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Mr. Wiggin: Such genuine and heartfelt concerns should be taken seriously, but the hon. Gentleman is wrong, pure and simple, about those fears. I do not think that there is a plan to dump people from one list to another. That has been going on already, and it is not effective. That is one of the reasons why I find it so difficult to listen to the Secretary of State for Wales telling us how brilliantly the economy of Wales is doing, when the reality is pretty much as the hon. Gentleman describes it in his important intervention.
No. I have been pretty generous in giving way, and although we could go on until 11 o'clock tonight, I will make some progress in fairness to all the other hon. Members who wish to speak.
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One of the key causes is the Government's complete inability to do anything about the red tape that is strangling businesses. It is a simple and clear fact that a small business in Wales that employs more than 25 people will spend 73 hours a month filling in Government paperwork. A survey of small businesses in Wales found that red tape had stopped 36 per cent. of them recruiting more people and that 18 per cent. had been forced to cut employee levels. If the Government really want to stop damaging Wales's economy, they must remove the excessive regulation, targets and rules that are strangling Welsh businesses. They must also act to reduce the massive taxation burden that faces the people of Wales.
Unlike the Government, the Conservatives do not believe that increasing the amount that everyone pays a week in tax by £42 is the way to give people the freedom to succeed and develop greater prosperity. We have seen the Government's 66 stealthy increases in the taxes that we payand seen the damage that that does. In Wales, nowhere is the curse of escalating taxes more obvious than in the rocketing council taxes. Since 1997, council taxes in Wales have increased by an average £392, or 79 per cent. Areas such as Monmouthshire and Blaenau Gwent have faced increases of 12 and 13 times the rate of inflation. Thanks to the Government's rebanding policy, many people are facing the double whammy of going up a council tax bandor two, or even three. That is set to bump up the tax on an average band D home to more than £1,000 by next year.
The Chancellor's most recent budget, of course, tried to lure voters with the long overdue move to exempt homes up to the value of £120,000 from stamp duty. Yet that simply hides another attack on Welsh business: commercial stamp duty tax relief in deprived areas was abolished. Welsh businesses will suffer as the Government rake in £340 million from them with that new tax. Of course, that raises the question of what all that hard-earned money will be spent on. We can hope that it will be ploughed back into the things that Wales needs the most. Unfortunately, given the Government's record on spending and wasting, I fear that that will not be the case.
In Wales, we need only to look at the massive £67 million570 per cent. higher than the original estimatespent on the new Assembly building to see evidence of unnecessary waste. What a difference from Conservative spending proposals, which will guarantee a good deal for Wales from the savings that we make from cuts in waste across Britain. With Barnett funding on top of the block grant, Wales will get a great deal and not face the continued waste and subsequent tax increases that it will suffer if Labour wins a third term. Of course, because our priorities are things such as the NHS and education, which account for a large proportion of Wales's funding, the actual growth will be even greater, yet never were improvements to such things more desperately needed for Wales.
Wales already faces many inequalities in the health of its people. Only 30 per cent. of people in Wales meet guidelines for physical activity, and more than half the population is technically overweight, with 17 per cent. of them obese. More than a quarter of the population smoke and 41 per cent. admit to drinking more than recommended. The many people who wonder why the Welsh NHS has been allowed to descend into the
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disastrous situation in which it finds itself should look at its administration. Despite a 40 per cent. increase in health spending, it is difficult to find anything, bar the hard work and devotion of the front-line staff in Wales, that is actually going right with Welsh health care.
Mr. David : The hon. Gentleman made a passing reference to the Welsh Assembly. Will he confirm that he is in favour of scrapping the Welsh Assembly, although the leader of the Conservative group in the Welsh Assembly wants it to have more powers?
Mr. Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman gives me a nice opportunity to make the exact policy clear. We have said, as we have always said, that we will not do anything without the say-so of the Welsh people. To that extent, we will hold a referendum. The choices in the referendum will be whether to give the Assembly further powers, whether to abolish it, or whether to leave it as it is.
Mr. Wiggin: It will be a sort of "preferendum", as the hon. Gentleman says. However, my vote does not count in Wales, so it is no good pushing me on this one. Although all other hon. Members in the Chamber will have a voteexcept perhaps you, Madam Deputy SpeakerI will have to sit gnawing my fingernails in anticipation of the result. It would be disingenuous of me to lead hon. Members to think anything but that the people of Wales will have the final say over the future of the Assembly.
Lembit Öpik: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with interest. Will he confirm that the only way in which pensioners in Wales will get the council tax rebate about which his party is talking will be to abolish the Welsh Assembly, or have I misunderstood his position?
Mr. Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong about that. The money for the pensioner discount will be available through the Welsh block grant, if the Assembly chooses to give it to pensioners. At the moment it does not choose to do that.
Mr. Llwyd: I think that I understood the hon. Gentleman to be saying that he was not expressing an opinion on the future of the Welsh Assembly because he did not have a vote in Wales. Was that what he said?
Mr. Wiggin: I apologise if I was not clear. I have expressed an opinion in the past, from over the border. I have been asked how I would vote if I had a vote. I would vote for abolition, but that is not the policy of my party, which is one of holding a referendum. [Hon. Members: "Resign!"] I think that I have made the policy perfectly clear and said what I would do if I had a vote, even though I do not.
Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman made the point that he would not be involved in that debate because he does not have a vote in Wales. He does not have a vote in Wales in the general election either, so how can he lead the Conservatives' general election campaign in Wales?
Mr. David: I am being charitable. Will the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) give a commitment that ifGod forbidhis party wins the general election and he becomes Secretary of State for Wales, he will visit Wales more often?
The mystery to many is how the Welsh NHS has been allowed to descend into the disastrous state in which it finds itselfuntil, of course, we look at administration. Despite a 40 per cent. increase in health spending, it is difficult to find anything, bar the hard work and devotion of the front-line NHS staff in Wales, of course, that is going right in Welsh health care. The Secretary of State said in the Labour Assembly manifesto of 2003:
More than 100 people have waited longer than four years for an out-patient appointment in Wales. The latest figures show that the overall number of patients waiting is about 300,000, which is an increase of 83 per cent. since Labour took control in Wales. Expensive initiatives mean that money is being thrown away for small improvements. I believe that Labour succeeded in spending £36 million to remove just 40,000 people from the waiting lists in two years.
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