Government's Legislative Programme

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that, because of poverty in rural and urban areas, the problem with NHS dental provision is serious throughout Wales? The alternative to NHS care in such circumstances is no care at all, which will ultimately cost society much more.

Mr. Williams: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments; I agree that there is no choice for such people.

Then there is the case of the 5.30 bus in Sennybridge—the Lord Lucan of the transport system. It disappeared without any warning one day and it has not been seen since, although there have been some unconfirmed sightings. That is typical, really. Bus services are reducing in our area, particularly in the Sennybridge, Brecon and Merthyr Tydfil triangle and down the Swansea valley. Although, out of necessity, my constituency has some of the highest car ownership figures, many of my constituents are still without cars and depend on public transport, which is increasingly infrequent and inconvenient.

The Queen's Speech sadly lacked anything on agriculture and rural affairs. The problems of agriculture have been well documented. I should like to mention one that keeps surfacing, whose true effect I do not believe is yet known. Imports of meat and meat products are becoming less and less regulated. There are fewer people at the ports to inspect the meat as it comes into the country, and fewer and fewer customs officers. We face the prospect of German beef—meat from the European Union—containing spinal cord material entering the country. We have put great emphasis on ensuring that all our meat is up to standard and yet our partners in the Community can export to us without the complete assurance that their meat is safe.

If that is so for countries in the EU, how much more is it the case for third world countries? I have grave reservations about the quality of meat from such countries. They have inferior hygiene systems and less well developed welfare standards in the production of animal products. They can therefore undercut our farmers in the economics of production. Worse, such production jeopardises the health of our nation.

On the subject of economics, what has the foot and mouth outbreak cost us? I trust that we will have a completely open and public inquiry into the causes of the outbreak and its handling. If it turns out that foot and mouth was introduced into this country by a meat import, how much would this country and our consumers have saved from such imports? The cost to this country will have been huge.

The Queen's Speech advocates the production of energy from renewable sources. The experience in my constituency—I am sure that other hon. Members have had similar experiences—is that large-scale operations are often unacceptable to local people. However, there are acceptable ways which galvanise communities into working together. I am talking about community-sized operations, whether they be wood-burning energy production or hydro-electric schemes. We have the opportunity to promote that type of development in Wales.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on the subject of energy provision. Does he share my delight at this afternoon's announcement from the European Parliament to give special dispensation to Aberthaw power station to continue the vital production of energy for south Wales for at least the next few decades? That decision will be welcomed by everyone in this Room. I am glad that those few politicians in Wales who were stupid enough to try to insist that the regulations were framed so tightly that Aberthaw might have to be closed have lost the day.

Mr. Williams: In principle, I am sure that continuing production is a good idea. I am sure that it is important for the hon. Gentleman. As I understand it, it will ensure the continued use of Welsh coal from the Tower colliery. A project such as an energy-promoting scheme can be useful for bringing communities together.

The Queen's Speech has a lot of good in it, but could people ever doubt that investing more heavily in education to reduce class sizes in primary schools would improve education? For a long time it was argued that the quality of teaching rather than the number of children in a class was what mattered. I am pleased to see class sizes falling. For schools in my constituency—until recently I was a school governor—that is most welcome. I would like ever-greater strides to be taken in that respect. The Liberal Democrats are committed to ensuring that resources are sufficient for that to happen.

4.24 pm

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): Thank you, Mr. Griffiths, for catching my eye.

I welcome the Gracious Speech because it places due emphasis on both enterprise and social inclusion, both of which are so important for building a more socially just and tolerant society in Wales. The greatest challenge to Wales today is the scourge of social and economic deprivation. The Gracious Speech built on the considerable progress made in tackling the problem by the Labour Government and the Labour-led Assembly in recent years, particularly regarding public service investment, pensions, job creation, the rights of disabled people and their carers.

In tackling deprivation we must remember that, according to the multiple deprivation index in Wales produced by the National Assembly last summer, three quarters of the most deprived communities in the top 100 most deprived communities in Wales are in or near the former coalfields of north and south Wales. Six of those deprived communities—Gwynfi, Glycorrwg, Cymer, Briton Ferry West, Sandfills east and Sandfills west—are in my constituency. Deprivation exists elsewhere, of course; I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) speak about it earlier. However, as I shall illustrate more fully in a moment, the scale and density of deprivation in the former coalfields is of a different order. I acknowledge that other areas—such as Ynys Mon, which has five mainly rural wards—feature prominently in the top 10 worst areas of deprivation.

Considerable progress has been made since 1997 in tackling poverty both in my constituency and throughout Wales. On the four key measures of deprivation—joblessness, low incomes, health and education—significant progress has occurred in Aberavon. Mainly as a result of the new deal, it has seen a reduction in youth unemployment of more than 60 per cent. Many people on low incomes have benefited from the national minimum wage. After a delay of nearly 18 years, local people now have the new Baglan hospital to serve them. Perhaps the most striking impact of investment in education has been the progress of two comprehensive schools, Cymer Afan and Sandfields. Last year, they were the two most improved comprehensive schools in the whole of Wales. If ever there were testimony to the value of public investment in education, it would be such progress in the most deprived areas of my constituency.

We have also benefited from the Labour-led National Assembly's wonderful Community First initiative and objective 1 status. More, however, needs to be done for the valley communities, particularly in advocacy, capacity building and the sort of partnership that we have already witnessed between Westminster and Cardiff. The Coalfield Communities Campaign has called for a coalfields taskforce for Wales. To build on that we need a manifesto for the valleys which emphasises quality of life and social justice.

In conclusion, the Gracious Speech provides a platform for a socialist advance for the valleys and similar communities throughout Wales. I therefore wholeheartedly welcome and endorse it.

4.28 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I begin, Mr. Griffiths, by welcoming you to your new post. My hon. Friend the Member for Meironnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) forgot to welcome you formally, but he had a word with me during our break for lunch to ensure that I acknowledge the change in the chairmanship of our Committee. I do not pretend, even after a year in the House, to know how such things are done, but I am sure that the position is well deserved. You bring much experience to the post, and I look forward to many more meetings of the Welsh Grand Committee—a few of them even in Wales. I make an immediate pitch, of course, for Aberyron as the best possible setting. I think that hon. Members secretly enjoy going to west Wales because it does not give them time to get back. The day has to be dedicated to the tourist delights of Aberyron.

This is a good time to debate some of the issues that arose at the general election. The Secretary of State talked about the message that the Labour party took to the doorsteps of Wales. My party took a strong message to the people, as I am sure did all the parties—although the message of the Conservative party was somewhat mixed in that it was delivered by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), whose qualities in the House are evident but who does not immediately appeal to the people of Wales, or indeed to those on the Conservative Benches, as a Welsh Member of Parliament. That is a difficulty for him, but there we are.

We must all acknowledge that we met disillusionment on the doorsteps. The media like to call it apathy, but it was not. I found people who were not apathetic but angry, concerned and disillusioned. They wanted to change things but simply did not know how to do so. My job is to try to persuade such disillusioned people to vote for me in order to do that on their behalf, and I am glad that I had a certain amount of success in doing so. However, the overall vote in Wales went down once again, this time by about 12 per cent. That is a shocking decline.

I welcome the Secretary of State's opening remarks about the need for a wider debate, across all the parties, on how we can again involve people in politics. The forum of the Welsh Grand Committee could be used to demonstrate that, although the major financial and tax decisions are made in Westminster, it is still relevant for Welsh Members to act as a body for the interests of Wales. I commend to the Secretary of State a report of the previous Public Administration Committee, which talked about public participation, in the wider sense, in social life throughout the United Kingdom. There is much in that report that hon. Members should advocate. I declare a small interest because in the job that I had before I was elected as a Member of Parliament we engaged communities in rural areas in decision making. That is a key issue.

One receives many items through the post. As they go on the way to the big recycling sacks, one occasionally catches a glimpse of them; a headline, for example, will catch one's eye. A headline about Quebec caught my eye today. We all know the fascinating discussion in Quebec on the constitution from time to time. The headline stated that voter turnout in Quebec is consistently among the highest in the world and has always been above 75 per cent. In referendums, it often reaches between 82 and 93 per cent. That raises the question of how we engage the Welsh public in a debate on the future of Wales.

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Prepared 3 July 2001