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12 Mar 2003 : Column 328—continued

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Tory leader of the council in Ynys Môn

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backed a 9.4 per cent. increase in council tax, but Tory Assembly Members voted against changes to the standard spending assessment that would allow extra resources from Cardiff to help needy areas like mine? The Tories voted against extra money in Cardiff, yet they voted for an increase in council tax in my constituency.

Mr. Evans: In Monmouthshire, the increase—[Hon. Members: "Apologise."] No. The increase in Monmouthshire is 13.8 per cent. We know that rigging has taken place to remove money from shire counties so that it can go elsewhere. Even with all the rigging, however, every local authority area faces inflation-busting increases this year on top of the massive inflation-busting increases since 1997. The Government said that they would not increase income tax, but they have ensured that there are increases in council tax, which hits everyone, especially poorer people in some areas.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Although the hon. Gentleman is right to mention the problems in Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, will he accept that they have nothing to do with the efficiency or otherwise of those local authorities? They arise because the local government formula, determined by the Welsh Assembly, discriminates against the poorest communities. That being so, does he support a revision of that formula so that we reverse the situation to take from the rich and give to the poor?

Mr. Evans: In Monmouthshire, we know that money is being taken from people and given to other areas. Surely what we need is a fair distribution of the money available. I also recognise that the Welsh Assembly has imposed extra responsibilities on local authorities and has not passed on the extra funding 100 per cent. of the time, so if local authorities wish to deliver those services, they have to put up council tax, and that is unfair to people who live in homes on fixed incomes.

Llew Smith: I will reword my question. Will the hon. Gentleman support a local government formula, determined by the Welsh Assembly, that is driven by need as opposed to greed?

Mr. Evans: I would support any formula that ensures that everyone gets their fair share of the money and that the local services that are supposed to be delivered in those areas are properly funded. No area should be penalised simply because of social engineering.

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

Mr. Evans: No. I want to make some progress because other hon. Members wish to speak.

The Secretary of State is concerned about the turnout at the Assembly elections on 1 May. I too am worried that people will boycott them, perhaps because they never supported the Assembly or because it has not delivered on its promises. I hope that people do vote and punish the Labour and Liberal Administration in that Assembly by voting for change. The coalition has

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comprehensively wasted millions of pounds on, for instance, the bureaucratic reform of the national health service, which will come into effect shortly. It is also wasting millions of pounds on the new Assembly building, which only Lord Rogers and some politicians want, and on embassies in capitals around the world so that Mike German can visit them, which seems to be his reason for being on this earth.

Lembit Öpik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evans: I will, but I am only half way through my list.

Lembit Öpik: I cannot wait to hear the rest, but let us handle the issues one by one. Is the hon. Gentleman opposed to the Assembly building? If so, why can he never explain satisfactorily why he is willing to take a place in Portcullis House, which cost £231 million? I believe he voted against it, which makes his position even more hypocritical.

Mr. Evans: Will the hon. Gentleman, who believes in proportional representation, explain why he has taken a seat in this place under the first-past-the-post system? He has done that because it exists and we work with the system that is in place. I took an office in Portcullis House because that is where the offices are, and we were asked to go there. I opposed the expenditure because of the way in which it was handled, just as I oppose the expenditure—perhaps as much as £40 million—on a new Assembly building in Cardiff, when the money could go to front-line services.

Let me continue listing examples of where the Lib-Lab Administration has been at fault. Although industry is declining, the training body ELWa—Education and Learning Wales—has given millions of pounds to a pop factory without following proper procedures—and, of course, there has been the interference by the permanent secretary, Sir John Shortridge. I find that disturbing, and I congratulate Jonathan Morgan, our Assembly Member, for exposing that incompetence and demanding a full and transparent copy of the report. Four senior executives on that quango, which has £500 million to spend, have been disciplined. In addition, the Administration turned a blind eye when British Airways pulled out of Cardiff airport. If there is a low turnout, it will be for those reasons. The Assembly offered so much and has delivered so little that even the extra spin doctors employed by Rhodri Morgan will not be able get them out of that mess.

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman said that he, like every hon. Member, wants a high turnout. Are his disparaging and insulting remarks helpful in that respect?

Mr. Evans: It would be more disparaging than helpful to have a conspiracy of silence when things go wrong. I am condemning those who run the Administration for making those decisions. I encourage people to vote on 1 May because they need to consider what the political parties are offering and decide which of them will provide what people really want, which is better front-line public services.

Gareth Thomas: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evans: Not at the moment, but I will shortly.

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Lord Richard's commission, which is a sop to the Liberal Democrats, is considering whether more powers should be given to the Welsh Assembly. Irrespective of what the commission suggests, it will be up to the Secretary of State and the Cabinet to decide whether they will recommend extra powers. Will the Secretary of State give a commitment that, should that be the case, the people of Wales will be able to vote in a referendum on whether the Welsh Assembly should have primary—indeed, tax-raising—powers?

Mr. Simon Thomas: How much would that cost?

Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman may ask that, but this is about democracy, which is vital. The people of Wales must be consulted. The last thing that we want to be implemented is the Liberal Democrat plan to have 80 Members of the Welsh Assembly—an extra 20. The Liberal Democrats would also like to reduce the number of MPs here in Westminster, which would be a great shame. They want to belittle what is going on in Westminster in order to glorify events in the Welsh Assembly.

I also want the Minister to address a problem at the heart of further and higher education. I welcome the project announced yesterday, in which a bus will go round 195 schools in Wales with the purpose of encouraging youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university. What I do not welcome is the socialist engineering that artificially disadvantages youngsters from middle-class backgrounds—and, indeed, those from working-class backgrounds—and turns them into victims.

Parents who work all the hours that God sends to save money in order to send their youngsters to fee-paying schools—or parents such as the chairman of the Welsh Language Board, Rhodri Williams, who has been able to get his son on a scholarship to Eton—should not be punished by universities aiming to secure Government funding by favouring youngsters who have inferior academic qualifications. We all want youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds to be given every opportunity, but surely the way to do that is by ensuring that they receive good primary and secondary education, so that they can attain academic qualifications. We should not punish youngsters simply because they went to fee-paying schools. The Government need to raise the aspirations of youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds and ensure that they can fulfil their potential. Replacing merit with malice as a cornerstone of education policy is a disgrace, and will go down in the annals of time as one of the most appalling examples of new Labour going completely off the tracks.

Gareth Thomas: Will the hon. Gentleman disown the comments made at the end of last year by the shadow Chief Secretary to the effect that his party could cut funding by 20 per cent? What effect would that have on schools, hospitals and educational attainment in Wales?

Mr. Evans: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling me to put the record straight. That will mean, of course, that I will never be asked about the 20 per cent. again—will I?

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The fact is that my hon. Friend the shadow Chief Secretary said that in certain areas savings could be made. I will give the hon. Gentleman some perfect examples. I could save 100 per cent. of the money spent on the Welsh Assembly building—not just 20 per cent. I could save 100 per cent. of the money spent on all those embassies around the world for Mike German to visit. The fact that he is out of the country is generally a good thing; none the less I could save 100 per cent. of that expenditure. Jane Hutt said that her NHS reforms would be cost-neutral, but we now know that they will cost £15.5 million. We could save 100 per cent. of that money. All that wasted money could go into front-line services, ensuring that we got extra police, nurses and doctors. We would be cutting not front-line services but waste and unnecessary expenditure.

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