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30 Oct 2002 : Column 855—continued

Devolved Powers

3. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): What assessment he has made of public perception of the operation of devolved powers in Wales. [76059]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Peter Hain): After three years, the devolution settlement for Wales is working well, with the Government and the National Assembly acting in close partnership for the benefit of Wales. Against that background, it is tremendous news that Cardiff is on the short list for the European capital of culture in 2008. Cardiff is Europe's youngest capital, and it is on the move towards becoming a world-class British city.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : I warmly welcome and encourage the diversity of culture, language and meaningful local government throughout the United Kingdom, but has the newly appointed Secretary of State for Wales studied the findings of a recent study by the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which states that the overwhelming majority of Welsh voters think that the Assembly has made no difference—or, at best, little difference—to public services in the Principality?

Peter Hain: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is making new Tory policy on behalf of his Front Bench. Is he proposing to abolish the National Assembly for Wales? The fact is that the Assembly has been making a real difference, as we, the architects of devolution, always knew that it would. It has introduced free prescriptions for two successive years, and prescription charges in Wales are now lower than those in England. It has also provided free local bus travel for pensioners and disabled people throughout Wales, which is not provided elsewhere. It has introduced Assembly learning grants for people of limited means, funded six weeks' free home care, and seen record spending on health and education and a cut in unemployment as a result of the policies that Labour is pursuing in Wales. It is a Labour Assembly working together with a Labour Government.

Denzil Davies (Llanelli): When my right hon. Friend next goes to Brussels to attend the European convention, will he explain to Mr. Giscard d'Estaing

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what the principles of devolution are—bearing in mind, of course, that he should do so without being very rude? When he does so, will he point out that the draft European constitution shows that Giscard clearly has no idea about those principles?

Peter Hain: I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. In fact, Britain's agenda in the convention on the future of Europe is to ensure that regions of nation states—such as Wales—get their voice heard right at the centre of decision making in Brussels, and that nation states form the bedrock of a union that is a partnership of nation states, not a Brussels superstate.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): At the risk of damaging the right hon. Gentleman's political career, I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him well in post—although not too well, of course.

I have recently received the leaked Government response to the report on the foot and mouth outbreak. Paragraph 1.29 states:

Why, then, did the Government reject our amendments to the Animal Health Bill that were designed to do exactly that?

Peter Hain: It was because Plaid Cymru's amendments usually have to be rejected as they do not achieve the objectives that the Government are trying to achieve for Wales. We are working closely with the National Assembly to benefit farmers and everyone in Wales. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, Plaid Cymru has never created any jobs in Wales, and has never done anything to generate better health services, better schools and a stronger economy in Wales.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Although working relations between Front-Bench Members in Cardiff and in Westminster were excellent throughout the occupation of the post of Secretary of State for Wales by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), could not Back Bench relations between Cardiff and Westminster be greatly improved? Following the vote last night, there will be more consideration of draft legislation. Would it not be a useful innovation to have Joint Committees of Back-Bench Assembly Members and Back-Bench Members of Parliament to discuss legislation for Wales?

Peter Hain: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's question. Obviously, we want to promote an increasing partnership between Members of Parliament and Assembly Members in Wales, and we shall continue to work on that. I shall consider my hon. Friend's ideas, but as he knows, pre-legislation scrutiny has been developing. We are working on that, and I would welcome ideas from him or any of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

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Free Eye Tests

4. Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): If he will take steps to arrange for the devolution of powers to the National Assembly for Wales to enable free eye tests to be available in Wales. [76060]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): Certain groups of people, including those under 16, those over 60 and those in receipt of income support and other benefits, are already entitled to free NHS eye tests in the United Kingdom. The power to make regulations relating to fee exemptions for eye tests has been devolved to the Assembly.

Mr. Williams : I thank the Minister for that answer. I congratulate the Secretary of State on spelling out so clearly the achievements of the Liberal Democratic-led coalition Government in Cardiff. They are a wonderful Government. In 1989, the Conservative Government introduced charges for eye services as part of their continuing dismemberment of the national health service. Will the Minister ensure that, in any health Bill that appears in the Queen's Speech, an enabling clause is included to enable the National Assembly to deliver free health care? Will the Secretary of State put his mouth where his Nye Bevan statue is?

Mr. Touhig: The danger of being led by the Liberal Democrats is that they may lead us up a blind alley, as we have experienced in the past. Under the National Health Service Act 1977 and other regulations, certain groups are already exempt from charges for eye tests. Primary legislation would be required to abolition all fees for eye tests in England and Wales. As far as I am aware, the Government have no plans to do that.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I also take this opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State to his new position in the Cabinet. I pay tribute to his predecessor, who won respect from both sides of the House. I wish him well in his new job in Northern Ireland.

Does the Minister agree with me that the Welsh Assembly might be perceived as more relevant if it concentrated on issues over which it has some responsibility, such as agricultural collapse, the NHS waiting lists crisis, and the meltdown of manufacturing jobs, rather than debating issues for which it has no responsibility, such as Iraq and the middle east, which it debated yesterday?

Mr. Touhig: I am not clear what that has to do with eye tests, although I note that yesterday's debate on Iraq was led by Plaid Cymru. Perhaps that party has a visual problem, as one would expect. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but the subjects to be discussed by the National Assembly are matters for the Assembly. The First Minister has made it absolutely clear that the Labour-led Administration in the National Assembly are concerned about the economy, jobs, health and education. Those are the issues that we

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will put across to the people of Wales, and which will give the Labour party a majority in the Assembly at the next election.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The House is far too noisy at the moment. It is unfair to hon. Members. I call Mr. Nigel Evans.

Mr. Evans: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

We are always hearing demands from other political parties that they want extension of powers for the Welsh Assembly. The Minister will know that Lord Richard is conducting his own Assembly-sponsored inquiry into the number of politicians in the Welsh Assembly and the powers that they currently have. We already know that the Secretary of State for Wales and the Foreign Secretary are not so keen on referendums. The Foreign Secretary has told the people of Gibraltar that he thinks their desire for a referendum rather eccentric; indeed, he may not even take heed of what they say. If Lord Richard recommends extending the power of the Welsh Assembly, will the Minister—given the slight and slim majority that voted in favour of devolution—give the people of Wales another say in whether there should be such an extension of powers?

Mr. Touhig: As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Richard commission is matter for the National Assembly. The Assembly set up the commission, and it has agreed the criteria by which it will operate. The Government will await the commission's conclusions, which will doubtless be debated by the Assembly, and we will respond at the appropriate time.

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