Previous Section Index Home Page

We need an improving economy in Wales. No matter what the Secretary of State says, he cannot escape the fact that 10 years of Labour government have left Wales the poorest part of the United Kingdom. That is one point that is curiously missing from the long list of so-called Labour achievements that he read out. Under Labour, the Welsh economy has suffered. For many, the very purpose and benefit of devolution was to enable more suitable policies to be developed for Wales, with the key aim of bridging the wealth gap between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. Since 1999, there has been a range of Government-led activities, but it remains the case that Wales is officially the poorest part
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1117
of the United Kingdom, and a quarter of Welsh children live in households at or below the poverty threshold.

Labour wants to make its record a key part of the Assembly election campaign, but its efforts have largely failed. Official figures now show a widening wealth gap between the richest and poorest parts of Wales. Despite hundreds of millions of pounds of EU aid being spent in west Wales and the valleys since 1999, the region is now even further behind east Wales in terms of average wealth. West Wales and the valleys are now poorer than when the Conservative party left office in 1997. [ Interruption. ] Yes, unemployment rates have fallen since 1997, not least due to the increase in public sector employment, but inactivity rates are among the highest in the United Kingdom, and we see a rising trend of inactivity rates among men, while more and more women are going out to work to keep the bodies and souls of their families together.

We will need some radical thinking to help the Welsh economy to thrive again, whether it is re-examining business taxes, incentivising entrepreneurs, improving our transport system or boosting our research and development and science base, Welsh Conservatives will be putting in that effort to raise our economic prospects. We have clearly worked enthusiastically with other parties, despite the Labour party’s efforts to claim sole credit, to support the St. Athan bid, which will bring some of these badly needed jobs to Wales. We will also work enthusiastically against them, however, if we feel that they are damaging and demoralising the work force, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs workers whom I met in Pembrokeshire the other day. The callousness of a Government who claim the credit for job creation in one part of Wales in advance of the elections, and then leave a decision over the future of the Revenue and Customs workers until after the Assembly elections, deserves contempt. It is no wonder that politicians get a bad name.

It is also no wonder that politicians get a bad name when we see one of the most important tasks that Government should execute carried out so poorly that our safety is no longer assured. I refer, of course, to the policing of our country and borders. I am second to none in my admiration of our four police forces in Wales. They carry out a difficult and dangerous job and deserve the support of the Government and the populations that they serve. They also deserve some common sense and responsibility. It is not responsible to make police forces waste time, effort and money on pursuing administrative changes that are then abandoned with a subsequent loss of time and money to those forces. It is not responsible, and it defies common sense, to preside over a system whereby the police arrest suspected illegal immigrants only to find that they are instructed to release them back into the community before processing.

Despite countless promises to review, reform and redress its failings, the Home Office remains clearly unfit for purpose. There is absolutely no point in the Minister trying to blame that on us, as the responsibility rests fairly and squarely on his Government’s incompetent shoulders. I hope that when he makes his winding-up speech, he will address the issue and tell us what his Government have done to
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1118
ensure that such a security lapse never happens again, either in Wales or elsewhere.

Over the past year, I have listened to the Secretary of State and his colleagues imply that there can be no valid criticism of Labour’s record, because under Labour, there has been record investment. There may well have been record expenditure, but there has not been record performance. We all know that any fool can spend money. There may be new school buildings, but thousands of schoolchildren are leaving school without the basic skills to have a fulfilling future. We read today in The Western Mail, an excellent paper, headlines saying that a quarter of Welsh adults have literacy skills below those of an 11-year-old and that our school buildings in Wales are still falling down. There may be more spending on health care, but waiting lists are still higher than when Labour came to power. I repeat: less than half of all adults are registered with an NHS dentist. Too often, people in Wales have been denied access to modern medicines. There may be more grants coming in from Europe, but 3,500 jobs have been lost since April last year and there is still deprivation and social exclusion across the country.

Record expenditure also comes at a price. The average family in the UK is paying £9,000 more in tax than when Labour came to office. Every homeowner in Wales knows about the cost of revaluation, and today we learn that the enormous increases in council tax in Wales are now likely to push the average bill above £1,000 for the first time. Let us remember all the money that Labour has taken out of people’s pockets; it has helped itself to the money from the windfall tax, the sale of gold, the third generation mobile phone licences and the pension funds—billions of pounds that have been spent, and still Wales is the poorest part of the United Kingdom.

For decades Labour claimed that Wales would be better under its management than under the Conservatives, and that is now patently one of the great political deceptions of our times. As Patrick McGuinness, a former Labour candidate, wrote, Labour is the party that

He adds that it has run a health service that is

I could not have put it better myself.

The Conservatives now have a new spring in their step. We offer a new, fresh and appealing agenda. The prospectus that will be laid out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) together with me and the leader of our Welsh Conservatives, Nicholas Bourne, will offer hope—much-needed hope that there can be a better future in Wales. We are working for a better future for everyone. As Chris Chapman, who at 19 is our youngest community councillor, in Rogerstone, put it:

That is the Conservative message—one of which I think that St. David would have approved.

1 Mar 2007 : Column 1119

When 3 May arrives, we will be asking electors in Wales to look at Labour’s record and wake up to the fact that after 10 years it has not fulfilled its promises. I urge them, for the sake of our future, to vote Welsh Conservative for a change—a much-needed change—in Wales.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I should remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, which operates from now.

2.29 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): Anyone would have thought there was an election about.

It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) refer to Rogerstone community council, which abuts my constituency and is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). I assume that she is talking about the highest elected political office that the Conservatives have on a first-past-the-post basis in my part of Wales. We did once have a Conservative on the local authority in my constituency, but that was some years ago.

Paul Flynn: I believe that Mr. Chapman achieved his high office on the community council having been co-opted on to it. I urge the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) to read the MySpace contribution by Mr. Chapman, as I did recently. Perhaps she could put it into her manifesto. One could not describe it in the House because almost every other word would be inappropriate in parliamentary language.

Mr. Murphy: Yes; perhaps it would be a good idea for the hon. Lady to choose another example next time.

Mrs. Gillan: This sounds like a case of young versus old. I think that it is just jealousy because he is so young at 19, and obviously very much in touch with people. He is a good man.

Mr. Murphy: I look forward to meeting him.

Today, as if we did not know, is St. David’s day, but another famous Welsh monk saint was St. Cadoc, who was the patron saint of our south Wales valleys. I am sure that he would agree with the idea of a Minister for the valleys, which I have been talking about for some time. I echo, in some ways, what the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham said about the importance of ensuring that there are Government offices and that Government activities take place in the valleys of south Wales, and I take her point about HMRC. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has met the appropriate Minister about that, and perhaps he could indicate the result of that meeting when he winds up.

There are some things that we do not necessarily always welcome in our constituencies. One of those is the prison that it is believed might come to my constituency, in Cwmbran. I have met the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), about that, and I have discussed it with the Minister for
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1120
Social Justice and Regeneration in the Assembly. If there is to be an extra prison in Wales—there is some evidence to suggest that there should be—it should be placed, as the Welsh Assembly Government are suggesting, in an area of high unemployment that it could help to regenerate. There is also a case to be made for a prison in north Wales.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The right hon. Gentleman is right. As he knows—we have discussed this before—there has been a long-standing campaign for that to happen in north Wales. I do not want to damage him politically, but I entirely agree with what he says.

Mr. Murphy: I thank the hon. Gentleman.

The site that has been chosen as a possible site for a prison in my constituency is in the middle of the densest population in terms of housing in the whole of Wales apart from Cardiff. That is because it was a new town. The Government may have chosen it because they own it, as it was previously the site of the police training college. Had they thought about it a little, they would have realised that the price of housing in my constituency—at least the southern part of it—means that the 40 acres on which the prison might go would bring the Revenue some £40 million. They could build one or two prisons with that. I understand that no decisions have been made, and there will be time to discuss the matter in other circumstances and places. However, I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to liaise with their counterparts in the Home Office on this important issue—particularly as the Welsh Assembly Government see a good case for a prison to be put in other areas.

That highlights the question of security and policing in Wales. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to the restructuring of the police forces in Wales. That, of course, has not happened. However, it is important to understand that even though that has not occurred, organised crime and the terrorist threats to Wales have not gone away. The restructuring proposals may have disappeared—I had some sympathy with the view that we should retain our present structure in Wales—but the threats to Wales, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, are the same now as they were before the restructuring document came out.

I speak in another capacity: as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Threats to infrastructure, to centres of population and to great shopping centres do not stop at the Wye valley or the Welsh border. Members will know that the head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, recently indicated that in our country there are at least 200 groupings of people who are actively engaged in plotting to take part in terrorist activities and that as many as 1,600 people may be involved in that. Therefore, we still need to be vigilant. We need to be conscious of the fact that we have to co-operate with other police forces across the border such as Avon and Somerset, and we have to be conscious, too, that terrorism is an issue across the whole of the United Kingdom. As a result, it is important for all our forces in Wales, including the special branches, to ensure not only that they are up to speed, but most importantly that they are strengthened
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1121
in order to fight the war against terrorism, which could be as difficult for us in Wales as it is in any other part of the UK.

David T.C. Davies: The right hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about the subject. In his expert opinion, what does he make of the proposals by Plaid Cymru to make the police and justice system generally part of the remit of the Welsh Assembly? Does he think that that would enable us and the police force—I ask him this in an open-minded fashion—to fight terrorism in a better way?

Mr. Murphy: I will come to that issue in a few moments.

Obviously, when we talk to people in Wales about the policing of our country, they often, rightly, refer to neighbourhood crime and to antisocial behaviour. We know too that Wales has had a considerable increase in the number of policemen and women on our streets and in the number of community support officers. I understand why it is that, for example, in the Assembly—Edwina Hart, who is the responsible Minister, does a very good job of liaising with the Home Office and in dealing with these matters—the issues of drugs and antisocial behaviour are so important, but that does not mask the fact that those other threats are there.

I come to the point that the hon. Gentleman made. My belief is that we should involve and not devolve with regards to security and policing. There is no need to devolve the powers of the Home Secretary. We have a legal system that is the same as in England. It is different from that in Scotland. There is a strong case for improving co-operation between the Welsh Assembly and the Home Office, a point that the hon. Gentleman’s party made in the Assembly only a couple of days ago. I agree with that because there is room for improvement; there is no question about that. The Assembly has to deal with many issues that affect the police, whether it is housing, education or drugs, so there is a case for co-operation. The Secretary of State for Wales and the Under-Secretary will perhaps be able to suggest to the Home Secretary that there is a case for setting up a joint working party between the Assembly Government and the Home Office to deal with those important issues.

I do not know whether the Home Office will be split in the next couple of weeks. There is a case for separating justice from dealing with terrorism. I do not, incidentally, think that there is a case for MI6 going into the Home Office, but that is another issue for another place and another time. That discussion seems to be the most opportune time to discuss the relationship between Wales and the UK in dealing with the important issue of the threat to our security. All people in Wales would agree with that.

The debate about whether there should be devolution of the police is for another day and not today, and involvement is the right way. The greatest and most important duty of any Government is to protect their citizens from threats, whether external or internal, and Wales has to be part of that.

I conclude by touching on the points made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about energy. I agree very much that we must look at tidal energy from
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1122
the Severn, but we must be careful where wind farms are placed. There is a balance to be made between the environment and the energy that those farms produce. We delude ourselves if we think that we can have an energy future that excludes nuclear power, but again that is for another day.

2.40 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Let me start by wishing the whole House a happy— [ Interruption. ] I was going to say Valentine’s day. That is in the past. Happy St. David’s day; dydd gwyl Dewi dda.

I very much enjoyed the Secretary of State’s speech although unfortunately, as ever, I experienced a dull thud of disappointment when I realised that the Government were not profoundly willing to change anything of great importance; for example, the Barnett formula, which, as has been pointed out, is so out of date even its inventor thinks it needs to be replaced. It is in this context that I offer the Welsh Liberal Democrat vision; I hope it will be an inspiration to us all as we look forward to a healthier Wales in economic and environmental terms and in terms of communities.

Let us start with healthy communities. There is no better international example of what this means than the Fairtrade movement. Fair trade fortnight began on Monday and we all salute the Fairtrade Foundation’s work. The universally recognisable Fairtrade marque helps consumers support people in developing countries to get a fair deal from trade. Although the Fairtrade movement does not apply to UK produce, the concept enshrines the absolute importance of valuing our food producers and sustainable healthy communities. That principle necessarily applies to Wales.

Wales has a proud history of food and drink production and this week I am glad to say that the Commons Refreshment Department is promoting Welsh food and drink in the Commons dining rooms, cafeterias and bars, so that MPs, peers and visitors to Parliament can celebrate St. David’s day in style. We welcome the initiative, none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). The Strangers bar, as some hon. Members will know, is stocking Golden Valley ale from the Breconshire brewery. I applaud the efforts of my hon. Friend. I think I can say that no one in Parliament has done more to promote sales of this beer than he. I salute the sober way in which he has repeatedly stepped forward to the bar to support his local brewery. He has been an example to us all.

While we should highlight our food and drink industry and our tourism strategy and make that one of the key selling points, my concern is that the Britain and London visitor centre no longer has staff dedicated to advising on visits to Wales since the Assembly Government took control of the Wales Tourist Board. Will the Under-Secretary explain why that is the case when he winds up? How can we make sure that we do not lose out, having lost that staff support at a very important centre?

Next Section Index Home Page