Pre-Budget Statement (Implications for Wales)

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Alan Howarth (Newport, East): The work of the Assembly Member for Newport, East, my friend and colleague John Griffiths, has been wholly admirable. The responsibility is being well attended to under present arrangements.

Mr. Evans: I do not doubt that for a second, but Rhodri Morgan holds the economic secretary's portfolio as well as the leadership. It is about time that he gave one job up and allowed someone else to do a dedicated job of meeting the needs of businesses in Wales.

I shall speak briefly about Swansea airport. What is happening there is most exciting. Everyone knows that I originate from Swansea and I remember its airport once being like a glorified car boot sale. It is now under new ownership and much money is being invested. West Wales is one of the most disadvantaged areas in the country, so a vibrant airport operating in Swansea could provide a tremendous boost to other parts of west Wales.

For some strange reason, development seems to stop at Cardiff. The time gap between Cardiff and Swansea acts as a disadvantage and a disincentive for people to invest. I hope that the Secretary of State will soon visit Swansea airport. Air Wales now runs a successful operation between Dublin and Swansea. Flights to Cork have already commenced and flights to Jersey will start soon. If we could encourage a London-Swansea route, other business people might start to view Wales more seriously as worthy of investment—perhaps even further west than Swansea. We should provide as much encouragement as possible to Swansea airport.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does the hon. Gentleman therefore agree with initiatives, with which I am associated, to create a regional airport for Wales by using existing facilities and upgrading them?

Mr. Evans: We know that the hon. Gentleman is a high flier himself and that sometimes he comes down with a crash landing. I would appreciate any help that any hon. Member can provide to improve the transport system in Wales, which includes Swansea and other airports throughout the country. I refer expressly to Swansea airport because I know it and because it has been lumbered with many disadvantages in the past.

I cannot do justice to the national health service in the time allowed. We all know that waiting lists are much higher than they were four and a half years ago. The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) spoke of a 900 per cent. increase, which is totally unforgivable. We must consider how better to spend our money. Jane Hutt's reforms—replacing the five area health authorities with 22 local health bodies, 12 health partnerships and three regional members' offices—are not the answer. The NHS Confederation in Wales said that the plans would make the NHS

    ``less accountable, offer worse value for money and consist of too many separate bodies''.

We should examine how to ensure that the £49 million, so proudly announced by the Secretary of State, is effectively deployed. Between 22 bodies, it will be little more than £2 million each—hardly any money at all. It could be much better centred and controlled. Setting up 22 local health bodies with a commissioning role will not help.

Will the Minister explain what happened to the NHS (Wales) Bill, which was mentioned in the Queen's Speech? Are we to expect more to follow the NHS reforms that have already been mentioned?

The total cost of alleviating the disaster of foot and mouth disease that has befallen the United Kingdom, including compensation to farmers, was £2.7 billion. The Government said that if the disease had been better controlled from the outset, the number of animals that had to be culled could have been cut by half, which would have been an enormous saving to the Treasury and the agriculture industry. It is a crying shame that the Prime Minister is intent on not having a full public inquiry. The matter was raised at Prime Minister's Question Time today. It is right that the Government set up an inquiry into BSE; the Conservative Government was wrong not to do so. But it is right, too, for the Government to set up an immediate inquiry into foot and mouth, because it has enormous cost implications and there are repercussions throughout the United Kingdom. It is amazing that we may have to wait until the European Parliament sets up an independent inquiry before there is a full and thorough answer to what befell this country and before recommendations are made on how better to manage a further outbreak.

There has been a lot of spin; we need more assistance to help businesses throughout Wales to create the money that the Chancellor announced for spending on public services. We want the public services to deliver better for Wales than they are doing at present. We need to help our businesses so that we can help our public services.

4.56 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Bearing in mind what you said, Mr. Griffiths, I shall try to keep my contribution brief and let other hon. Members speak. I should have been delighted to take part in a debate with the grim reaper, the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr, on the gloom and doom in Wales, a country that I did not recognise in earlier comments. However, I want to clarify what I thought was a misleading point about gross domestic product per capita in Wales. There is no question but that GDP has been growing steadily since the election of a Labour Government in 1997. The discussion about relative growth in GDP is a completely different debate and I hope that that is made clear on the record.

I should like to have taken part in a debate with the jolly miller, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who is prepared to go into the euro at any cost, whatever damage it does to the economy. He wanted the Chancellor to start spending frivolously from day one of a Labour Government, before we could assess the damage that had been done to the country by the most financially incompetent Government we had probably ever seen.

Mrs. Lawrence: For clarification, it is worthwhile dwelling on the hon. Gentleman's point that, if GDP elsewhere rises faster than in Wales, Wales will fall back relative to the average, even though Welsh GDP may be rising. Opposition Members ignored that fact this morning.

Mr. Smith: I accept my hon. Friend's point. I was delighted with the Chancellor's statement and with the statement this morning about the impact on Wales, which is good news for my constituents. There will be continued, dramatic improvements on top of the nearly 70 per cent. drop in youth unemployment in the Vale of Glamorgan.

At Welsh questions recently, I drew attention to the dramatic decline in crime. There is a direct correlation between the improvement in youth unemployment and the corresponding decline in crime. Unemployment is down nearly 40 per cent. in my constituency and many families and individuals there will benefit enormously and directly from the Chancellor's statement. Approximately 13,500 pensioners and 12,200 families are in receipt of one of the new tax credits.

I want to return to the relative difference in GDP growth in Wales compared to the rest of the UK, because we must tackle that issue. The Chancellor referred to it in his speech—he spoke about regional development strategies to tackle the iniquity of varying growth rates in different regions of a fairly small country, which we should take seriously.

I shall focus on the existing transport infrastructure, to which the Chancellor referred, which is a major problem in Wales. One reason why we fell back in the 18 years of Tory misrule was precisely because of the lack of investment in our railways and roads to make us an integral part of the UK and European marketplace. One of the most important considerations for any investor, apart from costs in general, is access to the market. Being seen as on the periphery of the market because it is not possible to get a train or to drive there quickly enough is a serious problem. I recognise that most of the functions of transport investment and transport infrastructure have been devolved. I know that a statement has been produced by the Assembly on a vision for transport. Aspects of that statement worry me a little. There is no mention of two of the most important and biggest transport and road investments that we should receive in Wales if we want to narrow that gap.

One area that does affect the House and the Committee is regional airports and airport strategy. I never thought I would, but I agree with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) about Swansea. Having a viable airport network in Wales is not a luxury, but a necessary condition for the regeneration of the Welsh economy. We need a viable international airport as part of our infrastructure. If we do not tackle that problem, we will not grow as an economy in the way that we should in Wales. We are in danger of slipping back. It is not just a question of attracting new investment and new jobs. We may lose existing investment in Wales if we are not seen to have an airport that can provide us with the business links that will be essential in the 21st century.

We have a modern airport. I am sure that my colleagues on both sides of the Committee Room have seen it. It has the capacity to take up to 4 million passengers per year. It has modern baggage handling. It looks like an international airport, but it is not. We do not have regular scheduled business flights or any flights throughout the world, as it is predominantly charter business; until we do, we have a serious problem. The White Paper on aviation is coming out next year after the Chancellor's Budget statement. That is an area where we in this House can make a contribution. That White Paper looks specifically at the development of regional airports and what we need to do to create viable regional airports and hub airports within those regions to feed into the centre and then to feed out internationally.

We have an influence over rail transport through the Strategic Rail Authority. The Vale of Glamorgan line will skirt the airport. If we provide a proper link, a spur or some sort of access, we can get the passengers to the airport. If we cannot find a way of getting them to the airport, we will never achieve our objective, which is shared by the overwhelming majority of Welsh businesses and business leaders. The Cardiff chamber of commerce puts the creation of a viable international airport as its number one transport objective in Wales.

The most important aspect is to provide within the next five years surface road access to that airport, linking it to the motorway. I am not too bothered whether we do that with a dual carriageway, a separate road, or a direct motorway link. If we do not find a way of providing that road within the next five years for the Welsh economy's sake, we will have a serious problem, but it is noticeably absent from the transport document. We can use the White Paper as a mechanism to make representations to the responsible bodies to ensure that we get the road. There is no question about the priority that it should have.

The Cardiff chamber of commerce recently produced a report saying without any equivocation that an international airport is the key asset in any regional development initiative. There is not a single region in the world that has successfully regenerated its economy or generated it from scratch without an international airport.

I shall finish, reluctantly, by citing last Monday's statement by Digby Jones, the Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry and probably the single most influential business person in the country, at a meeting of leading Welsh business figures and the great and the good just across the road from here. He says that, to the best of his knowledge, Cardiff international airport is the only airport in the world that feeds a capital city where someone can be stuck behind a milk float for nine miles trying to reach it. I hope that my hon. Friends will think about this issue and that the Minister will address it.

5.6 pm

 
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Prepared 28 November 2001