Previous Section Index Home Page

5.35 pm

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): This has been a spirited and interesting debate. It is especially gratifying for hon. Members on both sides of the House that it is actually taking place on St. David’s day. It is important that we should have this annual debate because it gives Members from Wales an opportunity to air issues of interest to the Principality.

The Secretary of State opened the debate in his customary Tory-bashing vein, which sat rather ill with the sanctity of the day and what we know is his true persona as a home-loving Aga owner. That theme was developed by other Labour Members. One might even have thought that an election were approaching. We know, of course, that the Secretary of State’s remarks were aimed over the heads of his audience in the Chamber today at the members of the parliamentary Labour party. We also know, from the Guido Fawkes website, that he has already attracted a great deal of support. I am sure that the inadvertent publication of his list of supporters will not damage his chances.

Several themes developed during the debate and were aired by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) spoke after the two Front Benchers, and his contribution was customarily statesmanlike and thoughtful. He touched on the important issue of security and policing, a theme of great importance in Wales and other parts of the UK recently. I was glad to see that at last the immigration and nationality directorate presence has been restored to Holyhead. Many hon. Members were concerned that for a long time there had been no immigration officers stationed permanently at Holyhead.

Albert Owen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jones: I cannot take any interventions because we have very little time left.

A serious concern arose last week, when illegal immigrants were discovered in north Wales and the
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1170
police were told by the IND to give them a map and send them to Liverpool. There is a significant concern about security in Wales and it was right for the right hon. Gentleman to raise that issue.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) raised many issues in his contribution and many of his themes were taken up by other Members. However, he alone touched to any great extent on the issue of agriculture. We must never forget the importance of the rural way of life to Wales. Agriculture is a vastly important industry and many families have depended on it for their livelihoods for generations. However, there is more to the issue than that. The agricultural communities are frequently also the Welsh-speaking communities and, of course, agriculture has had some very tough times recently. We have had the fiasco of the foot and mouth episode and problems with bovine tuberculosis. Recently, there has been the reduction in support given by the Assembly to farmers in the less favoured areas. Tir Mynydd is being phased out and, in many cases it is all that keeps farmers in those areas going.

As we heard from the hon. Gentleman, dairy farmers in Wales are going out of business at the rate of three a week. That is simply because they can sell their milk only for a price several pence lower per litre than the cost of production. Every time a farmer in Wales goes out of business, the Welsh community is weakened and the Welsh language is damaged. The Assembly could do more to concentrate on agriculture and support the agricultural community.

My hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) made an excellent speech, and a number of his themes were taken up by other hon. Members. He was worried about the erosion of public services and the threat to HMRC offices in Wales. The latter point was taken up by the hon. Members for Gower (Mr. Caton), for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams).

Various hon. Members noted that the tendency for increasing centralisation can only be damaging for Wales, where the population is thin and travelling long distances takes so much time. The hon. Member for Caernarfon said that the HMRC office at Porthmadog in his constituency had a face-to-face service in Welsh, and the importance of such a service to the community in that part of the country cannot be underestimated. As many hon. Members noted, it is not good enough to centralise HMRC offices in the large cities. The people of Wales pay their taxes—goodness knows, they pay more than ever under this Government—and they are entitled to a face-to-face service at HMRC offices.

The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) made a speech that departed from the norm. She touched, inter alia, on homelessness, which she rightly called a blight on Wales and the whole UK. Anyone who walks from Parliament up Victoria street after dark will be appalled at the numbers of people who sleep outside Government offices because they have nowhere else to go. The right hon. Lady was right to raise the question of homelessness in the context of a Welsh debate, and I commend her for it.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) spoke about justice and the provision of prisons. He was right to say that we need
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1171
more prisons in Wales, especially in the north. Solicitors and probation officers from my part of the country sometimes have to travel immensely long distances—their journeys can take a whole day—when they see clients in custody at Altcourse. It is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr also spoke about substance misuse. He rightly said that it should be treated for what it is—a serious illness. One of my concerns as a north Wales Member has to do with the reduction in the availability of residential rehabilitation places. The Welsh Assembly’s shocking decision to fund an automated needle exchange machine—it was to have been situated in a dark alley in my constituency—caused an enormous outcry. The decision was dismissed, but there is no doubt that we need more rehabilitation facilities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) made a characteristically forthright speech, in which he spoke about the Union and the need for caution in the extension of the devolution process. Those are important questions and, given that an election is approaching, I cannot resist the opportunity to mention that there is one party in this House that would cause Wales to be torn out of the Union and become an irrelevant state in an ever more powerful EU. We can well do without that, and it will be rejected by the people of Wales on 3 May.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth was also right to highlight the issue of his constituent Mr. Vince Davies, the cancer patient unable to get the treatment that he needs. Again, hon. Members of all parties will have experienced similar problems. We all have constituents who find that they are having to wait longer and longer for treatment, especially if that treatment has to take place on the other side of the border. Waiting lists for treatment at centres of excellence such as the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt hospital in Gobowen are much longer for patients from Wales than from England. My constituents and, I have no doubt, those of other hon. Members make the reasonable point that they pay their taxes and national insurance contributions at precisely the same rate as English patients, so why should they be expected to put up with a second-class service? I find it extraordinary that when elective surgery is taking longer and longer for patients from Wales, and when the funds for such treatments are subject to such exigencies, the Welsh Assembly Government decide that it is sensible to scrap prescription charges for everyone whether or not they can pay for it. One might think there was an election approaching.

Wales is a country that has unlimited potential. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), the Chairman of the Select Committee—without wishing to be accused of sycophancy, I commend him on his chairmanship; he is an excellent chairman—properly touched on the problems that Wales faces. They were also touched on by other hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). We in Wales live in an increasingly globalised society. The threats and challenges to Wales come not just from down the road, down the valley, or the next town, but from a different continent. The evidence given to the
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1172
Select Committee in the valuable globalisation inquiry pointed to the fact that, sadly, the Welsh education system was simply not keeping up with the challenge.

Last week we heard evidence from witnesses from Admiral Insurance, who pointed out the difficulty in obtaining graduate trainees who were able to write simple business letters. By contrast, in India all Admiral’s basic call centre staff who answer the telephone are graduates. As one hon. Member said earlier, the countries in the far east are turning out graduates at an enormous rate. Wales simply has to rise to that challenge.

We have a good future ahead of us as a country. We can do well. We can avoid the sniping that turns the public off and look towards Wales as a product that we can market, but we will be able to do that only if we have something good to sell. The key to that is education. That is something that everyone in the Chamber agrees on. If we pursue education, training and skills, we will all have a nation we can be proud to call our Wales.

5.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): It has been a genuinely wide-ranging debate. I shall try in the time that I have to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) to intervene to make a short contribution. Unfortunately, she was the only. Member who was not called today. I was prepared to wind up in 10 minutes, but the Opposition wanted a little longer.

Wales has shared fully in the unprecedented rise in prosperity that the whole of the United Kingdom has enjoyed thanks to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s superb management of the economy, to which many hon. Members have referred. Wales has benefited from the massive investment in public services under Labour, making up for years of under-investment by the Tories. After 10 years of massive progress under Labour, Wales faces important challenges and opportunities. The new Government of Wales Act 2006 will, from May, provide the Assembly with significant new powers to tackle the challenges ahead such as the rapid changes in the world economy, with the breakneck economic growth of countries such as China and India, and the looming threat of climate change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami), my right hon. Friends the Members for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Mr. David), for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) and for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) and the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) all raised issues relating to the economy, the importance of skills and education and the threats and opportunities that are posed by globalisation.

In the past 10 years, 133,000 jobs have been created in Wales and unemployment has fallen by 37,000. There have been huge falls in unemployment in constituencies in the valleys and in the more remote parts of west and north Wales. In my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire,
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1173
unemployment has fallen by more than 70 per cent. over the past nine years. In the dark days when the Conservative Government were in power such figures would have been incredible. If anyone had said there would be statistical full employment in many parts of Wales in 10 years’ time, no one would have believed them.

How has that been achieved? For the past eight years there has been partnership between a Labour-run Assembly Government and a Labour UK Government, with unprecedented investment in Wales by the private and public sectors. The private sector has invested in Airbus, Toyota and General Dynamics, and has made massive investment across Wales because it believes that the Welsh economy and work force will ensure that companies are profitable.

Nia Griffith: Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Camford on the announcement that it has secured the future of its Llanelli factory? Owing to hard work by the unions, my friend Catherine Thomas, AM for Llanelli, and the Assembly Government Minister for Enterprise, Innovation and Networks, Camford now has a secure base for the future of its car factory in Llanelli.

Nick Ainger: Absolutely. From the briefings that my hon. Friend has given me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I know how hard she has been working to ensure the continuation of that important manufacturing plant in Llanelli.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn stressed the absolute importance of our education system, and of skills not only for our existing work force, but for the young people who will be entering the work force. I was particularly pleased that in the building for a better Wales documents, the Labour party in Wales announced that it intends to set up a skills academy, which will serve young people going through our education system as well as giving hundreds of thousands of people who are already in work the opportunity to upskill, so that we can compete in the global market.

Like many other colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan emphasised the vital importance, and the huge opportunities for his constituency and constituencies throughout Wales of the £16 billion investment in St. Athan. That project will create jobs and be a university for skills. The private sector will be involved, but as my hon. Friend rightly said, infrastructure support will also be needed and I shall be discussing that issue with Andrew Davies shortly.

The other main issue raised by Members on both sides of the House related to the proposed changes in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and for Preseli Pembrokeshire, my hon. Friends the Members for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) and for Gower and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) all raised that important issue—I may have missed someone. I can tell the House that I met the Paymaster General on 15 January to discuss the concerns that have been expressed by Members from all parts of
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1174
the House about the effect that there would be on jobs and about the importance of having access to tax officers throughout Wales, particularly in our more peripheral areas.

I also met the Minister with responsibility for the civil service last week to discuss not only those matters, but the Lyons review and the transfer of civil service jobs from, in the main, the south-east of England to Wales. I have arranged a meeting in March between the Paymaster General, myself and the First Minister to discuss the issue again, because I think that there is a real opportunity for joined-up government to address some of the concerns that many Members have expressed. Members will be aware that the National Assembly is also moving its civil servants out of the Cardiff area to more peripheral parts of Wales, and we may be able to link up with that. This is a work in progress. I emphasise again to the House that no decisions have been made on any particular office and that there is a genuine consultation process under way. I hope that colleagues throughout the House will make their contributions.

Mrs. Gillan: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Ainger: I am afraid not. [ Interruption. ] No, I am not going to give way. I have been very clear.

A number of colleagues raised the issue of prisons and policing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen made an excellent contribution, as usual. He and other colleagues raised the issue of the location of prisons, both in north and south Wales. I know that he has already had discussions with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who is responsible for prisons, about his concerns about the proposal, which is at an early stage at this point. I will certainly take up that point, but I think that it is agreed across the House that we need more prison capacity in Wales. Far too many people who are convicted in Wales are serving their sentences in England. That is particularly the case in north Wales. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has seen the prisons Minister, or is about to see him. All that I can do is repeat what was said to the Welsh Affairs Committee: if a suitable site is available, it will be given serious consideration. The same is true in south Wales. I recognise the point that was made by my right hon. Friend. Perhaps other sites should now be promoted, particularly to assist in the regeneration of the few pockets where there are still unacceptably high levels of unemployment compared with the rest of Wales.

We also had contributions from a number of colleagues on renewable energy. A draft climate change Bill will be published in weeks, rather than months. In relation to the Severn barrage, the Sustainable Development Commission has appointed consultants to examine the feasibility of the matter and they will report back.

On farming, the price of milk and the power of supermarkets, the Competition Commission has already published its emerging thinking on its report and the final report is expected in November 2007. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, I
1 Mar 2007 : Column 1175
urge anybody—individual Members or farmers themselves—to make a contribution.

Some colleagues also raised the issue of health. All that I can say to the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire is that an extra £30 million is going into dentistry in this financial year and it will be committed in the next financial year as well.

As today’s debate has shown, we have a choice. We can continue going in the right direction as we have in the past 10 years, with record jobs and investment in schools and hospitals and a booming Welsh economy, or we can return to the dark days of the ’80s and ’90s, with soaring unemployment, overcrowded classrooms, long waits for essential operations and the boom and bust of the economics of the Tories. We know that there was very little boom in Wales, but an awful lot of bust.

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

1 Mar 2007 : Column 1176

Fire Precautions (Schools)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

6 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter of great concern to my constituents and of much wider and more general significance.

On 13 September last year, a serious fire broke out at Lympne primary school in my constituency. Most school fires occur when schools are closed, but this time the fire began at the beginning of the school day. In a very short time the school’s buildings were gutted by the fire. The chief fire officer for Kent told me that

Two hundred and thirty children and their teachers were evacuated to safety. It could so easily, and so tragically, have been different.

The chief fire officer went on to tell me that

Next Section Index Home Page