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House of Lords

Tuesday, 18th May 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle.

Lord Saint Oswald --Sat first in Parliament after the death of his father.

Beef on the Bone: Responsibility of Welsh Assembly

The Earl of Caithness asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why, having voted on, and won a Division on the question of the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly for policy on beef on the bone, they did not inform the House of the subsequent change to this policy.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the Government decided that it was most appropriate for the Assembly to have these functions outright. Your Lordships approved the draft order, including these functions, on 3rd March without a Division.

The result of the Division to which the noble Earl refers was that the transfer order did not have to include these powers. It did not preclude their inclusion should the Government decide to bring forward such proposals and should Parliament agree to them.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, is it not a discourtesy to this House that this Chamber was not told of the change of government policy, bearing in mind the fact that there had been a Division on this very issue? Indeed, when introducing the transfer order, did the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, know that there had been such a dramatic change of policy? Further, why was there no apology from the Government when the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, replied to the Private Notice Question? Are we not being treated shamefully?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I trust that the House will forgive me if I go into a little detail to explain that there was no discourtesy and no shameful treatment. I made the response on 2nd June 1998, which was correct. On 31st July last the Act received Royal Assent. On 12th November of last year--quite a long time ago--the transfer order was issued in draft for public consultation. Far from the House being kept in the dark, copies were placed in the Printed Paper Office and in the Libraries of both Houses. Moreover, it was and is available on the Internet. Indeed, we went further. We sent copies to, among others, the noble Lords, Lord Roberts of Conwy, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Dixon-Smith, who had taken a prominent part in the debates.

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We put the matter out for consultation and received no responses of any substance. The end of the consultation period came on 22nd January. On 16th February the order was laid before both Houses and, on 24th February, my right honourable friend Alun Michael told Mr. Nigel Evans that the powers of the Food Safety Act would transfer to the Assembly. On 3rd March, we had a short debate here when the draft order was approved. If one looks at the draft order, one can see that in fact the powers went to the Welsh Assembly.

Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, in Scotland the Liberal Democrats have surrendered a firm election commitment on tuition fees. Have they done the same somersault on beef on the bone in order to maintain their ministerial position in the Labour Government?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not know what the Liberal Democrats are doing; perhaps they do. Whatever happens in the Welsh Assembly as a necessary and proper consequence of the devolution legislation passed by this House as well as another place, those matters are for the Welsh Assembly.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, now that scientists have declared that the disease in question has nothing to do with the animals and that all the slaughter policy was a waste of time, will the Government be reconsidering their position?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the Government constantly keep that policy under review.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, I return to the original Question. Does the Minister accept that there was a need for this House to be informed after the Secretary of State for Wales had announced the change of policy on 24th February, in reply to an intervention by Mr. Nigel Evans? I believe that he should also accept that there was a clear opportunity to do so on 3rd March when the transfer order was presented to this House by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. However, there was no specific mention at that time of this particular transfer, which had been the subject of a vote in 1998. I am not accusing the Government of suppressing the truth, but I am charging them with a certain lack of dedication to transparency, which should be practised as well as preached.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the reason I took a little time to explain matters, as I thought it appropriate to do, was to point out--which I do again--that we sent the draft transfer order to the noble Lord himself. One has only to read it to see the consequence. Indeed, the matter was debated and my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey outlined the way in which the order worked. He said,

    "It might assist your Lordships if I outlined how the order works. For the most part, the transfer is straightforward. Where the Secretary of State is able to exercise a function now, the Assembly will be able to do so in the future ... In many cases legislation requires the Secretary of State to act jointly with his right honourable friends in exercising functions ... We do not believe that the Assembly should generally be bound in this way".--[Official Report, 3/3/99; col. 1776.]

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    If one reads the order and pays attention to what my noble friend said, there is no obscurity at all. I repeat that we put out the draft order for consultation, we placed it in the Library and we sent a copy to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, are we being rash in Cardiff, or are we being over-cautious in London?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, they are not being rash in Cardiff and we are not being over-cautious in London. They are putting their minds to the issue as they are entitled to do. Similarly we put our minds to matters in London and elsewhere in the United Kingdom which are not devolved.

Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that on 2nd June when this matter was debated he said that the matter of beef on the bone would not be transferred for five years and possibly not for 30 years?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I did not say that. I said that it would not be transferred at that time and that was government policy. Thereafter the order was put out for full consultation which included both the farming unions in Wales, which I have not mentioned. I repeat that we sent out the draft order to interested Peers. I do not think one can be more open than that.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, is it not the case that under the devolution of powers to the Welsh Assembly butchers or caterers will be legally able to sell beef on the bone in Wales and probably in Scotland but will commit a criminal offence if they do so in England? Is that not completely absurd?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, as far as I am aware, neither the Assembly in Cardiff nor the Parliament in Scotland has come to any conclusion on the matter. The noble Lord may know more about that matter than I.

Ministers: Income Tax and Benefits

2.45 p.m.

Lord Saatchi asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether Ministers are among those who pay income tax to the Government and receive benefits from the Government, and what they are doing to eliminate this overlap.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, as the noble Lord will understand, I am not in a position to comment on the particular tax or benefit circumstances of individuals. But Ministers who draw salaries are liable to pay tax on them. Some Ministers will also receive universal benefits such as child benefit.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords, I have come directly from a debate organised by the Centre for Policy Studies

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where some of our most distinguished economists and academics have been studying the subject of my Question which is to consider the massive overlap between tax and benefit payments. Under the present system the Government collect between £30 billion and £40 billion in income tax and national insurance contributions from around 17 million households whose incomes are less than £20,000 a year. The purpose of my question is to ask Ministers whether they believe it is bizarre that the Government first tax people on low incomes--I believe there are 14 million people who earn less than £10,000 a year but who still pay tax--and then, having so taxed them to reduce their income, they satisfy themselves by means testing that income that those people are in need--

Noble Lords: Question!

Lord Saatchi: The Government then provide those people with a range of benefits to restore their income back to the level it was at before they paid the tax. Do the Government agree that that is an absurd system?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, unlike my noble friends I detected a question in there! I do not accept that the position is absurd or bizarre. For a number of years taxation has been levied generally on an individual basis. Benefits are quite properly awarded according to family circumstances. Under those circumstances it would be quite impossible to have a streamlined system which brought the two together, much as that may seem desirable to the tidy minds of the Centre for Policy Studies.

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