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4.57 pm

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South): I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, not least because St. David's day is my birthday, which is good for a Labour politician in Wales, but also because about five weeks ago I thought for a split second that I would not be able to speak ever again, when someone in another car in Cardiff decided to share my side of the road for a few seconds, and lost. I want to say publicly how well the emergency services of Cardiff and south Wales dealt with the accident, especially the accident and emergency department. Despite the doom and gloom that we hear from Conservative Members, A and E did a magnificent job for me and for the poor occupants of the other vehicle. The doom and gloom that we keep hearing about is not relevant. The police, the fire brigade, the ambulance service and the A and E people did a magnificent job for everyone involved.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca–Davies), who made a magnificent speech. The constituency problems he described are similar to those I experience: both constituencies are landlocked, and in both cases the ending of a mining tradition has left a legacy of poverty and deprivation. I think we are all here to try to put that right, and I wish my hon. Friend luck.

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I want to raise two issues of specific interest to north-east Wales, and relating directly to Wrexham. I represent roughly half that area, but my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who is present, may wish to speak later and to raise the same issues.

My first point relates to city status for Wrexham. As Members will know, throughout Wales Wrexham is considered to be the premier industrial, commercial shopping and administrative centre of north Wales. The area's achievements over the past decade are worthy of the recognition and honour that city status would confer on every resident, business, organisation and group that has helped it to create its new positive future.

Besides being the largest town in north Wales, Wrexham is now truly the regional centre of the north. South Wales has two urban civic cities, Cardiff and Swansea, but there is no northern equivalent. City status for Wrexham would help to correct a long-overdue imbalance in Wales.

Economically, Wrexham's fortunes have undergone a transformation in recent years, by any measure. City status would constitute an acknowledgement of a sustained period of achievement in the town's regeneration. That achievement is due to the drive and purpose of its people, and to partnerships developed with private and public bodies. For example, on average one new company is established each week in the Wrexham area. The hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) should note that: although we heard some doom and gloom from him, there are good stories to tell, especially in areas such as Wrexham.

Chris Ruane: I am glad that my hon. Friend is seeking to correct the imbalance created by the Conservatives. Last year in my county of Denbighshire, 44 new companies were started in Ruthin and 24 in Rhyl, with the help of the council and other agencies. That is a marvellous example of the expansion of the small and medium-sized enterprise base in Wales.

Mr. Jones: I am pleased to hear such news of another centre in north Wales. It may not be quite as big and prosperous as Wrexham, but I know that with the help of its Member of Parliament it will improve in the near future.

Development opportunities in Wrexham's town centre are eagerly sought, which reflects the confidence and vitality of the town and the surrounding area. The Henley centre for forecasting described Wrexham as one of the top 20 areas in Britain with above-average potential for economic activity during the 1990s. It has more than fulfilled its expectations, and continues to move from strength to strength.

So far the campaign for city status has proved a great success, and we are delighted with the Wales-wide support that we have received for our bid. To date, 56 per cent. of Members in Wales—excluding those on the Government payroll—have supported the granting of city status in this jubilee year. To that can be added the support of all five Members of the European Parliament representing Wales, 75 per cent. of Welsh local authorities and 61 per cent. of Members of the National Assembly. Given the expressions of support from thousands of people in all walks of life—those working in television, sport, business and tourism, health professionals and

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religious leaders—we begin to see a huge momentum gathering in favour of a just reward for Wrexham and, indeed, north Wales.

City status would enable Wrexham to be seen as a location for quality and opportunity, not just locally and regionally but internationally. It would allow the town to compete in the global economy, and it would help the area to attract more new investment and to build on its strengthening economic base by bringing in high-quality jobs. The area would be enriched, to the general benefit of the people. I urge the Secretary of State, as he considers which Welsh town to recommend for city status in the coming weeks, to reflect not just on what such status would deliver for the people of Wrexham but, more important, on what it would deliver for Wales as a whole. It is time to redress the imbalance between north Wales and south Wales.

The second issue I want to raise concerning Wrexham is not unrelated. It involves the future of the North East Wales institute of higher education, and its ambition to achieve university status. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met its principal, Professor Mike Scott, to discuss the prospects of that.

I endorse NEWI's ambition. Let me say at the outset that there remains an important role for the more traditional so-called supply-led universities, such as Cardiff and Bangor, in higher education in the wider national Welsh context. I believe, however, that there is also a real need for a new type of university in north Wales to meet the needs of local people, and I sincerely believe that NEWI can serve that purpose. It has the potential to work in partnership and alliance not just with the supply-led colleges in the university of Wales, but with its partners in the further education sector and in business, commerce, the arts and sport.

NEWI has a progressive and innovative vision that can be realised in its development as an independent entity with university status. Wrexham and north-east Wales need a new, high-quality university, and NEWI can fill that role with ease. I urge my right hon. Friend to think again about its ambition at the earliest opportunity.

Let me now deal with a matter that has concerned me for some time. It has come back into focus only recently, as a result of a campaign with which I have been involved in my constituency. My concern relates to the serious matter of balance in news coverage and current affairs programmes broadcast on the Welsh-language channel SpedwarC, or S4C. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware of those concerns, as I have copied to him recent correspondence that I have sent to the chair of S4C, Elan Closs Stephens.

I have genuine worries about the existence of a policy among S4C news and current affairs producers and editors effectively to exclude non-Welsh speaking MPs and Assembly members from coverage on their various programmes. Hon. Members may know of the campaign that I have fought to save Britain's oldest brand of lager, Wrexham Lager. It has received considerable coverage in recent weeks on independent networks and on BBC regional television and radio. As a natural consequence, the story also attracted much interest from producers and editors making news and current affairs programmes for S4C.

However, although my office received several calls from S4C production teams, my staff were asked only to provide background information for the story and to

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suggest only Welsh speakers for interview on camera about the story. I became concerned that there was a possibility that S4C was operating a policy of linguistic apartheid when reaching editorial decisions. I certainly hope that such decisions are not based on a politician's ability to speak fluent Welsh, but all the indications are that that, sadly, may be the case at S4C. What other hon. Friends have told me reinforces that view.

As a result of my fears, I recently made some very interesting inquiries of TG4, the Irish-language national television channel of the Republic of Ireland. TG4 mirrors the function and the role of S4C in the Republic by providing a daily Irish-language programme schedule.

I was amazed to discover that non-Irish speaking politicians are not excluded from any news programmes on the basis that they cannot speak Irish. Indeed, in such circumstances, TG4 simply subtitles any interview or contribution. The only criterion for the broadcast of a news item is newsworthiness.

As an interesting aside, thanks to the endeavours of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his previous job as Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, TG4 is now broadcast in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend's crucial and important part in securing peace through the Good Friday agreement now means that TG4 is broadcast for Irish speakers across the border in Northern Ireland. I am sure, therefore, that he is all too familiar with what I am describing.

Sadly, in Wales newsworthiness and balance do not seem to be taken into account by S4C producers and editors when they make editorial decisions. Language seems to be the overriding and determining factor in deciding the news agenda. That cannot be a healthy way to present news and factual programming, as it limits and restricts opinion. In any case, it does not reflect the Welsh nation as a whole.

S4C claims that it does as much as possible to help learners of the Welsh language. I know from my own experience of trying to learn Welsh and Spanish that the best way for television to help language learners is through the use of subtitles. In this case, subtitles should be both Welsh-English and English-Welsh.

It is sad that on this day—the eve of St. David's Day, and of my birthday—S4C is leaving itself wide open to accusations of imbalance in news reporting. I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to raise this matter at the earliest opportunity with the chair of the channel, and to establish once and for all that S4C serves the entire Welsh nation, irrespective of linguistic competency. I have supported S4C in the past as a valuable asset in Welsh life. A change in news and current affairs policy such as I have described would reinforce my support.

In conclusion, I should briefly like to deal with the work in this House of the Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I have the privilege to be the Chairman. We recently examined the shameful decision of the Children's Society to withdraw from Wales, a decision that angered many people in Wales. The Committee was not impressed by the society's reasons for pulling out of Wales, and the subsequent report emphasised that the society's action must not be seen as a green light for other charities to follow suit.

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The House should know that our inquiry exposed some major flaws in the decision-making process adopted by the Children's Society. The Committee concluded that the adoption of the recent recommended code of practice by the voluntary sector in Wales could prevent such mistakes in the future.

Currently, the Committee is looking at the important issue of objective 1 funding for Wales, which was mentioned earlier. We are also receiving evidence on broadband internet provision. The Committee will be happy to hear evidence from anyone on those issues, and on the question of the operation of the legislative process in Wales, and its potential, following devolution.

I assure the House that relations and co-operation between the Welsh Affairs Committee and the National Assembly are very constructive indeed. That is a testament to the success and the drive of the devolutionary policies of this Government. This House can be satisfied that self-government for Wales and the relationship between Westminster and Cardiff go from strength to strength. The message is clear—devolution is working for Wales.

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