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25 Feb 2010 : Column 483

Our St. David's day debate once again takes place against a backdrop of turbulent economic times. Since last year 21,000 more people are unemployed in Wales, 10,000 are economically inactive, Welsh gross value added has declined further against the UK as a whole and the wage gap between Wales and the rest of the UK continues to increase. Before Labour Members think that I am talking Wales down, may I say that it would be hard to do so more eloquently than the Secretary of State? At our most recent Wales questions he said that Wales was wealthier than Rwanda, and, if any single comment has given us an insight into the Labour Government's complacency and paucity of ambition for Wales, it was that throwaway remark.

No, we will not talk Wales down. However, as we enter the run-up to the general election-this time, one that not even the Prime Minister can avoid-we need to take a long, hard look at Labour's legacy in Wales following its 13 years in power, particularly as the Secretary of State is so keen to bring history into all our debates. After more than a decade in charge, there can be no more excuses. Labour's desperate attempts to blame the Tories simply do not wash any more.

Given the struggling Welsh economy, the businesses and jobs that have been lost, the industries in decline and the lives that have been ruined, and given the waste of money and opportunity and the utter lack of long-term strategy, it is clear to every voter in Wales that we cannot afford five more years of Labour.

The economy, of course, will dominate the election. So many businesses have disappeared from the Welsh scene-Burberry, Hoover, Bosch, Indesit and David McLean, to name but a few. That has left an increasing imbalance between the private and public sectors. The latest figures show that just under a quarter of people working in Wales are employed in the public sector, and it has recently been reported that since 1998, 55 per cent. of new jobs have been either in, or wholly supported by, the public sector. As I remember from a speech that he made when taking his sojourn on the Back Benches, even the Secretary of State has admitted that the private sector in Wales is too small.

Labour, of course, protests that the recession is a global phenomenon; indeed, that is the Prime Minister's favourite phrase. But there can be little doubt that when the storm hit us, we were not best placed to weather it. Of all the major economies, we were one of the first to enter recession and the last to get out, behind France, Germany and Japan-indeed, behind any G20 country that we may care to name.

It is fair to say that the Government have lost control of the country's finances. National debt currently stands at £850 billion and is set to rise to the equivalent of £23,000 for every single man, woman and child in Wales. The blame for that appalling state of affairs can be laid only at Labour's door; after all, it has been in government for 13 years. Even the Governor of the Bank of England said that we went into the downturn with levels of debt that were too high, all because the then Chancellor-now the Prime Minister-failed to put aside anything in the good years, and borrowed as if there had been no tomorrow. The Prime Minister, who said that he had abolished boom and bust, certainly abolished boom-and left us bust.

It is clear that Labour has let Wales down. Even during periods of growth, Welsh gross value added per head continued to decline against that of the UK, from
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80.3 per cent. in 1997 to 74.3 per cent. in 2008, the worst performance of any UK region. Agricultural GVA has declined shockingly, by 68.1 per cent. since 1997, its contribution to the Welsh economy falling from 2.2 per cent. in '97 to less than 0.5 per cent. in 2007.

Manufacturing has stagnated under Labour. Between 1997 and 2007, its contribution to the Welsh economy tumbled from 27.6 to 17.9 per cent. Anglesey Aluminium closed while Labour dithered over energy policy, and 900 jobs have been just been lost at Bosch.

Albert Owen: There is a myth perpetuated by the Conservatives that that issue is to do uniquely with energy prices. The hon. Lady visited the Anglesey Aluminium plant. Does she not accept that the contract was being negotiated when energy prices were high? Those prices have now come down and aluminium prices have gone up. Had the company taken the bridging loan offered it by the Government, the jobs would have been sustained. Anglesey Aluminium took the commercial decision to cease production at Anglesey because it had operations overseas.

Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman fought hard for Anglesey Aluminium, but it is fair to say that the Government are the only shareholder in Wylfa, the nuclear power station. If the Government loan was not acceptable to the company, many more discussions could have been had at the time. I am so saddened by the loss of Anglesey Aluminium, particularly as I know that the materials that came out of the factory were excellent and included some of the rarer forms of ingot, including a unique ingot with a hole in the middle which could be extruded to make aluminium frames. The passing of that manufacturing is a great loss to Anglesey and the United Kingdom.

Mr. Hain: I share the hon. Lady's regret-deep regret, in my case-that Anglesey Aluminium closed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) knows better than anybody else, we worked tirelessly as a Government on the issue. We put a very generous offer to Rio Tinto and the other parent company in an attempt to save Anglesey Aluminium. We remain astonished that it was not accepted. I do not think anybody is suggesting that the Government did anything other than go to the furthest possible extent in trying to save the company.

Mrs. Gillan: I, too, met Rio Tinto representatives, and all I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that there was a lot of dithering at the beginning. Perhaps the offer was too little, too late, or it was not the right offer and was too late.

Nine hundred jobs are being lost at Bosch; that closure, I gather, has been on the cards for a year or more, but I understand that it took until last month for the Labour-Plaid Welsh Assembly Government to get around to holding talks with the company's management.

After 13 years, what is Labour's legacy?

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Is the hon. Lady aware of the expansion of private companies in my constituency? Last week, I visited Pelican Healthcare Ltd and Great Bear Healthcare Ltd, manufacturers of medicinal products, on the Llanishen trading estate. A vast amount of new building is going on; they were awaiting the arrival from Italy of machinery costing
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£1.5 million. There is also the big development at Fforest Farm and the development of GE Healthcare. The picture that she paints is not representative of what I see in my constituency.

Mrs. Gillan: I am absolutely delighted to hear that, particularly as GE Healthcare is headquartered in my constituency. I am thrilled to hear about the new jobs coming into the hon. Lady's constituency. Unlike the Secretary of State, I really am-

Albert Owen: You didn't mention the new jobs.

Mrs. Gillan: I have certainly read about them. However, I am also concerned about all those who have lost their jobs. Labour's record and legacy after 13 years in Wales is the loss of nearly 50,000 jobs since 1998. We need encouragement for the private sector and I thank the Secretary of State for joining me in supporting the proposed developments such as those at Holyhead and Fishguard, which could bring real benefits. Those ports are key employers in Anglesey and Pembrokeshire, and those developments could provide great opportunities for both areas, building on what I hope will be renewed nuclear generation at Wylfa and the big investments that we have seen in Pembrokeshire, such as the liquefied natural gas terminal.

One continuing success story in north Wales is, of course, Airbus. We are close to international women's day, which I understand the Secretary of State's Government are just about marking this year, and I particularly want to congratulate the new apprentice of the year, Beth Pickering, whom David Cameron and I met during our visit to Broughton last year. It is good to see another woman moving forward in the business world, particularly in manufacturing.

Wales, too, needs to move forward. I want businesses to grow, inward investment to increase, more people in Wales to work and our economy to be revitalised. A Conservative Government will offer the fresh approach and new direction that is needed. First, we will tackle the debt and set out clear plans to reduce the deficit. That is not an alternative to growth; it is essential to it.

Albert Owen: The hon. Lady made the important point that any future Conservative Government would help business. Is she suggesting that a Government of hers would have put in real cash to help Bosch and Anglesey Aluminium, or is she just having a go at the incumbent Governments here and in Cardiff?

Mrs. Gillan: I am not going to look backwards at hypothetical questions, because I have had to listen to nearly an hour of hypothetical rubbish from the Secretary of State. Most of the rubbish that he was spouting about what may or may not happen, and what Tory policy is, was from "Fantasy Island".

We have already outlined some of the steps we would take. We would freeze public sector pay for all but the lowest paid 1 million and cut the cost of Whitehall by a third. I see no volunteering for cutting at Whitehall from the Labour party. We would cap large public sector pensions. Yes, that would be tough, but Labour has made it tough, and someone has to take some tough
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decisions to regenerate our economy. We would concentrate benefits spending on the poorest and the most vulnerable, and we would tackle the jobs crisis with a comprehensive plan to help people into work.

Hand in hand with this plan are our proposals to support businesses. We would reduce the small company corporation tax rate to 20 per cent. and reduce the headline rate of corporation tax to 25 per cent., reduce the bureaucracy needed to register new companies, remove restrictions on people in social housing on starting up a business, and abolish for a year the tax on the first 10 jobs created by new businesses in the first two years of a Conservative Government.

However, if we are to build a strong and successful Welsh economy, we need not only to create an environment in which the private sector can flourish but to make improvements in the public sector.

Lembit Öpik: Earlier on, the hon. Lady said that she was against the minimum wage and in favour of a minimum income. Is that Conservative policy now?

Mrs. Gillan: If the hon. Gentleman had been paying attention, he would know that we were talking about events that happened more than 12 years ago.

We would give public sector workers the right to form employee-owned co-operatives, giving them responsibility for their own success, sharing the rewards of a more efficient public sector, and letting people take pride in the vital services they provide. That is something that the Secretary of State would not think of in a million years. The choice will be clear at the next election: five more years of Labour debt, bureaucracy and central control, or a new, energetic and revitalised agenda for our economy and for both the public and private sectors from the Conservatives.

Mr. Roger Williams: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan: I am going to make some progress.

The relationship between the Government in Whitehall and the Welsh Assembly Government is of paramount importance. Approaches in Whitehall differ from those in Cardiff, but it is crucial to the success of devolution, and to the success of Wales, that politicians understand the need to work together. As the First Minister recently acknowledged when appearing before the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, a relationship of mutual respect and good will is absolutely essential, and that works both ways.

It was obvious to me that the Secretary of State had an enormous hole in his speech. He spent most of his time attacking the Tories, but he could not give us any meaningful information about the referendum that the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr asked about. Does the Secretary of State want to intervene to tell me what his plans are for consultation and set out the timing for replying and acceding to the relevant parts of the Government of Wales Act 1998? He could then tell us the details of the consultation and when he expects to be in a position to send a response.

Mr. Hain: As I explained, I have placed the letters in the Library, and they are very clear that my officials will, under my instructions, make the necessary preparations requested by the First Minister.

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Mrs. Gillan: I have read those letters, and they are pretty thin-they say absolutely nothing. I am asking for a detailed timetable for the consultation on this. Is there one?

Mr. Hain: The hon. Lady knows what the Government of Wales Act stipulates, I assume, and my officials are working towards that timetable.

Mrs. Gillan: There we have it-answer came there none.

A Conservative Secretary of State for Wales would make herself, or himself, available to answer questions in the Assembly on a regular basis, and a Conservative Prime Minister would do the same. Of course, we would also look forward to welcoming any Welsh Assembly Government Ministers here, as we have in the past, to exchange views on matters affecting Wales. Our approach recognises that the devolutionary settlement is such that Cardiff and Whitehall cannot continue to operate in silos. The scandalous waste of public money over, for example, the Red Dragon hangar shows just how Labour has failed in this regard.

The choice at the next election will be between a party whose leader respects devolution, has visited Wales innumerable times, and wants co-operation in the interests of Welsh families, Welsh jobs and Welsh businesses, and a party whose leader has hardly come to Wales at all and thought so little of the country that he gave the portfolio to the Secretary of State as his job on the side.

Wales has a distinct character and distinct needs, but it is firmly part of the United Kingdom. More than 25 per cent. of the population of the whole of Great Britain live within 50 miles of the border between England and Wales, tens of millions of tonnes of freight are transported across it each year, and thousands of people cross one way or the other for work and pleasure every day. Policies of separatism such as those of Plaid Cymru wholly fail to recognise that and would only damage Wales and its economy further-and Labour are Plaid's partners in Cardiff.

Conservatives would offer a fresh approach from a leader to whom Wales is as important as every other part of the United Kingdom and a party that will put economic recovery, job creation and people's aspirations at the top of the agenda. The choice will be clear: five more years of Gordon Brown or the change Wales needs. Let us hope that when we meet for St. David's day debates in years to come, it is not on a tide of rising unemployment, increasing state interference and bureaucracy and economic misery, but against the background of a growing Welsh economy that is stable, resilient, optimistic and successful under a Conservative Government: a strong Wales in a strong United Kingdom. Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus for next Monday, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and diolch.

1.46 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): I have been trying to work out the first time that I spoke in a Welsh affairs debate. I think that it was 22 years ago, and obviously from the opposite side of this Chamber. I am grateful for, and echo, the comments of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) about those colleagues of ours-Welsh Members of Parliament-who are to leave us when the election is called. They include
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the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) and some of my right hon. and hon. Friends. We will be particularly saddened by the loss of my right hon. Friends the Members for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells), to whom this House, the Government and the people of Wales owe a great debt. I shall personally be very saddened by that.

As an aside, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the issue of the Isle of Man. In County Cavan this week, the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body met to discuss that matter, particularly with regard to the Minister for Health and Social Services in Wales. I have written to my right hon. Friend about this.

The world has, of course, changed. My own constituency has changed over the past couple of years, particularly in the past dozen to 18 months, because of the recession. I do not think that any Member of Parliament representing a Welsh constituency, or indeed a British constituency, could say otherwise. However, there is a world of difference between the arguments about why that recession has occurred. I do not believe for one second that the difficulties we face are the result of what a Labour Government have done between 1997 and now. Of course, there may be differences of view about how economic policy should have been structured, but the idea that the international and national banks did not cause the recession that we are now in will be central to the forthcoming general election. The central lie that is often told about the role of the banks needs to be addressed in the election campaign.

If I look at my constituency now, in 2010, compared with how I remember it in 1996-97, I see that it is a very different place, despite what has occurred over the past dozen to 18 months. I look, for example, at how our older people are treated compared with how they were treated in the years before 1997. I look at the ability of our older people to travel the length and breadth of Wales as a result of the Labour Welsh Assembly Government's introduction of the travelcard, which, happily, I now possess. The fact that older people are better off is just one example. There is also the winter fuel allowance and the help that the Government have brought in for those in Wales who were desperately poor. The life of a pensioner in the towns and villages in my constituency is infinitely better than it was 14 or 15 years ago.

We can also look at how our schools have flourished. It is not simply that we have more and better schools, and more teachers: our schools have grasped technology through the use of computers and the internet. My local education authority is leading the way in Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently went to Cwmbran and saw how the internet is used by our pupils. There has been a transformation in Welsh education.

There are more hospitals and more police than ever before. That transformation is a direct consequence of the actions of the Labour Government, the Assembly and Welsh local authorities.

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