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Welsh Grand Committee Debates

The Government's Legislative Programme and Public Expenditure in Wales

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Welsh Grand Committee

Tuesday 16 December 2003



[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

The Government's Legislative Programme and Public Expenditure in Wales

Motion made, and Question proposed [this day],

    That the Committee has considered the matter of the Government's Legislative Programme as outlined in the Queen's Speech as it relates to Wales and Public Expenditure in Wales.—[Mr. Hain.]

2 pm

Question again proposed.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The legal power to scrap tuition fees appears to be meaningless without the financial power to fund a world-class university sector and a decent level of student support through the re-introduction of the maintenance grant. With one hand behind our back, we now face the dire prospect of competing against better-funded English universities. The opponents of the higher education Bill rightly talk about a two-tier education system if the Bill is enacted. Wales will be faced with a three-tier system: the English universities that plan to charge the full whack in fees; the institutions that charge below the cap, and Welsh universities.

The Welsh Assembly Government have been well and truly warned. The Secretary of State said that if push came to shove, health and education budgets might have to be raided to combat the effect of top-up fees. So far, the Assembly has promised that no top-up fees will be imposed until May 2007—only six months after they are due to be introduced in England. However, what is the betting that fees will be forced on Wales after the next election? We oppose the introduction of top-up fees in every way. The idea is disgraceful, and it condemns the Labour Government in Cardiff and in Westminster. Labour always refers to equality of opportunity, but this is a right-wing programme, which offers no hope to people from less fortunate backgrounds. Certainly, it does not further equality. The Western Mail quotes the Secretary of State's comment that the Government will have to

    ''take the money needed for shortfall from other budgets, health or school budgets.''

As a result of the Bill, will Wales receive any extra money from the Government at Westminster to fund our university sector? The only answer is yes or no. I would be grateful for the Minister's assistance. Will he also indicate the likely amount of funding?

At the beginning of the debate, the Secretary of State said that everything was fairly rosy in Wales; the public sector seemed to be doing well and the relationship between Westminster and the Assembly

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Government was good. The truth is that 18,000 jobs have been lost in the manufacturing sector since the Government have been in power. Unfortunately, the gap between rich and poor has widened. The wealth gap is also widening in England. Farming incomes are on the floor and this country no longer has a world-class economy, whatever the Secretary of State may say.

On Wednesday, the Chancellor painted a misleading picture of the Welsh economy that most people in Wales would not recognise. In all the talk of admittedly low inflation, and great growth in the British economy, Mr. Brown, the Chancellor, failed to mentioned a reduction of almost 12 per cent. in the employment—

The Chairman: Order. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is ''the right hon. Gentleman'', not Mr. Brown.

Mr. Llwyd: I corrected myself. I meant to say, ''The Chancellor of the Exchequer.'' I was in no way demeaning the right hon. Gentleman, although he could not answer my question on Wednesday.

The Chancellor did not mention the reduction of almost 12 per cent. in the employment of men aged between 25 and 35 in Wales, or the loss of a huge number of jobs in manufacturing, in the service sector or in the financial service centres.

Wales continues to spiral downwards, although, in fairness to the Secretary of State, he said that much work remains to be done. I hope that we will be able to do a considerable amount of work before objective 1 runs out completely.

Last year in Wales there was the biggest rise in house prices in history. Ageing housing stock is a problem and young people especially have great difficulty in accessing housing and getting on the housing ladder. I have referred to that matter before and I shall not go over the ground again, but it is an important point. I invite hon. Members of all political parties to work together on the issue, as we owe it to young people not to politicise the argument but to sit down and put forward some solutions to those serious problems.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Does my hon. Friend share my astonishment at what I understand are changes in the tax system for people investing in private pension plans, who will be able to get 40 per cent. tax relief on the purchase of holiday homes in north, west or south Wales?

Mr. Llwyd: That speaks for itself; I did not know about it. No doubt it is on the record and we can consider that important issue in due course.

Economic activity rates show that compared with August 2000 there are 21,000 fewer active people in Wales between the ages of 25 and 34, a drop of 12.6 per cent. Things are not easy. By talking about it, I am not trying to drag the country down, as people may say; what concerns me, and should concern us all, is that according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics last week, the gross value added per capita of Wales is set to fall by 2010 to 74.9 per cent., against the Government target of 90 per cent. That is

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all the more disturbing if we bear in mind that it is just over half way through the objective 1 programme. Given its importance to Wales, I cannot for the life of me understand why the match funding is being cut off completely, as we, and many commentators, have predicted for a long time. Objective 1 may not be the opportunity for the good of Wales that people across the political spectrum hoped it would be.

I want to refer briefly to the relationship with the Assembly. It asked the Secretary of State to include four Bills in the Queen's Speech, none of which were accepted by the Government. We have only the Public Audit (Wales) Bill, which was scrutinised by the House last year. The noble Lord Morris said:

    ''My disappointment is that the gracious Speech contains only one measure directed specifically and solely to Wales—and a modest one at that.''

He went on:

    ''But that is the purpose of the Secretary of State for Wales—to fight for Wales in Cabinet; he has hardly any other real functions. By any standards, this is a pretty poor reward for his efforts.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 December 2003; Vol. 655, c. 717.]

They are not my words, but those of the noble Lord Morris, who once occupied that high office.

The only all-Wales measure is the Public Audit (Wales) Bill, which we welcome, but it will not change everyone's lives overnight. Not one of the four Bills on education, public services—the ombudsman—transport and tourism registration, which is very important to us as it is the largest single industry in Wales, were included in the Queen's Speech. The question therefore is why did not the Westminster Government accept any of the measures as a priority? They clearly are priorities—one deals with one of the major industries in Wales.

Why did the Secretary of State fail to persuade the Government to introduce an education (miscellaneous provisions) (Wales) Bill, an ombudsman Bill, a tourism accommodation registration Bill or a transport (Wales) Bill? One could conjecture which arguments the right hon. Gentleman used and what reasons were given to him for rejecting the Bills, which were put forward by the Labour Assembly Government, with all-party support.

The Government rejected ideas such as smaller class sizes for schools, creating a more streamlined system for investigating complaints, raising quality standards in tourism, securing big industry for Wales, and ensuring a better integrated transport system. On what basis are those measures flawed? Why do they not deserve priority?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want to mislead anyone—that is not his way. However, on what authority does he say that the Assembly's bids have been rejected?

Mr. Llwyd: It is unlikely that the measures will come to fruition as they were not referred to in the Queen's Speech, and about 18 months remain of this Parliament.

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Mr. Touhig: Will the hon. Gentleman recognise, with all his experience of this place, that many measures that come forward are not mentioned in the Queen's Speech, for example the Health (Wales) Bill? I caution him about making statements that he cannot substantiate.

Mr. Llwyd: I am grateful for that admonishing intervention. As the Minister knows more about the workings of government than I do, can we take that as a tacit admission that those worthwhile Bills will come forward? If so, I eat my words and congratulate him and his Government.

Mr. Touhig: I would much prefer him to take me out for a good dinner than eat his words, but we will have to wait and see.

Mr. Llwyd: That is a helpful answer. I take his point and we all live in hope. There is a saying about two villages near to each other in the old county of Clwyd: one is called Caergwrle, the other, Hope. The saying goes that I live in Hope and I work in Caergwrle. I will conclude because the Chairman is, unsurprisingly, looking anxiously at me.

The Bills are worthy and I had hoped that they would be included in the Queen's Speech, although I accept what the Minister said. If the relationship with the Assembly is going to work, Bills that it requires should be brought forward in short order. I suspect that that will happen only if primary legislative powers are accorded to the National Assembly for Wales. That debate is for another day, but if Government Members are more concerned about keeping their seats in a boundary commission reshuffle, they are putting themselves before the good of the people of Wales.

2.11 pm


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Prepared 16 December 2003