|Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement
Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): I, too, apologise for failing to be here at the beginning of the sitting. I had various transport problems last night and today, and I now find that I have a hole in my shoe.
This has been a good debate. I was especially pleased to hear the hon. Member for Ribble Valley predicting a host of Tory gains in Wales at the next general election.
Mr. Evans: Including Gower.
Mr. Caton: I am glad that he includes Gower, because the last time that I remember the hon. Gentleman making a prediction with such confidence and enthusiasm was in the Gloucester room of the guild hall in Swansea when he was still a county councillor, when he said that the poll tax was here to stay. His foresight has not improved.
The debate has given us a valuable chance to refocus on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's statement a few weeks after he delivered it. Budget announcements do not always look the same after they have been subjected to the cold light of several dawns, especially once our constituents have had the chance to wipe away the rose tints from our spectacles. In this case, however, I am still hearing a warm welcome in Gower for my right hon. Friend's words. The measure that went down best was the promised increase in the basic state pension in the next two years, which, together with the winter fuel payment that they have been picking up in the past few days, has cheered up the elderly in my patch considerably.
Pensioners' groups remain wary of the idea of the pensions credit, which is out for consultation, but they are prepared to consider it and to judge it on whether it can contribute to tackling the two core related issues of pensioner poverty: the uptake of entitlements and the stigma associated with existing means-tested benefits. If the pensions creditin tandem with the campaign to improve take-up of the minimum income guaranteelooks likely to deal with those issues, it will be recognised as a major achievement. If it does not, the campaign to restore the link between the basic pension increase and average earnings will be renewed.
In my constituency, the Chancellor and the Government have won considerable good will on pensions, because people can see that their concerns have been listened to and responded to. That is also true of fuel duty. The combination of measurescutting fuel duty at the same time as encouraging low consumption and the use of less polluting fuelmade sense to most people who have talked to me since last month's statement.
In the Welsh Grand Committee that followed the previous Budget, I congratulated the Chancellor on the introduction of the aggregates levy to encourage more recycling by taxing quarrying and marine dredging. In the pre-Budget statement, he introduced another welcome measure: the creation of a new fund to be used for environmental improvement work in areas that are detrimentally affected by aggregate extraction.However, Treasury briefings suggest that only areas subjected to quarrying have been identified as eligible to benefit. I hope that the Government will reconsider that. If it can be shown that the Gower coast, and other parts of the south Wales coast, have lost sand partly or entirely as a result of marine dredging in the Bristol channel, those areas should also have access to funds for remedial work.
I will deal in detail with only one matter arising from the Queen's Speech, and it relates to crime. I should first like to add my delight at the creation of the Children's Commissioner. It is a good sign for the future of devolution in Wales. The Government have got it right by identifying crime and health as matters of enormous concern. Like others, I worry about the extension of child curfew orders. It is important that when we debate the criminal justice and police Bill all those concerns about principle and practicality are properly explored.
The appalling behaviour of sometimes quite small numbers of people, adults and children, is undoubtedly making the lives of a lot more people a living hell. I am sure that most, if not all of us, know of places in our constituencies where decent people's lives are being ruined by the deliberate despoliation of their living environment, by fears of the impact on their children and all too often by direct threats of physical violence against themselves and their property. The vast majority of the victims are ordinary, working-class people whose financial and personal circumstances make it impossible for them simply to up sticks and move away from their tormentors. We must get it right. The Government are certainly right to recognise the extent of the problem and to give priority to tackling it.
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): I, too, apologise for not being here this morning. I am sure that the Secretary of State was optimistic, like my good friend, Labour party member Roger Warren Evans, who arrived in London today having walked the 220 miles from Swansea to London in his walk against ageism. He is 65 today, and I am six months older than he is, so I know what it feels like. There were times this morning, when I faced a road block on the M4, that I felt that I should have joined him, and got here earlier.
There is no doubt that the Queen's Speech is one of the thinnest documents since Lowry painted his matchstick men and women working near Six Bells colliery, which the Secretary of State knows well. This sparse speech can mean only one thing: a spring general election. Therefore it must be populist and it must appeal to the tabloids, which will spread the message far and wide. Hence there are six macho Bills on crime. There is one on law enforcement and disorderly conduct, and I agree with much of it. There is a second on private security, a third on vehicle crime, a fourth on money laundering, a fifth on benefit fraud and a sixth on scrapping half the juries.
I suppose that all that would apply to an unemployed security guard who, after being dismissed from a jury, went out and got drunk, stole a car, flogged it and put the money in a Swiss bank account and then falsely claimed benefits while working in the black economy. This is an effort to out-tough the Tories in the run-up to the election. Much of it is aimed at the south-east of England, and to calming down middle England; it is far removed from the realities of Wales.
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that rogue employees and employers in the private security industry have put people at riskon housing estates in Wales, for instance? Such matters are relevant to Wales and have been part of the Labour party's programme for a time, and it is good that we can get on with them in this year's legislation.
Mr. Livsey: I certainly agree that rogue employers in the security sector have been a problem. But all that could have been combined in one Bill, instead of needing six. In some parts of Wales it is hard to find a policemen or an open police station. The best message would have been to have a ``bobbies on the beat and community cop shop'' Bill. That would be far more appropriate. At least then we would see some police about and know where to go and find them, instead of viewing the backside of a 130mph Volvo.
Yes, crime is a problem, but we need to get the police nearer the people. Instead, in our area the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary have just succeeded in abolishing and amalgamating our probation service. The Chief Constable is trying to deconstruct the line management in the Dyfed-Powys police force, which hitherto had the best record in Wales. The reintroduction of the Bill to reduce jury trials is a folly, and it will be defeated again, although we welcome other aspects of the Bill.
Crime must be tackled. Youth disorderliness happens in many of our town centres and it must be dealt with, which can be done effectively only by having more policemen on the beat. The Government have made a start but there is a huge distance to go. Indeed, yobs drinking alcohol are a huge problem wherever one goes in the United Kingdom at present.
The town that I grew up in in mid-Wales used to have three policemen; now it has none. It has only the occasional visit from a police car. It used to have a police station and now there is none. One third of the legislative programme in the Queen's Speech is about crime, when one Bill would have done. We in Wales are the poor relations of the Home Office in many respects. We need to address some of the problems even more urgently, but we suffer from a lack of manpower in the police. I know that the Government have done something about that.
Mr. Michael: Especially in Dyfed-Powys.
Mr. Livsey: Well, that is only the second increase: the Tories gave us only one in 18 years.
On a more positive note, we are pleased with the commitment to improve the importance and effectiveness of the NHS. There will be legislation on long-term care for the elderly. Alzheimer's and such conditions are hugely important and very tragic. Indeed, I am sure that the Assembly will want to get its teeth into that part of the legislation. Obviously we welcome the Children's Commissioner. That was in our manifesto for the Welsh Assembly and we have advocated it for a long time. We welcome Mr. Clarke's appointment. It is vital that he has adequate resources and is accountable to the National Assembly for Wales. There seem to be misconceptions in Tory central office about that, but that is only to be expected.
We regret that there is only one direct Bill of this kind going to Walesalthough there are other aspects of other Bills that will cover Wales. But there are many other things that should have been done in relation to Wales. What about a strategic rail authority for Wales, for example, and legislative powers for the National Assembly? We welcome the banning of tobacco advertising. That is a constructive move. Its influence on young people, and the effects of tobacco on health, such as increases in cancer, are a huge problem in their own right.
The hunting with dogs Bill is a decoy. It is vital that the gun packs are allowed to continue, in upland Wales in particular. Two thousand foxes are killed every year in my constituency, and the damage that they do by killing lambs amounts to at least to £500,000; that is a huge loss to the economy and to the livelihood of the people who live there. Because of the state that rural Wales is in now, the blow inflicted by fuel prices has been enormous. There are ways through the problem that are not mentioned in the Queen's Speech or in measures brought forward by the Chancellor. I cannot for the life of me think why grant aid is not given to low pressure gas, which is about 30p a litre cheaper than conventional fueland one cannot find many ultra-low sulphur fuel pumps in mid-Wales.
Family farms are facing the biggest crisis of my lifetime. There is no income there and the problem is not being addressed properly. When we ask for agrimonetary compensation for farmers, we are only asking for money that they did not get for their products.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2000||Prepared 11 December 2000|