Welsh Affairs

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 5:33 pm on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Labour, Llanelli 5:33 pm, 26th February 2009

At this time, we are all rightly concerned about the economy. Every job loss is a devastating blow for the worker affected and his or her family. I know that there has been a tremendous amount of activity both at Cabinet level and among ordinary Members such as me, in groups such as the all-party parliamentary group for the steel and metal related industry. We have been lobbying the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, who has agreed to attend a steel summit to meet the appropriate representatives of the manufacturing industry, and I know that many similar initiatives have been undertaken involving such industries as motor manufacturing. However, it is important that we do not fuel scaremongering rumours and talk the economy down. That will only sap confidence and stifle efforts to get the economy moving again.

I share the concern expressed by hon. Members about the somewhat erratic and obstructive behaviour of some banks, including sudden changes in the terms and conditions of their lending. Some successful businesses in my constituency have been badly treated in that way, and only following my intervention have things got moving. That should not have been necessary. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will convey that message to the National Economic Council.

An extremely important element of the Labour Government's strategy to help people through the economic downturn is the determination to carry on with public investment for the future. My own county, Carmarthenshire, has an impressive school building programme, but EU convergence funding is giving cause for real concern. Carmarthenshire has a number of projects that it is ready to proceed with, but it is experiencing difficulty in drawing down EU convergence funding via the Assembly. I have secured the agreement of the Deputy Minister for Regeneration in the Assembly to visit my constituency and meet council officers, but I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did all that he could to persuade Assembly Ministers to prioritise the release of convergence funding to projects that are ready to roll. I also ask him to impress upon Assembly Ministers the logic of extending the western valleys initiative to include not only Cross Hands, but the whole of the Gwendraeth valley, the most western of the south-west Wales coal mining valleys.

I turn now to a very sensitive matter: foreign workers. It is important that when we consider such matters, we attack structures and not people—that we look at structures, and if necessary criticise them and seek to change them, rather than resort to racist attitudes and comments. We are all too aware that there are organisations out there whose agenda is to breed fear and hatred and to create scapegoats, and who seem to have money to spend on glossy and very deceptive leaflets. We need to take a clear stand against such organisations and their attitudes.

I know from speaking to people in my constituency that they are not racist. They recognise the enormous contribution to Welsh society that people born abroad have made, particularly in our health service. They are, however, understandably alarmed when they hear rumours that contractors working on big infrastructure projects, such as the gas pipeline or the construction of the power station in Pembrokeshire, are taking on foreign workers—sometimes in large numbers, according to the rumours. I would be very grateful if my right hon. Friend looked into this matter and found out why foreign workers are being taken on, supposedly in preference to Welsh workers. If this is happening, we must ask why. If it is happening because employers think they can get away with shoddier terms and conditions—lower pay and fewer rights—that needs to be sorted out.

There was tremendous support among Labour Members for the Temporary and Agency Workers (Equal Treatment) Bill, and work has subsequently been done at both EU and national levels to improve terms and conditions for such workers, but we need to know exactly why these foreign firms appear to be giving preference to foreign workers. Using them on the cheap is not fair to our workers, who are being undercut, and it is not fair to foreign workers, who are being exploited. If foreign workers are being taken on instead of Welsh workers because our workers do not have the appropriate skills, we need to identify exactly what those skills are and make sure that we provide opportunities for our people to acquire them. We also need to think ahead about what skills will be necessary in future, particularly as we develop public infrastructure projects—and, it is to be hoped, when private sector opportunities open up as the economy picks up. We need to make sure, too, that we are equipping our young people to take up such opportunities.

Lastly, may I ask my right hon. Friend to wear two hats at once: that of Secretary of State for Wales and that of Minister for digital inclusion? I should like to bring to his attention the excellent work of an organisation called UCanDoIT. At present, Trina Davison, a constituent of mine, is the only person working across the whole of south and west Wales who is providing the valuable service that UCanDoIT offers. What Trina does is work with housebound people in their homes to sort out computer equipment for them and link them up to the internet. In some cases, she is working with partially sighted people, and she teaches them to use special technology that reads things out to them and gives them access to computers, e-mail and the internet. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend met me to discuss what more can be done to extend this excellent work in Wales and give more people the opportunity to get online. For people who are housebound, internet access is particularly important, both for potential employment opportunities and for social contact, which can greatly enhance well-being.

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