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1 Mar 2007 : Column 1156

Looking at the purpose of the debate, we see that there is the possibility of scrutiny and review, and of examining something that the Secretary of State has put great emphasis on, which is the partnership between this place and the Assembly. We also have the opportunity to put forward some policies.

I want to scrutinise and review one of the points that has been raised by a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Gower and for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan)—the whole saga of HMRC. I should preface my remarks by expressing my concern that over the last few years we have seen a great deal of centralisation of Government services in Wales. We had a long battle in Porthmadog in my constituency about the proposal that the Department for Work and Pensions office should close, which it eventually did. Its functions have been transferred to a central office the other side of Bangor. That is an actual centralisation and an actual closure. Now we have the proposals to close HMRC offices all over Wales, particularly in Gwynedd, in Porthmadog and Bangor.

I should also say that it is not just Government services that are being withdrawn from what are seen as peripheral communities—they are not peripheral to the people who live there, of course. I hear from my colleague, Alun Ffred Jones, the Assembly Member campaigning in the election in Bethesda, that two banks there, NatWest and HSBC, have closed. The fact that there are now no banks in Bethesda causes particular difficulties to local businesses with what one might think are trivial things, such as getting change in order to be able to give the correct change to customers.

Public service jobs though, such as those in DWP and HMRC, are very valuable to rural communities in particular, where such opportunities are rare. They are steady, long term, pensionable and comparatively well paid in a local economy that is increasingly casualised and part-time. We see valuable jobs migrating to already prosperous centres. HMRC proposes to move jobs to Wrexham, Swansea and Cardiff, so that those centres will grow. That is part of deliberate Government policy.

That raises the question of what sort of co-ordination has gone on between the Government here and the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh Assembly Government is working hard, using hard-won European money to create much needed jobs and prosperity in the west and in the valleys, and that investment is very welcome. At the same time, many good jobs that we need in our areas are being taken away by the policies of the Government here.

An example that rankles with me is the likely fate of the Welsh language telephone line run from Porthmadog in my constituency. The line has highly experienced staff who have been running it for many years. That line is likely to move to Cardiff. As we all know, in Cardiff the labour market is very tight indeed, particularly in respect of those who have the valuable extra qualification of speaking Welsh. I am a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, and last week we heard evidence from British Telecom, which told us that it recently advertised for a Welsh-speaking worker for a good job in Cardiff. There was not a single applicant, yet there are highly experienced people in
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Porthmadog who, for many years, have run a Welsh language telephone line, which is being shut down. That line is moving to Cardiff, whether or not there are the workers to run it.

In Porthmadog, the staff can provide services in both languages. Two for the price of one is a slogan that works for supermarkets, but apparently HMRC does not see things that way. One has to ask the Government where the language planning is. Where is the co-ordination between HMRC and the Welsh Language Board? As far as I can see, there has been none, yet we are rushing onwards headlong. That is a failure of policy, as far as serving the people of Wales, particularly rural Wales, is concerned, and there has been a failure of co-ordination with Assembly policies, too.

I should like to turn to a proposal on passport services that was little remarked on when it was made a couple of weeks ago. The proposal is that the first interview for passports should be conducted in centres in Wrexham, Swansea, Aberystwyth and Newport, and a face-to-face interview will be required. Interestingly, in the documents published, it was acknowledged that there would be difficulties in Anglesey, Gwynedd and Pembrokeshire, but the system that we are to have in Wales will involve centralisation in Wrexham, Swansea, Aberystwyth and Newport. What is to happen to people from Caernarfon, St. David’s and Amlwch who want passports? We are told in the document that so-called remote areas will be served by webcam links. As I said earlier, remote from where? They are certainly not remote for the people who live in them. On the question of where webcam links will be established, the document says:

In large parts of rural Wales, those proposals will be hard to live with, and the only remedy suggested so far is that a procurement exercise should establish the arrangements. That is just not good enough, as hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree.

The other day, I undertook a little exercise: I phoned traveline, an excellent service that gives travel times for bus and train journeys throughout Wales—and England, for that matter. The service is available in Welsh and in English; HMRC should note that. It is run from Porthmadog, just down the road from the place from which the tax line is run. Traveline gave me some times, and I can inform the House that it takes four hours and 35 minutes to get to Wrexham from Pwllheli by bus, and to get back takes six hours. The journey time from Caernarfon to Wrexham is three hours and 25 minutes, and on the way back it is four hours. Those are the sort of travelling times that will be imposed on new applicants for passports, unless the webcam exercise is successful.

As I say, at the moment, the scheme is just a gleam in someone’s eye; a procurement exercise will have to establish the arrangement. I shall give a couple more interesting times. Even from Bangor, travel time to Wrexham is an hour and a half, and the journey back takes an hour and 50 minutes by train. People from the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) trying to get to the passport centre in Newport will have to travel by both bus and train, and the journey would take two hours
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and 10 minutes, and an hour and 50 minutes on the way back. The webcam links will be important, if and when they are established. Perhaps I am sceptical, if not cynical, in thinking that as the system is introduced those links will be quietly dropped. Scrutiny of a proposal that is little remarked on reveals a policy that is in danger of failing the people of rural Wales, and certainly fails to co-ordinate with the Assembly’s policies.

In the remaining minute or so, I should like to consider the development of policy in future. The Mental Health Bill will shortly be introduced in the Commons, and I hope that the Government will allow the Welsh Assembly the greatest latitude in the measure’s application to Wales. Circumstances in Wales are different, and the health service, too, is different. The measure introduced by the Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive is markedly different from the measure proposed for Wales, and I think that we could do with the Milan principles that were included in the Scottish Bill. Finally, my Bilingual Juries (Wales) Bill is due to receive its Second Reading tomorrow, and I urge the House to give it proper consideration.

4.51 pm

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak, albeit briefly, in our St. David’s day debate. St. David’s day is a day of celebration for the Welsh people, and I shall focus on the announcement on 17 January that the new tri-service military academy, which has been mentioned, will be located in Wales, at St. Athan in my constituency. It is a matter of great celebration, not just for my constituents and south Wales, but for the whole of Wales, as it presents us with an unprecedented opportunity as the biggest ever public investment in any constituency in the UK.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) referred to the success of the Cardiff Bay investment, but the investment in the military training academy will be 32 times the size of the Cardiff Bay investment. It is worth £16 billion, so it is bigger than the total Olympic bid. As was pointed out to me earlier today, it is by far the biggest single investment since Edward I constructed his castles around the coast of our beautiful country. It offers the people of Wales a huge opportunity, not because of its size or value, but because of its nature. Numerous colleagues have referred to the challenge that we face in a global market of upskilling the Welsh work force and developing a knowledge-based economy. We could not wish for anything better than the investment, which will provide up to 12,000 military trainees with an enormous range of high-quality skills, including aeronautical engineering to mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer sciences, languages, photography and logistics. St. Athan will be a world centre of excellence for military training. Some people may think that that training is just for the military, but they could not be further from the truth. The success of our aerospace industry in south Wales has been predicated on the existence of the military aviation facility at RAF St. Athan for over 50 years.

The spin-offs from the investment could be enormous, as long as we get our act together and get our act right. It presents us with considerable
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challenges. I have placed on record my thanks to colleagues in all parts of the House for their key contribution in ensuring that we secured the investment, and my thanks to the Welsh Assembly Government. Having worked so well together, it would be a big mistake for us to sit back now and say, “Having won the £16 billion investment for Wales, let us just wait for all these wonderful jobs and opportunities to come to us.” We should be doing the opposite. We have a three to five-year window of opportunity to get our act together to make sure that the people of my constituency, of south Wales and of the whole of Wales benefit from the investment.

We should be setting up taskforces now in local business and industry, in our schools and colleges, and in our local authorities to ensure that we provide what is required to get the benefits of our success. Training programmes need to be thought about now to provide for the 5,500 direct jobs that will be created by the investment, not to mention the indirect jobs, of which there could be a far greater number if we get our act together now.

We should be talking about developing a sourcing policy for the investment—a source Wales policy. By that I do not mean, as I have heard mentioned, that the company that comes in must buy Welsh goods, services, supplies, products and so on. But we should encourage the companies involved in the consortium to source first in Wales. The project will be like a new town created in the Vale of Glamorgan. If the products that the development requires, starting with day-to-day consumer goods and food, can be provided locally, of the right quality and at the right price, they should be purchased locally. That makes good business sense, if the consortium coming in knows what goods and services exist in the community.

Over the next five years we can take practical steps to ensure that we benefit not just in the Vale of Glamorgan, but from Brecon to the coastline and from Monmouth to Pembrokeshire, if we work together as we worked together to secure the investment as team Wales. Now we must exploit all the benefits. One of the big challenges that we face is to provide the right infrastructure to access the site, especially by road. There will be a 600 acre site accommodating just the academy, with 10,000 to 15,000 personnel. The special forces support unit will run alongside that, and the aerospace park will be located within those 600 acres.

The traffic generation from that development will be enormous, so we have to think about building or modernising the roads to facilitate the development and make sure that we get the most from it. We had a setback in February. The Welsh Assembly Government’s plans to retrunk the A48 and the A4226 were lost at public inquiry. The inspector came out against the upgrading of the roads, which was an integral part of the proposal to secure the investment. We know that the roads in the immediate vicinity, 20 km from the M4, are not very good. I was very surprised to be told that an economic spokesperson—or whatever he calls himself—in the Welsh Assembly stated on his blog last week that this was a sweet victory, yet we lost the opportunity to upgrade that access road. I found that hard to believe.

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Mark Tami: He is a Conservative.

John Smith: I understand that to be the case.

We must get our policy on roads right and we must do it now. I was delighted to hear Andrew Davis, the Minister for Enterprise, Innovation and Networks in the Welsh Assembly Government announce immediately that he was going to put public transport grants into the A4226 to upgrade this unsuitable, narrow and very dangerous road from the Port road in Barry up to the A48. We were pleased that that money was allocated, but it will not be enough. Consultants have now been invited quickly to produce proposals on direct access to the M4 to facilitate access to the military academy within the five years that it will take to construct and move into it.

My plea this afternoon is for the Welsh Assembly Government—I hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will do whatever they can in support—seriously to consider whether the main artery for the academy could be the original airport link road, running west to east through the south of my constituency, now that the re-trunking of the A48 and the trunking of the A4226 has been blocked and scuppered. We must look into providing realistic alternatives.

As the MP for this constituency, I do not rule out any option. We must provide the best road infrastructure so that we get the benefit from this development. If we do not do that, we will not get the benefit. Worse still, if we do not do it, the benefits will go to people outside our area—the suppliers to the main developers involved in building this 600 acre super-military university, which will be the best there is for military personnel in this country. If we are to meet the timetable and find a cost-effective way of providing a dual carriageway link to the military academy, the only option, in my opinion, is to upgrade the existing Port road, the A4050, to Culverhouse Cross and through to junction 33—not junction 34—of the M4.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. There is not a great deal of time left for the debate, so unless hon. Members make their remarks brief, I am afraid that quite are few of them will be disappointed.

5.2 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will certainly take your advice into account.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith). It has been a great triumph to bring this development to Wales and I share his ambition for the benefits to spread not just alongside the M4 corridor, but throughout Wales, particularly into the valleys and the tops and heads of the valleys, which have faced such difficulty in regenerating. I am thinking particularly of the top of the Neath valley in Pont Nedd Fechan and the top of the Swansea valley in Ystradgynlais in my constituency, which still suffer from the closure of the coal industry and have never really regained the economic vibrancy that they once had.

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Hon. Members have covered a number of issues and I do not wish to go back over them, but it seems to me that a theme running through the contributions is that while the Government trumpet localism, what is, in fact, happening is centralisation. As a result, we see local tax offices of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, along with local hospitals, threatened with closure. That certainly applies in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), as four local community hospitals are threatened with closure. Schools and post offices are also threatened and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), there is also a problem with passports. It seems that some wish to reduce costs, but that is at the risk of reducing services, which is particularly worrying for people living in rural and sparsely populated areas.

Certain figures that we have received about community hospitals show that keeping them open to deal with patients is cheaper than providing the service at home. That needs to be looked at again, because if those hospitals close, the bed-blocking problems that arise in district general hospitals will be exacerbated.

I should like very briefly to raise two more issues. First, following the Government’s success yesterday in taking the Offender Management Bill through Report and Third Reading, I am worried about the provision of probation services in rural areas and in my constituency. I have no doubt that the Government will face stronger opposition in another place and I hope that some progress will be made. My message to the Minister in the short time that remains is that he should not set targets for contestability. I hope that he passes that message on to his fellow Ministers. They should not set targets for contestability that will be either unachievable in certain areas or achieved at the risk of bringing in providers who do not have the necessary knowledge and commitment to those areas.

I notice that Turning Point, a large national organisation delivering support for offenders, has welcomed the Bill and said that we could always subcontract facilities to more local organisations. I really do not think that that is the best way forward, however. I visited Powys Drugs and Alcohol recently. It is providing a valuable service, and it has fears about its services being subject to competition, because it has put all its efforts into delivering the service. It finds that when its energies are dissipated by having to apply again and again for contracts, it only weakens the organisation and does not strengthen it or help it provide a better service. I hope that the Minister will take that message on board, and that when the Bill is considered in the other place, some of those issues can be corrected.

The only other issue on which I would like to reflect was raised by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith): the fact that the Competition Commission is now consulting on the role of supermarkets both in providing retail services in local areas and in the supply chain. It is a tragedy that only 13 farmers have replied to the consultation. Some people ask whether the farmers are content with the situation. I can tell the House that they are not content; they are feeling hopeless and weak and doubt whether their contributions will be taken into consideration. I ask the Minister, either with the Assembly or his DEFRA
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colleagues, to get the message over to the farming community that it can contribute and make a difference, and that its contributions need not be of a technical or academic nature; farmers need simply to reflect the circumstances as they see them in their business, with a lack of returns and increasing costs. As I told farmers in my constituency when I urged them to contribute, “It’s your life and your family. Please get engaged.”

5.8 pm

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to secure a Westminster Hall debate on the Deeside hub. I am sure that hon. Members think of nothing else but the Deeside hub, but I can tell them that it is an economic region covering Flintshire, Wrexham, Chester, Wirral, Ellesmere Port and Neston.

Chris Ruane: Denbighshire?

Mark Tami: Unfortunately, it does not cover Denbighshire, but it is a region that has seen economic growth outstripping even that of south-east England over the past 10 years. Most experts and analysts expect to see that growth continue into the future, but we cannot be complacent and think that that will somehow carry on if we do not invest in our future by investing in industry and business, as well as the work force, including our potential work force. We need to heed the lessons of the past. Under the Tory Administration, we saw our major employers in north-east Wales decimated, our mining industry wiped out, our textile industry suffering the same fate and our steel industry, once the powerhouse of the region, suffering more than 8,000 job losses, which is still the record for the largest number of job losses in the UK at a single plant on a single day. I am afraid that that is the Tory record.

Those were not only years of disastrous Tory Government but years of underinvestment in which we failed to understand or grasp the challenge or the threat of overseas competition. We failed to train and equip our young people with the skills that they needed to be part of a modern and dynamic economy. In areas of high unemployment such as mine, we embedded an attitude that I would describe as poverty of aspiration or ambition. That was particularly true of the young.

Much has changed since those dark days of the 1980s. Earlier this week, I was pleased to attend the launch by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Andrew Davies from the Assembly of the new Toyota Arius in Derby and the joint announcement of further expansion and investment in the Toyota engine plant on Deeside, creating more than 100 new jobs and helping to secure the future of the plant.

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