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12 Mar 2003 : Column 371—continued

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also a problem for magistrates in my constituency who have to travel considerable distances? Following the centralisation of magistrates courts, that problem is likely to get worse.

Mr. Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. In Llandrindod magistrates court, the youth court was closed. Two magistrates who had been trained and had a particular interest in youth justice work resigned because they now have to travel more than 30 miles to get to a youth court and were not prepared to continue making the great sacrifices that magistrates make to provide those services.

Recently, I took a delegation to meet the Minister from the Lord Chancellor's Department with responsibility for magistrates courts and was accompanied by the hon. Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)—as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik)—to make points on this issue. We were advised that the county council, as the funding body, must make representations if the decision to close Ystradgynlais and Llandrindod is not to be a foregone conclusion.

I have grave doubts about the way in which magistrates courts committees operate. I do not know how accountable they are to the general public or how they perform their deliberations and consultations. The impression that was given— falsely, I think—by the magistrates courts committee is that investment in the courts in Newtown and Brecon may be lost if we oppose the closure of Ystradgynlais and Llandrindod. It is important that those courts remain open so that the criminal justice system is available to everybody in those areas. I hope that the Minister will join us in making representations on those matters, too.

I would like to turn to an issue that I raised with the Minister in a debate in Westminster Hall a couple of weeks ago: two-tier employment in public services that

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have been externalised or privatised. That has occurred in my constituency, and, I am sure, in other hon. Members' constituencies. In my constituency, residential homes for the elderly were externalised to BUPA. Although the staff who were transferred under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 to BUPA had their rights, conditions and pay retained, anyone employed afterwards was employed under much poorer conditions.

For example, the basic rate of pay for carers from the protected staff was £5.50 an hour, whereas, for BUPA staff, it was £4.20 an hour. It gets much worse than that. For protected staff, the Sunday night working rate was £12.86 an hour whereas BUPA staff were on the flat-rate minimum wage of £4.20, which the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) mentioned.

Not only that, the protected staff had 27 days' holiday plus eight bank holidays, whereas the BUPA staff had only 20 days. One can imagine the difficulty of staff working together on such differing rates of pay and conditions. It does not lead to good relationships among the work force. Those on poorer pay and conditions were not so loyal to the establishment in which they were working, which led to a greater turnover of staff. Hon. Members will agree that the quality of life of those in residential homes depends on building relationships between staff and residents. Obviously, that cannot be done if there is a great turnover of staff.

I was therefore very pleased when the Prime Minister announced that he would deal with the two-tier system of employment. On Thursday, I believe, a code of conduct will be published for local authorities in England, under which contracts for externalised or privatised public services will ensure that not only transferred but new staff have the same pay and conditions. I understand the problems in this regard, but, unfortunately, the press release states:

Those who are locked into organisations that have already had contracts with local authorities seem more beleaguered and isolated than ever. I understand that Edwina Hart's office in the Assembly is considering the code of practice with a view to establishing it, or something better, in Wales. Will the Minister consider whether there is any way of dealing with people in such establishments who are on very different rates of pay and conditions from those who were originally transferred?

5.29 pm

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): I know that many of my hon. Friends are anxious to make a contribution to this important debate and I am glad that the convention of having an annual Welsh debate has been observed, even in the context of these difficult times internationally. This debate is taking place closer to St. Patrick's day than to St. David's day, but we all know that St. Patrick was rumoured to be a Welshman.

I was glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to open the debate. He has made a considerable impact in his new job and has been able to

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bring his considerable flair, energy and communication skills to it. He follows in the distinguished footsteps of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), whose great reserves of patience and diplomacy are now being put to such great use in Northern Ireland in an attempt to restore the devolved institutions there. My hon. Friend the Minister also does an excellent job getting around Wales—he has been to north Wales on many occasions and I hear good reports of him.

It is important to acknowledge that devolution is working. We are getting a dividend from having a democratic, directly elected institution in Wales. Some of us, including myself, express frustration and exasperation on occasion at the way in which policy is formulated in Wales. As someone who is comfortable with the direction of the Westminster Government—putting the emphasis on investment and taking a robust approach to the need to reform public services—I sometimes feel frustrated, but I am glad that the campaign, in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State played such an important part, was successful. I seriously believe that devolution is working.

The last four years have been difficult, but we are seeing a real difference. That is because the Labour group in the Assembly is working in partnership with the Labour Government in Westminster.

Hywel Williams: Does the hon. Member agree with Mr. Rhodri Morgan that there is clear red water between the Labour-Liberal Government in the National Assembly and the Administration here?

Gareth Thomas: I am relaxed about any differences. It follows the logic of devolution that the Assembly will take its own path, but there is a strong partnership between Labour in the Assembly and Labour in Westminster. Long may that continue.

We know that on the horizon is a report from an institution called the Richard commission, which is considering the powers and efficacy of the Assembly. We know, too, that the chattering classes—or the Pontcanna pundits, as they may be described in Wales—many of whom are from various academic boltholes, such as Cardiff and Aberystwyth universities, are obsessed by the need to gain parity with Scotland. As a committed devolutionist, I think that we should be very cautious about calling for further powers for the Assembly at this stage. It is a new institution that has to prove itself. We should adopt the test of whether any extension of powers would improve the quality of life for the people we serve. Would it mean better schools and hospitals? If not, it would not pass the test. We have to be pragmatic and cautious.

We are in an election period and I am sure that the electorate in Wales are interested in constitutional issues, but I intend to keep my powder dry. I expect that we will have a robust debate about further powers for the Assembly formulated by Labour members. We must also bear in mind the fact that Wales and England have separate legal systems and I cannot see how we could easily accord further primary legislative powers to the Assembly.

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Very often, these debates concentrate on the negative comments of Opposition spokespersons. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) was rather less negative than usual. In the Tea Room earlier, I had a little joke with him, saying that his speech would be something approaching a whingeathon. It was not—because even he has to give credit where credit is due. The Government have been a big success for Wales. Wales is benefiting from sound management of the economy. We have heard some of the statistics from the Secretary of State: we have had the longest period of low inflation for 40 years; long-term interest rates are at their lowest since the 1960s; and new business growth is high and the survival and growth of small businesses is excellent. That is good news and no mean achievement. Contrast that with what happened under the Conservatives. In 1997, inflation was up at 10 per cent. and interest rates were at a very high level of between 10 to 15 per cent. Unemployment was also high. We should not underestimate the fact that unemployment has fallen considerably in Wales. In my constituency, it has fallen by 63 per cent. The new deal and the minimum wage have made a real difference.

We can be justifiably optimistic. I know that a national characteristic of us Welsh is that of being somewhat melancholic, but I feel that we can be optimistic about the prospects for the Welsh nation, the Welsh economy, and the people of Wales whom we serve. It is a great time to be Welsh. The creative industries are doing well. We have massive extra public spending that is making a great difference to the health service, especially in my part of the world. There have been considerable achievements in education. The prospects are good and there is nothing wrong in talking up Wales. We should be positive.

I want to mention a few figures that relate to the Conwy and Denbighshire NHS Trust. I pay tribute to the excellent work of the management team—in particular, to Hilary Stevens, who is the chair of the trust, and to Gren Kershaw. In the trust, no people have been waiting for more than 12 months for in-patient treatment. In-patient waiting list targets are being met in a wide range of areas—orthopaedics; ear, nose and throat; general surgery and many others. For Abergele hospital and Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, it is a good news story.

On the economy, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) has been active in promoting the St. Asaph business park. Many of my constituents work there. Let us not forget Airbus and let us pay tribute to Lord Barry Jones. Many of us consider him to be a great example. He has brought his considerable oratorical and people skills to bear and he has put Airbus on the map—as has his distinguished successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami). Broughton is good news and Airbus is good news, for the whole of north Wales. Broughton has brought huge inward investment to the area, with a big investment in skills and opportunities. It is a genuine good news story.

I will wind up now because I know that my hon. Friends want to contribute. Let us talk up the Welsh economy. The future is good; the future is Labour.

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