Wales Bill - Committee (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 3:45 pm, 7th November 2016

My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to speak on Clause 17, which the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, opposes. On many matters concerning devolution, the noble Lord, Lord Hain, were he here, would accept that we are usually in agreement. I was a great admirer of the way that he succeeded in getting the 2006 Act on to the statute book, notwithstanding its shortcomings.

Tomorrow is election day in the USA. “No taxation without representation” was the phrase coined in 18th-century colonial America. Today, in 21st-century Wales, we have representation but we do not have powers over taxation. We need both.

As the noble Baroness said a moment ago, the devolution of fiscal powers to Wales establishes an intrinsic democratic link between citizens and the policymakers they elect. Devolving income tax means that we can create better Welsh solutions to the challenges faced by Wales, in both the economy and the delivery of public services.

Although I understand the background to the wishes of the noble Lord, Lord Hain, described by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, for a referendum on income tax powers, I suspect that another referendum is not really what either of them dreams about at night. Indeed, if they do, they probably have nightmares about the use of this ostensibly democratic tool of government. They both know, as I do, how easily a referendum can transpose itself into a verdict on anything but the issue on the ballot paper. It should be used for only the most clear-cut matters, which the electorate clearly understand and know what the consequences would be. It may be fine for deciding locally whether pubs open or close on a Sunday but it is not an appropriate tool for deciding on taxation policy.

From what the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, said, I think he agrees with me on the need for the Assembly to have some tax-varying powers at the appropriate time for reasons that are becoming increasingly apparent. One of the major challenges for the Welsh Government now is to trigger a substantial capital expenditure programme to develop our industrial infrastructure. Plaid Cymru has called for a national infrastructure commission for Wales, which would enable the Welsh Government to borrow up to £7.5 billion over a 10-year period, and we need a tax-raising facility to fund such a programme. It does not have to be income tax—it could be other taxes, which we will discuss later—but income tax should be available for the Welsh Government, in their wisdom, to decide whether or not to use it.

It has been estimated that the servicing cost of that £7.5 billion would amount to £165 million a year, and it is unrealistic to believe that such a sum could be funded from the minor taxes alone. This is why the devolution of income tax is essential. We cannot call for an expenditure programme without accepting the need to fund it. The two go hand in hand and are essential to build a new forward-looking economy for Wales.

Income tax devolution will be the dawn of a new era of accountability for the National Assembly, reflecting the need for a mature public policy to balance the requirement for resources with the practicality of raising them. It is all too easy—and politically far too facile—for politicians of any party to call for greater spending on this or that element of public services without saying how the money is to be raised. It is equally irresponsible for politicians on the right to call for lower taxes without explaining which public services would lose funding. The acceptance of both as obverse sides of the same coin is a reflection of political maturity. Giving tax-varying powers to the Assembly represents another step to it becoming a genuine home of Welsh democracy. For that reason, I support Clause 17 remaining part of the Bill.