Pre-Budget Statement (Implications for Wales)

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Mr. Jon Owen Jones: The hon. Gentleman will recall that this morning the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire described Liberal Democrat policy as being honest about taxation. He may also recall my speech, in which I described the proposed taxation commitments in relation to health. He asks for money for agriculture and the agricultural community, and for pensions. Will he suggest how the Liberal Democrats intend those taxation proposals to be paid for?

Mr. Williams: We could send the hon. Gentleman a copy of our manifesto. There is much hilarity from time to time about the 1p that we propose to improve health delivery in Wales and the rest of the country. The problem would be much easier to solve if the Government and the Conservative Government had not cut taxation on a regular basis.

Lembit Öpik: Does my hon. Friend agree that, if we are sending the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central a copy of our manifesto, we should also underline the parts about closing national insurance loopholes to put the money specifically into pensions? I remind the Committee that it was our manifesto, and ours alone, that the broad spectrum of commentators during the general election said actually added up.

Mr. Williams: I welcome the announcement that there will be an inquiry into the other ways in which annuities can be secured. At the moment, people are so disenchanted with their returns that they are not commuting their pensions. There is a great deal of uncertainty. I also welcome the abolition of stamp duty in the most deprived wards. However, the Secretary of State should not be boasting that there are deprived wards in every local authority in Wales. If it is good to abolish stamp duty in certain wards in Wales, perhaps we should abolish it on sums up to £150,000 anyway. Such a reduction of the cost involved would really encourage people to take the huge step of buying their first house. It would also encourage businesses to invest.

Earlier today, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire about the statistics on waiting lists in Wales. I have been through all the statistics and I cannot find anything approaching 900 per cent. I do not know at what time of night the hon. Gentleman was doing his research, but he must have made some mistakes in allocating the noughts or decimal points. If there are any problems in relation to that, I will refer the matter to the relevant Ministers in the Assembly and perhaps they will be able to help the constituents involved.

We welcome many items contained in the pre-Budget statement. We will be working with everybody for the benefit of Wales. We will be 100 per cent. behind all those people who are putting their efforts into securing the economy, the society and the communities of Wales.

5.26 pm

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). He represents a farming community that was badly hit by foot and mouth, as my constituency was. I am sure that he will agree that not only could some of the money spent on foot and mouth have been spent on public services, but some of it could have been invested in agricultural infrastructure. We might have avoided some of the problems, especially those involving the long distances that so much livestock has to travel to be slaughtered.

I am pleased to welcome the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement, which takes a positive approach to investment in public services, the principles and ethos of the national health service, support for working families, support for small businesses and ensuring long-term employment and economic growth. That is most refreshing and markedly different from 18 years of Conservative Government and from the principles that the Conservative party stands for today.

I notice that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley is not here. It is indicative that, once again, there are no Conservative Members of Parliament in Wales. I am sorry to have disappointed him, if he waited up until 5 am on 8 June earlier this year only to realise that, when I was elected, we ensured that for two successive Sessions of Parliament, there were no Conservative Members. The Conservative ideology was one of cutbacks in public services, reducing the role of the state, undermining the ethos of the national health service, ignoring the problems of poverty among families and pensioners and denying the rights of employees, especially the low-paid.

The Chancellor's Budgets and pre-Budget statements have a consistent theme: that we can combine economic growth with combating social exclusion. Those two projects can go hand in hand. Only by addressing the problems of social exclusion can we widen the opportunities for everybody to have access to education and training. We must combat health inequalities, address the inequalities that pervade the labour market and the disadvantages faced by many women, the low-paid, and part-time workers. It is to the credit of the Government that those disadvantages are being tackled through the national minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the European social chapter, the new deal and the Jobcentre Plus, and through the Employment Bill currently going through the House. As hon. Members have said, we now have the lowest unemployment for 25 years. That is something that everyone who believes in the Labour movement and socialism should celebrate. We have heard criticism within the party that we have not been socialist enough, but the policy of full employment is a truly socialist policy, and all our friends and colleagues should support it.

The Chancellor has identified three policy areas where spending is due to increase substantially, although I accept that the distribution between those areas may be different in Wales. Education spending is due to grow by 5.6 per cent., health spending by 5.7 per cent. and transport spending by an average of 14 per cent. each year. Those increases will make important inroads in responding to the challenges in our public services.

Let me take the opportunity of identifying some of the priorities for Monmouthshire, to which the Chancellor's investment in public services provides a response. In education, we need more investment in the tertiary sector, or further education. This week, a new equestrian animal health centre will open at Coleg Gwent agricultural division in Usk. More staff should be appointed on full-time salaries, rather than on part-time, hourly paid lecturing staff salaries. We will need to respond to the new era in Wales in post-16 education, when ELWa—Education and Learning Wales—fully takes over responsibility for it. I hope that the early years programme, especially sure start, will develop. I was delighted to visit the sure start programme in Abergavenny recently, but if that programme is necessary for Abergavenny, it is also necessary in Chepstow, Monmouth and every community in which people—especially young women—could benefit from that initiative.

The national health strategy in Wales needs developing, too, with the introduction of the Assembly's new health policy. I generally support the reorganisation that Jane Hutt is introducing, although it is 30 years overdue. By having a structure in the health service that is coterminous with local authorities, we may encourage collaboration between health and social services. Aneurin Bevan said that a national health service could equalise the best, but that was never really applied to mental health services. I hope that one of the beneficiaries of the new structure will be the mental health services in Wales, especially in the southern end of my constituency, where there are serious weaknesses.

I turn to the issue of transport. The Welsh Affairs Committee is considering that issue, and I have written to members of the Committee to ask them to investigate bus monopolies operated by companies such as Stagecoach in my constituency and in that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. A bus monopoly by Stagecoach has led to the deterioration of services. I remind hon. Members that in Gloucester, Stagecoach has recently been fined £8,000 for providing an inadequate service, following a public inquiry. I suggest that there should be similar inquiries in other parts of Wales where the bus service is not as good as it should be.

I ask my hon. Friends to support my campaign to change the law on overcrowding on scheduled bus services. I was amazed to discover recently that completely different standards apply to scheduled bus services compared with designated school bus services. A 48-seater designated school bus can take only 48 pupils because everyone has to have a seat and wear a seatbelt, and no one can stand. On a scheduled bus service, however, a 48-seater bus can take 72 people under the age of 14, plus up to 20 standing. Therefore, 92 passengers under 14 are allowed on a scheduled bus. That is a staggering figure.

The Chairman: Order. Will my hon. Friend relate his comments to the pre-Budget statement?

Mr. Edwards: I am sure that the Chancellor will be committed to supporting my campaign to improve bus safety and the investment that that requires.

In conclusion, I am sure that the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement will be supported by my constituents and by those who see in it the benefits for business, public services, working families and pensioners.

5.34 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): It has been an interesting debate, with the usual Welsh Grand knockabout, and thoughtful contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the Committee.

I referred earlier to several statutory instruments being passed behind the back of the National Assembly for Wales. The actual figures are as follows. Between 1 January 2000 and July 2001, 120 statutory instruments relating to Wales were passed—62 in Westminster and 58 in the National Assembly. Something needs to be done about that.

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Prepared 28 November 2001