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There have also been threats to our local high schools. The Conservatives leaked a document that caused considerable upset and panic because it suggested that high schools might be closed. There is always an ongoing
threat to services in our local hospitals, which remain open in name but which still suffer, to an extent, from reduced services because the health board seems to want to save money by taking away cherished and long-loved local facilities. There is a virtual absence of mental health services; there is an ongoing dispute about wind farms in the area; there are questions about flooding; and there is gridlock in Newtown as a result of new traffic arrangements. There is even talk of some kind of enormous monster living at Clywedog dam. I shall return to those issues later.
With a general election looming, it is natural for us to look briefly at what is on offer. I think that I am fairly clear about what we get with the Labour party. It has been in government and we know its strengths and weaknesses. Incidentally, something that has almost been forgotten is the difficulty that the Secretary of State for Wales experienced when he had to take a back seat after various accusations were made about him. As I said then, it is a great shame when pressure from opponents in the media can force the temporary demotion of good politicians. I am very pleased that he not only cleared his name but recovered his original position. That was the just outcome of some very unjust accusations.
We know what Labour offers-I suppose there has been some debate about that today-but I am very concerned that we do not really know what the Conservatives offer. That must be a matter of concern to me as I consider what could happen to my constituents should there be a Conservative Government. There tends to be a sense of defeatism locally at times from the Conservatives in Montgomeryshire about various matters, and I see the same attitude reflected here in Westminster. It is an attitude not of delivery but of criticism, but that is not what our country needs or what my constituents want.
Mr. Paul Murphy: The hon. Gentleman wonders what the impact of a Conservative Government would be on his constituency-perhaps the first impact would be that his constituency would not exist at all. What are his views on that?
Lembit Öpik: I have never got very excited about discussions on the Boundary Commission, but the Leader of the Opposition seems to have set the hare running by making some heady claims about constitutional reforms that would require a reduction in the number of constituencies. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have said something about that as well. My difficulty with that and other policies is that they always seem half-baked. We do not get the detail and we do not really understand what the specific intentions of a Conservative Government would be, so we are forced to look at the past. When it comes to the banks, I am extremely concerned that the act of electing a Conservative Government, would, by its nature, cause a second recession. We know, from what the Government have had to respond to from Conservative Members, that if the Tories had been in charge during the banking collapse, the banks would have been left to fail.
There was a degree of vacillation in their policy, but the Tories seem to want to make a virtue of the fact that they would not have supported the action to protect the banks taken at that time, and in extremis, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Mrs. Gillan: I have been listening to the hon. Gentleman and want to put him out of his agony. The leader of my party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), has said that he wants to reduce the number of politicians and the size of Parliament, which has burgeoned and got too big. Like me, however, he has also said that Wales will not be disproportionately represented at Westminster. It will be represented in exactly the same way as any other part of the UK.
I was in the hon. Gentleman's constituency the other day with our candidate there, Glyn Davies. We were discussing this matter, and it is a comfort to know that under a Conservative Government Wales will always be represented in this place on exactly the same basis as any other part of the UK. I hope that that puts the hon. Gentleman out of his agony.
Lembit Öpik: I am sure that the whole House is grateful for that clarification, but I am slightly disappointed, as I thought that the hon. Lady would clarify her party's position on the banks. All the evidence suggests that the economic policies being promoted by the Conservative party over the past two years would have had a catastrophic impact on the British economy, and thus on the constituents of Montgomeryshire.
"new system of financial regulation, with the Bank of England back in charge of controlling the overall level of debt in the economy",
"new fiscal policy framework, with an independent Office for Budget Responsibility".
"over the Summer we will work flat out to conduct the detailed departmental Spending Review for the years after 2011".
Once again, however, the hon. Lady remains silent on the core point that I am making-had the Government been Conservative, the banks would have failed. A Conservative Government would have stood by and done nothing to prevent that.
Lembit Öpik: We need to go back to the evidence. About two decades ago, the pound started falling in the exchange rate mechanism. What did the Conservative Government do? They threw away £12 billion, because they were vacillating and did not know what they needed to do to protect sterling. That cost my constituents £20 million in one afternoon. So we do not have to go very far back to see that, when faced with a high-pressure decision that needs to be made in a hurry-exactly as happened with the banks-the Conservatives failed to come up with the goods.
The hon. Lady can believe anything she wants, but the record shows clearly what was said at the time. My judgment is that the banks would have been allowed to fail, had there been a Conservative Government in charge. That would have stopped us being a banking behemoth in the world, and turned us into an economic banana republic. This country's economic credibility would have failed.
The outcome could be even worse, now. Perhaps the hon. Lady will correct me if I have misunderstood the Conservative promise to sell off shares in the banks owned by the Government. They are the very asset that stand to pay off a large proportion of the debt. We all understand how that works: the shares were bought at a very low price and they will accrue value over time as things-hopefully-improve.
We are talking about the shares accruing value to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds. We do not need to be economists to work out how the value gained should be used, as the matter is self-evident, but we need to think twice when the economic policy of a Government in waiting is to sell off the assets when they are cheap.
There is another irony. How many times have we heard the Conservatives criticise the former Chancellor and current Prime Minister for selling gold when it was low in value? In my judgment, that was a mistake, but the Conservatives are about to commit an even bigger mistake by selling those shares at this time. That could cost the constituents of Montgomeryshire as much as £200 million.
There is another problem. If the Conservatives sell off those shares, they will have to find money from somewhere, but how will they make it? With a colour photocopier? I do not think so. They cannot depend on alternative sources of income, and they will not have an opportunity-a magic box-to print money in order to fill that void. If they sell off the shares cheaply, the practical consequence for Montgomeryshire, Wales and, indeed, the whole country will be a tax increase higher than the one we already anticipate. We would also be likely to see more severe cuts in public services.
I did economics at university for a period, and I see very clearly that we cannot pretend to have money that does not exist. Will Conservative Front Benchers please, therefore, clarify the economic logic-let alone the
morality-of selling off the very shares on which any Government of any colour will depend in order to accrue assets to pay back some of the debt? I am happy to give way if the hon. Lady can do that.
I was also confused earlier, because I did not receive a satisfactory answer to my question about the minimum wage and a minimum income. For a long time, the Liberal Democrats have supported the idea of a minimum income, and for one glorious moment I thought that the Conservatives supported it, too. If I put together the answers that I received, however, it seems that under a Conservative Government the Montgomeryshire public could depend on neither serious support for the minimum wage nor support for a minimum income. I do not know where that would leave the least well-off in my constituency, but it leaves me very worried that the safety net, which has been introduced and has been quite successful under this Government, would be removed.
I am very fond of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who is an outstanding character. We have had some entertaining times together in his constituency and he is welcome to come to mine any time he likes, but for him to accuse others of rewriting history and then declaim that the Conservatives supported the idea of a national health service is probably the most laughable commentary since Lieutenant-Commander Woodroffe's inebriated BBC broadcast from the royal naval review at Spithead in 1937. [ Interruption. ] Which I thoroughly recommend.
The idea that the national health service is safe in Conservative hands ignores the lessons of history and the thousands of beds that were lost under the previous Conservative Administration. I have had to work very hard with local communities over the past 13 years to protect what we have, and I just do not believe that it would be easy to do so under a regime that, presumably, would have some bearing on Conservative policy and, at least, distantly echo past Tory behaviour.
David T. C. Davies: I suspect that I would be quickly ruled out of order if I were to follow the line that I want to. The hon. Gentleman is fair-minded, and he and I have supported important road safety campaigns in Abergavenny in order to prevent people having to use NHS facilities, but surely he does not believe that prior to 1945 people were left to drop dead in the street. I do not believe that, not least because one of my grandparents was a doctor, and they made a point of ensuring that all those who needed health care got health care, whether they could afford it or not. It is a calumny on all those who served as doctors prior to 1945 to suggest otherwise.
Lembit Öpik: There is a contradiction in the hon. Gentleman's comment. First, he implies that we do not need the NHS, and perhaps that is a more prescient observation of the Conservative party's true feelings towards the NHS than anything else that has been said. Secondly, and to answer his point directly, there was rudimentary provision for the general public before 1945, but the whole point of the NHS was that people who could not afford health care died sooner. Indeed, as a direct result of the NHS, life expectancy has measurably improved in this country.
David T. C. Davies: We have only to look at the hospitals in London to know that we have been building hospitals for people who could not afford health care since about the 14th century. Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises that.
Lembit Öpik: We did not have an NHS in the 14th century. If we look not at the 14th century but at the early 20th century, we see a direct relationship between wealth and life expectancy. Sadly, there still is one to an extent, but the differential has been reduced.
It is interesting that we are arguing about whether we should have an NHS or not. That, I am afraid, is the debate that we might have under a Conservative Government. I do not suggest that, realistically, the Tories would demolish the NHS, but there would be much greater dependence on the private sector, and the differentials would increase. There is no private hospital in Montgomeryshire, and most of my constituents could not afford to go to one. I am concerned that our difficulties with access on a cross-border basis to the Royal Shrewsbury hospital would increase if that change of Government took place.
My other concerns relate to other issues, although I shall not go through every single one. Wind turbines are a big issue in my constituency. I am on the record as being sceptical about the benefits of having mass wind farms plastered all over my constituency, given that they produce a relatively minuscule amount of power in comparison with the disruption that they cause.
There is a particular problem with the transportation of the thousands of lorry loads that go through my constituency. I have sought clarification in the past, but I still do not know whether there would be a change in policy if there were a change of Government. I would be very happy to praise the Conservatives, if they said that they supported my position-that is, that my constituency should not be modified into one giant wind farm.
I happen to be pro-nuclear, although my party is not; I hope to persuade others in my party to take my position. I am sure that wind turbines on the scale that I am talking about will do more harm to my constituency than good for the environment.
Mr. David Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem with onshore wind farms is the Welsh Assembly's technical advice note 8, or TAN 8? That imposes a positive presumption in favour of wind farm development, and it is virtually impossible to challenge.
Lembit Öpik: I have problems with TAN 8 as well. The first is the presumption that the hon. Gentleman has described. The second is the designation of specific areas, which necessarily masses wind farms in places such as mid-Wales. I hope that I will persuade others in the Chamber to take a new look at wind turbines, which generate the most expensive electricity that we produce. As I have said, I see nuclear power as an alternative. I certainly do not see turbines on the scale that I am talking about as doing anything other than harming the aspect of my community and causing disruption for up to seven years, while they are constructed-and for relatively little benefit.
Incidentally, I applaud Plaid Cymru's elegant solution to the nuclear debate: as I understand it, the party is implacably opposed to nuclear power, except on Anglesey. I salute the tidiness of that position.
What action should we take to resolve the issues in Montgomeryshire? It is a matter of hard graft. All Members know how demanding our case loads are as a direct result of the circumstances in which we find ourselves. However, I can report some good news, which I mentioned in an earlier intervention. Newtown was looking at 180 job losses as a result of Shop Direct's downsizing of its call centres. Following considerable work with Shop Direct, Joy Jones, the outstanding mayor of Newtown, and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which has been very proactive, I am happy to report that Shop Direct has changed its position and postponed any closure until December. That gives us room to breathe. I hope that we can find a long-term solution with Shop Direct or with another company that takes over the business.
The outcome is also a credit to Ministers. I came to the Wales Office in urgent need of support, and I am happy to say that the Secretary of State and Under-Secretary could not have been more helpful; I am really grateful for their support. I should also mention the Prime Minister, who expressed his support at Prime Minister's questions and took action behind the scenes. That was a cross-party success story and 180 people still have their jobs thanks, in part, to the Government's work.
Similarly, I got support from Ministers in the case of Regal Fayre, a new company setting up in Montgomery that could produce up to 100 jobs in time. It was a collaborative effort, in which Finance Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government were very supportive. Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State for everything, also supported us and made some direct interventions when we were having trouble with finance.
Now let me say something that is slightly unfashionable: I found RBS very helpful on this occasion. It relaxed some of its conditions in order to make the loan that was required. That took months to arrange, but had RBS not come good in the end, we would not have these jobs. Not everything that the banks are doing is all bad. I am pleased to report that another small business facing closure was helped by HSBC personnel coming to a meeting-I was there as well-and renegotiating the debts of that business. There are some glimmers of hope and good examples of the banks responding to the political direction that has been requested by the Government.
I have to make a point of a very parochial nature. Despite rumours to the contrary, Carpetright in Newtown is not closing, so could people please stop going in there looking for the closing down sale? The people there are perfectly happy, and it is probably a rumour spread by somebody else.
On schools, I hope that we have a period of calm in Powys when we look at the issues on a more rational basis. The councillors ultimately have to make the decision, but it seems clear to me that no high school in north Powys should be closed. The bigger threat is to the sixth forms, and that is where the debate most usefully lies. I am pleased to see that local community groups, parents and teachers are leading the campaigns in each of the six high schools in my area, which is as it should be. The less politicised and the more rational this is, the better for all concerned.
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