Government's Legislative Programme

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Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that one reason why voters become disillusioned—perhaps he touches on it in referring to Quebec—is that politicians do not tell the truth and do not make clear their constitutional and economic objectives? Will he spell out how his party would pay for its programme? What are his party's constitutional objectives? Do they or do they not include withdrawing Wales from the United Kingdom—yes or no?

Mr. Thomas: When the hon. Gentleman's Government were elected in 1997, they failed to tell the people of the United Kingdom that, for two or three years, they would stick to the tax and spending plans of the previous Conservative Government, failed to invest in public services—the subject of our debate—and spent even less on public services as a proportion of gross domestic product than the Conservatives. That is why I found disillusionment over the state of public services on the doorsteps. The hon. Gentleman's party has failed the voters of Wales, and failed to be honest with them about its intentions. That is a lesson that he and his party will have to learn. I did not find any disillusionment in Wales about my party. In the context of a declining voter turnout, the only party in Wales to increase its vote by 40,000 and to get its best ever general election result was my party—the party of Wales. So I do not think that there is any confusion among voters about where we stand or where we want to take Wales in future.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that disillusionment runs so high in his party that five councillors in Rhondda Cynon Taff have today absconded to set up their own independent movement?

Mr. Thomas: Well, there are four, not five, but let us not quibble about numbers. One of those councillors was a Labour councillor before he joined the Plaid Cymru group. He has been everywhere, just like the hon. Gentleman. There should be no preaching about party switching in Rhondda. We know which people switch parties in Rhondda, and we know what the result of that is.

As the hon. Gentleman knows all too well, Rhondda Cynon Taff council has been given a clean bill of health by the district auditor following many years of being slammed while the Labour party failed abjectly to run the authority. If members of local councils do not like what has been done in their name, they are perfectly entitled to become independent councillors. However, if they do so, they cease to be members of the Plaid Cymru group.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the explanation of the rise—as he claims—in the Plaid Cymru vote at the general election is simpler than he might wish to admit? In my constituency, it fell compared with the Assembly elections. Plaid members voted Labour in 1997 because they realised that that was the only way that they could get the Assembly. They realised that Plaid Cymru in that sense, as in many others, was irrelevant. Does that not demonstrate what an opportunist party the hon. Gentleman represents?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Lady is an opportunist Member. Her point does not demonstrate anything of the kind, because our vote went up on a declining turnout. That is not a claim; it is a fact. The hon. Lady will be able to read it for herself in the ``Wales Yearbook''.

I would like to move on—

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) rose—

Mr. Thomas: If the hon. Gentleman really wants to continue on the theme of the general election, let us have him in.

Lembit Öpik: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. My question is brief and it could receive a simple answer. He seemed unwilling to answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), but will he please clarify for me why he considers there to be no inconsistency in signing a written arrangement with a party in Scotland whose raison d'etre is to separate Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Thomas: I am delighted to give a simple answer to that question; there is one clear reason. Both our parties have one, clear principle: the people of Wales and the people of Scotland should decide their futures. It is for those people, not—this is where I differ from the hon. Gentleman's party—the UK population as a whole or this Parliament to decide. The sovereignty rests with the people of Scotland and Wales.

The Chairman: Order. There is nothing, as far as I can recall, in the Gracious Speech about election turnout. Hon. Members might discuss matters in the Queen's Speech that relate to election turnout, but the debate about election turnout should now end.

Mr. Thomas: Thank you, Mr. Griffiths, for steering us back to the path. I would be delighted to debate the matter much further. However, there should have been something in the Queen's Speech about how to get more people involved in politics.

Mindful of your strictures, Mr. Griffiths, let us examine what was not in the Queen's Speech. I must echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, following the trend that I began with his predecessor, which I am sure I will continue. It was disappointing that there was not more help for agriculture, particularly tourism, which is feeling the effects of the foot and mouth crisis.

It is especially difficult to understand why a full public inquiry into foot and mouth has not been announced. We need that; no one will lose by it. It is ignominious to have this debate, like that over BSE, with one side blaming the other. The fact is that the outbreak was a crisis in agriculture. We do not know where it came from, and we are not convinced about how it was handled. There were reports in yesterday's press that its impact could have been halved by a different approach from the chief veterinary officer. We need a public inquiry to be able to be sure about where that approach was taking us, and I hope that we get it. I am disappointed that we have to bang on about it all the time; we should not need to do so.

The Queen's Speech indicated a significant change with regard to public services, and a significant enhancement of the role of the private sector in delivering public services in Wales. It is worthwhile for us to debate that, because the Secretary of State said that there was nothing fundamentally wrong about involving the private sector in that way. I do not disagree with him; I have never advocated using direct labour organisations to build hospitals, for example. There is nothing wrong with the private sector in that context. The question is how we use the private sector, how we pay for its services and how we ensure that the efficiency of the public sector does not become a sort of Railtrack, changing the parameters of the services themselves? Privatisation has taught us the lesson that we should ask such questions.

The right hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Howarth) made the point that the private sector is not necessarily more efficient or better at running services than the public sector. I agree with him. If we look at the United States, we find that privately managed hospitals spend 34 per cent. of their costs on administration, compared with 12 per cent. in the national health service. In Australia—whose experience is more like ours—the private sector, which has been brought into public sector hospitals, throws up its hands and leaves certain operations or treatments as soon as it sees that it cannot make money from them. It has all sorts of ways of retreating. It can turn into another company, it can go bankrupt, it can do all sorts of things to get out of its contract. The public sector never does that. It is always there to deliver public services free at the point of need. That is a clear principle that we should bear in mind.

We must think about what the private sector will get out of this relationship with the public sector. The answer is profit. There is nothing wrong with that, but the question is whether excessive profit can be made from investment in the public sector. How much public sector money is going into a particular project, and how much does that create by way of profit motive for the private sector? We must ask every time whether it would not be cheaper and better in the public sector. We have already had a debate on the private finance initiative. Such a mechanism could take us forward, but the reason for its use is more to do with public sector borrowing and debt requirements and the way that the Government want to run the economy as a whole than with any real benefits to the local community.

The Under-Secretary mentioned Penweddig school in my constituency, and very welcome it is too. However, at local level, we face an invidious choice: a new school or hospital via PFI or nothing at all. That means that we shall say, ``Yes, thank you. We will have that'', but what will happen in 20, 25 or 30 years' time? I am concerned to ensure that if contracts are let, they are flexible enough to allow the public sector to dictate what happens in the buildings that result. Given what has happened in the health service in the past 30 years—how treatment that formerly took weeks or months now takes only a day or two—it would be remiss of us to draw up binding contracts that do not allow the public services to be flexible in responding to new needs.

We should also bear in mind that private sector health care is under-regulated and under-controlled; we do not have the facts and figures on it as we do for public sector health care. One of the few figures that I have been able to obtain concerns admissions. Last year, there were 142,000 admissions to NHS hospitals from private sector hospitals. Treatment that started as private had to end up, in 142,000 cases, in the NHS, being paid for by the taxpayer. Everyone has a right to free care, but these people started off in private care and, presumably because of some sort of deficiency, had to be transferred.

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