Welsh Affairs

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 3:10 pm on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales) 3:10 pm, 26th February 2009

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and pay tribute to his work trying to defend the office in Haverfordwest. He makes a valid point. I am amazed at the lack of thought behind the closures, not least in the present climate. All our calls for a moratorium on the closures have been ignored by the Government.

Mrs. Gillan mentioned broadband. Of course, the answer to HMRC's problem is now broadband, but she mentioned the problems of "not spots". Again, I pay tribute to the National Assembly for its work. There are six pilot schemes across Wales, one of which is Cilcennin in my constituency, which will now get some assistance after a long campaign for broadband, but we have a long way to go. All that, in my consituents' context, is taking place in an area that is deemed to need convergence funding for good reason: it is an area of significant social and economic deprivation, as recognised by the National Assembly's communities first programme.

Let me touch on another rural business—the family farm—and the anxiety that is being expressed, certainly among the farmers in my constituency, about the introduction of the compulsory electronic identification of sheep. Again, I will pay tribute where tribute is due: the Government have had some success in delaying the introduction of that scheme. None the less, EID is looming fast, and there is real anxiety in the countryside. It has been estimated—it is a low estimate—that 18 per cent. of farm income will be lost to the introduction of EID. I remind the House that farm incomes stood at £3,000 in less favoured areas—indeed, in most of Wales—in 2006-07. That was 63 per cent. down on the previous year, while income on lowland farms was down by 24 per cent. at £8,500.

I am sure that other colleagues have written to the European Commissioner who is responsible for EID. I was extremely disappointed by her response, which seems to go along the lines not of justifying the system, but of saying that we must proceed just because some countries have started their introduction of the scheme, despite the proven facts that, geographically and climatically, the problems that we have in Wales make the system completely inappropriate. It seems extraordinary that the Commission is not prepared to alter the policy. It may have looked good on paper and ticked various boxes in Brussels, but it has been shown to face significant problems on the ground that will, at best, render it useless and, at worst, seriously undermine the continued viability of small family farms.

The Government have lobbied on the issue. I pay tribute to Elin Jones—we share a constituency—for working hard on the issue in the National Assembly, but I urge the Government to continue to push for a derogation and a non-compulsory model. I initiated a Westminster Hall debate on the subject, when there was remarkable unanimity between representatives of my party and other hon. Members. The hon. Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) were all there. We all argued the same way and sang very much the same tune, yet the scheme is proceeding.

Of course, the background for today—the sad reality—is the continued funding crisis, whether from banks to small businesses or family farms, or now because of the spectre of a £500 million cut in the National Assembly's budget, made worse by the Barnett formula in all its manifestations. I reflect again on my constituency and I look at the tight local government funding settlement in a county where 40 per cent. of the work force are employed in the public sector. Some people have asserted that those public sector jobs would buffer us from the challenges of the recession, but as I look at NHS schemes, I am less certain that they will proceed. As we mark St. David's day, I look even at a great, iconic institution, the National Library of Wales, which has had a marvellous success with the open-doors policy that has attracted tourists and academics alike to Aberystwyth and the county of Ceredigion. Because of cuts in its funding, the doors of that august institution will be locked on Saturdays. The Minister has visited the National Library of Wales and has seen some of the excellent work that is being undertaken there, and he will be aware of that dispute.

HMRC could now alter its interpretation of the rules for claiming back VAT, which will cost the National Assembly £500,000. Adam Price has been involved in that issue as well. Cuts in our budget are in prospect, and that will, no doubt, have implications for service delivery.

Members may be pleased to hear that I am now turning to my final point; they can rest assured that my hon. Friend Mr. Williams will be back on the Front Bench, rather than being a boisterous Back Bencher. On what is nearly its 10th anniversary, I should like to say a little about devolution.

After nearly 10 years of the Assembly, this debate is as good a time as any to be positive about the contribution made by devolution—although I hesitate as I look towards the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. Some of us have been frustrated by the operation of the Government of Wales Act 1998. Hywel Williams, who is not here this afternoon, talked about the 27 hoops and hurdles that have to be gone through and jumped over before measures can see the light of day in Cardiff. However, legislative competence orders represent progress. Some of us devolutionists passionately believe that anything that can lead to the legitimate transfer of power from this place back to Cardiff should be welcomed. I look forward to the referendum, when the time is right, and I for one am glad that Sir Emyr Jones Parry will not be heading off to Bosnia but concentrating on the work at hand back in Wales. We wait to see what the all-Wales convention will produce when it reports at the end of this year.

While we have the system, we need to make it work. We have talked about the Welsh language legislative competence order. There are those here who stridently oppose the order—although, since David T.C. Davies left his place, there have not been as many as there were. I agree with what Front Benchers said about the need for the widest debate, and we have moved on from any assertion that this place should have a monopoly on the debate through the Select Committee. Of course we need the widest discussion, but my party cannot accept that it is not the place of Assembly Members to make the ultimate decision on the mechanics of the measure that they wish to put before us. We are clear on that. The role of the Select Committee is clear. There is a debate to be had about the effects of the LCO on small businesses, and there will be comment from this place. However, the ultimate legitimacy rests elsewhere and the ultimate decision should be made in Cardiff.

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