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12 Mar 2003 : Column 389—continued

6.36 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): It is a tremendous honour to wind up such a well-attended and wide-ranging debate. Hon. Members from all of Wales have contributed, and I shall try to do them justice.

Contributions were made by the Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) and the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies). The hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence), for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) also spoke. There was an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) about the important subject of midwifery and childbirth in Wales—an important subject but, sadly, a short speech.

Other speeches were made by the hon. Members for Gower (Mr. Caton), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), for Clwyd, West (Gareth Thomas), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard), for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan), for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), for Caerphilly (Mr. David) and for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith). The last named made a weighty contribution.

My personal fondness for Wales began when I attended Bangor university and served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. All our thoughts will be with our service personnel in the Gulf, especially with those from Wales.

I was delighted when the hon. Member for Aberavon said that my constituency, being on the borders, had a real Welsh name and he was kind enough to mention that that name is Llanllieni. In the true spirit of bilingualism, I thought that that would look very good next to the word "Leominster" on the annunciator screen. You can imagine my disappointment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when the powers that be in the House told me that such a gesture of unity with Wales was not allowed. I hope that you will look into that rather strict rule.

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The Government have a passion for devolution. That is clear from the amount of money, time and effort that they have put into forming and funding the National Assembly. It is a shame that their enthusiasm for the institution has not been more widely shared by the people of Wales. Indeed, the coming Assembly election will be a litmus test for the Labour party in Wales and the Welsh Assembly itself.

Before the siren voices of the nationalists call for more powers, I believe that the Welsh people will give credit where it is due. If they feel that the Assembly has used its powers wisely and credibly, I hope that they will turn out in support. Last time, turnout was only 46 per cent. If people see the Assembly as a stepping-stone for independence, they will be hesitant in their support. Hon. Members have rightly voiced their reservations, based on the problem that revenue earned in Wales does not equate to revenue spent in Wales.

The Government have other problems to deal with in Wales, as well as across the UK. Their railway policy has changed dramatically. The Wales and Borders franchise has been delayed for bureaucratic reasons. That is unforgivable, particularly when the Government and their Liberal Democrat helpers have gone to so much trouble to blame previous Conservative Governments for difficulties with rail travel. Now we have the Labour-created Strategic Rail Authority—

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wiggin: No, I will not.

The hon. Gentleman spent his speech telling us how important it was to be inclusive and not personal and then decided to attack Conservatives by quoting directly. He always does that.

In my constituency, we still do not have disabled access at Leominster station, so it is particularly disheartening when we find that the Labour-created Strategic Rail Authority is taking trains out of service and cutting £312 million from the rail budget. It is time for the Government to take some responsibility for undermining our railways.

Everyone in Wales, in some way or other, is a victim of the way in which the Government run Welsh affairs. I wish to turn to crime—[Laughter.] Solely for the duration of the debate. Crime is another issue on which the Labour Government have failed. It is no secret that crime in Wales has risen significantly since Labour assumed power in 1997. There has been a 27 per cent. increase in robberies, a figure that has grown steadily and continues to do so. From 1998 to 2002, violent crime rose by 13.7 per cent.

Those figures contrast with the fact that, since 1997, there has been a steady decline in the number of special constables serving in Wales. In 1997, there were 1,150 special constables, which decreased in 1999 to 940, in 2000 to 811 and finally to 701 in 2002. How can reducing the number of serving special police constables in Wales possibly be conducive to reducing crime in Wales?

Increased gun crime and the illegal drugs trade are serious issues throughout Wales. The Western Mail reported that, in Gwent, firearms offences increased by more than 64 per cent. last year. Again, how can a reduction in the number of serving special constables be helpful in that regard?

12 Mar 2003 : Column 391

I now want to turn to health, another example of how, despite taxes going up in this country, public services do not appear to be getting any better. The Conservatives continue to press the Government on the rising waiting lists and GP shortages in Wales. The Government, with their Lib Dem coalition partners in Cardiff, appear to be oblivious to the horrendous waiting lists in Wales, which have risen by an average of 1,000 people every month since 1997. The number of people waiting over 18 months for in-patient treatment has risen by 240 per cent. since 1997, while the number waiting over six months for out-patient treatment has grown by a staggering 1,300 per cent.

The Welsh Assembly coalition has broken an important promise. They vowed that these waiting lists would be eradicated by the end of Labour's first Assembly term. We find that the Government have less than two months to fulfil that promise; it seems highly unlikely that they will. The latest figures, published last year, reveal that 1,747 NHS posts have been vacant for three months or more. That represents an 18 per cent. increase on the figure published just six months earlier.

Despite all the overwhelming evidence that the Government's tax-and-spend policy is not working, the Welsh Assembly Government are continuing to press ahead with further plans to restructure the health service and further bureaucratise and regulate the activities of hard-working doctors and nurses. Jane Hutt, the Welsh Assembly Health Minister, promised that this so-called restructuring would be cost-neutral. The crystal-clear reality is that there is nothing neutral about it at all. As we learned from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley, it will cost Welsh taxpayers at least £15.5 million.

Economic issues in Wales must cause extreme concern to us all. A recently published report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, "A new regional policy for the UK", shows that Wales has the second lowest level of business start-ups in the UK, the third highest unemployment rate, the third lowest levels of income and the highest percentage of people on sickness or disability benefits.

In manufacturing, the situation goes from bad to worse. Welsh manufacturers have been the victims of sharper falls in new orders than the rest of the UK. Orders fell by 24 per cent in Wales, compared with 19 per cent. in Scotland, the next worst affected area. That contradicts the Secretary of State's assertion that the Welsh economy continues to hold its own against the UK regions. Furthermore, the Welsh economy has lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs over the past year. I note yesterday's foreboding of a strong chance of closure of the Corus steel plant in Port Talbot, with the potential for another 3,000 jobs to be lost—[Interruption.] I am delighted if that is not the case, but that is what I read in the newspapers. That is what is published. I confess that I find it hard to reconcile such a gloomy outlook with the remarkable picture that the Secretary of State claims that he can paint of the Welsh economy.

The CBI in Wales also points out a stark picture and states:

If that is not proof that the Labour Government are a business-wrecking Government, nothing is.

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I turn to the impending council tax increases. It is not only business that the Government are taxing into the ground but the ordinary people of Wales. Council taxes are set to increase by a staggering 14 per cent., which is yet another example of the Chancellor's tax-and-spend policies. The Welsh Assembly Government persist in telling us that council tax increases are nothing to do with them but are at the discretion of individual local authorities. The trouble is that local authorities must pay for the extravagant, wasteful policies initiated by the Assembly, not least the ridiculous, monstrous waste of money that is the plan for the new Assembly building in Cardiff bay.

The bottom line is that this Government, in their capacity at Westminster and in the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff, have failed the people of Wales. The Government's approach to so many issues—crime, health, education, industry, agriculture, local government—is fundamentally flawed. Their policies are failing the people of Wales because they do not work.

What would it take to reverse that pattern of decline in Wales? There is only one answer: a radical rethink of how Government policy is implemented in Wales, and a radical revision of the approach that this Government have taken. That radical revision and new approach can come only from the Conservative party. Only the Conservatives have the vision to take stock of what is happening in Wales and reverse the decline by radically changing the policy approach.

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