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28 Feb 2008 : Column 1284

Mr. Williams: No, but we are committed to a fair process for the distribution of public money.

Simon Hughes: Across the United Kingdom.

Mr. Williams: Yes. We want fairness across the United Kingdom, not just fairness for Wales. [Interruption.] We shall see what happens. Let us engage in the debate. The Conservatives are not even prepared to do that. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Could the debate be conducted in the correct manner?

Mr. Williams: I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Perhaps the leaders of all the Welsh parties at Westminster would like to join me in a round-table discussion of the Barnett formula and what can be done about it. Opening up the discussion might improve it.

Simon Hughes: Just to wrap up the issue, will my hon. Friend confirm that the Liberal Democrats agree that colleagues from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should sit down with a blank sheet of paper and renegotiate, in order to produce a fair constitutional and financial settlement for the future that will be supported and credible?

Mr. Williams: Absolutely. Then people would know that the system was fair, and not an arbitrary process.

Welsh questions yesterday focused on cross-border health issues, which affect many of us on both sides of Offa’s Dyke. We need to ensure not just that we have high-quality health care in Wales, but that our constituents can have treatment that is convenient for them. I greatly appreciated the Secretary of State’s response yesterday, when I raised several cases with him.

We need to work closely with English hospitals. They rely on Welsh patients for sustainability, and if we work together we can safeguard services for people in rural areas on both sides of the border. Given that 14 per cent. of elective surgery in Hereford is performed on Welsh patients, we must work together to keep English border hospitals open and ensure that a service is provided for everyone. As I think will be clear from my earlier remarks, I am a passionate devolutionist, but that does not mean that we cannot co-operate for the good of our local communities. My Liberal Democrat colleagues in the Assembly have secured a debate on this important matter which will take place next week, and I hope that all parties both here and in Cardiff will work together to ensure that those vital cross-border health services are maintained.

During Prime Minister’s questions yesterday I raised the issue of post offices, which is of concern to all Members but especially to those of us who represent rural areas. In such areas, post offices are much more than places where people can buy stamps. They provide a social service, and perform an important function in the community. I am particularly worried about possible closures of post offices that are also shops. In such cases, when the post office closes the community loses the shop as well.

Next week I shall find out which post offices in my constituency face closure. I await the news with some trepidation. I have always been slightly confused by the
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process of setting an arbitrary figure for closures and then working out which post offices should be included in it. Given the rural nature of much of Wales, I should like to be reassured that we will not face more than our fair share of closures because of the nature of the closure programme.

I asked the Prime Minister about the possibility of a moratorium on post office closures so that local communities could use the powers in the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. The Act applies only to England, but there are other powers in the strategy developed by the Assembly Government. Those powers must be given time to work. People are fed up with being told what to do by bureaucrats sitting hundreds of miles away. The Government supported the new powers; if they really support local decision making, why do they not put their money where their mouth is and let the people decide?

Those same communities have also suffered badly in the past year from foot and mouth and bluetongue outbreaks. On foot and mouth, farmers will receive compensation from the Assembly Government, but the Assembly should receive compensation from the Westminster Government because it was an establishment licensed by DEFRA that allowed the outbreak in the first place.

Welsh farmers do not get a fair deal at the hands of supermarkets and we are pressing the Government to accept recent recommendations to create a food ombudsman and to ensure changes. Poverty is still a big issue in Wales, which still has the highest percentage of UK pensioners living in poverty. This is a scandalous problem that can be tackled only by giving pensioners a citizen’s pension, access to free personal care and a system of benefits that properly reflects the rising cost of fuel.

Liberal Democrats will pursue these issues but we think that devolution is at their heart—giving the Welsh Assembly primary law-making powers so that it can address the issues directly in a method that is most appropriate to the situation in Wales.

2.11 pm

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): May I first pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who was at one time my Member of Parliament? He has made, in the great tradition of this House, a fine speech, one that the people of Wales would be proud of, in the sense that he located Wales in a United Kingdom and an internationalist context. He has served Wales well as Secretary of State and has served democratic devolution well. I am sure that he will continue to do so in the future.

I also wish to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his speech, which was as erudite, thought-provoking and challenging as his first speech as Secretary of State at the Welsh day debate on 2 March 2000. On that occasion, he developed a crucial theme that was projected by another fine son of the Monmouthshire valleys, Aneurin Bevan, in the very first Welsh day debate on 17 October 1944. In 1944, in 2000 and in 2008, that recurring theme is summed up in the words of Aneurin Bevan in 1944 about the inter-war years in the south Wales valleys:

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From the perspective of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, I see that challenge of political leverage very clearly: what is the best political leverage that we can achieve for Wales today?

The Secretary of State argued in 2000 for a strategic partnership between Westminster and the Assembly, and he did so again today. In 2000, he was anticipating what the Prime Minister said recently about there being no Welsh-only, Scottish-only or English-only solution to our problems. The political leverage of 1944 has evolved into the strategic partnerships of today.

The Secretary of State placed great emphasis in 2000 on policies that delivered for the people and suggested that

That is the theme that I wish to pursue today as the Chairman of the Committee: Wales as an historic nation and as, in the words of a Welsh politician in the 1990s, “an open region”, looking outwards and seeking partnerships in the United Kingdom, in Europe and in the world, a global Wales rather than an introspective “fortress Wales.”

I am very hopeful that the all-Wales convention under the chairmanship of Sir Emyr Jones-Parry will have that wider vision, too. I believe that the Secretary of State has a unique opportunity and role in this context, representing Wales in the Cabinet, in Westminster and in Whitehall, and representing those institutions in Wales. In chairing the British-Irish Council and the Cabinet committee on the English regions, he has a pivotal role in bringing together and making sense of the hitherto asymmetrical and fragmented devolution across the UK.

The Welsh Affairs Committee recently published its annual report. In many ways, it is a series of snapshots of the evolving devolutionary world. We continue to scrutinise the Secretary of State and the Wales Office and we look forward to him coming before us in the next month or so for that purpose. Through a series of inquiries, we scrutinise various Government Departments in respect of their policies as they affect Wales. Our major inquiry on globalisation and its impact on Wales, and our forthcoming cross-border inquiry focusing on health, education and transport will no doubt result in UK and Welsh Ministers appearing before us.

This is our principal preoccupation: an examination of how Wales relates to the rest of the UK and the rest of the world. We have nevertheless, under the Government of Wales Act, taken a new and additional responsibility of engaging in pre-legislative scrutiny, scrutinising legislative competence orders in council either jointly with Assembly Committees or on our own. We have already completed reports on additional learning needs and domiciliary care.

Much has been said, including today, about the process and some colleagues have rightly questioned the volume of work, the nature of the scrutiny and related issues. As Chairman of the Committee, all I would say is that we are in the very early stages of a new democratic
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process. We welcome the opportunity of working from time to time with our Assembly colleagues and we will regularly review the process and the volume of work within it. I welcome the comments made by the Secretary of State earlier.

Mr. Roger Williams: Everyone in the Chamber values the work of the Committee but does the hon. Gentleman feel that the Committee will be able to provide full scrutiny of the legislation coming out of the Assembly, along with the valuable work that the Committee does in monitoring the work of the Wales Office and Welsh issues?

Dr. Francis: As someone said of the effects of the French revolution, “It is too early to say.” That is all I wish to say at the moment. It is absolutely certain that our primary scrutiny role will be of UK Government Departments and their impact on Wales. That will be paramount to us and will continue to be so while I chair the Committee.

Our work in recent years on prisons, defence, police, globalisation and—under the wise chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones)—on manufacturing and trade and on young people is testimony to the effectiveness of the work of the Committee. I thank Committee members, past and present, for that.

I am certain, too, that the forthcoming inquiry on cross-border issues will be of great value to the people of Wales. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and others for raising the matter with us.

There is considerable interest in the forthcoming inquiry that begins on Tuesday, an interest that crosses the border. Many people in England as well as Wales are keenly looking forward to the inquiry. I ask hon. Members to consider just one aspect of the inquiry—health—and the number of policy issues that probably we will examine: different policy and performance management regimes and targets, different payment systems, prescription charges or the lack of them, resource allocation, differing attitudes to foundation hospitals. The list is endless. In that respect, the landmark agreement on 5 March between the Welsh Assembly and the west midlands, which deals with a range of public services, is welcome.

The dual challenge involves ensuring, first, that policies are not only different, but result in better services, and, secondly, coherence across the border through partnership in, for example, a national health service that seeks to achieve fairness and equality for everyone throughout the United Kingdom. Solutions that do not have that wider vision and that do not look beyond our borders are doomed to failure.

During our globalisation inquiry, it was evident that the challenges posed by economic inactivity, which has been mentioned, fuel poverty, skills enhancement, university research funding, carers’ rights, combating xenophobia and racism, migrant labour and—this is the most important matter—war and peace cannot be addressed by Wales-only solutions. Many of us recently met young people from youth groups all over Wales and from ysgol gyfun Rhydywaun in the Cynon valley
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at Westminster. They made it clear that they inhabit global Wales rather than fortress Wales, and I felt that they are already good and active citizens of Wales, the United Kingdom and the world.

Sara Pickard from Mencap Cymru has thrown down a challenge to Welsh MPs. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham was present and listening attentively when she asked that question, which I will repeat today: what are Welsh MPs doing to help young people with learning difficulties obtain employment opportunities? Sara obviously feels that we must all work in partnership to support the vulnerable and marginalised in our society in order to provide a voice for them and to achieve justice.

Mr. Crabb: On supporting the marginalised and achieving justice, will the Welsh Affairs Committee Chairman explain why he put his name to the early-day motion supporting the serial human rights abuser Fidel Castro, who imprisons homosexuals, tortures political opponents and is guilty of summarily executing people?

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. We are debating Welsh affairs.

Dr. Francis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David), who is not in his place at the moment, for organising that visit by young people. I also thank Sara Pickard, who is Mencap Cymru’s partners in politics officer, for her excellent work across Wales—she is a fine ambassador for young people in Wales. Bodies such as Mencap Cymru and the Shaw Trust need to be encouraged to build partnerships with the Welsh Assembly Government and the United Kingdom Government in order to achieve their fine objectives.

The Secretary of State has emphasised the importance of partnerships. I want to draw hon. Members’ attention to the work of my local authority, which is arguably the best in Wales, Labour-led Neath Port Talbot county borough council. It has recently attracted the establishment of a new Amazon distribution centre, which involves 1,200 jobs, encouraged the imaginative Prince’s Trust Coed Darcy housing development and transformed the Afan valley into a major leisure and tourist destination, particularly in the case of the mountain bike centre at Glyncorrwg. Its strategic partnerships with the local health board, the voluntary sector, the Welsh Assembly Government, the UK Government and European bodies are paying rich dividends for local communities.

Today is about how we can best deliver a better tomorrow for the people of Wales. We can do so by deconstructing and reconstructing our historic nation to build a more open, tolerant, fulfilled and diverse society, valuing, as Aneurin Bevan said, our rich local life at the same time as a wide cosmopolitanism. Sixty years ago this year, Aneurin Bevan and a Labour Government created the national health service, which is arguably our greatest gift to the United Kingdom and the world.

Fifty years ago this year, Aneurin Bevan welcomed the great humanitarian Paul Robeson to the National Eisteddfod in his Ebbw Vale constituency. The all-Welsh rule was suspended to allow those two great
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sons of Wales to speak at what Aneurin Bevan called “a monument to civilisation”, the National Eisteddfod. Bevan and Robeson had a simple message: Wales is at its best when it speaks to the world and not to itself. They did that through their purposeful lives, and we honour their memory today, when Wales speaks through Westminster to the world. As the Archdeacon of Bangor, the venerable Meurig Llwyd Williams, said this morning in the fine St. David’s day service, which has been mentioned several times, St. David’s day is

2.27 pm

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I add my congratulations to the new Secretary of State for Wales, who will do his utmost to help people. However, he faces numerous challenges, partly as a result of the policies that his Government have enacted in the past 10 years.

The Secretary of State mentioned so-called second-class Members of Parliament. I believe that he is a Unionist and that his views and mine on the importance of Wales remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom are probably very close. However, I cannot see how it is possible to continue with the current arrangements whereby Welsh and Scottish Members vote on matters on which they do not have direct representation—they vote on the health service, education and local government in England. As a Unionist, surely the Secretary of State recognises that that is bound to cause enormous tension and is likely to lead to the further break-up and disintegration of the United Kingdom. Preventing Members of Parliament from voting on matters that affect other nations within the United Kingdom will give strength to the Union, which most Government Members and all Conservative Members support.

One of the first challenges created by this Government was the change to the funding formula for local authorities, which has left some local authorities much worse off. The changes were subtle, but the new formula for local government, which was set up by the Welsh Assembly, has channelled money away from rural local authorities into more urban ones. The methods were subtle but, for example, the weighting accorded to sparsity in the previous formula has been significantly reduced, and the manner in which sparsity is calculated has also been changed. Instead of considering how close a settlement is to the largest major town, the distance is calculated not by road but as the crow flies, which is disadvantageous in an area with lots of valleys.

The formula has also altered the emphasis placed on the number of elderly people in an area. Previously, the number of elderly people was accorded a large weighting, which is right because, unfortunately, as we get older we become more likely to require the services of our local authority. Any formula that does not give significant weighting to local authorities with large numbers of elderly people will be fundamentally flawed. Monmouthshire has many retired people, so we are suffering the effects of that. There is also a fundamental fault in the method used for calculating deprivation. It is arguable whether deprivation should be a factor in deciding how much money local authorities have, but if that is the case—and if it is given the emphasis that it is currently given—the method for calculating deprivation must be seen to be fair.

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