I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Welsh affairs.
It is almost five years since I was elected Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire. I wish to take this opportunity to say what a huge pleasure it has been for me to serve the constituency in which I have always lived. It is a great honour for me to open this debate today.
I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing a St David’s day debate, even if it is four days late. I hope our patron saint will forgive us for that. The normal business schedule of the House, which usually timetables such debates on Thursdays, means that we can hit the right date only once every seven years.
The general nature of this debate allows us to speak about a wide range of issues that impact Wales, and I am sure that Members will speak about many different things. I wish to begin by making a few introductory comments before turning briefly to the economic well-being of rural Wales. I shall end with some initial thoughts on the Command Paper, which was issued by the Secretary of State last week in response to the Silk commission recommendations.
In preparation for this debate, I have researched a little of the history of St David. It seems that he travelled widely before settling down in Pembrokeshire, which is one of the most beautiful parts of Britain. If he had been alive during the eight years that I represented mid and west Wales as an Assembly Member, he would have been one of my constituents, so I feel a special connection with him.
He probably would not have voted for you.
Indeed. St David did many wonderful and awe-inspiring things in his long life, including preaching with such passion and fervour at Llanddewi Brefi that the earth rose up around him to form a hill. The most amusing reflection on that stunning achievement was made by the late great Dr John Davies, who said that he could not
“conceive of a miracle more superfluous than the creation of a new hill at Llanddewi Brefi.”
That is a good reflection on Dr John Davies as well as on St David. But It was an impressive trick none the less.
Holding a Welsh affairs debate on or near St David’s day is not an old tradition of this House. I discovered that while I was reading through the speeches of those who had previously opened what is now the annual Welsh debate. I was hoping that one of my great political heroes, David Lloyd George, had opened a Welsh debate at some stage so that I could say I was following in the great man’s footsteps. However, the first Welsh debate was not held until 1944 by which time the great man had retired from the House. None the less, the first Welsh debate was opened by a Lloyd George—it was Dame Megan Lloyd George, the great man’s daughter, who represented Ynys Môn before the rise to power of Cledwyn Hughes and, indeed, that of the current excellent Member of Parliament for Ynys Môn.
That leads me to the second part of my speech, which is the economic temperature of mid-Wales, specifically of my constituency of Montgomeryshire. Reading Dame Megan Lloyd George's speech in 1944, it struck me how little has changed in 70 years. In 1944, Dame Megan spoke of a crisis in the dairy industry, a focus on south Wales at the expense of other parts of Wales, and an almost total absence of concern for mid-Wales. I could so easily have spoken about those same issues today.
One memorable line from Lady Megan’s speech caught my eye. Sometimes I am not sure whether some of our colleagues representing English constituencies fully understand how we Welsh function. Lady Megan understood that very well. She said:
“No Englishman can understand the Welsh. However much he may try, and however sympathetic he may feel, he cannot get inside the skin and bones of a Welshman unless he be born again.”—[Hansard, 17 October 1944; Vol. 403, c. 2237.]
I hope that that explains some of the ways in which we Welsh behave in this House.
In 1944, my constituency of Montgomeryshire was in serious long-term decline. The population had dropped from more than 50,000 to 36,000 and was falling like a stone. There were very few employment opportunities for ambitious young people, who were forced to leave the area in search of work. Regional policy had not been yet introduced to rural Wales. It was 20 years later that such policies were introduced by a Labour Government and they continued under successive Conservative Secretaries of State.
Montgomeryshire has now been transformed. Today it is a genuine success story, with thriving businesses and the lowest unemployment in Wales: only around 500 people are registered as unemployed. The population of Montgomeryshire is now 63,000 and rising. It is not just that new businesses have moved in, but that much of the area has been built up by local entrepreneurs. Coincidentally, I visited some entrepreneurs last Friday. Members may have seen the yellow Alun T. Jones lorries around Wales. I knew Alun when we were teenagers. He has grown to be the Eddie Stobart of Wales, employing very large numbers of people. I then went to the impressive mid-Wales airport, which was established by the late Bob Jones who was tragically killed in an air accident, and is now run by his wife Linda. It is entirely a private sector company. Again, I knew Bob when we were teenagers.
I then went to a water bottling plant, which is run by Paul Delves in Churchstoke, where another 70 are employed. He is another local lad who has done well, and I could list dozens more. Over the past five years, the level of confidence in Montgomeryshire business has grown hugely, built on the stability and sound economic policies of the Conservative Government. Of course there is more to do. We want to restore the economy to where we want it to be, but none of the businesses want to risk a return to more public spending and more public debt.
Finally, I wish to mention the Command Paper, which was published by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last week. It outlines a St David's day package of changes to the devolution settlement between the UK Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. Its publication was a very significant constitutional event for Wales, and represented a major step forward in the process of Welsh devolution. It is too early for any of us to have made a full assessment of the detail of the package, which will have to await the Wales Bill in the next Parliament.
At this stage, there are just four issues I wish to mention. First, I greatly welcome what I consider to be the most important proposal in the Command Paper, which is the move to a reserved powers model of Welsh devolution. It is sensible that everything should be considered devolved, unless it is specifically reserved to Westminster. Soon after I was elected to the National Assembly for Wales in 1999, I realised that the reserved powers model was needed to give clarity and greater stability to the devolution settlement. There may well continue to be occasions when a Supreme Court is needed to establish a competence, but under a reserved powers model it would be far less likely. That is the most important change included in the St David's day package, and I hope that we can deliver it in the next Parliament.
The second important issue is the devolution of income tax powers, and here I fear I take a very different view from many other MPs, particularly those on the Labour Benches. I see the proposals as a complete package, which includes the responsibility of levying a significant proportion of income tax in Wales. I have spoken on that issue several times before in this House. I feel so strongly about it that I do not believe we should devolve one iota more power to the Welsh Government until income tax powers are devolved. I accept that any new Wales Bill will have in it a commitment to a referendum on the issue before it becomes a reality, but for the life of me I cannot understand why.
If returned as a Member of Parliament on
Another proposal I greatly welcome is the commitment to a Barnett floor. We know that Wales has been underfunded through public spending granted through the block grant for decades, but changes to public spending by the coalition Government mean that underfunding has fallen to a virtually insignificant level. The Secretary of State has pulled off a historic victory for Wales by securing agreement to retain the current level of comparative spending as a floor below which UK Government support to Wales via the block grant will not fall no matter what changes to public spending are made in future. It is a huge win for Wales, and every party in this House should welcome it.
When a devolution of income tax powers was first proposed, the First Minister of Wales said that should not happen until the lockstep was removed. It has been removed. Then there was the Barnett deficit, but that has been removed as well. Now it is something else, and then it will be something else again. The truth is that Welsh Labour hates the thought of being financially accountable to the people of Wales.
I partially agree with the hon. Gentleman about the Barnett floor, but there is one other glaring omission: there is no discussion about taking fair funding for Wales forward. That is a big mistake and should have been considered within the purview of this Command Paper.
The right hon. Gentleman is a man for whom I have huge respect as a Member of this House. He is retiring, so may I wish him well in the future and say that he has made a wonderful contribution to this House?
This is an area on which I am a bit unsure. To my mind, the win we have tackles that problem. We have virtually eliminated the deficit and if that becomes the Barnett floor, funding can rise but cannot fall below it. That is an absolutely fantastic win, and I would be surprised if the Secretary of State did not go in to a little more detail about it in his speech.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman is giving a thoughtful and heartfelt speech. I forgive him for suggesting that the deficit has been dealt with, as he put it; it was still £75 billion the last time I looked. However, does he think that Wales would definitely be better off or worse off if we were to have and exercise tax-raising powers? That is the great lacuna in the Tory proposals.
This is how the antipathy towards being responsible through income tax in Wales manifests itself in questions and comments from the Opposition. There should not necessarily be any difference. We will be responsible just as we are now; it is just that the people of Wales will have a responsibility to know what the Welsh Government are doing. If the Welsh Government want to raise more money, they can suggest it and they can become accountable for what they doing rather than just blaming Westminster for virtually everything that people do not like.
My final point is about the proposal to devolve power over energy projects of up to 350 MW to Wales. I accept the logic of the proposal and supported it during most of my eight years as an Assembly Member, but since 2005 the obscene determination of the Welsh Government to desecrate mid-Wales with hundreds of wind turbines and pylons has made it impossible for me to continue to support it. The behaviour of the Welsh Government, and particularly the First Minister, has been shocking and has demonstrated total contempt for the people of Montgomeryshire, whom I represent. It should be a real concern to every Welsh MP that because the people of Powys have refused to bow down before the Welsh Government’s bullying, the First Minister intends to remove planning powers from local planning authorities and to take them for the Government in an act of power centralisation, to ensure that the Welsh Government can push things through despite any local resistance. The Secretary of State may well want to comment on this anti-devolution tendency.
While we talk about devolution in this place, we have a Welsh Government who are bringing everything back to themselves simply so they can get their own way in the parts of Wales that do not do exactly what they—the
Welsh Government—say. In England, we are seeing a drive to devolve powers to city regions and local councils, whereas in Wales we are seeing a centralisation of power in the hands of the Welsh Government.
St David chose Wales as his home. He was a very wise man. He created a hill that, together with thousands of other hills, makes Wales the wondrous landscape that it is today. I was born among those hills, I shall always live among them. We have a duty to protect Wales for our children so that they can enjoy it as much as we have and as we do today.
I remind the House that this used to be called the St David’s day debate. This is not St David’s day, but the feast day of St Caron of Tregaron, a third century Cardiganshire saint. I hope that we can remember him during the course of the day. I do not know whether this will be my last speech in this Chamber, but it might be. It will certainly be my last speech in a Welsh day debate.
Glyn Davies mentioned the first time that the House met to consider Welsh affairs in this format in 1944. I cannot remember that, as old as I am, nor can I remember Lady Megan Lloyd George in the House, although I remember her. However, I remember my first contribution to a debate on Welsh affairs 27 years ago, from the Opposition Benches. Peter Walker was the Secretary of State and the late Alan Williams, whose life we have commemorated and celebrated this week, was the shadow Secretary of State. When I looked at the speeches that I and others made on that occasion, I could see that things have not changed all that much. We had a Conservative Government with Mrs Thatcher as the Prime Minister and the burning issue was the poll tax. Today, of course, we have Mr Cameron as Prime Minister and in the valleys of south Wales and elsewhere we have the bedroom tax as the poll tax mark 2, something that will undoubtedly be a major issue in the weeks and months ahead and in the general election.
I was interested in the points that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire made about accountability and fairness and about the need not to blame Westminster all the time for the ills that confront Wales. Let us remember that when we were debating Welsh matters 27 years ago, there was no Welsh Assembly. There was a Welsh Office and the Secretary of State was a Member of the British Cabinet. In 1987, the amount of money being taken away from Welsh local authorities was significant, and that has not changed either. Many local authorities in Wales are setting their budgets this week. Mine in Torfaen set its budget yesterday; the very able Councillor Anthony Hunt presented the budget to the local authority. He said that he had to see a reduction of £6 million this year from my local authority’s budget on top of £6 million last year and probably another £6 million next year. The Government have reduced the amount of money given to the Welsh Government, so £1.5 billion has been cut from the Welsh budget. Cuts are being pushed from one tier of government to another, so ultimately the local council has to implement the decisions that result from that. Those cuts have come indirectly from Whitehall to Cardiff, whereas 27 years ago it was a more direct route, but the effect is exactly the same. Local authorities today and then face enormous difficulties in dealing with them.
I want to turn the attention of the House to the nature of Welsh matters in this Parliament after the general election of
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. He will recall that a couple of years ago he and I applied for such a debate and were eventually successful. The point that he makes is correct. Everyone should be able to participate in the debate, not just Welsh Members. It is important that that should be so.
As an aside, I add my tribute to my right hon. Friend. He is leaving, like me. We have been good friends for a long time, and we have attended these debates in the House over many years. It is important that we retain the Welsh day debate, the Welsh Grand Committee and the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, chaired very ably by my neighbour David T. C. Davies. It is important that we retain the position of Secretary of State for Wales, to be held either by my hon. Friend Owen Smith or by Stephen Crabb, the current Secretary of State, after the election. I have nothing against the current Secretary of State—he is a fine man—but I hope that the positions are reversed, for obvious reasons.
If we do not ensure that the institutions affecting Wales are retained here in the United Kingdom Parliament, we will affect the way in which our country, by which I mean the United Kingdom, goes forward constitutionally in the decades ahead. We have already seen an enormous change in the political landscape, not simply because we have had devolution for 15 years or so in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The changes have been beneficial to the people of Wales and undoubtedly, as a consequence of the Command Paper, that will continue. However, we face even greater seismic change.
The Scottish referendum was won—ish—by we who opposed separation for Scotland, but in a sense it was a pyrrhic victory. I do not know what is going to happen—obviously, no one does—after
I think that the Prime Minister made a fundamental mistake the day after the referendum by referring to the issue of English votes and English laws. I am not saying that there is not an issue; the so-called West Lothian question has been an issue for every year that I have been in this place. It has to be resolved, but in a consensual manner. The impression that was given in Scotland, and indeed beyond, the day after the result of the referendum was, “Okay, you voted to stay in the United Kingdom, and now we are going to take away the powers of Scottish Members of Parliament.” That was a grave error, not in terms of the constitutional question—we have to resolve that one way or the other—but presentationally. It meant that those of us who wanted the Union to continue, especially in Scotland, were put in a difficult position. We were told that, despite the so-called victory for those who wanted the Union, they would have to be denigrated as Members of this House.
So when everyone except a few of us is returned to this House of Commons from Wales, we will have to reflect seriously on the responsibility and role of Welsh Members of Parliament as Members of a United Kingdom Parliament. I am a British Member of the United Kingdom Parliament who happens to represent a Welsh constituency. Everything that I do can be done by any other Member, whether they represent Scotland, Northern Ireland or England. That in my view should be the case. We may be able to change the methods by which the House of Commons works in order to deal with the West Lothian question, but essentially we are all the same in this place.
I have done a bit of research on other countries, and I can find no country in Europe or beyond that makes a distinction between Members of the federal Parliaments and their national Parliaments in what they can or cannot do. Therefore, although many English Members are aggrieved, their grievance cannot go to the extent that it undermines the fundamental nature of the United Kingdom and this Parliament. It would be a grave mistake if we went down that particular line.
I have had the great privilege of doing the job of Secretary of State for Wales on two occasions under two Prime Ministers, and I believe that there is a job to be done by whoever holds that office, from whatever party. I am not speaking in a partisan way. In fact, those hon. Members who have known me for some years will realise that that is not my style. Often in the House most of us agree on most things—not always; that is the nature of politics, and nor should it be.
On this matter we should agree. If we did away with the territorial Secretaries of State, the link between the devolved countries and Westminster and Whitehall would disappear. The role of the Wales Secretary is to represent Wales in the Cabinet and to represent the Government in Wales. We would be foolish to do away with that vital link between two Governments and two Parliaments. I can quote dozens of occasions when journalists here in London who do not understand the nature of devolution said, “Let’s put them all together. Let’s do away with the Secretaries of State.” Indeed, many Members of this House believed in that, too, not understanding the very nature of the job. No one is going to take much notice of me, but I make a plea to whoever becomes the Government and the Prime Minister to retain the territorial Secretaries of State. If we do not, it will be another nail in the coffin of the Union, which is so important for all of us as Members of this British Parliament.
I have had the great privilege of representing my constituency for nearly three decades. I have represented the good people of the eastern valley of Gwent. I hope that whoever succeeds me will have the same duties, responsibilities, privileges and rights. I have been the Member for Torfaen, but also a Member of Parliament of this United Kingdom like any other Member. If we do not maintain that, not only the House but our Union will be in danger.
May I say what a great privilege it is for me to follow Paul Murphy, who has been such an outstanding Member of the House? I am sure I speak on behalf of all the Members present when I say that we all wish him a very happy retirement, although I half suspect that we may be seeing a bit more of him in the years to come.
Mr Llwyd, too, will be leaving this House after a distinguished career. He and I have known each other for a very long time—longer than either of us would care to mention—since we were both practising law in the magistrates courts of north Wales. I wish him, too, a very happy retirement.
I thank my hon. Friend Glyn Davies for his opening speech and the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate. It is an important debate, which we should have every year because it is, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen points out, extremely important that the unique issues that concern the people of Wales should be ventilated in this Chamber.
We are in the final weeks of this Parliament and this debate is as useful an opportunity as any for us all to take stock. In constitutional terms, Wales has seen great changes, some of which were initiated by my right hon. Friend Mrs Gillan, who gave strong and sterling service as Secretary of State. But there are more changes to come, which were announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in Cardiff last week. These will be matters for the next Parliament and we will all have our views as to the course that those changes should take, but this is a useful opportunity to consider what has happened over the past five years.
In 2010 the incoming coalition faced the worst set of economic circumstances that any incoming Government had faced since, possibly, the 1930s. The country was still reeling from the crash of 2008 which, although a global catastrophe, was more keenly felt in Britain than perhaps in any other country in the developed world because Britain was carrying the worst structural deficit of any major country, largely as a consequence of what I would term the economic mismanagement of the Labour Government. The coalition Government therefore, in which I had the privilege to serve for more than four years, had difficult decisions to take. We are constantly criticised for what are styled as cuts by the Opposition, but cuts were essential. It is the easiest thing in the world for any Government not to take the difficult decisions. We took those difficult decisions.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest cuts that we have made is in the amount of interest that we are paying the banks on the increasing amount of money that we were previously borrowing, and that that is one cut we should be making?
The interest is declining—that is the point. Had we not taken those difficult decisions, we would be spending more money on paying interest to banks than on providing services to the people of this country, so my hon. Friend is right.
Five years on from that—
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the styled cuts, as he put it, also resulted in a massive increase in in-work poverty, resulting in an extra £9 billion spending on social security under this Government?
The decisions that we took were difficult and, clearly, people have felt pain. But people across the board have felt pain. It is interesting to hear the criticisms from the Labour party. What would have happened if that party had remained in power? Where would we be now? Under this Government 1.85 million new jobs have been created. That is 1.85 million people with the security of a pay packet every week and the dignity that employment brings.
No, I will not give way. I will continue for a while.
Those new jobs would not have been created, had the hon. Gentleman’s party been in power.
In my constituency, Clwyd West, the improvement is tangible. The last Labour Market Statistics showed that over 12 months, the number of people claiming jobseeker’s allowance or not in work and claiming universal credit fell by 519 over 12 months—an annual decline of 34.5%. Those figures are mirrored right across Wales and right across the UK. In January, the International Labour Organisation measure of unemployment was 1.86 million people, down 486,000 on the previous year.
No, I will not give way for the moment.
These are strong, substantial changes, which we should all welcome, even Owen Smith, while acknowledging the task ahead. [Interruption.] He will have plenty of time to speak.
I would like to focus my attention today primarily on north Wales, which is the part of Wales in which I have lived nearly all my life and which I know best. I was brought up in the village of Rhosllanerchrugog near Wrexham, a very unusual, strange, unique and wonderful village. At the time of my boyhood, most of the working men were employed in coal mines and in the steelworks. Since then, there have been huge changes. We all know that the coal industry has virtually gone and the steelworks in north Wales are much smaller than they used to be. But now, north Wales is the home of dynamic new industries.
The wings of every Airbus aircraft that flies anywhere in the world are made in Broughton, in north-east Wales. Close to Broughton is the Deeside industrial estate, part of which is now an enterprise zone. There, high-tech industries serve customers across the globe. Deeside is one of the most dynamic, forward-looking, thrusting industrial areas of the United Kingdom and we should all take huge pride in it. On the other side of the region of north Wales is the island of Anglesey, where we see the Wylfa nuclear power station, which will soon, I hope, be replaced by a new power station, Wylfa Newydd. That will be a gigantic project employing many thousands of people for many years during the construction phase, and many people for decades after the station is up and running. It will provide the opportunity for the creation of centres of excellence in skills, education and training and I am tremendously pleased that the island of Anglesey has welcomed the developers so warmly.
Wylfa is only one element of what I believe is a bright future for north Wales as an energy hub. Out to sea, we have the Gwynt y Mor, Rhyl Flats and North Hoyle offshore wind farms, one of the largest groupings of offshore wind farms anywhere in the world. Let me be frank: as many hon. Members know, I have never been a huge fan of wind power. I believe that it is unreliable, supplying only intermittent and unpredictable energy, and it is far too heavily subsidised. Furthermore, onshore wind, and to a certain extent offshore wind, blight—as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire put it—the spectacular landscapes, both onshore and offshore, of north Wales.
Nuclear power, by contrast, provides predictable and reliable base-load generation, which is precisely what is needed. However, nuclear must be seen as part of an energy mix. Wind is currently part of that mix, but I was extremely pleased when the Prime Minister indicated only a few weeks ago that subsidies for onshore wind farms will be phased out under the next Conservative Government.
A new technology, and one that has been developed in Wales, is that of tidal lagoons. I remember taking evidence on tidal lagoons several years ago when I was a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I was immediately struck by what a tremendous opportunity they represented for Wales, given its huge tidal ranges. The technology has been slow in coming, but it appears that it will soon be here. The company Tidal Lagoon Power has not only made an application for development consent for a new lagoon in Swansea, but has ambitions to create a chain of lagoons stretching from Lancashire in the north, right around the coast of Wales, to Somerset in the south. Only a few weeks ago I chaired a meeting in Colwyn Bay to discuss proposals for a huge tidal lagoon there. It would have a potential generating capacity of 4 GW, which is equivalent to a very large nuclear power station.
Lagoons have the advantage of being green—they produce no carbon emissions—but they also have what wind power lacks: they are entirely reliable. Nothing on the planet is more reliable than the ebb and flow of the tide. As a result, each tidal lagoon would have the capacity to generate for 22 of every 24 hours. This is a new technology, and a British technology. Moreover, it could be centred in Wales. I believe that Wales could become a leader in what could rapidly become an important export industry.
Obviously there are environmental issues to consider, not least with regard to transmission infrastructure, which is having a catastrophic effect across Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire mentioned the impact that transmission lines would have in
Montgomeryshire. Equally, in my constituency of Clwyd West there is now a strong campaign aimed at requiring the transmission lines serving the new Clocaenog wind farm to be buried underground. Saving the planet should not mean at the same time trashing our landscapes and seascapes. I therefore strongly support the proposition that developers of wind farms, which are heavily subsidised, should be required to pay the cost of laying transmission cables underground.
I would like to touch on transport in north Wales. The railways are increasingly important in north Wales, and they are being used increasingly heavily, as is the case across the country. Journey times have improved tremendously. When I was first elected to his House some 10 years ago, the journey back to London from Colwyn Bay on a Sunday took some four and a half hours. As a result of efforts by both the previous Labour Government and this Conservative Government, that has been reduced dramatically—the same journey now takes almost exactly three hours. The fast train, which I hope to take tonight, takes approximately two and three quarter hours.
That is all commendable, and it is a tribute to the work done by Network Rail, but we must look to the future. We know that HS2 will be built and that it will go to Manchester. It is important that north Wales should benefit from it, which is why I believe that the new hub proposed for Crewe should be built and that there should be a fast connection right through to Holyhead. We must bear it in mind that north Wales is very much part of the north-western economic region; economically, the region has always looked to the great cities of the north-west, Liverpool and Manchester. I was therefore delighted when last year the Chancellor announced funding for the reopening of the Halton curve, which will put Liverpool and the expanding Liverpool John Lennon airport within easy travelling distance of north Wales.
In north-east Wales we should seek to maximise the economic benefit we can derive from the new enterprise zone at Deeside by encouraging synergy with the new enterprise zone at Wirral Waters in Birkenhead. There is a railway line linking Liverpool and north Wales, but the difficulty is that passengers have to change at Bidston from an electric train to a diesel one to take them through to Wrexham. I believe that a very good improvement, and one that could be achieved at relatively low cost, would be to electrify that line, certainly between Bidston and Shotton, where a new interchange is proposed. That would mean that the two great enterprise zones at Deeside and Wirral Waters would be within easy commuting distance of each other.
Tourism has always been the mainstay of the north Wales economy, but I believe that more could be done for it. One simple measure that is acquiring support from hon. Members from all parties is to give serious consideration to reducing the rate of value added tax on tourism businesses. That has been tried out in competitor countries, not least Ireland, and has been found to be entirely successful. It has been calculated that the immediate loss of revenue would be made up within four years. The big problem is that, in areas such as north Wales, most tourism businesses are run by small family undertakings that, in order to remain competitive one way or the other, try desperately to avoid being registered for VAT, the consequence of which is that they are deterred from expanding and improving their businesses because they cannot have the benefit of input VAT to set against the cost. Therefore, one measure which should appeal to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and to which I hope he will give serious consideration in the impending Budget, is to reduce the rate of VAT for tourism businesses to 5%.
Finally, I want to touch on a matter that is worrying to everybody with a constituency in north Wales, namely health care. I know that the issue is a hot potato in this House and that Government Members are frequently criticised for criticising the Welsh Government’s delivery of health care. The fact is, however, that areas such as north Wales are almost entirely reliant on the north-west of England and the midlands for very specialist medical care. It has been a concern for many years that north Wales patients have to wait considerably longer than their English counterparts for elective surgery in English hospitals, simply because of the way in which the Welsh Assembly Government fund health care.
The situation is getting worse. Yesterday in Prime Minister’s Question Time Hywel Williams mentioned his constituent, Mr Irfon Williams, who has been obliged to move out of Wales to Ellesmere Port in order to access drugs that he would have got routinely had he been resident in England. He is not by any means a unique example. I have a number of constituents who, because they live in Wales, simply cannot access the medicines they need. They have to go through the most byzantine consenting procedures if they are to have specialist treatment. Frankly, the matter is causing huge distress in north Wales. The situation was compounded recently by the decision of the Betsi Cadwaladr university health board to downgrade maternity care in Glan Clwyd hospital, the reason being that it is finding it difficult to attract staff of the necessary calibre and quality.
I believe that that shows that there are structural difficulties with the health care system in Wales under the Welsh Government. It is suggested that the Welsh Government have been subject to cuts, but the fact is that the Barnett formula protects the health budget in Wales. The simple fact is that the Welsh Government, of their own volition, decided to cut the health budget, and the consequence is that patients in my and other north Wales constituencies are suffering.
I am rapidly coming to the view that the Welsh Government are finding it almost impossible to run a decent health system in Wales. Before I sit down, I plead with them to look very carefully at the misery being inflicted on a lot of people in north Wales and to turn to the Department of Health in Westminster for advice. They should not be too proud to do so. Until they do so, I believe that health care in Wales will only continue to decline.
Order. We have plenty of time for this important debate this afternoon, but if hon. Members take an inordinately long time they will deprive their colleagues of the opportunity to speak. That may be their intention, but to have a degree of fairness I implore hon. Members to take about 12 or 13 minutes. That is a long time: if they have something to say, they can say it in 12 minutes.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) and for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who were instrumental in bringing this debate to the Floor of the House, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting permission for it.
Ultimately, however, I believe that it is a great shame, as was said by Paul Murphy, that the Government have not ensured there is always a St David’s day debate in the calendar. That is especially true this year, given the St David’s day announcement last week, to which I shall turn later. It is right and proper that the Government Command Paper should be debated on the Floor of the House, as it is that Welsh Members should get to debate Welsh matters on or as near as possible to St David’s day each year. It is to the Government’s great shame that such debates have not been secured. By making this plea, I once more hope that somebody somewhere will listen and we can revert to the ordinary processes that used to take place.
I shall talk about the Command Paper, the so-called St David’s day agreement, in greater detail in a moment. Suffice it to say at this stage that the proposals will still leave Welsh devolution far behind Scotland and Northern Ireland. The announcement on funding public services still leaves Wales considerably worse off, to the tune of about £1.2 billion per annum, compared with Scotland.
If I may, I will say a brief word about the discussions that led up to the Command Paper. It is almost an open secret that the main obstruction to any meaningful progress during the discussions was, unfortunately, the London Labour leadership, which it seems to me was often at loggerheads with its Cardiff bay counterpart. In the end, it is the Westminster wing of the Labour party that has the final say over its colleagues in Cardiff, a point which the electorate will do well to heed on
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his long and excellent service in this House. He sat alongside me in several of the meetings, so he knows that what he has just said is simply not consonant with the facts. Given that the Welsh Labour Government and I, on behalf of the Labour party, have spoken about going further than the current Government on the devolution of the Work programme and policing, what elements of the programme is he suggesting I have blocked?
If the hon. Gentleman wants me to tackle him on this, I shall do so. I will throw one in straight away. He argued strongly and vehemently against the devolution of policing.
Just a moment. The Silk commission very strongly suggested that we should devolve policing. The hon. Gentleman said that there was no call for that in Wales.
Let me finish. If the hon. Gentleman had read the evidence to the Silk commission, he would have seen that four of the forces in Wales were in favour of it, and only one police and crime commissioner—Mr Salmon—said that he was not. All the evidence was in favour and the Silk commission strongly suggested it, but the hon. Gentleman vetoed it.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again to let me put the record straight. I hesitate to suggest that he is in any way misinforming the House, but that is not my recollection of the conversations we were involved in. My recollection is that we had misgivings about the immediate devolution of criminal justice, but the fact that I announced a fortnight ago at the Welsh Labour conference that we would devolve aspects of policing to Wales—neighbourhood policing and an all-Wales policing plan—gives the lie to what he has just said.
No, it does not. I saw the hon. Gentleman sitting next to the First Minister who, while we discussed policing, put his head in his hands when he understood that devolution had been vetoed. We discussed that then, and I made a point of referring to what I have just said in the hon. Gentleman’s presence. It is all very well for him to throw in a sprat later on—some minuscule part of policing—just to salve his conscience and get back on speaking terms with the First Minister, but that is not good enough for me, and it is not good enough for anybody else in the Chamber. I have made the point.
I give way for a final time, because I need to get on.
For the third time, and for the avoidance of doubt, the right hon. Gentleman is not representing matters accurately in the House. I am clear that, and the leader of the Labour party announced at our party conference that, we would be devolving an all-Wales policing plan, including statutory power over neighbourhood policing and the structures of policing, to the Welsh Government. That is the fact, and he cannot gainsay it.
Right. Well, I will not go further on that, but the Secretary of State is in the Chamber and he will no doubt make some comments in due course. He was party to those discussions so perhaps his recollection will be useful, to see whether he agrees with me or with the hon. Gentleman. In any event, I will move on.
The Command Paper is not an agreement in the full sense. Obviously, we have all been discussing for some months what should or should not be included in it, and there is a promise to legislate after the election. The proposals would still leave Welsh devolution far behind Scotland and Northern Ireland, and despite what Glyn Davies said, the announcement of the Barnett floor leaves Wales worse off compared with Scotland. We are unable to celebrate proposals that amount to a row-back on a compromise that already existed in the Silk commission.
I am grateful for the incredibly constructive and principle-led way that the right hon. Gentleman engaged in our discussions in the run-up to the St David’s day announcement. He says that the package is not as advanced or radical as he interprets the Scottish package to be, but does he genuinely believe that the people of Wales, given the centre of gravity of Welsh public opinion, want a devolution settlement that is the same as Scotland’s?
I would argue yes, because we need to get away from this pattern of asymmetrical devolution, which is complicated, time-consuming and ends up in references to the Supreme Court and so on. I know the reserved powers model will assist there. Yes, I do believe that. The major problem—I say this quite sincerely—is that we are not hitting on a fair funding formula for the future. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we discussed that issue in Committee and that the Barnett floor is of assistance. He also knows, as I have said before, that it is not the be-all and end-all or the ultimate answer to fair funding for Wales.
When talking about a funding settlement, does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that Wales’s current settlement falls within the Holtham recommendation at £116 for every £100 spent in England? His recommendation was a figure between £114 and £117.
My point is that the way the Barnett formula operates in Wales is still unfair in comparison with the amount paid out in Scotland—I am sure my friends in the Scottish National party would hit me over the head if they were here, but I will take advantage of the fact that they are not. It is a difference of £1.2 billion per annum, which is a lot of money. I remind Members that the current process on further powers for Wales began about four years ago. The issue of funding was then outside its remit, which I believe was a mistake, whether deliberate or not. Fair funding for Wales has gone for the time being, and it continues to be a major issue that the commission could have settled or commissioned work on for the future.
We entered these discussions in good faith and attempted to be constructive, as the Secretary of State said. I am not jumping up and down and screaming about the result—there are good things in the Command Paper, which I will refer to in a moment. However, we have missed an opportunity to have all the tools further to develop the economy of Wales, and to give the Welsh people further accountability for and control over the way they run their lives, and over the way money is spent for the economic good of Wales.
I would like to take the opportunity to wish the right hon. Gentleman all the best for when he leaves this House and to thank him for his service to it. Is not the logic of the position he outlined on Barnett that, since the unfairness exists between Wales and Scotland, his recommendation would be to take money from the Scottish settlement and redistribute it to Wales, rather than take it from the English settlement to achieve the same thing?
No, it is not. The argument I am making is that we should look for a fair funding formula that will stand the test of time, so that we do not have to keep coming back and forth discussing this issue all the time. I do not want to take money from any other constituent part of the UK. It is certainly not my remit to do that, and I would not even argue for it. We have missed an opportunity to address this issue.
The commission recommended a package of powers, which was agreed as a compromise by all four parties in Wales. As I have said, we in Plaid Cymru wanted to see more powers devolved, but we agreed on the commission’s recommendations as a compromise package providing a way forward. As we remember, the Government initially sought to water down the recommendations through their publication of the Wales Bill by adding a lockstep to income tax powers and omitting to devolve short-haul air passenger duty. To the credit of my Plaid Cymru colleagues—and, I would add, of various other Back-Bench Members of all parties—the Government were forced to change tack and ensure that many of the blocks and caveats that limited the powers on offer were ultimately removed from the Bill. Unfortunately, APD is still omitted from the Command Paper, despite its appearance in the original package.
We warned all along that the powers on offer to Wales from the Government would probably be superseded by the events of the Scottish independence referendum. We were proved right. As the campaign was hotting up and the Government were falling over themselves to offer greater powers to Scotland, it immediately became apparent that Wales would be left behind. It was, I am afraid, the Westminster parties that promised devo-max and home rule in something of a blind panic when they thought they might lose the referendum, yet they have subsequently failed truly to deliver what they promised. The people of Scotland will doubtless reflect on that in May—indeed, they already are, if the opinion polls are to be believed.
I note with interest what is happening with the Government’s plans to create a so-called northern powerhouse in England. Significant fiscal powers are set to be devolved to Manchester—dubbed Devo Manc. In that light, the third-rate devolution being offered to Wales is more of a “devo manky”, in a stale and worthless sense, rather than a dynamic and lasting solution to the hunger for greater powers that exists in Wales.
We remain sceptical of the need for a referendum on the technical matter of devolving such a small share of income tax powers. The principle of fiscal devolution has been conceded with the devolution of the minor taxes. We maintain that any referendum should be on a much wider remit of powers or for a much greater share of income tax. Ideally, the parties will include powers for devolution in their manifestos and the next Government will proceed to devolve on that basis.
Some of the things included in the Command Paper are most welcome, particularly control over fracking, devolving port development, increasing power over energy production and the significant step of implementing a reserved powers model. There are several other useful aspects, too, so it would be silly of me to suggest that this was not a useful step forward. Overall, however, it falls short of the powers that I believe could help us to strengthen our communities in Wales. It goes nowhere near getting the funding settlement that I have said Wales is owed after decades of disadvantage.
I am dismayed at the fact that policing is not devolved, given what the Silk commission said about it and the overwhelmingly strong evidence in favour of doing so. Furthermore, Wales is, I think, the only country in the world with its own legislature but without its own judicial system. Putting that right is long overdue. As the Government and the country wrestle with the question of EVEL—English votes for English laws—it brings that issue into still higher and more urgent profile.
It is a matter of common sense, too. I am returning to practising law, and there is a corpus of Welsh laws already: Welsh criminal law, Welsh family law, Welsh environmental law, constitutional and administrative law. The time has come to look at putting together a judicial system for Wales. I am heartened that barristers of all political opinions and none who practise in Cardiff—there are a couple of hundred of them—have come together to form an organisation to campaign on this issue. I am heartened that they see the need for it. It could deliver economic benefits to Wales, as much as anything else. I do not quite understand why the Silk commission said the Welsh Government should speak with the UK Government in eight years’ time to see whether they can do something then. More than two of those years have already gone, and I would argue that the time is now, rather than sitting down over a cup of tea in another six years’ time.
On the Barnett floor—yes, it is a floor and I understand how it works—the Holtham Commission noted in its report:
“politicians (and voters) may well take the view that maintaining relative funding at current levels is inadequate given Wales’s relative needs.”
The commission conceded that a floor under Barnett would lock in underfunding of £400 million a year, but saw its introduction as a short-term measure only to stop the underfunding getting worse at a time when funding was increasing, and therefore convergence was an immediate concern. I know things have changed and that £400 million is no longer anywhere near a correct figure. It is probably nearer £125 million or £135 million at the moment, because of cuts in expenditure and so on. My point is that a floor does not guarantee that the underfunding will not increase in future years if the relative needs of Wales increase. If, for example, the relative funding needs of Wales increased by 2%, the underfunding would increase up to £700 million a year and the floor would provide no protection. The weak negotiating position of the Labour Welsh Government has been exacerbated by their lack of ambition in setting out clearly their demands for fair funding in Wales.
So where does all this leave the people of Wales? I say way behind. Wales is a nation—something I have never ceased to believe in all my years in this place, having the privilege of representing the people of Meirionydd Nant Conwy and, latterly, Dwyfor Meirionydd. Wales is a nation and it deserves to be treated as an equal. Both I and my Plaid Cymru colleagues demand adequate funding for our country. We should be pushing for greater powers for Wales to stand on its own two feet, and for the economy to be developed in a sympathetic, sensible and sustainable way, and we are dismayed that this has happened.
As I look back over all the years I have had in this House, I remember with great pride working towards securing advances in devolution—first, in the devolution big bang at the end of the 1990s—and in securing the advances in powers for the National Assembly since then. I spoke at an awards ceremony in Cardiff city hall a couple of months ago. I opined then, and I continue to hold that opinion, that 99.9% of Members of Parliament are hard-working decent people who are here to make a difference. I am proud to say that over the years I have made friends in all political parties. I pay tribute to Paul Murphy. He was an excellent Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland and a man one could always do business with. It was a pleasure to do so.
I am standing down at the election. I hope Liz Saville-Roberts will be returned as my successor. She is of the highest calibre. She will be a hard-working Member of Parliament: a thoroughly decent, honest and hard-working Member to add to the substantial number we have already. I thank the electors of Dwyfor Meirionnydd and Meirionydd Nant Conwy for the honour of representing them over the past 23 years. I will finish by saying that if I could wind back the clock, I would do it all again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Glyn Davies and Albert Owen on securing this debate. I appreciate the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire made about Dewi Sant. I was in Llanddewi Brefi on Sunday with 200 members of the Ceredigion Women’s Institute, and they were very mindful of the importance of Dewi Sant. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us the opportunity for this debate, which is very important, as the right hon. Members for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) said.
I, too, pay tribute to all the Members who will be retiring from this House in a few weeks’ time. First, I pay tribute to Dr Francis, who is not in his place. When I first came here in 2005 with a slight sense of trepidation, having not exactly expected to be here, it was a privilege, having been thrust on to the Welsh Affairs Committee, to serve under somebody of such distinction. The inclusive way in which he chaired that Committee was much appreciated. I should say that it is run in very much the same vein by David T. C. Davies. I also thank the right hon. Member for Torfaen. I remember retreating to the Tea Room immediately after making my maiden speech, and the kind words he said to me there in recollecting one of my predecessors in Ceredigion, the late Geraint Howells. That was appreciated.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd and I share a border, albeit a river—the River Dyfi. His reputation goes before him in this House, but, on a local basis, I have enjoyed the occasions when we have worked together on behalf of our constituents on both sides of the border on issues such as tourism, the need to protect and advance Aberystwyth university—he is an Aber alumnus, like me—and the future of our national health service, particularly at Bronglais hospital. Going round the wards of Bronglais hospital at Christmas, even if it were appropriate to canvass there would be no point, because a third of the people there are from Barmouth, Towyn and Aberdovey, another third are from Montgomeryshire, and some from as far away as Llanidloes. We shall miss both right hon. Gentlemen, and I wish them well in their retirement.
The collaborative approach that I alluded to has been a feature of the political discourse in the past few weeks. I congratulate the Secretary of State on the opportunity provided by his leaders’ summits. My party has one Welsh leader—Kirsty Williams AM—so I felt like a bit of an interloper on those occasions. The many meetings that we had were very interesting, and I believe they have had a productive outcome.
I applaud the attempt to reach a consensus on advancing Silk II. Speaking as a Liberal Democrat whose leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, had already signed up to Silk II in its entirety, long before the process began, I believe that the St David’s day document falls short in a number of areas, not least, as we have heard, in policing, justice and youth justice. However, as a member of a party that is committed to home rule and did not envisage this initiative, I still think that it represents an important step forward. It is a tribute—I have heard lots of references to the Conservative Government on the Government Benches this afternoon—to this coalition Government. I think that the Secretary of State would acknowledge that, because his ministerial colleague and my party colleague Baroness Randerson has worked on these matters as well. This has been a collective effort by both coalition parties.
It was a great satisfaction to see consensus between all four parties on the vast majority of Silk II recommendations, although there were areas of disagreement. I suspect that members of two political parties at either end of the M4 may, at some later date when we write memoirs, acknowledge that there have been slight divergences of opinion, but that is perhaps a debate for another day. Two parties in the discussions were consistent on policing and justice: Plaid Cymru, to its credit, and my party have consistently said that those matters should be devolved. That remains our position. It is not in the document because consensus was not reached, but it will be a feature of my party’s general election manifesto.
Reference has been made to Megan Lloyd George. I too have done a bit of historical research. In 1950, when she was trying to defend, as a Liberal, the great constituency of Ynys Môn, she was charged with delivering a UK-wide party political broadcast. Much to the annoyance of the BBC, she ended it with the phrase “hunan-lywodraeth i Gymru”. Not many people in the United Kingdom understood that message, but people in Ynys Môn did, and she held the seat for a little longer—as a consequence, I like to think.
The drift, or rather the march, towards home rule remains my party’s objective, and in that sense what we have heard about the floor is welcome. In Cardiff on Sunday, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury talked of his hope that Gerry Holtham—a man who is greatly respected by both the United Kingdom Government and the Government in Cardiff—would undertake some work on the shortfall. That may be the Chief Secretary’s aspiration, but I should be interested to hear from the Secretary of State whether such work can be commissioned, because it is important. Before we can move on to the funding issues, we need to have that respected assessment of how extensive the shortfall is.
Let me now refer to two issues that have been much discussed here in recent weeks: the dairy sector and tourism. Both are critically important to my constituency, and more widely. The severity of the challenges faced by the dairy industry cannot be overstated. I have used the word “industry”, but we should bear in mind the fact that behind that word are many family farms which are essential to the vibrancy of the rural economy, and that the livelihoods of many families are being jeopardised. Over-supply in the sector, reduced demand globally, the downturn in global commodity prices and, crucially, the constant pressure from supermarkets to produce goods at low prices have led to significant reductions in the prices that farmers are receiving. That is a long-term worry. If we lose the enthusiasm of young farmers wishing to join the industry, we will lose the industry of the future. Farmers are going out of business as we speak, and the National Farmers Union estimates that in recent weeks £800 million has been wiped off the incomes of UK dairy farmers. That is having a highly damaging effect on the local economy,
We are all familiar with the reports produced by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the work of the Agriculture Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government, Rebecca Evans, and the findings of the Richardson inquiry. Our own Welsh Affairs Committee has begun to take evidence, and took evidence from the unions last Tuesday. That is important work, but it cannot be completed fast enough.
One recommendation that is currently being discussed concerns the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, which is hugely significant. The adjudicator should be given jurisdiction all the way down the food chain, and should be allowed to give powers to producers to ensure that the balance of power between producer and buyer becomes equal again. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Andrew George and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, who pressed for the appointment of an adjudicator for many years until the end of the last Parliament. Now, very belatedly—and I say that as a Government Member—we have given the adjudicator the power to fine supermarkets, which is an important step.
I stand corrected. I had forgotten that, or, rather, my excellent researcher Chris had not written it down. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, and pay tribute where it is due. The fact remains that this Government have now introduced the adjudicator, and we now have the capacity to fine supermarkets. That could not have come too soon, but we need to see the remit of the adjudicator extended down, for reasons of confidence among our farming community. When I make that point to my farming unions in Ceredigion, they support it as important, but it is also important for us to start articulating speedily some very positive direct measures to support the farming industry. One is to do with the role of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. If, as the Prime Minister has mentioned, work can be undertaken to ensure that farmers can spread their tax payments over a longer period, that will be incredibly helpful to many of our constituents.
Farmers want to invest. They want to invest in the future; they want to develop their parlours, and they want to invest in the infrastructure on the farm. Tax allowances for machinery are a good thing, but we need tax allowances for building their infrastructure on the farm as well. I look to the Wales Office to reflect on those things and help us make those points to the Treasury.
There are no easy solutions, but I jotted down a few things we need to look at. We need to look at the powers of the adjudicator. We need to enhance the grocery supply code. We need proactive help on exports. The EU needs to look at the intervention price of 15p and how low that is. We need to look at labelling. Public procurement remains an issue, and HMRC needs to look at its expectations of the people it is acting very irresponsibly against in many cases.
I shall deal briefly with tourism and endorse the campaign. I chair the all-party group on the tourism and hospitality industry in Wales. Many Members here today have come along to the meetings. At the last one, my right hon. Friend Mr Jones and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn were present and heard the case made for the benefits to our tourism sector. Fragile rural economies such as Ceredigion rely on agriculture and tourism, but more critically the opportunities for growth really are there. It has been estimated that a reduction in VAT to 5%, something all but four countries in the EU are undertaking, could mean another £5.3 million in the Ceredigion economy, and another 166 jobs directly in the tourism sector. We are not talking about low-wage jobs; we are talking about the potential for good jobs, enhancing the salaries of people already working in the industry, and the benefits to subsidiary employment as well.
Of course the Treasury concern will always be the initial loss in revenue in the first year were this measure to be introduced, but the most recent figures released by the Cut Tourism VAT campaign have said this will generate far more for the Exchequer, and over 10 years could generate £3.9 billion. That is without taking into account the greater spending and growth in tourism and the knock-on effect on the wider economy. It would bring the UK into line with competitor destinations in the EU. It would increase the competitiveness of regional tourism hot spots, generate more investment for regional businesses and support wider regeneration in the areas we represent.
We have some marvellous attractions in Ceredigion, such as the coastal path going around the coast of Wales and the wonderful stretch of coastline along Cardigan bay from Cardigan to the Dyfi. I was at the National Library of Wales a few weeks ago, and the librarian was talking about a proactive attempt he is making to make the library not “That wonderful great white building on the hill” but something really inclusive to celebrate Welsh history, culture and art. We have a new soon-to-be-opened Cardigan castle, which the Secretary of State knows very well—the scene of the first national Eisteddfod. A huge amount of money is going into that project. It will be an iconic attraction in west Wales. We have, and always have had, the ingredients to entice people to come and spend money. We have the Cambrian mountains, too, and we have the best food in the world. There is so much more we have to offer people, but we need to give this jolt; it needs to be a financial jolt, and the VAT issue needs to be addressed. I believe there are certain things that colleagues in the Wales Office could do, and I hope that they will be increasingly convinced by this argument. They will have representatives of the Wales Tourism Alliance on the doorstep of Gwydyr House soon to make the case for this change, and I sincerely hope that they will be able to help us to put our case to the Treasury.
I am not renowned for my use of or appetite or enthusiasm for high tech in any guise, but it is worth remembering that the internet and the use of websites are critical to promoting Wales. That is the perception now. When people book holidays, they want to use the internet, and I am really pleased that the generic top-level domain names .wales and .cymru have come into widespread use since St David’s day. That is important for Welsh tourism businesses.
I celebrate St David’s day, belatedly, today. I hope that I shall still be here in a year’s time, and I bid a fond farewell to all those who are knowingly retiring from the green Benches.
Order. I do not want to impose a time limit, but unfortunately I shall have to if Members stray over the 12 minutes that I have advised. But please, use up to 12 minutes by all means. That way, we will fit everyone in.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Williams, who is a doughty fighter for rural communities in Wales. On a lighter note, I met his cousin this morning. She works for Mr Simpson, and she has a cousin who works for a Labour peer down the corridor in the House of Lords. So—a little bit of friendship across the parties there.
It is a genuine pleasure to have co-sponsored this debate with Glyn Davies. He rightly talked about the first Welsh day debate in the 1940s, whose motion was moved by my predecessor, Megan Lloyd George. That was the first such debate and it was moved by the first woman MP in Wales. I am proud to follow in her footsteps.
I echo the tributes that have been paid to our colleagues who are retiring at the next election, particularly the two who have spoken today. Mr Llwyd and I have worked together on many issues, despite being from different parties, and I pay tribute to him. We have big differences, however, and the biggest is probably the fact that I am an Everton supporter and he is a Liverpool supporter. I genuinely wish him well for the future. I know that we will see a lot of him in Welsh public affairs, and perhaps in the Welsh judiciary, in the near future. Perhaps he is keen to get going because he wants to play a massive role in that regard.
I also want to pay special tribute to my right hon. and very good Friend Paul Murphy. He was there alongside me following my first election success in 2001. We have been alongside each other ever since I came into this House and I shall miss him greatly when I return, hopefully, in May. I know that he, too, will continue to play a big role in Welsh public life, and I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done thus far.
The Welsh Affairs Committee was successful in securing this debate through the Backbench Business Committee and I pay tribute to it for doing so. However, I am a little disappointed that it has been downgraded from a full-day debate in Government time. Wales deserves better, and I hope that we can return to having a full St David’s day debate in the next Parliament. Wales is an integral part of the United Kingdom. I have mentioned my predecessor, Megan Lloyd George. She and many others have fought for Wales in this House and we deserve a full day’s debate.
I shall resist the temptation to talk about the Command Paper. No disrespect to the Secretary of State, but the most important event of the past week was of course Wales’s victory in Paris when we beat the French. My mind was distracted from the subject of devolution as I concentrated on the important matter of beating the French.
I want to talk about two issues: energy security and production; and food security and production. I raised those issues the first time I spoke in this Parliament, in the Queen’s Speech debate, knowing that they would be huge ones in the Parliament, not only locally in my area, but nationally and globally. Let me start, however, by discussing a cloud that has recently come over Anglesey: the announcement only last week by 2 Sisters Food Group that it intends to make up to 200 to 300 people redundant. I have written to the Secretary of State and am to have a meeting with him, for which I thank him, because these are important jobs.
Let me briefly outline the situation. Only two years ago, that company took on additional jobs, when they had been displaced from another factory closure. A lot of help and support was given, by the Welsh Government, the UK Government and the local authority, working with agencies, myself and other elected representatives. There was a change from a one-shift system to a two-shift system, and lots of financial and political support was involved. It is very disappointing that in just two years the company has decided to announce redundancies. I am working now, in a consultation period, with the trade unions. I hope we can stem those job losses, because the jobs are much needed in the food production industry, which is important in Wales and in the rest of the United Kingdom. I hope we will be able to work to minimise any job losses. Furthermore, I hope we will look forward and have a strategy for the food industry in Wales, and I will be working with the Secretary of State and the Welsh Government on that.
Let me again touch on the jobs issue. I am not making a partisan point when I say this, but there is no jobs miracle. As you will know, Mr Deputy Speaker, before I came into this House I ran a centre for the unemployed, and I worked closely with the long-term unemployed and the young unemployed. I very much welcome the fact that they have been given the opportunity to go into the work force. When I was an activist in the ’80s and ’90s, unemployment in my area was twice the national average. It is now below the national average, and that is a good thing. But, unfortunately, many of the jobs are now zero-hours contracts, part time and lack the permanency that people want. Some temporary contractors working in my constituency have been on a part-time contract for many years. That does not allow them to build up pension pots, and to get the credit facilities or mortgages enjoyed by permanent employees.
We need a proper strategy to examine how we can avoid this exploitation of short-term contracts and of zero-hours contracts, so that we can get the work force to contribute fully in society—so that they can contribute towards their own pensions, towards taxation and towards the local community. It is important that an incoming Government look at these issues seriously, and I am pleased that my party is looking at the zero-hours contracts, at increasing the minimum wage and at moving towards a living wage. Cross-party support is forming on the living wage, in the same way as it is now accepted that we have a minimum wage. I understand the argument about taking people out of taxation, but as I asked individuals who are on the minimum wage and could have the threshold raised: do they want to be trapped in low wages and not pay tax? The answer is no, they want to have an increase in their livelihoods and in their wages, so that, as I indicated, they contribute fully to society. I hope that we do that.
The two areas I want to concentrate predominantly on are energy and food production, as my area has a long reputation for both. It is known as the mother of Wales, because as a farming community we were able to feed large parts of Wales centuries ago when neighbouring kingdoms were fighting against each other and princes of Wales. We have held off the Romans as well. So we were able to feed the Welsh nation, and I am proud of that. In recent years, we have been pioneering in energy production. We had the early—and now controversial—onshore wind farms in the ’80s and ’90s. I am in favour of them going out to sea, because of the sheer scale of them and because there is a better wind resource there. We should have wind farms of greater magnitude that produce more energy.
I am also very pro-nuclear, because we need the base load and because I believe nuclear to be safe energy production. I have lived in the county of Anglesey all my life and my father worked on the construction of the first power station. My peers in school—I left at 15—are still working at the Wylfa power station. They have senior roles and have enjoyed continuity of employment all those years. There are very few industries that can claim to offer a job for life. Energy and nuclear power is one sector that can make such a claim. Mr Jones mentioned wind farms and renewables, but I believe that we need a mix of energy. To meet demand at its peak and then to come down off that peak, we need to be able to switch something off. It is very difficult and expensive to switch off a nuclear power station or a gas power station, but easier to switch off some of the renewables, albeit with the tidal arrays that I hope we get in the future. Wind farms, too, are easy to deal with in that regard. We need to be able to switch off capacity at times, which is why we need a balance of power.
I have been a member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, and we have had some very interesting debates in this Parliament. We have shed light on some of the downfalls in the energy market, which will, I think, improve things.
One area on which I wish to focus is the distribution and transmission of electricity. Companies, including National Grid, have monopolies in the regions, and we need to break them up, either by having not-for-profit organisations or competition within the distribution centre. Some 20% to 25% of the bills that we pay go to transmission and distribution—much more than the cost of green levies.
Food production is a very important industry.
On the point about distribution companies, does my hon. Friend think that companies such as Western Power Distribution should be interested in innovations such as the one by a company called Iviti in my constituency, which produces LED light bulbs that stay on after a power cut? As part of its social responsibility, perhaps the distribution company should look into distributing those light bulbs to vulnerable customers who might face power cuts and hardship.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I talk about being pro-nuclear and pro-renewables, but I am also pro-energy efficiency. The more we can improve efficiency of energy consumption the better. The model to which he refers is an old proven technology and we should be improving it for the future.
Before I move on from energy, let me just say that I had the privilege of acting as host for my right hon. Friend Caroline Flint. We went to visit not only a number of projects, including a biomass plant on Anglesey, but an energy centre, where we met 17 and 19-year-old engineering apprentices. When we sat down with them around the table, we saw that they wanted exactly the same thing that our generation wanted, which is job security, and that is what they are getting. I am proud of the skills in that sector. It was the decision of the Leader of the Opposition when he was Energy Secretary to go ahead with some of these projects. I pay tribute to him for that work as we are now seeing the result, which is highly skilled and highly trained young people ready to take this country into the future.
On food and farming, I supported many of the things that Mr Williams said. We should be lumping together food, farming and tourism in one big sector, because they are interlinked. The food that we produce locally and nationally could be consumed locally and nationally, as well as being exported. The farming industry has been through difficult periods, and I do not think that it can survive the vagaries of the market. There needs to be a proper food and farming plan at a Welsh Government level, a UK level and a European level. We are moving in that direction. It is important that dairy farmers have a dairy plan. Those of us who know about the dairy industry—the first job I ever had was as a farm boy milking cows in a parlour—understand that it is not possible to switch on and off from dairy farming and it is hard to diversify. People have to invest for a long time in the calves and heifers that go through to the milking stage. Support is what those dairy farmers need. I am working with colleagues across the House to ensure that there is a viable future for dairy farming in Wales. I am talking about the smaller farms as well as the larger farms across the United Kingdom.
On the tourism link, it is important that we have top-class assets and facilities in our area which people can come and visit, and that they have food and farming produce that has been procured and sourced locally. We can do the brand Anglesey and the brand Wales.
I finish off by saying that I am very proud of having an Anglesey day to showcase the county of Anglesey here in the House of Commons. It is our duty to show the best of what we have, and Wales has a lot to offer the rest of the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. That is why we need an all-day Welsh debate, so that we can stand up, champion and bang the drum for Anglesey and Wales.
I, too, thank hon. Members for securing the debate. It might not be obligatory, but I hope that we are setting a precedent of having a St David’s day debate that will be repeated annually.
Let me also pay tribute to the right hon. Members for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). Although I have disagreed with them on many occasions about many things, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen says, we can also agree on many things. Both said much that I could agree with in their speeches. It has been a pleasure to have served in this House with them both and on a personal level many of us will miss them greatly. I wish them well.
It has also been a pleasure to serve as Chair of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. I was counting it up and I have served on seven Select Committees, or their equivalents, both here and in the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh Affairs Committee is rather lucky, because it can have an examination or inquiry into anything. Anything that affects Wales can be considered by the Committee and everything affects Wales, so we have pretty well considered everything that one could imagine.
The one thing on which we have always been able to agree is the topicality of those inquiries. We have looked into agriculture, broadband, industry and tourism and, by and large, we have been able to make recommendations that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister, to whom I also pay tribute, as well as their predecessors, have taken seriously. I want to mention one or two and to inject a few personal thoughts, as well.
For example, we have considered broadband, which has been a particular issue in many areas and for many people in Monmouthshire. Without going into great detail about what is in the report, I want British Telecom to come out and say which areas will get broadband in the short term and which will not. We know that many areas will, frankly, never be reached by high broadband speeds and it is important that people in those areas know that they are there. That will allow them to go off and make use of other technologies such as satellites. The trouble I see at the moment is that far too often BT effectively tells people to hang on a couple of months, or another year or so, and they will be connected up to fibre, but it never quite seems to happen. We need more openness and transparency on that issue.
We considered the importance of a proper funding settlement for S4C. I am glad that that seems to be working out and that there seems to be consensus.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the work that his Committee has done, but on broadband there is a plan in Wales, which is run jointly between the Welsh
Government, BT and the European Union, which have funded it. That has enabled my area to be the first rural area to have the roll-out, along with Blaenau Gwent. There is a structure; it might not be reaching parts of Monmouth at the moment, but it is reaching parts of Anglesey.
I remind my hon. Friend and Albert Owen that the scheme the hon. Gentleman talks about includes significant taxpayers’ money from the UK Government, as well—that is, £70 million. A higher level of funding comes from the UK Government through the UK taxpayer than from the Welsh Government in that process.
There we have it. There is money aplenty going in to it from the Welsh Assembly, the British taxpayers and the European Union, but it is still not getting to Monmouthshire. Perhaps we should return to that point. I appreciate the co-operation between members of the Committee. People outside the Committee could perhaps take a lesson on it. I do not want to be too critical of anyone on this Thursday afternoon, but it was interesting that we found in one of our inquiries that there was not quite the co-operation between International Business Wales and UK Trade & Investment that one would like. When the First Minister, or indeed my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, goes off to sell Wales, they should go as part of a joint trade mission so that we can show investors from the far east or elsewhere that the Welsh Assembly and the national Government are speaking with one voice on the importance of inward investment. Whether politicans are Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru or from some other party, in the Assembly or Parliament, we all agree on the importance of getting investment into Wales.
The Chairman of the Select Committee is making an important point about inward investment. It is worth putting it on the record that last year saw the highest level of inward investment in Wales for almost 25 years. The crucial point, which I think is what he is implying, is that almost all the inward investment projects were secured with the backing and support of UKTI. So collaboration between the Welsh Government and UKTI is vital.
I accept that. I am trying not to be too critical of members of other parties. I simply make the point that co-operation is important not only in business but in tourism. I was surprised to learn that VisitBritain and Visit Wales do not have that many discussions with each other. I believe that the Welsh tourism Minister has not met senior people in VisitBritain and vice versa. That is disappointing, frankly, because they all have an interest in making sure that when tourists come to London they are told that the Principality of Wales is only two hours away by train and are encouraged to come and have a look at it.
One of the most topical issues that the Committee has looked at and that I suspect whoever chairs the Committee after the election will want to have another look at is the Severn bridge. The money to be returned to Severn River Crossing will have been paid by 2017. At that point the Government, whoever they are, will have to make a decision on whether to carry on using SRC or some other private company to collect the tolls or to bring the bridge back into public ownership.
I am not normally known as a supporter of nationalisation, but if the bridge is run by a public body—the Government or the Welsh Assembly—the VAT of 20% will no longer be payable. That would be a 20% cut in the tolls overnight. On that basis, I think that I am willing to set aside decades of Conservative thought and call for the nationalisation of the Severn bridge. It would be of enormous benefit to everyone who uses it, including many of my constituents. Furthermore, my Committee looked at the current level of the tolls and we calculated—it was a little bit of a back-of-an-envelope calculation, but no one has yet contradicted it—that the tolls could be set at about one third of the current levels, and that that would be enough to maintain the bridge. No one has ever denied that, and I would be interested to see if anyone can.
Clearly, it is expensive to maintain the bridge. I have been down there and been shown by the engineers how it moves around the whole time. Both bridges are extraordinary structures based at the estuary with the second highest tide in the world. I do not realistically believe that we will ever get rid of the tolls completely, but it would be utterly wrong for the Treasury to use the tolls as some kind of milch cow. The people of Wales and south-west England deserve better than that. The tolls should be drastically cut on top of the cut that should come about as a result of the removal of VAT.
I have discussed this with the Department for Transport, which said, “But we had to spend extra money on the old bridge.” That is true, and it has given me the figures for that. But it is also true that other changes to taxes—VAT, which I have mentioned, and the industrial buildings tax—meant that the Treasury got something of a windfall as well, albeit one that it was not expecting. That windfall, I believe, exceeds the amount of money that was spent on the old bridge. So it is time for a fairer deal for Wales on this issue. I invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister—I very much hope they are in their jobs after the election—to think about some sort of plan for what we will do post-2017, when the issue will have to be faced by us.
Members of the Committee, whoever they may be after the election, may want to look also at the proposed new M4 relief road. I appreciate that transport affects all of Wales, and north Wales transport links are just as important. Obviously, I know a little bit more about this one, which has greater relevance to my constituency, but it is an all-Wales issue, because the Welsh Assembly is planning to use its new borrowing powers to pay for that route. There is a great big argument going on now about whether it should do that. I put my cards on the table: I am not particularly sympathetic to the environmental arguments being put forward, because many of the people putting forward those arguments would put them forward whatever. They are opposed to any kind of development whatsoever, anywhere. Whether it is houses, roads or anything at all, there are people out there who simply do not like development. I find myself, unusually and perhaps for the first time ever, on the same side as the Welsh Assembly’s Minister for Economy, Science and Transport. That is probably a shock to us both.
Two other issues have been mentioned today which the Committee will clearly want to look at—energy and where we are heading with devolution. On devolution, with the utmost respect, I beg to differ from my hon. Friend Glyn Davies. I am very concerned about what has been happening over the past 15 or 16 years. Every couple of years the Welsh Assembly asks for extra powers, and some sort of committee is set up or somebody is sent off on a roadshow somewhere to hold meetings in village halls at which only a few people turn up, then they come back and write a long report recommending that all sorts of extra powers be given to the Welsh Assembly. Not surprisingly, whoever is in government thinks, “Let’s keep them quiet and give them the extra powers.” On and on it goes, and no thought has been given to where this is going to end.
Scotland always seems to be a few jumps ahead and has now, in effect, got home rule. Northern Ireland has another set of powers and a structure which is rather difficult to understand, but which is obviously shaped to try and keep the peace over there. All these bodies look around at what the others have got, and they will always find something that one lot has which they do not have, and they will say, “It’s not fair. We are being treated unfairly. Why have the Scots got this and we haven’t?” Nobody is looking at what has happened—or rather, what has not happened—in England.
I share the instinctive Unionism of the right hon. Member for Torfaen, but I see the solution as lying in some kind of federal settlement, English Parliament or English votes on English laws, because a failure to address this problem now will mean ever more powers leeching away to Scotland and Wales. Probably in the next 15 or 20 years, but maybe even sooner, there will be another referendum in Scotland. I would not be at all surprised if in my lifetime the Scots vote for independence. Wales will be constantly looking at it, and people will say, “They’ve got it. They can do it. Why can’t we have it? Why can’t we do it as well?”
I genuinely fear that in my lifetime Wales could become an independent nation. There may be some who want to see that happen. I personally do not, and the only way that I think we could stop that is to lock everything into place, possibly through some kind of federal solution, perhaps with a federal parliament overseeing defence, taxation and foreign affairs, but making certain that nobody can go beyond the line. There is no line in the sand at present and we have to draw one, even if that means giving a few extra powers to the Welsh Assembly. If at some point we can say, “There you are. That is it. You can’t have any more because nobody else would be able to have anything more either”, we might be able to lock things up and ensure that there is no further move towards complete independence for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I was interested to hear the right hon. Member for Torfaen say that he had researched what is done in other nations around the world. I think that we need to look at other nations that have a tradition of British law, such as Canada or perhaps South Africa, and those that do not. I do not think that any country has ever embarked on a process of giving away powers in such an ad hoc fashion. We need to start thinking very carefully and seriously about how we can all agree on a way to prevent devolution leading to fragmentation and the break-up of the Union.
Finally, I want to talk about energy, which the Welsh Affairs Committee takes very seriously. We have looked at issues such as shale gas, but I think that we should also look at nuclear and renewables. The shadow Secretary of State has decried my so-called flat-earth speech. I am sceptical about a lot of what is said about global warming, but I think that many of us agree that taxing carbon and increasing energy prices in a way that hits manufacturing industries in Wales, including some very notable ones, might lead them to consider closing down and taking their business elsewhere, which is something none of us wants to see. We therefore need to think very carefully about any energy policy that will make it harder for our manufacturing industries.
I have very much enjoyed carrying out my role as Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee and working with hon. Members, on both side of the House. I thoroughly agree with the sentiment expressed here that we need to continue having a Secretary of State dedicated to Wales and—dare I say it?—a robust Select Committee that ensures that whoever has that post is doing a good job.
The message I have heard is one of optimism. I might have to disappoint David T. C. Davies, whom I thought was about to apply to be the Labour candidate in his constituency, because we already have a splendid candidate there. I welcome his epiphany in calling for nationalisation. I am sure that he will be calling for the nationalisation of the top 50 companies next, on his continuing journey to the far left, which I have watched for some time, having known him since he was a schoolboy.
There is so much that is great going on. One of the joys of having been born when I was is rejoicing in the Welsh history that I have lived through. I remember the depressing history of the campaign for hunan-lywodraeth i Gymru through organisations such as Undeb Cymru Fydd and how it collapsed on
The story of Wales throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was one of people going to Westminster, having made all kinds of promises about how they would serve Wales, only to disappoint after being seduced by this place. It is a matter of great pride that I have been in this building when we delivered. My generation has delivered in Wales, and I believe that will eventually lead to strong government, if not independence. We are in a situation in which the forces are moving beyond our control. It will not be little agreements that do it; it will be the force of what happens in Scotland at the general election. Consider the extraordinary change in Ireland when the Queen turned up in a green frock and went to Croke park to bow her head in penitence at the site of an atrocity there. That had a profound effect on Irish thinking. Of course, 200 years of antagonism did not disappear, but it certainly had a great effect. I believe we will see a pattern based on the federation of five nations—not within 10 years, but possibly in 20 to 25 years—and we will have an asymmetric form of devolution that will be appropriate for each one.
I am proud of what is happening in my own city. We have gone through a few rough years, but there is room for great optimism. Our problems are temporary and we can deal with them, but our great treasures and strengths are permanent and will remain, including the mixed character of the people, which is made up of many nations and has a special vigour and enthusiasm and a robust personality. We also have great institutions, including the Celtic Manor. Even though the Prime Minister cannot see the difference between Newport and Newport far west, which is sometimes called Cardiff—he mixed them up yesterday—we have a wonderful hinterland, including the glorious Roman treasures in Caerleon, which represent great strength and beauty in the city. The future is bright.
We have a chance to celebrate our Cymreictod. What a change there has been! In 1962, Saunders Lewis, in his great lecture, “Tynged yr Iaith”, talked about a time in this century when no one would speak Welsh, and Islwyn Ffowc Elis’s book, “Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd”, was similarly about the death of the Welsh language. But it has not died—it is in vigorous form. A couple of months ago I had the great joy of visiting Ysgol Gwynllyw and talking with the fluent sixth-formers about all the political problems of our day in great detail. It is possible to go to any school in Newport and have a conversation with pupils in simple Welsh at the very least. That is a great triumph. The first school that taught through the medium of Welsh in Newport had 12 pupils in 1970 and they are now 50 years old, and we will see very soon the opening of a secondary school in Newport.
I think that school was Clytha primary, which I attended. At that time, the problem was that there was a separate Welsh unit and not much interaction between the two, but I think that has also changed for the better and is supported by Members on both sides of the House.
Yes, it was St John’s, the old school on the other side of the river, which became part of Clytha primary.
The school was set up in the teeth of all kinds of very powerful opposition, but some of those first pupils who are now 50 years old are now teachers of Welsh themselves in other schools. We are seeing the great triumph of the Welsh language and the great strength that it has now. That is very moving and we should celebrate it. Whenever people ask, “What’s special about the Welsh language?”, I point to its beauty. On Radio 4 last Saturday, somebody who teaches it in Brighton talked about the cadence of the language. Listen to the magic of the words, the soft, seductive words:
“Nant y Mynydd groyw loyw, Yn ymdroelli tua’r pant, Rhwng y brwyn yn sisial ganu; O na bawn i fel y nant!”
The language is also muscular:
“Argoed, Argoed y mannau dirgel, Ble’r oedd dy fryniau, dy hafanu dyfnion, Dy drofau tywyll, dy drefi tawel?”
I think we may have to help the Hansard reporters at this rate. We need to try to ensure that they are not struggling too much.
Among the improvements we have seen is that there are now Hansard reporters who are proficient in Welsh. We do not have problems now.
I want to talk about the neglect of our history. As a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I am bored stiff with Magna Carta. It was significant because it gave some kind of democracy to about 25 barons and their families and took a bit of power away from the King, but to compare it to cyfraith Hywel Dda is nonsense. After Magna Carta, the English were living in the dark ages compared with 10th-century Wales under cyfraith Hywel Dda.
Before I return to that, I want, in relation to Welsh education, to say a word of thanks and tribute to Wyn Roberts. If anyone was responsible for the education in a second language in Wales it was him. I remember him saying in the corridor outside the Chamber, “Rhaid i ni fod yn gadarn! Rhaid i ni wneud safiad!” He was absolutely right. It was very courageous of him, as a Conservative, to have Welsh taught in the constituency of the hon. Member for Monmouth and various other parts of Wales, but it now exists and will continue to do so as a treasure for all the children of Wales, and we can hear it on their lips. If we go back to the time of the Romans in Caerleon, they spoke two languages: intra muros, they spoke Latin; and ultra muros, they spoke in Welsh. We do not hear a lot of children speaking Latin these days, but Welsh is still on the lips of children, which shows something about the vigour and endurance of the language.
Cyfraith Hywel Dda was arranged not by a gang of barons, but by people from each cwmwd or tiny area. Seven people were brought together to pool their wisdom, and what they did was extraordinary. We could have discussed this during the earlier debate on women’s rights.
No country in the whole of Europe was anywhere near as advanced as Wales on women’s rights. There were rights, which were very rare, for divorce. If the marriage had gone on for seven years, the wife was entitled to half the property: she had the sheep, and the husband had the pigs. She also had other rights. If the husband was unfaithful, he had to pay. Punishments throughout Europe at the time involved chopping off various bits of people—heads and arms, and everything else—but Wales was very advanced in that punishments mostly took the form of compensation. To give hon. Members some idea of the compensation, the price of a cat was a penny before its eyes opened, tuppence after its eyes opened and 4p after it had caught a mouse. A husband who was unfaithful to his wife had to pay 5 shillings, and if he did it a second time he had to pay £1, or the equivalent of losing 20 cats—that would dampen the ardour of any would-be adulterer.
Women had better rights than had existed in many countries for 1,000 years. England had 220 laws involving capital punishment in the 18th century, including for chopping down a tree or raiding a rabbit warren, but in 10th-century Wales hardly anything resulted in capital punishment. Regarding itinerants, there was an extraordinary law that if somebody who was poor and starving was refused food at three villages, they were entitled to steal without punishment—eat your heart out, Shelter and Crisis—which was an admission that the problems of the poor were not necessarily their fault.
We know that Cyfraith Hywel Dda was arranged in Hen Dy Gwyn ar Daf, but unfortunately we do not know when. It was a serious venture, because they stocked up with six weeks-worth of bread beforehand. As we are now celebrating the laws of Magna Carta—a significant event, but minor in terms of women’s rights and the progress of society—we need to give a lot of thought to the triumph of Cyfraith Hywel Dda.
The Parc Slip Margam open cast coal site spreads across the Bridgend, Ogmore and Aberavon constituencies. The majority of the site lies within Neath Port Talbot council area, which tends to take the lead in negotiations with a company called Celtic Energy. That company exploited the site for many years, but the major settlement affected by the open cast site is in the Bridgend county borough area, and the largest community is in my constituency of Bridgend.
The mine is a mile and a half scar on the valley floor running from Cefn Cribwr to Cynffig hill, and it includes a huge deep void that is filling with water. The site is a blight on the environment, and it poses a risk to local children who unfortunately use it for motor cycle scrambling, or swim in the fetid water in the void. Local residents live in fear of water cascading into their homes and polluting local rivers. The site urgently needs restoration, and for local people the questions are simple: who has responsibility for restoration? How can they be made to accept that responsibility? Where will the almost £60 million needed for the work come from? If any budding script writers out there want a plot with twists and turns, a tale of Government failure, of political failure at national and local level, or of financial greed, dodgy practices and legal failure, this is the story for them. If Erin Brockovich has nothing to do, I invite her to come to south Wales and try her hand at Parc Slip.
Coaling at Parc Slip goes back to before 1985 and the British Coal Corporation. Between 1985 and 1994 applications to extend the open cast were made, refused and overturned at public inquiry, with permission always bringing with it responsibilities to restore the site. The Coal Authority Act 1994 privatised the coal industry, and a company that later became Celtic Energy bought the freehold for a number of sites in south Wales, including Parc Slip. In his ruling in Cardiff on
Mr Will Watson, chief executive officer of Celtic Energy, and until March 2010 the corporate director of environmental services at Neath Port Talbot council, claimed in an e-mail to me:
“The situation has been exacerbated…by the decision in 1994 made by the Government of the day to take a larger cash receipt for the sale of the company in return for a 10-year bond free period. Had escrow funds been put away for example at today’s level of around £10 million per year for the years 1994 to 2004, then the fund would now stand at around £155 million (assuming it was invested to simply cover inflation)…Since the UK Government had the £100 million in 1994 (worth around £178 million with inflation today) it seems reasonable to me to ask the UK Government to contribute to a solution at Margam.”
There needs to be a clear answer to this from the Government. Mr Justice Hickinbottom said that responsibility lies with Celtic, but Celtic claims that it lies with the Government. Which is it? My constituents need to know. Does Her Majesty’s Treasury have any responsibility at all for the restoration of part of this site because of the nature of the sale in 1994? Yes or no? We need an answer.
When mining at Parc Slip finished in 2008, further planning permission to continue mining was denied and it was time for Celtic to fulfil obligations to restore Parc Slip. Mr Justice Hickinbottom describes how, around this time, some of Celtic Energy’s directors and executives came up with a plan called “the big picture”. They arranged the creation of a series of companies and parent companies in the British Virgin Islands. The ultimate owners and financial beneficiaries of those companies were the men themselves, and it was arranged to sell to one of them—Oak Regeneration—the land and the attached responsibilities for restoration.
After the sale, many of the provisions for restoration that Celtic Energy had held in its accounts—around £135 million—were released by the auditors. The six members involved in planning the transaction were then awarded large bonuses. The sale to Oak must have seemed strange to the auditors and non-executive members of Celtic Energy’s board. The group, however, had paid a fee of £10,000 for legal advice from Stephen Davies, QC, who advised that it would not be a successful way of transferring the restoration responsibilities to another company. A further fee of £250,000 for further advice from Mr Davies resulted in advice that the sale would in fact be a successful way of transferring restoration responsibilities. Mr Davies’s statement was used to show Celtic’s auditors that the provisional restoration funds could be released, which they were. The fund was reduced to £67 million, and Celtic now claims that the money did not really exist. Mr Watson claims that the figures are “provisional” for liabilities on the balance sheet and do not represent any assets in any form—cash or otherwise.
During the course of the Serious Fraud Office investigation, it was not clear whether the transactions had been effective in transferring liabilities, and so the accounts were amended to put back the provisions until the matter was resolved. The company will revisit the position once more. My constituents need to know this:
is that sound accountancy practice? Can there be millions of pounds in accounts that are liabilities on a balance sheet but do not represent assets in any form—cash or otherwise? Or is the money there and capable of being pursued to provide the restoration at Parc Slip?
I have made a number of references to Mr Justice Hickinbottom’s judgment in a case brought by the Serious Fraud Office against the people who benefited financially from this asset transfer scheme: three solicitors at company called M&A—Eric Evans, David Alan Whiteley and Francis Bodman; Stephen Davies, QC; Richard Walters, the managing director of Celtic; and Leighton Humphries, the financial director of Celtic. The SFO claimed that the responsibilities for restoration had not been transferred to Oak. However, half way through the case, the argument was changed to say that the responsibilities had in fact been transferred and that the problem was that the local authority would not be able to secure restoration from Oak, which had zero assets. Mr Justice Hickinbottom decided that this later change was not illegal. The first was never pressed or explored, and in his ruling the judge quoted one of the defendants who had called the asset transfer “just good business”.
The case against Celtic and its legal henchmen has not been tried. The SFO case collapsed because of the legal judgment by Mr Justice Hickinbottom that
“a dishonest agreement is not actionable as a crime at common law unless a proprietary right or interest of the victim is actually or potentially injured.”
The victims were deemed to be the Minerals Planning Authority and the Coal Authority, which he felt had no such proprietary rights or interests. Adding insult to injury, the lawyers and Celtic are to have their legal fees paid by the Government. To say that the taxpayer has been completely ripped off by this company is an understatement.
The legislation privatising coal failed to protect the taxpayers of Cynffig Hill; the Coal Authority and the planning laws failed to protect them; and the best legal minds at the SFO failed to protect them. Where are they to go now? The mineral planning officers appear to have five options. The first is to do nothing, which is totally unacceptable. The second is enforcement, but they have been told by Celtic that if they do that, there will be further legal difficulties. Celtic would put itself into receivership and disappear. The third is exploration of alternative restoration with coal extraction, which is totally unacceptable to the people of Bridgend. Then there is exploration of alternative restoration with no coal extraction, and finally there has been a suggestion of using an existing £5.7 million escrow account to do a restoration lite. This is a desperate situation.
I secured a debate on this on
In his ruling, Mr Justice Hickinbottom said:
“conduct that some may regard as morally reprehensible is not open to be set aside, let alone be the possible subject of criminal sanctions, because Parliament has determined that those sanctions should not apply in those circumstances”.
Parliament has the legislative competence and moral responsibility to deal with this mess. I hope that today we can agree that one of the first priorities of whoever sits on the Government Benches in May will be to work with the Welsh Assembly Government, the Minerals Planning Authority, the Coal Authority, Natural Resources Wales and any other relevant statutory body to send a clear message to Celtic that it must face its responsibilities and that we will pursue it. Even if legislative reform is needed, it must face its responsibilities.
Communities should expect, as victims of incompetence and chicanery, to have the full support of this House to resolve this situation. I urge the Minister to give a sense of hope that we will unite to tackle the problem by calling a meeting of Government, the Welsh Assembly, local authorities and others to begin to thrash out a way forward, and to make a commitment that we will work together to seek a resolution to this appalling situation.
“peddling a gross caricature of the Welsh economy”—[Hansard, 4 March 2015; Vol. 593, c. 928.]
when we talked about the rise in low-paid insecure work in Wales. I say gently to the Secretary of State that he talks about a recovery bearing fruit, but not for the many of my constituents who come to see me week on week with their experiences of what it is like trying to find work out there. It is harder now to find a job with decent pay, predictable hours and security than it was before the financial crash.
We must of course all welcome unemployment coming down. I certainly do. We all want to see more people in work. However, we should not repeatedly ignore what is certainly the reality for many workers in Wales. We should not kid ourselves that everything is fine. The number of people in temporary employment in Wales since 2008 is up by 28%. The number of full-time jobs is down according to some estimates by about 51,000. There are 100,000 minimum wage jobs in Wales and 260,000 people earning less than the living wage. That is about a quarter of the work force, which is much higher than the UK average.
As we heard earlier, the Office for National Statistics estimated last week that about 1.8 million people were working zero-hours contract jobs, a statistic that could equate to about 90,000 workers in Wales on zero-hours contracts. These are often jobs without holiday pay, sick pay and pension rights. It is not always bad to be on a zero-hours contract—for example, there are students who hope that it will tide them over—but for many others, as my hon. Friend said, it is about financial security and the ability to plan for the future. Many of these jobs pay on average about £300 less a week than other jobs. Figures last week from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that the taxpayer has been hit with a bill of about £90 million for top-ups such as tax credits, because many of the new jobs are so low paid.
The hon. Lady is of course absolutely right to describe the insecurity people feel when they are doing jobs that do not give them enough hours, or minimum wage jobs that do not bring home enough money to provide for their families. However, the ONS last week was very clear that the 1.8 million figure refers to the number of contracts in the British economy, not the number of individuals on zero-hours contracts. We have to be very careful. The actual, correct figure—I should have come back to the shadow Secretary of State yesterday on this—for the number of people in Wales on zero-hours contracts is 35,000. That represents less than 3% of all employees.
But 35,000, even if it is that figure, still represents a huge number of workers in insecure work who cannot plan for the future because they do not know what their weekly income will be.
There is now an extra bill for topping up pay with things such as tax credits because so many of the new jobs in the economy are so low paid. We can debate the figures, but we also need to think about the issues that people bring to me week after week. It is only fair in such debates that I give a voice to some of the people I have seen recently. Last week, a man contacted me about a jobs issue facing members of his family. A Newport company had changed its cleaning contract, presumably to save money, and the new contractors told the staff that they would have to work for six weeks before they were paid, and then they would be paid only for four weeks. That is how they were to keep their just-above-minimum-wage jobs that they had had for 10 years.
I met a graduate who works for a sports shop on a zero-hours contract and who had lots of hours before Christmas but is now being offered one or two shifts a week if she is lucky. She is a graduate who wants a long-term career, but she is having to hang on to that job because that is all there is. A constituent who is in the same boat is working in the care industry on a zero-hours contract. She is struggling to get any kind of mortgage because her weekly take-home pay is so insecure. A construction worker’s pay is being reduced because he is being paid through an umbrella company that is owned by the contractor he is working for, which then deducts unnecessary fees from his take-home pay. I am glad that that practice has been outlawed by the Welsh Government, particularly for the work on the heads of the valleys road, but it should be outlawed more widely, and I hope it is.
I recently spoke to a group who volunteer to work in food banks across south Wales. They said that the rise in the number of people going to food banks is due to welfare changes, but also that they are seeing more people who are in low-paid work. One of the volunteers asked me, quite reasonably, “Why won’t Government Ministers come and talk to us on the front line so that they can see the reasons why people are coming to use food banks and act on it?” I told her about the inquiry by the all-party group on hunger and food poverty, led by the Bishop of Truro. It has produced an extremely comprehensive and readable report called “Feeding Britain” that has come up with some very sensible recommendations. The report said that, yes, welfare changes, sanctions and the bedroom tax are all factors in the rise of food banks, but it is also due to the fact that a quarter of people using them are in low-paid work. I had to say to her that groups like this have been doing this work, and they have gathered the evidence, but the Government are choosing not to hear it.
We need decent work and decent pay. That was recently the subject of a Wales TUC campaign. I hope that a future Labour Government will pledge to take action on the minimum wage, encourage more people to pay the living wage, tackle zero-hours contracts, and begin to put some of this right.
I know that it is nearly time for the main act, but I want to talk about one more thing that I hope we get right in future. It was mentioned by David T. C. Davies and is probably one of the few things on which I agree with him. It is the thorny issue of the Severn tolls, which are, as we repeatedly say, the highest tolls in the UK. That is felt most keenly in constituencies such as mine, by commuters, by businesses and by hauliers. The concession has not served us well, and we hope that it will end in 2018. Every time we ask when it will end, the period extends and extends again. That indicates how difficult the issue has been. It is now time for us to start to make sensible decisions about tolling levels in future. We all want the tolls to come down, and I think we should consider creative options such as off-peak travel for hauliers and concessions for people who live locally. The Welsh Affairs Committee has done some excellent work which I think could form the basis of a solution. I hope that we can cut those tolls dramatically, and ensure that high tolls are not used as a cash cow for the Government in the future. That—along with persuading First Great Western to increase its capacity on commuter routes such as the one from Bristol to Cardiff—would go some way towards resolving some of the transport problems in my part of the world.
Let me end by wishing a very happy retirement—well, it is not strictly a retirement, but it is a retirement from the House—to Mr Llwyd, and also to my right hon. Friend Paul Murphy, who has given fantastic support to me over the years, both in this place and in my former job. I know that we shall miss him greatly.
It is a great pleasure to wind up this important debate on behalf of the Opposition. I join others in congratulating Glyn Davies and my hon. Friend Albert Owen on securing the debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it.
We have heard many excellent and diverse speeches, to which I pay tribute. Mr Jones spoke without a trace of irony of his desire for a reduction in the level of VAT applying to Welsh tourism businesses—failing, of course, to mention that he was a member of the Government who raised the level of VAT applying to tourism and, indeed, to everyone in Wales. However, he spoke extremely well about Wales, with great passion and conviction.
I pay tribute to Mr Williams, who spoke mainly about the tourism and farming industries in his part of Wales. I also pay tribute to David T. C. Davies, the Chair of the Select Committee, who spoke with his customary verve and chutzpah, and, with his customary diligence, managed to reprise the “flat earth” speech which is so dear to me and which we have heard so many times in this place. My hon. Friend Jessica Morden spoke eloquently and passionately about the realities of the world of work in Wales, and my hon. Friend Mrs Moon spoke about the problems of heavy industry and remediation of the open-cast works in her constituency and others in south Wales. I hope that when we, as a Labour Government, succeed the present Government, we will pursue that issue with great vigour.
Let me also pay tribute to the Members who are retiring from the House. Mr Llwyd is always—well, perhaps a little less so today—a courteous and wholly accurate contributor. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I shall explain what I meant by that later. In fact, the right hon. Gentleman is always courteous in contributing to the life of the House. He will be missed when he retires from this place, but I am sure that he will continue to serve Wales extremely well, and I count him as a friend despite our slight contretemps today.
The speech made today by my right hon. Friend Paul Murphy was heard with the usual deference and respect, owing to the experience and sagacity that he has brought to his role. He has been a noble and excellent servant of his community, his party and the House during his long time here. He has twice been Secretary of State for Wales, and he has been a great friend to Wales and to me. I know that everyone in the House will join me in paying great tribute to him.
Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn, my right hon. Friend drew attention to what an important event this is. It is, in effect, the St David’s day debate, although it is not actually taking place on St David’s day as it has in the past. The debate is important because it puts Wales in the spotlight, at the heart of our national conversation in our national United Kingdom Parliament. It is important because we are of course a minority nation of just 3 million people among 60 million, and there is always a danger that, as a minority part of the UK state, our voices are drowned out in the babel of voices from other parts of the UK, in particular of course the lion’s share of people who live in and come from England. This Parliament is in institutional terms the greatest expression of this United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen spoke for me and many on the Opposition Benches, and indeed for many on the other side of the House, when he expressed his concerns about the way in which the voice of Wales has been diminished and is at risk of being diminished to an even greater extent as we move forward. The Government have, I fear, played fast and loose with some of the constitutional arrangements in this country, and have engaged in attacks on parts of this country, notably Wales, as a proxy for attacking Labour, and have failed to appreciate the lasting damage they are doing, and will continue to do if they persist with these attacks, on the social and economic union of Great Britain, the most effective and successful social, political and economic union ever created in the world. That is a theme I intend to return to later.
First, I shall do two simple things: I want to reflect on how the last five years of this Tory-Liberal coalition has impacted on Wales—on our people, our prosperity and our public finances; and I want to reflect on how the relationship between Wales and the rest of the UK has evolved under it, both in terms of the business of government and the attitudes of the Welsh people to the governance of our country.
It may have escaped your notice, Mr Deputy Speaker, and it certainly escaped the notice of many people in Wales, that the Prime Minister has been reflecting on the very same theme in this last St David’s week of this Parliament. Perhaps because he was admonished by the Secretary of State, along with his other Cabinet colleagues, for speaking ill of Wales—told to mind his language when talking about the Land of our Fathers—the Prime Minister has been love-bombing Wales in the last week. He came to Cardiff at the weekend to speak at the Tory party conference, singing Sam Warburton’s praises and resisting, I am glad to say, even a glimmer of gloating at the fact that we lost to the English. Then he hosted the St David’s day reception on Monday, which I was unable to attend. I think I am right in saying that it is the first St David’s day reception—the first for a long while—that the Conservative Prime Minister has held at No. 10. [Hon. Members: “More than one!”] If I am wrong, I happily withdraw that. It is certainly the first one to which I and other Labour Members have been invited, shall we say? So it was a pleasant surprise to receive the stiff card, but I am afraid I was unable to attend. Obviously Conservatives have previously been invited, but we were not.
Throughout this period of love-bombing the Prime Minister has been looking back at the relationship between his Government and Wales. Some of it has been pure fantasy. In one speech he was musing about the prospects of Tory candidates winning seats in the valleys, ousting sitting and prospective Labour Members and wishing our candidates a cheery “da iawn” on coming second. The Prime Minister, I am told, even had to have lessons in pronunciation—
The Secretary of State shakes his head, but, as he ought to know, the speech was released to the media accidentally with the “da iawn” included in it and some suggestions as to how the Prime Minister ought to pronounce that, but if he thinks there is any prospect of Tories in the valleys ousting our Members I have another bit of Welsh for him: “Yn dy freuddwydion,” which means “In your dreams.”
May I suggest that, having made such an attempt at Welsh, perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs some lessons in pronunciation?
I would accept that, as a native English speaker and a failed Welsh learner. I am still trying, although I have not reached the same standards as some, but I think that was a fair attempt at “In your dreams.”
Other examples from the Prime Minister have been pure comedy gold—not weak gags like that. We have had some excellent examples from the Prime Minister. He channelled his Welshness in trying to come up with a nickname for the Secretary of State. There is a great tradition of nicknames in Wales—Dai the Milk, Evans the Coal, and we even had Jones the Jag at one point in this place—but so impressed was the Prime Minister at the way in which the Secretary of State has warmed to devolution, indeed undertaken a damascene conversion, I am told that he referred to him as being known now in Tory circles as “Stevolution”. It has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it? I am not sure that it is the ring of truth, however. I am not entirely persuaded that he is now so devo-friendly that he could be known as “Stevolution” in Tory circles.
What certainly does not have the ring of truth are some of the other claims that the Prime Minister has been making on behalf of the Tories. He claimed this week that it was the Tories who brought Pinewood studios to Wales, despite the fact that the UK Government had nothing to do with it—
Well, I am terribly sorry, but I have read the Prime Minister’s speech, and that is precisely what he said, despite the fact that that was nothing to do with the UK Government. It was delivered entirely by the Welsh Government while this Government were slashing arts funding.
The Prime Minister also claimed that the Tories were responsible for Hitachi rebuilding Wylfa power station, despite the fact that it was of course the last Labour Government who signed the contract for that new generation power station. He even claimed credit for Airbus making wings for the A380 in Wales, despite the fact that the company has been making aircraft at Broughton since the second world war. The most shameless in this series of porkies was the suggestion that the Tories had secured the funding for S4C, when in truth they had cut it by a third.
The shadow Secretary of State was doing really well up to this point, but he has now let himself down. The important point that the Prime Minister was making when he referred to all those positive things that are happening in the Welsh economy was not that politicians are taking the credit; he was giving the credit to business. That is the crucial difference between our party and the hon. Gentleman’s party: we praise business; Labour attacks it.
I would fully accept that, were it consonant with the facts. The Prime Minister actually said in his conference speech, after listing all those achievements:
“We need to tell everyone who did all this…it’s us.”
This clearly is not true.
A bigger truth is that the Tories have done precious little to help the economy of Wales, but they have done plenty to hinder it. The people of Wales know that. When they hear the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister claiming credit for creating jobs in Wales, they know that 90,000 contracts or jobs in Wales, not 35,000 individuals, but that might also be right—[Interruption.] No, I said “jobs” yesterday. The Secretary of State should read the Hansard. They know that too many of those jobs are Tory-style mini-jobs involving zero-hours contracts, zero security, low wages and low productivity.
They also know that a quarter of Welsh workers earn less than the living wage. Wales has the lowest disposable incomes in the UK.
The people of Wales know that these facts give the lie to the notion that there is a Tory-led recovery, as does the fact that we are £68 billion short on tax receipts and spending £25 billion extra on social security. The price of this failure in Wales under the Tories is a tenfold increase in the volume of people using food banks and £1,700 less in the pockets of Welsh families.
In stark contrast, the Welsh Labour Government have shown that they can get Wales working again. Jobs Growth Wales, designed and built in Cardiff, has got 17,000 young people back to work, showing that local solutions with bespoke ideas can deliver jobs in Wales. So it is inexplicable that the Tory party—the “party of real devolution”, as I am told it now calls itself—is still refusing to devolve the Work programme to Wales, as Labour will when we win in May. Inexplicable, too—to many in Wales—is why fair funding for Wales is being promised only if Wales agrees to raise taxes.
Last week, the Welsh Secretary made some important announcements about his Government’s intentions to take forward the recommendations of the cross-party Silk Commission if—heaven forefend—they are back in government next time. The Opposition agree with many of those extra measures. Putting the Welsh settlement on to the same statutory footing and making the Welsh legislature a permanent part of the UK constitution are proposals that we can agree on. We also agree with proposals to give powers to Wales over elections and energy, and additional powers over ports and marine matters. Indeed, we said all those things first. But we will go further. We will give Wales powers over policing, which is why I was disappointed at the mischaracterisation of Labour’s position by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. I am sure the Secretary of State will recall our position during those talks, which was, “Reserved and then announced at the party conference for Labour in Wales.”
Lastly, fair funding for Wales was one of the most important aspects of the talks. It is disingenuous of the Secretary of State now to talk about delivering fair funding, given that his Government have cut £1.5 billion from the funding for Wales and he knows that their plans to cut funding to the rest of the UK back to the levels of the 1930s will have a deeply damaging effect on Wales. Cutting spending back to the level it was when the NHS was just a glint in Nye Bevan’s eye would be devastating for Wales. So we agree with the Secretary of State that there should be a funding floor in Wales, but want to see the detail and to know precisely where they will set that floor. Only then will the people of Wales trust this Tory Government—
We will stand on our record of having trebled the funding for Wales during our period in office. While the Under-Secretary has been in office, the spending for Wales has been cut by £1.5 billion. So we will stand proudly on our record and we can rest assured that the people of Wales will understand that we will deliver for Wales.
Order. We do need to bring the Secretary of State on, because we still need two minutes at the end.
Lots of Members in this House today have invoked history in this important debate, and I will do that one more time. The Prime Minister, in his amusing recent speech, said:
“The Welsh dragon is roaring again—and it’s not red, it’s blue.”
I suggest that, historically speaking, we ought to invoke another great Welshman, the first leader of the Labour party and former Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare, Keir Hardie, the anniversary of whose death we celebrate this year. He said that Wales is represented by “Y Ddraig Goch a’r Faner Goch”—the red dragon on the red flag of Labour. That was true in 1915 and it will be true again, I trust, on
It is a real privilege to speak as Welsh Secretary for the first time in a St David’s day debate. We have had a good debate, with a good selection of contributions from Members from across the parties representative of Wales. We have heard from Members from right across Wales in an interesting and stimulating discussion. It is fitting that we should use this St David’s day debate to draw to a close a good week for Wales and to reflect on what this Government have achieved in Wales during this Parliament. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Glyn Davies and Albert Owen for securing this debate, and it is important that we do have it every year. Of course, the Wright reforms recognised that as we transferred more days in a Session to Back-Bench control, the territorial debates should be part of that. So today’s debate is entirely in keeping with that tradition.
The opening contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire was wise and as insightful as ever. One thing that caught my ear was his saying that no one can really understand Wales unless they are Welsh, and I believe he quoted someone as saying that no Englishman truly understands Wales. I happen to think we have a Prime Minister who does get Wales and does understand why it is different. As a result, he understands far better than any of the other UK leaders the importance of the Union and why devolution matters. Perhaps the Prime Minister gave us a hint at his own St David’s day party on Monday night as to why he understands Wales so well. Of course, he revealed that he has Welsh ancestry, and does not have to go that far back to find that one of his forebears was Llewellyn, a tin-plate maker in Glamorgan. So I think all of us in the House this afternoon from Wales will welcome the fact that we are cut from the same cloth as the Prime Minister.
As I look back, I think 2014 was a great year for Wales. I think it was the best year for Wales since the devolution era began. It was a year for Wales to look upwards and outwards, a year of ambition—a year when the Prime
Minister brought the NATO summit to Wales. Indeed, he brought the world to Wales, when the largest gathering of international leaders that the UK has ever seen came to Newport and Cardiff in south Wales. It was a year when Wales’s international profile could not have been higher. Two months later, we brought the international investment summit back to the Celtic Manor in Newport, where more than 150 global investors came to look at why Wales is such a great place to invest. It was the year, as I mentioned earlier, when inward investment for Wales was at its highest level for almost 25 years. At that investment summit, we announced our commitment to electrifying the south Wales and the valleys rail lines—a project that has been discussed for years, but which it took a Conservative-led coalition Government to take forward.
Last year was also a year of reaching for the stars, a year of ambition—a year when Team Wales, the Welsh Commonwealth games team, smashed every one of its targets, up at the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. It was indeed a year of reaching for stars—the year when three Welsh companies participated in that amazing project that landed a probe on a comet travelling at 36,000 mph, 300 million miles from earth. We have some great Welsh companies, and as the economy continues to improve in Wales, we are seeing some of the best innovation anywhere in the UK coming out of Wales.
I will return to the economy, if I have time, in a moment, but it is telling that just before this debate started, I was at the First Minister’s own St David’s day reception, which was hosted by the Foreign Office. He too praised the NATO summit coming to Wales, and said it was even better for Wales given that the UK Government were paying the bills for it. The other important point he made at this afternoon’s event was about the improving economy in Wales. We have a First Minister—a Welsh Labour First Minister—who recognises and praises the economic recovery that is happening in Wales. Unfortunately, he has party colleagues in this place who talk down the economic recovery. One of the great themes of the last two years is the way that Welsh Labour in Westminster faces one way, while Welsh Labour in Cardiff faces another when it comes to thinking, reflecting and talking about what is going on inside the Welsh economy.
Now would be a good moment to pay particular tribute to the contribution from Paul Murphy, a distinguished former Secretary of State who has achieved an incredible amount in his lifetime, not just for Wales, but for Northern Ireland, the other great country that he has huge knowledge of and passion for. He reflected on his first St David’s day debate, back in 1987, and talked about some of the parallels that he sees in Wales now in respect of funding. Of course, 1987 was also a time when Wales was attracting some 20% of all UK inward investment; a time when the Welsh Development Agency was achieving great things for Wales. We need to get back to some of those strong points about Wales, which he reflected on.
We also had a superb contribution from Mr Llwyd, who, like the right hon. Member for Torfaen, is standing down at the general election. He used his contribution to talk about devolution. In his view, the St David’s day process was a missed opportunity, because he would have wanted to go further. Of course he would: he is
Plaid Cymru; he is a Welsh nationalist. However, I hope he appreciates that we had good, constructive conversations and that this was a good example of politicians from across Wales thinking about things in a way we have not done before, rolling up our sleeves and trying to be pragmatic. I appreciate the spirit in which he participated in that exercise and the contribution that Plaid Cymru made to the process.
My hon. Friend Mr Williams made a great speech. The first Westminster Hall debate that I secured, almost 10 years ago, when I was first elected, was on the future of the dairy industry. He made a powerful contribution in that debate about the dairy industry in Wales. I guess it is sad that we are still focusing on some of those issues, looking at market imbalances and unfair practices in the way suppliers are treated by large processors and large supermarkets. It is a testimony to his tenaciousness that he keeps banging the drum and fighting the fight for dairy farmers, particularly from west Wales, which is such an important part of our economy.
We had a good contribution from the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, who talked about energy production and food production. I am sure he is aware that the food that was served up at the Prime Minister’s St David’s day reception on Monday night was prepared by a team of chefs from north Wales. They were part of the Welsh Culinary Association. [Interruption.] We will make sure that the hon. Gentleman is down for it next year. Some of the ingredients used were indeed from Ynys Môn. He is quite right that the annual Anglesey day has become an event of almost international renown; on display is a superb array of quality.
I probably do not have time to discuss all the contributions. I was particularly struck by what Paul Flynn said. He gave an incredibly optimistic, upbeat and bright speech about Wales and its future. As he was speaking, I scribbled the words, “Sunshine and daffodils”, which are perhaps not characteristic of his usual contributions. His comments about the paradise of 10th-century Wales were perhaps slightly rose-tinted, but we are grateful to him for the air of daffodils he brought to this debate.
Two issues were mentioned that the Wales Office needs to follow up, the first of which concerns the 2 Sisters Food Group, with which we are currently dealing. Mrs Moon has also written to me about a matter we have talked about on at least two or three occasions. I apologise that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has not secured the meeting she wanted. We have been pushing on the issue and will continue to do so. I promise to try to make that meeting happen before Parliament wraps up for the general election. I know she has worked hard on what is an incredibly difficult issue, but she has her teeth into it and we wish her every success in getting to the bottom of it.
In the two or three minutes remaining, let me focus on the economy. We have two counter-narratives going on. On the Government Benches, we say not that the job is done or that everything is rosy in the garden, but that really good progress is being made. We say that the fall in unemployment across Wales is remarkable. It is completely contrary to everything that Welsh Labour had been predicting four years ago. We say that the drop of 39,000 in the number of children growing up in a home where neither mum nor dad are working is not just economic transformation but social transformation, and we want that to continue.
I am proud to be part of a Government who are tackling the abuses of zero-hours contracts. That did not happen under Labour’s watch, but under this coalition Government’s. We have taken steps to ban the exclusivity clauses that are the really pernicious parts of zero-hours contracts. If the moral outrage from Labour over zero-hours contracts was genuine, why are so many Labour councils employing people on such contracts? Why do I read in the press all these reports of Labour MPs employing staff on zero-hours contracts? Let us have a little less of that faux moral outrage, and a bit more realistic and honest reflection on what are difficult issues.
I will wrap up now to allow my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire to sum up the debate that he helped to secure. I think 2014 was the year in which the economic recovery moved up a gear in Wales; 2015 will be the year in which the people of Wales will start to feel it and share in the benefits. What will put it all at risk is the barrage of anti-business negativity and criticism which has become a dominant theme of the Labour party—certainly the party at Westminster.
We have had a thoroughly enjoyable debate, with several entertaining contributions as well as some insightful ones. I hope Members will forgive me if I make special reference to the contributions of the right hon. Members for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who showed us the quality of their contributions to this House over many, many years and what we will miss when they have retired. On behalf of everybody, I thank them both for all their work.
It has been an incredibly entertaining afternoon. It is entirely unreasonable for us not to have a six-hour debate. It is unreasonable to restrict a Welsh man or woman to just 12 minutes; we like to talk for much longer than that. We had my right hon. Friend David T. C. Davies—[Interruption.] It is only a matter of time. We had my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth standing up and advocating nationalisation, and then Paul Flynn suggesting that that was part of his movement to the far left. We also heard about historical Welsh jurisdiction, which has some basis in sharia law, as far as I can see.
I thank everybody for a wonderful debate. Let us all look forward—those of us who are still here—to the same next year.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Welsh affairs.