Social and Economic Situation

Part of Orders of the Day — Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 6:59 pm on 29th June 1987.

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Photo of Mr Roy Hughes Mr Roy Hughes , Newport East 6:59 pm, 29th June 1987

Only today the London Business School pointed out that the recent reduction in unemployment owes more to the restart programme than to rising employment. Moreover, it also reports that this trend is likely to continue.

The cost of unemployment is simply phenomenal. It has absorbed much of our North Sea oil revenues, which should have been spent on regenerating British manufacturing industry. Wales has lost 36 per cent., or 113,000 jobs, in manufacturing industry. By contrast, in the past three years south-east England has benefited by a 15 per cent. growth in banking, insurance and finance. Those figures illustrate what we mean by the north-south divide.

Between 1979 and 1985 the average wage in Wales decreased in real terms by 4·1 per cent.—the biggest drop of any region—whereas London's average wage over the same period increased by 6·2 per cent. Unemployment has risen faster in Wales than in any other region, which completely contradicts the Government's argument that lower wage levels mean more jobs. Wales has the lowest average wage of all 20 British regions and it has the highest share of people earning less than the minimum wage. Two thirds of women working full time earn less than the EC statutory minimum wage. Whereas wages in the south-east have soared, it can be said with some justification that it has been at the expense of Wales.

The people of Wales have faced other penalties. For example, water charges have risen at more than double the inflation level in the past three years; rates have increased above the rate of inflation thanks to Government cuts in the funding of Welsh local authorities: and council rents have risen faster than inflation. The proportion of wages spent on rent has increased by 50 per cent., from 6 per cent. to 9 per cent.

The housing crisis in Wales is almost as catastrophic as unemployment. Wales has a much higher proportion of' older housing than any other part of Great Britain. More than 40 per cent. of Welsh homes, nearly 450,000, are more than 65 years old compared with 30 per cent. for Britain as a whole. Many people in Wales are living in housing conditions which were considered unhealthy more than 100 years ago. It is obvious and apparent that urgent action is needed to tackle this problem. What is more, a housing drive makes social and economic sense.

Of course, there is regional aid. However, in 1984, to cut that aid in half was a cruel decision. It watered down efforts to renew the Welsh economy after a catastrophic period of closures and redundancies, particularly affecting our traditional industries. I suggest to the new Secretary of State for Wales—I trust that the Minister of State will convey my message—that the original regional assistance should be restored, and indeed increased, if there is to be any realistic attack on unemployment and depression.

Education in Wales reveals a similar dismal picture. Government cuts have led to inadequate supplies of books and equipment. Buildings have been neglected, classes have been disrupted and the negotiating rights of the teachers' trades unions have been taken away. The Gracious Speech contains the new proposal that parents should pay for the little extras. Of course, that will adversely affect poorer families. The proposal for schools to opt out is causing concern. The director of education in Gwent, Mr. Geoffrey Drought, has warned that any school that opts out could leave itself extremely exposed and could live to regret that decision. Likewise, central Government could close a school at the stroke of a pen and local communities will lose out.

The proposal within the Gracious Speech that is perhaps causing the greatest concern is that for a new method of financing local government, which has become known as the poll tax. A few days ago my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition forecast that that poll tax will bring chaos and lead to the breakdown of local government. For me the most revealing insight has come from reading that the Prime Minister stands to gain £37 per week on her retirement home in Dulwich; the Secretary of State for the Environment will be £19 per week better off; and the Secretary of State for Transport will clear up a staggering £120 per week on his two homes. By comparison, the rates bill of the poor depressed families in the Rhondda valleys—where the wealth was produced to generate the industrial revolution of this country—and the average householder, which was £145, will increase by 300 per cent. to £580. That is the rates bill for a family of four. Where is the justice in this?—the traditional hwara-teg.

All in all, the people of Wales find that the Gracious Speech shows a lack of concern for their needs. The north-south divide in Wales is in jobs, pay, wealth, housing, education, training, youth, middle age, old age and the lack of opportunities for our people. The brief resume of facts and figures that I have given should serve as a reminder to the incoming Secretary of State for Wales of the uphill task that he faces.