Election '97: Plaid Cymru reforms put constitution top of agenda

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Plaid Cymru launches its manifesto today with a claim that the constitutional future of Wales is forcing its way to the top of the election agenda.

The 72-page bilingual document demands a Welsh parliament to take over responsibility for policies ranging from health and housing to the environment and education, said at present to be foisted on Wales by Westminster.

Under the slogan "The Best for Wales" a programme of unbridled nationalism lambasts the Tories for ruling by quango, Labour for tailoring its programme to seduce Worcester Woman and Basildon man, and the Liberal Democrats for slip-streaming in Tony Blair's wake.

The unveiling of the manifesto will take place in Cardiff's City Hall, the venue for Labour's proposed Welsh assembly - a body Plaid condemns as a toothless talking shop.

Dafydd Wigley, party president and MP for Caernarfon, : said: "We need an elected parliament in order to ensure policies on an all-Wales level which correspond to the needs of Wales, not the needs of London." Law- making and tax-raising powers, similar to those Labour envisages for a Scottish parliament were required to keep Wales' democracy in good health.

Like the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru challenges "the historical forgery that is the British state". The nationalist point to the principality's growing prosperity as evidence that as part of the European Union, and self-governing, Wales could also expect to undergo an economic transformation.

Several policies open up an attack from the left on Labour. A minimum wage of pounds 4 an hour is proposed. The link between pensions and earnings, severed by the Thatcher government, should be restored. National Health Service trusts and GP fundholding are candidates for abolition. Eye tests, dental checks and prescriptions should all come free of charge.

A ban on tobacco and alcohol advertising is demanded, the latter likely to be unpopular with the SNP because of the Scotch whisky trade.

Legislation to strengthen the Welsh language comes in for special attention. The nationalists want every public body and utility to provide a comprehensive service in Welsh to the public. Firms with more than 50 employees would be required to prepare a language scheme and both Welsh and English would be designated "official languages".

A tax levied on second homes aims to take the sting out of long-running resentment of owners of property in Wales used only at holiday time.

Anxious though Plaid is to add to its four Westminster MPs the party is playing a long game hinged on loosening ties with England as a first step to self-government. "It is neither the Crown nor Parliament that holds the inalienable right to govern Wales, but the people of Wales themselves," Mr Wigley said.

The manifesto predicts that Labour's ability to tackle unemployment would be seen as a touchstone of proposals for a Welsh assembly. Plaid Cymru's target is the creation of 100,000 extra jobs. Although private enterprise is identified as the principal engine of job creation, gaps would be filled by public-sector initiatives.

An increase in public spending, financed by a mixture of higher taxes and borrowing is deemed necessary. "Plaid is not afraid to advertise this approach nor to contend that the cost of unemployment should be borne by the whole community and not just by the already victimised unemployed," the manifesto affirms.

The Welsh Development Agency and the Development Board for Rural Wales would be replaced by a new National Development Authority with a wide brief and answerable to a Welsh parliament.

The party's reforms would be paid for by an increase of "up to 2p" on the standard rate of income tax and, over time, a reduction in employers' National Insurance contributions which form a tax on employment.

THE KEY POINTS

Establish a Welsh parliament with law-making and taxation powers to take over from Westminster.

Introduce a pounds 4-an-hour minimum wage and create 100,000 new jobs.

Reform the health service. Abolish GP fundholding and NHS trusts. Scrap charges for prescriptions, eye tests and dental checks.

Add 2p to the standard rate of income tax to pay for reforms.

Restore the link between pensions and earnings, severed by the Thatcher government.

Legislate to promote the Welsh language. English and Welsh to be accorded equal status. Employers with more than 50 staff to produce "language schemes".

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