Entering the House after the high profile of a by-election is rather like having been head prefect in primary school, only to be plunged into the obscure anonymity of a secondary school new boy. I am confident that that fate awaits me when I sit down today.
It is an honour and a privilege to represent Neath, or Castell Nedd, whose importance dates from Roman and Norman times, and which has the cosiest town centre in Britain, surrounded by scenic valleys and majestic waterfalls, with, to the west, the a spectacular night-time view of Pontardawe’s unusually tall and striking church spire.
There is a strong sense of community, an immense network of voluntary activity, and a rich culture of amateur opera, music, and male voice and ladies’ choirs. On the eastern tip of the constituency is Richard Burton’s home village of Pontrhydyfen. Amateur sport is widespread—football, athletics and, of course, the best rugby team in country. Recently I was introduced to a class of nine-year-old children at Godrergraig primary school. The teacher said, “Here is a very important person.” One of the nine-year-olds got up and asked, “Do you play rugby for Neath?” That, I thought, was a man who had his priorities right.
I have enjoyed renewing my interests in the game at Neath’s home ground, the Gnoll. In my youth, that interest involved running on rugby pitches, both as a player and, later, in another capacity, which I shall refrain from describing, as this speech is made with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I am privileged in another way: I follow two Members, both survived by wives still living in Neath. Margaret Coleman is a highly respected figure in her own right in the community. Jenny Williams, now in her nineties, was a much-loved Labour party activist, and wife of D. J. Williams, who hailed from the close-knit village of Tairgwaith in the north-west of the constituency. In 1925, D. J. Williams wrote of the destructive impact of capitalism in the coal industry in terms that remain true today.
Donald Coleman’s tragically premature death was not just a bitter blow to his family; it deprived Neath of a favourite son, and this House of its finest tenor. Although I will do my best to follow in his footsteps as a diligent constituency MP, I am afraid I cannot hope to match his talent for music and song. The exuberance with which he sang and preached his love for Neath reflects the intense civic pride in the town and in the villages of the Dulais, Swansea, Amman, Neath and Pelenna valleys.
But local residents cannot survive on civic pride, mutual aid and mutual co-operation alone. They take great pride in educational achievement. I have met nobody in Neath who cannot remember how many O-levels he or she has. There is a great tradition of skill and hard work in Neath and its valleys. Much has been done in the face of Government indifference and neglect, but so much more could be done if the publicly sponsored investment in industry, infrastructure and initiative for which the people of Neath and its valleys are crying out were provided.
Surely Neath is entitled to the seedcorn investment, decent training provision and long-term loan finance that only national Government or the Welsh Office is able to provide. The old Blaenant colliery site —headgear still erect as a monument to the last pit in Neath; one of over 30 to close in the constituency in the last 30 years —nestles beneath the village of Crynant in the picturesque Dulais valley. The old Aberpergwm washery and pit site is just below the little village of Cwmgwrach in the Vale of Neath. Both are prime industrial sites, yet both stand idle, black and gaunt, their potential wasting away as 11 people chase every job vacancy, training places are cut to the bone, and businesses go bust. Nobody in Neath wants a free ride. People want simply the opportunity to build a new future.
That future must include high-quality health and community care provision. With its history of mining and heavy industry, the people of Neath suffer disproportionately from ill health. With a higher than average proportion of citizens of pensionable age—22 per cent. compared to 17.7 per cent. for Great Britain —there is a particular need for a properly funded health and community care network. Yet the Welsh Office and the Treasury have still not given the go-ahead for the new hospital that Neath so desperately needs, and West Glamorgan county council has been forced, under pain of poll tax capping, to close one of its old people’s homes.
Neath borough council, meanwhile, has had to spend an extra £523,000 on collecting the poll tax, compared with the cost of collecting the rates. On top of this, the borough had to install a new computer system for processsing the poll tax, at a cost of £300,000. Neath’s 16,000 pensioners are entitled to question the priorities of a society and a Government that waste such colossal sums of money while hospital waiting lists grow, and responsibility for community care is unceremoniously dumped on local authorities without the necessary resources to finance it.
How can we claim to be caring for citizens in need when the iniquity of the poll tax continues to penalise them so savagely? Even after the recent £140 reduction in the poll tax, residents in the Blaenhonddan area of Neath will be paying £113.66 a head. This is £85 more, incidentally, than I pay as a resident in Resolven, a few miles up the Neath valley, even though we are paying for the same local authority services, because of the discriminatory way the Welsh Office operates the transitional relief scheme.
One resident in the Blaenhonddan area—a woman from Bryncoch—is caring for her 83-year-old mother who has Parkinson’s disease. The mother has a tiny widow’s pension and has to pay the full £113. Their combined household poll tax bill is £339, yet both she and her husband are on tiny incomes which are so widespread in the Neath area. The hypocrisy of preaching community care while practising such a pernicious policy is not lost on that woman or her neighbours in Neath. Conservative Members who turn a blind eye to her predicament call to mind Thomas Paine’s summer soldier and sunshine patriot who in a crisis shrink from the service of their country.
How can the House claim to be safeguarding the interests of individuals such as a 72-year-old man from the village of Gwaun-cae-Gurwen, where the Welsh language is spoken with pride, whose eyesight deteriorates daily? He has waited 18 months for a cataract operation—a simple, cheap operation. Yet waiting lists for ophthalmic surgery at Singleton hospital have doubled since 1987, and there are now 1,400 local people like him awaiting in-patient treatment. Perhaps most outrageous of all, he was told that he could have the operation next week if he could go private at a cost of £3,000. He might as well have been invited to go to the moon, for that is a sum quite out of the question for someone living on the pittance that pensioners get today. He can be forgiven for noting with anger the grotesque fact that 200 people, just 0.0004 per cent. of the population, now monopolise 9.3 per cent. of the country’s economic wealth—some classless society indeed.
Meanwhile, the quality of the environment and the standard of living continue to deteriorate, especially for our elderly. Local bus services in the Neath valleys have been cut ruthlessly. Fares are exorbitant. Yet who can afford a car on a basic retirement income, perhaps topped up by a miner’s tiny pension? It is difficult enough for senior citizens to pay their colour television licence and the standing charges on their phone, electricity or gas. It is difficult enough for them to find the money to eat properly as food bills rise remorselessly while the real value of pensions declines compared with wage earners.
If Neath’s senior citizens had free bus passes, if standing charges on basic utility services were reduced or abolished for pensioners, if those on low incomes were entitled, like their colleagues in sheltered housing, to television licences for £5 rather than £77, if Neath and Lliw borough councils were not banned by the Government from using their combined housing capital receipts of £7.6 million to build new homes and hit by cuts in housing funding from installing universal central heating and upgrading their existing housing stock, if communities like Cwmllynfell at the heads of the four main valleys in the constituency were not choked by coal dust, disruption and heavy lorry traffic from existing and threatened opencast mines—if all those vital factors were addressed, the standard and quality of life of my constituents would be dramatically improved and, with it, there would be less need to depend upon health and community care provision.
Furthermore, if the curse of “London knows best” were removed, local people would of their own volition radically recast their priorities. That is why decentralisation of power through newly invigorated local councils and an elected assembly for Wales are so vital. That is why a freedom of information Act and an elected second Chamber are so essential. The voice of the people must be heard, not smothered by anachronistic and elitist institutions of Government.
During the last 12 years especially, Britain has become an “I’m all right, Jack” society, putting instant consumption before long-term investment, selfish “mefirstism” before community care, and private greed before the public good. The result is ugly to behold: the tawdry tinsel of decadence camouflaging a society rotten at the roots.
I thank the House for its indulgence or, as we say in Neath, “Diolch Yn Fawr.”