Previous Section Index Home Page

28 Feb 2008 : Column 1290

I believe that the fairest way is to look at the average household incomes of people in a given local authority area. This formula looks at how many people are claiming various different benefits. That is grossly unfair on places such as Monmouthshire, which has a high number of people working for low wages, often in tourism, as has been mentioned, or in agriculture, where many people might be earning less than the minimum wage. Yet under the local government funding formula, they are not calculated as being deprived in any way, even though they clearly are. Monmouthshire is not the great affluent place that many people think it is. In fact, the local authority area has two of the most deprived wards in Wales, and when I last checked, the average household income was only just over the average for the whole of Wales. I hope that this is one of the first issues the Secretary of State will tackle.

I also hope the Secretary of State will look at the planning laws, and that when he does so he will look at the planning authorities. There was a recent article in the Western Mail about the failings of the Brecon Beacons national park and, although I do not think that any politicians were quoted in the piece, in my experience the park has certainly been very slack indeed in replying to letters and it takes an arrogant and high-handed view towards Members who wish to question it about its planning policies.

Mr. Crabb: My hon. Friend is making an important point on national parks. Does he agree that one way to help them raise their game might be for them to become a little more democratic by having a proportion of their members directly elected by people living in the national park area?

David T.C. Davies: I agree with my hon. Friend. That is an excellent idea, and I hope we might look into it—perhaps the Secretary of State will take it up.

The health service has been mentioned. I realise that the Secretary of State does not have any direct control over the health service, although I rather wish he did as I think he would do a much better job than any of the Welsh Assembly Members who currently have influence in that area. If he talks to the Health Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government, I hope he will take the opportunity to raise the issue of Tarceva. A constituent of mine has terminal lung cancer. If he lived in Scotland, or even in parts of England, he would be eligible to receive the anti-cancer drug Tarceva. I am told that, because of a discount given by Roche, it would be no more expensive to offer that than to offer some of the existing treatments, yet he has been turned down simply because of his postcode—simply because he lives in Wales. Surely the Secretary of State agrees that that is completely unacceptable?

I hope that the Secretary of State will forgive me, but I will not be present for the wind-ups as I have a long-standing engagement with the Royal British Legion tonight, at which I shall talk about the military covenant. The armed forces are not a devolved matter, but I am sure he will take an interest in them in his role. In particular, I hope he will look at the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers, who are based in the town of Monmouth. A number of people from that fine regiment have been sent to Iraq to help with the rebuilding of that country.

28 Feb 2008 : Column 1291

I know that Members have different views about whether it was a good thing to go into Iraq. Regardless of that, I think we all respect those who have put on a uniform and decided to serve their country in whatever capacity they are asked, and I should add that most of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers officers are involved in rebuilding work, and they are doing a fine job. What is most outstanding about them is that they are all Territorial Army soldiers; they are not full-time soldiers, but civilians who leave their homes and families for six months to do this. Yet despite that enormous contribution, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers have been told that they can no longer recruit because of a cut to the TA funding budget across the whole of the United Kingdom. At a time when we have soldiers fighting a war on two fronts—in Afghanistan and in Iraq—and it appears that more Welsh soldiers might be asked to put their lives on the line in the former Yugoslavia, it is unfair that the Government are reducing funds to the TA. It is also worrying that it is difficult for a constituency Member to raise these matters directly with commanding officers as they are told not to discuss matters directly with Members of Parliament—in order to do that, they have to refer back to the Ministry of Defence and get all sorts of permissions, which can take a long time.

Mark Pritchard: I have just had the privilege of spending some time in Afghanistan, and the armed forces there told me that there is a shortage of engineers in Afghanistan, not only for reconstruction but for dealing with improvised explosive devices. Therefore, I am very concerned to hear that the Government are cutting back on those vital regiments.

David T.C. Davies: I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention.

Another group of people who put on the uniform to serve their country are the police. I am glad to say that as far as I am aware there are as yet no plans to devolve Home Office matters to the Welsh Assembly. [Interruption.] No, not yet, and hopefully not for a very long time.

Lembit Öpik: I infer from the hon. Gentleman’s comment that he does not want to see more devolution. If he were the Secretary of State, would he increase or decrease the powers of the Assembly?

David T.C. Davies: Well, I certainly would not increase them; that is a straight answer.

There has recently been much discussion of policing in this Chamber. The Flanagan report, which I hope will be implemented, has made many useful and worthwhile proposals that will get rid of some of the paperwork that police officers currently face. We do not have the same problems in Wales as inner-city London has, but we nevertheless have significant problems of disorder and antisocial behaviour, even in some of the market towns.

One such town is Abergavenny, which is not the sort of place one would expect large-scale disorder. Yet young people have come to me and said that other young people are making it impossible for them to walk
28 Feb 2008 : Column 1292
the streets of Abergavenny in the evenings, and particularly at weekends. If the Secretary of State is ever passing through, I will be happy to show him the problems there. When I went out with the police in Abergavenny, I saw groups of 50 to 100 youngsters gathering on Cross street, with which I think the Secretary of State will be familiar, and intimidating passers-by, drinking cans of lager—even though most of them were under age—smoking and swearing. It was intimidating for elderly passers-by who wanted to enjoy a night out in Abergavenny and perhaps go to the local theatre.

Under current legislation, it is difficult for the police to deal with such behaviour. Even when people are breaking the law, the police are not necessarily able to arrest, stop and search or even process them. Often, all they can do is ask them to move on—if the right local authority orders are in place—or confiscate alcohol, or take people home if they are clearly inebriated. That needs to change. Some of the Flanagan report proposals will help the police. Certainly where they have grounds for stopping and searching, instead of having to fill out long forms I hope that they will be able to use video camera evidence or to radio through details to the control centre, rather than having to go through the stop-and-search forms. As the Secretary of State might know, I serve as a special constable, and I have done quite a lot of stop and searches.

The report says that it takes seven or eight minutes to fill in the forms, but my experience is that it takes much longer than that, because the person being stopped and searched often does not want to co-operate with the police. Outside Wales—I am thinking of London—people who are stopped often do not speak English, and although that is not their fault, it adds to the time it takes. Simple things such as inclement weather can also have an effect. When two police officers want to stop and search three people, it can take upwards of an hour simply to go through the forms and do the search—that is much longer than stated in the report. Anything that can be done to reduce that time will be welcome, although I appreciate what is contained in the report.

The report does not address two things. First, the Government announced that they would put in place an order to allow the police randomly to stop and search in areas where there is a threat of violence. Happily, we do not see such threats on a regular basis in Wales, but we can do, particularly at football matches. I am not clear how such a provision is any different from the section 60 powers that police already have.

Secondly, when the police stop someone for a minor offence but are not going to make an arrest, instead dealing with them either by process or words of guidance, they will find out who a person is and quite often establish that he or she has a recent criminal record for a violent offence or for carrying drugs or knives—they will be warned about that through their radios—yet that in itself will not be grounds to carry out a search. The police are often stopping known drug dealers and people who have recently used a firearm or a knife but are unable to carry out a search even when that person is breaking the law. With all due respect, I hope the Secretary of State will use whatever influence he has to see whether that law can be changed.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Gwent area has a major problem with a lack of court facilities.
28 Feb 2008 : Column 1293
Newport has been promised a new courtroom for years, but it has not been delivered yet, and as a result additional pressure has been put on the courtroom in Abergavenny and, I imagine, on courtrooms in his area. People are not getting accessible justice. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has mentioned that he has encountered a similar problem in his area, too. I hope that the Secretary of State will use whatever influence he has to ensure that promises about new courtrooms with modern, up-to-date facilities are implemented.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is right. This is not a devolved responsibility, and I echo his comments because the fact that the promised courtrooms have not been constructed hinders the application of justice in Wales.

David T.C. Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Following on from that, we must consider what happens to people who are going into the justice system and into prison. I do not believe that the figures bandied around are particularly accurate. The average figure for keeping someone in prison is much lower than people realise, because the figures generally used take into account the high cost of category A prisons. Nobody should put that into the cost considerations because, as far as I am aware, nobody—not even Liberal Democrats—thinks that people in category A prisons should be out and about on the loose. The actual cost of putting someone in prison is probably about £25,000 to £30,000 a year. One must remember that the vast majority of those entering the system are already on full benefits—they are rarely those working in nine-to-five jobs and paying taxes—so whether we like it or not, the net cost to the taxpayer is considerably less.

The Government should remember their own 2000 figure that crime costs £60 billion a year, yet we spend only £2 billion imprisoning people. Again on their figures—those of the Carter report in 2003—half that £60 billion cost is down to 100,000 people, of whom only 15,000 are in prison at any given time. Based on the Government’s own figures, if the prison population were to be doubled, the extra cost to the taxpayer would be about £2 billion and the saving would be about £30 billion.

Clearly, I would not want people to be thrown into a Dickensian hell-hole—if any exists in the Prison Service; I have not seen any—but I would like more schemes of the sort that are used in Usk prison, in my constituency, that enable people to obtain vocational skills, which they can use when they leave prison. It is simply not possible to provide such skills in the space of a few months, because often the first thing that needs to be done is to address anger management problems, or alcohol and drug problems. People can then be taken into some form of educational process; it is not something that can be done in a matter of weeks or months, because it takes a year or two. I want a humane prison system that keeps people in for longer but treats them in a humane fashion and sends them out with the ability to live a law-abiding life.

Mark Pritchard: Does my hon. Friend agree that as well as providing humane conditions for prisoners, we need reasonable working conditions for the hard-working, dedicated and loyal prison staff? Because of the prison overcrowding crisis, there is an epidemic of assaults on prison staff.

28 Feb 2008 : Column 1294

David T.C. Davies: I agree, and I shall talk about that issue at greater length on another occasion.

The Secretary of State for Wales has a huge task ahead of him. I do not doubt his commitment to Wales, but I do doubt the commitment of his Government to change the policies that need changing in order to deliver on that commitment. I must remind him that if he is unable to make improvements, many Conservative candidates will be willing to do so after the next general election.

2.45 pm

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): I shall begin by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), although he is not in his place at the moment, on an excellent speech. I add my words to those of many Members on both sides of the House about the service that he has given to Wales and Northern Ireland, and to the people of the United Kingdom when he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He clearly has not stopped working or thinking, and still has the same dynamism as he had in office.

I also welcome the new Secretary of State. He and I have worked together on several occasions in the past, and I know that everyone recognises his abilities. Everyone in the House has enormous respect for all the work that he has done in the past, and I look forward to working with him in the future.

The last time I spoke in a Welsh Affairs debate was from the Back Benches before the 1997 election. It is true to say that Wales has been transformed, and nowhere more so than my own constituency. West Wales had a reputation throughout the 1980s and through most of the 1990s as an economic blackspot. At times, it had some of the worst unemployment in the whole of the United Kingdom. Our services were not good and we were considered a peripheral area with poor communications. We also saw the erosion of the main pillars of our economy, because international changes were affecting us. For example, changes in agriculture saw more people leaving the industry as mechanisation was introduced. There was a squeeze in particular sectors, such as new potatoes, which faced competition from imports from Morocco and Egypt. The defence closure programme in the 1990s saw the then Conservative Government close several bases or radically reducing the number of staff. The energy industry also went through a period of severe contraction, which saw the closure of refineries, power stations and so on.

The last 10 years have seen a dramatic transformation. Instead of being at the bottom of the league in terms of employment, we are now close to the top. We have had a 65 per cent. reduction in unemployment and the investment in infrastructure—roads, new, refurbished and extended schools, and new and refurbished hospitals—has led to a dramatic change in public services in west Wales.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman may be interested to learn that while average unemployment in the UK is 5.2 per cent., it is 5.4 per cent. in Wales. In west Wales and the valleys, it is 5.8 per cent. I know that those are not big differences, but they do show that Wales is slightly behind the UK average.

28 Feb 2008 : Column 1295

Nick Ainger: I refer specifically to my own constituency, where the fall in unemployment—according to the latest Library figures and the claimant count figures—makes us 11th out of 646 constituencies. We have seen tremendous improvement on unemployment and employment, and one reason has been the clear success in my constituency of objective 1 funding—now convergence funding. The county council, the Welsh Assembly Government and the private sector have worked well together on some significant investments. Not least of those is the Bluestone project, which I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath has visited and which has the potential to create 600 new jobs when it opens this summer.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Neath mentioned renewable energy. The technium in Pembroke Dock was created specifically to bring together the private sector and universities in Wales to develop renewable and alternative energy, develop new products, improve existing technologies and spin out companies into larger premises. I was at the technium last week, where Welsh energy sector training, or WEST—which brings together the private sector, universities such as Swansea university, Bangor university, the university of Glamorgan and the Welsh school of architecture—highlighted specific areas in which it thinks the private sector can become actively involved. WEST is also getting involved, rightly, in encouraging the private sector to expand training for technicians in installing renewable technology and so on, because we in Wales must address the skills gap. It is important to have technologists—not just graduates but people who have the hands-on skills required to develop a modern economy, particularly in renewable energy. We are trying to encourage people to install renewable energy in their homes, so it is important that we have qualified technologists to do so.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said that Wales was becoming a capital for renewable energy development. In my constituency, apart from technium, a UK aerospace company in Pembroke Dock is building wind turbines on a smaller scale for domestic and small commercial use. The Bluestone project will be heated and powered by a miscanthus-fired boiler system which will heat the water world and provide 1.5 MW of power. It will be the biggest renewable-fired system in Wales, and will be considered as a pilot for other large projects.

We as a Government need to incentivise people to change their habits and make the investment needed in alternative energy and microgeneration. I am thinking of the experience in Germany in particular, where they have a feed-in tariff, and of the take-up there of photovoltaic energy, for example. Much of Germany’s PV technology is manufactured in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas); I have visited the Sharp factory. Sharp management say that Germany is their biggest market, because of the feed-in tariff. We as a Government must address that issue, so that we can incentivise people.

Mr. Crabb: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about feed-in tariffs, but he should know that the Government have rejected them during the Energy Bill’s passage through Parliament.

Nick Ainger: Absolutely, and I agree that they ought seriously to reconsider. Feed-in tariffs are a way to incentivise individuals to invest in renewables and give a faster return on investment.

Next Section Index Home Page