Welsh Grand Committee

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Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, and I agree with what he has said. Does he agree that it would be nice if we could hold the next Welsh Grand Committee in Wales?
Mr. Murphy: That is a very good idea, and the closer it gets to Cwmbran or Pontypool the better.
Over the past decade, there has been a huge transformation in how the people of our valleys live and work. For example, in the 11 valley constituencies that run from Swansea, East to Torfaen, the average unemployment rate is 4.4 per cent., and the average percentage drop since 1997 in people out of work is 31 per cent., which represents an enormous change in how people work and the jobs that they have.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales was right to say that when he and I walked the streets of Neath in 1991—
Mr. Hain: In the rain.
Mr. Murphy: It always rains in Neath, and it rains a bit in Torfaen, too. There is an enormous difference between then and now in how people lead their lives and in the work that they do. One reason why it has changed is the granting of objective 1 status to the valleys of south Wales and to other parts of Wales, too. I played some part in that with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in trying to ensure that the money was genuinely additional.
However, we would be wrong, as Members of Parliament, especially those of us who represent the valleys, to conclude that there is no more to be done to sort out some of the difficulties that people in the valleys still face. There is still a big distinction between what we might call the heads of the valleys and the lower parts of the valleys. In Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhymney, the Rhondda and valleys such as mine, work and deprivation are still divided between the north and the south of our valleys. In Pontypridd, unemployment is 2.7 per cent., which is the lowest it has ever been. However, in Blaenau Gwent it is still 6.5 per cent., which is much lower than it used to be, but hon. Members can see the difference between the two. In my constituency, the level is 3.7 per cent., which is about average.
Something, therefore, that has come as a bit of a surprise—the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire raised this in questions, and I believe that he and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) have both raised the point on another occasion in Parliament—is the question of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and its proposals to close various offices in Wales, and in particular those in the valleys of south Wales such as Pontypridd, Merthyr Tydfil and, in my own constituency, Pontypool, as well as Newport, which serves the valleys. I was delighted that my right hon. Friend said that the Under-Secretary will meet the Paymaster General in January to discuss those important issues. I understand that Paul Gray, who is the acting chair of HMRC, said:
“We think it is essential that we take full account of the impact of our plans on communities before final decisions are made.”
It is a little crazy, to say the least, that, if we are trying to ensure that more jobs go to the valleys, jobs are now going from them to the capital city, which does not need them as some of those valley communities do. In Pontypool, for example, 42 jobs are involved, and the people who work there are in a relatively new building, with plenty of space for more people to come from Cardiff. Work that is now done in Cardiff could be done in the valleys.
Hywel Williams: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on that cross-party point, which affects constituencies held by Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrat and Labour Members. Jobs are being shifted from Rhyl and Porthmadog in my constituency to Wrexham—there is nothing wrong with Wrexham—and Swansea, and the reductions in Cardiff are very small. That makes no sense, as I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree.
Mr. Murphy: I do agree. I do not disagree with the thrust of the changes, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, in relation to ensuring that we transfer money to front-line services for our people, which is exactly the right thing to do. However, we are talking about the way in which the changes are being implemented. The 42 jobs in Pontypool are not being lost, because the people in question are being offered the opportunity to go to Cardiff. In reality, because many of the people concerned are young working women with young families, the offer of going there, certainly by public transport, probably means that they cannot keep their jobs. The jobs are not going, but the way in which they are organised and the proposed implementation need to be examined.
Mr. Crabb: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that part of the problem is that we are talking about not just the streamlining of back-office functions, but a fundamental change in the business model being implemented by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which will lead to a deep cut in front-line services to the detriment of businesses, families and individuals across rural mid and west south Wales?
Mr. Murphy: Yes; I am troubled by the way this is being done, not simply because hon. Members are talking about job losses or job movements in their constituencies, but because of the work that the people in those jobs do. To take Newport as an example—my hon. Friends the Members for Newport, East (Jessica Morden) and for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) are not present, but I am sure they would agree with me about this—the work done in Newport is business support for what used to be the county of Gwent. If people want to go, as they do, physically to an office to talk about their businesses and the impact of taxation, it is much easier for them to go to Newport than Cardiff. The local situation also means that people would be more at ease dealing with problems there.
The other issue is that, because of technological advances, the people in Pontypool, for example, work on self-assessment. The nature of computers these days is such that there is no reason why 100 people could not move from Cardiff into the offices in Pontypool, thereby creating more employment and dispersing jobs into our valleys, which seems to be the exact purpose of objective 1. I am delighted that the Under-Secretary is meeting the Paymaster General. I also suggest that this is an issue for the Assembly, and that perhaps Andrew Davies should be in discussions with HM Revenue and Customs.
Mr. Murphy: I have absolute confidence in the Under-Secretary and the way in which he will take these matters up with the Paymaster General. He knows Wales extremely well, and I know that he has listened carefully to all the points that have been made on this issue. As I have said, I think that there will also be some value in liaising with the Assembly.
The Queen’s Speech also referred to—
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, as he seemed to be moving away from the issue of the location of jobs in the valleys. I wholly support what he says about what sometimes feels like a complete lack of strategy towards so-called peripheral economies—peripheral because they are not in cities. We have a difficulty in the valleys when the Government want to centralise, because there are not any places available. We do not have large amounts of office accommodation, because in the past everyone was working down the mines rather than in offices. We are therefore unable to accommodate jobs that the Government or the Assembly might take out of Cardiff or Newport into valley communities. Will my right hon. Friend say something about the changes needed to ensure long-term investment in office accommodation across the valleys?
Mr. Murphy: I agree with my hon. Friend that, with the different technologies that people use in their work, there is now an opportunity to place offices anywhere. They do not have to be in cities any more, but it is for local planning authorities, and local authorities generally, to deal with the identification of probable sites. Some valleys are obviously better than others because they are less constrained by lack of space. I agree that the strategy for identifying space for offices is important.
The Queen’s Speech referred to supporting the police. I know that individual Welsh Members will make representations to the Home Secretary about the police grant. I would like to make a point about Gwent’s grant. The introduction of police community support officers has been enormously successful: it is one of the finest examples of reform in the police service. The visibility of the officers on the street is important and we could do with more of them. I am worried, because Gwent planned to have 250 officers, but there are currently only 129. Ironically, we could have had more, but when the Foreign Ministers meeting was held in Newport some time ago, part of the cost burden fell on the Gwent police authority, which I understand is still owed about £2 million by the Home Office. The interest alone could have supplied six CSOs. I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales to make representations to the Home Secretary about that issue and also about the fact that there is no separate Welsh representation on the National Policing Board. I think that my right hon. Friend is conscious of that and is making representations to the Home Secretary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentioned the question of officers in the valleys. He also referred to the need for a strategy for the south Wales valleys, particularly in those areas that still need extra help on issues such as unemployment.
An election will take place in May and a new Government will be formed after that. I think that the time has come for the Assembly to consider establishing a post, in the First Minister’s Cabinet, of Minister for the valleys. If that is not possible, a Minister in the Cabinet should be given special responsibility for the south Wales valleys. I am thinking of Peter Walker’s valleys initiative all those years ago. There is a need to bring together the different functions of Government in their impact on the people of the valleys.
One million people—a third of the Welsh population—live in the valleys. They are very special places, and there would not be devolution in Wales without them. In 1978, all the valleys—without exception—voted overwhelmingly against devolution. Whereas in 1999—with the exception of my own valley, which still voted against, but only just—all the valleys turned, and voted in favour. The combination of the population and that enormous shift—the support of valleys men and women—is the reason why the Assembly exists in Wales. The Assembly therefore has a duty to consider the problems of the valleys especially carefully, and to ensure that the best men and women in the world receive the best services.
10.36 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): May I first record my utter contempt for the business managers, who have once again scheduled Northern Ireland and Welsh business not just on the same day, but at the same time as well? That makes it physically impossible for myself and the Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland to attend both Welsh and Northern Irish business. I do not blame him for that—he must be as frustrated as I am—but it is not the first time that it has happened. It is beyond me why the responsible Government business managers show so little respect for Welsh and Northern Irish business that they are willing to make double bookings a fact of life in the House.
I do not wish to name-drop, Mr. Caton, but I was having dinner with the Queen in Estonia a few weeks ago.
Chris Ruane: Which one?
Lembit Öpik: The Queen of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth—I believe that that is the right title. I was tempted to ask her what she really thought of the Queen’s Speech, and obviously although I did not do so, I felt that there was a glint in her eye that suggested that she wished that I was Secretary of State for Wales. I did not pursue it with her, but it would not surprise me were that to be true. After all, aside from being short the speech was also very much a Conservative speech—one does not have to elect a Conservative Government to get Conservative policies. When I read it, it was obvious to me that the values and tenets of old Labour are now completely buried in a new Labour party that seems to owe more to the legacy of Margaret Thatcher than to that of the Labour party founding fathers.
The speech emphasised centralisation, privatisation and the authoritarian approaches that have been seen to fail to quite some extent in addressing the problems of our time. It said that the Government would seek to address the terrorism threat, which affects Wales as well as the rest of the United Kingdom. Although I agree with that intent, I do not think that many of the Government proposals will do anything other than merely address the threat. I am disappointed that having achieved a peace in Northern Ireland—not a perfect one, but one that seems to be holding—the Government have forgotten the lessons of the protracted peace negotiations in the Province, thrown them out of the window, and returned to the failed policies of the 1970s and the early 1980s in seeking to address terrorism.
It is obvious to everyone who considers the relative success story of Northern Ireland that one cannot successfully address terrorism simply by oppressing the opportunity to terrorise. What made the Northern Ireland experience so effective was the fact that the Government were willing to negotiate over the motives of terrorism without condoning terrorism itself. That is why Sinn Fein, which is clearly connected to the IRA, has had some success in preventing its paramilitary wing from continuing the operations that so blighted the Province in the past.
To an extent, the same could be said of loyalist terrorism, yet the Queen’s Speech, as it affects the whole of the United Kingdom including Wales, would see a return to the oppressive legislation that was so utterly ineffective in generating accord across the communities in Northern Ireland. That is why legislation on terrorism of the sort that we have seen before, and are likely to see again in the next 12 months, will not be effective. I would put identity cards in the same category. They will impose an expensive burden on Welsh citizens but will provide none of the benefits that the Government claim for them.
It seems to me that the same attitude can be applied to the Government’s changes to probation services. Far from taking a more insightful attitude on how to make them even more effective, the Government want to privatise them. That is very much from the Conservative stable, not the old Labour stable. By the same token, changes to the immigration service and the alleged giving of further powers to the policing of the country’s borders has to be tempered with the fact that the police are hugely stretched by their existing work load.
As other hon. Members have said, the removal of jury trial in serious fraud cases shows that the Government are more concerned with the quick fix than the underlying causes of intimidation and other aspects of the jury system that sometimes make it more difficult to implement. The precedent of removing jury trial is terribly dangerous, and the Liberal Democrats have always opposed it.
The Queen’s Speech also refers to public services, but time and again, as we have seen, that really means their privatisation. Once again, that is reminiscent of the darkest days of the Thatcher era.
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Prepared 14 December 2006