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There is also a broader picture, involving the relationship with the UK funding councils in their provision of
research funds. The university of Aberystwyth has always had a good relationship with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. However, Wales receives only about 3 per cent. of the £2.8 billion that is distributed by the UK research councils. Applications should obviously be assessed on merit but, given that Wales accounts for 5 per cent. of the UK population, it is reasonable to ask why Welsh higher education institutions underperform in terms of research funding. That point was raised by the Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, and I believe that it needs to be highlighted again.
IBERS offers outstanding value, not only to my constituency but to Wales as a whole. It provides a core base of 300 skilled jobs. We used to be an objective 1 area, and we need those skilled jobs. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me what representations he has made, and what plans he can outline for the institute's future. I understand the university's strategy and its need to focus its research on the new environmental agenda, but we must none the less take a broader perspective on the research base.
The Secretary of State mentioned the delegation of businesses from Cardigan that came with me to see him yesterday. Those business people had three fundamental concerns. A survey in the Daily Mail a year ago looked at the balance between public sector jobs and small enterprises across the UK as a whole. Surprisingly, given that it is a large rural constituency, Ceredigion was in the top 10, with 40 per cent. of our jobs coming from the public sector. There are great pressures relating to education at the moment, as I have said. We rely on our county council and the national health service for jobs. We also have a huge reliance on small businesses.
The business people of Cardigan were concerned, first, about the potential impact of the increase in business rates, despite the remedial action that has been taken by the Assembly Government. It is clear that large areas of Wales are suffering as a result of the revaluation process, including Aberystwyth and Cardigan, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) could highlight areas of his constituency that are suffering as well.
Our meeting with the Secretary of State was very positive, and, to his credit, he agreed to take up these concerns with the First Minister. Some of the figures involved are quite staggering, with businesses facing increases in their business rates of between 25 and 40 per cent., sometimes equating to about £7,000 a year. The highest reported increase in Cardigan was £12,000 a year. In a small town whose economy is reliant on small businesses, such figures can make the difference between having staff in a business and losing it completely. I wish the Secretary of State well in his deliberations with the First Minister. We need this point to be made, because the general feeling is that many businesses that face very high business rates are being ignored.
Those attending the meeting yesterday also made the point about the lack of a threshold on corporation tax. For a business that is just starting to be profitable, that is a kick in the teeth, and it makes the growth of a small business harder to achieve. The Secretary of State promised to raise that issue with the Chancellor, and I look forward to hearing the response that he gets.
We have heard a lot about the banks. At yesterday's meeting, we heard stories of solvent businesses with good prospects wanting to expand, but having to turn down loan offers because the interest rates being offered were as high as 10 per cent. That is wrong, and it is bad for the economy. People do not understand the mismatch between state ownership of a bank and the way in which they are being treated on the high street. We are experiencing particular difficulties in securing mortgages on affordable section 106 properties, which is undermining attempts to expand affordable housing. I had a young couple in my constituency surgery last week. They had been promised a deal by one of the high street banks, but the terms of the deal have changed and they will now lose the property because they have no access to the 20 per cent. deposit that the bank is demanding of them. They had been saving for the past seven years to realise a deposit, but that property is now beyond their means because the bank has changed its tune.
The third issue that the small businesses raised was broadband provision. How many of my small businesses can function without it? This is not an issue about broadband speeds; the problem is one of no broadband provision at all. Of course we welcome the Government's commitment to the universal service obligation but, as this week's Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report identified, we do not yet have a mechanism to deliver broadband across Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Briefly, I want to talk about the legacy of the post office closure programme. I recently hosted a reception by Consumer Focus Wales, which has drawn up a report on the matter. To be fair, hon. Members from all parties attended the reception to listen to its concerns. Many of us remain implacably opposed to the post office closures that took place, and we all share a desire to see the remaining network thrive. However, the report found that the most disadvantaged communities in Wales have lost out, and that those closures have broken many community ties: elderly people, consumers with disabilities, those with long-term sickness, those on low incomes and those who rely on public transport have found it more difficult to access services. Many of my constituents have had that experience. Outreach services have had teething problems, and the Government still have a job to convince us that they are not just a staging post to future closures. Hours of operation do not match up with public transport services and they make it difficult for many to access the post office, or post office van, and there have even been incidents of vans not being able to find a place to park.
I welcome the Government's decision to consult on additional funding streams for post offices, particularly the creation of a Post Office bank, which I support. The Minister will surely understand the cynicism of many who feel that the move should have been made before closure, not after. There was a huge mismatch at the time of the network change programme. On the one hand, there was the spectacle of closures, and on the other, there was the National Assembly sensibly and wisely creating the post office diversification fund, for which I pay tribute to it. People could not understand why those things were not working in sync. I wish only that the UK Government had taken the lead of the National Assembly on that.
My final point is a parochial but important one for my constituents. We had assurances that the Driving
Standards Agency would continue to look for a suitable site for motorcycle testing facilities in west Wales, so that my constituents would not have to travel to Swansea or Shrewsbury. We had meetings with the chief executive and the Minister with responsibility for road safety, I initiated a debate in Westminster Hall, and an assurance was received that the DSA would continue to look for a site in mid-Wales. A letter from the DSA last week says that it is now giving up on that attempt. Will the Minister speak to his colleagues in the Department for Transport and the DSA, preferably before my meeting with its chief executive in the week after next, to see what can be done? We need such a facility.
In many ways, that epitomises how many of us feel in west Wales-that we are still on the periphery, still left out, and still forgotten. I will not be completely pessimistic; there has been good news. There has been more money in schools in Ceredigion, and there are encouraging signs about investment in the national health service. However, there is still a lot to do. If our National Assembly is to mean anything, particularly when we hand over powers-I hope that we have our referendum next autumn-it must be for the whole of Wales, not just the M4 corridor.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams). I am grateful for his work in support of my private Member's Bill, the Grocery Market Ombudsman Bill, which will be before the House next week. I will shorten my remarks, as I look forward to listening to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price), if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as it will probably be his last chance to speak in a Welsh affairs debate. I pay tribute to him and other hon. Members who are voluntarily stepping down. He and I were elected on the same day, and we agree on many things, particularly social policies. We do not agree on the constitutional issues, which I will let him develop in his speech. I wish him well in his new chosen career.
I also want to pay tribute to our armed forces in Wales, especially those on active service overseas in Afghanistan. I pay special tribute to the Royal Air Force and the excellent job it does. Many of its members have been trained in my constituency, in RAF Valley on Ynys Môn, which is now a centre of excellence and has seen a lot of investment for the future, for fast-jet trainers, pilots and search and rescue.
I was going to be very positive about the future, but I must take issue with a comment made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) about Anglesey Aluminium. She perpetuates the myth that too little too late was done to help that company-the opposite was the case. The company was given a great deal of help for about 10 years. In the late 1990s, a moratorium on gas was lifted to help it to develop a project enabling it to have its own source of energy, but it chose not to pursue that avenue. It then looked to the main grid for its electricity supply, but the market was high following a spike in prices-as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) pointed out-and that put it off.
The company then considered using biomass to bridge the gap. Assistance amounting to some £48 million was due to it. Having talked to senior Conservatives, I know that they were not prepared to match public investment
to help the company. It is disingenuous of the hon. Lady, on behalf of her party, to suggest that too little was done too late, given that the Conservatives' policy was not to intervene to assist the company.
Albert Owen: That is a very churlish remark. It shows that the hon. Lady does not appreciate the amount of effort that was put into helping the main employer, which had been there for some 30 years and had put some £14 million per annum into the economy. It was the company's decision, on commercial grounds, to pull out. I am certain that the next Labour Government will put a great deal of money into Anglesey, as have Labour Governments over the past 13 years. If the company had taken up the offer, it could have continued to produce quality aluminium smelting for the future, but it chose not to do so.
I want to say something about the green economy and green tourism. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire talked about decarbonisation, and I think that Wales has an excellent opportunity to pioneer the process. That would bring quality jobs to Wales, and to my constituency in particular.
We have a fantastic asset in Wales which we must promote to attract tourism, which is a very important industry. Some £215 million has gone into the local economy of Ynys Môn from tourism alone. That equates to the employment of about 4,000 full-time equivalent workers to develop what I think is a very good product. Last year was a difficult year for the economy throughout Wales and especially in my constituency, as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom. We should applaud the resilience shown by the tourism industry. It had a difficult time, but it took advantage of the rate of the pound against the euro to promote Wales, including Anglesey.
Last March I held an Anglesey day in the House of Commons, which was a showcase for Ynys Môn. I think it important for us to highlight the positive assets of our constituencies. I am not merely being parochial. Anglesey is the gateway to Snowdonia, and many great activities take place there. We have scenic beauty in north Wales, and a proud history, culture and heritage. We have a unique brand in Wales, and I think that we should sell it around the world. We should all work together to promote the great outdoors. There is a vibrant market not just for overseas visitors, but for visitors from the home nations and the regions of the United Kingdom.
The trend is in favour of the short stay rather than the long holiday, and we must improve our infrastructure accordingly to ensure that people can travel. The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) is right: we need to enable people to reach the coasts and the beauty spots of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I was going to go into greater detail, but I am conscious of the time. I could speak for hours about the beauty of Wales and about Ynys Môn, the mother of Wales. I think that everyone who visits Wales should visit the mother of Wales while they are there.
Green energy has fantastic potential for the future. The low-carbon future will be good for the economy, the environment, and the energy security of our country. As other hon. Members have said, over previous decades we have been too reliant on the dash for gas, and we have not invested as much as we should have in other areas. That is changing, however. Since entering the House, I have been involved in the scrutiny of a number of energy Bills, and we have put in place mechanisms for growing both renewable and nuclear energy in the future. I believe in a rich, diverse energy mix that includes renewable energy, nuclear energy and clean coal, as well as energy efficiency measures.
I think Wales can take advantage of an opportunity here. I have been promoting Anglesey as Britain's energy island, because we now have a great tradition of nuclear generation, and we have also had windmills. I feel sad when I hear hon. Members talking in terms of either/or. I think we need both types of energy. Anglesey has been a pioneer in nuclear, and it also houses wind farms on land. I also think there is great potential for a round three, in which Anglesey has responsibility for the manufacture, assembly and maintenance of the new area proposed by Centrica between the Isle of Man and the Isle of Anglesey. That is important. I do not consider wind turbines to be bird blenders, as the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said. I think they are important; the technology exists, and it is also improving-I disagree with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) about that-and I believe we can get a better return on our money from wind farms. We in Wales should be pioneers in that.
I have been talking to a number of companies that want to invest in Ynys Môn and develop wind farm technology. I have also been talking to companies that want to develop marine and tidal energy. I think we can bring this all together, and have a low-carbon economy with Wales driving it forward, because that will provide the skills for the future; it will provide high-skill jobs not only in construction and generation, but in research and development. Green technology can bring that to Wales, and I want Anglesey to be central to that.
I do not want to talk Wales down; I want to talk Wales up. It has a skills base; it has pioneered in many areas in the past, and it can pioneer in the future. I think that green energy and green tourism are two areas in which Wales can take the lead, and I want Anglesey to be central to that in the future. We need to invest a little more in that, and I hope that the Assembly and local government, as well as this House, can look at the green technologies and green economy and make them central.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to the Isle of Anglesey county council for its help and support in promoting the energy island concept, because I think that will bring real benefits to Anglesey in the future. I now look forward to hearing, perhaps, from the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr.
I thank the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for his very kind remarks, and I wish him well personally-although I hope he will not put that in his election address. This might be one of the briefest
valedictory speeches in history, but I have felt compelled to respond to some of the kind words Members have said about me and about other Members who are retiring from the House; I almost felt as if I was participating in a living funeral at one point.
I particularly want to pay tribute, in return, to the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). We have crossed metaphorical swords at times, and listening to him reminds me of a famous remark once made about Saunders Lewis: that even though it was possible at times to disagree with every word that he said, somehow it was a pleasure disagreeing with him. Such is the courtesy and generosity of spirit that has always marked the right hon. Gentleman's contributions, and his personal dealings with me and my hon. Friends.
The right hon. Gentleman referred, characteristically mischievously, to the small add-ons my party managed to insert into the "One Wales" agreement. I have one of them in my hand. The Secretary of State referred to it in his remarks. It is the letter responding to the First Minister on the referendum, in which the Secretary of State says:
"I have instructed Wales Office officials to take forward the preparatory work on the legal instruments required for holding the referendum".
The right hon. Member for Islwyn referred to the economic problems facing Iceland and Ireland. I am sure that he would accept-some of my forebears came from Cork, and the same is true of the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy)-that the Irish are a resilient people and one should never underestimate them. I am sure that despite their current difficulties, they will bounce back. That is part of a core truth about small countries everywhere, irrespective of whether they are independent: small countries have to be resilient, and sometimes they have to be agile too. Wales has also had its fair share of difficult times, but we should have resources of hope, as one Welshman from Gwent famously said. That is because through those difficult times, we can retain our optimism that the future will be better than the past, as Idris Davies said.
One can turn around the argument about whether Wales is too poor to be independent. I could say, as indeed the former permanent secretary at the Welsh Assembly Government recently said, that perhaps Wales is too poor because it has been run from outside. My view is that no country has ever ruled another well-that is my philosophical position. I respect the sincerity of the right hon. Member for Islwyn, and all I would say to him is that this interesting debate will continue for many years to come.
In the meantime, this debate has touched upon the central problem of Welsh politics: the relative economic underdevelopment of Wales, which spans generations. One can trace this back to the 1920s and the collapse of the coal price; it has been with us that long. All hon. Members from all parties have to find a resolution to that problem. Of course, it was not always thus. Wales was once the engine room of the world economy. At one point, two thirds of the tonnage of all UK exports left from one Welsh port-Cardiff. So we have had better times and there will be better times in our future too. Where was the first £1 million cheque signed? It was signed in Cardiff. Wales has been more prosperous in the past and it will find a more prosperous future.
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