Previous Section Index Home Page

Back in 2002, BT was claiming that thanks to the upgrading of exchanges by 2005 there would be 100 per cent. potential access to broadband in Wales. That has not happened because achieving that is about not only upgrading the exchanges, but improving the lines from exchanges to houses. Far too many houses in rural Wales are forced to have shared lines—a digital access carrier system that prevents them from accessing broadband. There is an important question that needs
28 Feb 2008 : Column 1334
to be addressed: if true economic revitalisation is to come to hard-to-reach, peripheral areas such as mine, broadband will be part of the solution, and there is serious work to do to make sure that those parts of Wales can access such technology.

Finally, let me say a few words about fuel prices. Last week, I spoke to two major hauliers in my constituency. It has become unfashionable in this place to speak up in defence of the haulage industry when there is so much emphasis on climate change, but we need to speak up for it. Road haulage is not going to go away, but British haulage companies could go away, to be replaced by foreign competitors who are able to buy fuel with significantly lower rates of duty attached. The last time I was at Cardiff West service station, it looked like a lorry park for Willi Betz as there were so many lorries from Germany there. There is an increasing number of foreign lorries and haulage operators on Welsh roads.

Welsh haulage companies are finding it increasingly hard to compete in what is a very difficult marketplace. One of the reasons why it is difficult is the huge increase in fuel costs. Let me make another plea to the Secretary of State: when he discusses potential changes in the Budget with his Cabinet colleagues, will he caution against the extra 2p increase in fuel duty in April? Welsh hauliers need that like they need a hole in the head at this time. There is a good case for holding off from that increase in duty.

5.29 pm

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): This has been a typically stimulating, diverse and wide-ranging St. David’s day debate. We have heard about matters as diverse as the Llanelli flooding forum and the fascinating-sounding Wikideddfu website, which I assure the House I shall log on to the instant this debate is over.

The debate was predictably dominated by devolution and the delivery of public services. Those issues were encapsulated in the Secretary of State’s remark that the system for conferring devolution upon the Welsh Assembly is complicated, but the importance is not in the process but in the services delivered by it. Everyone in the House would echo that—some, perhaps, more loudly than others.

It was a pleasure to see the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) in the Chamber again, and I add my welcome to him. He will perhaps be surprised to hear that I cannot adopt my usual abrasive style when responding to his remarks, because I agreed with a great many of them. He rightly said that it is necessary that Wales should grow the private sector, mentioning that he wished it to account for 55 per cent. of Welsh GDP. The Welsh economy’s reliance on the public sector over the years has been marked. It is therefore strange that the Welsh Assembly Government, in fulfilling their obligations on the Welsh economy, decided to abolish the Welsh Development Agency, which was a paragon in attracting inward investment to Wales, and absorb it into the mechanics of the Welsh Assembly Government.

The right hon. Gentleman was also right to say that Wales cannot expect to be a low-wage economy, because we simply cannot compete with the far east on labour
28 Feb 2008 : Column 1335
costs—the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) echoed the fact that Wales needs high-tech, high quality jobs. To that extent, the right hon. Member for Neath was right to stress the importance of universities. Those of us on the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs who visited China last autumn saw how its universities sector is an integral part of the Chinese economy’s development. We could learn much from that. He will be surprised to hear it, but he and I are ad idem on a great many matters this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) made an interesting speech in which he referred to the need for “watertight” devolution in order to withstand an imminent Conservative Government. The suggestion appeared to be that the Liberal Democrats wish powers to be stockpiled in Cardiff bay to prepare for the day when the evil Tories take over once again. He also uttered the memorable remark, which will be entered in the big boy’s book of Liberal Democrat quotations, “I am all for making the present system work, but I am also all for changing it.” Only a Liberal Democrat could utter that remark with a straight face.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire also referred to the need to review the Barnett formula. At that stage, an interesting internal debate took place between him and his colleagues, the hon. Members for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), about how that could best be achieved. We did not intrude too much on their private grief.

Typically, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) made an interesting contribution. As we have heard, he is Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee. As a member of that Committee, I value his chairmanship and I pay tribute to his hard work over the past months, particularly given the extra work imposed on the Committee by the process of scrutinising legislative competence orders. That is an important function, but we are going through a learning curve. He said as much when he remarked that, like the French revolution, it was too early to tell how it was progressing—I think that is what he said. The learning curve is a steep one and we have not yet negotiated it fully. The first legislative competence order was a difficult process, and parliamentarians were heavily criticised by certain members of the Welsh Assembly Government for not nodding it through. I do not believe that it is any part of the function of parliamentarians to rubber stamp legislative competence orders, and I suspect that the Secretary of State and I are at one on that. It is necessary that LCOs receive proper scrutiny from this place, but they are only one of 13 methods so far identified of conferring competence on the Welsh Assembly.

The other major weapon that is used to confer competence is the framework power contained in UK-wide bills. In that respect, I wish to draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the troubling experience of the Planning Bill. It now contains Welsh framework powers, but they were not in the Bill when it was first introduced or on Second Reading. In fact, they did not appear until amendments were tabled towards the end of the Committee stage, which ran to 18 sittings. Those powers, therefore, had less than half an hour’s scrutiny in Committee and I am sure that everyone would agree that that is not
28 Feb 2008 : Column 1336
acceptable. I entreat the Secretary of State to consider that and see whether the process can be improved in the future.

We then heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) who made a wide-ranging speech, covering such matters as the local authority funding formula, the health service in his constituency and policing. He spoke with some authority as not only a member of the Home Affairs Committee, but a special constable—and an assiduous special constable at that.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) referred to the concerns of his constituency and fuel poverty. He said that fuel poverty was likely to increase and suggested that there should be no surcharge on prepayment meters. He called, possibly controversially, for a top-sliced levy on the excess profits of energy companies. No doubt the Secretary of State will consider that and refer the matter to his Cabinet colleagues.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) also made a wide-ranging speech and was assiduous in making contributions to the debate throughout the afternoon. He referred to his childhood in Wales and to his experience as a Marches MP. He also mentioned the importance of tourism as an integral part of the Welsh economy. Indeed, only this week, the Wales Tourism Alliance held a reception in the House. British tourism week is also fast approaching. It is perhaps unfortunate that the Welsh Assembly Government decided in their wisdom to absorb the Wales tourist board into the apparatus of government, so that we now have VisitWales. We also have VisitBritain, which is operated by the same people who operate EnjoyEngland. The Wales Tourism Alliance suggested that there was a conflict of interest between VisitWales and VisitBritain, and perhaps that matter could be revisited. [ Laughter. ]

John Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jones: I do not have the time, but I am sure that it was going to be a good joke.

The right hon. Member for Islwyn gave the impression of not being a wholehearted supporter of devolution, but perhaps I do him an injustice. I agreed with him entirely when he stressed the Britishness of the people of Wales. I am sure that almost every hon. Member would agree that we are entirely comfortable with the concept of being both British and Welsh or, if one prefers, Welsh and British. It does not really matter in which order one puts them; it is very much the same thing. Possibly there are a couple of exceptions in the Chamber, but that is their private grief. He also said that we should not be doing too much navel-gazing about constitutional matters in Wales, and that we need to invest in upskilling. He is, of course, entirely right. He ended with dire warnings about the threats posed by separatism to the integrity of the United Kingdom.

Then—talking of separatism—we heard from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who accused the right hon. Member for Islwyn of possibly talking Wales down, but who then made a bleak and gloomy speech about the woes facing Wales. However, he did make a perfectly valid point about post office closures. He is right that particularly in rural areas, the post office is the focal point of the community. It is perhaps surprising that we heard only
28 Feb 2008 : Column 1337
today that Cabinet members are presiding over the closure process while pleading at a domestic level for the survival of post offices in their own constituencies.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) made a speech in which he referred to the delivery of cross-border services. He is entirely right that in north Wales we depend heavily on cross-border services, particularly medical services. I echo what he says—we rely on the services of such important institutions as the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt hospital in Oswestry, Alder Hey children’s hospital, the Walton centre in Fazakerley, the Clatterbridge centre, the Christie hospital and so on—but I remind him gently, as I did in my intervention, that the concerns about Walton were generated by remarks made by the Labour Health Minister in the Welsh Assembly. Perhaps, as he has such influence, he could have a gentle word with her and point out that the concerns have not gone away entirely.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) made a speech in which he referred to the concerns of his constituency, and he mentioned incapacity benefit and expressed anxiety about the Government’s approach to it. He also banged the drum for the south Wales valleys and said that they had great tourism potential. The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) made a speech in which he referred to his constituency and the exciting pioneering work done by Welsh researchers in biotechnology. He also mentioned his concerns about drugs and drug policy. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) spoke about her childhood in Wales and the regeneration of Cardiff, which we all welcome. However, she sounded a cautionary note when she referred to social problems that she had observed and the need for stronger policing. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) discussed the important development of the military training academy at St. Athan and the opportunities that it would afford for the local economy. He has campaigned for that development for some years.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) referred to his interesting website, Wikideddfu, and spoke of the need for a new Welsh Language Act. We in the Conservative party yield to no one in our support for the Welsh language—it was that distinguished Welsh Conservative, Lord Roberts of Conway, who steered the Welsh Language Act 1993 through Parliament—but I must say despite that fact that we must be careful that any further developments in Welsh language legislation do not have an impact on business or amount to non-tariff barriers to private enterprise.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) made an interesting and erudite speech about climate change and flooding problems, referring to the important work of the Llanelli flooding forum. Finally, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) echoed the words of the right hon. Member for Islwyn on the dangers of separatism and spoke of the challenges to the Welsh economy, the blight of economic inactivity and the need to improve infrastructure, particularly in his constituency.

We have had an interesting, wide-ranging debate, illustrating not only the important issues facing the people of Wales, but the diversity of the interests of those who represent them. It is an occasion on which all of us, of whatever party, can celebrate our Welshness. For Saturday, I wish everybody dydd gwyl Ddewi da.

28 Feb 2008 : Column 1338
5.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Huw Irranca-Davies): It gives me great pleasure to speak as a Front Bencher in the Wales day debate for the first time. It is a great privilege to be a Welsh Member of Parliament, and an enormous privilege to address the hon. Members present today.

There has been much talk of the St. David’s day event held earlier today in the chapel of St. Mary Undercroft. The preface of the notes for the event mentions St. David. He followed the Egyptian desert monks’ rule, which had a strong emphasis on hard work, abstinence from alcohol and refraining from unnecessary speech. There has certainly been no unnecessary speech today, there has been no alcohol in the Chamber, and there has been a lot of hard work. This has been a temperate, well-considered and well-informed debate. As our discussions have demonstrated, there is an enormous amount going on in Wales to celebrate. These are challenging but interesting times, and Wales is in an excellent position to weather the times ahead.

Partnerships are the key. The Government, working alongside the Welsh Assembly Government—and local government, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said—have put in place 1,700 more teachers and 5,700 more school support staff than there were in 1998. There are 500 more consultants and over 8,000 more qualified nurses than in 1997, and 129,000 more people in employment in Wales than there were in 1997. I am not complacent, but it was refreshing that Members from all parts of the Chamber recognised today that many good things are going on in Wales.

I shall try to do justice, in a very short time, to all hon. Members who spoke, so I ask hon. Members to bear with me, and I apologise if I miss out any points. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was the first to speak, and he did so eloquently. He paid tribute, as did others, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) and the many kinds of work that he has done in government. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also touched on the St. David’s day event. At one point, it looked as though the debate was turning into “A Question of Sport”, as we talked about the Olympics and the Ryder cup among other things, but it was very enjoyable.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) talked about the important role of servicemen and woman, and there is wholehearted agreement on that point across the House. She also talked about support for the defence training academy. I assure her that the Wales Office and the Welsh Assembly Government fully support moving ahead with that proposal. She also talked about a new chapter in the devolution process—something that we find exciting and challenging—and challenges for the Wales Office. To echo sentiments expressed today, our Department, like Wales, is “small but clever”.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and others touched on the theme of the full scrutiny of legislation. We will never be in the business of rubber-stamping any legislation that comes along. We are always open to improving and reviewing how we carry out that scrutiny, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is keen to do so. We have to recognise where we are in the devolution settlement,
28 Feb 2008 : Column 1339
and the good measures that we have brought forward, including pre-briefings with Welsh Assembly Government and Wales Office Ministers, Public Bill Committee pre-scrutiny and evidence sessions, and the provision of ample time in Committee to discuss, through the usual channels, Welsh MPs sitting on Committees for Bills in which there are framework powers.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham raised the issue of Welsh identity. As many others have said, I am content to say that I am Welsh, British and European; that is sufficient. I do not agonise over it at all, and I do not think that Members need do so. The hon. Lady mentioned the Welsh-language paper, Y Byd . The Welsh Assembly Government announced on 5 February that it will provide £600,000 in the next three years to fulfil the commitment in the “One Wales” document. That is in addition to the £173,000 currently being spent by the Welsh Assembly Government, through the Welsh Books Council, to support all Welsh-language newspapers and magazines. We will see what comes forward as a result of that.

In his excellent contribution, my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath rightly recognised the importance of Labour’s investment in the public sector in Wales, and challenged the private sector to grow through ambition and with support from Government for competitiveness and innovation. He spoke about new “Merthyrs” for this century, competing not on cost, but on high skills, innovation, investment in research and development, the buy-in from the university sector, the environmental industries, and internationalism. His speech reflected the determination of my right hon. Friend and of the Government to tackle the legacy of economic inactivity, a theme taken up by many other speakers.

My right hon. Friend spoke about how much we have done to raise employment levels, and what we still have to do to help people who can work back into work to release the dynamism in the Welsh economy. It was an excellent foray from the Labour Benches and a demonstration of his continuing political and intellectual intent and ability to drive Wales forward. He rightly praised, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), the excellent work of Neath Port Talbot council, and called for a can-do Wales. That came from a can-do Member of the House.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State not being passionate about devolution, being a devo-realist, and his credentials. What my right hon. Friend is passionate about is delivering for the people of Wales. I agree with the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire about building up the partnership. Part of that is respecting the devolution settlement, and deepening, not broadening it. That is crucial.

Next Section Index Home Page