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 Mr Peter Thomas Mr Peter Thomas , Barnet Hendon South 12:00 am, 21st March 1974

I have already had the opportunity of congratulating the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues on their appointment to the Welsh Office. I do so gladly again and wish them well in their tenure of office. I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman also on his speech today. It was a speech of fluency and power, and, apart from one or two passages where I think he felt impelled to make some political observations and comments, I should agree with much of what he had to say.

I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in paying tribute to those who were his predecessors in office—apart from myself of course. I found that each person who occupied the high office which he now occupies certainly had the wish to do his best for Wales and for the Welsh people.

I am sure that it would be acceptable to welcome to the Front Bench my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards), who would wish, if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to make a few observations on behalf of the Opposition at the end of the debate. I also see my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt), and I should like to pay a personal tribute to him. I could not have wished for a better supporter in the Welsh Office during my three and a half years as Secretary of State for Wales. I know that the House will be glad to see that his health appears to be well recovered. I thank him for his assistance during those most interesting years.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talked, I thought with probably lessened pride, about his party being the party of the majority in Wales. That is strictly true: the majority has of course lessened, and it is interesting to see on the Opposition side of the House aditional Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Grist) and the two hon. Members who represent Plaid Cymru, whom we welcome to a Welsh debate. It is also interesting to see that the numbers on this side for the first time in my 23 years' experience apparently equal those on the Labour side.

I was interested by the construction of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's speech, how he felt that it was important to refer to the balance sheet and to look at the state of the books—which one expects when a person takes over for the first time. He said that he will seek to act in the interests of the whole of Wales. I do not doubt that. I have known the right hon. and learned Gentleman for many years and I know that he will try to do precisely what he said—to unite the Welsh people and to gain their co-operation. In this he will have the assistance of loyal and excellent officials.

I found his interpretation of the employment situation somewhat interesting. I would have put it a little differently. In order to paint a picture of the Welsh employment situation, I would have said that it was remarkable that in December 1973, not usually a month of the highest employment figures, unemployment in Wales was at its lowest for nine years. I would also have said that in December 1973 unfilled job vacancies in Wales were the highest for 20 years.

It seemed a good opportunity for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to point out to the House, and to have it on record as he plainly wished, that since 1970 industrial output in Wales had risen by 12·5 per cent. and in the manufacturing sector by more than 15 per cent. and that in 1972 it increased at double the United Kingdom rate. Last year alone, despite the problems of the latter part of the year, it rose by nearly 7 per cent.

The year 1973 was the first full year of operation of the Industry Act 1972. The response to that Act was tremendous and it is worth mentioning. In 1973, inquiries and visits by industrialists in Wales were twice as many as in the previous year. In 1972, they were almost double the level of 1971. So far, about 300 applications have been made for selective financial assistance, and the offers of grants which have been made under selective financial assistance in over 100 cases amount to £8·5 million, providing about 8,700 new jobs. In the industrial and service sectors, there are about 27,000 new jobs in prospect in Wales.

Another important matter, which, I think, should have been referred to is that we have over the years had a longstanding trend of loss of population through migration, but this has now been reversed, and net inward migration into Wales is mounting.

I should have liked to put the picture differently. I would say that Wales was rapidly becoming one of the most exciting and most promising regions of the European Community, and that this was rapidly being recognised in Europe, in the United States of America, in Japan and elsewhere. [Interruption.] I hear the Under-Secretary say something. He will know of the investment which is being made in his constituency of Merthyr by an American firm. He will know, too, of how in Ebbw Vale a European firm, Alfred Teves, is investing. They could have taken any part of Europe, but they decided to come to Wales. In the same way, we have had Sony and Takiron from Japan. I found during the latter part of my period as Secretary of State for Wales that the response and the interest in Wales was enormous.

This did not come about by accident. The right hon. and learned Gentleman took us through the difficult periods that we had at the end of 1970 and 1971. When I was Secretary of State, sitting in his place, I must admit that I was frequently saddened by some hon. and right hon. Members who appeared to revel in painting a gloomy picture of Wales by decrying our prospects, by exaggerating our problems and by minimising our successes.

During the time to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman referred, we sufferred from those attacks, but we had a job to do and we got on with the job. Starting from the base in 1970 which the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned—I still maintain that there was an underlying rising level of unemployment, and there was certainly a stagnant economy and a crisis of confidence in business—in the course of our three and a half years in office we gave priority and new, indeed, unprecedented, resources to communications, to infrastucture and to the environment.

We made the whole of Wales an assisted area. We made the whole of the South Wales coalfield a special development area. We pledged massive investment in coal and steel. We passed the Industry Act in 1972 which, together with the Finance Act of 1972, not only stimulated industrial activity throughout the United Kingdom but was regarded as being the most effective Act for regional regeneration ever. In effect, what we did was to reintroduce growth into the economy, and Wales benefited probably more than any other part of the United Kingdom.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talked about regional imbalance. It is true that for far too long Wales has suffered from the problem of regional imbalance. For years our aim has been to try to reach that goal of parity with the rest of the United Kingdom, but it is a goal which has eluded us for a long time. At the end of last year, however, there were indications that the problem was on the way to being solved. With that picture in mind, it is sad that the fuel and world price crises, together with the coincidence of industrial disputes, reduced our momentum and postponed many of our hopes.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talked about problems. Of course we have problems. We have been discussing those problems during the past few weeks, not only in the House but in the country. We have suffered setbacks because of those problems, but I believe that they can and will be overcome. Wales is in a better condition than at any time since the war to face the difficulties and, in due course, to continue its progress at a fast rate. The right hon and learned Gentleman has, he will find when he looks at the books again, been left a soundly based foundation for progress on which to build.

In the right climate of growth, with a fair tax system and continuation of our regional policy, Wales has great potentiality to attract investment, particularly from overseas. How Wales will fare depends on how policies emerge and, of course, much will depend on the Budget which we shall hear about next week.

I express the hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will seek to dissuade his Cabinet colleagues from introducing measures that will weaken that potentiality in Wales. Threats and suggestions of nationalisation, vague proposals such as a "national enterprise board"—which to any industrialist would imply interference with and regimentation of private industry—are very damaging to the prospect of investment, and, when connected to the prospect of oil and gas in the Celtic Sea, they are immensely damaging to the future of Wales.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned that when the Government first came to office their first task was—I use his words—to "settle the miners' strike and get Britain back to work". A settlement was achieved which occasioned a certain amount of relief in the country, and there is no doubt that people were glad of the opportunity to get down to a full week's work. When one thinks of the settlement in cash terms, there is very little cash difference between the relative pay offer and the settlement—which one could call the settlement of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot). On basic rates, surface workers received slightly more, coal face workers, slightly less and underground workers about the same. In terms of cash, the strike was absolutely unnecessary.