Legislative Programme

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The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the matter of the Government's legislative programme as outlined in the Queen's Speech as it relates to Wales.

I begin by paying tribute to you, Mr. Griffiths, as the new Chairman of the Welsh Grand Committee. You and I were elected to the House of Commons on the same day. You have had a distinguished career not just in the House, but in the European Parliament, where you were a vice-president, and as a Minister of the Crown in the old Welsh Office. You have enormous experience, which you will bring profitably to us all in the Committee. I am sure that every member of the Committee, irrespective of party, welcomes your appointment.

I also welcome all new Members of the House to the Committee. It is unusual for a Welsh Grand Committee to sit so early in a new Session of Parliament, so it is good to see that all the new Welsh Members are present, particularly as there has been an unusually high turnover of MPs. The Committee will be enriched by their presence. I pay similar tribute to the oldies—people such as myself—who have been returned to the House. I wish them well in the new Parliament.

The role of the Welsh Grand Committee needs to be examined occasionally and we need to reflect on why we meet in the House according to such a format. It is important that we meet in this way. Everyone knows that 40 Members of Parliament represent the people of Wales in the House, and our Committee gives us an opportunity, which has perhaps become more significant since devolution, to talk about various matters, some of which may be devolved, but which have a resonance for us all because we are public representatives.

The reserved matters for which the Government are responsible also have a particular significance in Wales. That is why it is especially appropriate that we discuss the Queen's Speech, which covers both devolved and non-devolved areas, in the Welsh Grand Committee. The Committee is a forum that enables us to hold such discussions and to ensure that we represent our constituents by raising issues that affect them. In the half hour during which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I took questions, most members of the Committee raised issues that affect their constituencies, and it is right that that should happen. Our Committee gives Members representing Welsh constituencies the opportunity to get together.

It is also important that the Committee should occasionally meet in Wales. I do not suggest that we should always meet in Cwmbran, but it was helpful when we did. We should meet in every part of Wales—north, south and mid-Wales. Meeting in Wales would allow us to liaise with our colleagues in the National Assembly, who, like hon. Members, are elected to represent the people of Wales.

I was a little disappointed at the actions last week of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). Although Wales has no Conservative Members of Parliament, a lot of people voted Conservative and it is important that their voice is heard in the Committee. For the life of me, I cannot understand why a Conservative Member of Parliament would not want to give members of his party an opportunity to attend the Committee. What happened was a bit of a farce. When asked about the matter, Conservative central office issued a press release, which was quoted in the Western Mail:

    ``The party has more important things to worry about until we have a new leader.''

I hope that the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) will convey to his hon. Friends the importance of their attending the Committee and making a contribution. On this occasion, we have rescued them and allowed them to attend the debate, but that message should get home.

Every Member of Parliament who represents a Welsh constituency should have received the same message during the general election. It was encapsulated in the opening sentences of the Gracious Speech, which states:

    ``My Government's central objectives are economic stability and investment and reform in public services leading to a more prosperous and inclusive society.''

It continues:

    ``To this end my Government will continue to secure low inflation and sound public finances . . . My Government's main priorities for the forthcoming Session will be reform in education, health, crime and welfare.''

Those messages came home to every one of us in the general election.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I refer the Secretary of State to the next paragraph, which states:

    ``It will provide new opportunities for school sponsorship.''

What is meant by that?

Mr. Murphy: It is important to consider how the legislation will apply to Wales, but, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall come to education later.

Our role in the devolution settlement is to fulfil two functions in respect of devolved matters: first, to ensure that we get the resources, which I shall come to in a moment, and, secondly, to provide the legislative tools to enable the Assembly to go about its business in delivering the services that it is charged to deliver. On non-devolved matters, we shall play our part in the House of Commons and as legislators.

On the doorsteps, people made little of who delivered the services, provided that they were delivered. After two years of devolution, they are aware that there are matters for the Assembly to deliver, but that did not prevent the people whom we represent from talking to us about hospitals, schools and public services.

The Prime Minister's message in the House of Commons last week about delivery applies just as much to Wales as to England, but in a different form. The Assembly is conscious that it needs to deliver the services, because, in two years, its Members will also have to face the Welsh electorate.

We all understand why the Labour party was returned with a majority of 167 for a second, historic term, and the same number of Labour Members were elected in Wales in 2001 as in 1997. That is unprecedented in the political history of Wales, and we need to re-emphasise why the people of Wales decided to give Labour that second large majority.

I do not say that we were not disappointed with the turnout; we were. It dropped in every constituency, and in some more than others. All parties must address that fact in the next two years, because fewer and fewer people are turning out to vote. That is true of not only the previous election, but the 1997 election. We do not want it to happen again in the National Assembly elections, the local government elections or, for that matter, the next general election. Indeed, a subject for future debate in the Committee may be how we can best involve people in Wales in the political process and life of our nation.

However, the low turnout does not discount the vastness of our victory or the reasons behind it. It happened because people believed that the Government had introduced economic stability, which we sometimes take for granted. We were able to increase the resources for the National Assembly from £8 billion to £10 billion, because we established the backbone of economic stability.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Murphy: In a moment. It is crucial that interest rates have been kept down, that mortgages are as low as they have been for many years and that inflation is also low. I know that my hon. Friend is bound to agree with everything I have said.

Mr. Jones: My right hon. Friend is correct; I agree with everything, but wish to add something. We delivered not only an increased budget, but money to Wales over and above Barnett in order to take in objective 1, and it is on the delivery of objective 1 that I want to question him.

The delivery of objective 1 in Wales is primarily the responsibility of the Minister for Economic Development, Mike German. Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read either the independent report by the Welsh Joint Education Committee, which alleges fraud and is now properly a matter for the police, or the second report on the governance and financial management of the European unit of the WJEC, run by Mike German, which alleges incompetence? Such a cloud over the person primarily concerned with the delivery of objective 1 money is clearly a matter of concern.

Lembit Ipik (Montgomeryshire): On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. Is it in order for hon. Members to make a point alleging fraud when the police are investigating?

The Chairman: As far as I am aware, no court case is taking place and, because such comments are merely allegations, they can be raised in Committee in that way.

Mr. Murphy: As I said in Question Time, the objective 1 programme will be hugely important for both rural and urban Wales. The fact that 289 projects have already been approved in the first year, which represents about £400 million altogether, is of tremendous significance to us all. It would not be right for me to comment here on my hon. Friend's point about the Deputy First Minister. I have received the report, although I have not had an opportunity to read it, and I believe that the position in the Assembly with regard to any investigation has been made perfectly clear.

As well as the economic stability that has been achieved by the Government, other measures have been introduced, which are important because they apply throughout the United Kingdom, not just in Wales. The fact that we introduced the minimum wage and the working families tax credit, that child benefit has increased and that we have helped pensioners in so many ways is important for Welsh people. I say to hon. Members who represent rural constituencies that those measures are just as important to someone who lives in the middle of rural Wales as to someone who lives in the middle of a valley, city or seaside resort. They have helped people throughout Wales, and it is important that we recognise that.

That is the background, so what about the Gracious Speech and how it affects Wales? It is important to emphasise that all our proposals are backed by the general situation that I have just described.

 
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Prepared 3 July 2001