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Public Responsibility For Social Justice

Part of Orders of the Day — Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 5:48 pm on 10th March 1997.

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Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Opposition Whip (Commons) 5:48 pm, 10th March 1997

That is the next worry, and local government seems to be going from one crisis to the next. It grieves me that we have ended up in this situation in important services that need to be planned well in advance.

The Conservative Government and the Labour party have fully signed up to the "lock 'em up" brigade. I served on the Committee discussing the Crime (Sentences) Bill, and I found it astonishing that it appeared to be a right-wing beauty contest between the two parties. There was no question of investigating why youngsters offended—it was simply a case of lock 'em up. That is the easy way out, as it takes no skill and no care, and it appears to be the only answer available to the larger parties.

I am intensely worried that the core services so valued by our constituents will be subject to cuts. Schools are in crisis, homes for the elderly are closing, and spending on social services will be cut. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) fits in neatly there. Once again, the weak and defenceless in society will bear the brunt of the cuts. Those who benefit from special needs and the community care budget—including the elderly and the infirm—will bear the brunt of savage cuts.

We are taking a huge retrograde step, and attacking the very values that we hold dear. I find that deeply unacceptable. Do the Government or the Labour party have any values left? They seem content to cut income tax and preside over cuts in the services for the vulnerable. What kind of values are those?

As long as the bulk of local government finance comes from central Government, the former will for ever be at the mercy of the latter. I want greater local financial autonomy—probably in the form of a local income tax. Tension between local authorities and central Government will continue to increase; local authorities are daily criticised for having to cut services but they are not really responsible for the cuts they are forced to make.

Often before in the House I have referred to the common-sense idea that, if we want someone to act responsibly we must give him responsibility. That may be a truism, but it is a useful maxim. Local government should have far more direct responsibility and financial responsibility. Our system of paying for local government is antiquated, and needs a complete overhaul. The standard spending assessment approach is deficient in many ways. It is unfair to rural areas, because it does not sufficiently recognise the added cost of providing essential services for rural communities with sparse populations. Certainly, lip service is paid to those indices, but the system remains unfair, and it is not adequate to meet the needs of local government.

The nursery voucher scheme is another gimmick that owes more to politics than education. It will undermine and damage Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin, the Welsh language playgroup organisation, a much valued body, which has been built up on good values and a great deal of excellent voluntary work. I should hate to see that excellent provision damaged for no other reason than the exercise of Tory dogma and a vain attempt by the Tories to come up with a so-called big idea.

It would not be overstating the problem to say that local government is in crisis this year. The immediate future is extremely worrying, and there will be widespread distress and anxiety. What compounds this desperate situation is the fact that both the Conservatives and the Labour party believe firmly in a tax-cutting agenda. The shadow Chancellor has said that he will abide by the spending plans for the next two years—so no change there.

What on earth, therefore, is the point of voting for Labour? If people want to vote for a reactionary, regressive, ambitious party which has lost touch with the common people, they now have a choice between the Tories and the Blair Tories. Each party is as devoid of values as the other. Neither is listening; both are scrambling to be the most right wing when it comes to social and penal policy. In short, they are virtually indistinguishable.

The hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) mentioned increased wages. It is, however, a great shame that the link between wages and pensions has not been retained. Had it been, pensioners would at a stroke have been far better off today—even on the evidence of the hon. Gentleman's speech.

I have been delighted to note the emphasis in this debate on the needs of the vulnerable, but no one speaks for the pensioners any more. They form a large section of society, who gave their all to secure our futures. We owe them a large debt, which we ought to set about paying honourably. They deserve better; Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party will ensure that this most important issue is given due political priority. I respectfully remind the House that it was the Conservatives who, by decoupling pensions from earnings, created this problem and made our senior citizens lag behind. Surely a society that espoused proper values would address that unfairness as a matter of urgency.

The Government are content to spend £940 million a year on part of the defence programme, but they deem improving the lot of tens of thousands of pensioners prohibitively expensive. That is plain immoral.

The Labour party, in its craving for power, has jettisoned all the values it once had. I sincerely hope that the people of Wales and Scotland will realise that they are mere pawns in a power game. The other evening I listened to the leader of Glasgow city council complaining bitterly that she was getting no change from her Labour colleagues in Parliament—the crisis facing Glasgow, she said, was falling on deaf ears. And that is happening even before the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) reaches No. 11.

I have always thought that the Opposition were meant to oppose, not to go along with everything regardless of its merit. The truth, however, is dawning on the electorate. The people of Wales and Scotland are beginning to realise that they are being sacrificed on the altar of Labour's search for power—which is the all-consuming passion surrounding Blair and the Labour party. But come the election, the people of Wales and Scotland, I believe, will say that Labour has taken them for granted once too often. They will, I hope, realise that all core values have been abandoned in the race for middle England and the affluent south-east.

What is more, as the dreadful local service cuts begin to bite throughout Wales and Scotland, the people of Wales and Scotland will realise that the Labour party has no core values any more, and no regard for the interests or well-being of ordinary folk. In Wales, only one party opposes these cuts; just as the SNP opposes them in Scotland. Labour will not intervene, for fear of not reaching those ministerial limousines.

Both Labour and the Tories agreed to cut income tax last year and this year. Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats did not agree. At least we can stand on our record, and say that we were prepared to stand up for ordinary people. Tax cuts are fine, but tax cuts for the sake of cuts are immoral at a time when services are being cut and people are struggling to make ends meet.

If values are to be upheld, if the voices of ordinary men and women are to be heard. and if vital local services are to be protected, the choice for the people of Wales is clear. A vote for Plaid Cymru is a vote for the future of Wales—and not just for one part of it, but for the well-being of everyone in Wales.