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2.19 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn): I first spoke in this Chamber in the annual St. David's day debate on 2 March four years ago, and I speak now in the final such debate before the historic Welsh Assembly elections. However, I hope that there will be many more St. David's day debates in the years to come because, as we move forward to a historic change in the way in which our country is governed, we must not lose sight of the fact that, in Britain and Northern Ireland, there are four nations but one country. The Parliament of all the nations of Britain and Northern Ireland is, by the consent and desire of the people, here in Westminster.

This Government have delivered on their pledges to the peoples of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to bring about devolution. I welcome that. We have done it in the face of stiff resistance from the Tory Opposition, but we recognise that, if we are to release the potential of all our people and give them a new vision for a new century, we must put in place a modern system of Government to demonstrate a renewed confidence in being Welsh, and in being British.

In my darkest moments, I sometimes think that the one thing that unites all of us who are Welsh is a lack of self-confidence. We lack self-belief, and feel that we cannot achieve things. Some say that that is due to the melancholy in our natures, to the dark, brooding and often romanticised element of what it is to be Welsh. That element may make for wonderful poetry and help to define us, but we must not let it blind us to the future.

Wales is a small country on the edge of a great continent. We may be at the margins of Europe geographically, but there is no reason why we should not be at the heart of Europe economically, socially and culturally. Moreover, I believe that the Welsh people recognise that all our interests can be best served by truly being part of the larger political unit that is the United Kingdom. Not for us the narrow argument of the nationalists, who want a separate and isolated Wales. The people of Wales will not be looking to the nationalism of the 19th century to find the answers to the problems of the 21st century.

I support devolution, and am certain that the Assembly will provide the basis for greater accountability and transparency in decision making. Devolution gives us a chance to put an end to the quango culture, which allows decisions affecting the lives of people throughout Wales to be made by people meeting in secret behind closed doors, who spend millions of pounds of taxpayer's money and yet remain unaccountable for what they do.

Devolution is an opportunity to put a stop to the over-centralisation of decision making which was the hallmark of 18 Tory years. It will help breathe new life

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into local government, with the Assembly forging a new partnership with councils and with Parliament in Westminster. Many of my councillor friends who were sceptical about devolution are now excited and enthusiastic about the prospect. As the main service providers, they can see many potential benefits of an effective partnership between local authorities, the Assembly and the Government in London.

Partnership right across Britain is one reason why the creation of the Assembly does not mean the break-up of the Union. The purpose of devolution is to create a better system of government for the Welsh people, not to cut us off from the rest of Britain. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people in Wales do not regard the creation of an Assembly as an opportunity to go down the separatist path.

The referendum gave one clear message: the people of Wales are not yet convinced of the benefits of devolution, and it is no good hiding the fact that the jury is still out. The big challenge for us all is to make devolution work and to show the Welsh people that it has considerable benefits for them.

One key area in which we must make devolution work is in meeting the economic challenge. The Assembly must help provide the motivation, and be the powerhouse to transform the Welsh economy. It must, as my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) said, create jobs to bring about lasting prosperity. It is as a result of the policies pursued by this Labour Government--the Government of all Britain--that the Welsh people will gain.

Labour's vision is of a Wales where social justice is put before separatism, where investment in education and the reskilling of our labour force is at the top of our priorities. We are not going to compete in the world economy of the next century if we have low wages and a low-skilled work force, with an industry desperately lacking investment and less productive than our competitors. We need a Wales where we tackle poverty and social exclusion by creating opportunities and providing work, so that people are not left to depend on benefits; a Wales in which we recognise that decent, affordable housing is as much an investment in our people's health as money spent on hospitals.

This year of 1999 is truly a year in which Labour will deliver on its pledges--to extend democracy by means of the Assembly, and to tackle poverty root and branch. We want to begin by helping people on benefit who can and want to get work to be given that chance. However, we must recognise that it is no use moving people from poverty on benefit to poverty in work. That is why we need a national minimum wage.

When it is introduced in April, the national minimum wage will benefit tens of thousands of people across Wales, many of them women. The minimum wage, linked with the working families tax credit to be introduced in October, will guarantee low-paid families with a full-time worker at least £190 a week, with no tax to pay on earnings below £220. That, together with the reduction in employees' national insurance contributions due in April, will be of considerable benefit to families on low or middle incomes.

All those measures to help the poor in Wales have been opposed by the Tory Opposition. Is it any wonder that no Conservative Members of Parliament represent Welsh constituencies?

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There is much more that we must do to tackle the culture of poverty in Wales. Children and old people are the most vulnerable, and are often locked in a cycle of poverty from which it is almost impossible to escape. That is why, from April, child benefit is to be raised by a record amount of £2.95 for the eldest child. There will be equivalent increases for poorer families with rises in family premium, income support and jobseeker's allowance.

Building on the package of measures already announced for pensioners, from April eye test charges will be abolished, and all pensioners will have a minimum income guarantee of £75 a week for a single pensioner, and £116 for pensioner couples.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said when he opened the debate, the new deal has been a great success in Wales. Thousands of young people are now in work and being given opportunities, where before they had no hope and no chance. Supporters of the Welsh nationalist party in my constituency have labelled the new deal slavery, but we are creating opportunities. From April, those opportunities will be extended to people over 25.

On top of that, the Government have cut business taxes to an all-time low to encourage investment. At the same time, they have put a massive £1 billion extra into health in Wales and £850 million into education.

If the other parties had been told before the general election that, in two years, we would do half as much as I have described, they would have called us fantasists and claimed that we would be unable to achieve anything at all. So let me remind the House what the Government have achieved in those two years.

Class sizes have been cut. Hospital waiting lists are down. Handguns have been banned. There are new rights for people at work. The national debt has been reduced from £28 billion to £8 billion. Interest rates have been cut to their lowest long-term rate for 35 years. Value added tax on fuel has been cut to 5 per cent. Extra money has been devoted to breast cancer screening. Councils have been allowed money from the sale of council houses to build new homes and improve existing ones. The largest hospital building programme in our history has been launched. The biggest-ever child care programme is under way. There has been legislation to raise standards in schools. The Bank of England has been given independence to set interest rates. There has been a massive shake-up in the criminal justice system--I could go on.

In a couple of days, we shall be celebrating St. David's day, our saint's day. After two years of this Labour Government, there is much to celebrate, for Wales and for Labour in Wales. Working in partnership with the Assembly that will be elected on 6 May, the Government will take forward the policies that I have talked about this afternoon, for the benefit of all the people in Wales. The policies that concern them are investment in health and in education and training. They want job opportunities, safer streets, better public services--those are the priorities of the people whom I represent. They are the policies of the Labour Government in Westminster, and they will be the policies of the Labour party that will run the Assembly.

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The people of Wales will respond to Labour's vision for the 21st century--partnership within the United Kingdom--rather than the narrow nationalism of the 19th century. They do not want to operate at the margins of politics, like the increasingly desperate Tory party. They do not want the publicity without responsibility of the Liberal Democrats. The people of Wales consistently rejected the separatist agenda of the nationalists. They reject policies that benefit the few, not the many, as advocated by the Tories. They have certainly rejected the Mickey Mouse tactics of the Liberal Democrats.

We are approaching the biggest shake-up in the government of Wales. We can make that change with confidence and without fear. The people of Wales will look to Labour--the real party of Wales--to make an historic process work.

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