Previous Section Index Home Page

26 Feb 2009 : Column 417

The first priority must be to help families and businesses in the short term. We would like taxes to be cut for savers and pensioners, a bold and straightforward national loan guarantee scheme to get credit flowing, a reduction in employment costs for small businesses, tax breaks for new jobs and a six-month delay in VAT bills to help small businesses with their cash flow. We believe that such practical measures could help our beleaguered economy.

The “Real help now” list, which the Secretary of State produced with the Assembly Government, sets out various measures and schemes that the Government have established. Of course, the Secretary of State also referred to his summits. However, the documents and the meetings, although they are well intentioned and establish a plan, do not appear to save many jobs or halt business closures at the moment. Today, the Government are putting many more billions of pounds into our banking system, and that is hard news for businesses that are closing and those whose jobs are threatened in Wales.

As has been said time and again, a credit crunch can be truly tackled only by addressing the problems of credit and getting money flowing to the business front, instead of the current sclerotic position, whereby nothing moves to help businesses. A bold loan guarantee scheme, such as that suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), would be welcomed throughout the country. While we tinker at the edge of the problems with so many of the schemes in “Real help now”, large sums go into the banking system, and the bankers appear to sit back in relative comfort, without apologising for their part in our economy’s downfall.

David T.C. Davies: Will my hon. Friend recommend an early-day motion, which I tabled and many Labour Members have supported? It suggests that the directors of banks that have received large amounts of public money should publish their expenses in the same way as Members of Parliament, given that they now live off public money.

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend is well known for his innovative early-day motions and other matters, but individual Members are responsible for appending their names to early-day motions. I would not presume to tell others what to do, but, if the mood takes them, I suggest that they look closely at that early-day motion because it probably has some merit.

I would be interested to know—I am pleased that the Secretary of State said that he would get back to me—how many businesses the proposals have helped; how many extra jobs they have created in each of the past three months in which they have been operating; how many people have been diverted from the unemployment register into work; and how many jobs have been saved. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I am cynical, but I believe that, at this stage, few have been saved. Unless we quantify those items of help, we will not understand how we can start to bolster and improve our economy, save the jobs that we can and create a climate for future employment.

Mr. Hain: The hon. Lady mentioned Conservative policy on banking. Has she read the letters page in today’s Financial Times? Tom Brown, senior credit executive
26 Feb 2009 : Column 418
at Norddeutsche Landesbank, finds it especially disconcerting that the shadow Chancellor is revealed as a man who does not have

or how banks work. If the hon. Lady is taking advice from the shadow Chancellor, surely those comments are devastating.

Mrs. Gillan: The right hon. Gentleman obviously has more time on his hands than I have. What with preparing for the debate, for a television programme on which we will both appear later today and my private Member’s Bill on autism, I have not had time to scan the papers. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman remembers the remarks that some foreign politicians made about Labour Front Benchers, which I am too much of a lady to repeat.

After prioritising help and removing the blocks on lending, I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that we have a duty to look long term to ensure that Wales can emerge from the recession with the tools to flourish and prosper. To do that, we must make some major fundamental strategic plans rather than going for quick fixes or cheap headlines.

Wales has fantastic natural assets and an enthusiastic and committed work force, as we all know. We must make the most of our assets and transform Wales into a country to which people can flock once again to do business and take their well-earned holidays. I want to consider some matters to which we need to give genuine attention to give Wales that competitive edge.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan: I will, although I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make a contribution later. He usually intervenes and leaves.

Lembit Öpik: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s generosity and I shall try not to storm out in a fit of pique.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the fees that the receivers and administrators charge when a company closes are stupendous? They can be up to £760 an hour for an individual member of a company’s work force. Does she agree that one of the problems that arise when a company shuts is that a significant proportion of the assets, which the staff would reasonably like to go towards their pensions and paying their debts, go to the receivers?

Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman does not need my endorsement of his opinion on accountants’ fees for dealing with bankruptcies or receiverships—he has made the point himself. He will know, however, that there is an awful lot of such business, so those firms will be making good profits.

I want to deal with those things that will give Wales a competitive edge when the country emerges from recession, as it will. As the Secretary of State knows, we should have such a debate between Westminster and Cardiff bay, because it is essential for the health and welfare of the Welsh economy that we co-operate at both ends of the legislative spectrum, as it were. We need to prepare Wales for the upturn.

26 Feb 2009 : Column 419

Let me deal first with transport. If Wales is to attract further investment, whether domestic or overseas, businesses must not feel isolated from other parts of Wales and the UK or from Europe or beyond. The journey from north to south Wales is still a great undertaking. The journey from Bangor to Cardiff by rail still takes more than four hours, which is almost an hour longer than it takes from Bangor to London. Although we should acknowledge the obvious geographical constraints, we must have long-term plans to increase accessibility to and from Wales and within Wales.

With increased line speed, the rail freight network along the M4 corridor could carry more volume if more goods came in through Welsh ports. The ports deserve support. I am particularly concerned—perhaps the Minister could deal with this when he winds up—not only by the Government’s decision to recalculate, and thus effectively to raise, port taxes, but that this should be done retrospectively. That will place an added burden on a crucial part of the Welsh economy. Our road, rail, maritime and air links must all be maintained and enhanced to provide those valuable links to the worldwide market.

As geography makes travel within Wales more arduous, it is vital that modern technology and infrastructure should help to compensate. Broadband coverage and speed need some attention, as I am sure the Secretary of State knows. At present we do not have 100 per cent. coverage, and the prominent “not spots” in mid-Wales effectively isolate those rural communities, in terms of modern business potential. The Government recently said that they wanted every home to have access to broadband at 2 megabytes a second at least by 2012. However, with average connection speeds of 2.9 megabytes a second in parts of Wales already and with technology being developed with much greater speeds in mind, we need to set our sights higher to give us the competitive edge. That will be crucial in Wales if we are to attract inward investment and stimulate business development in areas such as rural mid-Wales. I understand that the Secretary of State has responsibility for digital inclusion, so I hope that he will be able to give Wales the edge in speed and infrastructure that would help us to secure our future businesses and give us those first-class electronic links.

Energy is another thing that we must consider. I welcome the Aberthaw announcement today. The strategy is critical in terms of both security and its impact on the local economy and the environment. The power station at Milford Haven is welcome. I have sung the praises of the liquefied natural gas pipeline linking Milford Haven on many occasions. That pipeline was delivered on time and on budget, and I am still so proud of it as a piece of British engineering, because it will contribute hugely to our energy security.

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady take this opportunity to endorse the view expressed by the Leader of the Opposition the week before last that we should have an open mind on the prospect of a Severn tidal barrage?

Mrs. Gillan: I will come to that in just a second. Before I do so, let me say that we need an energy strategy that reflects Wales’s potential, that will include looking at the short list of options for the Severn
26 Feb 2009 : Column 420
barrage that have been announced. Any barrage, as we all know, will have positive and negative effects in respect of energy production and environmental impact. We need a rapid evaluation process, because there is no doubt about the potential. We have been talking about the barrage for an awfully long time without finding out exactly what should be done to capture renewables through the resources provided by the River Severn.

Mr. Roger Williams: The LNG pipeline might have been an engineering success but it has caused considerable environmental damage. Does she agree that when licences are awarded for large infrastructure projects, the environmental consequences should be much more at the forefront of the concerns of Government agencies?

Mrs. Gillan: No, I do not agree. I have flown along the pipeline and have met and talked to the chief engineer. I was exceedingly impressed by the amount of repair work and by the care that was taken with the environment. There were some absolutely stunning pieces of engineering in and around rivers and other areas of sensitivity. Some heavy negotiations had to be undertaken with a large number of landowners before the pipeline could extend across its chosen route. I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that anyone going anywhere near the pipeline cannot see it in many places. I therefore do not agree with the hon. Gentleman to that extent, but I have to say that no project should go ahead without an attempt to minimise its environmental impacts in every possible way. If Wales is to remain competitive, we must have a strategic energy policy.

Mr. Crabb: My hon. Friend responded very well to the point made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). She is exactly right that, yes, there was disruption when such a large and significant piece of engineering was put in place, but the quality of the reinstatement has been absolutely fantastic. I speak with experience, because the pipeline passes just beneath my back garden.

Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful for that intervention.

Adam Price: The pipeline also goes through my constituency, so I know that it has caused a scar across the length and breadth of Wales. There was a lack of democratic accountability for it, and some of the hon. Lady’s English colleagues were instrumental in trying to oppose the plan. Is not the crucial point that although it may have improved energy security in the UK, most of the gas is not even available to customers in Wales? Should not energy decisions in Wales be made for the benefit of Wales, which was not the case with the LNG pipeline?

Mrs. Gillan: I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman reveals his isolationist credentials. I cannot agree with him at all. First, pipelines work both ways. Secondly, Wales is part of the United Kingdom, and if we pursue the hon. Gentleman’s insular “little Wales” attitude in today’s world, we will simply isolate the country from the rest of the world.

David T.C. Davies: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is making a very important point. Does she agree that if we followed the logic of the hon. Member for
26 Feb 2009 : Column 421
Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), we would have no pipelines anywhere in the world to supply oil or gas across different nations?

Mrs. Gillan: I would have to differ from my hon. Friend in that I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was exhibiting any logic—logic of any worthwhile status anyway!

The Secretary of State knows that I think we need to secure future nuclear generation at Wylfa. It is not only a vital element of the UK’s energy production, but is of huge importance to the economy and jobs in north Wales. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about this debate in his concluding speech.

Tourism is another element that we need to consider. In recent years, there has been a huge shift towards employment in tourism. It makes up 3.3 per cent. of the economic value added in Wales. The industry employs, directly or indirectly, nearly 80,000 people, and £1 in every £10 spent in the transport and retail sectors in Wales is spent by visitors. It is a key area, but our share of both UK and international tourism fell in 2007, which cost the Welsh economy an estimated £267 million.

With environmental awareness and pressure on family budgets increasing, there is a clear opportunity for our Welsh tourist industry. This year is the 60th anniversary of the legislation that enabled the creation of our parks. Why travel abroad when our fantastic natural assets—our coastline, forests, lakes, mountains, terrific national parks and our warm welcome—could attract visitors who will be persuaded to return year after year, even as the financial situation improves? We really need to capitalise on those assets; we require a robust tourism marketing strategy to attract visitors now and maintain their numbers in future.

Albert Owen: I hope to catch Mr. Deputy Speaker’s eye and speak on the Wylfa issue a little later, but on tourism, given the economic crisis and the weakness of the pound, is there not an opportunity to encourage people from European countries, particularly the Republic of Ireland, to come to Wales over Easter? The hon. Lady talks about a robust policy; should not Visit Wales capitalise on that, and show what good value for money the United Kingdom and Wales are at this time?

Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman and I could appear in a commercial for Wales on that front. We should be taking that message across Europe. What with the Ryder cup, the Olympics coming to the United Kingdom, and our rugby team, it is important that we sell Wales everywhere. We do not want the benefits to be felt only in and around the millennium stadium, the venues involved in the Ashes, or the golf course for the Ryder cup. We want the benefits to spread throughout Wales, but unless we have a comprehensive strategy, that will not happen. People will come to Wales, spend in a little, closed area, and then disappear again. We need a comprehensive strategy. A Welsh Tourism Alliance report last year recommended that liaison between the tourism industry and the Welsh Assembly Government be dramatically improved. It is only through co-ordinated action that we can ensure that adequate support is given to that vital industry at this vital time.

26 Feb 2009 : Column 422

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): My hon. Friend will know that the vast bulk of tourism to mid-Wales goes through Shrewsbury. On the A5-A49 roundabout, which is called Dobbies’ island, huge delays are caused by caravans going to Wales on bank holidays and at peak times in the summer. I hope that when we are in government, before too long, she will work with me to ensure that there is investment in that roundabout to improve the flow of traffic to Wales.

Mrs. Gillan: My hon. Friend makes a good point on behalf of his constituency but I give him an assurance that, while I hold this post, whether in government or opposition, I will always work in the interests of Wales. That is at the forefront of my mind.

To prepare for an economic recovery, we must address the matter of higher education in Wales. First, it seems incomprehensible that, at a time when thousands of people are retraining, or trying to prepare themselves to enter a difficult jobs market for the first time, there are plans to slash the further education budgets in Wales by £3 million. I ask the Under-Secretary to refer to the issue in his wind-up. Again, it is a devolved matter, but in view of the economic circumstances, I think that we in this House can show concern.

As we all know, Welsh universities are some of the best in the world, and are an essential tool in building up Wales for the future. In recent years, however, the funding gap has become a great problem—there is a £61 million funding gap between English and Welsh universities—and there is now significant pressure on facilities. As the universities try to compensate with increased numbers, there is the possibility as the student-teacher ratio becomes increasingly less favourable of diminishing educational standards. I am therefore concerned about the issue.

Secondly, I am concerned about the portability of qualifications, an issue on which the Welsh Affairs Committee has just reported. It is absolutely vital that any qualifications gained in Wales, particularly vocational qualifications obtained in-house, are transferable and recognised outside Wales, as any failure in that regard will severely damage the prospects of attracting international businesses, which will want to recruit staff who can use their qualifications in other parts of the United Kingdom and internationally in Europe.

Thirdly, we need to ensure that we have the necessary skills base in Wales to attract business, particularly in the light of the growth of the high-tech industries and the decline of the manufacturing sector. If we are to do that, it is essential for us to take account of the needs of industry by forging much closer links with business leaders in all sectors across Wales.

In areas such as aerospace we are a world leader in our skill and technology base, but we cannot take those areas for granted. GE Healthcare is a world leader, but we have lost invaluable skilled jobs from its factory in Wales. We need to ensure that we create the right conditions for key industries to thrive. I want to see evidence of clear strategies to attract and maintain the businesses of the future: scientific and industrial strategies, almost like the old foresight strategy of a few years ago, which the Minister may remember. That includes securing the delivery of the St. Athan project, which has been along a very bumpy road.

Next Section Index Home Page