Welsh Assembly

– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 22nd July 1997.

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Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office 3:30 pm, 22nd July 1997

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Government's proposals for creating an Assembly for Wales.

The Government believe that, in the United Kingdom, too much power is centralised in the hands of too few people. We believe that there is too little freedom for people in each part of the United Kingdom to decide their own priorities. Our manifesto made clear our intention to give Britain a modern constitution fitting a modem and progressive country. We believe that it is right to bring decisions closer to people, to open up government, to reform Parliament and to increase individual rights.

The White Paper that I am publishing today marks a major step forward in the achievement of our proposals for Wales. We propose to create a democratically elected Assembly that will give the people of Wales a real say in the way public services in Wales are run.

Since the Welsh Office was set up more than 30 years ago, there has been a progressive devolution of administration to Wales. As Secretary of State for Wales, I am responsible for taking decisions about health, education, economic development, roads, planning and many other public services that matter to people's everyday lives. I am accountable to the House, but our procedures here are too often seen as remote from the day-to-day realities of devolved administration.

The Government are committed to bringing decisions closer to the citizen. Our aim is to improve public services by making them more responsive to the needs and the views of people in Wales.

Wales will continue to share the same framework of laws as England, including the primary legislation made for it by Parliament, and it will remain firmly part of the United Kingdom. But the new Assembly will assume many of the functions and powers that I currently exercise. It will have at its disposal the staff and budget of the Welsh Office, now some £7 billion; it will determine policies and set standards for major public services; it will bring forward secondary legislation where necessary to implement those policies; and it will assume responsibility for unelected bodies in Wales, and have powers to reform them and bring them to account.

That means that, in future, decisions on schools, health care and other key services will be taken by people directly elected by, and accountable to, Welsh voters, and therefore responsive to their views. We will be equipping the Assembly to set a new economic agenda for Wales, focused on Welsh needs and priorities, to create the new jobs and industry that Wales still badly needs. Above all else, the Assembly will provide a clear and distinctive voice for Wales.

The Government intend that the Assembly should be a new kind of elected body, open to all talents and close to the people it serves, working in partnership with central and local government, for the benefit of all parts of Wales.

It is the Government's intention to forge a new kind of politics. The Assembly will therefore be based on principles of partnership, democracy and inclusiveness.

First, the Assembly will improve the government of Wales by working in partnership with others, especially Welsh local government. The partnership between the Assembly and local government will ensure that each tier respects the legitimate role of the other.

In making that point, I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) for his helpful paper on the proper relationship between the Assembly and local government. Let me tell him and the House that the Assembly will promote and foster local government in Wales; it will regularly review with local government how effectively that commitment is being observed; and it will not be given any new power to take functions away from local government, but will be given powers to transfer functions from quangos to local government. The establishment of the Assembly will give local government a new opportunity to reassert its rightful place as an equal partner in the governance of Wales.

The Assembly will also need to work closely with other key partners, including business and industry and the European institutions. The business community will gain easier access to key decision makers in the Assembly as it pursues its new economic agenda, and the Assembly will listen to the voice of business and respond quickly and effectively to its needs.

The Assembly will foster a new relationship with Europe. The administration of European structural funds is a matter of great importance to us in Wales. That responsibility will pass to the Assembly, which will, in consultation with the Commission, be able to determine priorities for European funding in Wales. Assembly members with executive responsibilities and their officials may, where appropriate, have a role to play in delegations to the Council of Ministers as agreed by the United Kingdom Minister leading those negotiations.

The second principle is democracy. For the first time, the key decisions for Wales will be made by people elected by and democratically accountable to the people of Wales. The executive committee will provide the political leadership of the Assembly, and will be subject to scrutiny through the processes of question and debate. Under the Assembly, policies that matter to people in Wales—education, health and other key public services—will be determined in Wales.

I now turn to the quango state. In recent years, the growth in the number of unelected bodies and some of their activities has caused great concern in Wales. Our proposals for a new and democratic structure of government will address that concern. The Assembly will be given sweeping powers to democratise, and if necessary further restructure, the quangos that remain.

That is a major package of reform, but in the Government's view the need to start the reform of the quango state in Wales is too urgent to be left to await the Assembly. Action is required now, even before the Assembly is established: that point was made forcefully by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) in earlier debates. I agree with him, so the Bill establishing the Assembly will, by merging the Welsh Development Agency, the Development Board for Rural Wales and the Land Authority for Wales, create a new economic development agency for Wales. It will be a powerhouse to promote the economic regeneration of our country. It will also transfer Tai Cymru's staff and functions to the Welsh Office, and wind up that body.

We shall also wind up Cardiff Bay development corporation by March 2000, while securing the continuing development of Cardiff Bay. We shall reduce the number of training and enterprise councils in Wales from six to four, and we shall make important changes to national health service administration. The Government have already announced that the number of NHS trusts will be reduced. Today, I can tell the House that the Health Promotion Authority for Wales and the Welsh Health Common Services Authority will be wound up and their functions transferred.

Taken together, those proposals will have a profound effect. Unelected bodies will be reduced in number before the Assembly is established, and placed under proper democratic control and scrutiny once the Assembly is in place. No longer will our key public services lie in the hands of political appointees operating in secret and accountable to no one in Wales.

The third principle I mentioned was inclusiveness.

The Assembly that we propose will have 60 members. Forty of them will be directly elected from parliamentary constituencies through the first-past-the-post system, with 20 additional members to provide an element of proportionality. Voters will be able to vote both for constituency candidates and for party lists for additional members. The Assembly will reflect all Wales in its membership and in its working practices, and its committees will give all political parties in the Assembly the opportunity to make their distinctive contribution to its work. Our proposals for regional committees will give all parts of Wales a stake in the Assembly's success.

I want people of real ability and commitment, representing the widest possible range of interests, to serve in the new Assembly. In particular—although this is not a matter for legislation—it is vital for women to participate more in public life in Wales, and I look forward to seeing a high proportion of women as Assembly members.

Members of the official Opposition have suggested that our proposals in some way threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom. That is simply wrong. Parliament will continue to be responsible for primary legislation for Wales, and there will be no reduction in Wales's representation in Parliament as a result of our establishing the Assembly.

The Secretary of State will continue to represent Welsh interests in the Cabinet, and will participate fully in the Government's formulation of policy. Through his links with the Assembly, he will ensure that Wales's voice is heard more clearly on issues of major importance to Wales. In the same way, Assembly officials—who will be members of the Home civil service—will work in close partnership with officials in other Departments in developing policy proposals. Wales will remain an integral part of the United Kingdom: let there be no doubt of that.

We intend to submit our proposals to the people for their endorsement on 18 September. I am making arrangements for the White Paper to be widely available throughout Wales; a leaflet describing our plans will go to every household, and the White Paper text will be made available on the Internet. Everyone in Wales will have the opportunity to know about our plans, and to contribute to the debate in advance of the referendum.

The Welsh Assembly is a key element in the Government's project for a new Britain, with strong communities, a modern constitution and a confident place in the world. In this new Britain, Wales will have its voice. The proposals are right for Wales and right for Britain, and I commend them to the House.

Photo of Michael Ancram Michael Ancram Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State

The Secretary of State has obviously laboured mightily since his days of voting no to devolution in Wales in 1979. He has brought forth what can only be described as a mess—a vast constitutional mess, the full extent of which will probably become apparent only when we see the draft legislation. That, I suspect, is why we have today a White Paper rather than a draft Bill. There is much that the Government seek to hide from the people of Wales before they vote in the referendum on 18 September.

The White Paper is called "A Voice for Wales". Rarely can there have been a worse misnomer. In reality, the White Paper's proposals amount to the marginalisation of Wales, its sidelining at Westminster and in Government, and the silencing of the voice of Wales where it matters, at the heart of Government. It would be better to call it "A Lost Voice for Wales", because at the end of the day, by definition, this will be a voice that ends up speaking only to itself. This expensive, bureaucratic talking shop will spell the beginning of the end of the great and historic influence wielded by Wales in the United Kingdom. It is bad for Wales, it is bad for the people of Wales, and it is bad for our United Kingdom.

On Friday, we shall debate the details of this damaging document. There will be many probing questions to be asked, to which we shall expect to hear answers. I must tell the Secretary of State that the days for bluster are over: the people of Wales deserve to be given the unvarnished facts before they are asked to vote on 18 September, and we need answers now.

Let me start that process by asking the Secretary of State a few questions now. First, where in the White Paper is the power promised by the Prime Minister in Wales last Friday for the people in Wales, through the Assembly, to run their police? Will that power in fact remain with the Home Office? If so, why has the Prime Minister changed his mind in such a short period?

Secondly, will the Secretary of State assure the House that the overall setting-up costs and running costs of the Assembly set out in the White Paper will not be exceeded? Will he confirm that those costs will be borne by existing Welsh spending programmes and not by the British taxpayer as a whole? Will he also confirm that, under his proposals, the Assembly would have the power to cut revenue support grant to local authorities in Wales in order, if it so chooses, to increase spending on its own programmes, thereby forcing local councils to make good the shortfall by raising council tax? Does he not agree that, if that were to happen, in effect it would be a back-door form of tax raising? How would that fit with his undertakings that there are no tax-raising powers in the White Paper?

What is the difference between an economic powerhouse and a super-quango of the sort that the Secretary of State is committed to destroying? How much does he expect to save from his reorganisation of quangos, and how many jobs in rural areas will be lost as a result of that reorganisation?

What will be the real role of the Secretary of State other than as a messenger boy, running to and fro between the Cabinet and the Assembly—a sort of glorified "Postman Ron"? What role will he have in future public expenditure survey reviews, which are so important to the provision of Welsh services, when he will have no responsibility for the matters over which he is arguing? How can he hope to win crucial funding battles with his colleagues in Cabinet? Will he not swiftly become the invisible man at the Cabinet table?

How will the Secretary of State's list system of electing additional members work if the Euro-constituencies on which, according to the White Paper, it is based are abolished in pursuance of the wider Government policy on proportional representation in Euro-elections?

Finally, is it not clear that, far from providing a satisfactory or durable solution, this White Paper presents the opportunity for massive disappointment and consequent disillusion with the devolutionary process, and establishes the basis for a focus of discontent, which will increasingly threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom? Is this White Paper not a fraud on the people of Wales—more like a sales pitch for a dodgy timeshare deal than a document intended to make constitutional history? On reflection, was not the Secretary of State right in his 1979 instinct of voting against devolution for Wales, and would he not be sensible to return to that position now?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

No, I would not. I will deal with the last point that the right hon. Gentleman has raised at the conclusion of my replies to him.

If the right hon. Gentleman were concerned about the integrity of the United Kingdom, he should have reflected carefully on the attitude of the previous Conservative Government, who ruled Wales ruthlessly in the interests of the Conservative party and of Conservative appointees, rather than of the people of Wales.

If anyone has exacerbated the political situation in Wales, it is my predecessors as Secretary of State: the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who brought the Conservative party into disrepute in Wales, and my immediate predecessor, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who managed, thanks to the Conservative record, to ensure that no one in Wales now speaks for the Conservative party, which lost every seat at the last general election defending the status quo. I should have thought that the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) would reflect on that.

On the specific questions that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, the Bill will provide for the transfer of my functions to the Assembly. I do not have responsibility for the police at the moment—although, of course, the Assembly will be able to debate such matters and to make representations. He has raised the question of tax-raising powers. We have made it absolutely clear that the Assembly will not have any direct tax-raising powers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Direct—ah."] Well, of course, I have made it absolutely clear that the Assembly will not have direct tax-raising powers. It will have responsibility for the allocation of the block grant, just as I now have responsibility for that grant. Those powers were exercised by my predecessor in a way that deliberately inflated council tax bills in Wales for the past two years. He wrote to right hon. and hon. Members stating that it was the previous Conservative Government's deliberate policy that council tax bills should increase by more in Wales than in England.

The right hon. Member for Devizes mentioned the rural areas. I give him the categorical assurance that I have given hon. Members who represent those areas that there will be no diminution in support for the rural parts of Wales as a result of the reform of the Development Board for Rural Wales. He spoke about the role of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will continue. Under previous Administrations, the Secretary of State served to bring the Tory writ from Whitehall to Wales. Under Labour's proposals and under the Assembly, the Secretary of State will be the voice of Wales in Government in Westminster and Whitehall, and that is an interesting and worthwhile development.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the additional Member system, and queried what would happen if we were to review constituency boundaries. We would have to deal with that matter at the time, and if the European constituency boundaries were amended, we would have to make provision for the continuation of an additional Member system in future elections.

The right hon. Gentleman started and finished on my decision to reverse the position that I held in 1979. In 1979, I voted against the devolution proposals for what I believed to be a good reason at the time. We had just had an extensive reorganisation of local government, which forced on us in Wales two tiers of local government. There are no longer two tiers: we now have a single tier of unitary authorities. When the right hon. Gentleman has had time to learn a little more about Wales, he will understand our system of local government.

In 1979, we had recently entered Europe, and we faced the prospect of the first elections to the European Parliament. That was a novel development at the time, and there was confusion about the role of the regions in Europe. Since that time, there have been substantial changes. We now have a new relationship with Europe, and I believe that the interests of my country and Britain's regions will be better served by having a positive and distinctive voice in Europe. The powers that have been increasingly devolved to Wales by the right hon. Gentleman's party, by successive Conservative Secretaries of State, since 1979 have resulted in a panoply of powers in the Welsh Office, which need to be put under democratic control.

Finally, I have learnt a bitter lesson since 1979—that rule by the people of Wales, electing their own representatives and deciding their own priorities and policies, is a far better prospect for our people than continuous rule by Conservative Secretaries of State, who represent no one but their own vested ideological interests.

Photo of Mr Ted Rowlands Mr Ted Rowlands Labour, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

Sadly, I say to my right hon. Friend that I do not think that the document is a bonfire of the quangos. The vast majority of the quangos and the quango state will survive to at least 2000. May I ask him why?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

We have made it clear in our White Paper that we shall take immediate action to remove nine of the quangos. Within what is called the quango state, there are three separate types of quango. Many of them—by far the greatest number—are those that were set up to provide specialist advice to Government. I do not think that anybody would want to remove the specialist committees that deal with a range of matters ranging from pharmacology to the boundaries of upland farming. Those are advisory committees and are not part of what we understand to be the executive machinery of government. They were set up by Government to provide specialist advice, and any system of government will continue to require them.

Secondly, some quangos were set up by royal charter. It is not within my gift to bring about changes to those bodies, such as the Sports Council for Wales or the governing body of the museum. They must consider their own structure in the light of the Assembly. Thirdly, the sector that deals more specifically with my hon. Friend's concerns consists of the executive quangos. We have taken direct action. We are removing some quangos that deal with economic development or directly with the health service or with housing.

In total, we are reducing the number of executive quangos by nine. Crucially, we are empowering the Assembly. It is important to realise that, when the Assembly is created, it must look at the situation it inherits. It will have a responsibility to decide what it wishes to do with bodies such as the Further Education Funding Council for Wales. There are decisions that we must take now, particularly in respect of economic quangos, to provide the Assembly with the tools to do the job.

As for the other quangos, it seems perfectly in keeping with the principles of devolution to set up the body and give it powers to decide how it wishes to run such internal affairs in Wales.

Mr. Lembit Öpik:

The Liberal Democrats welcome the White Paper. It is about time that Westminster woke up to its responsibilities to other parts of the United Kingdom, and this is the first important step in achieving that for Wales. I am sure that everyone here who is genuinely interested in democracy will support the tenets and the concept behind the White Paper. That is why I hereby categorically state that the Liberal Democrats will campaign for a yes vote on 18 September.

Naturally, there are aspects that concern us. What, for example, will be the future format of regional development support in place of the abolished Development Board for Rural Wales? How does the Secretary of State intend to restructure health provision to try to alleviate the desperate health crisis, especially in the context of the cottage hospitals?

There are also questions about local government, and within that also the reassurance, which I know is in the document, but specifically in terms of the appraisal of exactly what the local authorities will be allowed to do—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question."] So my question is: will the Secretary of State reassure us that, over the next seven weeks, he will listen sympathetically and constructively to proposals made by those in other parties and by the general public, to ensure that we have not just a voice for Wales, but a voice for all Wales?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's announcement that he intends to campaign in favour—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I must say that I welcome it; of course I do. It shows that there are people in the House who can recognise that sometimes there is a unity that extends across the Floor of the House. If there are matters on which we agree, it seems to me sensible—it might be a mature way of conducting our affairs—to acknowledge where there are agreements, rather than destroying things unnecessarily in order to focus on the disagreements.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

The hon. Gentleman is giving us a perfect example of the sort of politics that I want to get away from.

I welcome the commitment by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) to campaign for a yes vote on 18 September. I assure him that I understand the concerns of rural Wales, especially his constituents' fears about the merger of the DBRW with the Welsh Development Agency. The new body will build on the best of both organisations, and it is my absolute determination—I can give the hon. Gentleman a guarantee here and now—to ensure that the work of the DBRW will be continued by the new agency when it is established.

We have made it clear in the White Paper, and it will be a continuing commitment by the Government, that the Assembly will not encroach on the powers of local government, but will work in partnership with it. I believe that, as the quango state is wound down, there will be opportunities for local government to embrace more and more powers, and to play an increasing role in our national affairs. Equally, we are determined to unwind the health quangos. Money saved by reducing the number of quangos will go towards improving the quality of health care.

Photo of Mr Dafydd Wigley Mr Dafydd Wigley Leader and Party President, Plaid Cymru

May I say at the outset that we welcome a number of aspects of the White Paper—those proposals that will be beneficial to Wales. None the less, it will provide an Assembly that we feel is substantially less powerful than Wales needs. At the very least, we should have had a Parliament with powers as strong as those promised to Scotland.

However, no one can deny that, on 1 May, the Government had an overwhelming mandate in Wales for their policies. Was not the scale of the Tories' defeat in Wales, where they lost every seat, a reflection of the disgust felt there at their abuse of power—imposing by governor-general and by quango what they could not secure by democratic mandate? Does the Secretary of State agree that the one overwhelming reason why the people of Wales will vote for his proposals is that they will be seen as a bastion to protect Wales from ever again being the victim of such arbitrary Tory rule?

We welcome the fact that no powers will be taken from local government, that Wales will have a higher profile in Europe, and that the Assembly will be free to develop its policies on a range of issues; but I seek an assurance that the needs of rural Wales will be specifically safeguarded under the new proposed structure. Will the Secretary of State confirm that it will be possible for the Assembly to use its powers on a regional basis within Wales, so that, for example, North Wales or Dyfed Powys health authority would become answerable to the elected representatives from those areas?

Will the executive of the Welsh Assembly have as full a right as the Scottish Parliament to fight its corner in Brussels? That consideration is important to agriculture and industry in Wales. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this Assembly is to have substantially stronger powers, especially with regard to economics and the development of the Welsh economy, than that proposed in 1979?

We shall study the White Paper carefully. The status quo is not an acceptable option, and we can only hope that the proposed Assembly will have the potential to give Wales the democratic government that our country so greatly needs and deserves.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I think that I can reasonably interpret that as a qualified welcome, and I appreciate it as such, although I understand that the proposed Assembly is a far cry from the Parliament on which the hon. Gentleman and his party fought and lost the election; as he rightly says, these are our proposals. He is right to suppose that the Assembly will act as a bastion against the prospect of a further Conservative Government, but I happen to believe that it has merits in its own right: it will improve our democracy, and give us better government.

I especially welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments on local government and Europe. There is a developing consensus in Wales about the way forward. The new economic powerhouse will certainly be required to have a system of regional directors, and one of those will by and large mirror the area of the existing Development Board for Rural Wales, so there will be a clear responsibility to continue the board's work.

There are some difficulties that we would have to overcome to achieve the outcome for area health authorities that the hon. Gentleman proposes. There is a statutory requirement on those authorities to include professional medical representatives, and that would obviously have to be accommodated in any reorganised system. At the moment, we also have a binding commitment to operate the Nolan rules for appointments to area health authorities, and we would have to ensure that those rules took account of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but I assure him that it would be possible to go down that road if the Assembly so decided.

Wales will not be disadvantaged in our representation in Europe as compared with the Scottish Parliament and its Ministers. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct to say that the current proposal is infinitely stronger than that of 1979, not least in the central mechanism that we are providing to enable the Assembly to improve the living conditions and economic prospects of the people of Wales.

Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams Labour, Swansea West

Does the Secretary of State, like the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), see the Assembly as an evolving concept, developing its powers and its role over time? If so, is he not offering the people of Wales the constitutional equivalent of a mystery tour? They can decide whether to get on the bus, but they can have no say in its ultimate destination.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

No, I do not agree with my right hon. Friend that it is a mystery tour. Parliament is sovereign and will decide to what extent it wants to devolve powers to the people of Wales. We propose to consult the people of Wales by means of a referendum, and they will decide whether they want to embark on the process; if they decide that it is a tour in which they have no interest, they will tell us so on 18 September.

However, I do indeed consider the Assembly to be an evolving concept. Since 1964, there has been increasing devolution of power to Cardiff. A Secretary of State with very limited powers was appointed in 1964, and those powers were exercised under the Government loyally served by my right hon. Friend, and increased by successive Conservative Secretaries of State. Now, in 1997, there is an extremely powerful Welsh Office, with a budget of about £7 billion; that is out of all proportion to anything that could have been envisaged in 1964.

As Secretary of State, I have responsibility for the equivalent of seven or eight Westminster Departments. No one could have conceived in 1964 that the Welsh Office, as then created, would have become the body that it is today. If the Assembly evolves and becomes more representative, if it gives us a better democracy and serves the people of Wales better, if we have a better economy and more effective public services, that is evolution that I would very much welcome.

Photo of Dr Michael Clark Dr Michael Clark Conservative, Rayleigh

Does the Secretary of State recall saying in his statement that decisions relating to schools and health in Wales will be taken by people elected by the people of Wales? Does he agree that decisions on schools and health in England will also be taken by people elected in Wales—Welsh Members of Parliament? Does he think that that is right, or does he believe that the English do not have the same right to make their own health and education decisions as the people of Wales?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

Let me give the hon. Gentleman an example. It was this Parliament that decided that provision would be made for the nursery voucher scheme. English, Scottish and Welsh Members participated in those debates and passed the primary legislation. The nursery voucher scheme was then implemented in Wales, in the teeth of the opposition of 34 out of 38 Welsh Members of Parliament. Not one Welsh local authority favoured the scheme. The Welsh Office received some 4,000 letters of opposition and many petitions against it. The system was entirely inappropriate to Wales. It was bureaucratic, divisive and wasteful. The Welsh Office received one letter of support.

The system was implemented in Wales by secondary legislation. The primary legislation was the responsibility of the House. That procedure will remain exactly the same. This House will decide the framework of primary legislation. However, instead of having a Secretary of State for Wales who is not answerable to the people and who implements policy in direct contradiction to the express wishes of the people, it will be the wishes of the people that prevail. That is democracy, and that is what I want to see.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Will my right hon. Friend have the courage to take our campaign into the very heart of the camp of the noes—that is, to the island of Jersey—during the August holidays? Is it not incredible that the Conservative party believes that our constitutional structure is so perfect that it cannot be improved?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. I understand that there is an organisation in Wales called the "Say No to Wales" campaign. It is a front organisation, behind which the Conservative party, which is frightened to campaign for a no vote, hides. It is bankrolled by a 92-year-old recluse living in tax exile in Jersey. [Interruption.] If it is a question of open debate, I would rather that the democratically elected representatives of the people of Wales put the case honestly and openly to their constituents. [Interruption.]

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I understand that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) hopes to question the Secretary of State at the end. If so, he might keep calm and hold his fire until then. Many hon. Members wish to ask questions. I hope that the Secretary of State will be brisk in his responses.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

In which case, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

I note that the White Paper states that, when the Assembly is set up The Secretary of State … will not … be accountable for the activities of the Welsh Assembly". That is the central point over which the right hon. Gentleman skated in answering the question raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). If the Secretary of State is no longer accountable to the Welsh Assembly, how do we, as the elected representatives of the United Kingdom Parliament, maintain scrutiny over secondary legislation passed by the Assembly?

At present, we can call the Secretary of State to account. Under the proposed system, however, we will not be able to do so. If that is the case, why should any Welsh Member of Parliament have the right to participate in any debate on matters concerning other parts of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

The purpose of the exercise—which the hon. Gentleman may have misunderstood—is to devolve power. If we devolve power, we have to accept that people may choose to exercise that power in a way we do not like. It is not my desire to devolve power to the Welsh Assembly and then have the opportunity to second-guess it at each and every opportunity. If we devolve, we have to let go, and that is what we propose to do.

Each and every act of devolution, and every decision to pass powers to a Welsh Assembly will be taken by this House. Acting together, English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh Members of Parliament will decide the nature and the extent of the powers to be devolved to the Assembly.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

As someone who campaigned for a yes vote and who voted yes in the last referendum, I am certain that, after 18 years of Tory government, the people of Wales will have no doubt this time around, and that there will be an overwhelming yes vote for the Assembly.

I would have liked to see a Parliament for Wales, as that would have been an important step forward for democracy in Wales. I hope very much that we will have a Parliament, as the Scots will have.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State particularly mentioned the importance of having more women in public life in Wales. I believe that it has been the fault of the "selectorates" rather than the electorate that we have had so few women in the past. How precisely does he intend to assist that process?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I very much appreciate the consistency of my hon. Friend, who puts me to shame by drawing it to the attention of the House. I am grateful for her support, and I know that she will campaign vigorously for the Assembly, in line with the principles she has always advocated. I made it clear in my opening remarks—it is also in the White Paper—that I believe that the Assembly will be better served if it is more representative of all aspects of Welsh life. That means that we have to bring more women into political life in Wales.

However, that is a matter for my hon. Friend and for me as party politicians—it is not a matter for me as Secretary of State. I can assure her that, in the debates that we will have within the Labour party, she will find me a staunch ally.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Conservative, North Shropshire

There appears to be a contradiction here. The Secretary of State has just told us that this Parliament is sovereign. In future, it may come to pass that a policy laid down by this Parliament is in conflict with a policy decided by the Assembly. If this Parliament can overrule the Assembly, does not that render the Assembly nothing more than an expensive talking shop?

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

He is talking through a hole in his hat, and he knows it.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend, but there is another argument that I would rather use.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) must accept, as we do, that this Parliament is sovereign and can override the decisions of a Welsh Assembly at any time if it wishes to do so. But we should not view politics as an all-or-nothing game, in which all power rests at the centre and the wishes of the centre must prevail under all circumstances. I want to see devolved and pluralistic government, and we are proposing to devolve powers to Wales.

If, in five or 10 years' time, the Conservative party wishes to override the people of Wales by exercising the sovereign powers of this Parliament, it can do so. I happen to think that, once the Assembly is created, no Conservative Government who threatened to ride roughshod over the wishes of the people of Wales—or, for that matter, the people of Scotland or the English regions—would be elected.

Photo of Mr Allan Rogers Mr Allan Rogers Labour, Rhondda

I thank the Secretary of State for his kind remarks, and I am glad that he found my paper helpful. His proposals do not relieve me of my fears, but that is a subject for future discussion.

Although I accept that there is a democratic deficit in Wales—created mainly by the Conservative party and its shameless behaviour in the past 18 years—what disappoints me is that the White Paper is a nationalistic, rather than a parliamentary, response. Does he believe that the 60 members of the future Welsh Assembly will be able to control the quangos, which will not be scrapped? The powerful ones may be merged, but appointments to them will not be scrapped. Does he believe that those 60 members will be better able to control those quangos than him, his Ministers, the Welsh Office and the 40 elected Members of Parliament?

Are we not democratically accountable? Are my right hon. Friend and his Ministers incapable of, or incompetent at, policing what will be left of the quango state? If the Secretary of State can demonstrate, once the Bill is drawn up, that we will get rid of the quango state, I should be only too happy to support his proposals.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's qualified support. The proposals spell the end of the quango state in Wales. In the past 15 years, that state has been characterised by the surreptitious and corrupt appointment of, by and large, Conservative placemen by previous Conservative Secretaries of State. Those quangos have followed a Conservative party agenda. They met in secret, and were not accountable either to the House or to Welsh public opinion. That will come to an end, because there will be a substantial reduction in the number of quangos.

We will ensure that appointments to the quangos that remain will be open, properly advertised and made according to the Nolan principles. The terms of reference of those few remaining quangos will be set by the Assembly after public debate, and it will be charged with scrutinising and calling to account their actions. That is a far better prospect than rule by the quangos established by previous Conservative Secretaries of State, who conspired in the House to prevent Members of Parliament from carrying out their proper legitimate duty to scrutinise the activities of those quangos.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

The Secretary of State painted a glowing picture of the weight of responsibility that he currently carries, with budgets of £7 billion, offices to run and so on. When all that is devolved, what on earth will he be left to do? The truth of the matter is that he does not care, because, if he takes this mess successfully through the House, he will no doubt hope to be promoted to a real job, leaving the insubstantial shadow to someone else.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

Most people in Wales will regard those comments as particularly insulting. I believe that I have an important role, and I regard it as a great privilege to serve the people of Wales. I happen to believe that those people would be better served if they had greater control over the services which influence their lives in so many ways.

As I explained to another Conservative Member, this House will be the legislative body for the people of Wales. The British Cabinet will construct the relevant legislation and will put in place the mechanisms for devolution that will operate in Wales. It will be very important for Wales to have a Secretary of State to ensure that the voice of Wales is heard in the British Cabinet. It is important to ensure that the people of Wales have a voice to speak on their behalf about the conduct of all Government affairs. It is important that the people of Wales have a voice in Europe to ensure that when European decisions are taken our voice is heard among those of the people of England and Scotland.

The Secretary of State will have a continuing role, if a changing one. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot understand that politics is not fossilised. Our constitution evolves, and it must be democratic and dynamic. It must change to suit modern circumstances.

Photo of Mr Raymond Powell Mr Raymond Powell Labour, Ogmore

I recall my right hon. Friend's support for women in his statement. Would he therefore consider whether it might have been possible to abolish the proportional representation system, as he has proposed, in favour of 80 members of the Assembly, 40 men and 40 women, elected for the 40 constituencies? That would undoubtedly have pleased the women of Wales, and the women of the country. It would have given at least an opportunity to every man and every woman in Wales to represent one of the 40 constituencies.

I put that proposal to the commission of the Labour party executive committee in Wales. I thought that it would at least look at it seriously and decide not introduce a PR system. I must tell the Secretary of State that I do not intend to vote for the proposals if they include one on PR. Indeed, I shall only be more or less following what he has now admitted he did in 1979, when I and several others were trying to introduce a Welsh Assembly. I trust that he has now decided that he is quite prepared to listen to the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) and others whose views might, like mine, differ from his on this issue.

I conclude by asking this question. Some time ago, my right hon. Friend made a statement about abolishing all the quangos—sweeping them away as soon as we had a Labour Government and Welsh devolution; so why is he is currently proposing that only one fifth should be done away with?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Before the Secretary of State responds, may I make a plea to all hon. Members to put only one question to the Secretary of State? We have spent a long time on this issue, and we shall be coming back to it. We are not debating the White Paper; we are questioning the Secretary of State's statement and I am sure that the Secretary of State will be brisk, so that I can call as many hon. Members as possible.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I know that my hon. Friend is a long-standing opponent of proportional representation and that he made a submission to the Labour party policy commission that considered these matters. The commission considered his views, and the option of including a double number of constituency representatives to ensure that women were represented. However, it was the commission's view that that was not the way to proceed, and that view was put to the Labour party conference in February this year and accepted unanimously. I am loyal to that policy.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

What will happen to the Welsh Grand Committee following the setting up of the Assembly?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

That will be a matter for the House to decide.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams Labour, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

On the question of quangos, I have not yet read the White Paper in detail, but my impression is that a number will be cut and a number will be merged. That is not proper democratisation, and our pledge was that we would bring unelected quangos under democratic control. Referring particularly to the Welsh Arts Council and the Welsh Language Board, it is strange to be thinking of an elected Assembly that does not take over responsibility for the arts and the language, which are unique to the Principality.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I apologise to my hon. Friend for the fact that he has not had a chance to read the White Paper. When he has had a chance to do so, he will understand that we refer specifically to those points.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

As the Secretary of State is trying to indicate, we are not today debating the White Paper. That will come later.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

Let me reassure my hon. Friend that we are making substantial inroads into the number of quangos, and that all remaining quangos will be fully accountable to the Welsh Assembly.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

One gathers that the set-up costs of this exercise will be some £12 million to £17 million, and that the annual running costs will be £15 million to £20 million. Can the Secretary of State give an undertaking that that will all be paid for out of the Welsh block grant, and that the English taxpayer will in no sense be asked to pay for any of this extravaganza?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I do not think that the Treasury calculates the tax receipts it currently receives on the basis of whether they are paid by English, Welsh or Scottish taxpayers. However, the costs of the Welsh Assembly will be met from the eventual settlement between the Welsh Office and the Exchequer.

Photo of Mr Rhodri Morgan Mr Rhodri Morgan Labour, Cardiff West

Now that the Tory party has decided to leave Wales to its own devices, may I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the intrepid explorers of his Department on having apparently found at last the source of Lake Quango, where those undemocratic creatures have been breeding so prolifically in recent years? I recommend a strong spraying of DDT—democratic deficit treatment.

Even if that is done in several stages—partially by primary legislation here and now and partially by the Welsh Assembly itself—will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that, in the end, the quango state will have been uprooted and properly dealt with through the processes of democratisation?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I can give my hon. Friend that absolute guarantee. I am grateful for his continued support in these matters.

Photo of Mr Nick St Aubyn Mr Nick St Aubyn Conservative, Guildford

Talking of democratic deficits, will the Secretary of State be standing for the Welsh Assembly, or does he intend to lord it over the Assembly as the viceroy of the valleys?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

The purpose of the reforms is to introduce a new democracy to ensure that we have sensible, rational and mature debates. I have no desire to lord it over anyone.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Was my right hon. Friend cheered this morning by the words of Mrs. Betty Campbell, who heads a school in the Butetown area of Cardiff? That school is very similar to Pillgwenlly school in my constituency where, last Saturday, children, mixed together, mostly from ethnic minority backgrounds, sang in English, Welsh and Urdu.

Is not a minor miracle going on in Wales, in which groups of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds—including Welsh-speaking Members of Parliament from Irish stock—come together? Can we not say in the Assembly, in that stronger identity that we have in Wales, that this is a nation made up of many ethnic groups, composed of races from throughout the world? We have a proud record of racial harmony, which we can express with the stronger identity that we shall have among the other nations of Europe under the Assembly, which will be welcomed by all the peoples of Wales.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. It is worth reflecting on the two campaigns that we shall have in Wales. We shall have the "Yes for Wales" campaign, which will be composed of people from all walks of life coming together voluntarily to campaign for a newer, better and more confident Wales. They will be opposed by the "Say No to Wales" campaign, a Tory front organisation, representing no one, with no hope, no interests and no prospect of ever again representing anyone in Wales.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Conservative, Banbury

The Secretary of State must be aware that, last Thursday evening, a significant number of Welsh Members trooped into the Government Lobby to rate-cap two English shire counties: Oxfordshire and Somerset. If, in future, English Members are no longer to have any say or involvement in Welsh education, Welsh housing and Welsh health, what possible justification can there be in future for Welsh Members to determine matters affecting class size in my constituency, or the level of funding for counties such as Oxfordshire or Somerset?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if he has not yet had the chance to read the White Paper and does not understand the nature of the proposals. This is the Parliament of the people of Wales, and this is the sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom; any proposals relating to Welsh education, the Welsh health service or any other matters relating to Wales will be decided by this House. It is right that people from Wales should be represented when legislation that has a direct impact on the people of Wales is passing through the House of Commons.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

The Secretary of State once said that he intended to scrap the quango state in Wales; he has obviously failed dismally to do so. However, does he realise that, if one wished to scrap those quangos, one would not need to have recourse to an expensive Welsh Assembly? They were set up by this Parliament and they can be repealed by this Parliament—as I said, without an expensive Welsh Assembly.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

Yes, the quangos could be repealed. However, the work of organisations such as the Welsh Development Agency has made a significant improvement to the quality of life of my hon. Friend's constituents. I happen to think that bodies such as that have significantly improved the economic prospects of our people in Wales and the quality of the public services they enjoy.

I want not so much to abolish those quangos as to ensure that the services they provide are democratically accountable to the people of Wales. In doing so, we do need to get rid of the boards, but I ask my hon. Friend not to confuse my determination to get rid of the unelected, unaccountable boards with his apparent determination to get rid of the quangos and the executive functions that they perform. I can assure him that, if we were to do as he suggests, Welsh public life would be very much the poorer.

Photo of Mr Barry Jones Mr Barry Jones Labour, Alyn and Deeside

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Wales are a mature political democracy, quite capable of taking decisions for themselves? However, will he assure my constituents on Deeside—indeed, people throughout north-east Wales—that there are advantages to be gained from an Assembly, bearing in mind the fact that many of my constituents believe that Cardiff is a faraway, rather foreign place? Does he see a long-term future for the great office of Secretary of State for Wales?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I have already dealt several times with the question of the office of Secretary of State, but I am grateful for the continued support of my hon. Friend in this matter. The office of Secretary of State will continue. I also assure my hon. Friend that the economic powerhouse will be specifically charged with containing a north Wales division. The work being done at the moment by the Welsh Development Agency, in conjunction with the North Wales Forum, will continue.

The Assembly will also have a statutory duty to set up a regional committee structure; one of those committees will be a north Wales committee. Therefore, if my hon. Friend feels that Cardiff is a long way from north Wales, he can be reassured that the people of north Wales will have their own clear structure in the Assembly—and their own clear voice.

Photo of Mr Howard Flight Mr Howard Flight Conservative, Arundel and South Downs

Will the Secretary of State comment further on the precise powers that the Assembly will have in the domestic areas of health, education and housing? Either those powers will be meaningful and greater than the powers that local authorities already have, or the Assembly will be little more than a talking shop. If it has powers to act contrary to the Government of the day, will that not have long-term implications? For instance, its block grant should be no more than pro rata, and should no longer include subsidies from England.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

The answer to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question is no. As for the first part, the powers that the Assembly will have are the powers that I currently exercise. They will be published before the Second Reading of the substantive Bill, and the full details will be provided in the transfer order before the final passage of that Bill through both Houses of Parliament.

Photo of Mr Tim Collins Mr Tim Collins Conservative, Westmorland and Lonsdale

As the Secretary of State is proposing that 40 members of the Assembly should have constituencies, and hence presumably constituency postbags and surgeries, while 20 of them will have none, how can he possibly say that every member will have equal status?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

It is a matter of fact that 60 persons will sit in the Assembly. Each and every one of them will be responsible to the constituents who elect them. But some will be elected by the first-past-the-post system, with the equivalent of parliamentary constituencies, and others will be elected on the party list system, responsible for representing a wider European constituency. The hon. Gentleman may be looking for symmetry, but, over the hundreds of years that the British constitution has been developing, it has never exhibited symmetry. The hon. Gentleman is wasting his time if he tries to achieve it now.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

May I tell the Secretary of State why I, an English Member of Parliament, welcome these proposals? I do so because they relate to the good governance of the United Kingdom, and they may herald electoral reform for the rest of the United Kingdom. When my right hon. Friend talks to Cabinet colleagues, will he bear in mind the need to argue that we must not stop at devolution for Wales and Scotland, important nations though they are?

We need constitutional symmetry throughout the United Kingdom, to deal with the problems of quangos and all the other undemocratic and unaccountable institutions that we have had to endure. There is also the problem of secondary legislation that goes through this place unscrutinised—that particularly affects England. Will my right hon. Friend encourage his colleagues in Cabinet to devolve power throughout the United Kingdom, and to see this as but an important first step for us all?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I most certainly will. It is the Government's policy to bring about devolution for Scotland and Wales, and I hope that the bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland will continue—although I am at a loss to understand why the Conservative party thinks that an Assembly for Northern Ireland would unite the United Kingdom but an Assembly for Wales would divide it. Once we have regional government in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, I hope that we shall proceed to strong regional government in England.

We also need more constitutional reform. The proceedings of this House and of the House of Lords could do with a great deal of improvement—as could many other practices in what passes for our democracy. A new broom is called for.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce Conservative, South Dorset

I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker, for calling me. Annex B shows clearly that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to take his top slice off the Welsh block grant to pay for his own office, but that the rest of the block grant can be vired by the Assembly—his statement has also made that clear.

If this House votes a certain amount to local government, will it be wholly in the hands of the new Assembly to decide which councils get how much? If south Wales makes up two thirds of the membership, will it be able to vote itself more for its local authorities than north Wales will get?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

The hon. Gentleman asked three questions. The answers are yes, yes and yes.

Photo of Dr John Marek Dr John Marek Labour, Wrexham

I welcome the statement. I read on page 25 of the White Paper that regional committees will be established to ensure that the needs of all parts of Wales will be heard. That is all right as far as it goes, but my constituents will be asking whether there are any assurances that a fair share of resources will be provided for north Wales and not be sabotaged by the majority of south Wales.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I hardly think that that is so. There is no guarantee at the moment—with myself as, as it were, a south Walean Member of Parliament—of ensuring that there is a fair distribution of resources. That is why I have been so anxious to encourage a good working partnership with all local government.

On the previous two occasions that I have met the 22 leaders of Welsh local government, I have assured them that I want to develop a mutually agreed formula that will ensure that resources are fairly and equitably shared among all parts of Wales. Our system of proportionality, which is included in the White Paper, will ensure that all parts of Wales and all political parties are properly represented. The committee system that we are proposing will ensure that the committee of north Wales—I understand the vulnerability that my hon. Friend expresses on behalf of his constituents—has a clear and distinctive voice for its people.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Lawrence Mrs Jackie Lawrence Labour, Preseli Pembrokeshire

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposals in his statement will ensure that a situation such as the one that arose before, when the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), returned £100 million that was meant for Wales to the Treasury to support his right-wing credentials rather than spending it on essential infrastructure and investment in Wales for the people of Wales, will never happen again?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Hon. Members seem to have forgotten that lesson rather easily. Over the past 17 years, we have had Conservative rule in Wales, which has been unacceptable to the majority of people. We now have to take the opportunity of a new Government who have a clear majority to ensure that the events that have been visited on us due to the unbridled ideology of the Conservative party—quite unsuited to our needs, circumstances or aspirations—are never allowed to reoccur.

Photo of David Hanson David Hanson Labour, Delyn

I welcome the commitment given in the statement to regional committees, particularly for north Wales. Will my right hon. Friend give some indication of how that regional committee will relate to the rest of the Assembly? May I also take this opportunity to welcome the redundancy of several of my constituents who hold lucrative positions on quangos but who have never received a vote in Wales, and who sit on those bodies only because they have Conservative party cards?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and I am grateful, as ever, to receive his report. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), will be holding a press conference in north Wales on Thursday, when he will go into more detail about the north Wales committee. It would probably be for the convenience of the House if I were to leave it at that for the moment.

Photo of Mr Huw Edwards Mr Huw Edwards Labour, Monmouth

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the voting system that he has proposed will ensure that we have fair representation in the Assembly and a more consensual form of politics, which deserves to be supported by all parties in Wales—not least the Conservative party, which secured no seats but received 20 per cent. of the votes at the general election?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I agree. Rather than standing outside the locked doors of the Welsh Grand Committee pleading to be let in, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) would do rather better to try to persuade the Conservative party to adopt a policy of proportional representation. The proposals that we are putting forward commanded the unanimous support of the Labour party in Wales. I am pleased that they received also the support—qualified though it is—of both the Liberal Democrats in Wales and, as I understand it, Plaid Cymru. That shows that it is possible to build a cross-party consensus, which points the way to more mature, sensible politics.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

It is my impression that the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) did not enter the Chamber until the Secretary of State either had finished his statement or was well into his delivery. I make it clear to new Members that I call upon hon. Members to question a statement only if they have been in the Chamber to hear that statement. That is common sense, and it is a courtesy to whoever makes the statement.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset

Madam Speaker, I was in the Chamber for the Secretary of State's statement and during the observations by the shadow Secretary of State. I then left the Chamber for a few seconds, and returned.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

In that case, I shall call the hon. Member for West Dorset to ask a question. However, I assure hon. Members that I have very good eyesight, and that I make a note of all those who leave the Chamber, as I did in the case of the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce).

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset

In light of the Secretary of State's various remarks about sovereignty, are there any circumstances in which primary legislation or powers given to the Secretary of State or others under primary legislation would be used to overrule decisions of the Welsh Assembly?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

It is a matter of fact that the House is sovereign. It can do whatever it wishes, and it may be that, from time to time, it will override decisions taken by the Welsh Assembly. I think that that would be bad for government and bad for democracy. However, as long as our constitutional arrangements exist in their present form—and our proposals are compatible with the House's remaining sovereign—that is what will occur.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) contributed a highly pertinent article to The Times on, among other things, Welsh representation in Europe. Throughout his statement, my right hon. Friend referred to the voice of Wales in Europe. Will he be clear how that will differ from the existing arrangements?

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

We do not have a Welsh Assembly at present, and it will clearly make a difference when we do. When that Assembly is created, a provision will allow its executive members to discuss with the British delegation the views taken by that delegation and the arguments presented on behalf of the United Kingdom. If there are matters of particular relevance to Wales and to Scotland, when there is a Scottish Assembly, the Assemblies could assist the respective Secretaries of State—who have particular territorial responsibilities—in reflecting the views of Scotland and Wales more vigorously.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Does the Secretary of State intend to stand for the new Assembly, if it is created? He might as well do so, because, after he has given away most of his powers to that Assembly, he will not have much of a role to perform here as Secretary of State for Wales.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm also that, including the cost of the referendum, the new Assembly will cost £42 million in the first year, plus £20 million for each successive year? Therefore, in its first four-year term, the new Assembly will cost more than £100 million.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the people of Wales will want that money not to be wasted on a new Assembly building, but spent on improved housing? Does he agree that they will want to see that money spent not on new politicians, but on more teachers for Welsh youngsters; not on more bureaucracy and civil servants, but on more hospitals and nurses? If a spare £100 million is sloshing around in the system, let it be spent on providing real services for Wales, and not just on another tier of government that will cause discord and conflict among Westminster, the Assembly and local authorities.

While the prospect of seeing the Secretary of State silenced is very attractive, the £100 million cost to the taxpayer is too much. The Assembly would be not "A Voice for Wales" but a vice on Wales, which would squeeze money out of services and spend it on new, useless and wasteful bureaucracy.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies Secretary of State, Welsh Office

I can now understand why the leader of the Conservative party has decided that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) shall not lead for the Conservative party in Wales. The right hon. Gentleman has appointed Jonathan Evans, who failed to win a seat in the House at the last election, as the Conservatives' official spokesperson in Wales.

As to my own political future, that is a matter that I shall discuss with my party and my constituents. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, if he and I were to stand for the Assembly, I think that my chances of election would be rather greater than his.

We do not propose to construct a new building for the Assembly, or to create more bureaucracy in a democratic Wales or more civil servants; so I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's figures do not add up.