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On the banks, how can anyone take the Tories seriously when they say that they will cut the deficit further and faster, now that they are planning practically to give away bank shares? Their deficit reduction plan is a total farce. As for shares in the banks, the public rightly demand that we should focus on getting back their money-the £70 billion that was handed to the banks by the Government. We were right to bail the banks out
because we had to save the banking system so that the recession did not become a prolonged depression. However, it should be obvious to everybody that any responsible Government who are really committed to cutting the deficit and getting those billions of pounds of public money back must not discount those shares but sell them at a time and in a way that will maximise their value to the taxpayer. The Conservatives have merely offered the people of Wales and the United Kingdom an irresponsible and costly political gimmick. By contrast, we have supported businesses and our intervention has avoided unemployment rising as high as many predicted it would. Unemployment in Wales has fallen slightly in the past two months, but we cannot be complacent; unemployment may rise again and every job loss is devastating for those concerned.
We know that young people across Wales have been hit particularly hard by the recession but we will not condemn a generation to unemployment like that in the 1980s and 1990s. To prevent another generation from being lost to work we have extended the young person's guarantee so that young people receive training and support after six, rather than 12, months, to ensure they have the necessary skills for permanent worthwhile employment. That said, youth unemployment in Wales is still a quarter lower than it was at the height of the early '90s, and long-term youth unemployment is nearly two thirds lower.
Alongside those measures, we are looking to the future. We are not cutting back, but are investing to promote growth in the new industries of the digital, low-carbon economy that my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) mentioned earlier. We have used the strategic investment fund in Wales to invest in a £44 million high-performance computing institute-a world-class facility to build a world-class Wales. By giving companies in Wales improved access to the latest IT and training, we can ensure that Welsh businesses are able to compete on a global stage alongside other world-leading innovators.
Faster growth means more people going back to work, thus cutting the costs of unemployment and cutting the deficit. If we had walked by on the other side, believing that unemployment was a price worth paying, then the deficit would be even greater and unemployment rates even higher. That is the reality of a Tory recession. We saw it in the 1980s and '90s-will they never learn?
That is why we celebrate, not apologise for, this 10th anniversary of Labour passing the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. It remains one of this Government's proudest achievements, having benefited millions of people. The latest increase in the national minimum wage has benefited over 50,000 workers in Wales alone.
Mr. Hain: The hon. Lady nods her head in satisfaction. Then, wages of as little as £1.20 an hour were common and legal in our constituencies. That is just £1.38 an hour in today's prices. So when she tries to say that she cares about families and people struggling to make ends meet, we can imagine what it would be like to live on £1.38 an hour today, as might have been the case without the minimum wage.
Mrs. Gillan: The right hon. Gentleman knows that that sort of rhetoric is rather cheap, and that I do care about families and individuals. The minimum wage has certainly done a good job in places, but would not a minimum income have been better for families?
Mr. Hain: She certainly did not argue for that. Is she now saying that she was wrong on the minimum wage, just as she has been, and in her current policies continues to be, so wrong on so many other things? The Leader of the Opposition said that the minimum wage
"would send unemployment straight back up",
We also want to take Wales forward as part of a digital Britain. The Conservatives seem ready to cast aside any broadcaster that dares to compete with Rupert Murdoch. We say that sharing a fraction of the BBC's licence fee-and it is only a tiny fraction- is necessary to help make sure that we get diversity of television news and strengthen local and national media outlets across Wales. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham is muttering into her cups over there, but the Opposition are opposing our support for a new news outlet on Channel 3.
If the Conservatives get their way and refuse to back the pilots with the funding from the licence fee that we support, there is a real danger that Channel 3 will no longer have Welsh news, and that "Wales Tonight" and the other news programmes that it broadcasts will be lost. That funding is only a tiny fraction of the licence fee and, as I say, it is necessary to help make sure that we get diversity of television news and strengthen local and national media outlets across Wales. We want choice for the many and not, as the Opposition would prefer, profits for their rich friends.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I apologise for interrupting. I asked the nice man sitting on his left, who seems to have an advance copy of my right hon. Friend's speech, whether he was going to deal with governance. I got the impression that he was not, and I did not want to be disappointed about not intervening to ask about it.
As an English Member of Parliament I am very interested in governance, and hope that my right hon. Friend will address this issue. Ministers with primarily English portfolios have taken arbitrary decisions without consulting their opposite numbers in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. As Secretary of State for Wales, will he jealously press the Justice Secretary, who is the custodian of these matters, to ensure that that does not happen?
By way of example, and in conclusion, I refer to the arbitrary decision of the Secretary of State for Health to abrogate and tear up the reciprocal health agreements between the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey, without consulting the Health Ministers in Wales, Edinburgh or Northern Ireland.
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend has got me on that one. I always admire his energy as a parliamentarian, but this Government have been an enthusiastic devolver of power. We have devolved more powers than any other Government in our history, and of course we respect the rights of Wales, Scotland and Northern, as we do those of the islands that he mentioned.
I cannot for the life of me understand why the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham now opposes the 50p monthly levy on telephone line rentals to finance super-fast broadband everywhere in Wales. How can she justify all the "not spots" in Wales, and all the households and businesses there-such as those whose representatives the hon. Member for Ceredigion brought to see me yesterday-that are now unable to get broadband? How can she justify them falling even further behind while the rest of Britain forges ahead?
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): In response to the question about governance raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the Secretary of State rightly said that he has been an enthusiastic proponent of devolution. Will he tell the House when he intends to reply to the letter written to him by his colleague the First Minister for Wales?
Lembit Öpik: On broadband, I am heartened by the Government's apparent commitment to address "not spots". Many of my constituents live in such areas, so will he say when they can expect to be connected to broadband? At present, they can do that by satellite, but there are some technical limitations to what they can get by that means, which is also tremendously expensive. They will be very encouraged if they can get an assurance that the Government are truly committed to funding the arrival of broadband, especially in small towns and villages such as Darowen and Staylittle.
Mr. Hain: Indeed we are committed to that. It is precisely to address the future needs of the Welsh economy that the Government want businesses and residents in the small towns of the kind that he and many of us represent to have access to fast, high-quality broadband. We have proposed the levy of 50p a month on telephone line rentals to fund that. I cannot give a time scale, but I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman, especially if he lets my office know which specific areas he is talking about.
Mrs. Gillan: Many pensioners-perhaps especially those who live on their own-are not familiar with the iPhones and other mobile telephone technology that both the Secretary of State and indeed I have. Has he calculated how many of those pensioners will be paying this levy? How many business and call centres will pay it, and would it be better for them to relocate to other places?
Mr. Hain: What is the hon. Lady suggesting-that paying a UK-wide levy of only 50p extra a month should encourage residents and businesses to flee our shores wholesale? How would she address the issue? We get no policies from the Conservatives on these vital questions, whereas we have provided a practical and funded route to delivering universal broadband.
Mr. Hain: I can take my own mother as an example. She is a Welsh pensioner, and is quite happy to pay the rental. She is on broadband, and emails and texts almost obsessively. I suppose that she is an example of a modern pensioner in Wales, and I know that she is happy to be part of the broadband revolution that the Conservatives oppose.
Under Labour, the Welsh budget has more than doubled from under £7 billion in 1996-97 to nearly £16 billion in 2010-11-a bigger real terms rise than ever in Wales's history. The Welsh Assembly Government have opened nine new hospitals, and of course introduced free prescriptions. That policy is now under threat from the Tories, but it particularly benefits those people on low incomes or with chronic illnesses who may not have previously been eligible for free prescriptions under the complicated and outdated exemption system.
The Welsh Assembly Government have introduced free primary school breakfasts for more than 900 schools across Wales-also a policy under threat from the Tories. Free bus travel for the over-60s and concessionary rates for people with disabilities have also been hugely successful, with more than 600,000 people benefiting from free travel. That is also under threat from the Tories. In Westminster, we are passing laws to promote equality, tackle discrimination, help vulnerable people with their energy bills, grant equal treatment for agency workers and enshrine in law for the very first time our commitment to abolish child poverty. Those policies were all resisted by the Tories. That is the role of an active Government who care, and that is a programme for a Labour Government who help the many, not a Tory party that wants to help out only a tiny few.
People in Wales increasingly realise, when they add it all up, that they cannot afford to lose this Labour Government. The Tories would be a change that we in Wales cannot afford. Instead of proposing tax breaks for millionaires, we are protecting the most vulnerable. On average in 2009-10, as a result of our tax and benefit changes, pensioner households will be £1,500 a year better off than they would have been if the pre-1997 system had continued. On average, the poorest third of pensioner households will be £2,100 a year, or £41 a week, better off than they were under the 1997 system-due to the Government's tax and benefit changes.
Our winter fuel payment has risen from £10 under the Tories to £250 for the over-60s, rising to £400 for the over-80s. Again, they are policies offering vital support that could well be cut under the Tories' austerity programme. Evasive and unfair-that is the Tory attitude to Wales. The shadow Chancellor, through his pay freeze, would on average cut the pay of every nurse and teacher in Wales by about £300 per year-all at a time when those at the top would receive the biggest tax breaks. Under the Tories' initial proposal for the married couple's allowance, for example, the highest earners would receive
13 times as much of the benefit as someone at the other end of the income scale. As soon as that proposal came under scrutiny, the Tories buckled, being unable to explain how a mother who was suddenly widowed would become poorer under their married tax allowance policy. They are trying to make policy with a nod and a wink.
We will reduce the public deficit fairly by halving it within four years. We have always said that we will ensure that those with the broadest shoulders bear their fair share of the burden. Those words have been borne out by actions, such as our new 50 per cent. top rate of tax, a pay freeze for top civil service earners and a one-off tax on bankers' bonuses of £25,000 or more. All those measures have been opposed by the Tories. Instead, they are sticking to their plans to give the 3,000 very richest people an extra £200,000 each in inheritance tax cuts, while delivering savage public spending cuts and a pay freeze for public sector workers.
Mr. Crabb: The right hon. Gentleman sits in a Cabinet that approved a brutal cut of almost £1 billion to the higher education budget in England, meaning that many thousands of Welsh students who are hoping to study at English universities later this year will be told that they do not have a place. Indeed, they will probably go on the youth unemployment roll, so how does that benefit young people in Wales?
Mr. Hain: We have asked universities to make efficiency savings, and I do not think that "a brutal cut" is a phrase that any vice-chancellor recognises. Indeed, one Welsh vice-chancellor told me relatively recently that he thought that the measure could be easily absorbed without any of the consequences that the hon. Gentleman describes. Interestingly, the number of people applying to and getting into universities has been rising steadily, including over the past year.
We are in no doubt where the truth lies: the Tories would have an emergency Budget within weeks of entering power and leave Wales as the biggest casualty, with hard-working Welsh people fighting for their livelihoods. The Tories would make savage and swingeing cuts to the public services of Wales, creating a huge rise in unemployment and a collapse in businesses that supply the public sector.
So where else would those cuts fall? The Tories cannot deliver what they promise without slashing investment in Welsh schools and hospitals, Sure Start and large projects such as launch aid for the new Airbus planes at Deeside. Since 1997, and after years of decline in our public services, we have invested in our health service, schools, infrastructure and police force. People depend on those services being well funded and efficient, and in Wales there are almost 7,300 police officers-700 more than in March 1997.
Health spending in Wales has increased under Labour to more than £1,900 per person per year, and that is more than double the 1996-97 Tory figure. GP numbers have risen by 9 per cent. over the past decade, and nursing, midwifery and health visiting staff numbers
rose by one fifth. They are all Labour policies that deliver real help to people in Wales. Wales faces a stark choice between securing the economic recovery or wrecking it; building a fair society where everyone prospers or a divided society that favours a few; and protecting front-line services or a programme of savage cuts. That is the choice that people will face in a few weeks' time.
Our actions will not be painless, but nor will they be reckless. The recovery is coming now because of the action that this Government have taken. However, the recovery in Wales is still fragile, and Tory policies threaten it. Only Labour can secure the jobs and mortgages of people in Wales; the Tories would be a change that we in Wales cannot afford. The red team may be the underdogs, but the blue team are crumbling under pressure, and momentum is as important in rugby as it is in politics. We will keep going to the final whistle on polling day in order to save Wales from the disaster of a Tory Government.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): May I begin by paying tribute to our Welsh servicemen and women, who so bravely put their lives on the line for our country? I pay particular tribute to the Royal Welch Fusiliers, currently serving in Afghanistan; to the Welsh Guards, who have recently returned; and to all those Welshmen and women who are serving or have served in other regiments or services. All hon. Members know that we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, and it is right that we begin this St. David's day debate by remembering them.
This is the last St. David's day debate before the general election, as the Secretary of State made perfectly obvious, so may I take this opportunity to pay tribute, first, to the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), whom I had the pleasure of facing in this debate last year? I always found him to be most courteous in my dealings with him, and I am glad that he is offering himself up for re-election. I also express my best wishes to those hon. Members who have announced their retirement from the House at the general election. I begin with the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), who, sadly, is leaving us to go abroad- [ Interruption. ] It could be education, education, education, but I am sure that we will welcome him back to the House at some stage.
Although we have not shared political allegiances, I have been honoured to work with the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), the hon. Members for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) and for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), the right hon. Members for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the Father of the House, and the hon. Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams).
I pay tribute also to the hard work and dedication of the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis). He, as our Welsh Affairs Committee Chairman, has worked hard in the interests of Wales alongside dedicated Committee members and Clerks. A Committee member with whom I have been pleased to work over the past three years is my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones). No constituency could have been served better by a Member, and it is a pleasure to work with him as part of the Opposition's team Wales. We both hope to be re-elected, because we have great plans for Wales, and we hope to have the opportunity to put them into effect.
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