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

No. The hon. Gentleman has not been here for the debate, and I want to reply to some of the questions that have been asked.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) asked whether the long title of the Bill would allow for amendment. No decision has been taken on that, but I can assure him that there will be full opportunity to debate the White Paper when it is published. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make representations on that White Paper, we will listen to them carefully.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) asked certain questions. It is right that people are concerned about jobs, education and the health service, and our proposals for a better democracy will help us to bring better government to deliver better public services. He asked about the pre-legislative referendum, and expressed his own reservations. But the principles on which we will invite the people of Wales to vote will be made clear in the White Paper.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East asked about the David and Goliath scenario, whereby advantages will be given to those campaigning on either side of the argument. Let me make it clear that the Government will set out our proposals, and we will inform the public. It will then be for the political parties to decide how to campaign, and we are not proposing to provide any state aid to any party to campaign either for or against our proposals.

I wish to refer to the timing of the referendum. In Scotland, some 90 per cent. of daily newspapers are generated within Scotland. In Wales, the figure is less than 10 per cent. In Scotland, more than 90 per cent. of public broadcasting is generated in Scotland. In Wales, the figure is less than 60 per cent. Our proposals for Scotland differ from those for Wales, and it seems to me wholly unexceptional for us to argue that there should be separate debates to allow the separate forms of devolution to be debated separately in Scotland and Wales, or that the people of Wales should be invited to vote at the appropriate time on the proposals we have for Wales.

Freedom of speech is a matter that is exciting the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks—although what it has to do with him, I do not know. No one would attempt to deny my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West—who has been a Member of this House for a long time—or any other hon. Member freedom of speech. The Government have a policy and the Labour party has a policy, and, obviously, we expect people to support that policy. If my right hon. Friend has difficulties with that, he will have to discuss them with my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, and reflect and discuss with his colleagues. The Labour party wishes to create an inclusive and tolerant Assembly. We will campaign as a party vigorously and wholeheartedly, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will lead that campaign. I and my Front-Bench colleagues will campaign as vigorously as we can with all the resources available to us. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West will reflect on the wisdom of setting out on a course of action that would bring him into conflict with his party and the Government.

While the case for change is essentially a democratic one, our proposals are not only about democracy. By allowing people to have a greater say in fashioning their own lives, asserting their own values and determining their own priorities, we will be able to achieve greater economic prosperity and, by improving our public services, improve our quality of life.

Let me turn briefly to some of the other points made in the debate. First, it was suggested that we should not hold these referendums at all. I reject that. We are asking the people of Wales and the people of Scotland whether we should proceed with the process of democratisation which we clearly signalled in our manifesto, on which 34 out of 40 Members of Parliament were elected in Wales and 56 out of 72 in Scotland. Forty out of 40 Members representing Wales in this House were elected on the basis that the status quo is not an option.

I welcome the Liberal Democrats' support for our constitutional reform policies set out in the report of the joint committee between our two parties. I know that Plaid Cymru would prefer a different option—what it has come to call a "preferendum", with a number of options put before the people. The hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones) made a strong case for his party this evening, but the Government do not agree.

The use of referendums is relatively novel, and is part of the new, more inclusive politics which began on 1 May. But there is no precedent in the UK, and little logic, for having complex multiple-choice options. The most likely outcome of such a procedure in Wales would be no overall majority view—and no endorsement, therefore, of the Government's policy.

That is why the Government propose to put a clear choice before the people. The people should, and will, be given that clear choice. We seek endorsement of our new vision of an inclusive democracy, and we shall spell out the full details of our proposals in our White Paper.

The question of thresholds was raised in the debate and it was suggested that the threshold should be 40 or 50 per cent., as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) has suggested. We know what that means—the creation of artificial rules, which count non-voters, absent voters or even dead voters as all voting against the proposals. Let me be clear: we shall conduct the referendums on the basis of normal democratic principles, without the construction of fancy franchises, and we shall seek majority support among those who cast their votes.

The shadow Secretary of State for Wales represents now, and represented when he was Secretary of State, all that was wrong with Conservative government. He was unaccountable to the people. Time after time, he appointed failed Tories to run the quango state in Wales. Month after month, he twisted and conspired to pack Welsh questions with his Tory cronies. His priorities reflected his party needs, not the values and aspirations of Wales. He gave us unaccountable government, and the unaccountable Government gave us bad government.

Our proposals offer a better way: the prospect of open, democratic and accountable government. I commend the Bill to the House.