Wales Bill - Committee (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 4:15 pm, 7th November 2016

My Lords, I will briefly emphasise a point strongly implied by my noble friend Lord Kinnock but perhaps not yet made fully explicit in this debate, which is that there is an issue here about trust between people and their politicians. As has been noted, the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and others have promised a referendum on this question of income tax-varying powers over many years. Indeed, if I am not mistaken, it was a manifesto pledge by the Conservative Party at the last general election, and we need to look at that question of whether it is acceptable and politically prudent for a Government to slide away from a manifesto commitment that was so very clearly made.

I understand, and in large measure agree with, the point made by my noble friend Lord Morgan about the unsuitability of the referendum as a device for resolving technical and complex political issues. I also accept what has been said about income tax-varying powers being a mark of the maturity of the Welsh Assembly, which may call itself a Welsh Parliament. It is desirable in principle that a parliament should have those powers and be held accountable to the people on whom it would propose to levy income tax. It is perhaps desirable that these powers should be created, but one must also recognise that if the people of Wales are asked in a referendum whether they favour the introduction of powers that they would anticipate will be used to raise income tax, they might well say no. Taxable capacity in Wales is decidedly limited, and people on the whole do not vote for higher taxes. But none the less, if they have been offered the opportunity to make that choice for themselves, it may well be rash and improper to take that choice away from them.

The alternative will be that this legislature will impose on Wales an income tax-varying power for the Welsh Assembly. It has been assumed in this debate that that power to raise income tax would be most unlikely to be used in the foreseeable future. But I do not entirely share that confidence, because we have no long-term fiscal framework and no settlement. The Barnett formula has not been reformed, and I agree with those who have said that to wait to move on this until that formula is fully and satisfactorily reformed is to wait for ever. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that, after 2020, we could see a future Government of the UK reducing the block grant for Wales—indeed, if the Government have their way in this Bill, we will see borrowing powers for Wales very severely curtailed—and in those circumstances Wales would need to increase the proceeds of income tax and to use those powers.

We should come clean to the people of Wales. They should be offered a package. They need to know what the future fiscal framework will be. We need to see the reform of Barnett, and to see the structures of funding and transfer payments across the UK clarified and in place. We need to know what the scope for borrowing will be, taking into account the possibility that interest rates will be higher and that it may not be at all easy to service that borrowing. In that context, the people of Wales should be allowed to take the decision about whether or not they wish to be made subject to an income tax-varying power exercised by their own legislature within Wales.