Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12 Mar 2003 : Column 344—continued

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): Will the hon. Gentleman therefore publicly distance himself from the outrageous literature that his party produced in the Ogmore by-election?

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman will know that I have often said that, although it can help an individual campaign in the short term, it does not help any party or politics in the medium to long-term to embark on unreasonable campaigning. We can debate those leaflets—I have looked at them and had debates about them. The hon. Gentleman is smart enough to realise that I am not going to conduct a witch hunt in my own party.

Paul Flynn: Why not?

Lembit Öpik: The answer is simple. I respectfully and humbly suggest to hon. Members that we cannot mandate people's attitude, but we can propose a way of looking at politics. Our campaign charter has seven points, which I shall not go through in detail.

12 Mar 2003 : Column 345

Essentially, we focus on campaigning on positive records of delivery; positive policy proposals; and being willing to criticise other parties' weaknesses, but only where appropriate and in the context of party policy proposals. The charter says:

and back them up with facts. The charter continues:

None of that is very radical, and it would be a shame if any Westminster Member felt that it was an inappropriate form of campaigning.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Ogmore by-election, which was held during his tenure as Liberal Democrat spokesman on Welsh affairs. It therefore behoves him and any other leader to ensure that that kind of thing does not happen. I am sure that we all agree with the broad thrust of what he is saying. We do not want personalised politics, but first we must clean out our own stables.

Lembit Öpik: I am making that very appeal to right hon. and hon. Members. It would be neither feasible nor appropriate for me to attempt to clean out the stables of the Labour party, the Conservative party or Plaid Cymru. Perhaps I can do something to achieve a new style of politics among Welsh Liberal Democrats—we will find out. I am making not a mandate but a recommendation, and I urge hon. Members to bear it in mind. They do not have to respond to the charter today, but if they are interested in it they could quietly consider its content in their own time.

We have written to the Conservative party, the Labour party and Plaid Cymru. I detected some scepticism in the responses of Nick Bourne and Ieuan Wyn Jones, but we all know that, at the end of the day, people who go into politics do so on the whole for the right reasons. It is a great shame that individuals are besmirched and dragged down in what, in my judgment, is a noble profession simply because we cannot resist cheap shots when it would be better to remain quiet.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) laughs, which prompts me to do what I did not intend to do, and give an example. He will know that there has been some debate about the prospective Conservative candidate for Llanelli, who made what I consider outrageous homophobic and racist statements. I will not name him, but he says:

There is no doubt whatever that the person who said that was a prospective Conservative candidate for Llanelli. If one intended to be cynical or opportunist one could give the impression that the entire Conservative party held those views, but I think that would be inappropriate, because I do not seriously believe that

12 Mar 2003 : Column 346

even the majority of Conservatives hold them—and, although the hon. Member for Leominster may not know this, I understand that the Conservative party in Wales, to its credit, has taken swift action and fired the candidate.

That is a practical example of what I am talking about. Any attempt to gain mileage from those views would rebound negatively on politics as a whole.

Mr. Simon Thomas: Why did the hon. Gentleman quote them, then?

Lembit Öpik: Because they constitute just one of many possible hostages to fortune that do not reflect the thrust of, in this case, Conservative party policy—although the same could apply to other parties.

Let me end with a request. Members find it hard to resist poking fun at my continued idealism in raising the game of politics. I hope that, in a quiet and perhaps less charged environment, they will consider whether they would be willing to give it a chance, and see whether we can clean up politics. The ultimate winner would be politics as a whole, and we would be able to focus on outcomes rather than process.

That said, the Welsh Liberal Democrats are here to get things done. We do not pretend to have a monopoly on good ideas, and we are willing to work with those who can add value to our views—even members of other parties. We regard politics not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. We do not necessarily consider it to be a conflict; we see it as a competition rather than a war.

I hope that those who feel comfortable about occasionally stepping out of the tired old box of politics that runs us all down will find some resonance in what I have said. Most of all, I hope that the Welsh public—the people who elected us to serve them—find some resonance in the fact that one party is genuinely willing to step outside the negativity that has sometimes bedevilled campaigning, is willing to risk working in partnership to achieve results as we have in the Welsh Assembly, and is trying to live out the creed of Lloyd George himself and get things done. If they do, I hope they will consider supporting us in the forthcoming elections.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have now to announce the result of the Division deferred from a previous day.

On the Question of social security, the Ayes were 279, the Noes 58, so the Question was agreed to.

[The Division Lists are published at the end of today's debates.]

3.48 pm

Denzil Davies (Llanelli): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right to mention the growth in the Welsh economy that has taken place during the last five or six years. He was also right to mention the dramatic fall in unemployment that has occurred in most of our constituencies. In Llanelli it is now half the level in Germany, and I suspect that the same applies in many if not most constituencies.

12 Mar 2003 : Column 347

My right hon. Friend was courageous to point out that economies in the euro area are in a much worse state. I believe that when he was a full-time Foreign Office Minister he used to travel around Wales extolling the virtues of the euro; but the Welsh, being sensible people, did not really listen.

We have better growth than the euro area partly—perhaps wholly—because of the Government's policies and the sensible economic policies of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, we have not solved all of Wales's economic problems, and no one believes that we have done so. We cannot solve in a short time the problems of a country whose infrastructure was built up over 100 years, but practically disappeared within 10 years; however, a good start has been made. We were told during the Assembly elections that it was to be an economic powerhouse. Without wishing to show any disrespect to it, that was one of the more exaggerated statements that were made. Sadly, these days no Government can be an economic powerhouse, given the global economy, the constant pressure on costs and the movement of industry to low-cost areas. It is far more difficult than it was in the 1940s or 1950s for a Government to interfere or intervene, in order to rebuild an economy such as Wales's; however, a good start has been made.

On the other hand, we should not fool ourselves: Wales is still one of the poorer areas of Britain. Some four or five years ago, I looked at budget figures showing the income raised and expenditure spent in Wales. Those figures will have changed, but I doubt whether the underlying position will have changed very much. On taking a percentage of the gross domestic product from those figures, the difference between income raised and expenditure spent—the Maastricht-type deficit—was 15 per cent. One does not have to be a slavish follower of balanced budgets or of the growth and stability pact to know that Wales on its own—I am not making a political point—simply could not finance or sustain a deficit of 15 per cent. It saddens me, as it undoubtedly saddens most of us, to note that according to the figures, Wales still has such a substantial deficit. One priority for the future should be to try to increase the wealth generated in Wales, and thereby to try to fund more of our public expenditure within Wales.

There are those who want to change the Barnett formula. I have no objection to that, although I have yet to see any positive alternatives. I suspect that those who want to change it are looking to obtain more money for Wales—I doubt whether they would be very happy if a new formula produced less money—but were we so to change it, the 15 per cent. deficit would undoubtedly increase. In the past four or five years, public expenditure in Wales has probably grown by between 4 and 5 per cent.; in the next few years, it will certainly grow by that amount. The economy is growing by 2 to 2.5 per cent, so I suspect that current figures would show that the deficit is even higher than 15 per cent. I am not saying that that should not be the case, but that is the reality of the position in Wales. We could use that as the benchmark in examining the progress of the Welsh economy, in order to establish whether it is improving.

Leaving aside the economic consequences of such a deficit, there are also constitutional consequences. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned increasing the powers of the Welsh

12 Mar 2003 : Column 348

Assembly. In looking at that issue—as the Richard commission is—we must also consider the financing behind it, because in effect, there would be a considerable democratic deficit. If we transfer more power from this Parliament to the Assembly in Cardiff bay, it will spend more money but we will have no control over how it is spent. Yet much of the money that will be spent in Cardiff bay is raised not in Wales, but by taxpayers in other parts of the United Kingdom, and although Members such as I represent Welsh constituencies, we represent those people as well. I doubt whether it would benefit Wales to have such a total dependency culture. Nor would it benefit democracy if we in this House, who have to vote on the use of other people's money, were not to be consulted at all, and the money were simply transferred.

I hope that the Richard commission will take that into account. I am not suggesting that one cannot change various anomalies, but major transfers of power from this House to the Welsh Assembly must take account of the economic democratic deficit that would be created because Wales does not raise enough money to finance public expenditure.

The main consequence of that deficit is that we must make every effort to increase wealth in Wales so as to produce more income to pay for our infrastructure. That is not easy: we are an economy that depends heavily on public expenditure. I am not proposing cuts in that expenditure, as we have to have it, but the growth in public expenditure in the past few years has probably been greater than the growth of the economy. Expenditure on health and education has grown, but the growth in welfare expenditure—such as income support, housing benefit and the working families tax credit—reflects the relative poverty of the Welsh economy.

We all welcome the working families tax credit. It is needed in Wales, which has a low income base. However, it subsidises our fairly low wages, and I do not believe that it is sustainable in the medium or long term. Governments sometimes have to retrench. Recessions happen, not necessarily for internal reasons. An economy that is so dependent on what may be called subvention payments, however necessary, does not promise to be sustainable in the future.

I hope that we do not get carried away with the growth that has been achieved. I am sure that we will not. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was right to point out the successes, but we need more companies in Wales that make more money and create wealth. Of course, we need the public expenditure as well, but on its own that will not provide the wealth creation that the market sometimes can produce.

One area of growth in the Welsh economy is quangoland. We have quangos, executive agencies, non-governmental public bodies and governmental public bodies, although all of them exist throughout Britain, not just in Wales. We also have a strange entity that I find difficult to understand—the not-for-profit company. I am sure that other hon. Members receive in their mail from time to time glossy sheets of paper describing the creation of another new not-for-profit company. Such sheets usually have lots of logos at the bottom, saying that the new not-for-profit company is in partnership with lots of other such companies.

12 Mar 2003 : Column 349

I am not sure what not-for-profit companies do. I do not know whether they spend their money wisely, and I am not sure about their accountability, but the not-for-profit company is a very post-modern, new-Labourish concept. What Wales needs is profit companies, not—and I hope that the House will excuse the double negative—not-for-profit ones.

Still, not-for-profit companies exist, and no doubt some perform a useful function. However, they do not come on their own. I am told that they come with social entrepreneurs—another concept that I, in my old-fashioned way, find difficult to understand. I suppose that the social entrepreneur is another post-modern, new-Labourish concept. I suspect that many are more social than entrepreneurial, as they are receptacles for much Government money.

There is no doubt that we must keep our eye on the growth of bureaucracy in Wales. We are a country that loves the committee, and the partnership fits into our culture nicely. We love to sit down and talk about such things, but we must be careful and remember the need for wealth creation.

Whatever their faults, the mining industry, the steel industry and the manufacturing and farming sectors created wealth in Wales. Somehow or other, we must make sure that we get into the new wealth-creating industries and we should not believe that by distributing money to all the various bodies that I have described, we will, in the end, improve the basis on which the Welsh economy is built.

Next Section

IndexHome Page