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12 Mar 2003 : Column 374—continued

5.38 pm

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Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): I will exercise discipline to try to give the rest of my comrades the opportunity to speak. It is a great privilege to contribute, as the first Member elected in 2001 to have the opportunity to speak in this debate.

I want to talk about employment and economic activity. Official unemployment rates are dropping dramatically in Wales—in my constituency and elsewhere. That has been because of the success of the new deal and so on. It is also because of new employment. There are many positive things that I could say about the Welsh economy—there have been new opportunities that have gone beyond simply manufacturing jobs. For example, the General Dynamics investment in Oakdale with the Bowman radio project has brought science to the area. The Canadian ambassador made the point very well to me. He said that, "If you have got science, you can get science." Part of the problem in Wales is that we have not had the higher-order activities in terms of the employment base that we need. We should continue to try to get that.

Oshkosh is developing its investment in Llantrisant to build heavy vehicles. If we can attract other Ministry of Defence investment contracts that are available, they could help to provide a new dimension to the vehicles economy in Wales and lead to the development of the heavy vehicle sector. Many good things are happening, so I certainly do not want to talk Wales down.

I come from and live in the valleys and the difficulty that we face is that of economic inactivity. Merthyr is said to have the greatest problem in that respect, with 28 per cent. of the real unemployment rate according to the studies carried out by Sheffield Hallam university. That problem needs examination and action is taking place. Members of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions visited my constituency last week, and I was glad to welcome them. We considered what could be done to help disabled and incapacitated people back into work through projects such as workstep.

The Committee met people from the local job service and some of the brokers involved. It visited the Merthyr Tydfil Institute for the Blind, which might sound like a strange place to visit. However, the institute goes beyond its terms of reference and makes a major contribution not only to Merthyr Tydfil but across the valleys by taking forward the workstep programme. I took my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), who was then in the Treasury team but who is now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to the institute a year ago. As a result, extra investment has gone in to try to cure the problems that we face and that are the result of a legacy that I do not have the time to explain. I am sure that everyone knows the reasons for it.

New Members of Parliament have created opportunities ourselves. Several of my comrades and I commissioned research from the Bevan Foundation to try get a view as to what could be done and not just a measure of the angle of dangle of deprivation. We tried to get an idea of what policy initiatives could be taken to find solutions to the problems. The report should be published soon and I look forward to seeing it. I have not prescribed what it should say, so I shall be interested to read its conclusions. However, I know that it will say that investment is needed in the upper valleys.

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Investment has gone in along the M4 corridor in Wales, but we need a strategic development plan that considers the development of the heads of the valleys and of the crescent across the old Welsh coalfields. That area needs sustained investment. In Merthyr, we will bring in the university of Glamorgan to create links with lifelong learning so that the community can develop a view of what it can do itself and how to achieve that. Our young people are back at work, but we need to develop the circumstances in which economic inactivity is addressed. To do that we need redistribution—I am not afraid to say the word. Indeed, redistribution is going on, and some Conservative Members have spotted that. They do not like it, but I think that there should be a damn sight more redistribution.

We should also consider the tools that we need to achieve our aims, which include operating aids and the extension of employment zones. In Merthyr, we have a great problem with people on incapacity benefits, but we do not have Jobcentre Plus. Some of the tools and techniques need to be brought forward. We need step changes as well as incremental progression. Objective 1 is helpful, but what will come after it? We need to consider that issue.

My predecessor in this place wrote a book entitled "Something Must Be Done", a phrase that originally came from a member of the royal family. He talked about sporadic and episodic investment in the valleys. We do not need that. We need sustained investment, and the Wales Office and its Ministers are well placed to help as brokers. We will bring the report that I have mentioned to the House so that it can be examined by all the Departments of the United Kingdom. We shall also take it to the Assembly, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will be able to act as a broker. Because he also represents us in Europe, I hope that he will be able to take our suggestions to Wales, the United Kingdom and Europe.

5.44 pm

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): The debate on Welsh affairs always affords us a time for reflection. One of my constituents recently gave me some advice. He quoted a distinguished predecessor in the House, Aneurin Bevan, as saying:

In that spirit and as a representative of a steel constituency, I want to reflect on the centrality and importance of steel, despite all the problems that have, and continue to, beset it.

As recently as December 2000, in the document "A Strategy for Modern Manufacturing in Wales", the Wales TUC highlighted the modern advanced nature of the industry. The report said:

The announcement this week that Corus is once again reviewing its UK operations with the possibility of, as it calls it, "significant capacity reductions", causes much anxiety and deep concern, especially in steel communities.

I welcome the positive comments made this week by the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in support of steel. We all

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know that steel has a vital and strategic role within Welsh and British manufacturing. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales to pledge that he will work to ensure that there are no further cuts in capacity in Wales, and in so doing secure the long-term future of Shotton, Llanwern and Port Talbot.

Despite the current internal and external problems of Corus, especially in relation to the sale of its aluminium production in Holland, the economic indicators for Welsh and UK steel are promising. The exchange rates in relation to the euro are increasingly more favourable. The demand for steel in the UK is buoyant and strengthening, especially in the construction industry, and steel prices are stabilising and improving. Industrial relations are good, as evidenced by the recent significant efficiency savings in Welsh plants. Llanwern is in profit, and Port Talbot and Shotton are performing well.

Steel workers in the UK are widely acknowledged as the most efficient in the world. In my experience, there is a growing optimism despite the trauma of recent capacity cuts and the explosion in the No. 5 blast furnace in Port Talbot. The rebuilding of that furnace in record time symbolises a rebirth of the Welsh steel industry. The new furnace very recently broke its production record by producing 33,000 tonnes of liquid iron during the month following its formal opening by the Prince of Wales. That was one of many records recently broken at Port Talbot in the hot mill, the cold mill and the "capl" line. Improved consistency in operations and in quality have been recorded.

That sense of optimism for steel communities is also represented by the community leadership provided by the steel unions in highlighting the importance of skills enhancement and lifelong learning. The Iron and Steel Trades Confederation training arm, steel partnership training, has led the way in many centres from Shotton to Ebbw Vale and Newport. In my constituency, unions have come together with educational providers to form the Port Talbot union academy. Again in my constituency, as a result of support from the Wales union learning fund of the Wales TUC and the Welsh Assembly Government, Amicus and the local authority, Neath Port Talbot county borough council, have created a unique work-based learning initiative at the new Baglan learning centre. It is therefore critical that the Governments in Cardiff and Westminster work in partnership with the Welsh steel industry as never before to secure its long-term future by pledging, by every means possible, to secure all productive capacity throughout Wales.

I began with the importance of reflection. As an historian, I am only too well aware that as the Welsh economy diversifies, there is potential for what is called cultural tourism, especially in the valleys of south Wales. That will be highlighted in a report by the Welsh Development Agency and in a report that colleagues and I commissioned, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) referred, which will be published by the Bevan Foundation later this month.

I recently heard the new Archbishop of Canterbury reflecting on what he called "political virtue", and how he defined that from the poetry of Waldo Williams, whose verse, in his words, exemplifies

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We meet at a time of local and international crisis. We should reflect in a Welsh way on that political virtue and that political legacy of the local and the international community, which we all share.

If we are to develop cultural tourism in Wales, we could start by reflecting on the lives and ideas of two Welsh political thinkers who were both modernisers in their own ways. First, there was Richard Price of Llangeinor, friend of the American and French revolutions of the 18th century, who gently advised his American friends to conduct the kind of foreign policy that would make the United States respected in the world.

Secondly, there was Henry Richard of Tregaron, a Liberal Member of Parliament for Merthyr. He was known as the apostle of peace. He initiated a debate in this House on 8 July 1873. His motion, which was carried, called on the Government of the day to contact foreign powers with a view to the improvement of international law and the establishment of a permanent system of international arbitration. In his own modernising way, he was a Welsh visionary who anticipated the necessity of the United Nations decades before its emergence.

Today of all days, we should reflect on the political virtue of striving to secure the local—in our Welsh communities that are dependent on steel and other employment—and the international by securing peace through the United Nations. By doing so, we would achieve Aneurin Bevan's dream of a Wales we all desire.

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