Government's Legislative Programme

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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some operations now take place in private hospitals, and that there is a greater need for certain operations that the private sector is able to carry out? Therefore, there is a dual use for private hospitals. We have moved a long way since the 1960s. I remember growing up in Swansea when private hospitals and medicine were mercilessly attacked. Cannot we simply accept that private medical care has a role—one that this Government actually use?

Mr. Thomas: I certainly accept the hon. Gentleman's first point, which is that private hospitals are now used to plug a gap in public health care provision. For as long as private sector hospitals need to be used in that way, I support that. My party's key principle on the issue is not necessarily one of ideology, but of honest cost-benefit analysis. We must not go for the cheap option today knowing that it will be expensive over 20 or 30 years. We need to have that principle in mind in our debate.

I turn to another issue that was brought up in the general election, the long-term care of the elderly. It was not totally reflected in the Queen's Speech, although perhaps it should have been. It affects my constituency greatly, as my constituency vies with that of the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) as having the highest number of long-term elderly in need of care, mainly because of people who retire to an attractive coastal area. That obviously puts certain pressure on local services.

It is worth bearing in mind that we did not have a proper debate in the general election about taxation, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, the use of a higher rate of taxation to plug some funding gaps. We have not had that discussion in the debate on the Queen's Speech either, and it is strange that it appears to be emerging in the election for the leadership of the party that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley represents. At the general election we advocated use of a higher rate of taxation to pay for long-term care of the elderly. In Wales, the cost of personal and nursing care is about £50 million a year. That is a lot of money, but it is a reasonable sum if it allows our elderly to have a reasonable quality of life.

As it happens, that figure is the same as the health underspend in Wales this year. The underspend will not necessarily be long-term underspent, and could be used for other purposes, but there is something to be said for changing the Assembly's ability to meet the cost of long-term care of the elderly, as the Scottish Parliament has been able to. Of course, the powers are not all there now.

I hope that some education issues will pass us in Wales by. As hon. Members have said, we have no clear need for different sorts of specialist schools. We have Welsh language schools and Church schools, so we already have a diverse educational system in Wales, all predicated on the comprehensive system. My party and I want that kept in future, and we want it to be preserved by the National Assembly.

I hope that the Bill mentioned by the Secretary of State will be as permissive as possible in Wales, because I share some of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy regarding sponsorship in schools. I would not like to see school meals sponsored by Mars, as that would not be educationally or nutritionally advisable. I do not want to see educational packs sponsored by commercial companies that have something to gain by targeting a market of young people and children.

We need to consider taking action on television advertising aimed at children, bearing in mind the fact that Scandinavian countries do not allow advertising to be targeted at children during some hours of the day. Certainly, we should not enhance the way in which our children are exposed to such strong commercial pressures. We must remember that they then put pressure back on parents in turn. I declare an interest here, as one who sometimes has to resist those pressures.

I now want to make a broader comment on the increasing emphasis on faith schools. Although the point may not have so much importance for Wales, we must wait and see what happens. I have some concerns about the functions of such schools generally, because I believe that unfortunately, both for Christian and for Muslim students, they are being used as a method of segregation in large conurbations. Parental choice there means de facto segregation, which is a route that we do not want to take in this country. I do not know how we can preserve genuine choices of faith schools and at the same time preserve genuine mixed communities, which the Government—and I—see as central to strong local communities. A difficult task faces us, but one thing is certain: we should have a debate before the Government goes headlong into encouraging the development of such schools. I do not think that there would be much of a case for such development in Wales, but I am talking about the United Kingdom as a whole.

I conclude with a few words about higher and further education in Wales, which has been heavily affected in recent years. Many Members attended a lobby by the University and College Lecturers' Union—NATFHE—in which that sector made clear its difficulty in keeping up with the education sector as a whole. The pay of some of those people has fallen behind that of sixth-form teachers, for example.

I draw the attention of the Committee and of the Secretary of State to the question that I asked him earlier today about the Rees report. I accept that he has considered the recommendations, and I genuinely hope that he will read parts of the report, because it contains a real message. It is an independent report commissioned by the National Assembly. It recognises that tuition fees are a barrier to obtaining education for some, but says that the real barrier is related to maintenance grants, and attracting students from poorer backgrounds to university and sustaining them there. That is an issue for the United Kingdom Government, not the National Assembly. The Assembly may ignore my advice, but if it does it will be taking money from Paul to pay Rhodri, as it were. How higher education for students will be funded is a decision for the United Kingdom Parliament.

I hope that the Secretary of State will use the Rees report in debates in Cabinet and in his own party to advocate at least some return to means-tested maintenance grants. Access funds are supposed to be a safeguard against maintenance grant failure, but they are actually a misnomer, because they do not give anyone access to education. They kick in only when a student is fully indebted with a full student loan, so we do not have the safeguard that the Government and others would like to tell us that we have. There are two universities in my constituency, and I have seen a detrimental effect on the local economy from declining student numbers and from the decline in the student economy.

Those are the issues that I would have liked to see addressed in the Queen's Speech, on which there is a continuing debate. However, I take the opportunity to welcome what the Secretary of State said in the middle of his speech about a better understanding or relationship with the National Assembly, and about permitting it do as much as possible within the ambit of Bills. That is a key interim phase before a proper Parliament for Wales is established, and it is what I and many other Members would like to come about—a proper Parliament that can deal with the things that I have criticised the Queen's Speech for leaving out, such as long-term care, tuition fees, student fees and health reform in Wales. We need a Parliament with the full ability to legislate in all the areas currently devolved, and others, such as police authorities, which should perhaps have been devolved.

So far, all we have had from the Government is ``all gong and no dinner''—to use a phase that a constituent of mine used in a public meeting. In other words, the sound and the fury have been there but the delivery has been missing. The Government have been elected to deliver, and I hope that they will do that.

4.53 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Mon): I congratulate you, Mr. Griffiths, on your appointment as Chairman of the Welsh Grand Committee.

I welcome the Queen's Speech and the measures therein, particularly the priorities given to education, health, crime and welfare reform. I also welcome the maintained commitment of the Government to devolution in Wales, and I do that as somebody who has supported devolution for over two decades. I want to see that work, and it is the duty of all members of the Committee to ensure that devolution works for Wales. That is why I was encouraged when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State talked about the importance of a working partnership between the Grand Committee, the Westminster Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. At the general election, the people of Wales gave the Government a mandate to deliver on public services, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) said. That is the task ahead of us.

In giving that mandate, the electorate also rejected the policies of the Opposition, particularly their economic and fiscal policies. To deliver the investment that is needed in public services, it is essential to have economic stability, and that is what the people of Wales want. Macro-economic policies are fundamental to reform, which leads to a more prosperous society.

I was pleased by the mention of education reform in the Queen's Speech because diversity is important—hon. Members have discussed the diversity in each of our constituencies, and that should be maintained. While education is a devolved matter, we, as Members of the first full Parliament since the National Assembly for Wales was set up, have a positive role to play in our constituencies to ensure that standards are maintained and, indeed, improved.

Education, education, education was the mantra of the Prime Minister before we were elected to our first term and that must be followed by jobs, jobs, jobs. Areas such as my own need real remedies, not just rhetoric. During the past two decades, there has been under-investment and a period of so-called boom and bust. On Ynys Mon we had a lot of bust, but not much boom. It is time that that changed, and that is why I welcome the Secretary of State's comments that objective 1 and initiatives such as Community First are vital, and we must work with the National Assembly to ensure that there is economic growth across Wales: from Caerdydd to Caergybi, from Cardiff to Holyhead and from Penmon to Pembroke. We need even development to do that and we must have a fully integrated transport system. We must use all modes of transport—road, rail, sea and air—to spread wealth across Wales.

My constituency of Ynys Mon is predominantly rural, but I get fed up when people say that there was nothing for rural communities in the Budgets since 1997 and the Queen's Speech. It is also nonsense to say that recent measures have been just for middle England. I do not speak about rural and urban communities, but about a united community that is both rural and urban. People in the rural parts of my united community benefit from greater involvement in the running of their health service, from legislation to help the police to fight crime, from welfare reforms, and from measures to help people back to work. We must not forget that that helps rural and urban communities. We can move forward to a more prosperous, equal and inclusive Welsh society only with a radical outlook to reform our public services that is combined with sound public finances. I know that that is a society to which we all aspire.

I have a concern about low turnout, although that was not in the Queen's Speech. We must start to engage with young people especially, and get them interested in the democratic process. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said that people whom he met on the stump were not interested, and were not doing cartwheels about our record on schools and health. That may be the case. However, the people were also rejecting uncosted and unreal policies put forward by the Opposition. What is for sure is that they were not interested in more powers for the National Assembly for Wales. The people whom I encountered were not interested in national status, which I believe is just code for independence. The new pact may underpin their views on the matter. The hon. Member for Ceredigion refused to mention the word independence. However, it is a word that the Scottish National party happily used in its manifesto before the general election, and the pact may recover that in good time. However, I tell the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that my constituents also rejected the ``just save the pound'' Tory mantra.

It is because Labour Members engaged with the people of Wales over the election period and the past four years, with the result that the Queen's Speech includes the real issues of health, education, crime and welfare, that we have 34 out of 40 Members on the Government Benches. That is why I am part of that winning team. That is why Mon Mam Cymru, the mother of Wales, is back in the political mainstream. I look forward to contributing to this programme and the measures contained in it over the coming months.

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