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It is instructive that the Liberal Democrats choose to oppose two of the most radical and transforming measures that the Labour Government have introduced: the new deal and the child trust fund. Another radical measure, the national minimum wage, is benefiting tens of thousands of people in Wales. Let us not forget that the Leader of the Opposition opposed its introduction because he claimed it would cost 1 million jobs. In fact, since it was introduced, more than 1.5 million additional jobs have been created across Britain.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that the best investment that can be made for young children is at the start of their lives? Holding on to £250 until they are 18 is a wasted opportunity; the real benefit would be felt when the children are very young.
Mr. Hain: I do not know what the definition of the start of one's life is if it is not to be a baby. That is when we are providing for children to receive up to £500, and that will help many thousands of Welsh babies born into low-income families. Over the years, that figure can be added to through public funds and contributions from relatives, to provide a protected asset when the young people reach adulthood. It will enable Welsh babies born into deprived backgrounds, like many of those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and mineespecially in the south of my constituencyto have a decent start in life, which they do not have at present. In other words, it is an equality measure that the Liberal Democrats want to chop.
Average mortgage rates are less than half their level between 1979 and 1997, meaning that home owners in Wales are spending much, much less of their budget on housing costs. An objective 1 programme has already created 22,000 gross new direct and indirect jobs and safeguarded 30,000 more, yet it seems that hardly a week goes by without the Opposition parties putting out a press release attempting to belittle or discredit that programme. They hate it when Labour policies are successful. They love running Wales down, instead of honestly acknowledging that Wales is on the up. I say to them: look at the evidence in your own constituencies
The Secretary of State says that we hate it when the Government are successful, but I hate it when they are not successful. Will he spend some time talking about the council tax rises under the Labour Government over the past seven years?
Mr. Hain: I remember when the local government boundaries were redrawn by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who preceded the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks as Secretary of State for Wales. Council tax increases in my Neath constituency started to take off under the Conservatives, owing to a dreadful, miserable local government settlement, from which we have been trying to recover. We are putting record investment into local government, compared with the cuts, which the hon. Gentleman supports, that the Conservatives introduced in Wales and elsewhere.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new spending assessments of the National Assembly Government, which the Conservatives opposed, help deprived areas such as mine by as much as £7 million a year? Plaid Cymru and Tory Assembly Members refused to support those new arrangements to help deprived communities.
Mr. Hain: That is another example of a shameful attitude of the Liberal Democrats and, especially, the Conservatives in the Assembly. Look at the projects that would not have come into existence and the jobs that would not have been created if it were not for a Government who were prepared to negotiate at the heart of Europe to secure objective 1 status, together with an Assembly Government who were able to draw together partnerships across the public and private sectors to implement the programme.
The truth is that the nationalists cannot stand to see an example of partnership working between different tiers of government in Europe, at Westminster and in Wales. They know that the success of objective 1 would mark the failure of their outdated ideology. An independent Wales cut off from the rest of Britain and isolated from the rest of Europethat is their objective 1.
The Welsh economy still faces many challenges, but we are better placed than for many years to overcome them. Unemployment is still too high. Levels of entrepreneurship are still too low. Our work force must become more highly skilled. We need more research and development activity and stronger links between our higher education institutions and Welsh business.
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend is only too right, because in her constituency, in mine and in those of all Welsh Members, including the Opposition, the cutting of the new deal would deprive thousands of peopledisabled people, lone parents and long-term unemployed and young peopleof the opportunities to work. However, in every area, the Government and the Assembly in Cardiff are working together to address the big challenges that we face.
Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): The Secretary of State mentions the comparatively low level of R and D activity in Wales. Could not the UK Government perform a function in that respect? We have only one Government-funded research centre in Wales, compared with 20 in Scotland. Surely Wales is not getting its fair share of Government-funded research at the moment?
Mr. Hain: One of the things that we are considering in the Lyons review is the relocation of public sector jobs to Wales, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to identify such opportunities. I assure him that we will certainly consider most carefully any research and development opportunities that arise.
Those who are still isolated from the labour market have been targeted for personal assistance and advice through the employment action zones and the new incapacity benefit pilot scheme that covers the Bridgend and Rhondda Cynon Taff areas.
From April to November 2003, the Assembly and the Welsh Development Agency assisted more than 3,300 business starts through the entrepreneurship action plan, and Finance Wales has secured more than £7 million in first phase funding to support start-ups and early stage investment in small and medium-sized enterprises.
The Government have introduced a new range of R and D tax credits, and prestigious R and D facilities, such as those of General Dynamics, are choosing to locate in Wales. I foresee opportunities for Wales in renewable energy products, and I have welcomed Sharp's recent decision to invest in the production of photovoltaic cells for solar energy at its production site in Wrexham. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for helping to secure that investment. That is in addition to existing exciting projects, such as those based on the Baglan energy park.
Over the coming 15 years up to 5 million jobs could be outsourced from European Union countries and the United States combined to countries that are only now industrialising and seeking to catch us up. That is a considerable challenge for us, and it is essential that we accept that our education and training system is central to our ability to respond, as a nation, to such economic challenges in the coming decade and a half. Investment in science and skills is the key to meet the challenge of outsourcing and to ensure that we have a high-quality economy, with high employment and the high skills to underpin it. For that, we need an enabling Government in Westminster and Cardiff, not a minimalist Government who seek to draw back and to cut and chop, as the official Opposition would do.
The Government made clear from the start the priority that we attach to the role of education in our society. As parents and teachers will testify, the investment that we have made and the reforms that we have pioneered are bearing fruit. Utilising that extra investment, and following its own distinctive agenda, the Welsh Assembly Government are developing a world-class education system in Wales, which provides quality learning and ensures that all children have the means to realise their full potential.
Infant classes are at historically low levels. Teacher numbers have increased year on year, with nearly 960 more teachers in maintained schools than there were four years ago. Of those pupils in their final year of compulsory education, 51 cent. achieved five or more GCSE grades at A to C, or vocational equivalent, last year5 per cent. higher than in 1998. Schools across Wales are piloting the exciting new Welsh baccalaureate qualification.
We have recast and modernised the structure of post-16 education in Wales. The Assembly has introduced learning grants to provide guaranteed additional financial support for students in further and higher education, and we are devolving to the Assembly the right to take vital decisions about the student support system for further and higher education students domiciled in Wales, as well as the tuition fee regime.
I am delighted that higher education institutions in Wales are outperforming the UK average in attracting a wider social mix of students and working with groups and communities that are under-represented in higher education, but the Assembly Education Minister, Jane Davidson, shares this Government's desire to ensure far greater access for the children of low-income families than has been the case in the past. I am afraid those children can expect no comfort from the Opposition.
The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) has made it clear that the Conservative proposals for higher education funding are based on reducing the number of university places, so thousands of Welsh youngsters would be denied the chance to go to university. On average, about 500 youngsters in each of our 40 Welsh constituencies would be blocked by the Tory proposals from going on to higher education: Tories blocking new talent, Tories blocking new opportunitiesthe same old Tories doing Wales down again.