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Friday, December 09, 2005

And so to Christmas

Wednesday was the last Plenary session before Christmas. This was despite pleas from the Liberal Democrats AM for Cardiff Central, Jenny Randerson, that we should keep on going, possibly right up to Christmas Eve if necessary. Jenny and I are both on the same wavelength in this regard:

I regret that there is not an oral statement on the Chancellor’s pre-budget statement. It is important that it is known what it will be, it should be timed into the programme, and I do not accept the pressures-of-time excuse, because, as has been said here before, the Welsh Liberal Democrats, in any event, feel that we should be working closer towards Christmas if there is a pressure on time.

The main issue of the day was the final budget. These are the new improved Assembly finance plans following the rejection earlier in the year of the draft budget through the combined might of the opposition parties. Jenny, wearing a different hat as the Liberal Democrats Finance Spokesperson, set out the differences and also the reasons why we would not be voting for it despite getting some major concessions:

Jenny Randerson: The new budget is better than the original budget. The discussions between the opposition parties and the Government have paid off. I welcome the money which will be made available to pensioners for the council tax.

However, this is still far from perfect. It represents what was achievable in the circumstances rather than what we as Welsh Liberal Democrats would ideally wish to see even within the unfair constraints of the Barnett formula.

It is interesting that the First Minister has called this a real Labour budget. I do not follow his logic. Labour’s real budget came to the Chamber, and was thrown out. It was thrown out because there was no help for pensioners, there was no attempt to close the funding gap in higher education, there was no money to improve our children’s school dinners, and there was no extra investment in railways. It was the Labour budget. The Assembly said that it was not good enough. What we have now is a better budget. It has Liberal Democrat priorities in education and help for pensioners back among the Assembly’s spending priorities.

Carl Sargeant: If it is your budget now, will you support it today?

Jenny Randerson: Wait a minute, I have not gone far enough yet.

That is now back among our spending priorities. We have put back the small schools fund, which was created by the partnership Government, which was driven by the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and has been renegotiated by us here.

However, this is still Labour’s budget. It is based on Labour’s plans, and it is Labour’s way of dealing with the amendments that were put forward in the debate on the draft budget.

Labour’s draft budget also put the emphasis on administration, with millions of pounds set aside for bureaucracy, and further millions sitting in the bank, building up, one has to suspect, a war chest for the pre-election budget in 12 months’ time. Forgive me if I sound a little cynical, but I suspect that that is what we will see. Labour told us that we could not touch these pots of money, but it has now seen sense. We have put the money where it is needed instead—in the purses of pensioners, on the plates of our schoolchildren, and to put our universities on a level footing with their neighbours in England.

This is not, and is far short of, a perfect budget. It is not the budget that the Welsh Liberal Democrats would have put forward in Government, but it is a better budget than Labour’s first draft

Mike German underlined the need for Labour to recognise the position it is in and called on them to be more consensual in their approach:

We must remember that, behind this process, this Assembly is not a goal for its own sake, but a tool to improve the lives of the people of Wales. For the moment, distributing the block grant is the single most important way that we, as Assembly Members, can change the lives of the people of Wales. That is why it is pleasing that all of us have had a say in this year’s budget. We have always worked for this Assembly to work for the people of Wales. That is what we did when we were in the partnership Government, when we tried to bring stability, ideas and delivery for the people of Wales. However, this is not a perfect budget, and it would be false of us to say that it was.

The great hope of the Assembly was that it could be built on a certain degree of consensus. The tragedy of the Assembly is that it is only when the Labour Party is defeated that it seeks to find consensus. When you taste defeat, it is not the best time to look for consensus. However, I celebrate the fact that we have set aside some of our differences on this matter. I do not forget that each party has its own policies and philosophies. Our policies are not the same as those of the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru or the Labour Party, yet, by working together on this budget proposal, we have found some common ground on which we can all agree. More importantly for the people of Wales, particularly pensioners and young people, we have found areas of agreement that benefit them.

Finance Minister, Sue Essex, responded in a barnstorming manner that led to applause from her own side. At this point the Deputy Presiding Officer stepped in to demonstrate that the spirit of consensus, even at Christmas, has its limits:

The Deputy Presiding Officer: Order. That clapping was unseemly and unbecoming; it sounded like a Labour Party meeting.

He did the same at the end of Mike German's short debate on domestic abuse as well, just to prove that he was being even-handed. However, we will leave the last word on Christmas to Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood, who pulled together everything that is bad about the season of goodwill to illustrate why she too might be prepared to skip it and keep on meeting throughout the recess:

Leanne Wood: Thanks for raising this issue, Mike; it is an important issue. It is important to remember as well that Christmas is a nightmare for homeless people, those who have lost someone, those who live in dire poverty, and those who are in debt. They face a horrendous time this Christmas. I am not a big fan of Christmas, so I can identify with many of those sentiments. As Christmas becomes more and more commercialised, the pressures on people increase.
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