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9.30 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): It has been a welcome debate, even if it is a couple of days late for St. David's day. I have witnessed what I expected, which was a rehearsal of spin by Labour Members. At times, it verged on fantasy when set against reality. That is understandable when we consider that a general election is probably a month or so away. Many Labour Members will be losing their seats, so they may wish to make their valedictories today.

I picked up on the fantasy that it is almost as though we have had a Conservative Government for the past four years. There are some in old Labour who think that we have a Conservative Government, but in reality we have had a Labour Government for nearly four years. It is reality also that it is the Government of Labour Members who have been responsible for the deterioration of the national health service in Wales. It is their Labour Government who are failing to deliver on education in Wales. It is their Labour Government who have been presiding over the greatest fall

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in Welsh farming incomes in living memory. It is their Labour Government who have sat powerless as thousands of jobs have been lost in Wales in recent months. It is their Labour Government who insulted pensioners with a measly 75p increase in pensions last year. It is their Labour Government who increased the tax bill for the average family by £640 a year.

I shall deal with some of the contributions of Labour Members, but they cannot escape the clear fact that Labour runs Wales. I remind them that it is Labour that is in power in the National Assembly for Wales, propped up by its Liberal Democrat toadies. Labour is dominant in local government in Wales, and it is in power at Westminster.

Let us consider some of the speeches by Labour Members. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael)--the spirit of Cardiff--had a good warning for the nationalists. However, before he claims too much pride in country, let us remind ourselves that he is the only member of the National Assembly to have resigned his seat to return to Westminster.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) delivered a moving speech--I think he admitted that it was his valediction. We wish him well in his retirement. I suspect that his departure will be marked by the demise of the Liberal Democrats in mid-Wales. We look forward to welcoming Felix Aubel as the new Conservative Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, following in the footsteps in recent years of the late Tom Hooson and Jonathan Evans as Tory Members for that seat.

Where is the hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik)? I use "colleague" advisedly because he is seen increasingly as a Government supporter. I know that Labour has--

Mr. Livsey: My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) is in his constituency. I believe that there has been an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Church Stoke. I had to be absent from the Chamber on Thursday because I had two outbreaks of the disease in Painscastle and Velindre. It is a serious matter.

Mr. Walter: That is certainly a serious matter. There was a suspected outbreak on the borders of my constituency over the weekend. However, I stayed away from farms in my constituency and dealt with the outbreak on the telephone, which I thought was the safest way of doing so. I have had telephone conversations with the National Farmers Union every day during the outbreak, and we have also conversed by e-mail and other means that do not lead to the spread of this ghastly disease.

Getting back to the performance of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, it is noticeable that the Labour party has not selected a candidate for that seat--[Hon. Members: "We have."] Well, that is most interesting news. I have raised that matter on several occasions, most recently in the Welsh Grand Committee. Neither the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire nor his Labour colleagues mentioned that a candidate had been selected. Perhaps Labour Members can name their candidate.

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Mr. Ruane: Does the hon. Gentleman know the name of the Conservative candidate in my constituency, without being told by his hon. Friends?

Mr. Walter: Of course I know who the Conservative candidate is. I have a piece of paper with his name on, but I do not need to refer to it as I know that his name is Brendan Murphy. I shall come to him in a minute.

I am intrigued, because if the Labour party has selected a candidate, he has not made much noise, has not made himself known and does not appear on the Welsh Labour party website. For most people in Montgomeryshire, he does not exist; they were led to believe that the current hon. Member for Montgomeryshire would be the Labour candidate and they would be denied a Liberal Democrat candidate.

Enough of that; I shall deal with other contributions. The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) made a good plea for the greater need for wealth creation in Wales, while dealing with other problems in his constituency and elsewhere in the country. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) dealt at length with a matter that he has raised in the House on several occasions--the miners' compensation scheme, which, he feels, should be dealt with quickly. He dealt at length with Corus but went on, I am afraid, to areas of fantasy, suggesting that there should be different corporation tax rates in different parts of Wales. That is probably an accountant's dream, but it is a Treasury nightmare.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) claimed that everything was perfect in Wales under this Government and that any problems must have been caused by the previous Government. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) made his regular plea for a bank holiday on St. David's day. We all support his views and have sympathy with the farming community in his constituency and other constituencies, which are suffering as a result of the foot and mouth outbreak. The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) delivered a worthy speech on animal welfare, but I am not quite sure where it fitted into a debate on the Government's record in Wales.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) talked about the Welsh language and the minimum wage. Let me make it clear that we regard the Welsh language and the English language as having equal merit in Wales. Unlike some members of Plaid Cymru, we do not regard English as a foreign language. We shall make that case on many occasions.

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) delivered a cultural tour de force, if he will forgive that foreign language phrase. The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) spent 10 minutes on a fantasy trip in his constituency under a new Conservative Government, speculating on what would happen. Not only did he get it hopelessly wrong, but he forgot to say that life would be much brighter when Brendan Murphy, whom I mentioned earlier, was the new Member for Vale of Clwyd.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) made an impassioned plea for her farmers, particularly as a result of the problems of foot and mouth. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) gave us some political knockabout, which tempted me to remind him that the 12.5 per cent. swing

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recorded last Thursday in a local government by-election in Cowbridge would be sufficient to place Susie Inkin in the House of Commons. I thank the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) for a worthy speech, as always, on equal opportunities, but as usual I suspect that her desires will not be shared by the Government.

I shall deal with some of the issues on which the Labour Government will be judged at the general election. The latest figures show the employment rate for the three months to November 2000 at 69.2 per cent., down from 69.6 per cent. over the same period in 1999. The unemployment rate was 6.5 per cent., compared with 7.4 per cent. a year earlier. Unemployment has been falling in Wales for almost a decade, but the rate of job creation and the rate at which unemployment is falling have both slowed under Labour. Unemployment in Wales is still higher than the UK average.

The recent job losses announced by Corus at Llanwern, Ebbw Vale, Shotton and Bryngwyn; by Dairy Crest at Lampeter, Marshfield and Carmarthen; and by Valeo in Gorseinon, all point to a structural problem to which the Government have not yet faced up.

The Government were elected on the slogan, "Education, education, education." The first of their five early pledges in the 1997 manifesto was to

The success of the Government's policy has proved, at best, patchy across Wales.

The percentage of under-fives receiving full-time nursery school education has remained at 1.1 per cent. since 1997. The percentage in part-time nursery classes has increased, but only from 25.8 per cent. to 27.7 per cent.--hardly a realisation of the Government's vision for nursery education.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walter: I am conscious of the time, so I am afraid that I will not give way.

The average class size in maintained primary schools has decreased from 26.4 to 25.2 pupils, and pupil-teacher ratios have fallen slightly in primary schools, by 1.1 per cent. However, the effects of cutting class sizes in primary schools can be seen in the statistics for secondary schools, where class sizes have risen in Wales from 20.6 in 1997-98 to 21 in 1999-2000. The pupil-teacher ratio has also risen by 0.2 per cent. That was one of Labour's key pledges before the last election. The Government have failed to deliver on that pledge.

Labour's greatest failure in Wales is its waiting list pledge. It pledged in its manifesto to

The latest figures, dated 28 February, for NHS waiting lists in Wales show that the number of Welsh residents waiting for in-patient or day-case treatment has gone up from just over 67,000 in 1997 to 75,000 on 31 January. That represents an 11.5 per cent. increase. The number of patients waiting more than 18 months for in-patient treatment has gone up from 1,402 to 4,818. That is an increase of 243 per cent. However, the worst figure of all

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is the number of patients waiting more than six months for their first out-patient appointment--that has risen from 5,956 to 48,506, an increase of more than 700 per cent.

The Conservatives have a series of policies to make Wales prosper. We will review the workings of the National Assembly to ensure that it starts to deliver for the people of Wales, and ensure that Wales continues to have a strong voice at the Cabinet table. We will oppose the plans for a new building for the National Assembly and support agriculture by getting rid of unnecessary regulation. We will cut red tape and bureaucracy in the national health service and set our schools free. The next Conservative Government will deliver for the people of Wales.

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