Building Safer Communities

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Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): As one who supports the minimum wage, I welcome its extension. Is the Secretary of State aware that some young people aged 16 and 17 are being sacked as they approach the age of 18, so that employers can take on younger people at wages way below the minimum? Will the right hon. Gentleman discuss with his colleagues in the Government the possibility of introducing greater safeguards for those below the age of 18?

Mr. Murphy: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. All of those who support the national minimum wage deplore such action.

The rate of growth in the number of jobs in Wales has accelerated, not declined, since the minimum wage was introduced. We should not forget the real human benefits of the minimum wage. More than 100,000 people, almost one in 10 of the working population in Wales, received a pay rise as a result—a pay rise that the Conservative party resisted for years. When they make their contribution to today's debate, those who speak from the Opposition Benches may wish to offer an apology for those years of black propaganda. They may wish to explain to the people of Wales why they did not deserve the safety and security brought by the minimum wage. Once the Conservatives have done that, they should promise not to cut it—if they are ever re-elected.

The minimum wage is only one of the ways in which we have made work pay. We have tackled family and child poverty at the root and therefore ensured the security and safety of our communities.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that certain social services, which have been taken over by organisations such as BUPA, now pay only the minimum wage and that people are now receiving about £2 an hour less? That is a scandal. Will the Government use the Budget to increase the minimum wage to at least £4 an hour?

Mr. Murphy: I would get into awful trouble if I started saying what should be included in the Budget. Nevertheless, I take the general point that the hon. Gentleman makes about those who abuse the system. The problem should be tackled.

Regardless of the overall strength of the economy in Wales, many families face tough times. The callous, short-term and fundamentally flawed decision by Corus to close Ebbw Vale and to shed jobs at Bryngwyn, Shotton and Llanwern is a case in point. Those who represent Welsh constituencies are unanimous in our demand that Corus should reconsider. The right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) certainly believes that, although he mentioned in the Assembly the other day that the steel industry could be taken back into public ownership. That is not realistic; nor would it resolve the problems of the steel industry. I know that the right hon. Gentleman, like me, shares the frustration of those communities, but that is not the answer. The answer must be for Corus to think bigger, to think about the future and to understand that the steel industry in Britain has a future only if it can wait to ensure the right economic conditions. For example, if the exchange rate improves, the steel industry will survive. We know that our plants at Llanwern, Ebbw Vale, Shotton and Bryngwyn are among the most productive and efficient in western Europe. They stand up when compared to any plant in the world. It seems senseless to close them down when all that is needed to retain the jobs is to wait for the economy to change in a certain way.

Mr. Wigley rose—

The Chairman: Order. This is a wide debate, and I know that right hon. and hon. Members will bear its title in mind. I know that the right hon. Gentleman's intervention will be relevant to the debate.

Mr. Wigley: In the context of the Secretary of State's remarks, which were in order and in which he named me, does he agree that the steel industry is a strategic industry? If control of the steel industry passes to the New York stock exchange and to directors of a supranational corporation, the United Kingdom cannot have a meaningful independent defence policy. That is of central relevance.

Mr. Murphy: I take the point that we are talking about whether Welsh communities can be safe. In my mind, there is no question that large-scale redundancies in Ebbw Vale and Newport—they have affected my constituency, as some of my constituents work in Llanwern—and in Shotton and Gorseinon will cause frustration, and that will put our steel communities at risk.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point about the strategic nature of the steel industry, which is why we are asking Corus to reconsider and to take a long-term view. The problem may be the euro, but we know that the exchange rate is improving every day, which affects the argument about UK markets. The steel industry has to understand that if the steelworks are closed, in part or wholly, they will never be able to reopen. Our capacity for steelmaking would inevitably reduce. In the long run, that must be bad for Wales and the UK. I do not believe that seizing assets is the answer. The industry should listen to the trade unions, and to us as public representatives, and think again.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): The Secretary of State seems to be speculating, so what does he believe to be that the optimum euro-sterling exchange rate? That information could allow Corus to take an alternative decision. When does he expect the Chancellor to act?

The Chairman: Order. I know that the Secretary of State will bear it in mind that any speculation should relate to the subject of our debate.

Mr. Murphy: I will indeed, so I shall not go into the detail, even if I could. It would be of great interest to the City and the markets if a member of the Cabinet started speculating about that exchange rate. The policy of the Conservative party would mean that there was no decision on the euro for at least five years. I do not know what impact that would have on the steel industry.

I take your admonition, Mr. Jones, about the nature of the debate, but I emphasise the fact that the safety of Welsh communities is unquestionably put at risk, because the steel closures are so crucial to the well-being of many of our constituencies.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): Will my right hon. Friend underline the strategic importance of the steel industry to building safer and more prosperous communities in Wales? I also look forward to hearing where the Mars Bar Marxist, given his earlier intervention, would get the money for the seizure of the assets of the steel industry in Wales.

Mr. Murphy: Well, he will not get it from me. It is interesting to speculate on where any independent Welsh Government could find assets to pay off the shareholders of Corus, or another such company. However, I fear that we would be diverting the debate down a different path if we continued to discuss that.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales mentioned in answers, I visited Newport, Ebbw Vale and Flintshire—in your company, Mr. Jones, on the latter occasion—to talk to community representatives and steel workers about the impact of such changes as might occur. In every one of those communities, the local authorities, the Members of Parliament, the Assembly Members and the steel workers have all asked Corus to reconsider. I hope that, on the day before the trade unions meet with the company to discuss the plans, the Committee will send a message that all of us who represent Welsh constituencies, irrespective of party allegiance, urge Corus to reconsider their plans.

I said at the outset that poverty and worklessness are not the only enemies of strong and safe communities, important though they are. Crime threatens our safety and security. That is why I am pleased to tell the Committee that police numbers in all Welsh areas have risen while the Labour Government have been in office. Recorded crime is falling. It may not be falling far enough, or fast enough, but we all remember the Tory years, when crime doubled and the then Prime Minister told us that there was no such thing as society.

There is very much a Welsh society, and no one suffered more from the increase in crime in the Conservative years than its poorest and most vulnerable members. That is why the Government are so determined to take swift action against the perpetrators of crime. In Wales, we have led the way by dealing speedily with young offenders. The best performing area in England and Wales is north Wales. Our crime detection rates are among the highest in the United Kingdom. We have established crime and disorder partnerships to involve the whole community in the fight against crime. Furthermore, in this parliamentary Session, we are introducing new measures to tackle specific problems such as anti-social behaviour and car crime.

Crime and other aspects of social exclusion do not affect only the urban areas of Wales; rural Wales has its problems, too. Subsidies for farmers alone will not solve the problems of rural Wales. We already provide more subsidy for farming in the United Kingdom—£3 billion a year—than to every other industry combined. We need to get better value for that money, and that is why I am pleased to offer my support and that of the Government to the Assembly's proposals to modulate that subsidy in Wales, to ensure that the wider rural communities, as well as farmers, benefit from that expenditure. Rural Wales is also the heart of the Welsh language, and so it is right for the Assembly to divert some money from paying for crops into strengthening our communities there as well.

The Welsh language is part of our common inheritance in Wales, whether or not we speak it. All of us should be committed to its flourishing as part of a strong and vibrant Wales. However, the English language is also part of that inheritance. There can be no place at the top table in a modern Wales for those who would seek to monitor or control the use of English in any part of Wales.

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Prepared 13 February 2001