Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement

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Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend's flow, as he is rightly making a passionate plea on behalf of his constituents. Is he worried about whether the agency—which is, after all, a public agency with substantial amounts of public money—is properly accountable to Members of Parliament?

Mr. Smith: I thank my hon. Friend for that timely intervention. I do not think that the agency is at all accountable. The framework document clearly stipulates that its chief executive officers should be accountable not only to the House but to its Back Benchers—yet we can get nothing out of it. It is a major public agency, with a turnover of £500 million a year and capital assets of £260 million to £270 million a year, and such behaviour is completely unacceptable.

I shall not develop the argument any further, having flagged up the position for the benefit of members of the Committee. I hope that word will be passed on to hon. Members who are not present. This is a major issue for Wales and for the Welsh economy. The organisation's employees do not come only from my constituency: they are drawn from as far away as Carmarthen to the west, Chepstow to the east and the heads of the valleys and Brecon to the north. The catchment area is huge.

I am not opposed in principle to radical changes—I ask only that they are made openly and transparently so that the House can scrutinise them properly. I am worried that decisions are being taken behind closed doors, that information is not being published and that the work force are living in a climate of fear. This is the year 2000—macho management and the running of organisations through fear should be unacceptable in the private sector, never mind the public sector.

I passionately believe that if decisions are taken openly and transparently—and if the only consideration is the commercial success of the organisation and value for money—RAF St. Athan and Wales will come out on top, as there was every possibility that they would when I first tabled that question.

5.13 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): I apologise for having been unable to attend the early part of the debate this morning, thereby missing the opportunity of listening to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I congratulate his constituents and colleagues in Torfaen on securing world heritage status for Blaenavon, which is a tremendous achievement. Part of my constituency is in the Torfaen district council area, and I know that it will be a great asset to Monmouthshire and the surrounding areas.

This morning, my right hon. Friend spoke about the success of the Welsh economy. It is to his credit that he is part of a Government who have overseen some of the most successful changes in the Welsh economy for many years. Professor Talbot of the university of Glamorgan recently stated that the Welsh economy is enjoying better conditions than at any time since the 1950s and 1960s. The Welsh economy is booming—one may not wish to say that, as we know what always follows booms—although the economy of south-east Wales may not be doing as well as that of south-east England. I hope that we shall be able to sustain steady growth, low inflation and stable interest rates, because that is essential to ensure that we have the resources for health, education, policing and other elements of the Government's programme.

I represent a rural constituency in which a car is a necessity. I congratulate the Government on their recognition in the pre-Budget statement of the concern in rural areas. Many of the small farmers whom I represent are also small hauliers and were facing higher fuel costs. Costs in farming have been increasing while incomes have been falling. I do not share the analysis of farming of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), who has one farm in his constituency. I have several hundred farmers in my constituency, and I know from my discussions with them that they do not agree with his analysis. I am inclined to agree with the farmers in my constituency rather than with my hon. Friend, who knows that we disagree.

Many small farmers have to use their trucks to take stock to market and to abattoirs. There is no abattoir in south-east Wales and many farmers now take their stock to Kenilworth, where I recently visited the new abattoir developed by Farmers First. It is right that the Government recognised those costs and introduced measures to freeze fuel duty, to reduce duty on ultra-low sulphur petrol and ultra-low sulphur diesel and to offer rebates of up to half the cost of vehicle excise duty.

Mr. Evans: How many garages in the hon. Gentleman's constituency sell ultra-low sulphur petrol?

Mr. Edwards: I am not aware of the number, but I was pleased that the Chancellor announced some the changes and the review in a reply to a parliamentary question from me.

In my constituency, one of the leading lights of the so-called people's fuel protest, Mr. David Handley, received a lot of publicity. He came to lobby me some months ago and the only issue that he wanted to talk about was fox hunting. I do not recall him talking about the problems facing small farmers, but if he did, I apologise. He came with other people from the Countryside Alliance to lobby me on hunting.

I represent a rural area with a tradition of hunting that appreciates the service provided by the hunt in taking away fallen stock and getting rid of foxes, which are predators. However, when my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) introduced a private Member's Bill two years ago, four out of five of the letters that I received from rural and urban parts of Monmouthshire were in favour of the Bill. The majority of my constituents believe that it is morally wrong to hunt animals with dogs as a sport. If some foxes are pests or predators, they must be destroyed in the most effective way, but what is the conservation value of other forms of hunting—for example, what value is there for the community in setting two dogs on a hare that has been released? There is concern that the debate has focused solely on fox hunting and not on other forms of hunting that are irrelevant to conservation.

An important element of the pre-Budget statement concerned pensioners. Just a few days before the statement, I attended a meeting of the Monmouth pensioners' forum. I have supported the forum's campaign to restore the link between pensions and earnings that was lost under the previous Government. However, as I told those pensioners, I could not have anticipated some of the measures that the Government would introduce to ensure that pensioners, particularly those on low incomes, will do better than if the link had been restored. I was surprised to learn that 50 per cent. of female pensioners do not receive the full state pension, and that is the precise group that will benefit from the Government's commitment to the minimum income guarantee. I wish that its title was different, because it is confusing. I have asked the Government to reconsider the name, and perhaps we can discuss that.

It is right that the Government are committed to targeting resources at pensioners with the lowest incomes. By April next year, the minimum income guarantee will amount to £92, and by April 2003 to £100.

I support the pensions credit. Many pensioners have occupational pensions, private pensions or modest earnings that take them above the level at which they would be entitled to the minimum income guarantee. It is to the Government's credit that they are examining the pensions credit in order to provide additional resources. In the past couple of weeks, I have met pensioners who have benefited from the £200 winter fuel allowance, the Christmas bonus—modest though that is at the moment—and the free television licences for those who are more than 75 years old. None of the pensioners in Monmouthshire to whom I spoke regard any of those initiatives as gimmicks, nor do they expect them to be taken away by the Conservative party, were it ever to return to government.

I welcome the Government's commitment to the national plan for health, and I hope that its principles will be introduced in Wales. In my constituency, we have seen significant improvements in health provision. I recently attended the opening of a new community hospital in Chepstow, the plans for which were announced shortly after the Government assumed power. I was delighted to attend its official opening by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) and Jane Hutt, the Health and Social Services Secretary in the Welsh Assembly.

Jane Hutt also formally opened the new day surgery unit at Neville Hall hospital in Abergavenny, which will improve health provision in my constituency by allowing patients to get quick elective surgery and to return home on the same day. I hope that the Government and the Welsh Assembly are equally committed to ensuring that we get a new, integrated community hospital in Monmouth with integrated health and social care provision. That project will be a prime example of breaking down the so-called Berlin wall between health and social services.

I welcome Jane Hutt's commitment not to abolish community health councils, as is currently proposed in England. That shows that the Assembly has listened to Welsh representations. I pay tribute to the people who serve in community health councils in Gwent for representing the consumer interest on matters such as deficiencies in the ambulance service in Monmouthshire. I am pleased that the chairman of the All Wales Ambulance Trust will meet me on Friday to discuss those problems.

I welcome the commitment in the Queen's Speech to the special educational needs and disability Bill. That will strengthen the right of pupils with special educational needs to attend mainstream education. Many of my hon. Friends will know the value of integration. It is good to see pupils with different disabilities—learning as well as physical disabilities—integrated in our primary and senior schools, and it is great that that will continue. The Overmonnow special needs unit was recently commended in an inspector's report, and I pay tribute to its teachers and staff.

The criminal justice and police Bill will be welcome in my constituency. There is a widespread feeling that town centres are unsafe environments, especially at weekends, as a result of drink-related disorder. I do not wish to exaggerate the significance of that in my constituency—there have been isolated incidents, but not as many as in some other constituencies. There have been problems in Abergavenny, Monmouth and Chepstow, and I discussed them with the police. I note that there is provision in the Bill for closing licensed premises, but I hope that there can be a greater emphasis on pubwatch schemes, which can help collaboration between licensees, the police and local communities to ensure that pubs are run in a way that does not encourage unruly behaviour. The pubwatch scheme has been especially successful in that respect.

In my constituency, the Gwent police deserve credit for the fall in crime over the past year. A few weeks ago, I was delighted to have a meeting with the chief constable, at which I presented to him a letter that was sent to me by the Prime Minister commending Gwent police for that fall in crime.

I pay tribute to Usk prison, which recently received a favourable report from Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons and gained the charter mark award and Investors in People accreditation.

The pre-Budget statement and the Queen's Speech show the Government's commitment to ensuring a stable economy and to putting the resources into public services that Wales needs. That is appreciated by the people of Monmouthshire.

5.25 pm

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Prepared 11 December 2000