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6.8 pm

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South): I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on an issue that, for much of the past two years, has exercised the Welsh Affairs Committee and been the focus of our work. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) is not only a Committee member, but moved today's Opposition motion. Although I am pleased to be able today to debate and to defend the Government's action to tackle social exclusion in Wales, I am somewhat puzzled about Plaid Cymru's real reason and motive for initiating the debate.

On Monday 15 January 2001, the Welsh Affairs Committee published its much awaited report "Social Exclusion in Wales", which has attracted cross-party support in Wales. On that very day, in an interview with BBC Radio Wales, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said:

It is indeed a step in the right direction.

The hon. Gentleman went on to tell the BBC that he wanted to see both the Government and the National Assembly for Wales working together to tackle social exclusion. As he put it, he wanted to see "all agencies working together". In today's motion, however, he has demonstrated supreme impatience with and discourtesy to one of those partners, by criticising the Government before they have been able to give their considered response to the Committee's report. Allowing such a response to be made is not only a convention of the House, but the most sensible way of approaching serious and important matters such as social exclusion.

By tabling today's motion, Plaid Cymru is simply jumping the general election gun. I believe that Plaid Cymru Members are losing their nerve at the most critical moment because they see that we have put in place the new deal, achieved the lowest ever unemployment in Wales, helped 100,000 people in Wales with the minimum wage and created the pensioners' minimum income guarantee and the working families tax credit. Only today, we heard the Government's announcement on the child tax credit. Plaid Cymru has demonstrated possibly the worst case of premature elaboration seen in this House for many years.

Mr. Llwyd: I am not going on the record as a sufferer. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he knows as well as I do that it took nine months for the Government to

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respond to the last report. Frankly, that is not good enough. All Committee members were concerned about that; this debate may elicit an early response.

Mr. Jones: I agree, but the Government have not had time to respond to the report--they have had 21 days--so what he says is slightly disingenuous. Plaid Cymru wants things both ways. The motion castigates the Government for their alleged failure, yet it cannot wait for the Government to give a detailed response. That is not good enough.

Last June, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy rightly berated the Government, saying:

I agree. However, that does not mean that the Government can respond in 21 days.

Mr. Llwyd: Has the hon. Gentleman read the motion? It does not ask for a response within any given time; the motion merely "notes" certain matters.

Mr. Jones: That is a bit disingenuous. The hon. Gentleman must be expecting a response to a motion that asks the House to take note of a report. If he carries on at this rate, he will be demanding that the Government respond to our reports before we have even had the inquiries.

What have Plaid Cymru achieved by holding this debate today? If the motion is an attempt somehow to wrong-foot the Government, it has failed miserably. If it is a serious attempt to address the problems facing Wales, it has failed. The Welsh Affairs Committee has already had an inquiry into social exclusion and we now await the Government's response. If the motion is an attempt by Plaid Cymru to advance its own agenda on social exclusion, it has failed, on its own admission. I am sure the House will be delighted to learn that Plaid Cymru fully supported the recommendations of the report.

Let me not just criticise Plaid Cymru, however. At least its Members are here--all four of them. The official Opposition showed their contempt for the issue by having only two Members sitting on their Benches. I tell a lie; the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) popped in after 56 minutes, stayed for 25 minutes and has now disappeared.

Mr. Evans: My hon. Friend spoke more sense during his short contribution than the hon. Gentleman is speaking now.

Mr. Jones: Oh no, he didn't. That is the hon. Gentleman's opinion; I do not think any other Member of the House would agree.

Mr. Edwards: Could I remind my hon. Friend that when the hon. Member for Buckingham was on the Welsh Affairs Committee, he did at least attend the Committee? Would my hon. Friend confirm that the two Opposition Committee members during the social exclusion inquiry attended virtually no sittings whatever in the entire year?

Mr. Jones: My hon. Friend can say that; as the Chairman of the Committee, I could not possibly comment.

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One of the problems with having the debate today is that it is likely that the Liaison Committee will not now accept my bid for a debate on the report. Although we have very little time, I need to make a few points about the report.

The inquiry that led to our report started early in 1999--a few months before devolution--and continued until nearly the end of last year. It was one of the largest inquiries undertaken by the Committee, involving consultation with nearly 100 organisations, nine formal hearings and 11 days of visits throughout Wales. We also held three seminars--two with academics and one with representatives of ethnic minority groups in Cardiff--and an informal meeting, to which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) referred, with young people in Machynlleth. That was very enlightening. In addition, we visited the Republic of Ireland in March 2000, and the United States of America in June 2000.

Tackling social exclusion is a key area in which co-operation between the UK Government and the National Assembly for Wales is crucial. The National Assembly has responsibility for housing, health, transport, education and training and local government in Wales; but responsibility for social security benefits, taxation, the Employment Service, the regulation of financial services, the indirect management of the Post Office and the fight against crime all rest with the UK Government.

The Committee's main emphasis was on those areas for which the UK Government have responsibility. It is quite proper that, as a Committee of the UK Parliament, we should seek to examine most closely the activities of the UK Government. Equally, it would be difficult for us to carry out our scrutiny of the Government effectively without impinging from time to time on matters that are properly for the National Assembly for Wales.

The main area where we believe the Government can make a difference in tackling social exclusion in Wales is in tackling poverty and financial exclusion. By poverty, I mean the lack of money to buy the necessities of life and to participate fully in society. There is obviously scope for debate on what constitutes poverty and what constitute the necessities of life. The Government use an indicator of relative poverty to measure poverty--normally 50 per cent. of average incomes--but some of our witnesses argued for different definitions.

Whatever definition of poverty is used, it is all too clear that many people in Wales are poor. Unemployment in Wales is higher than in the UK as a whole, and the employment rate is lower. In some areas of Wales, such as Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, the proportion of the working-age population in employment is less than 60 per cent. However, there is no evidence of absolute poverty increasing and plenty of evidence of employment rising.

It is not only a matter of unemployment; for those who are in work, low pay contributes to poverty in Wales. Some 28.3 per cent. of full-time adult employees in Wales earn less than £250 a week, compared with 23.7 per cent. for Great Britain as a whole. We recommended the lower rate of the national minimum wage for 18 to 21-year-olds and entitlement to the minimum wage being extended to 16 and 17-year-olds, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire pointed out. I hope the Government will respond to that, although we would not expect a response today.

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The problem of poverty is further exacerbated by the fact that, for many poor people, the necessities of life are more expensive. Those who have no car often pay more for their food in local shops than they would if they could reach the out-of-town supermarket. Meter payment rates for gas and electricity are higher than the rates available to those who pay monthly by direct debit.

We believe that uplifting social security benefits is central to tackling social exclusion. At present, the benefits system allows people to survive, but does not lift them out of poverty. Although poverty is one of the most obvious causes, and one of the symptoms, of social exclusion, it is not the whole problem. People may be socially excluded because they are elderly; because they have a disability; because of poor education or language barriers; because they live in a remote area with poor amenities; or for a host of other reasons. It is important to bear in mind the fact that the problems that we are addressing are varied and complex, and we should not expect simple solutions to be effective.

Central to our report is the emphasis on local solutions within a national framework. During our visits in Wales, one of the common, positive themes that emerged was that the community spirit is very much alive and just needs a helping hand. We witnessed that in the Maes Geirchan estate, in Caia Park in Wrexham, at Llanelli Hill in Abergavenny, in the City of Swansea--

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