Welsh Grand Committee
Monday 11 December 2000
[Mr. Barry Jones in the Chair]
Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement
The Chairman: I remind members of the Committee that we have from now until 1 o'clock and then from 4 pm to 6 pm to discuss matters.
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): On a point of order, Mr. Jones. I want to raise the issue of our meeting at 10.30 am on a Monday morning in London. We have clearly made an effort to be here, although only a third of those Labour Members involved and three quarters of Plaid Cymru Members are present. No Liberal Democrats have arrived so far. The timing of our debate is inconvenient. I accept that Standing Orders require us to meet at 10.30 am if we are meeting at all, but surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government to change the Standing Orders if they cause problems. If we have to meet on Monday morning, may I suggest to the Government, through you Mr. Jones, that we meet in Wales, as we have done previously? That would be far more convenient.
The Chairman: I heard what the right hon. Gentleman said, but it is not a matter for me.
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 and the Chancellor's Pre-Budget Statement as they relate to Wales.
As for what the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said about the timing of our debate, I understand that the usual channels discussed the matter. As a Member of the National Assembly for Wales, he will be aware that, as Members of Parliament, we were anxious to debate the Queen's Speech in the same week as the Assembly. Tomorrow, I shall travel to Cardiff to present the legislative programme speech to the National Assembly. It was felt fitting to debate the issue both here and in the Assembly as quickly as possible in the week following the Queen's Speech.
I take the point about timing and the difficulties that hon. Members face when travelling here on a Monday. I also take the point about meeting in Wales and I am sure that there will be an opportunity during the remainder of the session for that to happen. Incidentally, for some hon. Members, it is not as
simple to get to Cardiff as it is to get to London, certainly in the case of those who represent constituencies in the north of Wales.
Today's debate concerns the pre-Budget report and the Government's legislative programme. Both matters are about our commitment to social justice and enterprise, and our continuing programme of reform and modernisation of the United Kingdom. The Government's momentum is as strong now as it was on the day that we were elected. That is because we rejected the short-term solutions that were offered by many Opposition Members and refused to following the prescriptions of the Conservative party that would have taken us back to those years of boom and bustmainly bust in the case of Walesthat hurt so many of our hard-working families.
We did not inherit what the Conservatives call a golden economic scenario. We were elected to govern a country that had a weak economy. I shall set out the facts. Before we were elected, the Government's debt was increasing at the rate of £500 million a week. Because we tackled that debt crisis, we can now spend that money on public services in Wales. At the time, mass unemployment was regarded as a price worth paying and decisions about interest rates were taken on the basis of political calculation. They were artificially lowered before every election and whacked up after polling day. Our public services and public servants were treated with contempt, starved of investment and allowed to fail.
We were elected on a programme to deal with all those problems, and we have stuck to that programme. We took the tough action needed to reduce the Government debt. We provided the economic stability needed to create jobsapproximately 1,000 new jobs a week since Labour came into office in 1997. We gave the Bank of England operational control of interest rates. We have announced our plans for public spending for the next three years, which include the largest ever boost for health service investment in Wales£1.3 billion over and above the normal increases for those services. No Opposition Member here can claim that he or she supported those measures. The Tories remain committed to a return to the boom and bust economics that ruined so many lives in the 1980s and 1990s.
The pre-Budget report shows that we were right. There has been a palpable change in the mood of the country after the publication of that report, and dividing lines between the parties have become crystal clear. Recent by-elections
Mr. Wigley: In Wales?
Mr. Murphy: Recent by-elections show that people have decisively rejected the Tories, after comparing their plans for cuts with our plans for investment that were announced in the spending review and reinforced in the pre-Budget review.
We have given the over-75s free television licenses. The Tories would take them away. We have increased the winter fuel allowance. The Tories would take that away, too. We have announced extra help for the poorest pensioners, which the Tories would also take away. We have announced plans for fuel and vehicle licenses that are the equivalent to a cut of 8p a litre, while the Conservatives plan a cut of only 3p.
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): The Secretary of State made a telling point about the poorest pensioners, but has he read the report published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which states that 500,000 more people in the United Kingdom, many of them elderly, have fallen below the poverty line? In Wales, 25,000 more people are below the poverty line than when Labour came into power. Is the Secretary of State proud of that fact?
Mr. Murphy rose
Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) rose
Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend can speak in a moment.
I have not had the opportunity to read the report to which the hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones) refers. However, as he knows from the pre-Budget report, we have increased the basic rate of pension by £5 and £8and there will be a further increase. We have put an extra £6 billion into pensioners' pockets and we are tackling the long-term problems of pensioner poverty. That is more than any previous Government have done for many years. The half a million pensioners in Wales benefit considerably from our policies. The hon. Gentleman can go to any town, village or city centre and ask pensioners what they think of recent measures, just as my party colleagues and I have done. Pensioners will say that the Government have given them more than they have received for many years.
Mr. Ruane: I knew that the Opposition would refer to the Joseph Rowntree report, which is mentioned in today's Western Mail. The report uses 26 indicators of poverty, 17 of which have gone down, showing that poverty has reduced, and only 9 of which have risen. The figures to which Opposition Members refer are for the year up to 1999 and do not take into account the minimum wage, the working families tax credit or the new deal.
Mr. Murphy: It is also worth while pointing out that we can give pensioners in Wales those increases because the United Kingdom has the fourth strongest economy in the world and because of the measures taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. Wales is part of the United Kingdom; without our membership of the United Kingdom, we could not have provided those increases.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): On pensioners' increases and the take-up of means-related pensions in Wales, is the Secretary of State convinced that means-related handouts are the best way in which to address pensioner poverty? Is he aware that the Government confessed yesterday that only 62,000 pensioners had taken up the minimum income guarantee? What will happen when pension credit is introduced? How will he address the lack of take-up?
The Chairman: Order. I know that in future interventions right hon. and hon. Members will address the Chair.
Mr. Murphy: The people of Wales, Mr. Jones, are conscious of the help that the Government have given them in terms of pensions. People in my constituency, who have paid into the benefit system for years and deserve all the help that they receive, do not regard the minimum income guarantee as a handout. The Government are doing all that they can to ensure that people are aware of that facility, which was intended to target the poorest pensioners and is only part of an overall package. The valley constituenciesbut not exclusively those constituencieshave a huge share of the poorest pensioners in the United Kingdom. We must ensure that the minimum income guarantee is taken up. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join with me in asking people in Wales to take advantage of that benefit.
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): Is it not cynical of Opposition Members to talk down the support that has been made available to pensioners rather than encouraging them to make use of the facilities through the excellent take-up campaign? A simple system has been set up that enables pensioners to phone and talk through the ways in which they can gain an additional income. Opposition Members should help pensioners instead of talking down those facilities and that support.
Mr. Murphy: My right hon. Friend will know that about 105,000 pensioner households in Wales will be eligible for such an income guarantee. About 10,000 more pensioners are now eligible, and benefits have increased for the 95,000 who were previously eligible. Tens of thousands of pensioners are benefiting from our policies.
Mr. Wigley: It seems that some forthcoming event focuses Ministers' attention on attacking us in respect of pensions.