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2.2 pm

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): This is the closest date to St. David's day--the last St. David's day this century is on Monday. It is a time to reflect and to look forward. In the words of an old song: "What a difference a day makes". In this context, what a difference a century makes.

Our predecessors in the House of Commons would be astonished that it has taken so long to achieve their cherished dream of a measure of home rule for Wales. The 20th century has not been dominated by radical politics in the United Kingdom, and to testify that, it has taken the entire 20th century for Wales to achieve a measure of devolution. Even now we are only just putting our toes in the water. What Gladstone, Lloyd George, Tom Ellis, Keir Hardie, Mabon and many others would have made of such slow progress I shudder to think, but a Welsh Assembly--not a parliament--is at least in sight.

As the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) said, the milestones of the century in Wales have contributed to the delay. They include the emigration of our young people around the world and the loss of tens of thousands in the first world war, among them the flower of our youth--on the fields of Flanders and northern France they fell. That was followed by the 1926 general strike and unemployment; lock-outs and poverty; the second world war; the hopes born in 1906 and 1945; the creation of a more comprehensive Welsh Office and, in the 1960s, a Secretary of State for Wales; the fiasco of the 1979 referendum and the dark years of the 1980s and 1990s when for 18 years a Welsh Assembly seemed all but impossible; the triumph of the 1997 referendum and the yes vote; a Wales Bill on the statute book; and next May, our very own Welsh Assembly. All that has occurred in the space of 100 St. David's days.

Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman said that Wales was putting its toe in the waters of devolution. Is it still his party's policy to give the Assembly tax-raising powers, and would he like that to happen without a fresh mandate from the Welsh people via a referendum?

Mr. Livsey: I know that the hon. Gentleman will not like the word, but we are federalists and believe in

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tax-varying powers for the regions and countries of the United Kingdom, as well as primary legislative powers. That applies to Wales as much as anywhere else. That has been our policy for a long time.

Mr. Evans: What about a referendum?

Mr. Livsey: In what sense?

Mr. Evans: Would it be Liberal Democrat policy to seek tax-raising powers for the Welsh Assembly without consulting the Welsh people via a separate referendum?

Mr. Livsey: We will put these matters in our manifesto, and if we are elected to power they will be part of our reform programme for the Welsh Assembly. It is up to the electorate of Wales to decide whether they approve.

Those catastrophes and lost hopes of the past 100 years are still, in a sense, there. Sadly, Lucas-SEI decided only last month to close its manufacturing operation in Ystradgynlais in my constituency, which will cause 750 employees to be laid off. They received only four hours' notice, which is really more like something from the first quarter of the 20th century than the verge of the 21st. The work is being transferred to Poland, and the work force in Ystradgynlais trained the Polish workers. That is more or less the equivalent of digging one's own grave and falling backwards into it.

The takeover by TRW of the Lucas Varity corporation, of which the managing director, Victor Rice, will get a cool £17 million--a sum, incidentally, that could keep the Ystradgynlais plant running for another two years--is a disgrace and a scandal. I hope that the Minister will ask the Secretary of State if he will take the opportunity, when he visits the United States soon, to go to the TRW headquarters in Cleveland and ask whether some work can be transferred to Ystradgynlais.

The task force, in which Ministers, local councillors and I have been involved, is there to produce a solution to this terrible problem. Every avenue must be explored.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I was in touch with TRW in America yesterday, to discuss the future of the Ystradgynlais site. I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has done on behalf of the work force there, and look forward to working in partnership with him to solve the problems that have been created.

Mr. Livsey: I thank the Minister very much indeed for those remarks. I am sure that the people of Ystradgynlais will also be grateful. We are all working extremely hard to ensure that the problem is solved. The plea by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney for jobs, jobs and more jobs is absolutely correct. We can train as many people as we like, but if the right kind of employment is not there, we will not produce jobs for people in our communities. Whole families have been sadly affected by the proposed closure and we need to find solutions that involve real employment.

There is a huge slump in farming in Wales. The farm management survey shows that the net income of the disadvantaged area farms in 1998-99 is forecast to be a mere £48 for the whole year. In the severely disadvantaged areas and the lowland beef and sheep areas,

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farmers are at present earning the equivalent of £2.20 an hour. That looks pretty stupid in comparison with the proposals for the national minimum wage, which I support. Those figures are calculated on the basis of a 40-hour week. That problem has to be solved, and quickly.

Our family farms are in terminal decline and unless much more attention is paid to that, I am afraid that there will be an exodus from the land. Help could be given immediately by ensuring that payments such as hill livestock compensatory allowances are made immediately. That would assist the cashflow of farmers in a desperate situation. The Office of Fair Trading report, which will be published shortly, about the pricing policies of supermarkets is important, but there is no accountant on the body considering the issue and it appears to concentrate on groceries rather than the problems in the meat chain that directly affect the farming community.

We also face the problems of Agenda 2000 and CAP reform. Changes are now being made to the original proposals for Agenda 2000. The national envelope and co-financing are problems that I am sure that the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), has been studying in the past week in the Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels on CAP reform. I am alarmed to note from yesterday's Western Mail suggestions of changes to the original Agenda 2000 proposals from a maximum of direct support to farms of £70,000 to a maximum of £3,700. If that goes through, it spells disaster. What impact would it have on the Welsh Office's agriculture department budget, which has reached £300 million of support for farming in Wales? I have noted references in Welsh Office documents to sums of more than £200 million. That could mean a substantial reduction in support for the farming industry from the Welsh Office, much of it European money.

We have discussed the objective 1 situation and the question of matched funding at length, and I shall not go back over that ground, except to remind the Secretary of State that the Lucas factory is only 200 yards from an objective 1 area. That is a problem in its own right, because the people of Ystradgynlais cannot benefit directly from objective 1 money. I know that the Minister is trying to do something about that and I am sure that he will work hard to obtain additional funding for the upper Swansea valley.

Powys and parts of east Wales are in dire need of objective 2 funding and I have been promised before that those areas will get it. However, the question of matched funding arises again. I was in Brussels last week and I discussed the issue of European structural funds with some of the Eurocrats. It was stressed to me that grass roots projects were an important method of obtaining objective 1 and 2 funding. It is not top-down action that is required, but local communities coming forward with proposals. That is an important way to tackle the problem.

How will Wales look on St. David's day in 2000? St. David's day is a special day in the calendar, when the daffodils emerge from the bud on every hillside and in every garden, and in every lapel. However, St. David's day is also a genuine sign of the gathering spring. It is a time of hope, singing and poetry, as every schoolchild in Wales knows. One has only to visit a primary school in Wales on that day to be greeted by the spirit of St. David.

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By this time next year, Wales will have had its National Assembly for almost a whole year, including the first elections, a new First Minister, the first ever Cabinet for Wales and a Committee structure that I hope will be founded on true democratic principles, perhaps including one member, one vote.

I do not believe that the Government of Wales model will be as radical as some people think. There will be welcome change, but not a revolution. Will it be the personalities or the parties that will reign supreme? There is no lack of characters in Wales and I am certain that many will emerge in the new Assembly. Many are likely to be women, and that will be a change for the better. In fact, the personalities are likely to prove more influential than the political parties.

Time will put the Members of the Assembly on a steep learning curve. It will not be long before they come to realise what they cannot do, as much as what they can do. Let us hope that in a year's time they will not be too frustrated. Secondary legislative powers may sound superficially attractive, but in 12 months' time they may be seen as no big deal! Balancing the books will also be a frustrating experience and priorities will demand hard choices. I can envisage cries next March for primary legislative powers and tax-varying powers, just like Scotland.

Building up new traditions in our Assembly will be a challenge. I make a firm prediction that the deep sense of fairness in Welsh society will mean that the twin values of liberty and social conscience will be much to the fore. I hope that tolerance and inclusiveness will underwrite those values. That does not mean that the traditional fiery Welsh radicalism will not have its place, but it will be fashioned into a more egalitarian democracy suited to the 21st century.

The proportional system of top-up seats should give us political representation that is a truer reflection of people's views in Wales. Wales is nothing if not a community of communities, so the proportional system of top-up seats should therefore be welcomed. Let us hope that we see the end of machine politics. There is a danger that if the power of the Executive is misused, people will feel excluded from the Assembly process. The Assembly's Committees, both subject and regional, will be vital. I am hopeful that with an enlightened leadership the disparate views that characterise Wales will begin to be welded into a more cohesive force for good. Wales is too small a country for us to fall out among ourselves.

In particular, we desperately need vision and leadership. Every Committee in the Assembly must have its strategies worked out in 12 months' time. The Education Committee must have set its targets and the Health Committee's recipe for tackling the many problems in Wales must be in place. The Economic Development Committee must have developed its strategies for better job opportunities and wealth creation. The Rural Affairs and Agriculture Committee must have its plan to revitalise our family farms and the rural economy. We may even be considering an integrated transport policy that may provide a solution to join up north and south Wales.

We should know by next year where we want to go as a nation and how we are going to get there. The next years will be spent in engaging the participation of the people of Wales to build a new Wales, with a more caring and

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entrepreneurial society in which young people can gain skill and jobs in a quality environment, the old know that they will be cared for properly, and where music, sport, the arts and all kinds of recreation are an everyday experience. We will not reach that state in one year, but by next March the signposts will be there to a Wales where it is not always necessary to leave to gain recognition, because it can be achieved at home in our own country. Is that idealism? Yes. Is it possible? Yes. On St. David's day 2000, there will be new stars on the horizon and more than a few poets celebrating the rebirth of our nation.

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