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Tuesday, 22 May, 2001, 08:02 GMT 09:02 UK
Wales's politicians quizzed

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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BBC News Online talked to representatives of the four main parties in Wales on your behalf.

They answered questions on a variety of key issues including the Welsh Assembly, pensions and the economy.

Alun Michael from the Labour Party, Helen Mary Jones of Plaid Cymru, Nigel Evans of the Conservatives and Richard Livesey of the Liberal Democrats took part.

A transcript of the forum appears below.

News Online Host

Owen from Cardiff asks about the Conservatives' economic platform. The Welsh Tories' manifesto, he says, is a jump on a bandwagon campaign. It features no permanent pledges to the prosperity of Wales. Wales is a national failing economically. What will the Tories do to support the steelworks?

Nigel Evans

Well, that's amazing really for him to say that. What we won't do is press the re-wind button which the other two parties on my left would do because it's easy for them. They know that neither of them will be in control after the general election so they won't have to pay for any of the promises contained in their manifesto. It's either going to be a Labour or Conservative government and they, therefore, have to make responsible promises in their manifestos because they will have to deliver as much as they possibly can on that or be judged to be failing on that. So that's why we're more responsible.

News Online Host

So that's why you're doing much the same as Labour?

Nigel Evans

No, what we're doing is we're being responsible in as much as that after June 7th William Hague could be Prime Minister and we'll have to bring forward the proposals that we've promised in our manifesto. And on things such as business, for instance, we believe that over the past four years businesses in Wales as in the rest of the United Kingdom have faced over-regulation, more bureaucracy, they have to comply with more directives and that's cost, it's been independently costed at well over 5 billion on industry for them to do that.

News Online Host

What that sort of message is that going to send to the steelworkers losing their jobs?

Nigel Evans

Well, the climate change levy, for instance, was a new tax that was imposed upon industries such as Corus and it was going to be, I think it was estimated at somewhere in the region of 9 million a year for them. And that's a hefty bill for them to pay, at a time when of course there is an over-supply of steel throughout the whole of Europe. And therefore one of the things that we have pledged is as soon as we take control of the government we will abolish the climate change levy which will be a great boost to the manufacturing industry.

News Online Host

Is that going to save those jobs?

Nigel Evans

Well, we've seen 350,000 jobs lost over the past four years, Phil. Well, I'm sorry, 9 million is one heck of an investment. And at the same time they made a lot of representation about the business rates as well and it seems as if it's fallen on deaf ears until finally Corus says that these jobs are going to go, and then people start scrambling around.

Alun Michael

No, I mean that's not true. I had discussions with Corus when I was first secretary of the assembly and one of the issues that came up with them was that there was a difference between taxing high energy users directly or looking how efficient they are. Because high energy users are bound to use high energy, but if they use it efficiently that should be rewarded. And in fact there were changes in the system brought in by Gordon Brown which people like Corus in their early days were giving credit to, because he recognised that question of efficiency. If we want to avoid the climate change that is going to be disastrous right across the world then one has to penalise unnecessary high use of energy. It's a question of getting that tax right.

News Online Host

I do want to broaden this out, though, I mean how much in Wales, how much of a badge of success is the fact that 3,000 steelworkers are facing the dole queue? How much of a badge of success is that for Labour?

Alun Michael

Well, I think that it's certainly not a sign of success for the Corus management. And can I make the contrast between Corus management, which refused to sit down with government representatives or assembly representatives to talk about the problem, and Ford's, which when there was a threat to Ford's Bridgend, worked with myself and the trade unions. I mean I actually went to Detroit and talked to Ford's top management.

News Online Host

As I understand it Corus would talk to you, but you just wouldn't do anything about it.

Alun Michael

No, no, it wasn't true. They were not willing to sit down and talk.

Richard Livsey

If we'd gone into the Euro I doubt whether we would even be discussing this now.

News Online Host

Surely it is a fact that the Welsh assembly has not been a great success and isn't that largely due to the fact that it can't do much?

Alun Michael

Well, that's not true. And in any event the powers of the assembly have been increased in the couple of years that it's been there. If you look at the legislation on the children's commissioner, that's a success for the assembly, because the detailed work on what the children's commissioner should do was done within the committee structure of the assembly. The leading figures, myself originally, and Rhodri subsequently, persuaded colleagues at Westminster to provide legislation last year and again this year because this was seen as a priority by the assembly.

News Online Host

It's nibbling at the edges though, isn't it? Why not primary legislation?

Alun Michael

You're talking about the interests of Plaid Cymri and the chattering classes. Which is the structure of democracy rather than using the powers that exist. The first job for the assembly is to make a success of the powers that it has and everybody said that it would take time for that to be seen as a success.

News Online Host

When that success has been arrived at and you are sure of it, then you're going to go for more powers?

Alun Michael

Well, I think that there may be a process of additional powers coming to the assembly but if you concentrate on a debate about the powers of the assembly you obscure the issues of how to make the assembly effective.

News Online Host

So you don't really know what the powers are yet, but ultimately there will be more?

Alun Michael

It has important powers over health, education and the economy. Three of the most important things to ordinary people in the street. The first question is how successful can the assembly be in improving health, education, jobs? And there are successes, actually. That is obscured sometimes by the nature of the debate, but there are successes and I believe that will grow.

News Online Host

Helen Mary Jones, I will come to you I promise. Richard Livsey, also a radical federalist, you use the 'f' word unashamedly. The fact is people in Wales only just voted for this version of devolution, didn't they and they don't want more than this.

Richard Livsey

Yes, well people in Wales are already looking at Scotland and what Scotland can do. Scotland can abolish tuition fees, Scotland can get care for the elderly. We can't. And I think even with the children's commissioners bill, the children's commissioner can't actually have any influence over the Home Office, for example. Young people between 16 and 18, over 150 of them just across the Bristol Channel there in Bristol, they cannot even be inspected by the children's commissioner because Wales doesn't have the powers in fact over that particular area. Now that's a scandal in my view and it's there because the Welsh assembly doesn't have primary legislative powers and it's quite clear it must have them the same as Scotland.

News Online Host

Helen Mary Jones, the independence issue, I'll just repeat Gareth Hopkins, independence - a dead option now for Wales?

Helen Mary Jones

Well given that independence isn't what we've ever wanted, then I'm glad to incline to agree with him. What we want is for Wales to play a much more equal part in the European Union. And if you look at the fate of other small nations in the European Union and Ireland is the one that we use, its capacity to use that partnership and its own ability to govern so that it could vary its taxes so that it could run its economy in that way within that partnership, and look at how well that that's done. I actually think that the level to which we have devolution now is far from it making the constitutional question a dead one, it makes the constitutional question even more relevant.

News Online Host

I've been speaking to some of your members and they'll say we're on a journey somewhere, it depends where that journey takes us and, you know, what station are we going to arrive at?

Helen Mary Jones

I think the first station that we have to get to and before we're properly on the tracks, if you want to use the train analogy, we have to get equal powers with Scotland.

News Online Host

This is after or before you've nationalised Railtrack?

Helen Mary Jones

Well preferably after so that the trains will arrive on time. But the powers of the assembly are relevant because in so many of the areas like health and education that really do matter, the example you made about tuition fees, the assembly doesn't have the power to deliver. It doesn't have the power to deliver long-term care for the elderly. So those powers are, in terms of policy delivery, they are important. So that's the first stop on the journey.

Alun Michael

So we just have to imitate Scotland then?

Helen Mary Jones

No, we have to look and see what works.

Alun Michael

Do you believe in a Welsh solution or simply imitating Scotland?

Helen Mary Jones

I believe in a solution that works for the people of Wales, Alun. I think that if you were still in the national assembly you would know that the national assembly is consistently not delivering. Partly because it doesn't have the powers to do so.

Alun Michael

Plaid Cymri is not trying to make the assembly work. Plaid Cymri is trying to pull the assembly down all the time. The negative attitude of Plaid Cymri towards making the assembly work is a real problem.

Helen Mary Jones

You know how hard we worked in the first few months to prop up your crumbling administration. Let me finish. Because I haven't had a chance to actually respond. What happens next after parity with Scotland will then depend on how well that delivers. Our aspiration is clear, which is for full national status within the European Union. The journey is how we get there. And of course we're not going to get there unless devolution is deemed to work.

News Online Host

Richard Livsey, another radical federalist, you want to go for extra powers and if anything you don't really want a referendum on it. Possibly on tax-bearing powers, but generally you might not hold a referendum at all.

Richard Livsey

No. I think that you vote for a political party that sets out its programme in the general election and you know perfectly well what that party stands for. In fact in our manifesto, we do advocate a referendum over tax-bearing powers where people clearly ought to be able to decide that particular issue, but on certainly primary legislative powers it is painfully obvious that we need them. Let's get on with it.

News Online Host

We've got an e-mail question I think from Iqbal Malik of Swansea, Helen Mary you refuse to cost your party's policy programme, why should anyone take you seriously if you don't? And if the people of Wales could vote for self-government tomorrow, would you urge them to and how much do you think it would cost?

Helen Mary Jones

Well, I can talk about the cost of our programme for this general election and what's actually in our manifesto. We've costed it very carefully. We know exactly what we want. We want 2 billion to cut corporation tax in objective one areas, not just in Wales but across the UK. We want another 1.5 billion to cut the national insurance in those objective one areas. We also want 800 million to abolish tuition fees and to move towards re-introduction of student grants. Again this is across the UK. And that would be funded by an increase in taxation for those earning over 50,000 a year.

News Online Host

I've had a look at these figures, I think it's a huge black hole of 3 billion. Because if you've got pensions and earnings linked, you've got all sorts of disability allowances to come in as well, there's a huge black hole.

Helen Mary Jones

It depends on what you are talking about in terms of costings. The costings that I was talking about were about the costings of what we think should be done by the next administration, whoever they are, in Westminster. Now of course there is a huge difference between the needs of Wales now and what Wales can afford. That is partly because the economy of Wales has been consistently run down under the two parties on my right and will continue to be. We believe that by using these fiscal measures and by using objective one properly you can actually increase the prosperity of Wales and then you don't have so many people on the dole, you don't have so many disabled people not in employment. There are also huge issues like the amount of money that's spent on defence, over three-quarters of which is spent in the south and east of England.

News Online Host

A question from Mike Manning for all of you, so I'll come to you on this one, Nigel, isn't it time that the Barnet formula was scrapped? Now this is a formula whereby we in Wales get our public, our money, or block grant from Westminster. very much.

Nigel Evans

We've got no plans to change the Barnet formula whatsoever. The fact is that Wales is now a receiving Objective one state, and it's something that we ought not to be proud about.

News Online Host

Objective one I should just explain is the European funding for parts of west Wales.

Nigel Evans

The poorest parts. And so Wales has some of the poorest parts of the European Union. I heard what that well known bruiser of a politician, John Prescott, had to say recently about the Barnet formula, which was that there would be blood on the carpet, within the form of the Barnet formula. What that means of course is money is going to be clawed back from Wales and Scotland as a sweetener for devolution to the English regions. And it will be a bitter pill, I tell you, for Wales if that happens.

News Online Host

We're coming to that. Labour's view, Barnet formula.

Nigel Evans

Look can we be clear about what the Barnet formula does. What the Barnet formula does is to give a percentage of expenditure to Wales and Scotland compared to England or the United Kingdom as a whole. And to make sure therefore that we don't lose out year on year. The problem with it is that Wales is low in terms of its GDP, Scotland is high. Now if you could guarantee that you could leap from the Barnet formula to a needs-based formula that was fair to every region of England as well as to Wales and Scotland, I don't think Wales would lose out. But unless you had that guarantee, I think you've got to be very careful. You've got to be certain where you're going. It's not enough to say scrap it because that would be disastrous for Wales.

Richard Livsey

Well there has to be a needs-based formula. Afterall, if you look at the figures of the regions of England, for example, the north east of England's GDP is not dissimilar to ours in Wales. But what has happened over the last 20 years or so is that Wales' GDP has gone down by about 12% and Scotland's has gone to within one per cent of the average. Now this is a very serious matter. And it has to be put right. So a needs based formula is something that we advocate.

Helen Mary Jones

Can I just make the point of course that Nigel's colleagues in the national assembly don't agree with him and that they frequently voted for a reassessment of the Barnet formula.

News Online Host

Well there are tensions within the constitutional framework as well which we will be coming to. Can I just turn to the issue of welfare. Glyn Jones in Swansea, is a pensioner who has worked all his life and paid stamps and taxes says, I do not want hand-outs and concessions, I want a liveable pension to be able to pay my way for the necessities of life as a normal citizen. Alun Michael why don't you restore the link between pensions and earnings?

Alun Michael

We've actually given more to pensions in the last year than would have been given by restoring that connection.

News Online Host

That's the embarrassment, after the 75p a week.

Alun Michael

I've talked to a lot of pensioners including my mother who is nearly 90, and she said when that headline was around, come and sit down here, I want to understand this. Why are they saying 75p, it's much more than that? Now the point is that since then you've seen the spending review outcome putting much more money into the pockets of the pensioners as we promised. And the deal for pensioners is actually now a very good one, the threat is if there was a cut in public expenditure, which there is a danger of if there were a different government, which would actually take away a lot of the support that there has been for pensioners.

News Online Host

There's no question of you ever restoring the link between pensions and earnings?

Alun Michael

The question is how you do that sustain the link so that it's not just for a couple of years.

Richard Livsey

I'm a pensioner myself though I haven't taken it yet. The situation as far as pensions are concerned is very serious. I paid 44 years' of national insurance stamps in my time. I agree very much with the gentleman from Swansea. After all, I belonged to the party when Lloyd George actually introduced the old age pension in the first place and it has been eroded. In many European countries it is at least the equivalent of half the average earnings. I am personally in favour of the earnings link, it's not in my party's manifesto, but I am in favour of it.

Helen Mary Jones

It's clear that New Labour doesn't believe in redistributing wealth. I get people every week, people who can barely walk, ex-colliers who can barely breathe who were having their disability benefits in inverted commas reviewed. The way that those benefits being reduced is just outrageous and that is one of the things that New Labour should have dealt with long ago.

News Online Host

Come back on that very, very quickly, Alun.

Alun Michael

Very simply, dealing with cases day by day I think that we are able to get help for people far more quickly, more positively than was the case before the last election.

News Online Host

We're going to move on the economy. But Nigel Evans, your party of course, was the first to scrap that link between pension and earnings.

Nigel Evans

Yes, I was interested in what Richard had to say because basically he said personally this is what I believe but my party's not promising it. Well, they've made fence sitting into an art form, the Liberal Democrats, and I think we've heard a bit about that today. The pensioners were insulted by the 75p and I think we do need more honesty in this. I will agree with Alun when he talks about sustainability.

Alun Michael

The average pensioner is 11 a week better off, the poorest pensioners 15 a week better off than they were before recent changes.

News Online Host

We've got a lot of questions on the economy. Perhaps I could ask Nigel Evans, what are you going to do about the Welsh average wage being so low?

Nigel Evans

Well we've got to make sure that there is a vibrant, competitive economy and I spoke earlier on about ensuring that the rules and regulations that are there, the sensible ones are retained but for a lot of businesses, a lot of them are small businesses, we have to look very carefully at exempting them from some of the rules and regulations that some of the larger businesses are able to cope with.

News Online Host

But it is a Conservative policy and when you were in power in Westminster, that's exactly when wages fell so far behind.

Nigel Evans

Oh, no, as far as the standard of living was concerned we saw some very real increases there and indeed a lot of the changes that came about within, if you like, if you remember what it was like, and I hate to hark back to 1979, but I suspect that we have to. If you remember what Britain was like then and the changes that took place to trade union reform at that time were absolutely necessary. And so we've seen a sea-change and at least a step forward as far as industry is concerned.

News Online Host

Here is a question from Phil Wade in Blackpool, when do the Tories plan to cut the taxes by, oh, what is it, 8 billion, 20 billion? What sort of effect is that going to have?

Nigel Evans

I don't know as far as Phil is concerned. My constituency is only 20 miles away from where Phil is, but then there's obviously something in the air as it hits Phil before it gets anywhere near to the Ribble Valley because we've seen with the 45 stealth taxes, and I assume Phil, if he buys anything, is paying them, if he fills his car up, it was 59p a litre when we left office, it's now 79p a litre, and therefore the 45 stealth taxes are the equivalent to something like 10p on the standard or the basic rate of tax. So Phil has got it completely wrong and he does sound as if his question is completely loaded towards the Labour Party.

News Online Host

Thank you all very much.

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