Wales Bill - Committee (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Murphy of Torfaen Lord Murphy of Torfaen Labour 3:30 pm, 7th November 2016

My Lords, I beg to move that Clause 17 does not stand part of the Bill and in so doing apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord Hain, who is unable to be with us today. I am glad to say that my noble friend Lord Kinnock, who has also signed this Motion, is with us this afternoon.

It is just over 20 years ago now that the people of Wales voted in the referendum to establish a Welsh Assembly. It is just over 20 years ago that the people of Scotland voted to establish a Scottish Parliament. It was at that point, two decades ago, that the people of both countries were asked about the nature of the devolution that they wanted. In Wales, income tax was not an issue. In 1997, when the people of Wales voted, as they did, narrowly for an Assembly, it was not to have a system of income tax. On the other hand, the people of Scotland voted in favour not just of a Scottish Parliament but also of powers to vary income tax in that country, even though they have never done that.

The purpose of this probing amendment—and it is a big probe—is to find out why the Government have changed their mind since the previous Wales Bill. That Bill, just a couple of years ago, said that if income tax powers were to be introduced in Wales then the people of Wales would be asked their views. I suppose in a way, we have had a lot of referenda of late, which have caused all sorts of difficulties and problems. Nevertheless, the principle of asking the people of Wales whether they want income tax powers for Wales is no different from what was asked in 1997 of the people of Scotland. Now, however, we have a proposal in this Bill to abolish that question. The people of Wales will not in fact be asked to decide whether they want income tax powers for their Assembly or whether they want the Assembly itself to agree to the principle of income tax raising powers for the Welsh Government and Assembly. I want to find out from the Minister why this change took place and, indeed, what mandate there is for this change to occur.

The second reason why this issue is important is that there is a good, sound economic and financial reason why the people of Wales should not be burdened by an extra income tax. I understand the issues of accountability, and that was the main principle that the Government and others have argued: that there should be this income tax provision. However, given the Minister’s vast experience in this area, I am sure he will understand that Wales is not a wealthy country by comparison with England. Probably thousands more wealthy people live in the county of Surrey than in the whole of Wales. Therefore, the resource base in Wales for income tax is very low indeed, but the burden upon the people would be high were an income tax to be raised in Wales alone.

My noble friend Lord Hain is keen to expostulate that, if income tax is levied at a United Kingdom level, it is properly and fairly distributed among the less wealthy parts of our country. Therefore, Wales benefits from that fair distribution because we are not as wealthy as the south-east of England. That is an important issue to consider when we look at whether income tax should be devolved. Also, if income tax were to be raised in Wales—whatever the levy, be it 2p or 3p in the pound—if all that did was plug a gap because the block grant had been reduced, that, too, would be pointless. If income tax is to be raised, it should be extra and above the block grant allocation—the Barnett formula, flawed as it is—as my noble friend Lord Rowlands indicated.

The third and final reason why the Government should say why this change has been introduced is that they are in the middle of negotiations with the Welsh Government on a fiscal framework for Wales. That is a vital discussion and an important negotiation. If income tax is to be partly devolved to Wales, the onus lies on the Government to ensure that the fiscal framework is so devised that that inequality between Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom is recognised and any block grant or Barnett formula ensures that Wales has a fair deal. For those reasons, I ask the Government to rethink this measure and I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s reply.