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The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Employment in Wales is at a record level with more people in work than ever before. According to the latest figures, employment in Wales rose by a massive 15,000 compared with a year ago.
Mr. Jones: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, for the first time since figures have been produced in this country, unemployment in Clwyd, South is less than 2 per cent., which is considered full employment? Is he further aware that under the Tories, when I was elected to Parliament in 1987, the figure was 16 per cent? There are not a lot of Conservative Members here today[Hon. Members: "Three."] The Conservatives could do nothing about that.
Mr. Hain: Indeed, and that is why Tory MPs lost their jobs at successive elections. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the incredibly strong employment situation in his constituency and right across north Wales. Under the Conservatives, 39,000 people in north Wales were unemployed. Under Labour, that figure has fallen right down to 7,600, and there are more than enough vacancies in the employment market to match that. So, the message is to continue with economic stability, low interest rates, job creation and public investmentall of it creating the most dynamic economy in north Wales for generations.
"On the surface . . . unemployment appears to have reached tolerably low levels, but when combined with sickness and disability claimants, the proportions not working are higher than almost anywhere else in the UK."
When will the Secretary of State realise that decreasing unemployment rates are nothing to brag about when the long-term unemployment rate has increased by 21.8 per cent. in the past year? Economic activity stands at 75.6 per cent. compared with 78.7 per cent. for the UK. The rate has continued to fall over the past year, so what has he got to boast about?
I am not boasting; I am telling the facts as we know them in Wales. The economy is more buoyant than it has been for generations and is light years away from the misery and devastation of the Conservative years. Even today in south Wales, the Ministry of Defence has announced that the Atlas consortium, which includes world-class companies such as Cogent, Logica and General Dynamics, has been awarded preferred bidder status for a £4 billion contract for high-tech security communications. Hundreds of new jobs are coming to south Wales, and it was recently announced that the contract for the AirTanker project has gone to Airbus in Broughton. There has been very good news about jobs for both north and south Wales over the past few days.
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Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend has said, the AirTanker project is excellent news for north Wales. It will secure many thousands of jobs, including thousands of jobs throughout the United Kingdom and in the aerospace industry as a whole. Does it not also demonstrate the Government's commitment to British industry?
Mr. Hain: It does indeed. I am delighted for Airbus, which is now one of the leading world-class companies. It is doing better each year, with more jobs, more high-quality investment and the support of a Government who provide economic stability, lower interest rates and investment in skills, allowing it to flourish and win contracts like this.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the big disincentives that prevent small businesses from increasing the number of jobs is the huge burden of statistical surveys that they are required to undertake? Will he go with me to visit the Radnor Hills mineral water company, which is required to fill in eight forms at any one time and may have to fill in more than 30 in a year? Representations have been made to the Treasury, but it says that the company must continue that work.
Mr. Hain: I should be happy to look into the matter for the hon. Gentleman, but I am sure that he will acknowledge that the business climate in his constituency is better than it has been in living memory. More jobs are being created, unemployment has fallen and there are business start-ups right across Wales, including in his constituency. I hope that he is backing those, rather than talking the economy down as the Conservatives always try to do.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): Given that long-term youth unemployment has fallen by 89 per cent. in my constituency, will my right hon. Friend tell us what effect the abolition of the new deal would have on unemployment prospects in my constituency and, indeed, Wales as a whole?
Mr. Hain: It would have a disastrous impact. It is incredibly irresponsible of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives to advocate the abolition of the new deal. That would take us back to the days when young people in Wales had no hope and no opportunities, and people with disabilities and lone parents were left at home and ignored. We have supported them, more and more are starting work, and the new deal has been a fantastic success.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig):
I am proud of this Labour Government's historic commitment to halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it within a generation. Since 1997, 2.1 million children in Great Britain have
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been taken out of absolute poverty. The data show that progress made in Wales over the same period has been at least in line with progress made in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Williams: I welcome that evidence of the alleviation of the problem, but does my hon. Friend agree that all too often child poverty is a function of ongoing family poverty? How effectively are we using the education system to enable the current younger generation to break free of that cycle?
Mr. Touhig: My right hon. Friend will know that for the people whom he and I representworking people in Waleseducation has been the key path out of poverty. The commitment of the Government and our colleagues in the Assembly to investing in education, and ensuring that our people have the basic grounding and skills that they need, is making an important contribution to the eradication of poverty in our country.
Since November 2003, almost 27,000 families in Swansea and more than 350,000 in Wales as a whole, have gained from child benefit. The child tax credit introduced in 2003 is benefiting 225,000 families in Wales and 17,000 in-work families in Swansea. Those and a host of other measures are contributing to the reduction of poverty in our society. That is a commitment about which the Government are absolutely serious, and one on which we are delivering.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Is the Minister aware that the closure of children's care centres could exacerbate the problem of child poverty? For example, Country Kids, which currently operates a pre-school day nursery as well as an after-school and school holiday club for many children, is due to close as a result of a 300 per cent. hike in staffing costs in the past three years, caused by regulations imposed by the Wales care standards inspectorate. I accept that the Minister cannot give me a detailed answer today, but is he willing to meet me to discuss this serious issue, which surely affects more constituencies than just mine?
Mr. Touhig: Indeed, I will take on board the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. If he would like to give me some information, I will happily discuss it with him and see what can be done. However, he will recognise that this Government have put huge resources into ending the problem of child poverty, and I only wish that his party were as supportive of that as they are of some other things.
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): Recognising the important link between nursery education and the elimination of child poverty, is my hon. Friend aware that the Tory-controlled Vale of Glamorgan county council is going to withdraw all full-time nursery provision from September? Will he meet his counterparts in the Welsh Assembly Government to try to prevent implementation of this disastrous policy?
I am not surprised at anything that the Tories do in my hon. Friend's council. When we came to power in 1997, the Tories left a shameful legacy of child poverty. The problems of poverty and social exclusion across Wales and the huge gap between the rich and the
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poor were evident to everybody. It is important that we continue this Government's commitment to investing in education and overcoming the problems of child poverty. One child in three in Wales lived in a low-income household when the Conservatives were in government; they will never be in government again to damage and harm our people, as they did in the past.
Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Shortly after the Chancellor announced that more money would go into child care in the UK, the National Assembly cut funding for before-school and after-school clubs by 60 per cent.from £1 million to £400,000. Will the Minister order the Assembly to follow England, as his boss reportedly did in respect of the health service?
Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman's party has a history of neglect in these matters in Wales. We hardly need lectures from a party that, when in office, waged a war of attrition against mining communities and damaged thousands of our people, putting them on the dole and leaving them in negative equity. In addressing a party conference in Wales, the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party said of an important contribution that we are making to overcoming poverty, the minimum wage, "There is only"
Alan Howarth (Newport, East) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the work of Home-Start in Newport and elsewhere in Wales, mobilising as it does sensitively and practically the resources of the voluntary and statutory sectors to help families with children in need, better to ensure that such children grow up other than in poverty?
Mr. Touhig: I certainly endorse what my right hon. Friend says. I have the same experience in my constituency, where people are making a hugely positive contribution to tackling the difficulties that poverty poses in our society. Of course, such initiatives are funded by this Government, who are committed to doing something about child poverty, unlike the Conservatives, who plan billions of pounds-worth of cuts in our public services. Whenever an election may come, that message will be sent loud and clear to the people of Wales.
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