Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Welsh Day Debate

25th February 2010

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): May I begin by paying tribute to all the Welsh members of our armed forces in Afghanistan, particularly those who, sadly, have been killed in the service of our country, including Corporal Dean John from my constituency? We should also not forget their families, many of whom are very active in voluntary organisations. For example, Dean's mother, Mrs. Deborah John, is very active and doing outstanding work in our area in the well-known organisation SAFFA-the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association.

We should also remember the work of the Royal British Legion. I am sure many Members on both sides of the House would join me in endorsing the RBL general election manifesto. Many of my constituents have drawn it to my attention, and I am delighted to endorse that manifesto. Two of them, Tom Fellows and Roger Sheppard, have been doing some excellent work in recent years. I wish to draw particular attention to two policies in the manifesto, which have already been referred to by many Members:

"Make the NHS priority treatment system work for veterans with injuries caused by Service in the Armed Forces" and, "Tackle poverty among" older veterans and widows.

As many Members have said, this Welsh day debate provides us with a welcome opportunity to reflect on our work over the last year and to look forward to the future. In the past year, we all looked back on what I, and many Members on both sides of the House, would call a decade of achievement in democratic devolution, or as my distinguished predecessor, Lord Morris of Aberavon, rightly and often termed it, the repatriation of power to Wales.

I am proud to say, as an enthusiastic supporter of democratic devolution, that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which I chair, has had a growing and always benign role in that process, both scrutinising Government policy and, in more recent times, working with our Welsh Assembly colleagues on pre-legislative scrutiny of LCOs. In a remarkably busy, almost frenetic, five years, the Committee has held 43 inquiries, ranging from the mammoth globalisation inquiry that took place over 18 months, where we called senior Burberry executives to account, to the one-day sitting on the Legal Services Commission. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) for her work in that field. When we held that inquiry we successfully called Government Ministers to account. I should add that 25 of these inquiries took place in the past two years, when we were also undertaking our LCO work.

It has been an exceptionally busy last year for the Welsh Affairs Committee. About half our work over the past 12 months has been on scrutinising LCOs and thus devolving further powers to the Assembly. As we have heard from other hon. Members, these included the Welsh language LCO, which has now received Royal Assent and has paved the way for new Measures relating to the Welsh language to be passed in the Assembly. The publication of our enlightened and unanimous report was arguably our greatest achievement over the past five years. The environment LCO has also completed its progress and will enable Wales to lead the way in tackling pollution and litter and in encouraging recycling.

The Committee recently reported on its 15th LCO and has now completed work on all the LCOs that have been laid before the House. That is surprising, given that two years ago many people outside this House would not have believed that we could have done this work. Despite much doom and gloom in those quarters-people were daunted by what they described as "complexity" and did not understand that all legislative processes are complex-we did win through in the end. I wish to thank all the members of the Committee for their dedication and commitment to completing this scrutiny work in a timely and very thorough fashion. Whether the latest LCOs complete their remaining parliamentary stages will depend on the date of the general election, but my Committee has worked hard to make sure that they have every chance of doing so.

I am pleased that our work has been recognised elsewhere, and not only in debates in this House. For example, it was recognised by Sir Gus O'Donnell, the head of the civil service, when he gave evidence to us recently as part of our current inquiry into the relationship between Wales and Whitehall. It will be the last major inquiry that the Committee undertakes during this Parliament, but it will also be one of the most important. It was inspired by a short inquiry that we completed last year into the decision by the Legal Services Commission to scale down its operations in Cardiff. That decision was taken without consulting the Welsh Assembly Government or the Wales Office, and with no regard to increasing legal divergence post devolution. As a result of our inquiry, the LSC has not implemented its planned changes and is reconsidering its decisions. That is just one example of a decision being made centrally with no proper awareness of its potential impact on Wales.

Equally, we have also heard about decisions being made in Cardiff without full regard for the impact they may have on those needing to cross the border regularly. We have continued to investigate cross-border services for people who travel between England and Wales for health care and education, as well as the quality of cross-border transport links. We believe that our work in this area has improved access to hospitals and colleges for those living near the border, who have sometimes suffered from gaps in provision when the different policies of the UK Government and Welsh Assembly Government were not properly joined up.

We were particularly pleased to have the opportunity to take evidence jointly with the Assembly's Enterprise and Learning Committee on cross-border rail links. I warmly welcome the announcement, as I am sure that colleagues from all parties will, that the great western main line between Swansea and London is to be electrified, as our Committee strongly recommended shortly before the announcement was made. We will shortly publish a follow-up report to our cross-border inquiry.

The evidence we have taken during our current inquiry into Wales and Whitehall has shown that devolution requires both Cardiff and London to be committed to communicating properly with one another and considering the impacts of their policies at both ends of the M4. Wales's interests must be considered when UK policy is developed, but the communication problems we have uncovered do not go only in one direction. It is important not only that Members of this House understand that, but that the media should convey that message. I think that the situation is improving, with greater awareness being shown by all parties, perhaps as a result of some of my Committee's inquiries-and I am sure that our forthcoming report will contribute to improving relationships still further.

Let me now make some positive observations about the coming period on the basis of recent oral evidence given to our Committee. First, we had a very constructive evidence session with the Welsh Assembly Government Minister for Health and Social Services, Mrs. Edwina Hart. It highlighted the possibility that Wales could take a lead on the health and rehabilitation of veterans across the UK. It was an illuminating evidence session and I can see Members nodding about how important Mrs. Hart's evidence was. Her strong desire to work with the Ministry of Defence and with other devolved Administrations provided a policy possibility that the Committee warmly welcomed and that it will consider closely if we have the good fortune to be Members of this House in the new Parliament.

Secondly, the willingness of senior civil servants to give frank and insightful observations on strategy and performance in our Wales and Whitehall inquiry was another recent welcome development. The process of devolution needs transparency and constant analysis as well as self-criticism from politicians and officials alike. Now that they have come out of the shadows, so to speak, we want to encourage these senior civil servants to come under the spotlight regularly-perhaps appearing before us once a year.

I am sure that senior civil servants, whether they are in Cardiff Bay or Whitehall, will wish to be measured by the watchword of universities throughout Wales: "Goreu Awen Gwirionedd", or "The best inspiration is truth." That has certainly been the inspiration of our Committee in its service to the people of Wales. It has been a privilege to have chaired it over the past five years. We have benefited from constructive working relations with two Secretaries of State and two First Ministers. I pay tribute to them all and to the dedicated and professional work of Select Committee staff.

In conclusion, let me join others in paying tribute to all right hon. and hon. Friends and Members who are standing down at the next general election. In particular, may I pay personal tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), a successful Wales Office and Defence Minister who has worked so hard for miners' compensation and for our veterans? His insightful and independent thinking will be sorely missed in the House, and we all admired the contribution that he made to the debate earlier. I wish him and Jennifer well in the future. If he stands for public office again elsewhere, I have offered to be his election agent.


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