Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement

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Mr. Thomas: I do not think that it is at all grudging; the hon. Lady shares with me some concern about the Children's Commissioner in Wales, who has one hand tied behind his back regarding the action that he wants to take in post—

Mr. Hanson: He is not in post.

Mr. Thomas: He is not in post, but he has been appointed.

Mr. Michael: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it was impossible to confer the full powers in a Bill that was already passing through Parliament? The Government had to respond quickly to put provisions in place within the scope of the Bill. They have acted this year—and they could not have acted more quickly—to add to the powers of the Children's Commissioner. The hon. Gentleman should come on and catch up with the Labour party.

Mr. Thomas: The right hon. Gentleman has made my point for me. I do not see why he could not have done more at the time. Government Members will cling to the devolution model—[Interruption.]

The Children's Commissioner in Wales must be able to deal with important issues. The Government decided to allow child carers—in Wales as well as England—to smack children in their care and to smoke in front of them. I hope that the new commissioner in Wales will have the power to change that—I emphasise that, although it may not be party policy. On a personal level, I want that to change.

Finally, I note the failure of the present devolution model, and of the glorious display in the shop window with its extensive wrapping paper, the ribbon and the tag saying, ``To the people of Wales: our plans for your government. Love and kisses, new Labour''. When we pick up the box, we find that it is very light. We shake it, but there is no sound, no rattle, no sign of movement. We open it and it is full of flannel, nothing else.

This afternoon in another place—Cardiff—my party will launch its own plans for the future of government in Wales. We shall make it clear where we stand on self-government and full national status. Is it not time that the Government set out their proposals for the devolution process in Wales? One aspect of the Queen's Speech was interesting: it acknowledged the existence of the process of devolution.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones: My hon. Friend is coming to a crucial point in his excellent speech. Has he taken the opportunity to read the excellent paper published by the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), the architect of the devolution settlement, who now admits that it is so fundamentally flawed that more extensive powers are called for? Will he commend that view to Government Members?

Mr. Thomas: I certainly do commend that paper to Government Members. I have read it and I would gladly distribute it by e-mail to anyone who is interested. In it, the right hon. Member for Caerphilly says that we are in the process of devolution; it is not an event. The Queen's Speech made a small concession in saying that decentralisation is also a process, but where does that process lead? What are new Labour's and the Government's real intentions for Wales?

Mr. Rogers: In view of the hon. Gentleman's view that the current devolution system is unsatisfactory, would he be prepared to canvass for a new referendum in Wales?

Mr. Thomas: I am not sure that I am dissatisfied with how the Assembly is operating, though I am dissatisfied with how the Welsh Executive and the Liberal-Labour coalition are operating. I do not know whether I am as dissatisfied with the Assembly as the hon. Member, but I am sure that he speaks for his party when he makes those remarks.

A small, easily passed census amendment Bill should have been in the Queen's Speech so that the citizens of Wales, whatever their ethnic background, could state that they were Welsh next April, before the likely date of the general election. The Queen's Speech was like a supermodel: slimline and superficially attractive, but with no substance.

11.23 am

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli): I shall not even attempt to follow what we have just heard. I intend to make my own speech.

I was provoked by the right hon. Member for Ynys Mon—

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones: I am not right hon.

Mr. Denzil Davies: There seem to be so many right hons. these days, especially on the Opposition Benches.

The hon. Member for Ynys Mon properly mentioned the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, which I have not read. I do not know whether he had a good point, because we are never told the consequences for the pensioners of Wales of the policy of full national status. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) argued for that policy; the hon. Member for Ynys Mon also wanted full national status, but within the European Union, which makes more sense.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion should tell the pensioners of Wales the consequences for them of full national status. We have heard nothing about the nationalists' economic policies, but we know that there would be a shortfall in respect of expenditure and taxation in Wales of about one third. In simple terms, a one-third reduction in public expenditure would mean a one-third cut in pensions. It is the hon. Gentleman's prerogative to have a policy of full national status, but he should state the economic consequences of that clearly expressed policy for the pensioners of Wales, perhaps in a speech or in one of his News of the World articles.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about a lower national insurance payment, but where will the money come from for such a policy? It must come from somewhere, but how could there be a lower national insurance payment in Wales when it is part of a single market?

Mr. Wigley: Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that that is the policy of the Lib-Lab Government in Cardiff, and that his Minister in Cardiff has been pursuing the policy in Brussels for the past week?

Mr. Davies: I am aware that the Minister has been pursuing the matter, but he will find it difficult, not only in London but in Brussels, if that policy is introduced, because at the end of the day there will be a shortfall. If Wales is part of the United Kingdom, that shortfall can be made up, but if Wales is not part of Britain—that is the policy of the right hon. Gentleman and his party—who will make it up? I think we should be told.

Off-the-cuff statements were made about the Barnett formula, but it is not perfect and it should perhaps be opened up for further debate. I remind hon. Members that one of the people who would like us to open up the Barnett formula is the Mayor of London.

I am an avid reader of the Evening Standard when I have nothing else to do. It recently carried an article on a report produced for the Corporation of London by a firm of consultants—I assume, therefore, that it was reasonably correct. It stated that the gross domestic product of London exceeds that of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg or Sweden, in spite of the disparaging remarks about booming London and the south-east. The GDP of London is enormous. The report also points out a so-called surplus of £17 billion a year, which is probably £1 billion more than the total public expenditure in Wales. London provides a surplus of £17 billion a year to the British Exchequer. Londoners say that they need that money because London has poor public education, terrible housing problems for those on low wages, and awful transport difficulties. As money is needed to cure the problems, they ask why they should give away a surplus of £17 billion.

It is fine for the hon. Member for Ceredigion to open up the Barnett formula, but he will have to deal with such arguments. He will also have to say how he will make up the shortfall of £5 billion or so in the Welsh economy, given his party's policy of breaking up Britain, under which none of the London money would ever come into Wales. It is no good him shaking his head. If he wants to intervene I will be delighted to give way.

Mr. Simon Thomas: The right hon. Gentleman is mixing up two matters. If he wants to defend the United Kingdom, he must accept the Barnett formula or some formula similar to that of the European Union on regional distribution from rich areas to poor ones. It is fair enough for him to say that the Barnett formula is inadequate if he wants, but the matter is open to question in discussion of wider issues.

Mr. Davies: It is not a question of debating wider issues. I said that there may be a case for opening up the Barnett formula in the UK, but others will make bids. We should not throw out a half-argument about how terrible the Barnett formula is. If it were opened up, Wales might be even worse off than it is now. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ceredigion will presumably not be around to contribute to the argument. So far as he is concerned, there will not be a Britain or a British Exchequer, and Wales will operate on its own with taxation that it raises. If that is not his policy, perhaps he should say what is. Is his policy a sort of Catalonian blackmail, in which Wales stays in Britain but tries to blackmail the other countries in the UK?

I was not going to pursue the hon. Gentleman's points, and I think that I shall stop. Before the general election, perhaps the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley)—as a member of the Privy Council, he will know more than most people—will tell us how he will make up the shortfall when Wales leaves Britain and joins Europe.

I welcome the commitment to the national health service. It is no good Opposition Members laughing at the phrase ``boom and bust''. There has been stable, non-inflationary economic growth during the past two or three years. Without such growth, how shall we devote resources to public services such as the national health service? Vast sums are being spent on the health service. It will take time for the results to be seen; such sums cannot be spent overnight, but the money is there and is coming to Wales, but I do not think that Wales has the flexible structures necessary to ensure that money goes quickly to those who need it and that decisions are accountable. We can talk about devolution and support the Assembly and democratic structures. As in the UK generally, the problem in Wales is that so much of government is outside democratic accountability and control. It is outside the accountability of the Assembly and of the House.

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Prepared 11 December 2000