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Local Government Finance

Volume 401: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2003

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What discussions he has had in March on the effects of proposed council tax increases in Wales in April 2003. [102970]

My right hon. Friend and I have discussions with many people and organisations about matters affecting Wales.

Will the Minister give us the latest information on the likely average increase in council tax in Wales in the current year? Does he agree that people in Wales particularly resent high increases if they feel that decisions are largely taken in Whitehall and the Wales Office, not by their local councils? Would he be willing to allow the Welsh Assembly to have power over the way in which local government finance is raised in Wales, and will he consider local income tax as a much fairer alternative?

That is a very interesting proposition. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is hoping to stand for the office of Mayor of London. As he campaigns on this issue, he will no doubt explain to the people of London why the Lib Dem council in Southwark, supported by the Tories, has hiked the council tax by 9 per cent. He should compare that with an average council tax rise in Wales of 8 per cent. The message is simple—Lib Dem and Tory councils cost more: vote Labour on 1 May.

Has the Welsh Assembly had time to reflect on its decision to delay council elections for one year? In future, might it decide to allow council elections to concur with Assembly elections, as in Scotland? That might have a beneficial effect on council tax rises.

I am not sure that I want to be led down that road. When the Assembly decided to delay the next council elections, there were extensive discussions among all parties. A decision was taken and I do not believe that the Assembly has any intention of changing the decision at this time.

In 1997, people living in a band D house in Merthyr Tydfil paid £569 in council tax. When they receive their council tax bills in just a couple of weeks' time, they will be paying £1,003. Does the Minister think that a reasonable increase?

Some of us have longer memories than others. In the last two years of the Tory Government, council tax band D in Wales went up by 32 per cent. This year—thanks to the support of this Labour Government, working in partnership with the Labour Assembly—councils have received an extra 9 per cent. in support for public services. As I said earlier, the average council tax rise in Wales is 8 per cent. this year. One council, of course, has imposed a rise of well above that: Conservative-run Vale of Glamorgan, backed and kept in power by the nationalists, is putting up its council tax by 10 per cent. That is a clear message to the people of the Vale of Glamorgan come 1 May.

I asked whether it was a reasonable increase; I infer from his answer that the Minister thinks it is. In Blaenau Gwent, for instance, council tax has gone up by 78 per cent. since 1997. This year, people there face an 11 per cent. increase in their council tax, which will go up to £975. In Neath, the constituency of the Secretary of State for Wales, the increase since 1997 has been 56 per cent. In Cardiff, people face a rise of 12 per cent. this year, which is four times the rate of inflation. How are people on fixed incomes supposed to pay those huge rises? Do they cut down on food, stop going out or turn the heating off? Those are real questions for people. What advice would the Minister give them when they open their council tax bills in just a few weeks' time?

The hon. Gentleman could at least do us the courtesy of getting his figures right. The figures are 9 per cent. and 11 per cent. for Blaenau Gwent and Cardiff.

What would public services in Wales be like if they were subject to a 20 per cent. cut? Let me tell the House what they would be like. We would have one in five nurses taken out; one in five hospital wards closed; one in five teachers got rid of; one in five police officers got rid of; £155 million worth of cuts in every—[Interruption.]

Order. Perhaps the Minister will not mention the election in Wales any more. He has used up his ration.