Welsh Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:35 pm on 2nd March 1995.

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Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith , Blaenau Gwent 8:35 pm, 2nd March 1995

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on a remarkable contribution, which I would have expected from him. He represents a constituency with a fine tradition and a fine past. If things go well in the next couple of years, he will also represent a constituency with a fine future. We all look forward to that day.

If the Government had been in office for only the past 15 months, I could understand their refusal to accept responsibility for many of the problems that we face in communities throughout Wales, but they have not been in office for 15 months—they have been in office for 15 years. Because of that, they must accept responsibility not only for the problems but for the devastation that they have inflicted upon our communities.

That devastation shows itself in many ways. It shows itself, for example, in poverty levels in communities such as mine in Blaenau Gwent. I am continually reminded of that devastation. Indeed, I was reminded of it at a meeting last year with the local authority, the Welsh Development Agency, the training and enterprise councils and the Department of Employment. In response to a question that I asked about the wage levels for all job vacancies on one day in Blaenau Gwent, the Department of Employment replied that the average hourly wage rate was just over £3. How would the Minister advise people in that situation on bringing up their families in decency and dignity, with that money? I go one further: I ask him to visit my community in Blaenau Gwent and to tell those people how to bring up their children when faced with hourly wage rates of £3.

That problem is not peculiar to my community; it is happening in working-class communities throughout the United Kingdom. I am sure that all hon. Members could give many examples of wage levels below £3 an hour. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) gave such an example some weeks ago, when he referred to a vacancy that was advertised in the local jobcentre. It was for a security guard, who was to be paid the grand sum of £1.80 an hour, and who was advised to bring his own guard dog. That is not an isolated example. Such jobs crop up in Blaenau Gwent and in the communities that my hon. Friends represent.

We can see how bad the situation is, but for the unemployed it is even worse. May I allow some of those unemployed people to speak, and try to explain to the House the feelings and frustrations that they experience every day of their lives? I shall do that through a document which some of us produced a year ago, and which contains what some of the families facing the problems of unemployment say.

First we hear from an unemployed couple with one child at home. Father, aged 49, is on invalidity benefit, suffers from spondylitis arthritis and has not worked for 11 years. He said: The Hoover's broken, it'll cost about £70 to repair so we'll just have to go without. We don't go on holiday—just day trips. We don't go out, we don't drink … We have got into debt, but we learnt from that. If we want something now we sit down and talk about it. You've got to watch every penny … I think we go from day to day. We feel a bit depressed. It affects your whole life—it's monotonous. Some days we get up thinking if only something was different. Next comes a single parent aged 23, with three children, living on £90.60 a week. She said: It's a struggle to live. I don't manage on the money. I've got a lot of debt but I get help from my mam and aunties. We never go on holiday. The next family consists of an unemployed couple with a son who is also unemployed. Father, aged 62, had been unemployed for 10 years. He worked on the buildings for 30 years, often on low pay, and he said: People like us will get into debt. The social will only give you a loan and then you have to fight for it. We put in for a £70 loan for a cooker and they wanted £8 a week back off us. Well we didn't bother—we couldn't afford to pay that… We went on holiday once—we paid for a caravan—that's in more than 30 years of marriage…I came from Manchester and people who did well gave back to the community. They built the library and created parks but people don't do that now … I'm not optimistic for me, nor for my grandchildren. The chosen few will be getting all the resources and all the others will get left out. In many ways, that sums up the frustrations felt by the people who face the problems of unemployment and the linked problems of poverty.

We are all aware that we cannot measure unemployment by the statistics provided by the Department of Employment, because it has been proved time after time in the House that those statistics have been fiddled on a regular basis for the past 15 years.

I was interested to read the results of a survey sponsored by the Government, on unemployment in the former coal mining areas of south Wales. The survey said that male adult unemployment stood at 33 per cent. When I put the figures to the Secretary of State some weeks ago, he did not deny them, and agreed that there were still pockets of unemployment. The south Wales coalfield is not a pocket; it is a vast area experiencing vast problems.

Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on one pocket of unemployment in my constituency. In our study of poverty, we interviewed families in one street, and the results were staggering. The survey said: Of the 58 households, we were able to interview 54, making a total of 91 adults and 86 children. Of those 91 adults, 22 people were working, 60 people were out of work, of whom 13 were single parents, five were retired and four classed themselves as housewives. At least 16 people were suffering from some kind of disability or illness. Of the 86 children, 57 came from homes where no one was working.In 40 of the homes at least one person was without work, in 32 homes all the adults were out of work, including single parents, and in 15 of the homes at least one member was working. When I see so many people unemployed, it always serves as a reminder of how crazy the system is. For example, we are going through one of the worst housing crises for decades, yet we have hundreds of thousands of building workers on the dole. Our national health service has been devastated and has long waiting lists, yet there are nurses and other people with tremendous skills on the dole. That is just crazy.

When the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts) was talking about the coal industry, he said that it had been necessary to respond to the problems of overmanning. The response was novel. I have never known anyone else who has responded to the problems of overmanning in an industry by totally wiping out that industry.

When we discuss poverty, we are not talking about unemployment and low wages alone. We are also talking about bad housing, poor health and an environment that is often savage. For example, the 1991 census revealed that 41 per cent. of all households in my constituency have a member suffering from long-term sickness or disability. That compares with a proportion of about 33 per cent. for the rest of Wales. Blaenau Gwent has one of the highest levels in England and Wales.

A Gwent health survey for the years 1985–89 confirms that the most deprived parts of the county experience he worst health. Again that is true of Blaenau Gwent, where deaths from lung cancer, respiratory disease and heart disease are all above the national average, and even the county average.

In the face of such problems, one would have thought that the area health authority for Gwent would be composed of people who had devoted their lives to the health service and knew what was required to make it better and to respond to the health needs of the people in my community. But that is not so. The area health authority is made up of building specialists, roofing experts, former gas purchasing officers and even fruit farmers. But where are the people who have devoted their lives to the national health service? Would not that service have been far better managed over the past decade or more if nurses, ancillary workers, doctors and consumers had had a greater say in its running and the business people out to make quick money had had less of a say?

While I am talking about health, may I ask the Minister when he sums up to explain why student nurses attending the purpose-built centre at Caerleon have had to move to Llandaff hospital, where the facilities are inferior, in order to continue their studies? The costs and the travel time for nurses in my constituency are now much greater, and their examinations are only a couple of months away. That is another loss for Gwent and another disincentive for people contemplating nursing as a career. Will the Minister also explain why those nurses had only five days' notice of the move?

Another way of measuring poverty in an area is to examine its housing stock. The 1991 census shows that housing conditions in the borough of Blaenau Gwent have improved, but remain poor. For example, 2.6 per cent. of pensioner households do not have their own bathroom or inside toilet. More than 40 per cent. of housing was built before 1990, almost all by the private sector, and much of it is in poor repair.

Much of the public housing also has its problems, for two main reasons. First, there is a high percentage of prefabricated concrete council housing. Secondly, most council estates are on hillsides, where the conditions make homes hard to heat and where homes need regular maintenance. Government policies and low income among owner-occupiers have made it increasingly difficult to maintain or improve the quality of the existing housing in the borough. At the same time, homelessness and the demand for homes are growing.

I have heard many Ministers extolling the virtues of a dynamic market economy. If it is a dynamic market economy, why are we faced with the problems that exist in my constituency? Why are millions of people unemployed throughout the United Kingdom? Why are we experiencing the worst housing crisis for decades? Why are the differences in wealth and income growing? Finally, if the economy is so dynamic and successful, why is it that the Government will soon be dumped from office?