Welsh Economy

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 29th November 2000.

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Photo of Mr Gareth Thomas Mr Gareth Thomas Labour, Clwyd West 9:30 am, 29th November 2000

Unfortunately, that is not just an economic question, but a political issue. British manufacturing as a whole, although under considerable competitive pressure due to the high value of the pound relative to the euro, is still succeeding. We have a relatively large manufacturing sector in Wales, which, admittedly, has had problems and difficulties recently, but is making a good fist of it. There is a debate to be had about the single currency and its possible effect on not just the UK economy as a whole, but the Welsh economy in particular.

What approach will the Government take regarding the proposed European Union directive on age discrimination, which is designed to outlaw such discrimination? It has yet to reach the Commission and the Council of Ministers, but its introduction is proposed for 2005.

Is the Wales Office represented on bodies that deal with the implementation of the new deal for over 50-year-olds? Does it have an input into the issue of increasing participation in the labour market for those aged over 50?

Some hon. Members may have read an article in The Guardian last week that described the increasing concerns of the business community about the effects of the rail crisis on business. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree with the north-east business person, who says that the most serious impact of the rail crisis is that it exposes the isolation of regions like this? He was referring to the north-east, but his comments could equally be made of Wales. He continues, saying that the isolation poses problems for overseas investment...but it also raises questions about the expansion plans of British businesses to the regions.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree with a comment made to me by a senior member of the Welsh Development Agency that the rail system, especially in north Wales, is so bad that we tend to be a road-based economy, so Railtrack's problems do not make too much difference? That is an indictment of the lack of an integrated transport system for north Wales.

I should also like to mention gas supplies to rural communities--a subject in which I am increasingly interested. Several local communities in my constituency-- chiefly Betws-yn-Rhos and Gellrifor--are campaigning to ensure that their areas, which are relatively close to larger suburban or urban communities, can access mains gas. The Tory Government liberalised the gas market and introduced the split between transporters and suppliers of gas. Hon. Members may recall that, before the measures were introduced, British Gas could subsidise the capital costs of piping gas to rural communities through a cross-subsidy from its supply operation. That is no longer possible. Gas transporters such as Transco are in the invidious position of having to charge individual consumers large sums--as much as £2,000--before they will even begin to think of piping gas to the communities.

We hear much about the need to create a more inclusive society, and about combating social and economic exclusion in rural communities. Many problems that beset Welsh agriculture, and British agriculture as a whole, are global and reflect tremendous global competition. However, the Government could surely take action on the matter. I recently tabled a parliamentary question about it, and was told by a Department of Trade and Industry Minister that a working group had been set up to explore ways in which to relax the regulatory framework policed by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, which would facilitate greater choice in energy supplies for rural dwellers.

What are the views of my hon. Friend the Minister about how the Wales Office and other United Kingdom Depts can facilitate the admirable project to create a sustainable economy to which the National Assembly for Wales has committed itself? Does he have any observations on how to create a market in sustainable energy supplies, particularly in rural communities?

The subject of the debate is broad, and I know that other hon. Members are anxious to speak. In recent months, however, there has hardly been a plethora of Welsh-based subjects for Adjournment debates in Westminster Hall. I hope that this will be one of many future debates.