Wales Bill 2014

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I rarely agree with the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), but I always get great entertainment from his sincere and intelligent extremism. He made a very thoughtful speech, for which he deserves credit, but may I correct him on one point about the national health service? I think he will find that more people cross the border from England to be treated in Welsh hospitals than go the other way.

David T. C. Davies: That is true, but these people do not do that by choice; they have no choice, and many of them are actively campaigning to be treated back in England and do not want to be treated in Wales.

Mr Hain: The facts seem to speak for themselves. We can have an argument about the degree to which people can express a preference, but the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, led by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, persistently rant against the Welsh national health service as part of their war on Wales and completely distort the facts on the ground.

Mr Harper rose—

Mr Hain: I will give way, although my speech is not about the Welsh NHS; I am merely responding to a point made by the hon. Member for Monmouth.

Mr Harper: I was not going to respond, but I cannot let what the right hon. Gentleman just said stand. Thousands of my constituents live in England and passionately want to be treated by the English NHS, according to the rules and the rights they have in law, but because their GPs based in England are registered with the NHS in Wales they are forced to be treated in Wales according to the NHS rules. They do not like that prospect and I am doing my best to change it, so please do not pretend that they have run away from the English NHS by choice, because they absolutely have not.

Mr Hain: In that case, I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the same applies for Welsh citizens on the Welsh side of the border. All I am saying is: let us have an intelligent debate about this, rather than rantings based on a misrepresentation of the facts on the ground.

Let me get down to my speech. In focusing on clause 2 of the Bill, I wish to record my pride at taking the Government of Wales Act 2006 through Parliament as the then Secretary of State, not least because it provided for the full law-making powers the Welsh Government are now using to protect the people of Wales from this Government’s disastrous policies, including on tuition fees and on the creeping privatisation of the national health service, which is not being applied by the Welsh Government. The fact that the Conservative party, the only party in this House to vote against the 2006 Act, now seems to have accepted devolution is a sign of progress—I welcome that—but on the question of dual candidature it has sadly regressed. In section 7 of the 2006 Act, I amended one clause from the Government of Wales Act 1998 in order to prevent candidates from simultaneously standing both in a constituency and for a region, whether as a list candidate or as an individual—this Bill will disgracefully reverse that reform.

Alun Cairns: On that point—

Mr Hain: I am going to develop the point and then I will take an intervention. I want to remind colleagues of the reasons for the 2006 change. I did not act for politically partisan reasons, as was alleged by opponents of the change; I acted for democratic reasons. As one of the Ministers who also took the original 1998 Bill through the Commons permitting dual candidature, I never imagined for a moment then the abuses it would produce and the antipathy it would create among voters in Wales. Voters have never understood the widespread practice that has occurred since the Assembly was established in 1999, whereby candidates rejected by a particular constituency then secured back-door election as Assembly Members through the regional list and were even able to claim to represent the very constituency that had rejected them. Three of the four defeated candidates in Clwyd West in 2003 were subsequently elected to the Assembly through the regional list. Those very three people in Clwyd West—in the Secretary of State’s constituency—who were booted out by the electorate ended up as Assembly Members, competing against winning Assembly Member Alun Pugh.

Alun Cairns: The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Welsh electorate’s antipathy to the arrangements. Will he remind us what the Electoral Commission’s view was, following its long consultation on whether or not there was a need to change policy? What advice did it give him as the then Secretary of State for Wales?

Mr Hain: The Electoral Commission disagreed with me, and, not for the first time from my personal experience, it was wrong.

Jonathan Edwards: Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the Labour party has also had candidates that stand on the list and in constituencies? In 2003, on the North Wales regional list, Sandy Mewies Lesley Griffiths, Carl Sergeant and Karen Sinclair stood both in constituencies and in the region. In South Wales Central, Rhodri Morgan, Lorraine Barnett, Sue Essex, Jane Davidson, Jane Hutt and Leighton Andrews stood in both the region and the constituencies, and in Mid and West Wales, Christine Gwyther stood in both.

Mr Hain: Yes, indeed. That is my exact point. I am not making a politically partisan point; I am making a democratic point. The practice clouded political accountability and denied voters their right to reject a particular candidate at the ballot box. A change made by the Government of Wales Act 2006 requiring candidates to choose whether to stand for a constituency or on the regional list put the voters back in charge. It cannot be right for losers to become winners through the back door, despite having been rejected by voters. That is an abuse of democracy.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Surely the rejection is of the party in question. The system is there to get a little bit of equality across the parties. It is not about the individuals.

Mr Hain: That intervention interests me. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that whoever stands for whichever party, even if they are deeply opposed by the particular constituents whom they seek to represent, cannot be challenged because they are standing on a party label?

Chris Bryant: Is not the point also that Wales is not the only place in the world that has a top-up system to enable diversity within the legislature, but it will be the only place in the world where that practice of standing both on the list and for the first-past-post seat is used?

Mr Hain: I bow to my hon. Friend’s superior experience and knowledge. I think that the system applies in Scotland.

Chris Bryant: It does in Scotland, but I mean outside the United Kingdom.

Mr Hain: It may well be the case that it exists outside the United Kingdom.

Mr David Jones: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is entirely wrong. Is it not the case that Wales is the only country in the world where, under this electoral system, dual candidacy is presently banned?

Mr Hain: I am not sure about that, but what I can say is that we should look at the experience in Wales. If there is no such bar in other countries, then perhaps there was no such abuse there. There was widespread abuse in Wales, practised by 15 of the 20 list Assembly Members who used taxpayers’ money to open constituency offices in the very seats in which they were defeated. They then used those resources to try to win at the following election by cherry-picking local issues against the constituency AMs who had beaten them.

Alun Cairns rose—

Mr Hain: I will not give way, because I want to make some progress. While all that was going on, someone in Wales said to me:

“If I want to defeat constituency candidates because I don’t like them and I succeed and they are defeated, why should they pop up on the list claiming to represent me?”

That is the point. There is an honourable, constitutional and necessary role to be played by list Assembly Members across the whole region that they represent. There is no justification for seeking to abuse the system by getting involved in local constituency matters to try to win back a seat at the following election using that position and that resource. That is the fundamental point.

Guto Bebb (Aberconwy) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Hain: Not for a moment, no. The Government of Wales Act 2006 put the voters back in charge. If they did not want to elect somebody, they did not have to do so. The Act stopped the prevailing situation before then in which Assembly candidates could decide to place a “both ways” bet, by standing in both categories in order to win, even if they were kicked out by the electorate. To his shame, the Secretary of State is seeking to reintroduce that both ways bet.

There was an unholy coalition of Conservatives, nationalists and Liberal Democrats opposed to abolishing that abuse. Now they have reincarnated that unholy coalition in defiance of the popular will. Why are they so afraid of taking their choice to the people? Why are they so afraid of losing constituency elections that they need the lifebelt of standing on the lists as well?

Guto Bebb rose—

Mr Hain: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can answer that question.

Guto Bebb: It is the case that the Welsh system of electing Members to the Assembly is replicated in many parts of the world, but the only country that has a similar ban is Ukraine. The Bevan Foundation, a Labour party think tank, is of the view that the ban should be withdrawn.

Mr Hain: I have no idea whether the abuse that we have seen in Wales, which I am now documenting for the House, applied in Ukraine as well. Lord Richard chaired the commission—[Interruption.] I will now present a lot of detailed evidence on that abuse for the sake of the hon. Members who are seeking to intervene and the whole of the House. Lord Richard chaired the commission that reported in 2004. He recommended the extra powers for the Assembly, which my 2006 Act delivered. He told the Welsh Affairs Committee:

“There is something wrong in a situation in which five people can stand in Clwyd, none of them can be elected, and then they all get into the Assembly. On the face of it, that does not make sense. I think a lot of people in Wales find that it does not.”

That is not me, a former Secretary of State who banned the abuse, speaking, but Lord Richard who carried through an eminent report.

The eminent Welsh Academic, Dr Denis Balsom—again, not a politically partisan figure—said in his evidence to the Richard commission:

“Candidates use the list as an insurance against failing to win a constituency contest. This dual candidacy can also confuse the electorate, who may wish to consciously reject a particular candidate only to find them elected via the list. It should remain a basic democratic right not to elect a particular candidate or to be able to vote a Member out.”

That is a right that the Government, supported by Conservatives and members of other parties in Wales, are seeking to deny the electorate. That is not democratically defensible.

Mr Harper: I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I do not follow it at all. When we get a ballot paper in a first-past-the-post election, we have to choose a candidate—we have to vote for somebody. There is no option to say I do not like this person and to cast an anti-vote. I do not follow the idea that someone can vote against someone. They are choosing to vote for who they want to represent them in the Assembly or in Parliament. I do not follow the argument.

Mr Hain: I do not know what happens in the Forest of Dean, but in every other constituency if a candidate loses, they lose. If the electorate rejects them, if the voters vote against them, they lose. They do not find themselves parachuted back in to the Assembly, from which the voters have barred them, via another route.

Mrs Gillan: It was the right hon. Gentleman and I who sparred across the Dispatch Box on that very subject. I think he has a selective memory when it comes to the Richard commission. As I recall it, Lord Richard not only objected to the list system, but recommended that there should be 80 AMs and that Wales should move to that system and employ the single transferable vote, neither of which the right hon. Gentleman chose to take up. That is almost proof that the direction in which he took it was indeed partisan.

Mr Hain: Wait a minute, Madam Deputy Speaker. Far be it from me to question whether the right hon. Lady was in order with that point, but the questions about numbers of Assembly Members and a proportional representation system are not within this Bill. They have nothing to do with this Bill. What is in this Bill is restoring the ban on the abuse of dual candidature which was in the 2006 Act, and it is that point that I am addressing.

Wayne David: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a telling comment tucked away in the impact assessment produced by the Government? It says that the smaller parties want to change to a dual candidacy rule because they

“may have a smaller pool of high quality candidates”.

Mr Hain: I could not possibly comment, but since the Government say that, perhaps it is true on this occasion.

I have quoted a Labour figure, Lord Richard, in support of my case, so I shall now quote a Liberal Democrat. Lord Carlile, the former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, said in June 2005 that

“many in Wales will welcome…the removal of the absurd dual candidacy opportunity.”

In the same debate in the Lords, the former Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, Lord Crickhowell, said:

“The present arrangements are really pretty indefensible“.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1216-1217.]

A Liberal Democrat, a former Labour Member and a Conservative former Secretary of State all agree with me. I think that that helps my case.

I recall, as Secretary of State for Wales, receiving on 9 January 2006 a press release from Helen Mary Jones, in which she described herself as a Llanelli-based Assembly Member, although she was on the list. In it, she complained about money being spent on a hospital in Carmarthen instead of one in Llanelli. However, as the list Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales, she represented both towns and should really have been supporting both hospitals. Had she been discharging her list Member’s duties properly, she would not have discriminated between the two towns or their hospitals.

Owen Smith: Why did she?

Mr Hain: Indeed, why did she? Why, of all the parts of the list area that she represented, did she target the one place where she had only been very narrowly defeated in 2003, invariably describing herself as the Llanelli-based Assembly Member? As it happens, I admire Helen Mary Jones for her ability and commitment, although not for her belief in an independent Wales. The 2006 Act stopped her describing herself as the Assembly Member for Llanelli, because there was one and it was not her. In the meantime, she campaigned hard and won the seat back in 2007.

The list Assembly Member for South West Wales, Bethan Jenkins, is often described as the Neath-based Assembly Member and is more active in the Neath constituency than anywhere else in the region. She has not yet had the courage to stand in the Neath constituency, but if the Bill goes through with clause 2 remaining within it, perhaps she will do so, safe in the knowledge that being defeated in Neath will not prevent her from being elected—[Interruption.] I will not respond to that intervention from the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards).

In a leaked memorandum written in August 2003, a Plaid Cymru list Assembly Member—now the party’s engaging young party leader—Leanne Wood, was embarrassingly blatant in encouraging abuse of the system using taxpayers’ money. Let me quote from that memorandum for the benefit of the House and my case. She urged Plaid Cymru Assembly list Members to concentrate tens of thousands of pounds of their local Assembly office budgets in their party’s target seats. She urged her party’s list Members to do casework only where it might benefit Plaid Cymru in those target seats and to attend civic or other events the constituency only if they thought they were votes in it.

I will now quote directly from that memorandum, entitled “What should be the role of a regional AM?” It perfectly illustrates the problem we faced before the 2006 Act banned dual candidature in Wales. Leanne Wood was hardly shy about her objectives:

“Each regional AM has an office budget and a staff budget of some considerable size. Consideration should be given to the location of their office—where would it be best for the region? Are there any target seats…within the region?”

She went on:

“We need to be thinking much more creatively as to how we better use staff budgets for furthering the aims of the party.”

She finished off with a refreshing burst of honesty:

“Regional AMs are in a unique position. They are paid to work full-time in politics and have considerable budgets at their disposal. They need not be constrained by constituency casework and events, and can be more choosy about their engagements, only attending events which further the party’s cause. This can be achieved by following one simple golden rule: On receipt of every invitation, ask ‘How can my attendance at this event further the aims of Plaid Cymru?’ If the answer is ‘very little’ or ‘not at all’, then a pro forma letter of decline should be in order.”

I could not have presented my case better than she revealingly did.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I am absolutely astonished at what I am hearing from my right hon. Friend. Would he, like me, welcome an intervention from the two Plaid Cymru Members present in the Chamber to distance themselves from that startling abuse of taxpayers’ money?

Mr Hain: That is not a matter for me, but I take my hon. Friend’s point with acclamation.

Wayne David: Is not my right hon. Friend’s case substantially weakened by the fact that nobody seriously believes that Leanne Wood can be party leader for much longer?

Mr Hain: I think I shall move on from that point, despite the great respect I have for my hon. Friend.

All the arguments and evidence I have cited demonstrate conclusively that the ban was not partisan but enhanced democratic standards among Welsh Assembly Members. Indeed, I reminded the House that six Labour Assembly Members, including three Ministers, could have been defeated in the 2007 Assembly elections by a swing of 3% against them—a very small swing. They would no longer enjoy the safety net of the regional list and two subsequently lost. The reform affected Labour candidates, just as it applied to candidates from other parties.

Alun Cairns rose—

Susan Elan Jones rose—

Mr Hain: I think I really ought to conclude my remarks.

Surely the principle behind the 2006 Act is right: namely, candidates must make their choices and then voters will make theirs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), also a former Secretary of State for Wales, put it well in a debate on the then Bill in January 2006:

“The additional member system that we have as a result of the 1997 settlement is fundamentally flawed. People do not understand it. They do not understand how an individual can stand in two ways for the same body on the same day in the same election and be defeated, then get elected a matter of an hour or two later. Equally if not more confusing is the fact that, in my constituency and in those of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the south Wales valleys, thousands upon thousands of people vote Labour on their second vote, yet none of those votes is counted. I do not understand the logic of that. I can understand the technicalities, because I taught the subject many years ago when I was a teacher in a college of further education, but as an elector or as an elected representative, I think that it is terribly confusing and ought to be changed.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 63.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis), as the then Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, said in the same debate:

“Electoral reform should not get caught up in internecine party politics…the present system is an unloved and confusing creature that causes more grief than it is worth.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 69-70.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said:

“Following the last Assembly election, many people asked me how candidates who stood at the election and were defeated—and, in many cases, defeated by a country mile—could find themselves sitting in the Assembly, claiming not only to represent constituents but having equal status with the people who defeated them. How would we feel if a third of this Chamber”—

by which he meant this Chamber—

“were made up of candidates that had stood against us”

before appearing on the list

“they would not have come up with such a system even in North Korea”,

although I confess to having come up with it as a Wales Minister in the 1998 legislation. My hon. Friend continued:

“Once getting into the assembly via the back door, these characters spend much of their time cherry-picking issues and targeting seats that they or their party are looking at for future elections.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 96-97.]

Those are some of the reasons why I introduced the bar on dual candidature. It is astonishing that, for narrow partisan party reasons, the Secretary of State is assisting his own party members in Wales and those of other parties who complained about the ban. After the 2006 Act banned dual candidature, the well-known democratic abuses that had occurred before were not repeated. I find it astonishing that the Secretary of State is reinstating a regime that brought democracy in Wales into such popular disrepute. If he persists, I hope the House of Lords will delete clause 2.

I want to pick up on an earlier point relating to the interesting exchange I had with the Secretary of State. I will read the exchange in Hansard carefully. I was not at all convinced by his answer. Indeed, I remain very concerned, on the question of income tax devolution, that Wales will be cut adrift from richer parts of the United Kingdom and lose out. There have been a lot of warm words about indexation, but I do not find the answers we have been given, or the references in the associated financial documents, to be at all compelling or convincing. I respect the Holtham commission and I respect Gerald Holtham. I understand his points on indexation, but I do not trust a Conservative-led Treasury to honour the commitments in the Holtham commission.

I would be more reassured—this is a cross-party point, because we all want to see Wales doing the best it can—if a clear and absolute commitment was embedded in the proposed legislation for Wales to continue to benefit, regardless of income tax devolution, from the wealth of the United Kingdom. My politics come from a belief in fairness, and the redistribution from richer to poorer regions and from richer to poorer individuals. I do not see how tax accountability, which the Secretary of State exalts, can be a two-way bet. I do not see how having devolved income tax and giving, in the main, the Assembly greater accountability to local voters, will then be protected, according to the Secretary of State’s reassurance, by a kind of indexation that undermines that accountability. That makes me even more suspicious of it. I will be extremely sceptical of, if not opposed to, income tax devolution until I am absolutely sure that Wales will not lose out, for the reasons I have described.

Cross-border Hospital Services

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): When I was Secretary of State, I was always keen to praise success in Wales. Would the Secretary of State care to congratulate the Welsh NHS on having a nurse-to-patient ratio that is a fifth higher than that of England, where his Government have cut the number of nurses by 7,000? Will he also congratulate the Welsh Government on recruiting doctors at a much faster rate than in England?

Mr Jones: I am always keen and ready to give praise where praise is due. Certainly, Welsh clinicians and nurses do a wonderful job. The fact remains, however, that outcomes in Wales are significantly worse than they are in England, which, to be frank, is something about which the right hon. Gentleman should join me in expressing concern. I also suggest that he have a word with his friend the Welsh Minister for Health and suggest to him that he might wish to take on board the recommendations of Professor Keogh.

Budget Debate 2014 – it was the banking crisis that caused debt to rocket, the deficit to rise and borrowing to rise

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) over Tata, but the one thing that cannot be said about the economy under this Chancellor is that it has recovered quickly from the shock of the global financial crisis. Total output still has not reached pre-crisis 2008 levels, quite unlike in the USA and Germany both of which passed their 2008 peak back in 2011. What took them three years to achieve is taking the British economy under this Chancellor six years, and the reason is the savage cuts since 2010, a far tighter squeeze than in the USA or the eurozone. Under Labour, recovery was already well under way in the first half of 2010 when the Chancellor came into office. It was his policies that choked it off and the British people have been paying a heavy price ever since.

Today we have an unsustainable, out-of-balance recovery. The Chancellor acknowledged that neither investment nor exports are high enough. We already knew that higher consumer spending has come out of reduced savings, not out of higher incomes, because real incomes have been stagnating for years. It is a short-term recovery that cannot last. The ex-chair of the Financial Services Authority and ex-director general of the CBI Adair Turner said so in January at Davos when he warned:

“We have spent the last few years talking about the need to rebalance the economy away from a focus on property and financial services and towards investment and exports. We are now back to growth without any rebalancing at all…If you chuck enough monetary stimulus at an economy something happens. It is as if we have had a cracking great hangover, had a stiff drink and off we go again.”

A second factor making the situation unsustainable is that UK productivity has been flat for years. This pushes up unit costs and keeps our export prices higher. Our export predicament is dire. On top of that, we are witnessing a housing bubble again, with property prices rocketing in London in particular. In short, nothing fundamental has changed to avoid a rerun of a financial crisis brought on by a debt-financed consumer boom and a Government-backed housing bubble that sooner or later will burst, because bubbles always do burst.

Yes, the economy is recovering faster than forecast last year, but growth is forecast to be slower next year than this. The Chancellor expects the economy to run out of steam almost as soon as it starts to grow again, yet there is plenty of scope for much faster growth, and faster growth would mean less need for spending cuts and a quicker reduction in the Budget deficit.

The austerity programme, which this Budget continues to drive forward is based upon what I call the big deceit of British politics: that Labour “overspending” left the country with the mountainous levels of debt and borrowing which the Tory-Lib Dem Government inherited after the 2010 election. [Interruption.] The idea that the global credit crunch was caused by Labour’s public investment in Britain is risible. [Interruption.] The proposition that by building new hospitals and new schools, and by recruiting tens of thousands of extra nurses, doctors, teachers and police officers in Britain, Labour caused the sub-prime mortgage defaults in the US that ricocheted throughout the world’s financial institutions is preposterous. [Interruption.]

Robert Flello: It is amazing to hear the laughter from the Government Benches. Does my right hon. Friend recall, as I do, Conservatives standing up time and again saying there was far too much regulation of the banks and that they needed to reduce it?

Mr Hain: Absolutely.

It was not Labour’s public spending that triggered Britain’s or the world’s economic crisis; it was the global inter-dependency of reckless banking that the Conservatives wanted to be less regulated that in 2008 triggered an economic meltdown in Britain and right across the globe. [Interruption.] Labour responded by boosting public spending and borrowing to offset the catastrophic collapse in private sector spending, and the £90 billion spent on bank bail-outs plunged the public sector into record annual deficits, but these were deficits that stopped a shocking slide into a fatal slump and laid the basis for recovery from the biggest shock to hit the world economy in peacetime since the 1930s great depression. [Hon. Members: “Give way.”] If I have time at the end, I will.

Contrary to right-wing free market mantras and Tory-Lib Dem history rewrites, it was the banking crisis that caused debt to rocket, the deficit to rise and borrowing to rise as well. The low yields on UK Government bonds before, during and after the credit crunch under Labour bore eloquent testimony to the fact that the international markets had full confidence in its policies, and that they were not clamouring for the right-wing dogma subsequently visited upon Britain. Indeed, so desperate was the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) to identify with Labour’s success on spending, investment, jobs and growth that he pledged to match Labour’s spending plans for three further years in September 2007 up to 2010. [Interruption.] Members on the Government Benches shake their heads, but that is what he did. If we had spent too much—if all the charges made by the Conservatives were true—why on earth would the current Prime Minister have backed our spending plans for three years ahead? It would help the quality of this debate and the quality of assessment of the Chancellor’s Budget if the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats had the decency to acknowledge that essential fact, including this Prime Minister’s support for our spending programmes, instead of ploughing on regardless, with no end to austerity in sight.

Mr Redwood: Why did the new and very expensive and complicated regulators the Labour Government introduced fail to control the banks when people like me were telling them they did not have enough cash for capital?

Mr Hain: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman to this extent: we did not regulate the banks well enough or carefully enough, but his party—not necessarily him, but his leadership—was saying that there should be less regulation of the banks at that time, yet now they have the temerity to attack our spending plans when we brought borrowing down. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. All other speakers have been heard in silence. The right hon. Gentleman has livened up the debate, but he also ought to be heard.

Mr Hain: It is interesting how those on the Government Benches do not like to hear the truth, Madam Deputy Speaker. The level of debt under the Labour Government before the banking crisis was lower than we inherited from the Conservatives in 1997. We brought borrowing down and we brought the deficit down compared with what we inherited, and yes we invested in repairing the desperate state of our public services—people dying on trolleys in hospitals, schools crumbling, the railways decaying. We repaired all of that and then the banking crisis came along and blew it out of the water, and there was a failure by every Government right across the world to recognise the seeds of that banking crisis, but it was not caused by Labour overspending, and not caused by Labour high borrowing or high debt, because none of those things was going on prior to the banking crisis, and if we had not dealt with the banking crisis in the way that we did, the whole of the economic and banking system in Britain would have collapsed. We need the decency and honesty from the Government Benches to acknowledge that central fact.

Neath Magistrates – Adjournment Debate

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Pritchard. I look forward to your presiding over it. I ask the Government to reverse their decision to close Neath magistrates court, which has served the town for generations. Written records show that from the early 18th century, and probably much earlier when they were situated in the castle from which the town gets its name—in Welsh, Castell Nedd—magistrates in Neath were so busy that they sat almost continuously, not just four times a year as they did in other places. The current facility has been open since 1977.

Although I am grateful to the Secretary of State for meeting me on two occasions, I totally refute what he said in his letter to me of 5 February confirming his decision to close Neath magistrates court and move it to Swansea. I challenge the costing that he presented to justify the closure, which will have a seriously damaging impact on the quality of local justice for local people. I also challenge some of his basic facts, such as those on the usage of the Neath court, which are simply wrong.

I presented an incredible low-cost alternative that would have delivered savings, namely to transfer the magistrates court to the nearby county court facility, which is underused and might easily be modified for that purpose. That suggestion was rejected, seemingly arbitrarily, which caused deep local anger. More than 1,800 signatures were collected in a matter of weeks on a petition that circulated in the town.

Dr Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate him warmly on his success in securing the debate. His point about local feeling is a strong one. Does he agree that alongside trial by jury and the appointment of local magistrates, one of the central tenets of our common-law system, which has been developed over centuries and of which we are very proud, is the importance of the local delivery of local justice? My constituents share his concerns, because Neath magistrates court also serves Port Talbot.

Mr Hain: Indeed, and I am happy to be corrected by my hon. Friend from the neighbouring constituency. Having examined the Secretary of State’s argument, the proposal document and the consultation response from Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, I am convinced that the transfer of the magistrates court service from Neath to Swansea will severely and detrimentally affect the town and its citizens, and will erode the provision of local justice for local people, as my hon. Friend has eloquently pointed out.

The decision to merge has been driven purely by cost reduction, as part of an exercise across England and Wales in which 130 courts have been closed since 2010. In recent years, the Neath and Port Talbot area has lost two magistrates courts in Pontardawe and Port Talbot. The loss of the third and final magistrates court in the county borough will leave nearly 140,000 people— a population bigger than that of Middlesbrough or Cambridge—without a magistrates court. Instead, the Swansea court will serve a population of 380,000 people. Local topography, transport and economic issues have been completely disregarded.

The timing of the consultation was perhaps no coincidence, coming as it did alongside the start of work on Neath Port Talbot county borough council’s long-awaited regeneration of the town. The implication in the executive summary of the consultation document and the impact assessment of August 2013 that there was no other option because the county borough council required the land seems to have been designed to lay the blame firmly at the door of the local authority. However, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service had known about the county borough council’s intention since 2008, when alternative venues, including a new courtroom nearby, were being explored. At that time, my suggestion to the then Secretary of State to move the magistrates court to the county court only 300 metres away was being examined, and Neath Port Talbot county borough council had even budgeted for its contribution to the estimated cost of £1.4 million to facilitate the move. Had that been pursued and any problems overcome, which I believe could easily have happened, not only would the Government have made their savings, but Neath would have retained its magistrates.

The costs associated with the proposed merger of Neath and Swansea magistrates courts are far greater than those involved in the conversion of Neath and Port Talbot county court to a new Neath Port Talbot magistrates court. That new facility would have minimal additional operating costs, because the crown court is already fully functioning. There would be no additional travel costs for magistrates or staff. The county court has free car parking, so there would be no additional car parking fees. There would be a net saving of operating facilities costs, estimated to be between £100,000 and £110,000 per annum, which includes utility costs, cleaning, waste disposal, security and maintenance, because those are already in place at the county court.

The projected enabling cost of the Swansea merger is £165,000, but the true figure will be significantly greater. I give notice to the Secretary of State that should he continue to disregard our representations and the case I am making to the Minister today, I will carefully monitor what those costs actually are and report them. Court 6 in Swansea, for example, has no retiring room. Court 5 has neither a secure dock nor secure access and egress for magistrates, so it cannot be used for criminal cases. Even if it is physically feasible to correct those deficiencies, major alterations will be required. Only criminal cases would be heard in Swansea magistrates court after a merger, with all family work being transferred to the Swansea civil justice building. Travel costs after a merger would increase by £55,000 a year.

Had those figures been objectively analysed, not only would the Government have made their savings but Neath would have retained its magistrates court, albeit in a new location. There is a suspicion that the Government decided to merge Neath and Swansea magistrates courts with little or no investigation of the real costs and savings involved. Consequently, they appear to have undertaken the consultation exercise without intending to take much notice if the facts demonstrated that it would be far less costly to convert the county court than to merge Neath and Swansea magistrates courts.

The option of converting Neath and Port Talbot county court and connecting it by secure walkways to the adjacent cells in the police station is supported by local magistrates, local politicians, the local police and local court users. The police in Neath no longer require the cells, but they wish to retain a presence in Neath. Because there is a low-cost option for a new court in Neath, there is absolutely no justification for merging the court with Swansea. The conversion of the county court is a viable alternative that can deliver savings in addition to the £300,000 that will be obtained from selling the existing building to Neath Port Talbot county borough council. That is more than enough for a careful remodelling of the county court.

Conversely, if the Government press ahead with the merger of Neath and Swansea magistrates courts, they will incur transition costs estimated to be at least £150,000 and additional annual travel costs of at least £55,000, in addition to the cost of establishing a new digital service proposed by the Secretary of State, which would have to be housed in the county court in Neath anyway. That facility would have to be staffed by relevant personnel, a legal adviser and an usher, duplicating the staffing in Swansea magistrates court. Only one video link can operate at any given time, and the Swansea courts will grind to a halt if solicitors and defendants have to liaise via a video link rather than face to face. Few witnesses will choose to attend Swansea magistrates court for a trial if video link facilities exist locally in Neath, thus denying magistrates the opportunity to assess witnesses’ countenances when they give evidence, which can be a crucial or even determining factor in their assessment.

Even the original, deeply flawed impact assessment produced by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was not clear on the extent of savings from the proposed closure. It did not adequately take into account the increased travel and parking charges that would accrue in Swansea. As the Neath county court is fully functioning and has adequate security, there would be no increase in total running costs if the county court were to become the magistrates court—indeed, there would be savings to both court services through the merging of overheads.

To accommodate the magistrates, the family and civil work currently undertaken at the county court could easily be transferred to the justice centre in Port Talbot, which cost £3 million some five years ago but currently averages just 13% usage. There are no cells in the Port Talbot building, so criminal cases cannot be heard there, but the transfer of civil work would increase its utilisation. Thus, the county court could become the new Neath magistrates court and the justice centre in Port Talbot could become the new family and civil justice centre. It is just 8 miles from Neath to Port Talbot, so the journey time would be considerably less than the proposed increased journey time to Swansea from the many towns and valley villages.

The times and distances quoted in the consultation document are deeply inaccurate and ignore the difficulties of travelling from valley communities such as Banwen, Glynneath and Onllwyn. A simple journey to Swansea can involve two or three buses, and it could take well over an hour to complete a journey. Getting to Swansea court involves negotiating Fabian way, which is notorious for long delays owing to the volume of traffic—especially at peak times—which can add half an hour to a journey. That is on a good day when the bus services run well, whereas often the tricky topography and poor weather mean longer and more convoluted journeys. In a county borough where 30% of households do not have a car, the difficulties of public transport should surely have been recognised instead of simply ignored by the Government.

Even if, as he indicated to me, the Secretary of State is less concerned about inconvenience to defendants, surely he should concerned about witnesses, victims and court staff who will have to make the same trek to attend at Swansea court, incurring additional running costs. We must also remember that magistrates are unpaid volunteers; they are the bedrock of the justice system in this country. In Neath, we have notably dedicated and able magistrates serving in a well-respected team. To suppose that they will just move wherever Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service decides, adding gratuitously to their precious volunteering time, is to presuppose and expect an awful lot.

Many living in Neath will be thinking long and hard about whether they wish to relocate, and prospective magistrates will certainly think twice if that means not being able to deliver local justice locally and continue to serve the local community they cherish, and, in Neath’s case, are proud of. With such uncertainty over their future, the staff, to whom I pay tribute, have acted with great resilience over the past few weeks, as they did during the recent storms, which saw a huge upheaval for the work force when the Neath court roof blew off—but I will come on to that later.

Despite assurances to the contrary, I am concerned that the closure of Neath magistrates court will result in possible redundancies for staff who live locally and cannot commit to a longer commute. The suggestion in the consultation document that

“some staff and judiciary may experience slightly higher costs having to travel further to the receiving court”

is disingenuous, given that increased costs are almost certain because of the much longer distance to travel and the high cost of parking in Swansea. The loss of that local knowledge will be a huge blow to local justice.

Local solicitors representing defendants in Neath will inevitably relocate to Swansea in order to be closer to Swansea magistrates court. A number of solicitors firms are key employers in Neath town and provide well-paid, skilled jobs. If they relocate, it will leave a gaping hole in the economy.

Access to the probation services based in Neath courthouse will be affected, and probation service staff will also have to be redeployed. There will be upheaval and a cost effect on the youth offending service, the victim support service, and the witness service, all of which often work with the most vulnerable in our communities. Relocating all such professional and support jobs will also significantly damage the local economy.

It is wrongly asserted that Neath court rooms are currently 55.3% used. That figure is calculated on the assumption that there are three courts available for criminal work, whereas in fact only two courts are suitable for criminal work, with a secure dock and secure access to the cells. The correct calculation would be 75% usage in Neath court building; Swansea has 74% usage and Cardiff 59%. Of the 16 magistrates courts in Wales, 10 have utilisation figures well below those of Neath.

On efficiency, Neath court staff and magistrates have an exemplary record. Cases are dealt with swiftly and efficiently, fines are collected, and court utilisation is often among the highest in Wales. Neath compares very well with Swansea, Merthyr and Cardiff in all areas. There is no justification for the closure of Neath court on the grounds of efficiency, and detailed and up-to-date figures are available to substantiate that statement. It is also the case that, unlike other areas of the UK, crime in south Wales is increasing, and the number of cases being heard in magistrates courts is going to increase as a result of the Lord Chancellor’s review of out-of-court disposals, which was instigated in 2013.

Recent damage to the roof of Neath magistrates court caused by bad weather caused all work to be transferred to Swansea court. The damage has since been repaired, but the staff and magistrates from Neath coped brilliantly. They were welcomed by the staff and magistrates in Swansea, who did everything they could to make them comfortable. Nevertheless, the key point that I want to make is that there is no avoiding the fact that justice suffered, particularly as Swansea’s court rooms 5 and 6 are not fit for criminal court work. All the evidence shows that if Neath is merged with Swansea, the same will happen, except permanently.

One example case illustrates the point. There was a joint alleged assault, and the defendants were in a relationship. They received the letter reminding them of the new venue for their trial—Swansea—but the accused woman, a drug addict, had to get her methadone prescription from her chemist at 9 am, then try to get a bus to Swansea. Receiving the methadone and taking it in the chemist, as addicts must in order to prevent them selling the methadone on the street to buy heroin, she missed the 9.15 am bus, but caught one at 9.45 am. Her partner had given her the fare, leaving him with no money. He eventually found a friend and borrowed the fare.

Meanwhile, the court began hearing the case and, as the defendants were not present, there was considerable delay while options were considered. The woman then arrived, so the trial began again, and an arrest warrant was issued for the co-defendant. Just as it seemed that the trial was concluding, the man arrived. The arrest warrant was cancelled and the trial concluded. One and a half hours of precious court time was totally wasted. Had the trial been in Neath, both defendants would have arrived before 10 am and the trial have been concluded by 10.45 am. That may seem trivial compared with work in our Crown courts, but if there is to be justice for all, courts must be available to deal with the less high-profile cases as well.

The temporary arrangements demonstrated that, despite the best efforts of Neath staff and Swansea staff, Swansea magistrates court was ill-equipped to handle the additional work and the delivery of local justice—indeed, it was pushed to the tipping point of being unworkable. Although I have described extraordinary circumstances, the proposal to move services from Neath to Swansea will make such events the norm.

To conclude, the situation I have described highlights the fact that Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has no contingency plans for such scenarios, and has major problems of organisation and viability, making both the decision about Neath and the refusal to countenance the alternative of moving Neath magistrates into the county court very short-sighted and damaging indeed. If Neath and Port Talbot court is merged with Swansea magistrates court, public money will be wasted. That is unacceptable at a time of Government cuts everywhere. I therefore urge the Secretary of State to reverse his decision—I hope that the Minister will take this message back to him—and transfer Neath and Port Talbot magistrates court to the local county court.

Local justice should be carried out by local people in a local venue. That is a fundamental principle of our justice system. Should the Secretary of State push ahead regardless, he will be responsible for the erosion of local justice. I put it to the Minister and to the Secretary of State that Neath is an exception in the list of countrywide magistrates court closures because there is an alternative solution that will save money for the overall court service. I strongly urge the Government to change their mind and allow common sense to prevail.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Shailesh Vara): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I thank the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) for securing this debate and for his continued interest in the subject. As is clear from his comments and from the record in Hansard, he has taken a huge amount of interest in the subject.

I appreciate that the Lord Chancellor’s decision to proceed with the closure of Neath magistrates court is a deep disappointment to the right hon. Gentleman, who has already met the Secretary of State for Justice twice, as he mentioned. I know that on one occasion he met the Secretary of State with others, who presented a petition opposing the closure.

At those meetings and throughout the consultation process, we have listened carefully to the points made against the proposal to close the court. The consultation on the future of Neath magistrates court was published on 26 September 2013. It proposed that the court should close and that the work should move to Swansea magistrates court nine miles away. The consultation document set out that Neath Port Talbot borough council wished to purchase the site of Neath magistrates court and to demolish the building to enable development of the site as part of its plans to regenerate the town centre.

The impact assessment of the consultation concluded that the closure of Neath magistrates court would save £220,000 a year, whereas retaining and undertaking the required maintenance to the court would cost a minimum of £1.3 million.

Mr Hain: Is the Minister talking about a new court building or a transfer to the county court? I do not believe that that figure is the case for the county court.

Mr Vara: The right hon. Gentleman made it abundantly clear from his speech that he has looked into all the figures. Clearly, he will not be satisfied with whatever figures I give. I have a limited amount of time, because he used more time than is customary for the person opening the debate, and I am keen to put the Government’s view on record. Therefore he will forgive me if I do not repeat the figures, but I will state them as I see them. I will deal with the county court shortly, but as far as figures are concerned, the maintenance work for the current magistrates court would cost £1.3 million.

Several factors were taken into consideration before developing the consultation proposals, including work load, current and projected future utilisation, and whether there was a suitable alternative location where the work could be accommodated without a detrimental impact on service levels.

When the consultation was published, local stakeholders, partners and elected officials were directly engaged to ensure that they were aware of the proposals and could provide a considered response before the consultation closed. The consultation was conducted in line with the process set out by my predecessor’s written ministerial statement on 17 July 2013, which set out that future consultations on courts and tribunals would be locally focused, run for six weeks, and reduce parliamentary and administrative bureaucracy. Any proposals on the future of a court would be considered with emphasis on the local area and how justice would be most efficiently delivered there.

Some 63 responses were received to the consultation. I am happy to put on the record that most respondents supported the closure of the court house on its current site to enable the regeneration of Neath town centre. However, I am also happy to put on the record that most responses argued for the retention of a magistrates court within the town’s boundaries. That view is clearly shared by the right hon. Gentleman and, I understand, many local magistrates. I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman discussed that during meetings with the Secretary of State. In particular, he suggested that Neath and Port Talbot county court could be converted to conduct magistrates court hearings.

Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service has been aware of the council’s regeneration plans for several years. There has been a number of informal discussions with the council about potential options to relocate the magistrates court in Neath. However, the alternative sites suggested by the council were all in unsuitable shared facilities. A site was identified for a new building, but estimated costs at the time were between £6 million and £11 million and simply not affordable.

HMCTS officials have considered in detail the option to relocate to Neath county court. It would have required the use of a custody facility in the adjacent police station. Costs for a custodial facility were estimated at £1.46 million. While there were some preliminary discussions with the council regarding funding, no formal agreement was reached. There would, in any case, have been additional costs, including an estimated £285,000 to transfer the work of the county court to Port Talbot justice centre.

I accept that there will be an impact on court users, justices and staff. Many will have to travel to attend court in Swansea, including some who will have to use public transport. However, I do not believe that that prevents access to the courts system or compromises the quality of the service provided. HMCTS will seek to make arrangements for customers who are unable to attend court at a particular time and will continue to explore ways to reduce the impact of the closure on court users.

I take on board what the right hon. Gentleman said about the number of people in his area who do not have cars. In any case, travelling to Swansea by car will be within an hour. For those using public transport, 65% will have travel times of less than an hour. Travel times will be reduced for people living nearer to Swansea. For those who use trains—there is a train service—the extra travel time is 15 minutes each way, with trains running every half an hour.

Discussions are currently under way with South Wales police to consider whether it is possible to establish a facility for vulnerable witnesses to give evidence in criminal proceedings via a live video link from a location in the Neath area. That would provide a safe and secure environment and avoid the need for victims and witnesses to travel to court, improving their experience when giving evidence at trial. Contrary to the concern expressed by the right hon. Gentleman, HMCTS does not intend to locate any video link facility to Swansea magistrates court from Neath county court.

Since the decision to close Neath magistrates court was announced, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the court suffered extensive storm damage in February 2014. During that time, court business and staff were transferred to Swansea magistrates court for 10 days to minimise disruption to hearings. That proved to be a successful contingency arrangement, during which no significant issues were raised. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman would disagree, but from our point of view, that worked well. That Swansea magistrates court was able to accommodate that work at short notice is a reassurance that it will be able to absorb successfully the work of Neath magistrates court when it closes.

I am pleased to say that, following safety inspections and a new fire certificate being issued, hearings resumed at Neath on 3 March 2014. Officials are finalising plans for the smooth transfer of work, justices and staff to Swansea, and an announcement of the closure date for the court will be made locally.

As is the case with any publicly funded body, HMCTS has a duty to ensure that its estate is utilised as cost-effectively as possible. We must ensure that we provide value for money for the taxpayer.

Let me emphasise that the Lord Chancellor’s decision to close the court was not taken lightly. It was made after a detailed analysis of the work load of the Neath and Swansea courts, and in consideration of all the points raised in the consultation responses. While it was clear to the Lord Chancellor that many people in Neath, including the right hon. Gentleman, had sincere concerns about the closure, on balance, they did not outweigh the benefits of the proposals or suggest that access to court services would be genuinely compromised.

Miners’ Strike

Great night in Godre’rgraig Workingmen’s club on Friday to commemorate the start of the miners’ strike 30 years ago. Rousing performances from Cor Y Gyrlais and young soloists Emyr and Aled Myers, accompanied by Huw Parkman, with contributions from Terry Thomas and Tyrone O’Sullivan reminding everyone of the tremendous fight the miners’, their wives, families and the whole south Wales pit communities put up against Thatcher and her Government. Big thank you to Jacky Myers and Brian Hastie for organising the evening with proceeds going to CATCH Foodbank.