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5.22 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I apologise to the House for the fact that I was not able to be present for the whole debate. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), I have not been to the dentist, but, as a dutiful Welsh Member of Parliament, I have been serving on the Committee considering the Greater London Authority Bill. There are parallels between carrying out my duties and going to the dentist.

This is the first full Welsh affairs debate that we have been able to hold since the general election in 1997. We are approaching the second anniversary of the new Labour Government. I shall outline briefly the way in which the new Government have affected my constituency, the Vale of Glamorgan.

In many respects, the Vale of Glamorgan is a microcosm of Wales and of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Win Griffiths: There are no mountains.

Mr. Smith: There are hillocks, but not too many mountains. The Vale of Glamorgan is a beautiful constituency and an interesting one, made up of the traditional urban port town of Barry, which was built on coal at the turn of the century, at the core of the constituency; the agricultural area to the west, in Cowbridge and the seven villages, which is heavily dependent on the agricultural industry; and the suburbs of the east, Sully, Dinas Powys and Wenvoe, many parts of which are travel-to-work areas of Cardiff. Each of those areas is experiencing different problems.

Before the Government were elected, Mr. Lord, the biggest blight--

Mr. Griffiths: We are not in Committee.

Mr. Smith: I do apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have been in Committee all afternoon.

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Before the general election, the Vale of Glamorgan experienced some of the worst problems in the country, and the worst of all was poverty. My constituency is generally considered to be one of the more affluent parts of Wales, but nothing could be further from the truth. It contains, or has contained, some of the poorest communities in Wales. In north-east Barry, for example, net disposable income per household, including all non-housing benefits, is less than £60 a week. That is less than the amount that some hon. Members would think nothing of spending on a meal, but it must pay for clothing, shelter, warmth and food for entire families. That is the legacy of nearly 20 years of Tory Government and misguided policy. It has ruptured our community, and has delivered poverty to our doorsteps--poverty that rests side by side with some of the most affluent villages in Wales.

In a radius of five miles, some people are living in poverty, while others have some of the highest incomes in Wales. The final judgment on whether our Government succeed or fail rests on whether we deal with that. I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State describe what we have already achieved in less than two years in regard to health and education, and, most important, the eradication of poverty. Our strategy is to help those who are able to work to escape their circumstances--to use work as a mechanism to empower those who can work, and to release resources for the support of those who cannot, including the carers to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth referred.

We must be able to redirect scarce resources, and I believe that, in the society in which we now live, we must do that in the way in which the Government have decided to do it: through work. I am delighted that, on 1 April, nearly 110,000 people in Wales will benefit directly from our minimum wage proposals--a higher proportion than in any other part of mainland Britain. The reason for that is sad. Under 18 years of Conservative rule, Wales, which had been one of the highest-wage economies in the United Kingdom, became one of the lowest-wage economies. That is why so many of our people will benefit from the minimum wage, which, combined with the working families tax credit, will enable many members of the community to which I referred at the outset to escape from poverty by means of work.

The task will be easier for my constituency, because, by and large, the work exists as long as it pays people to work. In far too many Welsh communities, the work does not exist. We need economic strategies to ensure that everyone in the country has an opportunity to seek employment. Even if the employment is badly paid and unskilled, at least people will have the dignity of being in work and receiving a minimum wage and tax credits allowing them a decent standard of living as we approach the millennium. That is the main issue on which this Government of ours will be judged, and I am delighted that we are moving in that direction.

We have delivered on our promises, especially our promise to establish a Welsh Assembly, which is one of the most important. There is not long to go before the Assembly starts its work and it could make a huge

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difference by providing the other side of the coin--economic success, which is what we need to eradicate poverty in Wales.

The record over the past 20 years has not been good and our primary industries, which were based on mineral extraction and metal manufacture, have been decimated. Whole tracts of those industries disappeared and their production, which was primarily for domestic consumption, has declined. However, there has been diversification in manufacturing industry--because of our efforts as a people, against the odds and despite the Conservative Government. We still do not have enough skills, and we are not at a high enough standard, but we are in a good position to able to build a prosperous future based on a diverse manufacturing industry. That bodes well for the Welsh Assembly, as long as we adopt a strategic approach to the exploitation of our country's assets to the benefit of all, not one sub-region as opposed to another.

We need to build on that, which is why I was disappointed that the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), condemned and talked down Welsh industry and Welsh manufacturing performance. That was particularly galling because he is not a Welsh Member, but represents a constituency that is in direct competition with Wales for jobs and investment.

Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman has told the House that he is a member of the Greater London Authority Bill Committee. Was he born in London?

Mr. Smith: Absolutely not, but I have not been talking down London or the Bill. I have been talking them up, at every opportunity. That is what I would expect from a responsible spokesperson for Her Majesty's Opposition speaking on Welsh affairs. Although the Opposition do not have a single seat in Wales, they have a right to speak in the debate, but, for goodness' sake, talk our country up, not down.

I refer to several local points. We have had tremendous success in education, transport and other matters, but we must ensure that the mechanisms are in place to make sure that the extra expenditure that we invest in those areas goes where it should. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the additional transport grant for rural bus services is superb, but there is evidence that bus companies receiving those grants are not providing the essential extra rural services for which they are being paid. That needs to be addressed. Shamrock Coaches, which provides services in the rural part of my constituency, has let passengers down and is being paid for it.

There has been tremendous investment in "education, education, education", but there is a backlog of repairs and maintenance because of the scandalous neglect of school buildings. We have extra money and I know that it is going into schools, but I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the fact that some schools, such as Cowbridge comprehensive, are falling down. They present a physical danger to students. Are there contingency resources to deal with specific problems, when there is danger to children because of neglect over two decades?

The best way to empower people is through work, skills and knowledge. There have been reports that the number of mature students applying for places in higher education

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may be decreasing. Will the Minister tell us whether there has been a decline in the number of such students in Wales, and whether he is addressing that issue?

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for bearing with me on this important occasion.

5.35 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): It is a wonder that the Standing Committee considering the Greater London Authority Bill felt able to do without the skills and expertise of the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) for a short while so that he could come to the Chamber to make that wonderful contribution. I had better be careful, because irony does not come across in Hansard.

The next few months will be an exciting time in Wales. We will have the new Cardiff Arms Park in the millennium stadium--I am sure that it will be called the new Cardiff Arms Park in the tradition of new Labour. We look forward to the rugby world cup being held in Wales. We want the opportunity to show Wales off at its very best. I hope that the stadium will be ready in time--the Minister may tell us about that--because it would be dreadful if it was not.

I understand that one of the duties of the new Welsh Assembly will be to promote sport whenever and however it can. After the first two home internationals, one of its greatest challenges will be to do something to help the Welsh team to achieve the victories that they should be gaining. If it can do that, that would be one of its greatest successes.

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