically, whichever party is in power. The Government's actions are supported by a raft of pragmatic policies which have evolved from experience. The people of Wales should be warned that much that they take for granted may be lost due to the lack of understanding and of a properly developed commitment to the aims of those policies on the part of the Opposition.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the progress made in employment. Will he comment on the Government- sponsored research which shows that in former coal mining areas in south Wales male adult unemployment is about 33 per cent?

Sir Wyn Roberts: I well remember 1979, when we came to office, and I know that there was a great deal of overmanning in the coal and steel industries. The elimination of overmanning and the changes in those industries are the answer to the question posed earlier by the hon. Member for Caerphilly. I have already acknowledged that we still have a long way to go to catch up with the more prosperous regions of the United Kingdom and Europe. Of course we have black spots in different parts of Wales, but there are fewer as time goes on.

Mr. Rogers: In his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith), the right hon. Gentleman missed the point. It is not a matter of reducing

Column 1240

manning in industry. The Government have wiped out an industry in south Wales. It is not a black spot, but a black region. The right hon. Gentleman talks about inward investment into Wales, but does he acknowledge that it was the Government's malicious policy of inward investment in coal from China, Australia and Chile which annihilated jobs in the south Wales valleys? That policy was born out of spitefulness.

Sir Wyn Roberts: I entirely disagree with that last remark, which is unworthy of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Rogers: It is true.

Sir Wyn Roberts: I will not be drawn into an argument on the viability or otherwise of the coal mining industry. I merely remind the hon. Gentleman that more pits were closed by the Labour Government before 1979 than have been closed since.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Rod Richards): Will my right hon. Friend give way

Sir Wyn Roberts: No, I want to make progress and change tack. The Opposition have stated their top priority for Wales: to establish a bond of trust with the people--that is an electioneering euphemism, if ever I heard one--and establish a Welsh Assembly in their first year in office to make all the quangos more accountable. We all know what that will mean in practice. The quangos will be packed with somewhat inferior Labour placemen, as they were when the Conservative Government came into office in 1979. I well remember the state of the quangos then and how some people had to be removed from them because there was no obvious reason why they should be there, other than the fact that they were Labour party placemen. It will be a repeat of the old story: jobs for the boys. We are familiar with that in Wales. The Labour party will appoint its party faithful with a ruthlessness that would have been the envy of the old Soviet commissars. That is what "new Labour" really means.

I wonder whether the Opposition have decided where the assembly will meet. Will it be Cardiff, as per their election manifesto? I am sure that other places will lay claim to the location of the assembly, and the Opposition may have to borrow the National Eisteddfod canopy to shield the assembly until that issue has been decided. Meanwhile, we can be sure that there will be burgeoning bureaucracy and mounting costs, all to be paid for by the British taxpayer--or perhaps the Welsh taxpayer alone, as the legislation may provide.

What strikes me in listening to some of the arguments about a Welsh Assembly is that its populist appeal is pathetic in its false simplicity. Some people think that it will protect them against unpopular taxes such as a future poll tax imposed by central Government; to others, it means that they will no longer have to contribute to Trident. At times, it seems as though all the old left-wing phobias have found a new and respectable focus in the devolution issue, and that the assembly is to become the legitimate forum for the expression of their political neuroses.

The question that bothers me is this: who is to safeguard and promote the interests of Wales as a whole as the local assembly men and women squabble endlessly among themselves for bits of the cake handed down to

Column 1241

them annually by central Government in Whitehall? What if the cake is not so big as the appetites of those who are to share it? I doubt whether it will meet their requirements. There will certainly be no Secretary of State, as we have known holders of that office, if the powers now vested in him are vested in an assembly. So far as I can see, there will have to be a Welsh Government with a premier at its head and a string of Ministers, all answerable to the assembly. The minor parties will argue for a panel and a committee structure similar to that proposed for discussion in Northern Ireland, but I do not foresee the Labour party conceding one iota of power to the minor parties unless it has to.

Mr. Rogers: Quite right.

Sir Wyn Roberts: The hon. Gentleman confirms that I am right.

Mr. Ainger: I believe that tomorrow morning the right hon. Gentleman is to meet the president of Catalonia. As president of a region with a delegated Parliament, will Sen or Pujol be told the same as the right hon. Gentleman is telling us today?

Sir Wyn Roberts: He will know the circumstances of his country as I reckon to know mine. If he asks me, however, I shall tell him certain things that I am about to tell the House. I will draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to those facts in a moment.

I have given an outline sketch of the political scenario that the Opposition have unveiled to the House in their various statements to date. The old, essentially centralist-socialist philosophy encapsulated in clause IV is about to be finally defenestrated--thrown ceremoniously out of the window--and replaced by a hitherto undefined, let alone tested, political philosophy based on social justice as propounded by the philosopher king of Sedgefield himself. If the British electorate fall for it, they will be opting for an inferno--a bonfire not of the vanities of those who fancy that Wales will do better on its own, which it will not, but of the present -day realities, which are that Wales benefits enormously from being part of the United Kingdom.

We cannot get away from those facts. One has only to compare the public expenditure figures per head in Wales with the lesser figures for England to see the extent of the support given to Wales and the still greater support given to Scotland and Northern Ireland. Those figures are available in the statistical supplement to the "Financial Statement and Budget Report 1995-96", Cm. 2821, published last month. The figures show steady growth in public expenditure per head in Wales, from £2,685 in 1989-90 to £3,913 in 1993-94. That last figure compares with £3,458 in England--£455 per head less than the sum spent in Wales. The amount spent in Scotland is even higher, at £4,185 per head, and in Northern Ireland it is £4,781.

The breakdown of that expenditure shows that it is higher in Wales than in England in a range of areas, and higher than in the English regions, too. For example, £809 per head is spent on health and personal social services in Wales, compared with £717 in England. I advise Opposition Members to study the tables in that document.

Mr. Rogers: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Wyn Roberts: No. Let me ask this key question: how long could a Welsh Assembly sustain that

Column 1242

comparatively high spending? How long could an assembly justify it? What guarantee can the Opposition give me and the people of Wales that the same differential between expenditure per head in Wales and expenditure in England would be maintained in the event of an assembly being established? We might well lose that favourable treatment. It will be eroded over time. That is the price that the Welsh people will have to pay for an assembly.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen): I have not been impressed by what the right hon. Gentleman has had to say against the assembly. Does he accept that the economic arguments that he is making are arguments against independence, not arguments against an assembly?

Sir Wyn Roberts: If the hon. Gentleman does not think that our power here at Westminster will decline when an assembly has been established in Wales, he is gravely and grossly mistaken.

Mr. Williams: May I reply to that?

Sir Wyn Roberts: I have answered the hon. Gentleman. He can make his own speech.

I believe that the Labour party is being very short sighted in reacting as it has to the passing phenomenon of electoral support for the Scottish National party in Scotland--running at about a third of the votes cast in the European elections, I understand. The Labour party has been through its own hell, losing four elections in a row, but it is foolish to imagine that it can ride the nationalist tiger. My guess is that it will cause untold damage to the Labour party in its strongholds in the longer term, but that is a matter for right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Benches to consider. I leave it at that.

There is a major consideration-- [Hon. Members:-- "Come on."] Yesterday, we debated a major consideration in those matters--our relationship with the European Union. Few of us would deny that Wales has been a major beneficiary economically. Most of the investment from overseas has come because we were part of the Union. In January 1994, no fewer than 343 foreign-owned manufacturing plants had been established in Wales--over 100 more than in 1983--providing about 70, 000 jobs. We all appreciate the value of that investment. The single European market has further potential for good, I believe, for us and for other member countries, and it is in our interests to realise that potential. We should assess the costs of forgoing such development as well as the political costs of further development along the lines of economic and monetary union. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister dealt with the position admirably yesterday, as did the Governor of the Bank of England when he outlined the parameters of the argument with great clarity in his recent speech in Luxembourg.

As a result of that Luxembourg speech and the Prime Minister's speech yesterday, I find the prospect of a single currency, especially the idea of a hard ecu co-existing with national currencies, possibly for a generation or longer, less daunting than before.

What is still fear-provoking is the concentration of power at a Europe-wide level that may be involved, and the lack of control of it. It is the old fear that

"Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Column 1243

The history of Europe tends to confirm Lord Acton's dictum, and the European Commission's strength in contrast with the European Parliament's weakness is not reassuring.

We are right to be sceptical, but we should not allow our scepticism to become septic and to poison our minds. Neither should we behave like innocents and think of Europe as a garden of Eden before the fall. We must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of further integration with the utmost care and secure the best deal for Britain. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his colleagues in the Government will do that.

We celebrated our patron saint yesterday, and I hope that the House will allow me a moment for an historic excursion-- [Hon. Members:-- "Half an hour."] He, too, lived in troublous times. He was renowned for his humility, and we could all do with a generous measure of that virtue. The modern nation state in Europe was far off in Dewi's time in the 6th century, and the first requirement a century or so later was a defence against the Muslim invaders of Spain, France and south-eastern Europe, who threatened Christendom with far greater force and persistence than even the Vikings, who came a little later and struck unimaginable terror along the coasts of northern Europe. So the tradition of the pax romana survived into the holy Roman empire which, with the backing of the mediaeval Church, organised the defence of Europe against the might of Islam.

The subsidence of the threat from Islam, from the 15th century onwards, was one of the preconditions for the growth of the nation state. There were many others, including the discovery of the new world. In our own times, the subsidence of the threat from the USSR may have a great deal to do with the revival of the ambition of small nations for a greater degree of self- government. Defence against external aggression is not the great primary concern that it was as recently as a decade ago, and the great nation states have undoubtedly lost something of their raison d'e tre. We are now rather more afraid of a trade war than of the traditional form of hostilities, and defence in those circumstances consists in being in a major trade bloc such as the European Union.

In the current debate on devolution in the United Kingdom, which I regard as a major diversion from the main task of improving people's lives and conditions--a task that should be in the forefront of our minds--the issue will ultimately turn on the ability of small nations to support themselves. Scotland is confident that it can do so, but on what is that confidence based? I heard a similar confidence expressed in Quebec in the 1970s, but it weakened as major companies withdrew from that province to the comparative safety of Ontario. I remember, as others do, Rene Leveque, the premier of Quebec, losing a referendum among his 80 per cent. French- speaking electorate. There has been a great deal of talk about the German La nder, the revival of which in post-war Germany was insisted on by the French as an antidote to the powerful centralised German state. The establishment of the La nder was meant to be a handicap, but it turned out to be a major advantage. Although large in population terms, they still recognise the value of the Federal Government in Bonn and the cohesion that it provides. Some of the

Next Section

  Home Page