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Mr. Wiggin: The most important cut to be made is in red tape. We need to get rid of the extra burden that makes call centre jobs more competitive abroad. Many companies still find it convenient to have call centres in the UK. We should be thinking about how they manage to do that, rather than writing off jobs. We must not forget how important call centre jobs are to Wales.
The situation is no better for the manufacturing sector. Manufacturing output in Wales is down by 4.2 per cent., and the number of manufacturing jobs fell by 3,000 between September 2002 and September 2003. Since 1997, 30,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost. The manufacturing sector now accounts for just 17 per cent. of gross domestic product, compared with 21 per cent. in 1997.
Mr. Wiggin: I am glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. Yes, let us be pleased about everything that is going well in Wales; let us just be sad that there are not more positive things we could say. It is important to talk up the good stuff, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that reason, if for no other.
The trouble is that the overall picture is not as rosy as the one presented by the hon. Gentleman, and someone is responsible for that. Indeed, a group of people are responsible. I refer to the Welsh Assembly Government, and to our Secretary of State here. They are in a position to do even more, but they are not doing it, so I shall continue to stress what a shame it is that there are not more great examples like that given by the hon. Gentleman.
The number of Assembly civil servants has increased by 65 per cent. since 1999, to 3,861. The number of officials employed by the Welsh Assembly Government has risen by 37 per cent. since 1999, and costs have increased by 50 per cent. to more than £90 million. It recently emerged that £10.1 million had been spent since 1999 on civil servants' travel expenses and "subsistence allowances". The picture of the employment sector in Wales is not a rosy one. It is vital that the Government do not neglect the private sector any longer.
In 1999, west Wales and the south-west valleys qualified for objective 1 status because their gross domestic product per head was 74 per cent. of the European Union average. Their status has since significantly declined to just 68.6 per cent. of the EU average. West Wales fares worse than the former East German cities of Dresden and Leipzig, which have a GDP per head index of 69 per cent. and 72 per cent. respectively. That is an appalling record, and the objective 1 project cannot boast the successes that it should be able to boast.
In 2001, the Assembly set targets to regenerate the Welsh economy over the next 10 years. They set the target of taking the Welsh GDP of 80 per cent. to 90 per cent. by 2010. The latest figures show that it is now 78.7 per cent., so it has gone backwards. They now claim that 90 per cent. was not a target, but an aspiration.
Objective 1 is in a cash crisis. Applications total £100 million, and there is believed to be a shortfall of £20 million in the pathway to prosperity funding pot. The Economic Secretary recently announced that he would have to dip into other departmental budgets, and it was also confirmed recently by the Department of Trade and Industry that the Labour-controlled Welsh Assembly spent less on European projects in the first three years of the programme than the Conservatives did when they were in government.
Hope was offered to Wales last week, when it was announced that the poorest parts will qualify for six more years of European funding when objective 1 ends in December 2006. Obviously, the fact that they still qualify for aid shows the Government's failure to capitalise on the existing objective 1 programme. I hope that plans are already being put in place to ensure that the extra £931 million is not wasted for the second time.
Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman remember that it was the Conservative Government who opposed objective 1 status for Wales? Does he also realise that, because moneys are being spent so well in Wales, the European Commission has given the Welsh Assembly an extra £57 million?
Mr. Wiggin: The last time I gave way to the hon. Gentleman on objective 1, he tried to catch me out. The truth is that, if it had not been for the Conservative Government's changes to the structure in Wales, it would not have qualified for objective 1 funding, so that is enough nonsense from him. I had hoped that he would use his intervention to confirm whether such plans have been put in place, but of course he could not.
The people in such deprived areas of Wales deserve better. They deserve to receive the financial regeneration that is rightly mineI am sorry, that is rightly theirs, not mine. The situation on taxation brings no more good news for the people of Wales. Since 1999, the average band D council tax in Wales has risen from £602 to £837. People in Neath Port Talbotthe Secretary of State's constituencypay the highest council tax in the land.
Mr. Wiggin: What a shame the hon. Gentleman does not talk about paying less tax, but just about a different way of collecting it. If only he could get it into his head that it is not the council tax that people object to: it is the size of it that they resent. If the Liberal Democrats recognised that, they might make some progress, but I sincerely doubt that.
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should have asked the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) whether, with four properties, he would benefit from a non-property-based council tax.
Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, who represents the Liberal Democrats, has turned a pale shade of pink in embarrassment, and rightly so.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): While we are on the subject of Liberal Democrat policy on council tax, does my hon. Friend think that the Liberal Democrats are in danger of going back to a situation that it is not helpful to be in, as the Conservatives learned to their cost? If we had a local income tax, everyone in a household with a taxable income would be
Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do not want to rake over too many of the coals on the poll tax. The great thing is to learn from one's mistakes, and the Liberal Democrats have learned nothing from ours.
The threat of local income tax is extremely dangerous, because the Liberal Democrats have failed to understand that people who do not have their income paid in the United Kingdom are still liable to pay council tax, but would fall out of the brackets to collect local income tax. They have also ignored the huge bureaucracy necessary to collect local income tax. Those are two reasons why local income tax will remain a Liberal Democrat fantasy, as it should.
The 40 per cent. increase in council tax since 1997 has made people feel low and constrained, whereas low taxes give people the opportunity to make their own decisions. It appears that Wales is not fulfilling its potential. That is because of the number of constraints imposed and the lack of energy from the Labour Government in both Wales and Westminster. Sixty stealth taxes, countless regulations and ridiculous amounts of red tape are all tying up Wales and leaving it to struggle against Government interference.
Principally, I should like to bring the House up to speed on what the Select Committee has been up to over the past 12 months. Since the last St. David's day debate, we have published two major reports, on our inquiries into the primary legislative process as it affects Wales and the empowerment of children and young people in Wales.
I shall first address our inquiry into the primary legislative process. In undertaking the inquiry, the Select Committee did not seek to comment on the devolution settlement for Wales. Rather, we decided to consider the effectiveness and efficiency of the current process of passing legislation for Wales in this House.
First, our report made a number of recommendations to the Government to improve the consistency of approach to conferring powers on the Assembly and to improve access to information on Bills affecting Wales. I am pleased to report that the Government broadly welcomed those recommendations.
My Committee also called for a mechanism for Assembly Members to be able to register formally their views on legislation passing through Parliament that directly affects the Welsh Assembly's remit. After our last meeting with the National Assembly's Panel of Chairs, the Presiding Officer of the Assembly and I sent a joint letter to the Procedure Committee, reinforcing the support of both the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Panel of Chairs for formal joint working, which the Procedure Committee is now considering. The Committee also gave evidence to that effect to the Richard Commission, which I understand is to report in the near future. The Committee looks forward to hearing Lord Richard's views on the issue.
Finally, on a personal note linked to this inquiry, I reiterate a previous request that Members of the National Assembly be given reciprocal passes for admission to the House of Commons, a courtesy currently extended to Members of our House when visiting the National Assembly in Cardiff bay.
The other major inquiry undertaken by the Welsh Affairs Committee related to the empowerment of children and young people in Wales. It focused on political participation; citizenship and active communities; diversity; youth justice; the United Nations convention on the rights of the child; and the relationship between the National Assembly for Wales and Westminster on policy development. In total, we held eight oral evidence sessions and took evidence in Wales on three occasions during the course of the inquiry.
Throughout the inquiry, the Committee held informal meetings with young people from across Wales, and it took formal evidence from young people on two occasionsfrom sixth-formers at Pantycelyn school and from the Welsh Youth Assembly, otherwise known as Funky Dragon. Young people also attended evidence sessions alongside adult witnesses as representatives of organisations directly involved with children and young people.
Incidentally, right hon. and hon. Members will be pleased to know that when we took evidence from representatives of Funky Dragon in this House they made parliamentary history, as it was the first time a witness had given evidence in the Welsh language to a Select Committee in the House itself.
In summary, one of the report's major conclusions was that the current limits of the remit of the Children's Commissioner for Wales do not best serve the interests of Welsh children and young people. The Committee therefore recommended that the commissioner's powers be extended to cover all non-devolved matters, and a suitable vehicle for that change could be the Bill to establish a children's commissioner for England.
The Welsh Affairs Committee is engaged in a wide-ranging inquiry into manufacturing and trade in Wales. It has taken evidence on three occasions and has a full programme of evidence sessions to complete in the next few months.