I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. I extend my hearty congratulations on his recent engagement. I know that we all wish him the very best for the future. His announcement coincides with the excellent unemployment figures. Is he aware that, at 7 per cent., unemployment in Wales is far lower than unemployment in the European countries, such as France, Germany and Italy, and in Spain, where it is 22 per cent? That is because those countries have been saddled with the social chapter and the minimum wage. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Wales would be cruelly cheated if this country should ever support a Labour Government, who would cost them their jobs and their livelihoods?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend: she is correct about unemployment in Wales. The Government have brought new jobs to Wales in record numbers in recent years. Week after week, there have been new announcements of additional employment. This weekend, Optical Fibres—an extremely high-technology company based in north Wales—announced that it has a thriving order book and that it expects its output to quadruple by 2001, and announced 200 new jobs in north Wales. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will no doubt welcome that announcement, but only Conservative Members are prepared to pursue the policies that will keep such announcements coming.
Will my right hon. Friend join me, as a regular visitor to Welsh questions, in welcoming the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) to his first Welsh Question Time? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the improvement in the Welsh economy is due to the fact that we have modern industrial relations and low corporate taxes and have not signed the social chapter? Does he also agree that a party that is in hock to the trade unions would destroy our industrial relations, and that a party whose Chief Whip says that it wants to refine the tax system would soon deal with corporate taxes too?
My hon. Friend is right. The Opposition want to pursue, in Wales and in the rest of the United Kingdom, policies that have thrown millions of people out of work in continental Europe. Unemployment in Wales has fallen by more than 9,000 in the past three months, while unemployment in Germany and France has reached post-war highs. The Opposition propose that other countries should decide our social and labour rules and regulations.
It would be churlish of me not to welcome the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) to Welsh questions—although heaven knows what the people of Newport, East will think that they are being asked to vote for in the election, or which party the hon. Gentleman will end up in by the end of the next Parliament. Nevertheless, I hope that he will join me in welcoming a 19 per cent. fall in unemployment last year in the constituency that he seeks to represent.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the people of Newport will vote for a Labour Government because they know that a Labour Government will give steady and reliable support to higher and further education. Does he accept that it is crucial to the employment prospects of the people of Newport and to the success of inward investment in Wales that we should have full-hearted support for education? Does he share my grave concern at the closure of the engineering course at the university of Wales institute in Newport?
The hon. Gentleman is right: education is extremely important to future job creation in Wales. I hope that he will join me in welcoming a newspaper headline of two weeks ago which said that south-east Wales will be the best place in the United Kingdom to get a job for several years to come—perhaps it sent him off in that direction. It is important to invest in education and training. That is why much of the assistance that we are giving to the LG project, which will benefit the Newport area, is in the form of help with training. We shall continue such support.
I also extend my welcome to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) on his first attendance at Question Time on Welsh affairs, and offer him my congratulations on winning the nomination for his new constituency of Newport, East. I am sure that it will be the last for a long time while sitting on the Opposition Benches.
Any fall in unemployment is obviously to be welcomed, but why does not the Secretary of State present the more rounded picture of the Welsh economy? Will he confirm that we now have 200,000 fewer people in Wales in employment than we did when the present Prime Minister took office? As the low pay unit showed last Friday, in addition to Wales having the highest proportion of full-timers earning less than that represented by the European decency threshold, the pay gap between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom is widening.
Now that the election is upon us, the choice for the people is clear. The Labour party offers hope for the future with plans for the young and long-term unemployed, improvements to training and education, the establishment of the university for industry, investment incentives and infrastructure investment, along with welfare-to-work programmes, partnership with the private sector and a revitalised Welsh Development Agency.
How proud is the Secretary of State that, after 18 years in office, all that his Government have to offer is a divided party, a weak leader and excuses for past failures?
The hon. Gentleman says that any fall in unemployment is obviously welcome. That has become a routine comment for Opposition Members because a fall in unemployment has become routine. It would not be a routine thing if we were to follow the Labour party's policies. Adoption of the social chapter and a minimum wage would price tens of thousands out of their jobs along with hundreds of thousands throughout the rest of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) asked whether I am proud of what we have done in Wales. I am proud of what we have done in building a stronger economy, investing in infrastructure and delivering the best prospects in the lifetime of my generation in Wales and in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Welsh economy needs the hon. Gentleman presiding over it as it needs a hole in the head.
I, too, extend my felicitations to my right hon. Friend on his engagement.
Is not one of the reasons for the favourable disparity between the 7 per cent. unemployment rate in Wales and the 12.5 per cent. in Germany, with 12.4 per cent. in France, the fact that we have cut public expenditure as a proportion of gross domestic product? Is it not becoming clear that, were the Labour Opposition to return to government, that policy would be abandoned, causing a devastating rise in unemployment in the longer term?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his personal remarks. As I do not have any briefing on those, I do not think that it falls within my ministerial responsibilities more fully to respond. My right hon. Friend has asked what must be the last question that he will be asking at Welsh Question Time during a long career in the House. I am sure that the entire House would wish to pay tribute to him and to the work that he has done for Wales and his constituents over so many years.
My right hon. Friend is right about expenditure, and he is right about the Labour party's policies. Labour says that it would not spend any more money in Wales over the next two years than that which is set out in our plans. It says also that it wants to give more money to local authorities and to the Welsh Development Agency. At the same time, it will have to finance a Welsh Assembly. The people know that that does not add up. The Labour party will be rumbled.