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5.1 pm

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I am grateful to be called to speak in the debate. I was unable to be here at the start as I was seeing some of the people who contributed to our very successful St. David’s day service this morning. I would like to take this opportunity to thank those people, including the venerable Meurig Llwyd Williams, the archdeacon of Bangor, who preached, the noted actor, Mr. John Griffith, and those from Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain and Ysgol Gymraeg Cwm Gwyddon who sang.

I would also like to mention the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who is unfortunately not in his place. He sometimes has a fierce reputation among nationalists, but he did his very best to ensure that the Welsh school from Islwyn, Ysgol Gymraeg Cwm Gwyddon, contributed this morning.

Mr. Llwyd: And very well, too.

Hywel Williams: Indeed. I think that everyone enjoyed the service.

My subject this afternoon is the need for new Welsh language legislation. The Welsh Assembly Government’s vision is to create a truly bilingual Wales, as set out in the iaith pawb—the national action plan for a bilingual Wales—from February 2003. What they mean by a truly bilingual country is a country in which people can choose to live their lives through the medium of either Welsh or English, or both, and in which the presence of the two languages is a source of pride and strength to us all. That was illustrated this morning in the service.

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That vision presents a significant challenge to the Assembly and to us here in Westminster. It might seem strange to those hon. Members who sometimes have a peculiar view of the policies of my party, but I attach great importance to this place passing legislation for Wales, in the medium term, for practical reasons. If, for example, we wanted to change the status of the Welsh Language Board—a necessary step, in my view—we should have to change the Welsh Language Act 1993, and that can only be done here. Clearly, there is a role for this place.

It will be a significant challenge to enable everyone who wishes to do so to live their life through the medium of Welsh or English as fully as possible. The intentions outlined in the iaith pawb represent a step in the right direction, but I believe that much more will have to be done in order for the Welsh Assembly Government to succeed in their aim. I need only to refer to my experiences in my constituency surgeries to illustrate that point. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has had similar experiences. I regularly see constituents who have in some way or another not been allowed to use Welsh or even, unfortunately, faced abuse for using it. It might have been mild abuse, but it was abuse none the less. They have had those experiences in their dealings with private businesses and—significantly, given that the long-established provisions of the 1993 Act apply to the public sector—they have also had problems with the public sector.

People are also having problems using Welsh with third parties. Some hon. Members will know that the provisions of 1993 Act apply to third parties and private companies acting on behalf of public bodies. It remains problematic, as the third parties are not carrying out the language schemes approved by the Welsh Language Board for public bodies. In that respect, the 1993 Act is not working properly.

All that is quite apart from the denial of workers’ rights to use Welsh in the workplace, as we saw unfortunately in the Thomas Cook affair last year. There is a long history to this problem and my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy will remember the Brewer Spinks case in the 1960s. Those misunderstandings in the private sector can be resolved, as in the Thomas Cook case, very amicably, when the nature of the problem is appreciated and senior managers get involved.

There remains a fair way to go. When public bodies are launching new documents or a new service, I frequently write to them, asking simply “Where is the Welsh version?”. All too often, I am met by embarrassment and excuses, although that is a good deal better than it used to be. When I first started to take an interest in language issues, I would have been met by hostility rather than embarrassment and excuses. I do not want to whinge too much, as there is often no need to write to ask for the Welsh version nowadays, as in many cases it turns up automatically. That is progress. I am not saying that we need to change everything today or tomorrow; we are talking about a process that will probably last many, many years.

Mrs. Gillan: I think that the hon. Gentleman may be pleased to hear about another piece of progress. Tomorrow, in Llandudno, the very exciting Welsh Conservative
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conference will be opening—and for the first time we will be using a Welsh simultaneous translation service. It is at great cost, but we are looking forward to it. I hope that he will join me in welcoming that piece of progress from the party that gave this country the Welsh Language Act 1993.

Hywel Williams: I certainly welcome that. It is an innovation that other parties could follow. It should not be left to individuals such as my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and me to press public bodies to follow language schemes. We need more progress in that respect and we need more effective policy implementation, a change in attitudes and a change in education, encouragement and support. We also need further legislation. All that will be necessary to achieve the Assembly’s vision.

Some hon. Members may recall my private Member’s Bill last year—the Bilingual Juries (Wales) Bill, which was one small step in the right direction. I hope that we will hear a positive announcement in due course.

Mr. Crabb: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Hywel Williams: In view of the time constraints, no.

I would like to draw hon. Members’ attention to a report that I commissioned about two years ago, which has just been published. It is called, “Creu Cymru Gwbl Ddwyieithog”, “Creating an Entirely Bilingual Wales”. It was written by Dr. Kathryn Jones of Cwmni Iaith—a group of entirely independent academics, so there is no party political content in the report. As hon. Members who have looked at it will know, it is a hefty piece of work, comprising some 38 recommendations as to ways forward. I have distributed the report widely and I hope that its welcome by the Welsh Language Board and the Welsh Assembly Government will be replicated elsewhere. I hope that we will have a proper debate about it.

Finally, let me add another detail. It is all very well commissioning large reports from experts. I was crossing the maes—the square—in Caernarfon late one night, returning from the office. As I saw all those people out there enjoying themselves, I wondered how one could reach them. It is all very well for experts and politicians to discuss this, but what about ordinary people? I struck on the idea of what I have called “Wikideddfu”—wiki law-making, which is a user-generated site where people can add their thoughts on any matter of legislation, although it is about language at the moment. It is an edited site. If, for example, the Secretary of State were to put down his thoughts I could edit them, and he could re-edit them into their original form. After three months or so, we will see what the people have said. If I may make a modest claim, I believe it is the first site of its kind in the world.

As those who are familiar with Wikipedia will know, entries are generated by users and we trust people to correct any inaccuracies. If someone writes that two and two are five, someone else will change “five” to “four”, and if “five” is reinserted, it will be changed to “four” again. That is the principle, at any rate.

I hope that we shall have a continual conversation on Wikideddfu over the next three months. I commend it to Members, and to anyone else in Wales who wants to contribute to this interesting debate.

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Mr. Llwyd: The Secretary of State looks enthused.

Hywel Williams: He does indeed.

5.10 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Thank you for giving me the opportunity to contribute, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for not being present earlier. I was serving on the Committee considering the Education and Skills Bill, and I reminded the Committee that there are a number of ways in which the National Assembly can exercise its powers. For instance, it can use framework powers to introduce measures similar to Bills such as the Education and Skills Bill in Wales. It is entirely appropriate for the Assembly to have that option, and I know that many people in Wales will look to it eagerly to determine how the issues that the Committee has debated at such length will be dealt with there. The Assembly can apply its framework powers to a number of Bills, and I hope it will exercise its right to determine the appropriate form in which they can exist in Wales.

We are very concerned about climate change at the moment, and we look forward to the Climate Change Bill, which will be introduced shortly. It contains a section on adaptation and mitigation, a subject with which some people may not be familiar. There are many different projections about the effect of climate change, but it is generally agreed that weather patterns are likely to become much more unpredictable, making events such as flooding ever more likely. There was a salutary warning to all of us last summer, when we saw pictures of those devastating floods on our television screens. I for one began to think more seriously about how we could cope with such events in our own areas.

I know that the Environment Agency in Wales has used the most up-to-date techniques to produce new maps pinpointing with great accuracy the areas that are likely to be affected by flooding, be it river or coastal flooding. A fortnight ago I visited the agency in Cross Hands to see what it was doing to identify areas at risk and to improve flood defences. Its staff explained the flood alert system, which can send messages to the telephones of people living in high-risk areas to warn them of possible flooding. I shall meet agency representatives again next week at the Llanelli flooding forum, a body that I have set up, to discuss how we can do more to increase awareness of flooding, and of the Environment Agency’s system for dealing with it.

Last summer we also saw frightening pictures of water encroaching on power substations and flooding ambulance stations. That brought home vividly the need to consider the relocation of such installations to areas that will remain free of flooding. Some of them are reserved matters—for instance, a police headquarters is the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government—while others, such as ambulance stations, are the responsibility of the Assembly Government, and organisations such as the utilities are in the private sector. This is a clear example of the need for joined-up thinking, and I call on the Secretary of State to raise awareness of flood risk and ensure that there are plans to allow the safeguarding or even the relocation of strategic structures.

We also need to make sure that we plan future development with our eyes clearly opened to the flooding risks. Now that the Environment Agency is a statutory consultee in planning matters, it gives detailed advice
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on planning issues to local councils and to the Assembly Government. Currently, however, water companies are not statutory consultees, which is why, when I spoke on Second Reading of the Planning Bill, I emphasised to the Minister the crucial role of companies such as Dwr Cymru, Welsh Water, in assessing whether our existing infrastructure could cope with increased load from new developments. Clearly, where the infrastructure cannot cope, that can greatly increase the risk of flooding from river water and sea water, as well as foul water flooding.

I was delighted that the Minister replied that it was the intention that water companies should become statutory consultees. I very much hope that when the Assembly uses its powers to deal with the measures for Wales arising from the Planning Bill, Dwr Cymru will become a statutory consultee for planning matters in Wales.

I wish to refer to some important constituency matters that are relevant to the whole of Wales. We have a long tradition of heavy industry in my area, as do many areas of south Wales and some parts of the north. It is extremely important that we make absolutely certain that we provide the right sort of environment for these companies, which are facing fierce global competition. I call on the Secretary of State to do everything in his power to ensure that we create a level playing field and a welcoming environment that gives companies the confidence to invest further. We have seen a dramatic fall in unemployment in Llanelli over the past 10 years, but we cannot be complacent. We know that every company must plan and think ahead and we want investment to come to us, and not go elsewhere.

I would like to emphasise the importance of creating the right environment to encourage investment. Corus in my constituency has up-to-date equipment and, at the home of the first canned beer on this side of the Atlantic, we now have a sophisticated plant producing all manner of packaging. We also have the company Schaefler, which makes car components. It has taken the skills agenda on board and done a tremendous amount of upskilling of its work force. By doing that, it has been able to diversify and compete against its sister factories in other countries to win contracts for Wales. I would like to emphasise the need for us to develop the skills agenda in Wales because it is quite clearly the way forward for such companies.

I would also like to mention a small company called Picton Sports, which has been able to make wonderful logos on t-shirts and jumpers for sports organisations locally. But, most excitingly, it is now exporting to Taiwan, a real achievement. This is an example of a new industry and we need to be absolutely certain that we do not help such firms only in the initial phases, when they are struggling to establish themselves. We must help them to expand and cope with some of the complications that they may encounter when they try to export across the world. These must be our priorities for ensuring the strength of the Welsh economy in the future.

5.19 pm

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): I am very pleased to provide the final Back-Bench contribution to this afternoon’s St. David’s day debate,
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which has been interesting. I was particularly impressed with the speech made by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies). It is fantastic that we have people like him in this House—slightly different MPs who are free from the complexities of carrying a party label and can be a pure and authentic voice for their communities. That was demonstrated in his strong contribution.

I was also impressed by the speech made by my neighbour in west Wales, the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger), who is no longer in his place. He brought his expertise to bear, particularly in his analysis of the impact of the increase in fuel prices on our community in west Wales in terms of the increase in fuel poverty and the impact on the private sector.

For me, the man of the match is the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who made a powerful speech warning of the dangers of separatism. No matter where one stands in the devolution debate, we must take that message on board. There is no question in my mind but that separatism forms the beating heart of much of the current rhetoric from Cardiff bay, but it will provide the glide path to poverty and decline for Wales. We are stronger as part of a strong United Kingdom. That does not mean that I am against devolution—I am not a Conservative party member who calls for the abolition of the Welsh Assembly—but I sign up to the warning expressed by the right hon. Member for Islwyn this afternoon about the dangers of separatism for Wales in the long term.

I want to discuss two challenges for the Welsh economy. One of them has already been discussed in some detail— namely, the skills of the work force in Wales. I want to discuss what needs to happen to upskill the work force to prepare us for the challenges of globalisation so that Wales can benefit from the opportunities offered by globalisation and the new kinds of jobs that will be available in post-industrial countries, such as Wales.

The fall in unemployment in Wales in recent years is a good thing. Conservative Members do not deny the long-term fall in structural unemployment in Wales in the past 10 to 15 years, which is welcome. However, we must recognise the stubbornly high level of people claiming incapacity benefit and the problem of worklessness. Office for National Statistics figures suggest that in the past 12 months the proportion of people who are economically inactive in Wales has edged up to almost 25 per cent.—almost 25 per cent. of the work force in Wales is economically inactive, when we near as damn it have full employment in this country.

As for young people who are not in education, employment or training, I cannot understand how, at a time when more and more jobs are being created in both the private and public sectors, a growing pool of young people in this country, and particularly in Wales, are effectively doing nothing useful with their lives. I do not understand that situation, which is one of the challenges of our age that we must tackle. Now that he has returned to the Front Bench at the Wales Office, I encourage the new Secretary of State to discuss the issue in detail with his colleagues at Cardiff bay and here at Westminster to focus efforts on tackling that hard-core of young people who indulge in antisocial
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behaviour and criminality, which have been mentioned this afternoon. We need to direct resources to tackle that problem.

The other challenge for the economy concerns infrastructure. I disagree with the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire, who said that investment has been going into infrastructure in Wales. Yes, investment has gone into certain places, but we have not seen high quality, new infrastructure, which is needed throughout the Principality. Every year, the Institute of Civil Engineers produces a state of the nation report that analyses progress on improving infrastructure up and down the country. Every year, it identifies critical weaknesses in infrastructure in Wales. If I can be parochial for a moment, I shall point out that one critical weakness in Welsh infrastructure is the A40, which runs through my constituency and connects the east-west corridor through Wales to Ireland via the ferry service from Fishguard to Rosslare. The A40 is part of the strategic trans-European road network. People from Ireland have told me that the worst section of the strategic trans-European route is the section of the A40 that runs through Pembrokeshire.

There has for many years been a campaign drawing attention to the need to dual the A40—to upgrade that bit of road infrastructure. Unfortunately, despite pleas from the private sector and all the principal employers in Pembrokeshire for that piece of road to be dualled, the Welsh Assembly still closes its ears. It is not interested in discussing that. I ask the new Secretary of State to raise the issue with his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly. It forms an important part of the infrastructure of Wales, linking not only to the ferry port in Fishguard but to Milford Haven, which is now one of the UK’s most important oil and gas ports with the two new liquefied natural gas terminals being built there, and to one of the most exciting new tourism projects in the UK: the Bluestone project in the constituency of the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire. That will create 600 jobs, and it will bring new people to Wales, which will place further burdens on the road infrastructure, so there is a need to improve it.

Let me turn from physical infrastructure to the need for virtual infrastructure, and specifically broadband. I know we have been around the houses on this matter over the years, but there is still a problem in rural Wales with lack of access to broadband. The Government said at the start of the week that they needed to look at their role in the roll-out of super high-speed broadband throughout the UK, but parts of Wales are still stuck trying to get access even to simple, slow broadband. British Telecom has received significant sums of public money over the past 10 years—tens of millions of pounds from the taxpayer—to enable it to upgrade exchanges and to help in rolling out broadband in rural areas. In Wales, it has received more than £5 million.

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