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Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): I very much welcome this debate and the opportunity to speak in it, especially as it now seems certain to be the final occasion in this Parliament on which we will be able to debate purely Welsh issues.
In the Queen's Speech last November, we were offered two Wales-specific Bills, both enthusiastically welcomed by my hon. Friends from across the country. Alas, election timetables wait for no legislation, however valuable, and it is obvious that at least one of those Bills is going no further in this Session. That means that today's debate is even more important. It gives me the opportunity to call for the reintroduction of both the Transport (Wales) Bill and, if necessary, the Public Service Ombudsman (Wales) Bill, which was debated earlier today, at the earliest opportunity after the general election. I would like to think that that plea will be heeded by those on both Front Benches and supported by hon. Members in all parts of the House.
Unfortunately, the commitment of the Tory party to Wales is in some doubt, bearing it in mind that its final Secretary of State for Wales represented a constituency in North Yorkshire. I hope that I will not embarrass my predecessor in Conwy, who is now in another place, if I suggest that an excellent home-grown choice was available to be Secretary of State, one who would have brought genuine commitment to the needs of Wales.
I take to heart the concern of the Archbishop of Canterbury about not exploiting people's fear in any general election. I think that we can leave such tactics to the Conservatives, who have proved themselves to be past masters at that. Last week in my constituency, a letter was distributed which purported to be signed by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). It claimed that since 1999 violent crime had risen by 96 per cent. in Conwy. The reaction from the chief constable of North Wales to similar claims relating to the Clwyd, West constituency has been well documented in the media over the past few days. Having seen at first hand the excellent work being done by North Wales police in tackling all forms of criminal activity, I can entirely understand why Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom took such offence at that misleading publicity. Although there can be no room whatsoever for complacency, particularly about violent crime, it is worth quoting the chief constable. He said:
Whipping up the fear of crime is one thing; using non-comparable statistics to do so is quite another. Nowhere does the Conservatives' material note the changes of classification of offences which occurred during the time frame used. For example, the number of offences classed
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as violent crime increased significantly. A violent attack on three people is now counted as three crimes, not one. The figure for recorded crime is now all reported crimes, not just those proven. As the Association of Chief Police Officers commented:
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of North Wales police. As I mentioned earlier, I am particularly proud that the western division of the force, which covers half of my constituency, recently recorded the highest detection figures in the UK and that the other two divisions in North Wales ranked in the top ten.
I certainly have no wish to play down violent crime as a serious issue in Wales. In my constituency, we experience problems related in particular to low-level violent offences and antisocial behaviour. However, significant steps have been taken to solve these problems. The Dyna Ddigon campaign run by North Wales police has made effective use of the extra resources and penalties provided by the Government. Perhaps the most dramatic example of that in my constituency has been the introduction of a dispersal order in the walled town of Conwy. This has helped to stop that world heritage site from becoming a no-go area for local residents owing to night-time antisocial behaviour. I was extremely pleased to have helped obtain an extension of the order and look forward to the community and police working together to achieve a lasting solution to that problem.
The fear of crime of course plays most heavily with pensioners. It is to avoid unnecessarily blighting lives through irrational fear that politicians of all colours must behave responsibly when discussing the issues of crime and disorder. Conwy has one of the highest proportions of retired people of any constituency in the country, so the positive effect of many of the Government's policies towards older people has been more pronounced there than elsewhere. The pension credit, the minimum income guarantee, the winter fuel allowance and free TV licences for those over 75 have made real differences to the lives of many pensioners in my constituency. I know, however, that not only do they, quite rightly in my view, demand more support but that members of a younger generation have begun to worry about their own security in retirement.
In any third-term Administration, I would hope to see a broader picture painted of how the pensions system will be managed in the future, guaranteeing the universality of the state pension alongside the extra help for the poorest pensioners already introduced by the Government. The £200 bonus announced by the Chancellor has been warmly welcomed by my constituents, particularly following this year's rebanding exercise in Wales. I look forward to the permanent guarantee of assistance with council tax bills, which will be required to assist the many pensioners in my constituency who feel penalised by a booming housing market. Any such scheme, however, needs to be targeted to help not only the poorest households but those with modest savings and income, rather than subsidising the most well-off, as suggested by the Conservative party.
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I commend the Welsh Assembly Government for their policy of reducing prescription charges. I look forward to the not-too-distant day when free prescriptions will return to all in Wales, leading the way, I hope, for the whole United Kingdom, just as on free bus travel and food in schools. Although the response to Jamie Oliver's crusade has been as strong in Wales as elsewhere, the Assembly Government have already shown themselves to be well aware of the importance of diet to children and their education. Since January, a pilot scheme offering free breakfasts to primary schoolchildren has been running in 48 schools, prior to being rolled out across Wales. The scheme has, where possible, incorporated the local sourcing of ingredients and the provision of a healthy range of choices for children. The provision of breakfasts has been shown to improve children's concentration and educational achievement, as well as having an educational aspect of its own in terms of diet, nutrition and health.
Significant work on children's diet is taking place in my constituency at the school of psychology of the university of Wales, Bangor. Led by Professor Fergus Lowe and Dr. Pauline Horne, a research team has developed a programme to increase children's consumption of fruit and vegetables. This, the "food dude" healthy eating programme, has been trialled in England, Scotland and Ireland, as well as in my own constituency. Studies show that merely presenting fruit and vegetables to children is not sufficient to ensure high consumption. The "food dude" programme, however, has proved very effective in bringing about changes in children's eating habits. Once again, I hope that the Welsh experience can be replicated across the nation.
Lembit Öpik: On a matter related to young people, does the hon. Lady accept that one issue that we face in Wales is the absence of affordable child care, which is causing a significant problem for many families? Does she agree that we need to look at that, because it is probably holding people back from educational opportunities and from returning to economically beneficial work?
Mrs. Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I do not recognise the picture that he is painting, and I advise him to check with his Liberal Democrat colleagues in the Assembly and get the true facts about what is going on with child care in Wales. We have a good record and a good story to tell, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is what we will be telling the people of Wales when we get the opportunity following the announcement of the election date. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to say that.
I was going to talk about the Transport (Wales) Bill. Wales faces a unique set of issues relating to its transport system, which I am convinced would be best addressed by the Assembly, as the Bill proposes. Already, the influence of the Assembly Government on the all-Wales rail franchise has been demonstrated by, among other improvements, the increasing number of direct trains between north and south Wales. However, we shall need much greater control over the franchise from Cardiff
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before we see a rail renaissance of the type currently being enjoyed by Scotland under the auspices of the devolved Government there. Scotland has seen new stations, increased frequencies, new trains and funding for at least three openings or reopenings of entire lines, at a time when dark mutterings are heard in England and Wales about line closures and service withdrawals.
Devolution of powers over rail services would, I believe, produce a service more in tune with the needs of the Welsh people. I was unpleasantly surprised to be informed recently by a constituent that Arriva Trains Wales was not keeping to its franchise and passenger charter commitment to provide a Welsh language telephone information line. Having telephoned the line myself, I found it to be based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The supervisor told me that the ability to provide a Welsh language service was, unsurprisingly, hampered by an inability to recruit Welsh speakers in north-east England. So my Welsh-speaking constituents, who constitute a majority at the western end of the constituency, are denied access to train information in their first language because the company operating the services is unwilling to open a call centre in Wales, where that service could be provided. That cannot be allowed to continue.
I would hope that as well as improving the train services themselves, the Welsh Assembly would pay more attention than the Strategic Rail Authority has to the finer details of the service provided. Unfortunately, the Bill as proposed would not give the Assembly power over long-distance Anglo-Welsh services, such as the Virgin west coast services that link Bangor and Llandudno, in my constituency, to London. As a regular user, and on many occasions a sufferer, of those services, I am in absolute agreement with the demands from my constituents for improvements to the route. In particular, I call for the replacement of the five-car Supervoyager units with something more suitable for the service in terms of capacity, comfort and catering. In that context, I was astonished to find that seven Meridian nine-car units, which are improved versions of the Voyagers, were sitting idle. The trains were originally ordered for Midland Mainline but were prevented from running because the SRA withdrew consent for new London-to-Leeds services. They would be ideally suited to the north Wales route, but having corresponded with the SRA and Virgin Trains, I am left with the impression of two organisations failing to communicate properly with each other and of a blinkered attitude on the part of the SRA towards any use of the trains other than selling them to the Republic of Ireland.
After being told by the SRA that there was no commercial case for new trains for that route, I was all the more surprised to receive a consultation document from its west coast department on the future of services on the London to north Wales route. That made it clear that the SRA was actively considering the purchase of another set of new trains for the service, for delivery in a couple of years' time. Why force north Wales passengers to wait so long for improvements and spend millions on brand new trains when there are sets available for the route now? That lack of joined-up thinking in the rail industry is benefiting no one but the car industry. The economic future of my constituency, along with neighbouring constituencies, depends on that rail service.
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I hope not only that the Transport (Wales) Bill will be reintroduced in the next Parliament, but that when it is debated, the Government will listen closely to the arguments for giving the Assembly some influence over long-distance rail services, which are as crucial as the shorter-distance ones.
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