Welsh Affairs

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 5:38 pm on 26th February 2009.

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Photo of David Jones David Jones Shadow Minister (Wales) 5:38 pm, 26th February 2009

As is the case with most St. David's day debates, this one has been thoughtful and generally good-natured, reflecting the good humour that is characteristic of our nation. I am indebted to the Secretary of State for the important information that today is, in fact, not St. David's day but the feast day of St. Isabel of France. Like him, I hope that that does not bode ill for tomorrow evening, although I am sure that it does not. Even in our part of Wales, where we prefer the spherical ball to the oval type, we are following the fortunes of the Wales team with great interest; indeed, a constituent of mine said only the other day that what he was particularly pleased about was that the only Englishman who is likely to get his hands on the Six Nations trophy is the engraver.

The debate has, predictably, been dominated by concerns about the economy. Dr. Francis, the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, spoke about his own constituency, but he also discussed the important work that his Committee is doing not only on the process and scrutiny of legislative competence orders but on the impact that present economic conditions are having on the Welsh economy. I must rise to the hon. Gentleman's defence and say that he is an excellent Chairman: he chairs the Committee with great sensitivity and great wisdom. He does not need to be told to crack the whip. He knows how, from time to time, to tighten the screw, but he does not need to crack the whip.

We then passed on to Mark Williams, who also spoke about the impact of the current economic downturn. He spoke about the higher education sector, which is of course important, in his constituency and about the need for reskilling and upskilling. Importantly, he also mentioned the farming industry and the adverse impact that electronic identification of sheep will have on the Welsh agriculture sector if it is allowed to go ahead. My constituency is in many ways similar to his, and I can tell the House that many farmers there are very concerned about whether, if that system is introduced, it will be worth while continuing farming.

The impact on the auction industry would also be substantial. I have spoken, for example, to the directors of Ruthin Farmers Auction Company, which regularly sells some 5,000 head of sheep in a session. They say that it will be quite impossible to read the ID tags of each individual sheep as it goes through. I therefore echo the hon. Gentleman's words and urge the Minister to do whatever he can to persuade DEFRA to obtain a derogation from this wrong-headed European legislation.

We had a very short and focused contribution from Mr. Hain, who probably even now is sharing a railway carriage with my hon. Friend Mrs. Gillan—I think that they are going to the same destination this evening. He spoke about a very important subject: Welsh broadcasting and English language broadcasting in Wales. There is no doubt that that sector is under severe threat. I commend to the Government what he had to say about the difficulties that the Welsh broadcasting industry is facing and suggest that they take his remarks on board.

My hon. Friend Mr. Crabb spoke about the deteriorating economic picture in his constituency. He spoke about the need for additional investment in further education and expressed his concern about the budgetary cuts imposed on the sector by the Assembly Government. He also made a important point about the importance of language skills. In Wales, we tend to obsess about the Welsh language, and it is important, but so are international languages. In an increasingly globalised world, foreign language skills are absolutely necessary and my hon. Friend was entirely right to make that point.

We then heard from John Smith, who spoke up, as he has on so many occasions, for the St. Athan project, which is supported in all parts of the House. I reiterate the point that I made when I intervened on him: one of the most important aspects of St. Athan is that it provides highly skilled military jobs for young people and, specifically, that it offers those opportunities to young people from Wales. Wales has a fine military tradition—everybody in the House knows that—and St. Athan will be a huge asset to young people who wish to serve their country.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the M4 link road, and other Members, including Julie Morgan, spoke about the importance of transport. Transport is vital, as is the improvement of transport links. One concern—I have expressed it previously, as have other Members—is the potential impact of the local transport legislation that gives the Welsh Assembly the power to impose trunk road charges in Wales. I strongly suggest that at a time such as this the last thing that Welsh road users need is an additional tax on driving along roads in their own country. Although the Assembly has those powers, I strongly counsel it not to use them.

We had an interesting contribution from Adam Price, who analysed the banking crisis and spoke about the prospect of a more local form of banking that is more publicly accountable. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a student of history, so I am sure that he will recall the efforts of Richard Williams of Llandudno at the end of the 1960s, who formed a company called Prif Trysorfa Cymru, or the Chief Welsh Treasury. That attracted some concern from the Board of Trade, so he renamed it the Welsh Black Sheep bank and issued £1 and 10 shilling notes. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman would want to resurrect that bank, but it is an interesting prospect.

Talking of black sheep, we then had a contribution from Mr. Touhig. I do not intend any personal criticism of him; I am merely echoing the words of Paul Flynn. The right hon. Gentleman made his usual robust points in his usual robust style. He expressed concerns that many Opposition Members have about the potential for the balkanisation of Britain if devolution is not handled sensitively. He made the important point that the Welsh language LCO must be carefully scrutinised. My party yields to no one in our support for the Welsh language, but we do not want to see it become a tool for division. Therefore it is vital that that LCO is scrutinised with great thoroughness.

Lembit Öpik spoke of the downturn in the economy and the effect on his constituency, which is primarily rural. He also expressed his concerns about electronic identification of sheep and the closure of businesses in his constituency, which he says has been in recession for some three years. He also spoke in favour of green technology, but against wind turbines.

We then heard from the hon. Member for Cardiff, North, who also touched on economic issues and spoke about the need to improve transport links. She also spoke approvingly about St. Athan, and of the interesting ProAct programme, which I would like to hear more about, as it appears to be very innovative. At the moment, its achievements are small, but from tiny acorns do mighty oak trees grow. The hon. Lady said that the Severn tidal barrage project could have huge environmental benefits, but could also have huge environmental disbenefits. Careful scrutiny of the project will be needed to balance those competing concerns.

We had a powerful contribution from Mr. Davies, who spoke of the need for a review of the Barnett formula and expressed his concern about the potential for a £500 million budget cut for the Welsh Assembly. He spoke also of irresponsible banking practices and touched on the failure of regulation, which was also mentioned yesterday by the chairman of the Financial Services Authority in his evidence to the Treasury Committee. There certainly has been a failure of regulation, and I hope that the Government will address that.

We had an upbeat contribution from the hon. Member for Newport, West. He said that his constituency is suffering from the downturn but that there have been no closures yet, and there are some bright spots. He talked about new recycling plants in his constituency, which are an extension of the green technology that may power the upturn when it comes.

We had a contribution from my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski, in which he reminded us—usefully—that Wales is actually attached to England. He said that events on one side of the border have repercussions on the other, and he was right to highlight the effects that the policies of the Welsh Assembly are having on hospitals in his constituency. The Welsh Affairs Committee has touched on such matters, and it is clear that we have not got the settlement right. That is something that we have to address.

We then heard from Albert Owen, who spoke about his support for Wylfa and for Anglesey Aluminium. Both are important employers in his constituency and both are in danger from the downturn. Finally, we heard from Nia Griffith, who expressed her concerns about the difficulty of drawing down funds for public building projects.

The debate was dominated by economic concerns, and there is clearly an extraordinary amount of anxiety in the House about the downturn's effect on individual constituencies and on Wales as a whole. I believe that Wales has the potential to pull through those difficulties, but doing so will not be easy. I am sure that every Member of the House will work assiduously in the 12 months between now and the next time that we convene for this debate to ensure that the impact on our country is minimised.

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