With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about local government in Wales.
In my statement to the House on 23 April I announced my intention to publish a consultation paper about the local government structure in Wales. I am publishing that paper today in Welsh and English. It will be extensively distributed throughout Wales, and I wish to consult very widely on its content.
The case for the establishment of a system of unitary authorities throughout Wales has been put to me by many people, including those in the Assembly of Welsh Counties and the Council of Welsh Districts. I agree that we should now consider moving towards such a system. My consultation paper therefore sets out for public debate the considerations that must be borne in mind in determining the size and number of the new authorities.
We must look to create a structure that can deliver high-quality services efficiently and economically, whether those services are delivered directly by the authority itself or through contractual arrangements with another agency. Local services are vitally important to very many people, and we must not put delivery of those services at risk by proposals for reorganisation that are not fully thought through. But people do not look to their local authorities only as deliverers of services. They also want to see authorities that reflect, enhance and strengthen the local communities, which are such an important feature of Welsh life. During my discussions throughout Wales, the clear message that I have received has been that it is vital that the structure of local government that is produced is one with which the people of Wales can identify.
I am today presenting for public debate a number of possible arrangements for local government in Wales. Among these, I see particular attractions in a structure of 20 authorities illustrated in one of the maps set out for discussion; but I make it absolutely clear to the House that I have reached no final decisions and, before doing so, I propose to consult widely. I also repeat to the House what I say in the paper: it is wrong to start from a desired number of authorities and then try to fit service provision into that structure. Rather, the number of authorities, and their size, must flow from a careful balancing of all the various relevant considerations.
I should also say something about community councils. Whatever may be the outcome of those consultations, some of the new authorities may cover larger areas than do the present districts. We must ensure that this does not lead to a loss of responsiveness to local opinion. Community and town councils therefore have an important role as the voice of their communities to the wider world. I want to consider the case for developing that role within a new local government structure.
I am not today proposing any tight times scale for the reforms that I envisage. This is a vitally important matter and we must not be rushed into decisions. I also bear it in mind that local authorities will face a major task in implementing the council tax from 1993, but it is desirable that local authorities should be able to plan ahead effectively. I therefore intend, in the light of the comments I receive, to come forward early next year with firm proposals. But let me make one thing clear. I will not bring forward any reorganisation unless I am satisfied that it is capable of bringing long-term benefits and improvements in efficiency. The real administrative cost of local authority services under the new arrangements must not be greater than under the existing structure, and the potential for real efficiency savings should be demonstrable. I should finally make clear that the paper makes no reference to the question of an assembly for Wales. The arguments that have been put to me have not been advanced with great force or unanimity, and they have failed to persuade me that there is any case for creating an assembly.
On the contrary, Wales has benefited considerably from having a Secretary of State with a voice in Cabinet and from the effective working relationships that have been established with and between central Government, local government and the private sector in Wales. In contrast, the result of creating an assembly would be a Welsh Office with no capacity for significant influence on central Government, and a Welsh executive authority detached from central Government and thus unable to argue the case for Wales where the real decisions are taken—at the heart of central Government.
Given a choice between a strong Secretary of State and an elected executive authority, the Government are in no doubt whatever that the interests of the people of Wales would be best served by maintenance of the present arrangements. They are reinforced in that view by the fact that the judgment of the 1979 referendum was the same—and by an overwhelming margin.
The consultation paper sets out our proposals on the way forward for local democracy in Wales. I believe that we should consider moving towards unitary authorities as the best foundation. The proper size and number of such authorities, however, are matters on which everybody will have a view. The paper sets out three suggestions, one of which I consider the most attractive. But all three are offered as a basis of consultation.
The paper that I am publishing today marks another important step in the Government's review of local government. I intend to consult widely and, in accordance with our Welsh tradition, proceed as far as possible by discussion and agreement with interested parties.
In Wales, we have a historic opportunity to build on the positive partnership between central and local government in the Principality, which is the envy of many other parts of the United Kingdom.
The challenge that faces us is to establish a structure of local government that will serve Wales well for many years to come. That is the target. I now want to consult the people of Wales on how best we may achieve that result, and I invite right hon. Members from all parties to contribute to that debate. I commend the consultation paper to the House.
Does the Secretary of State understand that Labour party policy is to retain the great office of Secretary of State for Wales? A Labour Premier, Harold Wilson, installed the great James Griffiths as the first Secretary of State for Wales, and Mr. Griffiths—then the Member of Parliament for Llanelli—established the Welsh Office. I remind the right hon. Gentleman also that Labour created the Welsh Development Agency and the Development Board for Rural Wales, and gave to the Secretary of State the considerable powers contained in sections 7 and 8 of the Industry Act 1975.
Is not the right hon. Gentleman in office because of Labour's great commitment to the governance of Wales? He is the last person to talk to us about the office of Secretary of State for Wales. His party was always hostile to proposals for a Department of State.
As to unitary authorities, I hope that the consultations will be more thorough and genuine than those on the poll tax. Has the Secretary of State considered establishing a commission? Does he accept that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and that we welcome the fact that he has accepted Labour's case for unitary authorities? Does he accept also that the number and boundaries of the unitary authorities should be determined by the Secretary of State only after appropriate and genuine consultation? A political decision would bring with it hints of gerrymandering, especially in the redrawing of boundaries in the south Wales valleys and in north-east Wales. I give the right hon. Gentleman a strong warning on that matter.
Why is the Secretary of State dividing the map of Wales on the advice of civil servants? We want to create a durable structure of local government, and to do that there must be genuine and extensive consultation with local communities, not a back-of-the envelope job that will satisfy the needs of the Conservative party manifesto. The Government have a tendency to legislate in haste and repent at leisure.
The Secretary of State's failure to come out in support of a regional government leaves his proposals unbalanced and the key problems unresolved. If the proposals aim at more effective, responsive local government, why is that principle not to be extended to the ever growing list of quangos in the right hon. Gentleman's gift? The many bodies appointed by the Secretary of State which exercise powers in Wales should be made more accountable to the people of Wales. There is one law for Whitehall and another for the town hall.
The Secretary of State's argument that a Welsh assembly would leave Wales isolated in Europe is nonsense. Our European partners have already recognised the value of decentralising, but the right hon. Gentleman is ready to consign Wales to the backwaters of Europe. Britain is the only country in the Common Market that does not have regional government. In the decades ahead the national boundaries of Britain will diminish in importance while regional and local identities and decisions will grow in importance.
We in Wales cannot afford to be left behind by the rest of Europe. Why, as today's Western Mail alleges, is the Secretary of State committing Wales to the dark ages? A Welsh assembly is a vital component of a thoroughgoing and durable reform of local government and will benefit democracy, accountability and economic development. The statement will satisfy no one. It is a retreat, it is timid, and it is a missed opportunity.
The Labour party has had that on the record for two years.
Mr. Hunt: Why was it necessary for the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) to put it on the record,
as the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) has said? I shall also quote from the Western Mail which states:
The Conservatives remain opposed to devolved assemblies. We think this is wrong, if consistent. But Labour's … cobbled-together proposals could seriously disadvantage Wales. 'Half-baked and half-hearted' is one recent description of the overall proposals, as they stand. We agree. They need to be re-examined.
The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside is saying not that they need to be re-examined, but that they have been misread.
I have read them and I do not think for a moment that they recognise the importance of Wales's separate identity. The document that the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside keeps waving acknowledges that only after the English regional equivalents have been created in the first term of a Labour Government—if one were elected—would a Labour Government proceed to establish elected regional governments in England and, in parallel, a Welsh assembly in Cardiff. They would regionalise Wales and regulate it to the same status as any region in England.
Secondly, the hon., Gentleman wanted the consultations to be more genuine than the consultations over the council tax. [HON. MEMBERS: "Poll tax."]—more genuine than the consultations on the poll tax or community charge. I had the opportunity this morning of meeting the local authority associations and I was delighted to hear from them that they believe that our proposals for a council tax are just the sort of proposals on which can be built an efficient system of local government finance in Wales. I welcome the words of the Welsh Consultative Council on Local Government Finance. The hon. Gentleman may feel that the consultations were not genuine, but he created some of the problems by refusing to join the consultations. The other Opposition parties joined the consultation and I had interesting discussions with them, but the hon. Gentleman never came through the door of consultation. I hope that he will do so on this occasion.
Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman asked why we were not establishing a commission. He alleged that the Secretary of State was trying, on the back of an envelope, to gerrymander Wales. I would hardly be having consultations if that were my intention. If the hon. Gentleman really believes that we need to set up a commission—I do not know who would head it—to tell us how to reorganise the local government structure in Wales, he has not been listening to his colleagues in the Council of Welsh Districts, who believe that a commission is not necessary.
The hon. Gentleman then said that unitary authorities were Labour party policy. I would hardly have believed that when I first came to the House, given the debates that took place under the Labour Government between 1974 and 1979. Yet again, the hon. Gentleman is trying to rewrite history.
Fifthly, the hon. Gentleman claimed that we would relegate ourselves to the backwaters of Europe, but the Welsh Office, under this Secretary of State and his predecessor, with other Ministers in the Welsh Office—in particular, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has received the most richly deserved Privy Councillorship that I can recall—has set up links with Baden-Wurttemberg, and is building the links with Lombardy, Rhône-Alpes and Catalonia. We are not relegated to the backwaters of Europe. Furthermore, the Presidents and Prime Ministers of those regions wish that they had the opportunity that the Secretary of State has to sit in a national Cabinet. They do not have a seat in their national or federal Governments.
I have this to say about an assembly and devolution. I recall, and I reread just a few moments ago, an article written in 1976 by the Leader of the Opposition. It said:
At the height of the most threatening economic crisis of our lifetime the Government is going to spend most of Parliament's time next year tearing the United Kingdom asunder … Could devolution, the very policy intended to bind the unity of the kingdom, actually turn the healthy cultural diversities into ugly national demarcations?
For once in my life, I agree with the Leader of the Opposition.
Order. I remind the House that there is a statement on Scotland after this, followed by a rather busy day with a Committee stage and then an order. I will try to call all those hon. Members who are rising, but I ask them to ask brief questions and to ensure that they are questions and not comments.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be a general welcome for the broad principles that he has enunciated? Clearly, the detail will need discussion and debate. Does he share my delight at the welcome change in the Labour party, which will now apparently consult on the matter? That is as nice a change as the sudden and belated discovery of Europe by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones). Will my right hon. Friend accept that, at first sight, the proposals for a merger between Colwyn and Aberconwy, subject always to the review that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will be having, seems to be very much along the right lines? The rest of the proposals will need examination and consultation. Will he also accept that there will be a general welcome for the idea of an enhanced role for the community councils?
I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the agreement of the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) to enter the consultations on the future structure of local government. I must say to the hon. Gentleman, as I did over the consultations on local government finance, that he has a standing invitation to come to see me and to bring any of his right hon. and hon. Friends with him so that they can tell me what they believe should be the future structure of local government. I greatly welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman will do that and I look forward to seeing him on that basis as soon as possible. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer), I greatly welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has changed his mind about consultations and that he will enter them in a meaningful way.
When the details of the proposed arrangements are looked into, they will strike a chord. I have sought to ensure that we recognise local communities and local identities, which is why, in certain instances, it is possible to cross existing county boundaries and why it is possible to look at the whole question of town and community councils as providing a basis on which we can move forward.
Although I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has produced a Green Paper, which is a good thing from the point of view of consultation, does he agree that there is general political agreement that unitary authorities are the answer in Wales? I am extremely disappointed that he has not brought forward proposals for a Welsh assembly. Why can the President of France, the President of the United States and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland all head countries that have administrations that may not coincide with them politically and yet they still get on with the job? Surely the Secretary of State should embrace the idea of a truly democratically elected assembly—elected by proportional representation. His post would not necessarily be abolished in those circumstances, which would abolish his main opposition to the proposal for a Welsh assembly. He is missing a huge opportunity by not having a Welsh assembly that is truly democratically elected.
The most interesting phrase in that explanation of Liberal Democrat policy was:
His post would not necessarily be abolished.
The hon. Gentleman recognises, as I do, the serious problems in the European comparisons that he made. He will recognise that the Presidents or Prime Ministers of, for example, Baden-Wurttemberg, Lombardy, Catalonia and Rhone-Alpes do not sit in their national Cabinets. That is the biggest difference. I want us to take every possible advantage of a position that has been used to good effect by my predecessors, especially by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) and by his predecessor Lord Crickhowell to promote the interests of Wales. That advantage would be lost if we moved in the direction that the hon. Gentleman seeks.
I have long believed in the principle of unitary authorities and I welcome that part of the statement. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Having enjoyed a brief "Hear, hear" from a couple of colleagues, may I ensure universal disapproval in the Chamber by putting another proposition to the Secretary of State? While he carries out his consultations on the form and powers related to a unitary authority, rather than ruling out altogether the prospect of an assembly, why does not he consider the possibility of putting the ideas to the people of Wales concurrently? While we are carrying out our discussions and he is carrying out his, the people of Wales will have a say on whether they want an assembly.
I was not aware that, under the Labour party's proposals, the proposal for a Welsh assembly would be put again to the people of Wales. It is incumbent on those who seek to ride roughshod over the result of the referendum to put forward proposals again to the people of Wales. As I propose to comply with the result of the referendum, I hardly believe that it is necessary for me to put a re-endorsement to the people of Wales.
May I tell my right hon. Friend that his recognition of the fact that the sterile debate about a regional assembly for Wales has produced no new ideas has received the warmest response in Wales because most of the people of Wales would regard such a remote body—which would cost us £1 million a week before it took any action at all—as wanton irrelevance? Instead, the proposal for single-tier councils is most welcome, especially in the capital city of Wales, as those councils will be much more cost-effective and will be closer to the people whom they should represent. Having said that, may I urge my right hon. Friend to give his unhurried consideration to the idea of expanding Wales's premier parliamentary body, the Welsh Grant Committee, to include more of the leaders of the Welsh economy, and to turning that committee into a forum which, under his chairmanship, can better discuss how Wales may continue to move forward?
On the first point, I agree with my hon. Friend. As I believe I have made clear, the arguments that I have heard have not persuaded me that there is any case for an assembly for Wales. I believe that the people of Wales benefit from having a Secretary of State with a voice in Cabinet. The people of Wales voted strongly against an assembly in 1979. I have seen no good evidence to suggest that they have changed their view and they are wise not to have done so.
My hon. Friend's proposal for the Welsh Grant Committee is a matter for that committee, and for others, to consider but it is certainly worthy of further consideration.
Is the Secretary of State aware that we are not surprised to hear that he does not want a Welsh assembly, given that 12 years of Tory Government have turned us into the most centralised state in western Europe—far more centralised even than France?
I think that most people would agree with the right hon. Gentleman's proposals for unitary authorities. Does he agree that community councils, which he mentioned, will have to be strengthened if we are to have unitary authorities and that the Local Government Act 1972, which did not put them on a proper basis, needs to be changed or repealed so that they are placed on such a basis and can represent their communities?
I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we should consider the whole question of town and community councils. I have gone out of my way to make it clear that I want such councils to be part of the consultation process and I am arranging for a copy of the consultation paper to be sent today to every community and town council throughout Wales. I very much want to hear from those councils and from those with ideas about the sort of role that they could play in the new local government structure.
While I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to a system of unitary authorities, I deeply regret the fact that he has ruled out support for a Welsh assembly. He has said that he will consider the establishment of a body to co-ordinate economic strategy and other matters in Wales. Will he elaborate on that and tell the House whether, in his view, such a body would be a debating forum, what it would be allowed to discuss, how many members it would have, where those members would be drawn from and whether they would include Members of Parliament?
My hon. Friend has made no secret of his own particular opinions about a Welsh assembly; indeed, he has voiced them in the Chamber before now.
On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, let me explain that the Council of Welsh Districts recently presented me with a proposal for a Welsh economic forum to improve collaboration and partnership between all the bodies involved in economic regeneration. I was impressed by the council's argument that there was a role for a more structured discussion on economic matters. With the training and enterprise councils now on stream, and with the establishment of new funding councils for further education—and for higher education in future—there is also a need to ensure that there is the closest possible contact between all those involved in education and training and in the business sector. I shall therefore soon be consulting the various bodies that might be involved—the development agencies, the TECs, representatives of local government and of the education world, CBI Wales and the Welsh TUC—to discuss how matters may best be taken forward. I have asked my team at the Welsh Office to give the matter high priority.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, during his short period in office, we have seen the most amazing transformation in the political structures of eastern Europe—a process of democratisation brought about by peaceful protest? In the light of his intransigence over the issue of a Welsh assembly, what hope is he giving to the people of Wales—the young people of Wales especially—that, in future, they will be living in a society, and in a country, which is less bureaucratic, less centralised and more democratic?
I recognise the significance of the hon. Gentleman's point. I want to establish a very effective local government structure in Wales. I want our young people to fly high in their own land. I do not want them to move out of Wales. I want to give them every possible opportunity to stay in Wales and fly high there. I am aware of the local government structure in central and eastern Europe.
However, the hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards) will recognise that there is no similarity between the Welsh position and the regions in central and eastern European countries, because the Welsh have a Secretary of State sitting in the national Cabinet. If the hon. Member praises the local government structure in Poland, will he please also pay tribute to the fact that I went out there and helped them to set it up?
Does not the Secretary of State accept that the linchpin of the consensus that existed on the issue in Wales was the question of an elected assembly, a proposal put forward by the district councils, the county councils in Wales and every political party in Wales except the Conservative party? Why can we have elected democracy on a community level, on a district or county level and on a Westminster or European level, but no democratic answerability for the £5,000 million—£100 million a week—that the Secretary of State for Wales spends? Why can we not have answerability for that to the people of Wales?
The hon. Gentleman feels enormously strongly about that issue and he puts his view to me in public and in private on every possible and conceivable occasion. I pay tribute to him for that. However, I am accountable in this Chamber. I am accountable for the range of responsibilities that I have as Secretary of State. The real accountability lies in the mother of Parliaments.
Does my right hon. Friend recall that in 1974, when local government was reorganised, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath) suggested that county names would not change when the local authority names changed? I was born in Glamorganshire whose name has changed three times and may even be wiped off the map if we do not do something positive about it. Has my right hon. Friend any proposals to encourage the use of the old county names with regard to postal districts?
During my consultations in Wales I have discovered a strong view in certain parts of Wales that people want some historic names and titles to return. I make it clear that I will listen to those views very carefully in the consultation process.
I was directly involved in the widest ever consultation on this subject in Wales between 1988 and 1990 with the working party of the Welsh Labour party. Is the Secretary of State aware that I find it absolutely incomprehensible that he has today ruled out the possibility of regional government as well as the possibility of a strong Secretary of State for Wales?
I must make it absolutely clear that I totally reject the Labour party's proposals. The Labour party proposes that, with the creation of a Welsh assembly, the role of the Secretary of State would be to scrutinise parliamentary legislation to consider its relevance to Wales and to arrange for modifications where appropriate. I had always thought that scrutiny and modification of legislation were matters for this House rather than for a Secretary of State. Labour's proposals would limit the role of the Secretary of State for Wales
to promoting Welsh interest abroad.
Is that really an adequate job description for a Cabinet Minister?
Will the Secretary of State help me as I am having difficulty in that I am suffering from a little deja vu? Are we approaching 1992 or are we back in 1962? It appears that the Secretary of State has produced what is probably the most backward-looking document in the history of post-war Welsh politics. Does he accept that all his reference points hark back to 1979 and he is now apparently proposing to establish a Welsh economic council the like of which was established by a Labour Government back in the 1960s? Which of our esteemed colleagues in European Governments such as the Ministers of Baden-Württemberg or Catalonia are about to resign their democratic posts in order to join the United Kingdom Cabinet?
On the hon. Gentleman's final point, in my discussions with our regional counterparts in the important motor regions they constantly said how much they envy the fact that we have a Secretary of State for Wales who sits in the United Kingdom Cabinet. They would like to sit not in the United Kingdom Cabinet but in their own federal or national Cabinet.
On looking back, I thought that I had turned my mind against looking back to the result of the 1979 referendum. Opposition parties would have us go back to before that referendum decision. I believe that we must pay attention to the result of that referendum, which emphatically rejected the idea of a Welsh assembly.
As part of his consultation, will my right hon. Friend undertake to meet Welsh members of the Association of British Counties, an organisation which is dedicated to the restoration and retention where possible of traditional county names and historical counties? Will he welcome the use of county names such as Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and Monmouth? Wherever possible, unitary authorities, which Opposition Members would welcome, should coincide also with their traditional boundaries of yesteryear.
Of course I shall meet that body, and I should be particularly pleased if my hon. Friend came with me. The preferred option that I have put forward establishes the unitary authority not only of Ynys Môn but of Pembrokeshire, Ceredigion, Carmarthen, Brecon and Radnor, Montgomeryshire, Monmouth and several others. That is recognition of the strength of the local communities and the wish to see such a unitary authority established.
Is there no humility on the Government Benches? The Secretary of State appears to be implying that the Conservative party is best equipped, as indeed occurred with the poll tax, to deal with the bungled messes of previous Conservative Governments on unitary authorities. As for his tentative proposal for a Welsh economic forum, is the Secretary of State aware that Lord Crickhowell, one of his predecessors, proposed such a body in 1979, which then went to sleep, and that much has happened since? We have had 12 years of Conservative centralisation so that now only 8 per cent. of local government revenue in Wales is from a local tax base. We have had the European dimension, and we have had quangos packed with Tory placemen. The right hon. Gentleman's idea would be rejected as both irrelevant and impertinent. If the Secretary of State is really concerned about consultation, will we have an opportunity for a full day's debate on the issue in the House before the summer recess?
Time for a debate is certainly not a matter for me. I take up the hon. Gentleman on describing as impertinent the proposal that I have just welcomed from the Council of Welsh Districts. Perhaps he should talk to his colleagues in the Council of Welsh Districts whom I met earlier today and who put to me very strongly the need for that body. I have said that I recognise that they have a case, and I wish to examine the proposals further. However, I am not looking back. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not think that the Council of Welsh Districts spends its time looking back, because I do not believe that it does.
Does not the Secretary of State observe that changes in Welsh democracy over the past 10 years have been the mirror image of what has happened in eastern Europe? In eastern Europe, the old unelected nomenklaturas of communists are losing their powers, while genuinely elected bodies are gaining powers through democracy. In Wales, the reverse has been true. Our elected councils have lost power, influence and resources while non-elected quangos are getting greater power, being stuffed by representatives of the Conservative party and other card-carrying fellow travellers. Those groups are entirely undemocratic.
Will the Secretary of State observe also that the people of Newport rejected the reorganisation by the Conservative party in the 1970s because they wanted a unitary authority? They also want a unitary authority now and look forward to its coming about by a referendum of all the people of Wales in the next general election.
The hon. Gentleman has not read the document. He does not realise what is proposed. I should have thought that, rather than urge me to set up an assembly in Cardiff to run Newport, he should welcome the fact that I propose a unitary authority for Newport.
I would not wish to have all the honours that have been bestowed upon the right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts).
Given the great emphasis that the Secretary of State has placed on consultation, will he guarantee, first, that if a definite view emerges from the consultation, that will be the one that he will support and, secondly, if it becomes clear during the consultation that there is a desire for a Welsh assembly, whatever might be its exact powers and authority, the right hon. Gentleman will accept that that is the view of the organisations that he has consulted and will support it himself?
On the hon. Gentleman's first point about honours, we all note his bid to follow his hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Sir P. Duffy) in seeking recognition. On the main burden of what he said, how on earth can I say in advance whether I would follow one of the views that emerges in the consultation or another? I very much look forward to hearing the views. I must then decide and lay proposals before the House.
While I welcome the Secretary of State's option, which keeps Neath separate from the Swansea conurbation, will the right hon. Gentleman concede that in proposing an economic forum to oversee the strategic economic policy affecting Wales, he is conceding the case for a strategic view that could apply equally to transport, planning and other matters? Does he further agree that such a strategic view is best exercised not by a non-elected unaccountable quango but by an elected assembly for Wales, without which Wales will go naked into Europe as it is integrated into Europe?
I am never quite sure what the Labour party is proposing, because one of its proposals is for Members of Parliament to sit in an assembly in Cardiff with an equal number of local councillors. That is the latest proposal for a Welsh assembly that I have received from the Assembly of Welsh Counties. I am not sure how that would sit easily with the democratic accountability of the Government in this place. However, I am delighted that, rather than spending all his time urging that Neath should be ruled from Cardiff, the hon. Gentleman has welcomed my proposals for Neath.
As one of the civil servants at the Welsh Office who, in 1972, wasted a dreary 12 months of his life assisting the then Conservative Secretary of State with the present unpopular two-tier structure for local government—[Interruption.] I take no responsibility for it. That belongs with the right hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Walker) who introduced the two-tier structure for local government, which the Conservatives now say is wrong. However, may I give full marks to this Secretary of State for reversing the mistakes of the previous Conservative Secretary of State who devised the two-tier structure, despite the advice of the civil servants of the time? His proposal for 20 single-tier authorities—I may be out by one; the figure may be 21—is a sound idea.
Turning to the right hon. Gentleman's views about a Welsh assembly, however, there is absolutely no agreement on that matter between him and me and most other people in Wales. Wales does not want more quangos, but what is now proposed is some kind of quango that will sit on top of all the other quangos—a super Welsh quango or what one could call a llango. One reason that the right hon. Gentleman does not want a Welsh assembly is that he knows that his party could never win it.
May I urge the hon. Gentleman to spell for the benefit of Hansard the new word that he has just used? I have heard about the hon. Gentleman's previous employment at the Welsh Office. Whenever I raise that subject, people tend to talk in hushed whispers and now I know why. May I ask the hon. Gentleman which one he thinks that I missed out of the 20, and may I thank him for having welcomed the proposals in general?
Does the Secretary of State really think that the consultation process is anything other than a sham? This afternoon he told my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) that he would like to consult him about these matters, yet he has also this afternoon rejected "The future of local government in Wales", which is the Labour party's proposal. How can the consultation exercise be anything other than a sham?
Does not the Secretary of State also agree that, before he mentions the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in 1979, he might well recall his own remarks about the poll tax during the past few years? Does he agree that the only recent example of consultation about local government reform and finance in Wales in the past few years was about the poll tax and that the last thing that we want is a re-run of that appalling crisis?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman puts my remarks on a par with the previous remarks of the Leader of the Opposition. However, I regret to inform the hon. Gentleman that his right hon. Friend went much further in rejecting the concept of a Welsh assembly. I had not realised that the document to which he referred had been endorsed as official Labour party policy. If that is true, I am very worried.
If I recall correctly, the Leader of the Opposition constantly made a point with which I find myself in agreement. He said:
Conflicts are likely to arise every time the Welsh … assembly introduces any significant economic, political or social change, every time that a nationalised industry takes an important spending decision with UK-wide implications.
Those are the words of the Leader of the Opposition in the Morning Star on 25 February 1976, just before I entered the House. I find myself in entire agreement with them. I hope that, when the hon. Gentleman comes to see me for consultation, he will put aside some of the more rarefied proposals that he and his party have made and will engage in meaningful and genuine consultation.