Hywel in Parliament - Debates

Welsh Day Debate

St David’s Day Debate 26th February 2009

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I wish to make a contribution to this debate from two perspectives: that of an individual Member—for Aberavon—and that of Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee. The perspectives and priorities are much the same, as outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, and they are clearly about the economy, both locally and globally; nothing is more important to the people of Wales.

In my constituency, manufacturing is the dominant sector, and in particular steel. In my roles as a member of the all-party steel and cast metal group and secretary of the steel union community parliamentary group in this House, I have had regular meetings with Ministers, unions and Corus, as well as my local authority. I have been impressed by the fact that there is a universal desire to retain both the steel industry and, equally importantly, the skills within that industry. I particularly congratulate the Welsh Assembly Government and the Secretary of State for Wales on the work they have done through the Welsh economic summits, and, more widely, the steps they have taken to establish the ProAct and ReAct initiatives. I am also looking forward to the local economic summit that will be launched in Neath-Port Talbot very soon, and I know that similar initiatives are taking place across Wales, which is most welcome; my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) is taking a leading role in his local economic summit.

In the course of evaluating the impact of the economic downturn on my constituency, I have visited several small businesses. I recently met the management and work force at two important small companies: Excel and Rhino Engineering. They are both cutting-edge manufacturing companies which are very appreciative of the information and guidance being provided by the Government, and particularly the circular letter that the Secretary of State for Wales recently sent to Members, copies of which have been passed on to many businesses in my constituency. The two companies have also benefited from significant contracts for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics to be held in London.

Looking cautiously to the future, I have been struck by Tata’s continued expressions of support for local communities in my constituency and the backing it has given to the Corus steel plant, as well as by the fact that it is seriously examining the possibility of developing the new Margam drift mine, which, as one would expect, has strong support from the National Union of Mineworkers and other local unions.

Again looking to the future, it is encouraging that employers’ organisations such a the EEF and UK Steel and unions such as Community are looking beyond the current difficult circumstances, talking up the need for greening the economy, what they call a nuclear renaissance and its links to steel, and ultra-low carbon steel-making, turning theory into what they call practical reality.

Turning to the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, I should at the outset pay tribute to all its members and staff for their sterling work over the past year. Its workload has virtually doubled in the recent period, and I am pleased to announce today that over the past year, we have succeeded in getting significant improvement in staff support to take account of this increased workload.

Our annual report, which will be published tomorrow, outlines the growth and range of our activities. The Committee’s profile has also been raised both here in Westminster and in Wales, and on balance, we should welcome that. One kindly journalist compared my Committee to that benign institution the Commonwealth games. One Assembly Member generously suggested that we should serve on only one Select, or any, Committee—on just our own Committee—which I found very helpful.

One hon. Member, a great supporter of our Committee and one-time member of it—the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), to whom I sent a message earlier today; I understand that he is on his way to Cardiff—gave some advice on how I should run my Committee. He suggested that I should crack the whip. I am grateful for his advice, but that is not my style and I do not think it the style of any Chairman of a Select Committee. We work by consensus and consent—a more inclusive approach. Ours is not the style or the language of the slave driver.

Albert Owen: Was my hon. Friend as disappointed as I was, as a member of that Committee, to read those comments from the leader of Plaid Cymru in a national newspaper? If somebody has suggestions or ideas for a Select Committee, writing to the Chairman is the normal convention.

Dr. Francis: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will read the account of what my hon. Friend has just said. We have had an interesting discussion about the matter, and I reported that to my Committee.

Although in some quarters we may be approaching the notoriety of the committee of public safety of revolutionary France, I am more of a Gramsci than a Robespierre, although I think that Robespierre had his merits.

The work of the Committee in the past year has focused, as it will in the coming period, directly or indirectly on the economy in recognising the need for an outward-looking, global Wales, rather than a fortress Wales.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend says that his Committee has generally been concentrating on the economy. May I say how pleased I am that he is undertaking an investigation into the Legal Services Commission’s plan to cut jobs in Wales, which will of course affect the economy because of the number of jobs that would be lost?

Dr. Francis: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and congratulate her on the sterling work that she has undertaken on this matter.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned, we have undertaken a globalisation inquiry and a cross-border inquiry. Both these reports highlight heavily the importance for the long-term economic future of Wales of the need to establish higher-level skills, as the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) rightly said. In our globalisation report, we recognise the central importance of universities and colleges in building the knowledge economy, and the need for that to be done at local, national and international levels. We were particularly impressed with the role that universities are already playing in this field in Wales by contributing to their local economies. Much could be learned in some respects from more advanced developments, such as the Mondragon co-operative university, in the Basque country; Xiamen university, which I am delighted is twinned with Cardiff university; and other, similar initiatives.

In our recently published report on cross-border public services in relation to further and higher education, we highlighted the vital issues, which have already been mentioned, of the funding gap, the research profile and UK science policy.

Daniel Kawczynski: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman is talking about the cross-border issue. He probably knows that the Royal Shrewsbury hospital loses £2 million a year as a result of the different tariffs that it is paid by the Welsh Assembly. I hope that his Committee has looked at how English hospitals are losing out.

Dr. Francis: We have made some observations on that matter. We have not done anything about roundabouts in Shrewsbury, but I am sure that we will come to that issue as well.

The message of the two reports was very clear. With all due respect to the importance of widening access—I spent a quarter of a century in universities trying to achieve that—the whole question of student finance pales into insignificance when we are dealing with the core question of the funding of universities for proper teaching and research. Unless that question is addressed, we will not be able to build the knowledge economy of the future and thus safeguard quality jobs for all our communities.

We made several key recommendations, especially on science policy and research, which can be influenced by the Welsh-UK Government partnership. I hope that we will be able to emphasise that in the future. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills has recently visited Cardiff university, and he has agreed to come to my constituency in the autumn to visit Glamorgan university’s hydrogen centre and Swansea university’s Technium centre and new science campus, which will be based largely in my constituency.

On the theme of the knowledge economy and creating new, sustainable jobs for the future, my Committee has begun its inquiry on digital inclusion, and we will visit Bangor university to see how higher education is addressing the social and economic challenges facing us. We may also need to consider seriously the role of broadcasting within that inquiry, given the impact of digitisation on the Welsh economy and the democratic deficit. Lord Carter’s interim report, “Digital Britain”, which was published in January, is a matter of concern for us all, not least because as a reserved matter broadcasting is a concern for my Committee.

Finally, I shall turn to my Committee’s new responsibility to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of LCOs emanating from the Welsh Assembly Government. After 18 months of hard work and much learning by everyone, we have established a pattern of work that is now working reasonably well. We have excellent working relationships with

Welsh Assembly Government Ministers, Assembly Committees and the Wales Office—I see a wry smile on the faces of the two Ministers on the Front Bench.

We are about to undertake work on two important LCOs, and I am somewhat dismayed that so far no mention has been made of an important LCO on carers. It is to the credit of the Welsh Assembly Government and the Assembly Member for Llanelli, Helen Mary Jones, who initiated this particular LCO, that this is coming before us. We should recognise and respect the right of the Welsh Assembly Government to prioritise its policies and propose legislation. This particular LCO—I declare an interest as a vice-president of Carers UK and the sponsor of the Carers (Equal Opportunities) Act 2004—will affect nearly 1 million people in Wales, so it is a matter of some consequence.

I have said publicly, and will repeat, that we will undertake our work thoroughly and, in the words of Erskine May, “in an expeditious manner” and in partnership with our colleagues in the Assembly. I have already had meetings with Dr. Dai Lloyd, the Assembly Member whose committee deals with the carers’ LCO, and with Mr. Mark Isherwood, the Assembly Member whose committee deals with the Welsh language LCO. At five o’clock this afternoon, I will have a meeting with the Culture Minister, Mr. Alun Ffred Jones, and in a few weeks I shall meet Meri Hughes, the chair of the Welsh Language Board. I am delighted to announce that, on the same day, she will also be prepared to meet all Welsh MPs here in the House.

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