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Hywel Williams: I should like to tell the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is in Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) informed the House that he had to travel back to his constituency because of the weather conditions. Thus, in terms of the number of Plaid Cymru Members available, we have 100 per cent. attendance.
Lembit Öpik: The implication, as I reflect on our relative destinations, is that Plaid Cymru Members suffer worse weather conditions than the rest of us. I wish them all speed to get home. For the recordI know that irony does not translate well in HansardI stress that I meant those comments jocularly. [Interruption.] I also feel that I am particularly well qualified to discuss the weather in Wales, but we shall move on.
The Welsh Assembly enjoyed a brief halcyon era of successful Government under the Liberal Democrat-led coalition. Sadly, it has fallen into darker times as the six Lib Dem Assembly Members look on sadly at the missed opportunities as the Assembly struggles on under a Labour-led Administration. I shall first discuss devolution, then assess Labour's performance against some of its pledges, followed by a brief assessment of the other parties, and I shall conclude with the Liberal Democrat response to the issues facing Wales.
Lembit Öpik: It is fantastic to see an honest debate in the Labour party on this issue. It is not for me to cast aspersions on the honesty or integrity of any hon. or right. hon. Member. Many of us feel that the Scottish Parliament was given the sort of powers that the Welsh Assembly should have been given from the start. The Assembly's ability to make a positive impact on Wales and the voters of Wales is restricted by its limited powers. I ask the Minister to give an assurance that the open and honest conversation that is being conducted in the Labour party is concluded soon enough to enable us to move forward constructively once the Richard commission reports.
Lembit Öpik: The Richard commission should form the foundation of the report but many of the comments that I quoted were responses to a request from the commission for feedback. It is right to have an open debate, but my concern is that if Labour does not decide more positively to support devolution, the Assembly will suffer.
Lembit Öpik: I do not want to misrepresent the party: Labour said that that was not a first-year pledge but would be phased in. Labour is a late convert to free prescriptions, welcome though the conversion is, because that was originally a Welsh Liberal Democrat policy. We insisted that the partnership agreement included pledges to freeze prescription charges and make them free for under-25spolicies that were successfully delivered.
Until a few weeks ago, Labour resisted attempts by a Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly member, Kirsty Williams, to remove prescription charges for people with long-term chronic illnesses. Labour's policy is to reduce charges by a proportion each year. People in need of help and with chronic illnesses such as arthritis may have to wait a few years alongside individuals who are not in such great need, but it is a start and I am pleased that Labour's conversion is leading to action.
Lembit Öpik: Indeed, and there have been other frustrating instances of communication difficulties between Jane Hutt and Ministers in Westminster. It is a shame that her office did not treat that important report appropriately. Incidentally, I was once waiting for a reply from Jane Hutt after a big story appeared in the press. My office got a call the day after, and we were told that we would receive the letter that I was waiting for immediately. The letter was sentbut to Kirsty Williams, and not to me. Most people can tell us apart, I think.
The police have told me and my hon. Friend that they are worried about the fact that much of the increase in their funding has been absorbed by the additional mandatory responsibilities that have been given to them. For example, the Dyfed-Powys force suffered a real-terms cut in the money available to fight crime.
In Montgomeryshire and in Brecon and Radnorshire, we are blessed with a fairly low crime rate. However, I hope that the Minister will accept that, with the best will in the world, the police may not be able to achieve the targets set for them because of cuts in the disposable part of their income that they would use for delivering those improvements. I look forward to hearing the Minister's perspective on that when he responds to the debate.
Labour also said that free bus travel for the over-60s and disabled people would be extended, and that a scheme would be developed for half-price bus travel for 16 to 18-year-olds. However, what was claimed to be an extension of free bus travel turns out to be merely a continuation of another policy initiated by the Liberal Democrat-Labour partnership. It is hardly groundbreaking not to scrap a scheme.
Liberal Democrats would go further in giving 16-year-olds power, and I shall respond briefly to what was said a few moments ago. Our policy is that 16-year-olds should be given the vote. There is no justification for patronising them by pretending that they lack the responsibility and judgment to vote. At that age, they can pay tax, get married and raise children, but they cannot vote. That is preposterous. We would change that as soon as we came to power.
Labour said that they would rule top-up fees out for Welsh universities. In fact, they have done so only for the duration of this Assembly. That is only one year longer than the time within which the fees can theoretically be introduced across the rest of the UK, so it is not much of a promise. The Labour promise is really rather empty, but the Liberal Democrat policy is clear: we do not support the introduction of top-up fees across Britain, and we absolutely refuse to support them for Wales. The Secretary of State criticised the Conservatives for their policy of restricting access to higher education, yet there is no question but that, for many people, enormous debts are a significant disincentive to entering university.
If I have reservations about the Conservative party's policies, I have no doubt that the Labour party is guilty of introducing a tax on learning. It means that people are considerably better off on the dole than they would be if they chose to better themselves at university. I lament what is a great betrayal and a broken promise. It makes it difficult for politicians of all parties to win the trust of the public, who feel deeply betrayed by the scrapping of a manifesto promise.
On health, there has been significant investment in hospitals and in GP surgeries, but the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) was right to say that the health service in Wales faces huge problems. It is not clear whether there has been some double counting in respect of the money already invested. Although we are told that £560 million has been devoted to improving school buildings and that £550 million has gone on modernising GP surgeries and hospitals, it is not clear that that money has not been spent already. I hope that the Minister will reassure the House that when the Government talk about the school buildings investment, they are not including the £300 million over three years that has already been committed for that purpose. It is not clear that the money is all new, nor where it will come from in the budget for Wales.
I turn now to the other parties' plans for Wales, beginning with the Conservatives. It is possible that they will make cuts worth £1 billion, but the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), has said that he wants to protect spending on health, education and pensions. With respect, I cannot see how his figures add up. Will the hon. Member for Leominster confirm what the proposals will mean for Wales? Would the Conservatives abolish the Assembly? The Conservative leader, speaking in the debate on the Bill that became the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997, likened the Welsh Assembly to a meeting of church wardens.