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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:42 pm on 22nd May 1997.

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Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office 6:42 pm, 22nd May 1997

Why does the shadow Secretary of State take great exception to that proposition?

I shall be brief; time is limited. I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not reply individually to all hon. Members who have spoken, but I shall refer specifically to the questions that have been asked. I want to mention the maiden speeches that were made, but I do not propose to encourage interventions because of shortage of time.

Yesterday, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) made his maiden speech. He shows obvious commitment to his constituency, and has already made his mark there. He paid special tribute to his predecessor, Alex Carlile, who was a liked and respected Member. He was a genuine Liberal, even when the causes that he advocated were unpopular, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be a suitable replacement for him.

I welcome the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith). He made a confident speech and paid a fitting tribute to George Kynoch, his predecessor. He obviously is a fitting replacement for a Minister who was forthright, if not combative, in the House. He spoke of his traditional Liberal concerns. His support for devolution in Scotland and Wales is much appreciated.

I extend a special welcome to my friend, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan). She spoke strongly of the need for fair representation for women in the House and in the Assembly. She will be a fine representative of our capital city of Cardiff. She paid a generous tribute to Gwilym Jones, a former Welsh Office Minister. She will be a strong and principled Member of Parliament, who will fight hard for her constituency, for Wales and for the cause of women.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) paid a generous tribute to her predecessor, Michael Forsyth. He was obviously a very effective politician, but her entertaining and sincere speech shows that she is a more than fitting successor.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) made the final maiden speech in the debate. He comes from a strong radical tradition, and took great pride in declaring that Cornwall is now joining Scotland and Wales as a Tory-free zone. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."' He spoke warmly of David Harris, a Member who was well known and very well respected on both sides of the House. I know that all Members who knew David Harris will want to express their sympathy for the very difficult personal circumstances in which he has found himself. I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives, and look forward to his regular contributions to our debates.

The Bill before us is in one sense a limited measure, simply providing for referendums to be held, in Wales and Scotland, on the Government's proposals for devolution. However, it represents the first step in a major programme of constitutional reform to which the Government are committed and which was clearly set out in our manifesto. Let there be no doubt: that programme, and so the Bill, are central to our project of renewing and modernising Britain.

Several specific points were raised in the debate yesterday and today; I shall discuss those later. First, I shall say a few words about the policy that lies behind the Bill. The shadow Secretary of State for Wales, the former Secretary of State, made the startling admission that he was opposed to devolution. Well, we already have devolved government in the United Kingdom. Substantial powers are devolved to the Secretaries of State for Wales, for Scotland and for Northern Ireland. What we do not have is direct democratic control, or even effective oversight, of those devolved powers.

The purpose of devolution of power is surely to allow diversity to flourish; to allow policies to be implemented that reflect local circumstances, traditions and needs. Among the many faults of the Conservative party is its steadfast refusal to recognise the diversity of life in the United Kingdom.

The Conservative party has deluded itself that there are single, simple answers to the problems that confront us. There has been a delusion that Government in Westminster has all the answers. That belief has at times been almost an obsession. It is an obsession to impose uniformity from the centre, regardless of local circumstances or interests. In too many cases, policy has been a "one size fits all" policy. The Conservative party still has not realised how much resentment there is in Wales at the imposition of divisive and disruptive policies such as grant-maintained schools and nursery vouchers.