I must, first, apologise for the fact that much of my speech will probably be given behind the shelter of a handkerchief. This is one of the occasions when I regret the fact that the well-known luxuries and amenities of the House do not run to such things as glasses of water for back benchers.
I should like, as was anticipated by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to speak about the decision which was made on the future of the Welsh College of Advanced Technology and about the structure of the University of Wales, because I have the honour to represent the constituency in which one of those, the Swansea College, stands. I can see no disadvantage in Swansea obtaining its own independent university.
However, in developing what I have to say I can only say that I regret the fact that I have to make this speech at all, first, because I have a high personal regard for both the Secretary of State and for the Minister, and, secondly, because the need for this speech could so easily have been avoided by, if I may say so, a little more tact. I am now being well looked after with supplies of water, and I think that we are now in danger of flooding the House. It could easily have been avoided with a little more consultation with the back benchers who have a special interest in this problem.
I think that I should point out at this stage that I have given lectures in the Welsh College of Advanced Technology for four and a half years, so I could not claim to be speaking from an unprejudiced position. On the other hand, I hope that what I am putting forward today will be put forward in a conciliatory manner, although I hope that that will not be interpreted as implying a lack of strength of feeling on the subject.
The need for this speech arises from an Answer to a Question on 23rd December. In the Answer an announcement was made by the Secretary of State that the Welsh College of Advanced Technology would be the only C.A.T. which would not be given independent status. In my present generous frame of mind I am quite happy to say that I accept as a coincidence that this controversial statement was made on the very last day before a rather lengthy Recess. I am even prepared to accept that it was a coincidence that it was in reply to a Written Question, and I am willing to accept as a coincidence that this Question was tabled only the day before, so that other back benchers had not an opportunity to see that an Answer was about to come. Indeed, I am even willing to accept that it was a coincidence that there were so many coincidences.
However, the question which arises is: why was it so urgent that a statement was made on that particular day? After all, only 10 days before I had a letter from the Minister in which he gave no indication that any decision was pending. Indeed, he told me then that the only representations he had received were from a little-known student organisation in Wales and from the Association of Teachers in Wales, which happens to have a total membership of six in the College of Advanced Technology, out of a total staff of 190.
I am bound to question what happened within that space of 10 days that determined the Minister to make the statement and why it was that this statement could not wait. Why was it that he did not feel able to consult the Welsh backbench Members? After all, he cannot know our opinion, because he has never been to visit us in our own group and he has never discussed this problem with us.
Alarmed at the announcement, I wrote to the Secretary of State early in January and I pointed out to him that a substantial number of back benchers from Wales disagree with the decision which he had made, and I simply asked him, with an open mind, to meet us when we returned to Parliament—I stressed that in the letter, with an open mind—to discuss the problems. Yet, far from being confronted with an open mind, I found that just three or maybe four days ago in a Press interview with the Western Mail my right hon. Friend the Minister had said—I use as close a paraphrase as is possible in this House—that the decision is final for the foreseeable future.
If the decision was final and this was so final that it was to last for the foreseeable future, surely the need for consultation became even greater. Therefore, it is even more difficult to understand why, in fact, an unnecessary strain was imposed on the loyalty of the Welsh backbench Members in this matter.
During this interview the Minister answered a series of questions, and one of the points he made was that this decision on the Welsh College of Advanced Technology would have no effect on the courses which would be offered at this college. I feel I must ask the Minister: how does he know?