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19 Mar 2003 : Column 924—continued

Local Government Finance

3. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): What discussions he has had in March on the effects of proposed council tax increases in Wales in April 2003. [102970]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend and I have discussions with many people and organisations about matters affecting Wales.

Simon Hughes : Will the Minister give us the latest information on the likely average increase in council tax in Wales in the current year? Does he agree that people in Wales particularly resent high increases if they feel that decisions are largely taken in Whitehall and the Wales Office, not by their local councils? Would he be willing to allow the Welsh Assembly to have power over the way in which local government finance is raised in Wales, and will he consider local income tax as a much fairer alternative?

Mr. Touhig: That is a very interesting proposition. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is hoping to stand for the office of Mayor of London. As he campaigns on this issue, he will no doubt explain to the people of London why the Lib Dem council in Southwark, supported by the Tories, has hiked the council tax by 9 per cent. He should compare that with an average council tax rise in Wales of 8 per cent. The message is simple—Lib Dem and Tory councils cost more: vote Labour on 1 May.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Has the Welsh Assembly had time to reflect on its decision to

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delay council elections for one year? In future, might it decide to allow council elections to concur with Assembly elections, as in Scotland? That might have a beneficial effect on council tax rises.

Mr. Touhig: I am not sure that I want to be led down that road. When the Assembly decided to delay the next council elections, there were extensive discussions among all parties. A decision was taken and I do not believe that the Assembly has any intention of changing the decision at this time.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): In 1997, people living in a band D house in Merthyr Tydfil paid £569 in council tax. When they receive their council tax bills in just a couple of weeks' time, they will be paying £1,003. Does the Minister think that a reasonable increase?

Mr. Touhig: Some of us have longer memories than others. In the last two years of the Tory Government, council tax band D in Wales went up by 32 per cent. This year—thanks to the support of this Labour Government, working in partnership with the Labour Assembly—councils have received an extra 9 per cent. in support for public services. As I said earlier, the average council tax rise in Wales is 8 per cent. this year. One council, of course, has imposed a rise of well above that: Conservative-run Vale of Glamorgan, backed and kept in power by the nationalists, is putting up its council tax by 10 per cent. That is a clear message to the people of the Vale of Glamorgan come 1 May.

Mr. Evans: I asked whether it was a reasonable increase; I infer from his answer that the Minister thinks it is. In Blaenau Gwent, for instance, council tax has gone up by 78 per cent. since 1997. This year, people there face an 11 per cent. increase in their council tax, which will go up to £975. In Neath, the constituency of the Secretary of State for Wales, the increase since 1997 has been 56 per cent. In Cardiff, people face a rise of 12 per cent. this year, which is four times the rate of inflation. How are people on fixed incomes supposed to pay those huge rises? Do they cut down on food, stop going out or turn the heating off? Those are real questions for people. What advice would the Minister give them when they open their council tax bills in just a few weeks' time?

Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman could at least do us the courtesy of getting his figures right. The figures are 9 per cent. and 11 per cent. for Blaenau Gwent and Cardiff.

What would public services in Wales be like if they were subject to a 20 per cent. cut? Let me tell the House what they would be like. We would have one in five nurses taken out; one in five hospital wards closed; one in five teachers got rid of; one in five police officers got rid of; £155 million worth of cuts in every—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Perhaps the Minister will not mention the election in Wales any more. He has used up his ration.

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Rail Services

4. Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): What recent discussions he has had with National Assembly Secretaries concerning rail services in Wales. [102971]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Peter Hain): Regular ones, to ensure improvements are made.

Mrs. Lawrence : I welcome the £2.5 million that the Assembly has allocated to improve railway stations in Wales, but does the Secretary of State accept that if we want to improve rail services we will have to attack the Reading blockage, the signalling problems at Slough and the flooding in the Chipping Sodbury tunnel? Those factors are the cause of many of the delays. Will the Secretary of State discuss this issue with his Westminster colleagues and press for improvements? What we need is partnership, and not the drawbridge mentality of the nationalists.

Peter Hain: I could not agree more. These issues are being addressed through the record investment that is going into improving our railways. That includes investment in the Paddington to south-west Wales line. We are doubling our investment in rail infrastructure and rail services over the coming two years. If we got a Conservative Government back, they would cut rail investment by 20 per cent.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): The very active and positive Cambrian coast railway liaison conference is made up of members from all parties and from none. They have been working hard but are continually disappointed that the small amount of investment needed to improve services on the Cambrian coast is withheld. Will the Secretary of State assure us that those services will be improved, as the cross-party Cambrian line support group has requested so often?

Peter Hain: We are certainly anxious to see further support and investment to improve rail services right across Wales, including the Cambrian service. We shall look at that. However, if nationalist policies were pursued and Wales was made independent, Wales would be bankrupt and—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn): The Secretary of State will be aware of the fact that Virgin Trains reneged on its proposal to run seven through trains from Holyhead to London from September of next year. Will he agree to meet a delegation of business men and stakeholders from my constituency so that we can put pressure on Virgin Trains to reconsider that decision, which will have a serious impact on tourism and the economy of my area?

Peter Hain: I shall be happy to meet that delegation, because I know of my hon. Friend's concern to improve rail services. Indeed, the people of Holyhead and people throughout Anglesey deserve improved rail services,

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which is what they will get under the Labour Government. I shall be happy to take up my hon. Friend's request.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): While the Minister is being generous, and given the unsatisfactory service north to south and east to west in mid-Wales, will he be willing to accept representations from rail user groups about what might be done to improve the frequency and reliability of the service? Will he also give us an assurance that the Government have no plans for a real-terms cut to the subsidy for rail services in that area?

Peter Hain: We are increasing rail investment by record amounts. I know of the hon. Gentleman's concern about rail services in that area, and the Strategic Rail Authority is proposing additional services for the heart of Wales line, which will improve services in mid-Wales. I do not know how many other requests to meet delegations on rail services I shall get, but I shall be happy to receive the hon. Gentleman's.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): Given that sometimes it is a wonder that we get to London—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much conversation.

Mr. Griffiths: Sometimes it is a wonder that regular rail users get to London on a Monday or get home on a Thursday. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State call in the SRA, Railtrack and all the train operators to thrash out a strategy to get rid of all the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) referred to earlier?

Peter Hain: As a regular user of that service, I am well aware of the difficulties and how often delays occur. However, we are dealing with record under-investment over nearly 20 years of Conservative rule, which will take time to turn around. Investment in our rail services is being doubled over the next few years. That will continue for the rest of the decade and we shall see improvements on the London to south-west Wales line that will benefit my hon. Friend and me.

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