[Relevant documents: Fourth Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, on the Pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Wales Bill, HC 962, and the Government response which has been deposited in the Library.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The legislation before the House today delivers an ambitious package of devolved powers for Wales, including powers providing incentives and opportunities for the Welsh Government to grow the Welsh economy and increase prosperity; powers making the devolved institutions in Wales more accountable for raising some of the money they spend; and powers that make devolved governance in Wales fairer.
The Government have a strong record on Welsh devolution. We have delivered a referendum on full law-making powers, established the Silk Commission on Devolution in Wales, which has since published two comprehensive reports, and have now introduced the first Wales Bill in more than eight years. The Bill implements most of the recommendations that the Silk commission made in its first report. I wish to record my thanks to Paul Silk and his commissioners for the dedication and hard work with which they reviewed the case for devolving fiscal powers to the National Assembly.
The powers devolved to Wales by this Bill will, for the first time, make the devolved institutions in Wales—both the Welsh Government and the Assembly—directly accountable to the electorate for raising some of the money they spend. The Bill will give the Welsh Government more levers to enable it to deliver sustainable economic growth in Wales. It will also deliver borrowing powers that will allow the Welsh Government to invest more in critical infrastructure, not only in transport links such as the M4 and the A55, but in schools and hospitals.
The Silk commission included commissioners from all four political parties in the Assembly, and reached unanimous agreement on its recommendations. I hope that the same spirit of co-operation and broad consensus will extend to all parts of this House today in respect of the Bill.
Let me turn to the detail of the legislation. The Bill provides that the Assembly will assume responsibility for devolved taxes. These are, initially, a tax on land transactions and a tax on disposals to landfill, replacing stamp duty land tax and landfill tax in Wales. The commission recommended the devolution of both taxes. This will put new economic levers in the hands of the Assembly and the Welsh Government.
What does the Secretary of State say to the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who has now asked for stamp duty to be devolved to London, which would give him £1.3 billion? Is this not a charter for the proliferation of all sorts of competitive taxes across different parts of the United Kingdom?
It seems to me that that is a concern of the Mayor of London and does not really fall within the scope of today’s discussion.
Our proposal will put new economic levers in the hands of the Assembly and Welsh Government, while also providing independent streams of revenue to facilitate borrowing. It will help Welsh Ministers to grow the Welsh economy and ensure that its performance has a direct impact on their budget.
In devolving those minor taxes, the UK Government are conceding the principle of fiscal empowerment for the Welsh Government. Why does the Secretary of State therefore feel the need to require a referendum on devolving income tax?
Has my right hon. Friend noticed in recent days—not just from the interventions so far, but from some Labour Back Benchers—the idea that there should not be a referendum and that the matter should be left to a general election, depriving the people of Wales of a vote?
Yes, I have heard that, certainly from those on the Plaid Cymru Benches. I would simply repeat that it is appropriate that the people of Wales have their voices heard on such an important matter.
The Bill also provides a mechanism for additional taxes to be devolved in future, with the approval of both Houses of Parliament and the Assembly. I am pleased that the Bill delivers new borrowing powers to the Welsh Government—again, as recommended by the commission. As for capital borrowing, we are providing the Welsh Government with the ability to borrow up to £500 million to invest in capital infrastructure in Wales. That is a generous limit, allowing the Welsh Government to get going on the much needed upgrade of the M4 around Newport. It also reflects the independent funding streams for which the Welsh Government will assume responsibility through the two devolved taxes and is a limit that can be increased in future if the Welsh Government become responsible for additional taxation, including income tax.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the project for a new motorway around Newport is essential? There has been far too much delay—it was cancelled by the Labour Administration back in 1997, despite the previous commitment. Today’s announcement is basically the green light for the project to go ahead.
Indeed. I think that everyone in the south Wales business community recognises that the M4 is indeed a foot on the windpipe of the economy and we are anxious to see it upgraded. The competence that we shall be giving the Assembly Government—in fact, we have already extended it to them—will enable them to proceed as quickly as possible with that essential upgrade.
While we are on infrastructure improvements, the Government here have much boasted that they will be electrifying the valleys lines. Every time they seemed to suggest that they would pay for it, but now it seems they are refusing, so who will actually be paying for the electrification of the valleys lines?
We are skiing somewhat off piste, because that is not within the competence of this Bill, but there is clear correspondence between the Assembly Government and the Department for Transport on how the upgrade would be funded, and it is absolutely clear that the Welsh Government were paying for the upgrade of the valleys lines.
What I will say is that we made it absolutely clear that this Government were paying, directly and indirectly, for the upgrade of the main line as far as Swansea and for the valleys lines. I think that if the hon. Gentleman has a word with his friend the First Minister, he will find that there was an exchange of correspondence between the two Administrations which made the funding arrangements very clear, as did an e-mail from the Office of Rail Regulation.
No; I will make some progress.
The Bill also provides for a referendum to be held in Wales on the devolution of an element of income tax, should the Assembly decide to call one. The Silk commission recommended that income tax devolution should be subject to a referendum, as it was in Scotland in 1997, and the Government agree with that recommendation. As I have said in the House on several occasions, I should like the Assembly to call a referendum as soon as it is able to do so, and I personally would support a yes vote in such a referendum. It would make the Welsh Government, and the Assembly, significantly more accountable to the people who elect them.
Has my right hon. Friend been able to give any consideration to the impact that changing tax rates in Wales will have on cross-border regions, particularly the economic sub-region that covers Chester and north-east Wales? Has any assessment been made of what would happen if the rates on the two sides of the border were different?
We have made it very clear that we need to rebalance the finances of this country before we will consider that. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman, however, that in October 2012 there was a specific agreement between the Welsh Government and the Treasury that on the occasion of each spending review there would be an assessment of the issue of convergence, and that is indeed what happened on the last occasion.
The Secretary of State said a moment ago that he would be voting yes and campaigning for a yes vote in a referendum on tax-varying powers. May I take him back to the time when he was a Member of the Welsh Assembly? In his maiden speech, he said:
“We have no tax-raising powers—long may that state of affairs continue.”
When did he change his mind?
As one who has not changed his mind, may I ask whether the Secretary of State was as surprised as I was to read in the Western Mail that Opposition Members are offering to give the Assembly the power to raise income tax by up to 15%—and this only a few years after they all seemed to agree that the Assembly had the tools with which to do the job?
Indeed: a Damascene conversion. The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) is a particular enthusiast—he now believes that 15p should be devolved to the Assembly, whereas as recently as 5 February he clearly stated that he did not believe in any tax devolution at all. He will clearly have some interesting explaining to do later in the debate.
The hon. Gentleman changes his mind with astonishing regularity. For example, on 5 February, in a Welsh Grand Committee debate, he said:
“I do not believe for a moment that having additional responsibility for tax-varying powers would confer any extra degree of accountability on the Welsh people.”—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee, 5 February 2014; c. 18.]
However, during last weekend’s speech to the Welsh Labour party conference, he spoke glowingly of the prospect of devolving 15p in the pound and said that that would
“increase both the accountability of the Assembly and its borrowing capacity too.”
He is clearly a bit at odds with himself, and we look forward to hearing what he has to say later on.
Will the Secretary of State explain how, with income tax devolution, Wales will continue to benefit—like, for example, north-east England, a comparable area, does—from the redistribution of income and wealth that comes through the Barnett formula, albeit imperfectly, from the 40% of GDP that exists in London and the south-east of England if income tax is devolved?
That is an important point and it is a matter that would have to be debated in a referendum. My own view, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, is that Wales would benefit from a modest reduction in the rate of income tax, but I have to remind him that all we are talking about is a referendum that would empower the Welsh Government to decide on the rate of tax they want to charge the Welsh people. If they decided they did not wish to do that, there would be no compulsion on them to do so. However, it would provide Wales with an additional borrowing stream referable to the level of income tax devolved. It would also provide a powerful incentive to the Assembly Government to grow the Welsh economy, because clearly the more the economy grows, the more would be the revenue.
I understand the Secretary of State’s point. However, I find it very interesting that he has not got an answer to my question—namely, how would Wales continue to benefit from the vast wealth that exists in a relatively limited area and is redistributed right across the UK? The fact that he does not have a clear answer makes me extremely sceptical about this entire proposal.
Clearly, Wales would not be deprived of Barnett consequentials; the right hon. Gentleman knows that. We would have an additional tool for the Welsh Government to use, should they decide to do so, in growing the Welsh economy. I would have hoped he would be bold, because he has spoken in the past of the need to grow the private sector in Wales. I would have thought a small differential in the rate of tax would be a significant incentive to that private sector growth.
The Secretary of State is being generous in giving way, but this is an important point. The Barnett consequentials will continue to come through from that portion of income tax which remains reserved to the Treasury, but the bit that is devolved under the scenario the right hon. Gentleman proposes would not, unless there was some kind of compensating mechanism which is not described. That is what makes me extremely sceptical about this.
As the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) has made clear, this is not just about the Welsh economy; it is about the cross-border economy. Changing tax rates, whether personal or business, will obviously have an impact both sides of the border.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, which is why the Government went out to further consultation before announcing their response to the commission’s recommendations. Again, these are points he would no doubt raise in the context of a referendum debate, and given the view he has just expressed, he would clearly be voting against the proposal.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on introducing this Bill. I approve of virtually all its contents. I was reading a document produced by the Government in March this year on financial empowerment and accountability, and I was greatly heartened to read that if the Welsh rate of income tax is implemented following a referendum, the Government have accepted the Silk commission’s recommendation that the block grant adjustment should be determined using the index reduction mechanism originally proposed by the Holtham commission. If I remember correctly, those proposals were supported by the Labour party. It goes on to say:
“The detailed operation of the system will be discussed with the Welsh Government.”.
Surely that is the assurance that we need to hear and that will make sure Wales gets its fair share.
My right hon. Friend is entirely right. The indexation proposals would amount to a damp, which would effectively smooth out any peaks and troughs in relation to overall UK income and act as a strong reassurance to the Assembly Government. While I am on my feet, I would like to thank my right hon. Friend for her part in commissioning the work of the Silk commission in the first place.
It should be entirely clear to the hon. Gentleman, because the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) took the trouble to write to the Chairman of the Grand Committee, the hon. Member for Gower (Martin Caton), on 10 February, setting out these matters in great detail. I know that a copy of that letter was sent to the hon. Gentleman, and he will know, having read it, that the provisions are as follows:
“In the first year of operation (and any transitional years) the block grant adjustment will equal the amount of tax revenue generated by the Welsh rate of income tax set at 10p. It is important to note the following:
This is the amount of income tax forfeited by the UK Government as a result of reducing the main rates of income tax by 10p in Wales. If the Welsh Government sets a rate of 10p then there will be no impact on their budget compared to current arrangements. By setting a rate of, for example, 11p or 9p the Welsh Government can increase or decrease its budget (respectively) compared to current arrangements, as the block grant adjustment will still be based on the 10p forfeited by the UK Government. That means that the higher or lower revenue resulting from a rate of 11p or 9p (rather than 10p) would not be netted off the block grant.”
Well, the hon. Member for Pontypridd had not read this letter, so I am reading it out to him. It goes on:
“In subsequent years the initial deduction is indexed against movements in the UK NSND”—
that is, not savings, not dividends—
“income tax base. That means that if the UK NSND income tax base contracts by 2%, the block grant adjustment will decrease by 2%; if the tax base grows by 2%, the adjustment will increase by 2%.”
That should have been absolutely clear to the hon. Gentleman, but he clearly did not read the letter, so I am glad to have had this opportunity to acquaint him with its contents. It clearly contains the reassurance that he seeks.
No, I will not give way.
Subject to the outcome of a referendum, the legislation provides for the introduction of a Welsh rate of income tax. The main UK rates of income tax would be reduced by 10p for Welsh taxpayers, and the Assembly would be able to set a new Welsh rate—a whole number or half a whole number—which would be added to the reduced UK rates. The rest of the income tax structure would remain a matter for this Parliament.
The Silk commission estimated that reducing the Welsh rate of income tax by 1p would cost the Welsh Government around £185 million, without taking account of any gains resulting from people moving to Wales to take advantage of lower tax rates. That is not an insignificant amount of money, but lower rates of income tax would boost the spending power of working people in Wales and bolster growth in the Welsh economy. Stronger economic growth in Wales could deliver a real boost in tax revenues, providing the Welsh Government with more resources to invest in devolved services and infrastructure across Wales.
Some Opposition Members, most notably the hon. Member for Pontypridd, have suggested that the devolution of an element of income tax is some sort of unspecified coalition trap, set to ensnare the Welsh Government.
May I ask for clarification on something, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) talked about the levels up to the current rate? At a marginal tax rate of one extra penny, the gross value added in Wales is 70% that of the UK. My understanding is therefore that the extra penny charged locally in Wales would generate less income than an extra penny charged across the UK and then transferred over to Wales—so we would lose out, would we not?
For the reasons I have explained, there would be no loss. May I remind the hon. Gentleman, as I reminded the right hon. Member for Neath, that there would be no compulsion on the Assembly Government to change the rate of tax? This is simply an issue of whether or not the competence should be devolved. Once it is devolved, it is then a matter for the Assembly to decide what the Welsh rate of tax should be.
The Secretary of State mentioned that one of the main reasons for devolving income tax was to incentivise the Welsh Government, yet he handcuffs them with his proposed lockstep, which was not included in the Silk recommendations. In the unlikely event of a no vote in Scotland, does he expect the lockstep to remain in Scotland following its referendum?
I am not here to speculate on what will happen in Scotland in September, but I will talk about the lockstep in a moment—no doubt the hon. Gentleman will be paying close attention and intervening as he considers appropriate.
The reality is that this legislation—income tax devolution following a referendum—is a real opportunity to be seized with both hands by the Welsh Government. It is an opportunity to make Wales more competitive and to make the Welsh Government more accountable, as the hon. Member for Pontypridd now agrees. Our challenge to those who view the devolution of income tax negatively is not to shy away from this opportunity, but to seize the moment with enthusiasm and support the proposals in this Bill for a referendum on income tax devolution.
The Silk commission recommended that the Welsh Government should be able to set separate Welsh rates of income tax for each of the three income tax bands, but the Government believe that a single Welsh rate for all three bands—the so-called “lockstep”—is the right system for Wales. The same system is being introduced in Scotland under the Scotland Act 2012. The Government have a responsibility to take a UK-wide view: to consider the interests not only of Wales, but of the United Kingdom as a whole, including Wales. If the devolution of income tax is supported in a referendum, the lockstep mechanism would be the best way to maintain a progressive tax system that redistributes wealth across the whole of the UK but does not unnecessarily benefit one part of the UK at the expense of another.
The Bill also devolves responsibility to the Assembly for its own budgetary arrangements, so that it can establish new procedures for scrutinising and setting the annual budget. That was also recommended by the Silk commission, and by the Welsh Affairs Committee following its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Wales Bill. The Bill before us today and the Command Paper the Government have published alongside it have benefited greatly from the Select Committee’s thorough and rigorous scrutiny, and I am grateful to all hon. Members on that Committee for their hard work.
Although the majority of the Bill is devoted to fiscal devolution, the legislation also implements a number of other important reforms: it permanently moves the Assembly to five-year terms; it removes the prohibition on dual candidacy; and it makes provision to preclude Assembly Members from simultaneously being Members of this House. Those are all changes which we consulted on in our Green Paper in 2012. The move to permanent five-year terms will make it less likely that Assembly elections will clash with UK general elections, now that the length of Parliaments is fixed at five years. It is important that Assembly elections should be contested, wherever possible, on issues specific to Wales, and the Bill ensures that they will not be overshadowed by the wider issues that often dominate elections to this House.
The Secretary of State has used the word “accountable” 14 times so far in his speech and has talked about how this Bill will make politicians in Wales more accountable, but it is going to mean that there will be fewer elections. Does that not make them less accountable?
I would not have thought so. By the way, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for counting how many times I have used the word “accountable”. That now makes 15. I would have thought that he would be concerned to ensure that Assembly elections were not overshadowed by general elections, and that in my book makes for accountability.
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. When the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 was going through this House, it was Labour’s First Minister in Wales who agreed that the date of the Assembly election in Wales should be moved to 2016 so that it would not coincide with the general election. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to be joined up with his own party.
The thing is, it is the former Minister who is not very joined up with his own memory. At the time, Labour voted for a four-year fixed-term Parliament in here, which would have meant a four-year fixed term for Wales as well. In that way, we would not have had to coincide and we would have had greater accountability. Let us have a general election now, shall we?
As we have five-year terms for general elections, we take the view that we should also have five-year terms for Assembly elections.
The removal of the ban on dual candidacy restores the position to how it was in the Government of Wales Act 1998. I believe that the change is supported by all parties other than the Labour party, which introduced the ban in the first place. The ban on so called “double-jobbing” between the Assembly and this House addresses legitimate concerns about whether it is possible for someone adequately to represent constituents’ interests in two elected legislatures at the same time.
The legislation also implements several changes that have been specifically requested by the Welsh Government, including formally enshrining that name—the Welsh Government—in statute, as it has been common parlance for the Welsh Assembly Government to be so referred to for several years now.
In responding to the Silk commission’s recommendations, the Government made it clear that we were unconvinced by the case for devolving air passenger duty to Wales, so the Bill makes no provision for that. Neither does it make provision for the full devolution of business rates. That is because, in terms of legislative competence, business rates fall within the devolved subject of local government finance and so we need make no further provision in this Bill. In order fully to devolve business rates, the Government are amending current funding arrangements so that the Welsh Government benefit directly from revenues raised by that tax in Wales.
Finally, as I said in my written statement to this House on 3 March, we do not see this Bill as an appropriate vehicle for implementing the recommendations made by the Silk commission in its second report. The commission’s second report raises crucial questions about the future governance of Wales within the United Kingdom, and it would not be right to rush into implementing its recommendations without careful assessment. It is essential that we take the time needed to get things right. Consequently, the Bill is focused on devolving the package of tax and borrowing powers to Wales recommended by the commission in its first report. Including a whole raft of other powers would merely serve to delay the Bill and jeopardise its enactment before the 2015 general election.
The Government believe that devolution should be used to give a competitive edge to Wales, and that powers devolved should be used to grow the Welsh economy and make Wales a more prosperous place. The Bill will deliver that. It will make devolved governance in Wales fairer, more accountable and better able to support economic growth. I hope, and I believe, that we can achieve a broad consensus in this House around this Bill, and make rapid progress. I commend the Bill to the House.
This is an important debate and an important Bill. There are four broad issues under discussion. The Secretary of State has described some of them—some in more detail than others. I shall explain to the House why he glossed over some of them. The four areas I want to discuss are the electoral arrangements, the devolution of the minor taxes, the borrowing powers—the amount of borrowing in particular—and the devolution of income tax varying powers for Wales.
Let me start with electoral arrangements, which the Secretary of State glossed over in just a few phrases. The reason for that will become clear. The changes in the Bill include a reversal of the Government of Wales Act 2006 ban on candidates standing both under first past the post and on the proportional representation list in Wales. The reason that the previous Labour Government decided to introduce that ban ought to be well understood by the Secretary of State, as it stemmed from a Tammany hall-style example of an election that took place in his constituency of Clwyd West in 2003. On that occasion, the winning Labour candidate was elected on first past the post, while the losing Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Plaid Cymru candidates were also all elected, by the back door and on the back list—Tammany hall in Clwyd West. The system was designed by an earlier Labour Government, but we decided that it was clearly at odds with democracy in Wales. We decided that the people of Wales would not understand how losers could become winners.
No, I was not saying that for a moment. I was saying that I thought that the people of Wales looked askance at losers standing on two separate tickets— first past the post and on the list—to get themselves elected. We have seen why the Opposition oppose that; we believe in democracy and we believe in democracy being seen to be done. We also know why the Government want to reintroduce it in Wales and to allow people to stand both under first past the post and on the list. That reason is captured clearly in the explanatory notes to the Bill, which say explicitly that the measure will benefit smaller parties with a smaller pool of candidates—that is, the Tory party in Wales.
That is precisely the impression that it gives. The rationale, as I say, is very clear. The policy only benefits the minority parties in Wales—the Tory party, of course, is a minority party in Wales. It specifically benefits Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru in Wales, who intends to stand under first past the post and on the list. I put it to the Secretary of State that the people of Wales will not look well on his gerrymandering elections in Wales in this fashion.
I am not talking about Scotland today; I am talking about Wales. I am talking about the Clwyd West scandal, which the Secretary of State oversaw. I am talking about the fact that this measure is clearly in the interests of the Tory party and nationalist allies, which is why our nationalist colleagues are so keen to intervene.
In the first place, let me say that I object quite strongly to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that I would ever be involved in gerrymandering, particularly given that it was his party that introduced this atrocity in the first place in the 2006 Act. May I refer him to what Professor Roger Scully said in his written evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee:
“If parties that are defeated at constituency level can still win representation through the list, then it is difficult to see why that should not also apply to individuals”?
Individuals represent parties; where they happen to be standing makes no difference at all.
I am just getting over the fact that the Secretary of State referred to what we thought was a fairly simple safeguarding of democracy as an “atrocity”. I am pleased that I let him intervene, because he chose to read out a piece of evidence given to the consultation on the measure. I note, however, that the Secretary of State failed to inform the House that the overwhelming majority of respondents to the consultation were opposed to the measure. Clearly, this is a nakedly partisan reversal by the current Government. Let me be clear with the House: if we get the opportunity to win back power in this place, we will reverse the measure.
The hon. Gentleman is making the point forcefully against the proposed change. Can he put to us any independent evidence—there is Labour party evidence, yes, but any authoritative independent evidence—that supports what he is saying?
I put to the hon. Gentleman the impact assessment and the explanatory notes from his own Government. They make it clear that this is a partisan measure that will only benefit the minority parties in Wales, among which we count the Conservative party. That is what this is about.
Is it not particularly irritating that Leanne Wood can stand in Rhondda? She has done it before: she stood in 2001 for the parliamentary seat and lost very heavily. The people of Rhondda will, I am sure, return Leighton Andrews in the next Assembly elections, because he is the best Assembly Member in Wales. They cannot prevent Leanne Wood from being elected, however, because they have no means of affecting the order on the Plaid Cymru list. She gets two goes.
This is not on personalities, Madam Deputy Speaker. I just wanted to pick up on the point helpfully made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Will the shadow Secretary of State tell us whether the Labour party is proposing, for both Westminster and Wales, to revert to elections in four-year terms, or whether it will stick to the five years in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011?
My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda made Labour’s position clear. We are opposed to the gerrymandering shift from four years to five years to maximise the amount of time the coalition can hang on to power. However, we accept that the First Minister of Wales and the Welsh Government would like to see the term extended to guarantee, as the Secretary of State put it, that there will not be a clash between elections in Wales and Westminster. In explaining Labour’s position, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda is entirely right. We still feel that four years is preferable, and that five is far too long and diminishes accountability. That said, we will accept this shift and we will support this aspect of the Bill.
On double-jobbing, the third aspect of the electoral arrangements, Labour has always been clear. It has always had an internal party position whereby it does not support people having dual mandates, standing for election and holding office in the Assembly and in Westminster. We are therefore pleased that the Government are moving into line with Labour on this and we will support this aspect of the Bill.
I am interested in my hon. Friend’s observation on double-jobbing. Does he agree that it is inappropriate for Assembly Members to stand as prospective parliamentary candidates while, at the same time, serving as AMs? In particular, is it not inappropriate for them to open up constituency offices in the seats that they are fighting? Will he support an amendment to prevent AMs from standing as prospective parliamentary candidates?
I will have to look carefully at my hon. Friend’s proposal and take it into consideration. I would not want to discourage Members from moving back and forth between the Assembly and Westminster, which I think is a positive state of affairs that should be encouraged, but I note the point he makes so eloquently.
That is a very good point that we ought to consider. I would, of course, not support parliamentary or Assembly expenses being deployed for party political reasons.
I will move on to the minor taxes, particularly stamp duty land tax and landfill tax. We heard very little detail from the Secretary of Sport—[Interruption.] Well, there was very little sport there for anyone to have, to be perfectly honest. Hopefully we will have a bit more sport with the Secretary of State now. We will support the devolution of stamp duty land tax and landfill tax to Wales. However, there are many questions about how that will be implemented, so we will seek clarification during the passage of the Bill. Perhaps he will take note of some of these points now so that his Minister can respond to some of them later.
The first point concerns the suggestion that properties on the border between Wales and England would somehow be split, with stamp duty land tax being charged on the English portion and whatever its successor tax is being charged on the Welsh portion. It is an interesting concept. Will the Secretary of State tell us at some point during the passage of the Bill how many such properties there are on the border, given how populous it is? Will he tell us how the Government propose splitting those properties, as in many instances they are houses straddling the border? Will there be a number of bedrooms in England and a number in Wales? We know that the Government are keen on taxing bedrooms.
The second point relates to the cost of devolving that to Wales. We understand from the Bill that the Welsh Government will be asked to pay for the administration of any new tax, which is fair and just, and that that will be offset by any reduction in the cost to Her Majesty’s Government of administering the taxes as they had previously done in Wales. Given that the Secretary of State and the Treasury—this was confirmed by the Exchequer Secretary—have conducted little or no analysis of the impact of those various schemes in Wales, will he tell us how much he thinks it will cost the Welsh Government to administer and how much the offset will be?
On the even more important question of the reduction in the block grant that will come about as a result of the changes—it will be reduced by around £200 million and reviewed periodically—will the Secretary of State comment at some point during the Bill’s passage on the volatility associated with stamp duty land tax, because that figure of £200 million varies radically over time? Will he also tell us how he will calculate any differential in the rise and fall of house prices in England and Wales? By way of illustration, stamp duty land tax revenues in Wales have varied wildly over the past 20 years. They were £20 million in 1997, up to £95 million in 2003 and £130 million in 2005, and then down to £55 million in 2008-09 and £65 million last year. It is an extremely volatile tax, so I would be intrigued to know how the Treasury will account for it in any indexed reduction in the block grant, because that will have a significant impact on both the borrowing powers and, potentially, the revenues of the Welsh Assembly Government.
As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, over the past year house price inflation has been 13.2% in London and 6.8% across the UK. As I mentioned earlier, Boris Johnson is asking for stamp duty in London, where historically prices have always gone up faster. Is my hon. Friend at all concerned about the differential impact of stamp duty revenues, which he has alluded to already, plus pressure from elsewhere in the UK to have that tax resulting in a less fair and more complicated and confusing situation?
That is a legitimate question. I have said previously that although we will support the devolution of stamp duty land tax and landfill tax and the putting of the income tax question to Wales, we remain concerned about tax competition. Over time, that might result in other parts of Britain wishing for similar degrees of autonomy, thereby reducing the ability of the central Exchequer to pool resources, share risk and redistribute from wealthier to less wealthy parts of Britain. That abiding concern of mine needs to be considered.
Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his point? If he believes that the Assembly should have the power to vary income tax by up to 15p in the pound, there will inevitably be some form of tax competition—unless he wants to give the Assembly the power to prevent anywhere else from varying its levels of income tax.
As I will explain later, and as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows from my speech yesterday, we propose to replicate in Wales what is suggested by my party for Scotland. Wales will have exactly the same powers under a Labour Government. We can trust a Labour Government not to want to cut the top rate of tax and increase the unfairness of our tax system—unlike Plaid Cymru, whose economic adviser, much like the Secretary of State for Wales and the Tory leader in Wales, would like to reduce the top rate of tax.
We want fair and equitable tax rates across Britain. That is why we propose to amend the Bill so that, if a Tory Government in Westminster continue to increase the injustice and unfairness of our tax system by making further cuts to taxes on the wealthiest, Welsh values and Welsh beliefs about social justice can implement a decent and equitable rate of taxation.
No, I am going to move on. If the hon. Gentleman holds his water, I shall come back to income tax later.
Landfill tax is relatively uncontroversial save for the link to borrowing, to which I shall come later. There is also the link to the landfill communities fund. We heard nothing from the Secretary of State about that, but it is paid to communities with landfill sites within their boundaries. Has the Secretary of State done any analysis about the value of that fund to Wales? How much is collected and how much has been spent in Wales? How many landfill sites are there in Wales in comparison with England?
The Secretary of State is proposing that the landfill tax community fund also be devolved to Wales and that Wales should become responsible for meeting the costs of implementing a revised Welsh landfill scheme. Given that elsewhere in the Bill, the Secretary of State proposes that HMRC duties should not be replicated in Wales, why does he think the implementation of the landfill communities fund should be devolved? Is that yet another example of his wishing to pass responsibilities to Wales without there being the requisite resources?
We absolutely support the extension of borrowing powers to Wales. They are vital to make up for the £1.7 billion cut in funding for Wales—an almost 40% cut in capital funds—that the Government have implemented since 2010.
It is crucial that the Welsh Government be given the ability to borrow in order to try to back-fill the enormous holes in their budget left by the Secretary of State and his colleagues.
There are two measures relating to borrowing in the Bill, both with limits of £500 million—one to cover volatility in tax receipts and the other to cover capital. I wish to talk about the latter. The Silk commission, whose recommendations the Secretary of State keeps telling us he has largely stuck to, said that £1.3 billion should be devolved to Wales for capital borrowing, but the Bill limits it to £500 million. The Secretary of State says, as he repeated earlier, that the rationale for that is to draw a connection between the amount of money devolved to Wales—the volume of taxes—and the volume of money that might be borrowed. The Secretary of State says, as does the Command Paper on the Bill, that that is just like the position of Scotland. In fact, the Command Paper goes further than he did in saying that the Bill is generous given that in Scotland over £5 billion of taxes are devolved and £2.2 billion of borrowing is allowed—£220 million each year—and that if a similar ratio were applied to Wales, then Wales would get not £500 million but £100 million.
The problem with that rationale is that it is not true. The Scotland Act does not draw a connection, as the Secretary of State suggests, between the amount of taxes devolved to Scotland and the amount of borrowing. The Command Paper associated with the Scotland Bill said:
“Scottish Ministers will be allowed to borrow up to 10% of the Scottish capital budget any year to fund capital expenditure”—
that is, £230 million of an overall stock of £2.2 billion. The Scotland Act drew a clear correlation between the size of the capital budget and the amount that could be borrowed. The Command Paper for the Wales Bill, which the Secretary of State said was just like that for the Scotland Bill, reads:
“Specifically, the Scottish Government’s capital borrowing limit is £2.2 billion while it is taking on responsibility for tax revenues that are currently worth around £5 billion. Hence the ratio between the two is slightly less than 1:2. Applying the same tax/borrowing ratio in Wales would have given the Welsh Government a limit of around £100 million.”
The crucial question is why the Government have moved the goalposts for Wales. Why cannot Wales have the same rationale for its volume of borrowing as the Scots? That would give us about £1 billion-worth of borrowing—between £1 billion and £1.5 billion—rather than the paltry £500 million on offer.
Moreover, given the volatility of all tax returns, how sensible is it for the Government to draw a direct line between the receipts that Wales receives and the amount it can borrow? What if those receipts declined? What if we were in another recession? We would therefore see, I presume, a reduction in the amount of borrowing that Wales could undertake, which would frankly be economic stupidity.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a danger of moving the focus from Wales having its fair share of capital investment—for example, on transport, where there is £5,000 per head for transport in London and about £500 in Wales—because as soon as we get more borrowing powers the Government will say, “You pay for the valleys line electrification—you can borrow the money”? Is this not an excuse for making Wales pay out more from less?
That is absolutely right. That is what we have been most concerned about throughout the passage of this Bill, and we describe it as a trap. The Tory party is seeking to wash its hands of Wales, and it is not interested in funding capital expenditure properly in Wales. We have therefore seen that the valleys line promise was not worth the paper it was written on, and the words of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State were equally worthless. We are deeply concerned that this will be an excuse for the Tory Government to ask the people with the shallowest pockets in Britain to put their hands deepest into them to fund things that traditionally would have come through general taxation and from the wider benefits of our economic union.
On income tax, let me be clear: we are and remain opposed to tax competition across Britain. We believe in an economic and social union and in the ability of the central state to pool resources, share risk, and share rewards. That is especially true in Wales, as we are a net beneficiary—indeed, the greatest one—of that principle of progressivity and risk-sharing across Britain. That is why we remain opposed to the principle of undercutting one part of Britain with lower taxes in another, which is what the Secretary of State is proposing. We agree with the Government that the principle of progressivity ought to be retained. That is why we agree, broadly speaking, with the notion of the lockstep to tie bands together. But we have deep and abiding concerns about the hidden agenda that the Conservative party has, along with its nationalist colleagues, for greater tax competition in Britain.
We have reason for that concern, because the plans are not terribly well hidden. We have already heard that the leader of the Welsh Conservative group wishes to cut just the top rate of tax and that the economic adviser to the leader of the nationalist party in Wales wishes to do the same, and cut taxes only for the wealthiest in Wales. If we need any further illustration, we simply have to look at this Government’s record: they introduced a millionaire’s tax cut even as they increased VAT, which is paid, regressively, by the least well-off people in Britain.
I presume the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) is pleased, is he, that the poorest of his constituents in Shrewsbury pay more as a proportion of their income as a result of the VAT increases that his party brought in? Or is he not pleased that they are paying that? [Interruption.] If he wants to intervene, I will happily sit down. I give way to his colleague.
I am genuinely confused by what the hon. Gentleman is saying. On the one hand, at the Labour party conference, he went out and said that a Labour Government would give the Assembly the powers to vary tax by up to 15%, which is 15p in the pound. He also made that point earlier on. But now he is saying that he does not believe in any sort of competition and so one would presume that he does not think that the Assembly should be able to vary taxes at all. Unless he is suggesting that the Assembly should now have the power to tell central Government the level at which to set taxation, I do not see how he can hold those two completely contrasting positions. Will he please explain?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, it is not hard to get him confused—I say that with full respect and friendship, of course.
We have reason for our concern, because of the way in which the Tory Government have cut taxes. Labour believes that taxes should be fair and progressive, and accepts that it is not unreasonable for the Government, as they hand over borrowing powers to Wales, to draw some connection between the amount of borrowing and the amount of taxes devolved to Wales, especially given the massive cut to the capital budget. That is why we have decided that we will support the question of the devolution of taxes being put to the people of Wales, subject to what we have called a triple lock.
First, there must be an agreement that there will be fair funding for Wales, and an acknowledgment that, as Holtham has pointed out, convergence is a disbenefit for Wales. Secondly, we need an agreement that the proposal will leave Wales better off, not worse off. The Secretary of State read out the mechanics of indexation earlier on, but failed singularly to address the question I asked, which was whether the Government have conducted any sort of analysis as to whether Wales will be better or worse off, over time, given the volatility of taxes in both places. I suspect that he has not done that analysis and that is why he could not answer my substantive question of whether Wales will be better or worse off.
I was listening carefully to the shadow Secretary of State about being better off and worse off, particularly with regard to those on lower incomes. In the Budget of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor we increased personal allowances for everyone, including those on the lowest incomes. Why did he and his party vote against those tax cuts for low and middle-income earners?
We will take not a single lesson from any Government Members about how to provide for the most vulnerable people in Britain, because this Government have left people in Wales £1,600 a year worse off and they have overseen the largest reduction in living standards since the 1870s. The last time living standards fell this far was during the time of the Paris commune and the Franco-Prussian war—that is how disastrously this Government have handled the economy in Wales. We will take no lessons—absolutely none—from them.
Given the opportunity, we would put a different question with regard to income tax varying powers for Wales, and we will seek to amend the Bill in order to do so. It would be different in two regards. First, as several Members have suggested, we would increase the amount of money by which tax might be reduced in Wales from 10p to 15p. The two reasons for doing so are very simple. First, we believe it would increase borrowing, given the causal link the Government are drawing between the volume of taxes and the amount of borrowing. Secondly—I would have thought that Members from the nationalist party in Wales would be pleased with this—it would provide a far neater degree of symmetry between what we are proposing for Wales and what we are proposing for England. We remain concerned that constant chipping and changing of the constitution, which the current Government seem keen to allow to continue, is not in the interests of the stability of Britain or Wales. We will seek to legislate to introduce symmetry between Wales and Scotland, both on the model of devolved powers and on taxation.
We welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman is proposing to increase the level of income tax, but my understanding of what he said over the weekend is that he wants to keep the lockstep but remove the ability to vary the rate up or down such that it would only to be able to move up. Would he, therefore, label his new policy “lockstep-plus”?
No, I would label it as a progressive change and I will explain why we feel the need to introduce such a change.
The second way in which we would change the question relates to our concerns about the fact that this Tory Government and an increasingly right-wing nationalist party in Wales are proposing to cut the top rate of tax. [Laughter.] Nationalist party Members laugh, but the economic adviser to their leader says he wants to cut only the top rate of tax. I do not know what we are meant to conclude from that, but it sounds pretty right wing to me. An alliance between the nats and the Tories in Wales seeks to reduce taxes just for the wealthiest, but we feel that that would be entirely out of step with the progressive values of Wales. That is why we will give the Welsh Government the ability to set a progressive rate for Wales, to guard against further Tory tax cuts for the wealthiest and to ensure that those Welsh values of social justice and fairness in taxation can be preserved by the Welsh people in the event of the Tories wishing to increase the injustice and unfairness of the tax system in Wales and across Britain.
The shadow Welsh Secretary is giving out so many conflicting messages that I am finding it difficult to follow him. He says that he wants to extend the tax-varying powers by 15%, but he also says that he is against tax competition, and then he says that he only wants to put taxes up. We can have lots of debates about those inconsistencies, but there is one very serious point: every nation and region of the UK is seeking to attract investment. What sort of message is being sent when the shadow Chancellor—[Interruption.] What sort of message is being sent when the shadow Welsh Secretary, who presumably hopes to be a future Welsh Secretary, says that he wants to increase taxes on higher earners?
It is not too hard to confuse the hon. Gentleman sometimes, either, but I thank him for the promotion. Our position is very clear: we are not in favour of tax competition; we are in favour of increased borrowing powers. The way in which the Government have framed the Bill to draw a connection between borrowing powers and the devolved amount of money paid in tax means that we favour increasing that amount so as to increase borrowing powers for Wales. However, the progressive rate is only to be put up in the event of a Tory Government choosing to deepen the unfairness by making further cuts to the top rate. We should worry about that because the Tory party has form on it. It has already cut taxes for the wealthiest, and we know that it will continue to do so.
No, I will not.
Our proposal to allow the Welsh Government to set a progressive rate of taxation in Wales would allow power to be transferred to Welsh people to guard Wales against the damage to social justice done in Britain by a Tory Government who propose to cut taxes further. The motivation is similar to that for devolution in its first inception: a Tory Government in Wales exercising—in the miner’s strike, the poll tax and other measures—a political strategy that reveals how they turn their face against social justice in Britain and use Wales as a means to exercise such injustice. We have recently seen that in the war on Wales, and the way in which Grant Shapps, the chairman of the Tory party, and the Secretary of State—
Order. [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman must not appear to be concerned or to question when he is called to order. [Interruption.] Order. I must say that if Conservative Members are not quiet, the shadow Secretary of State will never get to the end of his lengthy speech. In doing so, I trust that when the shadow Secretary of State refers to a Member of this House he does so, as is proper, by their constituency, not their Christian name and surname.
I am very sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was not, of course, rolling my eyes at your good self, but at the Secretary of State. I put on the record that my inability to recall the name of the constituency of the Minister without Portfolio, might have something to do with the multiple aliases that he deploys outside this House and which make it very difficult to recall how to refer to him within it.
I would not want the hon. Gentleman to have wasted his eye rolling. Just for clarification, is it his case that the Labour party wants devolved income tax competence to be able to increase the rate of tax for the 4,000 or so who pay the additional rate of tax in Wales, but not to cut the standard rate of tax for the 1 million-plus who pay the standard rate?
I have already made that very clear in this House. I take your admonition that I should be coming to the end of my speech in the spirit in which it was intended, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I believe that I have spoken for slightly less time than the Secretary of State. [Interruption.] If it is significantly longer that is perhaps because I have addressed more of the substance of the Bill than the Secretary of State, who glossed over most of the gerrymandering and the other reasons for it.
Let us be very clear that our proposals to allow the Welsh people, if they so choose at a referendum, to give powers to the Welsh Government to set a progressive rate of income tax would guard against a Tory Government with malign instincts reducing the justice of our taxation system in Wales and increasing the outrageous targeting of Wales that has been described and exposed in other areas in recent days. We will not allow such exposure on the economy to be passed on to Wales. We will not allow Wales to be worse off as a result of the measures, and we will scrutinise the Bill extremely carefully.
Rising to my feet to participate in the debate gives me a heavy attack of déjà vu. I hope my words will be slightly less curmudgeonly than those of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith). I give this small and elegant Bill a warm welcome, because I believe it takes Wales forward. It does so in a small, incremental step, rather than in one of those steps that allows Wales to fall into a large hole and disappear without trace. The Government are looking after the interests of Wales and the people of Wales in the Bill. Long may that continue.
As many hon. Members know, for me, the Bill is part of unfinished business that stretches back not to when I was Secretary of State for Wales, but to my appointment as shadow Secretary of State. I pay unreserved tribute to Paul Silk and members of the Silk commission. The Calman commission did not attract the Scottish National party to sit alongside other members, but I was really pleased when Plaid Cymru accepted the invitation to join the Silk commission. The participation of all the parties involved in the governance of Wales in the Silk commission has made its results more credible. I believe it will contribute towards Wales remaining part of the Union, on which most Opposition Members agree with Government Members. I also believe that the commission will contribute to Wales having increasing self-determination in certain matters, which will be good for the people of Wales and for the devolved Administration.
The trend towards more local democracy must not be at the expense of effective governance. That brings me to a point that became apparent to me over the seven years in which I carried responsibility for Welsh policy in my party. In future, I believe that a confident Wales and a confident Westminster Government should not hesitate to contemplate not only the devolution of powers, but the return of areas of competence to the supra-national Parliament, if it is the wish of those areas or institutions. There is a valid and compelling case for that course of action. That was not apparent in the Silk commission report, but by way of example, it was expressed to me while in opposition and in government, particularly from the university sector—albeit often behind closed doors for fear of repercussions—that a body of opinion wanted the re-coupling of Welsh and English universities in the interests of Wales and of education in Wales.
As we have been reminded, the constitutional position in the Bill is that we are extending the Assembly’s term of office to five years. That is probably sensible given the circumstances, but, for me, the jury is out on five-year terms. I was persuaded by the First Minister that that was the way to go because the UK Parliament introduced a five-year term and we need to avoid a clash of an Assembly election with a general election. However, I question the wisdom of that. All hon. Members know how expensive democracy and elections are. I would have liked to have seen the cost savings that would have resulted from running those elections together and any effect on turnout. It does not matter which part of the UK people are in, there is no doubt that they are being turned off by democracy—we are seeing diminishing returns of voters going to the ballot box. Perhaps running those elections at the same time would have increased participation at the ballot box. It might also have been easier to explain the relationship between the Assembly and the UK Parliament.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way because I rather agree with her. Voters would probably prefer to have two elections on the same day. That would make far more sense—I have argued for it since 2010. Historically, general elections have tended to be every four years, even when we had seven-year terms, because either a Government had run out of steam or it felt right to move on and have an election. We are now moving everything towards five-year terms. My anxiety is that that is less democracy and less accountability.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point—it is unusual for us to agree on anything, as he will attest —but we need to examine the matter before we set everything finally in concrete. Those on both Front Benches and anybody involved in the business of government should keep an open mind. Rather than saying, “It will be five or seven years for ever,” we should agree to revisit the matter at some stage. Constitutional arrangements are important, but the engagement of the electorate is perhaps one of the most important aspects of democracy.
The fact that we had those elections on a separate day and the turnout was low is part of the experience that informs what I am saying now. I want to maximise engagement with the electorate, as I am sure does the hon. Gentleman. Unlike much of the debate so far, I am not making a partisan point on this issue. It is more a question of democracy and engaging with the electorate.
My hon. Friend is right. The trouble is that in Wales we never get a breathing space from elections. We have an election almost every year. When we looked at the timetable over the past four or five years, we were relieved of an election in only one year. There is much to be said for putting the elections on one day, but particularly the Assembly elections and the general election.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will not be surprised to hear that I am sad about one particular omission from the Bill, although I will probably attract howls and squeals from both sides of the House. I am sorry that we did not take this opportunity to reduce the number of Westminster constituencies in Wales. When Scotland gained its additional primary legislative responsibilities, the Labour Government reduced the number of MPs in Scotland, and that should have happened in Wales. The job that is done at a cost of £66,396 in an English constituency is done by an MP, an Assembly Member and half a list Assembly Member in Wales, at a cost of some £147,000 in salaries alone. Democracy is expensive, but the boundary changes should have been made and the number of MPs from Wales reduced.
The former Secretary of State and I have engaged on this topic before. A constituency such as Arfon has only 41,138 electors and Chesham and Amersham has 70,000, so—in the interests of fairness and equality, the need for which is often spouted by the Opposition—we should look at equalising the number of constituents across constituencies. Democracy costs dearly—
The right hon. Lady has not answered my question. She has changed the question. She has traditionally been hostile to devolution, so she is now inventing all sorts of other issues. The simple fact is that we are not second-class MPs because we are from Wales: we are on the same level as she is, until her Government change that.
I am not going to trade insults with the right hon. Gentleman. He has 57,823 constituents on the roll, as of 1 December 2010. I have never, ever said that a Welsh MP was a second-class MP, as well he knows. However, if he chooses to go down that line, I have to say that the boundary change and the reduction in the number of MPs should have been carried out and I am sorry it was blocked by vested interests.
Let me turn to the financial provisions in the Bill. I have long thought that the Welsh Assembly Government—soon to be known as the Welsh Government—should understand better and share the responsibilities of tax raising that go with the luxury of spending taxpayers’ money. I therefore welcome the steps in the Bill to bring that sense of responsibility and stronger financial accountability for Welsh Assembly Ministers, as well as the option for Welsh residents to make their views on tax powers known through a referendum.
I have already made the point that the secret plot is to reduce the overall block grant and then give the powers to Wales, but is not part of that plot, as the right hon. Lady is now revealing, to reduce the number of MPs, lower the voice of Wales in this Chamber asking for a fair share of national assets and say, “You can have fewer MPs and you can raise your money yourself,” so that we have a gagged set of Members here? That is all part of what she is saying, is it not?
I said that there would be squealing about what I was about to say before I started that passage of my speech, and indeed there has been. The hon. Gentleman really does not do me justice with those remarks.
It has always been the case that no matter how the annual financial settlement fell, it was always possible for the Assembly to aim criticism at Westminster for tightening the purse strings. No matter where the responsibility actually lies for the poor outcomes, the finger has always been pointed towards Whitehall and Westminster. The provisions in the Bill move towards reducing the opportunity for abrogating responsibility, which, particularly in the fields of health and education, lies squarely with the Labour Administration in Cardiff Bay.
The new funding framework moves from almost exclusive block funding to two revenue streams. The block grant part will remain dependent on the Barnett formula, which, even though I believe it is nearing its sell-by date, should remain firmly in place as long as we are required to continue reducing the deficit left by the last Labour Government, particularly in the light of the convergence arrangements from the October 2012 agreement. The new funding stream of business rates and the Welsh landfill and land transaction taxes—coupled with a Welsh rate of income tax following an affirming referendum—means that the Assembly will now have a real incentive to grow the economy and more responsibility for funding its spending. However, it also means that the Assembly will have an independent revenue stream to support capital borrowing—a welcome flexibility, particularly for making decisions on infrastructure funding.
I also welcome the flexibility that the Treasury is giving to the Welsh Assembly Government on borrowing to start the much-needed improvements to the M4, as well as the cash reserve powers. The UK Government will provide the Welsh Government with the ability to pay surplus tax revenues into a cash reserve that can be drawn on when future revenues are lower than forecast. This will provide the Welsh Government with a mechanism to manage the volatility in their budget resulting from the new tax powers.
I also welcome some of the inter-governmental arrangements that spring from the Bill, including the Government’s response to the Silk commission’s part I report, in recognising the need to ensure that institutional and governance arrangements continue to be appropriate as changes are made to the financial powers of the Assembly and Welsh Government—in particular, the fact that the Office for Budget Responsibility has agreed to the Government’s formal request that it starts to forecast Welsh taxes in the autumn statement 2014 and biannually thereafter. I look forward to the Wales Office letting us know the details of the OBR’s relationship with the Assembly and the Welsh Government, which I understand will be subject to further discussions.
The Government have also agreed with the Welsh Government to set up a bilateral ministerial committee to oversee the transfer of these financial powers. I was pleased to note that an early priority for the Committee would be the consideration of further details relating to the operation of the new budgetary arrangements—including the block grant adjustments—that will accompany tax devolution, and the cash management arrangements.
I have long believed that there should be better co-operation between the Assembly and the Government, and I hope that in the future the Wales Office will consider better arrangements both inter-departmentally, within the Government, and with the Assembly. One of my great hopes is that there will eventually be a forum in which Assembly Members and Members of Parliament could sit at the same time and debate subjects that are of interest to Wales. I give the Bill a warm welcome, and I shall be following its progress in the House, because it is a major constitutional Bill for Wales.
Let me end by paying a very special tribute to a man who for many years was my “shadow” in the House of Lords, Lord Roberts of Conwy. Back in 2008, he was asked by the Prime Minister and me to conduct a review of devolution in Wales. Wyn Roberts was a terrific colleague, and he carried out that review painstakingly and after consulting a broad spectrum of opinion. The genesis of much of the Bill, and indeed the Silk commission, was in his work. Following the publication of the report, he said:
“The question of governance in Wales will eventually be settled in the broad public interest and not in anyone's partisan interest.”
I think that the Bill is another building block of Welsh governance, and it has, I hope, been presented to the House in the spirit of Wyn’s wish that the broader interest be served. I wish it a speedy passage through the House, and I offer my congratulations again to the Ministers, the Department’s officials and the Silk commission, who have, I believe, produced it in the interests of Wales.
Labour Members broadly support the Bill, but, along with others, I shall seek to make improvements to it in Committee. It is an important Bill which gives vital borrowing powers to the Welsh Government, and paves the way for Welsh control of business rates, stamp duty and—if it is voted for—a referendum on income tax. It is also the first piece of Wales-specific legislation that the Tory-led Government have produced in four years.
There is a great deal to welcome, but I want to concentrate on the proposed borrowing limits. I am keen to establish a clear blueprint in relation to the borrowing powers and the consequences for the Assembly Government: a business plan, as it were, providing the flexibility that is necessary to meet the requirements of a modern financial system, especially given the maturing role of the Welsh Assembly.
The capital budget of the Welsh Government has already been reduced by nearly 40%, which has resulted in even greater hardship for the citizens of Wales and further swingeing cuts in public services. Borrowing powers are essential to the Welsh Government, and will be increasingly important to future Administrations. They must have the flexibility that will allow them to react to changing markets, and to make the long-term adjustments that will be required if they are to meet the challenges ahead. The M4 relief road is just one example of the infrastructure projects that the Welsh Government might choose to fund if they were in a position to borrow appropriate moneys; adequate borrowing powers will ensure that other equally important projects can be funded.
Labour Members recognise that some limited powers are on offer, but they are just not enough. We have serious reservations about the amount, the rules governing the settlement, and the unfavourable comparisons to other devolved bodies. Along with my colleagues, I shall be keeping a watching brief on the borrowing powers settlement as the Bill progresses. The Bill states that a limit of £500 million will be imposed for current spending, to cope with the fluctuations in, for instance, tax receipts, along with another limit of £500 million for capital projects. Again, that is simply not enough. The settlement for Northern Ireland, whose population is less than half that of Wales, gives it the capacity to borrow up to £2 billion, a sum that is a great deal larger than the one that is considered appropriate for Wales. That, too, is unacceptable.
As the Minister will no doubt recognise, I am very sceptical about the proposed borrowing levels. In evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee the Minister said the borrowing limit would increase to £1 billion if further income tax powers were devolved. In addition, further clarification was sought at a recent Welsh Grand Committee. At the morning sitting on 5 February this year, several of my colleagues sought clarification of how the £500 million borrowing limit had been reached. Despite being given ample opportunity to share the formula for how this limit for Wales was reached, the Welsh Secretary avoided giving a definitive answer. It appears there is still some vagueness in this key area.
I feel like one of these children in a classroom: did any other Member sit with a child next to them who had his hand around his work because he did not want to show his workings out so we could copy them? The Minister is a little bit like that. We would like to see how he did his workings out—how he reached those numbers, how they are going to affect us in Wales and how we can improve them.
It has been suggested by the Silk commission that the borrowing settlement for Wales be based on the Scottish model, but we have again heard today that Scotland has a higher limit: it can raise up to £2.2 billion. It is not right to say that we are on a similar level to Scotland or Northern Ireland. We are at a disadvantage and there seems to be some confusion.
I looked at the Wales Bill financial empowerment and accountability document published by the Government and I think the Secretary of State set out his workings here very clearly. According to my reading of it, the borrowing level relative to the revenues is more generous than that applicable to Scotland. I may have misread it, but that is my reading of the document. Perhaps the hon. Lady should take a look.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I will look at those figures again. I must say they were a bit of a challenge and I do not consider myself an unintelligent person. I think there are questions we have to ask, and this is the place to ask them. Again, we come back to the Northern Ireland question: why can Wales not be trusted to raise the money it vitally needs and will be needing in the future? When the formula is applied to Wales, the sums simply do not add up. I seek further clarification from the Minister on this matter.
I appreciate that when stamp duty and landfill tax are devolved, that will provide the Welsh Government with an independent revenue stream worth around £200 million a year. However, these taxes will not be devolved until April 2018, four years from now. We have to have the borrowing powers now. We have to have them set at a level that is appropriate for us in Wales and that will allow us to grow and develop. We need those resources as soon as possible to mitigate the effects of Tory cuts to the Welsh budget. As the party of devolution, we cannot accept a settlement that places us in a restrictive position regarding borrowing.
Well, out there on the streets life is very tough and I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong. I disagree with him: we are living every day with the effects of Tory budget cuts—long term, every day—and perhaps we should discuss this further in a different debate under different circumstances. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that matter.
Wales deserves the very best settlement, so we shall address this Bill positively while being ever conscious that it needs to reflect the evolving demands of an emerging Government. Welsh Labour and the Labour-controlled Welsh Government always have served, and always will serve, the needs of the people of Wales, encouraging greater self-determination for our citizens and ensuring that adequate powers are devolved whenever possible. I welcome the Bill, and I will support aspects of it, but I ask the Minister to address the issue of the borrowing powers.
I am not going to be able to give a warm welcome to the Bill; a slightly frosty and formal welcome is probably the best I can manage at the moment. However, I would like to thank the members of the Welsh Affairs Committee, who worked extremely hard throughout January to scrutinise the Bill in time for the Secretary of State to introduce it. I would also like to thank the Secretary of State and his colleagues for accepting some of our recommendations. None the less, we are in a slightly depressing cycle at the moment, in which Members of the Welsh Assembly demand extra powers, a range of non-governmental organisations and other bodies—many of which get some or all of their funding from the Assembly—go along with those demands, then the press jump in, followed by politicians from all the parties.
I was amazed to hear the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) at the Welsh Labour conference the other day making a promise that the Welsh Assembly would have even more powers to raise taxation if he had his way. Today, however, he has come to the Chamber to say that Labour does not like what is on offer, it does not think that there will be a referendum and it does not like tax competition. There is clearly ambiguity there. He is promising greater powers to the Welsh Assembly but at the same time trying to reassure others that those powers would never be implemented. Most people will be able to see through that. At least most parties are able to set out a position.
My own position is clear: I do not want the Assembly to have any kind of tax-raising powers. Members of Plaid Cymru also have a clear position: they want it to have as many powers as possible. We have a right to know what Labour actually stands for in this regard. This worries me, because I know that Labour Members are Unionists, but they do not seem to realise that we are sleepwalking into a disaster. One day, perhaps 10, 20 or 30 years hence, we are going to wake up and discover—[Interruption.] Yes, I will come to the Conservative party in a minute. Hon. Members must contain themselves. We will wake up and discover that we have created de facto independence in Wales simply by giving it one power after another, without making provision to take any of them back.
I am well aware that there are members of the Conservative party, and other parties, who support that course of action. A kind of auction process appears to be taking place, in which one person says, “Let’s give the Welsh Assembly this power”, and all sorts of other people who do not want to be perceived as being opposed to Wales jump on the bandwagon and agree with them. There are members of the Conservative party for whom I have the utmost affection but with whom I completely disagree on this. They seem to take the view that if we give the Assembly enough powers it will hang itself, after which we will be in power. I have a horrible feeling that we might end up dangling alongside it, however, because the Labour party will remain in power to misuse those extra powers, and we will be no better off as a result.
There is a solution. It is one that we all need to think about, and I hate to say this, but it comes from the Liberal Democrats. It takes the form of a fully federal system. The only way to stop this march towards ever greater powers going to the Welsh Assembly and to Scotland is to draw a line in the sand and say, “Okay, we’re going to give certain powers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and maybe to London and other regions of England, but we will not go beyond that line. There will be a federal Parliament in London with fully laid-out powers and a constitutional court to deal with any issues over who has what.” That is the only way of stopping this process. If we do not stop it, I can guarantee that we will wake up in 20 or 30 years’ time to find that the whole of the United Kingdom will have fallen apart. At least Scotland is getting a vote on this. It is having a fully fledged debate on the pros and cons of independence. We are not having that in Wales. Instead, the Welsh Assembly is being given a little bit more power every couple of years, and there is no way of getting any of that power back.
Obviously, I am speaking as an individual Back Bencher; it was hard to get any agreement on certain of these issues from the Welsh Affairs Committee. Let me make it clear that I am not speaking for anyone in the Conservative party either—I am entirely on my own on this one, and probably always will be.
I would like to see one improvement that can be made to this Bill. If we consider the powers the Welsh Assembly has already been given, we can see that it has not done terribly well. We have had the sight of the Welsh Minister for Education and Skills apologising, on Boxing day, I believe it was, for the lamentable state of education. As someone who has been through the state school system there, and who has three children in that system, I feel that very strongly. Nor have we seen a good performance from our national health service. Large numbers of people in cross-border areas such as Monmouthshire are desperate to be treated by the coalition Government-run NHS in England. We have even had the spectacle of a Labour Member of Parliament being banned from going before the Health and Social Care Committee in the Welsh Assembly because she was likely to tell a few home truths that members of that Committee did not want to hear. There has thus been a failure even to carry out the proper scrutiny role.
What I would like to see from this Bill is the opportunity not to take powers away from the Welsh Assembly, but to recognise that where there are problems, individuals ought to be given the choice. Somebody in Wales who is ill and wishes to be treated in England should have the right to access the NHS in England, with the cost of treatment being deducted from the block grant. Similarly, if someone in England was happy to wait twice as long as they needed to and be treated in Wales, they could be treated in Wales, with the cost of their treatment being added to the block grant. That would be an excellent way for us to maintain the commitment to devolution while allowing everyone to enjoy the benefits of a national health service.
The hon. Gentleman thinks it would be much better to move to a federal system. My problem is that that denies the history of all the different parts of the United Kingdom: the whole of Ireland was a kingdom until the partition and so on; Scotland had a completely different legal system even when the Crowns were joined together; and Wales never had a separate legal situation. Asymmetric devolution is actually the most sensible way of progressing.
That is a reasonable intervention from the hon. Gentleman. I respond simply by saying that a federal approach is not a perfect solution, but it is probably the least worst solution, and it is better than waking up in 20 years and finding that we have fully fledged independence. Wales has had a slightly separate legal system; I believe that Henry VIII allowed Wales a measure of independence, except for Monmouthshire, which was brought into the Oxford assizes—we do not need to go into that now.
You rightly told me off last time, Madam Deputy Speaker, for misusing the privilege of being called early and I do not wish to be told off again. What I would say is that I am a democrat and I recognise that much of what has been given to Wales has come about as a result of referendums. What is on offer in the Bill regarding stamp duty and land tax is not that significant. As for giving borrowing powers, I am a pragmatist and if they are going to be used for the M4, I would very much like to see an M4 relief road, so I will willingly go along with that. And of course, income tax powers will not be devolved without a further referendum. I would certainly be encouraging people to vote no in such a referendum, and perhaps for the first time I would be on a different side of the argument from the Secretary of State. Nevertheless, I recognise democracy and I recognise that he is offering a referendum. I appreciate the changes in the Bill which he has made as a result of the scrutiny by the Welsh Affairs Committee. My welcome, frosty and formal as it is, stays in place and I look forward to seeing the Bill progress through the House.
I rarely agree with the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), but I always get great entertainment from his sincere and intelligent extremism. He made a very thoughtful speech, for which he deserves credit, but may I correct him on one point about the national health service? I think he will find that more people cross the border from England to be treated in Welsh hospitals than go the other way.
The facts seem to speak for themselves. We can have an argument about the degree to which people can express a preference, but the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, led by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, persistently rant against the Welsh national health service as part of their war on Wales and completely distort the facts on the ground.
I was not going to respond, but I cannot let what the right hon. Gentleman just said stand. Thousands of my constituents live in England and passionately want to be treated by the English NHS, according to the rules and the rights they have in law, but because their GPs based in England are registered with the NHS in Wales they are forced to be treated in Wales according to the NHS rules. They do not like that prospect and I am doing my best to change it, so please do not pretend that they have run away from the English NHS by choice, because they absolutely have not.
In that case, I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the same applies for Welsh citizens on the Welsh side of the border. All I am saying is: let us have an intelligent debate about this, rather than rantings based on a misrepresentation of the facts on the ground.
Let me get down to my speech. In focusing on clause 2 of the Bill, I wish to record my pride at taking the Government of Wales Act 2006 through Parliament as the then Secretary of State, not least because it provided for the full law-making powers the Welsh Government are now using to protect the people of Wales from this Government’s disastrous policies, including on tuition fees and on the creeping privatisation of the national health service, which is not being applied by the Welsh Government. The fact that the Conservative party, the only party in this House to vote against the 2006 Act, now seems to have accepted that devolution is a sign of progress—I welcome that—but on the question of dual candidature it has sadly regressed. In section 7 of the 2006 Act, I amended one clause from the Government of Wales Act 1998 in order to prevent candidates from simultaneously standing both in a constituency and for a region, whether as a list candidate or as an individual—this Bill will disgracefully reverse that reform.
I am going to develop the point and then I will take an intervention. I want to remind colleagues of the reasons for the 2006 change. I did not act for politically partisan reasons, as was alleged by opponents of the change; I acted for democratic reasons. As one of the Ministers who also took the original 1998 Bill through the Commons permitting dual candidature, I never imagined for a moment then the abuses it would produce and the antipathy it would create among voters in Wales. Voters have never understood the widespread practice that has occurred since the Assembly was established in 1999, whereby candidates rejected by a particular constituency then secured back-door election as Assembly Members through the regional list and were even able to claim to represent the very constituency that had rejected them. Three of the four defeated candidates in Clwyd West in 2003 were subsequently elected to the Assembly through the regional list. Those very three people in Clwyd West—in the Secretary of State’s constituency—who were booted out by the electorate ended up as Assembly Members, competing against winning Assembly Member Alun Pugh.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the Welsh electorate’s antipathy to the arrangements. Will he remind us what the Electoral Commission’s view was, following its long consultation on whether or not there was a need to change policy? What advice did it give him as the then Secretary of State for Wales?
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that the Labour party has also had candidates that stand on the list and in constituencies? In 2003, on the North Wales regional list, Sandy Mewies Lesley Griffiths, Carl Sergeant and Karen Sinclair stood both in constituencies and in the region. In South Wales Central, Rhodri Morgan, Lorraine Barnett, Sue Essex, Jane Davidson, Jane Hutt and Leighton Andrews stood in both the region and the constituencies, and in Mid and West Wales, Christine Gwyther stood in both.
Yes, indeed. That is my exact point. I am not making a politically partisan point; I am making a democratic point. The practice clouded political accountability and denied voters their right to reject a particular candidate at the ballot box. A change made by the Government of Wales Act 2006 requiring candidates to choose whether to stand for a constituency or on the regional list put the voters back in charge. It cannot be right for losers to become winners through the back door, despite having been rejected by voters. That is an abuse of democracy.
Surely the rejection is of the party in question. The system is there to get a little bit of equality across the parties. It is not about the individuals.
Is not the point also that Wales is not the only place in the world that has a top-up system to enable diversity within the legislature, but it will be the only place in the world where that practice of standing both on the list and for the first-past-post seat is used?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is entirely wrong. Is it not the case that Wales is the only country in the world where, under this electoral system, dual candidacy is presently banned?
I am not sure about that, but what I can say is that we should look at the experience in Wales. If there is no such bar in other countries, then perhaps there was no such abuse there. There was widespread abuse in Wales, practised by 15 of the 20 list Assembly Members who used taxpayers’ money to open constituency offices in the very seats in which they were defeated. They then used those resources to try to win at the following election by cherry-picking local issues against the constituency AMs who had beaten them.
I will not give way, because I want to make some progress. While all that was going on, someone in Wales said to me:
“If I want to defeat constituency candidates because I don’t like them and I succeed and they are defeated, why should they pop up on the list claiming to represent me?”
That is the point. There is an honourable, constitutional and necessary role to be played by list Assembly Members across the whole region that they represent. There is no justification for seeking to abuse the system by getting involved in local constituency matters to try to win back a seat at the following election using that position and that resource. That is the fundamental point.
Not for a moment, no. The Government of Wales Act 2006 put the voters back in charge. If they did not want to elect somebody, they did not have to do so. The Act stopped the prevailing situation before then in which Assembly candidates could decide to place a “both ways” bet, by standing in both categories in order to win, even if they were kicked out by the electorate. To his shame, the Secretary of State is seeking to reintroduce that both ways bet.
There was an unholy coalition of Conservatives, nationalists and Liberal Democrats opposed to abolishing that abuse. Now they have reincarnated that unholy coalition in defiance of the popular will. Why are they so afraid of taking their choice to the people? Why are they so afraid of losing constituency elections that they need the lifebelt of standing on the lists as well?
It is the case that the Welsh system of electing Members to the Assembly is replicated in many parts of the world, but the only country that has a similar ban is Ukraine. The Bevan Foundation, a Labour party think-tank, is of the view that the ban should be withdrawn.
I have no idea whether the abuse that we have seen in Wales, which I am now documenting for the House, applied in Ukraine as well. Lord Richard chaired the commission—[Interruption.] I will now present a lot of detailed evidence on that abuse for the sake of the hon. Members who are seeking to intervene and the whole of the House. Lord Richard chaired the commission that reported in 2004. He recommended the extra powers for the Assembly, which my 2006 Act delivered. He told the Welsh Affairs Committee:
“There is something wrong in a situation in which five people can stand in Clwyd, none of them can be elected, and then they all get into the Assembly. On the face of it, that does not make sense. I think a lot of people in Wales find that it does not.”
That is not me, a former Secretary of State who banned the abuse, speaking, but Lord Richard who carried through an eminent report.
The eminent Welsh Academic, Dr Denis Balsom—again, not a politically partisan figure—said in his evidence to the Richard commission:
“Candidates use the list as an insurance against failing to win a constituency contest. This dual candidacy can also confuse the electorate, who may wish to consciously reject a particular candidate only to find them elected via the list. It should remain a basic democratic right not to elect a particular candidate or to be able to vote a Member out.”
That is a right that the Government, supported by Conservatives and members of other parties in Wales, are seeking to deny the electorate. That is not democratically defensible.
I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman’s argument, but I do not follow it at all. When we get a ballot paper in a first-past-the-post election, we have to choose a candidate—we have to vote for somebody. There is no option to say I do not like this person and to cast an anti-vote. I do not follow the idea that someone can vote against someone. They are choosing to vote for who they want to represent them in the Assembly or in Parliament. I do not follow the argument.
I do not know what happens in the Forest of Dean, but in every other constituency if a candidate loses, they lose. If the electorate rejects them, if the voters vote against them, they lose. They do not find themselves parachuted back in to the Assembly, from which the voters have barred them, via another route.
It was the right hon. Gentleman and I who sparred across the Dispatch Box on that very subject. I think he has a selective memory when it comes to the Richard commission. As I recall it, Lord Richard not only objected to the list system, but recommended that there should be 80 AMs and that Wales should move to that system and employ the single transferable vote, neither of which the right hon. Gentleman chose to take up. That is almost proof that the direction in which he took it was indeed partisan.
Wait a minute, Madam Deputy Speaker. Far be it from me to question whether the right hon. Lady was in order with that point, but the questions about numbers of Assembly Members and a proportional representation system are not within this Bill. They have nothing to do with this Bill. What is in this Bill is restoring the ban on the abuse of dual candidature which was in the 2006 Act, and it is that point that I am addressing.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a telling comment tucked away in the impact assessment produced by the Government? It says that the smaller parties want to change to a dual candidacy rule because they
“may have a smaller pool of high quality candidates”.
I could not possibly comment, but since the Government say that, perhaps it is true on this occasion.
I have quoted a Labour figure, Lord Richard, in support of my case, so I shall now quote a Liberal Democrat. Lord Carlile, the former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, said in June 2005 that
“many in Wales will welcome...the removal of the absurd dual candidacy opportunity.”
In the same debate in the Lords, the former Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, Lord Crickhowell, said:
“The present arrangements are really pretty indefensible“.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1216-1217.]
A Liberal Democrat, a former Labour Member and a Conservative former Secretary of State all agree with me. I think that that helps my case.
I recall, as Secretary of State for Wales, receiving on 9 January 2006 a press release from Helen Mary Jones, in which she described herself as a Llanelli-based Assembly Member, although she was on the list. In it, she complained about money being spent on a hospital in Carmarthen instead of one in Llanelli. However, as the list Assembly Member for Mid and West Wales, she represented both towns and should really have been supporting both hospitals. Had she been discharging her list Member’s duties properly, she would not have discriminated between the two towns or their hospitals.
Indeed, why did she? Why, of all the parts of the list area that she represented, did she target the one place where she had only been very narrowly defeated in 2003, invariably describing herself as the Llanelli-based Assembly Member? As it happens, I admire Helen Mary Jones for her ability and commitment, although not for her belief in an independent Wales. The 2006 Act stopped her describing herself as the Assembly Member for Llanelli, because there was one and it was not her. In the meantime, she campaigned hard and won the seat back in 2007.
The list Assembly Member for South West Wales, Bethan Jenkins, is often described as the Neath-based Assembly Member and is more active in the Neath constituency than anywhere else in the region. She has not yet had the courage to stand in the Neath constituency, but if the Bill goes through with clause 2 remaining within it, perhaps she will do so, safe in the knowledge that being defeated in Neath will not prevent her from being elected—[Interruption.] I will not respond to that intervention from the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards).
In a leaked memorandum written in August 2003, a Plaid Cymru list Assembly Member—now the party’s engaging young party leader—Leanne Wood, was embarrassingly blatant in encouraging abuse of the system using taxpayers’ money. Let me quote from that memorandum for the benefit of the House and my case. She urged Plaid Cymru Assembly list Members to concentrate tens of thousands of pounds of their local Assembly office budgets in their party’s target seats. She urged her party’s list Members to do casework only where it might benefit Plaid Cymru in those target seats and to attend civic or other events the constituency only if they thought there were votes in it.
I will now quote directly from that memorandum, entitled “What should be the role of a regional AM?” It perfectly illustrates the problem we faced before the 2006 Act banned dual candidature in Wales. Leanne Wood was hardly shy about her objectives:
“Each regional AM has an office budget and a staff budget of some considerable size. Consideration should be given to the location of their office—where would it be best for the region? Are there any target seats…within the region?”
She went on:
“We need to be thinking much more creatively as to how we better use staff budgets for furthering the aims of the party.”
She finished off with a refreshing burst of honesty:
“Regional AMs are in a unique position. They are paid to work full-time in politics and have considerable budgets at their disposal. They need not be constrained by constituency casework and events, and can be more choosy about their engagements, only attending events which further the party’s cause. This can be achieved by following one simple golden rule: On receipt of every invitation, ask ‘How can my attendance at this event further the aims of Plaid Cymru?’ If the answer is ‘very little’ or ‘not at all’, then a pro forma letter of decline should be in order.”
I could not have presented my case better than she revealingly did.
I am absolutely astonished at what I am hearing from my right hon. Friend. Would he, like me, welcome an intervention from the two Plaid Cymru Members present in the Chamber to distance themselves from that startling abuse of taxpayers’ money?
I think I shall move on from that point, despite the great respect I have for my hon. Friend.
All the arguments and evidence I have cited demonstrate conclusively that the ban was not partisan but enhanced democratic standards among Welsh Assembly Members. Indeed, I reminded the House that six Labour Assembly Members, including three Ministers, could have been defeated in the 2007 Assembly elections by a swing of 3% against them—a very small swing. They would no longer enjoy the safety net of the regional list and two subsequently lost. The reform affected Labour candidates, just as it applied to candidates from other parties.
I think I really ought to conclude my remarks.
Surely the principle behind the 2006 Act is right: namely, candidates must make their choices and then voters will make theirs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), also a former Secretary of State for Wales, put it well in a debate on the then Bill in January 2006:
“The additional member system that we have as a result of the 1997 settlement is fundamentally flawed. People do not understand it. They do not understand how an individual can stand in two ways for the same body on the same day in the same election and be defeated, then get elected a matter of an hour or two later. Equally if not more confusing is the fact that, in my constituency and in those of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the south Wales valleys, thousands upon thousands of people vote Labour on their second vote, yet none of those votes is counted. I do not understand the logic of that. I can understand the technicalities, because I taught the subject many years ago when I was a teacher in a college of further education, but as an elector or as an elected representative, I think that it is terribly confusing and ought to be changed.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 63.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis), as the then Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, said in the same debate:
“Electoral reform should not get caught up in internecine party politics...the present system is an unloved and confusing creature that causes more grief than it is worth.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 69-70.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said:
“Following the last Assembly election, many people asked me how candidates who stood at the election and were defeated—and, in many cases, defeated by a country mile—could find themselves sitting in the Assembly, claiming not only to represent constituents but having equal status with the people who defeated them. How would we feel if a third of this Chamber”—
by which he meant this Chamber—
“were made up of candidates that had stood against us”
before appearing on the list
“they would not have come up with such a system even in North Korea”,
although I confess to having come up with it as a Wales Minister in the 1998 legislation. My hon. Friend continued:
“Once getting into the assembly via the back door, these characters spend much of their time cherry-picking issues and targeting seats that they or their party are looking at for future elections.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 96-97.]
Those are some of the reasons why I introduced the bar on dual candidature. It is astonishing that, for narrow partisan party reasons, the Secretary of State is assisting his own party members in Wales and those of other parties who complained about the ban. After the 2006 Act banned dual candidature, the well-known democratic abuses that had occurred before were not repeated. I find it astonishing that the Secretary of State is reinstating a regime that brought democracy in Wales into such popular disrepute. If he persists, I hope the House of Lords will delete clause 2.
I want to pick up on an earlier point relating to the interesting exchange I had with the Secretary of State. I will read the exchange in Hansard carefully. I was not at all convinced by his answer. Indeed, I remain very concerned, on the question of income tax devolution, that Wales will be cut adrift from richer parts of the United Kingdom and lose out. There have been a lot of warm words about indexation, but I do not find the answers we have been given, or the references in the associated financial documents, to be at all compelling or convincing. I respect the Holtham commission and I respect Gerald Holtham. I understand his points on indexation, but I do not trust a Conservative-led Treasury to honour the commitments in the Holtham commission.
I would be more reassured—this is a cross-party point, because we all want to see Wales doing the best it can—if a clear and absolute commitment was embedded in the proposed legislation for Wales to continue to benefit, regardless of income tax devolution, from the wealth of the United Kingdom. My politics come from a belief in fairness, and the redistribution from richer to poorer regions and from richer to poorer individuals. I do not see how tax accountability, which the Secretary of State exalts, can be a two-way bet. I do not see how having devolved income tax and giving, in the main, the Assembly greater accountability to local voters, will then be protected, according to the Secretary of State’s reassurance, by a kind of indexation that undermines that accountability. That makes me even more suspicious of it. I will be extremely sceptical of, if not opposed to, income tax devolution until I am absolutely sure that Wales will not lose out, for the reasons I have described.
I will add one or two extra points. This has been an interesting debate so far, and it has taken me back to the enjoyable debates we had during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which had much the same cast of characters. Indeed, we debated some of the same issues in relation to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011—but I will dwell on the Bill before us.
I am pleased to support the Bill and the process that has led to its introduction. The shadow Secretary of State, who is no longer in his place, criticised the Secretary of State for Wales, for this being only the first, as he described it, Welsh-specific Bill, but I want to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan) and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for taking a very thoughtful approach. They set up the Silk commission and produced a draft Bill. The Select Committee, ably chaired by my constituency neighbour my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), was asked to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny, and the Bill was then brought before the House.
It is important to think these matters through and to get them right. I speak as an English Member representing a constituency on the England-Wales border. The devolution delivered by the previous Government was not very well thought through. I have tried to address the example of cross-border health care in a reasonable way. I am sorry that the shadow Secretary of State is not here, because what he said in response to my question in Wales questions last week was simply not right. All I did was ask a question of the Secretary of State that reflected the fact that thousands of my constituents, who live in England and have the right, under the existing devolution settlement, to be treated according to the rules in England, are currently forced, because their GP in England is registered with the NHS in Wales, to be treated according to NHS Wales rules. That was the only point I raised.
My constituents are concerned when they read about mortality statistics being worse in hospitals in Wales. [Interruption.] I hear someone on the Opposition Front Bench saying that they are smearing Wales. In raising the issue of mortality statistics, I was merely quoting the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who said in this House:
“The second warning sign, said Francis, is the level of mortality statistics. In fact, they appear to be dangerously high in many hospitals in Wales.”—[Official Report, 5 March 2014; Vol. 576, c. 930.]
Those are not my words; they are the words of someone who I would have thought that most Members accept is a very loyal and honourable member of the Labour party. I raise the point because, when considering further devolution to the Welsh Assembly Government, it is sensible for this House to ask itself whether existing devolution has worked well and has been properly thought through.
It’s not in the Bill.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will do everything I can to remain in order. I want to refer briefly to a point made by my hon. Friend, who was criticised by Opposition Members. It related to a letter from the chief medical officer in England to her counterpart in Wales on the powers of devolution in Wales, seeking an investigation. How could that ever be interpreted as an attack on Wales, when it was from one clinician to another?
I agree. All I did at Wales questions last week was raise a perfectly reasonable point on behalf of my constituents. I quoted something that the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley, a valued Opposition Member, had said—it is in Hansard—and then the shadow Secretary of State suggests that I asked something I did not, and pretends that it is all a smear. That is simply not the case; I am a Member of Parliament raising concerns on behalf of my constituents. The previous devolution settlement was not well thought through and I want to ensure that this one is. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for taking a great deal of care with the Bill.
As a proudly Welsh MP, I am very grateful for all the support we can get in drawing attention to the state of the NHS in Wales. What does my hon. Friend think of the proposal to amend the Bill to allow Welsh patients who wish to be treated by the coalition Government-run NHS to cross the border, with the funding taken off the Welsh block grant?
I have not had time to study that proposal in detail, but on the face of it allowing patients anywhere in the United Kingdom to have choice is very sensible. That is not a policy that the Welsh Government prefer. I think they said in a letter they sent to me that they prefer “Patient voice, not choice.” They will not allow people to have choice, but they can have a voice, which will then be ignored as the Welsh Government proceed as they want to anyway.
I will make a little progress before giving way again.
Let me divert a little to address the points on which the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) focused his speech, which relate to clause 2. I did not follow his argument at all. Although he was making a point about the amendment in the Bill, the thrust of his speech seemed to be a criticism of how the list system operates in Wales. He said that it was a system that we could find only in North Korea, but then he rather shot himself in the foot when he had to admit that he was the system’s author. I know that he is a supporter of proportional representation—
Oh, he is not a supporter now; I thought that he was. The system is the one he invented. Given that the Electoral Commission, which is independent of any party, and three of the four parties in the Assembly are perfectly happy with what is proposed in the Bill, I do not think that he can claim that this is being done for partisan reasons.
I was one of the authors, under the Secretary of State at the time, Ron Davies, of the Bill that allowed candidates to stand in both the lists and the constituency, which the Secretary of State is now seeking to reinstate, but I had no idea of the abuse that would take place, for which I think I have provided more than ample evidence. That is the point.
The right hon. Gentleman made two points, one of which I agree is an abuse, from the way he outlined it. Of course, parliamentary resources—I presume the same is true for the Assembly—are given to us by the taxpayer for parliamentary work, not party political campaigning. If that was the thrust of the Plaid Cymru document he quoted, that would have been quite wrong. He suggested that there is something wrong with candidates standing for a constituency and then being elected from a list, but that simply reflects the fact that in a list system, and certainly in the one that was put in place in Wales, it is the party label that gets a candidate elected, not their individual qualities. It seems to me that candidates getting elected by virtue of their place on a list might be a good reason for not having a list system, but it is not particularly offensive or undemocratic.
On voting for or against people, about which the right hon. Gentleman and I had an exchange, perhaps I am naive, but I happen to think that when people vote in a general election they are voting for somebody. I certainly conduct my election campaigns by trying to give people reasons to vote for me at a constituency level and reasons to vote for my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) as Prime Minister, for example, rather than by thinking up lots of reasons why they should not vote for my opponents. I hope that is how my opponent in my constituency will conduct himself as well. That might not be what happens in Wales, but it is how I try to conduct things in my constituency.
I recall that there was some reliance on work done by an organisation called the Bevan Foundation, with which Labour Members will be familiar. Part of the qualitative work it did at the time pointed out that, rather than objecting to candidates standing in a constituency and through the list system, people did not understand the electoral system itself. That was the fundamental problem at the heart of the whole electoral system that was set up for Wales.
I suspect that my right hon. Friend, as ever, is spot on. The right hon. Member for Neath, in his lengthy speech, gave some anecdotes about one or two people who did not like the fact that a candidate who had stood in the constituency was then elected on the list, but I heard no evidence of a wider view.
With all due respect, I represent a Welsh constituency, which is not the case for either the hon. Gentleman or the right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), I was Secretary of State for Wales and I travelled the length and breadth of Wales, and that matter was raised with me all the time. He mentions the Electoral Commission, which often adopts a kind of academic approach to these matters. That contrasts with the findings of Denis Balsom and other sources of credible evidence from Wales.
Based on what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, it sounds as if he has a number of anecdotes, but in my experience the Electoral Commission, with which I worked closely when I was the Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, takes positions based on evidence. It carries out thorough research and is always scrupulous about not taking a position that could be portrayed as partisan, and it guards that reputation jealously. It does not agree with him, as he acknowledges—I have not always agreed with it—but I would put rather more weight on its views than on his.
During the seven years that I was shadow Secretary of State and then Secretary of State, I travelled the length and breadth of Wales, too—usually in much less comfortable conditions—and I talked with many thousands of people right across Wales, including our candidates, and this was not at the top of their list of asks.
As I thought, we have competing anecdotes. I suspect that my right hon. Friend, particularly as she describes the more modest circumstances in which she travelled across Wales, was rather closer to the people, so I put more weight on what she says.
Before that constitutional interlude, I was referring to the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken a lot of care with this Bill. I want to put on the record my appreciation for the Welsh Affairs Committee’s excellent pre-legislative scrutiny report. The Government have obviously taken the trouble to respond to it and, as the Secretary of State said in his written ministerial statement, have accepted most of its recommendations. I think that was an excellent job. Doing pre-legislative scrutiny on a constitutional Bill is very sensible and likely to lead to a more accurate position.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman, who is so keen to praise the Committee’s report, agrees with its statement that
“as a point of principle, we consider it unadvisable for electoral systems to be changed frequently. Successive changes to electoral systems risk being perceived as partisan by the public.”
That is precisely on the point of dual candidacy. In other words, the Committee is saying, “Let’s keep the status quo.” Does he agree with that?
No. I read the Committee’s report very carefully, and it did not say that we should keep the status quo at all; it said what the hon. Lady just read out. All that the Secretary of State’s proposals will do is return the system to the position that existed before the Labour party changed it in the Government of Wales Act 2006. All that we are doing is reversing it and putting it back to the original position. I read the report carefully and I am sure, knowing how Select Committees work—its Chair confirmed that it was quite hard to get agreement—that those words were chosen very carefully, and it absolutely did not say that we should stick with the status quo. My guess is that if someone had suggested that it said that, it would not have received cross-party agreement.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Notwithstanding that point, the hon. Lady’s Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), committed at the Dispatch Box to reversing the provision, if I heard him correctly. Her admonition against frequent change should be aimed at him as much as the Secretary of State.
I knew that the hon. Gentleman would never be able to turn me down. Most countries in Europe have a fixed constitution, which means that they cannot play around with their electoral arrangements. In recent years we have changed the date of the Assembly elections and the local elections, and then we had to change them again because we had already changed the Assembly elections. The voters of this country must surely feel that we play around with the electoral system far too much.
That does not fit my recollection. Let me think about the change of date for the Assembly election. It was carefully thought through. We consulted the leaders of the parties in the Assembly; I recall that I found out the views of the presiding officers before we amended the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.
The hon. Gentleman might not agree with the system, but all the parties in the Welsh Assembly agreed to it. The change was made for what was argued to be a sensible reason—to prevent the two elections from coinciding, so that the important issues facing the people of Wales would be properly debated rather than being overshadowed by other issues facing the people of the whole United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham put the alternative view that the elections should be held on the same day, and the hon. Gentleman has put forward the same view today. However, having separate election dates seems to me perfectly sensible, and that was the view taken by the Government and this Parliament.
The thing is that we never shorten the mandate; we always lengthen it. Now local authorities in Wales will end up having five years—possibly six—and that will be the second time they have had five years during my time as an MP in Wales. The Assembly is also going on to five years. It feels as if the political class is constantly saying, “Let’s give ourselves a little more time.” That undermines the democratic sense of British politics.
I have listened carefully to both the hon. Gentleman’s points and the one made by the shadow Secretary of State. It seems to me that they were both taking the brave point of view—presumably, it was a commitment from the shadow Secretary of State—that if the Labour party were, God forbid, to win the next election, it would amend the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and reduce the fixed term to four years. I am not sure whether the shadow Secretary of State has consulted his party leader about that, although I hope he has, for his sake. That seemed to be a clear commitment from him. If the Labour party wins the election, we will see whether it reduces its time in office. I know that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) says that his party voted for a shorter term when in opposition, but I am pretty confident—I said this at the Dispatch Box, I think—that if his party returns to government, it is highly unlikely that it will vote to shorten its term of office. I might be proved wrong, but I doubt it.
I welcome in general the Bill’s proposals on the devolution of tax powers for the clear reason of accountability. As someone with a constituency on the border, I think it wrong that the Welsh Assembly Government, like the Scottish Government, can spend money on enticing business across the border, but are not accountable for raising the money that they use to do that. Proposals to devolve some of the taxes are sensible; it makes absolute sense for there to be more accountability.
On the issue of capital borrowing, I should say that I am sorry that the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James) is not in the Chamber any more. Let me elaborate a little on my short intervention on her. I looked at the “Wales Bill: Financial Empowerment and Accountability” paper that the Government laid before the House. It is a strange plot, to use the word of the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), that is published and laid before Parliament; I thought plots were conducted in secret, but obviously things have changed.
The paper seems clear: it sets the statutory capital borrowing limit at £500 million. That is linked to the £200 million or so of revenue that is initially being devolved. The limit is higher than if it had been set solely by reference to the same tax borrowing ratio that applies to Scotland. In Scotland, there is a £5 billion responsibility for tax revenues, but only a £2.2 billion capital borrowing limit. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had used the same limit in Wales, there would have been a £100 million capital borrowing limit instead of a £500 million one.
My right hon. Friend has met the challenge to show his workings, which were in the paper presented to the House and available to all Members before this debate. He has clearly set out how the Government reached the £500 million limit. As my hon. Friend the Select Committee Chairman said, the limit was increased to £500 million to allow the Welsh Government to proceed with improvements to the M4, should they choose to, in advance of that element of income tax being devolved. The Government judged that such borrowing was affordable for both the Welsh Government and in relation to the UK’s overall position. That seems a sensible position, which has been transparently laid out in the paper.
I am grateful for that point, which shows that the Government position is joined up across not just the Wales Office but the Treasury. The right hon. Member for Neath showed an astonishing lack of trust in the Treasury led by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, whose excellent recent Budget cut taxes for those on modest incomes. The Labour party voted against those—against the fuel duty cut and the tax cuts for modest earners. I find that surprising.
I defer to the right hon. Gentleman, who has been a spending Minister in a number of Departments. For much of that period, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was Chancellor, so perhaps it is not surprising that he takes that jaundiced view. Having dealt with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, I have a more positive outlook on Treasury Ministers, and I have yet to be proved wrong.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall not draw you into the debate. I am sure that, for the sake of your reputation at the Treasury, you would, if allowed, cast off that foul calumny. If the right hon. Gentleman thought that highly of you when he was a spending Minister, you could not have been doing your job as a Treasury Minister properly. We all know that you absolutely were; otherwise you would not have found your way into that Chair. I will close this aspect of the debate just there, before I find myself cut off against my will.
I have some questions for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, although I do not necessarily want him or the Minister to respond today; perhaps we can touch on the issues when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House in Committee. If the income tax provisions were devolved, how would they work? I looked carefully in the Bill at the definition of an individual Welsh taxpayer; it is to do with their usual place of residence. How complex will operating the system be for businesses, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises? In a constituency such as mine, businesses will have staff resident in both England and Wales. If income tax varying powers were to be used by the Welsh Government, I would want to make sure that the burden placed on employers of English and Welsh residents was not significant and that the system was as easy as possible to operate—preferably with as little burdensome administration as possible. I will return to that issue in Committee, to make sure that it has been properly thought through.
I also want to check on the issue of stamp duty land tax. The shadow Secretary of State touched on it in a slightly facetious way when he discussed properties that straddled the England-Wales border. I want to make a serious point about the quality of the mapping involved. May I make a plea for us not to use postcodes in determining which nation the land is in? It is not the Post Office’s fault, but a lot of organisations are sloppy and do not use postcodes properly. They assume that everybody with an NP postcode lives in Wales, including my constituents in the southern part of my constituency. A lot of my constituents, who live in England, get bilingual letters from all sorts of organisations that assume they live in Wales. I hope that my hon. Friend can assure me that we will use a proper mapping system when looking at stamp duty land tax so that we make the right decisions about whether property is in England or in Wales and do not have the sorts of cross-border issues that I have seen as a result of devolution so far.
I support the proposal to move to fixed-year terms offset against the terms for this place. On balance, it is better to have elections in Wales that focus on the issues important to the people of Wales—and ensure that those running the Welsh Assembly and those wanting to be elected to it are properly held accountable—than elections that take place on the same day as a UK general election, because then the arguments would blur. One can argue it both ways—the hon. Member for Rhondda, who is no longer in his place, did so, as did several others when we were passing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011—but I am pleased with the measure.
I have already said that I am happy with the proposal to reverse the change made by the right hon. Member for Neath, and I will say no more about that. We have had a lot of debate about it already, and I do not want to provoke any more.
I notice that the borrowing powers are already available to be used for the M4 development. That is a helpful proposal. I have been having an ongoing debate with some Labour Members about the Severn bridge tolls that is driven by the desire for improvements on the M4 to improve the economic benefits from that corridor. I have proposed a third Severn crossing, although that is not welcomed by all Labour Members if it means an extension of toll revenues. Some of the borrowing powers could enable improvements to the M4 link, which is very important for the economies not only of south Wales but of constituencies such as mine. The proposal is very welcome.
Overall, I welcome the Bill. I am glad that it has been well thought through as a result of the proposals from the Silk commission and that it had pre-legislative scrutiny in this House. I will certainly support it, and I look forward to debating it further on the Floor of the House.
I will support this Bill, although I have to say that it is very disappointing because it is, I am afraid, a bit of a shoddy compromise. Everyone realises that the Secretary of State for Wales is no enthusiast for devolution—indeed, some people might go further than that—and we know that the Liberal Democrats are quite enthusiastic, so we have a cobbling together of two different opinions, and the Bill suffers as a consequence. Its main proposals, which are modest and relate to the tax-raising capacity of the Welsh Assembly, are very limited. It also has strangely attached to it some new arrangements with regard to the electoral politics of the Welsh Assembly.
Although the first part of the Silk report has been quoted in support of the Bill, there is a great deal of difference between what Silk proposed and what the Government have put before us. For example, Silk states very clearly and boldly that
“for the financial accountability and empowerment of the National Assembly for Wales to be improved sufficiently, it should be responsible for raising a more substantial proportion of its spending.”
That is the core of its proposal. What the Government have given us on income tax-raising powers is a long way from the aspiration articulated by Silk. It is important to recognise, too, that a genuine and fundamental concern has been expressed by many people, including those in the Welsh Assembly, that there is no significant movement on Barnett. This proposal is a real runner only if there is a cast-iron commitment to, and a firm set of proposals on, modifying the Barnett formula as it applies to Wales. Under Barnett, as we all know, Wales is short-changed to the tune of £300 million per year, and that situation will not be addressed by this Bill.
I am interested in the sum of £300 million because it was presumably derived from the Holtham report, which is now some years old. Gerry Holtham also pointed out that as public spending contracts proportionately, the Barnett formula will protect Wales and the £300 million will decrease. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?