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Welsh Affairs

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

12.36 pm

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael): Just over two months from now, the first elections to the National Assembly for Wales will mark the biggest ever change in Welsh government. That delivers one key promise made by Labour in 1997, but in looking forward to the exciting time ahead, it is important to take stock of what else the Government have achieved in the short time since May 1997. We can celebrate St. David's day on Monday safe in the knowledge that a Labour Government are delivering on the key pledges that we made to the electorate when we asked for their trust in the general election. The six pledges that we made to the electorate in Wales struck a chord because they represented the real priorities of ordinary people: proper jobs for young people and the long-term unemployed, smaller class sizes, shorter waiting lists for the national health service, swift action on youth offending, creating a sound economy and greater democratic control of Welsh institutions.

Those remain the people's priorities. Since taking office as Secretary of State for Wales, I have undertaken a programme of open and inclusive public meetings around Wales. At a meeting in Aberystwyth last Thursday, questions rained in from Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, Labour party members, Cymdeithias yr laith Cymraeg, students of politics, trade unionists, councillors and ordinary members of the public. Those meetings have given me an opportunity to hear at first hand about the issues that concern people at national and local level. The issues that our key pledges addressed remain at the top of the agenda: jobs, education, health, economic stability, law and order, and, underlying them all, the need to combat poverty and social exclusion.

On 6 May--two years and five days after the general election--we will elect the National Assembly for Wales, which will face real challenges and real opportunities.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the outcome of last Saturday's ballot and wish him well in the important work that he has to do for the people of Wales. When will we know the outcome of the review of the assisted areas in Wales? Will he take on board my constituency's urgent need to be assured that it will not lose its status? The aerospace industry in particular is looking to him for a positive outcome.

Mr. Michael: I am well aware of the needs of my hon. Friend's constituency and his passionate advocacy of the needs of its industries, some of which I have had an opportunity to visit with him. I understand that he has had a constructive meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), on those important issues. He will be aware that we want an outcome to the assisted area status review as quickly as possible. Work is going on, but there is more to be done before the Government will be able to announce the way forward.

Devolution presents the chance not just to set up a new political institution, but to establish new and better ways of working. I am determined to ensure that the National

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Assembly for Wales will not mimic the traditions of Westminster and Whitehall, which have often seemed alien, aloof and distant to us, never mind to ordinary people. The Assembly must lead a partnership in Wales that draws in and mobilises all the positive forces in Welsh society--from local government, from the voluntary sector, and from the two sides of industry.

I firmly believe that the National Assembly will reinvigorate government in Wales, which atrophied under the Tory viceroys of the 1980s and 1990s. That is not only my view. When we advertised externally for new middle managers, we received more than 1,000 applicants for little more than a dozen jobs. Many of the successful applicants said that they would have been less likely to consider working for the Welsh Office had it not been for the prospect of the National Assembly.

It is crucial that everyone in Wales, wherever they live and whatever their political opinion, should be able to make their voice heard in the Assembly. I am confident that we will achieve that. In the Assembly, we will create a modern democratic institution for the people of Wales; one of which we will all be proud.

That institution, like the Welsh Office, will be judged by what it delivers. I am bending all my efforts to preparing the ground for the Assembly to succeed. It is a major challenge, given the state of Wales when the Tories were swept out in 1997. Let me focus first on our pride and joy--and our biggest challenge--the NHS in Wales.

We promised to bring down NHS waiting lists and to tackle underfunding. We have made a start, and we will fulfil our pledge, although I would be the first to admit that we underestimated the horrendous scale of the problems bequeathed to us by our predecessors.

We have already invested £20 million in bringing down waiting lists, which have fallen by almost 4,700 since August 1998, and by allocating more than £1 billion in additional funding to the NHS over the next three years--an increase of more than 6.4 per cent. per year--we have shown that we are serious about moving towards our goal. However, the problems of the NHS are not just about underfunding; they also involve structure and philosophy.

The Government have transformed the malign and destructive approach to health and the provision of health services that we inherited. Since May 1997, we have moved to replace the divisions of the internal market with a new collaborative approach to service planning and provision and devolved decisions to local communities. The Health Bill will abolish GP fundholding with its inherent discrimination, drive up the quality of health services and promote the development of integrated services by breaking down the barriers to effective partnership. We have produced proposals for improving the health of the people of Wales and the measures that we and our partners should take to deliver our plans. In December I announced my plans to create a single health service in each part of Wales and to reduce the number of trusts in Wales by nearly half. That will improve standards of clinical care and release £7 million from bureaucracy to be reinvested in patient care. We have made the recruitment and retention of nurses a priority and improved their pay and conditions.

Those changes have replaced the division and confrontation of the Tory years with policies that promote co-operation and integration. It is only a start, however, and I am determined to move quickly into the next crucial

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phase of our reforms of the NHS. Having grasped the difficult nettle of reorganising NHS trusts across Wales and creating a single health service, I will be making an announcement on the future for Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan in a few days time to put in place the final piece of that particular jigsaw. I am also about to announce the future role and composition of community health councils in Wales.

Let me again stress the clarity of our vision: a single model of integrated health services across Wales, with acute mental health and community services working together, service planning devolved to local communities through local health groups and the national health service working in partnership with local government and others. Our distinctive vision to improve care and raise standards of health has been widely welcomed and the progress being made in establishing local health groups is really good news.

Much remains to be done, however. It is still only a start and there are other nettles to be grasped. Let me be clear. The Tories left the NHS in a parlous state. We have to put right their neglect. One of my predecessors, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) believed that the hidden hand of the internal market could be left to run the health service in Wales. His legacy was an NHS and a Welsh Office shorn of the expertise and experience necessary to run a £2.4 billion service. It also left health authorities in Wales with funding and service problems which have to be resolved. I am determined to tackle those problems. I am deeply unhappy with a situation in which the Welsh Office is making loans to Welsh health authorities to cover operational deficits that must be repaid from future years' resources. That situation is intolerable and it must be sorted. I promise the House that it will, indeed, be sorted.

The same Secretary of State, pursuing his bizarre policies of devolution of blame, stripped out management expertise and NHS experience from the Welsh Office. No wonder there is a mess. We are now acting on an expert report by Sir Graham Hart. Through open competition, we are recruiting staff to strengthen the professional team in NHS Wales at director level.

In parallel with that internal strengthening of capacity, I can announce today that I am commissioning a major stocktake of the NHS in Wales, which I want to be available for the Assembly when it assumes its powers on 1 July. The first dimension of the stocktake is a review of the financial health of the NHS in Wales and the quality of service delivery. Following a recent meeting with the chairman and senior officers of the Audit Commission, I will explore in detail, in the next few days, ways in which the commission can assist with the review. The commission has already expressed its enthusiasm for this approach.

The second dimension is a review of the present arrangements for long-term planning in Wales, which includes the contributions that can be made to this process by all the key stakeholders--professional, managerial and public. In the next fortnight, I shall meet the Welsh Office team and then the top team from every NHS trust and health authority in Wales to discuss the project, respond to questions and ensure that its importance is fully understood.

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I am sure that hon. Members will accept that it is right to go beyond our election promises and seek to tackle the most deep-seated problems of our public service. That is what I intend to do. The same applies to education.

In our general election campaign, we promised to cut class sizes for five to seven-year-olds. We have done so, as part of a new crusade for higher educational standards throughout Wales. We are well on our way to meeting our pledge that no five, six or seven-year-old will be in a class of over 30 pupils by the end of this Parliament. This year, we have provided earmarked funds to allow an extra 270 teachers to be employed, releasing 23,500 infants from classes of over 30. We will invest a further £34 million over the next three years in order to fulfil our pledge.

More generally, we have set about reforming our whole education system. We inherited a system buffeted by too many policies ill-suited to the needs of Wales. We have moved quickly to establish a clear strategy for the future. That includes the first ever education White Paper for Wales, "Building Excellent Schools Together", which sets out the Government's proposals for raising standards in Welsh schools.

We are investing so that our young people can receive the education that they deserve. Next year, there will be an additional £70 million for local authority education budgets, with even larger increases over the following two years. The scale of the investment will make a real difference and the fact that it is over three years will allow schools and authorities to plan for the future and to use the resources to best effect.

A further £140 million will support the professional development of teachers. I have announced a major initiative to support and restore schools and youth music--the orchestras, bands and choirs that are the doorway to opportunity for so many of our young people. The overriding purpose to all of the investment is to raise standards, which is absolutely central to our agenda for Wales. The evidence from examinations and assessment is that we are making encouraging progress, but we have a long way to go to reach the demanding targets that we have set.

We will achieve those targets only if pupils develop the key skills of literacy and numeracy. Good language skills are fundamental to all learning and to a child's success in later education and throughout life. We have already targeted work on literacy in primary schools--early results are encouraging and that work will continue--but I now want an equally sharp focus on numeracy, and we recently announced a £2 million programme aimed at ensuring that all schools reach the numeracy standards of the best.

Education is not only about schools or about building a sound basis for a modern economy, although it is true that without a dramatic improvement in our skills in Wales we will not be able to compete in the knowledge-based economy of the new millennium. Education is also about enhancing the life chances of the most dispossessed in our society. That truth was brought home to me on the individual level as a youth worker in Cardiff 20 years ago and was reinforced as I saw young people's chances of a job and a decent life destroyed by the Thatcher Government. That is what made me angry enough to stand for Parliament. I am absolutely determined to make sure that neither the Welsh Office nor

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the Welsh Assembly let down those young people and that is why I was proud to be part of the Labour team which put the new deal in place.

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