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1 Mar 2007 : Column 1111
2.2 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I feel as though I am intruding in a private family spat between Plaid Cymru and Labour. The Secretary of State clearly has not got his facts right, but it is good to welcome him to the Dispatch Box. I am glad that he has managed to take time off from his busy campaigning schedule—I hope every Labour Member has noticed his campaign to be Deputy Prime Minister—and time off from his Aga to join us and make a guest appearance. So little does he ever mention Wales these days, preferring to be referred to as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that I believe that on Sunday Andrew Marr described him in his interview as “the former Welsh Secretary”.

This could well be the right hon. Gentleman’s last St. David’s day debate as Secretary of State for Wales. I, for one, wish him all success with his deputy leadership campaign, as he would certainly be much easier on the eye than the present incumbent. It is so good that the Secretary of State has managed to come to this country from abroad and make his way up to the position that he currently holds. We wish him success in his bid.

Much as I expected, the right hon. Gentleman has not missed the opportunity of the St. David’s day debate to mount his usual ranting attack on our party but, as he said, the Assembly elections will be a bare-knuckle fight with the Tories. We are obviously considered to have made so much progress that in his view we are the main protagonists. Even the Prime Minister believes that the Conservative party has something to offer the people of Wales, as he mentioned my party no fewer than 30 times last weekend.

There is no doubt that the Labour party is running scared from a comprehensive and cohesive campaign that is being run by my colleagues, the Welsh Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly. We are too familiar with the Secretary of State’s biased view of Conservative history, which he dealt us again today. He seems to have a fixation with using facts that are 10 years out of date. He does that to try to divert attention from his party’s inadequate performance. I doubt that the electors in Wales will see his record in quite the same rosy light as he has painted today.

Today is a day for Welsh people to celebrate their culture and identity. I am therefore proud that my party’s support for the Welsh language is well recognised and generally appreciated. It was a Conservative Government who introduced the Welsh Language Act 1993, which has led to the great renaissance in the use of Welsh, and set up the Welsh language TV station S4C. Both those achievements have secured our Welsh culture and identity for many generations to come. We all owe a debt of gratitude particularly to my noble Friend Lord Roberts, who even today continues to play a pivotal role in our party on Welsh affairs.

I also recall the tremendous role that Conservatives played in the construction of the Cardiff bay barrage and the resulting regeneration, which none of us can deny and which we all welcome. It is so conveniently forgotten by the First Minister, who opposed the barrage tooth and nail at the time, and I believe that he was not the only member of the Labour party to do so.

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However, I am not ungenerous— [Interruption.] No, I am not ungenerous, and I am sure the Secretary of State and his party, like us, has the best interests of Wales at heart. The trouble is that he and the Labour party have failed to deliver at a time when they have held the reins of power in both Westminster and Cardiff Bay, and now there is no place to hide.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The hon. Lady has run out of things that the Conservatives did for Wales. That was her whole list, was it not? They did something for Cardiff, and they made everybody in the Rhondda watch Welsh television instead of being able to watch Channel 4. Is there anything else that she thinks the Tories might have done for the valleys of south Wales?

Mrs. Gillan: I do not need to answer that attack from the hon. Gentleman. This is the same Member who attacked the First Minister, claiming that his NHS policy encourages patients to turn to the private sector. He added that the political cosiness in Wales may mean poorer public services for his constituents. This is a man who criticises his own party as much as I criticise them.

David T.C. Davies: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Gillan: I will.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, may I say to the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that I am hearing far too much from him from a sedentary position? That is not the traditional role of a Parliamentary Private Secretary.

David T.C. Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that we owe a great debt to the last Conservative Government for all their much-appreciated work building the heads of the valley road and the other major links between the valleys and Cardiff, which enabled all sorts of high-tech manufacturing industries to go there and created a large number of jobs?

Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of that. Perhaps we should also remind the Secretary of State of the Welsh Development Agency and what it has done for Wales, and of the largest hospital building programme under the Conservatives in Wales.

Chris Bryant rose—

Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman will have his chance to make a speech. The Secretary of State spoke for a long time. I intend to be briefer and more to the point, but I give way to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Let me remind her of the real legacy in constituencies such as mine in the Rhondda—not a single road built from the valleys down into Cardiff by the Conservatives, the mines closed, and 30 per cent. of the population of working age in constituencies such as mine consigned to incapacity benefit. That is the true, shocking legacy of the Conservatives in the south Wales valleys.

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Mrs. Gillan: That grandstanding from the hon. Gentleman, who is living in the past, is not unremarkable. Quite frankly, I prefer to look to the future, and we are proud of our record in Wales.

It is time for Wales to have an alternative—not an alternative such as Plaid, which would tear Wales out of the heart of the United Kingdom, but an alternative that would put heart back into Wales with a revolution of social, corporate and personal responsibility. In the brief time available, I shall set out some of our hopes and aspirations for this valuable part of the UK.

Despite Labour’s false rhetoric, we are determined as a party to improve the national health service for everyone—and not help the few to opt out. We are committed to the NHS ideal and have ruled out any move towards an insurance-based system. My colleagues in the Assembly have already set out some exciting proposals to improve NHS performance in Wales. They have been making plans so that, if successful in the elections, they can move to ensure safe and speedy access to local and appropriate hospitals, access to modern medicines, improvements in the hospital environment and to promote health and well-being throughout Wales.

We have a vision for the health service and health care in Wales, which trusts the doctors and the nurses—it is they, not politicians, who should be in the driving seat so that they can decide what is best for patients. Let us contrast that vision with eight years of Labour reality. Waiting lists are higher than when the Assembly was created, trusts are facing cumulative debts of more than £100 million, fewer than half of the adult population is registered with a dentist, and the health service is taking on administrative staff at a faster rate than it employs doctors and nurses.

Even Labour’s first initiative, which was to create 22 health boards out of the five existing health authorities, is disastrous. That alone cost the Welsh taxpayer £15 million and has resulted in a duplication of effort and a huge increase in bureaucracy that has since curtailed any chance of increased efficiency and productivity in the service. So bad has Labour stewardship been that even the British Medical Association in Wales passed in 2005 a vote of no confidence in the Labour Welsh Assembly Government, following their mishandling of GP contracts. Our health service is certainly not safe in their hands.

I agree with the Secretary of State that climate change is probably the biggest challenge facing us today in Wales or beyond our borders. It was good to hear that the right hon. Gentleman takes it seriously. He obviously takes it more seriously than the First Minister, who thinks that climate change is a subject of amusement, warranting flippant remarks about the weather. To me and my colleagues, it is a subject of great concern—not least following the publication of the key environmental statistics that I mentioned earlier, which show that emissions are higher in 2004 than they were in 1990. The right hon. Gentleman and I share the same aim on this and he will be pleased to know that Welsh Conservatives have been developing plans to reflect the need to develop and exploit renewable technology by exploring the viability of tidal power, biofuels and hydropower.

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Mr. Hain: I am glad to hear that, but then why did the Leader of the Opposition denounce the gwynt y môr wind farm project—the biggest in Wales by a long way—as a “giant bird blender”?

Mrs. Gillan: Probably because my right hon. Friend took the view that it was a giant bird blender. Just because views are expressed about one scheme, it does not mean that we are— [Interruption.] No, individual views expressed about one scheme do not deny the need to develop and exploit renewable technologies—a subject on which we all agree. We will all have our personal opinions about where we think schemes and projects should be placed. For instance, I would be interested to hear how the Secretary of State feels about the need to evaluate the replacement nuclear facility at Wylfa, which he missed out in his speech. Will he tell us now whether he is in favour of replacing that plant?

Mr. Hain: I am definitely in favour of a proper assessment, on which I have been working with my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and, indeed, Anglesey council in his constituency, which wants an assessment to see whether it is possible to replace Wylfa, should that opportunity arise.

Mrs. Gillan: Good. I am very glad that the Secretary of State is now adopting Conservative policy.

Albert Owen: The hon. Lady says that the Leader of the Opposition was just expressing a personal view, so let me remind the House of his personal view on nuclear power. He says that it should be the last possible option. It may be too late, because some people who advocate a nuclear-free Wales might actually be aiming towards an electricity-free Wales, particularly if we waited for the Tory policy of wait and see.

Mrs. Gillan: Sadly, the hon. Gentleman has not seemed to notice that it is his party that is in government. I am surprised that the Secretary of State agrees with me about the need to assess whether to replace our nuclear facilities at Wylfa. Given his history, I would have thought that he would be in favour of a nuclear-free Wales. However, we want an increase in corporate responsibility, which will ensure that business and the Government work together to make those changes that will contribute to a thriving, not a dying, environment.

In the spirit of St. David, it is the little things that count. Our excellent team in the Assembly will be setting out tough standards for recycling and reusing our waste so that we continue to make progress in tackling the mountain of rubbish to which we are all guilty of contributing.

Of similarly great concern is the future of our farming and countryside. The rural economy cannot flourish unless a vibrant agricultural sector is at its heart. Welsh Conservatives believe that farming must be properly valued. We do not want dairy farmers going out of business or large tracts of land abandoned, and we know that farmers must be confident that the Government have a coherent vision for a more prosperous rural economy.

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Our plan is to work with farmers in partnership, recognising the vital role that they play in food production and the responsible management of our rural heritage. We also want to encourage new entrants and those who work in land-based industries, and ensure that they have the opportunities for education that meet the modern demands of the agricultural sector.

Our countryside is not just farms, but our wildlife and our stunning national parks and coastal geography. The balance that must be struck by future administrations is to protect that heritage while allowing development to deliver a greater prosperity to as many as possible.

Paul Flynn: In an answer to a parliamentary question yesterday, it was confirmed that the farm tax on subsidies alone paid by the average family in the country is £10 a family a week—a substantial increase on the previous year. Is the hon. Lady happy to see the average family pay that tax to this industry, or would she like it to be increased?

Mrs. Gillan: If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should stand by and allow our agricultural sector to decline, I am not with him. Our farmers deserve our support. However, our countryside is not just farms, but our wildlife and parks. A balance must be struck by future Administrations to protect that heritage, while allowing development to deliver greater prosperity to as many as possible.

Our seaside towns, in particular, deserve much greater attention than they have received under this Administration. They have served generations of holiday makers well in the past and, under Conservative plans, will be given a new lease of life to provide the holiday destinations of the future. With award-winning beaches such as Oxwich bay on the Gower, and as awareness of carbon footprints rises, so too, with some encouragement, could the demand to holiday closer to home. We must be ready to meet that demand.

We must be ready in Wales—here I agree with the Secretary of State—to meet the demands of the ever more challenging globalisation of our world and the competition that is eating the heart out of some of our traditional industries in Wales. We agree with both sides of the House that we must all support Airbus, which provides leading-edge technology and engineering capabilities in our Welsh economy and supports almost 7,000 jobs in Wales. Those jobs also impact on a further 50,000 jobs in the supply chain. I hope that the Government can give us assurances that they will continue to ensure that research and technology, which is vital for this company to secure work in the future, will be available. We need an improving economy in Wales.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I am glad about the hon. Lady’s support for Airbus. Will she also confirm her support for Burberry workers? The campaign to sustain their jobs is being led by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). If she does confirm her support, she might have a word with
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two of her colleagues who serve on the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) and for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), who appeared in the Committee this week to support Burberry in exporting Welsh jobs.

Mrs. Gillan: I think that those remarks are an utter disgrace, because I understand that that is not the position of my hon. Friends; perhaps they will raise that issue in their contributions. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I met Burberry very early on. I am still concerned about the job reductions, particularly in our textile industry in Wales. I went to some lengths to explore all the opportunities—retraining, reskilling, micro-finance and what would be done about the plant. I can give him the assurance that he sought. I have yet to meet the unions, although I have made several approaches in seeking to talk to them about the loss of jobs in Treorchy. It is good to know that he and I agree and care about the future of jobs in Wales, particularly of people who work for Burberry.

Mr. Crabb: The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) spoke of his concern for the Burberry workers and referred to the Welsh Affairs Committee sitting earlier this week. If he had any real concern for the Burberry workers or the thousands of other manufacturing jobs that have been lost in the past two years in Wales, he would be screaming in the face of the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the erosion of our skills base, declining UK competitiveness and the quality of our education system.

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I know that he will add to it when he speaks later.

Chris Bryant: Will the hon. Lady give way? It is about Burberry.

Mrs. Gillan: I have given way enough, and I think that we have talked about Burberry enough. I want to move on, because the Secretary of State used so much time that everybody in the Chamber will be squeezed in making their contributions. However, I put it on the record that my support for the Burberry workers and my efforts to explore alternative ways in which they could be employed started right at the beginning, even before, I believe, the Secretary of State met the directors and representatives from Burberry.

Mr. Touhig: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan: No, I want to continue.

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