Pre-Budget Statement (Implications for Wales)

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Mr. Llwyd: The Chancellor referred many times yesterday to the Wanless report, the author of which is his new best friend. Does the Secretary of State think that it is a new notion that the NHS should be paid for out of public funds? Why did it take a report from an academic to tell us that that is the reality? Given that we are at a 21-year low in public investment, is it not a bit of a sham to come up with the report at this stage? Should not the work have started five years ago?

Mr. Murphy: Mr. Wanless is no academic. As far as I am aware, he was the chief executive of the National Westminster bank group. Perhaps the group has academics—I do not know. All I know is that he is well versed in finance and banking money, and is not necessarily the person who would tell us to pay for everything out of the public purse.

Everyone was saying that the French and German health services were better than ours. It would have been wrong to come to the conclusion that the health service had to be paid for out of the public purse without considering other options. Let us consider other countries and how they finance their health services and indeed the health services under the devolved Administrations.

The report examined not only why more resources are necessary now but why we will have to spend even more money in the future. It is important that we engage in a public consultation exercise. I am sure that Plaid Cymru will take part in that exercise, and I am convinced that it probably agrees with the recommendations of the Wanless report. We must consider these matters in a balanced way by examining the options and seeing how best to deal with them.

The Chancellor touched on employment measures, and I will tell the Committee today about the Government's plans for further employment measures. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will give a statement to the House on that subject at 3.30 this afternoon, although obviously I cannot pre-empt what he will say.

We have withstood the pressures of the past few months in a way that is envied by other countries. Our economy has grown while others lagged behind. The measures of the report will help the United Kingdom and Wales become more competitive and enable us to secure a decent share of world trade—

Mr. Simon Thomas: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Murphy: I am right in the middle of my peroration.

Mr. Thomas: That is precisely why I intervened. I suspected that the Secretary of State was getting a fair wind for his peroration, and I wanted to ask him a question.

Will the Secretary of State name one measure in the pre-Budget statement that has not been previously announced and affects positively the environment? Does he agree that this is the least green Budget that the Labour party has ever produced?

Mr. Murphy: No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong and if he reads the detail, he will see that there will be consultation on various environmental measures.

Mr. Llwyd: Announced previously.

Mr. Murphy: Whether it has been announced previously, the review is up for consultation. That is the purpose of the pre-Budget report: to give people the opportunity to talk about the measures to which the hon. Gentleman referred. He knows that there are measures on environmental matters.

As I was saying, 500,000 pensioners in Wales will see their lives improved, while our national health service, founded by Aneurin Bevin, will see the biggest improvement since its creation more than half a century ago. I therefore commend the report to the Committee and the people of Wales.

1.31 am

Lembit Öpik: May I say first how saddened I am that the Welsh viewing public do not have the benefit of watching the Committee on television. [Hon. Members: ``Why are you here then?''] I do not get out much. I am sure that the Committee would agree that, as the public are riveted with the proceedings of the Assembly and Parliament, the Committee would be a tremendous, albeit brief, alternative guide to our activities. The Welsh Grand Committee is important enough to warrant being televised, and it is a shame—

The Chairman: Order. As we are on the subject, I should tell the Committee, so that it will be in fine fettle, that the Committee will be televised this afternoon.

Lembit Öpik: When people say that the Liberal Democrats cannot make a difference, they need only to see the impact that I have had in the first minutes of my speech. It is another triumph of democracy that my request has been acquiesced to in that way.

It is good also that Welsh MPs get on so well, because the Room is so small that one could almost reach out and touch the Government. I hope that these intimate surroundings engender a greater degree of listening than has sometimes been the case, and it is in that spirit of listening that I seek to make constructive points, as I always do. I hope that the partnership that we share to make Wales a successful and thriving country means that ideas are sometimes adopted from across the Floor.

We must recognise the background of the economic woes in Wales. It is clear to us all, whether we admit it or not, that the problems in Wales were exacerbated during the dark years of the Conservative Government. [Hon. Members: ``Hear, hear.''] However much the Conservatives seek to criticise the present situation, we should remember that the facts speak for themselves. [Interruption.] ``Lib-Lab'' is the extraordinarily powerful response coming from my left. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley has often accused the Liberal Democrats of cuddling up to Labour. That is understandable because no one wants to cuddle up to him. I hope that should he catch your eye, Mr. Griffiths, he will respond to the facts that I am using to provide a context to today's economic debate.

The Conservatives presided over the two highest periods of unemployment in Wales: 185,000 in 1985 and 140,000 in 1993. Those were two shameful peaks that crippled the Welsh economy. The Conservatives decimated Welsh industries—mining and steel to name but two—and presided over the highest interest rate of 15 per cent. in 1992. I have heard many criticisms of the pre-Budget statement and the work of the Assembly on health, yet, under the Conservatives, waiting lists grew by 12,700 in Wales alone. The number of hospital beds fell from 23,500 in 1979 to 15,500 in 1997, and prescription charges rose in the same period from 20p to £5.25. Conservatives are not in a position to give lessons on the Welsh economy to the rest of us.

Mr. Evans: When will the Liberal Democrats take the blame for what is happening in the NHS in Wales? The hon. Gentleman's party is part of the Administration. It is pointless talking about what happened before 1997. We have had two general elections since then, and more people are now waiting longer for NHS treatment in Wales. Perhaps it is time that he says, ``Sorry.''

Lembit Öpik: Of course, Conservatives can say that kind of irresponsible thing, because they have no chance whatever of forming the Government. In fact, at the current rate of expansion of Conservative Members in the House of Commons, they will achieve a majority of one in 2822 AD.

Mr. Evans: Liberal Democrats are the fourth party.

Lembit Öpik: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says.

I provide the statistics to assure the House that anyone who does an informed investigation into the performance of the Conservative party will be sure to find that its strategy did not achieve its policy objectives. Moreover, the strategy has not significantly changed.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider the situation in Dyfed Powys. It is a further example of the way that the NHS in Wales suffered under the Conservatives. The health authority had no debt at all before the 1991 Tory reforms but by 1997 it faced a massive £23 million debt. That is a direct result of Tory mismanagement of the NHS during those years.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Lady makes a sensible point, which leads to my response to the question of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley about who is in charge in Wales. He is correct, and I am glad that he acknowledges that there is a Liberal Democrat-Labour Government in Wales. It seeks to put right some of the ills that I have described and will do all in its power to achieve the reforms and investment that the health service badly needs.

However, the Liberal Democrats did not cause the problem—that is why I intervened on the Secretary of State earlier—but perhaps they will provide the solution.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his modest claims on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. Before they provide the solutions to all the health care problems of Wales, perhaps he would provide the solution to a conundrum that I have been working on since last week. Would he explain to the Committee why the Liberal Democrats in this House voted against Second Reading of a Bill that included clauses that their partners in Wales had proposed? Were they consulted about the means of delivery, and how do they propose that legislation can be pushed through this House if Liberal Democrats do not vote for it?

Lembit Öpik: It is not for me to provide a lesson in parliamentary procedure to the hon. Gentleman. Let me assure him that we consulted our Assembly colleagues, took advice and agreed on how my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and I would vote. We had many concerns about the Bill with respect to the United Kingdom as a whole and decided that the best way to express them was by voting against the Bill. In fact, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to clarify that. [Hon. Members: ``But you haven't.''] The appropriate place to improve the Bill is in Standing Committee. That is exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is doing in trying to amend the Bill.

Again, we will take advice from our Welsh Assembly colleagues about what we do on Third Reading. As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, important benefits could accrue from the Bill; I will keep him posted about what we plan to do at that stage. I thank him again for his assiduous observations of the activities of the Liberal Democrats.

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Prepared 28 November 2001