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Of course, there have been difficulties with jobs, but can anyone honestly say that the number of jobs that have been created over the past decade is not infinitely better than what happened the decade before that? We should bear in mind what has happened in my constituency
over a quarter of a century. When I came into the House in 1987, people relied for their income on the steel and coal industries-heavy industry. My constituency suffered the loss of some 10,000 to 15,000 jobs in a 10-to-15-year period, but all of them were replaced. The unemployment rate before this recession hit us was lower than since records began. Although all those jobs were lost, jobs in the retail sector and the new industries, such as technology, engineering and the food industry, all came to my constituency, and our young men and women were employed in greater numbers than ever. Had we not created those jobs and had the Conservatives been in power, this recession would have hit Wales much harder. Wales has been transformed because of Labour government, and our constituencies have been transformed. That is the message that we must put forward when we fight the election in days to come.
The other thing that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State rightly emphasised is that the difference between this recession and the recessions we had before 1997 is that the Government, in conjunction with the Assembly Government and local authorities, have done something about it. Let me give just a few examples from my constituency. Following the Government tax deferral policy, 310 businesses in Torfaen deferred tax amounting to £6 million. The redundancy action scheme in Torfaen has helped 320 people, and seven companies that were in considerable difficulty have been helped by the ProAct scheme, which is widely admired beyond the shores of our country.
The enormous contribution that the Labour Government have made in the past decade and what is on offer from the Conservatives reflect the stark choice to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred. If we thought for one second that-even in this recession-there are not companies in our constituencies that are being imaginative, greatly innovative and aspirational, we would be wrong. I shall give just one example. LS Design in Cwmbran in my constituency is a small high-tech company that employs local people in high-quality jobs. It is very much involved with General Dynamics, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn played a great role in bringing to our south Wales valleys and his constituency. It would be significant for LS Design if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales could tell my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary of the importance-in terms not only of the defence of our nation, but of the defence of jobs in Wales-of the future rapid effect system programme. LS Design is linked to General Dynamics. Were the FRES programme to be awarded to the latter, as I hope it will be, the former company's picture would be much brighter. I understand that it could employ double the number of people it currently employs, because it would have doubled the turnover. That is one example of how we can ensure that investment comes to companies in our Welsh constituencies.
If the FRES programme goes ahead, there will be a significant impact in that it will ensure that our troops in Afghanistan will be better protected than they are at the moment. In that regard, I should like to mention Trooper James Prosser of The Royal Welsh Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan last year. His mother, Sarah Adams, has been a doughty champion and fighter for the rights of our troops there, particularly Welsh
troops. I am glad that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to the fact that our Welsh troops in Afghanistan are fighting hard. They deserve the support they get from both sides of the House.
Before I conclude, I should like to speak about the M4. The M4 is the lifeline of south Wales and in many respects, the south of England. In the past dozen or more years, we have spent a great deal of money on our transport systems and infrastructure in Wales and England. However, post-devolution, I sometimes doubt the wisdom of the co-ordination between the UK Department for Transport and the Welsh Department for the Economy and Transport when it comes to dealing with our motorways.
To certain extent, it could be argued that the M4 has ceased to be a motorway, because at least 20 miles of it-a very important stretch and an economic lifeline for south Wales-between Newport and London is now subject to major roadworks and 50 mph limits. Indeed, the whole motorway structure of our first city, Cardiff, and of Newport, is now almost under construction. I wonder about the co-ordination between the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government on that. Travel is costly to business and difficult for the economy in these times. It now takes me at least an hour longer to drive to London than it did 21 years ago. It is very important that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State liaises with the Secretary of State for Transport to see what can be done.
Lembit Öpik: The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have not so much as a dual carriageway in Montgomeryshire at the moment, and that the problems are compounded by the apparent obsession with 50 mph speed limits in open areas. Does he agree that when the Secretary of State for Wales considers the issue of the M4, it might be useful if we can finally have a more strategic approach to connecting north, south and mid-Wales by road? That is decades overdue.
Mr. Murphy: That is a very important aspiration. However, given that the great bulk of the population of south Wales is affected by those restrictions, there is a greater impact on local commerce and business. That point needs to be addressed.
That was a minor gripe compared with the benefits that the people whom I represent-who I hope will re-elect me-have accrued as a consequence of having a compassionate and caring Government for the past 12 years. I believe that the only answer to the economic ills caused by the banking recession is investment and renewal. Given that the Conservatives are promising an age of austerity, such investment and renewal is conceivable only with the election of the Labour Government who work with a Labour-led Assembly.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): As always, it is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), to whom I pay tribute for the friendliness and support he offered in his two tenures as Secretary of State for Wales. He visited my constituency at the depth of the current recession to meet small business owners who were struggling and gave them assistance and encouragement.
I am pleased to say that all the small businesses that attended that meeting are still in business, which is a tribute not only to the people who run those businesses and those who work in them, but to the support that they received. One of those businesses is struggling at the moment, but its customers are very keen that it continues to operate, and we are hopeful that that will be the case.
It is a pleasure to speak in this St. David's day debate. As it is the last one before the general election, I pay tribute to all right hon. and hon. Members from Wales. I have been able to agree with some of them-but not others-from time to time, but I know that all their energies and enthusiasm are directed towards the well-being of Wales. I thank them, because we are able to get together and share solutions, and shared solutions are the best way to make progress.
I also thank the shadow Secretary of State for her tribute to the young Welsh men and women who have served in our forces abroad, not only in the Welsh regiments and the Welsh Guards, but in the special forces-especially those from my constituency-who are sometimes forgotten because of the difficult nature of the work that they undertake. Despite my constituency being land-locked, some young people have also served in the Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This is probably the last occasion before the election on which we will concentrate on Welsh affairs, other than Welsh questions, which I anticipate will take place before then, although we cannot be entirely sure of that. Although I generally enjoy contributions from the Secretary of State and his shadow, I thought that today they gave rather dispiriting performances which showed that a general election is probably overdue. The arguments have been made so many times, and as I go around my constituency and the rest of Wales, I get the impression that people have made their minds up and want a general election as soon as possible. A new mandate is needed to rejuvenate and freshen this place. I shall talk about several disappointments, not to try to cast blame or aspersions, but in the hope that when we have a new Parliament and Government some of these issues will be revisited and a better conclusion will be reached for the people of Wales.
In the past, the Barnett formula was considered boring and of little importance, but it is now becoming a much more important political consideration. However, after 13 years of Labour Government in Westminster and almost 11 in Cardiff, the Welsh population are really struggling for finance to address the needs of the nation. The concept of the Barnett squeeze is well understood now, and although I appreciate that it will probably be of less importance given the likelihood of lower public expenditure, that is no reason to leave it unaddressed. When I look at statistics on health needs in Wales, it is clear that a formula that is based on population and not on need is unfair not only to Wales but to other regions across the UK. The case that I make for a reform of the Barnett formula is not a selfish one on behalf of Wales, but for the whole of the UK and the needs of the people.
I am concerned, for instance, that the figures appear to show that spending on education in Wales is £500 less per pupil than in England. The figures for educational
attainment in Wales are not very encouraging and can be put down to the lower investment in Wales than in England.
I am sure that we all welcome the unanimous vote in the Welsh Assembly on the referendum on additional powers. I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to set a date for that referendum before the dissolution of Parliament. I listened to the Conservative point of view on this matter, but it was not clear whether that procedure would be put in place under a Conservative Government. We did not hear any confirmation, but it is strange that the Conservatives in Westminster and in the Assembly oppose the housing legislative competence order, given that they voted unanimously in favour of the referendum. The leader of the Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly is not the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, who is in favour of a transfer of further powers, including powers over housing. It seems hardly logical to oppose the transfer of powers through the LCO, but to support the transfer of powers as a whole through the referendum.
Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the opposition of the Conservatives on the Select Committee was founded on evidence, which both the Under-Secretary and the Welsh deputy Housing Minister confirmed, that there is no policy objective to abolish the right to buy. That being the case, it was wholly illogical to apply for powers that include the power to abolish the right to buy.
Mr. Hain: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that any proper reading of the legislative competence order shows that it would transfer powers to the Welsh Assembly Government to undertake the huge task of improving the range of affordable and available housing in Wales and dealing with homelessness. That is why it has the support of Shelter Cymru and other organisations. There is no abolition of the right to buy. There is the option of a mechanism to address the lack of affordable rural housing, but it would be used in very restricted circumstances in rural areas such as Pembrokeshire and Gwynedd. But the fundamental question is why the Conservatives are opposing powers being taken by the Assembly in an area-housing-where it already has responsibility, but wants a little more flexibility to be able to carry out the tasks before it.
Mr. Williams: I will read it, but it is incredible to me-when I became a Member of Parliament in 2001, I did not think that housing would be an especially big issue in my area-that almost a third of the people who come to my surgeries do so because they have housing difficulties. If the Welsh Assembly had more powers to address those issues in my constituency-and others-it would be very welcome.
Lembit Öpik: I agree with my hon. Friend whose constituency is very similar to mine in geography and social profile. Does he agree that we in Powys really need these powers to be devolved? If the Conservatives carry out their threat to try to resist that, it will run counter to everything that he and I have been trying to do to address social housing problems and homelessness in our constituencies.
Mr. Williams: My hon. Friend makes a very good point-it is the point that I am trying to make-but there is also a point about how illogical it is to try to obstruct this progress when it seems that most parties in Wales would like further powers, which would include those powers anyway.
Mr. Hain: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being generous. It would be interesting to hear from the Conservatives, on the record, whether they will veto the housing legislative competence order in the wash-up negotiations, because they have the power to do that- [Interruption.] Yes, says the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones). I think that I heard a mutter from a sedentary position.
Mr. Williams: From the Liberal Democrat Benches, I certainly cannot answer on behalf of the Conservative party-we will see what happens in the wash-up, which will be viewed with great interest by Members of the House and people living in Wales.
Employment rates in Wales are the third issue that I want to touch on. We have argued about whether 8.7 per cent. unemployment is high, higher or whatever, but my point is that an unemployed person is 100 per cent. unemployed. Sometimes, when we talk about statistics, we tend not to address the individual circumstances that desperately affect people's lives. Anything that we and the Government can do to improve employment is obviously hugely important. Yet we have had enormous closures, sometimes in traditional industries, such as the steel industry in Wales, and the signs for employment and manufacturing in Wales-I have seen figures on manufacturing employment in Wales-are not encouraging.
On some of the rural issues, we have campaigned long and hard for a rural fuel duty rebate. That has been taken up by other countries in the European Union, and it is within the Government's competence and power to address. Indeed, Italy, France and Greece have gone down that route. We recently had a debate on that issue in Westminster Hall, which was led more by Scottish Members than by Welsh Members, but it is an issue about which both areas feel strongly, and anything that the Secretary of State or Minister can do to intervene with the Treasury would be well supported.
In general, rural areas experience reductions in services from, for instance, post offices. There are now fewer than 1,000 post offices in Wales, which I think is a fairly iconic number, and more than 300 have closed recently. At the moment, I am trying to find a way to keep a post office open in Abercraf, in my constituency-I am working with the miners' welfare hall, so that we can
move it there. We desperately need flexibility within the Post Office to ensure that those novel and innovative solutions can be achieved.
To return to housing, it is not surprising that there is a rural exodus among the Welsh youth, given that housing prices are so high. As a result of young people leaving villages, schools, doctors' surgeries and other essential services are closing. It is a Catch-22 situation.
The Liberal Democrats look forward to the taxation system being reformed to make it much more progressive and less regressive. I am sure that many hon. Members are dealing with individuals who are trying to get back into employment but who are finding that the loss of benefits and the kicking-in of income tax at very low rates preclude some of them from re-entering employment, because they would be financially worse off as a result. Our party's proposals for a personal allowance of £10,000 and taxing people who claim their income in terms of capital gains would be a way towards a progressive taxation system.
Rural broadband provision is another area in which Wales lags behind the rest of the UK, and certainly many businesses in my constituency, and across vast swathes of Wales, are single-person operations requiring access to modern communications and technology.
I shall turn quickly to agriculture. The Government's agreement to set up an ombudsman-it has the support of other parties, too-is a huge step forward for an agricultural industry that has been hampered by being uncompetitive when supplying the main supermarkets. I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) will soon be taking forward his private Member's Bill, and I hope to be there to support him. I also hope that the Government can find a way to support it and to work with him to bring a really effective ombudsman and regulatory system to an area that has been difficult in the past.
Finally, I turn to a personal, constituency issue. Daniel Morgan was murdered in London nearly 23 years ago; he was found with an axe in his head in a pub car park. His mother lives in my constituency. When Daniel was murdered, she was rung at 4 o'clock in the morning and told that her son was dead, but the policeperson making the phone call was unable to give any other details, except to say that she would have to come to London to find them out. That was at 4 o'clock in the morning. She was living on her own and did not know how to get to London. I am pleased to say that she and her other son, Alistair, have ensured that Daniel's case has never stopped being looked at, and I, and my predecessor, Richard Livsey, have been taking it forward for 15 years or more.
Four people are now in custody, awaiting trial for Daniel Morgan's murder, and we look forward to Mrs. Hullsman, his mother, having at least some sense of closure and justice. However, the sad thing is that Mrs. Hullsman, who is now over 80-she was 59 when she heard that her son had been murdered-thought that the trial was going to take place last September, but it is now going to take place this September. The delay and agony caused to the family by that delay has been horrific, and if something can be done to speed up the judicial system, so that closure can be given to the family, it would be fantastic. Mrs. Hullsman, her son Alistair and I will keep campaigning for that, because it is an injustice that should be put right.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, we are coming to the end of a Parliament. It has not been a happy occasion for Parliament as a whole, but I look forward to a new Parliament that will be reinvigorated and that will work for the interests of Wales.
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