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9.12 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I intend to keep my remarks brief to allow hon. Friends to speak. It is a pity that I have to do so, because many of us look forward to this debate so that we can speak about important matters that relate to our constituents.

I wish to pay several tributes. I would like to be associated with the remarks that have been made about Lord Cledwyn. Many of us, especially the newer Members, are indebted to him for the help that he gave us when we came to the House.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales for his speech and for all that he has done in the past year to improve the quality of life for the people of Wales and my constituents.

I also pay a special tribute to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), for his unique contribution to the re-election of many Labour Members. I have never heard such an appalling speech in all my life. It showed us that the Tories have not a hope in hell of winning the next election and that he is unlikely to be the Secretary of State for Wales--at least not in my lifetime.

I was appalled not so much by the hon. Gentleman's snide remarks, although they were bad, or his half-baked facts relating to steel jobs and crime, but by the sheer

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irrelevance to the everyday lives of the people of Wales of 95 per cent. of what he said. He prattled on about English nationalism, the devolution settlement, the euro and all the rest of it, whereas the majority of people in our country are concerned about the issues that matter to them on a day-to-day basis.

Our Government's track record has been good; a great deal has been achieved. As the hon. Gentleman is not here, may I pass a message on to him through you, Madam Deputy Speaker? I can tell him, "It's the economy, stupid." In the past couple of years in my constituency and throughout Wales, we have achieved the lowest unemployment rate in 25 years, the lowest inflation rate in 30 years and the lowest long-term business rates in 35 years. We have one of the most stable economic environments since the second world war. As a result of our economic policies, our capacity to create wealth is growing dramatically. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned the substantial growth in incomes, which has--rightly--exceeded growth in other areas. We have achieved much, which has had an effect on my constituents.

Let me give a quick anecdote. Yesterday, on one of my Sunday morning walks through my constituency, I bumped into a constituent in Gibbonstown in north-east Barry whom I had not seen for 18 months. When I last called on him, he was at home, struggling, did not have a job and was trying to cope with bringing up a family. Yesterday, he said, "Mr. Smith, I've got a job. It doesn't pay fantastic, but its reasonable. I've managed to save enough and I'm going to be able to move on and buy my house. My family, at last, are looking forward to some security."

We have made a difference to people in the real world. The Vale of Glamorgan housing needs survey showed that, prior to the 1997 election, the average gross income per household, including all non-housing benefits, was what many hon. Members would pay for one meal. My constituents had to support a family on that. The minimum wage has had a dramatic impact.

We have made huge strides, but there is still much to do. Although we are slowly but surely narrowing the gap between wealth creation in Wales and elsewhere, especially London and the south-east, it still exists. An essential condition for closing that gap is to have an internationally renowned airport in Wales to serve our business community. I am not alone in that view. South Wales businesses were recently asked for their opinion on the most important business infrastructure project. They wanted a dual carriageway to the airport so that they could get to their business destinations and help the Welsh economy grow. Any economy in Europe, north America or south-east Asia could not be successfully regenerated without a viable international airport. Our airport is good. It is modern and has a large capacity, but it will not be the airport that we want if we do not deliver that road.

There is an additional reason to deliver on that. My right hon. Friend might have seen the Welsh Development Agency's statement in which it announced that it was conducting a feasibility study with the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, which is based at RAF St. Athan, on the location of 2,000 highly skilled jobs at Cardiff international airport. I was furious about that because there are 3,000 jobs at the agency. However, I am delighted to say that the chairman of the WDA, Sir David Rowe-Beddoe, has assured me that most of the jobs will

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move to Cardiff. Some will remain at RAF St. Athan, but not a single person will be made redundant as a result of the move. I have been seeking that assurance for months.

As a result of the feasibility study, 3,000 aero engineers might be located at Cardiff airport, in addition to the airport business and the British Airways maintenance centre. It might be necessary to change the way in which RAF St. Athan workers get back and forth to work and goods and services are transported to the airport. My point is simple: at the moment, they have to use the A4050, which is wholly inadequate because some parts of it provide only single-lane access to the airport. I plead, as I have done before, for my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider that issue. The consultation period on aviation policy in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is almost over. I know that the Welsh Assembly has considered the matter. We must get our act together if we are serious about regenerating the Welsh economy to the extent that it can catch up with the rest of the country.

9.19 pm

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me at this late hour. I share the frustrations of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I wish that we had some of the practices of the European Parliament, so that we knew when we were to be called and had more opportunity to make our points.

I am glad that we are having this St. David's day debate, which is a good opportunity to express our views about Wales on behalf of our constituents. This week, we also celebrate international women's day, and in the short time that I have I want to concentrate on the issues that especially affect the lives of women in Wales and bring them to the attention of the House.

This week marks the end of the consultation on the Department of Trade and Industry Green Paper on parents and work, which considers options for making it easier to combine work and parenthood. One of the Government's key aims is to deal with the dilemma faced by families in which both parents need to work and by lone parents who need to work but who have no one to look after their children.

I had a consultation meeting at Llanishen in my constituency at which I tried to find out what people, particularly women, felt about the issue. One of the Government's hallmarks is that we are going out of our way to consider the issues that affect many people's daily lives. The mothers, grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers at the school gates in Whitchurch, Llanishen and Llandaff North were very pleased that they were being asked what they thought. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said that some seats would not continue to be held by Labour Members, but the people to whom I spoke gave a tremendously warm response to my questions. The key point is that the Government are tackling difficult issues and trying to help parents cope. They are trying to achieve a better balance between improved provision for maternity, paternity and parental leave and the demands on employers.

It is interesting that the Equal Opportunities Commission in Wales reported that employers in Wales were much more sympathetic to such provision than their

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counterparts in England. The commission received a good response from employers about issues that have often been regarded as burdens on them.

The clear message from my meeting in Cardiff, North was that maternity leave should be extended beyond 18 weeks and that the flat rate of maternity benefit should rise and be extended. It was generally felt that unpaid maternity leave is only for the well-off middle classes and that most women could not take it. All surveys show that most women return to work before they want to. Another clear message was that periods of leave should be combined with the need for breast feeding and that employers should make every effort to accommodate breast-feeding mothers if they have to return to work before that time is up. We have, of course, failed to address that issue in the House, although I hope that we will do so soon.

My constituents' views have been echoed by the Women's National Commission, the Fawcett Society and many other bodies. I urge my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in this week's Budget to extend maternity leave and increase maternity pay. I hope that some of the rumours that I have heard turn out to be right because they certainly reflect my constituents' feelings.

My constituents also want paid parental leave. The Government are considering that in their consultation document, but they think that it may be too great a financial burden. If parental leave is not paid, it will not be taken up, especially not by men. It is important that men have an opportunity to be closely involved with their children at an early age. I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement about paternity leave, but all the European examples show that men in particular do not take up parental leave unless it is paid.

Parents in Wales generally share the views held throughout Britain on the need for reform, but my constituents also believe that such help should be extended to all carers--for example, those who care for elderly people. I think that more women look after elderly people than care for children. My constituents also think that more help is needed for parents of disabled children. I warmly welcome the appointment of the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I hope that the commissioner will take on board the needs of disabled children in Wales and try to get them a fairer deal.

Last week, a group of mothers from my constituency came to see me; all have disabled children, most of whom suffer from autism. They were full of praise for the school that their children attend--the Hollies school--but told me about the problems arising from the long, six-week holiday, when they have to cope with children who need a great deal of attention, whom they love dearly, but who are difficult to cope with for long periods. The women are fund raising to run a play scheme in the special school that their children attend so that they have somewhere to go in the summer holidays.

The women face all the problems of trying to cope with children who have special difficulties, but have to fund raise to set up a play scheme themselves. Their children do not fit in with the local authority schemes, because their special needs make integration extremely difficult. Their mothers, who are struggling to raise funds, told me about the day-to-day problems of looking after the

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children whom they love so much and for whom they do so much. It strikes me that we have to have the sort of society in Wales that offers help to the struggling parents of children who have such needs; we must be there for them. Such people should not have to struggle against the system.

Since I became a Member of Parliament four years ago, parents have brought many children to my surgeries. The children have special needs and their parents always seem to be engaged in a fight against the system, trying to get their child into one school or another, or to get a statement. Everything seems to be a fight. My test of the new Wales that we want to create is that, when people have a problem, we help; they do not have to fight, because we try to make things easy for them and try to make things better.

I have spoken about the needs and aspirations of some of my constituents in respect of maternity and paternity provision, parental leave and children with special needs. I think that we are making great progress in some of those areas. The previous Government never recognised the need to combine work and parenthood nor examined the important issues that face people every day of their lives, whereas the current Government are concerned about community and supporting each other. It is vital that we recognise that issues that are sometimes not regarded as major political issues none the less have a huge effect on people every day and make their lives bearable or otherwise.

Constituents who bring those issues to my attention do so against a backdrop of a huge reduction in unemployment in Cardiff, North. There was never high unemployment in my constituency, but it has decreased by 40 per cent. and youth unemployment has decreased by 70 per cent. We have gained many jobs: Cardiff Gate business park is now one of the most flourishing business parks in Wales. We have suffered the loss of manufacturing jobs--we lost Aeroquip and Alloyed Wheels last year--but more jobs are coming in than are going out. Given the relative prosperity in my constituency, it is important now to try to get to grips with everyday issues that make a fundamental difference to people's lives. The Labour Government have made huge strides, but we have a long way to go.

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