Power to Enter into Concordat

Part of Orders of the Day — Government of Wales Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 25th March 1998.

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Photo of Mr Denzil Davies Mr Denzil Davies Labour, Llanelli 9:45 pm, 25th March 1998

Yes, indeed. It became, and remains, a mature Department of State. In so doing, it ceased to be a demandeur and became part of the set-up.

However, now we are moving backwards again. We are dismantling that situation and must almost start againßžor at least move halfway back to where we were before 1964, when the Welsh Office was set up. Again we find the Welsh assembly seeking somehow to obtain an agreement to constrain the other side. Whitehall Departments do not need the Welsh assembly.

The Treasury will consider that, once it has given the Welsh assembly £7 billion to spend on health and education, for example, that is the end of the matter: Whitehall will have performed its obligation. Whitehall will ask, "What on earth is all this about legislation? The Welsh are being given £7 billion and they should be grateful. Go away, spend it and come back next year, when they will probably get another £7 billion plus whatever the rate of inflation might be. Why should they return to Whitehall, demanding this, demanding that?"

According to the hon. Member for Ynys Mon, two agreements are being demanded with one Department. That is unrealistic and reveals a lack of understanding of the realpolitik in government and the bargaining that takes place.

We are told, in paragraph 5 of the document: The aim on both sides should … be 'no surprises'. There should be no surprises on the part of the National Assembly for Wales—we would not wish to be the subject of surprises from Big Brother in Whitehall—but why should Big Brother in Whitehall worry about surprises coming from the little National Assembly for Wales? The aim of "no surprises" is to put constraints on Whitehall Departments, so that they do not surprise us.

We are not equal partners in the agreement, whether or not there is an intention to create legal relations. We are not equal parties to the contract, and that is the real problem. Whitehall will not be malicious; Whitehall will not need to look at us, because Whitehall will have paid us the money, having written the cheque, thinking, "Those Welsh—they can go off and do their own thing." That is the worry and the reality.

I conclude with this. We are told that there is to be consultation with United Kingdom-Great Britain public bodies. We are told that there will be consultation about the exercise of Ministerial functions relating to such bodies, such as giving directions or approving corporate plans". There will need to be separate memorandums of understanding for each body. Which bodies are they? Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will give us a list of those bodies.

There may be concordats on operational agency arrangements"— we are almost back to local government again— whereby matters are administered by the UK Government on behalf of the National Assembly on an agency basis or vice versa. What agency matters will be imposed or agreed by the National Assembly on behalf of UK Government or vice versa? May we have a few examples?

There may be a concordat on arrangements for resolving disagreements about any matters related to the concordat"— another grand concordat to judge the little concordats. Is that realistic? It would take a long time to draft.

We are told that there will be an official committee, with a rotating chairman—going round and round—to report at intervals to Assembly Secretaries and Ministers on the operation of the concordat. Will there be a grand weekend conference with the rotating chairman? "How is it working now? How does the assembly like these concordats?" That is entirely and completely unrealistic within the reality and the brutishness, sometimes, of government. We are told that there will be signing at senior official level, and only occasionally at ministerial level.

I do not criticise my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Obviously he has done his best with the document. I am sure that no better could have been done with it, because the relationship is unstable, unequal and unrealistic. Yes, we have devolution. Yes, most people in Wales have wanted it. However, there are consequences.

As lawyers would say, there are burdens and benefits. Being frozen out of Whitehall or being in a halfway house is one of the burdens. I hope that we can find some benefits.