§ [Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2002–03, The Work of the Committee in 2002, HC 263, and the Minutes of Evidence taken before the Welsh Affairs Committee on 15th October 2002 [The Wales Office Departmental Report 2002], HC 1216, Session 2001–02.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]1.47 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Wales (Peter Hain)
May I say, Madam Deputy Speaker, how good it is to have a Welsh Deputy Speaker in the Chair for this debate?
Wales is raising its profile as never before—we have the first Welsh Archbishop of Canterbury for 1,000 years. It is hard to open a newspaper these days without reading about a Welsh celebrity or sports personality, whether it be Tom Jones or Catherine Zeta Jones, Ryan Giggs or Colin Jackson, Julian McDonald or Huw Edwards. Now even the manager of the Liverpool football team, the Frenchman Gèrard Houllier, after his team won another trophy at Cardiff's millennium stadium, has joked that he might apply for Welsh nationality. He is a wise man—and that comes from me, a Chelsea fan.
There are people in Wales today who are at the top in all walks of life—doctors, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. I have met some of them in my first few months as Secretary of State, and I have been greatly impressed by their commitments, talents and confidence. They are world-class people, striving to create a world-class Wales. That is why we are determined that we should never go back to the time when a generation of young people in Wales were denied employment and hope by Tory economic mismanagement and ideological dogma. Never again will the Thatchers and the Redwoods tear up the jobs and public services that we cherish—although I see that the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) may be in line for a comeback. He was the most unpopular Secretary of State in history, and I hope that he is dispatched to Wales to campaign full time for the Conservatives, especially in Monmouth and the Vale of Glamorgan.
This has been a challenging year for the Welsh economy, with stagnant global trade and many of our trading partners in or near recession. However, there are more than 60,000 more people in employment in Wales than there were a year ago. That is a better record than 314 in any other UK region. Levels of economic activity are increasing sharply, and the 2.8 per cent. rise over the past year is an equally welcome sign for a valleys MP like me, as economic inactivity there has been so high for so long. Unemployment in Wales has fallen to 5.2 per cent., the same level as the rest of the UK and lower than in countries such as the United States, Canada, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain. We are building on a base of economic stability and the lowest inflation, mortgage rates and unemployment for more than a generation; a base developed not by accident or by fluke, but by the process of taking tough and sometimes unpopular decisions about spending and by the maintenance of firm principles of fiscal and monetary discipline.
Our stable economic fortunes have delivered record levels of sustained investment in public services in Wales through the 2002 spending review. We have also brought forward new measures to encourage enterprise in deprived areas and spread prosperity throughout Wales. We are making work pay through measures such as the child and working tax credits, which could benefit 350,000 families in Wales, and the national minimum wage, benefiting 70,000 Welsh workers. Wales is a leader in broadband technology with the Assembly Government investing £115 million to spread broadband use across Wales and to help our companies secure the technological advantage necessary to succeed in the global marketplace.
The objective 1 programme, together with other European structural fund programmes in Wales, has attracted projects of more than £1 billion, regenerating the economy of west Wales and the valleys and creating an estimated 6,000-plus jobs so far.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)
The Secretary of State cannot get away with that. The 6,000 jobs created by the objective 1 programme include 800 jobs created at a call centre in Pembrokeshire that immediately disappeared. That is part of the picture as published by the National Assembly. Also, Wales is still at the bottom of the league in terms of broadband link-up. There is a lot of work to be done on broadband and job creation in Wales.
§ Peter Hain
The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the 6,000 jobs included those at the call centre. If he checks, he will find that that those jobs are not included. I hope that he will correct his researchers on that point. Of course there is a lot to do on broadband but, as I shall say, we are driving it forward. In parts of south Wales—especially south—east Wales—there is more broadband than anywhere else in Europe. He should be welcoming that and praising it. Broadband access has been spread out across Wales. It is interesting; the nationalists always demand more but never provide the funding. That is the politics not of government, but of opposition, where they will remain.
§ Peter Hain
For ever, as my hon. Friend says so powerfully.
315 More than 27,000 young unemployed people have found work through the new deal, with youth unemployment cut from 12,000 under the Tories to just 1,500. More than 12,500 people in Wales are benefiting from high-quality training through modern apprenticeships; over 50 per cent. more than under the Tories.
§ Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that unemployment in my constituency has fallen by no less than 63 per cent. since 1997, a figure surpassed by the decrease in unemployment in the seat represented by the leader of the Welsh nationalists? Is that surprising?
§ Peter Hain
It has nothing to do with the MP in that constituency; it is to do with the Government's brilliant economic record. If we look at the constituencies of all Welsh MPs—those here and absent from the House this afternoon—we will find that unemployment has fallen dramatically during the last six years of Labour government.
Wales is at the cutting edge of industrial collaboration. Already there are 20 centres of excellence for technology and industrial collaboration throughout the nation. As an enthusiast for manufacturing, I particularly welcome the creation of the Welsh centre for manufacturing excellence, which will help 2,000 firms in its first three years. According to the purchasing managers index commissioned by the Royal Bank of Scotland in January, businesses in Wales continue to outperform the UK average in terms of securing new orders.
Welsh towns and cities have some of the fastest-growing companies in Britain; Newport, Cardiff and Swansea are among the cities with the highest proportion of firms growing by more than 25 per cent. a year. Cardiff is one of the fastest developing cities in Europe, proud of the contribution that it makes to the world of business and commerce yet with its sights firmly set on winning the European capital of culture 2008 with an excellent bid. The latest forecasts on farm incomes indicate some optimism and confidence returning to the industry, with a distinctive Welsh strategy for the long-term future of farming, centred on high-quality produce and economic, environmental and social sustainability.
We have an historic opportunity to develop a world-class Wales with a high-quality, highly skilled economy. The Assembly elections on 1 May will be a critical factor in whether we are able to grasp this opportunity. By choosing a world-class Wales, people will be rejecting once and for all the second-class Tory Wales of low wages, low skills, low aspirations and low achievements. We have a significant advantage, in that the partnership principle works much better in the Welsh economy than in any other part of Britain. We must build on this; not just in relation to obvious examples of co-operative endeavour like Tower colliery, but with a firm acceptance that the best companies are those that work in partnership with employees to achieve the highest standards. The Wales TUC has always been a strong partner in economic development in Wales and both the TUC and the CBI Wales have responded positively to the opportunities presented by devolution. For 316 example, they recently presented a joint report to the Assembly on priorities for raising skills and improving productivity.
The "team Wales" approach, bringing together all the key agencies, is a primary reason why inward investors have found Wales such an attractive place to locate. It is why companies based in Wales, like British Aerospace at Broughton, General Dynamics at Oakdale and the Ford motor company at Bridgend are succeeding in world markets and are at the forefront of technological development. All have recently made big new investments; all big votes of confidence in a Wales that is fighting off intense international competition.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
I hope that the Secretary of State is going to say something about Corus because I am sure that the House would like to hear directly what action he will be taking to ensure that the jobs there are maintained.
§ Peter Hain
I have been in touch with Corus management in Wales, the Department of Trade and Industry, the First Minister and the trade unions. We are all working together to make sure that the Welsh plants at least survive this very difficult situation. It is extraordinary that the Corus management board is having to take its Dutch-based supervisory board to court to get a decent policy and strategy for the industry. I am sure that all Welsh Members, including the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), will join me in saying that it is time for the Corus supervisory board to support the loyal work force of Corus in Wales and to give the most productive and competitive steel industry in the world a chance to flourish and grow.
Devolution is an essential part of the "team Wales" approach. When the chief executive of British Telecom recently told me that he had received a better response from the Welsh Assembly Government and agencies to investing in broadband than any other part of Britain, I asked him why. He said, "Because you can get to the decision makers more easily, because they immediately grasp the vital role of broadband and because they act quickly." The "team Wales" approach is vital in generating self-confidence in our economic future. More than 3,000 new businesses were created in Wales last year, 20 per cent. more than in the previous year and an increase larger than in any other part of the UK.
Last year, more than 800 new products and processes were introduced by Welsh companies. We need to accelerate that and to develop a spirit of self-confidence and entrepreneurialism that will help to ensure that the small and medium-sized businesses that comprise the vast majority of Welsh firms have the commitment to invest, to innovate and to grow. It is because I am concerned that we should succeed through partnership and through striving to be the best that I am outraged by the way that the Tories and the nationalists continually talk down Wales and the achievements of hard-working Welsh employers and employees.
Take, for example, our objective I money, secured by a British Labour Government negotiating in Europe. First, the Welsh nationalists claimed that we would not get objective 1 status. Then, when we did, they said that we would not get support from the Treasury to make proper use of it. Then, when we did get that extra 317 Treasury funding, they said that the programme would be a failure. Four years ago, in the St. David's day debate, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) told the House of his grave concern that the whole objective 1 programme would come to nothing,like a handful of sand seeping through one's fingers."—[Official Report, 25 February 1999; Vol. 326, c. 575.]Is not it time that he and his colleagues apologised, and stopped spreading doom and gloom? Is not it better to aim to be the best, instead of constantly predicting the worst? Instead of the party of Wales, they are the whingers of Wales—their leader, Ieuan "Whinge" Jones.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
In 1989, the GDP of Wales was 89 per cent. of the UK average. The latest figure is 82 per cent. That is not a success.
§ Peter Hain
Is the hon. Gentleman saying—[Interruption.] I am about to answer, unless he wants to have another whinge. It is true that parts of the United Kingdom, especially the south-east, have raised their GDP per head much faster, but in real terms GDP per head has been rising swiftly in Wales. That is obvious in terms of employment, which is at record levels compared with recent decades; it is also obvious in the increased wealth and income spreading throughout Wales.
The Labour-led Assembly Government are succeeding not only because of their partnership with business, trade unions, local authorities and voluntary groups, but because of their strong partnership with the Government at Westminster: Labour working for Wales. That partnership is delivering record levels of sustained public investment. By 2005–06, the Assembly budget will increase to £12.5 billion, almost double what it was when Labour took office in 1997, with record increases in funding for the national health service in Wales. As a result, 700 more hospital consultants and GPs, 6,000 extra nurses and 2,000 other health care professionals will be recruited in the coming years. Education spending in Wales, which passed the £1 billion mark for the first time this year, will rise to £1.4 billion in two years. We could not have a clearer demonstration of the benefit to Wales of both devolving power to the Assembly and pooling resources at a United Kingdom level where appropriate. The firm legislative partnership between Westminster and Cardiff Bay has also produced this year's Health (Wales) Bill, giving patients a stronger role in the improvement, development and running of our health services.
As well as the specific Wales-only Bill, the Government's legislative programme for the current parliamentary Session contains several Bills that include Wales-only provisions, which have been developed in close consultation with the Assembly Government. Those include the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which improves planning in Wales; the Local Government Bill, which gives more flexible powers to Welsh local authorities; and the Licensing Bill, which repeals the outdated provisions allowing polls to be called every seven years in Wales on the question of Sunday opening of pubs.
318 The partnership between the Assembly and the UK Governments reaps benefits abroad as well as at home. The Assembly is able, through the devolution settlement, to form part of the UK delegation to the European Council of Ministers, ensuring a strong voice for Wales yet at the same time enjoying the benefits of being part of an influential member state. Since the advent of devolution, the Welsh Assembly Government have been an active participant in the EU, and have joined with the Scottish Executive in tabling proposals that take forward their strong claims for a louder voice in Europe. Last month, I was delighted to present on behalf of the UK Government a paper demanding a stronger voice in Brussels for Europe's regions such as Wales to the Convention on the Future of Europe. It had been drawn up by the Assembly and the Scottish Executive, working in partnership with UK Government Departments.
Partnership is the right approach to another of the challenges that we currently face: building stronger, safer communities. The UK Government are working with the Assembly to tackle the crime that blights our communities. We have already delivered record numbers of police officers in Wales, and we are equally determined to give them the powers to deal with antisocial behaviour, and to ensure that resources are effectively deployed to prevent crime and catch criminals.
Partnership is not, however, just about co-operation between levels of government. It must work downwards to generate an open, inclusive and participatory relationship with groups in society. The Government recently allocated more than £4 million to the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships in Wales, which involve the police, local councillors and other representatives of the community joining together to develop a crime reduction strategy that meets local needs. Through its Communities First programme, targeted on the most deprived areas of Wales, the Assembly places the power of change in the hands of community members.
How much more beneficial is that co-operative and positive approach than the Tories' Eurosceptic isolationism and the nationalists' antiquated separatism? Indeed, that kind of partnership is the very opposite of what the Tories and the nationalists offer people in Wales. On a recent visit to Wales, the Conservative party leader displayed his party's traditional distaste for devolution when he talked of "an extreme Labour-controlled Assembly".He said thatway out to the left there in extreme territory lies Rhodri Morgan and his friends.How, I wonder, does that extremism manifest itself? Is it in free bus passes for pensioners and the disabled? Is it in free access to the national museums and galleries of Wales? Is it in free prescriptions or Assembly Learning Grants? Which of those "extreme" measures would the Tories revoke if they ever came to power in the Assembly? They should answer that question. Those ridiculous comments show how out of touch with mainstream opinion in Wales the Tory party and its leader continue to be. As long as they stay out of touch, they will stay out of office.
319 The Tory leader went on to claim that the Conservative party does not believe thatideology has any part to play in the health service.Everybody in Wales knows, however, that Labour has spent five years trying to redress the damage done to the national heath service by 18 years of Tory ideology. People in Wales know that Tory ideology meant the closure of 70 Welsh hospitals. They also know that Labour ideology has already seen eight new hospitals opened or under way. People in Wales know what the Tory agenda on health is because Tory leaders have told them: 20 per cent. cuts, meaning fewer nurses, fewer doctors and fewer hospitals. It means cuts, charges and privatisation, school and hospital closures, and thousands of jobs lost. The same old Tory wreckers are trying to wreck Wales again. Wales does not want to go back to the 10 per cent. Tory inflation, the 15 per cent. Tory interest rates and Tory mass unemployment.
§ Mr. Win Griffiths
On that subject, has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to cost the impact of the Conservative party's proposed 20 per cent. cuts on the public services provided in Wales?
§ Peter Hain
That is an interesting suggestion, which I may deal with, as a result of my hon. Friend's wise advice, sooner rather than later.
Those cuts will mean up to 20 per cent. cuts in nurses, teachers, police officers and all the services that we have sought to rebuild in Wales. Conservative Front-Bench Members may shake their heads, but we have experienced Tory cuts before. At last, teachers feel that they are able to do their jobs. At last, nurses and doctors feel that they have a Government on their side. At last, police officers feel that they have a Government on their side to fight rising crime.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley has often questioned me about the problem of waiting lists in Wales, which is difficult in some areas, although in many areas it is improving. If it is difficult now, imagine what it would be like after the Tories' 20 per cent. cuts in the health service budget.
§ Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)
Does my right hon. Friend think that some of the confusion among Conservative Members arises from the fact that, according to their latest leaflet, they do not seem to be able to tell the difference between Belgian francs and pounds?
§ Peter Hain
I was trying to provoke the hon. Gentleman to ask a question such as that, and he has duly obliged, for which I am grateful. What is interesting about those figures and the overall picture is that 200,000 more patients are being seen, and were seen last year, than in the last year of Tory government. That is a sign of the extra throughput in Welsh hospitals and other health institutions.
320 The figures speak for themselves: an increase of 7 per cent. in the number of patients being seen since the Tories left office. Other waiting list achievements include a reduction in the target for cardiac surgery: the total number of people waiting has fallen to its lowest level since February 1999. The target for bringing down angiogram waiting times has also been reduced, and that applies equally to orthopaedic and cataract surgery. A lot more is needed to improve the situation, but 200,000 more patients are being seen, and if the Tories were to introduce 20 per cent. health cuts, far fewer patients would be seen and waiting lists would lengthen out of sight.
§ Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)
While I applaud the fact that the Labour Administration in Cardiff will not go down the dangerous route to foundation hospitals, such hospitals along the border will probably have the right to set their own rates of pay for medical staff, including nurses. Is not there a danger that the already severe crisis in retention of nursing staff in Wales could be made even worse as they are poached from over the border by high rates of pay?
§ Peter Hain
No. Wales has decided to use a different model because Welsh needs, interests and values are different. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that the border can just be abolished, as though Wales can be floated off—which is his policy, of course. We have cross-border treatment now and that will continue, whatever the hospital structure.
§ Adam Price
Unlike the Secretary of State, I oppose foundation hospitals in Wales and in England. That is the contradiction that I am trying to tease out. Foundation hospitals in England will have a detrimental effect on the provision of health services in Wales.
§ Peter Hain
That is simply not proven. The hon. Gentleman does not even want to be a Member of this Parliament in Westminster; he wants Wales to be independent, hived off as a separate state. So his assertions on the matter are as unfounded as his objectives are indefensible.
The choice for Wales is between Labour's goal of full employment for our generation and economic prosperity for all, and the Tory policy of scrapping the new deal, higher unemployment and returning Wales to the same old failed Tory policies. The choice is between millions benefiting from our goal of ending child and pensioner poverty, ensuring prosperity not for the few but for the many, and the Tory policy of cutting the minimum wage, abolishing the child and pensioner tax credits and privatising the basic state pension. As the Government who created the minimum wage and equal pay, new rights to take time off work, new rights for part-time as well as full-time workers and new rights for women workers, we know that an enterprising economy on the one hand, and workers' rights, women's rights and equal rights on the other, are not opposing objectives but inseparable allies to create a stronger Wales. That is why we will shortly raise maternity pay to £100 a week, extend statutory time off for mothers to 26 weeks, and introduce paternity pay for the first time. We are also ending the Tory two-tier workforce in private 321 finance initiative projects. We are doing more to ensure rights and fairness in the workplace—the foundation of a fair and successful economy.
We also stand ready to raise the minimum wage. Tory Ministers claimed that a minimums wage would cost a million jobs. In fact, with the minimum wage in place, we have not destroyed a million jobs; we have created more than a million jobs in Britain. The only jobs that the minimum wage cost were those of I he Tory MPs who opposed it.
As for the nationalists, we know that they want the devolution settlement that people in Wales voted for to fail. Their actions in the Assembly over the past four years have shown them rejecting the path of partnership, preferring narrow oppositionalism. They prioritise constitutional wrangling and the costly trappings of a nation state over health, jobs, education and fighting crime. Their narrow separatist vision of a Wales set apart from the rest of Britain would divide communities, not unite them, and make Wales poorer, not richer.
Take any Labour Government spending commitment and the nationalists would double it—promising the earth and delivering nothing. The people of Wales are tired of such dishonesty, such opportunism, such posturing. [Interruption.] They know that the nationalists are fit only for opposition, never for government. [Interruption.]
I am grateful for your protection, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I rather enjoy the heckling. It keeps them off the street.
Look at Plaid Cymru's record in office. In Rhondda Cynon Taff, for example, it has closed day centres for the elderly and ended free parking for the disabled in council car parks. That is why Rhondda will come back to Labour on 1 May. In Carmarthenshire, it has closed day centre kitchens. That is why Llanelli and Carmarthen, East will come back to Labour on I May. The nationalists would rather put Tories into power than back Labour, as happened in the Vale of Glamorgan.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas
While the Secretary of State is examining Plaid Cymru's performance in local government, will he consider Rhondda Cynon Taff, which I used to work for when it was run by the Labour party? The council got into trouble with the district auditor, but he gave a clean bill of health to the authority after Plaid Cymru took over and put its finances into order. He should also consider Gwynedd and Caerphilly, where we might win in the May elections. One can get very good odds on that. In Gwynedd and Caerphilly, the GMB had an independent report on where the best economic development had occurred in Wales and—
§ Peter Hain
Caerphilly cut services under nationalist control. That is why we will win back Islwyn and retain control for Labour in Caerphilly.
§ Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)
My right hon. Friend may have noticed that, in that long intervention, 322 the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) did not mention the role of Plaid Cymru in propping up the Conservative council in the Vale of Glamorgan for the past five years. It has cut support for disadvantaged communities and distributed it elsewhere.
§ Peter Hain
My hon. Friend is right to point out what happens if the nationalists get the chance in power. Only recently, the nationalist presiding officer in the Assembly, Lord Elis-Thomas, said that he would find it impossible to have a coalition with Labour, but could envisage one with the Conservatives. They are not just Welsh nationalists but Welsh Tories, too. The Tories and the nationalists have collaborated in the past, both in local government and at Westminster, against Labour. Given the opportunity, they could do so again, so no one should be fooled into thinking that the Assembly elections do not matter, or that their vote will not make a difference. Our hard-earned economic progress, the record investment in public services and the partnership between Westminster and Cardiff that is enabling us to work together to tackle crime and poverty—and more—will all be at stake on I May in Wales's general election.
As for the Welsh Liberal Democrats— [HON.MEMBERS: "Ah!"] I did not want them to feel left out. Those of us with experience of their activities in local government will know that they are never backward in claiming credit for achievements, regardless of who may have initiated them. A recent guide for their council candidates advised:Don't be afraid to exaggerate.I fear that they have adopted that policy at a Welsh level, with their claim that they are the "driving force" behind the Assembly Government—not so much a driving force, but more a piggy-back ride that will end on 1 May.
The Assembly elections will provide people with an opportunity to judge the Liberal Democrats on their own terms and policies, which in the past have often been uncosted and impractical. It is a party that has clung onto office but could never govern alone.
§ Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)
I thank the Secretary of State for including us in his speech, which is a relief to us. The crucial question for him—in the spirit of the type of politics that he promotes—is whether he is seriously suggesting that the Labour party could have implemented a significant proportion of the programme for government that was agreed between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, had we not entered into that coalition. The evidence that the Liberal Democrats were crucial in the arrangement is the fact that there is a divergence between Welsh Labour party policy and—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I think that the Secretary of State will have got the point that the hon. Gentleman is making.
§ Peter Hain
The hon. Gentleman is right to this extent: the coalition has brought stability to the Welsh Assembly Government, and that has been essential in delivering our programme. However, the policies are Labour policies. They are being implemented on a basis 323 of stability. Our decision to create a stable Government was taken in the national interest; we did not form a coalition with the Liberals because we wanted to. We are determined to get an overall majority and we are working flat out for it. We want to win back the seats that we lost to the nationalists—in the Rhondda, Islwyn, Llanelli and Conwy—and to ensure that we hold our existing seats, and perhaps take Monmouth from the Tories. Those are our objectives to establish an overall Labour majority.
§ Mr. Llwyd
Earlier, the right hon. Gentleman spoke at length about the employment situation in Wales, in which there has been great improvement. Such has been the improvement that I am sure we could afford to have one other person on the slide—the statistical slide. It is time for the Secretary of State to sack his speech writer. This is rubbish.
§ Peter Hain
I take that as a compliment. I invite the hon. Gentleman to train the person who drafts his interventions a little better.
Only Welsh Labour offers a coherent vision for a world-class Wales—a vision of high-quality jobs and high-quality public services, a vision of social justice and economic success, and a vision of Wales going places, not going backwards.
§ Lembit Öpik
I think that I heard the Minister say that only Labour policies had been implemented through the partnership. Where in Welsh Labour's manifesto did it say that the partnership would diverge from Westminster Labour Government policy on student funding, and where did it say that it would provide free school milk? Those are two examples to show that what the Minister said was factually incorrect.
§ Peter Hain
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Those are Labour policies—although I acknowledge that they were given a bit of assistance by the Liberals.
I believe that, at the Wales general election on 1 May, people will look at Labour's solid record of achievement over the past four years, look at Labour's exciting plans for the next four years, and decide that Wales's future must lie not in going back to the days of boom and bust or to standing alone in separatist isolation, but in continuing a partnership for social justice and prosperity to build a world-class Wales—a future of working together for Wales and not pulling us apart, of winning together, not losing apart.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
It is good to see Madam Deputy Speaker in her traditional place for this traditional debate. I enjoyed the spat between the Secretary of State for Wales and Plaid Cymru as to who would gain the most seats at the next local elections. [HON. MEMBERS: "National elections."] We will not have to wait long for the Assembly elections on 1 May.
I was not surprised that the Secretary of State left the Liberal Democrats until the bitter end because there is very much a Lib-Lab pact. Not only do the Liberal Democrats have to take the credit for the things that 324 they do not do and the things that they do, they have to take the blame when things go wrong. They are not prepared to do that.
The Secretary of State started by mentioning famous Welsh people a rid said that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was a good Welshman. I am delighted that the Secretary of State mentioned the archbishop, because he went to the same school as I did—Dynevor school in Swansea. It is a proud school with a proud history, but despite its proud record it was closed last year by a Labour council, under a Lib-Lab Assembly and a Labour Government. I find it amazing. Brian Ludlum, the chairman of the governors, was a Labour councillor when I was a councillor on West Glamorgan county council, but at least in those days we were accused only of selling off the school playing fields. This Government are selling off the schools. Brian Ludlum said that he had to take into account the fact that the school was on a prime site and would fetch a lot of money. How ridiculous that was. Dynevor school had a proud history and it is a great shame that it has closed.
At the start of this St. David's day debate, it is important to say that our thoughts are with our troops in the Gulf—allied troops, British troops, and of course Welsh troops. They are preparing to take whatever action is deemed necessary to ensure that Saddam Hussein complies with resolution 1441. We know that these are hugely difficult times and we fully support the Prime Minister on the build-up and preparation for action. I have no doubt that, if it were not for the actions that have been taken so far, Blix and the weapons inspectors would have been nowhere near Iraq now.
Welsh service people have a proud record of service to their country. I was in the Falkland Islands three weeks ago, where I laid a wreath for our service people who were killed in action. As the House knows, Welsh servicemen and women were at the forefront of that war. We are proud of their record and their contribution to the British armed forces.
I want to focus on a few areas, including the economy, education and training—which has been mentioned—the national health service and the future of Wales under this Government and the Welsh Assembly. I will start with Swansea airport. The Secretary of State knows that I have campaigned long and hard for the expansion of that airport and the opening of a London-Swansea route. It is import ant that that should come about, not only for Swansea but for west Wales as a whole. I congratulate Air Wales and Swansea airport on the announcement that there will be a London City-Swansea route. It will open on 28 April. Two new 50-seater aircraft have already been bought, one of which will be used on that route.
Air Wales hopes to expand its number of employees from just 50 to more than 200 when the expansion is fully operational. When I was a lad, Swansea airport employed just three people, and I think that they were mostly employed to keep the sheep off the runway. It is now hoped that I DO people will be employed there. It is a success story.
§ Peter Hain
I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's close interest in the development of Swansea airport and I applaud him for it. He has been a great source of support. I am visiting Swansea airport on Friday, partly 325 on his suggestion. I am very excited by the developments. The London link shows what can be done. I would like to see a Cardiff link and the expansion of airports across Wales, including north Wales and mid-Wales.
§ Mr. Evans
I am grateful to the Secretary of State. I think that everybody in the House would applaud him on this issue. Although they do not mind coming to Newport and Cardiff, a lot of businesses seem to have a mental block about going further west or to the north. The expansion of regional airports—led by Swansea and Valley airport, which I have also supported—will be very important.
§ Mr. John Smith
I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said about airports, but does he also acknowledge the success of Wales's international airport at Cardiff, which is one of the fastest growing airports in the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Evans
Of course I will join the hon. Gentleman in acknowledging that success. We both deplored the actions of British Airways in pulling out of Cardiff airport, which was a grave mistake. I also applaud BMI Baby for coming in and considering a number of routes, which I hope it will take over from British Airways.
Not everything is as great a success as Swansea airport and Air Wales. Businesses in the United Kingdom have had £47 billion of extra taxes foisted on them; they have also had to bear more than £5 billion of extra rules and regulations in every year that this Government have been in power. The latest tax—the tax on jobs—will hit them next month. It will hit employers and employees. I will deal with the impact that the tax will have on local authorities and the public a bit later on, but the 1 per cent. extra tax on jobs will raise the equivalent of a 3p rise in the basic rate of income tax. That means that a burden of more than £4 billion will fall on businesses in the United Kingdom including Wales.
When the Government introduced the climate change levy, we were told that it would be a neutral tax and that we should not worry. The CBI, along with the Engineering Employers Federation, has done a report on the climate change levy. They have found that manufacturing has been hit hardest, with a £328 million rise in their energy bills. The Secretary of State will know that Wales is more reliant on manufacturing than any other part of the United Kingdom, but this tax was still introduced.
In the survey, the CBI and the Engineering Employers Federation found that some firms were not able or willing to absorb the extra tax and have moved production abroad. That cannot be right. Manufacturing has faced an enormous slump before and since the introduction of the climate change levy. I could list a huge number of manufacturing companies in Wales and the jobs that have gone. Hon. Members will know about them, because the job losses will have occurred in their constituencies—in Swansea, Bridgend and Llanelli. We have suffered manufacturing job losses throughout Wales.
§ Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the cost of the climate change levy to 326 manufacturing industry, but is it not right to mention the amount that the Government have given to industry to compensate it for its losses? They are giving £2 billion that has been taken from the national insurance fund.
§ Mr. Evans
My point is that the energy tax fell disproportionately on manufacturing industry. It has been hardest hit, and it is proportionately more important to Wales. It has suffered the extra job losses. One cannot open a newspaper these days without reading that there have been further job losses.
I referred to Corus in an intervention. I wanted to get that point on the record, so that the Government know how important it is that these jobs are preserved not just in Wales but throughout the United Kingdom. I agree with everything that the Secretary of State said in response, but it is a shame that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry seemed to be caught on the hop by the announcement. She spoke to the all-party steel group the night before, and she seemed to believe that all the jobs would be preserved. The announcement obviously came as a huge surprise and shock to her.
§ Peter Hain
I do not intend to abuse the opportunity to intervene, but I wish to respond to the point about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The announcement was made in the early hours of the morning and the information was not available to her when she spoke to members of the all-party steel group. Indeed, the Corus managers present were not in possession of that information, either.
It is important to get the issue of manufacturing into perspective. Although 26,900 manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1999 in the objective 1 area, more than 20,000 have been created. New manufacturing jobs are being created all the time even though older manufacturing jobs are being lost as part of the process of global restructuring.
§ Mr. Evans
I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but people sometimes wonder where all the jobs have gone. Unemployment is not going up, but we read about manufacturing jobs disappearing. My figures for the whole of Wales show that, in November 1999, there were 247,000 jobs in manufacturing, whereas in November 2002, the figure, which includes the jobs created and those that have gone, was 206,000, so 41,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared in Wales. In November 1999, there were 361,000 jobs in public administration in Wales, but by November 2002, the figure was 415,000, so there are 54,000 extra jobs in public administration. One has only to read the many pages in The Western Mail that advertise jobs in local authorities, the Welsh Assembly, the Welsh Development Agency and the quangos that have been so berated by Government Back Benchers. Such jobs are advertised every day. However, manufacturing is vital to Wales and it is a shame to see jobs in that sector under threat. In fact, in many cases, the jobs have already disappeared.
Objective 1 has been mentioned, and we welcome the money that has gone to support the most disadvantaged areas of Wales. However, it is a great shame that the impetus behind that money was not quicker and that industry throughout Wales was not involved at an earlier stage. That would have enabled objective 1 money to have come on stream much earlier.
327 The Secretary of State did not refer to agriculture, but he must recognise that that sector has suffered an appalling downturn. The figures for those employed in agriculture, hunting, forestry and fishing have fallen from 21,000 in 1999 to 14,000 today. That is extremely alarming. Indeed, the Prime Minister was asked today about the importance of agriculture. Jobs in that sector are important.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas
I must say in passing that one job lost in Wales is that of Conservative candidate for Llanelli. [HON. MEMBERS: "Tell us morel Look in the newspapers.
On agriculture, is it not the case that the Liberal Democrat Assembly Member, Mike German, is responsible for agriculture and that he has failed time and again to make on time and in full the payments that farmers deserve? That is one of the reasons why farming faces such a crisis today.
§ Mr. Evans
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning late payments. I am sure that we have all received letters from NFU Wales, which has listed the areas where there are problems. Late payments clearly are a problem, and that brings us back to the fact that the Liberal Democrats, a party in the Administration in Cardiff, must take responsibility for the plight of the farmers in Wales who have simply had to wait for their payments.
§ Mr. Williams
We all concede that there have been difficulties in making the payments. However, the Assembly Government have addressed the European Union's new requirements for making those payments and have put in place the mechanism for doing that. Some 98 per cent. of payments have now been made. When the suckler cow payments are made shortly, that will complete the process.
§ Mr. Evans
It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to be sympathetic to the plight of farmers in Wales, but he must recognize that farmers cannot bank sympathy. They need hard cash. The money has been paid late and the Liberal Democrats must take responsibility for those late payments and understand the stress that farmers have gone through.
§ Mr. Williams
I will not say sorry, but perhaps I should declare an interest: I am a recipient of the payments. At least the farmers in Wales will receive the money. When the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) was Secretary of State for Wales, he sent a lot of that money back to the Treasury.
§ Mr. Evans
The hon. Gentleman is, at least, a recipient of the money. I hope that he received it on time. 328 [Interruption.] No, he did not get it on time. He knows whom to blame—Mike German and the Liberal Democrats in the Welsh Assembly.
We have also received letters about other key issues. Red tape and TB—I am not referring to the Prime Minister, as some might think—are real problems. Tuberculosis in cattle must be tackled. In addition, we face the problem of the ban on farm burial from 30 April. The French already have a scheme under way that is fully funded by their Government, but we have nothing in the United Kingdom or Wales to deal with the problem of fallen stock. We must address that problem sooner rather than later, because the ban will come into effect on 30 April.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is daily becoming a rabid Eurosceptic, and he believes that there should be more flexibility in Europe. I have read many of the articles in which he has said that. Nations are doing their own thing, so let us do our own thing, but let us not do nothing. Sitting idly by while another industry goes to the wall cannot be allowed to happen. Wales was known for its manufacturing and for its agriculture, but the Government are waving goodbye to both.
I hope that the:Minister will deal with insurance in his winding-up speech, because that affects agriculture and manufacturing. Many businesses find it incredibly difficult to obtain insurance or they find that the premiums have gone through the roof. That is not simply the result of 11 September. Part of the problem relates to the claims culture that now exists in this country, but some firms have seen their premiums rise by as much as a factor of 10. That is totally unacceptable and creates serious problems for firms and employment prospects.
Another thing that affects the people of Wales is the increases in council tax that will shortly drop through their letterboxes. The Secretary of State did not mention those. They represent one of the most cruel stealth taxes and come on top of other tax rises introduced by the Government since 1997 on petrol, stamp duty and air travel. In addition, the job tax increase comes into effect next month. The increase in council tax is one of the most iniquitous of them all. It is not as if the quality of public services is improving. Local authority homes are closing and the free bus pass scheme, which the Secretary of State mentioned, is not fully funded by the Welsh Assembly.
I am sure that the latest figures will interest hon. Members. I wondered which local authority would be the first to hit £1,000 for a band D house, and it is Merthyr Tydfil, with a council tax of £1,003, an increase of 6.9 per cent. On last year's charge. That is an increase of 65 per cent. on the rate in 1997 when the Government came to power. The increases are staggering. In Blaenau Gwent, the council tax is up 10 per cent., taking the bill for a band D house up to £975. In Denbighshire, it is up 12 per cent., taking the bill up to £944. Inflation is running at 2.5 per cent., but the local authority in Torfaen is imposing a tax rise of 14 per cent. The bill for a band D house in that area in 1997 was £483; this year, it will be £816. That is an appalling record. The increase is a stealth tax and it hits ordinary people throughout Wales.
§ Albert Owen (Ynys Môn)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Tory leader of the council in Ynys Môn 329 backed a 9.4 per cent. increase in council tax, but Tory Assembly Members voted against changes to the standard spending assessment that would allow extra resources from Cardiff to help needy areas like mine? The Tories voted against extra money in Cardiff, yet they voted for an increase in council tax in my constituency.
§ Mr. Evans
In Monmouthshire, the increase—[HON.MEMBERS: "Apologise."] No. The increase in Monmouthshire is 13.8 per cent. We know that rigging has taken place to remove money from shire counties so that it can go elsewhere. Even with all the rigging, however, every local authority area faces inflation-busting increases this year on top of the massive inflation-busting increases since 1997. The Government said that they would not increase income tax, but they have ensured that there are increases in council tax, which hits everyone, especially poorer people in some areas.
§ Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)
Although the hon. Gentleman is right to mention the problems in Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, will he accept that they have nothing to do with the efficiency or otherwise of those local authorities? They arise because the local government formula, determined by the Welsh Assembly, discriminates against the poorest communities. That being so, does he support a revision of that formula so that we reverse the situation to take from the rich and give to the poor?
§ Mr. Evans
In Monmouthshire, we know that money is being taken from people and given to other areas. Surely what we need is a fair distribution of the money available. I also recognise that the Welsh Assembly has imposed extra responsibilities on local authorities and has not passed on the extra funding 100 per cent. of the time, so if local authorities wish to deliver those services, they have to put up council tax, and that is unfair to people who live in homes on fixed incomes.
§ Llew Smith
I will reword my question. Will the hon. Gentleman support a local government formula, determined by the Welsh Assembly, that is driven by need as opposed to greed?
§ Mr. Evans
No. I want to make some progress because other hon. Members wish to speak.
The Secretary of State is concerned about the turnout at the Assembly elections on 1 May. I too am worried that people will boycott them, perhaps because they never supported the Assembly or because it has not delivered on its promises. I hope that people do vote and punish the Labour and Liberal Administration in that Assembly by voting for change. The coalition has 330 comprehensively wasted millions of pounds on, for instance, the bureaucratic reform of the national health service, which will come into effect shortly. It is also wasting millions of pounds on the new Assembly building, which only Lord Rogers and some politicians want, and on embassies in capitals around the world so that Mike German can visit them, which seems to be his reason for being on this earth.
§ Lembit Öpik
I cannot wait to hear the rest, but let us handle the issues one by one. Is the hon. Gentleman opposed to the Assembly building? If so, why can he never explain satisfactorily why he is willing to take a place in Portcullis House, which cost £231 million? I believe he voted against it, which makes his position even more hypocritical.
§ Mr. Evans
Will the hon. Gentleman, who believes in proportional representation, explain why he has taken a seat in this place under the first-past-the-post system? He has done that because it exists and we work with the system that is in place. I took an office in Portcullis House because that is where the offices are, and we were asked to go there. I opposed the expenditure because of the way in which it was handled, just as I oppose the expenditure—perhaps as much as £40 million—on a new Assembly building in Cardiff, when the money could go to front-line services.
Let me continue listing examples of where the Lib-Lab Administration has been at fault. Although industry is declining, the training body ELWa—Education and Learning Wales-has given millions of pounds to a pop factory without following proper procedures—and, of course, there has been the interference by the permanent secretary, Sir John Shortridge. I find that disturbing, and I congratulate Jonathan Morgan, our Assembly Member, for exposing that incompetence and demanding a full and transparent copy of the report. Four senior executives on that quango, which has £500 million to spend, have been disciplined. In addition, the Administration turned a blind eye when British Airways pulled out of Cardiff airport. If there is a low turnout, it will be for those reasons. The Assembly offered so much and has delivered so little that even the extra spin doctors employed by Rhodri Morgan will not be able get them out of that mess.
§ Mr. Evans
It would be more disparaging than helpful to have a conspiracy of silence when things go wrong. I am condemning those who run the Administration for making those decisions. I encourage people to vote on 1 May because they need to consider what the political parties are offering and decide which of them will provide what people really want, which is better frontline public services.
§ Mr. Evans
Not at the moment, but I will shortly.
331 Lord Richard's commission, which is a sop to the Liberal Democrats, is considering whether more powers should be given to the Welsh Assembly. Irrespective of what the commission suggests, it will be up to the Secretary of State and the Cabinet to decide whether they will recommend extra powers. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment that, should that be the case, the people of Wales will be able to vote in a referendum on whether the Welsh Assembly should have primary—indeed, tax-raising—powers?
§ Mr. Evans
The hon. Gentleman may ask that, but this is about democracy, which is vital. The people of Wales must be consulted. The last thing that we want to be implemented is the Liberal Democrat plan to have 80 Members of the Welsh Assembly—an extra 20. The Liberal Democrats would also like to reduce the number of MPs here in Westminster, which would be a great shame. They want to belittle what is going on in Westminster in order to glorify events in the Welsh Assembly.
I also want the Minister to address a problem at the heart of further and higher education. I welcome the project announced yesterday, in which a bus will go round 195 schools in Wales with the purpose of encouraging youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university. What I do not welcome is the socialist engineering that artificially disadvantages youngsters from middle-class backgrounds—and, indeed, those from working—class backgrounds-and turns them into victims.
Parents who work all the hours that God sends to save money in order to send their youngsters to fee-paying schools—or parents such as the chairman of the Welsh Language Board, Rhodri Williams, who has been able to get his son on a scholarship to Eton—should not be punished by universities aiming to secure Government funding by favouring youngsters who have inferior academic qualifications. We all want youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds to be given every opportunity, but surely the way to do that is by ensuring that they receive good primary and secondary education, so that they can attain academic qualifications. We should not punish youngsters simply because they went to fee-paying schools. The Government need to raise the aspirations of youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds and ensure that they can fulfil their potential. Replacing merit with malice as a cornerstone of education policy is a disgrace, and will go down in the annals of time as one of the most appalling examples of new Labour going completely off the tracks.
§ Gareth Thomas
Will the hon. Gentleman disown the comments made at the end of last year by the shadow Chief Secretary to the effect that his party could cut funding by 20 per cent? What effect would that have on schools, hospitals and educational attainment in Wales?
§ Mr. Evans
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling me to put the record straight. That will mean, of course, that I will never be asked about the 20 per cent. again—will I?
332 The fact is that my hon. Friend the shadow Chief Secretary said that in certain areas savings could be made. I will give the hon. Gentleman some perfect examples. I could save 100 per cent. of the money spent on the Welsh Assembly building—not just 20 per cent. I could save 100 per cent. of the money spent on all those embassies around the world for Mike German to visit. The fact that he is out of the country is generally a good thing; none the less I could save 100 per cent. of that expenditure. Jane Hutt said that her NHS reforms would be cost-neutral, but we now know that they will cost £15.5 million. We could save 100 per cent. of that money. All that wasted money could go into front-line services, ensuring that we got extra police, nurses and doctors. We would be cutting not front-line services but waste and unnecessary expenditure.
§ Mr. Evans
No, I want to make some progress; I want the Minister in his winding-up speech to answer some questions about tuition fees, about which we have heard much.
When the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced the funding of further and higher education, we were told that the likelihood was that powers would be devolved to the Welsh Assembly. There followed an embarrassing silence. When I wrote to the Education Secretary, I was told in reply how complex the issue was and how it had to be looked into carefully. That sounded like a perfect recipe for kicking the matter into the long grass. The long grass no longer needs to be that long, because we now understand that in a couple of months' time when the elections are over, a decision will be made on what exactly will happen.
§ Peter Hain
May I correct the hon. Gentleman? Is he seriously suggesting that examination of the transfer option should be conducted quickly just to complete it ahead of an election campaign, and that perhaps we should short-change Wales? Surely not. If such a transfer were to be agreed, we would have to bottom out the costings in very detailed terms. There are about 8,000 English students studying in Wales and about 6,000 Welsh students studying in England. There are all sorts of issues like that. Officials at the Assembly and in the Department for Education and Skills are getting to the bottom of those cost implications and working out how much money would follow students if the transfer took place.
§ Mr. Evans
It is the money that follows the students that we are interested in. On one hand we have the Treasury, which might not provide the full amount of money for Welsh universities, and on the other we have the Assembly, which might want to say no to any top-up fees. That would put universities into a straitjacket. We know that there will be a black hole of many millions of pounds, which means that many English students might attend universities in Wales but there will be no investment in those universities because they will not be able to raise funds.
§ Mr. Williams
I am sure that everyone in the House would want to give young people from disadvantaged 333 homes and areas the opportunity to go into higher education. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree, however, that the problems started with the abolition of maintenance grants for students and the introduction of student loans, which were his party's idea? Did he support that at the time?
§ Mr. Evans
That is rather ridiculous. When I went to Swansea university, I received a small maintenance grant, and of course was charged no tuition fees whatever. When I entered the House to sit on the Government Benches—as we shall shortly do again—I had to listen to Labour politicians shouting at us for attempting to introduce tuition fees to top up maintenance grants. Maintenance grants have been abolished under this Government, and tuition fees have been introduced. I find that amazing. The Dearing report on funding universities recommended that the Government should do one or the other, but they chose to do both. It is appalling and shocking that people who themselves received free education, and maintenance grants as well, should have have removed the ladder from beneath many students.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
My hon. Friend's historical lecture is entirely correct; the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) seeks to misrepresent the position. Does my hon. Friend recall that on 14 April 1997—Welsh students will be conscious of this—the Prime Minister said:We have no plans to introduce tuition fees in higher education",and his position was reinforced 10 days later by the Leader of the House of Commons?
§ Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a convention of the House that those who wish to participate in the debate should be present for the opening speeches? I believe that the hon. Gentleman wandered in towards the end of the speech of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans).
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
The hon. Lady is correct: Mr. Speaker has made it clear that he wishes to see hon. Members in the Chamber for opening speeches—but on this occasion the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) was allowed to intervene by the Opposition spokesman.
§ Mr. Evans
We are always grateful for the expertise and wisdom of my hon. Friend :he Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who has reinforced my point. I suspect that the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) is embarrassed by what her Government did. How can she say to her constituents, "Yes, we are the Government who removed your grants. We are the Government who introduced tuition fees, and we will be the Government who introduce top-up fees." Let us see how she gets on with that line in elections to the Assembly and at the general election. I look forward to visiting her constituency and to debating that issue with her.
334 On the national health service—another subject that I look forward to debating with the hon. Lady—we have heard all the statistics from the Secretary of State for Wales, but we know that the number of people waiting for in-patient and out-patient treatment has gone up since 1997; 82,460 people have been waiting more than six months for outpatient treatment. That figure is up 221 per cent. since 1999. The 1999 Welsh Labour manifesto stated that by the end of a Labour Assembly's first term, no one would wait more than six months for out-patient treatment or more than 18 months for in-patient treatment. The Assembly elections are on 1 May. The target has not been met.
However, the number of bureaucrats in the NHS has gone up dramatically—three times the rate of the increase in the number of nurses and doctors in the NHS. We heard the Secretary of State for Wales proudly say how wonderful the health service was, and how wonderful the doctors and nurses thought it was—but why do we see in the The Western Mail the headline, "A third of Welsh nurses to quit early"? The article states:The first survey of working conditions in Wales by the Royal College of Nursing paints a picture of a disillusioned and short-staffed front-line army of nurses struggling to care for patients in the face of bureaucratic and administrative pressures on the NHS.The same edition quotes a nurse as saying:There are so few staff, we run around trying to fit everything in".No wonder so many nurses say that they will retire early from the NHS. Those are the very people whom we should support.
All that is happening despite the fact that in Wales, the amount of money spent per head of population is £822, whereas in England it is £740. The Secretary of State mentioned the cross-border issues that need to be confronted, particularly in the NHS. The Maelor hospital in Wrexham is at risk of losing £840,000 that it receives from English trusts if it does not meet the targets set in England. The problem is that the targets are lower in Wales than in England, but they are more readily met in England, in spite of the extra funding going into Wales. I find that appalling. It is a disgrace that £15 million is to be wasted on bureaucratic change.
The Secretary of State paints a rosy picture of Wales, but the reality is far from that. Wales needs a dedicated, strong voice at the Cabinet table to fight its cause. In The Independent on Sunday the right hon. Gentleman is quoted as saying:I'm real left, as opposed to posturing left. There are poseurs and doers. I am a doer.Yet we find out from another article that he still has a CND membership card in his wallet, next to his heart. Is he a member of CND or is he just a poseur? If the Secretary of State wishes to intervene to clarify that, I shall be more than happy to give way. Is he still a member of CND?
§ Mr. Evans
The right hon. Gentleman is still a member of CND, so he is not a poseur. That probably makes him unique among his fellow Cabinet members—apart from one, about whom we have heard much in 335 recent days. I am staggered that the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges that, but at least we have put it on the record.
§ Mr. Bercow
Given that in this debate we are concerned about the interests of the people of Wales, would they not be intensely disturbed to discover that they are represented by a Secretary of State for Wales who remains a member of an organisation whose initials, CND, were memorably described by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) as standing for communist, neutralist and defeatist?
§ Mr. Evans
The Prime Minister himself might be staggered to find out that his Secretary of State for Wales is still a card-carrying member of CND. After all, the Prime Minister let his membership lapse a long time ago, when he thought it was convenient. Membership may not be the most career-enhancing move.
§ Peter Hain
This is old news. The Tory Front Bench came up with this dramatic discovery a couple of years ago and made a fuss about it. I do not intend to withdraw my membership from Wales CND, to which I pay £15 a year, just because the hon. Gentleman gets up and has a rant about it.
§ Mr. Llwyd
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has taken 42 minutes so far, whereas some of us are restricted to 14 minutes. That is an abuse, especially when the hon. Gentleman is talking about matters such as membership of CND, which has nothing to do with the debate in hand. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. The Chair has no control over the length of Front-Bench speeches—nor their content, unless they go out of order. Nothing out of order has occurred so far.
§ Mr. Evans
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The record will show how many interventions I have taken, which I have been happy to do. I am coming towards the end of my contribution—[Interruption.] That usually brings a cheer—possibly the only cheer during my speech.
The Secretary of State was quoted as saying that he was absolutely certain that his No. 1 task in Wales was Wales, and that when he had some hours left, he would do some work on the Convention on the Future of Europe. That explains why the Convention has gone pear-shaped for us. Both jobs are important. The Convention needs 100 per cent. attention, not divided time and divided loyalties.
One newspaper headline states, over an article by the Secretary of State, "The people of Wales must decide where the nation belongs in a future Europe". Now is the time for the Secretary of State for Wales to decide where his future lies—in looking after Wales or in looking after Europe. So much is at stake in Wales, and so much has already been lost.
336 Let us help our businesses make profits and make sure that they are fairly taxed and the taxes are efficiently spent. The Government, both in Cardiff and in Westminster, are heaping extra taxes and extra regulations on our businesses and taxing the people by stealth at every turn, and the money raised is not getting through to the people in improved services.The key is to root out unnecessary administrative cost, and to spend money on the right things-frontline care.Those are not my words; they are the words of the Prime Minister in the Labour party manifesto of 1997. That was six years ago. The words were right then, but sadly, that has never been delivered. People pay the extra taxes and receive poorer services. Businesses are taxed to the hilt and tied up in extra red tape. People working in the public services are fed up with huge extra bureaucracy and overload in their work. They are all saying the same thing: enough is enough. It is time for the Government finally to listen to the people.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I remind the House that there is a 14-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches from here on.
§ 3.7 pm
§ Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)
The only comment that I will make about the contribution from the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is that it clearly demonstrates why the Tories have no Members of Parliament in Wales. An extra 54,000 public appointments is a sign of investment, not of waste. Until the Opposition learn that lesson, I hope that they will have no parliamentary representation in Wales.
I turn to parochial issues relating to Pembrokeshire that have national implications for Wales. There are two projects currently under way in Pembrokeshire that are vital to our local economy and which can bring tremendous benefits to the whole of Wales. The first is the plans of Petroplus for a liquid natural gas importation terminal in west Wales, and the second is the Bluestones project, which has been proposed as a unique top-quality tourist project in west Wales.
Those are important to our area, first and foremost because of the jobs and opportunities in the locality. Petroplus will also put Wales in the forefront of UK energy infrastructure. Bluestones will create and support 600 direct—and potentially 400 indirect—jobs in the tourism industry locally, and also help Wales to meet national Welsh criteria for quality tourism.
I want to refer back for a moment to Pembrokeshire in 1997. In some areas of my constituency, we had a legacy of unemployment affecting two or three generations in individual families. In Milford Haven, male unemployment was 20 per cent. and there was an increasing reliance on declining industries. In the 1960s and 1970s, Pembrokeshire had five oil refineries; there are now only two. There is little diversification in the local economy, which relies almost entirely on agriculture, tourism and the oil-related industries around Milford Haven waterway.
We have had our share of disappointments since 1997. In respect of ITV Digital, 868 full-time equivalent jobs were created and lost. Let us face it—who would 337 have thought that ITV would run into the sort of problems that it encountered? It was seen as a blue-chip company that was bringing wealth to our area.
What happened in the clothing industry and with regard to Dewhirst in the north was a classic example of an industry walking away from its loyal work force. I took representatives of Dewhirst's management to meet Rhodri, the First Minister, and he and the Assembly promised to give every bit of help they could to Dewhirst in overcoming its problems and in diversifying just as Laura Ashley did. Laura Ashley has now become more successful than it ever was when it sold only women's clothing. However, the Dewhirst management, who did not even tell me about their decision to close the Fishguard site until the announcement had been made publicly, simply walked away from their commitment to an area with a low-wage economy to maximize their profits.
Despite our disappointments, it is interesting to note that between April 1997 and January 2003, there has been an overall fall in unemployment in my constituency of 37.7 per cent. If we had not lost those ITV Digital jobs, the picture would be considerably better. Youth unemployment has fallen by 80 per cent. and long-term unemployment by 75 per cent. However, Labour's goal is full employment, which is why the two projects to which I initially referred are especially important for my area.
When Chevron ceased trading, Petroplus, a small Dutch company, bought the site for storage only and not for refining. The irony is that Pembrokeshire has always thought of itself as an isolated area. For Petroplus, which is involved in the storage and distribution of oil, the area was central. It was amusing that its perception was completely different from ours, and we must build on that.
We have recently seen a review of security of supplies and energy culminating in the energy White Paper. Across the board, an assortment of predictions has been made about when the UK will become a net importer of gas. Some have said that that will happen in about 14 years, others that it could happen as early as 2005–06. Currently, interconnectors on the east coast of the UK provide our gas, but security of supply issues are important, with the liberalisation of other European gas markets still some way off. Security of the supply from Russia and Norway, which has had problems in recent months, is an important issue.
The establishment of a liquified natural gas terminal on the west coast will allow supplies of LNG to be imported by vessel from other locations in the world. Pembrokeshire has the expertise to deal with that industry after 30 years in the oil industry. The site is one of the very few UK deep-water ports that allows good access to even the largest vessels, and planning consent was granted in February by Pembrokeshire county council. There is still some way to go and the process has not ended, as it is subject to IPPC—integrated pollution prevention and control—authorisation and to COMAH—control of major accident hazard—safety assessment.
The development offers much to our locality and Wales as a whole. It will provide only limited jobs in our area, but the most important thing is that it will put 338 Wales at the beginning of a high-pressure gas pipeline, rather than at the end, as at present. It will provide security of gas supply for Wales in a changing global scene and sustain existing refinery businesses by providing a reliable supply of competitive fuel. Local industry has been crying out for years for a high-pressure gas line. The line currently finishes at Swansea, 70 miles away. The development will be a tremendous boost for existing industry and a magnet for new investment.
The Secretary of State has given his support in principle and the project has passed the first hurdle, but my concern, which is shared by many people, including those in the company itself, is that unless Transco meets the challenges and time scale demanded by the project and the pipeline, we could lose out on this valuable infrastructure project for Wales as a whole. I ask him to do all that he can to ensure that Transco does not drag its heels and jeopardise the project.
The second project, Bluestones, is located over the border from my constituency in that of my hon. Friend the Member for West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire (Mr. Ainger). It has tremendous implications for my area because of the job opportunities that it offers. It is very much a new-generation tourism project and offers the opportunity to turn seasonal part-time jobs into full-time year-round employment. The development straddles the border between the national park and the county council, so planning responsibility lies with both those authorities, which are currently considering the matter.
I should like to mention national park purposes and duties. Unfortunately, there is a perception and a public rumour circulating in our county that the national park is determined to block the project. I sincerely hope that that is not true and I have every confidence and faith in the national park officer, Nic Wheeler, to ensure that the process is carried through correctly and as quickly as possible.
We must remember, however, that the principles of the national parks are to conserve and enhance their natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage and to promote opportunities for the public understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities. Those are the national parks' two primary purposes, but they also have duties. They have a statutory duty to seek to foster the economic and social well-being of their local communities in ways that are compatible with their pursuit of national park purposes. They should also have regard to the principles of sustainable development. In formulating policies for the administration and management of the parks, they must have in mind the wide range of interests that can be affected by their decisions.
Those responsible for the parks have a distinct duty of stewardship, but at the same time, they must recognise that the parks are a living and working environment for the people who live there. That is essential if they are to remain vibrant areas and not lapse into purely rural theme parks. The Government's creation of the sustainable development fund, which involves some new work for the parks, is a very positive move that demonstrates that the parks are taking on board those issues.
339 I ask both the national park and the local council to recognise the need to undertake their statutory duties without any unnecessary delays. As I said, in Pembrokeshire, the public perception is that there are commercial considerations and we do not want the authorities to be seen to hold back those processes and threaten the project. That would be a tragedy for Pembrokeshire and Wales as a whole, because of the 1,000 jobs that could emanate from the project and the services that would be available to local people as well as tourists. Given that the Carbon Trust, Ethical Pembrokeshire and other organisations are involved in seeking to ensure that the development proceeds in the most sustainable manner with the smallest footprint on the environment, any failure to proceed would be a tragedy. I also firmly believe that the project is an opportunity to create a top-quality tourist venture that abides by sustainable principles and could become a model not only for the whole of Wales, but for the whole UK. We must Capitalise on that opportunity.
The Wales Tourist Board has identified seven main points that give priority to projects. Bluestones clearly matches every one of those targets by providing a strong competitive advantage for Welsh tourism, enhancing quality and service, extending the season and profitability, providing full-time job opportunities, demonstrating sound business planning, enhancing the environment and supporting Welsh culture.
The project offers opportunities for the national park to bring more people to appreciate the value of national park areas. I fear that if we do not take the wider vision, and if there is a blinkered vision among local communities and individuals, we could miss a tremendous opportunity for our community and for Wales in terms of the importance of the tourist industry as a whole.
I can best demonstrate that by giving two short examples. Oakwood, upon which the scheme is based, is a leisure park in Pembrokeshire that attracts daily visitors. It is, as its name suggests, primary oak woodland that is very valuable environmentally. The presence of Oakwood park has preserved that woodland, which, given the difficulties that farming is experiencing, could have faced being cut down.
My second little story was told to me by a former colleague in this House who is involved with the Forestry Commission. He happened to mention that he had been approached by a very sound environmental group about diminishing the amount of Sitka spruce in Northumberland and replacing it with mixed deciduous woodland. On the face of it, that appeared to be sensible and logical until it was pointed out that it could destroy 80 per cent. of the UK's red squirrel population. Although deciduous mixed woodland might seem preferable, it can support the grey squirrel, which would chase out the red squirrel. Environmental matters are not always straightforward; they can be much more complex than they seem to be.
I urge the Secretary of State on every level to support both projects because of the individual benefits that they can bring to my constituency and the tremendous opportunities that they offer to Wales.
§ Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)
First, I emphatically agree with the Secretary of State for Wales, who said how delighted he is to see Welsh celebrities doing so well in the media. Things are going very well for Wales in that regard; I also speak in a personal capacity.
The St. David's day debate is always a great opportunity for hon. Members to remind ourselves of the vision of Wales with which most of us would agree. Our debates in the Chamber are inevitably partisan to some extent, but they do not diverge significantly in terms of the kind of Wales that we all feel we have been elected to try to achieve. It is a Wales that is economically, culturally and socially successful; where low unemployment is achieved, but not at the cost of unreasonably low wages; where there is a strong and confident culture that does not depend on the crutches of racism or exclusion; and where social diversity is humorous, lively, fresh-minded and experimental, as well as deep-thinking, wise and internally confident of its national identity. It is a Wales where the political structures are set not to rule the electors, but to serve them; where ideas are stronger than factionalism; where credit is given where it is due; and, crucially, where the public feel that those in politics know how to use the structures in the best interests of the people whom we are elected to serve. None of that is controversial, but we sometimes get so obsessed with arguing about the different process proposals that the parties make that we take our eye off the ball.
A classic example of a dark age for Wales was the period between 1999 and 2000 when, in the first 18 months of the Welsh Assembly, there was little better than feudalism—a moribund system in which the party politics of the situation seemed to obscure the opportunity for a strategic programme for government. Then, in October 2000, the political sun rose and a new dawn arrived as the Liberal Democrats finally decided that it was time to enable the Labour party to free itself of its Westminster shackles and to create some stability in Welsh politics The seminal watershed in the effectiveness of the Welsh Assembly occurred when the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party took the mutual risk of attempting a partnership—a shared programme for government—that was intended to deliver outcomes rather than merely political stress between the parties.
§ Llew Smith
I want to make a correction. The Labour party did not take the decision to go into coalition; the respective leaderships took that decision. I assume that the party would have opposed it.
§ Lembit Öpik
I understand the bitterness experienced by the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, he might consider joining the Welsh. Liberal Democrats. As he will immediately remember, the Welsh Liberal Democrats put the partnership proposal to a full party conference in Wales, where it was voted on.
§ Lembit Öpik
It was very well attended. [Interruption.] I am delighted to see the enthusiasm that Welsh Liberal Democrat processes spontaneously generate among nationalist and Labour Members.
341 Following the positive decision by the Welsh Liberal Democrats as a party to attempt to achieve that stability for Wales, profoundly important progress has been made. It was Lloyd George who said that the greatest eloquence is that which gets things done. I am fairly confident that, in our quieter and less confrontational moments, as we reflect on the achievements of Mike German and his team, we all accept that the whole has been greater than the sum of its parts in that partnership.
Sadly, the Secretary of State seems to have left, no doubt to congratulate Mike German on his achievements. It was frustrating to hear him imply—not even imply, but explicitly claim—that all the results delivered by the Welsh Assembly Government in the past two and a half years were a direct consequence of Labour party policy. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] If Labour Members—in many cases, I like to think of them as Labour friends—are willing to believe that, they need to compare the 2001 and 1997 Labour party manifestos with what appeared in the partnership agreement. They will find that the Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto made a significant contribution in that regard. One example is the introduction of Assembly learning grants to higher education and further education students.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig)
The hon. Gentleman talks of the new dawn after his party came into coalition in the Assembly, but does he recall that, until the creation of that coalition, his party, like the Tories and the nationalists, pursued wrecking tactics in the Assembly? By pursuing their own party advantage, they put our fledgling Assembly at risk.
§ Lembit Öpik
Although the Minister insists on making a partisan point when I was trying to make cross-party observations, I shall endeavour to draw a jewel from the mud of his intervention. I agree with his implication: all parties found it difficult to play a constructive role in the Assembly. The advent of the partnership agreement between the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Labour party enabled the Conservative party and Plaid Cymru to settle their focus on outcomes. I shall be interested to hear what other Members think about that.
Few deny that there was a lack of stability or that there were huge internal pressures in the Labour party. Surely, we can all agree that the improved stability that resulted from the decision of two parties to form a partnership Government has been advantageous to the interests not only of all four parties but of the Welsh public.
§ Lembit Öpik
The hon. Gentleman is correct to highlight the fact that there was great pressure, which was widely acknowledged, in the Labour party as it 342 struggled to form an independent Administration. Ultimately, the project was not successful and the partnership came into being.
There have been many successes in the Welsh Assembly Government. I have already referred to the learning grant arrangement for higher and further education students. This is the first time that the binary divide between further and higher education students has been breached, which is tremendously important news for people who believe that lifelong learning requires sensible funding.
The Secretary of State talked of the increased number of doctors and nurses. That was one of the important early steps taken by the partnership to address some of the serious health difficulties, including the under-provision that was a direct consequence of underfunding since 1979 under successive Conservative and Labour Administrations.
Few deny the importance of free school milk for children at key stage 1, a proposal that was explicitly promoted by Mick Bates, the Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire, who just happens to be a Welsh Liberal Democrat. There are other successes: free prescriptions for the under-25s; free dental checks for the old and young; and free personal care for up to six weeks after diagnosis. Crucially, prescription charges have been frozen, while they continue to rise in England; I imagine that, for residents of England, they will be going up again from April. There are 700 new teachers and many other proposals.
I do not suggest that everything in the list of the Assembly's achievements came about because of the Welsh Liberal Democrats. However, if we are serious about the new politics of Wales, it is incumbent on our partners in government—the Labour party—to acknowledge that the Welsh Liberal Democrats have tried to play a constructive role, and that many of those achievements are a direct consequence of Welsh Liberal Democrat promises to the people of Wales, which, to the credit of the Labour party, it has enabled us to implement.
§ Mr. Simon Thomas
The hon. Gentleman mentioned several important innovations made by the National Assembly. Can he tell us whether any of them were opposed by Plaid Cymru? Can he tell us which of them was not in Plaid Cymru's manifesto, or indeed that of the Labour party? Does he realize that Labour Members would drop the much-vaunted partnership on which he relies as quickly as they could if only they could get a majority in the Assembly—[Interruption.] They agree with me.
§ Lembit Öpik
The Minister resists that acknowledgement except for a wry smile. Of course, other Members may be jealous of the power enjoyed by the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the Assembly, or perhaps they are showing humility or envy in the face of the enormous wisdom and maturity demonstrated by the Welsh Liberal Democrat-led Government in Cardiff.
§ Mr. Roger Williams
Does my hon. Friend agree that the formation of the next Government in the Assembly is in the gift not of the Labour party but of the electorate? That is the important point.
§ Lembit Öpik
I violently agree with my hon. Friend. However frustrating it may be for Members in this place, the decision will be made by the Welsh electorate. If there is no majority, the final decision on the future programme for government will be debated by Assembly Members and, I would hope, by the respective party conferences—although I suspect that will happen only if the Welsh Liberal Democrats do not actually win an overall majority. I would also go so far as to say that, on occasion, the stability that the partnership has brought has enabled Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives in Wales to come forward with some ideas of their own.
Once again, the fact that some of the friction that existed in the early days of the Assembly has been lifted has enabled everyone in the Assembly to adopt a more external focus. That is to the benefit of all. Nevertheless, it prompts the question of whether we should seriously consider moving further primary legislative power to the Welsh Assembly. I do not want to dwell on that, but I believe that there is a strong case for devolving transport, further education and other powers to the Assembly, now that it has proved itself capable and manifestly desirous of exercising responsible government for the people of Wales. This all comes down to whether we believe that devolution is working. For an establishment that has been going for only four years—and has been operational in an effective sense for only two and a half—the Welsh Assembly has done extremely well.
Looking ahead, we are about to have the elections, and much of what is said today will be tainted by that. However, it is important that we all recognise that, regardless of how the public in Wales vote, the Welsh Assembly does best when it focuses on outcomes. There will be a great opportunity to extend free personal care, further to cut junior class sizes to no more than 25, and to promote free access to sports centres for young people so as to promote health and fitness among youngsters and to reduce antisocial behaviour in young people. Those are some of the many opportunities that the Welsh Assembly has to diverge in its policy making from what goes on in Westminster. That brings me to an important point. As we see devolution take root, we see divergence in terms of local best practice—in this case, with regard to the three examples that I gave.
I noted with great interest the comments of the Secretary of State for Wales on student funding. I see the potential for a dramatic rift in student funding policy between what happens in Westminster for English students and what happens in Wales for Welsh students. There has already been an improvement in access for many target groups in Scotland as a result of fairly progressive student funding arrangements introduced in the Scottish Parliament by the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Labour party. If the Labour party achieved that idea independently, why has it not done it for the whole of England and Wales? Why have we had to wait for devolution?
I suggest that one of the spin-off benefits of what has happened in Wales is that other party policies—for example, those of my own party, and occasionally those of Opposition parties—get more oxygen for their promotion, and can sometimes be passed on merit. Let none of us pretend, however, that if the Labour party had an overall majority in the Welsh Assembly and there 344 were no partnership, there would not be massively increased pressure on the Labour Administration in that environment to toe the party line from Westminster.
While the first four years of Welsh Assembly government have been a learning process, in the next four years, we can really hit the ground running. There is great potential for the confidence of the Welsh Assembly Government to develop. The maturity of the established organisations and the flow lines of power make it possible for the Welsh Assembly to settle down and, crucially, for the relationship between Westminster Members, including the Lords, and Assembly Members based in Cardiff to become more relaxed and smooth-flowing. This is not a party political observation but something that I have noticed across all parties. If we are honest, I think that we have all felt that.
There have been some teething troubles and frictions between parties, simply because the Welsh Assembly is new, and we have all had to rebalance the way in which we operate in the political environment that has ensued. Things have occasionally looked threatening to the Welsh Assembly, as the Welsh MPs have seemed unhappy about what it was doing, and vice versa. However, etiquettes have been established, and we increasingly recognise that working together, far from being a threat to the jurisdiction of either Westminster or the Assembly, results in better outcomes and right decisions at the right levels. Devolution is a process, and requires us progressively to give up more power as the Welsh Assembly develops and becomes more confident about the exercise of power.
The focus of our debate should be positive, and I exhort hon. Members to consider another initiative that I hope is welcome from the Welsh Liberal Democrats—a campaign charter to try to improve the style of politics that we practise in Wales and, in the longer term, elsewhere. On previous occasions, I have said that I am not comfortable about embarking on negative campaigning and debates and, more than anything, running other parties down in a non-evidence-based way. Individual parties do not gain from that and, collectively, the body politic loses.
§ Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly)
Will the hon. Gentleman therefore publicly distance himself from the outrageous literature that his party produced in the Ogmore by-election?
§ Lembit Öpik
The hon. Gentleman will know that I have often said that, although it can help an individual campaign in the short term, it does not help any party or politics in the medium to long-term to embark on unreasonable campaigning. We can debate those leaflets—I have looked at them and had debates about them. The hon. Gentleman is smart enough to realise that I am not going to conduct a witch hunt in my own party.
§ Lembit Öpik
The answer is simple. I respectfully and humbly suggest to hon. Members that we cannot mandate people's attitude, but we can propose a way of looking at politics. Our campaign charter has seven points, which I shall not go through in detail.
345 Essentially, we focus on campaigning on positive records of delivery; positive policy proposals; and being willing to criticise other parties' weaknesses, but only where appropriate and in the context of party policy proposals. The charter says:We will, on no account, comment or encourage comment on the personal lives of politicians … We will campaign honestly and fairly so that we can justify our statementsand back them up with facts. The charter continues:We will seek to engage people in the political process through argument, issue and comparison … We will work with people from political parties and none when we share objectives and interests.None of that is very radical, and it would be a shame if any Westminster Member felt that it was an inappropriate form of campaigning.
§ Mr. Llwyd
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Ogmore by-election, which was held during his tenure as Liberal Democrat spokesman on Welsh affairs. It therefore behoves him and any other leader to ensure that that kind of thing does not happen. I am sure that we all agree with the broad thrust of what he is saying. We do not want personalised politics, but first we must clean out our own stables.
§ Lembit Öpik
I am making that very appeal to right hon. and hon. Members. It would be neither feasible nor appropriate for me to attempt to clean out the stables of the Labour party, the Conservative party or Plaid Cymru. Perhaps I can do something to achieve a new style of politics among Welsh Liberal Democrats—we will find out. I am making not a mandate but a recommendation, and I urge hon. Members to bear it in mind. They do not have to respond to the charter today, but if they are interested in it they could quietly consider its content in their own time.
We have written to the Conservative party, the Labour party and Plaid Cymru. I detected some scepticism in the responses of Nick Bourne and Ieuan Wyn Jones, but we all know that, at the end of the day, people who go into politics do so on the whole for the right reasons. It is a great shame that individuals are besmirched and dragged down in what, in my judgment, is a noble profession simply because we cannot resist cheap shots when it would be better to remain quiet.
The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) laughs, which prompts me to do what I did not intend to do, and give an example. He will know that there has been some debate about the prospective Conservative candidate for Llanelli, who made what I consider outrageous homophobic and racist statements. I will not name him, but he says:I would like to see Britain take a stronger line on 'normalising' incomers … deplore the way Britain subscribes to every damn 'human rights' act so strictly … I cannot convince myself of anything other than homosexuality being a medical mental condition … they need medical attention.There is no doubt whatever that the person who said that was a prospective Conservative candidate for Llanelli. If one intended to be cynical or opportunist one could give the impression that the entire Conservative party held those views, but I think that would be inappropriate, because I do not seriously believe that 346 even the majority of Conservatives hold them—and, although the hon. Member for Leominster may not know this, I understand that the Conservative party in Wales, to its credit, has taken swift action and fired the candidate.
That is a practical example of what I am talking about. Any attempt to gain mileage from those views would rebound negatively on politics as a whole.
§ Lembit Öpik
Because they constitute just one of many possible hostages to fortune that do not reflect the thrust of, in this case, Conservative party policy—although the same could apply to other parties.
Let me end with a request. Members find it hard to resist poking fun at my continued idealism in raising the game of politics. I hope that, in a quiet and perhaps less charged environment, they will consider whether they would be willing to give it a chance, and see whether we can clean up politics. The ultimate winner would be politics as a whole, and we would be able to focus on outcomes rather than process.
That said, the Welsh Liberal Democrats are here to get things done. We do not pretend to have a monopoly on good ideas, and we are willing to work with those who can add value to our views—even members of other parties. We regard politics not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end. We do not necessarily consider it to be a conflict; we see it as a competition rather than a war.
I hope that those who feel comfortable about occasionally stepping out of the tired old box of politics that runs us all down will find some resonance in what I have said. Most of all, I hope that the Welsh public—the people who elected us to serve them—find some resonance in the fact that one party is genuinely willing to step outside the negativity that has sometimes bedevilled campaigning, is willing to risk working in partnership to achieve results as we have in the Welsh Assembly, and is trying to live out the creed of Lloyd George himself and get things done. If they do, I hope they will consider supporting us in the forthcoming elections.