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Mr. Evans: I had to. This is almost a tradition in this debate, and a bit like pantomime. I will go through it again. Does the hon. Gentleman believe in first past the post or proportional representation? If he believes in proportional representation, why did he accept a seat in   the House under first past the post?

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is right. Perhaps for the last time in this Parliament, the public will be treated to my standard response. Proportional representation was not an option for me, but not going into Portcullis House was an option for him. If he is so offended, he could have rent his clothes in rage and worked from home. Modern technology makes that possible. Instead, he chose to take that place. I will take no lessons from the Conservatives about a new building for Welsh devolution.
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The final point that I would make about the Conservatives is the astonishing risk that the shadow Secretary of State for Wales has taken tonight in expressing his views on Welsh devolution. He said that he would vote for the abolition of the Welsh Assembly, but that his opinion did not count. If his leader—himself a Welshman—gets wind of that, the hon. Gentleman's opinion probably will not count. In my judgment, it is   simply not plausible to think that a man who wants to be the Secretary of State for Wales would have no influence on the party position that the Conservatives would hold in the event of a referendum. If he seriously means that, it calls into question why he would want to take a job in a Cabinet that, according to him, would overtly be opposed to his view. That is not tenable. It is certainly a much more serious divergence of policy than what the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) said.

Mr. Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman must be a bit more straightforward. I have been completely clear. I have expressed my opinion that if I were to have a vote, I   would not be able to use it because I do not live in Wales at the moment. That is pretty open and honest, and I hope that he will respect that. He is seeking to suggest that I do not care or that I have a separate agenda, but that is not the case. I have made it very clear what the policy is. We will give a referendum to the people of Wales and will abide by their decision. That referendum will have a variety of choices, including empowerment and abolition. Unlike the Secretary of State, he should steer well clear of discussing Conservative policy.

Lembit Öpik: I am not even accusing the hon. Gentleman of sieving. I am saying that he should have the confidence that those in opposition and the other parties here would tolerate a degree of dissent in terms of party policy. We are fairly broad churches, and we have not created the problem for him. His leader fired one of his colleagues for a much more insignificant offence.

As for the hon. Gentleman's position—this is the practical point—I am not seeking his resignation or sacking, but we have to recognise that if the Secretary of State for Wales wanted the abolition of the Welsh Assembly, any reasonable politician would assume that that would have currency in the Government of the day. I shall not push it further than that, but I counsel the hon. Gentleman to recognise that his points of view have currency and are heard and listened to outside the Chamber, so it is reasonable for me to highlight that.

On what could happen after 5 May when the Liberal Democrats form the Government of this country, we would fulfil the opportunities that the current Government have not taken on council tax. I am convinced that local income tax is a fairer form of taxation than council tax. We do not need to go into detail, but let us recognise a few facts. The number of properties that moved up bands in Wales was not the same as the number that went down. Some 33 per cent.
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went up and 8 per cent. went down. I guarantee that, on balance, a lot of people will pay more council tax as a result of the rebanding.

If anyone wants to pretend that that is fair, let us recognise what is going on in Adamsdown in Cardiff, for example. It has a lower income than 90 per cent. of Wales, but 90 per cent. of properties moved up bands as a result of council tax rebanding. Where is the justice in that? At the same time, Llangyfelach in Swansea has a higher income than 85 per cent. of Wales, but there only 10 per cent. of properties moved up bands. That is why the Liberal Democrats are so opposed to council tax: it takes no account of ability to pay. By comparison and by contrast, local income tax is based entirely on one's ability to pay. It is not based on a person's home, but on their earnings. What could be fairer than that?

Having fought tooth and nail against the changes that the Conservatives made to local government funding, we are in the ironic situation of seeing the Labour party defend the Conservatives' proposal. The Tories introduced council tax, not Labour, but it has stuck too close to a policy that it inherited and could easily have changed.

There is a glimmer of hope, because I believe that we will have a debate, if things come to pass, on a cross-party basis, and we will put the matter to rights in a year or so. I counsel the Minister not to corner his party too far down that line, because in so doing he makes it difficult for Labour to take the policy on, even if he is persuaded by the benefits of local income tax. It will be the Government and not us who make it look like a defeat for the Labour party and a victory for the Liberal Democrats.

By the same token, it is important to recognise the injustice of tuition and top-up fees to Welsh students. Perhaps of all the social policies that Labour has introduced, this one upsets me the most. I remember campaigning with many former Labour student activists who are now Labour Members of Parliament against such ideas when they were proposed by the Conservative Government. Indeed, let us not forget that Labour promised to legislate against such charges on students. On this issue, I stand four-square with the Conservatives in feeling let down by a direct breaking of an election promise.

The students have not forgotten that because they have got debt, and some people have been put off going to university for fear of debt. More than anything, however, I believe that the Government have introduced a tax on learning. For that reason, the Liberal Democrats intend, as a high priority, to abolish tuition and top-up fees if the public choose to elect us to government.

Huw Irranca-Davies: If I recall correctly, I stood on a platform in the constituency of the hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), in the June 2001 general election, and we both propounded our support for some form of graduate taxation. What has been proposed by the Government might seem iniquitous to the hon. Gentleman, but does he agree that it is fairer than the
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graduate tax because at least there is a time limit? With the graduate tax, people carry on paying until they are in the grave.

Lembit Öpik: We do support a higher rate of tax on 98 per cent. or so—I think that that is the right figure—of the top wage earners.

Huw Irranca-Davies: No—

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman does not have to agree with me, but I am answering his question. In my book, as the majority of the richest people in this country are graduates, it is not unreasonable to charge a 50 per cent. rate of income tax on those earning more than £100,000 a year.

Is it not interesting how history changes politics? Not so long ago, the Labour party would have said that we should have even higher taxation for the richest people. Now we hear respectable and effective politicians, such as the hon. Gentleman, advocating policies that in the not-too-distant past would have branded him a Conservative. I am sad that Labour has moved so far away from the fairest form of taxation, which is income tax. Above all, I am frustrated that these fees were introduced on the basis of a false premise—a promise in a Labour manifesto that it would not introduce such fees for students.

Once again, it is for the electorate to decide whether they have accepted the Labour party's arguments for those charges. It is also a matter of record, however, that in Scotland, the Labour party, working in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, took a different view. I do not think that the Labour party is as homogeneous on the subject as it might wish. I ask Labour Members again, in the spirit of this debate, to consider whether they really want to be stuck with a policy that is iniquitous and in effect creates a higher marginal rate of tax for people on relatively low incomes than it does for those who earn more than £100,000 a year.

Much more could be said about free personal care for the elderly, the £100 extra a month on pensions at 75 and having gone to war in Iraq. Let us be clear: the Liberal Democrats opposed that war and remain convinced that history proved us right to do so. Fundamentally, should there be an election in the near future, what the public have to decide is whether they are satisfied that the old parties can make such changes in their approach to politics that things will improve, or whether they are willing to take a chance on a party that is transparent about its tax increase on those who earn more than £100,000 a year, able to afford free long-term care for the elderly, the abolition of tuition and top-up fees, and the replacement of council tax with a local income tax, and can make those figures add up in a public way.

The great thing about democracy in this country is that people have a choice. The exciting thing about the election is that they can choose between parties that have a differential. They can choose between the two old parties—Conservative and Labour—which look ever more the same, and the Liberal Democrats, who have had the courage to stand apart. I accept that there is Plaid Cymru as well, but it will never form the Government of this country. One cannot pretend that it has ambitions beyond Wales.
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As the public will read every word of the debate—as they surely will—I hope that they will make the comparison between what different speakers have said here and recognise that some of us remember that politicians are elected not to rule but to serve. In so doing, we should make not just our constituencies proud, but our public inspired to believe that politicians in this place are here for the right reasons. If they feel that the Liberal Democrats fit that bill, I hope that they vote for us on 5 May.

7.49 pm

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