Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement

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Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I shall confine my comments to the impact on pensioners in Wales of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement. Certain parts of the Opposition reacted negatively to that statement and the Queen's Speech. I was particularly disappointed by this morning's response from Plaid Cymru Members. I see that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) is leaving. I watched the Plaid Cymru political broadcast on Friday.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): Was it good?

Mr. Ruane: No, it was not.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I am leaving to take part in the forthcoming debate in the Chamber. In any event, I have heard the hon. Gentleman before.

Mr. Ruane: The hon. Gentleman is as witty as ever.

To be serious, we are in danger of talking Wales down. I am referring particularly to Plaid Cymru's reaction. We expect knee-jerk right-wing reactions from the Conservatives, but Plaid Cymru is supposed to be the Party of Wales, and a left-wing party, in touch with its communities. I do not believe that it is in touch with what is happening in its communities. I do not recognise the Wales that I heard about in last Friday's party political broadcast and in today's debates. From beginning to end, Plaid Cymru was entirely negative. Over the past three and a half years, its Members of Parliament talked the Welsh economy down. They talked down the image and vision of Wales at a critical period in its history.

Wales is the place to be. Cardiff is the youngest and fastest growing capital in Europe.

Mr. John Smith: And Barry.

Mr. Ruane: And Barry.

Wales is the best place in Europe for inward investment. Wales now has the chance to brand, to believe and to rediscover itself. All we hear from Plaid Cymru is negative doom and gloom, pessimism and whingeing, all of which has a bad effect. I grant that this morning's speech by the right hon. Member for Caernarfon was, in comparison those of his hon. Friends, measured. It is a pity that he is no longer the leader of that party. [Interruption.] He would have had my vote.

The negative whingeing of Plaid Cymru is having a profound effect on the public perception of the National Assembly for Wales—an institution that almost all of us cherished, fought for and had high hopes for. My constituents are not pleased with what has happened over the past couple of years because Plaid Cymru has not been consensual. We have had two years of negative nit-picking, which has damaged the public perception of Wales within Wales. We are losing instead of gaining confidence in ourselves. The public perception of Wales—in the UK and abroad—is, as I said, being damaged by the constant whingeing of Plaid Cymru.

I repeat that I do not recognise the Wales that emerges from the speeches and party political broadcasts of Plaid Cymru. If the Welsh nationalists achieved their aim of independence and established embassies around the world, what would their ambassadors say? ``Don't invest in Wales or visit Wales; it's a terrible place. We have nothing to trade, we're a backwater''. That seems to be their message to the world—the same message that they proclaim in Wales. They are in extreme danger of talking Wales down at a critical point in its history.

Wales has had, and will continue to have, problems. In my constituency, 800 jobs were lost at Kwiksave when the Welsh company lost its headquarters; 300 jobs went when the Conservatives closed down Point of Air pit; 1,000 jobs went at the North Wales hospital. Yes, we have had problems, but I am proud of the way in which my constituency is bouncing back. Under the Conservatives, we had 12 per cent. unemployed, but the figure is now down to 3.9 per cent.

In 1987 I organised a march through the west ward of Rhyll, officially the most poverty-stricken ward in the whole of Wales. Lord Elis-Thomas was invited—in the interests of political balance—and addressed the meeting. At that time, the ward had 58 per cent. unemployment. In October, 480 jobs were announced by WTS in Prestatyn, 170 were announced by Hotpoint in Bodelwyddan, and 350 in Morrison's in Rhyll. I opened the first ever European investment establishment by TRB, a Japanese company, in the whole of Europe. It was located in St. Asaph in my constituency and provided 150 jobs. Denbighshire county council has announced a package for 1,000 jobs under objective 1.

We have also heard the good news that British Aerospace, now that it has finally received £19 million from the National Assembly for Wales, is to create 2,000 jobs. That will have a positive impact not only in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Caernarfon, but in every constituency in north Wales. There is good news out there: we must recognise and celebrate it, not do ourselves down all the time.

We talk of vision. The right hon. Member for Caernarfon rightly stressed the importance for Wales of focusing on particular sectors. We already have an aerospace and aeronautical sector—

Mr. Wigley: Optronics.

Mr. Ruane: Yes, optronics will be the key sector in a central part of north Wales. I am working closely with the Welsh Optoelectronics Federation, which hopes to increase the number of skilled jobs in Wales from 2,500 to 7,500 in a seven-year period. It will become a world centre of excellence in optoelectronics. Pinnacle, in my constituency, has 25 per cent. of the United Kingdom's IT cabling market. I am proud of that. Up to 50 per cent. of the glass in satellites is made by Pilkington Space Technology in my constituency. I am proud of that, too. I know that there are problems, but we must keep things in perspective. If we look only at narrow political gains in this or that constituency and ignore the wider vision of Wales at this critical moment in our history, we shall be doing down the people of Wales.

The Queen's speech and the pre-Budget statement have been welcomed, particularly by Plaid Cymru. I shall concentrate most of my fire on what the Conservative party did for pensioners, and contrast that with what we propose. The figure of 75p has been mentioned, but the increase was 65p in 1985, and it has been as low as 25p under the Conservatives. One pensioner was so disgusted with her 65p pay rise that she sent a cheque for that amount to Mrs. Thatcher at 10 Downing street—and Mrs. Thatcher cashed it. That attitude betrays the person, the party and its philosophy.

Some of those pensioners are still alive today, but 16,000 pensioners died in 1985 because of the cold weather. Of those, 1,000 froze to death in their own homes. A widow of 84 froze to death after suffering a slight stroke because she was unable to crawl back to the warmth of her bed or to call for help. A woman of 83 was so cold that, once she had been found by her neighbours, the doctors could not get a temperature reading. Police broke into the home of an 89-year-old man, whose temperature was found to be 17 degrees below normal when he was taken to hospital, and he died soon afterwards. Coroner John Budd said at the Blackpool inquest on Edith Davies, aged 83, that many old folk seem to be frightened to turn on the heating because of the high cost.

What was the Government's advice in those cold years? It was that people should buy woolly jumpers from the second-hand shop and sit in one cold room. That was official Government policy. [Hon. Members: ``Edwina.''] The very same: Cruella Deville.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): Can the hon. Gentleman say how many people have died of hypothermia during the past three and a half years?

Mr. Ruane: I shall put the question back to the hon. Gentleman. We have put measures in place to combat that. He should contrast the advice given to pensioners by Edwina Currie to buy second-hand woollens with our advice to spend the £200 that they will receive this week on fuel, such as electricity and gas. The Conservatives introduced such complicated rules. For instance, if the average temperature in a region went below minus 1.5 degrees over a seven-day period, the pensioners might qualify for £5 for the week. Those poor pensioners has one eye on the thermometer, one eye on their purses and another on the weather. They were too scared to turn on the heating and they froze to death in their thousands.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Why, then, when the late Audrey Wise and I introduced a private Member's Bill on the wind-chill factor, which would have meant payments to pensioners kicking in earlier, did the Labour Government ensure that that Bill went no further?

Mr. Ruane: The Conservatives had 18 years to sort out that problem. We have come up with an answer; one of our first actions on being elected was to introduce a £20 cold weather payment, which has since increased by a factor of 10 to £200.

Mr. Evans: The £200 is a one-off payment.

The Chairman: Order. It is not in order to make sedentary remarks.

Mr. Ruane: The issue of cold weather payments is not the only one on which the Conservatives should be judged. What did they do with dental tests and eye tests? They charged for them, and pensioners in their thousands did not go to have their eyes or mouths checked. That did not mean simply that they went blind or had bad teeth; such tests could have revealed glaucoma and oral cancer. Consequently, many thousands of pensioners suffered with those diseases.

The mis-selling of pensions in the private sector is another issue. Everyone was opposed to bureaucracy and red tape, but the Conservatives took those things away, and what happened? Millions of private pensions, were mis-sold, at a cost of billions of pounds. It was revealed last week that the SERPS fiasco inherited from the Tories started in 1986, and we shall now have to spend £12 billion to bail them out because of that decision.

Mr. Win Griffiths: They should be surcharged.

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Prepared 11 December 2000