Budget Statement and its Implications for Wales

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Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I inform the Committee, as I have the Secretary of State and you, Mr. Jones, that I have a long-standing constituency engagement this afternoon and will not be present for the winding-up speeches.

If ever there was an example of all spin and no delivery, it was this Budget, which contained a series of recycled announcements. We were given cuts in duty on petrol that no one can buy—clearly a great advantage to all of us—but there was no acknowledgement of the 45 stealth taxes, nor a new tax on spin, which was a great disappointment. The Secretary of State for Wales has done nothing to convince the Committee of the real benefits for the people of Wales; he has merely given us more spin.

Many Labour Members present will lose their seats at the forthcoming general election, some by choice, whereas others are on the list made by the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain). That list includes the hon. Members for Vale of Clwyd, for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence), for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), and for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith). They may want to make their farewell speeches, so I shall be brief.

A degree of fantasy was evident in some of the speeches made by Labour Members and some of their Liberal Democrat friends. To hear them speak, one would imagine that we had had a Conservative Government for the past four years—some old Labour Members might think that we have, but the reality is that we have had a Labour Government for nearly four years.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a careful study of Hansard for the 18 years up to the last general election showed Conservative Ministers laying the blame for everything on the Labour Government who were in office until 1979? Does he recognise that he is guilty of some amnesia here and that blaming a previous Government for three or four years is reasonable in comparison to blaming it for 18 years?

Mr. Walter: I am intrigued by the right hon. Gentleman's intervention: I suffer amnesia about the winter of discontent or all the things that happened in the late 1970s. I remember them well—heaven forbid that we should return to them.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman and other Labour Members that the reality is that the Labour Government have been responsible for the deterioration of the national health service in Wales. When the hon. Member for Monmouth spoke, I flicked through the figures for the health authority in the area that he represents. They show that the waiting lists in the Gwent health authority had increased dramatically not only the past four years, but in the past year. I am sure that he will not be proclaiming that on the doorsteps.

Mr. Win Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman talks about the deterioration of the health service in Wales. Can he explain why about 1,000 more patients a week than ever before are being treated? How is that deterioration?

Mr. Walter: It is simple: the number of people waiting for treatment, especially for serious illnesses, has increased. The numbers speak for themselves, and I shall discuss them in detail in a few moments.

Mr. Gareth Thomas: The hon. Gentleman mentioned proclaiming things on the doorsteps. Is he likely to advise Conservative candidates in Wales to proclaim that it is Conservative policy to make people pay for the costs of the so-called operations of old age—cataract removal, hip replacements and treatment for simple fractures?

Mr. Walter: I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman got that bit of fantasy, which is certainly not our policy. I am sure that he did not get it from Jimmy James, who will be replacing him as the next Member of Parliament for Clwyd, West.

The reality is that Labour has presided over a failure to deliver on education in Wales and the greatest fall in farm incomes in Wales in living memory. The reality is that the Labour Government have sat powerless—

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Talking of realities, is not the reality that the people of Wales were so disillusioned with the Conservative Government that they kicked all the Conservatives out of Wales? Is not the reality that people are so unconvinced by the Conservatives' arguments in opposition that they are unlikely to replace any of the Conservative Members who were kicked out of Wales? Is not the reality that the hon. Gentleman cannot claim to speak for Wales, because he represents North Dorset?

Mr. Walter: The reality is that the Conservative party got the second largest vote in Wales at the last general election—larger than either Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats. We secured about 20 per cent. of the vote, which the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Caerphilly, described at the time as a wipeout, although a year or so later he described the 25 per cent. of the people of Wales who voted for the Assembly as a stunning victory.

Let me discuss more important economic factors. In recent months, the Labour Government have sat by powerless while thousands of jobs in Wales were lost. Last year, they increased the pension by a measly 75p.

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

Mr. Walter: I am struggling to limit my remarks to 10 minutes as I said I would. It looks as though we will have 10 minutes of interventions if I am too generous. I shall give way to hon. Members when I reach the meat of my comments rather than during my introduction.

It was a Labour Government who increased the annual tax bill for the average family by £640. Labour Members who represent Wales cannot escape the clear fact that Labour runs Wales. We must remind them that Labour is in power in the National Assembly, propped up by its Liberal Democrat toadies—Rhodri's little helpers—and that Labour is dominant in local government in Wales. At the general election, which the Secretary of State suggests will come soon, the Labour Government will be judged on their performance in Wales.

Economic figures are important when assessing the Budget. The most recent available data show that in the three months to November 2000, the employment rate in Wales fell to 69.2 per cent. from 69.6 per cent. in the same period in 1999. Before any hon. Member jumps, I know that the unemployment rate also went down from 7.4 per cent. to 6.5 per cent. However, unemployment has been falling in Wales for almost a decade. The current concern is that the rate of job creation and the rate at which unemployment is falling have both slowed over the past four years.

Unemployment in Wales remains higher than the UK average. Recent job losses were announced by Corus at Llanwern, Ebbw Vale, Shotton and Bryngwyn, by Dairy Crest at Lampeter, Marshfield and Carmarthen; and by Valeo in Gorseinon. All such losses point to a structural problem that the Government have yet to face.

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

Mr. Walter: Not at the moment.

The Secretary of State referred, although not at great length, to European objective 1 funding. That funding has been secured, but the Treasury has not provided a single new penny with which to match it and the Budget contained nothing to address that.

The Government will be judged on some of pledges they made at the last election, such as ``education, education, education''. The success of their education policy in Wales has been patchy at best. In 1997, the percentage of under-fives receiving full-time nursery education was 1.1 per cent. It remains 1.1 per cent. The percentage in part-time nursery classes has increased, but only from 25.8 per cent. to 27.7 per cent. That is hardly a realisation of the Government's vision of nursery education for all.

The average class size in maintained primary schools has decreased from 26.4 pupils to 25.2 pupils. However, the effect of cutting primary school class sizes is seen in statistics for secondary schools, which show that, in Wales, secondary school class sizes have risen from 20.6 in 1997-98 to 21 in 1999-2000. At the previous election, class size was one of Labour's key pledges, and it has failed to deliver on it. The Budget has done nothing but create more spin.

In Wales, the Labour Government's greatest failure—no doubt, during the coming election we will return to it again and again—was their commitment to cut waiting lists by treating an extra 100,000 patients as a first step. The latest figures from the National Assembly about NHS waiting lists in Wales, dated 28 February, show that the number of Welsh residents waiting for in-patient or day-case treatment has risen from just over 67,000 in 1997 to 75,000 on 31 January this year. That represents an increase of 11.5 per cent. The number of patients waiting more than 18 months for in-patient treatment has risen from 1,402 in 1997 to 4,818 in January this year—an increase of 243 per cent. However, the worst figure of all is the number of patients waiting more than six months for their first out-patient appointment, which has risen from 5,956 in 1997 to 48,506—an increase of more than 700 per cent.

Mr. Ruane: If the situation is as bad as the hon. Gentleman makes out, will he inform us whether £16 billion of spending cuts will improve or worsen it?

Mr. Walter: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman obtained his figure of £16 billion, but let me tell him that there will be no spending cuts at all in the health service under the next Conservative Government; nor will there be cuts in education, the police, or any other essential service. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should listen to this. Labour will be judged at the election as being all spin and no delivery. This Labour Government have not delivered and, as the health figures that I cited make clear, their friends in the Assembly have not delivered either.

Wales has fantastic opportunities, but the key to a prosperous Welsh economy lies in keeping taxes down and reducing regulation—setting free the hard-working people of Wales to succeed. Wales needs a common-sense revolution, and it will get one shortly.

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Prepared 12 March 2001