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Two weeks ago, I spoke to a year 12 group at Ysgol Bro Gwaun in Fishguard as part of its Welsh baccalaureate studies. The students told me that in a previous class they had been addressed by a speaker from Swansea
university, who had given them a very sobering message indeed about how tough things will be, particularly this year and next year, for young people wanting to go to university, because of the cuts that have been visited on the higher education budget. The truth is that Welsh young people will have to fight harder than before; they will have to achieve higher grades than ever before to win places at university. Many hundreds, or thousands, of Welsh prospective students will find out later this year that they cannot pursue their desired course at university or that they have not got a place at a college or university of their choice. Many will instead find themselves adding to the youth unemployment statistics. The truth is that the higher education budget has been singled out for a massive cut already. The Secretary of State did not elaborate on that, but he is a member of the Government and Cabinet that made that decision three weeks ago. Almost £1 billion will be cut from the English higher education budget over the next three years, and that will have a direct impact on Welsh prospective students.
Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I wish to reinforce that point. The knock-on effect to which the hon. Gentleman refers means that the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, which is a part of Aberystwyth university, is having to comprehend the prospect of up to 70 job losses. That is a tragedy for not only the young people, but the associated local economy. This is a very serious issue.
Mr. Crabb: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, as ever. This Government are desperate to cling on to this bogus narrative that a re-elected Labour Government would mean continued spending and investment and that a Tory Government would mean savage and irresponsible cuts. That narrative is just not credible for two reasons. The first is that every serious commentator and analyst who examines the state of the public finances knows that cuts across the board will need to be made in the next few years-those cuts will be very severe for some Departments and will have a direct knock-on effect in Wales.
I shall now speak slightly parochially as the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, because the second reason why this message from the Government is not credible is because constituencies such as mine in rural west Wales have been living with Labour's cuts for the past 10 years. We know what cuts look like because we have been living with public service cuts.
Mr. Crabb: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's constituency is the only one in Wales that has been immune from the near total decimation of NHS dentistry that Wales has seen under a Labour Government. This Labour Government have destroyed NHS dentistry in rural Wales. More than 4,500 people in Pembrokeshire are waiting for an NHS dentist, and some of them have been waiting for three or four years.
The Labour Government have cut the rural post office network to ribbons in the past few years. Rural villages throughout west and north Wales have lost amenities and that has had a massive impact, particularly on the elderly who live in these communities. The near
total decimation of the rural tax office network in Wales has happened under this Labour Government. We have lost Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs office in Haverfordwest and, indeed, most tax offices in rural west and north Wales.
Mrs. Gillan: I remember visiting local employees of HMRC with my hon. Friend several years ago and complaining about those closures, because they have affected not only the people who used to work in those offices, but people who are desperately trying to pay their taxes. We should not underestimate the amount of pain that has been caused and we must remember that this was happening during the so-called good times under this Government.
Mr. Crabb: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The great paradox that people in my constituency do not understand is why, when public spending was being ramped up so rapidly, they did not see the benefit of it and instead saw cuts to important local services. If Labour wishes to bring its election campaign to west Wales to argue that a Labour Government would mean continued spending and a Tory Government would mean cuts, it will not get far with the people of Pembrokeshire. I say with no disrespect to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) that Labour faces the prospect of not having a Member west of Swansea after this coming election, because of what it has done to rural west Wales.
I conclude by making a few remarks about transport infrastructure. I have spoken before about the inadequate state of the road network connecting west Wales to the rest of the United Kingdom. The A40, which is the principal route running east-west through my constituency, forms part of the strategic European road network linking the west coast of Ireland with continental Europe, yet the people who use that road and make the long journeys-I am thinking of the lorry drivers to whom I have spoken-say that the very worst section of that continental route is the bit through Pembrokeshire. It is a single carriageway, it is overused and it is dangerous.
Pembrokeshire contains a quarter of the UK's remaining oil refineries, the liquefied natural gas plants that will provide up to 20 per cent. of the UK's gas supply, and two major ferry terminals, yet this pathetic single carriageway A40 goes through it. Labour in Westminster and Labour in the Assembly has been completely resistant to any argument put to it by the business community, Assembly Members, MPs or local authorities for improving, upgrading and dualling that section of road. I am sick and tired of seeing Labour Ministers make the journey down to my constituency to have their photographs taken at the new LNG sites, the oil refineries and the other developments in my constituency, and to praise those developments, given that they will not listen to the views of the management of these companies-the foreign investors who have pumped money into these projects-who say, "For goodness' sake, why can't we improve the transport infrastructure?" Part of the reason why is that as we now have the Welsh Assembly, a Cardiff-centric body is making the decisions about transport spending. Pembrokeshire and other parts of west Wales are a blind spot for the Welsh Assembly.
As it happens, I agree that the A40 should be upgraded. I argued that as a Welsh Transport Minister and I hope that it will be addressed when resources
allow, although for the life of me I cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman can think that under a Conservative Government the Welsh Assembly Government will have the resources necessary to upgrade roads, let alone those to west Wales. Since he paints such a dismal picture of life in Pembrokeshire, may I ask him why long-term unemployment in Preseli and south Pembrokeshire is 82 per cent. lower than it was when Labour came into power and why long-term youth unemployment is 67 per cent. lower? That is a sign of success, not dismal misery.
Mr. Crabb: It always has been. We have spoken before about the unemployment figures, and I welcome the drop in unemployment in my constituency. I grew up at a time when unemployment was a lot higher than it is now. I am the first to put my hand up and welcome the fall in unemployment, largely on the back of some big investments from the private sector. Let me make the point again. These people who are pumping the money in are American, Malaysian and French; they come from all over the world because they recognise the strategic importance of Milford Haven as an energy hub. They all say to me and to the chief executive of my local authority that we need better transport infrastructure. That is the message I want to leave with the Government, but I fear that we will need a change of Government to get any serious movement on the issue.
Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I am probably the only Member on the Government Benches seeking to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, in today's debate who, by deliberate decision, will be retiring at the coming general election and who will not be here at the next St. David's day debate. At the outset, may I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), the shadow Secretary of State and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for the kind things that they have all said about those of us who will be retirees at the next general election? I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and my hon. Friends the Members for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) and for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones). They have all made a considerable contribution to this House in the time that they have been here. I pay tribute, too, to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price). He and I have clashed many a time over the years but I have no doubt about his passion for, and commitment to, making good the lives of the people of Wales.
Mr. Hain: I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to all our colleagues who are retiring, but may I pay particular tribute to him? He was a terrific Wales Office Minister serving my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) and serving me, and he has served this House for 15 years. I fought with him in his by-election-I was his minder. The fact that he is standing down represents a real loss to this House and to Wales and I wish him all the best in the future.
Mr. Touhig: I thank my right hon. Friend. When I came and stood at the Bar of the House he stood on one side and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen stood on the other-I had the two apostles, Peter and Paul. When I got to the Table of the House, they abandoned me and I was left on my own after that. I thank them anyway.
The first time I spoke in this Chamber was on 2 March 1995. I had been elected to Parliament on 16 February in a by-election and I took the opportunity of the annual St. David's day debate to make my maiden speech. I spoke then from the Opposition Benches and I remember laying into the appalling record of a discredited Tory Government who were systematically destroying and tearing apart society in Wales. With the passage of time, it is easy to forget the state of the country as we inherited it when we came into government in 1997. When I spoke 15 years ago, schools were struggling to deliver education with budgets that had been squeezed by Tory Government cuts. As for our health service, a hospital serving my constituency appealed to the public not to come to the casualty unit because there were not enough doctors to deal with emergency cases.
David T. C. Davies: The right hon. Gentleman knows that I hold him in the highest esteem, but does he really think it wise to compare records on the NHS given the disgraceful report that has recently come out about an NHS hospital in England?
Mr. Touhig: I have no doubt that is important to compare records on the NHS. The Labour party founded the NHS-resisted by the Conservative party. We built and sustained it; all the Conservatives have done to it when they have been in government is to damage it.
When I re-read the speech that I made 15 years ago-as I did the other day, not out of vanity, but to check what I had said-it made me go a little cold, because in spite of the desperate circumstances that people were in at that time, the then Tory Government proved that they did not give a damn. We had an NHS that had been driven almost to breaking point, despite the superb commitment of doctors and nurses, and the people who suffered most throughout the UK were those who relied entirely on the NHS for their treatment. My constituents were among the worst affected.
Mrs. Gillan: Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore share my despair regarding the report that has emerged today, which states that six out of the seven new local health boards in Wales are to go more than £43 million over budget? That is, of course, under a Labour-run Welsh Assembly Government. It appears that those budgets are under great pressure and that those boards will not be able to balance the books or ensure high patient standards.
Mr. Touhig: I share the hon. Lady's concern about budget difficulties in the health service, which are inevitable because demand will always be greater than can ever be satisfied. Nevertheless, more money has been pumped into the health service under Labour Governments than was ever pumped in when the Conservative party were last in government.
My constituency, Wales and the UK have all been transformed in the past few years compared with the situation when I came here 15 years ago. Even now,
however, the Tories have not learned any lessons. They look back on the years when they were in government as some sort of golden age. Frankly, they simply have not changed. While every country in Europe wants to maintain investment in the economy in the coming year, they say that if they are elected, they will start making cuts on day one. The Conservative party is the very same party that advocated standing aside and letting banks go bust, the very same party that was prepared to stand aside and see families evicted from their homes because they could not pay their mortgages, and the very same party that was prepared to see people thrown out of work because of a lack of Government support for business and industry. All that would be accelerated and would cause even more grief if they were to come into government and make sweeping cuts to public services.
In 1995, I lamented the fact that we had no general hospital in Islwyn. Between 1993 and 1994, 30,000 people from my constituency went to the nearest out-patient department 15 miles away in Newport. If anything shows the change and the great investment that Labour Governments have made, it is the fantastic 21st-century hospital at Ystrad Fawr on the border between my constituency and that of the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David). Since 1999, investment in the NHS in Wales has nearly doubled, and investment in new buildings and equipment has trebled. There has been major investment in schools, with a massive rise in the number of nursery school places. There are smaller class sizes and we have new buildings and equipment, as well as extra teachers. For the working families I represent, education has been a pathway out of poverty-secured by a Labour Government. For me, that is the fundamental difference between a Tory Government and a Labour Government. The Labour party stands by the people, whereas the Tory party stands idle and lets the people suffer.
It is all very well to look back-and it is especially tempting now, at my time-but it is also important to look forward. These have been great, reforming Labour Governments, whose one great legacy has been their attempts to eradicate poverty in every form. The great socialist James Maxton once said:
"Poverty is man-made therefore open to change".
The Government have embraced that idea and have done much to try to reduce poverty. There is much more to do. The two poorest groups in our society are at the extreme ends of the age range-pensioners and children.
Mr. David Jones: If tackling poverty is indeed the Government's principal aim, will the right hon. Gentleman concede that they have failed abjectly in Wales? It is the poorest region of the country, and four of the five poorest local authority areas in the whole UK are based there. Does he acknowledge that that is a complete, abject and utter failure?
Mr. Touhig: The point is that we have continued to invest to reduce poverty and improve communities. That investment did not exist until this party came into government, and it will not exist if it were to cease to be in government.
Yes, too many children still live in poverty. We can all quote figures, but what does poverty mean for children? It means that they do not have regular meals or decent clothes, and that they do not live in decent accommodation. It means that children do not have the right equipment for school, or the inclination to use it. Poverty also means that children, as they go into adulthood, expect to fail even before they get started.
One aspect of poverty-the poverty of ambition-is not often reported in the newspapers. The problem is not easy to quantify but, if we do not tackle it, we will not progress and improve our society. All too often, I have heard people say, "Going to university or starting a business? Not for the likes of us."
I well remember visiting a primary school in my constituency. The headmaster told me, "Do you know, Don, when I came to the village, nobody expected anything from me? No one had gone to university, or had the ambition to do so. They believed that university was not for the likes of them." He told me, "I said to a lady last week, 'If you work with me, your lad is going to university.' She said, 'You're off your b..... head!'" The headmaster added that the lad in question was inquisitive, intelligent and articulate. He said, "If they worked with me as a family, he would go to comprehensive school and be on his way to university." Poverty of ambition must be eradicated. The task that we face is to equip people of all ages with the skills that they need, and the self-confidence to say, "Yes, university is for me. Yes, I will start and invest in and build up my own business."
That task will not be easy. It calls on us to have a change of mindset and be bold and radical, but it also means that we have to provide training throughout life. It is absolutely critical to our economic future that we invest in training and upskilling our people. In the US, 80 per cent. of people in work have been back in a training situation since leaving school. The figure in Germany and Japan is 56 per cent., but it is only 30 per cent. here. That is the measure of how far we still have to travel to improve training and opportunities for our people.
For us to compete, we need to give our people the skills in IT and engineering that will attract investment. We must also get a head start in the coming green revolution and all the new technologies that will accompany it. We need to give our people in Wales the skills that they do not yet have in order to create the jobs that we do not yet have.
I have always felt that the real challenge is not just Welsh, but global. We are part of a world where powerful new economies such as China and the Asian nations will challenge and then overtake Europe and the US. I welcome that challenge, as should we all. We cannot bury our heads in the sand: it is absolutely vital that we are ready, willing and able to meet that challenge head-on. There is no future for Wales-or, for that matter, the UK-if we try to compete for low-skilled, low-paid jobs. They will go where money and wages are cheapest. It is as simple as that.
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