Orders of the Day — Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:12 pm on 22nd May 1997.

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Photo of Peter Hain Peter Hain Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Welsh Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 4:12 pm, 22nd May 1997

My contribution to the Welsh part of the Bill will be brief and will serve as an hors d'oeuvre to the main course provided by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is a privilege and an honour to be a Minister in the Welsh Office during one of the most exciting and reforming periods in the history of Welsh politics. For the first time in 18 long and miserable years, is it not wonderful to have a Secretary of State who can speak with authority for Wales because he represents a constituency in Wales? He is not a Welsh leader who treats his important office as a platform for his crackpot ideology or one for whom the office is a youth training scheme. The Secretary of State is a man of the people and will govern for the people of Wales.

The referendum is an important step towards creating a new democratic settlement that will take Wales into the next century with confidence and dynamism. The referendum is a passport to a new participatory Welsh democracy in which decisions will be brought closer to the people. Under our new Welsh Assembly, power will shift down from Westminster to Wales. There will be a new partnership with local government, which will be liberated from the suffocating centralised control of the Tory years. It will unite all parts of Wales—north and south, east and west, valleys and towns, rural and urban areas.

Details of the referendum will be in the White Paper; every voter will be well aware of the Government's plans. The referendum will be held on the principle of an Assembly, and that has been well publicised and well argued. It was set out clearly in our election manifesto and in documents issued by the Welsh Labour party over the past two years, so it has been widely debated in Wales.

We have one of the biggest mandates for this policy ever enjoyed by an incoming Government. May I remind Conservative Members that the people of England also gave an overwhelming mandate for this policy? The Tories polled just 34 per cent. of the vote in England, compared with a combined pro-devolution Labour and Liberal vote of 62 per cent., despite the Tories trying to frighten the pants off everyone during the election campaign by having as one of their main planks spurious claims that devolution would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Our mandate included an absolute promise to consult the people before proceeding with legislation to introduce an Assembly. We are now keeping our promise with this Bill.

A new assembly will mean employment policies tailored to the needs of Wales; health programmes geared to the needs of Wales; housing policies that reflect Welsh wishes; and education policies determined by Welsh priorities and not by those of an alien dogma, which turned our classrooms into laboratories for right-wing extremists. In the referendum vote in September, we shall invite the people to say yes to Wales—yes to an Assembly, yes to having a bigger say in decisions affecting their own lives. It will be an historic test of whether Wales is ready for the new millennium. Those who vote no will be locked in the past, saying that they have no confidence in our capacity as a nation to make decisions about our own future. Those who vote yes will be saying that we can build a better Wales —we can utilise our talent to forge a new future. As a Government, we shall work hard to persuade the people to vote yes and the Labour party will mount a vigorous campaign, led by the Prime Minister, to persuade the people to vote yes.

We say to each and every Labour supporter, this is a loyalty vote in your new Labour Government. Do not side with the Tories in undermining such a crucial part of our programme by voting no or by not bothering to vote at all. The new Assembly will include the views of supporters of other parties. We have had enough of government by one-party diktat—we want a Government for all the people. We say that the views of Liberals, nationalists and even Conservatives—if any are ever again elected in Wales—views will be respected in the new democratic era.

I say bluntly to those Conservatives who appear not to have noticed that they were wiped out in Wales: "You lost—in fact, you got hammered." The victory on 1 May of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Thomas) did a great favour, not only for the Labour party, but for humanity. Rod Richards was the only Conservative who could make even the right hon.

Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) seem popular in Wales. It is important to ask why the Conservatives are so frightened of giving the people a say. Is it because many Tories will also vote yes? I remind the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that only one Welsh Conservative—Viscount St. Davids—has so far spoken on devolution in this Parliament, and he supported a Welsh Assembly. Is that to be a pattern for the Conservative party in Wales, or part of the constantly shifting fudge of Welsh Tory politics in the new era?

There is now a great tide flowing through Wales in favour of grasping this opportunity for devolution. We shall not be left behind when the Scots get devolution or when even Londoners get an elected authority. We shall not throw away this opportunity to replace the Tory quango state with democratic government. Nearly 700,000 people who were not old enough to be on the electoral register in 1979 will have the chance to vote for the first time for a Welsh Assembly. Through bands such as Catatonia and the Manic Street Preachers, Welsh youth is leading the way, not only in the pop world, but for a yes vote as well. Leading Welsh business men and women are uniting with trade unionists, with the churches and with prominent figures from sport and the arts to say yes for Wales. Even those who do not support every detail of Labour's proposed Welsh Assembly have said that they will vote yes for Wales.

People who want a stronger assembly, or a different one, or a different voting system, can still vote yes with integrity—indeed they must, because otherwise there will be no Bill in the House to try to amend. Only if we get a yes vote on the principle will there be an opportunity to test the different arguments on the detail. Only if there is a yes vote will there be the opportunity to review the assembly's operation in future years and to consider whether changes would be desirable in the light of such a review.