Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Welsh Affairs Debate

1st March 2007, St David's Day

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I speak in this important Welsh day debate from the perspective of being the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I speak too as a Labour Member representing a constituency that is benefiting from rising investment, record sustained growth and strong prospects for 2007.

My constituency of Aberavon, in common with the rest of Wales, is facing a growing global challenge, and I wish to give some attention to that. When I became Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I expressed the view that our task was to champion the cause of the people of Wales in Parliament and to hold to account not only the Secretary of State for Wales but all other major spending Departments in Wales. It was also my view that we should be as collectivist, if that is the right word, as possible and achieve as much consensus as possible. I thank all members of the Committee for achieving that—most of the time, at least.

One of the virtues of a parliamentary Select Committee is that it can respond quickly to the changing circumstances in Wales and have short inquiries. Our most effective short inquiry was perhaps the one on the future of the St. Athan site and the Ministry of Defence's new UK-wide training academy. The success of Metrix will lead, as we have heard, to the creation of around 5,000 jobs at St. Athan and contribute about £58 million to the local economy. I congratulate all Members of all political parties on the contribution that they made in that successful campaign, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith).

The Welsh Affairs Committee's main inquiry last year was on energy, and it was one of the most relevant inquiries that we have ever held. We took evidence on the cost, efficiency and sustainability of existing energy sources in Wales, including nuclear power, wind, gas, oil and coal, and we had additional evidence later on earlier this year on coal. We also looked into tidal, wave, solar, hydroelectric, biomass and geothermal sources. Our recommendations will be taken very seriously during the preparation of the White Paper.

In November, we announced that we were beginning another major inquiry, on globalisation and its impact on Wales. We have begun our inquiry by looking at employment and we have noticed a major issue, skills. I suspect that the skills challenge will be one of the biggest issues to emerge, particularly the leading role of higher education institutions in Wales, and I hope that we will get some evidence from them in due course. The Labour manifesto for the Assembly, "Building a Better Wales", calls for "quality jobs in a small, clever country", and that is an important theme.

Education is a devolved matter, but I am pleased to see that Welsh higher education institutions have been showcasing their research, teaching and community links here at Westminster at a number of important events. The Committee has been proactive in monitoring the progress of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and, most recently, has been looking at the functioning of the Orders in Council. I look forward, as do all other members of the Committee to working in partnership with our Assembly colleagues on scrutinising them.

I now turn to the steel industry, which is very important in my constituency and other parts of Wales. This will be part of our globalisation inquiry and has been brought into sharp focus because of the takeover of Corus by the Indian firm, Tata. I am struck by the fascinating connections, some personal, between India and Wales. My late father was a keen supporter of the India League, which campaigned for independence with the Congress party. Indeed, Krishna Menon, the first Foreign Secretary in India after independence, spoke in my home village during the second world war. Of course we are well aware of the close friendship over many decades between Aneurin Bevan and Prime Minister Nehru.

I truly believe that our two countries have similar and common values. History and culture are important guides to us, but we must also recognise that we are living in new, changed and challenging times. We face globalisation in steel as in many other sectors where the pace of change is accelerating.

The steel unions want Corus—or should I say Tata—to spend a further £300 million on bringing facilities at Port Talbot, Llanwern and Scunthorpe to a level of production and quality to beat most of the competition from the EU. I share that aspiration, and I was greatly encouraged by the Minister for Trade, who made a positive contribution about the future of the steel industry when he gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee recently.

The Government's approach to this strategically important industry needs to be constantly reviewed and re-evaluated and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) on her leadership, as chair of the all-party steel group, in identifying climate change measures and public procurement as key issues that the Government must address.

I shall end on an historical note. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to be congratulated on the way in which he has emphasised the importance of the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery. He may not know that one of the finest histories of slave rebellions, "The Black Jacobins" by C.L.R. James, a great writer of West Indian origin, was reputedly completed in 1938 in my right hon. Friend's constituency, in the Dulais valley. C. L. R. James was, of course, a close friend of that great humanitarian and honorary Welshman, Paul Robeson—who was another friend of Nehru. All three of them would have been fascinated by the new relationship that is now developing between Wales and India.

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