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Mr. Cook: The right hon. Gentleman asks why. I think that I had the third-lowest voting record during the last Parliament, for the very good reason that I spent so much time going around the world. Hon. Members are entitled to have their contribution judged in the round, rather than having it reduced to one simple statistic.
Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): On a point of order that may possibly even be helpful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I distinctly heard my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House say during a reply that, following the indicative vote and the process of consultation by the Minister of State, the Government would introduce a Bill before Easter. I am sure that that is exactly what I heard, whether or not it is subsequently corrected in Hansard. I have also just seen a reply from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which says that after the process I have just described, the Government will make a statement on the way forward. The question is whether there will be a Bill or a statement. Perhaps we can take this opportunity to clear this matter up before we get into further confusion.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Perhaps I can give the Leader of the House the opportunity to respond to that, although I think that the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) might possibly have misheard him.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): I would not wish there to be any doubt about what I said to the House. I have in front of me the words that I used in my opening statement:
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I refer you to column 563 of the Official Report of Tuesday 26 February, and to the personal statement of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, which is entitled "Resignation of Martin Sixsmith"? You may recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Mr. Sixsmith went on television that night to say that he had not resigned, and that negotiations were in train for him to secure his acquiescence to his proposed dismissal, perhaps involving a large sum of taxpayers' money.
Hansard is always regarded as an accurate record, and historians and serious students of politics look to it for a precise and accurate record of what occurred. In this case, it should have said "the so-called resignation" or "the alleged resignation", or even "the desired dismissal", but at that stageand, I believe, even nowMr. Sixsmith had not resigned.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a matter on which the Chair can adjudicate, other than to observe that Hansard was no doubt recording the manner in which the point was announced, and it can do only that. If the hon. Gentleman has a substantive point, he knows that there are other ways in which to pursue it.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I understand the hon. Gentleman's interest in this matter, but he must not try to pursue his uncompleted supplementary question through a point of order to the Chair. I am sure that he will have opportunities to pursue that important matter.
Mr. Austin Mitchell presented a Bill to prevent the sale by auditors of other services to audit clients: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 April, and to be printed [Bill 104].
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): The Welsh day debate first took place in 1944, when Aneurin Bevan, then the Member of Parliament for Ebbw Vale, and other famous Welsh politicians spoke. It is an important feature of the parliamentary calendar that every year we have this unique opportunity for Members of this Parliament who represent Welsh constituencies, and those who do not but have an interest in Welsh matters, to debate, deliberate and discuss any matters that affect the Welsh people.
Since last year, several events have occurred, the most recently significant of which was the arrival in the House of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). We welcome him and, if he catches your eye Mr. Deputy Speaker, we will be able to listen to his maiden speech. He replaces Sir Raymond Powell, and those of us who were friends of Sir Raymond for many years will recall that this was a special day for him. He would be responsible for gathering the daffodils for the debate, and ensuring that every Member who wished to do so would have one to wear.
Sir Raymond's contribution to the House of Commons was, however, much greater than that. When I entered the House in 1987, I had to share accommodation with seven other Members of Parliament. New Members entering the House today do not have to do that. The fact that there is accommodation befitting a modern Parliament is largely due to Sir Ray Powell. He was a great servant to his constituency. Especially significant was the help he gave shopworkers, as a member of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.
We miss Sir Ray Powell today, but, as I have said, we welcome my hon. Friend in his place. He won a significant victory in the recent by-election. Although we may consult opinion polls from day to day and from week to week, the only polls that truly matter are the real polls, and the result achieved by my hon. Friend was significant in many waysperhaps above all because, as a person from the south Wales valleys, he will be able to represent a very diverse constituency.
Since our previous debate on Welsh affairs, there has been another election: the general election. I am tempted, and will succumb to the temptation, to refer to what was said in March last year by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), whose daffodil looks splendid today. He said:
At that point, however, a glimmer must have shone through from the spirit world. The hon. Gentleman correctly predicted that Plaid Cymru would lose Ynys Môn, which it didbut not, as the hon. Gentleman
I hope that we shall hear a further round of predictions from the hon. Gentleman today. If we do, I shall head straight for the bookmakers with my copy of Mystic Nigel's Tips for the Top. I shall resist the temptation to use the Welsh block, big though it is. I will put some of my own money on anything and everything not endorsed by the hon. Gentleman.
We fought the general election robustly. We fought it on the basis of our economic record, our plan to reduce unemployment and poverty, and the need to invest in and reform our great public services. The Conservatives also fought the election in Wales, of course, although no Conservative MP was returned there. They tried to do what I suspect the hon. Member for Ribble Valley will try to do later today: they tried to wipe from the public memory the record of 18 years that were so shameful and damaging for the people of Wales. The Conservatives ran down our public services, introduced botched privatisationsthe classic example being the railway privatisationand managed a boom-and-bust economy.
At the eve-of-poll rally for my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was the main speakerand a great speech he made, too. It was a classic defence of everything that the Labour Government had done. In that speech, he said, "You can't have socialism if you're skint." He is right. To do what we want to doin Wales, through the National Assemblyto improve services for those whom we represent, we must first have a strong economy.
All that is done in Wales to ensure the provision of public services is done against the backcloth of a strong economy, the fourth strongest on the planet. If inflation and mortgage rates were not the lowest for decades, and if unemploymentespecially among young peoplewere not at its lowest for years in every Welsh constituency, the Assembly could not do what it must do to provide those services for our people.
We ended the Conservative practice of using mass unemployment as a means of controlling inflation. We have used money that was squandered on paying dole money to those who wanted work, to help eliminate poverty. That has been the key to the first few years of a Labour Government. It has meant that devolution can work in the provision of services.
Our strong economy has also meant that 90,000 people in Wales benefit from the minimum wage. Thousands of young people who were unemployed now have jobs. Welsh pensioners are better off than they have ever been. By April, the poorest pensioner households will be more than £1,000 a year better off in real terms than they were in 1997; the average pensioner household will be £840 a year better off than it was in that year, as a result of tax and benefit changes; and an extra £6 billion a year will be spent on pensioners, £2.5 billion on the poorest third. Far less than that would have been delivered by the link with earnings.
Working families tax credit and other tax breaks have helped thousands of Welsh people. Child poverty in Wales has been reduced. The personal tax and benefit changes introduced in the last Parliament mean that 1.2 million fewer children are in poverty in the United Kingdom than would otherwise have been the case. As
Moreover, we invested in our public services. We have heard a lot about public services of late. We have heard that some are not working well, and that this is happening while that is not happening. The first thing we had to do, in fact, was to ensure that money went into those public services. Any expert examining the comprehensive spending review presented by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the last spending round will know that billions of pounds were given to Wales in addition to what it would normally have been given, for health and education in particular but for other services too.
Furthermore, for the first time, Wales has had an objective 1 programme that is, properly, additional to the block grant. Nearly half a billion pounds extra went into the coffers of the Assembly. In all the time that the structural fund has existed, that has never happened before. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Prime Minister said that they would not let Wales down, and they did not.
Investment, however, is not enough; there must be reform as well. Sometimes that takes time. Sometimes teachers, nurses, doctors and others must be trained, and that will not happen overnight. Sometimes, naturally, people become impatient. But the reform is happening, and Labour Members remain fully committed to a health service free at the point of use and funded through general taxation.
By far the fairest way to fund health services is though the tax system. As long as the Labour Government remain in office, the tax system will be the essential means of funding our health service. Obviously, it is for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to make his decisions about what level of tax is required to pay for essential investment in public services, but we remain firm on that basic principle.
No doubt we shall hear later how the Opposition propose to fund any changes in the NHS, and how that will fit in with what they have said in past months about levels of expenditure. However, we know that it would not be possible for the Opposition to fund the health serviceor the Welsh block that in turn funds the health serviceif they did not commit themselves to proper expenditure. Therefore, we shall listen with great interest to what the hon. Member for Ribble Valley proposes to do with regard to funding our public services.
However, the Opposition should be reminded of what happened when a previous Conservative Government introduced a new tax and abandoned progressive taxation. That Government in the end had to abandon the community chargeor poll taxbecause it was so unpopular. The importance of what the Opposition propose is so great that I am sure that all hon. Members will be waiting with bated breath to hear what the hon. Member for Ribble Valley has to say.
That is a matter not of ideology, but of common sense. In some constituenciesand the hon. Members representing those areas are in the Chamber todaycertain items of public expenditure have been bolstered by the use of additional private money. Projects that have benefited in that way include schools, hospitals, council offices and waste management schemes, and they have been set up in local authority areas controlled by parties other than the Labour party. Examples include a school in Maesteg, a secondary school and a road in Caerphilly, a secondary school in Ceredigion, schools in Conwy, council offices in Denbighshire, hospitals in Monmouthshire, roads and schools in Newport, primary and nursery schools and local authority offices in Pembrokeshire, community activity in Rhondda Cynon Taff, and integrated waste management schemes in Wrexham.
I am not saying that the use of private funds is to be the main, core means of funding our public services, but there must be innovation in how we deal with reforming and investing in those services, which are vital to every part of Wales. Sometimes, an artificial distinction is made between rural Wales and urban and industrial Wales. Yet the matters to which I have already referredthe benefits to pensioners, the minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the changes in taxationare as significant and important to people living in rural mid-Wales as they are to people in my south Wales valley constituency, or to people in the city of Cardiff.
The police, health, education and transport services are as important in rural Wales as they are elsewhere. Last year, we held our debate just as the scale of the foot and mouth outbreak was becoming clear. For many in the Welsh countryside, the past year has been appalling. If the foot and mouth outbreak taught us one central lesson, it was that tourism and other elements of the rural economy are as important as farming when it comes to providing jobs and prosperity to rural Wales.
The decisions that we took to protect farming were supported by hon. Members of all parties and had widespread effects that went well beyond farming. Although it must be our hope that we will not see another foot and mouth outbreak in our lifetimes, we must recognise that no one can offer any such guarantees. That is why it is so important to learn lessons very quickly, and to be as diligent as we have been over past months. That diligence extends to the issue of food imports, which was raised only yesterday.
It is important to put on record what the Government, and especially the National Assembly, have done over the past year to help rural areas. The Government have set up the rural taskforce, granted deferment of tax, value added tax and national insurance, and offered business advice through Business Connect. We have allowed businesses suffering from cash flow problems to apply for loans worth up to £250,000 from the small firms loan guarantee scheme, and we have encouraged banks, building societies and insurance companies to offer sympathetic treatment.
I suppose that it will be quite a long time before the full effects of foot and mouth on our rural economies are properly known. Only one Welsh constituency has no farms, so I am sure that all hon. Members with constituencies in Wales are conscious of what has occurred in the past year.