[Relevant documents: First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2004–05, Work of the Committee in 2004, HC 256, Second Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2004–05, Manufacturing and Trade in Wales, HC 329, and Fourth Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2004–05, Police Service, Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour in Wales, HC 46.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Heppell.]
I pay tribute first to the former Prime Minister Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, who died only a few days ago. The first Welsh Prime Minister since Lloyd George, he was a much respected adopted son of Wales, and we are proud of him and his legacy.
May I also express Wales's sorrow at the death of His Holiness the Pope? Tens of thousands of Catholics in Wales are in mourning, and we stand in sympathy and support with them. We remember the Pope's visit to Wales in 1982, the huge impact that he made and the heartfelt warmth with which he was received.
I also place on the record my appreciation of those Welsh colleagues who are standing down at the next election, having, between them, served for 117 years as Members. My right hon. Friend Donald Anderson, my hon. Friend Mrs. Lawrence, my right hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli (Denzil Davies) and for Newport, East (Alan Howarth), and my hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) and for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith) have a wealth and breadth of experience that will be much missed in the House.
When the annual Welsh day debate was held just a few weeks before the 1997 general election, there were nearly 110,000 unemployed in Wales. Now, there are fewer than 60,000. In 1997 Wales was lagging well behind other parts of Britain, written off as backward and failing; now we are forging ahead, dynamic and succeeding. In 1997 business confidence was low; now business activity in Wales has increased for 23 months in a row. In 1997 communities in Wales had been devastated by years of economic mismanagement and neglect. For example, the heart had been ripped out of the Pembrokeshire economy. Now communities right across Wales are being regenerated, and Pembrokeshire has the fourth highest business start-up rate in the whole of Britain.
When we met in the last days of the Conservative Government, thousands of care workers, cleaners and security staff in Wales were earning just £1.90 an hour, hundreds of them in my constituency. By October this year it will be illegal for them to earn less than £5.05 an hour, with a further increase to £5.35 next year, benefiting 80,000 low-paid workers in Wales. Back in the 1990s the Leader of the Opposition told us that the minimum wage would cost 2 million jobs. Since then 2 million jobs have been created, 125,000 of them in Wales—
The hon. Gentleman mutters about the public sector. No. As I will remind him later, around 40,000 jobs have been created in the public sector, and we are proud of that. There are more nurses, more doctors, more police officers and more teachers. The remainder of the 125,000 are in the private sector. In other words, for every public sector job created, two private sector jobs have been created in Wales under this Government.
"There is no question but that Labour's policies would reduce employment, and they would certainly reduce employment opportunities for the future in Wales. The minimum wage would damage those opportunities . . . as would the adoption of the social chapter.—[Hansard, 27 February 1997; Vol. 291, c. 458.]
The Conservatives were wrong then, and they are wrong now.
The facts speak for themselves. When we met eight years ago the Welsh economy was on its back. Today it is striding forward, with 7,000 business start-ups funded by the Assembly last year—up 20 per cent. from the previous year—and a higher survival rate than in Britain as a whole. Earnings are rising faster than the UK average in Wales. Economic growth has increased by 6 per cent. since 2002. After almost eight years in office we can be proud of Wales, and not just on the rugby field.
I think that the Secretary of State is right about rugby, but I do not think that he is right about the economic indicators. Perhaps he would care to comment. Does he think that the proportion of those unemployed, when combined with sickness and disability, is higher or lower than anywhere else in the UK?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have historic levels of ill health and industrial injury in Wales for all the reasons that everybody understands. He knows also that levels of economic inactivity have been falling, in some respects at a higher rate than in any other part of the UK, and that is encouraging. Further, he knows that in respect of people with disabilities, the pilots carried out at Rhondda Cynon Taff and the Ogmore valleys have shown that more than 1,000 people have come off incapacity benefit and into work. Given the opportunity to work and the dignity and prosperity that that brings, they have taken it. Surely he should be welcoming this.
I realise that the hon. Gentleman has great difficulty in finding any reasons to criticise this Labour Government's record in Wales, particularly by comparison with the record of our Conservative predecessors. However, he should not alight on aspects of the economy that stand up to his criticism.
Is it not a bit of a cheek for the Tories to start raising the issue of incapacity benefit in the valleys communities when it was the Conservatives who closed the pits and then persuaded people to move off the unemployment figures and on to incapacity benefit? They wanted to persuade people to make that move to massage the figures. That is that sort of thing that we should be hearing the Conservatives talk about. People are worried about communities in south Wales being trashed by them again.
Indeed. The truth is that the facts speak for themselves. The facts are that under the previous Government people were pushed off the dole and on to incapacity benefit in record numbers to try to camouflage the huge amount of unemployment in Wales and throughout Britain. Also, when they lost their jobs in the pits, in Rhondda Cynon Taff and elsewhere, including Neath, there were no other jobs awaiting them. Now, if people lose their jobs, there are plenty of vacancies and they have the opportunity to reskill, retrain and move into work, as they have done by the thousand as the Welsh economy has been changing these past few years.
I am proud that not only is Cardiff booming, but throughout Wales, towns and cities such as Swansea, Newport, Wrexham and Holyhead are booming too. In north-east Wales we have Airbus, our industrial jewel. Many other world-class industries are also growing.
On Hawarden, does the Secretary of State agree that Wales has the opportunity to specialise in aerospace, and that by being focused and strategic on a collective basis we could share the benefits of Airbus's unquestionable success throughout the wider economic base of Wales?
I thought for a moment that the hon. Gentleman was going to say that there is the opportunity to specialise in air flight. I know that he is a particular specialist in that area. I agree with his point. In north Wales, and north-east Wales particularly, there is a real centre of world excellence in the aerospace industry. That is on the basis of launch aid provided by the Government through the Department of Trade and Industry, a budget that would be axed by the Conservatives if they came to power.
I was being kind by not correcting the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend is a much tougher and harder Member than I am.
I am a great believer in manufacturing excellence and its spread. Typhoon, for instance, is manufactured in my constituency, but there will be a knock-on effect for smaller manufacturers throughout the United Kingdom, including Wales. Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the Liberal Democrat policy of scrapping tranche 3 of the Typhoon programme would jeopardise the manufacture of jet aircraft in this country for a very long time indeed?
I do not often agree with the hon. Gentleman, although I sometimes do so at business questions to give him a helping hand. However, he is right that it is disastrous to withdraw support from businesses, whether large businesses in the aerospace industry or small businesses. His party is committed to do so in England with its policy of abolishing the Small Business Service, and the Liberal Democrats will do so across the United Kingdom with their proposals to abolish the Department of Trade and Industry.
I realise that the hon. Gentleman has to try as hard as he can, and he wins plaudits from me for doing so, but he ought to do better.
Only last month, there was another huge boost for Newport, with the transfer of an extra 500 quality permanent Prison Service jobs from England. That comes on top of 600 new Office for National Statistics jobs, which will be transferred to Newport from England.
I assume that the hon. Gentleman is going to welcome the Labour Government policy of transferring jobs from the congested south-east of England to Wales—something that he has been demanding for many years, and which we are now delivering.
Absolutely. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and applaud that move. I partly support the broad thrust of his remarks, but while Wales appears to be succeeding fairly well along the M4 and the A55, a huge area of the country is not doing so. I represent part of that land mass, and we have not seen any delivery of good new jobs, which is partly why the gross domestic product in Wales is going down instead of up.
I am certainly willing to hear plenty more about such things. However, I was telling the right hon. Gentleman about the lack of good-quality jobs. Chris Ruane is always bleating on about low pay in Denbighshire, which is a problem. Low-paid jobs have been created, not good jobs. That may not be the case along the M4 and the A55, but a large part of Wales is not being well served.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, as most of the investment has been of enormous benefit to south Wales, particularly the south-east, and to north-east Wales. However, we have to start somewhere. Investment in south-east Wales has spread along the M4 through Swansea. I cited the figures for business start-ups in Pembrokeshire, where there has been an extraordinary turnaround, as my hon. Friend Mr. Ainger will confirm. More than twelve years ago, when I first campaigned for him at elections, the heart had been ripped out of the Pembrokeshire economy. What is true of that area is true of north-west Wales, as I shall demonstrate later. Only last week, I was in Anglesey and Clwyd, West. [Interruption.] Indeed, when Mr. Llwyd was in Anglesey, he would have noticed that in Holyhead and throughout Anglesey there is a new buoyancy and business optimism, not just because there is a Labour MP but because the economy is much stronger.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot get away with that. In fact, Bangor university research has shown that Anglesey has huge hidden unemployment. On the doorstep, one hears that people cannot get jobs and that there are a large number of economically inactive people on Anglesey. Shortly after Albert Owen, who is not in the Chamber, said that the police were performing well on Anglesey there were many murders on the island. The situation is out of control.
It is interesting to talk to business people in Anglesey, as I did on Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning last week. They are not Labour party members, though they will probably support my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn, because they feel a greater buoyancy in the Anglesey economy and more business optimism. That is not to say that there are no problems remaining. Goodness me, after 18 years of Conservative decimation of the island's economy, it is not possible to turn everything round in eight years. That is why we need at least four more years to continue the job in Anglesey, with a Labour Member of Parliament to lead that renewal of the island.
The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy raised the issue of gross domestic product or gross value added. The figures show that there has been a 6 per cent. rise in Welsh GDP and Welsh GVA compared with 2002, the second fastest growth rate in the United Kingdom in 2003, a higher growth rate than England and Scotland, and GVA per capita in Wales has been increasing relative to the European average for the past three years. GVA per head in West Wales and the Valleys, including the hon. Gentleman's part of west Wales, has increased by 17 per cent. since we have been in power.
All those figures are provided by official statisticians and speak for themselves. I should have thought the hon. Gentleman would welcome them. We can argue about how best to support business creation, encourage more people to come off incapacity benefit and so on, but I do not accept his persistent whingeing about the state of Wales and his failure to recognise that Wales is now on the up and moving forward, and that it will continue to move forward as long as the policies that we introduced continue to be implemented.
Today I can announce, in that spirit, that Cardiff is to be the United Kingdom candidate for the headquarters of the European Union's global navigation satellite supervisory authority, the Galileo project. The potential to create such a prestigious project in Cardiff, with up to 30 high-quality jobs, in the year when we are celebrating 100 years of its city status and 50 years since it became our capital city, is immense. Positioning and related technologies are a vital component of the UK's knowledge economy and involve exactly the kind of jobs that we are trying to encourage in the new world-class Welsh economy.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have quoted percentages and numbers—600 jobs here, 500 jobs there. Unemployment is a personal tragedy for the person who becomes unemployed. What would the Secretary of State say, therefore, to my constituents who are to lose their jobs in Caernarfon and Porthmadog because of his Government's policy of concentrating the processing of benefit claims in Wrexham and closing down local offices, which, incidentally, will have a deleterious effect on the quality of service to the public?
One of the things I would say is that 250 jobs are coming to Bangor, very near the hon. Gentleman's constituency. That part of Wales needs those jobs—
Yes, high-quality call centre jobs, which are important and will remain in Wales. I remind Hywel Williams of the unemployment statistics for his constituency. There has been a 58.8 per cent. reduction since we came to power; youth unemployment is down a staggering 88 per cent.; and long-term unemployment is also down by 88 per cent. He ought to welcome those figures, because they show that his constituents are doing better, even if he does not recognise it.
My right hon. Friend's announcement of the nomination of the place that he describes as Cardiff, which we in Newport call Newport Far West, as the headquarters of the Galileo project, will be welcome, because that has been our travel-to-work area. The project brings enormous possibilities—up to 10,000 or 12,000 jobs. It has huge potential and is even more important in that it represents the development of a new type of industry in Wales in the intelligence high-tech sector, such as Cogent in Newport and many other firms, and will be a vital part of a transformation of the Welsh economy. Is it not marvellous news that the Government have such faith in the Welsh economy as to nominate Cardiff?
In Neath we regard Cardiff as Far East Neath. Seriously, though, my hon. Friend is right. Those jobs are extremely important for what they symbolise. There may not be many at this stage, but it is significant that out of the entire United Kingdom, Cardiff was chosen as the place to situate the headquarters of such a crucial European project. Of course we still have to beat the opposition across the rest of the European continent, but at least we are trying to do so from a strong base and signs of increasing Welsh success.
The House need not take my word for all this Welsh success. It is clear that the Conservatives and the nationalists are not doing so. Just look at recent national newspaper headlines: in The Observer, "Welsh resurgence"; in The Wall Street Journal, "High work ethics plus a pro-investment culture bring wealth to Wales"; in The Daily Telegraph—
I knew the hon. Gentleman would pick up that point. It is his paper. The Daily Telegraph headline reads, "Everyone turns out to be a Welshman"; and The Sun says, "Why Wales is so hip it hurts". Those are examples of national newspapers recognising the big dynamism that now exists in Wales, which is proving to be so successful under the policies that we have implemented.
I am proud of what our Government have achieved—proud that we have thousands more nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers than ever before in Wales. I am proud that we have 40,000 more staff in public services in Wales. In a fiercely competitive world, with eastern Europe, not to mention China and India, taking more and more trade and jobs each month from Europe and America, I am proud that the Government have built a stronger economy in Wales than anybody can remember.
Today Labour is not just the party of social justice but the party of economic prosperity and business success. In Wales, and right across Britain, Labour means full employment, low mortgages, economic stability and continuous growth, which allows business to plan and invest for the long term. In the past two years the Conservatives have had 40 Opposition day debates in the House, yet not a single one has been on the subject of the economy. They do not want to discuss it, because they know that on the economy Labour is a winner, and Wales and Britain as a whole are winners too, because Wales is working, Britain is working, and people do not want the Conservatives to wreck it again.
The Conservatives mean risk—the risk of economic failure, mass unemployment, public spending cuts, high interest rates and high mortgages. They are pledged to make £35 billion of cuts in public spending—that is, £50 million of cuts for every constituency in Wales, or up to £2 billion less public spending in Wales, at a time when we need sustained investment in our public services and social and economic infrastructure. [Interruption.]
I hear heckling from the Conservative Front Bench and comments that that is not true. The shadow Chancellor published a graph showing that Labour's spending in the coming few years would rise to £668 billion, and the Conservatives' planned spending was £35 billion less than that. That is a £35 billion cut in Labour's spending plans—the plans that we have for building new hospitals, opening new schools and taking forward the new deal. All those plans for extra expenditure would no longer be committed because there is a gap of £35 billion, as the shadow Chancellor himself announced, with the accompanying graph showing that Labour's planned spending of more than £600 billion over the next few years would be reduced by £35 billion, amounting to £2 billion less public spending in Wales.
Will the Secretary of State say something about the NHS? Why does he believe that with all the extra money that has gone into the national health service in Wales per head of the population compared with England, there is a worse health service in Wales, compared with England?
I shall come to that point, but as the hon. Gentleman has raised it I simply say this at this stage. As he knows, there has been a big legacy of ill health in Wales. That does not mean to say that everything that has or has not gone on in the NHS in Wales can be excused as free of criticism—of course not. But we have now seen, with the announcement by the First Minister only a few weeks ago, that Wales's waiting times for key operations, such as hip operations and heart bypasses, to relieve people from pain, are coming down to a six-month total wait from the moment one sees one's GP to the moment one enters the operating theatre. That is about 26 weeks, which is comparable with the target that we are setting in England and that we intend to meet.
At the last election, the Welsh Labour manifesto promised the people of Wales that waiting times would be cut year on year. That promise was not kept, so why should the people of Wales believe Labour now?
That is actually not true. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the latest figures, published only recently, he will see that waiting times are now coming down and there has been significant progress in reducing lists. In the last month, out-patient waits of over 18 months have been cut by over 2,000, and waits of over 12 months reduced by 3,500. We are making progress. I agree that it has not been fast enough, but we will bring waiting lists down to a level of which I should have thought everyone in Wales would be proud—a maximum of 26 weeks from the moment that a patient in pain sees their local GP to the moment that they walk through the door for an operation. That fantastic achievement will be secured only as a result of the huge investment that is being poured into the NHS in Wales under Labour.
Will the Secretary of State explain to my constituents why they have to wait 18 months to go into an English district general hospital, whereas English patients have to wait only 12 months, and why they are artificially put back in the list to allow the hospital to reach the English waiting list target?
If the hon. Gentleman had made that point to me a month ago, it might have had real force, but we now see a costed, clearly set-out programme to bring waiting times for his constituents and those of every other Welsh Member right down to the level that will be achieved by 2009 in England. I should have thought that he would welcome that—a maximum of 26 weeks for an operation to relieve pain. That was completely out of the question under the Conservative Government's policies, and would be completely out of the question without our huge investment in the Welsh health service.
This is an important point to me and my constituents. Since Christmas this year—the Minister will understand this, because I contacted him on it—Hereford hospital stopped treating Powys patients altogether for orthopaedic conditions. Whatever the right hon. Gentleman says about the future and 2009, those patients are in pain waiting for their operations and being denied them.
I understand that it is not acceptable that people have to wait a long time for an operation, and the hon. Gentleman is entitled and right to press his constituents' case, which will help to achieve much speedier treatment times. But he is a fair-minded person and if he looks at the evidence, the programme and the spending that supports it, he will see waiting times coming right down to a maximum of 26 weeks. He should welcome that, and that is something that his constituents will welcome as well, because then there will be no substantial differential between England and Wales in the relief of pain.
If the Conservatives were elected and their plans for £35 billion-worth of cuts over the coming years were implemented as they intend, there would be cuts to the Assembly's budget, meaning less money for schools, hospitals, transport and housing—cuts that would mean that council tax rates would rocket up year on year.
The Welsh block grant is set against the English budget, and there are consequentials, according to the Barnett formula, which flow from English spending levels. That is not just in health and education spending, but in local government and housing spending and a number of other areas. If the proposal of the shadow Chancellor, the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Cabinet—the hon. Gentleman is outside the shadow Cabinet, but he has signed up to its proposal—to cut future spending by £35 billion were implemented, Wales would not escape. The flow through would be automatic.
It is as if the hon. Gentleman has been caught with his hands in the till and now seeks to deny that the money is in his pocket.
My hon. Friend says that the hon. Gentleman thought a change of job would do him good, but he is being unfair to the hon. Gentleman.
The Conservative party is pledged to cut £35 billion from our planned spending. We will be spending over £600 billion; the Conservatives will spend £35 billion less than that. How does one find that spare money other than by savage cuts, including in Wales—£50 million in each constituency?
Indeed, and how do we know that it is just for starters? It is not just what the now deselected Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight), a member of the shadow Treasury team, says; it is also what Mr. Redwood said. He said that the approach that the Conservatives plan is just a down payment; it is just the beginning of a process. The former Conservative candidate for Sedgefield described it as a process of creative destruction of the public services. He was dropped as the official candidate for Sedgefield, but he is still in the policy unit at Conservative central office, planning these programmes of creative destruction of public services.
Indeed, and it was a crime in Wales at a time when hospitals were being closed. Around 70 hospitals in Wales closed under that Government. Nurses were being sacked, doctors were losing the opportunity to practise, teachers were losing their jobs and schools were suffering. To repatriate £100 million of Welsh money back to London was outrageous.
That is not all. On top of all this, the Conservatives want to take at least £60 million from the NHS in Wales to subsidise those who can afford to pay for private treatment in the first place—money that is being used to pay for 2,400 nurses or 660 consultants. [Interruption.] The Opposition spokesman denies his own party's policy for the patients passport. Funding is being set aside from within the NHS to deliver that, and it is intended to pay for half the cost of private operations for those who can afford the cost of private operations in the first place. I can tell him that very few if any of my constituents could afford to go private, so he is taking £60 million out of the NHS in Wales, equivalent to 2,400 nurses or 660 consultants.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Welsh Assembly Labour-led Government have allocated £100 million for a new state-of-the-art hospital in the Caerphilly borough. Is there any chance that such a hospital will go ahead if there happens to be a change of Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. Three other hospitals are planned to be built in Wales under the finance that we have set aside, and there is no certainty that they will be built under a Conservative Government because the Conservative party is pledged to cut spending year upon year upon year.
As for the Liberal Democrats, they say that they will scrap the new deal, which has helped 70,000 people in Wales into work, especially young people, including in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—[Interruption.] Is Lembit Öpik not in support of this policy? Perhaps he could clarify.
I take that as a conversion on the Floor of the House. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is welcome to walk across the Floor at any time to join us on the Labour Benches. He has made a conversion and is now in support of the new deal, which has helped many people in his constituency into work.
While my hon. Friend Lembit Öpik might not be right with the party policy, the Secretary of State will know that it is our policy not to support the bog standard new deal, but to give extra resources to people who find it even more difficult to get into employment. At the moment, the new deal does not distinguish between people who find it easier to get into employment and those who are having much more difficulty.
I know that the Liberal Democrats are a very small party in Wales—indeed, there are only two of them—but now they are split down the middle on the new deal. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, who in other respects is a fine, upstanding Member of Parliament, is denouncing his own party's policy in Wales. That is nothing short of scandalous, and the electorate will wish to take account of it.
Now we have a promise of deselection as well. Where the Conservatives set the trend, perhaps the Liberal Democrats will follow, as they are doing in so many of their other policies, where they are moving towards marketisation in the national health service and the scrapping of the new deal. They are following the Conservatives, as they always do, as gentle little helpers in elections.
The Liberal Democrats also say that they will axe the child trust fund, which will give 30,000 youngsters born in Wales each year a nest egg for the future. That is a very important nest egg, as many babies born in Wales will not enjoy the opportunity of having an asset when they reach adulthood, as those who come from higher-income families elsewhere in Britain can. They also opposed this year's increase in the minimum wage, calling it dangerous.
Indeed. The Liberal Democrats wanted a regional minimum wage, which would have meant that Wales had a lower minimum wage than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It is interesting that they called the increase dangerous, as the CBI supported it and the Federation of Small Businesses did not get out of its pram on it. Only the Liberal Democrats said that it was dangerous for the economy. They do not understand the problems faced by our communities in Wales. Why else would they vote against our plans to tackle teen gangs and antisocial behaviour, as they did in the House? Why else would they be planning a new local income tax that would put new burdens on hard-working families and nurses, teachers and police officers? In Swansea, for example, according to the Liberal Democrats' own calculations, their local income tax would mean a massive increase of 56 per cent. or almost £500 in the annual tax bill for two people earning the average Welsh wage. When they say in leaflets that they plan to abolish the council tax, we should say the truth in alternative leaflets, which is that that policy would hit many thousands of hard-working families on average wages in Wales.
I am listening with my usual grace to the Secretary of State outline his position; I agree with some points and disagree with others. He is being disingenuous in the extreme in misrepresenting local income tax in such a way. Does he not acknowledge that the proposal is not a way to increase the tax take, but a means of bringing in the tax take more fairly? How can he tell a pensioner who lives in a large house and has a small income that they should be paying more council tax than a rich married couple who live in a small house and have a large income?
We are going to take £200 tax-free off the council tax. That is a very important reduction, which is being welcomed by pensioners up and down Wales. It would be very helpful if we had a debate on local government finance. An investigation is under way on local government finance—there will be a report once the work is completed—to see whether we can make improvements, as there are some unfairnesses in the council tax system. The Lib Dems should come clean on the impact of a local income tax on people earning the average Welsh wage—police officers, teachers, nurses and many other workers.
There are all sorts of problems. Let us consider a very poor county borough council, such as Blaenau Gwent. The local income tax take from Blaenau Gwent would be very small by comparison with that from Monmouth, parts of Cardiff and even Neath Port Talbot. That would leave the county borough council in a very disadvantaged position. There are all sorts of issues on which the Liberal Democrats need to come up front regarding their proposals for a local income tax, as it looks like an easy hit for them when they say that they will abolish the council tax.
These figures come from the Liberal Democrats' own calculations and estimations. I have not plucked them out of thin air. I have said that the average Welsh wage is the one that we should benchmark, and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would see that as entirely sensible and logical.
Since our last Welsh day debate, Plaid Cymru has lost its councils in Rhondda Cynon Taff and Caerphilly, which came storming back to Labour last June. Perhaps we should not be surprised that it has already told the media that it has given up across Wales. It is fighting to win only one extra seat out of 36.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Before he leaves the vexed subject of the Liberal Democrats, will he tell me whether he is aware that, in Wrexham, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives recently voted against a proposal to extend a successful neighbourhood warden scheme across different parts of the borough? That happened in the same week in which I received in my flat in Southwark a boastful leaflet from the local Member of Parliament extolling the virtues and success of the neighbourhood warden scheme in the Southwark, North and Bermondsey constituency and saying what an excellent scheme it was and how the Liberal Democrats fully supported it.
Nothing surprises me about the Liberal Democrats when they get into power. [Interruption.] As I hear pointed out, there is a difference of light years between what they say in opposition, when they make all sorts of exaggerated claims in their "Focus" leaflets and make all sorts of policy promises, and what happens when they get into power, when they fail to deliver and are almost always ejected from office, like Plaid Cymru, when the electorate wake up to them.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the newly elected Liberal Democrat council in Cardiff has threatened the existence of the women's workshop, an award-winning and pioneering workshop that has brought enormous benefits for disadvantaged women? The grants have been cut, which in turn threatens the European funding.
That is indeed shocking and disgraceful. Again, nothing surprises me about the Liberal Democrats when they get into power. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which she has supported women's rights throughout Cardiff, Wales and the world, and tenaciously represented the interests of the women's workshop in Cardiff, which is scandalously being clobbered by the Liberal Democrats.
Is the hon. Gentleman going to volunteer another cut by a Liberal Democrat-run council?
The Secretary of State says that nothing surprises him. So will he concede that he was already aware that some of the cuts that are being forced in Cardiff at the moment are specifically due to a Labour Assembly Minister forcing a change in the rules in local government finance, which has meant that even an efficient Liberal Democrat-run council such as Cardiff has had to bring back its spending explicitly because of politically motivated edicts prompted by a fear of losing Cardiff, Central to my party?
The Assembly Minister for Finance, Local Government and Public Services, Sue Essex, behaved responsibly in making sure that council tax payers in Cardiff did not get a huge tax rise under the Liberal Democrat council. [Interruption.] That is what the Liberal Democrat council was planning, until Sue Essex made it clear that it would be capped if it went ahead with those exorbitant increases.
Why have cuts suddenly begun under Liberal Democrat rule? Liberal Democrats are not interested in the interests of local communities. Over the past few years, Cardiff has been successfully represented by a Labour council. It is now a booming city in every respect, and although the Liberal Democrats may gain some advantage from the plans, spending programmes and visionary leadership of that Labour-led council over the next few years, the electorate will increasingly find them out.
I shall make some progress on Plaid Cymru, before returning to the Liberal Democrats.
Plaid Cymru has told the media that it has given up across Wales and that it is fighting to win only one extra seat out of the 36 that it does not hold—it wants Anglesey back. Last week, I visited the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn. It was clear that people do not want to go back to Plaid; they want to go forward with Labour and build on the success that the island is having after so many bleak years. Plaid Cymru cannot win the general election, but it can help the Tory party to win it, and a Labour vote for the nationalists or Liberal Democrats might let the Leader of the Opposition in the back door to No. 10.
This is the choice facing Wales: back to the failed policies of the past, which brought division and depression to our communities, or forward with a Government who are equipped to address the challenges of today's world. Those challenges include decent wages: those on low incomes need a Labour Government to continue above-inflation increases in the minimum wage, and in the working tax credit and the child tax credit, both of which make work pay.
Those challenges include home ownership: first-time buyers need a Labour Government to help them get on the housing ladder through the doubling of the stamp duty threshold and the biggest building programme of affordable housing in generations. And all home owners need Labour's successful stewardship of the economy to keep mortgage rates low—mortgage rates are half what they were under the previous Conservative Government.
Those challenges include child care: parents need Labour's policies for affordable child care and for children's centres across Wales to provide high-quality pre-school and after-school care. Those challenges include skills: under Labour, every young person will have a guaranteed place in a college or sixth form, or an apprenticeship.
Those challenges include pensions: under Labour, the pension credit and the winter fuel allowance will be improved, not abolished. Council tax help from the Budget now means that £400 will drop through pensioners' letterboxes later this year, rising to £500 for the over-80s. Under Labour, free bus travel and a free TV licence are lifelines, not luxuries. The draft Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill has been published, and it provides for a champion for older people in Wales.
The future also includes international challenges, such as climate change, world poverty, Africa, the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, human rights and winning the case for Europe—Wales and Britain are stronger in Europe than isolated apart from it.
Our Labour Government are impatient for more change, because there is so much more to do. I believe that the radical Labour vision that we will soon put before the people is one of which the socialists who founded our party more than 100 years ago would have been proud—a radical Labour agenda to transform the quality of life for millions of our people, and billions more across the globe.
There is now a clear choice in Wales on health: record investment pouring in under Labour or guaranteed transfers of NHS funds to subsidise private operations under the Conservatives; shorter waiting times with Labour or waiting much, much longer under the Tories, just like when they were last in power.
There is another clear choice on devolution itself: Labour believes in power being exercised as close to the people as possible, because we trust the people of Wales to know what is in their best interests and to find Welsh solutions to Welsh problems. We will strengthen the Assembly, not scrap it, which is the proposal from Mr. Wiggin. The choice is clear: a stronger Assembly under Labour, or, under the Conservatives, Wales run Redwood-style from London again. The partnership between our Labour Government at Westminster and our Labour Assembly Government in Cardiff is critical to delivering for the people of Wales. Wales must now decide if it wants that partnership to continue, because the Tories have pledged to destroy it.
The Leader of the Opposition was the Minister who introduced the poll tax. He was the Employment Secretary who presided over an increase in unemployment of more than 1 million, and he was the Home Secretary who cut police numbers by 1,000. He has not changed, because he came to south Wales last year and told us that coalfield communities revived considerably under Margaret Thatcher. Which planet is he living on? It is back to the past with the Tories, or forward with Labour.
This is the choice: a Wales on its back and going backwards—losing out and looked down upon—or a Wales with its chin up, walking tall and moving forward. We should be proud of our nation, proud of our talent, proud of ourselves, proud of Labour's achievements and proud of what we could do with four more years, in which we can build a progressive consensus in Britain that will never, ever allow Wales to be trampled on by destructive right-wing extremism imposed from London.
I sincerely hope that the Secretary of State for Wales is better at his own policies than he is at ours—that rant was extraordinary.
I am glad finally to speak in this debate on Welsh affairs, which is taking place more than a month after St. David's day—it is almost St. George's day, and St. Patrick's day occurred recently. Perhaps the Secretary of State forgot his Welsh role or felt that other matters were more important. I also offer him my commiserations on his still being 12:1 to succeed as leader of the Labour party, but at least Rory Bremner does a fantastic impression of him.
Conservative Members simply want the best for Wales and its people. The people of Wales face unparalleled struggles in their health care system. In any other developed country, it would be considered unacceptable to have one in 10 of the population on a waiting list.Violent crime, gun crime, and drug-related crime are increasing, yet crime detection rates are going down. Council taxes have rocketed and yet levels of affordable housing are forever decreasing.
I withdraw, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the figures that have recently been published for North Wales police? The western division of North Wales police, which covers part of my constituency, has the top detection rate in the whole of England and Wales, and the central division and the division that covers the constituency of my hon. Friend Ian Lucas are among the top 10 divisions in the whole of England and Wales.
The hon. Lady will find that incidents of drug crime increased from 9,425 in 2001 to 10, 268 in 2003. Those are the latest published figures on drug crime. [Interruption.] If she will bear with me, I shall come to detection rates. Incidents of violent crime increased from 39,274 to 56,561, again between 2001 and 2003. On gun crime, recorded offences increased from 85 in 1997 to 169 in 2004.
While crime has increased, detection rates have gone down. Total crime detection rates in Wales decreased from 41 per cent. in 2001 to 36 per cent. when the latest figures were published in 2003. If the hon. Lady has new figures, that is tremendous, but unfortunately her Government have not yet published them.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that last week the Association of Chief Police Officers criticised the advertisements on detection rates as misleading. He will also be aware of the view of the chief constable of North Wales that the Conservative party is misleading the public and misrepresenting the crime statistics in Wales, which is leading to unnecessary fear among the general population. Will he use this opportunity to withdraw and to apologise to the people of Wales?
The hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the figures that the Government put out increased the general public's fear, but expects me to apologise for the Government's figures. I think he is quite incorrect.
I am not asking the hon. Gentleman to take those figures from Labour Members—although he is having to do so—but to admit that he was wrong. He is repeating wrong statements. The chief constable of North Wales police accused the Conservatives of wrongly exaggerating the threat of crime ahead of an election. I want to quote Richard Brunstrom, the chief constable. He said:
"This misleading advert quite improperly seeks to stir up fear of rising crime when it is well established that crime has been falling for years both locally and nationally . . . I am disappointed in the extreme that it has appeared in the press in a marginal constituency in the run-up to a general election."
The Association of Chief Police Officers said:
"If we want to increase the fear of crime, the selective use of statistics can help in doing that."
It is quite obvious that the hon. Gentleman is indulging in the selective use of statistics, and the chief constable of North Wales has indicted him and criticised him for doing that.
I have been very indulgent in letting the Secretary of State make such a long speech about his feelings. When does he feel that people should be talking about crime? Surely it must be just before a general election, when voters count. Even more important, his Government are responsible for publishing those figures, and if he does not like what they say he should have spent the past eight years doing more about it.
The chief constable explained why the figures showed an apparent rise. It is because the entire basis for the calculations has changed. The chief constables warned us about three years ago that there would be an apparent rise. In fact, we are told by the chief constable of Gwent and many others that the crime rate is the lowest for 20 years.
While Mr. Wiggin is answering that question, would he reflect on the fact that many people have drawn attention to the large posters we can see all over Wales that refer to crime? One of them asks, "How would you like it if your daughter was assaulted by somebody out on early release?" Can the hon. Gentleman name a single case in Wales where that has happened? If not, he should take those posters down.
That is an absurd suggestion. However, the point made by Paul Flynn is relevant in one respect. I understand that some of the statistics are now calculated differently. I can tell Mrs. Williams that I used figures from post-2001, which is after the changes to the way in which the figures were calculated. The figures that I quoted on crime detection are correct. It is possibly misleading if the figures on the posters do not include that addendum, but the question is: have the people of Wales become safer? The sad fact is that they have not. They are not safer and crime is going up, especially violent crime, gun crime and drug-related crime. That is an important point and people who are about to vote at the election have every right to have their fears discussed publicly in places such as this—[Interruption.] Chris Ruane says that fear is being whipped up, but with perhaps only a day to go before the Prime Minister announces the general election I hardly think that "whipped up" is fair.
I fully agree that it is right to discuss crime at any time in the electoral cycle, but it is unacceptable for any of us irresponsibly to cause a situation where people in my constituency feel it is unsafe to go outside their homes. Will the hon. Gentleman make clear to me, so that I can report back to my constituents, whether he really feels that in Bridgend and Ogmore it is not safe to walk the streets because of the fear of gun and knife crime and violent crime; or does he actually believe what my chief constable says—that not only have detection rates increased, but crime in my borough is going down year after year?
Unfortunately, the evidence does not suggest that. In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I quoted the figures earlier: violent crime went up from 39,274 to 56,561 cases between 2001 and 2003. His constituents will have to decide for themselves how safe they feel, but gun crime in Wales has increased from 85 recorded cases in 1997 to 169 in 2004. The system for counting gun crime did not change between 2001 and 2003, nor did the system for counting violent crime, so I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right. He would be well advised to tell his constituents that they would be considerably safer if there were another 2,199 police officers, which they would get under a Conservative Government.
What is clear is that chief constables in Wales have universally criticised that advertisement as misleading. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with them or not? Are they seeking to mislead?
I do not think that the chief constables are seeking to mislead, and nor is the Conservative party. The Government may have failed to explain why they changed the statistics and whether those statistics are misleading, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests. It was his Government who released the figures.
I am genuinely trying to tempt the hon. Gentleman back from the abyss. In this debate and in some propaganda outside the House, we are in danger of scaring people unnecessarily. Does he agree that we have a responsibility as parliamentarians, and especially as Front-Bench spokesmen, to reflect reality? Where there is cause for concern, let us discuss it, but where there are improvements, let us reflect them in our debate.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to reassure his constituents he should tell them to vote Conservative. They will get extra police officers and they will be safer.
The Archbishop of Canterbury asked political parties not to dwell on fear in the election. One of my local papers reported on statistics on crime comparing 1997 to 2004—when there had been a change in definition—stating that incidents of violent crime in the Brecon area had gone up from 5,000 to more than 8,000. As fewer than 8,000 people live in the Brecon area, does the hon. Gentleman think that they have been fighting all the time, day and night?
The hon. Gentleman's initial point was serious. Nobody wants to trade on fear, but we must remember that we have been hearing about record levels of spending and record numbers of police officers. Things have never been rosier in the garden, if we believe the nonsense that we have had to listen to this evening. It is entirely right that people should realise that under a Conservative Government they would not just be safer, they would have an extra 2,199 police officers.
It is not just that we are promising to put extra police officers on the streets of Wales, although that is absolutely right; we will also release the police who are there already from the paperwork—the red tape and bureaucracy—that constantly dogs them. They spend more time chained to their desks in the police station than out on the streets detecting the crimes that people are genuinely afraid of in Wales.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am grateful for that intervention.
The sad thing is that no matter how often we tell Labour Members about the serious problems faced by our constituents, they refuse to listen. They put their heads in the sand like ostriches and fail to recognise that there is a genuine problem. Elderly people are frightened. There is an increase in crime—drug–related crime, violent crime, gun crime—and nothing that the Government have been doing has made a difference. The extra expenditure that the Secretary of State talks about all the time has not delivered.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I have to make an unfavourable point. His thesis is absurd. Is he actually saying that people in rural Wales are staying in because they are worried that someone will run down the alleyway with a pistol? What he is saying is utter nonsense. If I catch your eye later this evening, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope to address the question of the perception and reality of crime, and I hope, with respect, to make a better contribution than Mr. Wiggin.
So much for my charitable act of the evening. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to make light of people's fears, and I hope that when he makes what he calls a better fist of it, he will not forget the importance of those elderly people.
Did the hon. Gentleman not listen to the Secretary of State's speech? Did he not hear the absolute gibberish about the Thatcher years and the trading on fear to which we have had to listen? Does he not recognise the difference between the truth, according to the crime statistics released by the Government, and the fantasy about the history that we have had to listen to, none of which is corroborated?
Okay then, I shall ask a factual question: did crime not double under the Conservatives?
The hon. Gentleman's question is completely irrelevant as we are talking about the crime statistics now. I have heard about the Liberal party splitting and I have seen the hard time that the Secretary of State for Wales gives the hon. Gentleman, but, quite honestly, after eight years of this Government we should, as has been said, move forward rather than backwards.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way so generously. To try to get some balance into the debate, I should say that overall crime in Bridgend county borough is down by 16.5 per cent. However, on a serious point, will he accept my invitation to visit my constituency at any time in the next few weeks? I will take him down any street on any evening. I will take him to Maesteg and show him what is going on there, and I will take him to Pencoed. I make that invitation seriously because I worry that his tone genuinely adds to a climate of fear, quite unnecessarily.
All I can do is thank the hon. Gentleman for his invitation and say that I will visit his constituency, but whether I visit the places that he mentions or whether I go with him remains to be seen.
I will now make some progress. Let us turn to the fact that council taxes have rocketed, yet affordable housing is forever decreasing. Economic activity rates and employment rates still lag behind those of England, and the industrial jobs that were so prevalent in the past are draining away without being replaced. The gross domestic product of the objective 1 areas in Wales is below those of ex-Soviet bloc countries, such as Slovenia, and no matter what the Government try to claim, the situation is worsening.
No doubt the Secretary of State for Wales will accuse me of talking Wales down, as he usually does, but that is far from what I am doing. We all know how much potential and passion Wales has. Some of us are so concerned about what is going wrong for the people of Wales that we want to bring it to their attention, rather than sweeping it away under a pile of figures and partial truths. Labour in Westminster and Cardiff have had eight long years to deliver their promises to Wales.
Let us consider the economic success that the Secretary of State for Wales so enjoys lauding. Wales's economic activity level stands at 75.4 per cent., compared with the UK's 78.7 per cent., and the rate has continued to fall over the past year. No matter how much the Secretary of State tries to hail falling unemployment, employment still lags almost 3 per cent. behind the UK average. In fact, an Institute of Welsh Affairs report said:
"On the surface, unemployment appears to have reached tolerably low levels, but when combined with sickness and disability claimants, the proportions not working are higher than virtually anywhere else in the UK."
The people of Wales still face lower pay. Powys is the lowest paid region in the whole of the UK. The 82.2 per cent. of UK average GDP that Wales had achieved under the last Conservative Government has now shrunk to below 79 per cent. The trend is clear: under Labour, Wales's economy is going backwards, and the unfortunate consequence is that there are so many missed opportunities in Wales. Wales continues to haemorrhage manufacturing jobs. Tens of thousands of private sector jobs are being lost and VAT deregistrations of businesses are still outweighing new business registrations.
There is a serious point, which the hon. Gentleman has raised twice this evening, about how to combine incapacity benefit and unemployment benefit. On every occasion when Select Committees have considered that issue, they have concluded in unanimous reports—including the Conservatives—that the incapacity benefit figures cannot simply be lumped into the unemployment benefit figures to produce some sort of measure for hidden unemployment. Those of us who represent constituencies where economic activity is high believe that we can do much more to try to help people with disabilities into work, but I worry that the proposals to reform the benefit system that the hon. Gentleman's party has come up with would dump people on to a new pile to one side and not help them into work. How does he plan to help people into work?
Such genuine and heartfelt concerns should be taken seriously, but the hon. Gentleman is wrong, pure and simple, about those fears. I do not think that there is a plan to dump people from one list to another. That has been going on already, and it is not effective. That is one of the reasons why I find it so difficult to listen to the Secretary of State for Wales telling us how brilliantly the economy of Wales is doing, when the reality is pretty much as the hon. Gentleman describes it in his important intervention.
No. I have been pretty generous in giving way, and although we could go on until 11 o'clock tonight, I will make some progress in fairness to all the other hon. Members who wish to speak.
One of the key causes is the Government's complete inability to do anything about the red tape that is strangling businesses. It is a simple and clear fact that a small business in Wales that employs more than 25 people will spend 73 hours a month filling in Government paperwork. A survey of small businesses in Wales found that red tape had stopped 36 per cent. of them recruiting more people and that 18 per cent. had been forced to cut employee levels. If the Government really want to stop damaging Wales's economy, they must remove the excessive regulation, targets and rules that are strangling Welsh businesses. They must also act to reduce the massive taxation burden that faces the people of Wales.
Unlike the Government, the Conservatives do not believe that increasing the amount that everyone pays a week in tax by £42 is the way to give people the freedom to succeed and develop greater prosperity. We have seen the Government's 66 stealthy increases in the taxes that we pay—and seen the damage that that does. In Wales, nowhere is the curse of escalating taxes more obvious than in the rocketing council taxes. Since 1997, council taxes in Wales have increased by an average £392, or 79 per cent. Areas such as Monmouthshire and Blaenau Gwent have faced increases of 12 and 13 times the rate of inflation. Thanks to the Government's rebanding policy, many people are facing the double whammy of going up a council tax band—or two, or even three. That is set to bump up the tax on an average band D home to more than £1,000 by next year.
The Chancellor's most recent budget, of course, tried to lure voters with the long overdue move to exempt homes up to the value of £120,000 from stamp duty. Yet that simply hides another attack on Welsh business: commercial stamp duty tax relief in deprived areas was abolished. Welsh businesses will suffer as the Government rake in £340 million from them with that new tax. Of course, that raises the question of what all that hard-earned money will be spent on. We can hope that it will be ploughed back into the things that Wales needs the most. Unfortunately, given the Government's record on spending and wasting, I fear that that will not be the case.
In Wales, we need only to look at the massive £67 million—570 per cent. higher than the original estimate—spent on the new Assembly building to see evidence of unnecessary waste. What a difference from Conservative spending proposals, which will guarantee a good deal for Wales from the savings that we make from cuts in waste across Britain. With Barnett funding on top of the block grant, Wales will get a great deal and not face the continued waste and subsequent tax increases that it will suffer if Labour wins a third term. Of course, because our priorities are things such as the NHS and education, which account for a large proportion of Wales's funding, the actual growth will be even greater, yet never were improvements to such things more desperately needed for Wales.
Wales already faces many inequalities in the health of its people. Only 30 per cent. of people in Wales meet guidelines for physical activity, and more than half the population is technically overweight, with 17 per cent. of them obese. More than a quarter of the population smoke and 41 per cent. admit to drinking more than recommended. The many people who wonder why the Welsh NHS has been allowed to descend into the disastrous situation in which it finds itself should look at its administration. Despite a 40 per cent. increase in health spending, it is difficult to find anything, bar the hard work and devotion of the front-line staff in Wales, that is actually going right with Welsh health care.
The hon. Gentleman made a passing reference to the Welsh Assembly. Will he confirm that he is in favour of scrapping the Welsh Assembly, although the leader of the Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly wants it to have more powers?
The hon. Gentleman gives me a nice opportunity to make the exact policy clear. We have said, as we have always said, that we will not do anything without the say-so of the Welsh people. To that extent, we will hold a referendum. The choices in the referendum will be whether to give the Assembly further powers, whether to abolish it, or whether to leave it as it is.
It will be a sort of "preferendum", as the hon. Gentleman says. However, my vote does not count in Wales, so it is no good pushing me on this one. Although all other hon. Members in the Chamber will have a vote—except perhaps you, Madam Deputy Speaker—I will have to sit gnawing my fingernails in anticipation of the result. It would be disingenuous of me to lead hon. Members to think anything but that the people of Wales will have the final say over the future of the Assembly.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. Will he confirm that the only way in which pensioners in Wales will get the council tax rebate about which his party is talking will be to abolish the Welsh Assembly, or have I misunderstood his position?
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong about that. The money for the pensioner discount will be available through the Welsh block grant, if the Assembly chooses to give it to pensioners. At the moment it does not choose to do that.
I think that I understood the hon. Gentleman to be saying that he was not expressing an opinion on the future of the Welsh Assembly because he did not have a vote in Wales. Was that what he said?
I apologise if I was not clear. I have expressed an opinion in the past, from over the border. I have been asked how I would vote if I had a vote. I would vote for abolition, but that is not the policy of my party, which is one of holding a referendum. [Hon. Members: "Resign!"] I think that I have made the policy perfectly clear and said what I would do if I had a vote, even though I do not.
Oh yes I did. [Interruption.] Let me make a little more progress; I am sure that we will find time for some more interventions later.
The mystery to many is how the Welsh NHS has been allowed to descend into the disastrous state in which it finds itself—until, of course, we look at administration. Despite a 40 per cent. increase in health spending, it is difficult to find anything, bar the hard work and devotion of the front-line NHS staff in Wales, of course, that is going right in Welsh health care. The Secretary of State said in the Labour Assembly manifesto of 2003:
"the dynamic partnership between a Labour-led assembly and a Labour Government at Westminster is delivering results."
I am afraid that all they have delivered is waiting lists.
More than 100 people have waited longer than four years for an out-patient appointment in Wales. The latest figures show that the overall number of patients waiting is about 300,000, which is an increase of 83 per cent. since Labour took control in Wales. Expensive initiatives mean that money is being thrown away for small improvements. I believe that Labour succeeded in spending £36 million to remove just 40,000 people from the waiting lists in two years.
Even the briefest assessment of the Welsh NHS illustrates massive failings. Wales now has an out-of-hours general practitioner service in constant and escalating turmoil. Patients are five times more likely to be given a pacemaker for their heart if they live in Poland than if they live in Wales. Despite the higher rate of heart disease in Wales, the use of less invasive treatment to tackle blockages in heart arteries is half of that in England.
MRSA rates are not improving and the number of cases has more than trebled since 1996. While 130 people unnecessarily block beds in Cardiff and 10 ambulances queue outside Royal Gwent hospital, a man suffering from a suspected heart attack spent nearly two days waiting for a hospital bed. As that gentleman said:
"the staff are absolutely brilliant but the system is totally wrong".
I thank the hon. Gentleman for finally giving way. He says that nothing is going right in the Welsh health service. Is he aware of the success of the University Hospital of Wales in my constituency of Cardiff, North? The introduction of day surgery for parathyroid disease, when tumours are removed from the neck, was piloted at UHW. The hospital has thus reduced an 18-month waiting list to one of a couple of weeks. Such pioneering work is leading the UK, yet the hon. Gentleman has the cheek to say that nothing is going right in the Welsh health service. What does he think that the staff who are working on that initiative and many others in the health service feel about such comments?
I have been pretty generous in taking interventions during the debate. I again cite the quote:
"the staff are absolutely brilliant but the system is totally wrong".
The hon. Lady should pay closer attention to what I actually say rather than misquoting me and trying to make out that I said something that I did not. Her comment was most unfair. While I am delighted to hear that progress is being made in one part of the NHS, we cannot get away from the horrendous increase in waiting lists in Wales. The Welsh people will not entirely forgive her when she stands on the doorstep and tries to explain the situation regarding waiting lists with the example that she gave. Of course, I might be wrong about that—we have to wait and see.
I am delighted to hear that, but it does not change what was said in the quote:
"the staff are absolutely brilliant but the system is totally wrong".
I think that the hon. Lady will find that MRSA figures for ysbyty Gwynedd are not as good as she would perhaps like, and it is a great shame that it has taken so long for the figures even to be released. I do not think that I shall take any more interventions because I have been pretty generous. However, the hon. Lady should check the MRSA figures for ysbyty Gwynedd because they are a real tragedy that let the whole hospital down.
Never has the struggle facing first-class NHS staff been more obvious than in the horrendous vote of no confidence that the British Medical Association Cymru recently passed on the Welsh Assembly. No wonder there are unfilled consultant posts and more than 500 unfilled nursing vacancies in Wales. No wonder the number of temporary staff, who now cost £38 million a year, has increased by 192 per cent. since Labour took control. That is why it is time for action for the Welsh NHS, and action now.
We know, as Conservatives, that by giving patients choice and giving control back to doctors and nurses, who best know how to run their hospitals and surgeries, the Welsh NHS can improve. We also know that having more bureaucrats in the Welsh Health and Social Services Department than practice nurses in GP surgeries, as this Government do, is not the right way to go about that, just as the way to improve the education that children get in Wales is not by implementing half-thought-out ideas, such as the free school breakfasts fiasco. Some people may remember Dr. Chris Howells of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru describing that policy as a "dog's dinner". It has become obvious over the past few months that what Labour have in mind is scarcely even that—the policy was never intended to feed all children and is now costed at 30p per head. While taxpayers' money is wasted on such schemes, Welsh GCSE pass rates have not reached the Assembly targets for even three years ago, let alone last year. A teaching union has claimed that schools could afford five more teachers every year if they received as much funding as those in England. Wales also remains one of the worst areas in Britain for truancy. Expelled children are being shifted from school to school or, worse still, sometimes being returned to the same one.
If the Government will not listen to our calls, perhaps they should listen to the teachers themselves. The secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers Cymru has said that there needs to be
"more than rumblings from politicians—we need action . . . Teachers' hands are tied by the sanctions available . . . a reversed decision to discipline a child undermines the role and professionalism of the teacher."
Under the current system, children in Wales, as in the rest of the UK, are being denied chances that they are worthy of. Surely it is not difficult to understand that teachers need to have real control over their schools; otherwise, the cycle of disorder and lack of discipline will simply continue.
We can see the same thing occurring in terms of Wales's rising crime levels. Drug crime offences rose from 9,425 in 2001 to 10,268 in 2003; violent crime offences increased from 39,274 to 56,561 between 2001 and 2003; gun crime increased from 85 recorded offences in 1997 to 169 in 2004—and while crime goes up, detection rates go down. The total crime detection rate in Wales decreased from 41 per cent. in 2001 to 36 per cent. in 2003. More than six in 10 burglars escape unpunished.
This Labour Government make a pretence of being "tough on crime", yet they have introduced the option of an £80 fixed penalty notice for shoplifters, and for those who cause criminal damage up to the value of £500. They began an early release scheme that is almost criminal in itself, releasing criminals back on to the streets to reoffend, while the public live in fear. More than 3,600 crimes have been committed across the UK by criminals on early release.
Reclassification of cannabis has done nothing to help the people of Wales, where the number of deaths directly caused by illegal drug misuse almost doubled between 1997 and 2002. A South Wales Echo report showed that almost 60 per cent. of 20 to 39-year-olds had taken illegal drugs. The assistant chief constable of the South Wales police has rightly said that cannabis, which is taken by 58 per cent. of this age group,
"must not be underestimated . . . many people are confused about whether it is illegal".
When my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Howard was Home Secretary, crime fell by 18 per cent. We know that the best way to stop crime in Wales, as anywhere in the UK, is to make sure that it does not pay—a point that this Government do not seem to realise. Their figures show that Cardiff prison is operating with more prisoners than it has capacity for. If innocent, law-abiding people in Wales are to stop suffering while the real criminals get away with it, we need more prisons, more police, more drug rehabilitation places and honest sentencing. Under this Government, that is not happening.
In Wales today, people are having to put up with standards of public services and economic strength far below that which they deserve. Yet what can they expect from a Government who have denied the Welsh regiments equal treatment in respect of their name, in a classic example of anti-Welsh double standards? What can they expect from a Government who have not even promised the people of Wales a referendum on their policy of devolved government, before any action is taken? We have promised them their voice and their choice. Under the Conservatives, the people of Wales will be free to decide the future of devolution in Wales. We would leave the Welsh regiments untouched, as they deserve to remain, thereby safely preserving their proud history. By no means should they have to suffer the indignity of being deprived of the same concession in respect of their name as that given to the Scottish regiments.
We believe in being rewarded for hard work and in hard-earned money being spent wisely, not in its being frittered away on things that we never see the benefits of. The people of Wales, as of Britain, should be able to walk safely on their streets, to have clean hospitals and shrinking waiting lists, and to know that their children will be safe and well educated and given the chance to grow into independent, successful adults with responsibility, freedom and choice. No, I do not intend to talk Wales down. I simply intend to point out the failings that the people of Wales should not have to put up with, and the disadvantages still facing so much of Wales, under a Labour Government who have got so much wrong, who have failed so many times, and who are taking Wales for granted and in the wrong direction.
Three of the Welsh Affairs Committee's reports are tagged to this debate, and I would like to use them as the basis for my contribution. The first report in this Session is a digest of the Committee's work in 2004, and it sets out its activities, inquiries and reports. During 2004, the Committee demonstrated the breadth of the subject matter that it covers. We scrutinised policies of the Home Office, of the Department for Education and Skills, of the Department for Transport, of the Department of Trade and Industry, and of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Such coverage demonstrates that our role is greater than merely scrutinising the Wales Office, and that we cast our net widely in scrutinising Government policy that affects Wales.
However, in addition to scrutinising Government policy affecting Wales, my Committee also scrutinises draft Wales-only legislation and Wales-only legislation that is being considered by Parliament. In previous years, we have undertaken pre-legislative scrutiny in parallel to, but separately from, scrutiny of the same draft legislation by Committees of the National Assembly. That approach was inefficient and inappropriate, so my Committee recommended, successfully, that the House empower it formally to meet Committees of the National Assembly on matters of mutual interest.
We have used those powers to scrutinise the draft Transport (Wales) Bill and the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Bill, which was debated on Second Reading earlier today. We have also used the power formally to meet National Assembly Committees to consider the Ofcom review's findings on public service broadcasting as they will affect Wales.
Formal joint working is an important and welcome development. At an administrative level it avoids duplication, but its true worth is its ability to provide joined-up scrutiny of Government policy through partnership between the UK Government and the Welsh Assembly Government. In our report on the work of the Committee in 2004, we pointed out that all sides believed that formal joint working was a success. The Under-Secretary described it as the way forward, while the Secretary of State for Wales considered it to be beneficial to all involved. The shadow Secretary of State for Wales also considered it to be a more time-efficient approach that avoided duplication.
I welcome those comments because the power formally to meet Committees of the National Assembly will cease to have effect at the end of this Parliament. I hope that, if the Government and the official Opposition are in favour of our formal joint working, those powers will be made permanent at the start of the next Parliament, regardless of who is in power. I offer the Under-Secretary and the shadow Minister the opportunity to confirm their views on this matter during their replies.
I also want to draw attention to our two major reports published in this Session. The first, "Manufacturing and Trade in Wales", considered the economic well-being of Wales and the second, "Police Service, Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour in Wales", considered all aspects of antisocial behaviour control in Wales. The first report considered the current state of Welsh manufacturing, foreign direct investment to Wales, Welsh exports, the relationship between industry and academia, and UK Government support for Welsh manufacturing. It concluded:
"The transition from traditional manufacturing in Wales was a difficult journey and not without pain."
However, Wales has managed to modernise and to diversify its manufacturing base, and in some areas it now leads the field.
Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that nevertheless, areas such as Montgomeryshire have had a particular problem with small-scale manufacturing operations? Indeed, more than 600 manufacturing and other jobs have been lost there on account of downsizing and shifting work abroad. Does he agree that any strategy for Welsh manufacturing needs to take account not just of the large multinational companies, but of the private companies on which the economic prosperity of local communities often depends?
One of the particular problems in attracting foreign direct investment is that we do not get the necessary research and development jobs. Our Committee recommended that we should try to get those jobs into Wales, so that we can have a chance of maintaining the presence of such companies. If these jobs go elsewhere and we end up with "screwdriver operations", such companies might leave Wales and go elsewhere. However, I cannot discuss everything that the Committee said in detail; otherwise, we would end up having the same debate that we had then.
The report reached many conclusions and it made many recommendations, but I draw the House's attention to the following, which relates to the intervention from Lembit Öpik. European structural funds—they remain a vital form of financial support for the Welsh economy, particularly in areas that still have objective 1 status—are shortly to be renegotiated in light of EU enlargement. There is genuine concern that the accession of countries with lower gross domestic products than Wales's will divert those funds away from Wales. While Wales is improving its economy and social structures, it would be detrimental if it lost those important funding streams. We recommended that the Government give a clear undertaking that Wales will not lose out as a result of these negotiations. We also recommended that the Welsh Assembly Government be given the greatest flexibility appropriate to delivering that funding, along with regional selective assistance across Wales. I look to the Government to reassure us that Wales will not lose out as a result of European enlargement.
We also wish to see a refinement of the UK Government's support that includes the introduction of a regional element to research and development tax credits and research councils' grant allocation procedures that would provide for a more equitable spread of Government funds across the UK. At present, Wales does not appear to receive its fair share of Government funding. That needs to be addressed so that Wales can fulfil its great potential.
During the course of the inquiry, the Ministry of Defence announced that it had decided to relocate its Defence Aviation Repair Agency operations from Wales to England. MOD procurement policy has a significant impact on the economy of nations and regions in the United Kingdom. Wales already is under-represented in that respect, and the relocation of DARA is a further diminution of Government procurement in Wales. We recommended that the Government reverse their decision to move DARA's operations from St. Athan to England.
The question put to all manufacturers was whether they would like to be in the euro. Surprisingly, they mainly said that they were not particularly bothered either way so long as there was consistency and stability in the currency. I found that rather surprising because I expected them to want to be in the euro zone, which is why we put the question in the first place.
Our second major report, as I said earlier, was entitled "Police Service, Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour in Wales". We took extensive evidence and were pleased to report that, in the main, the four police forces in Wales were performing well. We welcomed the refinement of the targets contained within the latest national policing plan. Earlier plans had set targets for reductions in the levels of specific crimes, and while they may have been appropriate for some forces in the UK, they were not always appropriate for Welsh forces. For example, attempting to reduce bicycle crime in Dyfed-Powys by 15 per cent. was probably not the most appropriate use of the police's time, since there is virtually no bicycle crime at all in that area. The current plan sets an overall crime reduction target of 15 per cent., which we believe is a much more appropriate goal that will let the Welsh police target local crime and provide a better service for Wales.
A significant part of the inquiry concentrated on antisocial behaviour, on which the Government have introduced welcome legislation. Indeed, all the Welsh chief constables unanimously approved the range of measures provided by the Government to help them with their tasks, but there is not yet a sophisticated method of monitoring the success of the police in tackling such behaviour. Our report set out some initial concerns about the low number of antisocial behaviour orders issued in Wales compared to England. There was a perception that Welsh forces were not using ASBOs properly. However, as we found in our report, that was not the case.
Welsh forces have developed strategies for staged intervention that use ASBOs as a measure of last resort. The focus on ASBO numbers means that their methods are not officially counted as successes and, as a result, Welsh forces have appeared to be performing poorly when in fact they are making real headway in tackling antisocial behaviour. For that reason, we call on the Government to introduce a better measurement for success that reflects the Welsh approach.
Absolutely, and our report stressed that fact. We recommended the Welsh approach to the English, as some English forces are probably using far too many ASBOs. The hon. Gentleman referred to a number of tiers. Some forces sent a letter, which cut out 80 per cent. of the problems—just one letter to the parents sorted it out. Parents often do not know what their children—it is mainly young people involved—are doing and when informed they can intervene to prevent the bad behaviour. We call it the Welsh approach and believe that it should be used throughout the UK.
As I said, ASBOs are only one important part of the police's arsenal, but others have not yet been acknowledged. Credit should be given where it is due, which means that the Government must recognise that the number of ASBOs issued does not automatically equate to levels of success on the ground.
Finally, I make a plea. Whatever changes take place in the Welsh Affairs Committee during the next Parliament, I would like the Committee's role in working with the Assembly to be continued and enhanced.
First, may I say how delighted I am that we are at last conducting our St. David's day debate? As if to build the suspense, we have had to wait more than a month. I think that I am speaking for all Members of the Opposition parties in pointing out—as, rightly, did Mr. Wiggin—that we have had to await the passing of St. Patrick's day before being able to speak about St. David's day matters. That being the case, let us not look the gift horse in the mouth, but let us use the time as an opportunity to evaluate the words of the Secretary of State for Wales. Sadly, he is no longer in his place, and has obviously had to attend to his other job.
I shall pass over that comment.
The Secretary of State said that he viewed his party, the Labour party, as the party of social justice, business success, low mortgages, stability and growth, so let us look further into that. To some extent, I agree, and it would be churlish and rather fatuous to imply that everything that has happened in Wales under the Labour Government is bad. From an economic standpoint, Wales has seen some success stories. One of the greatest is the Airbus organisation. The Airbus A380 is probably the most significant new passenger aircraft of the decade and it will bring considerable work opportunities and prosperity to various parts of Wales.
As I said in an earlier intervention on the Secretary of State, I believe that Wales should set for itself the goal of being one of the global centres of aerospace excellence. We certainly have the individuals able to achieve it, but what we need is a strategy that overtly focuses on spreading the know-how and value-added business opportunities across the Welsh economy. There is no reason at all why a number of sub-industries related to aerospace could not be in a position to benefit. That applies in rural areas such as my own and in urban areas across Wales. I hope that Wales will take that opportunity and that we will see the political direction and political will to achieve precisely that.
As an aside, I would point out that I fly aircraft myself. I wanted to apologise to Mark Tami—but he is no longer in his place—for saying Hawarden when I should have said Broughton. I do tend to fly into Hawarden more often than Broughton because when I see the Airbus runways of Broughton, I feel that my small light aircraft is unworthy to land in such a Mecca of aerospace engineering.
The other aspect of economic development related to aerospace is the importance of having a regional air network. My feeling is that the gesture of introducing an Anglesey to Cardiff run is sensible, but that it really should stop in mid-Wales on the way. Until we find a way of getting the relatively small number of people who must get from the north to the south of Wales quickly on their journeys in an expeditious way, we will hold back the economic development of Wales. I am not suggesting that many people will commute regularly, but we all know that many senior industrialists feel that the inaccessibility of parts of Wales is a drawback that deters them from basing their businesses there.
One recent success story that I can speak about with authority is the expansion of Welshpool as a business airport, which has brought economic prosperity to the area. Bob Jones, the airport's owner, has a vision and views the airport as an important addition to the infrastructure of the mid-Wales economy, and I agree with him. The planning approvals necessary for him to expand the airport are commensurate with the strategic focus, which I hope the next Government, of whatever party, will take seriously. A partnership approach is required between the Assembly and Westminster, but I am confident that Ministers are now making the right noises. I strongly recommend that, in his summation, the Minister gives an assurance that should not be difficult to give, as he has given it before, that Labour will continue its strategic support for the expansion of a Welsh air network.
I am following closely the thread of my hon. Friend's comments and he failed to mention the attractions of the international airport at Llandegly, which has just opened another runway. I would like that to be included in his network for Wales.
My hon. Friend is describing his dream of a Eurohub in Llandegly, which has about 20 residents and a sign saying "Llandegly international airport, terminals 1 and 2." I watch developments with interest.
On manufacturing, Mr. Jones rightly outlined some of the important findings that the Welsh Affairs Committee highlighted. There is serious concern that smaller manufacturing companies are being driven to the wall, largely by competition from abroad where labour costs are lower. When focusing on the big work opportunities of 10,000 or 3,000 jobs, we must ensure that we do not take our eye off the ball and the smaller job opportunities of 20, 50 or even five jobs. First, those small companies may become large companies, and secondly, a large proportion of jobs in Wales depend on small companies. Never is that more evident than in mid-Wales and in rural areas of north and south Wales. The difficulty is that the dynamics of the economic cycle tend to have an effect on all small companies at once, so there may be many small business closures, as we had under the Conservatives in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We have had a period of relative stability, but whatever Government are elected after the anticipated election on
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, who knows that 90 per cent. of employees in Wales work in the small and medium sector. Does he recall the days of the Development Board for Rural Wales when his constituency had almost full employment and Meirionnydd Nant Conwy also did well? Unfortunately, although the Welsh Development Agency has done well in many ways, it has not performed well in the small and medium sector and all of us in mid and north Wales have suffered as a result.
I concur with the hon. Gentleman's important point. I am not making a party political point, because Labour Members have had the same experience. I look forward to hearing the Minister's perspective.
On the upside, some companies have done superbly well. Sidoli's, Control Techniques, Laura Ashley and Texplan are four in my area that have consolidated and, despite some shaky times, become world leaders, particularly Control Techniques and Laura Ashley. However, the economic position is a mixed bag of good and bad—it is not as unequivocally positive as the Secretary of State suggested.
The Secretary of State spoke about other areas, so let us look at his claims. I suppose that he would say in evidence of his claim that his party is the party for social justice, but the main period of stability for the Welsh Assembly was when there was a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party. During that period class sizes fell significantly, the Tir Gofal scheme introduced environmental opportunities for agriculture and museum charges were scrapped in Wales in advance of other parts of the United Kingdom. I would have more belief in the heady claims of the Secretary of State if those initiatives had happened at the behest of the Labour party, but they came from a Liberal Democrat manifesto. I humbly suggest that Wales was best served with the Liberal Democrats in power when we were able to provide a guiding, sage and mature hand to the impetuosity that we have come to expect from Labour.
Jenny Randerson, the Assembly Member who is also a Liberal Democrat, was the key mechanic of the legislation that made that possible. The hon. Lady should declare an interest. I understand her need to defend the Welsh Assembly, but I am asking—it is for the voters to decide whom they believe—why, if it was the unbridled and committed policy of the Labour party to increase environmental opportunities for farmers, decrease class sizes and reintroduce school milk, has that happened only in places where the Liberal Democrats have been in power?
The Secretary of State said that his party was pro-devolution. I know that some Labour Members are, and perhaps he is too. However, it is frustrating to see the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly apparently dragging his feet and stalling in the face of a great opportunity to work hand in hand with other pro-devolution parties such as the Liberal Democrats to deliver the recommendations of the Richard commission. In the same context, it is all very well for the Secretary of State to say that his party is working hard to resolve the issues of the Welsh health service, but we all know that there is a disparity and that Labour has failed to deliver the improvements that have been seen across the border. That is even more galling for the reasons given by my hon. Friend Mr. Williams, which are mainly that there are different waiting times for the same hospitals because of the existence of a border. The Secretary of State uttered fine words in his promises to reform that, but we must judge on results and at the moment the results are scant indeed.
Before moving on to the Conservatives, I want to raise a local issue of such importance that it needs to go on the record. Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of the projected development of a large liquid natural gas facility in Pembroke Dock. It unquestionably has potential for jobs and will increase the economic prosperity of the area, but I am worried that the safety aspects of having such a large LNG plant there have not been sufficiently considered. The explosive potential of LNG is significant, and although it does not explode in the same way as TNT, it is capable of causing a large enough conflagration to incinerate the neighbourhood. I make the point because those who are concerned about the health and safety aspects are frustrated that the matter has not been sufficiently aired in this Chamber. I hope that the Minister will go at least as far as saying that he will consider those concerns. For a bonus for 10, it would be excellent if he was willing to meet and discuss those concerns with the objectors.
I enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for Leominster, but did not understand it. He said that despite the cuts in public spending that his party promised, the budget in Wales would be immune—[Interruption.] I am happy to have a dialogue with him if he wishes to intervene, but that must wait. I am still troubled—I sometimes wake up at night thinking about this—about the exchange in the Welsh Grand Committee when the Secretary of State said:
"It is useful to have all this on the record; is the hon. Gentleman saying that he has a unique exemption for Wales from the shadow Chancellor's £35 billion worth of cuts and that Wales will be completely immune to those cuts?"
The hon. Member for Leominster replied:
"The block grant is immune."—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee,
Perhaps I was, but I am happy with that. I got an A in economics. [Interruption.] Perhaps they were robbed, but that is not a get-out for the hon. Member for Leominster. I simply fail to understand how he can get up and tell us that the block grant for Wales is immune from the Tory spending plans when everybody here knows that there is a direct link between what is spent in England and what goes into Wales. I have explicitly heard from him that he does not intend to reform the Barnett formula. Therefore, there is only one possible logical conclusion: he is wrong.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene to explain the position, I will be happy to hear him, but I do not understand why he expects anyone in the Chamber to accept something that is patently wrong, and I do not expect any member of the electorate in Wales to be hoodwinked.
The hon. Gentleman is making a valid point, but he is being a little harsh. Perhaps he will agree that it would be worth while for the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on Wales to write to Members who take part in this debate to set out clearly exactly what is happening and how the Welsh block will somehow be protected without cuts elsewhere.
The hon. Gentleman, once again, makes a helpful point. I hope that the hon. Member for Leominster will concur.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman is getting in such a pickle over this, and he has my full sympathy. His view start with the premise that he believes what the Secretary of State has told him about the £35 billion of cuts, and that premise is fundamentally wrong.
The best that I can do is assume that the Secretary of State is naive for believing what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am pretty sure that the Secretary of State quoted him, but let us not be distracted by that. A good suggestion has been made, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will seek to clear the matter up. It is very much in his interest to do so, because I will not mislead the public about Conservative party policy if it is explained to me in a way that I can understand. At this point, I sincerely believe that he is trying to say something that he cannot support. My conclusion is that, if the Conservatives form the next Government, the Barnett formula would mean an effective cut in what is planned for Wales.
Given the offer that we have both made to Mr. Wiggin, does the hon. Gentleman agree that if we fail to have an explanation, the only version that we can give to the electorate in our respective constituencies is that there is no explanation for what has just been said?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can have this conversation with the hon. Member for Leominster as they roam the streets of Ogmore looking for crime.
Gun crime, indeed. I note with interest the reluctance of the hon. Member for Leominster to go looking for crime with Huw Irranca-Davies. On this occasion, I will defend the hon. Member for Leominster, because he knows that such an endeavour would be pointless. Once people got wind of the fact that he, as the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, was roaming the streets, they would stay at home for their own safety. Crime would be almost zero. It raises the spectre that he might choose to pick on the hon. Member for Ogmore just to keep the crime statistics up on that evening.
My serious concern is that the hon. Member for Leominster simply cannot expect anyone in the Chamber or any elector in Wales to attempt to forget what actually happened when the Conservatives were in government: crime doubled. If that is a testimony to failed policies, so be it. This debate is not primarily about crime, but I counsel Conservatives to recognise that the best guide to future behaviour is past experience. Therefore, there is a long way to go for many of us before we can believe that the Conservatives' policies will reduce crime. [Interruption.] I hear Mr. Evans, and he reminds me of another point that I nearly did not make, but now it is too late.
Conservative Members voiced considerable criticism of the cost of the new building for the Welsh Assembly, but I do not like hypocrisy. I point out that some have sailed close to the wind when it comes to hypocrisy, so I would never suggest that any Member of the Chamber is a hypocrite. I would be ruled out of order if I did. I simply observe that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley—who is probably one of the finest Secretaries of State for Wales that there never was and, I fear, never will be—has consistently criticised the Welsh Assembly for thinking of spending about £67 million on a building, while he accepted a room in Portcullis House, which cost three and a half times that amount.
I had to. This is almost a tradition in this debate, and a bit like pantomime. I will go through it again. Does the hon. Gentleman believe in first past the post or proportional representation? If he believes in proportional representation, why did he accept a seat in the House under first past the post?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Perhaps for the last time in this Parliament, the public will be treated to my standard response. Proportional representation was not an option for me, but not going into Portcullis House was an option for him. If he is so offended, he could have rent his clothes in rage and worked from home. Modern technology makes that possible. Instead, he chose to take that place. I will take no lessons from the Conservatives about a new building for Welsh devolution.
The final point that I would make about the Conservatives is the astonishing risk that the shadow Secretary of State for Wales has taken tonight in expressing his views on Welsh devolution. He said that he would vote for the abolition of the Welsh Assembly, but that his opinion did not count. If his leader—himself a Welshman—gets wind of that, the hon. Gentleman's opinion probably will not count. In my judgment, it is simply not plausible to think that a man who wants to be the Secretary of State for Wales would have no influence on the party position that the Conservatives would hold in the event of a referendum. If he seriously means that, it calls into question why he would want to take a job in a Cabinet that, according to him, would overtly be opposed to his view. That is not tenable. It is certainly a much more serious divergence of policy than what Mr. Flight said.
The hon. Gentleman must be a bit more straightforward. I have been completely clear. I have expressed my opinion that if I were to have a vote, I would not be able to use it because I do not live in Wales at the moment. That is pretty open and honest, and I hope that he will respect that. He is seeking to suggest that I do not care or that I have a separate agenda, but that is not the case. I have made it very clear what the policy is. We will give a referendum to the people of Wales and will abide by their decision. That referendum will have a variety of choices, including empowerment and abolition. Unlike the Secretary of State, he should steer well clear of discussing Conservative policy.
I am not even accusing the hon. Gentleman of sieving. I am saying that he should have the confidence that those in opposition and the other parties here would tolerate a degree of dissent in terms of party policy. We are fairly broad churches, and we have not created the problem for him. His leader fired one of his colleagues for a much more insignificant offence.
As for the hon. Gentleman's position—this is the practical point—I am not seeking his resignation or sacking, but we have to recognise that if the Secretary of State for Wales wanted the abolition of the Welsh Assembly, any reasonable politician would assume that that would have currency in the Government of the day. I shall not push it further than that, but I counsel the hon. Gentleman to recognise that his points of view have currency and are heard and listened to outside the Chamber, so it is reasonable for me to highlight that.
On what could happen after
If anyone wants to pretend that that is fair, let us recognise what is going on in Adamsdown in Cardiff, for example. It has a lower income than 90 per cent. of Wales, but 90 per cent. of properties moved up bands as a result of council tax rebanding. Where is the justice in that? At the same time, Llangyfelach in Swansea has a higher income than 85 per cent. of Wales, but there only 10 per cent. of properties moved up bands. That is why the Liberal Democrats are so opposed to council tax: it takes no account of ability to pay. By comparison and by contrast, local income tax is based entirely on one's ability to pay. It is not based on a person's home, but on their earnings. What could be fairer than that?
Having fought tooth and nail against the changes that the Conservatives made to local government funding, we are in the ironic situation of seeing the Labour party defend the Conservatives' proposal. The Tories introduced council tax, not Labour, but it has stuck too close to a policy that it inherited and could easily have changed.
There is a glimmer of hope, because I believe that we will have a debate, if things come to pass, on a cross-party basis, and we will put the matter to rights in a year or so. I counsel the Minister not to corner his party too far down that line, because in so doing he makes it difficult for Labour to take the policy on, even if he is persuaded by the benefits of local income tax. It will be the Government and not us who make it look like a defeat for the Labour party and a victory for the Liberal Democrats.
By the same token, it is important to recognise the injustice of tuition and top-up fees to Welsh students. Perhaps of all the social policies that Labour has introduced, this one upsets me the most. I remember campaigning with many former Labour student activists who are now Labour Members of Parliament against such ideas when they were proposed by the Conservative Government. Indeed, let us not forget that Labour promised to legislate against such charges on students. On this issue, I stand four-square with the Conservatives in feeling let down by a direct breaking of an election promise.
The students have not forgotten that because they have got debt, and some people have been put off going to university for fear of debt. More than anything, however, I believe that the Government have introduced a tax on learning. For that reason, the Liberal Democrats intend, as a high priority, to abolish tuition and top-up fees if the public choose to elect us to government.
If I recall correctly, I stood on a platform in the constituency of the hon. Gentleman's colleague, Mr. Williams, in the June 2001 general election, and we both propounded our support for some form of graduate taxation. What has been proposed by the Government might seem iniquitous to the hon. Gentleman, but does he agree that it is fairer than the graduate tax because at least there is a time limit? With the graduate tax, people carry on paying until they are in the grave.
We do support a higher rate of tax on 98 per cent. or so—I think that that is the right figure—of the top wage earners.
The hon. Gentleman does not have to agree with me, but I am answering his question. In my book, as the majority of the richest people in this country are graduates, it is not unreasonable to charge a 50 per cent. rate of income tax on those earning more than £100,000 a year.
Is it not interesting how history changes politics? Not so long ago, the Labour party would have said that we should have even higher taxation for the richest people. Now we hear respectable and effective politicians, such as the hon. Gentleman, advocating policies that in the not-too-distant past would have branded him a Conservative. I am sad that Labour has moved so far away from the fairest form of taxation, which is income tax. Above all, I am frustrated that these fees were introduced on the basis of a false premise—a promise in a Labour manifesto that it would not introduce such fees for students.
Once again, it is for the electorate to decide whether they have accepted the Labour party's arguments for those charges. It is also a matter of record, however, that in Scotland, the Labour party, working in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, took a different view. I do not think that the Labour party is as homogeneous on the subject as it might wish. I ask Labour Members again, in the spirit of this debate, to consider whether they really want to be stuck with a policy that is iniquitous and in effect creates a higher marginal rate of tax for people on relatively low incomes than it does for those who earn more than £100,000 a year.
Much more could be said about free personal care for the elderly, the £100 extra a month on pensions at 75 and having gone to war in Iraq. Let us be clear: the Liberal Democrats opposed that war and remain convinced that history proved us right to do so. Fundamentally, should there be an election in the near future, what the public have to decide is whether they are satisfied that the old parties can make such changes in their approach to politics that things will improve, or whether they are willing to take a chance on a party that is transparent about its tax increase on those who earn more than £100,000 a year, able to afford free long-term care for the elderly, the abolition of tuition and top-up fees, and the replacement of council tax with a local income tax, and can make those figures add up in a public way.
The great thing about democracy in this country is that people have a choice. The exciting thing about the election is that they can choose between parties that have a differential. They can choose between the two old parties—Conservative and Labour—which look ever more the same, and the Liberal Democrats, who have had the courage to stand apart. I accept that there is Plaid Cymru as well, but it will never form the Government of this country. One cannot pretend that it has ambitions beyond Wales.
As the public will read every word of the debate—as they surely will—I hope that they will make the comparison between what different speakers have said here and recognise that some of us remember that politicians are elected not to rule but to serve. In so doing, we should make not just our constituencies proud, but our public inspired to believe that politicians in this place are here for the right reasons. If they feel that the Liberal Democrats fit that bill, I hope that they vote for us on
I very much welcome this debate and the opportunity to speak in it, especially as it now seems certain to be the final occasion in this Parliament on which we will be able to debate purely Welsh issues.
In the Queen's Speech last November, we were offered two Wales-specific Bills, both enthusiastically welcomed by my hon. Friends from across the country. Alas, election timetables wait for no legislation, however valuable, and it is obvious that at least one of those Bills is going no further in this Session. That means that today's debate is even more important. It gives me the opportunity to call for the reintroduction of both the Transport (Wales) Bill and, if necessary, the Public Service Ombudsman (Wales) Bill, which was debated earlier today, at the earliest opportunity after the general election. I would like to think that that plea will be heeded by those on both Front Benches and supported by hon. Members in all parts of the House.
Unfortunately, the commitment of the Tory party to Wales is in some doubt, bearing it in mind that its final Secretary of State for Wales represented a constituency in North Yorkshire. I hope that I will not embarrass my predecessor in Conwy, who is now in another place, if I suggest that an excellent home-grown choice was available to be Secretary of State, one who would have brought genuine commitment to the needs of Wales.
I take to heart the concern of the Archbishop of Canterbury about not exploiting people's fear in any general election. I think that we can leave such tactics to the Conservatives, who have proved themselves to be past masters at that. Last week in my constituency, a letter was distributed which purported to be signed by Mr. Howard. It claimed that since 1999 violent crime had risen by 96 per cent. in Conwy. The reaction from the chief constable of North Wales to similar claims relating to the Clwyd, West constituency has been well documented in the media over the past few days. Having seen at first hand the excellent work being done by North Wales police in tackling all forms of criminal activity, I can entirely understand why Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom took such offence at that misleading publicity. Although there can be no room whatsoever for complacency, particularly about violent crime, it is worth quoting the chief constable. He said:
"It is well established that crime has been falling for years, both locally and nationally."
Whipping up the fear of crime is one thing; using non-comparable statistics to do so is quite another. Nowhere does the Conservatives' material note the changes of classification of offences which occurred during the time frame used. For example, the number of offences classed as violent crime increased significantly. A violent attack on three people is now counted as three crimes, not one. The figure for recorded crime is now all reported crimes, not just those proven. As the Association of Chief Police Officers commented:
"If we want to increase the fear of crime, then the selective use of statistics can help in doing just that".
I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of North Wales police. As I mentioned earlier, I am particularly proud that the western division of the force, which covers half of my constituency, recently recorded the highest detection figures in the UK and that the other two divisions in North Wales ranked in the top ten.
I certainly have no wish to play down violent crime as a serious issue in Wales. In my constituency, we experience problems related in particular to low-level violent offences and antisocial behaviour. However, significant steps have been taken to solve these problems. The Dyna Ddigon campaign run by North Wales police has made effective use of the extra resources and penalties provided by the Government. Perhaps the most dramatic example of that in my constituency has been the introduction of a dispersal order in the walled town of Conwy. This has helped to stop that world heritage site from becoming a no-go area for local residents owing to night-time antisocial behaviour. I was extremely pleased to have helped obtain an extension of the order and look forward to the community and police working together to achieve a lasting solution to that problem.
The fear of crime of course plays most heavily with pensioners. It is to avoid unnecessarily blighting lives through irrational fear that politicians of all colours must behave responsibly when discussing the issues of crime and disorder. Conwy has one of the highest proportions of retired people of any constituency in the country, so the positive effect of many of the Government's policies towards older people has been more pronounced there than elsewhere. The pension credit, the minimum income guarantee, the winter fuel allowance and free TV licences for those over 75 have made real differences to the lives of many pensioners in my constituency. I know, however, that not only do they, quite rightly in my view, demand more support but that members of a younger generation have begun to worry about their own security in retirement.
In any third-term Administration, I would hope to see a broader picture painted of how the pensions system will be managed in the future, guaranteeing the universality of the state pension alongside the extra help for the poorest pensioners already introduced by the Government. The £200 bonus announced by the Chancellor has been warmly welcomed by my constituents, particularly following this year's rebanding exercise in Wales. I look forward to the permanent guarantee of assistance with council tax bills, which will be required to assist the many pensioners in my constituency who feel penalised by a booming housing market. Any such scheme, however, needs to be targeted to help not only the poorest households but those with modest savings and income, rather than subsidising the most well-off, as suggested by the Conservative party.
I commend the Welsh Assembly Government for their policy of reducing prescription charges. I look forward to the not-too-distant day when free prescriptions will return to all in Wales, leading the way, I hope, for the whole United Kingdom, just as on free bus travel and food in schools. Although the response to Jamie Oliver's crusade has been as strong in Wales as elsewhere, the Assembly Government have already shown themselves to be well aware of the importance of diet to children and their education. Since January, a pilot scheme offering free breakfasts to primary schoolchildren has been running in 48 schools, prior to being rolled out across Wales. The scheme has, where possible, incorporated the local sourcing of ingredients and the provision of a healthy range of choices for children. The provision of breakfasts has been shown to improve children's concentration and educational achievement, as well as having an educational aspect of its own in terms of diet, nutrition and health.
Significant work on children's diet is taking place in my constituency at the school of psychology of the university of Wales, Bangor. Led by Professor Fergus Lowe and Dr. Pauline Horne, a research team has developed a programme to increase children's consumption of fruit and vegetables. This, the "food dude" healthy eating programme, has been trialled in England, Scotland and Ireland, as well as in my own constituency. Studies show that merely presenting fruit and vegetables to children is not sufficient to ensure high consumption. The "food dude" programme, however, has proved very effective in bringing about changes in children's eating habits. Once again, I hope that the Welsh experience can be replicated across the nation.
I had looked forward to a full debate on the Transport (Wales) Bill during this Session.
On a matter related to young people, does the hon. Lady accept that one issue that we face in Wales is the absence of affordable child care, which is causing a significant problem for many families? Does she agree that we need to look at that, because it is probably holding people back from educational opportunities and from returning to economically beneficial work?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I do not recognise the picture that he is painting, and I advise him to check with his Liberal Democrat colleagues in the Assembly and get the true facts about what is going on with child care in Wales. We have a good record and a good story to tell, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is what we will be telling the people of Wales when we get the opportunity following the announcement of the election date. I thank him for giving me the opportunity to say that.
I was going to talk about the Transport (Wales) Bill. Wales faces a unique set of issues relating to its transport system, which I am convinced would be best addressed by the Assembly, as the Bill proposes. Already, the influence of the Assembly Government on the all-Wales rail franchise has been demonstrated by, among other improvements, the increasing number of direct trains between north and south Wales. However, we shall need much greater control over the franchise from Cardiff before we see a rail renaissance of the type currently being enjoyed by Scotland under the auspices of the devolved Government there. Scotland has seen new stations, increased frequencies, new trains and funding for at least three openings or reopenings of entire lines, at a time when dark mutterings are heard in England and Wales about line closures and service withdrawals.
Devolution of powers over rail services would, I believe, produce a service more in tune with the needs of the Welsh people. I was unpleasantly surprised to be informed recently by a constituent that Arriva Trains Wales was not keeping to its franchise and passenger charter commitment to provide a Welsh language telephone information line. Having telephoned the line myself, I found it to be based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The supervisor told me that the ability to provide a Welsh language service was, unsurprisingly, hampered by an inability to recruit Welsh speakers in north-east England. So my Welsh-speaking constituents, who constitute a majority at the western end of the constituency, are denied access to train information in their first language because the company operating the services is unwilling to open a call centre in Wales, where that service could be provided. That cannot be allowed to continue.
I would hope that as well as improving the train services themselves, the Welsh Assembly would pay more attention than the Strategic Rail Authority has to the finer details of the service provided. Unfortunately, the Bill as proposed would not give the Assembly power over long-distance Anglo-Welsh services, such as the Virgin west coast services that link Bangor and Llandudno, in my constituency, to London. As a regular user, and on many occasions a sufferer, of those services, I am in absolute agreement with the demands from my constituents for improvements to the route. In particular, I call for the replacement of the five-car Supervoyager units with something more suitable for the service in terms of capacity, comfort and catering. In that context, I was astonished to find that seven Meridian nine-car units, which are improved versions of the Voyagers, were sitting idle. The trains were originally ordered for Midland Mainline but were prevented from running because the SRA withdrew consent for new London-to-Leeds services. They would be ideally suited to the north Wales route, but having corresponded with the SRA and Virgin Trains, I am left with the impression of two organisations failing to communicate properly with each other and of a blinkered attitude on the part of the SRA towards any use of the trains other than selling them to the Republic of Ireland.
After being told by the SRA that there was no commercial case for new trains for that route, I was all the more surprised to receive a consultation document from its west coast department on the future of services on the London to north Wales route. That made it clear that the SRA was actively considering the purchase of another set of new trains for the service, for delivery in a couple of years' time. Why force north Wales passengers to wait so long for improvements and spend millions on brand new trains when there are sets available for the route now? That lack of joined-up thinking in the rail industry is benefiting no one but the car industry. The economic future of my constituency, along with neighbouring constituencies, depends on that rail service.
I hope not only that the Transport (Wales) Bill will be reintroduced in the next Parliament, but that when it is debated, the Government will listen closely to the arguments for giving the Assembly some influence over long-distance rail services, which are as crucial as the shorter-distance ones.
I said that in my preamble; perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not listening, but if he cares to read Hansard tomorrow he will be able to confirm that.
Over the past eight years, the Government have achieved a lot for the people of Wales, and I believe that they can offer a lot more in the future. The introduction of the child trust fund—my son and daughter-in-law very much welcomed that when their first child was born, and I was very proud, as well as becoming a grandmother for the first time—and further improvements to the tax credit system will be of great benefit to hard-working families in my constituency. The Government will continue the work of moving children and older people out of poverty.
Further investment in getting more police officers on to the streets and tackling antisocial behaviour will continue to help people regain control of our towns and villages. With youth unemployment all but wiped out in my constituency, we need to increase the help available to those on incapacity benefit to return to work. As is the case in so much of Wales, I have many constituents who have suffered industrial injuries and who feel marginalised from economic prosperity. We must step up our work to end that marginalisation, through programmes to help them back to employment or to benefits of a level that allow them to live with dignity.
It is vital that time is found in the next Parliament for legislation that will build on the steps already taken by this Government to make Wales a fairer, safer and more prosperous place.
I hope in the few minutes allowed to refer to themes that are important to me and my party—affordable housing and safer communities. We have already had a discussion about law and order, and I hope later to come on to that. I shall not fan the flames or try to whip up any antipathy, but shall instead speak from the experience that I have gained as a practitioner in law and from what I have seen over the past two or three years in various parts of Wales.
I shall refer first to affordable housing. I am pleased that we are able to discuss it now in a far more mature way than we were able to do before the last election. Indeed, I have gratefully accepted an opportunity to speak with the Under-Secretary of State on Wednesday about a discussion document that we issued in January. It contains various pointers that we hope will inform the argument and may bring about a better climate for young people in particular, and for everyone in general so that everyone can afford a roof above their head.
Ordinary people trying to set up home in Wales are obviously hampered by the huge rise in prices. There is no doubt that the rising cost of private rentals has also made life difficult for many people. Prices have soared. Many first-time buyers, or hopeful first-time buyers, are unable to secure mortgages to buy property. That is a fairly obvious point.What is not quite so obvious is that house prices in Wales rose by 124 per cent. between 1997 and 2004. Significantly, 82 per cent. of that growth occurred between 2001 and 2004. The increase in prices was a modest 1.1 per cent. between 1997 and 1998, which was well within inflation. There was a 5 per cent. rise from 1998 to 1999, which was a warning, and then there were 9 per cent. and 6 per cent. rises. The trend has emerged: Welsh prices have outpaced the UK average. The shortage of affordable housing has spread not only to rural retreats but to city hotspots and to the valleys. Prices have doubled in Pembrokeshire in the past three years.
What can be done about that? I am not professing to have all the answers, but I think that my colleagues and I have come up with a few that might be interesting and worthy of further consideration. I will be giving a copy of our document to the Minister on Wednesday. It was issued for consultation in January, and hitherto the feedback has been fairly positive. We have engaged with many societies and individuals on the issue. Decent housing does not have to be beyond anyone's reach—action by various levels of government could and should make a real difference to the amount and range of affordable housing in Wales, including social housing. By using its budgetary and planning regulatory powers, and working with local authorities, the Assembly could give practical support to community housing initiatives, safeguard communities and help councils to enhance local housing resources.
I shall refer to one or two measures. For example, there is the approach of establishing a community land trust unit within the Assembly. With its own budget line, its functions would include assisting community land trusts with set-up costs and advice, guaranteeing low-cost loans to support community ownership of clusters of homes and/or the purchase of land on which to build them. Local authorities could be allowed to prioritise local housing needs and the authorities could be granted the right in certain circumstances to take a percentage of the enhanced land value as planning gain when developers apply for change of use. Also, and importantly, local authorities could be encouraged to require a percentage of affordable homes in all new developments of more than 10 homes.
That is being done on an ad hoc basis in some council areas. I would like to see it spread as good practice throughout Wales. We would also like to see support for council tenants who wish to buy in the private sector. Crucially, we would like councils to be given the right not to implement the right to buy. We would like more support for the homebuy initiative, and that is really a cry for more money. It is quite a good scheme that is worked through the Welsh Assembly Government. It needs more funding if it is to make a real impact but it is a good start. We want a benchmark for more affordable homes and to identify surplus land owned by public bodies that could be suitable to use for the building of those homes.
We want to stop the decline in social housing. As tenants have exercised their right to buy council homes the stock has shrunk considerably, with local authorities now possessing precious little social housing. One of the obvious answers is to support housing investment by councils. There is little indication at present that that will happen. On the contrary, the Treasury has made it clear that it will not even allow local authorities to set up companies that could borrow for the purpose of investing in housing. The UK Treasury has turned down an Assembly request to allow wholly owned local authority companies in Wales. It has advised the Welsh Minister with responsibilities for social justice and regeneration that despite a good case outlining the benefits and the limited effect on public borrowing of the proposal, it would not be acceptable because it would lead to further pressure on public expenditure limits.
Establishing a public investment trust to raise finance for Welsh housing could circumvent Treasury restrictions. If it were set up, for example, on lines similar to Glas Cymru, the company that owns Welsh water, the trust would probably succeed. I believe that that is a thought worth pursuing.
I will not shy away from the fact that there needs to be a firmer approach to second homes. I have argued long and hard about the issue. It does not matter who buys second homes—whether it is a Welsh speaker from Cardiff or someone from Peking, those homes are empty for most of the year. They contribute to the run-down of local services, of the chapels, of churches, of schools, of shops, of public transport and of the local pub, for example. They are a social problem. Let us not beat about the bush. I would like to ensure—I introduced a Bill on the issue back in 1993—that where there is a substantial number of second homes, the local planning authority should be able to bring in change-of-use criteria, under which someone who wanted to purchase a second home in the area would have to check with the council to ascertain whether the percentage of second homes that it allows in the locality had been reached.
That is not unfair to the prospective purchasers. They would know precisely where they stood. There are linguistically sensitive areas, such as places that my hon. Friend Hywel Williams and I represent, where the percentage of second homes might be quite low. However, even within my constituency at Aberdyfi, there are a huge number already. I am not proposing cutting down on them, but I am saying that for future development we must take into account what is sustainable in any given community. Very often, there is an absence of use of local services, and clearly there will be a deleterious effect upon the Welsh language and culture.
There has been some movement on council tax, but I believe that we must bite the bullet and examine planning restrictions. At the end of the day, the Welsh language belongs to every one of us in this place, and beyond to everybody in Britain. We must protect it, and I have outlined one way of doing so. I think that it is a positive way forward. It will not pull the wool over anyone's eyes if we adopt this approach. Interestingly enough, I spoke with a Cabinet Minister about the proposal before the last election. He shall remain nameless, but he was fully persuaded of the "use clause" idea. Unfortunately, it became a minority opinion in the Cabinet at the time and did not succeed. I honestly believe that it is worth having another look at it.
I have referred to community land trusts. Something like that is happening in my home village of Llanuwchllyn, where a group of youngsters have got together. Rather than just complaining from the sidelines, they are looking for spare land. They are coming close to doing a deal with the local council for that land to be transferred to the trust at nil or nominal value. It is to be hoped that affordable homes will be built on that land, initially to let or as a "part buy" for local youngsters who are unable to get into the housing market.
I shall give the House a snapshot. Some so-called affordable housing was built in Llanuwchllyn. It consisted of nice little starter homes. They were semi-detached with small gardens and they were selling for £168,000. One couple came to me and the young lady was in tears. She has a good teaching job—indeed, both she and her husband-to-be have good jobs as he is a farmer and does some other work as well. However, when their joint income was totalled it was clear that they did not have a snowball's chance in hell of obtaining a mortgage, even at four and a half times their joint salary. They were totally out of it. Even with the homebuy contribution from Cardiff it still would not work.
The issue is critical and, if we are to serve the needs of our constituents, we need to get together to try to come up with some answers. I am sure that that is not beyond us if we pool our skills, lobby at the necessary levels of government and get something going. We cannot sit back and do nothing—that would be to abrogate a serious responsibility to the people of Wales.
I have referred to affordable housing and I shall now move on to safer communities. We hear often that social housing leads to crime—no, social exclusion leads to crime, but also partly social housing—
Yes, I did say it. It was a mistake. The hon. Gentleman never makes a mistake except when he intervenes on me. Who knows, he might make another mistake.
I do not believe that social exclusion has to lead to crime. The equation is not as simple as that. I believe, however, that social exclusion is a factor in the causation of crime, along with the lack of healthy living, a clean environment, good, affordable housing and decent, well-paid jobs. There is great concern about behaviour that disturbs the community, but the problem is perceived to be far worse than it is in reality. In the 2003–04 British crime survey, 42 per cent. of respondents thought that antisocial behaviour had become worse over the previous two years, and only 8 per cent. thought that it had improved. I do not know what barometer those individuals were using, but the perception of crime is always far worse than the reality, and that may also be true of antisocial behaviour. Unfortunately, however, such behaviour has visible results, including vandalism, litter, graffiti and so on, which, in turn, lead to more serious crime. Disturbing antisocial behaviour, whether criminal or not, has a negative effect on the extent to which people feel comfortable in their own community and on their perception of it as a safe place in which to raise their families.
A stable community can be achieved only by taking an holistic approach to improving people's lives. Enforcement deals with today's problems, but prevention and education will take care of the future. We need to get to grips with the causes and consequences of crime alike. Locking people up and throwing away the key seldom makes a positive difference or makes our communities safer in the long-term. As an experienced practitioner in criminal law, I know that young offenders often learn more about crime in prison. There are almost 80,000 people in prison in Britain, which easily makes it the imprisonment capital of Europe. The people of the British isles are clearly not intrinsically worse than anyone else, so we must be getting something wrong.
The best place to tackle crime is in the community itself. Plaid Cymru advocates the extension of community-based penalties, which would require additional, properly funded and experienced probation officers. I know from my own experience that such orders work and make the reoffending rate far lower. I accept that they require resources, but offenders themselves are seen to make a contribution to the community in which they have offended. Greater support for victims and witnesses is an important step in ensuring that people feel safer in their communities, and good work has begun to provide that. Two thirds of property crime that comes before the courts arises from a drugs-related offence, so there is a paramount need for drug addiction to be seen and treated for what it is—an illness. The number of people experimenting with drugs is growing, and although the vast majority will not become drug users, we cannot ignore the social problems that result from drug and alcohol abuse and addiction.
Strong and vibrant communities are the best places in which people with drug and alcohol problems can recover. High-quality rehabilitation programmes are the most effective way of helping problem users to reintegrate into society. Plaid Cymru would like all moneys collected via Crown courts from the confiscation of drugs offence money to be ring-fenced to secure rehabilitation places for people in recovery. It is not a nice thing to discuss, but no one in the Chamber can put his hand on his heart and say that there is not a drugs problem in our communities. We need such facilities in every part of Wales. It is not simply an urban problem; it is just as much a rural problem. We should tackle this huge problem head on and aim to secure better rehabilitation.
I am not claiming that the confiscated money would be enough, but it would be a start. The Government must recognise that adequate funding for rehab is a sound investment in safer communities. They must invest soon in adequate additional rehabilitation places. Plaid Cymru also believes that early education is crucial in helping to prevent problems developing in the first place, so we call for the delivery of an effective drugs education programme in every school in Wales, using trained peripatetic teachers to serve groups of schools.
We all know that alcohol-fuelled behaviour has been increasing alarmingly, harming individuals and society, not to mention police budgets. The Government famously targeted thousands of young people by text message shortly before the last election, advising them to vote Labour if they wanted 24-hour drinking. In the meantime, they produced a strategy to reduce the harm caused by alcohol drinking, which is hardly an example of joined-up thinking. Twenty-four-hour drinking is probably one of the few pledges that new Labour is likely to deliver, with its proposed new licensing laws. Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales, will continue to oppose 24-hour licensing, which places heavy additional burdens on the police, causes further harm to the health of vulnerable people and puts smaller local publicans out of business. Heaven help people who live near licensed premises and have to put up with noisy exchanges all night long.
Yes, but it is akin to the old licensing system for music on licensed premises. Local authorities, rather than the courts, were responsible for such licences. It was not a brilliant system then, and I am not sure that it will be a brilliant system now. I might be wrong, but heaven forbid that I should live next door to a pub with a 24-hour licence. If licensing is carried out sympathetically, fine. In 24 months' time, perhaps we can have this argument again and I might accept that I am wrong. However, at the moment it appears to be a dodgy policy.
I am not being patronising when I say that educating people, especially the young, is an essential tool in dealing with the problem. Responsible behaviour is also required from the companies that profit from alcohol and must be enforced by legislation if necessary. High-alcohol drinks such as alcopops are clearly targeted on the young and are often consumed to excess by under-age drinkers. The Portman Group may say that that is not the case, but any fool can see that the advertising and marketing of drinks are directed at the young. I must watch what I say, but in many cases those products are consumed by under-age drinkers.
If those drinks are sold, they should carry a compulsory warning reminding consumers of the dangers, and they should be subject to far higher duty, thereby making them less accessible to young people and under-age drinkers. In addition, we believe that there should be stricter controls on marketing and advertising. More legal and financial responsibility should be placed on the owners of pubs and clubs, who are making money by transferring their costs to the community and especially the police forces, as we have seen in places such as Wrexham, Swansea and Cardiff.
If the law as it currently stands were strictly enforced, there would be far fewer problems. We all know that it is an offence to serve somebody who is already under the influence of drink. Why are there only one or two prosecutions throughout the UK in any given year?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As a former licence-holder, I knew that my job was on the line if I served people irresponsibly on my premises. On the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. David, we are giving a great deal of responsibility to local authorities. We all need to make sure that our local authorities are using those powers responsibly and adopting an area-wide strategic view of licensing and the application of the existing powers. If that means taking licences away from licence-holders, local authorities should do that now and in the future.
I agree entirely. A consensus is clearly building on the subject, and I am pleased that it is.
Enforcement alone is not enough to free local communities from the threat of antisocial behaviour. I had an exchange earlier with the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, Mr. Jones. He made the point that we are all aware of the problem and the need to deal with it, but that looking at how many antisocial behaviour orders have been applied for is a crude way of assessing the extent of the problem. Last week I spoke with the area divisional commander of the western division, much praised by Mrs. Williams and rightly so, about how the system was working. The force has a five-stage mechanism leading up to an ASBO. It has very few ASBOs in place, but that is a feather in its cap, not a criticism of the force. However, it takes more time, patience, energy and skill to deal with the problems in the first four stages, rather than going straight to court.
I agree with the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. Does he agree that it is important for us to convey them to the public? It is sometimes difficult for the public to understand that the policy is successful in Wales, and that not imposing an ASBO represents a success.
Absolutely. The hon. Lady is right. I understand that the Welsh Affairs Committee has been trying to make that public. The last thing I want to do is to criminalise youngsters, who will probably grow out of the behaviour in a fairly short time. If they can be assisted through the first four stages of the process, well and good. The hon. Lady is right that people do not realise that the fact that ASBOs are not being applied for is a good thing, rather than a bad one. It behoves us all across the spectrum to consider that and to speak candidly with our constituents and explain the position.
Of course we need more community beat officers. I am not always a fan of the North Wales police—not an unqualified fan, anyway—but I must congratulate the force on creating community beat officers throughout the North Wales area and giving them extra salaries to keep them in that work for five years, or whatever the agreed period is. I am very happy with the excellent work that is being done. I speak as one whose father was a police officer who served in Holyhead and Amlwch in Anglesey. My brother is also a serving police officer.
I can see the good sense in community beat officers. It is reckoned that 90 per cent. of all crimes are solved as a result of information passed on by the public. If there is a good link and a good relationship between an officer and the public, the policing becomes better and everybody wins hands down. It is said to be an expensive form of policing, but there must be a read-across to the prevention of crime. I recognise that the nature of modern crime has changed and that rapid response vehicles are needed, but there will always be a role for the traditional bobby, the community beat manager.
Before I conclude, I want to praise Dyfed-Powys police for its initiative of opening up offices throughout the police area, in some places taking the corner of a shop. That is far-sighted of the force, which is enhancing its estate rather than cutting back. There might be just a table and a hot phone, and sometimes civilians manning the point. That is good practice, which I hope will be emulated by others.
I am not suggesting that I have all the answers this evening, but in the spirit of reasonable political discourse I hope that some of the points that I have made will be picked up by other hon. Members and that we might have a further discussion, in particular about the housing issue. I am pleased that I am meeting the Minister on Wednesday.
I should like to take the opportunity of this debate to focus on a local issue in my constituency—one that I believe has lessons certainly for the whole of the city and county of Swansea, of which Gower is part, and for the planning system throughout Wales and perhaps the United Kingdom.
Since the last local government elections, Labour no longer runs Swansea. Fellow fans of the excellent Russell Davies television serial "Mine All Mine" might have the impression that it is now in the charge of Max Vivaldi and its name has been changed to Barbara, but that is not the case, I am afraid. In fact, in charge now is a ragbag mixture of Liberal Democrats, Tories and independents from across the political spectrum. This is a coalition that is so broad and so unprincipled that there is even room in it for people who copy their election literature word for word, picture for picture, from British National party leaflets. So perhaps it is no surprise that it is prepared to renege on its commitments to the communities of Swansea and drive a coach and horses through its own planning policies if someone offers it enough money.
Gorseinon, the small town at the heart of my constituency, was, until a few weeks ago, to be the home of a new state-of-the-art bowling and leisure pavilion, providing facilities for all ages, both local and from farther afield. We were within days of seeing a planning application when the rug was pulled. What happened? Asda and Wal-Mart came along with a big fat wallet and offered the council £11 million to lease the same piece of land for a superstore, and it jumped at it. In doing so, it is not just breaking a promise to Gorseinon and the bowlers of Swansea, and, incidentally, upsetting the tennis players of the region as it now intends to put the bowls facility in the indoor tennis centre at Morfa, it is going against every policy that applies to the site. They are the Lliw valley local plan, the new Swansea unitary development plan, the Gorseinon regeneration strategy and the specific site development brief itself—all the major planning guidance documents that are supposed to inform the council as it decides the way forward for that city. Those polices ruled out large-scale food retailing on the land because the council knew that a superstore would threaten the viability of many of the small shops in the high street and jeopardise the regeneration of the whole town. But now it is prepared to tear those policies up for cash. It is not just selling Gorseinon down the river, it is undermining the integrity of its own planning system.
Between them, Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrisons control over 76 per cent. of the food retailing market in the UK. In 2000, the Competition Commission defined the grocery market as a complex monopoly that works against the long-term interests of the consumer. The National Retail Planning Forum, which is partly funded by the supermarkets, recently studied the changes that have taken place in the areas surrounding 93 new superstores. It found that the stores were responsible for a net loss of 25,685 employees. In other words, every time a large supermarket opened 276 people lost their jobs. It is probably true that sometimes a new supermarket can provide a focus and encourage people to use neighbouring retailers and other facilities when they do their main grocery shopping, but I think that that scenario is rare and I am absolutely certain that it is not the one that we face in Gorseinon.
In 1998, the New Economics Foundation calculated that every £50,000 spent in small local shops creates one job. In supermarkets, £250,000 has to be spent to create extra employment. This is exactly the wrong time to move in this direction. Increasingly, people are finding that they prefer the experience of shopping in a traditional high street to that of supermarket buying.
Gorseinon high street is looking better today than at any time in the last decade or more, partly thanks to a successful and stable economy and partly thanks to a regeneration strategy that was supported by the council. The people of Gorseinon, I am pleased to say, are not taking this lying down. The community council, the chamber of trade, city councillors, the Assembly Member, Edwina Hart, and I as Member of Parliament are working together to stop this happening. We are mounting a campaign to convince people across Swansea that this is a bad decision, not made for good, objective reasons after due consideration and proper consultation, but made in a hurry in response to a very large financial inducement.
That is bad news for every part of the city and county of Swansea, because a promise broken in Gorseinon today can be a commitment reneged on in any part of the county tomorrow. A totally inappropriate development in Gorseinon imposed for money this year can mean future blight for any other community when similar resources are offered in the years ahead. That has to be resisted now.
If the development is allowed to go ahead, it will effectively be a shift in policy from looking to shared resources and opportunities throughout the city and county of Swansea towards centralisation of facilities in a limited number of the locations. The consequences of that approach will impact on communities throughout Swansea. At the same time, we intend to persuade councillors from across the political spectrum, including in the ruling administration, that this is a wrong decision for the future of the council itself. It is a wrong decision that has been made in the wrong way, and it will damage the reputation of the council if the direction is not changed, and not just in the short term.
We are reminding councillors of all parties of their commitments and responsibility in respect of the principles of openness and transparency, community involvement and developing trust through engagement. We have seen precious little of any of that in Gorseinon in recent weeks. If those words are anything more than meaningless jargon, the council should reverse its decision and enter into proper consultation with the community about its future.
In the next Parliament, we need to look at ways in which we can protect communities such as Gorseinon from administrations such as the one in power in this city when they blatantly ignore their own democratically developed planning polices—perhaps through a limited third-party right of appeal. I remember that it was at one time Labour party policy to move away from the presumption in favour of development when a council acting as planning authority went against its own adopted planning policies, particularly in the local plan, which has now been replaced by the unitary development plan in Wales. In those circumstances, members of the community would be able to use the appeal process to challenge a determination of approval. I think that we should take another look at that policy.
We have not yet reached the stage of a planning application for an Asda superstore in Gorseinon. When we do, I hope that good sense and good judgment will prevail and that the proposal will be thrown out. What I can tell this House is that the people of Gorseinon will fight Swansea council's money-grabbing U-turn every inch of the way.
I should like to use the time available to me to look at the provision of public services in Wales, particularly through the medium of Welsh.
It is a responsibility for all of us here to ensure that public services are delivered to our citizens at a proper standard, as a matter of right. That is not the case, however, in respect of the provision of public services through the medium of Welsh, and I would like to develop that argument by looking at the Welsh Language Act 1993 and looking a little bit at its antecedents. I want to look at what I think would be a creative and positive way of addressing this deficiency.
The history of the legal status of the Welsh language is a history of change. It goes back a very long way. To see the very first reference to the Welsh language in legislation, one looks to the Acts of Union of 1532 and 1536, which explicitly banned the use of Welsh by saying that no person who uses
"the Welsh speech or language shall have or enjoy any manner of office or fees" in England, Wales or any of the King's dominions. The Welsh Courts Act 1942 changed that to some extent, allowing translation in courts. The Welsh Language Act 1967—I remember it going through Parliament—established the principle of equal validity, whereby if anything was done in Welsh, it was as if it had been done in English. The Act stated, however, that in the case of any discrepancy between an English and a Welsh text, the English text would prevail. It was not a matter of equality.
The Welsh Language Act 1993 had been campaigned for by a wide range of groups with an interest in Wales. It was, of course, passed by the previous Administration, and it established the principle that English and Welsh should be treated on the basis of equality, which is slightly different from equality itself. My party and, significantly, the then Labour Opposition opposed the 1993 Act, and Mr. Rhodri Morgan himself said that an incoming Labour Government would introduce a proper Welsh language Bill.
The 1993 Act set up the Welsh Language Board, which stated that the Welsh and English languages should be treated on the basis of equality. That statement was qualified by the 1993 Act, which stated that that should happen only where practicable and appropriate—again, qualified equality rather than absolute equality. The 1993 Act was unacceptable to the then Labour Opposition and Mr. Morgan, but it is now defended as the epitome of common sense and good practice.
I have asked about Welsh language provision in the public services on a number of occasions in this House, most recently on
I wrote to the then Minister for Health and Social Services in Cardiff asking about the status of health records written in Welsh and whether such records are acceptable. After a great deal of consideration—the legal department spent three months considering the matter—the Welsh Assembly told me that the receiving body is responsible for translating such records. In that case, the Welsh Assembly decided, outside the 1993 Act, that medical records in Welsh are acceptable and that the receiving body should translate them.
I have pursued the issue for a long time. Many Welsh language schemes are good—some are very good indeed, as far as they go—but they all share this generic problem: they might specify that a public body should correspond with the public through the media of Welsh and English in providing a public service, that public signs inside and outside offices should be in both Welsh and English and, perhaps, that receptionists should be able to give information in Welsh and English, which is all very good, but when one examines the actual service—not the signs, letters or leaflets, but the service itself—it is provided in English only. Many of my constituents would prefer to speak Welsh when communicating with a public body and to receive services through the medium of Welsh. Some of them cannot receive services through the medium of English because of their age or their ability.
The Welsh Language Board has done a great deal of work in promoting the use of Welsh in public services, but it faces becoming part of the Welsh Assembly Government, and it is quite a question whether it will function as effectively in the future. Mr. Rhodri Morgan and the Welsh Assembly Government want to bring the board into the Welsh Assembly Government. How will that be done and is it an opportunity to extend and improve public services through the medium of Welsh?
I recently asked the Secretary of State for Wales whether
"he will bring forward further legislative proposals in relation to the Welsh language."
"I have no plans to do so."
When I asked whether any legislative changes would be required to bring the Welsh Language Board back into the Welsh Assembly Government, however, the Secretary of State replied:
"I have not received any request for legislative proposals in that respect, although the First Minister has said that he will look for an opportunity, should it arise."—[Hansard, 2 March 2005; Vol. 431, c. 943.]
One can thus infer that it is not whether but when we shall have Welsh language legislation and what it will be. With the current legislative congestion, it may take some time, but it is legitimate for us to discuss what the legislation might be and how we can use that opportunity constructively for public services in Welsh for the proportion of the population that wants them.
My aim, like that of many people who have the interests of the Welsh language at heart, is to ensure that people in Wales have as much opportunity to live their lives through the medium of Welsh as through English. That is a laudable aim. That is what equality is about. There is some hope in some areas. I live in Caernarfon where Welsh is the common language of the town, so one can live one's life mainly through the medium of Welsh if one chooses. However, when one tries to access public services one comes up against the block that they are usually available only through the medium of English.
Some years ago, I was a social worker in Pwllheli, for Gwynedd social services department. In that area, there was no language problem; it had been solved. If one came into the social services department and spoke in English, the service was provided in English. If one spoke in Welsh, the service was in Welsh. That bilingual service met the highest standards. The clients of the department were provided with the linguistically appropriate service, there was no language problem. That is also the case in other communities, but their number shrinks every year. Such communities are under threat, so we need to take advantage of any legislative opportunities to address the problem.
Furthermore, about 40 per cent. of Welsh speakers in Wales live outside the core Welsh-speaking areas. In general, they live in the south and the east, in communities where Welsh is not a socially prominent aspect of life, where one can live one's life through the medium of Welsh as long as it is under the hatches. If one tries to access any public service, one comes up against the block that they are available only in English.
Given current demographic trends, it seems that the percentage of Welsh speakers living in the south and east is likely to increase, so there will be more and more pressure to do something about the language problem. It will not be solved informally as it is in the north and the west. That demands a response from the Government; a change in the law. As I have already argued, the history of Welsh language legislation is one of change—from an outright ban to the situation of near equality brought about by the previous Conservative Government.
With the demise of the Welsh Language Board, we may face some losses; for example, the board has done much good work on language planning in a wholly apolitical way, looking first at the best interests of the language. We may face the danger of losing the consensus on the language that has been reached in the Chamber and in other political forums in Wales. We may see some losses in language-related industries, where the board has also done good work; for example, on translation, especially in the north and the west. There are questions about the function of the board in hearing and pursuing complaints. I referred to that in my speech on the Public Service Ombudsman (Wales) Bill earlier this afternoon. I accept that the Government have come up with some answers, but they need to be developed.
The Welsh-speaking population of the south and east is growing, but there is no informal way to ensure that those people will be guaranteed good-quality public services through the medium of Welsh. How are we to respond to that?
My response is rather different from the one that has been the consensus over the past 10 or 15 years, whereby language planning has taken place using language schemes that clearly have not worked properly. What I suggest tonight and what I will pursue over the next few months is what could be termed a rights approach. We must look carefully at the rights of individual citizens to receive appropriate public services through the medium of English or the medium of Welsh, as they choose. Such an approach has been pioneered by other groups in terms of race, gender, disability and, most recently, age.
A rights approach offers a constructive way out of the current situation where services are not being developed. We should put an initial emphasis on developing the services that are most important to users who are in some difficulty, such as people with health problems or care problems and people who are facing the courts or who require Government information directly. To improve public services, people should have positive rights. Why should a child called Siôn have a lesser right to speech therapy through the medium of Welsh than his friend, John, has to speech therapy through the medium of English? That is a hard question to answer, and, indeed, the answer is long, practical and costs money, but finding the answer must start with a change in attitude and some long-term planning.
Other areas that offer themselves most readily to such a rights approach, which is a departure from the most recent way to tackle problems, include the assessment of older people with dementia, dealing with people with mental health problems and people with learning difficulties, the provision of Government information directly to the public over the phone and responses from the emergency services, such as 999 calls, where clear communication is of the utmost importance.
We were lucky enough recently to have the draft Mental Health Bill discussed by a Joint Committee of the House and the other place, and we had the opportunity to meet the Minister and the Welsh Assembly Government. I raised this very issue with Jane Hutt and asked her whether people would have a positive right to be assessed through the medium of Welsh for compulsory admission to hospital if and when the Mental Health Bill was enacted in Wales. Her answer to that fundamental question was a very positive "Certainly", thereby going outside the scope of the Mental Health Act 1983. However, that is a lucky circumstance; we just happened to have mental health legislation on the stocks, and I happened to be in the right place to ask the Minister, who happened to have a positive attitude to the question and answered in a way that I found very acceptable indeed.
If we are to systemise such improvements to public services through the medium of Welsh, we must take legislative action, and I will certainly press for that if I am returned after the next election. I have commissioned some research on the issue. I will circulate it to anyone who is interested, and I am looking for responses that provide a constructive way forward. Apart from the procedures that I have mentioned already, such as health assessments, others offer themselves for consideration. For example, there has been some cross-party support in the House and in the other place for Welsh-speaking juries and for Welsh language provision for children held in custody.
About six weeks ago, I attended a criminal justice conference in Llandudno and heard Professor Rod Morgan, who is the head of the Youth Justice Board, talking about the number children from Wales who are held in custody. There are about 200 every year, 80 of whom are held in Wales and 120 of whom are held in England. Those 120 are held contrary to the guidelines that say that young people should be held within 50 miles of their homes. Welsh-speaking children from my constituency and other constituencies are certainly held in places where no provision is made in Welsh. Professor Morgan was extremely disturbed by that because, as we know, tragically young people who are held in isolation far away from their homes in strange circumstances harm themselves, sometimes even to the extent of killing themselves. He was worried because he said that such provision was probably the major issue facing the Youth Justice Board in Wales. The provision should exist, but it certainly does not, as mental health provision in the medium of Welsh does not.
I recognise immediately that it is now easier to tackle the problem because of the progress that has been made over several years following the Welsh Language Act 1993. In 1995, I surveyed 15 social services departments and probation services in Wales to ask what sort of provision they had. In response to that survey I received one fairly full answer, one partial answer and one reply saying that the body had a sprinkling of Welsh speakers—whatever that means. One reply told me that it would be an
"unwarranted diversion of staff resources" even to look at the matter. I do not think that any local authority or anyone involved in probation would say that today.
We have come a long way since then, but we must recognise that more progress must be made. We have come up against a brick wall. We have the opportunity, perhaps with the change of the status of the language board, to move the matter on. I certainly think that a rights approach would be the way in which to tackle the problem so that we can deliver public services to people who speak Welsh that are of the same standard as those available in English.
I too was going to concentrate on a specific set of initiatives in my constituency and talk about the improvements that have been made on crime, unemployment and several other issues. I was interested by the contributions made by some Opposition Members about the positive work that is going on and the partnership working that is taking place to drive such matters forward.
I have sat through debates in the House over almost four years, but I cannot let the contribution made by Mr. Wiggin go. He described a land that I do not see and a community in which I do not live. I actually live in my community, as opposed to Conservative Members, who talk about us, but often do not come and talk to us. I heard an insult tonight to not only my constituents but my country. It was also an insult both to the people in institutions in my country who are actually trying to build it and to police officers. If Conservative Members bothered to speak to police officers in my community about the way in which they are working in partnership with people from other agencies to improve things, they might have a better view of the world.
Frankly, the hon. Gentleman's comments were an insult to his own party. He does not represent the members of the Conservative party in my constituency to whom I talk. I represent the Conservatives in my constituency far better than Conservative Members, so I really cannot let this go. Conservative Members peddle a view from the outside—not only in the Chamber, because I have heard it elsewhere—but frankly we are fed up with it. Their views are a caricature of the Welsh nation and many of our communities.
An article appeared in the national press several weeks ago about the serious problem of economic inactivity, and my hon. Friend Chris Bryant tried to raise a constructive point earlier about what we are trying to do to deal with that. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, who visited my constituency last week to launch an initiative by the Merthyr Tydfil Institute for the Blind, which not only deals with the blind but is a major provider of opportunities to bring people into work and make the journey from economic inactivity and ill health back to productive employment. Of course, many such people are in that position because of the activities and policies of the Conservative party, which now claims to want to do something about the problem, although it created it in the first place. Good people in my community are trying to do something about the situation.
I do not deny that there are needs in my constituency, that there are problems, that there are issues relating to ill health and economic incapacity, or that we have problems relating to the quality of work. As was pointed out earlier, we need to have higher-order employment activities, so that we do not just have jobs that can be overtaken by low wages in the rest of the world. Those are real issues that warrant a proper debate, not caricatures and sloganising.
What is happening is sustained investment in my community. That is what I am interested in, because it is what I need to solve some of those problems. The history of the valleys is one of episodes. We have had jobs and work, and then they have disappeared. We need sustained economic investment in our communities, and that is what we are beginning to get.
One way that we can address this issue is by using the agencies available to us. As was pointed out earlier, our experience in Wales has been that many things have happened in Cardiff, along the M4 and so on, but we are now beginning to see investment being made elsewhere. As a new Member of Parliament, I joined several of my colleagues and came up with a small amount of money to do some research into where Wales could go. One thing that came out of that research was a "Heads of the Valleys" strategy. In effect, it is the road from England that runs along the whole of the old coalfield of south-east Wales. That initiative has been taken up by the National Assembly for Wales. Good things are happening, and we will start investing across that crescent. Such investment is long overdue.
One of my particular disappointments in my four years in this House—I have several disappointments concerning the conduct of some matters here—has been that initiatives are not seized as quickly as they could be by the Assembly and some of its agencies. We must be honest about that and try to make it work, rather than bleating on, saying that it did not happen and will not happen. If we put the work in, it can happen. I praise what my colleagues in the Welsh Affairs Committee have said in the various reports about how the agencies and institutions could work better together.
In my four years in the House, I have also seen where my community and Wales are in the world. Wales does not operate in isolation—that is the point that the Conservatives are missing. They invite us into a trap. They invite us to consider things individually and not in context. Well, I have been a member of the Defence Committee for a couple of years, and as a member of it I have had the opportunity to visit other parts of the world. I have been to Iraq twice and seen the work that the Welsh military are doing in trying to build that community. I have also been to Afghanistan. People say, "Why are you going to Afghanistan?" I go there because that is where the drugs that end up in the veins of some of my constituents are grown. I want to see how the British military and other institutions are dealing with the problem of drugs being grown in Afghanistan, exported through Turkey and into Kosovo—where we are also engaged in a policing operation—in an effort to stop them being split, bagged, put on the streets and into the veins of my constituents.
That is why there is a link. It is strategically important that we engage in these issues in the world. When one goes to such communities, one finds ordinary people who wish to build a community and get on with their lives. It is interesting to note that the local authority in my area is celebrating its centenary. Of course, there are all sorts of centenary celebrations. We have had the centenary of the formation of the Labour party, and there is a lot of history in the Labour party. I must carry some of the baggage, because Keir Hardie was the first Labour MP. The point is simply that when one visits other parts of the world, one discovers that—albeit that the form of the questions and the way in which they come up are different—the politics remains the same. People are looking for enfranchisement, development and somebody to give them positive help and investment to build their communities.
That is the community that I live in. It is not the community of fat, feckless, gun-toting, drugged-up individuals that the Opposition seemed to describe. It is not that community, but one that has ambition. Frankly, that was the Opposition's description. Apparently we are all an obese bunch of criminals who tote guns and do not want to go to work. That is the vision, that is the insult, of Conservative Members. It is certainly not the community in which I live: I resent the accusations and I will not have it. We are being invited into a trap. We are being invited to look at points of disaffection individually, one at a time, without seeing them in their proper context. The Conservatives are then trying to whip up hysteria and concern over and above what is warranted on each individual issue in order to distort the truth and invite people into the very trap of not seeing the whole of the argument in its proper context.
The people in my community are not so daft, Mr. Deputy Speaker. They have seen it before; they understand it. They know the community and the world in which they live and they do not need any lessons about their problems, as they experience them every day. The difference is that they are prepared to make a constructive contribution and do something about their problems.
It is privilege to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Havard, who has delivered one of his commendably and characteristically robust speeches. Those of us who have been Members of the House slightly longer than him will remember the robust speeches of his predecessor, Ted Rowlands, who also spoke well in this debate for many years.
I heard the sensitive speech of Hywel Williams about the Welsh language. When he gets on a train and goes to south Wales through the Severn tunnel, I wonder whether he is aware that, by the time that he comes out of it, he has already passed Wales's first Welsh-medium primary school, Ysgol y Ffîn, in a little railway village called Sudbrook in the very corner of my constituency.
I would like to commend the speech of my hon. Friend Julie Morgan when she paid tribute to Lord Callaghan. She spoke eloquently about her meeting with him when she was a young Labour party campaigner. I met Lord Callaghan more recently at a soirée, as it used to be called, hosted by the previous Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, in Speaker's House on a lovely evening, to celebrate the songs and music of Ivor Novello. Lord Callaghan was there with his wife, Audrey, and it was a delightful evening.
Four years ago, when we had a similar debate before what we expected would be a general election, we were in the depths of a foot and mouth crisis, which hit my constituency in a devastating way. I will never forget the images of the huge pyres that I saw during the culling of hundreds and hundreds of sheep and cattle in my constituency. There was a devastating feeling throughout the countryside at that time, but I am pleased to say that there has been a significant improvement in the farming community since then. There has been improvement in farm incomes in the livestock sector, notwithstanding the fact that there are still serious problems in the dairy sector, particularly in the price that dairy producers are able to get for their raw milk.
I did hear the speech of Lembit Öpik. I agree with some of his points, and I share his party's concern about the council tax. I want to tell my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that council tax is the issue that crops up on the doorsteps of my constituents. My constituency, in common with all the constituencies in Wales, has undergone the rebanding exercise. It has had a significant effect in my constituency, given the substantial increase in house prices over recent years without any substantial increase in the capacity of my constituents to pay the council tax. I have every sympathy with them. I certainly commend the £200 rebate that the Government have provided, but the fact that it has been necessary is symptomatic of an underlying problem with the council tax system. I applaud the Government's review of that system and hope that something is done about it within a year.
We are in the fourth day of the rebanding exercise that is under way in England, so will my hon. Friend tell the House whether there are any lessons to be learned from the Welsh rebanding exercise, which could help to head off the concerns that he is graphically describing?
My hon. Friend might want to make representations to the Government's review of the council tax system, which is under way.
I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about the optimism in the Welsh economy. That is certainly evident in my constituency, where there has been investment in communities, social investment, investment by the private sector and new infrastructure. Anyone who comes to Monmouth can see the new leisure centre that is being built, the new road that is helping to regenerate the town, and the health and social care facilities that are being developed. There has been investment in the health service with a new community hospital in Chepstow. It is the first new hospital to be opened in this country under this Government. I have seen the new day surgery unit opened at Nevill Hall hospital, and recently I was at the opening of the new CT scanner which will greatly increase the capacity of doctors and nurses to diagnose heart disease, cancer and so on and ensure that patients can be treated quickly and more effectively.
I have been involved in campaigns in recent months that the House should be aware of. One was an environmental campaign. Many hon. Members may see attractive signs saying "Woodland for sale" when they drive around their constituencies and the country. I warn them that that is a scam. Those woodlands are being subdivided and sold off. Hon. Members have identified the problem as it affects agricultural land in England, but there is a problem with the subdivision and sale of woodland and meadow land throughout Wales. It has been a particular problem in my constituency, and those who have campaigned against that subdivision have been pioneers in recognising the capacity and limitations of the planning system through the use of an article 4 directive to restrict subdivision and sale of woodland. That has been a particular problem. The website of the company involved is woodlands.co.uk and shows the threat to many of the beautiful woodlands of Wales.
I represent an area with high standards of education and results. It has schools of great excellence in the public and independent sectors and it is a great privilege to represent them. One of my most serious concerns in recent months has been the threat to a number of small schools in my constituency. I have made representations in support of Darenfelin school, which is a delightful small school in Llanelli hill, Clydach; Llanover school, which is a typical rural school; and Ponthir school in the Torfaen area of my constituency. Of all the school campaigns with which I have been involved, the one that has angered me most is the treatment of Ponthir school by Torfaen borough council.
Ponthir school is the smallest school in Torfaen, but it serves a distinct community two or three miles from other areas of Torfaen. It had a few dismantlable classrooms when it was bursting to capacity a few years ago, so it has been deemed to have an excessive number of surplus places and earmarked for closure. I am very sad at the strategy of Torfaen borough council for that school, which has the best performance results of any school in Torfaen. The director of education acknowledged that it achieved 100 per cent. in the last SATs results, but said that one year's results were not an average. A Wimbledon champion is a Wimbledon champion, and it does not matter that they were not a Wimbledon champion three years ago or that they might not be in future.
If Ponthir is the best performing school at the moment, it deserves to kept open, especially as a private nursery is being built immediately adjacent to it which will have a breakfast club, nursery provision and after-school provision. In these days when we must accept the mixed economy of education as well as the mixed economy of health care, it would be a tragedy beyond all tragedies to build a new nursery with an after-school club next to a school that is being closed so that its pupils could not use those new facilities after school. I attended the public meeting where there was wonderful support from the local community, and I will do everything I can to support those parents who want to keep Ponthir school open.
Finally, I have a few comments about social services. One of the great privileges of being in the House in recent years has been to witness the legislation that the Government have passed on carers. There are 9,000 carers in my constituency, probably no greater a proportion than in any other constituency. The House has passed two important pieces of legislation, the most recent initiated by my hon. Friend Dr. Francis, who has a particular interest in the subject and set up the all-party carers group since introducing the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004. I wish to pay particular credit to all the carers in my constituency, not least a carer whom I mentioned when I spoke on the Second Reading of that Act. Hermione Ford has campaigned vigorously and rigorously for carers for many years. Sadly, the person she cared for recently died, but I sincerely hope that she will continue with her campaigns.
It has been a privilege to contribute to the debate this year. I look forward to representing my constituents here in the House in future debates on Welsh affairs.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Edwards, who works so hard for all his constituents. I am also pleased to speak in this debate so close to an election. It is good to represent Labour at such a time. I am confident that the people of Wales will recognise what Labour has brought to Wales and Cardiff, from both the Westminster Government and the Welsh Assembly.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, Cardiff has become a much more dynamic and prosperous place over the past few years. Cardiff is booming, and I do not apologise for that. If we have a prosperous capital city, it will help to spread prosperity throughout the rest of Wales. It is great to be a Member of Parliament in Cardiff at the moment.
Cardiff has recently been boosted by the opening of the Millennium arts centre in Cardiff bay. Its ticket prices are affordable—one can get one for £5—and it is open and accessible to all the people of Cardiff and Wales. We also celebrate the continued success of the Millennium stadium, and we were all hugely boosted by the winning of the grand slam. I noticed in Cardiff this morning that flags with red dragons are still flying from cars. The victory has produced in Cardiff and throughout Wales a feel-good sensation that we can all celebrate.
The university in Cardiff is also a success. It has recently merged with the medical school in my constituency, and that has brought great benefits to the capital.
Cardiff has a thriving nightlife, but that brings its problems. Policing Cardiff after dark creates major issues and means that community beat officers from areas such as Cardiff, North and the outer suburbs are drawn into the city centre to ensure that law and order are maintained. That is a big problem in a city such as Cardiff, despite the fact that the nightlife brings wealth and people into the city centre. The additional problems mean that the suburbs sometimes suffer. My constituency has the antisocial behaviour problems that other Members have mentioned, but we lose community beat officers to the city centre. That is a major problem. Even if other police are drafted in, they do not know the area as well as the local police force, and that causes difficulties.
My constituents have benefited from many of the facilities that have been introduced since 1997. They benefit from the free access to museums introduced by the Assembly Government in Wales and from the access to museums in England that was introduced by the Government in Westminster. I am sure that many Members will have seen people flooding to St. Fagans, with the queues almost up to the M4. The museum is hugely successful and provides a free day out for all the family. The same is true of the national museum in Cathays park, with its wonderful impressionist galleries. They have all been opened to the people of Wales, and I believe that I am allowed to have my view on this issue, despite the rather old–fashioned approach to women's views of Lembit Öpik.
Wales is benefiting from the Chancellor's steady hand on the tiller. My constituents appreciate the benefits of free bus travel for all pensioners in Wales that was introduced in the last term of the Welsh Assembly. I am very pleased that England is doing the same for off-peak travel. I hope that the English Minister who introduces the policy will consult my Assembly colleague, Sue Essex, who is also the Assembly Member for Cardiff, North. She made a phenomenal success of free bus travel in Wales. I have met pensioners in my constituency who say that it has transformed their lives. As so many pensioners use the bus service, more services are being put on because they have become so popular. That is one of the single acts by the Assembly Government that has transformed people's lives in terms of health, wealth and well-being. I am pleased that it is happening in England as well.
Prescription charges have gone down another £1 in Wales and eventually we will have free prescriptions, which is a tremendously positive move. Children whose parents so wish now benefit from free breakfasts in the pilot scheme areas. Obviously, an awful lot more needs to be done. We must continue to improve our public services and to tackle the pay gap between women and men. Although it is smaller in Wales than in the rest of the UK, it is important and directly affects poverty in Wales. However, since 1997 we have succeeded in making solid progress, on the basis of which we can move on.
Local issues greatly concern my constituents, of course. One of the major issues in Cardiff, North is Western Power Distribution's development plan for the Llanishen and Lisvane reservoirs. It plans to build 300 houses and to concrete over part of the reservoirs. That is almost universally opposed by local residents and local politicians of all parties. I pay tribute to RAG—the Reservoir Action Group—chaired by Ted Thurgood, which has led a brilliant campaign in organising opposition to the development.
The root of the problem goes back to the privatisation of the water industry, which resulted in the water industry's assets being sold off. I am opposed to the development not only because of the loss of the amenity to the residents of Cardiff as a whole, but because it is a short-sighted policy. How do we know, in these days of global warming, that we will not need the extra reservoirs? In fact, they were used very recently to supply the Celsa steel works in Cardiff.
I am calling for a country park to be created in that part of Cardiff. The sailing school operates on the Llanishen reservoir, although the developers have put up an ugly grey spiky fence all around it. The sailing centre has produced world champions, such as Hannah Mills and David Evans, but the proposed development would largely drain the reservoir and severely restrict the sailing centre's activities. The development is opposed by the Welsh Yatching Association and the Sports Council for Wales. I have also drawn the proposal to the attention of Ellen MacArthur, the round-the-world sportswoman, who sent good wishes to the young people training at the centre. The 300 planned houses are bound to have an impact on the neighbouring Lisvane reservoir, which is a site of special scientific interest.
I met the managing director of Western Power Distribution in Bristol to persuade him to think of the greater good of Cardiff, rather than maximising profits from the sale of the land. I am pleased about the amount of work that Western Power Distribution does in Wales, but I appeal to it to take into account the feelings of people in Cardiff. The issue has attracted a tremendous amount of support from people from all parts of the community.
On Friday, I was pleased to present a picture of the young sailors of the centre, signed by Ellen MacArthur, wishing them good luck with their sailing. Surely we should be building on and encouraging that sort of activity, rather than restricting it in the way proposed by the plans by reducing the amount of water in the reservoirs. I appeal to Western Power Distribution to think again. The land was in public ownership for many years, and the local people think that it is their land. They have walked their dogs on it and jogged around the reservoirs. It has been part of their life in Cardiff, North. The land needs to be opened up and made available to even more people.
I urge Western Power Distribution to withdraw its planning application, get into discussions with the city council and find a way to benefit the people of Cardiff.
It is a great pleasure to be back at the Dispatch Box. It is after only a short interval, but it is wonderful to be back, and for a St. David's day debate as well. It is not quite St. David's day, and I know that much has been made of whether it is closer to St. George's day or St. Patrick's day. We know that it is nearest to April Fools' day; I am not sure what that says about any of us.
I want to pay tribute to at least three Members who I know are about to stand down if the general election is about to happen. One is Denzil Davies, who normally takes part in these debates. He makes lucid, superb contributions, particularly on the economy, and the House will miss him. We will also miss Donald Anderson, particularly for his insight into foreign affairs. He has been a tremendous Chairman of that Select Committee. I grew up in Swansea and followed his career with great interest. Mr. Griffiths, who is sitting in his usual place, has made continual contributions to these debates over the years, particularly on the health service. We will miss him too, and we wish him well in whatever he decides to do in what I am sure will be a busy retirement.
I should like to associate myself with the words of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition about the sad death of Lord Callaghan. He was a superb man, as we can see from all the tributes that were paid to him earlier. The Father of the House, in particular, spoke warmly of Jim Callaghan's character. We will certainly miss him, too.
If the general election is coming—clearly the Leader of the House will not comment on that now—we must pay particular attention to the comments of the judge in the investigation into the rigging of postal votes. He said that the electoral fraud in Birmingham
"would disgrace a banana republic".
He went on to say:
"The fact is that there are no systems to deal realistically with fraud and there never have been. Until there are, fraud will continue unabated."
The general election is coming in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom, and I hope that the Leader of the House will at least be able to address some of the points made in that important case.
Turning to the subject matter of today's debate, I hope to touch on as many of the issues raised as possible, but I have agreed to speak for only about 10 minutes so that the Minister will have more than ample time to—[Interruption.] To apologise, indeed, and to answer many of the points that have been made.
Council tax has been mentioned time and again. Nobody can be happy about the current levels or, indeed, about the revaluation that has taken place in Wales. Mr. Edwards said that it is the question that is coming up on the doorstep time after time. Knowing the houses in Monmouth that I do, I can only imagine how disheartened people are by the council tax bills that they now receive. A gentleman from Sketty in Swansea wrote to me:
"Since my last letter I have received my council tax for 2005, and because they have rebanded, my tax has risen from £872.20 in band D to £1102.32 in band E. So my pension increase for this year is £4.30, and will disappear when my council tax is implemented."
That is the sort of situation that people face up and down the country. They have seen their council tax increase eating away at any pension increase they have had. Clearly that is something that must be tackled. I do not think that the answer is a local income tax, and I shall come to that in a moment, but we need to address the issue properly. Given the increases that we have seen, the £200 that the Government are offering senior citizens simply is not enough, particularly as it is for only one year. Something far more radical is needed.
I have looked at today's edition of the South Wales Evening Post, not my normal reading matter. Of course, when I ran a shop in Swansea, I used to sell that newspaper. We have been talking about the national health service, and the front page of the newspaper says:
"Queues have been forming in the rain outside a Swansea dentist—to sign up for private places. The dental crisis rocking the city was brought into sharp focus when would-be patients stood in the pouring rain to grab one of 300 Denplan places available at Quentin Jones surgery in Walter Road."
One of the people waiting said:
"As a socialist and trade unionist the concept of private dental care isn't one I feel comfortable with . . . But as my teeth aren't in the best of condition, and as I have an 82-year-old mother who needs to have treatment available to her, I felt I had no choice.
The amazing thing was that the people in the line were so placid and accepting, me included, as I was desperate."
The article said:
"Practice Manager Jackie Hall said it was not a decision they had taken lightly , but a lack of NHS investment had forced them to start down the private road."
The hon. Gentleman can say that, but the Government have been in power for eight years, so it is about time for them to have done something about it. We were told at the 1997 general election that we had only 24 hours to save the national health service, but this is testament to what is happening now. The hon. Member for Monmouth spoke a year or so ago about the problems of finding an NHS dentist for his own constituency. It is a real problem.
Absolutely, but I can only imagine the queue that formed outside that dental practice. People will have travelled for miles to try to get on to that NHS list. We all know that there are huge deficiencies.
Let us stay with Monmouth for a second, and with the national health service. A lot has been said about statistics, but statistics hide the human tragedies of individual cases. The front page of the Monmouthshire Beacon on
"A Monmouth couple say they are being forced to sell their home in order to pay for a hip operation which the NHS would not have performed for years."
Alan Scott, whose house is up for sale, has gone private, paying £9,000 for an operation, because he was going to have to wait so long, in pain. This is not a person who had taken out private health care. This is a man who was in pain and whom the national health service let down. That is a tragic story. We can all bandy figures around, but that is something that has actually happened in the national health service in Wales. We can talk about waiting lists being this and waiting lists being that, but the reality for people who are waiting in pain for operations is that they know they are not getting the service they are paying for, the service they want, and the service that the doctors and nurses who work in the NHS want to give them. That has to be radically altered. Not so long ago, I read in the Western Mail that the Secretary of State had had urgent talks with the Health Secretary about the crisis in the NHS in Wales, particularly compared with the position in England. Clearly, something needs to be done.
I shall not be able to consider all the issues discussed by everybody today because I have only a few more minutes. However, over the past few years manufacturing jobs have been in decline throughout the country and particularly in Wales, which has been proportionately more dependent on those jobs. I have spoken many times to the Secretary of State about the climate change levy, which needs to be looked at seriously. It is having an impact on manufacturing jobs in Wales, and if anything can be done to shore up those jobs and ensure that manufacturing has a bright future, it should be.
We cannot put all our eggs in one basket, as has happened with call centres. We want higher-quality, value-added jobs, too, and we also need manufacturing jobs in Wales, which has depended on them in the past.
I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. The sheer number of its reports is testament to the Committee's hard work over the past 12 months, and I wish the Committee well for the future in dealing with all the other subjects that need to be addressed. I hope that after the election, irrespective of who is in government, we will keep the Select Committee going, and the Welsh Grand Committee, too. I hope that we will even keep the position of Secretary of State for Wales, in order to ensure that the issues are properly dealt with.
It is said time and again that there have been drops in unemployment, but there is also the concept of NEET—people not in employment, education or training and who do not show up in the statistics. We have to look at economic activity in each constituency in Wales. I heard what some Plaid Cymru Members have said about the rural areas where depravity is more—
No, I cannot take an intervention. I meant the paucity of being able to get investment in jobs into some of the far-flung areas. I could say that in the case of depravity, those areas could not be represented by a finer Member of Parliament, but I shall not.
We need to ensure that all areas of Wales are able to access the opportunities for investment in jobs, whether in the manufacturing or service sector. We must ensure that everybody is able to take advantage of that.
I shall say something about the Liberal Democrats. Some people say, "What about them?" I say to them, "What about the Liberal Democrats?" We have heard the usual story today. They say, "We want to scrap the council tax," but they say hardly anything about the income tax that will replace it, which will damage people, particularly families with two workers. They then say, "We want to scrap tuition fees," but they say nothing about the graduate tax that will kick in, which will mean that people will pay for the education that they get. They say that they will scrap one tax, but they would introduce another.
People in Wales must wake up to the fact that there is nothing for nothing in society, particularly with the Liberal Democrats. We get what we pay for, and with the Liberal Democrats people would pay considerably more.
Let me end by saying—
No, I must end now.
The general election will soon be here. We will all be going out to the hustings, probably within a couple of days. We hear the Labour party talking about going forward and not back. What does it do? It goes back to Campbell and to Mandelson, to get them back into the team for the general election. I think, and I believe that the people of Wales believe, that the time for spin is over. People know that their lives have not improved, that the public services have not improved and that they are paying higher taxes through the roof, whether stealth taxes or national insurance.
I believe that the people are thinking what we're thinking: "Bring on the election, Prime Minister. It is time for a change."
We have a proud Welsh tradition of story telling, and it has certainly been in evidence today. We have heard some amazing stories and quite a few myths and fables during the debate.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in opening the debate, paid tribute to Lord Jim Callaghan, whose story was a lifetime of service to the people of Britain. It was a story of hope that started with the great reforming Government of Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan. Jim Callaghan's story included the nightmare of Thatcherism and the war that the Conservative party waged on working communities in Wales. I believe that Lord Callaghan would be deeply proud to hear the debate today and its story of Wales under a Labour Government, where opportunity extends to the many and not the few and families raise their children in hope and not in poverty and despair.
The story of Wales today is one of unprecedented prosperity and economic success never seen before. It is a Labour story. The Government, working in partnership with the Assembly, have provided the stability and the incentives that businesses in Wales need to grow. Under Labour, our companies have picked themselves up from the battering of the Tory years and Wales is now able to compete with the best in the world. We will never compete on low wages and unskilled sweat-shop labour, but we have changed and adapted and acquired new skills and abilities. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said recently, there is no escape from change and no comfort in standing still. In our new Welsh economy there will be no complacency, no inflexibility, no resistance to change, no outmoded ways of working and no restrictive practices. Let businesses and workers in Wales remember that this Labour Government are prepared to take on any vested interest and to make any change that will take us forward in our aim of making Wales one of the most adaptable, skilled and enterprising economies on the planet. In doing that we come closer to our vision—to our goal—of full employment.
The economy of Wales is doing increasingly well. There are better-paid workers, increasing skills, increasing investment, increasing growth and increasing prosperity. This year, the minimum wage will rise to more than £5 for the first time, benefiting more than 80,000 workers, two thirds of them women. It is the story of a well-run and exciting economy. It is matched by the story of an economy increasingly run with families and children not around the edges, but at its core. Under Labour, we have a Government who show mothers and fathers that we are listening to them and that we understand the challenges that they face as they juggle their business and work lives with their need to be home with their children and with child care and school provision.
Just as we believe in a better deal for families, we believe in a decent income and dignity for pensioners in their old age. We are matching our commitment with actions with the winter fuel allowance and extra payments now to help offset council tax increases. Thousands of pensioners in Wales have seen their guaranteed income rise by 50 per cent. since Labour came to power and ended the shameful Tory degradation of pensioners who were forced to live on £69 a week. It is not just the pensioners of today whose retirement has been protected by the Labour Government. Through the Pension Protection Fund and the retrospective financial assistance scheme, the Government are giving hope to workers at Allied Steel and Wire and Abingdon Carpets in my constituency, as well as thousands of others who have been robbed of their pensions by callous and irresponsible employers.
Wales today is a story of hope, opportunity and prosperity delivered by the Labour Government, but some of the stories that we have heard have been bizarre and ridiculous. If I were generous, I would say that Mr. Wiggin entertained us, as he always does, doing his best in the absence of any Tory MPs with Welsh constituencies. It is just as well that he is getting in the practice, because if we have our way there will not be any Tory MPs in Wales after the next general election either. In all seriousness, however, as we approach the election there is a temptation to over-egg the pudding and exaggerate a little, but the hon. Gentleman's remarks on crime whipped up the fear of crime and were an inexcusably shameful performance. Are there no depths to which the Opposition will not plunge for a cheap headline?
When the Leader of the Opposition was Home Secretary, recorded violent crime rose by 19 per cent. and there was a 166 per cent. increase in overall recorded violent crime. Under the Tory Government, convictions fell by a third. The British crime survey shows that there has been a fall in violent crime of 26 per cent. since 1997 in England and Wales. Yes, there has been a rise in violent crime of 7 per cent. now, but that reflects continuing efforts to improve the recording process, as pointed out by my hon. Friend Paul Flynn. The plain fact is that since 1997, crime in England and Wales has fallen by 30 per cent., burglary is down by 42 per cent., and vehicle thefts are down by 40 per cent.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned the North Wales police. The posters and advertising by the Conservative party are shameful and have been condemned by the chief constable and other senior police officers as a disgrace. Under this Government, there are more than 850 extra police officers in Wales because we believe in providing that investment. The Conservative party, however, is not committed to that aim.
The hon. Member for Leominster went on to refer to the national health service. I remind him that his hon. Friend Dr. Fox said:
"We've got a problem in this country where the NHS and healthcare has been synonymous. We're here to break that."
The Leader of the Opposition said that the NHS was a "Stalinist creation". The Tories do not have any credibility on the issue of tackling MRSA. In government, they forced compulsory competitive tendering for cleaning contracts on to hospitals. The cheapest provider got to do the job. The Tories ran down hospitals and under-investment led to the problem that we face.
The plain fact is that £4.3 billion is now being spent on the health service in Wales. The budget for new buildings and hospital equipment has risen by £107 million. There are 350 more whole-time-equivalent consultants and 5,000 more qualified nurses in Wales. By 2010, the Assembly plans 700 more consultants and GPs, 6,000 more nurses and 2,000 other health professionals. We are putting right 18 years of under-investment, when the Tories closed 70 hospitals and cut training for nurses and midwives. The Labour Government will deliver improvements to the national health service.
The hon. Member for Leominster said that GCSE attainments were not as good as they were three years ago, and cited the Assembly targets. However, in August 2004 we had the best ever GCSE results in Wales, and the percentage of passes increased considerably. We are therefore making an important contribution.
My hon. Friend Mr. Jones referred to the excellent work done by the Welsh Affairs Committee, which he chairs, and the reports that it has produced. He sought reassurance about the future of structural funds in Wales, and I can tell him that the Government believe that regional aid, including investment aid for large companies, remains an important tool in helping to raise economic performance in underperforming areas. The Government support the European Commission's underlying aims of less but better targeted state aid. At the same time, we consider that the state aid regime needs to be flexible, and member states must be able to tackle underperformance where it arises.
Like children at a pick-'n'-mix sweet stall, the Liberal Democrats produced their usual bag of delights in the debate today. We expect nothing less from a party of opportunists who say one thing in Wales and do another when they vote in the Lobby in the House of Commons. All their ideas are hastily put together, and none are costed. I noticed that they were rather quiet about their party's support for yobs, rather than for victims. They will have a job in the coming general election explaining to the people of Wales their plans to leave teenage criminals on our streets and give murderers a vote. That is the policy of the Liberal Democrats.
Lembit Öpik spoke about the importance of the aerospace industry in Wales and about improved air links. I can tell him that the National Assembly supports intra- Wales air services and is looking to improve that as part of its Wales transport strategy. The Transport (Wales) Bill mentioned by my hon. Friend Mrs. Williams would allow the Assembly to arrange such public transport services, where they would not otherwise be provided.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire spoke about manufacturing, as did other hon. Members. Manufacturing remains subject to intense global pressures, but it still has a strong base in Wales with world-class companies like Airbus, Sharp, Sony, Ford, Cogent, Logica and DeepStream Technologies. Manufacturing continues to make a significant improvement in the Welsh economy, accounts for 21 per cent. of GVA and employs 70 per cent. of the work force in Wales.
Welsh exports are up 7.3 per cent. on the previous year. Confidence and activity have been backed by recent business surveys. February saw the 23rd successive month of growth and new business activity in Wales. That is because the Labour Government have put a strong and sound economy at the heart of all we are doing. Atraverda, a battery manufacturer at Abertillery, has created an extra 40 jobs. TTems, a Rogerstone electronics manufacturing company, has secured a £6 million contract to supply underwater sensors to the Ministry of Defence. BSW Timber in mid-Wales has invested £15 million in a sawmill, safeguarding 100 jobs and creating a further 24.
The hon. Gentleman teased us a little and spoke about the value of the Liberal Democrats when they were in partnership with Labour in the coalition in the Assembly. He went on to criticise the revaluation, and did so again a moment ago in an interjection. Again, the Liberal Democrats say one thing and do another. As part of the Administration in Cardiff, in the Cabinet, they supported the idea of revaluation in Wales. They must be straight with people. That is not what they said in the Chamber tonight.
First, is the Minister denying that the Liberal Democrats in government argued in favour of local income tax, but failed to get the support of Labour Ministers for that? Secondly, is he denying that the partnership agreed a method of revaluation which was subsequently junked by Labour, and that what was implemented was nothing like what had been agreed with the Liberal Democrats?
Not at all.
The hon. Gentleman speaks about his party's policy on the local council tax. Let us look at the figures that the Liberals have put together in their own report. I hope the people of Cardiff bear this in mind. Under the Liberal Democrat council leadership of Cardiff city council, the average band D payer would have to pay an extra £42 a month as a result of their proposals for a local council tax. When one asks the people of Cardiff in all the Cardiff constituencies—Cardiff, North; Cardiff, West; Cardiff, Central; and Cardiff, South and Penarth—"Do you want Rodney Berman and the Liberal Democrats in city hall deciding the level of your local tax?", they certainly do not.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire then had a little slap at both the Conservatives and the Labour party, calling us the two old parties. The Liberal Democrats have had more reincarnations than Dr. Who.
That is my understanding.
My hon. Friend the Member for Conwy spoke about the reaction of the police to the Tory scares about crime in Wales. She praised the work of the North Wales police service, and she is right to do so. It is doing an excellent job. It has 232 extra officers since Labour came to office, an increase of 17 per cent.
Mr. Llwyd spoke about affordable housing and referred to the fact that he and I are to meet later this week, and I look forward to the paper that he will present to us. But the Government have taken a number of steps to try to help to overcome some of the difficulties that he raises. In Wales, 68 per cent. of all transactions will be exempt from stamp duty, and as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor recently announced in his Budget, first-time buyers will be helped by the doubling of the stamp duty threshold to £120,000.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the issue of second homes, and I have no doubt that that does impinge on linguistic issues. In Wales, about 1.3 per cent. of houses are second homes, but I appreciate that in his constituency that figure could be much higher. His comments about crime were measured and helpful, and I took on board his comments about social exclusion and drugs and alcohol problems. As a Back Bencher, I remember having an Adjournment debate about alcohol misuse, and at that time a company was doing market research on alcohol-based milk shakes. If they were not targeted at young people, I do not know who they were targeted at. I regret that the hon. Gentleman was somewhat dismissive of the powers to be given to local councils to decide licensing hours, because that will be a major contribution.
My hon. Friend Mr. Caton gave us quite an insight into the ragbag bunch led by the Liberal Democrats who run his council in Swansea. I hope that in the weeks ahead he continues to expose the shameful fraud that they have perpetrated on the electors of Swansea, and the sooner they are kicked out the better.
I am sorry, but I am pressed for time.
Hywel Williams spoke about the importance of the Welsh language legislation and its impact on Welsh public services. The Government are committed to the principle of treating Welsh and English on the basis of equality in the delivery of public services, although he is right to point out that there are difficulties in that respect. I am sure that he is aware that the former chairman of the Welsh Language Board, Rhodri Williams, said that it had not supported calls for new Welsh language legislation, and he believes that persuasion is the way to equip and prepare people to handle queries in the Welsh language.
My hon. Friend Mr. Havard spoke with a passion about the true state of Wales, not the myths and the picture that was painted by the official Opposition spokesman of a Wales that I did not recognise, a Wales that I do not live in. Of course, he does not live there either, and that is why he does not know the real state of things in Wales.
My hon. Friend Mr. Edwards spoke about the improvement in the farming community in his area, whose interests he represents so well. It is a major employer and forms a major part of the economy in his constituency. He also covered a range of other measures that the Government are taking to help to improve the lot of his constituents.
My hon. Friend Julie Morgan talked about the booming city of Cardiff. It is a great and wonderful city and we are proud that it is our capital city.
Then we had Mr. Evans. I have two words for the hon. Gentleman: welcome back. He has not changed, but in contrast to the hon. Member for Leominster he had a much more sensible approach to the debate, although we would not agree with some of what he said. However, he certainly did not paint the exaggerated picture of our Wales that his hon. Friend did.
Throughout Wales's industrial history, working people have had their lives shortened because of poverty grinding down and crushing their spirit. We have come far because Labour Governments have done much to raise families up from poverty and disease. I am deeply proud of this Labour Government's historic commitment to halve child poverty by 2010 and to end it within a generation. The great socialist James Maxton said:
"Poverty is man made therefore open to change".
That is the view of this Labour Government. Because of what we have done, that depth of poverty is now the exception and not the rule.
Unemployment in Wales is now less than 60,000, from a Tory high of over 150,000, and that teaches us that Wales faces a choice. The great Labour Welshman, Nye Bevan, saw unemployment as the acid that eats into the homes of the poor. The choice as we face a general election will be simple. The choice is between a Conservative party whose leader called the minimum wage absurd, and a Labour party that believes in a decent wage for a decent day's work. The choice is between a Conservative party that would charge for delivering the health service and a Labour Government who will ensure that the health service is free at the point of need. The choice is between a Labour party that will deliver for the people of Wales and a Tory party that will take us back and destroy Wales. I know that when the election comes the people of Wales will choose Labour.