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28 Feb 2008 : Column 1296

Lembit Öpik: On that point, I tend to agree that rejecting feed-in tariffs was a mistake by the Government, but it is a reparable mistake, and I suspect that it can be repaired through lobbying. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in order to make feed-in tariffs effective, we need smart meters? I submitted to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform a strong rationale for introducing smart meters. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should be lobbying for them in Wales and throughout the UK?

Nick Ainger: I do not argue with the hon. Gentleman on that point. Let me turn to energy prices and their impact on my constituency, and the wider issue of fuel poverty. In 2004, Brent crude cost $30 a barrel, but today it costs just under $100 a barrel. That has affected more than just our industry. Given that the price of oil has more than doubled, it is remarkable how resilient our economy has been, but the effect on our domestic energy market has been quite dramatic. Production costs for crude oil have not changed much, so there has been a significant increase in oil companies’ profits. The latest figures show that profits for Shell were $27.5 billion, for BP $16.2 billion, for Exxon Mobil $40 billion, and for Chevron $4.8 billion in the last quarter of 2007.

Energy suppliers’ profits have increased significantly, too. British Gas’s profits are up 40 per cent. at £1.9 billion, and National Power’s profits are up 41 per cent. at £500 million. That high level of profitability has enabled huge investment in Pembrokeshire. Probably more than £1 billion has been invested in the two liquefied natural gas terminals in the constituency of the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), and there has been construction of a 120-mile high-pressure gas pipeline. That has undoubtedly brought local benefits. However, the real impact is on domestic bills. The average annual cost of gas has risen from £370 to £569—a 54 per cent. increase. Electricity prices are up 38 per cent. Heating oil prices more than doubled over the period in question, too. The effect has been an increase in fuel poverty.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) last night hosted a meeting with National Energy Action Cymru, which gave us some interesting information. There is no question but that the winter fuel allowance has been a huge success in addressing and reducing fuel poverty, but given the high price rises—it is unlikely that there will be significant falls—the number of people in fuel poverty in Wales is likely to increase substantially. It increased between 2004 and 2006 by over 100,000, and for every 10 per cent. rise in energy costs, 48,000 more people in Wales go into fuel poverty.

I agree with suggestions that the first thing that we should do is ensure that energy suppliers do not apply a surcharge to those who have prepayment meters. On average, people who use a prepayment meter pay £127 more than those who pay by direct debit, although they are among the poorest people. We should make sure that all the energy suppliers end that surcharge—that penalty on being poor in Wales and on using a prepayment meter. One supplier has already done so.

We should consider extending the winter fuel payment to those who are on benefits—who are in receipt of jobseeker’s allowance or some sort of disability payment—
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but are below the age of 60. Not many people know about the social tariff, but it enables people to get 20 per cent. off their energy bill—that is provided by the energy supplier—and free insulation on their property if they can show that they are vulnerable and in fuel poverty. What is preventing that from being rolled out to far more people is the reluctance to exchange information between the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities and the energy suppliers. That must be addressed.

The excess profits being made by the oil industry and the energy suppliers could fund a national energy efficiency agency. If the income of the oil industry and the energy suppliers were top-sliced, that could be dedicated to making the existing housing stock fuel efficient, thereby tackling fuel poverty and climate change and developing fuel poverty payments.

One of the issues that concerns me greatly is that people, in many cases retired, who live in rural parts of Wales and are not connected to the gas supply are totally dependent on oil-fired central heating. As I said, the price of heating oil in the past four years has gone from 20p a litre to 42p a litre, or even higher. We have not seen a change in the winter fuel allowance. I believe that the oil industry has a moral duty to start a social tariff, in the same way as have the other energy suppliers, in order to address that problem.

3.1 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): It is a great privilege to speak in my inaugural St. David’s day debate. As a recent member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, it is a great privilege to have heard some of the speeches today. I have already learned a great deal. It could be asked why an English Member of Parliament is involved in a Welsh affairs debate. I have given part of the reason, by saying that I am a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I also spent five years of my childhood growing up in Wales, in the Afan valley in the constituency of Aberavon. It is a great privilege to serve on the Select Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis).

That was a wonderful place to grow up, many times playing soccer by the River Afan and having to chase the ball down the river at high speed. Eventually it would turn up 10 miles down the road in Neath. There are other great memories, such as those of camping in the summer months in the hills round about. Wales is a fabulous place. It is a wonder to go there every year for my summer holidays, and in the recent recess I spent three days in Aberdovey. I hope that the purchase of the Penhelig Arms hotel in Aberdovey by Brains Brewery will not change the quality of the output. Tourism is vital for the Welsh economy. We have heard today how manufacturing is decreasing in Wales, so a reliance on tourism and the softer service industries is very evident.

Ian Lucas: Manufacturing is alive, well and prospering in Wrexham, my constituency, and throughout north-east Wales.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful for that intervention. I do not want to be partisan in this debate because I am a fan of Wales. I have just expressed that. However, we should be realistic. The global pressures recognised even by the hon. Gentleman’s Prime Minister have
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meant that a million manufacturing jobs throughout the United Kingdom have been lost since 1997. To identify that is to put ourselves in a position to create, as a nation, a new employment strategy. It is a matter not of being critical, but of critical appreciation.

Manufacturing in Wales, as no doubt in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, is very much linked to the aerospace industry, and that is why I hope that the Airbus project, which is experiencing many delays at the moment, will move forward. It is critical not only for the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but for the west midlands and Shropshire, where many small and medium-sized businesses rely heavily on Airbus and other manufacturing industries supplying the airline industry.

Lembit Öpik: I lend my support to the hon. Gentleman’s observation about the importance of tourism for Wales. Montgomeryshire is highly dependent on caravanning and on visitors to tourist attractions such as Lake Vyrnwy and walking in the mountains. If the hon. Gentleman is implying that we should be a bit more forceful in advertising Wales as a destination within the UK for holidays, I certainly agree with that sentiment.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support. If someone has a fortnight’s holiday, they should first stop in Shropshire, whose tourism campaign I support, and then spend the second week in Wales. That is a perfectly reasonable compromise. I have been to Lake Vyrnwy. It is a great bird-watching location that is funded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and it has a hotel that is undergoing major refurbishment as we speak.

Anne Main: I concur with the comments of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik). As I have said, I was born and brought up in Wales and lived around the Bristol area for quite some time. I used to be somewhat depressed when I heard people talk about going to see Roman remains to find that they were heading up the M4 to Bath instead of going over the bridge to Caerleon, which has one of the most fantastic sets of Roman remains and the most perfect amphitheatre in Europe, I believe. It is absolutely right that we have so many jewels in Wales to champion.

Mark Pritchard: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some say that the Romans did not get past the western borders of Shropshire, but they did venture further, and there are some excellent Roman remains in parts of Wales. However, to return to my earlier point, I suggest that visitors stop in Wroxeter in Shropshire in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and then move on to the wonderful Roman sites in Wales. That is a perfectly reasonable proposition. My hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) rightly said that the Government should be doing more to promote Wales as not only a sporting venue but a tourism venue as well.

We have even seen an example of Welsh culture subsiding in the Chamber today, and I am very sad about that. In my day in Wales, the men used to wear leeks, not daffodils, but I see no one in the Chamber who is wearing a leek today—apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West, who some may have spotted is wearing a wonderful leek tie. Of course,
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leeks and politicians do not usually gel well; they are not something that politicians like. But on the serious point, it would be nice to see some leeks next time round, and I will participate in that, along with the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee. [Interruption.] I have just said that I am willing to do so; I did not wear my own leek today because I did not want to embarrass Members.

There is no doubt a correlation between the standard of public services in health in Wales and those in Shropshire, Herefordshire and Cheshire. That is why I welcome the cross-border inquiry of the Welsh Affairs Committee. The people of Wales, who are paying more taxes than they have ever done before, are entitled to a full NHS, not only in acute services but in primary care services as well. The people of Shropshire should not have their health strategy designed because of Wales’s deficits and shortfalls, but should have a health service designed for the special needs of that large county. That is why I have concerns that unless the people of Shropshire and north Wales have been consulted on the agreement between the west midlands and the Welsh Assembly, there will be great concern on both sides of the border about any movement of services. The Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic and District Hospital NHS Trust and the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust need primarily to serve the populations around them. Yes, of course we want to share health services with Wales where possible. However, in Shropshire and the west midlands we cannot have a system designed for Wales when the majority of the services are meant to be delivered in England.

I touched on the issue of education earlier, during an intervention. It disturbs me that 16 schools in Wales are potentially subject to special measures and special interest from the chief inspector of schools for Wales; the number is double that of last year. I do not see that as progress. That is not a criticism of the hard-working, dedicated teaching staff of Wales, who do a wonderful job, but a recognition that teachers are being asked to do more with less. They are more often subject to bullying and harassment in the classroom and the Government need to take action. It is high time that the Government recognised the need to do what the Conservative party wants to do: provide a facility under which teachers accused, perhaps falsely, of bullying pupils are given protection until the case has been proven. It is important that in such circumstances teachers remain anonymous, so that their reputations are not ruined before their very eyes.

It is also concerning that the gap between the best and worst schools in Wales has increased—by 10 per cent. in the past year. That cannot be progress. Both Wales Office Ministers are decent men and I am not criticising them, but it is important to recognise the challenges, grapple with them and work closely with the Education Minister in Wales.

Defence, of course, is a key issue; I see the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) in his place. I am glad that the nation of Wales has for many hundreds of years contributed in a wonderful and heroic way to the work, activities and commitments of Her Majesty’s armed forces. It continues to do so today. Last year I was in Iraq, and I was in Afghanistan
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only a few weeks ago. Wherever I go to meet the armed forces, I find the fine tradition of Welsh men and women playing their full part, and long may that continue. I pay tribute to them all.

The Governments in London and Wales have a real responsibility to ensure that veterans who leave Her Majesty’s armed forces are cared for appropriately. I am privileged that the armed forces mental health charity Combat Stress has a treatment centre in Newport, Shropshire—not Newport, Wales. I have met former Welsh Guards who still suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from the conflict in the Falkland Islands. It is important that the Government do far more to provide mental health services, not only for those serving today but for those who will leave the armed forces in future.

We have heard today about policing and law and order. We can argue about whether crime is up or down in Wales, but we know from the Police Federation and their own articulation privately—and sometimes, bravely, publicly—that the police are burdened with paperwork and red tape as never before. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), who has not only political but personal and professional experience, serving gallantly as a special constable. It is in the interests of Wales, of the Government and of every individual victim of crime that the paperwork be reduced so that police officers get back on the beat.

When the Labour Government were first elected, we heard about zero-tolerance policing. We do not hear that phrase any more; it has gone out of fashion. However, when we get down to the grass roots and basics of violent crime, we see that it starts at a very low level. If people think they can get away with low-level antisocial behaviour—so-called petty crime, noise nuisance, or whatever it may be—they graduate up to other crimes, and then graduate up again. The reason why we have a crisis in our prisons is that more and more people are committing crime—it is a bit of a no-brainer.

Given that the Government have decided, very belatedly, to build new prisons—I welcome that, although it is partly because they are trying to catch up, and it is unfortunately driven by criticism rather than by a prison strategy—I hope that we will see an end to early prisoner release. One could say that, in principle, there is a role within a reasonable criminal justice system for early prisoner release, with a normal probation board and Parole Board, and I would not argue with that. Unfortunately, however, many of the early release schemes that the Government have signed up to have been the result of the crisis in the prisons. Because there is no room in the prisons they are forced to release people early, and many of them, according to the Home Office’s own statistics, go on to commit crime again. That cannot be a sensible criminal justice policy and it cannot be good for the people of Wales. I know that the Minister, being a reasonable man, will admit that that is the case, so let us have those prison places opened up as soon as possible.

As I said earlier, prison overcrowding has led to a large increase in assaults on prison staff. They are hard-working, dedicated public servants, and it is completely intolerable and unacceptable that they should have to suffer in this way just because of the Government’s short-sightedness on these issues. Then
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there is the knock-on effect on police cells in Wales. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) will know that over the past year or so there has been a real problem with police cells being full in Wrexham, as well as in other parts of Wales, because there has been nowhere to take prisoners. I hope that the Minister will deal with those points.

While I am on the subject of Wrexham, which is a wonderful place, the cross-party effort to get the Wrexham-Shropshire-Marylebone direct rail link to London has been successful. That was a real victory, and I am grateful to the Secretary of State and the Minister; I also pay tribute to Transport Ministers. Shropshire now has a direct rail link to London, which is great—it is good for the people of Wales and good for the people of Shropshire. However, within the past few weeks Virgin Trains has announced that it is going to set up another London to Wrexham service via Chester. It is perplexing why Virgin Trains has suddenly shown an interest in having a direct rail link to Wrexham, and I hope that it will not, by design or by default, push out the new service that is coming through Shropshire. I understand competition—I do not have an issue with that—but there must be an holistic view of what is good for Wales.

As I am on transport, may I encourage the Secretary of State to have a meeting with Arriva Trains Wales, whose trains pass through Shropshire? There is no doubt that there is greater demand on the Welsh and the English sides of the border. It is a triumph for the Government that more people want to use public transport, but we are now seeing overcrowding on trains like nothing before, and there is sometimes a real health and safety risk. I have been on those trains—they are absolutely jam-packed, and if there was some sort of incident it would be very serious. I hope that the Minister will give a commitment to the House on that issue.

Wales has a bright future, but only if the Government invest in the health and education of the fine and upstanding people of Wales and allow them to go about their law-abiding duties without being intervened on by people who want to undermine their way of life.

3.19 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Aneurin Bevan stood up in this Chamber on 17 October 1944, in the first ever Welsh day debate, and being a great socialist and internationalist, he declared that there are no Welsh problems, there are only problems. He was right. Speaking of the coal industry, which then employed tens of thousands of people throughout Wales, he said that there was

and again, he was right. Of course there are differences between Wales and the rest of Great Britain, especially on the rugby field. We showed that at Twickenham and Murrayfield. The fact is that we are simply the best. However, those minor differences pale into insignificance when we look at what we share in common with the rest of the Union.

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