First Day

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 5:07 pm on 6th May 1992.

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Photo of Mr Roy Hughes Mr Roy Hughes , Newport East 5:07 pm, 6th May 1992

May I first congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment to high office. I am sure that in the years ahead you will play a full part in ensuring fair and effective debates in the House.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest (Sir P. McNair-Wilson). I share his reservations about the Maastricht treaty, but I do not intend to expand on his observations today.

The Gracious Speech contains a number of items with which I agree, such as the measure relating to terrorism and drugs. However, there are quite a number of items which I would rather had been left out. I particularly resent the further attack on the trade union movement contained on page 3, where it states: A Bill will be introduced to improve further the law on industrial relations. That is a further attempt to weaken organised labour in this country.

The second item on page 3 states that the coal industry is to be privatised. The Conservative party won the general election and some might say that it is perhaps to be expected that the Conservative Government will turn the heat on their traditional enemy—the miner. The immediate post-war Attlee Government nationalised coal mines in 1947. Owing to the failure of previous coal owners to invest in the industry, that measure was long overdue. It was intended to bring harmony where bitterness and long-standing grievances prevailed, and was not without success. There was much modernisation of the industry, greater efficiency, and, until recent years, better industrial relations.

I am sure that privatisation will result in many pit closures and thousands of job losses. As the Rothschild report and others made clear, the industry in south Wales is already just about wiped out. It was not so long ago that we had pits in abundance in south Wales.

The mining valleys of south Wales have long provided a great sense of community, but mining is a hazardous and arduous occupation and there are many who will not regret its passing. Nevertheless, the Government are being short-sighted. Coal is a vital part of our indigenous resources. Admittedly, the seams may now be a little more difficult to work, but we have hundreds of years of supply under our feet. As an industrial nation we need large supplies of energy, and to rely increasingly on imports is not very wise. The price of those imports will invariably rise and eventually we could be held to ransom. The increased financial burden will have a grievous effect on our already worrying balance of payments.

North sea oil is in decline. From experience we know that imports of oil from the middle east can be problematic, not to mention the associated massive price variations. Nuclear energy, as a source of fuel for civilian purposes, has proved a disaster financially and is highly questionable from an environment point of view.

Over the years, despite the many pit closures and the general rundown of the industry, the old coal owners continued to extract their pound of flesh in compensation payments, which certainly had a gravely detrimental effect on the finances of the old national coal board. Ironically, under the Government's new plans, it will inevitably be the taxpayer who will bear the brunt of the burden of the future rundown of the industry. I refer to historical liabilities for subsidence, pit closure costs, concessionary coal for retired miners and their dependants, and pension payments. The Government's plans are misguided and short-sighted, and they should think again.

As for economic policy as set out in the Queen's Speech, I must point out that Britain has legions of unemployed people. Month after month the total increases. Like a tap left running, unemployment is waste. The cost in financial terms is tragic enough, but the social and human costs are of even greater consequence. Unemployment plays its part in the ever-escalating divorce rates, in child abuse and child neglect, in wife battering and even in death rates, which have been proved to be directly related to unemployment in certain areas.

Any person or organisation suggesting that the mounting crime rate has little to do with unemployment needs to think again. The return of full employment should be a principal objective of every major political party. It is no longer the down and outs who are the unemployed, or the unskilled labourers. People of all classes are becoming increasingly subject to the fear of unemployment and the personal and family problems that it unleashes.

The economist Keynes is back in vogue: we need to stimulate demand and to build up our industrial capacity to meet that demand.

The EC surely has a vested interest in drastically reducing unemployment. Our chronic balance of payments deficit shows that the exchange rate is out of line. Other countries seem to be in the same boat as ourselves vis-a-vis Germany. If the problem is not tackled, social tensions could arise throughout Europe. Extremism will come to the fore as it did in the 1930s, and the recent events in Los Angeles and other American cities give grave cause for concern.

If we do not realise the folly of present policies, the tragedy waiting to happen will be on our very doorstep. The Prime Minister has given us his text—a nation at ease with itself. How can it be, given mass unemployment? It is a contradiction in terms. The proposals in the Gracious Speech will certainly not solve this great problem.

The Gracious Speech does not mention the reorganisation of local government in Wales. Perhaps that is included in Other measures will be laid before you"; but there is a good deal of anxiety in Wales about this matter. The reform of local government in Wales has quite a history. In the late 1960s the Labour party had a good plan for reorganisation. It was based largely on the two-tier principle, but with an amalgamation of many of the smaller urban and rural authorities. The counties would have remained. At the same time, the plans realised the benefits of unitary authorities, and Cardiff, Swansea and Newport would have retained county borough status.

Unfortunately, the plan did not see the light of day in parliamentary legislation. The then Secretary of State for Wales, now Viscount Tonypandy, was prevailed upon by his Cabinet colleagues to wait for the Redcliffe-Maud report, which was in the process of deliberation. In the event, it was the Redcliffe-Maud recommendations that were largely implemented by the incoming Conservative Government of 1970—not only in Wales but in the rest of the country. The cost was astronomic, and I venture to suggest that at the end of it all we had a worse form of local government than before.

Now it seems that the process is to be gone through again. This time the Secretary of State for Wales has said that the system will be based on unitary authorities. In Newport we welcome the proposal that the borough council will be the sole unit of local government, for that is what the people of the town desire. Newport has the resources to carry out the necessary functions. I pay tribute, however, to Gwent county council, which has been an excellent local authority. It is served by good officers and staff and its elected members are of a high calibre.

I want to draw two aspects of local government reorganisation to the attention of the House. First, the power of local government has been eroded by central Government. The Government came badly unstuck over the poll tax, but the diktat of the Treasury now predominates. For example, schools are being encouraged to opt out although the costs involved are much higher than for local authority schools. Many other local government services are being handed over to private enterprise and a deterioration in services seems to be the hallmark of that development. The whole thrust of the Government's approach is detrimental to the interests of the people that local government serves. It undermines the whole principle of local democracy in Britain, which was once admired the world over.

I regret the absence from the Gracious Speech of any plan to create an elected assembly in Wales. With unitary authorities, some of them fairly small, the need for such an assembly is ever more pressing. What is happening in Wales is little short of colonial rule with the Secretary of State for Wales, who represents a Cheshire constituency, playing the part of Governor-General. Quangos proliferate and more seem to be in the pipeline. Their members are appointed by the Secretary of State and are responsible only to him. Wales needs a healthy dose of democracy, which an elected assembly would provide. I hope that during the Government's term of office the people of Wales will come to appreciate the need for an elected assembly to fill a vacuum that has existed for too long.