Welsh Grand Committee

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Lembit Öpik: The hon. Lady is correct. I assume that she is referring to marine current turbines. That technology is moving fast, and once again, it is a great opportunity for us, because it can work in concert with other options, rather than as the alternative to them. Biomass, biofuels and biodiversity are also great opportunities for us.
Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in Aberystwyth can play an important role? It has excellent and important biomass and biofuels projects. It has had its funding setbacks during the past year, but there is much good work there. Will he acknowledge and support its attempts for a common funding stream with the university of Wales, Aberystwyth and the university of Wales, Bangor, so that it does not become, as threatened, the outpost of a research institute in England?
Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend, who has always been a great champion of IGER, makes some important points, and I compliment him on his campaigning to try to save facilities that are unique in the United Kingdom and a national treasure for Wales.
Finally on the environment, I thank the Minister again for his work on the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive, which relates directly to questions of reuse and recycling. I do not need to go through the details of the Benji and Co. case in my area, which highlighted the issue for me; however, the Minister’s intervention is likely to generate a change in regulations that helps not only the United Kingdom, but potentially the whole of Europe. It could save millions of tonnes of landfill and redirect the would-be landfill towards reuse.
The nature of the problem is so great that I shall deliver one sentence about what is going wrong and one about what could now go right. Companies such as Benji and Co. were incentivised neither to repair slightly damaged products and put them back on the market, nor to sell returned products at a slightly lower price to customers. Because the Under-Secretary has taken a serious interest in the matter, it looks as though the problem will be solved, benefiting not only customers, but the environmental credentials of Wales and indeed the United Kingdom. It is a good example of cross-party work to solve a simple problem.
The Queen’s Speech is conspicuous by what it missed out. I was asked about post office closures, and the Liberal Democrats think that allowing local and rural post offices to close is to allow an essential local service to disappear. In response to the question from the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), we would not privatise the Royal Mail, but sell a minority of its shares to keep the post office network open. We would sell off less than 50 per cent., so if the Liberal Democrats were in charge, the Government would always have a controlling share. We would have liked to see something about that in the Queen’s Speech.
We would have liked more reassurance for the police, in line with what the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) said. We met a delegation from Dyfed-Powys police, and they said that although the proposed merger has not gone ahead, which was a sensible abandonment of a poor policy, they are still suffering the funding consequences of it, and indeed of other requirements imposed upon them. I hope that the Government take seriously those representations, because the police are not party political; they are trying to do their job, and they cannot do it properly if they do not have the proper funding.
We heard about British Waterways, which is concerned about the potential impact of cuts caused by Government funding changes through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. British Waterways is important to the United Kingdom and extremely important to parts of Wales, where, let us remember, tourism is an important economic driver. I hope that British Waterways’ coherent campaign will not fall on deaf ears in the Wales Office or in the Government as a whole.
We would have liked something about the protection of small schools. Small schools, like local post offices, provide a social service as well as an educational one. I hope that consideration will be given to ensuring that small villages can attract young families because they have attractive primary school facilities of the sort that often give exceptional educational opportunities to the children who go through them.
Mr. Llwyd: Why is the Liberal Administration in Cardiff shutting down schools wholesale?
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman, who has chosen to rejoin the Committee—
Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman has commented about my absence doing other important work. Will he be here all afternoon?
Lembit Öpik: If the hon. Gentleman had been here earlier, he would have heard me cover that point. Unfortunately, I have to detain the Committee for a moment to remind him that I am not one of the business managers of the Labour Government. The Government have once again made it impossible for me, and for the Secretary of State for Wales and for Northern Ireland, to attend both sittings of the Committee. I hope that that means that the hon. Gentleman supports the complaints that I made, in his absence, at the beginning of my speech. No doubt, he had important business. However, were I focused just on Wales, I would be here for the entire proceedings, including during the speeches of Opposition Members—[Interruption.]
To return to schools, hon. Members are being a bit naughty, and they need to calm down; otherwise they will be kept in after class. On the point that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy makes, it is incorrect to say that the Liberal Democrat Administration are closing down small schools. Can I remind him again, if he listens attentively this time—
Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Lembit Öpik: I should like to see protection for small local schools in the rural environment because they provide an important social service. I should like to think that that is the wish of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy as well.
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is clearly not giving way.
Lembit Öpik: Hon. and right hon. Members know that I am generous to a fault in giving way under normal conditions. Because I have a certain affection for the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth I will, on this final occasion, give way.
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman has rightly said that the Liberal Democrat Administration in Cardiff are not going ahead with closing lots of schools. They have abandoned all hope of reforming the school system, so they are not doing anything. Will he encourage them to engage properly with the local community in the planning of education for the future?
Lembit Öpik: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his sage counsel. I have no doubt that my colleagues in Cardiff are listening, because they are already pursuing the very approach that he suggests. The people of Cardiff can be reassured that that is the case.
As ever, I do not seek to slam every aspect of the Queen’s Speech. That is a rather puerile way of dealing with modern politics. I am disappointed by the decentralising, authoritarian and, to some extent, privatising tendencies that are evident in this Queen’s Speech. Liberal Democrats feel that decentralisation, liberation and a truly green agenda should be within our grasp. Even if hon. Members have different philosophical viewpoints about how we run our public services, I should like to think that the one thing that unites us is our capacity and opportunity to make Wales the environmental capital of Europe. If nothing else, that at least should focus us on our environmental responsibilities and make us optimistic about the positive role that Wales can play in leading the rest of Britain in showing that sustainability is not a theory; it can be made into a fact.
11.9 am
Albert Owen: It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, but I must correct him. Selling off a major chunk of a public asset and inviting the private sector to purchase it is part privatisation.
The Queen’s Speech had a huge impact on the people of Wales. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) has said, very few constituents come to me to talk about constitutional affairs. They talk about pensions and climate change, and they correspond about child support, welfare reform and security. The Queen’s Speech addressed such issues.
A strong and stable economy—we have talked about boom and bust—is required in order to introduce some measures and to create a consistent cycle for long-term investment. We have delayed too long in dealing with the issue of state pensions. We should have been dealing with it in the ’70s and ’80s in order to avoid the crisis in which we now find ourselves, but at least the Queen’s Speech offers hope for thousands of future pensioners, and we should be pleased about that. The Queen’s Speech also came during the period of the energy review and the pre-Budget report on expenditure in Wales, so it is appropriate that I should comment on all three issues.
I shall deal mainly with the forthcoming Climate Change Bill and pensions, but first I shall address the side issue of the Welfare Reform Bill. The Bill’s measures will be difficult to take. However, I have met groups in my constituency and regional groups—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) and I recently met members of the Royal National Institute of the Blind—and many of them want help and support to gain work and employment opportunities. The welfare reform measures announced in the Queen’s Speech will assist that, so I am happy to support them. I have concerns about the carrot and stick approach—I think that there will be too much stick and not enough carrot to encourage people to move from welfare into work—but I think that the measures are important.
I welcome the debate among all parties on poverty. This Government have a proud record since 1997 on alleviating pensioner and child poverty. I have heard the crude figures that more than 1 million pensioners have been relieved from relative poverty and more than 2 million of them have been relieved from abject poverty, a proud record on which to build for the future.
I welcome the Conservative party’s engagement with the debate on poverty. There might be a split between members who support Polly Toynbee and members who do not, but at least they are actively engaging in the debate for the first time and discussing relative poverty. However, I am concerned that when the focus moves to relative poverty, it will be forgotten that some people in our constituencies still live in abject poverty and find it difficult to move forward, so I hope that they will still be a priority.
I am proud of our record of targeting the poorest pensioners in our constituencies, and it is right to do so. In debating the Pensions Bill, we will discuss restoring the link to earnings. I hope that that will be done carefully, so that we do not hurt the vulnerable people whom we have been helping or redistribute public support away from the poorest pensioners to other areas. However, we must balance those considerations with the need to help pensioner groups to save and be self-sufficient. I am pleased that we will have the Bill and that debate, and I hope that we can attain a consensus.
Mr. Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that probably the biggest disincentive to pensioner saving was the Chancellor’s raid on pension funds? Analysts have said recently that it extracted £150 billion from pension funds.
Albert Owen: There are a number of reasons why investment in occupational and private pensions has been discouraged. One of them is that many companies have chosen to take holidays and have not been investing.
Chris Ruane: Tory councils.
Albert Owen: My hon. Friend mentions local government, but I am also talking about large companies that have chosen not to invest in pension funds, so that when it comes to final salaries, they experience difficulties. There are many reasons, and that is one of them. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West keeps harping on about one reason all the time. I do not have the figures, and I have never seen the Conservative Opposition prove the point about how much has been spent. Of course, the Lawson chancellorship talked about doing something about the holidays to allow pension funds to reinvest, but, of course, he did not enact that proposal, and it was left to our Government and our Chancellor to try to deal with the issue.
Mr. Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman accept that the figure of £150 billion was produced last month by an independent actuary?
Albert Owen: The deputy Leader of the Conservative party has mentioned a different figure in the Chamber, which is the problem. It is difficult to quantify how much might have been invested, because a lot of the profits have been taken away. It is hard to assess what the profits might have been, and it is difficult to come to a specific figure.
Of course, the moneys that the Chancellor has taken in taxation have been reinvested in our communities and have helped the very pensioners who were unable to join occupational schemes or private pensions. Pensioners in Wales have benefited considerably from the measures taken by the Chancellor. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West nods his head, but if 2 million people are out of abject poverty, it is a good result for the Government and it is a stain on the Conservative Government for allowing that number of people to be in abject poverty.
On climate change, I welcome the fact that we can have a mature debate about how we are going to deal with global warning and the related issues. We have had the energy review, in which many people who were entrenched in certain positions actually changed their minds about the needs of the nation and the need for proper targets to be met. I am a bit disappointed that we do not have annual targets, and I supported Friends of the Earth on that point. I understand the argument why we should not have those annual targets—there might be slippage, and if gas from certain parts of the world were to be cut off, those targets would not be met because we are not self-sufficient. There would be a huge annual debate to say that the Government have failed.
We need to look to the long term, so that by 2050 we have a trend that helps us to be more efficient on CO2 emissions and ensures that the targets are brought down. I am comfortable about that, as long as we move towards reducing CO2 emissions. The Welsh Affairs Committee undertook an interesting inquiry into energy in Wales and produced an interesting report. I am pro-nuclear, not only because of my constituency, but because I think that it is a green energy that will help the environment in the future. I am proud to support it.
My Assembly Member, the leader of Plaid Cymru, has two policies. In the mess room of the nuclear power station, he says that he is in favour of nuclear power, but he has another policy outside the power station, because his party are hostile to it. I want him to get off the fence and to make a statement on nuclear power, because he is the leader of a major political party in Wales and we are talking about climate change, energy efficiency, energy requirements and CO2 emissions.
The Committee undertook the inquiry and came to the conclusion that we needed a rich mix, which includes greater use of clean coal, of biomass and of other renewables. I support renewables and do not think, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and others have said, that we need a debate between wind turbines—or even marine turbines—and the barrage, because we need to consider them all for the long-term future.
We should remember that even with the most ambitious targets for 2020 of raising the use of renewables by 20 per cent., we will still have a gap because of the closure programme for nuclear power stations. That is why I support building new ones, and why I support the Welsh Affairs Committee, which has said that we need to have a continuing mature debate and that, if we are going to build them, they should be built on the existing sites. That is why I am confused that the Plaid Cymru leader does not support the Welsh Affairs Committee, which contains Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat Members. The report was unanimous in saying that we should have new nuclear build on existing sites. Of course, there is a site in my constituency. I welcome the recommendation and I know that the people of Anglesey, Ynys Môn, support it—it is the best decision in the long-term interests of Wales.
Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): The report raised the question whether we should go along that line. The hon. Gentleman is painting a global picture, but the review was phrased in terms of whether we should go along that route.
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Prepared 14 December 2006