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Session 1999-2000
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Welsh Grand Committee Debates

Social Exclusion Wales

Welsh Grand Committee

Social Exclusion in Wales

Tuesday 20 June 2000

[Continuation from col. 48]

4 pm

On resuming—

The Chairman: I shall briefly quote Madam Speaker on the subject of electronic devices.

    I have previously ruled that Members who carry such devices which make a noise should make certain that they turn off the audio function of the instrument before coming into the Chamber. I can have no objection to instruments which merely vibrate.—[Official Report, 12 March 1997; Vol. 292, c. 537.]

Mr. Martyn Jones: I shall continue my description of the most important—

Mr. Evans: The highlight.

Mr. Jones: The highlight, as the hon. Gentleman says, from a sedentary position, of our trip to the USA.

Mr. Edwards: Does my hon. Friend share my sense of irritation when some Members of Parliament, and members of the press, ridicule the Welsh Affairs Committee's visit to America, whereas they would never ridicule similar visits by the Defence, Foreign Affairs or other Select Committees? When it comes to Wales there is always such unfortunate carping about Select Committee visits abroad.

Mr. Jones: I agree with my hon. Friend. We gained a tremendous amount from the visit, and I am saddened by the attitude of some of the press. However, I am more saddened by the fact that some Opposition Members—one in particular, perhaps—seem to think that trying to tackle social exclusion is a joke and a waste of money. How will we find ways of tackling social exclusion if we do not try to find evidence of projects and programmes that work?

The Manchester Craftsmen's Guild—in Manchester Pittsburgh, not England— was in a part of Pittsburgh that was in 88th place in the FBI's figures for crime in that city. The building had no fence or closed circuit television but was part of, and accepted and revered by the community, which had suffered horrendous riots in 1968. The project was built and expanded out of the dream of one coloured resident who had dragged himself out of the terrible problems there through art—in his case, pottery. He felt that he could teach it to children in the area to give them a reason for their existence and to build their self-esteem. It was a way to pull themselves by their own bootstraps out of their problems. Amazingly, it worked.

Despite the absence of security measures there were no drugs, violence or damage. People saw the project as a resource for people living there. It was not imposed on them. It grew from a room in a church house and is now in premises of 62,000 sq ft and worth $8 million. It has a combined staff of 110 and does not use federal money. It uses local organisations such as the Mellon bank, Heinz, Bayer, BASF, ALCOA and US Airlines, who all understand that they get something out of contributing money to such a project.

The project has now grown to the extent that it has training facilities. It trains people who gained no basic school qualifications to be technicians for the very enterprises that put money into the project. It is a fantastic project and shows that in the United States big and little companies see nothing wrong in putting money into such projects.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Is it true that the inspiring person who started the project wants to come to the United Kingdom and is interested in developing a project in this country? Does my h F agree that Wales would be an ideal destination for him, and that such a development would be welcome there?

Mr. Jones: Absolutely. It was fundamental to the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild programme that such a project could work in other areas. It might well therefore be appropriate for Wales. We asked to keep in contact with people at the project, who I hope will come to provide encouragement and perhaps obtain funding for a similar project here.

I now move on to Chicago—which is a glib thing to say, as the trip involved eight hours sitting in an airport thinking about how to get there. We must have considered every means of transport except pack mules. There had been three days of thunderstorms over Chicago and six different flights that we might have taken were cancelled. We eventually arrived at 10 o'clock at night, in a small aircraft, singing hymns because we were flying through a thunderstorm. In addition, our cab from the airport broke down half way to Chicago and had to be towed off the freeway. We thought that at any moment four by-elections could become necessary. Those are the joys of travel that people seem to think are so wonderful. However, what we saw in Pittsburgh made the trip worth while, even without what we saw elsewhere. I shall not continue on that subject as I think that I have educated the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) a little.

In Chicago we saw a child care centre, called an Educare centre, although it was much more than that. It provided mothers with support, not just in getting back to work but with all their problems. In a typical Americanism those involved referred to the

    Principles of the Incremental Ladder to Independence.

However, that terminology makes an important point. Leaving welfare is not a single event but an incremental process, and the welfare to work programme, as I have pointed out, must have a starting point and involve support while the person concerned is in a job. Participants must be allowed to take different routes to self-sufficiency. Those are all worthwhile aims.

In Chicago we also met the deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Affairs and the director of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change. We saw another project called Gallery 37. That was a job-training programme based in the arts. As a summer job, young people were introduced to interview techniques, CV-writing and other ways of entering the job market.

Access to simple banking was another important feature of what we saw. In some of our worst areas there is no access to banking facilities that allow people to save or, more usually, to borrow at a reasonable rate. That was the Shorebank Corporation, which is a regulated bank holding company regulated by the Federal Reserve bank. The concept was created in the 1960s to operate neighbourhood financial services and economic development, and it seems to be doing good work.

The public authorities in the United States seem to be more concerned about the ends rather than the means. They are much less prescriptive about details than public authorities in the UK. Individuals and groups in the USA are more inclined to give something a go than people in the UK, who seem to want official approval before they do anything—as much for emotional reassurance as for anything else.

When we reported on inward investment, we suggested that we should use Welsh people abroad, particularly Welsh business men, as a resource, and that if Ministers or members of the Committee met people abroad from Wales they should try to forge links with them. Therefore, in addition to those people whom we saw as part of our investigation into social exclusion, we followed our own advice and used some of our free time, usually after 8.30 at night, to meet representatives of the Welsh Development Agency and business men and women with Welsh links. We organised a conference call with people from as far away as Florida and Canada.

That is not an exhaustive list. I might have felt fairly exhausted this morning, but I could have gone on for longer. I am sure that my hon. Friends will have much to add, which in due course will find its way into our report. I look forward to hearing the views and concerns of all members of the Grand Committee, which will help us in our deliberations. We hope to report to the House in October, soon after the summer recess.

Although the poor or socially excluded may always be with us, we hope that today's debate and the Select Committee report may result in there being fewer poor and socially excluded people in future.

4.12 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I hope to restrict my remarks to about 10 minutes. I managed it when I last spoke in a Welsh Grand Committee and I hope to do so again today.

Social exclusion is an important subject and I am grateful for the opportunity to debate it. I am delighted that the Secretary of State for Social Security was able to spare us time this morning to make a statement and answer questions. Not only is the Grand Committee looking into the matter, but so are the Welsh Assembly and the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) spoke about his visit to Philadelphia. I think it is inscribed on W. C. Fields's tombstone that, on the whole, he preferred to be in Philadelphia. I can understand why.

Mr. Jones: That quotation was slightly wasted, because we never went to Philadelphia. We were in Pittsburg, Washington and Chicago.

Mr. Evans: I suspect that W. C. Fields would prefer to be in all of those cities, rather than where he now is.

We heard today from the Secretaries of State for Wales and for Social Security how important it is that we should visit other places and consider other schemes. No doubt the Welsh Assembly is taking on board many examples.

The Committee and the Government want to solve the problem of poverty and social exclusion, but no one in the pubs and clubs of Wales talks about social exclusion. They talk about poor people and poverty and ask how they can make ends meet. They talk about the problem of expensive petrol in rural areas in Wales, about post offices closing, and about the problems caused by the farming crisis and the damage being done to the rural economy. They do not talk about social exclusion.

We want something good to come from the visit to the United States. I want the Chairman of the Select Committee to prove us wrong. I look forward to reading the report, which I hope will produce constructive ideas and recommendations that the Government will implement. The poorest people in Wales will not read the report, but they should benefit from the changes that it proposes.

I have about four points or requests to make, and it is possible that both sides of the Committee will agree to some of my suggestions. The Welsh Assembly is considering social exclusion. It strikes me as odd that, although it is discussing extra investment for the poorest parts of Wales, it is spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about the new Assembly building. The cost of the new lean-to—the downsized version—will run into millions of pounds. We should consider ways of ensuring that that money is better spent on the poorest parts of Wales.

Let us put to rest the issue of spin. Ministers often say what a good state the country is in and how much extra money is being invested in X, Y and Z, but we should be aware that such money has a vital impact on the poorest sectors of Wales. Unemployment is beginning to rise in some areas. Changes in the manufacturing sector have a disproportionate effect on Wales. The sector is under a great deal of stress, perhaps because of the weak euro or the pressures of cheaper labour in eastern Europe. BAE Systems announced the loss of 750 jobs in my constituency and the neighbouring constituency only last week. The Welsh Assembly should produce the £26 million that is needed to assist the loan of more than £500 million that the Government have given for the A3XX project.

The Confederation of British Industry has produced a gloomy report on Welsh industry. It states:

    With total order books significantly below normal and a major fall in domestic orders since the previous survey the only positive news from manufacturers was the modest rise in export orders and the expectation of a further modest rise in the months ahead.

However, it was also stated in the report:

    The long-term health of the Welsh Economy depends upon Welsh companies making profits yet the CBI survey shows that profit margins are being squeezed out of existence. Goods are costing more to produce whilst prices are falling, leaving manufacturers with little or no funds with which to invest. If the lack of investment leaves firm uncompetitive, Wales, which has a large proportion of manufacturers, will see the current trend of industrial job losses increase significantly over the coming year.

The CBI is putting down a warning that we must ensure that the climate is right for the manufacturing industry. Will the Secretary of State again raise the issue of the climate change levy with the Chancellor of Exchequer? We do not want it to clobber industry in Wales, which is reliant on energy to produce goods, irrespective of how revenue neutral that tax might be. We cannot and must not let Welsh industry be hit by that charge.

I have mentioned motorists. Other hon. Members must also be worried about the price of petrol in Wales. The fuel escalator, which was introduced by my Government, failed. This Government continued it for a while and, although they have lifted it, petrol prices were still increased in the Budget. The general price rise in oil should concern everyone. Some parts of Wales face petrol charges of 90p a litre, which hits industry and the rural motorist. It also affects pensioners whose 75p a week increase in pensions is nothing like enough to meet the increases of the past three years. Will the Secretary of State reflect on the impact that petrol prices are having on industry and consumers in Wales?

There was more disturbing news last week. It is likely that VAT will be put on tolls on the Severn bridge. It currently costs £4.20 for motorists to use the Severn bridge, but with VAT the cost could rise to almost £5, which concerns me. That judgment will come from the European Union in an interpretation of directives that were signed many years ago. We did not sign up to an agreement to put VAT on tolls throughout the United Kingdom. Indeed, I always understood that taxation was a sovereign matter and that it was for the UK Government to decide whether VAT was added to bridge tolls. I ask the Secretary of State for Wales to consider carefully the impact that an increase would have. It would hit tourism in Wales, and would hit people who live in Wales but work in England and who regularly travel back and forth. I ask the Secretary of State to use his influence to see what can be done to ensure that VAT is not imposed on tolls on the Severn bridge.

I mentioned the national health service and said that preparing for the national changeover plan is costing the NHS millions of pounds. Indeed, this Sunday, a front-page article in The Sunday Telegraph said:

    `The plans will require substantial extra work from staff at a time when we are facing disintegration through the loss of mental health services, community hospitals and community services.' Computers, printers, financial forms and stationery will be changed and new equipment for cashiers, vending machines and car parks required.

I assume that the article was written with an emphasis on England, but if hospitals in Wales are now preparing for the changeover to the euro, which will cost them an enormous sum of money, surely the Committee would agree that that money would be better spent on operations and health care in hospitals in Wales, rather than on a changeover plan to a new currency, especially when we have not yet had the referendum promised by the Government.

That especially concerns me because of the current length of waiting lists for operations in Wales. The number of Welsh residents waiting for in-patient or day-care treatment in March 1997 was 67,909. The current figure is well over 80,000. In March 1997, the number of patients waiting for more than 12 months was 6,274, but now the figure is 11,800. I have a raft of statistics that show how desperate the situation is in Wales. Statistics are one thing, but if a person happens to be one of those statistics, waiting at home for an operation or waiting to see a consultant, then they make miserable reading. We hear about all the extra money that is being invested in the national health service, and we welcome it, but we want to see outputs. The current waiting list situation is dire.

I also have a list of operations for which waiting times are especially long. If a person wants to be seen by an ear, nose and throat specialist or for dermatology, gynaecology or urology, the waiting times are getting longer. Indeed, the current figures show stark rises compared with last month's figures. We all want the national health service to perform well. We want to see an end to the postcode lottery. We want to ensure that the money that is being invested in the NHS is properly spent.

 
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