Welsh Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st March 1974.

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Photo of Sir John Morris Sir John Morris Secretary of State for Wales 12:00 am, 21st March 1974

I am most generous in giving way to my hon. Friends and hon. Members, but I have a long way to go, and if I give way again I shall only be cutting other hon. Members out of the debate.

The most recent decision affecting the economic and social life of South Wales has been the decision not to proceed with the proposed Llantrisant New Town. We welcome that decision, but we are determined that it should not be seen as a negative one. Rather it must now become a renewal of our commitment to enhance and develop the existing communities which have shown a remarkable resilience and a greater potential for industrial development than was thought possible some years ago. I make that commitment this afternoon.

I want to work closely with all the local authorities in the post-Llantrisant situation, though without in any way taking over their responsibilities. I also wish to make clear that we realise the urgent need to plan properly and effectively the natural growth in the Llantrisant area. We shall give full support to planning initiatives to ensure that this will be done.

I turn now to Mid-Wales. With my roots in Mid-Wales, I am happy to be able to point to the more encouraging trends which are now apparent in some respects, as I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman did on Monday. We are now—hopefully—seeing the beginning of the reversal of depopulation. Substantial progress has been made at Newtown, where the Mid-Wales Development Corporation set up by the last Labour Government is working towards a doubling of the town's population. Progress elsewhere has perhaps been less spectacular, but by no means insignificant.

The last Labour Government initiated a policy of concentrating development in six other growth towns in Mid-Wales, and this policy was endorsed by the succeeding administration. A number of manufacturing firms have moved to these towns in recent years, and this has contributed to the improvement in population trends. What is not clear is whether this improvement has been brought about by a reduction in the drift of population from the area or an increase in the movement of people into the area.

If this healthier trend is to last, we must maintain the momentum of development. I intend to see that this is done, and I am therefore particularly glad today to announce two significant new developments. First, the vacant Development Commission advance factory at Rhayader has been allocated to Silent Channel Products Ltd. of Huntingdon, which manufactures components for the motor industry. Twenty jobs will be created in the first year of operation, and 40 jobs should be provided by the end of 1976. The company also has a factory at Maesteg, but there will be no reduction of the labour force there as a result of this move to Rhayader. Secondly, under the Development Commission's main programme of advance factory building in Mid-Wales, a new 10,000 sq. ft. factory is to be built at Aberystwyth.

The continued development of the towns of Mid-Wales is essential if the depopulation of this area—with all its economic, social and cultural implications —is to be reversed not just last year or the year before, but for good. The policy of concentrating industrial investment in a comparatively small number of attractive locations is, I believe, right. The major question still outstanding, however, is how to translate all our hopes and aspirations for the area into action. We said in our manifesto for Wales that a Development Board was needed to coordinate the activities of all existing agencies in Mid-Wales and rural Wales.

I am anxious to make progress in co-ordinating the strategy for Mid-Wales and hope to begin the task of providing the tools for the job in the way of effective corporate machinery for the area.

In all five of the Mid-Wales counties no locality causes me greater concern than Blaenau Ffestiniog—a town with a proud industrial and cultural record—which I hope to visit shortly. It is a town, too, which has suffered more than most towns in Wales from the twin evils of depopulation and unemployment. The number of persons unemployed may not be large in comparison with many other parts of Wales, but the unemployment rate is totally unacceptable to me. I am determined to do everything within my power to tackle the problems of Blaenau. In particular, I am lending my full weight to the determined efforts now being made by the Department of Industry to find a tenant for the vacant Government factory. Naturally, I warmly welcome the announcement earlier this week that a company from Colwyn Bay has decided to establish a unit in the town.

I turn now to agriculture. I think it was an hon. Gentleman opposite—the Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells), who is not here today—who urged upon his electors the need for a Minister of State for Welsh Agriculture with, I believe, a seat in the Cabinet. With my roots so firmly embedded in the industry, I hope that when he reads my speech in due course, as I hope he will, he will not mind my asking him to remind his electors that I share this responsibility with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and that I am not a Minister of State. I am proud to be the Secretary of State, and that there are at least two voices to safeguard Welsh Agriculture in the Cabinet.

I attach a great deal of importance to the future development and prosperity of Welsh agriculture. There is understandably, very considerable concern in Wales at present about the future of some sectors, which have had to bear mounting costs of animal feed, fertilisers and other essential supplies. I recognise, therefore, that this is a worrying time for Welsh farmers, and I have not to go far in my immediate family to be reminded quite sharply of the industry's problems. I also hope to take an early opportunity of meeting the representatives of the industry in Wales, and I am confident that they will convey to me their concern about many aspects of farming in Wales.

I now come to the question of roads. It is not my intention today to weary the House by cataloguing a whole host of road improvements now going on and to be commenced in Wales. My hon. Friend will deal with any particular queries. What I must say is that we have a long way to go in building an effective road pattern in Wales. It is regrettable that the original date of completion of 1976 for the M4 has slipped. I regard it as vital for South Wales that this essential artery is completed as early as possible, and I also attach importance to overcoming the social and engineering problems of bringing Gwynedd, where the unemployment rate is intolerably high, and the whole North Wales coast closer in the transport time scale to the border.

In all these matters, as previous Secretaries of State have been deeply aware, there is a dilemma. The rights of objectors have to be protected. But far too frequently—I say this with the utmost earnestness—the voice of beneficiaries further along the line of major road improvements goes unheard. If we want to get on with the badly needed improved road pattern in Wales, supporters as well as objectors—I have been an objector myself, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows—must stand up and be counted. That is a message I sent out, and I hope that I shall be supported on both sides of the House.

The county councils have a new role in the comprehensive development of transport in their areas. My Office will be available to give them positive support in the integrated development of cornmunications and services in their areas.

I should like to deal briefly with the question of housing. In the housing field, as in many others, we have inherited an uncomfortable situation. The Government are reviewing all the issues in order to determine priorities. As a first step. I made orders under the Counter-Inflation Act 1973 freezing all residential rents for the remainder of 1974 in Wales. There are in Wales some 280,000 council tenants and 150,000 private tenants. This is a significant contribution to holding down prices.

The major problem which confronts us is the need for more homes for our people. Waiting lists in Wales total nearly 40,000. Every hon. Member in Wales knows that the topic which occurs most frequently in his constituency work is that of housing. Yet the number of houses completed in Wales in 1973–3,377 in the public sector and 10,957 in the private sector—was the lowest since the end of the war. The number fell steadily year by year during the last Government's tenure of office. By 1973 the public sector figure had dropped to half what it was when they took office in 1970. But the fall was masked by their device of lumping together the public and the private sector figures. Now that the private sector building programme has ground to a halt, this cover is no longer available and the inadequacy of the public sector results is left fully exposed.

Clearly, this problem must be given the highest priority. We shall devote our attention and energies to reviving the house building programme. We shall encourage local authorities to press forward with programmes, and we shall do our utmost to provide the means. While local authorities are reviving their building programmes, we shall look again at the problem of maintaining existing housing in the short term. Clearance of unfit accommodation may be very necessary in itself, but we must have regard to the need to rehouse those displaced. Until accommodation is available to receive them, clearance merely aggravates the situation.

I am inviting the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydvil, to use all his energies for the housing drive that is so badly needed in Wales. Local government reorganisation in Wales sets up 37 new housing authorities from 1st April next in place of the existing 169 authorities. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is planning to meet all the new authorities as soon as possible to encourage them to tackle their plans realistically and to discuss with them what help we can give to ensure that there is again a real move forward in house building.

In the rural areas we shall give every encouragement to housing authorities in Wales to purchase homes which might otherwise become derelict and to make them available to meet housing needs in their areas—as a number of authorities have done very successfully in the past. We are also committed to put a stop to the giving of improvement grants for second homes.

I turn now to the question of education and the Welsh language. There is only one aspect of education, a subject which we are passionately concerned with in Wales, that I have time to deal with. The cut-back of nearly £4 million in capital expenditure on schools in 1974–75 resulted in the deferment of a start on the building of some 70 replacements for pre-1903 primary schools. Since Wales has such a high proportion of very old school buildings, the delay in their replacement represented a severe blow to the Principality. I am now considering reinstating in this year's starts programme —within available resources—some of the more urgent deferred projects.

The Welsh language is a brilliant gem in our inheritance. It enriches the Welsh-speaking Welshman and the non-Welshspeaking Welshman. It is part of all our backgrounds. We would all be the poorer without it. In an age when so many of us are becoming increasingly concerned with our enviroment, I have said before that to be passionate about the physical heritage and to be unconcerned about the language as the basic ingredient of the distinct cultural way of life of so many of us would be the act of a political schizophrenic.

There is a crisis in the history of the language. There is cause for concern in the further decline in the number of Welsh speakers revealed by the last census. But, on the other hand, there are encouraging signs, too, that a large number of people of all age groups are constructively setting about safeguarding the future of the language and that new methods and techniques in education are bearing fruit. I publicly supported the action of my predecessor the right hon. and learned Member for Hendon, South in setting up the Welsh Language Council as an important step in the right direction. There is much work to be done, and we shall be looking to the council for advice as it pursues its task. I shall be seeing the chairman very shortly so that I may review the progress of the council to date.

Lastly, I am sure to the relief of many hon. Members who wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I turn to the question of devolution. In Wales a great deal of interest has been focused on the Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution. This is not surprising, since the question of devolution to Wales has been the subject of sometimes heated discussion and argument in Welsh political circles for the best part of a century.

The party to which I belong—and we are the party of the majority of the people of Wales—has every reason to be proud of its record in this matter. Ever since the war, we have taken progressive action to ensure that the special interests and needs of Wales are taken fully into account in the processes of government. Among other steps, we established the Council for Wales and Monmouthshire in 1949, and it was we who established the Welsh Office, under its first Secretary of State, Mr. James Griffiths, in 1964. I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our good wishes to Mr. Griffiths. We set up the Commission on the Constitution in 1969, and in opposition we continued to press for increased democratic control by Wales over its own affairs.

Following the publication of the Kilbrandon Report, the Welsh Labour Group, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Jones) reminded the House last night, put in hand a thoroughgoing study of its findings, and the trend of our thinking was made clear before the election. Our declared aim is to arrive at positive and constructive proposals which will win wide assent. I must pay tribute to the work of analysis that was done by the commission, but it then threw the ball back into the politicians' court for decision, where responsibility for action lies.

I noted with interest the comment of the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) in Monday's debate that my reply has confirmed our gravest fears that the Government's filibustering approach to the matter will do Wales a grave disservice".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March 1974; Vol. 870, c. 755.] The most charitable thing I can say about the hon. Gentleman's comment is that he must have written his speech notes on the train before he even heard my reply. What I said about consultation was that these matters would be discussed with great urgency so that we could bring proposals before the House at the earliest possible moment. Unless filibustering has a different meaning from my understanding of it, I cannot conceivably understand how the hon. Gentleman could have reached his conclusion. Anyone with the slightest spark of knowledge of how the machinery of Government works would have understood the words in the Queen's Speech.

It is now only right, if we are not to emulate the methods of authoritarian regimes, that interested parties should have the opportunity of stating and restating their views in the light of the Kilbrandon Report. Discussion now needs to be focused on the various options referred to in the report and in the memorandum of dissent. That will sharpen all our minds, and organisations in ales will be invited to focus their attention on those points. The consultations will be taking place in Wales, and I shall keep in close touch with their progress.

The House has been told of the appointment of Lord Crowther-Hunt to assist the Government and to be available to all who wish to confer with him. The consultations to which I have referred will not slow down the urgency with which the Government are buckling down to prepare their proposals.

I believe that the Labour Party in Wales gave very valuable evidence to the Royal Commission. I believe that there is a great deal of endorsement in the Kilbi andon Report to our observations.

In our Welsh manifesto we referred to the need for a directly elected body in Wales with the functions, power and finance to enable it to be an effective democratic force in Wales.

What is important is to begin this work, and to set up a body that will be a developing instrument, its powers being shaped in the light of experience and the democratic needs and aspirations of the people of Wales.

Let us get on with the work. I look forward to the production of a White Paper as soon as possible setting out the Government's intentions, to be followed by the introduction of the legislation necessary to give effect to them. I am sure that, while we could not hope to satisfy everyone, our proposals will be welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the people of Wales

This debate comes early in my tenure at the Welsh Office and in the life of the Government. In the months that lie ahead, I hope to grapple with the many problems that beset our nation.

I have found on taking office—and I am deeply gratified—an immense fund of good will right across Wales. Our history as a nation is studded with the divisions within our nation. It would be foolish to believe they would disappear.

My aim will be to seek the co-operation of every person of good will in Wales, to seek to unite rather than to tear apart, and to engineer the use of all the talents of our nation so that there is a fuller and better life for Wales as a whole.