HC Deb 29 January 1986 vol 90 cc964-75 4.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Nicholas Edwards)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

The Government's proposals for a fundamental reform of the way in which we pay for local government were presented to Parliament yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. While the Government's objectives and the principles underlying the proposals for reform apply to the whole of Great Britain, the structure of the reforms has been tailored to the particular circumstances of each country. The major differences between the proposed package of reforms for Wales and those for England are as follows. The relatively low level of domestic rates in Wales, and the fairly small variation between authorities, will allow rates to be eliminated earlier in Wales than in England. It should take only six years; and in half of Wales they are likely to be phased out within three years.

The smaller range of domestic rates in Wales also allows us to consider two options for the transition to the community charge. The first—a common percentage reduction in rates — is the same as in England. The second involves using the community charge to cut rates by a standard cash sum within each district area. We are seeking views on these two options. The relatively compact range of non-domestic rate poundages might make it possible to move to a uniform non-domestic rate in Wales in only three years.

The smaller variation in average non-domestic rateable values in Wales also offers the prospect of allowing Welsh local authorities the freedom to "top up" the yield of the uniform business rate by—at some stage—10 per cent. in Wales, rather than the 5 per cent. flexibility proposed for England.

On the capital expenditure front, the Green Paper suggests that the control regime need not be exactly the same as that in England. My preference—at present—is for authorities to continue to have direct access to their capital receipts, within a thoroughly overhauled control system.

Chapter 9 of the Green Paper sets out these proposals in more detail. A Welsh language version of the chapter is available from my Department on request. The need for councils to be made fully accountable for their decisions has been dramatically highlighted by the succession of reckless rate increases proposed by county councils in the last week or so. The Government's proposals would significantly reduce the risk of such irresponsible action. They would ensure that authorities would need to go to their entire electorates to find the extra cash, not just to the minority who now pay domestic rates. Furthermore, industry and commerce would be secure in the knowledge that they could not be used as a milch cow for excessive spending.

The Government hope that the Green Paper will be carefully considered and commented on not only by the major interests and representative bodies in Wales but also by individual taxpayers and ratepayers—those whose contributions actually pay for local services. The consultation process provides a unique opportunity for all those who feel aggrieved at the present unacceptable situation to make their views known in writing to my Department. I urge them to do so.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Is it not spiteful of the right hon. Gentleman to denigrate the Welsh county councils? They are under-funded and they must tackle the serious consequences of the Government's economic policies. Has he forgotten that, for example, Clwyd county authority is £1.8 million short, largely because of his actions?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the Green Paper summary and for the Welsh language version. I agree with his decision to make a statement to the House. It was inappropriate for him to be mute yesterday on the coat tails of the Secretary of State for the Environment, particularly since the proposed scheme is his brainchild.

The right hon. Gentleman has boasted that local authorities in Wales are in real terms operating financially at 1979 levels. Why then does he propose this bureaucratic scheme? Is he aware that, if the scheme is introduced in Wales, domestic tax bills will more than double in the Rhondda while there will be a 40 per cent. reduction in Cardiff? Does he realise that that is precisely what the Government wished to guard against in the Green Paper? The valley communities of Mid Glamorgan, Gwent and West Glamorgan will be most seriously affected. Do they not face large reductions in the business rate and large rises in the domestic rate? Will we not have the anomaly of people in the Rhondda paying a higher domestic tax bill than people in Cardiff?

Do not the proposals mean that an additional 1.4 million Welsh people will pay for council services, that homes with three or more people will have to pay more and that every adult will be eligible to pay the poll tax? Will not a new class of local taxpayer emerge—those aged 18 to 24? is it not the case that households with young adults living at home will be targeted for what is in effect a poll tax? I remind the right hon. Gentleman that Wales is a land of university colleges and higher education establishments. Can he tell us of any plans to make students liable to a poll tax? If students are exempt, what will he say to the young adult unemployed who must pay?

Does not the right hon. Gentleman see the need to come clean about the difficulties of collecting what he calls the community charge? Has he overlooked the massive practical problems? Is he not proposing a new criminal offence for the Welsh—the refusal or neglect of the head of a household to register his unemployed teenage sons or daughters? There is a hint of Big Brother in the proposals. The right hon. Gentleman should tell us how the register will be monitored. Will it not invite evasion?

On commercial rates, I am concerned that Wales, with a massive unemployment total, may be adversely affected by the proposals. What guarantees can the right hon. Gentleman give that changes in commercial rating will not increase unemployment? I fear in time the large-scale loss of jobs at several levels within the local government sector in Wales if the scheme goes ahead. Can the right hon. Gentleman give a guarantee that Wales will not be used as a test bed for the scheme ahead of its introduction elsewhere?

With regard to his own role, the right hon. Gentleman must be ashamed of himself because he is proposing a face saver for his Prime Minister and injustice for the people of Wales. The proposal is unacceptable and I do not think it will work. The economy is now too fragile to bear the strain he will put on it.

Mr. Edwards

The hon. Gentleman started by suggesting that local government is under-funded. In Wales, central Government grants provide for 67 per cent. of the cost of local government and commercial ratepayers contribute 56 per cent. of the rate burden. Indeed, in 1986–87, central Government will provide the equivalent of about £500 per adult in Wales.

The hon. Gentleman said that it was inappropriate for me not to make a statement yesterday. I have doubts about the value of three statements being made on a Green Paper that covers the whole of the United Kingdom when, as you observed earlier, Mr. Speaker, we will have extensive opportunities for debate and when only seven, I think, Back Benchers have turned out to press questions—

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the Secretary of State to make such a comment about hon. Members when Back Benchers are at this moment serving on committees and on delegations of crucial importance to Wales, doing a job on behalf of Wales—

Mr. Speaker

Order. What is said from the Front Benches or from the Back Benches, provided it is in order, is not one of my many responsibilities.

Mr. Edwards

What I said was simply a statement of fact. I think there are more Conservative Members than Labour Members present.

The need for reform is the same in Wales as in England. The evils and shortcomings of the present system are as prevalent in Wales as in England. As I pointed out, the recent actions of county councils have confirmed the need for further action.

The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) referred to the difference in the rates bills in the Rhondda and in Cardiff. He will have to explain to the House why he thinks it just that a ratepayer living in, shall we say, a three-bedroomed terraced house in his constituency or in Cardiff, with an identical income, perhaps doing an identical job and having an identical social background, should at present pay almost exactly double the rate bill of a similar person living in the Rhondda. That is not a system which is based self-evidently on equity.

The hon. Gentleman referred to West Glamorgan, Mid Glamorgan and Clwyd, and the particular consequences for them. The rating revaluation, in particular, will help the industrial premises in those areas. They are likely to benefit in relative terms from the reduction in rates. That could surely help to reduce unemployment and reinforce regional policy.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the effect on individual local authorities. We have set out a series of safety nets so that the income of the local authorities is protected. He has pointed out that more people will pay. That is the object of the proposals, that we should not have such a very narrow band of people who bear the financial burden. In Wales about 2.1 million people are eligible to vote, about 1.1 million are eligible to pay rates and about 700,000 actually pay rates in full. It is our intention to try to extend the number of people who pay for local services. The hon. Gentleman identified the young adults—between 18 and 24—living with their families as those who would pay in the future while not paying at present. Perhaps he should have pointed out that those who will gain significantly are single pensioners—some 69 per cent. of single pensioners will benefit, as will 83 per cent. of one-parent families. Surely these are the people who need help, the people on low incomes. If the hon. Gentleman looks at annex F of the Green Paper, he will see that the effects of the community charge on low-income households is that they will pay less than they do under the present rating system.

The hon. Gentleman asked about students. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment explained yesterday the complexities of the present arrangements. I will not repeat them, but I confirm that we will be exploring the best way to deal with that matter.

The hon. Gentleman asked about collection and how it was to be enforced. A number of proposals have been set out in some detail in the Green Paper. Local authorities have a wide knowledge of what goes on in their areas. Penalties are to be introduced for non-registration. It is suggested that it might be possible, for example, for local authorities, in providing certain services in their areas, to seek to ensure that people are actually on the register before the services are provided. That is one of the options being considered.

As to the effect on industry, I believe that industry will welcome the fact that two companies doing the same business in different parts of Wales will not now face widely different rate bills or the possibility of very' substantial rate increases which they are unable to influence. I have had representations in the past week or two from a number of companies who will be paying, under proposals put to them by county councils at present, up to £250,000 extra in rates and who will either have to accept the addition to their costs or have to reduce their labour force by about 25 in each case. So there is a direct effect on jobs.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether Wales was a test bed. It is not. The proposal is to introduce the legislation in Wales at exactly the same time as in England. The only difference is that, because the gap between different local authority rate poundages and different rate levels is so much less in Wales than in England, we expect to get rid of the rates in about three years' time for half the ratepayers in Wales and totally within six years. It will take probably ten years to achieve the same thing in England.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. As the Secretary of State has said, this is a Green Paper. It will no doubt be the subject of debate for many weeks. I ask hon. Members to make their questions brief.

Sir Anthony Meyer

Is it not a fact that any change will be an improvement on the present system, which incites irresponsibility, invites political corruption and defies comprehension? Is there not a danger, however, that the community charge, in itself commendable as a means of restoring the content of responsibility, will, like rates, become unacceptable if the level becomes unpleasantly high? That being so, there will be many who will regret that the Government have not taken the more radical course of transferring great blocks of expenditure., such as that on education and the police, to the general tax system.

Mr. Edwards

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment spelt it out very well yesterday. If we were to take over the responsibility for financing education in the way suggested by my hon. Friend, it would mean switching to central control of the education system. There may be some arguments for that, although it would mean either setting up something on the lines of the National Health Service or taking it into Government Departments; it would mean knowledge of what was going on in local schools, the number of teachers required in such schools and details of local situations. The degree of centralisation represented by such a step would be an enormous price to pay for a more sensible system of local government finance. I ask my hon. Friend to consider those drawbacks.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Is the Secretary of State aware that there are misgivings in many parts of Wales that, despite the need to change the present rating system, any change should certainly encompass a change in the present water rating system as well? Is he aware that there are misgivings about the regressive nature of these changes and their practicality, where people register in one area and shortly afterwards move to live in another, giving rise to enormous bureaucratic problems?

Will second home owners need to pay this tax in the area of the second home? Will the Secretary of State guarantee that the proportion of Welsh local authority expenditure met by central block grants will not diminish at all in this change?

Mr. Edwards

May I say how glad I am to see the hon. Gentleman back in his place in the House?

On the "regressive" nature of the proposals, as the Green Paper makes clear, lower-income households will benefit. I have already given the proportions of single pensioners and one-parent families who will benefit. These are some of the poorest in our community.

Under the new system, second home owners will pay. The Green Paper suggests that the assumption should be madethis is the average position, we think—that each second home contains two adults, and there should be an automatic charge based on that assumption. That is what we propose.

As regards the reduction of the proportion of local authority expenditure met by central block grants, we start the whole division from where we are, from the present 67 per cent. grant in Wales compared with 47 per cent. in England and Wales. We start by ring-fencing the non-domestic rating in Wales and redistributing within Wales. Of course, future Governments will have to make yearly decisions as to the total contribution of central Government to the bill, but we start from the present system and there is nothing in these proposals that represents a change of the allocation between England and Wales.

Mr. Ian Grist (Cardiff, Central)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, while the present system may be seen as unfair, it represents a form of crude wealth tax, whereas a poll tax is regressive by its nature? Does he also agree that the proposed register is a legal nightmare? Would he like to say how anyone will draw up a register which will be more accurate than the electoral register which, as we all know, is riddled with mistakes?

Mr. Edwards

Every system that we have considered has its drawbacks. Successive inquiries have shown that. My hon. Friend is aware that over the years I have expressed doubts about our ability to find a workable system which does not have serious shortcomings. But having had my present responsibilities for nearly seven years—

Mr. Ron Davies

Too long.

Mr. Edwards

I might almost agree with the hon. Gentleman on that, for personal reasons.

Having sat through almost every discussion, not only on the Welsh rate support grant system but on the English rate support grant system over that period, I believe that the present rate support grant system is so unsatisfactory and has become so difficult that the drawbacks are unacceptable. Therefore, we must look at the alternatives. We have looked at them in great detail and we believe that, although there are shortcomings in any alternative system, they are far fewer than we would have under the present system if we were to continue it.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

The right hon. Gentleman talks of a Green Paper. He does not seem to be clear about that. Is he not saying that the highly regressive poll tax, described by the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Grist), is a proposal which will not be altered? Is it not particularly offensive that, after the Government have created more unemployed people than ever before in Wales and among them more young people, a poll tax is to be imposed on them? However the Government may try to vary that by some kind of rebate, is not that a monstrous system for a Government to introduce when they have created so much unemployment?

Mr. Edwards

The situation that I described previously, where perhaps a poor family in one area has to pay twice the rates of a family in identical circumstances in a different district, is not a basis for justice. I pointed out that the community charge provides a benefit for some of the poorest in our communities. We made it perfectly clear that there will be social provision for those on low incomes. The right hon. Gentleman referred to that obliquely. Those who do not have the means at the lowest level will continue to receive help as they do at present and the right hon. Gentleman should not try to create the impression that they will not.

Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Môn)

Is it not strange that the Opposition are opposed to a scheme which would attract industry into high-spending Labour areas because it would make it so much fairer for industry, irrespective of where it set up? Is it not doubly strange that the Labour Party should be opposed to a system which will discriminate fairly in favour of the single pensioner? Not one voice has been raised on the Opposition Benches in favour of those who are suffering under the present system. When it is proposed that an alternative should be a local income tax system, is that not nonsense, bearing in mind that, whereas only half the electorate in Wales are liable to pay rates, even fewer than that number are people who pay income tax?

Mr. Edwards

If we are to have a system based on local accountability, a local income tax has severe drawbacks, because probably 30 per cent. of households would pay no local tax at all and it would be just as complicated a system. It would mean an increase in income tax generally. After the Opposition's defence of a faultless rating system, we shall be interested to hear whether they want to defend and continue the present system, and, if not, what alternative they would put forward.

Mr. Ron Davies

If the Secretary of State were really concerned about the poverty which resulted from the payment of rates, he could resolve that problem by changing the rebate system. His comments today about reckless increases do not sit well with the statement that he made from the Dispatch Box not 10 days ago, when he applauded the efforts of Welsh local authorities in maintaining low rates and said that he was happy because they had met Government targets. Is it not the case that those who suffer will be old people living with and dependent on their families, young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who are living at home and, in particular, those who are unemployed? There is no justification at all for the changes that the Secretary of State is proposing. As he is in a rather more relaxed mood than when he usually comes to the Dispatch Box, will he tell us whether there is any justification for those changes, other than his desire to increase his standing with the Prime Minister?

Mr. Edwards

Since my saying what I hoped would happen, based on my experience of the past, a number of county councils have been offered substantial increases in grant by the Government. I made the forecast in the expectation that they could maintain spending broadly in line with increases in costs. They have put forward proposals which are indefensible and which will have severe consequences for employment in the areas concerned. Dyfed is one example and South Glamorgan is another. It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should get to his feet to say that it is right that a family of four or five should pay no more than an old person living on her own in her house and that he should apparently advocate that system as being socially just and defensible.

Mr. Stefan Terlezki (Cardiff, West)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that there is never a right time to reform local government—

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

That is right.

Mr. Terlezki

The hon. Gentleman says that that is right because most of the Labour-controlled local authorities do not want to be reformed. They are rotten to the core, from within the core, and they simply do not want to see any reforms. Having said that, how will young people be affected? Several hon. Members have mentioned the 18 to 25-year-olds who are unemployed. How will they be affected? Furthermore, how will small businesses be affected? I am speaking in particular of the small shopkeepers in my constituency.

Mr. Edwards

Certainly the proposal is that young adults should make a contribution to the services provided locally, but the provision of social security is for separate legislation. We have made it clear that there will be income support in future as there has been in the past. As my hon. Friend knows, it is the intention under the Social Security Bill presently before the House that everyone should contribute 20 per cent. to the cost of local services; that would be so under the community charge as under the existing rate system. Income support for people on low incomes under the social security system will remain and will be introduced in an appropriate way for the new system.

What small businesses find intolerable is that local authorities put up rates in the knowledge that small businesses contribute the greater part of the rates bill but have no say in the decision, and 56 per cent. of the rate contribution in Wales comes from businesses and industry. If local authorities such as South Glamorgan suddenly impose swingeing increases that is gravely damaging for small businesses and this measure will provide a great deal of protection for them.

Dr. Roger Thomas (Carmarthen)

Why will the proposals that the right hon. Gentleman has described today be more workable, more equitable and less unfair than those in the Government's White Paper in the autumn of 1983, which they rejected? Why will the community charge which he proposes today eventually translate itself into better community care?

Mr. Edwards

The whole point about the introduction of the community charge is that there should be a connection between those who vote, those who receive services and those who pay. There is no such connection at the moment, so there is an enormous encouragement for those who use the services to demand more and more services with complete disregard to the additional burdens that that places on the small minority who pay. We believe that it is right that there should be a relationship between the two.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen (Dr. Thomas) asked what changes we had introduced and why changes were needed since the Government's White Paper on rates reform in 1983. In that White Paper we said that the flat rate charge could be seen as a tax on the right to vote if the electoral register was used. We decided not to use the electoral register. We said that the flat rate charge would bear harshly on people with low incomes unless there was a rebate scheme. We are proposing that there should be assistance for those on the low incomes.

We have overcome, by examination, many of the administrative shortcomings. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said yesterday, the costs involved in the proposals compare favourably to the costs of running the valuation on which the domestic rating system is based at present.

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, by creating a closer relationship between those who vote and those who pay, local authorities such as Clwyd will be encouraged to get their spending under control and so stop the destruction of desperately needed jobs? My right hon. Friend must find it incredible that the Opposition, who make so much of care and compassion, should be standing by a system which they conceded is totally unfair and which hits at so many of those in greatest need.

Mr. Edwards

I agree with my hon. Friend; as I told the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) earlier, it is extraordinary that the Opposition should defend a system under which, for example the inhabitant of a terraced house in Clwyd, earning the same as a person in an identical property in the Rhondda, should pay double what is paid by the person in the Rhondda. That is what happens under the present system. I do not think that that is defensible and I look forward to hearing how the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside explains to his constituents that he wants that system to continue.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

For the record, the Secretary of State for Wales made a despicable attack on some of my hon. Friends who are not present this afternoon. Perhaps the Secretary of State would like to know why the hon. Members for Mid Glamorgan are not present.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady should confine herself to the statement.

Mrs. Clwyd

My remarks are relevant to the statement, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friends are not present because they are meeting the chairman of the Mid Glamorgan area health authority to discuss the crisis in the Health Service caused by the cuts imposed by the Government.

Is the Secretary of State aware that people in my constituency, given his proposals today, need such proposals like they need a hole in the head? My constituents live in an area which has some of the highest unemployment in Wales, the lowest incomes, the worst health services and the worst housing. Can the Secretary of State tell me how the proposals will help those people?

Mr. Edwards

There is no way that anyone can discuss cuts in the Health Service when the Government have made substantial additional provision for the Health Service in Wales. I was merely observing that I doubt the value of having a repetitive series of statements like this, when there will be plenty of opportunity in the Welsh Grand Committee to debate such matters in the coming weeks. However, if the hon. Lady thinks that this is a good way of proceeding, that is up to her.

I should have thought that the hon. Lady might think it useful that local businesses in her constituency —which at present, as they are in a high rating area, face severe rate burdens—might expect to pay lower rates and so create more jobs. The hon. Lady might be interested in the benefits for single pensioners, one-parent families and low-income families who will benefit under the arrangements. These groups of people, many of whom live in the hon. Lady's constituency, will benefit, yet the hon. Lady seems to wish to continue with a system that is grossly unfair to many of those people.

Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North)

I believe that my right hon. Friend's statement will be widely welcomed, as it will put industry beyond the clutches of the high-spending councils. It will be welcomed by councils for the new certainty and simplicity it offers and it will be welcomed by my constituents who, as my right hon. Friend knows, are facing an horrendous increase of 25 per cent. As I understand the proposals, the community charge wil be payable by all adults over the age of 18. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how students in full-time education over the age of 18 would fare under the proposals?

Mr. Edwards

A firm with its headquarters in my hon. Friend's constituency told me last week that, under the proposals of the county council, it would probably have to reduce its work force by 25 to meet an extra rating bill of £225,000. I agree that we wish to protect businesses of that kind and stop jobs being put at risk.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said yesterday, there is a fairly complex series of arrangements covering students and we have said that we will wish to introduce arrangements to provide for students. That is one of the matters for consultation in the Green Paper.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

Is it not the height of hypocrisy for the Government to raise the level of direct taxation when they are committed to reducing it?

Mr. Edwards

The effect of the proposals is to maintain the very substantial levels of Government grant on exactly the same basis as at present. Therefore, if there is to be an increase in direct taxation in Wales as a result of the measure, that can happen only as a consequence of the decision of local authorities. Under the proposals, local authorities will then have to answer to their electorates for the first time and will therefore have to defend their decisions to their electorates.

Sir Raymond Gower (Vale of Glamorgan)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the great advantages of the rating system in the domestic sphere and to some extent in business premises is that it is not difficult for the local authority to establish and keep a constant knowledge of the ratepayers' identity? Will there not be considerable difficulties for a local authority to enforce payment of a community charge when the authority does not know of the ratepayers' identity in relation to a particular premises?

Mr. Edwards

Almost all tax systems provide the possibility of evasion, and there is a large black economy. Certainly no system can entirely counter that. We believe that the proposals that we have set out in detail in the Green Paper will enable local authorities to maintain a register that should enable them to collect from the vast majority of those concerned. The authorities have great experience in such matters and keep many registers for payment purposes. A number of measures could be taken. For example, people who use local services could be asked to show that they are on the register before services are provided. Such checks, and penalties on householders who fail to register, will provide the means of compiling an accurate register. Although there are difficulties, which have been recognised in successive Government papers, those problems are far fewer than the enormous shortcomings of the present system.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

Would the Secretary of State explain how the new system will affect areas of sparse population in Wales? I am concerned that, with low populations and with the business rate being centralised, there will not be adequate compensation for areas of sparse population.

Mr. Edwards x

The proposal is that the Government will redistribute a business rate on a per capita basis throughout Wales. That will have a substantial redistributive effect. Furthermore, there is a thorough system of safety nets to protect individual councils. The system of needs assessment that is proposed and the new needs grant, though very much simpler than the present system, will provide adequately for the varied needs based on such matters as population, social structure and such matters as are covered under the present needs assessment.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Does the Secretary of State agree, despite what he said to his hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Sir R. Gower), that he has outlined a system that is open to massive evasion? Does he agree that the first other list that the local authority is likely to use for checking purposes will be the electoral register and that the likely consequence is that the electoral register will become as corrupt as the community tax register?

Mr. Edwards

No, I do not believe that that is so. There is a great deal of material to enable local authorities to check whether people are registering. I have mentioned one means of checking. I am not sure that I would have used the word "corrupt" in quite the same way, but I have some sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who used that word to describe the existing system. Under the present system, a relative handful of people have to pay the cost demanded by the very large number of people who do not pay. I think that that can fairly be described as corrupt, and that is what we seek to prevent.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Is it not clear from the anxiety expressed in these exchanges that if the proposals ever come to fruition they will lower the standard of living of the people of Wales, which has fallen far enough already with unemployment running at 17 per cent., appalling housing and environmental conditions in so many areas and ever-deteriorating public services?

Has the Secretary of State given full consideration to the difficulty of identifying young people over the age of 18, especially as the new social security regulations tend to keep young people on the move so as not to lose the benefits to which they are entitled? Is this not yet another example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing and the policy of one Department being at variance with that of another? Perhaps the Government should bring in Mr. Bernard Ingham to sort out the complexities.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the proposals will mean an increase in bureaucracy and may well throw local government services into chaos? Are not the proposals a heavy price to pay for the Prime Minister's promise in the 1979 general election? Is it not remarkable that the proposals come seven years after that promise, showing the Prime Minister's inadequate understanding of the complexities of local government?

In speeding up the process for Wales, the Secretary of State seems to be using Wales as a guinea pig. Does he agree that Wales deserves better from its Secretary of State? Finally, does he appreciate that the real problem is that local government is under-funded and that it is no use blaming the county councils because the responsibility is his?

Mr. Edwards

One of the problems with the hon. Gentleman is that he apparently did not bother to listen to any of my previous answers in this long exchange. I have made it perfectly clear that Wales will not be used as a guinea pig and that the measure will not be introduced sooner than in England. The hon. Gentleman should have taken that on board, but he is apparently unable to understand these simple matters. There is absolutely no basis for the charge that the proposals will lead to a lowering of the standard of living.

The hon. Gentleman questioned whether young adults would register. It will be for householders to ensure that people in their households register.

As for the hon. Gentleman's reference to the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, there is one thing of which we can be certain. The left hand of the Labour party has no sensible proposals for reforming a system that is regarded as complex, unsatisfactory and unfair by the vast majority of people in local government as well as the electorate. It is typical of Labour Members that they have not one positive proposal to make about anything that the electorate cares about.