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House of Commons

Wednesday 17 March 2010

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

Crime Levels

1. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on levels of crime in Wales. [321805]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wayne David): As a member of the national policing board and the crime reduction board, I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on all matters relating to law and order. The latest statistics show that, overall, recorded crime in Wales is down 3 per cent. on last year.

Chris Ruane: I thank the Minister for that response. I have in my hand an article from the Daily Post, which says that north Wales is one of the safest places to live in the whole of Britain. Denbighshire has the third best crime and disorder reduction partnership in the whole of England and Wales. Why are Tory MPs and candidates in north Wales going round claiming that violent crime there has risen by 68 per cent.?

Mr. David: It is not for me to say why the Conservative party behaves as it does. I simply say that that comes as no surprise; it is a dodgy party that uses dodgy statistics.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): Alcohol continues to play a major role in fuelling violence and criminal behaviour in my constituency and across Wales. In the light of that, what discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in Westminster and in the Welsh Assembly Government on introducing a minimum price for alcohol?

Mr. David: Discussions on that issue are ongoing. It is important to recognise that the Government take a firm stance on issues associated with alcohol abuse and antisocial behaviour arising from it. That is one of our priorities, and it goes hand in hand with the emphasis that we continually place on neighbourhood policing.

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Tax Credits

2. Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the tax credit system in Wales. [321806]

7. Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the number of families claiming tax credits in Wales. [321813]

8. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the number of families claiming tax credits in Wales. [321815]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): We introduced tax credits to provide support to families, to help to reduce child poverty and to make work pay, benefiting about 326,000 families and more than 500,000 children in Wales.

Mr. Watson: Happy St. Patrick's day, Mr. Speaker.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he has no plans to axe or cut tax credits?

Mr. Hain: I, too, wish you a happy St. Patrick's day, Mr. Speaker.

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, as can the whole Government. Tax credits have made work pay, lifted hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty, and encouraged people to get off benefits and into work. That is why I resent the fact that there is now a Tory sword of Damocles hanging over tax credits for those on low and modest incomes in Wales. The sooner that the Conservatives stop threatening to cut tax credits and many other support mechanisms in Wales, the better.

Mrs. James: In my constituency, just more than 7,000 families have benefited from the child tax credit system. Can the Secretary of State tell me how many families in total have benefited from the policies of this Government on this important issue?

Mr. Hain: As I have said, 326,000 families have benefited right across Wales. This is not simply a question of their benefiting from tax credits; these measures have helped to lift people out of poverty. About 50,000 children in Wales have been lifted out of poverty, and we also have a policy to offer free breakfasts for primary school children. That is part of our policy of tackling poverty. All that would be threatened if the Tory policies to cut free breakfasts for primary school children and to cut tax credits were ever introduced.

Mrs. Williams: Does my right hon. Friend agree with my constituents that the tax credit system is certainly not a gimmick? Will he confirm my understanding that this Labour Government will continue with the £66,000 limit, whereas the Tory proposal is to reduce it to £50,000, which would certainly affect my constituents?

Mr. Hain rose-

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Mr. Speaker: Order. I know that the Secretary of State will probably not need reminding, but I hope that he will focus his reply only on the policy of the Government.

Mr. Hain: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), who is standing down at the next election. She has been a real warrior for north Wales, and particularly for women right across Wales. Everyone respects her for that. As she has said, tax credits have played an absolutely vital role, particularly during the downturn, in helping to keep people in work and off benefits. About 21,600 families whose income fell for six months last year benefited from an average increase of £36 a week in tax credits. That helped to keep people in work, and those people would not have stayed in work if that support mechanism had been cut from underneath them, as the Conservatives are planning.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Is not this pathetic scaremongering over tax credits merely a smokescreen to prevent discussion of Labour's true failure on welfare in Wales-namely, that after 13 years of this sorry Government, almost exactly one quarter of the working age population in Wales is economically inactive, out of work and doing nothing? That is a shameful record.

Mr. Hain: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman dares to mention economic inactivity on a day when the statistics show that it has fallen in Wales by a larger proportion than anywhere else in the UK. This shows that the curse that we inherited from the Conservative Government of people being smuggled off the dole queue on to incapacity benefit and of other forms of economic inactivity has been tackled under Labour. Employment is up to nearly 100,000 extra jobs in Wales, giving people more support, while economic inactivity is down, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many constituents at his advice surgeries have been in tears in his office because of the tax credit system over the past five years?

Mr. Hain: I will tell the hon. Gentleman what I have had in my constituency-[Hon. Members: "Answer the question."] I am answering the question, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will like the answer. In my constituency office, I have seen people desperately worried-some in tears-about the threat to their tax credits from the Conservatives, should the Conservatives get into government. Many thousands of my constituents, and many tens of thousands across Wales, have benefited from tax credits, which have given them much better prospects for prosperity in the future.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): No would argue other than that the driver for tax credits is a perfectly acceptable and laudable aim, but we all have lots of cases in our constituency surgeries of where they have gone wrong. About 80,000 families in Wales are not claiming a total of £140 million that could be claimed. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should look at raising the income tax threshold by £1,000 to take those people out of the bureaucracy and mistake-making?

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Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have lifted many thousands of people across Wales out of tax altogether through the changes that we have made to taxation. Of course, we want to make sure that especially those on low incomes pay the minimum possible tax and no tax at all, if possible. The tax credit system, notwithstanding the administrative problems that we have seen at the heart of it, has liberated many hundreds of thousands of people right across Britain, including Wales, giving them a chance to work. Otherwise, those people would have been languishing on benefits, as they were under the Conservatives.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that families in my constituency and in Wales will benefit from the policy change recently announced by the Government, which means that there will be much greater flexibility in the tax credit system to cope with changes in the make-up of the household? Will that not provide an even better way of targeting help to those at work who most need it?

Mr. Hain: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Women have especially benefited from tax credits, and they feel especially threatened by the policies of the Opposition. May I take this opportunity to welcome the fact that some 400 new jobs for 18 to 24-year-olds have been announced today in Cardiff, spearheaded by Cardiff county council, which will help to create employment? Many of them will be able to benefit from tax credits in the future, if this Labour Government, but not the Conservatives, are re-elected.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): As we have heard, the tax credit system is very complex and fraught with difficulties. I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees that one of the main causes of poverty in Wales is the very low level at which income tax starts being paid, which stops people entering or re-entering the employment market. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity this morning to support the Liberal Democrat proposal to have a personal income tax allowance of £10,000, which would take 220,000 people out of tax altogether in Wales?

Mr. Hain: I am not sure how that policy fits with the Liberal Democrat policy of cutting tax credits to many on modest incomes-a policy shared with the Conservatives. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome not only how the tax credit system has benefited so many people in Wales, but the fact that unemployment measured by the claimant count is down, that employment is up and that economic inactivity is down-all better news as Wales struggles to get out of this recession. The situation is still very fragile, but we are making progress, which would be wrecked if the Conservative policies of cuts were ever to take effect.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): Tax credits offer important support to people who are in work, and we support them. Many voters in Wales will be surprised that the Secretary of State thinks that £50,000 is a low income-it obviously is to him. This morning's figures show that the Labour Government have mismanaged this economy, that 9,000 more Welsh workers have lost their jobs and that the Welsh unemployment rate is the worst in the UK. Is the right
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hon. Gentleman not ashamed that more and more people in Wales are no longer eligible for working tax credits? How can he so blithely say "making work pay", when one in 10 are now not actually working?

Mr. Hain: The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that household incomes of £31,000 or more will be subject to tax cuts if Conservative policies are implemented, and that the figure of £50,000 cited by the shadow Chancellor is wrong. I prefer to believe the IFS rather than the shadow Chancellor, especially given that his policies are being powered by Lord Ashcroft's illegal-

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State really must not tread down that path.


3. Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on support for pensioners in Wales. [321808]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): Let me first pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is standing down after many years' service in the House.

Labour policies since 1997 have provided generous support for pensioners in Wales and across the United Kingdom, and nearly 900,000 fewer of them are now living in poverty.

Mr. Jones: As my right hon. Friend has said, I shall, sadly, be standing down at the next election and beginning my retirement in Wales.

Far more sadly, I shall shortly be staring the state pension age in the face; I know that that is hard to believe. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the real benefits enjoyed by pensioners in Wales are maintained, especially winter fuel payments?

Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend's young appearance will be sadly missed, particularly the bow tie, which is almost unique in the Chamber. I agree with him that winter fuel payments-introduced by this Government, and increased by them to £400 a year for those over 80 and £250 a year, tax-free, for those over 60-are a vital support measure, as are free bus passes and free prescriptions, especially in Wales. All those benefits would be under threat, if the £20 billion cuts promised by the shadow Business Secretary were introduced, which is what we would expect from a Conservative Government.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Many Welsh pensioners would now be enjoying a considerably more comfortable retirement if the then Chancellor, the current Prime Minister, had not decided in 1997 to abolish advance corporation tax credits for pension funds. Does the Secretary of State think, 13 years later, that that £100 billion raid on pension funds was right?

Mr. Hain: The truth is that pensioners are a great deal better off under this Labour Government. Pensioner households in Wales will be £1,500 better off this year, and the poorest third of pensioner households will be £2,100 better off. Why does the hon. Gentleman not
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stop his party, and its candidates and Members of Parliament, attacking policies such as free bus travel and free prescriptions for pensioners in Wales?

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that the free bus pass has not only given pensioners a new lease of life, but has had the environmental benefit of getting people out of their cars and making rural buses more viable. Will he talk to his counterparts in the Welsh Assembly to ensure that funding for rural buses continues, so that they are available to the pensioners who want to use them?

Mr. Hain: I will certainly do that, but policies such as free bus travel for pensioners can continue only if the Welsh Assembly Government receive support from the Government in Westminster. If the cuts promised by the shadow Business Secretary yesterday are implemented-an extra £20 billion of cuts are planned over the next few years-the Welsh Assembly Government will not possibly be able to fund free bus passes for pensioners, free prescriptions, and free breakfasts for primary school children. All those things will be under threat.

Research Councils (University Funding)

4. Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the allocation of funding by the research councils to universities in Wales. [321809]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Wayne David): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have had a number of discussions about how best to strengthen Wales's research capacity. We also have regular discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government about the issue, because we recognise that it is vitally important.

Mark Williams: I thank the Minister for meeting me earlier this week to discuss Aberystwyth university. Will he also note that, according to the most recent report by the Welsh Affairs Committee,

for Welsh universities

That view will resonate strongly with my constituents in Aberystwyth, where 70 people face the prospect of job losses. Yes, money should follow excellence, but it should also follow the excellence of the future.

Mr. David: The hon. Gentleman and I had a very useful discussion on Monday, in which we addressed the situation in Aberystwyth, in particular with regard to IBERS-the institute of biological, environmental and rural sciences. We fully recognise the excellent work that is done there; I have visited it myself and have seen at first hand the exemplary research that is conducted. Any restructuring is, however, a matter for Aberystwyth university; any restructuring that has been taking place is not a result of any reduction in research council funding, and that support will continue.

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