Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement

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Mr. Rogers: I think that the Secretary of State is being very unfair to the Tories. Last week, I received a letter from the leader of the Conservatives in the Welsh Assembly, who wanted extended powers and sought support for a check box. Clearly, they are concerned about vital issues in Wales, and it is unfair to criticise them.

Mr. Murphy: I should concentrate for the moment on the Commissioner for Children, as his role was mentioned in the Queen's Speech. It seems that the Conservative party has not got used to liaising between Westminster and Cardiff. I am sure that Conservatives in Cardiff would not have had the same Queen's Speech briefing.

Mr. Walter: I hope to deal with this matter at greater length later, if I can catch your eye, Mr. Jones—but there is no inconsistency. In the Welsh Assembly, the amendment tabled by Conservative Members

    asserts the importance of the family in protecting and nurturing children and therefore believes that the remit of the Children's Commissioner should relate exclusively to children's services provided by public and other agencies.

Mr. Simon Thomas: What do they say in London?

Mr. Murphy: What they say in London is that

    the rights of such a Commissioner should not be extended to supplant the role of parents who are the natural and right advocates for the interests of their children...They should not be undermined in a way which this legislation could make possible.

There is no question of the role of the role of Children's Commissioner, which is replicated in many European countries, undermining the role of parents. It will add to, enhance and complement the role of parents in looking after their children.

Although we are giving the Assembly the resources needed to improve services in Wales, I fear that the Conservatives' plans for public spending could have serious consequences not only for the services that Welsh people want and deserve, but for devolution itself. Billions of pounds worth of cuts in this country would inevitably impinge on Welsh public services through the block grant system, which would undermine and destabilise the whole concept of devolution. I hope that people are conscious of that in the months ahead, when we debate such public spending issues. It is a question not only of cuts in services but of undermining devolution. While we support the objective 1 programmes, the Tories—despite what the hon. Gentleman said—have doubts about structural funding. While we believe in ``education, education, education'', the Tory schools policy is cuts, cuts and cuts.

The Tories would take us back, but we are determined to keep moving forward. The pre-Budget report and the Queen's Speech focus clearly on our priorities for Government—the opportunity economy and the responsibility society—and make clear the choices that we have made. We have chosen stability and not boom and bust, investment in public services and not cuts, devolution and not centralisation or separatism, and building strong communities and not an atomised and crumbling society. We are providing those new opportunities to work for a decent retirement and to enjoy a high quality education, and in return we expect responsibility to be shown to all, by all.

11.01 am

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I believe that this has been the closest Queen's Speech to the Christmas period that we have had for several decades.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): Christmas has come early.

Mr. Thomas: No, it is all the most wonderful window dressing, if the truth be told. At Christmas all the tinsel, the sparkly bits, the ribbons and the attractive goods are set out in the shop windows—and the public of Wales are being invited to buy the pre-Budget report and the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Paul Murphy: I know that the hon. Gentleman has just started, but if this is to be the theme of his speech let me point out that tackling crime, modernising the health service and setting up a Children's Commissioner for Wales are not window dressing.

Mr. Thomas: I had only just started, as the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged. (Hon. Members: ``Setting the scene.'') I will set the scene a little if I may. The Government have set out their prettiest baubles, shiniest toys, most elaborate confectionery—(Hon. Members: ``Baubles?'') I will explain why some of them are baubles. The big question is whether some of them will see the legislative light of day. Imagine the disappointment on the voters' faces in the new year when the glitter has worn off some of these wonderful initiatives and the Bills' batteries have run out without getting anywhere, and there is the tearful revelation that there is no Father Christmas, just Mr. Prudence dressed up against his will for this one Christmas.

The sad fact is that at the end of this Parliament, and at the end of the three years covered by the Red Book, even after the largesse that the pre-Budget report claims to offer, this Labour Government will be spending less of the UK's gross domestic product on public services—under 40 per cent. is the mantra—than the Conservatives did under the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). The money may have gone up—(Laughter.) Hon. Members may laugh, but as a proportion of GDP it is less money. They are being totally complacent if they think that the people of Wales want to see new Labour spend less on public services than the Tories did. Is that what they got elected to do? I do not think so, and I do not think that the public of Wales want to see that happen either.

The Secretary of State raised a few issues in his opening remarks, perhaps to overcome some of the disquiet that the public of Wales will feel when they see that less of their money is being spent on public services than the Tories spent. He mentioned the recent settlement for pensioners. We welcomed that. It was a useful step forward—although it is three years late, and comes after a 75p slap in the face.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn): Which you voted against.

Mr. Simon Thomas: We voted against it because it was too little. Every pensioner in Wales would vote against 75p too. Only the hon. Gentleman votes for 75p. We know what the pensioners of Wales need, and it is not 75p.

The other thing promised in the Queen's Speech is help with nursing care, despite the recommendation of the royal commission that help should be given for personal care. The Scottish Parliament has found its way around that and provided help for personal as well as nursing care. That is the sort of thing that older and elderly people in Wales would have liked to see in the pre-Budget statement and the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Flynn: Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that Labour's achievements are not just for Christmas but for the long term? Will he admit that for the first time for 25 years the increase in pensions next year will be above both the level of earnings inflation and price inflation? Will he also acknowledge that two of the major achievements of this Government, the minimum income guarantee and the pension credit, which will continue into the next decade, will increase by more than the rate of inflation, again for the first time in 20 years?

Mr. Thomas: I am an assiduous reader of the hon. Gentleman's early-day motions, so it surprises me that he speaks so strongly in favour of the minimum income guarantee. What he has just said is true only if every pensioner in Wales fills in a 40-page application form.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire): They can do it over the phone.

Mr. Thomas: Yes, so long as they are prepared to go through the whole form on the phone. At present, only 62,000 pensioners in the UK have applied. That was the figure that the Secretary of State for Health announced yesterday. If the Secretary of State for Wales can tell us that figure for the pensioners of Wales, I will certainly give way to him. I am afraid that many pensioners are put off by the fact that they must jump through so many hoops to get what is rightfully theirs and share in the wealth of the country.

Mr. Ruane rose—

Mr. Michael rose—

Mr. Thomas: I am still dealing with the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), and I am sure that in his heart of hearts, he too believes what I am saying.

Mr. Michael: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that a simple system has been put in place so that pensioners can ring up and talk through the form with an adviser, rather than having to wade through pages and pages? [Interruption.] And will he ask his right hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) to be quiet? It is not right to talk down the simplicity of the system. We should be talking it up so that pensioners get what they are entitled to.

Mr. Thomas: A form that asks pensioners whether they are pregnant is not part of a simple system. The Government said that they wanted to simplify the system. I would welcome that. I hope that they do so. We should remove any barrier that stands between pensioners and what is rightfully theirs. I hope that Labour Members can join me in wishing that rather than putting up defences for an indefensible system.

Mr. Flynn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas: No, I will not give way again to the hon. Gentleman.

We have been asked to advance constructive ideas today. May I put forward a constructive idea to the Secretary of State about the miners compensation scheme? Many miners are having problems with the clawback from benefits payments. I say that not in a party political way, but as an explanation of why there is so much disquiet at the moment in areas of Wales from Wrexham in the north down to the valleys of the south.

Mr. Rogers: We ought to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) and the work that he has been doing in this area. The clawback system has operated in civil liability cases for many years and no one has said anything about it. We should not forget that this is a piece of civil legislation. However, in this instance, as a result of pressure from Labour Members, and other hon. Members, the period used for the assessment of the clawback is now the initial period when the illness was diagnosed, rather the previous five years, which led to the huge distortion. That is why the problem of the clawback is being ameliorated to such a great extent.

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Prepared 11 December 2000