Government’s Legislative Programme


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Dr. Francis: The hon. Gentleman makes an important and telling point. Everyone recognises the importance of science, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer constantly reminds us of it, so I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I am confident that the Leitch message arrivedin Wales even before the report was published. The Welsh Assembly Government commissioned the Graham report into part-time higher education and study—Dr. Heather Graham is the leading figure in the Open university in Wales. The report emphasised our ageing population and declining birth rate, and the growing need for part-time, flexible learning and work-based learning for adults.
I welcome the fact that Jane Davidson, the Welsh Assembly Government Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills, commissioned Sir Adrian Webb, formerly vice-chancellor at the university of Glamorgan, to undertake a particular, specific study of how the Leitch report will apply to Wales. I also welcome the fact that the adult learning body, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education for Wales, NIACE Dysgu Cymru, is holding a major conference next month on skills, demography and the Welsh economy, which will look specifically at the Leitch report. It is heartening that the conference will address the wider policy implications resulting fromthe level of change necessary from both a Welsh and global perspective.
The Welsh Assembly Government were urged by the Bevan Foundation in a recent publication titled, “Setting the Agenda”, to adopt the target of an 80 per cent. employment rate, mirroring the aspirations of the Department for Work and Pensions. That can only be achieved by addressing all the barriers to learning, whether they are to do with family, finance, or culture. As many hon. Members will know, many of the barriers apply specifically to the 350,000 carers in Wales who wish to return to education, learning or work.
“Setting the Agenda”, the Bevan Foundation’s document, which was launched at the Welsh Assembly last month, stated that
“improving the skills of the least well qualified young people should be a top priority within public policy for the next term.”
I had some professional experience of addressing the issue of widening access to education over the past three decades, particularly at Swansea university and in the development of the Community university of the Valleys. I am gratified that that work is progressing. It is being led by my former colleagues at the department of adult continuing education. I am also gratified at the progress of Swansea university’s Burton centre, and that the vision of a Richard Burton youth theatre at Port Talbot is being developed by the local authority and the university.
If ever there were a global vision delivered locally, it was by the iconic inspiration of the late Richard Burton. The recently unveiled memorial described him as, “Seren Cymru, seren y byd”, meaning, “a star of Wales and a star of the world”. He was a locally nurtured talent and he strode the world stage. He never forgot the deep local roots that nurtured him. Those talents are still there, and we need to nurture them.
Jane Davidson, in the document “Learning Country” , eloquently stated that
“high quality lifelong learning liberates talent, extends opportunities, empowers communities, provides better jobs and skills to enable people to prosper in the new economy and creates a sustainable future for our country.”
Nearly a decade ago I visited the university of Wisconsin, an old, radical, land grant university in the mid-west of the United States. Its ethos was not unlike that of the university of Wales: “prifysgol y werin—the people’s university”. It had, and still has a strong commitment to widening access. I believe that we need to reaffirm those organic links in the new global Wales that is already with us. Perhaps we need a new university of south-west Wales with four campuses, just like the inspirational four campuses in the north-west of South Africa, with a brand new university campus in Pembrokeshire, which for so long has deserved and been denied that opportunity.
Mr. Llwyd: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. What is his view on a federal college, or university, teaching through the medium of Welsh, which is increasingly being debated—or hoped for—in some circles?
Dr. Francis: It is a worthy proposal. One would need to measure the demand for it, and I suspect that, once established, the demand would be met. There needs to be a debate on such a proposal in the Welsh Assembly Government and perhaps here in the Welsh Grand Committee.
When we look at the global skills challenge for Wales, the issue is not the narrow institutional advantage, but the wider community advantage. There is an old 19th century saying from the days of the great radical Henry Richard: “Trech gwlad nac arglwydd—the land is mightier than the lord”. Like all good Welsh sayings, it has many layers of meaning. Universities would do well to reflect on its significance and apply it to their relationship not only to the world, but to the community on their doorstep.
I understand that the Secretary of State for Wales will be visiting my old university—Swansea—next month. I hope that he will consider some of the issues that I have raised this afternoon in relation to the Leitch report, and that he will convey our good wishes, and mine in particular, to my former colleagues and students, especially those in the Community university in Banwen.
2.32 pm
Mark Williams: It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), who chairs our Select Committee on Welsh Affairs effectively and with great distinction. I want to concentrate on three or four specific matters, some of which have not been mentioned in the debate so far.
First, let me consider the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill, which will be debated in the main Chamber next Monday. The Bill puts in place the bare bones of a system to offer assistance to vulnerable groups, but we still know very little about the way in which it will work. In a written answer to one of my questions, the Under-Secretary of Statefor Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member forSt. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) stated that 440,000 households will be eligible for assistance in Wales. That is a significant figure—more than one in three households. However, it transpires that many of those who qualify for assistance will still have to pay a fee. That sounds a little less like assistance and more like a business transaction.
I do not denigrate digital switchover in any way; I welcome it. It is a great opportunity and provides a great deal of choice. However, isolated communities in parts of rural Wales will be hit by the measure. Currently the analogue signal is poor, but watchable. After switchover, there is no guarantee that households will have any signal at all. During an Adjournment debate, I raised the point that I was disappointed that the Government had not set themselves a more ambitious target of not just matching current analogue coverage but achieving universal coverage. There are about 30,000 households in Wales to which the switchover will make no difference at all. I would like to know what the Government have to say to those households.
Digital switchover is a Government social policy so it stands to reason that the Government should match the cost, yet the BBC will be forced to pay for the assistance scheme through its licence fee payers. Many poorer families face significant outlays. Every single TV will need to be converted or replaced, yet the clock is ticking down fast towards switchover, with digital-only broadcasts beginning in Wales in the summer of 2009. When an announcement on the scope of those systems and the assistance fund is made, it must give real assistance with the cost of updating hardware and offer more than just a remote call centre advice service, which seems to be, sadly, the order of the day at the moment.
Mr. Roger Williams: My hon. Friend rightly points out the Government’s lack of ambition in expanding coverage for those people who cannot currently get television reception. Surely there is also an issue here for people in Wales who wish to have Welsh language television, but cannot receive it at the moment. Should the Government address that issue, too, and try to ensure that everybody who lives in Wales has the right to have Welsh language television?
Mark Williams: That issue becomes even more important in the context of public service bulletins and party political broadcasts in the run-up to the National Assembly elections. It is a particular problem in north-east Wales and it needs addressing. I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point.
In the Queen’s Speech, Her Majesty stated:
“My Government will put victims at the heart of the Criminal Justice system, support the police and all those responsible for public safety.”
She had much to say about the probation service, with which Liberal Democrats would disagree. Last week, my hon. Friends the Members for Brecon and Radnorshire and for Montgomeryshire and I met the Dyfed-Powys police authority. Its members expressed serious concerns about the development of their proposals for community support officers. I know that they have also met Ministers to discuss seriousbudget shortfalls and to draw Ministers’ attention to the fact that Dyfed-Powys looks likely to miss outon community support officers due to poor communication from the Home Office.
As the Minister knows, financial prudence on the authority’s part has left Dyfed-Powys with no new funding for the desperately needed community support officers next year. There is a real eagerness, not least because of the rurality of our area, to get those community support officers in place, but there is a funding problem. I know that the Minister acknowledges that it is a serious problem, and I think I am right in saying that he spoke very recently to the Dyfed-Powys police authority. I hope that his meeting was positive because we need to secure extra policing for rural areas, and the issue needs to be resolved.
A major omission from the Queen’s Speech, as far as my constituents are concerned, is a marine Bill. I know that it is a hugely complex issue and that extensive consultations have gone on, but many of my constituents, especially those involved in eco-tourism, will be keen for a marine Bill to be on the statute book. We are waiting for decisions on whether exploratory drilling for oil and gas can be licensed by the DTI in Cardigan bay. Many Members know that it is an area protected under EU special area of conservationstatus. It has a unique bottle nose dolphin and seal population, yet the DTI seems intent on granting licences.
A marine Bill in this Parliament could have created marine-protected areas in which such development was excluded. It could also have devolved offshore planning consents in Wales to the National Assembly so that Wales could take a real lead in encouraging its huge potential, which was mentioned earlier today, for generating clean, renewable energy offshore. We remain disappointed that such a Bill has not been introduced; it is a major omission. I know that the Government have intentions about the matter but it has been promised since 2002.
Finally, a good many people, certainly in my constituency, are waiting for an announcement tomorrow with a great sense of trepidation. They are the post office masters and mistresses, especially in rural areas. Today the Government have announced that 600 cash machines are to be placed in deprived areas. They have met demands there with a great deal of urgency. The Minister knows as well as I do the great importance of the issue for the rural communities of Wales. It is poetic to talk like this, but post office closures mean ripping the heart out of rural communities. We must address that. The rural subsidy, in some shape or form, will be reduced, and rural Wales will bear the brunt of some of the cutbacks. That will affect our communities.
Mr. Llwyd: I agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman is saying, but can I remind him that, earlier today in questions, there was a lot of talk about social exclusion? Here, in one fell swoop, is a means of excluding many thousands of people—not just in rural areas, but in urban settings as well.
Mark Williams: The hon. Gentleman will excuse me for my rural bias. He is right: the issue affects all communities across Wales. It is simply a matter ofthe Government acknowledging that they have a responsibility to make renewed efforts to get the Link machines into post offices and get the business back there, so that small businesses operating on the margins can prosper. Let us not underestimate the important social role, as yet unquantified—perhaps impossible to quantify—of post offices in our communities. It will be a terrible indictment of the Government and the House if we do not stop what is happening.
2.41 pm
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I welcome the priority given in the Queen’s Speech to a stable economyand I welcome our Government’s commitment to maintaining low inflation, sound public finances and high employment. I also welcome the dramatic fall in unemployment in the Llanelli constituency since Labour came to power in 1997. In contrast with the high unemployment in the 1980s and early 1990s, we now have rates of 2 per cent. to 3 per cent. However, there is a lot of concern and worry owing to the threat of globalisation.
The automotive industry, for example, is operating in a fiercely competitive world. Workers in such industries have frequently made enormous efforts to improve the profitability of their factories. They have made personal sacrifices and shown tremendous loyalty, Despite their best efforts, they remain fearful of companies taking work away to countries where wages are so low that they cannot compete. In the face of such threats, it is vital that we do not become complacent about the current low levels of unemployment. We need to look continually to the future and to prioritise attracting new investment. We need to ensure that establishments such as the new Technium in Llanelli are used effectively to draw in quality jobs. We have enterprising and innovative companies such as Minaero in Llanelli, which are at the forefront of aeroplane cabin design. We need to provide the conditions in which such companies can flourish and take on and train young people.
My constituents are concerned about job losses not only in the private sector, but in the public sector. Colleagues in MOD Llangennech are currently working hard to save jobs there. Recently, there has been an announcement about closing the Environment Agency laboratory in Llanelli and proposals on the future of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which imply the possible closure of the Llanelli tax office.
Without repeating all that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said about the future of HMRC in Wales and the importance of local front-line services to maximise the effective collection of taxes, I shouldlike to focus on some issues that are common to the MOD, the Environment Agency and HMRC. It is environmental madness to move more jobs southwards and eastwards. We already know about the problems of congestion, pollution and shortages of affordable housing in the south-east. The same problems that affect south-east England are now beginning to affect Cardiff and even Swansea.
Furthermore, there are skills shortages in the south-east. That is crucial for the future quality of these services. It is much more difficult to recruit and retain staff in the public services in places where so many more exciting opportunities are luring young staff away. On investigating the possible transfer of jobs from MOD Llangennech to Oxfordshire, it has become apparent that there are considerable recruitment and retention problems in Oxfordshire. What the MOD, the Environment Agency and HMRC have in Llanelli is a committed, stable and well qualified work force, and I dare say that the picture is similar throughout Wales. They appreciate the quality jobs they have, and they tend to stay and provide loyal service. Purely in terms of providing the best quality service, it makes sense to keep such jobs in west Wales.
There is a fundamental principle at stake, too. We know how difficult it is to create equality of economic opportunity and to combat the great inequalities in income. The idea of objective 1 funding is to help areas that, often for reasons of peripherality, offer fewer economic opportunities. The Welsh Assembly Government have recognised the importance of devolving jobs to locations outside Cardiff, but I am worried that there are still great disparities between the wealthy areas concentrated largely in parts of south-east and north-west England, and parts of west Wales where a predominantly low-wage economy continues.
Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend aware that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has a number of agencies located throughout the United Kingdom, although too few in Wales, and that it spends £9,900 per person on accommodation, whereas in Islwyn, where we have beautiful wooded valleys and silver streams full of fish, accommodation costs only £1,600? Does she agree that it is important to keep banging the drum for Wales as a good place to locate jobs presently in the south-east and in London?
 
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Prepared 15 December 2006