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Fawzia Koofi, a member of Parliament whom I have met on more than one occasion, is an outstandingly brave woman. When she was a baby, her mother left her outside to die in the Afghan sun because she did not want another daughter in the house. She was rescued after a few hours, burnt almost to a cinder. From that experience she developed an extraordinary attitude to life and a determination to fight for the rights of women. She was recently interviewed and said a few things—this follows what other Members have said—about the current difficulties. She said:

“It’s becoming harder to work on women’s issues. Conservative colleagues are more confident to open their mouths… But there is more awareness among women to stand by themselves and defend their rights… You cannot talk about women’s education, women’s economic empowerment and social empowerment without their political participation. So for any young woman I would encourage them to have the courage to put herself forward.”

With examples like Fawzia to follow, young women can do just that.

I want to mention two individuals from the United Kingdom. The first is Linda Norgrove. I was involved in the hostage crisis when Linda was kidnapped. She subsequently died in an attempt to free her in October 2010. I attended her funeral and remember what a remarkable occasion it was, as people remembered what she had done. She worked with widows, in particular, in eastern Afghanistan. Her parents have set up a foundation in her memory, another one of those organisations that work to remember a remarkable person from this country who lost their life because of their commitment to the women of Afghanistan. She managed a team of some 500 staff who moved from district to district in eastern Afghanistan, working with communities to implement projects in conjunction with local people. That reinforces the point that it is not a question of imposing values from outside; it is about working with others there who want to make a success of things. The second individual I will mention from the United Kingdom is my noble Friend Baroness Hodgson, who has given a lot of time and effort in Afghanistan, and at great personal cost and risk to herself.

Finally, I want to mention Hillary Clinton. I remember my early meetings with Mrs Clinton when she was Secretary of State. It was clear that her commitment to the advancement of women was no political gesture, but firm and determined. We were constantly being asked how we would put into practice what we believed about the future of women in Afghanistan, so she made sure that it was in the Bonn declaration in Tokyo. Her commitment has been remarkable.

As has been said, we know that there are limits to what we can do. Ultimately, it will have to be Afghanistan that enforces what we believe. But our constant engagement, our determination not to leave people alone, the fact that we will continue to talk about it here and the fact that men and women from the United Kingdom will continue to go to Afghanistan to support the people there will be the clearest demonstration we can give that, although things are written in treaties, we will follow them ourselves. We will do all we can to support the brave women who are already working in that country. There is much to achieve, but we have achieved a lot. I am deeply grateful to colleagues for the way in which they have worked on this over a number of years. We owe it to the people of Afghanistan, and to all those

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from the United Kingdom who have lost their lives there, to work with others for a better future, which they deserve and have been richly working towards.

2.9 pm

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who was a hugely impressive Minister during his time in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He set out clearly the Government’s policy on and support for freedom and justice internationally. It is a genuine pleasure to follow his important comments.

This is an important debate, not only as a precursor to international women’s day, but because it is happening on world book day, given the importance we place on access to information and education in transforming society and improving conditions for women abroad.

I do not want to repeat too much of what has been said but, as we are aware, the Afghan constitution affords equal protection to men and women. However, there has been growing controversy recently about the role of Afghan women in society. At 28% of members, the representation of women in the Afghan Parliament exceeds the level in this House. Although Afghanistan has quotas and we do not, we take proactive action to encourage young women to get involved in Parliament, and young women from our constituencies are visiting Parliament today and we hope that that will encourage them to take this Parliament seriously.

Many women who have stepped forward into politics in Afghanistan find themselves at the forefront of abuse and attacks, and although there has been progress, it is important to maintain it. According to the Afghan independent human rights commission, attacks on women and human rights defenders are increasing and include attacks on parliamentarians, the murder of female police officers, the targeting of critics of the Taliban, and the targeting of their families. Their male relatives—their sons, their fathers and their brothers—are often targeted as a way of silencing women who want to stand up and have a voice.

The right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) was correct when he said that if we want to transform society in Afghanistan the issue is not just about speaking to women there. Unless women have the support and encouragement of the men around them and wider society, it will be incredibly difficult for them to continue the change that is happening.

Honour killings and punishments for breaking traditional Taliban rules of society are still widespread. According to the United Nations, 87.2% of Afghan women and girls have experienced some form of violence or abuse. The UN described that as a pandemic and it is increasingly disturbing when we consider that many women will be totally opposed to reporting abuse, even if it puts their life in danger, because of fear of the consequences of speaking out about their situation.

There has been progress, and hon. Members have referred to the passage of the law on the elimination of violence against women in 2009, which, for the first time, made rape a crime, and outlawed forced marriage, as well as physical and verbal abuse. However, that must be set against the recent row-back to which the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) referred. Only a few weeks ago, President Karzai had to make last-minute blocks to legislation that would have stopped

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relatives testifying against one another and would have prevented almost all prosecutions for domestic violence and rape. In the last year alone, Parliament has blocked a law to curb violence against women, and cut the quota for women on provincial councils. The justice Ministry has floated a proposal to bring back stoning as a punishment for adultery.

There has been progress, but it would be wrong for us to be complacent about the amount of work that still needs to be done to change attitudes and to secure women’s position. That comes against the backdrop of the political situation, which is extremely vulnerable. The elections to choose the successor to President Hamid Karzai and the fear that many candidates have links to the Taliban or at least share their ultra-conservative views on societal norms in Afghanistan is a threat to women’s progress.

The right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire paid tribute to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and to the Department for International Development for their work. I add my support and thanks for their work when I have corresponded with them on these issues over the years. They have recognised the importance of women in post-conflict peace building. Societies in which women are safe, empowered to exercise their rights and can move their communities forward are more prosperous and stable as a result. Sustainable security cannot be achieved in Afghanistan or elsewhere unless we ensure the full participation of women at all levels of society, including in building that peace.

A country where women cannot realise their full rights and experience violence and attacks, both domestically and in the public sphere, almost with impunity, is not a peaceful or secure country; nor can the careful and delicate work that will be required to deal with the legacy of conflict be successful unless women are actively involved. The UK Government have a responsibility under UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security to ensure that women’s participation in all peace and security-related processes is not only assured but is seen as vital to the success of those processes.

I am always reluctant to cite Northern Ireland experience, particularly in a context such as this where the differences are immense and clearly seen. Although our situation is not comparable, some lessons can be learned. We are aware as a society of the important role played by women during the conflict and the post-conflict period. It is important to learn those lessons. Only this week, the deputy director of Relatives For Justice in Northern Ireland, Andrée Murphy, in a blog on a site called Vixens with Convictions, talked about the need for a gendered approach to peace building in Northern Ireland.

The experience of women in conflict is often distinctly different from that of their male counterparts. Many women find that their views have not been mainstreamed within the peace process and face challenges in post-conflict society when politics moves on and often leaves them behind. Many are affected by the lack of access to justice and many are dealing with the financial consequences of having lost the main breadwinner in their families. Lessons can be learned about how to go forward because without women’s participation in the Afghanistan process, we will face significant challenges in creating stability.

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When western troops withdraw, taking with them money and attention, we must think of the public back home. It is hugely important that we as a Parliament do not lose our attention and focus, so I am encouraged that DFID has continued to see this as an important part of its work among some of the poorest people in the world.

Human Rights Watch’s 2013 annual report said:

“With international interest in Afghanistan rapidly waning, opponents of women’s rights seized the opportunity to begin rolling back the progress made since the end of Taliban rule.”

We cannot allow that important progress to be eroded or diminished. Too much has been lost for that to be the case. The UK Government have been hugely supportive of the democratic process in Afghanistan and have given financial support to initiatives aimed at increasing female participation in politics there. We must work with the international community to ensure that there is a specific country plan to allow that work to be taken forward and to allow those brave women who step forward in Afghanistan to be assured of our full support.

2.17 pm

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) and the Backbench Business Committee on granting this timely debate, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development for her ongoing commitment to the rights of women and girls. As chair of the all-party group on women, peace and security, I have had the opportunity over the years to meet many female Afghan parliamentarians and civil society campaigners to discuss their hopes, but mainly fears, for the future of Afghanistan.

My first point is that those women whom I have met have not just been victims. They have not even primarily been victims. They have been the most inspiring agents for change. One woman, whom I will not name for her own protection, started up a television show, “Niqab”, which sought to combat the traditional taboo on talking openly about domestic abuse by allowing women victims of domestic abuse to sit in a television show, properly covered, and openly talk about it. That led to increased reporting and openness about domestic abuse in Afghan society. Those are practical steps by Afghan women to improve women’s rights in Afghanistan, but they do so in the face of the most extraordinary challenge.

As has been said, 87% of women have experienced violence against them. Reported cases of violence against women increased by 28% between 2012 and 2013 and, as was said in the opening speech, there have been nine high-profile victims of assassination in the last six months, but we know that many more victims have not reached the headlines, especially victims in education and health care.

We must acknowledge that there have been gains since 2001. The constitution now grants equal rights to women, and more girls are in school in Afghanistan than ever before in its history. More than a quarter of Afghanistan’s parliamentarians are female, and of course the elimination of violence against women Act criminalised rape in 2009. However, these gains are fragile, and they are set against a rock-bottom base and a backdrop of poverty, injustice, early enforced marriage, and appalling violence that includes some of the most terrible sexual

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violence that can be imagined. In practice, for the majority of Afghan women, equality must still seem a lifetime away.

The statistics can seem overwhelming—like a mountain to climb which, with the drawdown approaching ever faster, is out of reach for us. I am reminded of the man who drowned in two inches of water. Statistics can be misleading, because there are practical steps that we can take. If the extraordinary men and women I have met, who are willing to pursue women’s rights in the face of the most appalling abuses, are not willing to give up, then we should not be willing to give up either.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): After 2014 ends, one of the crucial ways in which we can help Afghan society is by people such as members of the International Development Committee—as well as, of course, the Secretary of State and diplomats—repeatedly going in-country and engaging with the politicians in saying, “This is what we want.” In going out there, parliamentarians are probably being about as effective as we can be.

Nicola Blackwood: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The recent reports by the IDC have been exceptionally valuable in highlighting not only areas of weakness in Government response but areas of strength that could be expanded and extended, and I do not doubt that the Committee will continue that very good work.

May I press the Secretary of State on some practical steps that the Government can continue to take? In particular, will they ensure that they take all steps possible that will lead to full representation of women in the peace process? Evidence shows extremely clearly that there is a direct correlation between inclusive peace negotiations and a more sustainable peace. So far, we have not seen a very successful effort in this area, and I would like to know exactly what she would like to do to ensure that it can be progressed. Will she update the House on what progress she has made with her commitment to a strategic priority on violence against women and girls in the Afghan operational plan? Will she also update the House on what effect the implementation of the preventing sexual violence initiative could have in Afghanistan after the drawdown? What progress has been made with the gender marker for spending to enable us to track spending by gender throughout future spending in Afghanistan as we move away from Ministry of Defence spending and on to a DFID lead?

Will the Secretary of State once more consider the benefits of having a UK strategy for protecting women human rights defenders? I know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office believes that co-operation within the EU process is the right way forward, but I believe that our skill and expertise in the field of gender security makes it natural for the UK to lead on women’s human rights defence and protection measures. I hope that the Government will reconsider their position on that.

The Afghan men and women I have met who campaign for women’s rights in Parliament and in civil society face some of the gravest threats imaginable, including slander, sexual violence and assassination. In this House, we simply cannot imagine having to face such consequences for our decision to stand for public life. They are incredibly brave and incredibly effective agents for change, and they are our most effective resource for achieving our goals for peace and development in Afghanistan.

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They deserve to know that the United Kingdom will stand by them as they strive for women’s social and economic empowerment in Afghanistan.

2.23 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I want to start by joining the tributes to the soldier from 32 Engineer Regiment who died in Helmand yesterday and extending our condolences to his family.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving the House the opportunity to debate this very important topic. I congratulate Amnesty International, which has done so much to ensure that women’s rights in Afghanistan are on the public’s and Parliament’s agendas.

It is worth briefly recapping the history of women’s rights in Afghanistan and how the situation deteriorated from a country in which, from 1919, women could vote, had relative freedom in what they wore, and had equal political participation, to a country under the Taliban where girls were prevented from going to school and women were not allowed to work or to leave the home without a male chaperone, were barred from showing any skin in public, and could not get involved in politics or speak publicly. The discrimination against women extended to prohibiting access to health care delivered by men, which provided no viable option given that women could not work as doctors or nurses. The punishments for defying such discrimination were severe and brutal; women suffered floggings for some perceived transgressions, and were stoned to death if found guilty of adultery. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) said in her powerful account of life under the Taliban, some women, despite those restrictions, continued very bravely to try to continue their education in secret schools where women worked as teachers.

Since those years, there has of course been crucial progress. The Afghan constitution gives equal status to women, and in 2009 the Afghan Government introduced the law on the elimination of violence against women. There has been a remarkable expansion in access to education, with the number of girls enrolled in schools increasing from 5,000 in the Taliban’s day to 2.4 million today. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has highlighted the wide-ranging, long-term impact of this change, not only on women’s lives but on attitudes within Afghanistan. It is particularly worth noting how parents at a school supported by the UN special envoy, Angelina Jolie, have pledged to delay their daughters’ marriages so that they may first finish school. That provides an indication not only of how far Afghanistan has come but of the scope for further progress on women’s rights and freedoms.

As we have heard, there is real concern not only that progress will stall but that the gains could be reversed once the international troops withdraw. Constitutional equality is still not reflected in the reality of life for many women in Afghanistan, and the law on ending violence against women, while a landmark achievement, is still, in many cases, not effectively implemented. The Chair of the International Development Committee, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce), gave the example of the woman who, despite being very articulate and well educated, almost seemed to accept that she would be subjected to violence in her marriage

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and would have to tolerate it, saying that she was used to doing that. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) mentioned similar points.

Between March and October 2012, the Afghan independent human rights commission documented 4,000 cases of violence against women—a 28% increase on the year before. Some of those cases were cited by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). Amnesty International reports that in the past six months alone, nine high-profile women have been attacked in Afghanistan, including senior police officers who have been murdered, a parliamentarian who survived an attack that killed her eight-year old daughter, the author who wrote about her life under the Taliban and who was dragged from her home and shot, and the senior Government official who was murdered. Most of these attacks have been made with complete impunity. Those tragic cases have received considerable attention due to the women’s prominence, but there have been many other equally shocking attacks on less high-profile women. Amnesty gives the example of the gynaecologist helping the victims of abuse who was targeted because of her work. Her brother was killed and her 11-year-old son was wounded in a grenade attack. A head teacher was targeted because she runs a girls’ school. Her son was abducted and killed, while she continues to receive serious threats.

Clearly, the progress that has been made on girls’ access to education in Afghanistan is no insignificant achievement, but it risks being undermined. In her excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham spoke about the Taliban conducting a reign of terror against schools. We have heard about several girls’ schools being victims of poisoning and gas attacks last year, and female teachers coming under threat. The 2014 report by Human Rights Watch warned that the perceived “rapidly waning” international interest in Afghanistan is providing opponents of women’s rights with opportunities to roll back advancements. The Afghan independent human rights commission has argued for repeal of the law on ending violence against women. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Fiona O’Donnell) mentioned that, as did the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long), who also spoke of women suffering continued human rights abuses. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian highlighted the plight of young women and girls in jail for so-called moral crimes—a horrible example of how much progress is still to be made.

Only this year, the Afghan Parliament passed a draft criminal procedure code that would prohibit relatives from giving evidence as witnesses and therefore risked obstructing justice for the victims of domestic violence and forced marriage. That was a subject of international concern and it received a welcome veto from President Karzai. It is critical that the UK plays a leading role in maintaining international attention on and support for Afghanistan, including, specifically and explicitly, advocacy of women’s rights, peace and security.

The Government have rightly said—I welcome this—that stability and security is their priority for Afghanistan, but the security situation of women cannot be seen as secondary to that. It is very much part of it—it is an integral part of security in Afghanistan. Indeed, UN

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Security Council resolution 1325 and the motion under discussion make clear that women’s participation and security are intrinsic to sustainable peace and security.

The UK Government have in the past emphasised the need for a multilateral approach, particularly with regard to working with our European Union partners, which was picked up by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon. I hope the Secretary of State will agree that, despite the need to work at an EU level, the UK also needs to show particular leadership through our bilateral strategy, in the hope that other countries will follow suit if we take a lead on the issue.

The Foreign Secretary has rightly been commended for his efforts to secure global action on sexual violence, as has been said by the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), whom I congratulate on his work as a Foreign Office Minister for two years. The Government definitely have our support for the preventing sexual violence initiative. Although Afghanistan is not a priority country for the initiative, it nevertheless seems that the PSVI’s principles could make a valuable contribution in Afghanistan, not least the emphasis it places on working with human rights defenders and helping survivors. I hope the Secretary of State agrees with that.

Amnesty International is also calling on the Government to develop a country-specific plan for the protection of human rights defenders in Afghanistan, as recommended by the EU guidelines on human rights defenders and, indeed, the FCO’s best practice guidance. My understanding, though, is that the Government have so far been reluctant to develop a country-specific plan and have claimed it would add little additional value. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could tell us what discussions she has had with EU counterparts about developing country-specific plans, how the UK is pushing for full implementation of the UK guidelines, and why the Government do not think that a UK country- specific plan could help activists in Afghanistan and send a strong message to our international partners.

It would also be helpful if the Secretary of State could provide more details on the work that DFID, the FCO and the MOD are currently doing with women human rights defenders. In particular, what steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that Afghan human rights defenders are aware of the EU guidelines and the options they have should they be in need of protection? In what way are the Government consulting the human rights defenders themselves, who are best placed to advise on the assistance they need?

Foreign Governments who work with human rights defenders can raise their profile in Afghanistan, and in many cases women are prepared to take such a risk, but we must be mindful that the most visible women are often the most vulnerable, particularly if the security situation deteriorates further. I would, therefore, like to hear more from the Secretary of State about what measures the FCO has in place to protect those women.

Members have mentioned political participation and the need for women to be engaged in the future elections, and I hope the Government have taken that on board. Given the international troop withdrawal later this year, I am also keen to hear from the Minister about what training and advice has been provided to the Afghan national security forces and their capacity to protect the status of women and women human rights defenders.

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In conclusion, I congratulate everyone who has taken part in what has been a brief, truncated, but very important debate.

2.33 pm

The Secretary of State for International Development (Justine Greening): It is a pleasure to be able to respond to the debate. I would also like to start by paying tribute to the soldier from the 32 Engineer Regiment who lost his life recently. It is a reminder of the huge sacrifice that our armed forces make not only towards keeping our country safe, but, in this case, in helping another country—Afghanistan—develop. I also want to say, on behalf of not only Foreign Office staff, but in particular my own DFID staff who work in Afghanistan, a big thank you to all Members present for their kind words about the work that our civil servants do in Afghanistan. In many respects, it is often forgotten in comparison with the amazing work that our armed forces do, but I meet many of these people and have telecoms with them on a day-to-day basis. They put a huge part of their lives into the service they give to both Departments and I thank them on behalf of the Government.

Bob Stewart: May I reiterate exactly what my right hon. Friend has just said? Soldiers operate in a much more protected area and they can protect themselves with their weapons. Some of the bravest of the brave are the people who work in places such as Kabul and go to villages on their own to look after the people of that country. I am thinking specifically of young men and women from my right hon. Friend’s Department and non-governmental organisations. They are incredibly brave.

Justine Greening: I could not agree more. I very much appreciate those comments and I know they will be appreciated by DFID and Foreign Office staff.

We have heard many insightful speeches today. Having this debate sends out a message to people, leaders and would-be leaders in Afghanistan about the priority that this Government and this Parliament place on the issue of women’s rights overall, particularly the way in which that relates to Afghanistan. That is absolutely right.

As many Members have said, Afghanistan has made significant progress over the past decade, but it continues to face considerable challenges. There are huge levels of poverty and after three decades of conflict, girls and women in Afghanistan are among the most marginalised and poorest in the world: just 17% of women are literate; they often have very restricted mobility, as we have heard; they are subject to violence on a routine basis; and in many respects they have very little decision-making power over their own lives. Afghanistan remains one of the hardest and worst countries in the world in which to be a woman.

As we have heard, no country can develop if it leaves half its population behind. I assure Members that this Government and I are committed to making sure that these girls and women have the chance to build a better future for themselves and for their country.

As the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) has eloquently pointed out, the situation that many of them face on a day-to-day basis is terrible. She referred to the issue of early enforced marriage, which

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I raised in a speech earlier this week, in which I set out the UK Government’s determination to play a leading role in combating it.

I have met many of the human rights defenders whom Members have mentioned. They make one feel humble through the work and dangers that they face every single day of their lives and that their families face as a result of their work. They put their lives on the line for their communities and their country. They know that the process of improving human and women’s rights in particular in Afghanistan will take a very long time, yet they are willing to be part of it. We owe it to them to stick with them for the long term, which is precisely what this Government plan to do. I assure the House that our Government will be committed to Afghanistan in the long term. We are going to provide about £180 million in development assistance annually until at least 2017.

The right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) talked about how his Committee has identified this issue as a priority. I could not agree more. It is one of the reasons why, when I came into this role, I made tackling violence against women a strategic priority for our country programme in Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) referred to the need for the UK to show leadership on this topic, and I agree, which is why the work that DFID carries out in Afghanistan has been elevated to a real priority.

Let me briefly tell the House the things we are doing. They focus on making sure that Afghan women can not only have choice in employment, but have a voice. Many Members have spoken about the need for and importance of women being part of the political process in Afghanistan, and that is incredibly important. We are supporting the Afghan electoral commission, particularly in its work to ensure that women are signed up for elections, and we are undertaking additional work to help female candidates be part of the electoral process in Afghanistan.

I assure the House that we will continue to play our role in lobbying the Afghan Government, where necessary, when worrying issues, such as stoning, suddenly come back on to the agenda. I was in Afghanistan when that issue arose again, and I raised it with President Karzai, who quickly assured me that he had no intention of seeing stoning return to Afghanistan.

The hon. Member for North West Durham quite rightly raised her concerns, which I share, about the recent Afghan criminal procedure code, which seemed to suggest that it would be almost impossible for women to give evidence in court or to bring charges in relation to violence against women. We are very pleased that President Karzai has issued a decree to amend the criminal procedure code, and that it has been returned to Parliament for approval. We, along with our international partners, will closely monitor the situation, because we certainly do not want such provisions. I am pleased that President Karzai is taking action, but such an approach needs to continue in practice.

I know that you are keen to ensure that we move on to the next debate, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I want briefly to speak about some of the progress that is being made. We are focusing not just on making sure that women in Afghanistan can be part of the political process, but on the grass-roots Tawanmandi programme, which is all about working with the many human rights defenders on the ground, particularly the community

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groups focused on violence against women in the domestic situation. I had a chance to meet some of those amazing women during my last visit to Afghanistan at the end of last year, and I talked to them about their personal lives, as well as about the work that they are trying to carry out. They had some inspiring stories, but most of all, they were determined to keep going and to keep working in this area, and we will continue to support them in doing so.

I want briefly to pay tribute to the work done by the Afghan national army. As many Members will know, we have helped it to set up an academy. I can tell the House that, with our help, female trainers are now in place in the academy, and that the first female trainees will join it by June. We will therefore start to see women taking up a role in the security agenda in Afghanistan.

On the Afghan national police, I met the Minister of the Interior when I was in Afghanistan at the end of last year. We are providing his Department with technical assistance to help it make sure that women can not only join the Afghan national police safely, but have a career in that organisation and steadily move through the ranks. I know that the Interior Ministry recognises that that is a real issue to work on, and I very much welcome the chance for DFID to continue working with it over the coming months and years. At the moment, only 1% of the 157,000 Afghan national police officers are female. If the police force is to be able to police the whole of Afghanistan, its make-up clearly needs to represent Afghanistan more effectively.

Education has not been mentioned as much as it might have been—this has been a short debate—but it really is an Afghan success story. As we have heard, at the time of the Taliban, virtually no girls were in school in Afghanistan. Well over 2 million girls now go to school, which is up from virtually zero, and the UK Government are playing a major role in making sure that there are the necessary schools, teachers and tools to allow them to stay in school over the coming years.

We will play our role in making sure that the Afghan Government are held to account for the pledges that they have made to ensure the protection of women’s rights, such as in the Tokyo mutual accountability

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framework. As has been said, the UK will co-chair the first ministerial review of progress against the commitments made in Tokyo.

We all know that there is a huge amount more to do. Even in the UK, our suffragette movement started in the 1870s, but it took until 1918 for women to get the vote for the first time, which is nearly 50 years. We recognise that the challenges in Afghanistan are absolutely huge, but that does not mean we as a country should not try to meet them or should not be prepared to participate in efforts to improve women’s rights over the long term.

We will do so by supporting women in having their say at the ballot box; by supporting girls in getting into school; by supporting the work on eliminating violence against girls and women and making sure that that law is implemented on the ground; and, crucially, by supporting Afghanistan’s defenders of human rights and civil society. We can help girls and women in Afghanistan to build a better future for themselves and their country, and we can best ensure that the important gains made in recent years are not lost, but are further built on as Afghanistan moves into its future.

2.44 pm

Sir Robert Smith: I thank everyone who has taken part in this debate. They have all, in their different ways, sent the message to the women of Afghanistan that we care, we understand and we want to see action to support them. The work of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is translating those words into action. We must keep our focus on this matter and return to it, because we cannot turn our back on what has been achieved to date and leave such a fragile country to fall back.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House recognises, ahead of critical presidential elections in April 2014, the essential contribution of Afghan human rights defenders to building peace and security in their country; further recognises the extreme challenges, including violent attacks and killings, that they face as a result of their peaceful work; believes that sustainable peace and security cannot be achieved in Afghanistan without women’s full participation; and encourages the UK Government to improve its support and protection for women human rights defenders in Afghanistan.

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Welsh Affairs

2.45 pm

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House has considered Welsh affairs.

It is important to have a Welsh debate in the House of Commons. As you will know, Mr Speaker, when one goes into Central Lobby, one is surrounded by four large arches. The arch that leads to the House of Commons has St David on it. It is therefore appropriate that we are having our St David’s day debate in the House of Commons this year.

Although time is a bit tight, I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate. I make a plea to the Government and to their successors—I hope that there is a Government of a different colour in 2015—to reinstate a Welsh affairs debate in Government time, because post-devolution, there are many important matters that Welsh Members wish to debate. Many of those are cross-border issues, many concern reserved powers and many reach us as individual Members of Parliament in our constituency surgeries and when we make visits in the constituency. This is a traditional debate that goes back many decades.

I believe Wales to be an integral part of the United Kingdom, and I hope that it will remain so for many decades and centuries. I speak in this debate, as will many Members, as a Welsh patriot—an outward-looking Welsh patriot. I make no apology for being pro-Welsh, pro-British and pro-European Union. Above all, I am pro-Anglesey. I am proud to represent the island community of Ynys Môn, the mother of Wales, in this, the mother of all Parliaments. I see no contradiction in being pro-Welsh, pro-British and pro-European Union. I feel no less Welsh by being pro-United Kingdom and no less British by being pro-European Union.

It is in that context that I want to make my opening remarks, particularly as this Parliament has been preoccupied with separation and divorce. I am speaking, of course, of the Scottish debate about independence, which has been pushed by the nationalist agenda. I am also speaking about the separatists on the Conservative Back Benches, who have been pushing for exit from the European Union. Indeed, they are the tail that has wagged the Conservative dog throughout most of this Parliament, with the Prime Minister trying to steer a very—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) want to intervene? He is making remarks from a sedentary position.

I accept that those are legitimate debates to have in this House and in this democratic society. Nevertheless, I believe, as I am sure do many Members, that those debates are causing instability in the United Kingdom and in the European Union. I believe that to be bad for business and bad for our economies, whether local, regional or national. We heard just today that businesses in Scotland are concerned about the instability that is being caused by those debates and the movements towards separation and divorce.

The head of Shell has warned quite clearly that the talk of separation is causing a lack of the stability and clarity that businesses need in order to invest. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) says “Dutch” from a sedentary

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position. I worked as a British merchant seaman and many people from Wales work on British vessels. We are proud to serve under the red ensign as British seamen, bringing many pounds to the local economies throughout Wales.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House what the credit agency Standard & Poor’s recently said about the finances of an independent Scotland, and about its take on the current finances of the British state?

Albert Owen: I will make my own speech. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make such points—[Interruption.] He can laugh, but I do not speak for the Scottish National party, and I certainly do not speak with a nationalist agenda. That is the point I am making, and I will make my own speech in my own way. The hon. Gentleman prompts me, however, to mention local independent polls from Wales and the United Kingdom, which claim that some 5% of the population of Wales want an independent Wales, and separation and divorce from the United Kingdom. The question was asked because of Scottish independence, and I accept that the figure rises to 7% if Scotland were to have independence. I make that remark because I feel it is important for the 95% who want to remain in the United Kingdom to have their voices raised in this House in a proud and co-operative way.

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): While the hon. Gentleman is on the subject, what credence does he give to the views of a superannuated, tax-dodging rock star from, I think, New York these days, on the Scottish question?

Albert Owen: I do not know who the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but when I speak to chief executive officers of international companies, they say in private that they want stability in the United Kingdom so that they can invest in it—in all parts of it. I referred to the European Union and I am consistent on this issue. Businesses have been telling me in public, in private, and in Select Committees, that they want stability to make those huge investments to help the economies of the United Kingdom.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): A successful Welsh business such as Airbus really shows how European partnership can work. If we were outside the European Union, does my hon. Friend think we would get the investment, or would those jobs be at threat?

Albert Owen: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and he puts the issue to bed. We are not just talking about foreign individuals who may be chief executives of companies; we are talking about skilled, well-paid jobs and investment that will boost the economies of Deeside, Bristol and other parts of the United Kingdom. Business leaders at events with Airbus that I have attended have been clear that they are investing in Europe. That is why they want to invest in the United Kingdom, and they choose Deeside because it has an excellent skilled work force. I want that to continue and for many other parts of Wales and the United Kingdom to benefit from that as well.

The Welsh dimension to the constitutional debate in this Parliament has concentrated on the Silk commission, but I am being honest with hon. Members when I say

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that not one constituent has raised that with me as an important or pertinent issue for them. They do, however, raise important issues about public services and the cost of living, and they talk about international affairs—we had an excellent debate on women in Afghanistan today. People send us here to talk about real issues that affect them.

I speak as a proud pro-devolutionist and I supported devolution in 1979. Many fellow travellers have come along since that time, including the Labour party. To me, however, real devolution is about empowering people throughout our country. It is not about the simple transfer of powers from one institution in Whitehall to another in Cardiff Bay; to me it is about empowering people in Cemaes bay in my constituency, and in Colwyn bay, Cardigan bay, and many other parts of Wales. It is not just about the boring constitutional issues that we, the political elite, are bogged down with and a few commentators are talking about.

I want to talk about the real issue of developing a stable and growing economy in Wales as part of the United Kingdom and the European Union, and I will mention two things that affect businesses and people in my constituency: energy and tourism.

On energy, I very much welcome the fact that we are getting a consensus on the big energy issues, for reasons that I gave earlier including the stability that businesses crave so that they can make huge investments in the future. I welcome the Secretary of State’s support for Wylfa Newydd and his conversion to offshore wind. I shall put this mildly because I want the consensus to continue, but when the Secretary of State worked alongside me on the Welsh Affairs Committee I recall him being concerned about the consents under the previous Government. He now backs those schemes and even claims credit for them as the flagship of the coalition Government.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr David Jones): I can actually see the Gwynt y Môr wind farm from my sitting room, so I can recognise a fact of life.

Albert Owen: I take that point, and the Secretary of State may now find that an attractive view from his window, but at one time he did not want it to go ahead. He would not have been able to see it from his window, nor would he have been able to meet many of the targets that we are making progress towards in a low-carbon economy. I have always thought that offshore wind has a great future, although I am a little less certain about onshore wind, because of the sheer size of some of the turbines.

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Given that offshore wind normally needs a strike price of about £150 per megawatt-hour, is the hon. Gentleman as happy to argue that people should be willing to pay more for their electricity as he is to argue for those wind farms to be built?

Albert Owen: We need a mix. We need a base load and we need variable energy. If we do not have interconnectors and we are producing too much energy in the summer, when peak demand is less, we cannot switch off nuclear

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power stations and it is expensive to switch off gas. It is easier to switch off variable supplies such as renewables can provide, including wind. There is an initial cost, but those costs are coming down, and I believe that with economies of scale—as with the strike price for nuclear or for any other renewable—the price will decrease as the sector matures. In the long term, bills will be cheaper if we get a steady supply of low carbon energy.

Nuclear power is also part of the mix. I welcome the conversion of the Secretary of State to wind power and the conversion of the Liberal Democrats to nuclear power. I hope that that means that the three larger parties, two of which form the Government now and one of which I hope will form the next Government, will be consistent in the future.

Mr David Jones: Would the hon. Gentleman be able to inform the House of the position of Plaid Cymru in his constituency on nuclear power?

Albert Owen: It is up to Plaid Cymru to defend itself. As I have been provoked into raising the issue, I will say that it is important that all the larger parties here and the larger parties in the Assembly—of which Plaid Cymru is one—show their support. In my opinion, a party cannot claim to be in full support of a technology if its leader says that she wants an energy future without nuclear power. The leader of a party cannot say that to business leaders and then say that she supports the jobs. We need to support the development of the technology. On Plaid Cymru’s website, which I get little notes about occasionally, the energy spokesperson says that it wants 100% renewable energy by 2035—there is no mention of nuclear. That is a clear indication that Plaid Cymru opposes nuclear as part of the energy mix in the future. That will be an issue for the general election as we make progress on the building of Wylfa Newydd. I hope that that answers the Secretary of State’s intervention.

Hywel Williams: Tag team!

Albert Owen: The hon. Gentleman says, “Tag team!”, and I will come to that issue in a moment.

Yesterday, I and other Members of Parliament held an event on Britain’s nuclear future. None of the Plaid Cymru Members came, but it was attended by apprentices and graduates from Wales, who have jobs on the Wylfa site. The Welsh Government, the local authority and the UK Government have put aside moneys to train young people, giving them the opportunity to have a quality job. This policy, which is supported by parties in this House, will enhance local economies. It will benefit my area socially and culturally, as it has done for some 40 years.

Jonathan Edwards: The hon. Gentleman is always kind when somebody seeks to intervene. Energy is a contentious issue, and there are divisions within all parties on every aspect of energy policy. For instance, how would he be responding if the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) was in his place this afternoon?

Albert Owen: My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West and I do not agree on nuclear power, but I will tell the hon. Gentleman who does agree: the Labour leader in the authority in my constituency, the Labour First

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Minister of Wales and the Leader of the Opposition, who was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. The Labour party has continuity, with party leaders proudly saying what its policy is. The leader of Plaid Cymru does not support this policy, but expects the people in my area to vote for it, which is disingenuous and wrong. Energy is a big issue in general election campaigns. Of course there are individuals, but we expect leaders to provide leadership and clarity not just for the country but for investment.

The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil) has come in and is speaking rather loudly. Does he want to intervene?

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): I was not planning to intervene, but I understand that Labour has some difficulty regarding further powers for Wales. The Scottish Parliament is not very powerful. Why would the hon. Gentleman not want the Welsh Assembly to be at least as powerful as the Scottish Parliament is today?

Albert Owen: I have made no comment on that. The hon. Gentleman does not understand that I have been supporting devolution since 1979. I believe in a devolved Administration, but the issue is not about more powers. If he had been in the Chamber earlier, he would have heard me say that people do not raise the issue of more powers with me as a constituency MP.

Mr MacNeil rose

Albert Owen: I am not giving way again, because the hon. Gentleman was not here earlier. He was speaking loudly and that is why I let him intervene, but I need to finish my remarks. If he had been in earlier, he would have heard exactly what I said.

As a pro-devolutionist who goes further than my party on many issues—[Interruption.] A pro-devolutionist is someone who believes that powers should be devolved not just to Administrations, such as those in Edinburgh or Cardiff, but to the people in their local area. I do not believe that many people want independence. That is what the polls tell me. I think we will move towards the Scottish Parliament model when the people of Wales require it, and I will be arguing for those powers at that time. The powers that people want now are economic: they want to improve their cost of living. That is the debate we had when the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar was not here.

On energy, we need continuity. The young people I met yesterday are Britain’s future. They are Wales’s future and they are my constituency’s future, too. They will get high-paid, quality jobs by working in the nuclear industry. They are the model young Welsh Europeans of the future and they want a stake in that future. They are proud to be Welsh. One of them is going to Twickenham on Sunday, where he will be supporting the Welsh team in its efforts to regain the Six Nations championship. They are proud Welsh people who are proud to be part of the United Kingdom. That is who I meet on a day-to-day basis, and that is who I have come here to represent.

North Wales MPs met Centrica this week, which will be making a substantial investment in offshore wind. We need to encourage that. I make a plea to the Secretary of State that, along with north Wales MPs, he makes

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the strong argument that the benefits go not to other parts of the United Kingdom, but to close by north Wales. We have the port facilities and the skilled labour force to retain thousands of quality jobs in our region and it is very important that we do so. The port of Holyhead needs investment, but unfortunately Stena is concentrating on the wrong things. It is talking about cutting the wages and conditions of crews when it should be investing in the port so that it can fulfil its potential and secure the extra business that will create thousands of quality jobs in the future. I hope that the Secretary of State will meet me so that we can speak with one voice on that issue.

I want to say a little about tourism. Wales as a product is of an international standard, but we are competing against the rest of the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. Let me again issue a plea to the Secretary of State and the Government. Our near neighbours, the Republic of Ireland and France, have cut the rate of value added tax to boost and stimulate the economy—

Mr MacNeil: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Albert Owen: No, I will not give way again.

Ireland and France have done that for a very good reason: they have done it because business has been asking them to do it. There is no reason why any part of the United Kingdom could not benefit from a cut in VAT. An application could be made to reduce it, and that would stimulate the economy.

Hywel Williams: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Albert Owen: I will give way once more, but that will be the final intervention, because I am conscious of the time.

Hywel Williams: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that VAT on tourism should be reduced, as indeed should VAT on building, renovations and repairs. In 2008, ECOFIN decided to allow countries to reduce VAT to 5%. What did the Labour Government do about that from 2008 onwards?

Albert Owen: No request was made to me. If it had been, I would have lobbied for such a reduction. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. However, I have found—and I am sure that he will agree with me about this—that the hike in VAT to 20% has had a negative effect on spending in many areas. Local businesses tell me that. Hon. Members should not listen to what I am saying; listen to them. There is a good campaign across the United Kingdom for a cut in VAT on tourism.

One leading business person told me that whenever he takes his partner, son-in-law and daughter out for a drink, he has to take the Chancellor of the Exchequer with him, because 20% of the bill goes to the Treasury. That cannot be right. Other European Union member states are enjoying a VAT reduction, and have benefited from hundreds of thousands of extra jobs and from investment in tourism.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Albert Owen: I will, but this really will be the last intervention, because, as I have said, I am conscious of the time.

Alun Cairns: Is the hon. Gentleman telling us that cutting the VAT paid by tourist businesses to 5% is Labour party policy?

Albert Owen: I am not going to take a lecture from someone who voted for it to be raised to 20%. [Interruption.] Conservative Members can flap their hands as much as they want—

Mr MacNeil: Labour abstained.

Albert Owen: I certainly did not abstain on any vote on this. I have been in favour of reducing VAT. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) may smirk, but businesses in his constituency have contacted me about this very issue. Either he wants to make knockabout party points, or he wants to stand up for businesses in his area. Unlike him, I voted against raising VAT, because I believe that it is a regressive tax which cuts business investment. When the Government talk about reducing taxes, they forget that they have hiked up value added tax. The businesses of this country are raising that issue with me, which is why I think it legitimate for me to raise it here today.

I want people to come to Wales to work, to live and to visit. I want home-grown businesses to grow and flourish, welcoming the investment that we receive from the rest of the United Kingdom, the rest of the European Union and the rest of the world. I want Wales to become the place in which to do business. I want it to be a destination, and I want its young people to flourish in the future. That will happen if we are pro-Welsh economy, pro-Britain, pro-Europe and pro-business.

3.9 pm

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I agreed with many of the things the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said, although I disagreed in certain important respects. I agree that of course it is possible to be proud to be Welsh, proud to be British and at the same time proud to be European, but when I say I am proud to be European, I mean I am proud to be part of the Europe that gave us the renaissance and the enlightenment values that have spread democracy over all the world and which people across the world look up to—[Interruption.] Yes, even if they do not seem to be following them in some parts of the world. What I am not proud of, however, is the European Union, because that is an entirely artificial construct which is completely undemocratic and, in the manner in which it goes about its business, is going against the values that Europe has given us over many hundreds of years. But I am, of course, proud to be Welsh and proud to be British.

Being proud to be Welsh does not mean having to give absolute support to the Welsh Assembly and to support giving it extra powers every couple of years, which is what seems to be happening at the moment. I sometimes wish I was as good at being able to predict the movement of the stock market as I am at being able to predict what is going to happen whenever somebody sets up a body to look at giving more powers to the Welsh Assembly. As I made clear in a Welsh Affairs

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Committee meeting, it was obvious from the start—before Mr Silk, who I admire personally, although I suspect I disagree with him politically on many things, traversed Wales, speaking at empty village halls the length and breadth of the nation—what was going to happen: at the end of the process, Mr Silk was simply going to recommend giving yet another tranche of powers to the Welsh Assembly, which is exactly what has happened.

Mr MacNeil: Does the hon. Gentleman see any benefit for the Welsh tourism industry if the Welsh Assembly or a Parliament in Wales had powers over VAT? Could it cut VAT to compete with independent nations such as Ireland or France, which were cited by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)? Is it not bizarre to complain about something and then not want the power to do anything about it?

David T. C. Davies: No, I think that, as people on different sides of the political fence recognise, great difficulties would be caused if, in an area where most people live along the border, one side cut VAT while the other kept it at the original level. That differential would create enormous economic problems. What I would be interested in doing is looking at the economic case for a cut in VAT for tourism across the whole of the United Kingdom, or at least across all those bits that wish to remain in the United Kingdom, and retain the benefits that come from that.

When we consider what the Assembly has actually managed to achieve, we should be very cautious about giving it further powers, particularly over policing, which is what is being discussed as a result of Silk 2. Let us consider the areas where the Welsh Assembly already has complete powers, such as inward investment. Inward investment has been a disaster over the years since the Assembly was set up. We went from being one of the most successful regions of the United Kingdom in attracting foreign inward investment to being the second lowest region. There are a number of reasons for that, many of which we heard when the Select Committee investigated this issue. We heard stories about people who were set up in so-called embassies in other parts of the world but could not even speak the language of the country they were supposed to be selling Wales to, and people who were not seen or heard of. We heard stories from Brussels that, while Scotland—to be fair—and Yorkshire and other regions of the United Kingdom had been very successful in raising their profile, nobody had ever heard of anyone from Wales. At the same time we have had problems with education, which is an important factor when companies decide where to locate. I believe there is also an issue with energy, which the hon. Member for Ynys Môn also mentioned and which I shall come back to shortly. Certainly, however, the record on inward investment has been a complete and utter disaster.

Education is now a story not just for the Welsh papers, but for the national papers. The PISA—programme for international student assessment—results were a disaster for those of us who have children in the state education system, as I do, and I went through it myself in Wales in the 1980s. The latest GCSE results for English came out today. I quickly looked at them on the BBC website and apparently they are much worse than expected, although the Welsh Assembly is once again quick to try to distance itself from the poor results.

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I believe there is a particular problem, which was summed up by Lee Waters. He worked, I believe, for a number of Labour Ministers in the Welsh Assembly. He is a man of many qualities, but not voting Conservative is not one of them; it is a shame that he does not. He hit the nail on the head today in an article in The Times when he wrote about the fact that the Welsh Assembly was deliberately trying to do things differently in areas where it had the power just because it could—not because it could do a better job, but simply to try to show that it was not going to follow what England does.

Ministers might not like me saying this, but if we compare what has gone on in England with what has gone on in Wales, we can see that the English education reforms have simply built on the reforms that Tony Blair put in place but was unable to carry out. I read his memoirs with great interest, and I was struck by the way in which his health and education policies were reflected almost exactly in the policies that were in the Conservative manifesto. It is therefore quite bizarre that Labour subsequently attacked our policies so vigorously, given that the ideas came from Labour itself.

Hywel Williams: What does the hon. Gentleman make of this week’s press reports that Labour will, if it ever gets back into government, adopt the reforms that are being promoted for England by the Secretary of State for Education?

David T. C. Davies: I very much welcome that, of course. It is not particularly surprising, however, because reforms such as the introduction of academies, the use of the private sector and the better use of inspections were all being suggested by Tony Blair. He started to implement them under Andrew Adonis but, for one reason or another, was unable to complete them. It is not in the least bit surprising that Labour Members now recognise that we have built on their reforms, and extended and widened them a little. Why would they want to go back on them? The problem is that we have two Labour parties in the United Kingdom. In England, we have a sort of new Labour, which to some extent recognises the need to deal with business and the private sector, if only so that it can get taxes off them in order to spend them. In Wales, we have a kind of old Labour, red in tooth and claw, that still has not woken up to the fact that the 1970s finished about 40 years ago.

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op) rose

David T. C. Davies: I would be delighted to give way to a true representative of old Labour.

Chris Evans: What can I say to that? Does the hon. Gentleman not also believe that there are two Conservative parties, judging by the comments and actions of the leader of the Conservative party in the Welsh Assembly?

David T. C. Davies: There are certainly differences. I will speak for myself, and others may follow. I think I am right in offering my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman. Has he recently had a child? He is looking a bit worried—perhaps it was someone further along the Opposition Benches. [Interruption.] I am told that it was actually the hon. Member for Carmarthen East

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and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards). My congratulations to him. He, too, will no doubt be experiencing the state education sector in Wales shortly.

My recommendation is that we look at what has gone wrong in that sector. There are not enough schools inspections, and far too much notice is given of those that are taking place. That practice has been done away with in England. I worked with the police for many years, as Members know. We could not have a situation in which a policy custody unit was told weeks in advance that it was going to be inspected; people just turned up and did it. That is how it should be with schools, and with hospitals. That is not what is happening in Wales, however.

I have been told by head teachers, and by schools improvement officers, that it is difficult for people to go in and assess how a teacher is doing in a classroom because the unions do not like it. Similarly, the unions do not like league tests, or testing of any other sort, and they are making it very difficult for people to go in and make the kind of changes that are required.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I spent 12 years working in the classroom, and I am still a paid-up member of a teaching trade union. My experience of the unions is that they were certainly not obstacles to the inspection regime. I want to probe the hon. Gentleman a little further on the question of education in Wales. What does he see as the main explanation for those PISA results, and for the failings in English literacy and mathematics in particular? Will he tell us what the main failings are that he has identified, rather than giving us the kind of jargon that he was articulating just now?

David T. C. Davies: I do not think that I was using jargon; I was spelling it out in fairly simple English. But okay, I will give the hon. Gentleman a list of things. First, I am told that it is difficult for head teachers to go in and assess teachers. They are allowed to do it only a couple of times a year, and they cannot simply walk into a classroom. I have been told that by two senior educationists in Wales, working in totally separate schools, over the past few weeks. Either they are wrong or the hon. Gentleman is wrong.

I have also been told that schools get a great deal of notice before an inspection takes place, and I think that is wrong. Inspectors ought to be able to go in without any notice whatsoever and find out what is going wrong. I know for a fact that when I was in the Welsh Assembly the unions and everyone else seemed to be totally against testing, but testing is a good thing. If my children are failing in tests, I want to know about it and to get involved. There is also a problem with sickness, whereby too many teachers are taking too many sick days in schools in Wales and that is not being properly investigated afterwards by the personnel departments. It is also far too difficult to get rid of bad teachers who are not up to the job. That situation can occur in any walk of life, but in most others someone who is not up to a job will be got rid of by someone higher up. That does not seem to happen in teaching. I do not think all that is jargon; those are fairly simple matters.

May I make one last point on this, which is the most important one of all? In England, there is a recognition that parents have a right to have some say over their children’s education, and they can exercise that most

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drastically by taking their children out of the state system and putting them into some kind of an academy. As a parent, I welcome that, because it is my taxpayer’s money that is being spent and I ought to have a say. If the school is not up to the job, I ought to have the right to take my child out and put them somewhere else. I do not have that right in Wales, and that is taking away an incentive for teachers to improve.

Alun Cairns: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, which is interesting in terms of the direction that the questions are coming from. Does he share my concern that the hands of the Liberal Democrats, and even those of Plaid Cymru, are not necessarily clean in this area, because they will have been part of the coalition during some of the formative years, when some of the education policies were put in place?

David T. C. Davies: My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right. The Labour party has generally been the lead party in the Assembly since it was set up, but at other times Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats have been involved.

Mr Mark Williams: I respect the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman makes those remarks, but I spent 12 years in the classroom and no head teacher was ever prevented from inspecting any lessons I undertook. Does he think that he could add to his list the issue of resources? Our Government have addressed that in part through the pupil premium, and Liberals in Wales, along with Labour colleagues, have pursued a similar policy there. That has been a good measure. Resources are important, but so, too, is maintaining properly motivated and confident staff. One challenge to this Government in Westminster is to retain that well-motivated staff, because the jury is out so far on that.

David T. C. Davies: I am grateful to my friend—I am not sure whether he is an hon. Friend, a colleague or what under this coalition, but he is that—for the compliment. I agree that both those matters are important. On resources, the Government have rightly made cuts to all sorts of departments, except to foreign aid; I could launch into another speech on that, but will not do so. Generally speaking, the Government have had to make cuts—we have done so rightly—to try to balance the books, but we have not cut money to the Welsh Assembly. The amount of money that it has had overall has increased slightly, although people there will try to argue that when inflation is factored in it is not quite as much as it once was. So that is certainly not an issue that can be laid at the door of either of us in this coalition Government. Of course I completely agree that it is important that staff are motivated, and I would regret it if anything were ever done to stop that happening, but there is a difference between de-motivating people and allowing them to get away with things.

May I just move on to health, Madam Deputy Speaker, because it is the other big area of which the Welsh Assembly has control?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. The hon. Gentleman may certainly move on to health and to his other subjects, but I am sure he must be

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considering the fact that he has spoken for some time and that many other Members wish to speak. I do not suggest that he stops immediately, but he might like possibly to accelerate his next few points.

David T. C. Davies: I would certainly not want to deprive the House of the wisdom of hearing from anyone else from the Principality, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I wonder whether there is some way you could indicate to me for how much longer you think I should detain the House.

Madam Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman will get the feeling of the House as he progresses. Another few minutes would be fine.

David T. C. Davies: I will try to be brief. I do not even need to say too much about health, because much of it has been said by Labour Members who have been affected. Suffice it to say, a member of my own family has been very badly affected by the second-rate service that we are getting in Wales. In England, people requiring cataract treatment can expect to be seen in 18 weeks. In Wales, it is 36 weeks, so people have to wait for twice as long. The Welsh Assembly are failing to meet even their own poor targets. When I last checked, some 300 people had been waiting more than 36 weeks for cataract treatment, which could easily lead to people going blind. That is an absolute disgrace.

Mr MacNeil: The hon. Gentleman needs to make the distinction. Surely he means not the Welsh Assembly but the Government. If there are health or other issues in the UK, it is the responsibility not of the Parliament but of the Government of the particular Parliament or Assembly.

David T. C. Davies: That is certainly true, and a variety of parties have been in government and should take responsibility, but the Conservative party is not one of them. The Conservative Government in London have overall responsibility for the economy, which affects Wales, and have done a superb job in cutting the deficit, dealing with the way in which benefits were being handed out to one and all, and getting people back into work. That is something of which we can be enormously proud.

We need to look at issues such as the Severn bridge, which was debated yesterday. I thank the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for making such important points on which there could be cross-party agreement in Wales. Something needs to be done about the tolls, and it needs to happen as soon as the concession ends.

Finally, to go back to the points made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, we all agree that manufacturing and developing our manufacturing industry are important, but I disagree that that can be done by an overuse of renewable energy, which actually leads to higher overall energy costs. One of the things that manufacturers need now is low energy costs. America, for example, which has halved its energy prices, is seeing manufacturers coming back from places such as the far east. I hope the Government will think carefully about swallowing any more of the green propaganda, which has led to a demise in manufacturing in Wales and elsewhere.

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Overall, we have a great deal of which we can be proud. The Labour leader has said that he wishes to learn lessons from Wales. The lesson is that if a person votes Labour in Wales, they will get longer waiting lists, their children will not get as good an education and they can forget about inward investment. If that is the lesson that he wants to shout out to everyone in the run-up to the election, I wish him every success.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. The House will be aware that there are a great many Members who wish to speak this afternoon and a limited amount of time in which they can do so. I therefore have to impose a time limit on Back-Bench speeches of seven minutes.

3.27 pm

Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): That ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, necessary as it is, shows how truncated what used to be the great St David’s day debate, which has been held in this House since 1944, has become. It has been reduced to an hour and a half with seven-minute limits at the tail end of a Thursday. Of course it is not St David’s day today. It is the feast day of St Colette of France, a well-known mediaeval saint and, among other things, the patron saint of pregnant women.

I want to talk not about pregnant women but about a serious matter that is becoming a scourge in Wales, in my constituency and across the United Kingdom. I refer to the absolutely inappropriately misnamed legal highs. I have no doubt that there are many Members who have some knowledge about the people who sell such substances to our constituents. In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), we have suffered the scourge of legal high shops, or head shops. There is one in Pontnewydd in Cwmbran and one in Newport.

Since the shops have opened, there has been an increase in the number of youngsters between the ages of 14 and 17 affected by these particular drugs, according to the accident and emergency department at the Royal Gwent hospital. Between 2012 and 2013, the Gwent drug interventions programme in Cwmbran tested 500 people in police custody for legal highs, 70% of whom came back positive. In an attempt to deal with those serious issues, the two shops were raided last October. Five people were arrested and 58 different substances were seized and sent for testing. The shops were temporarily closed, but they are now back, and another one has opened on Osbourne road in Pontypool, further up the valley in my constituency.

We can look at the websites of these dreadful places, as young people undoubtedly do. This is just one example. The owners of the shop ask the question, “What are legal highs?” and the site states that they

“are substances made from assorted herbs, herbal extracts and ‘research chemicals’. They produce the same, or similar effects, to drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy, but are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act. They are however, considered illegal under current medicines legislation to sell, supply or advertise for ‘human consumption’. To get round this sellers” –

that is, the owners of the shop themselves –

“refer to them as research chemicals, plant food, bath crystals or pond cleaner.”

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The site concedes that the effects of these so-called legal highs are no different from the effects of those that are illegal.

One product called “Exodus Damnation”, which is currently advertised on the shop’s website, was the cause of a near fatal heart attack suffered by 17-year-old Matt Ford in Canterbury. In Pontypool in my constituency, 176 people signed a petition saying that the shop should not be opened. Their views were strongly expressed to the police and local authorities, all of whom could do absolutely nothing. It is simply not right that our councils, our police forces and our law enforcement agencies can do virtually nothing to stop such shops opening and poisoning hundreds and thousands of young Welsh people with these appalling so-called highs.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on an important subject. Does he also agree that the long-term health implications of the substances that some young people are taking should also make us extremely worried? We do not know what is in them and that could lead to serious problems in the future.

Paul Murphy: Indeed, we do not know that. People have been temporarily blinded by such substances and have had large lumps come out on their bodies, and it could be that in the long term they will suffer even greater illnesses.

One of these groups of shops, called Chill South Wales, has a Facebook page on which it promotes its products. The most recent post is an image of four children’s cartoon characters with a range of drugs paraphernalia. We have looked at the list of 394 Facebook friends; many of them are still at school and some are as young as 12. Those young people have no idea what they are taking and no way of knowing the possible dangers or the long-term health risks. These products are just as dangerous as illegal drugs, if not more so as people unwittingly think that they are safe because they are legal and are being sold on our high streets. That could not be further from the truth.

To be fair, I think the Government are doing what they can by using temporary class drug orders to ban substances as they come along, but it is a game of catch-up: as soon as one substance is banned, another appears in the marketplace. More than 250 substances have been banned, but more are appearing at a rate of one a week.

The Home Office review is to be welcomed.

Hywel Williams: As a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, I visited a forensic lab just outside London and was shown a selection of the drugs that had been confiscated in the few weeks before our visit. The system is now privatised and those I spoke to reported that they found it very difficult to keep up with the novel substances as they were imported, mainly from China. Is the right hon. Gentleman content that the Government are putting enough money into the forensic service to keep up with these novel drugs?

Paul Murphy: I certainly think that many more resources need to be put into this and we should use all available avenues to alert and warn our young people of the dangers of these drugs. Our schools, colleges, education

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services and local authorities must do all they can to let people know how terrible, dangerous and toxic these drugs are.

We must certainly consider giving local authorities special powers to close down the shops and I think that we should legislate to do so. Perhaps we could adopt the model they have in New Zealand, where the onus is on suppliers to prove that the substances are safe. A lot more thought must go into this.

Today’s debate is, of course, about Wales, and this is an ideal opportunity for the UK Government and the Welsh Government to work together, as they have different responsibilities but the same aim of trying to deal with these terrible things. I have worked with my local Assembly Member, Lynne Neagle, on this matter. I believe that there is a case for the Secretary of State or the Minister to contact their counterparts in Cardiff Bay to see whether we can tackle this appalling abuse. One great advantage of a Welsh affairs debate is that we can raise such issues on the Floor of the House of Commons, which since devolution has not been quite so easy to do. I am sure that our constituents do not see the distinction when it comes to the Welsh Government being in charge of health and the United Kingdom Government being in charge of criminal justice. Both Governments need to ensure that we deal with this terrible plague affecting our young people in Wales.

3.35 pm

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): For me, as the MP for Montgomeryshire, there is no more enjoyable political experience than speaking in this Chamber in a Welsh affairs debate linked to St David’s day. In fact, I have moved from my usual place on the back row because I wanted to make my speech as close as I am ever likely to be to the seat from which Lord Roberts spoke—his attitude to Welsh affairs was very similar to mine—and indeed from which spoke the most extraordinary Welsh politician of the last century, David Lloyd George. He led a Conservative-Liberal coalition a very long time ago. I enjoy visiting his museum. I promise not to indulge in the kinds of rhetorical flourishes he used when speaking in the House.

Paul Murphy: The hon. Gentleman interests the House with his reference to Lloyd George and the coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberals. He will, of course, remember what happened to the Liberal party after that coalition fell.

Glyn Davies: I am hoping to make a speech without any sour notes, if possible.

My main political interest over recent decades has been the interests of Wales. I am unashamedly a Welsh politician. For many years I was involved in developing the Welsh economy—a new economy for Wales after the devastation of the beginning of the last century—by working with the Welsh Development Agency, the Welsh Tourist Board and the Development Board for Rural Wales. Through the late ’80s and early ’90s, those organisations did a magnificent job in developing the Welsh economy. I think that they were wound up too soon. Clearly, all quangos are wound up in the end, but

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I think they were wound up before the job was done, a decision that was taken, I believe, on the basis of prejudice, rather than evidence.

I am intensely proud of being a Welshman. It influences my politics in virtually everything I do in this Chamber. I simply do not accept that to be independently minded, to be culturally and linguistically proud, to be emotionally linked to our Welsh history and to be aware of our distinctive nationhood should ever be the preserve of Welsh nationalists, of Plaid Cymru. It is, and must always be, a part of Conservative philosophy.

There are a million issues I could speak about, but I will touch on just a few. The first is an economic view from rural mid-Wales, where I live. We know that Wales is not a coherent geographical unit. Economically, north Wales is always linked to the north-west of England, mid-Wales is linked to the midlands and south Wales is linked to the M4 corridor. I think that we should challenge the judgment of investing in links between north and south Wales, and not just on the basis of economic benefit, but on the cost-benefit analysis. During my years in the National Assembly, I always thought that there was an element of wanting to develop Wales as a geographical region, rather than just looking at the cost, as with the A470 and the A483. I think that is a real objective, because developing Wales as a coherent unit is important in itself.

Mid-Wales warrants much better treatment that it receives from the Welsh Government, and this is a long-term issue. Wales has an area in the middle between north Wales and south Wales, and it has always been a battle to develop the same awareness of mid-Wales as of the other two areas. We must focus on mid-Wales so that it brings the other two areas closer together. I have always thought there was a case for more investment in mid-Wales to create a unified Wales rather than just for the benefit of individual projects.

Mid-Wales is not just an area to put wind farms—they do not bring much economic benefit to the local economy—and which can then be forgotten in terms of industrial development. Given some political views—certainly not mine—in Wales, that is a danger, and we should challenge it.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): My hon. Friend and I worked together on the Development Board for Rural Wales. In Newtown and Welshpool, where investment was focused, there is a residue of manufacturing, as there is in Brecon. Would such investment not bring great benefit to rural mid-Wales again?

Glyn Davies: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. We worked together on the sort of development that not just transformed mid-Wales, but brought north and south Wales closer together. That is a point I wanted to make in this debate.

Wales should be developed not just as an economic unit, because it is important to develop it as a political entity. That has probably always happened throughout history, but it has certainly gathered pace in recent decades. The Secretary of State has taken delivery of the Silk commission’s report, which came in two parts. There will be other opportunities to talk about it, but it makes two particularly important recommendations.

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The first part of the report recommends that significant income tax powers should be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. When the commission was set up, its main purpose in my opinion, and I think in the Government’s opinion, was to give the Assembly financial accountability so that decisions were made on raising money and spending it. The debate would then be the same as in every other democratic body imaginable and include raising money. Unless they accept that responsibility for raising the money they spend, the Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly will not become a real governing body or a proper Parliament. That is hugely important.

Mr MacNeil: Surely an issue that is allied to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about tax-raising powers is nurturing and growing the economy. I would argue further that the Republic of Ireland was behind Wales economically 100 years ago, but it has leapfrogged Wales and Scotland. The reason is that the Republic of Ireland had the power not just to tax and spend, but to see which parts of its economy it wanted to nurture and grow. Wales will not be able to do that until it has powers equivalent to those in the Isle of Man, the Republic of Ireland, Denmark and so on. Essentially, it needs the power to be at the helm and to make its own decisions for its own people.

Glyn Davies: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I want the Welsh Government to become a proper Government with sharp debate so that debates about the budget engage Welsh people. They would take much more interest in a Welsh Government with tax-raising powers.

The First Minister of Wales has put some blocks in the way, but I sense that after the result of the Scottish referendum those blocks may be resolved. There are three parties in Wales that are generally supportive of this principle, but Labour seems instinctively not to be. I do not know what the shadow Secretary of State’s view is, but I suspect that he is not greatly in favour of devolving income tax powers to the Assembly because of the responsibility it carries. I would plead with him to change his opinion. Let us see devolution develop as it should. This is the next obvious step in the process of devolution, and we must get a grip on that.

In my last 36 seconds—I would have liked to have had20 minutes—I want to touch on a cross-border issue that I have raised before. We have to stop devolution damaging the interests of Wales. We talk about education and health, but the issue that is particularly relevant to me is the cross-border road schemes that would go ahead without devolution but are now unable to go ahead because England is not willing to commit money to its half of such schemes as there is no economic benefit for it. We have to develop a relationship with the Department for Transport to stop that damaging Wales, as it currently does.

3.45 pm

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) for the opportunity to debate Welsh affairs today. I want to raise two issues relating to employment in my constituency.

However, let me begin by strongly agreeing with the excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on the problem of legal

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highs, particularly in Gwent. That issue very much came home to me on Sunday, when I was with my kids in a corner of a park in Newport and saw dozens and dozens of empty legal-high packets of all shapes, sizes and colours, with enticing graphics on the front. As in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, premises in Newport were closed down; I believe they were part of the same operation. As a result, I went to a briefing by the team in Gwent police who are dealing with this issue and working extremely hard on it with the local authorities. When the Home Secretary came into post, she promised swift action on legal highs. However, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, it is an extremely difficult issue involving hundreds of different substances and thousands of different sellers. The legislation is out of date and we are playing catch-up. We need to give local authorities and the police the tools to do the job, not least because people have absolutely no idea what they taking, and we are very much storing up health problems for the future.

I want to talk about the economy in Newport. In recent times, we have heard much from the Government and their Welsh team about how things are improving in Wales, with the recovery under way and things getting easier. Of course, I welcome falls in unemployment in my constituency, although youth unemployment remains unacceptably high, but beneath those figures there is a different story. It is still the case that about 300,000 Welsh workers earned below the living wage in 2012. I would like to say a very big “Well done and congratulations” to Newport council for its decision last week to implement the living wage.

In Wales, we have seen the largest increase in the UK in the number of people who want to work more hours but cannot find them due to the Tories’ failed economic policies. Some 65,000 people are deemed to be under-employed in Wales. Only this morning, a young girl came into my office in Newport and talked about how hard it was for her family because her father’s hours had been reduced from 40 to 14. That is the reality for many people in my constituency.

In recent weeks, there has been bad news for employment in our city of Newport. First, there were the job losses at the Avana bakery—the Secretary of State has been involved with this—in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). The bakery announced that it would possibly lose up to 650 jobs following the loss of a contract with Marks and Spencer. Secondly, we learned that there is a threat to public sector jobs at the Ministry of Justice shared services centre in Celtic Springs. Then, only this week, we heard the very hard news that 123 jobs are under threat at the Orb steel works, which has a long history of steelmaking in my constituency and is a subsidiary of Tata Steel. At the MOJ and Orb works, there are things that the Government could do to step in, and that is the focus of my remarks.

This week’s announcement that Tata Steel will be restructuring the work force at the Orb steelworks may lead to the loss of 83 direct jobs and 40 contractors’ jobs. That is really hard news for those workers—and their families—who have worked extremely flexibly over the past few years. These are skilled jobs that we can ill afford to lose from Wales. It is an extremely challenging time for the steel industry in Wales, and this announcement underlines that. Demand for steel is down, imports from outside Europe are up and steel manufacturers are

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being hit by higher energy costs. The price of electricity for steelmakers in the UK is about 38% higher than in France and 56% higher than in Germany. Those are massive differences and they are hitting our industries. UK producers also pay levies and taxes such as the carbon floor price and the renewables obligation, but German and French steelmakers—not to mention those outside Europe—are largely protected from those. The accumulative impact is that we are putting UK steelmakers at a competitive disadvantage, with customers seeing UK energy costs as a particular problem.

I know that the Government have accepted the arguments that high energy prices impact on UK manufacturers and that the most energy-intensive industries should be protected from rising green taxes. However, what has been done so far is not enough to mitigate those costs or reverse the manufacturers’ fortunes. In the Budget, the Government need to take more action on high energy costs, the carbon price floor and renewables obligations, which are hitting us really hard, particularly in Wales, at a time when demand for steel is down.

Albert Owen: My hon. Friend is making a very important point. The carbon price floor, which disadvantages this country, was brought in unilaterally in the past couple of years. We cannot blame Europe for that; it is down to this British Government.

Jessica Morden: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I very much agree with him. I know that time is running out, but we need Wales Office Ministers urgently to press the Treasury on that matter in advance of the Budget.

The Government are also potentially to offshore Government jobs from the MOJ shared services centre in Newport. I am very reliant on the public sector in my constituency. People in the public sector have had their wages frozen and there has been a sustained attack on their numbers. In fact, in the recent Centre for City report, Newport came bottom for employment growth in the private sector.

Was it only in January that the Prime Minister said that we must become the “reshoring nation”? You would not think so, because only weeks later his Ministers are embarking on a path that could lead the MOJ shared services centre into a contract that will allow offshoring. The Newport office employs about 1,000 staff in back-office functions. The Cabinet Office and the MOJ want to privatise those jobs, and so far nothing has been said by Ministers to alleviate fears. In fact, the Justice Secretary told me:

“To be a competitive and viable business…needs to be in line with other companies of this kind, which often see non-customer facing transactional roles being sourced offshore. The creation and operation model…reflects government guidelines with off shoring being a feature of many successful public sector contracts.”

If the Prime Minister is so keen on private companies reshoring jobs, why is his Government so keen on offshoring Government jobs? The situation is ludicrous. Will Welsh Ministers tell the Cabinet Office and the Justice Secretary that, especially in the light of other job losses in Newport, these are good public sector jobs that we really need to keep in Newport?

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To end on a positive note, the Welsh Government’s deal with Pinewood Studios to bring a new film studio to Newport is very welcome and a good boost to us locally, as is the Welsh Government’s setting up of the reNewport taskforce, which has recently come up with lots of innovative ideas for improving things in Newport. It has been warmly welcomed and has harnessed much local enthusiasm.

Last but not least, I welcome the announcement about the NATO summit in September. We are looking forward to that and I am also looking forward to working very closely with Wales Office Ministers to maximise its impact on the community and employers of Newport.

3.53 pm

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and thank the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and his colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), for making the application to the Backbench Business Committee. I very much agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) said this morning during business questions and what the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) has said about the need to re-establish this as an annual debate on important matters in Wales, ideally as close as possible to the day we celebrate our patron saint.

This year, the promenade in Aberystwyth may be rather more familiar to Members as a result of the media interest in the storms that lashed the west Wales coast. Not just Aberystwyth was affected; Borth, Clarach, Aberaeron, Llangrannog and Cardigan all faced the brunt of the storms. I take this opportunity to thank all those in our communities—the voluntary sector, council workers, the emergency services—who did such sterling work to get us back on our feet. One Saturday morning stands out: 150 local residents physically cleared debris off the promenade to make it smart again.

I thank the Welsh Assembly Government for their response: as the Minister responsible, Alun Davies quickly came to see what was going on; £1.5 million has been pledged to the county for renovating the promenade; and Mrs Hart and Mrs Hutt have announced £560,000 for promoting the tourist sector. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who I know took a great interest in what was going on. He has been in touch with the county council in relation to military support being made available when storms hit again, which has also been much appreciated.

At the time, there was much local speculation about whether funding would be forthcoming from the EU solidarity fund, and I asked a question in the House about that. It would be useful if the Secretary of State clarified whether a request was ever made by the Welsh Assembly Government to access European funds, whether the substantive fund or the regional fund. I go further to suggest that if we believe in devolution—and I very much do—the responsibility for such matters as flood protection and the alleviation of flood damage rests with the National Assembly for Wales, so should the Welsh Assembly Government simply wait for the Westminster Government to act, if they can under European Union criteria, or should they make a request? I am not sure whether such a request has been made, but either way,

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the resources made available by the Welsh Assembly Government to Ceredigion have been much welcomed, as, I repeat, has been the interest shown by the Secretary of State.

Ceredigion is open for business—the promenade in Aberystwyth is open for business—and like the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, I want to use this opportunity to talk about the tourist sector. We are all aware of the triangular tour made by visitors to Britain—a few days in London, off to Edinburgh, down to Stratford-on-Avon and back to London before jetting off home to wherever they have come from. Somehow, Wales is often overlooked in the tourist sector. If that is a problem for Wales generally, it is certainly a problem for those of us on the periphery of Wales. Despite our coastal path, the agri-tourism sector and the beauty of the Cambrian mountains, generating tourism is a real challenge, partly because of transport infrastructure, but also because of the costs to visitors.

That matter needs to be set in the context of the importance of tourism and the real potential for growth. Some 3,000 jobs in my constituency are dependent on tourism. The potential for growth was identified by a British Hospitality Association report, appropriately subtitled, “Driving local economies and underpinning communities”, which suggested a 5% cut in VAT for the hospitality sector. That issue is not unique to Wales, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies)—I emphasise the hon. Friend—who said that he will look at the effect of making a 5% cut across the whole United Kingdom. He is right that we need to do that, and I urge Welsh Ministers to make that case for the United Kingdom to their colleagues in the Treasury. It has been estimated that we could create another 2,000 jobs in my constituency and another 20,000 jobs across Wales by 2020. There is huge potential, but Wales of course relies on tourist industry jobs: 8.3% of our jobs in Ceredigion and 8% of our jobs in Wales are dependent on the tourist sector. There are precedents, not least in Europe, where 24 of the 28 member states have such a policy.

Hywel Williams: Has the hon. Gentleman made any assessment of the extra tax take that would accrue to the UK Government from the employment of those extra people?

Mr Mark Williams: I have not made any such assessment, but if the hon. Gentleman looks at Hansard for the debate on VAT and tourism in Westminster Hall a couple of weeks ago, he will see the figures that were produced. There will of course be a hit on the UK economy in the first year, but we need to consider the gains that will accrue thereafter. I most strongly commend that point to my Front-Bench colleagues.

I want briefly to talk about rurality in general, and the extent to which the rural dimension is considered by policy makers in Whitehall. I must say that the Welsh case is strongly represented throughout Whitehall by Welsh Ministers, but the rural dimension can sometimes be overlooked. For example, accessing work capability assessments is a challenge in rural areas such as mine, where there is limited public transport. I suggest that a disproportionate number of my constituents have missed appointments and suffered penalties as a consequence of living in rural areas.

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We have lost tax offices. Aberystwyth lost its tax office under the last Labour Government and is now losing its tax advice centre. Instead, west Wales will be served by a roving team of experts from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. We are losing face-to-face contact and expertise on the ground. It was anticipated that VAT returns would be made to HMRC online, but 20% of my constituency is yet to get broadband.

The hon. Member for Monmouth rightly raised concerns about the health service. We have lost our consultant and midwife unit, which is something that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) will relate to. The Welsh Labour Government are much more interested in the urban agenda than in the challenges that we face in mid and west Wales.

We could talk endlessly and there are many more points that I want to make. I hope that we have such a debate again, particularly so that there is another opportunity to talk about rural Wales.

4 pm

Chris Evans (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): This is the first time that you have called me to speak in a debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, so may I congratulate you, somewhat belatedly, on your elevation to the Chair?

Owen Smith (Pontypridd) (Lab): You smoothie.

Chris Evans: Thank you very much.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), who is not in his place, I bemoan the lack of the St David’s day debate, which has been held since 1944. When Aneurin Bevan spoke in this place in 1944, he said that there were no Welsh problems, only problems. The wonderful thing about the Welsh day debate that we are missing is that it allows us to bring up issues that usually go unnoticed in this House. Today, I will bring up the issue of truancy in schools.

Truancy is not simply a matter for schools; increasingly, it affects the whole of society. It is a complex issue. It is not simply about pupils skipping school to go to the park with their friends, but is often a sign of deeper problems at home and, in some cases, of abuse. If a pupil truants from school often enough, they will be excluded. They will thereby miss out not only on a worthwhile education, but on the support network that schools provide. That can result in people falling in with the wrong crowd and getting into trouble with the police, making them less desirable to potential employers.

When I visit schools in my constituency, I am always impressed by the level of pastoral care that students receive. Head teachers have told me that for some students, that care is arguably more important than traditional classes. For many students, the support that they receive in school is invaluable. That is why exclusions and truancy are serious issues.

Over the past few years, the Welsh Government have done an incredible amount of work to prevent schoolchildren from being permanently excluded. Just 102 pupils were permanently removed from Welsh schools last year, which is almost 100 fewer than in 2009-10, when there were 200 exclusions. That is a step in the right direction. However, I will focus today on what is known as “soft exclusion”.

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The number of temporary exclusions is still too high. There were 17,508 temporary exclusions in 2011-12 in Wales alone. More research and data are needed to explain why that is occurring. In October 2009, my predecessor, Lord Touhig, asked a parliamentary question about what research the previous Government had done on the effects of exclusion on pupils. He was told that no research had been commissioned. Sadly, that is still the case. What do young people do when they are excluded temporarily? Do they miss out on work? In reality, we just do not know.

In preparation for this debate, I read a report by the charity, Barnardo’s, which did some research on the use of unlawful exclusions. That is when schools ask parents to keep their children away from school without providing a formal notification of exclusion. Local authorities know nothing about such exclusions. There is obviously not a huge amount of data in this area, which is unfortunate, but the Barnardo’s study is based on anecdotal evidence.

I shall quote from the report. One parent said:

“From year 7 the head of year would phone me to say he’d been excluded, but no time scale would be mentioned. A letter would arrive two days later telling me how many days it was. There was no work set or given.”

The report heard evidence from parents of a lack of dialogue between schools and families, which leaves the pupils falling behind. One parent said:

“The head of year would ring me and say they were thinking of excluding him. Sometimes there would be a letter. It takes two days or more to arrive and it would say work would be set two days after that, but by then the exclusion time would have passed.”

The police in Blackwood say that the problems in the market area are caused mainly by young people who have been excluded, whether temporarily or permanently. That demonstrates the drain on police resources and the wider effect that this issue has on society. I was even alarmed to find, shockingly and tragically, that pupils with special needs accounted for a little over 60% of all exclusions in Wales in 2012-13, and those with school action and school action plus special educational needs had the highest rate of permanent exclusions at 0.6% per 1,000 pupils. A report by the charity Ambitious about Autism found that four in 10 children with autism had been informally excluded temporarily.

Alun Cairns: The hon. Gentleman raises extremely important points. Does he share my concern that some local authorities in Wales have a policy not to statement children? The statementing of children can be extremely important in some cases, to provide the right level of support that will ultimately prevent exclusion in special needs cases.

Chris Evans: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and that is the point I was trying to make. There is a lack of research and data, and if more children were statemented and we knew what was going on, we would be able to address the issue.

If such things are happening on a large scale, the Government need to look into it and investigate further. Why is it happening? Is it because schools are not equipped to deal with autistic young people? The Barnardo’s report I mentioned earlier contained a statement from a parent with an autistic child:

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“There are teachers who manage him fine, and those who don’t sympathise with his situation. Sending him home for 3 days is not the best option and there’s no discussion of strategies for managing his behaviour. Reasons vary, but generally he’s sent home once every 3 weeks.”

In my constituency we are extremely fortunate to have an excellent autism unit at Risca community comprehensive, and the support students receive is fantastic. The same is also true of Coleg Gwent at Crosskeys, where pupils go on to become independent live-in students. Perhaps there are areas across the country not so fortunate, but excluding children from schools on the basis that staff cannot cater to their needs is to me completely unacceptable. What concerns me is that no data on these informal exclusions are held centrally. I would like some form of Government investigation into how prevalent the issue is in schools, not only in Wales, but across the UK.

How vast is the problem? It seems to me that we simply do not know, although we do know that more than 10% of 16 to 18-year-olds are not in employment, education or training, compared with 23% of 19 to 24-year-olds. To me, those figures are unacceptable. It is all very well trying to score political points, as some of us have tried to do today, but we must understand why the figures are so high.

Charities and organisations understand this problem much better than I do. Catch22 is a social business that does an excellent job of getting young people into the habit of attending school and following a schedule. Speak to Catch22 and it will say that when young people play truant and eventually drop out of the mainstream education system, it is important that their aspirations are rebuilt and that character and resilience are developed. Those are interesting ideas, and the Government need to work closely with those fantastic organisations to find a long-term solution to the problem.

With so many young people leaving school with no future plans, we must think about how we can create opportunities for people who may have fallen out of mainstream education. No Member of this House wants young people to be excluded from school and never to reintegrate into society, and there are apprenticeship schemes that focus not on academic achievement but on learning a genuine worthwhile skill that will help a participant stay in work for years.

In my constituency, I speak all the time to businesses with excellent apprenticeship schemes. Last week I met Hafod Quarry in Abercarn, which told me about a five-year scheme that essentially guarantees employment in the industry for many years. Pensord Press in Pontllanfraith and Joyner PA in Risca offer similar apprenticeships that develop skills and lead to full-time work. There are, however, businesses that have told me that they cannot recruit young people locally because they do not have the so-called “soft skills” of communication, turning up on time and completing tasks. Those who played truant and left the education system at an early age are most likely to struggle with those essential skills. If someone without those skills is put in front of an interviewer, they simply will not get the job. That is why it is so important we get the issue right now.

Our education system needs to set up Welsh youngsters for the future, and I do not think unlawful exclusions are part of that. I would like something that my predecessor asked the previous Labour Government for almost

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five years ago—concrete data and a definitive study into levels of exclusion in schools and the reasons for truancy. Without that we are doing our young people a disservice. In light of the evidence available, expulsion should be the last resort while all avenues are investigated to address unacceptable behaviour in our schools.

4.9 pm

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I rise to speak as a passionate Welshman who enjoys Welsh history, our proud culture and the contribution that many Welshmen have made to the history of Wales, the UK and beyond. I will try to be positive, and I will ask my questions in a positive spirit.

Whatever people’s opinions of devolution in 1997 after the referendum, there was a genuine hope across all political parties that devolution would work and make a difference. It provided a great chance to make a difference and develop a Government who could respond to changing needs, react to problems as they emerged, and take decisions much closer to the electorate.

My main subject today will be the reputation of Wales, my worry that its governance is damaging that reputation and the consequences of such damage. It is easy to say, after one four-year term of governance, that reforms were established but there has not been enough opportunity to see the outcomes and benefits. After a second term, that argument gets somewhat weaker and we would expect to see some benefits. But after nearly 15 years, we should really be seeing some positive outcome from devolution, such as the “devolution dividend” as it was called at one time.

Sadly, in so many areas, if not almost all areas—I am trying to think of one where I am wrong—the relative position of Wales has fallen back, compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. I do not want to be party political in making that point, but I seek an acceptance that Wales is now the poorest part of the UK. That was not the case before 1997. As a result, the challenge of attracting investment and creating entrepreneurship is so much greater. It is so much more difficult to attract investment to the poorest part of the UK, because the gross domestic product and the value of the spend is not as high. The reputation of Wales is therefore key.

Roger Williams: I am following my hon. Friend’s argument closely. Does he agree that part of the problem is that Wales has a legacy of ill health from heavy industry and a legacy of economic inactivity because of the loss of those industries? That has never been reflected in the Barnett formula so those needs are still unmet in Wales.

Alun Cairns: I accept part of that, but I would also look to areas that have a similar legacy but are not the poorest parts of the United Kingdom. Those are the very same points that, it was argued, would be corrected by Adminstrations that would take decisions much closer to the people. I speak as a pro-devolutionist—I am not against the institution, I am against the governance, the way in which the institution has worked and how policy has been set.

David T. C. Davies: Does my hon. Friend agree that parts of the United Kingdom, such as Northern Ireland, are poorer than Wales, but achieve better outcomes in

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areas such as education? It must be partly, if not wholly, the responsibility of the Government of the Welsh Assembly that things are so bad there.

Alun Cairns: My hon. Friend is right, because a culture developed in which everything was judged by the amount of money that was put into it, rather than the outcomes that were derived from the investment.

When we talk about reputation, we need to accept that the way in which Wales is currently reported is not positive. I am very saddened by that, but it is largely because the column inches in the press tend to focus on health and education. They are essential to attracting inward investment, because middle and senior management would have to use the national health service and send their children to the schools. That must be added to the way in which Wales is perceived and the challenge that we have in attracting investment thereafter.

Let us focus on education, because without doubt a nation’s future is built on the quality of its education. In the past few years alone, there has been a determination to develop different qualifications, sometimes for the sake of being different, as my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) mentioned earlier. When there was a drive to introduce greater rigour in GCSE outcomes, in Wales we saw political intervention. In England, politics was kept out of it completely, and the policy direction was set for greater rigour and stronger assessments of standards. In Wales, there was a determination to change that.

What worries me most, as the father of a 10-year-old, is that qualifications in Wales could be seen to be secondary to their counterparts in England. I really hope that, for those who gained GCSE qualifications last year, employers will accept Welsh qualifications as being of the same standard as those in England. However, there was an upgrade in more than 1,000 cases, and that may make employers and higher education institutions question them. For example, the Welsh baccalaureate is not accepted by some universities, and that is sad. That reputational damage is now being perpetuated by the outcomes of what the programme for international student assessment judged to be tragically lower standards. As we seek to attract investment to turn the economy around, the quality of public services is essential.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I hope the hon. Gentleman does not feel that I am just trying to look on the positive side, but he must be aware that Cardiff university is a Russell Group university and that it accepts students from the Welsh education system. It also has two Nobel laureate prize winners.

Alun Cairns: Cardiff university is a fantastic university. The funding structure in Wales is starving the university of funding, as compared to its counterparts in England. The question we need to be asking ourselves is this: how can Cardiff university maintain its standards and status when, because of the different funding structure, there is more funding going into higher education in Wales? That is another sign of the reputational damage being caused by the decisions that are being taken.

Owen Smith: The hon. Gentleman says that he wants to show some respect for devolution, but could he be a little more impartial with the facts he employs? Will he

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tell us, for example, whether he accepts that the Welsh Government should be congratulated on a fall of just 250 in the number of students applying to university in Wales, when the fall in England has been 25,000—a hundredfold difference?

Alun Cairns: That is the sort of response that does not get us anywhere. I am looking for an intelligent debate to accept the reality of the situation. Unless we accept the reality, we cannot take the intelligent decisions needed to make changes.

In the time that remains, I want to mention health. I had hoped that yesterday was a turning point. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) made an extremely powerful contribution to the debate yesterday. Two weeks earlier, we had learned of data she had brought to the attention of Professor Sir Bruce Keogh. He wrote to his counterpart in Wales, seeking to probe the data that had been shared with him. The response came from a politician, rather than a clinician, who was furious and said that this was an attempt by the Conservative party to

“drag Welsh NHS through the mud”.

The reality, however, is that Sir Bruce Keogh stated in the e-mail that he did not know enough about it, but thought there was a potential smokescreen. There needs to be an intelligent debate, otherwise its reputation will be damaged further.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. Members will be aware that this has been a lively debate with many interventions. Interventions lengthen speeches, however. If everyone is to have the chance to speak this afternoon, I have no choice but to reduce the time limit to four minutes.

4.19 pm

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to speak in this St David’s day debate.

Let me remind the House, as I like to on these occasions, of the strengths of Blaenau Gwent and the challenges that it faces. We have a proud cultural and political heritage. We gave the United Kingdom its precious national health service, and we have a strong record of serving our country in the armed forces. The Brecon Beacons national park is on our doorstep, and our industrial legacy of coal and steel is a proud one. Yet in the last decade there has been no alternative large-scale industry to take the place of steel and coal. There has been investment in transport, health and education, but our readiness for development has been cruelly coincidental with a worldwide recession and a reduction in the public sector employment that has been so important in Wales. We know that our Welsh valleys communities are resilient and look after their own, but we need jobs.

I want to talk about transport, jobs and education. The year 2014 has not brought the glad tidings for which we hoped. Unemployment has risen, and Government action is needed to deliver the jobs and growth that will secure our economic recovery. The heads of the valleys line has been greatly improved in recent years, but work is still needed on the Gilwern to

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Brynmawr section. The council and the Welsh Government have reopened the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff railway line, but it needs to be electrified and redoubled. In December I asked the Chief Secretary to the Treasury if he would consider bringing forward the electrification of the south Wales valleys lines, but we have heard nothing so far.

Chris Evans: My hon. Friend uses the Ebbw Valley railway when he travels through my constituency. Does he agree that if we are to bring jobs and growth to the valleys in constituencies such as ours, the lines must be electrified as a matter of urgency?

Nick Smith: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point.

Another important rail improvement is a new spur line to Abertillery. On Facebook this week, I was told that

“the youngsters in Abertillery need to be given the same access to employment as young people everywhere. The rail link is vital for the valley.”

I find the young people in Blaenau Gwent eager to work, but lacking in opportunity and experience. Along with the local jobcentre, I shall be hosting a seminar later this month for local employers, much as my hon. Friend did. I hope that they will sign up to offer work experience to our under 21s. The longer people are out of work, the more difficult it is for them to find work again and make ends meet.

As might be expected, when investors do come to Blaenau Gwent with a project, we take it seriously. The proposed development of a motor sport facility, the Circuit of Wales, in my constituency represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity. When I first heard the proposal for a racing track in the clouds I was sceptical, but having now watched “Top Gear” too often, I have a better understanding of the petrolheads who want an exciting circuit rather than an old airfield track.

It is, of course, important for the business plan for the circuit to stand up to scrutiny, and the Welsh Government have done the due diligence on it, but because of planning complications, there is a delay. Although this will be a largely private sector investment, United Kingdom Government support is still needed. The Welsh Secretary—fair dos—has repeatedly indicated support for the Circuit of Wales, but it still has no Treasury support. The Circuit of Wales developers believe that the UK has underinvested in motorsport infrastructure, as they foresee a significant demand for new facilities to meet the needs of modern motor sports. They are working hard to recruit the investors who are needed for this £250 million, 800-acre proposal. That is the key test. The developers now need to put together a portfolio of financial support, and they have my wholehearted backing for that endeavour. I hope that the Minister will continue to be positive about the proposal, especially in view of the Government’s proposal for a new public-private partnership.

Finally, let me stress the importance of education, which is paramount if we are to look forward to a brighter future in Blaenau Gwent. Our education system must give all pupils the tools that will enable them to succeed, in Wales and in our global world. If Blaenau Gwent is to enjoy the 21st century, we need investment across the board, and that means improved transport, sustainable jobs, and a first-class education system.

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4.24 pm

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): St David famously instructed his followers on his deathbed to do the little things, and he probably understood that I would have only four minutes to speak, so I shall focus my comments on two steps that I would like to see in the forthcoming Budget. I have confidence that one of them will be in it because it was announced in the autumn statement: two reductions in employer national insurance contributions. In my constituency between January 2013 and January 2014 unemployment fell from just over 900 to just over 600, but more importantly the number of 18 to 24-year-olds who were unemployed and claiming benefit fell from just over 300 to just over 200. However, that does not hide the anxiety of those who are desperate to get into employment and are still finding it difficult to do so.

One of the reductions in employer NICs is to reduce every business’s contribution by £2,000. That will be especially advantageous to small businesses, which are so typical of rural Wales. In particular it will encourage those who are perhaps sole traders—just one-man or one-woman bands—to take on their first employee. I am hoping that will encourage them to do so.

The other reduction in employer NICs is that no employer contributions will be paid for employees who are under 21. That will be a great incentive for businesses to take on young people, and in particular apprentices—and this week is apprenticeship week.

I am confident that that measure will be in the Budget, and I am given to understand that the other measure might also be in it. I therefore ask the Secretary of State and the Minister to insist it is kept in the Budget if they see it any draft documents. I have raised on a number of occasions the plight of people who are off-grid—who do not get mains gas. Their energy costs are very high because mains gas is the cheapest form of fuel. Instead, they have to depend on heating oil, liquefied petroleum gas, solid fuel and sometimes electricity to heat their homes. Also, they do not get the dual fuel tariffs that people who receive both gas and electricity on the grid can benefit from. I understand that giving some respite to people who are off-grid may be considered, and I can make some suggestions in that regard. One of them is to give a subsidy so that the national grid can connect those communities that do not have the benefit of mains gas. All the communities of Howey, Llangynidr, Abercraf and Talgarth in my constituency would greatly benefit from mains gas, and that would have a great input into reducing fuel poverty.

4.28 pm