Government’s Legislative Programme

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The Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Bill is an integral part of the Queen’s Speech, and it indicates the Government’s recognition of the climate change problem and the determination of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to take a lead in tackling the problem. However, there are no easy answers to climate change. We must share ideas and best practice and make tackling climate change a priority for all Departments, whether they are in Westminster or in Cardiff.
We must improve energy efficiency in existing homes and in new-build, develop renewable energy, improve public transport systems and help industry to reduce its carbon footprint. However, we must deal with industry sensitively and create a level playing field. We must not penalise our industry, so that big producers, for example steel companies, are forced to go to countries where standards are much lower. That would not help the problem of global warming. We must work sensitively alongside industry to examine the best practice that industry considers feasible in our areas. We must ensure that the emissions trading scheme works fairly for our factories and for those in Europe. As we are considering the global perspective, we must ensure that the scheme does not penalise our companies and our work force because of what happens in the rest of the world.
As we move forward with the climate change agenda, it is essential that we think carefully about what we are doing, and that we do not implement legislation we then regret. We must think through every single step and we must be totally committed to achieving an effective solution to the problem.
2.49 pm
Mr. Roger Williams: It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), particularly because of her measured and thoughtful contribution on Second Reading of the Offender Management Bill on Monday.
On an optimistic note, I note a spring in the step of my constituents and a smile on their faces. When I ask why, they tell me it is because they now have Orders in Council, which they consider to be a tremendous contribution to their well-being and quality of life. I wonder what the last Government of Wales Bill achieved. It could have achieved so much and given the people of Wales real legislative powers and equivalence to Scotland.
I want to say a few words about Bills that appear in the Queen’s Speech that need our attention, then something about a number of Bills that do not appear, and then a little about the economy in Wales, because the Queen’s Speech says that it is the Government’s intention to produce a stable and sustainable economy.
I turn first to the Offender Management Bill, which had its Second Reading on Monday. A number of hon. Members will have received representations on it from trade unions. I am particularly concerned about howit will be delivered in rural areas. My hon. Friendthe Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) asked whether the Mental Health Bill had been rural-proofed. I would ask whether the Offender Management Bill has been rural-proofed, because setting central delivery targets for the public service or the voluntary sector does not seem to take account of whether private sector or voluntary organisations are present in an area or whether those sectors would want to operate in that area.
Contestability is all very well and good, but therehas to be somebody to contest it. The Dyfed-Powys probation service operates to a good standard in the area that I represent, both in supporting offenders and ensuring that they get back to a more positive and constructive role in life, and in protecting the public. That is not to say that there cannot be improvements. Indeed, the probation service works well with the voluntary sector but it is unrealistic to set targets of20 per cent. and 30 per cent. I shall develop that theme in a minute.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): The hon. Gentleman knows that I hold the matter close to my heart, having watched the legislation gestating over three years and then found that it was not worth waiting for when it came. Does he agree that the Bill does not address one of the fundamental problems that faces the probation service, namely that it is overwhelmed? There are too many offenders who have been released from prison too early with inadequate assessment beforehand, and nothing in the legislation will help us in Wales or other parts of the United Kingdom.
Mr. Williams: I agree that there is little in the Bill that will lead to an improvement in the probation service or its capacity to deal with the task that it faces. Some hon. Members will have received a briefing note from Turning Point, an excellent charity that deals, among other things, with drug and alcohol abuse. As I cast around my constituency, I fail to find evidence that Turning Point does any work there, or in the whole of mid-Wales. It is the same with a lot of national charitable organisations. I do not know whether they have not received an invitation, but they certainly do not seem to be keen to work in sparsely populated areas and to address circumstances that they are not used to dealing with.
I do not believe that there is the capacity in rural areas to involve the private sector or the charitable sector to the degree that the Bill requires in terms of contestability. I was unable to speak in the Second Reading debate, but I would ask the Under-Secretary of State to make representations on behalf of rural Wales to ensure that we do not lose the good work that is going on by trying to achieve a target that may prove difficult to meet and, if it is met, will offer only a superficial solution.
I welcome the Climate Change Bill, and I endorse many of the comments that the hon. Member for Llanelli made about it, too. The Government must set firm and clear targets, and clear targets on an annual basis. It is only by achieving those, step by step, year by year, that we will achieve the 60 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 that most people agree is the minimum needed to ameliorate climate change.
The Government seem to be moving away from annual fixed targets. They seem to enjoy setting targets for other people, but do not enjoy it so much when targets are set for themselves. The discipline of annual targets will make it better and easier to achieve the ultimate target of a 60 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions.
As to pieces of legislation that did not appear in the Queen’s Speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion has already talked about the marine Bill. Wales is not exactly surrounded by water, but has a lot of coastal length for its size. We depend on good coastal environments for tourism, our fishing fleets and many of the other activities that make Wales such an attractive place to visit. As I understand it, the Government will now include a draft marine Bill in a White Paper that may be issued before the next Queen’s Speech is delivered.
One of the Bills that I anticipated seeing in the Queen’s Speech was the coroners Bill. A number of hon. Members with whom I have been working in the House had constituents who died in the Marchioness disaster on the Thames. The way that that coroners’ inquest was carried out left a lot to be desired. The impact of a coroners Bill, which would give us full-time, dedicated, highly trained coroners, who are not only efficient and effective in doing their business but have the skills to deal with the bereaved people in a sympathetic and caring way, should be an objectivefor us all.
There was one element of the coroners Bill that had pre-legislative scrutiny, which indicated that there might be only three coroners for Wales. I would not agree with that. Obviously I would object to it because it would not give Wales enough coverage. At the same time, I would support the Government’s determination to give us a coroners service that is fit for purpose for this century.
I want to mention three elements that impact on the economy of Wales and that of my constituency in particular. The first concerns British Waterways and the cuts that it is experiencing as a result of financial mismanagement by DEFRA. When the Minister answered my oral question at the beginning of this Committee, he indicated that it would have no Barnett implications in terms of the changes of the DEFRA budget. However, I do not agree with that, and I think that perhaps he may have been—I was going to say misinformed, but that would be too strong—not briefed exactly accurately. The amount of money that British Waterways gets does not depend at all on the Barnett formula, because it does not get money from the Welsh Assembly; money is delivered to British Waterways as a whole. However, the Scottish Parliament makes a contribution to British Waterways, so the Barnett formula in Scotland has had some effect.
What effect will that have in Wales? At the moment, six to 10 posts will be lost from the Wales and border counties business unit, which is responsible for administering Wales. That represents a 10 per cent. reduction in the business unit’s office-based staff, and a likely reduction of two posts in Wales. The employment cuts are serious—particularly for the individuals involved, but they also represent a loss of expertise, because British Waterways has been good at putting partnerships together that involve other organisations such as local authorities, at obtaining lottery grants to maximise the receipts of Government money, and at increasing its income.
In my constituency, the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal runs for 32 miles between Brecon and Pontypool. The right hon. Member for Torfaen is not here, butI believe that the canal extends almost into his constituency. Since 1968, it has gradually been restored by British Waterways with the support of the national park and others, and it was reopened to the public in 1970. I have received a huge number of representations, not only from narrow boat hire operators and canal trip operators, but from the many hotels and pubs that are situated along the canal and which depend on its use for the success of their business.
When I first knew it, the canal was a dirty ditch that mothers told their children not to go near, because it was polluted and dangerous, whereas it now provides wonderful opportunities for walking and for leisure and enjoyment. It would be a huge pity if such a wonderful facility fell once again into disrepair, as it did at the beginning of the last century.
Will the Under-Secretary therefore make representations for money to be found from the Contingencies Fund, in order to safeguard a wonderful organisation that has made good use of public money? There has been no criticism of British Waterways or of its use of public funds.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned HMRC, which has offices up and down Wales. I have spoken to the employees in Brecon, of whom there are 32, and who provide a magnificent service to small and medium-sized businesses. Throughout mid-Wales there are businesses employing just one person, or at any rate fewer than five, and there is very little time or resource to take advice on tax matters that concern them. The tax office is currently open and accessible to them, but there is fear that that will not continue.
I have been told that consultation is happening on how those employees do their work—for example, as to the use of a task-based system in examining self-assessment forms. That system, however, was the cause of the concern about the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment fiasco. Instead of looking at the whole application, officers looked only at part. I am told that the system may be introduced into HMRC. If so, then when we consult on the HMRC offices, it will not be possible to make our case. We need to be involved at an early stage, and I am pleased that the Under-Secretary is talking to the Paymaster General. My office is trying to put together an all-party group to meet her, too, because this issue affects the whole of Wales regardless of political parties.
Finally, I understand that in my constituency all but two post offices are defined as rural. We were not terribly badly affected by the reinvention scheme that affected urban post offices. However, although the announcement on Thursday could affect rural and urban post offices, it will probably impinge more on the rural ones. I cannot compliment the post office network enough for the way in which it has kept rural post offices open in the past, with Government support. It will be a huge pity if all our good work goes to nothing and many post offices are shut.
Mrs. Gillan: I speak from experience, because the closure of a semi-rural post office in my constituency has taken the heart out of that area of the village. Such closures rip the heart out of communities. In more isolated rural areas, the post office is even more important as a centre of social activity and a focus point for communities. The fact that this network is being allowed to wither on the vine is probably one of the most criminal things that this Government could have done.
Mr. Williams: I agree absolutely with the hon. Lady. It is a case of investing a lot of money and then seeing it wasted because of the Government’s lack of determination to see this wonderful service continue.
This has been a good debate. I commend the continuation of the Welsh Grand Committee, because it provides the opportunity for hon. Members for Wales to raise issues nationally as well as locally. The debate, which has been good, has served that purpose.
3.7 pm
Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I want to say a few words about the interface between Parliament, Government and the National Assembly for Wales on crime and disorder, nuisance and clearing up the local environment. Before I do that, may I say that it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, even if he is currently in conference on what alliances can be created on the Opposition Benches?
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire was a little bit cheap in suggesting that the Government do not like to set targets for themselves, which is untrue. When we came into office in 1997, we had more specific targets and commitments than any previous Government, and we achieved them. I take a great deal of pride in having halved the time that it takes to bring young offenders before the courts. The previous Government had taken so little interest in the issue that there were not even facts or statistics on which to base anything, so we had to lose a few months while we calibrated the figures to allow us to see what it would mean to halve the time. We then pursued a tough objective, which we achieved during our first term in office.
We are leading the world on climate change. That leadership should be acknowledged, and it should be a matter of pride, even on the Opposition Benches. American interns in my office have commented on the extent to which understanding of climate change, interest on the part of Government and challengingthe community are factors in this country, which is completely new in their experience.
Of course, there need to be targets. In fact, we are setting harder targets than our international obligations demand. An obsession with annual targets is a mistake. Yes, we ought to look at figures each year to see where progress is being made, but variations in the course of a year might introduce distortions that render the figures meaningless. One has to look at them over a longer period to ensure that the direction of travel is right and is maintained. Sometimes, it is a question of what we mean by setting challenging targets and the means of measuring them. Targets need to be intelligently set and intelligently measured—the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire does not seem to disagree—which is how this Government try to approach such issues
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Prepared 15 December 2006