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28 Feb 2008 : Column 1278

Mr. Hain: Obviously, local wishes need to be listened to, but what we do not want is local nimbyism paralysing renewable energy developments.

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s remarks about the Severn tidal barrage. Is he aware that, should the Government decide, after the two-year feasibility study, to proceed with the project, it will almost certainly come to my constituency? Coupled with the recent announcement on the defence training academy, we could acquire £36 billion of investment in the Vale of Glamorgan as a result.

Mr. Hain: That would be partly due to my hon. Friend’s excellent work.

There is also a potential for growth in the Welsh coal industry, but that will not, and should not, happen unless Welsh coal becomes green coal. The Governments in Westminster and Cardiff should work together to develop innovative carbon capture and storage procedures, as well as ensuring that we have clean coal power stations and realising the enormous benefits that could be gained by exporting to countries such as India and China.

Although new technologies and back-up services are the source of potentially huge numbers of new Welsh jobs, there are currently some 50,000 vacancies across Wales, because we do not have enough people with the right skills or because they are not being given the right support to fill the vacancies. We need to move tens of thousands more people off benefits and into work, tailoring support to their needs. Opportunities should be maximised by Jobcentre Plus in Wales and by the Welsh Assembly Government to match European convergence funding and to create many more new skills and job preparation schemes in west Wales and the valleys.

Despite having come down in the past few years, the level of economic inactivity is still far too high in Wales, reflecting the dismal heritage of the 1980s and 1990s, when the number of people on incapacity benefits more than trebled and mass unemployment was a curse. When I say that the majority of people on incapacity benefit could work, and should work, it is not an attack on them. It is an attack on an outdated system that deprives them of the opportunity to share in the rewards of work that go far beyond financial independence, important though that is. Work is inherently good for people of all ages. It is good for their health, good for families and good for communities.

Clearly, government at all levels will have to raise its game. Decisions need to be taken more quickly and the Government’s streamlining of planning for infrastructure and energy projects is vital to overcome endemic nimbyism. This is certainly not about riding roughshod over local views, however. It is about grasping the nettle and acknowledging that strategic policies need to be implemented much more quickly if Wales is not to fall further behind.

Business also needs much smarter local government, modelled, I believe, on Neath Port Talbot council’s record of excellence for quick decisions, implemented speedily. The culture of cautious conservatism that is so rife in Welsh public services—from the civil service to local councils—needs radical reform if we are to
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build a truly competitive economy. As I know from working with them, there are many fine Welsh public servants, including in the Wales Office. But, for Wales to succeed, our risk-averse, can’t-do culture must be replaced by a dynamic, can-do culture.

Wales continues to improve, but we cannot stand still. The alternative is to fall back. We must think and act globally, not merely nationally. We must be a small country with a big global vision. Using all our institutions and talents, we must make the most of new skills, new technologies and new opportunities. We must re-prioritise our public spending to prioritise sharp rather than soft services, favouring skills, technological innovation and business support rather than free schemes. We must also rapidly grow the private sector so that it overtakes the public sector in size and creates a vibrant, more balanced economy and an even brighter, stronger future for a Wales that is reaching up to be genuinely world class.

1.49 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to debate Welsh issues in this Chamber—an opportunity that we too rarely have. May I also say what a pleasure it is to follow the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) and to put on the record my appreciation of his helpful co-operation with me when he was in office? Today, he has demonstrated his great knowledge not only of the Welsh scene and the opportunities available to Wales and Welsh people, but of the potential impediments to the necessary developments. He is very realistic in his assessment, but he is nearly always optimistic for Wales—an approach that I greatly appreciate. The right hon. Gentleman will also be remembered for taking the devolution settlement in the right direction—perhaps not at the pace that some of us wanted, but certainly in the right direction. He will be well remembered for that.

I should also like to put on the record how much I and other hon. Members enjoyed the service in St. Mary Undercroft. It was a memorable experience, to which the contribution of the children has already been mentioned. I would also like to reflect a little on the homily preached by the archdeacon by saying how apt it is to celebrate the life of St. David and, indeed, to celebrate the Welsh nation on that special day. We should not be niggardly or parsimonious in our celebrations; we should be truly generous in pointing out that nationality is not just for our benefit, but something to share with others, including the United Kingdom and, indeed, farther and greater reaches across the world.

I welcomed the Secretary of State for Wales to his new post yesterday and I do so again. He has served in various positions in government with great distinction. I must, however, raise some concerns about his role. I have no doubt whatever that the Secretary of State will work with colleagues in Westminster and Cardiff on transferring legislative competence to the Assembly, but I expect Wales’s representative in the Cabinet to be passionate about devolution and committed to extending the Assembly’s role. The Secretary of State’s views on devolution, however, are on the record and I find it difficult to believe that he will be able to reconcile his past comments with the changes that Liberal Democrats
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feel are necessary. The Government must do away with the halfway house that they have created, whereby Assembly Members have to come begging cap in hand for the power to make their own laws.

The Secretary of State has been keen to shake off his tag of being a devo-sceptic and prefers to call himself a devo-realist; well, here is a dose of realism for him. In the 10 years since Wales has had the Assembly a great deal has been achieved, often on a cross-party basis. Wales has rejected Labour’s regressive top-up fee regime and has made bus travel free for the over-60s and the disabled. The Assembly has also made health spending a priority and has introduced a vital scheme to help Wales’s post offices stay sustainable.

There are still many areas where the Assembly should be making decisions but cannot. For instance, Wales should be able to take a lead on combating climate change by developing its own immense natural resources of wave and wind power in order to provide clean renewable energy and by encouraging energy efficiency through setting better building standards and introducing smart metering. On large-scale energy projects, however, including new nuclear build, decisions still lie with the UK Government, not in Wales. Building regulations are also a reserved matter. It is frustrating because, with the right tools, Wales could become a Mecca for green energy.

As a realist, the Secretary of State should recognise that if the new devolution settlement works at the moment, it is built on shifting sands. There is a progressive consensus in Wales, but to protect it, the Secretary of State would do well to keep his eyes on what happens in Westminster.

Ian Lucas: I always listen very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say and I know that he is a committed European. In an age where we are talking about the creation of a European energy policy and developing closer working relationships in respect of energy, does it really make sense to fracture UK energy policy?

Mr. Williams: I think that the hon. Gentleman has a different view of devolution from me. As far as I am concerned, devolution is not about separation and isolation, but about developing good practices wherever powers are devolved and sharing them with others, also building on their ambitions for that particular policy area.

Mr. Llwyd: Subsidiarity.

Mr. Williams: Absolutely.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend mentions the environmental agenda. Does he agree that one disappointing aspect of the Secretary of State’s otherwise excellent speech was a failure to prioritise the environmental opportunities for Wales? Our mutual friend, Mick Bates, Welsh Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire, and others have made it absolutely clear that by building on the Centre for Alternative Technology, the Cardigan Bay project, the Severn barrage and so on, Wales could become an environmental leader in Europe, consistent with being in the UK. The potential is absolutely enormous, particularly if the Government and the Welsh Assembly Government, working in tandem with the private sector, give the necessary lead.

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Mr. Williams: Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is all about building up partnerships rather than acting in isolation.

Paul Flynn: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Scotland has advanced further down the road of renewable energy than any other part of the UK, and that one of the reasons for that is that Scotland has taken its own decisions and is developing its own expertise?

Mr. Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. Scotland has huge potential for hydroelectricity and has really built on it.

I was saying how important it is for the Secretary of State to pay attention to what happens in Westminster. Currently, the Governments in Westminster and in Cardiff can work as friends, but it is arrogant to assume that that will always be the case. We should make the devolution settlement as watertight as possible, so that the progressive work of the Assembly is not blocked by a hostile Government in London. As some London MPs keep telling us, if they had their way, the Assembly would not even exist.

Lembit Öpik: On the environment and devolution, does my hon. Friend agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said—that Wales could be the environmental capital of Europe? One good test of the effectiveness of the devolution settlement is the extent to which the Assembly is able to generate that sort of image and reputation for Wales, not least because we have the Centre for Alternative Technology in Montgomeryshire to help guide and lead the way forward.

Mr. Williams: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am well aware of the important work going on in that centre, based in Machynlleth in his constituency. It has proved to be a leader in developing strategies for alternative technology and alternative energy sources.

Plaid Cymru and Labour have set up a convention to look at new powers for the Assembly, but we do not even know the terms of reference—

Mr. Llwyd: It has not been drafted yet.

Mr. Williams: I know. Exactly; that is my point: some are dragging their feet on this, while the people of Wales are keen to get on with it. Every time we have a poll and the people are asked whether they want the same powers as the Scottish Parliament, the answer is definitely yes.

Mr. Llwyd: As a member of this esteemed joint committee with the Labour party—I see some of the relevant Labour Members in their places—I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there has been no dragging of feet. We will be coming to a swift conclusion in the next few days. I hope that I have not said too much for our chairman.

Mr. Williams: That is really welcome news. I was going to say that they appear to be kicking the issue into the long grass, but perhaps the grass is not as long as I anticipated. Let us hope that they now find the ball and get up and run with it.

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Ian Lucas: Is not the hon. Gentleman’s real problem the fact that whenever the Liberal Democrats are in a position to go into partnership with someone, they do not really want to go into partnership with anyone?

Mr. Williams: We have been in partnership in government in Wales on one occasion and we are also leading three local authorities in Wales in partnership with others and running another as a minority administration. We have some experience of partnership —[Interruption.] Despite the comments of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), I detect a note of caution in Plaid Cymru. At a press conference in Westminster a few weeks ago, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy told journalists that he was content with the status quo—

Mr. Llwyd: No, I didn’t.

Mr. Williams: —for the time being.

Mr. Llwyd: No, no. If I am to be misquoted, I think I should correct the misquotation. What I said was that I was not obsessed with referendums, and that our first priority was making the present system work properly.

Mr. Williams: I am all for making the present system work, but I am also all for changing it. We must make it work because it is the system that we have—

Simon Hughes: But we need a better one.

Mr. Williams: Absolutely. I still think that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is changing his mind a little.

Mr. Llwyd: No.

Mr. Williams: He is a little bit cautious.

Mr. Llwyd: No.

Mr. Williams: The hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State are very distinguished politicians and very highly thought of, but they have become almost indistinguishable when it comes to a matter on which they would have crossed swords on other occasions.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman does not realise how offensive I find this!

Mr. Williams: Yes, I do. I am trying to be as offensive as possible. This development is probably a symptom of the growing co-operation between Labour and Plaid Cymru in the Assembly.

We do not even know—although we may benefit from a leak from the hon. Gentleman at some point—whether the convention will examine the unfair Barnett formula, which fails to reflect the far greater demand on Welsh public services. My guess is that it will not.

Mr. Llwyd: I should be surprised if it did, but one point of agreement between us and the Labour party is that there should be a review of the Barnett formula, and that is being worked on separately.

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Mr. Williams: I am glad to hear it, even if the convention is not involved.

Ian Lucas: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Williams: I will give way once more.

Ian Lucas: In fact, the agreement is between the Labour Assembly group and the Plaid Cymru Assembly group.

Mr. Williams: We know that. What we are trying to do is tease out a bit of information. It seems to be in a black hole at the moment.

Lembit Öpik: Does not the piece of information that my hon. Friend has managed to tease out merely confound our understanding even further? I know that Plaid Cymru would like a change in the Barnett formula, but on not a single occasion have I heard a single Welsh Minister express agreement with that. Perhaps when the Under-Secretary of State winds up the debate he will tell us whether or not Welsh Ministers support their Welsh Labour colleagues, who presumably want the formula to be changed.

Mr. Williams: No doubt the Under-Secretary of State will devote a large proportion of his speech to the Barnett formula.

Because of the geography and demography of Wales, its public services are more expensive to deliver. As a number of Members have pointed out, the country still suffers from a legacy of ill health stemming from its industrial past. The position is simple: Wales has greater needs, and they will continue to be ignored and neglected for as long as the Government continue to use the discredited Barnett formula. It has short-changed Wales for ages, as even its creator Lord Barnett now recognises. We must draw a line under that old, backward-looking funding system, and look forward to a progressive and fair system that takes account of the needs of Wales. In fact, I believe that the Prime Minister is already turning his back on the Barnett formula. The Big Lottery Fund now uses a needs-based formula to distribute grants, which gives Wales a much higher level of funding.

Mr. Paul Murphy: Whatever the pros and cons of the Barnett system, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that a system that gives the people of England just over £6,000 a head and the people of Wales just over £7,000 a head is not a bad deal for the Welsh people?

Mr. Williams: I am glad that the Secretary of State is now engaging in the discussion. We have seen no such engagement before.

All we are seeking is a fair formula. We are quite prepared to embark on a needs-based formula and see what it delivers for Wales. We believe that it would give Wales a better deal, but we hear what the Secretary of State says.

Mrs. Gillan: As the hon. Gentleman is so determined to embark on a needs-based formula, can he give us his calculation of what it would deliver per head in Wales?

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