The final budget

2011 Rhagfyr 6 2:38 PM
Gan Peter Black
Cyhoeddwyd yn wreiddiol gan Peter Black a Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol Gorllewin De Cymru

Peter Black: The Welsh Liberal Democrats will be supporting this budget today and we will be casting our votes accordingly. There are a number of reasons for doing that. The first is that we are a responsible party that recognises that it would be inconceivable for the Welsh public sector not to have some certainty as to its budgets for the next year and to be able to plan for it. We felt that any further uncertainty in terms of those budgets would be counter-productive and would undermine the need to invest in and deliver those services over the coming year.

Secondly, we recognise the economic context within which the Government must work and that difficult decisions have had to be made. As such, we support the general thrust of the budget to try to protect key services across the board, rather than seeking to ring-fence one particular service, which the Conservatives outlined would have been their approach. Having said that, we see our role over the next 12 months as one of scrutinising how Ministers allocate and spend the amounts that they have been given in this budget. We remain an opposition party with a duty to continue to hold the Government to account.

This budget delivers the Welsh Liberal Democrats' main manifesto pledge. We have secured an additional £20 million investment in schools, in a year when the overall budget has fallen by £430 million. That is a total fund of £32 million being paid directly to schools at a rate of £450 for each pupil on free school meals in May next year, which is repeated in the budget for two subsequent years. The costing in our manifesto-and Paul Davies referred to this-for year one of the scheme was £33 million. We are therefore pleased that what is being achieved is very close to that costing in terms of the amount of money going to schools as part of this pupil deprivation grant.

Therefore, the rumblings here of 'selling out cheaply' need to be reconsidered, particularly given that, in 2006, when Plaid Cymru settled on the budget in similar circumstances, it settled for £11 million in a year when the budget increased by £590 million. The contrast there is stark and shows that this is not just a good deal for the Welsh Liberal Democrats, but for pupils, particularly poorer pupils, around Wales, for education and for the Welsh public sector. [Interruption.]-I have already said that, Rhodri.

3.00 p.m.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats-

Rhodri Glyn Thomas: It is a good deal for the Lib Dems.

Peter Black: I have said that, Rhodri. [Laughter.]

The Welsh Liberal Democrats have also been able to influence the way in which the £38.9 million Barnett consequential from the UK Government's freezing of council tax is spent. I am pleased that this is focused on economic renewal and investment, in particular the nearly £5 million for the young recruits programme, which Ieuan Wyn Jones referred to earlier, and the £3 million for Skills Growth Wales. The sum of £9.26 million for schools is allocated across Wales, not according to a bidding process, but on a formula basis, so that every part of Wales will benefit from that money. There is also £18 million for housing, which, if utilised correctly, could generate additional money from other sectors of the economy and boost that amount of money.

I note that the Minister has announced an extension of the business rates relief scheme, in line with the UK Government, helping businesses across Wales with one of their core costs. We will also be working with the Welsh Government to ensure that the £216 million allocation from the autumn statement, and any revenue consequential, will also focus on similar areas. We believe that that is a good deal for business in Wales in terms of the additional money for business rates relief, and we hope that we will be able to add to that as part of further negotiations around those moneys.

As a result of the deal we have made with the Welsh Government, this budget concentrates much more on investment to boost the economy and helping the poorest pupils fulfil their potential. That very much reflects the Welsh Liberal Democrats' priorities as well, and it is the main reason why we are happy to support the budget today. Paul Davies, in response to this budget, said that he is disappointed at our support for it. Does he really want to reject the more than £600,000 that will go to schools in his constituency as a result of the deal that has been struck here? The Conservatives' plan to ring-fence the NHS budget would mean huge cuts elsewhere. Their manifesto said that it would mean a 20 per cent cut to the education budget. We have increased investment in education, ensuring not only that the poorest pupils will benefit from this budget, but that the funding gap between England and Wales, which currently stands at £604 per pupil, will be further eroded as a result of this additional investment. Our policy in the election was clear: we would not ring-fence the NHS budget; instead we wanted the Government to tackle inefficiency and look at smarter ways of working, such as community pharmacies. I believe and hope that the Minister is working in that way, but we will certainly continue to scrutinise her on that. We accept that there have been real-term cuts, but the money that is currently in the NHS can be better spent and can deliver better outcomes for people. We believe that the way forward at this stage is to ensure that that happens.

The problem for the Conservatives in this is that they were in disarray from the start on this budget. They have been flip-flopping even on the additional £38.9 million that came from Westminster. At one stage, they were demanding it be spent on the NHS, then they were asking for it to be used to freeze council tax, and then they were back to demanding it was spent on health. How can they expect to be taken seriously when they are not even sure themselves how this money should be spent?

Andrew R.T. Davies: You know full well that the only call we have made is for that money to be used for a council tax freeze. You might well disagree with that, but that is the only call we have made in relation to the additional money that the Chancellor has sent down. You know that.

Peter Black: Andrew, you may say that now, but that did not feature in your spokesperson's speech. In fact, the whole thrust of your spokesperson's speech was that the additional money that was available should go to the NHS. You cannot make up your mind-do you want the money to go to the NHS or do you want it to go towards freezing council tax? I do not think that is possible. What the Welsh Liberal Democrats have been able to achieve, with five Assembly Members, is to deliver our chief manifesto policy. What the Conservatives have been able to achieve, with 14 Assembly Members, is absolutely nothing. You have no influence and you are just shouting the odds because of that. I hope, Presiding Officer, that the budget in front of us today will be recognised as one that is suitable to deliver what Wales needs at this moment in time. Yes, we all want more money; yes, we want more money for the economy; and yes, we want more money for education and health, but we have to work with the money allocated as part of our block grant. With that in mind, what we have here is the best possible deal for pupils in Wales, which invests in our economy by investing in skills, education and training, and we have been able to put that additional money into apprenticeships, Skills Wales and capital investment.

Beth hoffech chi ei wneud nesaf?