Welsh Grand Committee

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Mr. Hain: Actually, I do. Will the hon. Lady welcome the reported remarks by Glyn Davies, the Conservative Assembly Member, last week? He was reported as sizing up his ministerial car and ministerial office at one stage in the budget discussions, because the Welsh Conservatives were ready to form an alternative Government, as they want to do, either now, if they can, or after next May.
Mrs. Gillan: Glyn Davies has obviously been taking lessons from the Secretary of State, who is sizing up the ministerial Jaguar that he hopes for following his election as Deputy Prime Minister. There must be some synergy between the two politicians.
Mr. Hain: For the record, let me say that I already have a ministerial Jaguar. It is armoured, and I think that it weighs 4 tonnes. I do not imagine that, even with her energy, the hon. Lady would be able to give it a push.
Mrs. Gillan: It is reputed that with the next job the Secretary of State will get two jags, so two jobs will move to two jags.
I will take no lessons from a Secretary of State who openly boasts that he negotiates a better deal for Northern Ireland than he does for Wales, and then tells the people of Wales that they should be green with envy. With commitment like that, it is no surprise that he is now campaigning to move away from Wales—in ministerial terms—and take over the only office in the Government that requires even less time and effort than he puts into making the case for Wales.
Of course, we are grateful that the Secretary of State has taken time off from his campaigning to come here and present the Government’s case, and what a thin case it was. Last year, he trumpeted the fact that the Gracious Speech was a bumper Queen’s Speech for Wales, as it contained an unprecedented number of Wales-specific Bills. This year, in an attempt to hide his embarrassment over the lack of Wales-specific Bills, he argued in the Assembly that the Government of Wales Act means that
“We no longer need any.”
I watched that sitting of the Assembly. The Secretary of State’s speech today was remarkably similar to the one that he gave then—indeed, passages were taken directly from it. The logic of his comments was that Westminster should be shut out completely and that we should move rapidly towards full law-making powers for the Assembly. However, we all know that he will not let that happen, because it would rip open the divisions in the Welsh Labour party that the Government of Wales Act is designed to mask.
In reality, the only way to describe the Queen’s Speech is “More of the same for Wales from a Government who have promised so much yet delivered so little.” Every year, we get the same old promises from Labour, and every year we get the same old Labour failure. I admit that we get good intentions as often as not from the Labour party and the Welsh Assembly Government, but we get no delivery.
While there were no specific Wales Bills in the Gracious Speech, most of them— 20 or so—will apply in whole or in part to Wales, not least the usual raft of Home Office Bills, which has become such a hallmark of this Government. There have been more than 50 since they came to power, and we now have at least six more. I ask myself how many of those provisions will finally be implemented, how many will be repealed and how many will be overturned by future legislation. There is no clearer admission of failure, after nine years of a Labour Government, than the fact that we have six more Home Office Bills.
We have yet another Criminal Justice Bill and an Organised Crime Bill, yet people in Wales know that under Labour violent crime has gone up by 50 per cent. and that local police forces are still dealing with the financial consequences of the botched merger plans. There is an Offender Management Bill, but people in Wales are aware that under Labour prisons are at breaking point and dangerous criminals are being released early. Yesterday, we heard that the strain on the police has increased even further, because 41 police cells are being used to house prisoners. The financial problems that that will present to our police forces in Wales are probably irreversible. There is also a further immigration Bill, but under Labour foreign prisoners are being allowed to stay in the United Kingdom.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The hon. Lady has referred to the number of prisons in Wales and the fact that many of them are very full. She is probably aware that many Welsh MPs are concerned that their constituents, when they go to prison, do not go to a local prison and often have to go somewhere in England. Does she think that there should be an additional prison or two in Wales and, if so, where would she put them?
Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman knows that for two years I spoke on prisons and probation for my party. He is not going to get any false promises or spending pledges from me at this stage. The disgrace of our prisons is exactly the same in Wales as it is in the rest of the country. I appreciate that there is no prison for women in Wales, and I know that there is no facility whatsoever in north Wales.
I was greatly disturbed, when looking at things from this perspective, to hear that Welsh-speaking prisoners were being held very far away from their home area, without the facility to communicate fully in the Welsh language. That has caused me some concern. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman knows that I have been around for too long to make any pledges on new prisons at this stage. He will have to wait until the electoral cycle takes us into a general election, when all will be revealed. However, the Conservative Government will make a far better fist of running the Home Office and the prison and probation systems than this Labour Government.
The border and immigration Bill is due, but under Labour foreign prisoners are allowed to stay in the United Kingdom rather than being deported and, after nine years in office, our borders are still out of control. We all know that at Holyhead funding for special branch officers has been cut and, despite its being the third busiest port in the country, we still do not have immigration officers on duty 24 hours a day.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The hon. Lady says that there has been a cut, but she will know that the Home Office has not even made the decision on the funding for dedicated security posts this year or even next year. It will make that announcement in January, and we should await those figures before we talk about cuts.
Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman lives in fantasy land. The Home Office budget has been frozen, and it will be cut in real terms. He should read the fine print.
The Bill on local government promises greater freedom for local authorities from Labour’s stifling targets and red tape, and we welcome part of that, but the people in Wales are still reeling from the 97 per cent. increase in council tax and the politically motivated rebanding and revaluation that was imposed in Wales but cancelled in England because of the election.
We support the broad thrust of the Pensions Bill, although I expect that by the time it gets to the Floor of the House the Secretary of State will be saying that we are anti-pensioner in the same way as he tries to paint us as anti-Welsh. However, people in Wales will remember that this Labour Government, and the Chancellor in particular, destroyed private pensions, halved the savings ratio and placed half of all pensioners on means tests. It was all too late for the steelworkers at Allied Steel and Wire, as the Secretary of State knows. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) has made it clear that in 1997 we had some of the best pension provision in Europe, and now we have the worst. Who is largely to blame? The man who is likely to be the next Prime Minister.
We would have welcomed the Further Education and Training Bill, had it been about real reform rather than yet more bureaucratic tinkering. Again, people in Wales will recall that under Labour the number of 16 to 18-year-olds not in education, employment or training—the NEETS that my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) was talking about earlier—has increased in Wales
Although we support much of the Legal Services Bill, after nine years of Labour people are rightly appalled that large parts of Wales are being turned into legal aid deserts and access to justice for vulnerable people is being restricted. We are promised more reforms of the NHS, when, under Labour, NHS dentistry, waiting lists and threatened hospital closures remain a national disgrace. It is the same old promises and the same old failure.
Last week, in his letter to Labour MPs—I am sure that all Committee members received it—the Secretary of State admitted, in a rare moment of candour, that
“Too often the Government has seemed to hand down policies from on high”
“too often our communication...feels like a lecture rather than a dialogue”.
He should know, because he has been one of the principal offenders in this Labour Government. His latest diktat from on high is the Government of Wales Act. The Gracious Speech referred to that Act—its only direct reference to Wales—and mentioned the Government working closely with the devolved Administration. However, that relationship can only be viewed in the context of the Act, which the Secretary of State presents as a significant measure of devolution that settles the constitutional issue for a generation. In reality, he knows that it does no such thing—it is both fragile and unstable.
In an Assembly debate the other day, the First Minister referred to the new Orders-in-Council procedure as an intermediate step and a halfway house. A halfway house cannot be the same as a settlement, as they are not compatible. It is clear that the First Minister and the Secretary of State are at odds on the issue and, of course, on many other things. That is why the Secretary of State is calling for a new constitutional convention between Cardiff and Westminster. What he did not tell the people of Wales is that under his version of the convention the only effective power of veto over proposed legislation coming out of Cardiff would lie in his hands and his hands alone. As I have said, he will be able to act literally as the imperial viceroy of Wales, dictating which laws come to Westminster for approval and which are sent back to the First Minister in Cardiff. All the while, the role of this House will be diminished, and right hon. and hon. Members from Wales will be marginalised.
What else can the Secretary of State mean when he says that there should be
“a clear starting presumption that Assembly requests for new powers will be agreed”?
It will be a centralising measure wrapped in devolved clothing, and it will give all power to the Secretary of State for Wales.
Despite the Government’s addiction to programme motions, at least the Bills in the Queen’s Speech that apply to Wales will go through the full parliamentary process. That is in stark contrast to the Orders in Council that the Secretary of State allows to come to us from Cardiff. I give the Secretary of State notice that my party will ensure that each and every measure that comes from Wales will be subject to the maximum scrutiny that we can give it, within the limitations of the 90-minute debate that we are allowed.
If anyone in Wales wants to see the complete divorce between what Labour says and what it does, they need look no further than the letter that I referred to a few moments ago from the Secretary of State to Labour MPs. In it, he says that he wants
“a radical programme of progressive policies...to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor”.
Yet who presides over Wales, which is officially the poorest part of the United Kingdom and where the gap between the rich and the poor is widening? He does.
The Secretary of State talks about the need to
“grasp the leadership of the green agenda”.
That is a clear admission that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is in fact leading the agenda and that the Government are playing catch-up. Which Government presided over an increase in emissions in five of the past seven years, and, after much persuasion from the Conservative party, promised a climate change Bill in the Queen’s Speech but failed to include the annual targets that are necessary to make it effective?
The Secretary of State talks about getting
“the right balance between the power of the state and the rights of the individual.”
Which Government are introducing identity cards and engaging in a direct assault on centuries-old liberties by abolishing jury trials? It is the Government of which he is a prominent member.
The Queen’s Speech is the product of a divided, paralysed and paranoid Labour Government. The party is divided in Wales between the First Minister and the Secretary of State; it is divided between Welsh Labour MPs and Welsh Labour AMs; and it is divided in London between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. The Secretary of State referred to the Assembly elections next May and said that they would be a bare-knuckle fight between Labour and the Conservatives. Let me assure him that we will not flinch in the face of his bare knuckles or the Chancellor’s clunking fist.
Labour has had nine years at Westminster and more than seven in Cardiff to try to get things right, but it has failed. The real tragedy of the Prime Minister is that he promised so much but delivered so little, and the tragedy of his last Queen’s Speech is that all that his successor offers is more of the same.
The only prospect that is worse is the combination of socialism and separatism offered by Plaid Cymru. [Interruption.] It would take Wales back to the economic equivalent of the stone age by turning its nearest neighbour into its fiercest competitor.
The Chairman: Order. The background noise is getting louder.
Mrs. Gillan: They have made my point, Mr. Caton. They are already back in the stone age.
10.20 am
Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): I am delighted to participate in this morning’s proceedings. I am not sure which Wales the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham knows, but it is not mine. Those of us who represent Welsh constituencies have a very different view.
However, I think the hon. Lady’s remarks on the methods by which the changes to the way in which the Assembly would make laws are worth considering, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales also referred to them. The Select Committee is a good vehicle for pre-legislative scrutiny, but I am unconvinced that one and a half hours’ debate, possibly Upstairs, is how the order should proceed, and the matter still needs attention. My right hon. Friend is right that this is not a rubber-stamping exercise, but a proper means by which the House of Commons and Parliament can deal with these important issues.
I am also unconvinced that people in my constituency, or any constituency in Wales, spend much of their time thinking about constitutional issues. I think that what was done was right: the opportunity was given to Parliament and to the Government to change how the Assembly deals with this business, and it now has the legislative powers to do so. The business of legislation should now be turned to dealing with the problems of the people that we in this Room represent.
I shall concentrate my brief remarks on the impact of the Queen’s Speech, the pre-Budget report and public expenditure in Wales on the valleys of south Wales. The Committee could devote an entire sitting to those issues in the months ahead, because the valleys are so important.
I recall many years ago, as a very young and green Front Bencher in opposition, taunting the then Secretary of State, Peter Walker, about his valleys initiative. He was banished to the Welsh Office by Mrs. Thatcher—it was part of their difference of views. To be fair to him, I can say, 18 years later, that the valleys initiative was not a bad idea, as it brought together all the different aspects of government and how they would affect the people of the south Wales valleys. A debate on those matters would be very valuable in this Committee.
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Prepared 14 December 2006