I’d like to follow-up on the austerity point, because, of course, that’s the backdrop to this whole budget discussion. When the UK Government keeps insisting on sticking to those punishing austerity measures, then clearly things are going to have to be cut. Now, let’s not forget why we’ve got these austerity measures. They were meant to ensure that we reduced our deficit and our debt levels, but the reality is that, since 2010, our national debt level has increased by over £800 billion to over £2 trillion—this is under you guys since 2010—and that this Conservative Government—
Will you give way?
I will. Let me just finish my point, because I’ve got a lot more to come—[Interruption.] This—[Interruption.]. This Conservative Government—. Hey, when you’ve finished. Thank you. This Conservative Government has borrowed more money than every Labour Government in history.
You have borrowed more money than every Labour Government in history. It is your policy, and austerity is not working—[Interruption.] Now, the Welsh Government—[Interruption.] The Welsh Government can only spend money that it’s given by the UK Government, although in this historic year we will as a—[Interruption.] Darren, please—
Thank you. The welcome news that—the news that the finance Secretary has announced that we are now going to have the lowest starting rates of land transaction tax in the UK. And I felt a real buzz in the Chamber when that was announced. We felt like a really grown-up Parliament, and that’s what I want to see this place becoming. I would like to know from the finance Secretary how much that will cost. I’m not sure if he did outline that, but I think that would be useful.
Now, let’s not forget that these austerity measures are continuing at a time when wages have been stagnant for 10 years. And, on top of this, during those 10 years, while the Tory Government’s been in charge in Westminster, gas bills have gone up by 49 per cent, water bills have gone up by 25 per cent, rail fares have increased by 27 per cent, private rent has increased by 25 per cent, and food has gone up by 21 per cent. None of these are luxuries. None of these are luxuries. But rather than stand by the poorest in society, what’s the Tory Government decided to do? It’s decided to punish the poor with the introduction of universal credit. Four hundred thousand families in Wales will be £3,400 a year worse off by 2020 because of the introduction of that new measure.
Now, in England, the Tory Government has written off the poor. Those cuts have led to an increase of 65 per cent in the homelessness levels in England. That is not the case in Wales. We’ve brought in this new law, giving Welsh local government new responsibilities in relation to homelessness, and the Supporting People programme has been crucial. Anyone who could have doubted Mark Drakeford’s personal commitment to this issue needs to be reminded of his long-standing action in relation to homelessness, his tireless efforts to help establish and found Llamau, and his long-held passion and activity to ensure support for the homeless. There are no cuts to the Supporting People programme and I didn’t think that Mark Drakeford, with his long history, would have undertaken those. So, I am delighted to see that, and an additional £20 million to alleviate homelessness.
Now, there’s going to be ample time to chew over the detail of the budget, but I do think it’s worth noting that £240 million extra to take the pressure off our hard-working staff in the NHS. Of course, the ideal would have been to give our NHS workers and other public sector workers a pay rise that they undoubtedly deserve, but, with a set and limited budget, the only way to do this would’ve been to have cut services elsewhere. So, if Plaid is so anxious to introduce this pay rise without receiving the additional money from the UK Treasury, you have to outline which hospitals you’re going to close in order to make that happen. And as for the Tories saying that the debt levels in Welsh hospitals—. Do you know what the debt levels in English hospitals are? It’s £2.4 billion. Don’t come over here telling us about debt levels in hospitals.
I think it’s very important, the fact that we are helping to secure funding for care; it’s a crucial area, and I am delighted that the finance Secretary will be exploring the issue of taxation in this area. This is something that we will be looking at in the Finance Committee and I hope that we’ll come up with some interesting ideas on that in the next few weeks.
The one area in particular that I’d like to thank the finance Secretary for is his commitment to abolish the tolls on the Cleddau bridge by 2020. This is an issue on which the Labour Party locally has campaigned for years, and I’m delighted that he’s been able to deliver on this. It’s going to make a real difference to people and businesses living around the Haven. I’m also delighted to hear that extra money has been allocated to draw down funds from the EU rural development programme, but I do wonder if the finance Secretary could clarify whether we will receive, in the next few weeks, some more clarity on the competing structures for economic rural development in Wales.
The finance Secretary has also set out a two-year budget. I’d just like to know: does that mean that we’ll see exactly the same next year, apart from a few little tweaks? And does that mean that we, as a Finance Committee, will be redundant next year? What does that actually mean in terms of how the mechanism works? Now, I know that balancing the books at a time of austerity is a difficult proposition, but I would like to thank the finance Secretary for sticking to those commitments that he and we made in the Welsh Labour manifesto, and following through on promises that we made to the Welsh public and to the electorate.