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12 Mar 2003 : Column 365—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I would like to say to the House that, given the time available, if everyone were to take their maximum allocation, there would be many disappointed hon. Members. Perhaps a certain amount of mutual co-operation would assist in enabling everyone to participate.

4.58 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall certainly take that advice to heart.

There are some 30,000 births a year in Wales.

Gareth Thomas: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not one to make frequent points of order, but with the greatest respect, I seek your ruling on this. Is it in order for an Opposition Member to be called in this Welsh debate when he has not even been present for the opening speeches, given the pressure on the Government side for people to be called? A great many of us have been waiting anxiously to be called. I realise that there is a 14-minute limit, and I simply seek your guidance on that point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman should not question the decision of the Chair in that respect. The Chair always has to try to achieve political balance in a debate. Mr. Speaker has made clear—most recently in a letter to hon. Members—the basic courtesies to be observed. Equally, it is recognised that, with the pressure under which hon. Members work, having to be in more than one place at a time—we have already had an example of that explained to us today, and I also know that hon. Members have had duties in Westminster Hall—there has to be some relaxation of the very strict rules of courtesy that we normally try to achieve in the House.

Mr. Swayne: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There are 30,000 births a year in Wales, or 750 in each constituency. Maternity services are vital both in themselves and in colouring many young people's impression of the health service. That impression is marred by the current shortage of midwives in Wales. In Swansea NHS Trust, 11.4 per cent. of vacancies are for midwives, and have been unfilled for more than three months. Across Wales, long-term vacancies for

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midwives account for more than 3 per cent. of all vacancies. That impacts on the care that can be given to women in Wales, and inevitably reduces the choice available to women.

Birth is a natural experience for women—[Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but many women wanting natural births in Wales have to opt for intervention, whether a Caesarean birth or something less invasive, because there are insufficient midwives. An expectant mother who has opted for a natural birth may go into hospital and find on arrival that there is not a dedicated midwife to help her through childbirth. Instead, there is one midwife looking after three women, having to dash between three delivery rooms, so the expectant mother does not have the one-to-one supportive relationship that she was expecting. As the availability of midwives is a problem, it is highly likely that she will opt for an interventionist birth.

It is extraordinary that, although 20 per cent. of women express an interest in having a home birth, in Wales, only 2 per cent. have such a birth. I suspect that that is largely a consequence of the shortage of midwives in Wales. Pregnancy is not an illness.

Julie Morgan rose—

Mr. Swayne: I am afraid that I shall not give way, as I wish to be brief and take up as little time as possible.

Pregnancy is not an illness. It is a perfectly normal experience for women, who should be made aware of the choices available to them. The shortage of midwives in Wales has resulted in an inability to provide those choices, so women's options are restricted. From 2000 to 2001, nearly a quarter of the babies born in Wales were delivered by Caesarean section—an increase of 5 per cent. in five years. That figure is 5 per cent. higher than the figure for England, which itself has a high Caesarean birth rate—much higher than the rest of Europe, for example. Not only does the rest of Europe have a much lower level of Caesarean delivery, but that level is stable, whereas in England, and even more so in Wales, it is unstable and rising, from a much higher initial base.

Caesarean deliveries involve a much higher cost both to the health service, in terms of intervention, and to the long-term health of the women involved. I am sure that there is a connection between the shortage of midwives in Wales and the high rate of caesareans. More skilled, one-to-one midwife support is needed; women receiving the present level of care are much less likely to experience normal vaginal births. I hope the Minister will tell us what the Government are doing to deal with the midwife shortage.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Swayne: No.

I hope the Minister will also give me the figures relating to breastfeeding in Wales. Although the Royal College of Midwives specifically requested me to ask that question, I have a personal interest: my wife is a breastfeeding counsellor for the National Childbirth Trust. Perhaps the Minister could at least give me the latest figures in writing. I know that there is a relatively high rate among those beginning to breastfeed, which tails off markedly after a few months.

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As the Minister doubtless knows, the first week of April is real nappy week in both England and Wales. What are the Government doing to promote the use of "real nappies" in Wales? The issue is particularly important to low-income families, who spend a significant proportion of their income on nappies in supermarkets. It also has landfill implications. We are storing up problems with nappies that are not biodegradable. Hospitals should make parents aware of the perfectly acceptable, less expensive "real nappy" alternatives, which are biodegradable and environmentally friendly.

5.7 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): I shall concentrate on the fight against poverty that has taken place in Wales over the last six years and the situation of low-paid people and their families, and make a couple of helpful suggestions.

Poverty affects every part of the United Kingdom, but all the statistics and our own observations show that the problem has been particularly acute in Wales for many years. Our gross domestic product is historically lower than those in England and Scotland, more people suffer from limiting long-term illnesses, and more claim related social security benefits. A higher proportion of the population receives meals on wheels, incomes are lower than those in both England and Scotland, and more income is derived from social security benefits. Things have improved in recent years, but we have not eliminated those comparative disadvantages, as others have pointed out.

A great deal has been done since 1997, both by the Labour Government here in Westminster and Whitehall and by the Labour-led Government in the National Assembly. The first big difference, for which both levels of government can take a share of the credit, is the reduction in unemployment. Unemployment in Wales is at its lowest for 25 years. We are all contributing information about our own constituencies today. In Gower, the overall unemployment figure is down to 3.1 per cent. Just over 1,000 people still receive jobseeker's allowance: that is too many, and there is much more to do, but in 1997, about twice as many people in my constituency were on the dole.

Since then, we have suffered our share of factory closures and job shedding, which has been traumatic for individuals and families; but there has been none of the desperation that was so evident in the same towns and villages when miners, steelworkers and others were thrown on the scrap heap under the Tory Government, with little prospect of alternative employment. The new deal, welfare-to-work tax credits, better child support, objective 1 and sound economic management have all contributed to those historic reductions in the jobless figures, and to the 61,000 new jobs created in Wales last year alone.

There have also been targeted attacks on poverty in particular groups, such as pensioners, the poorest families and the most deprived and disadvantaged communities. Again, it is action by the UK Government and by the National Assembly that is making a difference. There have also been specific measures to help the working poor through the tax credit system, and through the introduction of the national minimum wage.

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Like many Labour Members from the 1997 intake, I remember the vote to secure the minimum wage, after an all-night sitting, as a high point of that first Parliament. I suppose that it was especially significant for many Welsh Members, because Wales contained some of the worst low-pay blackspots in the country. Research by the Low Pay Commission in south Wales in 1998 showed that 27 per cent. of employees in Fishguard, in the west, got less than £3.50 an hour, and that 25 per cent. in Monmouth, in the east, got less than that figure. In the run-up to the 1997 general election, I remember visiting jobcentres in my constituency and noting down the worst cases. One example was, "Security guard required: £2.80 an hour; must have own dog." However, what appalled me even more than the worst cases was the sheer number of jobs for which the going rate was less than £3.00 an hour.

Julie Morgan: Does my hon. Friend agree that there is, and always has been, a gap between women's and men's earnings, and that although it has reduced, it is still a major issue that needs to be tackled in Wales?

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