Welsh Grand Committee

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Albert Owen: Is it still the intention of the Liberal Democrats to privatise part of the Post Office, and does he see that as being in line with the Queen’s Speech?
Lembit Öpik: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall speak specifically about that subject. If I have not answered his question within a few minutes, he may intervene again.
It would be a matter of great joy if the improvements to the Child Support Agency were genuine rather than being simply a change of name. I hope that the Government will have the courage to recognise that right hon. and hon. Members in all parties are utterly dissatisfied with the performance of the CSA. That is not because the staff are incompetent or unwilling to do a good job but because the restrictions within which they have to operate and the modus operandi of the entire system mean that the costs are extremely high compared with the return and that those who are hellbent on avoiding their parental responsibilities often find ways around it. I hope that the Government will implement a root and branch review to help those working for the CSA to do the job for which they are paid.
The principles of the national health service were mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. All hon. Members will agree that the NHS has been fundamentally effective in improving the health of the nation over the decades but that it now seems to be blighted with crisis. The question often asked is why, with so much additional investment, it still has so many problems. I suggest that part of the answer lies in the obsession with performance targets and measures. I have long held the view, as has my party, that such measures often have unintended consequences because the system focuses on them rather than the outcome, which is the general improvement of public health.
Chris Bryant: I suggest that there is a wholly different reason why the money that we have put into the health service in Wales, and particularly the south Wales valleys, has not completely and utterly transformed people’s lives: it is simply that there was an enormous health need, which people never even dreamed of addressing in the past. It is only now, as a result of a significant increase in the amount of money and resources that is going into the local health service, that we have been able to start addressing the problem. However, in many of the poorest areas of Wales, which saw the least money in the past, an enormous health need still exists.
Lembit Öpik: I will surprise the hon. Gentleman by agreeing with him to an extent. He will know that I have complimented the Labour party on previous occasions on going some way towards undoing the colossal damage done by the Conservatives during their 18 years in power.
Mr. Roger Williams: The intervention by the hon. Member for Rhondda makes it clear that the funds that Wales receives are completely inadequate to meet the needs of the people, which is why we totally oppose the Barnett formula for allocating money. Part of the issue is that health needs—particularly those of south Wales, which reflect its industrial past—require more investment.
Lembit Öpik: I agree with my hon. Friend. Coupled with that are measures that skew hospitals’ activities—particularly as a result of the complicated interrelation across the England-Wales border—and which have the unintended consequence of producing differential waiting lists. As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, the Government have made a genuine effort to improve matters, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, they have been only partially successful in Wales. However, there are legislative solutions, including repealing some of the unnecessary burdens that are imposed on health professionals, who can run their businesses pretty well without having to provide endless statistics or accommodate spurious measures for public consumption.
Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman has got it completely and utterly wrong; indeed, I suspect that many of my colleagues think that he has got things completely wrong from the beginning of his speech. Since I was first elected five years ago, the transformation in local health service provision in my patch has been dramatic. When I was first elected, somebody would come through the door every week complaining about the length of waiting lists, but I do not get that at all now. It is, however, difficult to transform the health service in one short period of five or 10 years, because we simply cannot increase capacity faster than we can train people to work as GPs and so on across the valleys.
Lembit Öpik: I am a bit disappointed by the hon. Gentleman’s savage attack on my speech so far. To suggest that I have got it completely and utterly wrong would mean that he has got it at least partially wrong, because I was agreeing with him to an extent. I was trying to give a measured response to his question and I am sorry that he has to reduce the issue to one of party politics. However, that is a matter for him. The Liberal Democrats are concerned not with scoring points, but with getting results, and in that sense I should like to think that, in a quiet moment, the hon. Gentleman would accept that there is a real case for reducing the administrative burden on health professionals. They should be trusted to a greater extent to know what is best for their institutions and patients.
The final significant point in the Queen’s Speech was the question of enhancing confidence in Government statistics. I would like to share a thought on this which hon. Members might like to consider for present and future debates. If we were to tabulate health disorders on a geographical basis, we would not only be able to see potential patterns that would indicate health hotspots but it could also suggest potential causes. If, for example, there was a cluster of cancers in a certain area, we might identify either a local industrial source for it or a local natural source. I think the Government should seek to tabulate disease according to the location where disease occurs.
Chris Bryant: They do.
Lembit Öpik: All the figures exist but they are not tabulated in a highly accessible form. I know they exist because a constituent came to see me who had spent a huge amount of time trying to glean the information and then tabulating it in just the way I have described. I would hope, therefore, that the Government would take the relatively simple step of providing health statistics in a way that connects them to the geographical locations where hotspots occur.
Looking at the other parties, particularly the Conservative party comments, I am rather surprised and confused by the statement by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, who currently is not in her place. She said that the Conservatives were basically pro-devolution. I quote the hon. Member for Monmouth from the debate on Second Reading of the Government of Wales Bill. This is what he said:
“I was delighted to stand against the original proposals for the Welsh Assembly. I can see that it has had some advantages in terms of openness but those advantages do not outweigh the disadvantages. We have caused enormous damage to the UK which will result in our having to return to legislation in a few years’ time.”
He says in the same speech:
“I fully agree with my hon. Friend, as I do on most matters that relate to devolution.”
He is referring to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham. Then he goes on to say:
“In fact in virtually all matters there is barely a cigarette paper to be put between us.”—[Official Report, 9 January 1997; Vol. 441, c. 87.]
Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it was only the Conservatives who wanted a referendum on the part 2 powers of the Act? Is it not the case that the Liberal Democrats voted with the Government in opposing a referendum on part 2 powers?
Lembit Öpik: I am making a strategic point which I think the hon. Gentleman needs to take seriously. He is the only Conservative left in the Chamber. The others, presumably, are frit and regrouping elsewhere. It is not surprising that some of us are quite sceptical about the Conservative party’s alleged commitment to devolution when, first, they openly oppose changes such as the Government of Wales Bill, which I think did not go far enough but at least was progress, and secondly, individuals who might occupy a senior position in a future Conservative Government say that they think the disadvantages of the Welsh Assembly outweigh the advantages.
Mr. Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman not believe that the people of Wales should have a say on those powers in a referendum? Why does he oppose that?
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is completely missing the point. We are not having a debate about the referendum; we are having a debate about whether the Conservatives could be trusted to shepherd and nurture the future of the Welsh Assembly and Welsh devolution. I do not think that the quotations I have read out from Hansard give us any confidence whatever that the alleged Conservative support for devolution in this place is anything more than lip service, because they have their own internal divisions. One of the reasons why I am so concerned about the Government of Wales Act in its current form is that it gives a green light to obfuscation, should there be a Conservative Government. For that reason, I am terribly disappointed that the Government have given any future Conservative Government the chance to undo much of the good that those of us who are pro-devolution have sought to introduce.
As for Plaid Cymru, it is clear from The Western Mail, which is one of the finest newspapers in Britain—
Chris Bryant: It is rubbish.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman may say that, but there we go—another difference of view. I like The Western Mail, and I am particularly interested in today’s front-page story, which says that there has been an “Historic ‘Room 13 Accord’ to save day for Rhodri”, under which Ieuan Wyn Jones from Plaid Cymru has apparently agreed to bail out the Labour party in the forthcoming vote on the budget.
I have no issues with coalitions, of course, but I do have an issue with inconsistency. It looks as though Plaid Cymru has turned 180° in its attitude to such matters. I recall that not so long ago the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, when talking about the prospects for a coalition between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, described us as the whores of British politics. What phrase would he use to describe his own party, reaching an “accord” in Room 13 of the Senedd? When I wanted to make mildly positive comments about some aspect of Labour’s policies in a previous Welsh Grand Committee, the hon. Gentleman actually told me, “Get off your knees.” What advice would he give himself and Ieuan Wyn Jones, when they seem to have done a volte face on their policies? I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman to respond, but unfortunately he seems to have nipped off to Spain for a few minutes, so perhaps he will respond to my questions in writing. [Hon. Members: “Old jokes.”] These are not old jokes; they are improvised jokes, in front of a live studio audience.
I want to cover two other issues, one of which is the environment, on which I hope there can be a degree of accord. The Liberal Democrats held a useful meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Wales on the issue, and I thank him for the time that he spent with us. I hope that we can all start thinking of Wales as the potential environmental capital of the UK and Europe. With targets and scrutiny, we can pledge, as the Scottish Parliament has, to take our share of the Kyoto cuts in emissions.
In the same sense, we can have proactive policies on carbon trading, and work in a rational and strategic way towards generating a truly Welsh economy, with grants and proper nurturing of what is, even now, a fairly well advanced Welsh green economy. Smart meters, Energy Saving Trust funding, energy efficiency measures, and the development of even more stringent strategic targets for building programmes and so on could give us a significant edge.
We have already talked about renewable energy in questions and in the debate. I should add that I am encouraged by the Secretary of State’s offer to hold a meeting to focus specifically on the question of tidal lagoons versus the Severn barrage. I happily accept that invitation, and shall seek once again to put together a delegation of professionals in the industry who can speak about such matters with far more authority than I can.
Mr. David Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not necessarily the case that the choice must be between the Severn barrage and tidal lagoons? Both are complementary and both are predictable sources of power.
Lembit Öpik: In fairness, the hon. Gentleman is correct. We need to think long and hard about what the best combination is in the interests of Wales. With a substantial coastline and many estuaries, we have the opportunity to enhance Welsh renewable production to the point where we could produce more energy than Wales uses.
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Prepared 14 December 2006