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12 Mar 2003 : Column 362—continued

4.45 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): It is a privilege to be able to contribute, albeit briefly, to this important St. David's day debate. I want to start by repeating the comments of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who said that as this is a Welsh affairs debate we should all be mindful of the Welsh service men and women who are in the Gulf. We all hope that they will not be engaged in military action, but if they are our thoughts will be with them.

I intend to focus on the subject of Y Ddraig Goch, or the red dragon—not the red dragon on our national flag, but the Red Dragon project in my constituency—but I want first to talk about one or two points that have arisen so far.

I agree with the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about how great it is to be Welsh and the success that we have recently enjoyed in Wales. One cannot open a newspaper without seeing a great Welsh film star or pop star—or even a great Archbishop of Canterbury. We should also recognise that that success attracts other success, and pay tribute to the adopted Welshmen who chose Wales instead of other countries. The name that comes to mind is that of John Fashanu, that well known Nigerian ambassador for sport and first-class soccer player, who could have had the choice of several Premier league or higher division clubs, but chose, just before Christmas, Barry Town football club—an excellent choice.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman celebrate the BBC's decision to broadcast League of Wales football scores on "Grandstand" for the first time in the history of Wales, which was the result of a campaign run by myself and the BBC all-party group?

Mr. Smith: Given Barry's position in the league, I naturally welcome that decision.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State talked about the great economic success that we have enjoyed in Wales over the past five years. That is undeniable. Unemployment has decreased and opportunities have increased, and a huge redistribution has taken place through a combination of the introduction of the working families tax credit and the minimum wage. That has affected Wales enormously owing to its weak position in terms of incomes compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. We have benefited more than practically any other region of Britain except Northern Ireland. It has been a hugely successful policy.

In one area, however, we have not done enough. Welsh people who work are the hardest-working people in the whole of Europe. They work longer hours and

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have fewer holidays. Trade union rights have been improved—that is right, and they should continue to improve—but it is time we addressed the issue of holidays. As this is a St. David's day debate, I return to the subject of a public holiday on St. David's day. We can use any excuse to give Welsh workers more time off, because they deserve it—they should have more leisure time and more time with their families—but what better reason is there for doing that than to celebrate our patron saint?

Mr. Roger Williams: Would not one of the best excuses to give Welsh working people a holiday be the fact that it is a Liberal Democrat policy in the partnership Government of Wales?

Mr. Smith: Had I known that, I might have thought twice about suggesting it. However, this is an important matter. The Minister will be interested to hear that on St. David's day itself, on Saturday, I carried out a poll among my constituents, and there was a 100 per cent. response in favour of the call for a public holiday on St. David's day. I am sure that he will take that into consideration.

We have introduced some huge benefits, including the minimum income guarantee for our pensioners, the working families tax credit and one that has been very important for my constituents—the stamp duty exemption in less-favoured areas. Five wards in my constituency have benefited directly from that exemption, but unfortunately many of my constituents, like those of other hon. Members, have been unable to do so because the Inland Revenue, through its website and in response to telephone inquiries, continues to issue the advice that they are ineligible—because it is using out-of-date postcodes. There have been scores of inquiries in my constituency and we have recovered thousands of pounds for people who purchased houses since November 2001. We should take that matter up with the Treasury to ensure that people benefit from that exemption.

Another important matter for Wales was the announcement last week by the Department of Transport that for the first time, the Civil Aviation Authority is to be given a statutory responsibility for the health of airline passengers. I understand that this is the first time that such a responsibility has been given to an aviation regulator anywhere in the world. It is especially welcome in Wales, as two years ago the tragic deaths of a number of young Welsh people raised public concern about the problem of deep vein thrombosis among long-haul air travellers. I am thinking of the tragic deaths of young Emma Christoferson, as a result of a return flight from Australia, and of my constituent John Thomas, while returning from his honeymoon in Honolulu. That case began my involvement with the DVT campaign two years ago, although I knew little about the condition at that time.

The steps that the Government have taken are welcome. They have also announced the creation of an aviation health unit at CAA Gatwick, to be funded by a levy on the aviation industry and the airlines. The budget of £200,000 a year is modest, but it will ensure that there is a focus on public health concerns. The unit will be the first port of call for people who have concerns. Those steps are modest but they will be

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important in enabling us to discover the extent, incidence and causes of thrombo-embolic disease among air passengers, which is also the purpose of our campaign. We are still a long way from discovering those things because the necessary research has not yet even begun. I hope that it soon will.

My main focus is on the announcement on Tuesday 25 February of the go-ahead for the red dragon project at RAF St. Athan in my constituency. The project is not purely parochial; the benefits will spread throughout Wales. We shall all be able to take advantage of the project.

The decision was courageous; the project is the first of its type in the world, and there was a great deal of difficulty in obtaining Treasury approval. The Defence Aviation Repair Agency, made up of NARO, the Naval Aircraft Repair Organisation, and MGDA, the RAF Maintenance Group Defence Agency, achieved trading fund status in 1999. In April 2004 it will become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence, trading on the open market. It will no longer be dependent on vote money but will operate entirely on customer income. The organisation will be owned by the MOD, but run purely on commercial lines.

Getting the organisation together has been a long haul; it has taken five years and there have been many obstacles. It could not have been achieved without devolution, without the crucial role played by the Welsh Assembly Government. Interdepartmental differences in Whitehall would have delayed the necessary decisions indefinitely. However, the ability to work in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Minister for Economic Development, Andrew Davies, and with the Welsh Development Agency, which played a crucial role in bringing the project into being, has allowed it to happen.

The project will turn the biggest military base in the whole of Europe, a 1,000 acre development, into a unique aeroplane hangar—a superhangar. It will cost £80 million, and the work has already started. It started as the marquee came down the other Tuesday morning. There will not be another hangar like it in the world. It will not only be capable of taking in up to 47 fast jets for repair, but will be adaptable to take just about any aircraft, from a C-130J at one extreme to small helicopters or commercial planes—Boeing 737s would fit into it—at the other. It will be able to meet any demand in the military aviation market.

Alongside the hangar, an aviation business park will be built on this gigantic air force base, which had become largely redundant under the cuts made by the Conservative Government, who reduced defence spending by more than 30 per cent. in real terms. The development is a tribute to the Ministry of Defence, the Welsh Assembly Government and, most importantly of all, to the Wales Office Ministers, without whose constant direct intervention to push the project forward, it would never have happened. There will be nothing like this facility anywhere in the world, and it is in Wales. It will give the Welsh aviation and aerospace industry a critical mass that it has never had before, and it will become a centre of excellence in third-line military aviation—that is, garage maintenance.

I have to declare to my colleagues that the capacity in this market is almost limitless, if for the wrong reason—the fact that the military aviation business throughout

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the world is one of the most inefficient in existence. We have been courageous enough to commercialise ours. We have not privatised it; that was on the Tory agenda, and it would have been a disaster. The industry has to remain under the umbrella of the defence services, as the situation in Iraq illustrates. It has to have a surge capacity—which many private businesses do not—so that it can meet the needs of our front-line forces and pilots on demand. This was the best way to achieve that, and I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and the Welsh Assembly, on this courageous decision. It will put Wales on the military aviation map. I also congratulate all my right hon. and hon. Friends on helping us to get the project in the first place.

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