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Session 2004 - 05
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Welsh Grand Committee Debates

Government's Legislative Programme

Welsh Grand Committee

Tuesday 7 December 2004


[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Government's Legislative Programme

Motion made, and Question proposed [this day],

    That the Committee has considered 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.

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I spoke earlier of the need for a carers' revolution, and that possibility has been hastened by the Queen's Speech, with its 10-year child care strategy and by the announcement today of the possibility of an older people's commissioner for Wales. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who is not in his place, for his sterling, pioneering work over the past year to promote the possibility of such a commissioner through his private Member's Bill.

The Queen's Speech brought to the fore the key policy question of the work-life balance. It is crucial that policy development on that is broadened so that we can provide care for all generations. Granny care will be as important as child care in future if we are to achieve fairness and greater economic activity. With that in mind, I am sure that all hon. Members will support the launch of an all-party parliamentary carers group in January to monitor progress.

In conclusion, a sustainable carers' revolution can be achieved only if we build on the strong and democratic partnership between Westminster and Wales. Under a Labour Government, the Queen's Speech has once again made great progress in that direction.

2.2 pm

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): It was amusing this morning to hear the Secretary of State making up Conservative policy, but I am happy to confirm that there are no plans to cut the Welsh block grant.

Since the Assembly was created, there have been only three Wales-specific Bills. In the same time, it has debated nearly 20 measures with the potential to be dealt with by Bills from Westminster. None the less, I have reservations about the practicality of the proposals outlined in the Queen's Speech. The draft Transport (Wales) Bill leaves many questions unanswered after the move to abolish the Strategic Rail Authority, which is the cornerstone of the draft Bill. The Government's latest response to Committee suggestions on the Bill avoids answering several questions by saying that a memorandum of understanding between the Assembly and the Department for Transport will answer them. However, those questions are important; indeed, they are integral to proper understanding and scrutiny of the Bill.
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For example, we do not know what the relationship will be between Network Rail and the Assembly or what power the Assembly will have over English rail policies that adversely affect Wales. We do not know what the governing relationship over franchise functions will be, what the position of a transport commissioner in Wales will be, or what will be done if there is an unsolvable dispute over local transport plans between local authorities and the Assembly. Nor do we know, of course, the financial implications for the Assembly and the people of Wales. The provision to grant the Assembly a power of financial assistance for air transport, for example, comes with no extra funding, so support would have to be found from within the Assembly's budget.

Of course, the people of Wales, like the people in the rest of Britain, are no strangers to tax increases and extra costs. They know that the Treasury has failed to meet its targets on tax, income and spending, leaving a widening gap in the public accounts. They also know that the Government have increased taxes 66 times and that their council tax has increased substantially. The Labour election strategy to try to reduce council tax bills in Wales will not fool many, and I have reservations about how far £40 million will go when it is spread across the whole country. It will come to about £7 each, which is a poor return for the average 79 per cent. increase in council tax that Welsh residents have seen since 1997.

If Labour promises of more funding for councils prove to be all talk, Wales could, once again, see great rises in council tax. Even with extra funding to reduce bills, council costs are rising faster than central funding because of new regulations, burdens and laws imposed from Whitehall. Taxes will have to rise or services will have to be cut. Of course, the people of Wales know that the Queen's Speech will hit them in the wallet, but the question is whether they will get value for money.

Economic inactivity has increased at a higher rate in Wales than in the rest of the United Kingdom: Welsh economic activity currently stands at 74.7 per cent., which is well behind the UK average of 78.4 per cent. The proportion of people of working age in Wales who were in employment in March 2004 was 71.2 per cent. Once again, Wales lags behind the UK average of 74.7 per cent. The statistics come from the Assembly's StatWales website. Wales has lost 26,000 manufacturing jobs since 1997, 700 agricultural jobs during the past year, and 44,000 private-sector jobs since 1999; yet there has been an 80 per cent. increase in the cost of bureaucrats employed by the Assembly. However, I note a complete lack of legislation to do anything about the excessive regulation, bureaucracy and heavy taxes faced by businesses and individuals in Wales.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Having agreed with the hon. Gentleman about the problems with the council tax, I am waiting to hear the Conservative party's solution. I respectfully ask him to answer the question on all our lips. What is the Conservative party's alternative to the problems caused in Wales by the council tax?
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Mr. Wiggin: My feeling, and that of all council tax payers, is that the problem is simply the amount that people are being asked to pay. It is a Government stealth tax; it allows less Government spending. In return, councils have to levy a higher council tax, and the Government watch as local councillors take the blame. That seems to be the Government's strategy. The problems with the council tax became acute when council tax rises became so intense that people began to hurt, and that has continued over the last few years.

It is not necessary to have a local income tax—the hon. Gentleman would like me to say that it is—because it would not really help. In my constituency, it would cost the average family an extra £500. It would be a great mistake. The problem is the amount of money that the Government are not giving to our councils, not the way in which local people have to pay. The hon. Gentleman is twitching to intervene.

Lembit Öpik: I do not seek to persuade the hon. Gentleman of the benefits of a local income tax; I leave it to voters to decide whether they prefer that or the council tax. My question remains, though. The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that the Conservative party will provide more money for councils, thereby reducing the council tax. If my understanding is right, that is exactly the promise that he makes.

Mr. Wiggin: I was making no promises. I was talking about the Queen's Speech. I am certainly not going to make any spending commitments here and now, no matter how tempting it may seem.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman referred to the increase in council tax bills throughout Wales. Is he aware that in 2000 the Labour-led Assembly Government changed the formula of the standard spending assessment from that introduced by the Wales Office under the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). Would the hon. Gentleman revert to the old formula? As a consequence of the change made in 2000, Ynys Môn county council gets an extra £7 million per annum, thereby helping to reduce the burden that the local council has to impose on local council tax payers.

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Prepared 7 December 2004