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Mr. Öpik: Does my hon. Friend agree that sparsity considerations make it more expensive to cater for the social needs of the elderly in rural areas such as mid-Wales and that it is important that the Government are sensitive to that? Otherwise, they create elderly ghettoisation, which exacerbates the life expectancy and health problems that he describes.
Mr. Livsey: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but, as he knows, that problem already exists in many areas. Indeed, where post offices have closed, elderly people cannot go to collect their pensions. I know that they can get them through the post, but that contributes to closures of even more post offices. The blame for that lies both with the previous and present Governments. They have both closed an awful lot of sub-post offices.
Children and young people are disproportionately affected by social exclusion. Thirty-seven per cent. of children live in poverty--in a household with well below 50 per cent. of average income, which currently stands at £200 a week. More than 5 per cent. leave school at
Young people aged 16 to 18 are excluded from the national minimum wage. I am a member of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which investigated social exclusion. We met that problem head on in interviews with young people. They must get fair treatment and assistance to earn the full minimum wage. Few young people have access to a car, so they are particularly affected by the lack of public transport.
The rate of teenage pregnancy is particularly high in Wales. The vulnerability of children who are looked after by local authorities has been highlighted by the north Wales child abuse tribunal. It is important to remember that children in care and those leaving care are highly vulnerable. We are starting to attack that problem, rightly, with the establishment of a Children's Commissioner for Wales.
The crisis in agriculture and the disastrous decline in farm incomes have had a knock-on effect on the rural economy. Good jobs in the sector are in short supply. The rural population is ageing. As those of us in mid-Wales know, the average age of farmers in the area is 58. I do not know whether young people will replace them. We are losing an entire generation of young farmers, who are finding work elsewhere and, indeed, leaving our communities. A graphic figure has been quoted in a different context: between 1998 and 2000, 6,000 farmers left the land in Wales. That is the equivalent of the announcement by Corus last week on the steel industry: 6,000 people in England and Wales as a whole will have to leave the industry.
There is a crisis in both manufacturing and farming. Wales overall depends on both sectors. The 3,000 job losses at Corus are supplemented by 550 job losses in the dairy manufacturing industry in Carmarthen and Cardiff. Welsh milk is to be bottled in Gloucestershire and sent back again. The environmental costs of that are frightening.
The problems with pay are serious. We have 28.3 per cent. of the population earning less than £250 a week. As a result of unemployment and low pay, many people in Wales depend on social security benefits. Twenty-five per cent. of households in Wales and nearly 500,000 people received income support or family credit in 1997, for example.
The Corus announcement comes on top of everything that I have referred to. We believe that many aspects of the Corus shutdown and the redundancies in the steel industry mean that there will be very little, if any, investment and a great decline in jobs.
There is a strong case for a management buy-out of the Ebbw Vale plant. It should be by a combination of management and work force. The Government should support that with investment money. We should start with Ebbw Vale and go through to Llanwern because, again, almost half the work force is going there.
It was stated over the weekend that Corus had no plans whatever for new investment in the steel industry. I agree with the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent--I do not think that there will be a steel industry left in five years. I am critical of the Government for allowing British Steel to be amalgamated into Corus, which was a fundamental error of judgment.
Steel is a fundamental part of our economy and we can have very little manufacturing without it. The Government must intervene in the matter, but that must not involve straightforward renationalisation. The work force have to be assisted to manage plants, perhaps by bringing in management, and to secure a profitable industry. There may have to be restructuring and the industry may have to be made more efficient, but that cannot happen without massive investment to make the industry more competitive.
Mr. Llew Smith: The hon. Gentleman talks about a management and workers' buy-out at Ebbw Vale. Although I have no knowledge of such a buy-out, he may be aware that Mr. Moffat, the chairman and chief executive of Corus, has said that he does not favour competition and that he will not accept a buy-out of any part of the industry. It seems ironic that people who oppose public ownership because they oppose monopolies and who support privatisation because they support competition do not favour competition when it is in their own backyards.
Mr. Livsey: I understand why the hon. Gentleman says that. However, Corus's objective is to remove 3 million tonnes of steel from United Kingdom steel production. That figure has been chosen because it is the amount of UK steel production that is currently being exported unprofitably.
We cannot expect a very sympathetic response from some multinational companies. I worked for a multinational company for quite some time and I realise that some boardrooms will cut and run. I think that we are dealing with just such a boardroom in this case. Other boardrooms will co-operate and negotiate. In its announcement today, on Bridgend, Ford has given an example of the latter type of management. Hon. Members are wrong, however, if they think that Corus will negotiate; it will not. Corus will not even try to negotiate.
Mr. Smith: There is obviously a communication problem. I thought that the point of my comments was to make it clear that Corus is not going to negotiate with the Government, public representatives or trade unions. It is not going to negotiate, full stop. I was not implying that Corus will suddenly decide to negotiate on the possibility of allowing alternative ownership for plants being closed. Corus has categorically stated that it will not sell those plants. We therefore assume that it will knock down and clear away the buildings.
Mr. Livsey: The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that Corus is a public company. However, if the company is £1.6 billion in debt, as it is, and if an offer can be made, surely it would be better to pursue that option than to
There are many ways in which action can be taken. We have to encourage the development of skills in the work force. I should say, to be fair, that the National Assembly is taking some action to address that issue. We are committed to training programmes that will bring enormous benefits to the overall economy. However, it is essential that we have even more investment in education.
We must also reduce the gap between rich and poor, and not allow it to widen as happened under the previous, Conservative Government and is occurring even under this Government. However, I applaud the efforts being made, through the new deal and other measures, to try to plug the wealth gap.
More has to be done for pensioners and for people on low incomes to improve their quality of life. As the Welsh Affairs Committee's report makes clear, much more assistance must be given to poor nations and regions. Additionally, reform of the Barnett formula has to be based on needs themselves. We should help lower-paid people by reducing taxation for poor taxpayers. The Liberal Democrats' policy is to raise tax on those earning more than £100,000 and to redistribute it among those who are on very low incomes.
We hope to regenerate deprived rural and urban communities, wherever they are, and to boost local services by directing more money to the provision of high-quality services, such as those provided in post offices. We also believe in tackling social disadvantage by developing an inclusive society.
Liberal Democrat Members believe very strongly that the Assembly must have more power and that fundamental new primary legislation would enable us to take immediate action to abolish, for example, tuition fees for students. We could also take immediate action to provide free care for the elderly, as has happened in Scotland.
Such legislation would also enable us more strongly to encourage the Government to change employment law, to ensure that the type of disaster that Corus has thrust upon us does not happen again. There was an opportunity at the Nice summit to take action on that issue, but it did not happen. The Government must think again about providing our employees with greater protection. Additionally, corporation tax relief and national insurance tax relief should be available in hard-hit regions.
One of our fundamental problems is that, on 1 January 1999, we did not enter the eurozone. It is a massive problem which has aggravated the difficulties with the steel industry and the exchange rate. I disagree with hon. Members who believe that it has not been a problem. Steel is not profitable largely because of the exchange rate and our position outside the euro. Manufacturing and agricultural commodity prices, whether for milk, lamb or steel, have all been affected by the disparity. The Government have to tackle the problem.
About 20 years ago, 14,000 people were working in that plant in the constituency of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent. Today, we are bemoaning the loss of 1,250 jobs there. The massive productivity of the steelworkers has made those jobs much more precious. Wales's steelworkers have to be rewarded for their efforts. We must give them a hand up and help them as much as possible. If that requires direct Government intervention, so be it.