Welsh Affairs

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 4:41 pm on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North 4:41 pm, 26th February 2009

It is great that we are holding this debate, celebrating St. David's day three days early. When I was preparing for the debate, I learned that St. David is sometimes called the patron saint of vegetarians, which was news to me. He was a committed ascetic and beer was banned in his monasteries.

I wondered how those interesting points related to modern-day Wales. The Secretary of State mentioned the historic task of the Welsh rugby team tomorrow evening in France. If the team is successful, I do not know what St. David would think about the celebrations, but I certainly think that we all wish the team every success tomorrow evening in France.

We are going through a difficult time economically in Wales and throughout the UK. As has already been said, it is important to tackle the economic difficulties at all levels—internationally, nationally, in Wales and locally. I am pleased that the Prime Minister is going to the United States next week to speak to both Houses of Congress, to hear at first hand the details of President Obama's plans and to see how we can work together internationally to tackle the crisis.

There are long-term and short-term things we can do to help the economy in Wales. Transport links should be improved, and I am pleased that the Government are planning such improvements, in particular the rail links to Heathrow and the electrification of the railway line from London to Wales. On Tuesday, I was pleased to meet Lord Adonis in the all-party group chaired by my hon. Friend Mrs. James. Other Members in the Chamber this afternoon attended the meeting, too. Lord Adonis accepts the point that if south and west Wales is to attract business and develop its economy, it is essential that direct links to Heathrow are developed. Ideally, that would involve trains from south Wales running directly to Heathrow, via a loop from the main line to Paddington. A connection near Heathrow is being considered, with a shuttle service to the airport, but a direct service from south Wales to Heathrow would be infinitely preferable. I also support improvement to Cardiff airport in Rhoose.

Many right hon. and hon. Members have signed my early-day motion, which urges the International Baccalaureate Organisation to stay at its base in Cardiff and now has 125 signatures. I thank those Members for their support. Sadly, at the organisation's board meeting two weeks ago, it confirmed its plan to move its European base to Amsterdam. It described Cardiff as remote and criticised the transport links. I condemn its decision, which does not recognise the work of its 330 staff, who have made it such a success. It now intends to expand, doubling the number of students, to create three international hubs, with Amsterdam as the European one.

Plans to improve links to Heathrow might have played a role if their implementation had been much more imminent, but the organisation's mind was set on no longer having its headquarters in Cardiff and Wales. That highlights the importance of transport links, particularly those to Heathrow. The electrification of the main line from London to Heathrow must not stop at Bristol. The Severn tunnel must not be used as an excuse not to continue the electrification into Wales. We must do all that we can to influence the Government to ensure that that happens.

To help in the present situation, we must also push forward the capital building programme, something that the Government are already trying to do. I am very pleased that we in Cardiff, North have been given the go-ahead for the £70 million Whitchurch hospital development, which will provide acute and out-patient facilities. I hope that that will start this year, as it will be a big boost to the building industry, as well as an improvement to mental health services. It will replace the old asylum-style Whitchurch hospital, which is preserved by Cadw and has a certain charm but is certainly totally unsuitable for the treatment of mental health patients in the 21st century.

The plan to build a new hospital has caused anxiety among some mental health patients in Cardiff, because the day facility—Tegfan—will be knocked down as part of the process. However, we hope that another place has been identified in the hospital's grounds, where a small capital building programme will produce another day centre. If all that starts this year, it will be very positive and help both the mental health facilities and all the builders, plasterers, carpenters, brickies and everyone who will get the work if those capital building programmes go ahead.

I am very pleased that the go-ahead has been given for the Cardiff, North medical centre. It is a much smaller project, but it will also stimulate the building industry in my constituency and provide good, up-to-date facilities for the people of Pontprennau, Thornhill, Llanishen and all the people of Cardiff, North. The original building was lost to a devastating fire.

I welcome the extra millions of pounds committed by the Government, as my hon. Friend John Smith said, to the defence training academy at St. Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan, which is accessible to people coming from my constituency and all the surrounding constituencies in south Wales. Again, the capital building programme will provide a great impetus to all the building trades, as well providing long-term employment. Introducing such capital spending is one of the key ways to keep employment and boost the building trade. Transport and a capital building programme are two of the things that we should be working on.

I pay tribute to the Education and Skills Ministers in the Assembly—Jane Hutt and John Griffiths—for their extreme swiftness in developing the ProAct programme. It is an ideal programme, under which people will not fester at home when they are unable to work. They will be able to go out and get skills that will enable them to improve their job chances or to continue in their jobs with increased skills. That is exactly the sort of programme that we want. We have discussed today how many people it has reached, and obviously we do not yet know how many firms and individuals have benefited from it. However, I understand that 150 firms asked for information, and no doubt many of those requests will develop into actual help.

It is important that the Government look again at the planned reductions in the number of civil servants. There have been plans to downsize the civil service to make efficiency savings, and if there are jobs that are not productive and efficiencies can be made, we should make them. However, it is worrying that the cuts will be made when there is growing unemployment in areas where civil servants are working. Furthermore, there is a real problem at the Department for Work and Pensions, given that more people need help. It makes no sense to reduce the number of civil servants and offices at the Department, given that there will be huge demand for its services. The Cabinet Office Minister at the Committee meeting that I attended this morning acknowledged that we should look at that issue—perhaps the DWP will need more, rather than fewer, civil servants, given that we want to give individual help to people so that they can get jobs.

Finally, I want to make a point about the Severn tidal barrage. I am glad that we have reached the stage of considering the short-listed schemes. We have to weigh the huge advantages of the energy that the barrage can produce against the environmental consequences and come to a decision about which will give the greater boost to the environment. Sometimes when we hear about the environmental disadvantages, we do not weigh them against the huge environmental advantages. Obviously, I want to see what the impact study comes up with, but I come from the position that the barrage would be a great step forward to harness all the power of the Severn estuary. I accept that it will be a tragedy if the Severn bore goes and I know that there are environmentally damaging features, but let us weigh those against the huge increase in energy provision.

In conclusion, I should say that St. David's most famous affirmation was that we should do the little things; I did know that he had said that. We need to do the little things at local government and community level and build up to the international level. In that way, we will be able to tackle the difficult economic situation together.

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