Budget Statement and its Implications for Wales

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Mr. Thomas (Translation): I thank the Minister for that heartening answer. I am sure that he agrees that it is important not to talk down the Welsh economy, as many other parties are currently doing. I know that he has had a long journey to the wonderful town of Cwmbran this morning and may be a little tired, so I hope that my question is not too difficult for him. Will he suggest what may be responsible for these wonderful figures?

Mr. Hanson: There are two causes of the low unemployment in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and every constituency in Wales. First, the Government's strong economic policy has brought low interest rates and inflation and produced investment in the community. Secondly, our policies have had a major impact on long-term youth unemployment and long-term unemployment for older people. Those policies have happened not by accident, but through the stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I strongly believe that other parties with other policies may put that stability at risk.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon) (Translation): How can anyone describe the situation as heartening, when so many industries and factories such as Dynamex in my constituency and the factory in Llanidloes are losing jobs, and the tourist industry is under threat? Will the Minister tell the Committee what the situation is regarding the employers' national insurance contributions that the Treasury refused to give in the Budget last week?

Mr. Hanson: I recognise that areas of difficulty will always exist. The problems in Shotton, in your constituency, Mr. Jones, affect my constituency. Problems exist in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and are compounded by things such as the foot and mouth outbreak. However, irrespective of anything that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said last week, there are more people at work in Wales and more opportunities for employment now than there were in May 1997. The new deal is working, the minimum wage has improved wages in many constituencies and new opportunities are being offered the area by Toyota, Mostyn docks and British Aerospace, for example, which are receiving Government support. I do not underestimate the difficulties that will always exist, but the right hon. Gentleman should give the Government credit for helping people through the difficulties and for ensuring that the areas of employment are a success. I put one question to him. How would an independent Wales help employment prospects in Wales?

Council Tax (Monmouthshire)

6. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): What discussions he had with the First Secretary about the level of council tax in Monmouthshire. [152755]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): At the relevant times throughout the year I discuss local authority finances including council tax with the Assembly First Minister. I have not, however, spoken specifically about council tax in Monmouthshire since last year.

Mr. Edwards: When my right hon. Friend meets the First Minister, I hope that he will talk about the funding formula for local government in Wales and recognise the concerns of the people of Monmouthshire that the current funding formula does not give due weight to the rural nature of the county and to problems of sparsity. However, does he agree that the local authority sets its council tax and that if the people of Monmouthshire are worried about the current increase in council tax, they must take that up with the local authority? Every local authority provides vital services such as education, social services, housing and environmental services. It should be the duty of local authorities to inform all people about the services that are provided and to assure them that they get the best value.

Mr. Murphy: I will meet the First Minister this afternoon, immediately after the debate. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall raise that general point.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the manner of setting council tax is a matter for individual local authorities to decide. The Welsh Local Government Association welcomed the local government settlement for 2001-02 as one of the best for many years. That is a direct consequence of the excellent spending review that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor gave Wales last year. It will provide for the substantial growth of local services and should allow council tax increases to be significantly lower than in recent years. If Monmouthshire increased its budget in line with the Assembly's assumptions, its council tax would increase to £631 for a band D property compared with an assumed Wales average of £669. The settlement will allow Monmouthshire to set its budget at £85.8 million, which is an increase of nearly 6 per cent. from last year.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am compelled to speak because of the complacency of the question and the answer. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the leader of Monmouthshire county council about last year's damping exercise, when money was taken away from an efficient local authority and given to inefficient local authorities? The new formula is rigged against rural counties such as Monmouthshire, which has been efficient, and money is given elsewhere. We should look for parity: not special treatment, but equal treatment for Monmouthshire. Why should it be caned for being efficient?

Mr. Murphy: I have sat on every Local Government Finance Bill since 1987, when I entered the House. On such occasions, the only thing that the hon. Gentleman's party did was to introduce the worst possible form of local tax—the poll tax. The council tax is an improvement on that and I remember dealing with it. However, the hon. Gentleman must understand that, ultimately, the Assembly deals with such matters. The Assembly has the resources and has given Welsh local government an excellent settlement. My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) is aware of that, as is my own local authority, which is just up the road from here.

Foot and Mouth Disease

7. Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): What meetings he has had with National Assembly secretaries to discuss the economic impact of the foot and mouth outbreak on Wales. [152756]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I have weekly meetings with my right hon. Friend the First Secretary. The assessment of the economic impact of the outbreak and any measures to alleviate such consequences would be matters for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the National Assembly for Wales.

Mr. Wigley (Translation): Is the Secretary of State aware of increasing concern, especially in north Wales, about animals being moved unnecessarily? Bodies may travel from Anglesey to Widnes, which makes the situation worse. From his discussions with the First Minister, can he confirm that it is the responsibility of the Treasury in London to get additional resources to pay compensation? Will he fight not only for farmers, but for related industries such as hauliers and abattoirs, and for the tourist sector, which are also hit hard? Unless there is intervention, hotels, restaurants and the whole economic basis for tourism will be devastated.

Mr. Murphy: Of course I sympathise with the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes, which apply not just to north Wales but to the rest of Wales. As he will know, all of us to some degree represent farming areas: for instance, if he looks out of the window, he will see that that there are many farms in an area that is regarded as an urban valley. We are all affected. I take the right hon. Gentleman's point about movement of animals, but he may have heard the First Minister say on ``Good Morning Wales'' this morning that because those animals are completely sealed, there should be no safety problem. I agree entirely.

The right hon. Gentleman's second question was about compensation. Obviously, the best way to deal with the matter is to ensure a speedy end to the outbreak. All of the attention of the Government and the Assembly is drawn to that aim. He will be aware that compensation is paid directly to the farmer, but he refers to the impact on tourism and so on, of which we are all aware. It has not in the past been the practice of any Government to pay out consequential compensation. The Government and the Assembly are talking to the insurance industry and we must consider some points that have been made. Discussions are continuing.

Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): Has my right hon. Friend consulted Agriculture Ministers in Westminster and in the National Assembly to find out whether the over-30-months scheme can be extended—for a short period only—in view of the crisis? If a farmer in Tremeirchion in my constituency does not get his animals to slaughter by Wednesday, he will lose out tremendously on his capital investment over the past two years. He needs answers, and he needs them today.

Mr. Murphy: I cannot give my hon. Friend precise answers, because they involve issues of fundamental significance to the rural economy in both England and Wales, but he can rest assured that I will raise those matters with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and when I talk to the First Minister later today.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): Is the Secretary of State aware that about 30,000 lambs that were sold just prior to the outbreak in France and are now being slaughtered by the French authorities have not been paid for? They are worth about £65 a head. The French Government may compensate the recipients in France, but not the Welsh producers whose lambs they are. Will the Secretary of State take up that matter with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? Will he also use his influence in connection with the size of the exclusion zone, which runs from the M4 up the A470 and now crosses a line beyond Welshpool? Producers there would like to get lambs direct to the slaughterhouse—in my constituency, some of them are 19 miles from an outbreak but cannot get their lambs to a slaughterhouse. Will he also take up that matter?

 
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