Legislative Programme and Pre-Budget Statement

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Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire): They have had it every time.

Mr. Livsey: No; farmers have had compensation one year in two. They have lost out enormously because of the exchange rate. There was no mention of rural services in either the rural White Paper for England or the Queen's Speech.

Labour has been a disaster for the countryside, and for farming in particular. It had an honourable record in the past—Tom Williams introduced the epoch-making Agriculture Act 1947—but the National Assembly for Wales has a more constructive attitude to farming than the Labour Government in London. The National Assembly is pursuing the agrifood policy and other issues relating to the farming industry. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Whitehall has not done its stuff for farming. The price for milk is 10p less a litre than it was two years ago, and many of the dairy farmers in my constituency are facing bankruptcy. The Government must treat the issue seriously; there is an exodus of young people from the countryside and they will not return, because there is no living to be made there. That is very serious for the language, the culture and many other aspects of our nation.

I agree with the comments made by the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), especially about the health authorities. There is no longer a case for health authorities; they are bureaucracy that should be subsumed into one health authority for Wales, under the National Assembly. The money spent on the Dyfed Powys health authority, which costs £6 million to run, could be better spent on patients and on more effective targeting of health needs in Wales—and that should be done sooner rather than later.

The economy and jobs in Wales are variable; there is success in some places but the position is patchy in others. There are still far too many low-paid jobs in the economy, but I congratulate the Government and the National Assembly on redoubling their efforts in that respect. The upskilling of young people for the new technological industries is vital for the economy of Wales. Quality jobs will come to Wales only if we have trained and skilled people to do them. We are starting to win that battle but we have a long way to go; European objective 1, 2 and 3 funding will assist us in that task.

I cannot understand why the Government do not accept that there is a Welsh nationality, and why they will not do anything about the census form. It is extraordinary that this is the only nation in the United Kingdom that will not have the same opportunity as the others. If we are not careful, there will be an inadequate census, and we must be responsible about it.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda): Will the hon. Gentleman please respond to what I said?

Mr. Livsey: There are many hon. Members in the Committee whom I have not mentioned. Pensioners have been referred to, and the Government have started to tackle their problems. The Conservative party would take away pensioners' benefits and put them into a pension, but when everything is added up and the allowances subtracted, they would receive only 42p extra—30p less than the Chancellor gave them a year ago. The Chancellor made a decent start in trying to give pensioners a proper pension this year. My view is that the link between earnings and pensions should be restored, and the sooner that that happens the better. The money is there.

We have heard what was, inevitably, a pre-election Queen's Speech.

The introduction of the Children's Commissioner is an excellent measure. A complex mix of tough measures on crime has been announced. However, the abandonment of rural Wales is, frankly, a disgrace to the founding fathers of the Labour party. There should be a major rethink on that, because the problem is much more serious than is realised. Please, please do something about it.

5.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): We have had the usual wide-ranging and interesting debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) that we should be judged not on what we say but on results. The Queen's Speech and the pre-Budget statement include action to create the lowest levels of unemployment that we have known, to support pensioners and to extend the new deal. There is proposed legislation on crime, the Children's Commissioner, tobacco advertising and health. We shall be judged on the positive results that those measures will have for people in Wales.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the reactions of the different parties. Some 11 Labour Members have spoken and, with one or two exceptions, there has been a positive welcome for the pre-Budget speech and the Gracious Speech. We have had two speeches from Conservative Members, including one from the hon. Member for North Dorset that focused solely on the Children's Commissioner. I look forward to discussing that with him in Committee, and I shall deal with it later in my speech. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley spoke about the economy. As my hon. Friends said, the Conservatives must realise that, after 18 years of their rule and given their record in office, it is a bit rich for them to start making suggestions about things that should have been included in the pre-Budget statement and in legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) spoke about the Conservative record in his usual effective way.

We have had two contributions from Liberal Democrat Members. The hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) have played ``good cop, bad cop'' today. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has been Mr. Consensus, giving positive, warm welcomes to Government initiatives, which has been good. We have had a bit more of the bad cop from the stir crazy, ready-to-go hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, and I shall return to some of his points. Between them, they have given us an uncosted wish list of proposals.

Then there are the nationalists—I will not call them the party of Wales, because evidently they are not, given the number of hon. Members on the Government Benches. I reluctantly have a soft spot for the hon. Member for Ceredigion. He has been a Member for only nine months, but he has made a good impression and is doing well. He said today that he wants more money for various things and that he wants more power for the Assembly, and he gave a grudging welcome to some of the Bills contained in the Queen's Speech. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli asked how, if and when the things that the hon. Gentleman wants will happen when the economy of Wales is split off from that of the rest of the United Kingdom. If he cannot answer those points in detail, he has a lot to learn about the House and the standard of contributions required. Those questions must be answered and, if they are not answered today, they will be answered at the general election because the points made by my right hon. Friend are essential to the economic case that damns nationalism in Wales and will prevent it from ever succeeding in the way in which the hon. Gentleman would wish it to succeed.

The pre-Budget statement has brought economic benefits. My hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), for Bridgend and for Vale of Clwyd have pointed to the high levels of employment in Wales, the strong Welsh economy, and the investment in Wales brought by this year's spending review. Everyone knows that unemployment is now lower in every Welsh constituency. We can compare and contrast the approach taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd, who talked Wales up, with that of certain Opposition Members, who pointed to the failures of the Welsh economy. There is a strong case for us to point to the general positives, and to say that we have a strong economy and high employment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) mentioned his genuine concerns about possible impact on DARA. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met the relevant Minister in the Ministry of Defence, and will report shortly. He is willing to meet my hon. Friend again to discuss the situation, which I am grateful has been brought to the attention of the Committee.

The pre-Budget review draws on this year's spending review. Before it, thanks to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's previous commitments, we were already to have major investment in public services via the National Assembly and central Government during the next three years.

I want to draw hon. Members' attention to pensions. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West has had to leave, as he seemed warm towards the Government's pension proposals, which show that the Government are making positive moves for pensioners. The Conservatives would abolish next year's increases of £5 and £8, the minimum income guarantee, the pensioner credit and the winter fuel allowance, all of which my hon. Friends spoke strongly for.

I contrast again the difference between my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West, who said that the minimum income guarantee was a positive measure—my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd also pointed to the future increases—and the whinge of the hon. Member for Ceredigion. All that he could do was ask why sufficient pensioners had not taken up the minimum income, when what we need is a strong campaign to encourage pensioners to take it up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda mentioned the extension of the new deal. All hon. Members now have people off benefit, into work and contributing to society thanks to that extension. The extension to over-25s, lone parents and disabled people and the communities and neighbourhood funds announced in the pre-Budget review are positive steps, as is the extra school cash of £9.9 million for Welsh schools following my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's announcement.

I shall deal with a point made by the right hon. Member for Caernarfon. Edwina Hart, the Assembly Member for Gower, who has responsibility for finance in the Assembly, responded to criticisms that housing and education budgets would be raided for match funding. Her Budget speech states:

    We have received what we wanted in real terms, and I do not accept that this has impacted on any other budget.

There will be more money for schools and more support for the objective 1 funding scheme, and there is general support from the National Assembly in terms of money received.

My final point on the pre-Budget review was raised by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth. In September, there was concern about fuel duties. I represent a rural area, and farmers from my constituency went to Stanlow oil refinery. I had met them before and knew that they were concerned. Such concerns were the reason for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's announcement in the pre-Budget review of a freezing of fuel duty until 2002 and a reduction of 3p on low sulphur fuel, which will be introduced soon in Wales. He took £300 million off vehicle excise duty across the UK, and he undertook support for the industry. The Government listened, and took action.

 
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Prepared 11 December 2000