Welsh Grand Committee

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Lembit Öpik: Although we must not get too specific at this stage, those who are in favour of a tidal lagoon system argue that that technology can produce comparable amounts of energy. They are slightly frustrated, because they feel that the amount of energy that their system can generate has been misrepresented. I realise that we cannot go into further detail at the moment.
Mr. Hain: The consultants are considering the tidal lagoon system, and I am not closing the door on it. My assessment at the moment, particularly as tidal lagoon technology is relatively underdeveloped, is that the barrage proposal is preferable. We shall have to see, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary or I would certainly be happy to receive a delegation on the matter, which the hon. Gentleman might want to lead.
Reforms to the state pension system will benefit almost 589,000 people in Wales. They will create an affordable and sustainable pensions system to meet the needs of generations to come, make pensions much more generous and widely available and tackle the scandalous inequalities faced by far too many women and carers. By 2010, 70 per cent. of women reaching the state pension age will have a full basic state pension, compared with only 30 per cent. today, which will be a massive boost for women in Wales.
Working with the police and the security services, we will continue to take whatever steps and tough choices are necessary to tackle the very real threat that terrorism poses to the world. Reforms to the criminal justice system will put the victim first, with new powers to tackle the antisocial and violent behaviour that blights our communities. The Criminal Justice Bill will include measures further to protect the public, to reduce crime even further and to bring more offenders to justice.
Last week, the Chancellor delivered his 10th pre-Budget report against a backdrop of sustained economic growth and an unprecedented period of stability and expansion in Wales, the like of which we have almost never known, thanks to a Labour Government. The pre-Budget report provides for extra Treasury funding for the Assembly Government.
Hywel Williams: How?
Mr. Hain: I am about to tell the hon. Gentleman.
As well as additional capital of £156 million in the three years from 2008, there will be an additional £9 million in resources for Wales next year, making a total of £165 million of new money. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham scoffs, but we will have doubled the Welsh budget that we inherited from the Conservatives in just 10 years.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Redwood sent the money back.
Mr. Hain: As my hon. Friend has reminded me, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), when he was Secretary of State for Wales, sent £100 million back to the Treasury and boasted about it. What scandalous behaviour. If that is a precedent that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham is likely to follow, if she ever gets into my position—
Mrs. Gillan rose—
Mr. Hain: The hon. Lady is about to confirm that she will exact the same penury and misery on Wales as her Conservative predecessors.
Mrs. Gillan: Will the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be no real cuts in funding to the Wales Office under this Chancellor?
Mr. Hain: I am intrigued that the hon. Lady takes such a keen interest in the Wales Office budget. It is a slice out the block that goes to the Welsh Assembly each year, and it is an agreed amount. It is primarily devoted to policy staff, and it is actually very small. The Wales Office is a policy-heavy unit of Government, and no other major costs are involved.
Mrs. Gillan: Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Chancellor is requiring a 5 per cent. cut in the overall Wales budget, which will include the block grant and the Wales Office?
Mr. Hain: No.
Mrs. Gillan: In real terms?
Mr. Hain: No; there is no such agreement. As the hon. Lady knows, the Welsh block is decided mainly by Barnett consequentials—health and education are the principal components along with a number of other areas. Health and education are key priorities for the Chancellor and, of course, the Government.
The extra money provided by the Chancellor will help the Labour Government in Cardiff to develop and deliver their objectives, to tackle priority areas for investment in infrastructure and to build the world-class Wales that we all want to see. As well as the extra funding to the Assembly, the Government have reaffirmed their commitment to tackling child poverty and assisting people back into work. An £80 uplift to the child element of child tax credit will help around 300,000 families in Wales. We are extending the support offered to lone parents to help them back into employment through the continuation of in-work credit in pilot areas.
Furthermore, we are improving the jobseeker’s allowance by offering expert support when new claims are made and extending the job grant to 18 to 24-year-olds. On training and skills, we aim to double the number of apprenticeships in the UK. When we came into power in 1997, we inherited a miserable record on apprenticeships, because there had been a scandalous decimation of skills and apprenticeships in Wales and throughout the UK. Growth will continue in Wales, where the number of modern apprenticeships has increased from 9,000 in 1999 to nearly 15,000 last year.
Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the number of young people in Wales not in full-time education, employment or training has increased substantially since 1997?
Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a big reduction in youth unemployment, which was at a scandalous level in 1997—[Interruption.] Well, I think it important to remind the Committee of that terrible record.
When I was elected in 1991, long-term and youth unemployment in Neath was terrible, and many of my hon. Friends will have had similar experiences. Indeed, I could go canvassing in the daytime and find everyone at home—I am sure that you experienced that, Mr. Caton, because your constituency is in the Swansea valley. In the 1991 by-election and the 1992 general election, I could get most of my work done during the day, but now I cannot find anyone at home during day. It is difficult to reach people thanks to the extra jobs created under this Labour Government.
I also welcome the Chancellor’s response to the environmental challenges set out by the Stern review. Sir Nicholas Stern made it clear that we cannot afford to ignore the huge threat of climate change. The Chancellor’s announcement on air passenger duty is a first step towards reducing emissions from aviation, but it is not enough on its own, which is why the Government are leading the way in pressing for aviation to be included in the European Union emissions trading scheme. What a contrast between the Government’s policy of engaging with Europe and the Conservative’s anti-European policy, which would have left them unable to negotiate the scheme, which is vital in combating climate change on a European basis.
Lembit Öpik: I declare an interest in the aviation sector. Does the Secretary of State agree that the aviation industry needs to pay its way environmentally? I love aviation and everything that goes with it. [Interruption.] Yes; including occasionally falling out of the sky myself. Does he agree that we must find an international solution on aviation taxation, because it will be difficult for a country to do it on its own?
Mr. Hain: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair and sensible point. I shall take his remarks as an invitation to speak to the Chancellor tomorrow about a special duty on Lembit airways. I am sure that that will not affect the hon. Gentleman’s competitiveness or his abilities as a pilot, which are legendary. We shall see what we can do to help him.
In recent years, the strong partnership between our Labour Governments in Westminster and Cardiff has produced huge progress for Wales. With 1.3 million people in work, employment is at historically high levels. Hospital waiting times are falling—there are more than 400 more consultants and more than 7,300 more nurses under this Labour Government. Standards in our schools are rising—there are 1,700 more teachers and 5,700 more support staff under this Labour Government. Crime rates in Wales are falling—there are 1,000 more police officers than in 1997 and 270 new community support officers, a figure which will rise to 700 next year, under this Labour Government. We have also implemented a ground-breaking devolution settlement.
Yet Wales faces massive future challenges from fierce global competition, especially from China and India, that must be answered by additional public investment in skills, science and infrastructure. We face threats to our personal safety and security. The very future of our planet is threatened by climate change.
Our policies must ensure prosperity in an ageing society. We must do more to narrow the growing gap between rich and poor. Those challenges will shape our society and politics in the decades to come. The Queen’s Speech, together with the pre-Budget report, shows that only Labour stands ready to take on those challenges, providing progressive government that is on the side of the citizen in a time of great insecurity and change. We do not provide contracted-out government that leaves citizens on their own facing the vagaries of the market, but progressive government financed by progressive taxation to invest in public services and to create social justice.
Next May, the people of Wales will face a choice between a Labour Welsh Assembly Government, working in partnership with London, who are providing answers to the great challenges of our age, or a shambolic Tory-led coalition incapable of providing stable leadership and coherent policies. Last week, during discussion of the Budget, we saw an example of exactly how such an Assembly coalition might operate—united for the cameras in the morning and fighting among themselves before the day was out. I do not believe that the people of Wales will put at risk our hard-won economic stability and prosperity or our enormous progress by opening the door to such a coalition, which would be directionless and divided within itself.
The Queen’s Speech and the pre-Budget report show that only Labour, working in partnership in London and Cardiff, has a vision for the future, the policies to meet the challenges it presents and the unity of purpose to help build a better Wales.
9.58 am
Mrs. Gillan: First, as an official Opposition Member, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the implications for Wales of the Gracious Speech. I was sad that so many members of the Committee were absent for the questions. That failed to provide us with the opportunity to question Ministers in this forum on the subjects on the Order Paper. I do not know whether we could do something in future to encourage Committee members to attend, so that questions can be reached. Although I would normally raise the matter as a point of order, I decided to deal with it in the narrative in the hope that that would give other Committee members the chance to intervene.
Mr. Llwyd: Has the hon. Lady got that right? If Committee members are absent, we shall get through more questions, not fewer.
Mrs. Gillan: The truth is that we get through the same number of questions in the same time, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates, but we miss out some very important topics that need to be raised. I am so glad that I have shown the hon. Gentleman the error of his ways, and I hope that he will bear it in mind.
I turn to the main thrust of the Secretary of State’s speech. He seems increasingly frantic in his attempts to distort Conservative policy. I know that he is trying to cover up Labour’s failings in Wales, but I want to make my party’s position very clear. He continues to say that we are anti-Welsh because of the stance that we took on the Government of Wales Act, but he knows that to be quite untrue. We are very pro-Welsh, and we are pro giving the people of Wales a say on how they are governed. He knows that our principled objections to the Act were about the electoral changes and on the matter of a referendum. We believe that the people in Wales should have been asked much earlier in the process through a referendum whether they wanted more powers to be devolved to the Assembly. That is not anti-Welsh, but about giving the Welsh people more power than the Secretary of State would give them; he, of course, sets himself up as the viceroy of Wales, ruling over them.
We support devolution in Wales. It is here to stay, but we want it to work. It is clearly not working well under a Labour Welsh Assembly Government.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I wonder whether the hon. Lady has checked the content of her speech with the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), who is doing good work in the Assembly.
Hon. Members: Where is he?
Mrs. Gillan: I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth is in the Assembly, where a little deal is being cooked up between Plaid and Labour over the budget, if the press can be believed—or is it between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party—to prop up a minor Administration after the May elections. I am not sure, because Labour seems to be in negotiation with everybody, except for the Conservatives, of course. However, it is the Conservatives of whom they are really frightened, hence the fact that the Secretary of State has spent most of his speech attacking me and my colleagues.
Let me make it clear one more time that we would like the Assembly to work and that we want to take the people of Wales with us, not to drag them kicking and screaming to the brink of separatism by closing deals with Plaid. We want a strong Wales in a strong Union. I think that that is a good ambition for Wales and its people, and I will not take any lessons on being pro-Wales from the Secretary of State, who denied the people of Wales the referendum on extra Assembly powers that we wanted to give them.
Mr. Hain: Will the hon. Lady explain why, given what she has just said, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Nick Bourne, has publicly advocated a Tory-led coalition with Plaid and the Liberal Democrats to defeat Labour at the next Welsh Assembly elections? The choice is likely to be between a Welsh Labour-led Assembly Government and a Conservative-led shambolic Opposition. It is a fight between Labour and the Conservatives next May. That is the choice.
Mrs. Gillan: My colleague in the Welsh Assembly, Nick Bourne, who so ably leads the Conservative Assembly group, which has the reputation of being the hardest working group in the Assembly, acknowledged in meetings and at a press conference that, of course, we are always in discussion with Opposition parties. Indeed, the issue about the budget in the Assembly today is because Plaid, the Liberal Democrats, the independents and the Conservatives have discussed it and are trying to get a better deal for Wales. There is no doubt in my mind that there are occasions when people collaborate and co-operate. Indeed, I have collaborated and co-operated with my friends in Plaid from time to time. As the Secretary of State knows, I left my sick bed to vote with Plaid against the Government on Iraq. [Interruption.] Does the Secretary of State want to intervene?
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Prepared 14 December 2006