Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement

[back to previous text]

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I congratulate my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the First Minister on the negotiations that have produced the first Wales-only Bill, which introduces the Children's Commissioner. It is a tremendously significant step forward, not only for the children of Wales but for devolution. It shows that the devolution settlement is working, and that it is a great achievement.

I am disappointed by some of the comments coming from the Opposition. The Conservatives have totally failed to understand the nature of the post, and seem to believe that safeguarding children's interests is undermining family life, which is a complete misinterpretation of the commissioner's role. I am also disappointed by the slightly muted response of the hon. Member for Ceredigion, who has supported the cause. He could have been a little more enthusiastic and not as critical of the two-stage approach used by the Government, which enabled an appointment to be made quickly. By using as wide an amendment to the care standards legislation as possible, the Government were able to respond quickly to the Waterhouse report. Consequently, the commissioner's powers will be extended to other areas such as education and health soon after he takes up his post. I look forward to the publication of the Bill. The Government's pragmatic approach has paid off, so it is disappointing that the response from Opposition Members is not more enthusiastic.

Devolution is at an early stage: it is only 16 months since the powers were transferred. The inclusion of a Wales-only Bill is a signal that the process is working. The National Assembly wanted a commissioner, and Wales will have one, while England will not. We are the envy of many of the child care charities in England, because the voluntary sector has campaigned for a commissioner for many years. I am sure that many hon. Members will have seen the manifesto produced by the child care charities—Barnardos, the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children—called ``Our Children, Their Future''. It lists five demands, the first of which is for commissioners in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who will be powerful independent champions for all the UK's children. It refers to the National Assembly for Wales being in the process of establishing a commissioner as recommended by the Waterhouse inquiry, and states that the rest of the UK should be brought into line. Wales is leading the way, and the post of commissioner should be given unreserved support. It is a great achievement, on which the Secretary of State and the First Minister should be congratulated. It required delicate negotiations, in which the Secretary of State is experienced, and his skill is reflected in the successful outcome in the Queen's Speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) mentioned the unique appointment procedure for the commissioner, in which young people play a full role. I am certain that it is the first time that young people have taken part in such a major public appointment. Before I entered Parliament, I worked in the voluntary sector and tried to get children involved in appointments. It is hard work and it requires a lot of preparation if children are to be fully and meaningfully involved. Those young people who have been involved in the appointment in Wales have said publicly that the process was a huge boost and showed the great value that was placed on their views. The appointment will have great validity, and I am sure that the commissioner will make a difference to what happens in Wales.

I am concerned about the Department for Education and Employment's announcement that child minders will be able to smack children in their care, and smoke in their presence, if the parents allow it. However, it is clear that the announcement applies to England alone. I am sure that good sense will prevail in Wales and that, at the same time as the Queen's Speech proposes a ban on tobacco advertising, we will do our utmost to protect children from being in smoke-filled atmospheres. I hope, too, that we will not treat child minding as different from any other setting in which day care takes place.

Mr. Wigley: The hon. Lady said that it had been made clear that the announcement applied to England alone. I was unaware of that fact. Will she confirm that that is definitely the case, because if so, I greatly welcome it?

Ms Morgan: The Department for Education and Employment press release stated categorically that it applied to England alone. I understand that the National Assembly will consult on the matter, and that working groups are considering the issues, so I presume that the matter will be decided in the Assembly and hope that there will be a Welsh solution that takes into account some of the strong feelings of the voluntary bodies. We should do our utmost to protect children from smoke-filled atmospheres, and I hope that the commissioner will have an input into that decision.

However important the appointment of a commissioner is, it is only one of many measures needed if we are to create a children's Wales in which children can grow up freely and happily and develop to their full potential. The Government have given a brave commitment to end child poverty by 2020. Many measures are already in place: child benefit is at record levels and the working families tax credit has been introduced. By August, 130,000 children in Wales will be in families that have benefited from the working families tax credit. The Chancellor stated in the pre-Budget report that he would raise children's tax credit to £10 a week. The minimum wage and record employment levels will also benefit children.

The introduction of the Children's Commissioner marks the way in which a devolved Wales will be closer to what people want. There is a real difference in the relationship with the voluntary sector, which feels involved in the decisions being taken in the Assembly. Other decisions will be made that show Wales taking a different direction from England and pursuing policies more appropriate to Wales. For example, there appear to be no plans to abolish community health councils in Wales. I am happy about that, because I believe that they should be strengthened and developed rather than closed or replaced.

We will gradually work towards a devolved Wales in which the country's particular needs are met. We are making that shift. Of the 15 Bills mentioned in the Queen's Speech, I am sure that the Bill relating to the Children's Commissioner will get through before a general election. That represents a significant movement in the right direction, and I congratulate the people involved.

5.3 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I endorse many comments made by my colleagues in today's debate. I am especially pleased with the part of the Queen's Speech that deals with yobbish behaviour. At a surgery only this weekend in my constituency, I had several representations from my constituents about the problems that occur in many housing estates in town centres and inner-city areas. Mr. John McInery, who lives in Denbigh way in Barry, has decided to take a stand on the matter and is delighted that the Government are introducing legislation to assist him in doing that.

I feel comfortable about the Government's chosen way of tackling yobbish behaviour. We started our campaign against crime by stating that we would be tough not only on crime but on the causes of crime. In my constituency, we have been especially tough on the causes of crime. In merely three and a half years, unemployment has dropped to a level that, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was considered to be full employment, because the measure accommodates change in employment from job to job. Employment in my constituency has increased to the highest level ever recorded. Not all my hon. Friends share those benefits and statistics, but we are moving in that direction.

Youngsters in my constituency cannot tell me that they cannot get a job, because that is no longer a problem—but it was a problem three and a half years ago. There is a problem with underemployment, low-paid employment and low-skill employment, but that is a different problem. Youngsters can find work and occupy themselves. We have seen a decline in crimes such as burglary and car stealing by youngsters, but we have not seen a general improvement in behaviour, particularly in towns on Friday and Saturday nights. There is no excuse for that, and the sooner we deal with it efficiently and fairly, the better.

My greatest pleasure in the Queen's Speech and the pre-Budget speech comes from the way in which the Government have handled the economy and created a stable economic environment with low interest rates, low inflation, a large increase in employment and decrease in unemployment, and a stable environment in which small and medium-sized businesses in Wales can grow. However, I want to draw the attention of all Committee members to the problem of Wales having such a small economy. One or two large companies are having difficulties because the weakness of the euro and the strength of the pound are causing problems in manufacturing, and we must take all possible measures, in conjunction with the Welsh Assembly, to protect our industries while our economy is growing. A major haemorrhage of jobs in Wales could knock the future growth of our GDP per capita off course, and we still have a lot of work to do on that.

I am particularly concerned about an organisation in my constituency that I know well. I tabled a question in the House a couple of years ago asking what plans the Secretary of State for Defence had for the future of our aviation repair agencies and the creation of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, which is based at RAF St. Athan in Wales and at RAF Sealand in your constituency, Mr. Jones. I am deeply concerned at the major change of thinking in that organisation recently, because it could have a dramatic effect on the economy of south Wales. DARA is one of the largest employers in south Wales and provides well-paid and highly skilled jobs.

DARA at RAF St. Athan is a vital component in the aviation industry in the area. If anything should happen to the scale of its operation, there would be a huge knock-on effect on the south Wales economy. Until a couple of months ago, we had every reason to believe that if DARA continued in the way set out in its corporate plan and framework document when it was launched on 1 April 1999, there would be major investment and an expansion of jobs. When I raised constituents' concerns about discussions taking place within the organisation, they were categorically denied and my integrity was questioned by senior employees of that organisation. However, it now appears that proposals are being considered that could dramatically affect employment levels at RAF St. Athan. Those proposals include moving its headquarters not only from RAF St. Athan but from Wales altogether, 18 months after it went there. That would affect only 80 jobs, but if an organisation or company loses its headquarters, people lose confidence. That is why it is vital that the DARA headquarters should stay in Wales and in St. Athan. The organisation is considering moving 165 high-precision, skilled aero-engine jobs from RAF St. Athan in south Wales to Fleetlands in Hampshire. If that decision goes through—as I believe that it will—it could have a big knock-on effect on the Welsh economy.

Worst of all, the organisation is considering moving the operation at RAF St. Athan a couple of miles down the road to a new hangar at Cardiff international airport. I am not against new investment—it is to be welcomed and encouraged—but the problem is that the new facility is designed to take only 1,500 people, whereas about 3,000 people work on the RAF base at St. Athan.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2000
Prepared 11 December 2000