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Its an idea that should be stopped in its tracks.
There are many dynamic aspects of Wales today. We have already talked about the university sector. I am playing a small part in bringing industry into proper negotiation and partnership with Bangor university, and I am proud that other universities in Wales are doing the same. We have referred to the great honour bestowed on Cardiff for its two Nobel prize winners. There is no doubt that we are doing well and I am not talking the country down, but there are problems. They are man-made and they can be dealt with. If we can use objective 1 money to create a better economy, we can ensure that that happens without doing anything to damage the economy. Otherwise, we are all wasting our time.
I want to mention the issue of compensation for foot and mouth disease. Reference was made earlier to the somewhat cynical way in which mention of compensation for Wales was included in the first draft of a speech, but disappeared the following week when it became clear that no election was going to be called. Last week, the Minister Elin Jones announced an £8.8 million compensation package for sheep farmers in respect of the outbreak of foot and mouth in England last year. That is welcome, although Brynle Williams, representing the Conservatives in the Assembly, said that it somehow underpaid the farmers, selling them short. If he paused for thought, even he might realise that £12.5 million paid in England and £8.8 million paid in Wales is not too bad a comparative figure, especially when it comes from a budget rather than from the Treasury. Of course, we all know that the Government were directly responsible for the outbreak in the first place. Common sense dictates that the Government should have bailed Wales out, but in any event the money was found, and although I do not suggest it is a silver bullet that will immediately deal with all the problems, it will go some way towards dealing with them.
Mr. Roger Williams: As I said in my speech, the outbreak can be attributed directly to the Government because they were the licensing authority of the establishment that caused it. Has the Assembly made representations to the Treasury, and should not representations be made from here as well?
Mr. Llwyd: I have spoken to the Secretary of State about the matter, and I know that the Minister has been to see him about it. It has been raised on a cross-party basis. This is another instance of Wales being slightly different: we were not bailed out when we should have been, although the Treasury bailed out our counterparts in England.
Finally, let me deal with the thorny issue of post office closures in Wales. A huge number of post offices have disappeared over the past couple of years, and it would be awful if we lost any more. As we know, post offices are a focal point for communities. I live in a village that contains one post office, which is also the village shop. The village is 5 miles from the nearest town, and although I have a car and can drive, other people are unable to make the journey. I believe passionately that we should halt the closure process.
According to the New Economics Foundation, on average a post office contributes £310,000 to the local economy each yearalthough obviously that does not apply to the one in my villageand £120,000 is spent directly on local goods and services. Each post office saves small businesses in its vicinity about £270,000. In deprived urban areas, 61 per cent. of customers use their post offices to gain access to free community services, while 69 per cent. do so in rural areas. About 75 per cent. of post offices have a shop or other business attached to them, and are the only places where local people can withdraw cash.
In March 2001 there were 1,399 post offices operating in Wales. By March 2007 there were only 1,146, 18 per cent. having disappeared. Of those closures, 127 were part of the urban reinvention programme: urban sub-postmasters were paid compensation for closing their businesses in a so-called rationalisation of the post office structure in urban areas.
Albert Owen: As the hon. Gentleman will know, I am a co-sponsorwith my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig)of early-day motion 1054, which calls for a halt to the closure programme and also for the generation of new business. Could we not jointly lobby local authorities about payment of council tax through the post office network?
Mr. Llwyd: I entirely agree. I also think that, as some council offices are having to close, a small amount could be paid to a post office to function as a one-stop shop providing information. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will work as vigorously as we can on a cross-party basis.
We should ask whether the Government can reverse the policy on television and road fund licences, benefit payments and so forth. As we know, the Post Office card account may or may not still be with us in years to come. There are problems ahead, and although they are avoidable, they are likely to hit Wales far harder than other parts of the United Kingdom because of the nature of the country. It contains some deprived urban areas but also semi-rural valleys, and large parts of it are rural. I hope that the Government will think
again. I know that all Members, including Ministers, will be concerned about what is happening in their localities. On 28 January last month, the Secretary of State himself said in The D aily T elegraph :
Where there are large numbers of people who rely on the Post Office, or where transport to other offices is difficult, the Post Office need to think carefully about the impact of their plans...they are important to communities and to those who use them, especially older people and those who dont own a car.
We presented a dossier...this is a victory for common sense.
That implies that there is not much sense in the Government policy. There was not much sense in voting for it in the first place and then complaining, either. These issues will be with us for months to come and there is a cross-party consensus on some of them.
I am not whingeing here today; there are a lot of good things about Wales. There is a great deal of inward investment, we have fantastic universities, we have innovative young people, and we are set for clean energy. We have several things on the horizon but they could be better. I am afraid that some of the problems are man-made, and made by this place. They must be reversed.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): May I take the opportunity, like many others today, to pay tribute to the work of the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who worked assiduously for Wales? We have had the odd policy disagreement from time to time, but he has always worked with patience and good humour and he is one of the best political campaigners I have ever come across. Wales is fortunate indeed in having my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) as his successor. His political skills are respected in all parts of the House. He also agrees with me that what matters most to the people we are sent here to represent are the services that Government help to provide to those constituents. For that reason, I intend to concentrate on the delivery of public services in one form or another today.
If there is a big political issue in Wrexham, my constituents get in touch with me. I hear about it from them pretty quickly and their strength of feeling is apparent. I recall that one such issue was the Governments ill-fated proposal for a single police force for Wales, a policy that was strongly opposed by Labour MPs in north Wales who, I believe, had a major effect upon the eventual decision.
Another such issue is the delivery of specialist services in our NHS. Before I came to this place, I worked as a non-executive director at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt orthopaedic and district hospital at Gobowen in Shropshire, which has been referred to today. Within that hospital is the Midlands and North Wales centre for spinal injuries, headed by my very good friend Mr. Wagih El Masry, a consultant who, with his colleagues, achieves miraculous recoveries for many people who suffer catastrophic injuries in accidents. His skills have been developed over decades and are shared in only eight other centres in the UK.
There is no comparable centre in north Wales. I have constituents who are walking today only because of the skill of the staff there.
We all value medical services that are close to our homes but we understand that specialist skills can be developed only in specialist centres. Increasingly, the requirements of Royal Colleges dictate that those skills be delivered only in specialist centres. My constituents understand this and no constituent has contacted me to ask that those services should be delivered only in Wrexham. On the other hand, I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned that specialist services may be withdrawn from them because those services are based in England. I have heard from Wrexham residents who were treated at Broadgreen in Liverpool for heart surgery
Ian Lucas: I understand why a separatist party would require services that are currently delivered from England to Wales to be delivered only in Wales. The fallacy of the Plaid Cymru position is that it pretends that services currently delivered by specialist centres in England would continue to be delivered in an independent Wales. I have heard from Wrexham residents who have been treated at Broadgreen in Liverpool for heart surgery, at Christie hospital in Manchester for cancer, at Alder Hey in Liverpool for childrens services or at Walton for neurosurgery. They are concerned that patients may be denied access to those centres of excellence simply because those centres are in England. I have been comforted by assurances given by the Minister for Health and Social Services in the Welsh Assembly Government, but we must assert the value of a national health service delivered across the UK.
Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the Minister for Health and Social Services in the Welsh Assembly Government. Did that Minister not preside over the proposal to require neurosurgery patients in north Wales to travel to Cardiff or Swansea for treatment and elective surgery, rather than to the Walton centre, which is currently the case? Is it not a Labour Minister who introduced that policy?
Ian Lucas: The Minister denies that she ever said that. Intervention by Labour Assembly Members and Members of Parliament in north Wales has clarified the position. Later, I will discuss the Conservative position, which will be interesting for my constituents to learn.
I have also heard concerns about the role of Health Commission Wales, which is responsible for determining specialist services and access to specialist services. Those concerns have also been recognised by the Welsh Assembly Government, who are conducting an inquiry into that body. As the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) said yesterday at Welsh questions, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign has expressed its concerns about difficulties in securing access to treatment for individuals for services
based in England. We must recognise that our system of health care is not separate from that in England and that we have a devolved system. We must develop working protocols to facilitate access to health care on the basis of need, when such care is best delivered across the border. Sometimes such protocols will be complex, but it will not be impossible.
We must also address the issue of a postcode lottery within the NHS. That involves more than Wales having different policies from England, because different primary care trusts in England have different policies. We need a policy across our national health service that the prescription of drugs for serious conditions and the treatment of serious conditions should be determined on a UK-wide basis, and such a policy should be agreed by the Labour party in all parts of the United Kingdom.
Another policy area also requires a UK-wide approach. The issue was apparent in the previous Parliament, and it will be much discussed in the years to come. At present, however, this is the calm before the storm. In 2009, the UK Government are committed to reviewing the impact of the Higher Education Act 2004, which introduced variable tuition fees for England and devolved higher education funding to Wales. I opposed the measure at the time, because I am against variable tuition fees and because the higher education system in Wales is too small to operate without regard to the system in England. That is the matter on which I fundamentally disagreed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath.
The system of student finance in the United Kingdom is hugely complex. In fact, it is more accurate to say that we have three separate systems for Wales, for England and for Scotland. For a student from Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government will pay the difference between the basic tuition fee and the increased fee permitted under the Higher Education Act 2004. It is therefore cheaper for a student from Wales to attend a university in Wales than one in England. I object to this policy in principle. It limits student choice, and it discourages students from choosing a course on the basis of which university and course is best for them. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) indicating from a sedentary position that he is in favour of limiting the access of students from Wales to universities in England and Scotland? If so, that is interesting. I believe, on the contrary, that education is about broadening the mind, not narrowing it.
Devolution of higher education funding to Wales was based on a false premise. Interestingly, it was repeated by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) in evidence he recently gave to the Justice Committeehe was discussing tuition fees, although he was referring to Scotland at the time. The false premise is that it is possible to have separate higher education systems in the different nations of the United Kingdom. The right hon. and learned Gentleman offered the following example. He said that Scottish Members voted in the tuition fees debate and the Bill was carried only because of their votes, and he maintained that they were not affected by the introduction of that legislation relating to England. That is simply not correct, as what happens to the university sector in England is of profound consequence to the university sector in Scotlandthat is currently a matter of great debate in Scotland. Equally, there is great concern within the higher education sector
in Wales that it will receive less finance in future because of the funding system in Wales and the fact that its funding might not be the same as that provided in England.
In 2009, the review to be instituted under the assurances given when the Higher Education Act 2004 was debated will begin. At that time, consideration will be given as to whether to raise the current cap of £3,000. If it is raisedlet us say, for arguments sake, to £5,000there will be a further shortfall in the funding for Welsh higher education institutions, which the Welsh Assembly Government will need to fill if they are to maintain their policy. That is the train that is coming down the tracks but which everyone is ignoring at present. It is an issue of profound consequence not only to the higher education sector, but to Wales as a country and to the future of Wales. As we have heard, it is important that education and training is at the heart of what Wales will be about over the next few years, because if it is not we will be unable to compete with the developing economies in the rest of the world.
Mark Pritchard: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this might provide as many opportunities as challenges? He will know that Harper Adams university college in my constituencyan agricultural universitydraws in students from Wales and England. Is there not an opportunity for institutions such as Aberystwyth and Harper Adams to collaborate?
We need to begin to look at the issue of higher education funding in Wales. I believe we should have a British system of higher education funding, and that the correct system for Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland is the graduate tax. I have always favoured that, as I believe that students should make a contribution to their later wealth, that that should be paid at a time when they can afford it, and that it should be linked to their income when they are earning and not to the course they pursue. The graduate tax is a solution that would enhance access to education and links within the United Kingdom, and it would be a British policy of which we could be proud. When we approach the review in 2009, we should put the proposal on the table because higher education institutions in Wales need to know and feel secure about their future funding. They have big investment decisions to make. If they are to base their future position on planned investment, the issue will need to be addressed soon.
I should like to say a word about the Conservative position on cross-border services. I know that the hon. Member for Clwyd, West has been vocal about the delivery of such services. I intervened on the Leader of the Opposition during the Queens Speech debate to ask whether he supported the principle of disallowing Members from Wales and Scotland from voting on what he described as English laws. He replied:
We support having English votes for English laws, so that when purely English matters are discussed in the House it is Members of Parliament sitting for English seats who have the decisive say.[ Official Report, 6 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 18.]
There has been a roaring silence from the Conservative party in Wales on this matter. Conservatives will be even more silent in representing their constituents if they disallow themselves from asking questions in this place about constituents who are treated in hospitals in England such as the Broadgreen, the Christie, and the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt.
The fallacious nature of the Conservatives argument is that there is such a thing as an English-only law. There are no English-only laws in relation to the national health service or higher education. In the United Kingdom, we have an integrated relationship with our neighbouring countries, and it is vital that that relationship is governed well by studied, intelligent links between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Such a structure will deliver good public services for our constituents, and only the Labour party will deliver those services.
Mr. Dai Davies (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind): I am pleased to be able to make a contribution to this debate on behalf of my constituents. I thank the Secretary of State for the work that he has done for Wales in general and for higher and further education in my constituency, and for the time that he has spent in our local college of knowledge.
We have heard about the importance of education and training. I hope everyone agrees that although previously our area relied primarily on two industriescoal and steelthe training provided through the steel industry was and is second to none. There is much to be learned and gained from examining the apprenticeship and production training structure in the plants at Port Talbot and Llanwern in particular, and Trostre, and the training methods used.
The first issue I want to raise is local government funding. We have heard that there are strains on local government, given reductions in some of the finances available. I thank the Secretary of State for writing to me recently on the Barnett formula. Although I accept that significant sums have been poured into Wales, I ask hon. Members to examine a report issued by The Alliance in December. The Alliance is a group of local government representatives backed by the Labour Back-Bench group on regeneration. The report shows that although there has been an improvement in some areas, the gap between those who have the most and those who have the least is the same as it was eight or 10 years ago.
The two areas that feature highly in the report are Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, so it is important to review the Barnett formula. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I urge the Government to take part in that review, alongside the Welsh Assembly Government. I have copies of the report, if anyone wishes to obtain one.
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