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Gregory Barker: Indeedwho knows?but the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire certainly demonstrated his wide knowledge of the subject and his considerable grasp of detail. He gave rise to an interesting debate on the question of a north-south air service, but there seems to be a slight dichotomy here. It could, as he suggests, be a small, discrete, boutique service, conveying just a handful of people daily. If so, it would by definition have a minimal impact on carbon emissions, and would give little cause for concern to those of us who are worried about the environmental impact. On the other hand, such a service could, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn seemed to suggest, make a useful contribution to easing congestion on Wales's ever-more crowded roads. But it cannot be both: it cannot be a lightweight service and also reduce congestion, so its advocates have to decide which it will be.
We are certainly not implacably opposed to such an air service, but we are worried about the Government's promoting and subsidising air travel at a time when we are urging them to be more responsible about the growth in aviation, given aviation's huge impact on CO 2 emissions and its unchecked contribution to global warming. We recognise that such a service could well play a significant role, but we are extremely sceptical about anything that could prove to be a long-term drain on public funds.
The hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) has been a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee since 1997, so he brought considerable experience to his speech. He urged the Government to think again about their reluctance to move the transport commissioner for Wales from Birmingham. I am a relative outsider, but it seems bizarre that the commissioner should be in Birmingham, especially given the poor transport links
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with that city. However, I was glad that the hon. Gentleman recognised the need to take on board the environmental impact of encouraging more air services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) made a terrific speech. He is clearly going to be a champion in this House of small business and economic regeneration. He said quite rightly that he was extremely worried that the voice of businessespecially small businesseswas being lost in the debate about transport in Wales. He asked why the private sector was not an equal stakeholder in the debate, alongside the public sector. I hope that when the Minister winds up the debate he will address that point and reassure the House that the Government are listening carefully to the business voice in Wales. That is important, because the Bill appears to be very much focused on the public sector and public servants.
My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire was also concerned that the Bill would create another clutch of quangos. We shall certainly want to examine in Committee the mechanisms by which any transport policy would be delivered. My hon. Friend threw his weight behind those who are keen to expand air travel, although he cautioned against subsidyperhaps he had his business hat on again. That warning should be heeded, given that successive Governments have tried to pick winners in this sector and ended up subsidising lame ducks. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire pointed out, there is a fundamental difference between Governments providing seedcorn capital and pump-priming a new idea, and getting involved in a project that turns out to be a long-term burden on the taxpayer.
The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) made a thoughtful and wide-ranging contribution, in which he displayed his usual knowledge. I have had the pleasure of serving with him on the Environmental Audit Committee, so that came as no surprise.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Peter Law) made a distinguished, historic and even moving maiden speech, and I was glad to be in the Chamber for what will come to be regarded as a parliamentary occasion. I listened to him especially carefully, as would anyone when an hon. Member has managed to overturn a Labour majority of 19,500. I am sure that Opposition Members will go through his speech in forensic detail for crumbs of comfort or tips on how that trick might be replicated more widely. I am sure that the people of Blaenau Gwent have chosen a worthy successor to the distinguished Members who have served that constituency in the past.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) was brief and concise, and the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) gave a comprehensive analysis of his area's very real transport problems, although he supported the Bill overall. However, he took the opportunity to draw attention to the issue of charging for school buses. He has a good history of campaigning against that, and he said that he was worried that the matter could raise its head again as a result of mechanisms that the Bill will put in place.
The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) gave the House the benefit of her considerable professional experience in transport matters. I am sure that that will be a great help to us all in the future.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) gave us a terrific analysis of the real and everyday practical problems experienced by transport users in Wales, week in and week out. He was the first to flag up the critically important question of safety, especially road safety. I have taken an interest in road safety in my constituency, and my hon. Friend made some forceful remarks about the need for greater road safety, especially in rural areas. His speech may mark the start of a campaign, on behalf of his constituents and everyone else in Wales. People are fed up with traffic speeding through communities, often with horrific and fatal consequences. He also detailed the practical transport problems that are experienced by the people of Chepstow and Abergavenny, and the really silly problem that they have at Cardiff airport. I hope that as a result of his shedding light on those problems, something will actually be done. My hon. Friend also warned against using the Bill, which he backed overall, to back more grandiose "grands projets", for which it appears the Assembly in Wales has a particular weakness.
My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), following his hopeful and optimistic opening comments, made a clear and methodical analysis of the practical realities of the Bill, and brought to bear a clear mind through which he dissected many of its clauses. He has the makings of a first-rate parliamentarian and I am sure that he will be extremely effective in Committee. He warned of the possibility of significant impacts on the council tax as a result of proposals in the Bill. As he rightly pointed out, there is no democratic representation on the joint transport authorities to check their spending, and council tax payers could find themselves landed with a large bill over which they have had no say. He brought a similar common-sense approach to the issue of air transport.
We share many of the aspirations that underlie the Bill, but we have a number of concerns, which we shall want to flag up in Committee. First, we question whether the powers given to the Assembly will deliver the results that people in Wales want. We are concerned that the Bill, although it appears to be a devolving Bill, will not bring government closer to people, but will take power from local communitiesfrom county councils and local authoritiesthat are already operating effectively and pass them up to the National Assembly and, worse still, to unelected quangos. In other words, we need to be satisfied that local democracy is not the loser in the Bill.
Secondly, there are questions about the joint transport authorities. Are they necessary? Will they be expensive? Have they been properly costed? Will they contribute to the stripping of powers from local government and move decision making further away from democratic representatives?
Thirdly, the Bill would empower the Welsh Assembly to subsidise to the tune of £1.5 million the Swansea-Cardiff-Anglesey intra-air route. Will that really provide value for taxpayers' money and will it provide a useful, environmentally sustainable transport scheme?
As I said at the outset, there is much that we support in the Bill, but we support it with caution. We must be careful that what seems to be a devolution of power from Westminster to the Welsh Assembly does not have
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the result of removing powers from local government and vesting them in quangos. Simon Jenkins, in his Halstead lecture in 2002, commented:
We must not compound that sad state of affairs, for reasons of both preserving local democracy and avoiding wasteful expenditure on yet more quangos, which place extra tiers of administration between the Assembly and local government.
Ultimately, the Welsh people want action on transport. They do not want administrative reorganisation for the sake of yet more administrative reorganisation. If the Bill allows the National Assembly to exercise its powers more effectively and results in better transport outcomes for the people of the Principality, it will have our support, but we shall scrutinise it carefully in Committee to ensure that it does.
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