I issued a consultation paper on 8 December which invites the people of Wales to comment on the location of the National Assembly for Wales. There have been several hundred responses so far. The consultation period ends on 30 January and I expect to be able to announce a decision by early March 1998.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's continuing interest in this matter. I assure him that I have had a very positive response from the people of Wales and that the consultation process, far from being an embarrassment, is a very positive exercise in which the Government consult the people of Wales. I believe that the fact that I have received several hundred responses shows a real interest throughout Wales in this matter.
The costs of the consultation exercise will be met out of the Welsh block grant, so there is no suggestion of any additional costs. Given the hon. Gentleman's continuing interest in Welsh affairs, I know that he will be disappointed to know that I have not yet received a bid from North Shropshire.
In view of the dignity, size and appropriateness of Swansea town hall, an historic building which has been under-used lately, will the right hon. Gentleman significantly and seriously take into account its very real merits, especially in view of the cost-effectiveness of this solution compared with new build?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's serious contribution. I acknowledge the fact that I have received a submission from Swansea and the fact that the bid from Swansea has been based on very effective use of the existing buildings and on widespread public support. However, it would not be appropriate at this stage for me to express support for any of the submissions because this is a genuine consultation period. I intend, as soon as possible after 30 January, to publish a full list of the submissions. I hope fairly shortly after that to produce a shortlist and have a brief consultation period so that, when we take a final decision, it is based on the fullest possible consensus.
Mr. Alan Williams:
While avoiding any direct comment on the merits of any site, may I ask for an assurance from my right hon. Friend that, when the time comes for him to make his announcement, it will not be lost in, say, his annual Welsh day debate speech, but that he will make a specific statement at the Dispatch Box so that all hon. Members with an interest have an opportunity to ask questions?
My right hon. Friend is a renowned and avid campaigner for a yes vote—the yes vote being for Swansea, if not for the assembly itself. There is a genuine consultation process. I cannot give my right hon. Friend the assurance that I shall make a specific statement at the Dispatch Box. However, I can assure him that there will be a genuine process of consultation on the shortlist and that I hope to ensure that, when the final decision is taken, all hon. Members have the opportunity to be involved and will be able to question me on the basis of that decision.
My local authority area is delighted that my right hon. Friend has opened up the process to consultation, particularly since the greatest swing since 1979 in favour of an assembly took place in the Rhondda Cynon Taff local authority area. He will know that the site in Abercynon offers 17.5 acres and is ready and looking forward to the arrival of a purpose-built home for the kind of assembly that Wales needs in the 21st century.
Without wanting to stir up any controversy about the meaning of yes, yes votes, I acknowledge that my hon. Friend was a strong campaigner in favour of an assembly, and that she now leads a strong yes campaign for it to be located in the Rhondda Cynon Taff local authority area. I can confirm that I have received a submission; it will receive the closest possible consideration. I am afraid that, like all the other submissions, it will have to take its chance in due course in the proper evaluation.
Is not the right hon. Gentleman embarrassed by the fact that, six months after bravely proclaiming in the White Paper that the assembly's headquarters would be in Cardiff, he is no further forward towards establishing where it will be—except to say that it might not necessarily be in Cardiff? Is he not ashamed of the fact that, unlike his better-organised Scottish colleague, he has started taking through legislation to establish an assembly without knowing where it will go?
Is not all this typical of the haphazard, ill-thought-out way that the Secretary of State has approached the whole issue? Does he agree that, if he had been slightly less bullying and arrogant towards his Labour colleagues, especially on Cardiff city council, the assembly might now have a comfortable home in Cardiff city hall?
The right hon. Gentleman is wrong in every respect: I am neither embarrassed nor ashamed. He has one question to answer himself. Is he suggesting that I should be prepared to pay more than the market value for Cardiff city hall? That is the question that I have put to him time after time.
I made it absolutely clear right from the start of the devolution process that I believed that Cardiff city hall was the best location for the National Assembly. However, Cardiff was not prepared to sell it at market value, and I was not prepared to pay more than the market value for the building. We are now embarked on a proper process of consultation. I am disappointed to find that the right hon. Gentleman, instead of looking back, cannot now play a constructive role in ensuring a new democracy and a prosperous economy for Wales.
Without commenting on particular locations during the consultation period, may I ask the Secretary of State to agree that one of the difficulties of the early years of the Welsh assembly might arise if the bureaucracy of the Welsh Office to be transferred to work for the assembly remained at a distance from where it met? The worst outcome of all would be if meetings between Members of the Welsh assembly and the civil servants serving it had to take place in a lay-by on the M4.
My hon. Friend is tempting me into stating a preference as between Cardiff and Swansea, and I have no intention of doing so. Whatever the eventual location of the assembly, I want to ensure that, by using the most modern information technology, it will be possible for assembly representatives and the people working for them to be in contact with all the people of Wales, not just those in lay-bys on the M4.