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12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) on securing this debate because it allows the Government to underline our absolute commitment to achieving economic prosperity for the whole of Wales.

May I immediately respond to the predictable tirade of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans)? Instead of being cheap and cheerful, he has become cheap and

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cheeky in his role in Welsh affairs. He attacked--I know that he is doing his job valiantly as an Opposition Member--"Pathway to Prosperity", saying that it is "next to useless." That is interesting. The document was written in careful partnership with the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Trades Union Congress, academics from the economic sector and others involved in the serious job of building the Welsh economy. The hon. Gentleman rejects it with a cheap and cheeky slogan.

The hon. Gentleman's Government presided over 20 years of destruction of west Wales and the valleys, from which we are now trying to recover and which the right hon. Member for Caernarfon addressed with great eloquence We never had an economic agenda from the Tory Government; it could have been written on the back of an envelope. At least we have produced 53 pages of closely argued analysis and action proposals, which need to be debated on their merits.

The higher pound is undoubtedly causing severe problems, especially for manufacturing exporters in Wales and elsewhere in Britain, but two thirds of the rise in the pound occurred under the Tory Government. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley cannot simply wish away or ignore that. I remind him that "Pathway to Prosperity" proposes detailed action plans, which we will have an opportunity to discuss next Monday in Merthyr Tydfil; in that sense, the pathway to prosperity leads to Merthyr Tydfil. We will address that when we get the opportunity.

I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, who is unable to be here for the whole debate, but he assures me that he will carefully read all the speeches--with the exception perhaps of the previous one--for the detailed points that they make, especially the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), which included some valid points, and of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey). I look forward to being bombarded with questions about statistics, but I tell the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire that Powys will be a separate NUTS 3 area, so the Office for National Statistics has been asked by the Welsh Office to supply detailed figures, including those on gross domestic product, for Powys. I hope that that will therefore absolve him from the obligation to bombard me, and absolve me from the obligation to reply to him.

Mr. Rowlands: Anyone who has read "Pathway to Prosperity" will have been struck forcefully by the enormous job gap figure of 200,000. Earlier, I intervened on my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) to ask how we can measure that job gap by net job creation in Wales over the past 10 years. I do not know whether the Minister can reply to that point today, but, if he comes to Merthyr Tydfil, I hope that he will have an answer.

Mr. Hain: The broad answer to my hon. Friend's point is that, if we had the Tory strategy on job growth, it would take another 40 years to make up that gap, so it is not a strategy at all.

The hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones) understandably raised important points about Anglesey, particularly the future of Anglesey Aluminium. As the

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Minister most immediately responsible, and having worked with the Secretary of State, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have been determined to protect the future of Anglesey Aluminium in particular, which is crucial to the local economy. I am confident that we will be able to do that and to secure its energy supply at a relatively cheap rate, if not at exactly the rate that it has enjoyed, which it was not expecting to maintain. Therefore, I do not think that there is doom and gloom ahead for Anglesey in general, or for Anglesey Aluminium in particular.

I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) for his contribution and especially for the expert way in which he identified the plight of Conwy and Denbighshire.

Nearly two decades of woeful neglect have produced a real crisis in west Wales and the valleys. There has been a dramatic change in the economic and social fabric of Wales over the past two decades: rather than the historic north-south divide, there is now an east-west divide. That has been confirmed by an authoritative analysis from the department of city and regional planning at Cardiff university, which I understand is to be published next week.

I was particularly grateful that the European Commission has now designated west Wales and the south Wales valleys as a single NUTS 2 area and, in so doing, has recognised the new realities of the Welsh economy.

I agree with many of the points that the right hon. Member for Caernarfon made, and join him in rejecting the Thatcherite free-market approach that plunged Wales into such difficulty over 20 years. I gently point out that his contribution was strong on analysis, but weak on the action that he called for us to provide. I hope that when he inspects this pamphlet before making his speech in Merthyr--which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) always reminds me, is the centre of the industrial revolution--he will read some of our detailed proposals and discuss them on their merits.

Mr. Wigley: My main criticism was the lack of resources. Will the Minister confirm whether there is any additional money to turn this into reality?

Mr. Hain: There is much money; indeed, tens of millions of pounds, if not hundreds of millions, is embedded in this strategy, but I point out that, next week, an announcement is due to be made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the comprehensive spending review, and the right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to anticipate that--at least not if I wanted to stay in this job.

GDP per head in west Wales and the valleys NUTS 2 area is about 72 per cent. of the European Union average. It is one of poorest areas of Europe, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out. That compares with the east Wales GDP per head, which is over 90 per cent. of the average.

A third of the working age population are jobless. They may or may not be on the unemployment register, but they are without work. In areas such as Pembrokeshire and Anglesey, the official male unemployment rate is more than twice as high as for the rest of Wales. Even

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those in work suffer among the lowest wage rates in Britain. Ill health and disability is rife in the south Wales valleys in particular, where the rate of limiting long-term illness is more than 60 per cent. higher than the Great Britain rate. That is a terrible indictment.

Those problems have been at the forefront of our thinking on the analysis in "Pathway to Prosperity", our new economic agenda for Wales, which the Government published yesterday. We did so for the first time with a video link conference throughout Wales. The Secretary of State was able to take questions, including some from Caernarfon, Wrexham, Newtown and Newcastle Emlyn, not forgetting Swansea. The chief executive of Gwynedd county council welcomed the document, and we are grateful for that.

The document is an important milestone and there will be a full opportunity to debate it next Monday. One of its themes is the need for a pronounced and decisive shift of effort to those areas that are most in need, notably west Wales and the valleys. The area must have the infrastructure that it needs, key industries must be fostered, small businesses must receive the support that they need to grow, and communities and individuals must be given the opportunity and facilities to sustain them. This programme depends on a powerful and productive partnership between the public and private sectors and we are determined to secure one.

Concern has been expressed about tourism. I fully acknowledge that the Welsh tourist industry, which is vital to the economy of west Wales, is under real pressure. Increasing competition--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order.

8 Jul 1998 : Column 1030

Illegal Encampments

12.30 pm

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): Every year, with the onset of spring and summer--although this year the onset of summer has been some time coming--all elected representatives begin to fear one particular telephone call. It usually comes on a Saturday evening, and it is that some 30 caravans have descended on one of the public spaces in our constituency. We are asked, "What are you going to do about it?"

The problem arises every year and we try to deal with it. Once summer has passed and the pressure eases off, the determination to work out a defined plan goes with it. Therefore, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the matter today, more in anticipation of difficulties in Birmingham--which we have experienced from year to year--rather than because there is an acute problem.

I chose "Illegal Encampments" as the title of the debate quite deliberately. I am not referring to Romanies and other people with an alternative life style, who have the right to be protected. They have the right to expect us to treat them as seriously as we treat our constituents. I am talking about cowboy builders and traders who use mobile phones to do business from public sites. They cause havoc for neighbouring communities. They cannot be traced when anything goes wrong--they move on and leave devastation behind.

I shall never forget the Ley Hill estate last summer, when some 30 caravans and their owners occupied one of the parks. The devastation they caused was more like an invasion of the original tribe of the Vandals than the pursuit of an alternative life style. The village hall's windows were smashed and wooden fences were ripped apart. Several cars were dismantled and torched; one caravan was gutted and dismantled. They even left bits of kitchen units behind. I had some difficulty explaining how they came to be there. They also left behind soiled clothes and general household rubbish. There was fly tipping. My powers of description are inadequate, but I know that hon. Members will be familiar with the scene that I am trying to describe.

I am talking about cowboy builders and tradesmen, unsafe working practices, stray dogs, noise nuisance from generators and fly tipping of commercial as well as domestic waste. Local residents feel threatened, intimidated and helpless. They turn to us and say, "What are you going to do about it?" If a local authority serves notice, the whole process of eviction can take up to 10 days. That may not seem a long time, but try living next to one of these sites and 10 days is a very long time.

The problem appears to be seasonal; during the summer, tarmacing and double glazing businesses are pursued from public spaces. During the winter months, the traders move to more permanent and, I assume, more comfortable surroundings.

I know that some of my hon. Friends feel that it is not especially useful to try to draw a distinction between real travellers and cowboy business men with their anti-social behaviour. I understand that it may be difficult to define that distinction in legislation, but I can assure the House that our constituents do not care a great deal about the finer legalistic difficulties; they are exposed to nuisance and they want us to deal with it.


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