My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, whose long-term and passionate commitment to Wales and its interests is beyond compare. He was also very generous to me when he followed my maiden speech, I too having been catapulted into speaking in support of the Wales Bill on only my fourth day in your Lordships’ House.
In the referendum of September 1997, having scraped over the necessary threshold of a 50% turnout, the Welsh people voted for the creation of a Welsh Assembly, now the Senedd. In fact, 6,721 people, or 0.6% of voters, determined the outcome. Some 20 years on, the existence of devolution is not in doubt. Indeed, it may have even assisted voter engagement. The turnout for the EU referendum was over 71%. This accords with the views of Raghuram Rajan in his recent book The Third Pillar —about different pillars from those of Iain Jamieson— that the decentralisation of powers and activities to communities draws them into political engagement.
But have these powers been used effectively? With power comes responsibility. I believe that, broadly, devolution has been a good thing for Wales—for the “civil and political landscape”, to borrow the phrase of my noble friend Lord Lindsay. However, despite the best efforts of successive Westminster Governments to cede further powers, it is still the weakest economy in the UK, bottom of the productivity league table and where income per head is still the lowest.
The Senedd itself has had some notable successes. As we have heard, Wales was the first part of the UK to charge for plastic carrier bags and it has pioneered a new approach to organ donation. Regarding energy, I am still hopeful that Wales will be the first country to pioneer a commercially viable way of harnessing its huge tidal range to generate electricity, and that the Trawsfynydd nuclear site will be used to trial a number of different small modular nuclear reactor technologies
However, it is sometimes claimed that Wales is a series of artists’ impressions: the Swansea tidal lagoon, the M4 relief road, the Circuit of Wales motor racing track in Ebbw Vale, and the electrification of the railway to Swansea. Some of these could have happened with more constructive support from the Senedd, but sometimes it appears that devolution stopped at Cardiff Bay.
We have watched as the Welsh Government have delivered a decade of underinvestment and under- achievement in the education system; last year’s GCSE results were the worst for a decade. Wales has the poorest educational outcomes in the UK and is now significantly behind many European countries. The per-pupil funding gap has widened with Welsh pupils receiving £645 less than their English counterparts. In the NHS, the Welsh Government are the only Government to have cut the health budget in modern times. The A&E target of seeing 95% of patients in the first four hours has never been met and the target of 95% of patients urgently diagnosed with cancer to start treatment within two months has not been achieved since 2010. All is not perfect in England, and I believe that social care provision in Wales is far superior, but it can no longer be argued that the funding is not there; the new settlement gives Wales £120 for every £100 spent in England.
It is of course essential that good, intergovernmental relations support the delivery of services and investment for all parts of the United Kingdom. The UK Government have played their part: scrapping the Severn Bridge tolls, investing £1 billion in defence spending supporting over 6,000 Welsh jobs, and delivering new funding from the city and growth deals for the whole of Wales. Major projects can and should happen; the M4 relief road, with £300 million of extra funding from the Conservatives, is vital for the future prosperity of south and wider Wales. Train journeys from Paddington to Wales will become 15 minutes shorter later this year, and there is the huge potential of building the West Wales Parkway station in Swansea, which could save a further 15 minutes on rail journeys to west Wales.
These projects should be the baseline of ambition for a great nation that has the funding and powers that it needs. We need a Government with the ambition to improve the lives of people in every corner of our wonderful country, because vibrant, economically strong and diverse communities all help to build a sense of identity and purpose in a world where global markets and remote governance have distorted the ambitions, hopes and expectations of the people they purport to serve.