Government’s Legislative Programme

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Mrs. Gillan: Will my hon. Friend confirm that the rumours now emanating from Cardiff bay are strong, in that a deal has been done on the budget between Plaid and Labour, selling out the educational system in Wales and settling for sums far less than those for which the Welsh Conservatives would have settled? It is only the Welsh Conservatives who have held out for their principles and the people of Wales in the budget negotiations. Plaid and Labour are traitors to the people of Wales.
Mr. Jones: Indeed, but to be fair to Plaid Cymru and Labour, I understand that they managed to wring the staggering sum of £300,000 out of the First Minister, so they obviously think that they have done well.
Other contributions to the debate were less predictable and in many respects much more thoughtful than the off-the-shelf job that the Secretary of State regaled us with. The right hon. Member for Torfaen made a characteristically thoughtful and unpartisan contribution to the debate. He agreed with the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham laid out in her opening speech about scrutiny of the proposed Orders in Council under the Government of Wales Act 2006.
The Secretary of State has said that the Welsh Affairs Committee will have a role in pre-legislative scrutiny, but the right hon. Member for Torfaen clearly shares our view that what is required is rigorous scrutiny on the Floor of both Houses of Parliament. We await the unveiling of the proposals next week with baited breath, but without much optimism; what we are likely to get is 90 minutes in Committee, which is unacceptable. The right hon. Gentleman said that this Parliament must not rubber stamp requests for Orders in Council from the Assembly, but unfortunately that is what the likely level of scrutiny will probably produce.
The big difference between the process proposed and rubber stamping is that the Secretary of State himself will be gatekeeper to the legislation; no measure can be brought forward unless the Secretary of State decrees it. The people of Wales will wait in anticipation for the extension of the vice-regal fist to see whether the thumb is extended upwards or downwards, becausethe truth is that the Act will concentrate power in the hands of the Secretary of State on an unprecedented basis.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen echoed the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Memberfor Preseli Pembrokeshire about the proposed rationalisation of HM Revenue and Customs offices in Wales, a concern shared by many members of the Committee.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): How many cuts would there be under the hon. Gentleman?
Mr. Jones: The hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd has spent most of today’s Committee being a cheeky, chappie, jack-the-lad. Does he want to intervene?
I am sure his boss will give him the necessary licence.
Mr. Hain: Very entertaining he is, too.
Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman certainly thinks he is entertaining, but very few other members of the Committee do. Would he like to intervene?
Chris Ruane: I just have.
Mr. Jones: Under the proposals, large areas of north and west Wales would be left without a face-to-face service from HM Revenue and Customs. That cannot be right. Great concern has already been expressed to me and, no doubt, to many other members of the Committee by staff of HMRC, their customers and the accountancy profession.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham noted, the Government are not bringing forward precise proposals for Wales until June, after the Assembly elections. They no doubt hope to minimise the electoral damage by putting back the process, but I assure the Secretary of State that the concern already exists and if nothing is done to allay it, it will be a factor at the next Assembly elections.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who is still not in his place, made a wide-ranging, not to say meandering, speech touching on many issues arising from and outside the Queen’s Speech, and I echo the remarks made by the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire criticised no fewer than three members of this Committee for being absent. He criticised the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham in rather sneering terms. I want to put it on the record that my hon. Friend has only recently returned to Parliament after a serious and life-threatening operation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends will convey to him that I consider his remarks to have been churlish in the extreme.
The Conservative party has for some time been calling for the creation of a department of homeland security dedicated to co-ordinating the fight against terrorism. From news reports today it appears that the Government may at long last be inching towards accepting our recommendation. I hope that they do so, and quickly.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire questioned the Conservative commitment to devolution, quoting Hansard extracts from the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth. However, the hon. Gentleman refused twice to answer me when I intervened to ask why the Liberal Democrats opposed Conservative proposals to offer the people of Wales a referendum on part 2 powers before they were implemented. His refusal to answer makes it clear that the Liberal Democrats are willing and eager partners in the gerrymandered arrangements that will result in the Secretary of State having the power of life or death over Assembly measures. The Conservative party presses for a referendum for the people of Wales, so that they can decide for themselves whether they want primary legislative powers. That would have been the principled thing for any Government to do. As the situation stands, nobody knows whether the people of Wales want primary powers.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire touched on post office closures, but got himself into something of a knot about whether his party wanted to privatise the Post Office.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn made a thoughtful speech. He welcomes the proposal to restore the link between pensions and average earnings, as do the Conservatives. Despite the fact that a Conservative Government broke the link, he will recall that restoring it was an important plank of Conservative policy at the last general election.
Chris Ruane: But not in 1992 or 1997.
Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman is at it again.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn was much shakier, however, on the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s raid on pension funds, which has caused so much damageto pensioners. The hon. Gentleman welcomes the forthcoming climate change Bill, as does the Conservative party. Indeed, we pressed for it. However, he shares our concern at the lack of binding targets. He acknowledged the failure of the Child Support Agency and I would echo his comments that early attention to the child support system is a priority.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon made an interesting and thoughtful contribution, in which he spoke from his great personal knowledge of the need for a mental health Bill. He expressed concern that the Queen’s Speech made no mention of any proposal to address the problems of the tax credit system. The iniquities of that system have caused considerable concern and distress to many of our constituents. He mentioned the Pensions Bill and, in particular, a Plaid Cymru policy of removing tax relief for higher rate taxpayers. I personally would not welcome that and I am sorry that he mentioned it, because it might put ideas into the Government’s head.
The hon. Member for Aberavon, the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee—it is a great privilege to serve under his chairmanship—delivered a thoughtful speech, addressing concerns about a globalised economy and its effect on Wales. He is right: we must recognise the threats and challenges posed by globalisation and by climate change. He spoke of the need to facilitate lifelong learning opportunities and pointed out that Wales has for some time lagged behind England in the area of education and needs to address the problem. I am sure that hon. Members will have appreciated and learned from his thoughtful speech.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion spoke of the digital switchover and pointed out the problems that rural communities might face. He is right. Residents of my own constituency, which is highly rural, have expressed similar concerns. He spoke of budgetary shortfalls in relation to community policing and of the need for a marine Bill. Again, the Conservative party would echo that point. He spoke of his concerns about the threat to post offices and the vital role that they play in a rural community. Again, that is a theme that is developing from this Committee, and I hope that the Government learn from it.
The hon. Member for Llanelli spoke of constituency concerns and once again addressed the problems facing HM Revenue and Customs. She also spoke of the climate change Bill and the need to address best practice.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire spoke of the Offender Management Bill and his concerns about the probation service. He also spoke of the problems facing British Waterways.
The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) made a wide-ranging and possibly less meandering speech than the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. He raised concerns about rural policing and climate change.
This has been a long, but interesting debate. At the end of the day, we see a Government who are tiredand have delivered a tired Queen’s Speech. In almost10 years in Parliament and almost eight years in Cardiff Bay they have created a Wales that is the poorest region of the UK. NHS dentistry has become a thing of the past and council tax is double its level in 1997. The Secretary of State may attempt to talk upthe position, but the truth is that Labour has letdown Wales. Labour means well, but does not deliver. Wales deserves better and needs a new team. Onlythe Welsh Conservatives can provide the leadership that Wales needs.
3.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Nick Ainger): As the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) said, it has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. I am not sure whether some of the issues raised were relevant to the title of the debate and it is interesting that the Opposition made no reference whatsoever to the pre-Budget report, which relates to it. I wonder why that is. Presumably, it is because it was an excellent report, building on what we have achieved over the past nine or 10 years and aiming to ensure that stability, low inflation and investment go into our public services in the coming years.
Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): The Under-Secretary described the pre-Budget report as excellent. Is he aware that the Institute for Fiscal Studies criticised the Government for their distorted use of statistics? There are repeated announcements, but they do not amount to new money—they are just re-announcements of old money from 12 months previously, or sometimes longer than that.
Nick Ainger: I have seen the media coverage of that criticism, but I have not seen the details. There is nothing wrong in telling an accurate and truthful story about the state of our economy compared with what it was when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in power.
The Queen’s Speech, unlike what the hon. Member for Clwyd, West, said, is ambitious and bold. It outlines a programme for the Government that will build on our successes, create opportunities, enhance our security, and take tough decisions in the interests of this country’s long-term future. I reject the claim by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who is still not here, that it is a conservative legislative programme. The Queen’s Speech includes measures to tackle climate change, reform pensions by linking them to earnings, drive up the quality of further education, strengthen and give greater freedoms to local government, and take tough action to tackle antisocial behaviour and organised crime.
Similarly, the measures in the pre-Budget report build on a platform of stability and sustained growth and will provide investment in Britain’s potential so that a strong economy and a fair society can be secured. Other measures include: more investment in education; more resources to enforce the minimum wage; extra help for lone parents and young people to get back into work; the provision of child benefit to mothers-to-be; and action to tackle climate change.
Through the Queen’s Speech and the pre-Budget report, Labour is building a long-term future for Wales and Britain. I look forward to working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and a Labour Welsh Assembly Government to implement the proposals we have discussed together to build a prosperous Wales and ensure opportunity for all.
I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that I may not be able to cover every point that has been made, but certain themes have been raised. I want to reinforce the message given by my right hon. Friend about the extra resources coming to Wales through the pre-Budget report. There will be £9 million in resources in the coming year and a further £165 million in capital over the next three years. That is significant extra money and it builds on the budget for Wales, which the Government have doubled since 1999. It has given the Assembly the opportunity to invest in more teachers, doctors and nurses, and it builds on the 10 years of sustained growth in the economy in Wales. A record number of people are in work. The figure is 1.3 million, which is a rise of almost 130,000 since 1997.
My right hon. Friend talked about a strategic view for the valleys to take forward and build on the achievements. Clearly more work needs to be done. With the conversion funding, which replaces the objective 1 programme, the Assembly has announced that it wants a far more strategic view to be taken with far more strategic projects. His thinking certainly chimes in with what Andrew Davies, the Minister with responsibility for this, is doing. Already there is a strategic partnership covering the heads of the valleys. It is up to the usual channels to decide on future debates, but certainly it would be interesting to have one on how conversion funding is being developed.
Many hon. Members referred to the climate change Bill and the measures within the PBR. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, when he was here, my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn and for Aberavon, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire all raised issues relating to climate change. I shall say one thing about annual targets and echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth.
We all accept that it is a global problem and the view taken in international regulations is that annual targets are pointless. It is the long-term trend and action for the long term that are important. The hon. Memberfor Chesham and Amersham spoke of the need foran independent review to look at these rolling improvements in emission reductions. It is already in the Bill. An independent carbon committee will review the reductions in emissions and bring it to the attention of both Government and Parliament if problems arise. If we try to set annual targets, one, two or three bad winters could mean that the targets are not met. People will say that the policy is failing, whereas we may well be achieving our long-term target of a 60 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.
A White Paper on the marine Bill will be published early in the new year. I totally agree with the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire about what an important tourist asset and environmental asset our waterways are. Nobody wants to see a return to the dereliction that many of our canals fell into for almost hundreds of years, in some cases, certainly since the explosion of the railways in the mid-19th century. Significant investment is still going into our waterways system. The work of British Waterways is certainly appreciated by the Government. I hope that my comments reassure him.
Hon. Members raised particular problems aboutthe police. It is worth re-emphasising that since the Government came to power in 1997, we have more than 1,000 additional police officers in Wales andhave brought in community support officers. I had a meeting yesterday with the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety to discuss the problem in Dyfed-Powys. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen raised the problem that Gwent police have had in funding their CSOs because of the problem of getting a payment out of the Home Office. We have checked on that and I understand that a request for £2.8 million has only recently been submitted to the Home Office for the policing of the summit of Foreign Ministers in Newport. Obviously, discussions will take place, but we hope that that matter is addressed.
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Prepared 15 December 2006