Power to Enter into Concordat

Part of Orders of the Day — Government of Wales Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 25th March 1998.

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Photo of Mr Ted Rowlands Mr Ted Rowlands Labour, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney 8:45 pm, 25th March 1998

Let me make my point first. The hon. Gentleman can intervene later.

The best way to get through all the constitutional theorising is to imagine a situation, to have a case study—or perhaps a scenario; that word would please the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). Let us imagine a scenario in which assembly officials turn up at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to discuss one of the sensitive issues concerning animal welfare, meat on the bone or something similar.

At the moment, such subjects may be all hush-hush, with confidential discussions taking place within MAFF about what it intends to do about an issue of considerable difficulty—meat hygiene, for example. Yet when the assembly officials turn up at the meeting, they may find that the thinking within MAFF is political dynamite for Welsh hillside farmers.

What do the officials do? At present, they would report back to their Ministers, and those Ministers would meet. That would all take place within a common system. What would a concordat say about such a situation? Having been up to Whitehall, the assembly officials will go back to base and report.

The first question is: to whom will they report? Do they say to the First Secretary, "We have to tell you that what we heard in the MAFF discussions is political dynamite"? What is the status of that information? How is to be transmitted to the assembly as a whole, or to the subject Committee dealing with the issue?

That is a central question about how well the buckle, or hyphen, representing the concord linking the two will be tested. I have not found out from anything that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, delivered to the Library or explained to us in any shape or form, how we would deal with such a situation.

My scenario is not fanciful. Such things happened in my day, and I am sure they are happening now. Priorities, opinions, emphasis in policy and decision making—at operational level as well as at the grand strategic level—reveal lots of potential tensions between the needs and priorities of the assembly and its officials, and those of Whitehall and its Ministers.

Of course, the Secretary of State for Wales will have to play a vital part in bridging the gap. Sadly, I share with the right hon. Member for Devizes the idea that there are two things about which we know little more than we did at the beginning of our debates. The first is the meaningful content of the concordats dealing with such issues.

Secondly, the shadowiest figure in the Bill is the Secretary of State for Wales after devolution— [Laughter.] I mean a Secretary of State, not necessarily the present Secretary of State. The last thing that I would describe my right hon. Friend as is a shadow.