Government's Legislative Programme

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Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I congratulate you on your appointment, Mr. Griffiths, and I am pleased to be called to speak. I welcome the Gracious Speech. However, as has been said, many of the issues that will be dealt with on the ground will be the responsibility of the National Assembly.

I welcome the Government's continued commitment to devolution and constitutional reform. I am interested in the next stage of House of Lords reform and am committed to a Chamber that has as many elected Members as possible. I am interested in how the elected element of that Chamber will translate into representation from Wales. We await that interesting development.

I am committed to the continuation of devolution and interested to see how it works out. We have just celebrated the second anniversary of the National Assembly, and many people have talked about what has been achieved and what remains to be achieved. A key issue is how devolution continues to develop and how Welsh solutions to Welsh problems are developed.

Let us consider what has been achieved. Many of us were happy to be involved with the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill. We all agree that our working with the National Assembly to ensure that it was a high priority was a great success. I think that similar Bills are planned for Scotland and Northern Ireland and I have no doubt that England will follow, but Wales has led the way. Devolution has enabled us to develop solutions at particular times. That does not mean that they will always be different, but we may sometimes take the lead.

There are many other examples, such as free admission to national galleries, which was achieved much earlier in Wales than in England. I am well aware of that because I live near the museum in St. Fagans, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). People who have tried to get there on a bank holiday will know that the queue now extends right up the slip road to the motorway. I believe that attendances have quadrupled. Having access to national museums and galleries again—as I did when I was a child—has liberated people in Wales, but we had to suffer during the years when that was not the case.

We mentioned greater investment in primary health care, with free dental checks and prescriptions for the under-25s. Such measures may be small in themselves, but together they shift the emphasis of the heath agenda in Wales towards primary health care and dealing with illness before it develops and hospital treatment is required.

We have no written constitution in the UK, which means that each part can develop in different ways, and it is interesting to see how each aspect of the devolution settlement differs in Wales and Scotland. I always feel fed up when people say, ``Oh, I wish we did this like they do it in Scotland,'' because they are not considering the history of devolution and the opportunities for us to develop in ways that suit us. It will be very interesting to see how devolution develops over the period covered by the Queen's Speech and beyond.

I shall say a little about the health service and the issues that people raised on the doorstep. We must be honest about the problems with provision in certain parts of the health service in Wales and elsewhere. I am particularly concerned about orthopaedic waiting lists in Cardiff, North, because it is part of the Bro Taf health authority, which has a major concern about orthopaedic waiting times and lists. I therefore very much welcome the allocation of £12 million, which I hope will start to shorten those lists.

People who raise such issues on the doorstep say that we have had four years to set things up and we can now deliver. That is their hope, and on the whole they are not looking to any other party. In my constituency, the nationalist Plaid Cymru party was hardly mentioned on the doorsteps, and nor were the other parties. Instead, questions were asked about how we had performed, and how we were going to perform. An element of trust is involved here: we are expected to deliver, and, in particular, to improve the public services. However, we should not get caught up in an agenda that always highlights the misery caused by the problems of the health service. We should state that the National Assembly for Wales is trying to shift the agenda towards a more radical approach to health, in terms of its primary services.

I want to address the questions of how devolution will develop and fit together, and also how the constitution will develop—and it is already evolving. I also want to refer—briefly, because I know that many other hon. Members want to have their say and time is short—to the Bill in the Question's Speech that will allow for greater representation of women, and to how that will affect Wales. It is an important measure that has not yet received enough publicity.

One of the great achievements of the National Assembly is that it has a good gender balance. Of the nine members of the Assembly's Cabinet, five are women and four are men. There are also 16 women and 12 men in the Labour group, to refer only to my own party. That good gender balance is due to the Labour party's commitment to positive action with regard to gender equality. That is right and just, and it will also produce better policies that are more representative of the interests of the general public.

In 1986, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the then Norwegian Prime Minister, said that

    ``It is in the interests of society as a whole that women's values and women's sense of justice be integrated into political life''.

She made that comment when she formed a Government, nearly half of whose members were women.

In the run up to devolution, the Labour party in Wales and Scotland adopted a twinning policy. That was controversial—it produced headlines almost every day in The Western Mail— but it also produced the goods. I am therefore delighted that the Gracious Speech contains a commitment to introduce a Bill to enable political parties lawfully to use mechanisms to ensure that there are more women candidates. I hope that that will enable the composition of the House and of this Committee to change significantly. I also hope that it will be used to change dramatically the situation in local government, because I think that the legislation will apply to all levels of government, and certainly to local government, where many people serve before entering the National Assembly or the Westminster Parliament. It is therefore important that the representation in local government is swiftly addressed.

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Lady believe that there should also be quotas of some form for ethnic minority candidates?

Julie Morgan: I think that that should be considered because ethnic minority candidates are under-represented in the National Assembly and local government.

It is a great shame that the number of women elected to Parliament has fallen slightly since the election of 1997, from 18.2 to 17.9 per cent. When I arrived in Parliament four years ago, there was a record number of new Labour women, and many of them had been selected from all-women shortlists. Labour is the only party that is represented by women from Wales, and three of my four colleagues who are present now were selected from all-women shortlists, and they had to be selected from all-women shortlists. We thought that, the next time around, at the election of 2001, no such mechanism would be necessary, but, sadly, that expectation has been proved wrong—although Labour has far exceeded the other parties in all the measures that it has taken, often in the face of considerable controversy, to promote women and women's equality.

I welcome the strong support for the Bill from the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) and the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), and I hope that we will therefore see a great change with regard to the candidates for the Tory party in Wales. I hope that the Bill will be speedily introduced because it would be good if it could be in place in time for the National Assembly elections to ensure that Labour keep its high percentage of women candidates, and to enable the other parties to follow our example.

The legislation is important for Wales, and it will make the politics very different in the male-dominated Committee and the Chamber of the House. I commend the Government for grasping the issue, and I believe that it shows that they are progressive, in touch with public opinion and moving in a way that will suit the people of Wales.

5.24 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): I thank the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) for drawing attention to my early-day motion No. 40, on Friction Dynamics. I was rather taken aback at the time; indeed, the words ``gob'' and ``smacked'' come to mind. She paraphrased my early-day motion with such startling accuracy that one might think that she was reading the Order Paper. Hearing each phrase, comma and semicolon of my words in her speech made me wonder who had written the other parts of her most interesting and entertaining remarks.

Social security and welfare reform are important for the people of Wales. A disproportionate percentage of our people depend on benefits. We support several measures in the Government's programme, including the emphasis on work as a way out of poverty, the rise in maternity pay and extension of the period to 26 weeks, and the new pension credit, which will relieve some of the penalty on those who have been thrifty in the past.

In some areas, jobs are simply unavailable, and travelling long distances daily for work is not a realistic option. The hon. Member for Ynys Mon said that employment prospects have altered tremendously in his constituency. It is interesting that large numbers of his electors travel to Ireland to take up much more lucrative offers of employment.

Public transport in Wales does not allow people to travel long distances. Jobs must be available locally. Quality child care is not available either. In my constituency, many people have child care responsibilities and would like to return to work. Child care is not available, despite incentives in the working families tax credit system. I know from personal experience that Welsh-medium child care is not available at all.

The pension credit will be welcomed, but there is a danger of further complication given the variety of benefits that older people might claim. The retirement pension, the state earnings-related pension scheme, occupational pensions, private pensions, the minimum income guarantee and the stakeholder pension are all involved, before we even begin to mention disability living allowance and other benefits or income from savings. Deciding what to claim and how to do so and coping with all the forms involved could be a nightmare for older people.

As part of our response to the Queen's Speech, we have called for the reform of the social fund. The functioning, or, rather, malfunctioning, of the social fund will be all too familiar to members of the Committee. I discussed the fund with two of my constituents last week. The first case involved a man who had spent part of his benefit on a training course to improve his employment chances. He had organised the place himself and had paid for it out of his benefit. Perhaps he should not have done so. Perhaps he should have waited for someone else to organise it for him and to pay for it. However, he did so, and was short of money at the end of the fortnight because he had spent the money. He asked for help but was refused and was subject to a review. He was still short of money when I saw him last Friday, and I suggested a crisis loan, but he had no interest in helping himself in that way. He had no interest in applying for a crisis loan because of a previous experience of the social fund, which had been quite enough for him. He went away almost penniless, with no help from me or the social fund.

The second case involved a woman who had had her benefit withdrawn—unjustifiably; I hope that the error has now been corrected. She had very little money, and I suggested that she apply for a crisis loan. To use the phrase coined by my predecessor in Caernarfon in referring to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), she looked as if I had offered her a rat sandwich. She would not apply to the social fund either.

Some years ago, the Labour party set up the Commission on Social Justice, whose report is a useful and instructive document. It states:

    ``The most soul destroying aspect of Income Support is the Social Fund''.

Many applicants are too poor to repay a loan, so they either go without or are driven into the arms of a rapacious private sector. Others realise too late that the payments are deducted at source and that their capacity to manage the small amounts of money that they have to live on is even more constrained. Having to make repayments to the social fund means that people are living below the income support line for months and sometimes years. That affects the majority of claimants, as more than half have such payments deducted from benefits.

The cost of the social fund is a fleabite in terms of the social security budget, yet accounts for much of the misery that the system inflicts. It is high time that the system was reformed. The Social Security Committee made many constructive suggestions in its recent reports. The simplest way to reform the fund would be to change the wretched loans scheme into a system of grants.

Several hon. Members rose—

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Prepared 3 July 2001