I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
May I express the House's condolences to the family of Lord Merlyn-Rees, who sadly died recently? He was a proud Welshman and perhaps one of the leading Welsh parliamentarians of his generation. The House remembers him with great affection.
The House also remembers my friend and fellow Chelsea fan, Tony Banks, whose sparkle lit up public life. We express our sympathy to his wife, Sally, and share the anguish of his family and his many friends at his sudden and shocking death.
I am sure that hon. Members will join me in expressing our sympathy and condolences to the families of the cyclists involved in the appalling accident in Abergele, which left carnage on the roads. I have asked for a report from the chief constable, which many hon. Members want to see, too.
It is now more than eight years since the people of Wales voted to establish the National Assembly for Wales, and I was proud to help lead that referendum campaign to bring long-needed devolution to Wales. Despite predictions to the contrary from our opponents, devolution has proved a success. When Mr. Hague, who is now back on the Opposition Front Bench, was Secretary of State for Wales, he said that he did
"not think that it would do the people of Wales any favours to create separate and divisive constitutional arrangements."—[Hansard, 18 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 12.]
When he was Leader of the Opposition, he declared the Conservative party to be
"one hundred per cent. against these disastrous ideas of having a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly."
In practice, however, devolution has strengthened the Union, not weakened it.
Indeed, separatism has waned in Wales since the Assembly was established. Welsh independence is now seen as outdated and eccentric, whereas without the prospect of devolutionary reform from 1997, it could have gained momentum in a backlash against the over-centralisation of successive Conservative Governments. Many of my hon. Friends will, like me, recall the intense reaction in Wales against what I call "Redwooditis", which helped to turn the 4:1 defeat for devolution in the 1979 referendum into a victory in 1997. If there had not been a change of Government and if devolution had not been instituted, it is quite possible that the flame of separatism could have become a conflagration, instead of which it has been snuffed out. Devolution is helping to generate a new maturity in Welsh politics in which decisions affecting Wales are made in Wales by elected representatives who are accountable to the people of Wales. Just blaming London for policy shortcomings or failures no longer holds water—since 1999 the buck has stopped in Cardiff bay.
What I am really saying is that the false and specious charges made at that time by the Conservative party, including the hon. Gentleman, have proved groundless. The Conservatives said that devolution would result in the break-up of the United Kingdom and in independence and separatism gaining momentum. On the contrary, devolution has strengthened unity in the United Kingdom among the Welsh, the English and the Scots.
In introducing the Bill, I am proud to carry forward a Labour tradition that goes back to the days of our first Welsh Member, who was a founder of our party, our first leader and a passionate supporter of devolution—Keir Hardie. More than half a century later, it was Labour that first created the Cabinet post of Secretary of State for Wales in 1964 and started the process of extending the responsibilities of the then Welsh Office so that it gained more and more power over matters affecting Wales. It was Labour that was elected in 1997 on a manifesto commitment to give the people of Wales an opportunity to vote for a new democratic Assembly; Labour that led the yes campaign to victory in the 1997 referendum; and Labour, after two successive elections, that has successfully led the people of Wales under the new devolved settlement. Labour was always the real party of devolution, decentralisation and bringing decision making closer to the people. This Bill confirms that Labour still is that party.
If it is good enough for the Welsh people to have devolution and power over their own decisions, and for Scottish people to have Members of the Scottish Parliament to make decisions on their behalf, why is it not good enough for people who live in England?
I have always favoured regional government in England, and I think that its time will come.
Instead of new conflicts predicted by Conservatives and other critics, devolution has brought Wales new confidence—anybody visiting Cardiff bay can sense that in the millennium centre and in the iconic new Assembly building, which will attract architectural interest worldwide. Global companies such as Airbus, General Dynamics and Logica CMG—all leaders in their sectors—have chosen Wales as their base over other British and European locations. That is testimony to the fact that Wales is no longer seen as a branch office for multinational companies. The Welsh economy has never been in better shape, with more jobs and prosperity than ever before and strong business growth. In an era of fierce global competition, Wales has been performing better than many economies across the world that have traditionally been our envy.
Part 5 of the Bill deals with financial aspects, including the creation of a Welsh Consolidated Fund. Would it not be wise, in the light of the immense progress that has been made as a result of our Government's policies on Wales, to find a way of equalising the treatment of regions in England that are comparable with Wales in relation to the Barnett formula? Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire have almost identical populations to Wales, as well as a very similar social and economic mix, but our treatment as regards Government-distributed funds is less generous.
I applaud my hon. Friend for standing up for his constituents and vigorously making a case on their behalf. Nevertheless, the Barnett formula has served the whole United Kingdom very effectively, and the Government have no plans to change it.
The Minister will be aware that Lord Barnett, the instigator of the Barnett formula, feels embarrassed that it still bears his name and thinks that it should be changed. Why does he ignore the advice of the inventor of the formula that he seeks to defend, refuse to create a needs-based formula, and stick to an arcane formula that its inventor says is out of date?
The hon. Gentleman has quoted Lord Barnett accurately. However, the Government have taken a careful look at the whole matter, and no advantage would be gained by reopening the question of the Barnett formula.
Devolution has meant that people now feel a closer involvement in decisions—on education, the health service, housing, transport and business support—that affect their lives. People feel that Welsh Ministers are more accessible, because they are, and that their voice can be heard more directly by decision makers, because it is. The National Assembly for Wales has become an accepted part of the political landscape.
It is undoubtedly true that one of the successes of the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government, for which they have been praised, has been the way in which they have listened to and consulted various parts of the community, particularly the voluntary and public sectors. That is as it should be. However, does my right hon. Friend accept that the Bill has a role to play in strengthening the voice of the private sector, because economic prosperity and improving standards of life for people in Wales also depend on the private sector pulling its weight and having its voice heard?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the crucial role of business and the private sector in Wales's economic success. The Assembly—I know this because I have discussed it with the First Minister—will want to maintain the closest co-operation and consultation. There is in the legislation, as there was uniquely in the previous Act—I was responsible for accepting an amendment that resulted in the clause—a duty to consult business. That duty remains. If my hon. Friend wishes to make any detailed points about strengthening it, I shall look at them sympathetically.
I am not here to fight old battles, but neither am I here to listen to history being rewritten. Why is the Secretary of State glorifying what he thinks are the Welsh Assembly's achievements when he knows that only one in four Welsh people voted for it in the referendum? He is talking about the voice of the people of Wales and their feeling closer to the Welsh Assembly, but he knows that at the last Assembly elections the turnout was miserable. What is he going to do to reconnect the Welsh Assembly with the Welsh people?
Unfortunately, as the hon. Gentleman knows, turnout in all elections in Britain has been falling over the past few years and, arguably, since the second world war, and that includes the elections for the Welsh Assembly. I am not clear from the earlier part of his question—perhaps the shadow Secretary of State will respond to this later—whether he is trying to turn back the clock. The Conservatives fought and lost that referendum.
The hon. Gentleman will know that levels of ill health and industrial disability as a result of our industrial legacy of mining and heavy industry, which are proportionately far higher in Wales than elsewhere, have been responsible for the problem that we have had to tackle. He will also know that performance right across the health service has been improving rapidly, especially over the past year, as waiting times have come down from their appalling levels and from the even more appalling levels that we inherited from the Conservatives.
Given that the Secretary of State has been celebrating the merits of devolution, how does he explain and justify clause 113, which gives him a power to intervene in certain cases with the introduction of secondary legislation? In those incidences, will such legislation be subject to the negative procedure or to its affirmative counterpart, and if it is the former, why?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the impenetrable nature of that question. Fortunately, I understand it. I have kept that power in order to protect Parliament's interests. Prior to, and in some cases even subsequent to, the full devolution of primary powers which is provided for in the Bill subject to a referendum, it is important to ensure that what Parliament decides is carried out. If there were any attempt by the Assembly not to do that, I would have a residual power to check it.
The Secretary of State says that the proposal is in tune with the people of Wales and with democratic principles, but that is the very thing that the Bill is not, because it provides a mechanism for Government by Orders in Council, bypassing the scrutiny of this House and doing so without asking the Welsh people whether that is the system that they wish to have. Would he please address that issue, because it is fundamental?
I will do so with great enthusiasm. There is the Conservative party seeking to speak with a modern, consensual voice in the language and rhetoric of its new leader, but actually returning to the old anti-devolution, anti-Wales, anti-Welsh Assembly politics.
"I think we have at the moment an insecure settlement which cannot persist.
We either need to move forward to legislative powers or abolish the assembly and I think that's not an option. We've got to see how we can move things forward and that's got to mean legislative powers."
He was accepting the need for new powers, whereas it appears that Conservative Front Benchers do not want to do that.
The Secretary of State clearly did not listen to what I said to him. I did not suggest that there was anything undemocratic about devolving further powers to the Welsh Assembly. If the Government wish to give the Welsh Assembly primary legislative functions—for which they provide in the Bill— they can do so, if they can secure the approval of the Welsh people by referendum. But that is not what the Government are trying to do in the Bill. The most important part of it is about bypassing, ultimately, both the Assembly and this place to govern by Order in Council. What is the democratic justification for such an extraordinary system?
I realise that the hon. Gentleman is not a Welsh Member of Parliament, but he clearly does not understand the Bill. The Bill provides for Parliament to be in charge, just as it is now. Instead of providing for the devolving of powers to the Assembly through primary legislation, it provides an opportunity to devolve powers to the Assembly through Orders in Council—subject, as I shall explain, to prior scrutiny. And Conservative Front Benchers propose a referendum on that! What a bizarre, astonishing idea, and one that would cost £7 million.
Can the hon. Gentleman imagine asking local people on their doorsteps, "Do you want to vote yes or no on whether measures should be decided through primary legislation or through Orders in Council?"? Can he imagine the response that he would receive?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great successes of the devolution settlement since 2001 has been the development of consideration of legislation by means of pre-legislative scrutiny through joint committees of the Assembly and the House of Commons? We have heard no call from the Conservatives previously for a referendum to seek the consent of the people of Wales to the procedure that already operates.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That illustrates the absurdity of the Conservative party, whose Front Benchers have contrived to get into a lather about this issue while hiding their anti-devolution, anti-Welsh Assembly, anti-Wales position. They are still the same old Tories.
"Let's be frank about it, it is a device to avoid having to come to Westminster and ask for primary powers to be formally devolved . . . you end up with . . . a situation in which Cardiff ends up with greater powers, Westminster can say they have not devolved primary legislative powers".
Is that not what the right hon. Gentleman is trying to do? He is trying to keep the Labour party happy at Westminster and the Labour party happy in the Welsh Assembly. He will end up appeasing neither, and cheating the people of Wales.
So there we have it: the first words spoken from the Dispatch Box by the hon. Lady, with her customary eloquence and courtesy. What did she say? She tried to construct a fantasy argument about Orders in Council versus Bills in the House, both of which are subject to the sovereign will of the House. If Parliament does not want to pass the Orders in Council, it does not have to. As my hon. Friend Ian Lucas made clear, they will—I hope—be subject to a process of prior scrutiny very similar to that which has been applied so successfully to Welsh legislation in recent years.
Will my right hon. Friend note the words of Mrs. Gillan, whom I, too, welcome to her new role? She was quoted in the Western Mail of
"I have said I want to build on what has been achieved with the Assembly."
Does my right hon. Friend see anything in the Opposition's amendment that would build on what has been achieved by the Assembly, or does he suspect that the Opposition are tearing down the whole devolution process?
I suspect that it is exactly the latter. It is a wrecking amendment. The Conservatives, at the first opportunity, are asking us to kill the Bill. They could have achieved a debate, vote and decision on their concerns by tabling three new clauses on a referendum on bringing into force the part 3 Orders in Council, and an amendment to clause 7 on dual candidacy. If they were acting in the spirit of consensus promised by the Leader of the Opposition and echoed by the shadow Secretary of State, that is what they could have done. Instead, they have chosen to try to kill the Bill at the first opportunity; the same old anti-devolution, anti-Welsh conservatives.
In agreeing with the Secretary of State, may I say that the reasoned amendment is the most unreasonable thing that I have seen in a long time and defies any scrutiny? It is absolute nonsense. On Orders in Council, will the Salisbury convention apply to proposed legislation by whoever governs in Cardiff? Were he, of his own volition, to say that he was not prepared to accept a measure from the National Assembly, should not there be some form of review or appellate procedure within the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point in the first part of his question and asks a reasonable question to follow. If we were to see an unreasonable or anti-Welsh Secretary of State—[Interruption.] If we saw another Secretary of State of the kind that we had in the 1990s before 1997, clearly there could be some tension, but there could be tension now. Under the existing settlement, it is far worse. A Welsh Assembly Government seeking to get an agreement from Parliament to allow it to take extra powers would have to fight for space in the Queen's Speech, so there is a business management obstacle as well as a policy principle one. At least we will now have an hour and a half of debate in the House, providing a much better settlement.
I do not think that any appellate procedure is necessary because, as the hon. Gentleman will note, I have provided up to a maximum of 60 sitting days, including weekends, for a proper explanation to be given by the Secretary of State if he or she is not proceeding with a request. That would be subject to judicial review, providing the necessary safeguards.
Far be it from me to take bread from the mouths of my fellow lawyers, but surely we should put within the Bill a procedure to avoid having to run back and forth to the High Court. Hitherto, the only assurance given in the White Paper is that the Secretary of State, or his successor, should not turn down legislation for a trivial reason. In two or three places in the Bill—clauses 98 and 101, I believe—there are references to the Supreme Court. Could we not put in a form of reference to the Supreme Court to see whether the reason given was reasonable? That would be quicker than going through judicial review and, in my view, far better.
I do not agree, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I shall look closely at what he has said, but his proposal is not necessary. In the end, politics will win the arguments. If we had a Conservative Secretary of State—woe betide Wales were that to happen—and he or she consistently defied the Assembly, the Conservatives would be swept out of Wales at the following general election, as happened in 1997. Also, the hon. Gentleman strengthens my argument, with which I know he agrees. He makes the point that Parliament is in charge of the new procedure, prior to primary powers going following a referendum. The hon. Gentleman is reinforcing my arguments against the Conservatives and their opportunistic and specious attempt to attack the Orders in Council proposal.
Is not the Secretary of State making the very point that is salient? He is allowing an anti-devolution Government—a Conservative one, say—to obstruct devolution in Wales. I do not see why the Government insist on providing that weakness in this Bill when they are quite happy to devolve in a one-way fashion in respect of Scotland. Can he explain why he wants the Secretary of State for Wales to be almost a viceroy over Welsh affairs, given that the Government did not feel that such a step was necessary when the Scottish Parliament was introduced?
The days of viceroys ended in 1997; since then, Secretaries of State for Wales have represented Wales and constituencies in Wales, and have spoken for Wales.
On the hon. Gentleman's substantive point, he is right to the extent that, under the first stage of giving extra powers, Parliament remains in charge; that is the point that Opposition Front Benchers wish to ignore, or do not understand. The Assembly gets extra powers—measure-making powers, as they are called in the Bill—only if the House so decides. This House is in charge, as is the House of Lords. The point is that the objective of introducing primary powers, which we share in common, has to be endorsed by a referendum. I know that many Liberal Democrats object to that principle, but it is such a fundamental change that a referendum is required; that way, if such a radical departure from the existing settlement were contemplated, it would be endorsed by the people of Wales. However, compared with primary legislation procedure, this Orders-in-Council procedure is not a radical departure from the existing settlement.
On one side of the argument, the Secretary of State wishes to minimise the changes and to say that the Orders in Council are very trivial; but on the other, he wants the powers to be substantial. Will he confirm that he received a letter from me, dated
I am sorry that the hon. Lady is wriggling and squirming in respect of her reasoned amendment. The truth is that, notwithstanding the letter that she wrote to me—it is a very nice letter—the amendment rejects the Bill. If the Conservatives were to get their way tonight and marshal enough votes for their amendment in the Aye Lobby, they would kill the Bill and there would be no prospect of extra powers for the Assembly. That is the policy of the new Tory party, the new Cameron Conservatives, in Wales: to kill devolution stone dead here today,
I realise that the hon. Lady has had a lot of trouble in her early days as shadow Welsh Secretary. She did not know who the Welsh national rugby coach was; she did not know the number of Assembly Members; she did not even know what Brain's beer was. Now, she does not know the terms of her own reasoned amendment, which, as my hon. Friend Mark Tami suggests, would kill the Bill stone dead.
We need to make some progress in getting more powers for Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government may not be any more admired than any level of government ever is, but they have won widespread praise for introducing innovative and popular policies—the Children's Commissioner for Wales, the Welsh baccalaureate, free bus travel for the over-60s and free school breakfasts, for example—some of which have been emulated elsewhere in the United Kingdom. After six years of activity and two full elections, it is right that we should take stock of how the devolution settlement in Wales is working and bring forward practical, commonsense reforms to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of the people of Wales.
Much has changed since the House debated the original Government of Wales Bill. The budget of the National Assembly has nearly doubled, and the responsibilities of the Assembly have also increased. In the past 18 months alone, this House has resolved to transfer from Westminster to Cardiff bay a number of important new policy areas: animal welfare, the fire and rescue services, student support and more children's services.
Devolution has not stood still; it has evolved, and through the measures contained in this Bill it will evolve still further. But there is widespread acceptance of the need for reform. The Assembly's corporate status, modelled on local government, was an innovative idea in theory, which has proved less successful in practice. All parties accept the case for change, and the Bill will reform the internal architecture of the Assembly to provide for enhanced democratic accountability.
My right hon. Friend mentions democratic accountability. One of the reasons the Assembly was set up was to do away with the quango state. Does the Bill contain any provision that will aid that process? Under the present settlement, it is difficult for the Assembly to make Wales more democratic in that way.
As my hon. Friend knows, the Welsh Assembly Government have already put in train a series of measures abolishing the quangos and absorbing their functions into the Assembly, and they will be able to go further to the extent that the Order in Council procedure gives them more scope. However, they will not be able to do much more under the Bill.
My right hon. Friend may not have been sufficiently bold on the question of democratic accountability. In the second ballot at the last elections, 310,658 Welsh voters voted Labour and got not a single candidate elected. Given that we have already heard that the turnout in the Welsh Assembly elections was low, does not that clearly demonstrate that proportional representation is unfair and has not worked?
Furthermore, there is widespread recognition throughout Wales that the Assembly needs a stronger and quicker mechanism for achieving its legislative priorities. That is why, in our general election manifesto, we pledged to deliver enhanced powers for the Assembly. Under the current devolution settlement, it is for Parliament to determine what additional powers the Assembly may require.
Over the past eight years, the system has worked well, with Parliament passing four Wales-only Bills—with two more being considered this Session—and 34 other Bills containing Welsh clauses. But it has still meant that proposals from the Assembly must compete for time with the Government's own legislative priorities. The Bill will therefore establish a mechanism to free the Assembly from the Westminster logjam by transferring legislative responsibility to Cardiff in relation to defined matters, approved on a case-by-case basis by Parliament. Those new powers will ensure that the Assembly gets the legislative tools it needs to do the job quicker and more easily than is possible at present, but Parliament will still be the arbiter over whether powers are transferred. So the provisions represent a development of the current settlement, and not a fundamental change.
I wish to make a little progress and then I shall be happy to let the hon. Gentleman intervene.
The Bill also ensures that, for the first time ever, primary powers for Wales are on the statute book, subject to a referendum. Some have shouted "betrayal" because primary powers are not being delivered immediately, but such a fundamental change from the 1997 settlement, which was endorsed by a referendum, could be changed only by another referendum. To advocates of primary powers, I say, "Don't shout at the Government, but go out and win the argument. Make the case to the people of Wales. If you win the argument, this Bill provides a mechanism for delivery. The ball is now in your court."
An unwelcome development since the 1998 Act was passed has been the problem of defeated constituency candidates being elected through the backdoor on their party's regional list. Politicians are placing an each-way bet on constituency elections, with the electorate losing out. As a Government, we are determined to put the voters back in charge, restoring their democratic right to reject a constituency candidate. We have a clear manifesto commitment and will press the case for reform.
The Bill delivers a lasting settlement that will settle the constitutional argument in Wales for a generation or more. Instead of constantly revising and returning to the issue of its powers and electoral arrangements, the Assembly will now be able to focus on policy development and delivery, in education, health and all the other devolved fields. The constant demand "More powers" will be redundant: they will be on the statute book when the Bill receives Royal Assent, ready for implementation after a successful referendum. Instead of powers, the real question will be: are the Welsh Assembly Government delivering or not? What are the future policies necessary to build a world-class Wales? Political arguments over policies will replace political arguments over powers, so that Welsh political culture gains full maturity.
What is the Secretary of State's response to the Electoral Commission's view that the changes proposed for the voting system are perceived as politically partisan and could lead to less participation in the Assembly elections?
I think it is wrong and I shall cite alternative evidence later in my speech. The hon. Gentleman might consider experience across the world, in Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, Thailand and a number of other places, where the issue has arisen but the abuse that has taken place in Wales has not occurred to the same extent. I shall come back to that point.
The possibility of people both standing for a seat and being elected from the list when they were defeated was inherent in the system set up in 1998, and is an inevitable consequence of such a system of proportional representation. Indeed, it exists in other parts of the United Kingdom. So on what basis has the Secretary of State suddenly decided that Wales should not have that system, which is common throughout the world, even if it has come in for criticism? Why has he decided that Wales uniquely should not have it, and why has he done so in a manner of which the Electoral Commission has been very critical?
I was about to come to that point. The problem with being so generous in accepting interventions is that they come before the arguments have been made.
In 1997–98, I stood at the Dispatch Box with my colleagues and took the Bill through—indeed, Mr. Heald was on the Opposition Front Bench at the time, opposing it, as Conservatives always oppose devolution progress in Wales—but none of us foresaw a situation in which the system would be so widely abused. People in Wales say to me, "If I want to defeat a constituency candidate because I don't like them, why should they pop up on the list?" That is the fundamental point. We are putting the voters back in charge. If they do not want to elect somebody, they do not have to do so. There should not be a situation where people can decide to place a both-way bet, stand in both categories and win even if they are kicked out by the electorate.
Does the Secretary of State concede that with first past the post somebody could be elected merely on 26 per cent. of the vote, with four parties? The list system compensates for the inequities of first past the post.
The hon. Gentleman has only just wandered into the debate and his point is rather wandering as well. All we are saying is that the list system will remain and people can make a choice. They can decide—as Labour Members are doing. As I shall explain later, half a dozen Labour Members will be faced with a tough choice. They face swings against them of less than 3 per cent. Going by the general election performance last year, their seats will be vulnerable in the next Assembly election. They have to face that choice; they do not have the lifebelt of being able to stand in the list, any more than candidates of any other party.
Does not it operate to the advantage of those Labour constituency Members that a softer candidate will be standing against them on a first-past-the-post basis? The more able candidates will stand on the regional list rather than on first past the post. Is not that precisely what the Secretary of State is hoping for?
There we have it in its full glory—the real Conservative face of Wales exposed. Why have the hon. Gentleman and other Welsh Conservatives joined an unholy coalition on the issue with Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats? Why are they so afraid of taking their choice to the people? Are they afraid that they will lose constituency elections and therefore opt for the lifebelt of the list? If so, they might as well not bother to stand in the constituencies in the first place. The hon. Gentleman represents the constituency of Clwyd, West, where at the last Assembly elections, three of the candidates who were defeated ended up winning on the lists. Three of the people in Clwyd, West who were booted out by the electorate ended up as Assembly Members, competing against the winning Assembly Member, Alun Pugh.
I am not in an unholy alliance with anyone, as far as I know—at least, I was not until just now—but all the extrinsic and academic evidence concludes that the proposal is partisan, in favour of new Labour. In coming to that formulation, did the Secretary of State take advice from President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine?
No, but I studied what has happened in Mexico and Thailand, and in Canada in New Brunswick, among other provinces, and what is being done in New Zealand. I will quote alternative evidence later in my speech, including from a much more respected academic commentator on Wales than those who have been quoted.
On this occasion, there could be a holy alliance between hon. Members because certainly some people have to think straight. The Secretary of State seems to be taking advice from people throughout the international arena, but I do not understand why he ignored the advice of the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, who when giving evidence thought that the problems could be dealt with by using a protocol along Scottish lines. Why has the Secretary of State ignored the First Minister? Can we expect these electoral changes to be introduced in Scotland shortly?
I do not know where the hon. Lady has done her research, but the First Minister is fully signed up to this policy. At a special Welsh Labour conference on
Although the proposals in the Bill were in Labour's manifesto for an historic third term, it is right to acknowledge the part that people from all parties have played in the debate on the future powers and electoral arrangements of the Assembly. Those people include Lord Richard of Ammanford and the members of his commission who submitted a detailed report to the Welsh Assembly Government in 2004. I pay tribute to Lord Richard for the strength of his advocacy. He remains a tribune for Welsh reform, and we look forward to his contributions when the Bill reaches the House of Lords.
Members of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend Dr. Francis, have provided expert analysis to inform the debate about the Bill, as have members of the Assembly Committee, chaired by the Presiding Officer, Lord Elis-Thomas.
The vast majority of clauses in this 165-clause Bill should have cross-party support. Ninety-three clauses re-enact, with only minor modifications, those from the 1998 Act. For example, clauses 145 to 147 on Welsh public records, which applied just to the Assembly as a corporate body under the old Act, have been modified to apply to the Welsh Assembly Government and the Assembly Commission separately.
A further 47 entirely new clauses have been incorporated into the Bill to establish a proper legislature to hold the Executive to account—something that all parties support. Many of those provisions draw directly from existing statutes, which provide a successful model for what we are trying to achieve in Wales. For example, the provisions establishing the Assembly Commission are drawn almost word for word from the provisions in the Scotland Act 1998, which set up the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. I hope that those clauses, too, will prove uncontentious, so that the vast majority of clauses—at least 140 of the 165 clauses—will have cross-party support. Just 24 clauses concern extra powers—the real meat of the Bill—and one clause from the 1998 Act has been amended so as to ban candidates from simultaneously standing in both a constituency and for a region, whether as a list candidate or as an individual.
The Bill will set up the Welsh Assembly Government as an entity in its own right, rather than as an off-shoot of the National Assembly, as it is now. In future, it will be much clearer who is responsible for taking decisions and who should be accountable for them. Instead of an Assembly modelled on old local government lines, there will be a new Westminster-type structure with a clear distinction between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Assembly acting as a proper legislature, holding Ministers to account. This change has support from all parties in the Assembly and will make for better government and better public understanding of the differences between the responsibilities of Ministers on the one hand, and the role of Opposition parties and Back Benchers of all parties on the other.
Secondly, the Bill will give the Assembly enhanced powers to take decisions affecting the people of Wales in areas approved by Parliament on a case-by-case basis.
I will make progress, then take more interventions.
Through this new, streamlined procedure, the Assembly will be able to achieve its legislative priorities more quickly and easily, without getting caught up in the inevitable Westminster logjam. The Bill does that by building on the current devolution settlement, and this is the key point. Westminster will still be in charge, deciding on the principle of granting new powers to the Assembly, but the detailed work on policies affecting Wales will increasingly be carried out in Wales.
To achieve this, the Bill establishes a new Order-in-Council procedure that will enable Parliament to grant the Assembly the power to make its own laws over the specific matter set out in the Order in Council. The order will not be long and will not set out the detail of the policy that the Assembly wishes to implement, although that will be explained in an explanatory memorandum, because that will be a matter for the Assembly to determine. The order will simply define the scope of the powers being conferred on the Assembly and Parliament will vote on the principle of the Assembly acquiring those powers.
It may help the House if I briefly outline the main procedural stages where the Welsh Assembly Government have initiated a proposal for an Order in Council.
I would like to explain the procedure, then I will take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman.
First, a preliminary draft Order in Council would be prepared following discussion between the Welsh Assembly Government, relevant Whitehall Departments, and the Wales Office. Secondly, the preliminary draft would be submitted to pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament and the Assembly. The precise nature of pre-legislative scrutiny would be a matter for the House and for the Assembly to determine. The processes are therefore not laid down in the Bill, but I hope that the successful model of the Welsh Affairs Committee scrutinising Wales-only Bills, such as the Transport (Wales) Bill, in tandem with the relevant Assembly Committee could be applied to Orders in Council, as my hon. Friend Ian Lucas suggested.
That process of pre-scrutiny will give all Members of this House an opportunity to become involved if they wish in examining requests from the Assembly at an early stage, with the Secretary of State and the Assembly making modifications as appropriate in response to parliamentary recommendations. Parliament will therefore be an active player in shaping the future powers of the Assembly.
After pre-scrutiny has been completed, there would be a formal statutory process for agreeing the final text. Once the final text of a draft order had been approved by the Assembly, it would be sent to the Secretary of State who must, by the end of 60 sitting days, either have laid the draft Order in Council before both Houses of Parliament or have given the First Minister written reasons for not being prepared to do so. The 60-day deadline is needed principally to cover those occasions, which I believe will be infrequent, where there has not been consensual co-operation between the Welsh Assembly Government and the Wales Office in the development of the proposal.Once the order has been laid by the Secretary of State, it would then have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament on an affirmative resolution.
I want to understand a little more about the pre-legislative scrutiny. If I understand the Secretary of State's position, the scrutiny will be on not the details of the legislation, but the principles of the area that will be delegated for the Assembly to legislate on. Does that not require a considerable abdication of the responsibility of Members of this House, without the people of Wales endorsing that and saying that they would prefer the Assembly to do something, rather than hon. Members? How can the Secretary of State justify such a major constitutional shift without going to the people of Wales and asking them to endorse it by referendum?
Because, quite simply—I have dealt with this point before—it is not a major constitutional shift. Parliament will still be in charge. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not opposing the NHS Redress Bill, which includes a framework clause to give the Assembly full powers to determine a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces. I am surprised that he is not up in arms about that, although perhaps he will be now that I have suggested it.
Since 1999, legislation that has gone through the House has provided for the Assembly to take through regulations by secondary legislation to determine detailed policies. There is no difference in principle between that and a procedure through which the Assembly draws up Assembly measures by Orders in Council rather than primary legislation, because Parliament is still in charge. Each Order in Council will be accompanied by an explanatory memorandum that will explain the provision's purpose fully to all hon. Members—whether they are Welsh or not—so that they will be able to take a view on the matter.
If Orders in Council are such a good idea, why did neither the Government nor the Labour party in Wales make that suggestion in evidence to the Richard commission so that it could give a verdict on it?
We have taken careful account of the Richard commission report and the debate that has taken place since its publication. The nub of the issue is this: the Liberal Democrats—the hon. Gentleman is not a bad fellow, so I am sorry that he has joined in this bad habit—have said that they want primary powers. I respect that and, in fact, agree with it as a matter of principle. However, they want those powers without a referendum. They want to jump straight to primary powers through the Bill, but it would not be acceptable to make such a fundamental change to the devolution settlement without a referendum, which is what it would be because Parliament would be no longer in charge, although it is of course sovereign in every respect in the United Kingdom in a theoretical and actual fashion. We will make more progress to overcome some of the problems that the Assembly has had in recent years by giving it greater discretion while Parliament remains in charge. That is the point of the Bill and the new first stage involving Orders in Council, which I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome.
I do not know the hon. Gentleman's majority, but a victory is a victory under our democracy. If one wins the vote, one wins. The Welsh people voted, although, admittedly, the result was uncomfortably narrow, as I remember well. These repeated attacks—David T.C. Davies made one in his best Rottweiler fashion—on the verdict of the Welsh people show that the Welsh Conservatives have never accepted the devolution settlement.
No. I am sorry, but I need to make progress and have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
If Parliament agrees that enhanced powers on a particular matter should be conferred on the Assembly, and once the Order in Council has been made, the Assembly can deliver new made-in-Wales legislation in relation to that matter. The new laws will be called Assembly measures, and the Assembly's arrangements for scrutinising and approving measures will closely follow the procedures used in this House for considering primary legislation. Although the detail will be a matter for the Assembly itself to determine, the Bill requires that the Assembly provides for three stages of consideration on the principle, detail and the final text of proposed measures, which are analogous to Second Reading, Committee and Third Reading. That reflects an important principle underlying the Order-in-Council procedure. The proposed powers to be conferred would be bestowed by Parliament not on individual Ministers—not on the Executive—but on an elected legislature, with its own rigorous procedures for scrutiny both of the Executive and of legislative measures.
I have discussed this matter with the Chairs of both the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords. They agree that there is an important distinction to be made between powers conferred on an elected legislature and those delegated to a Secretary of State. There should therefore not be the same concerns expressed over powers conferred on an elected, accountable law-making body such as the Assembly, with its own scrutiny processes, as have been expressed over powers delegated to Ministers.
The Government believe that this new procedure will be of immense benefit to the Assembly Government in enabling them to carry out their functions in the devolved fields of responsibilities. Of the bids for legislation that the Assembly has made over the past six years, the vast majority have been on matters that have excited little or no parliamentary controversy, such as the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Bill and the Public Audit (Wales) Bill, and all but two of them could have been accommodated under the new streamlined process provided for in this Bill. The exceptions are the demands for the Assembly to have the power to ban hunting and to have control over shop opening times. An additional one may be the request for St. David's day to be a bank holiday. Those could not be delivered under the Order-in-Council process, as they lie outside the existing devolved settlement.
The procedure will give the Assembly much wider flexibility and discretion, while preserving the key pillar of the existing devolution settlement: it is Parliament that will determine the new powers that the Assembly will acquire. Parliament, as ever, remains sovereign. The procedure will also relieve pressures on parliamentary business managers from Assembly bids for Bills.
As we have heard, the Opposition suggest that the new Order-in-Council procedure might be used to give the Assembly primary powers through the back door. That is simply not the case, as clause 94 makes abundantly clear. If the Assembly ever attempted to acquire such powers by the back door, I as Secretary of State would block it, so would this House and so would the Lords. It is inconceivable because there is a triple lock to prevent it. Parliament remains in charge.
The additional powers offering a more streamlined route for Assembly decision making fall within the settlement endorsed in the 1997 referendum. However, it may prove at some time that even they are still insufficient to address the needs of the people of Wales. The Bill therefore makes provision to confer full primary powers on the Assembly, subject to a referendum. I am proud to be the first Secretary of State for Wales to seek to place primary powers on the statute book. But, as I have explained, it is essential that such a fundamental change to the devolution settlement should first be approved by the people of Wales through a referendum, and it would be hugely damaging to the cause of devolution to move to that stage before there was widespread agreement in Wales. For that reason, the Bill includes a number of safeguards to ensure that there is no premature move towards primary powers.
First, the Bill ensures that a referendum would be triggered only if supported by two thirds of all Assembly Members. Secondly, the Bill places a responsibility on the Secretary of State to ensure that a referendum could take place only after adequate public consultation. Finally, a referendum order would require the approval of both Houses of Parliament by affirmative motion and two thirds of all Assembly Members before it could proceed. Taken together, these safeguards will ensure that a strong, multi-party consensus must exist before a referendum can be called—something that is not likely to happen in the near future.
These provisions are vital to settle the constitutional debate in Wales. By legislating for primary powers now, we avoid the need for a further Government of Wales Bill. Instead of the constant distraction of endless constitutional argument, this Bill puts primary powers on the statute book awaiting the verdict of the electorate. Instead of being the domain of political and constitutional anoraks, the question of the Assembly's powers will be in the hands of the Welsh people. Instead of sniping from the sidelines, proponents of primary powers will have to win the argument.
Those leading the calls for an early referendum are doing a disservice to the cause of devolution in Wales. To call a referendum on primary powers now, when we know that it would fail, would not only destroy the chance of enhancing the Assembly's powers, but do terrible damage to devolution itself. Just look at the aftermath of the no vote in 1979, when the prospect of devolution was taken off the agenda for nearly 20 years—a generation. I know that some will say that certain opinion polls show a majority in favour of a Scottish-style Parliament, but I caution them to remember the opinion polls prior to the referendum in 1997, which predicted an overwhelming victory for the yes campaign. The votes did not reflect the headlines in the end, and I believe that the same would be true today.
Let me now deal with our proposals to reform the electoral system for the Assembly. In 1998, the Labour Government established the additional member system for elections to the Assembly. Broadly speaking, that electoral system has been a success: it has preserved the strong tradition of individual constituency representation that is fundamental to our democracy while delivering a system of fair votes that has improved democratic accountability in Wales. It has even thrown a life belt to the Welsh Conservative party, although that is not something that I would celebrate. However, although it has worked well in ensuring fair representation in the Assembly, I, as one of the Ministers who took the Bill through the Commons, never imagined the abuses that have resulted.
The system as it has operated in Wales has a major weakness. A widespread practice since the Assembly was established has been that candidates who are rejected by a particular constituency have secured backdoor election as Assembly Members through the regional list and so have been able to claim to represent the constituency that rejected them. In Clwyd, West in 2003, three of the four defeated candidates were subsequently elected to the Assembly through the regional list. That practice clouds political accountability and denies the voters their right to reject a particular candidate at the ballot box. The change made by the Bill—requiring candidates to choose whether to stand for a constituency or a regional list—will put the voters in charge.
The Bill is about Wales. One of the things that Conservatives find difficult to understand is that devolution allows different parts of the United Kingdom to operate in different ways. Circumstances have arisen in Wales that have allowed widespread abuse and we are correcting that.
Is the Secretary of State prepared to place in the Library details of all the objections and problems that have arisen from the present electoral system? He constantly refers to a body of evidence that appears not to exist. I do not know how many letters he has had, but academics and those who have examined the system, including the Electoral Commission, say that there is no great body of evidence to justify the changes that he is proposing. Is he prepared to put the evidence in the Library and show us how overwhelming the demand for change is?
I shall certainly reflect on the hon. Lady's request, but I am about to explain the circumstances that justify the policy set out in the Bill.
It cannot be right for losers to become winners through the back door, despite having been rejected by the voters. That is an abuse of democracy, as is the practice adopted by 15 of the 20 list AMs of using taxpayers' money to open constituency offices in the seats in which they were defeated and targeting those seats to win next time by cherry-picking local issues against the constituency AMs who beat them.
"There is something wrong in a situation in which five people can stand in Clwyd, none of them can be elected, and then they all get into the Assembly. On the face of it that does not make sense. I think that a lot of people in Wales find that it does not."
The hon. Lady asked for evidence and I am now about to give it to her. The eminent Welsh academic, Dr. Denis Balsom, said in evidence to the Richard commission:
"Candidates use the list as an insurance against failing to win a constituency contest. This dual candidacy can also confuse the electorate, who may wish to consciously reject a particular candidate only to find them elected via the list. It should remain a basic democratic right not to elect a particular candidate or to be able to vote a Member out."
Lord Carlile, the former Welsh Liberal Democrat—[Interruption.] This is not against a list system. It is saying to candidates, "Make a choice." Why are they so afraid of making a choice? Stand and face the verdict of the people in the constituency or stand on the list, whichever they wish. It is—[Interruption.] I have been asked for evidence and I have taken up a great deal of time in interventions.
Lord Carlile, the former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, has said:
"many in Wales will welcome . . . the removal of the absurd dual candidacy opportunity."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 June 2005; Vol. 672, c. 1217.]
"present arrangements are really pretty indefensible."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 15 June 2005, Vol. 672, c. 1216.]
In the consultation on the White Paper, I received only one formal response from the Conservative party, but it was a most significant one. It was from the Preseli Pembrokeshire Conservative association. Mr. Crabb is swelling with pride as the association's representative. It said:
"We agree with the proposal to prevent individuals from simultaneously being candidates in constituency elections and being eligible for election from party lists."
Game, set and match.
Given the importance that the Secretary of State attached to this issue as a matter of principle, when will we have a statement from the Prime Minister that the other systems of proportional representation in the United Kingdom that the Government have set up will be altered? Does the Secretary of State understand that asking the House to treat something in isolation can be perceived, however great his vehemence, as gerrymandering? We are not prepared to tolerate that. If he wishes to change the system, it should be changed as an issue of principle throughout the country and not for the convenience of the Welsh Labour party.
I am glad that I took that intervention. That is because I have further evidence explaining exactly why it is not in any sense gerrymandering or partisan. The hon. Gentleman asks why there should not be a statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The abuse has happened in Wales and we are correcting it in Wales. The Bill is about Wales. I know of no similar complaints about London. Indeed, I know of no similar complaints on an equivalent scale anywhere else to those that have existed in Wales.
Does the Secretary of State share my immense regret that we have to discuss these matters today? We do so with deep regret because those of us, with the best intentions, who supported the Government of Wales Act 1998, did not foresee the level of abuse that we have had. I would welcome a strong Liberal Democrat presence in my constituency to bring the fight to me, but regrettably that presence in adverts, local constituency offices and surgeries is in the target seats that the Liberal Democrats hope to win in the first-past-the-post system.
The comments that I quoted earlier from Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, independents, academics and even from the Preseli Pembrokeshire Conservative association, a fountain of wisdom in the Conservative party alone on this matter, show that there is a body of evidence, and there is much more, putting the case for—
Different parts of the United Kingdom have different—[Interruption.] I expect the Conservatives to scoff at devolution. That is what they have done all along and they always will do, as they are doing today. They are seeking to kill the Bill. However, I do not expect the Liberal Democrats to deny that different parts of the United Kingdom can develop in different ways—indeed, that is the purpose of devolution—and embrace different practices.
It would not stop them setting up constituency offices. However, I think that the Assembly may make a decision in its standing orders to stop that practice, and I hope that it does so. I am glad that a member of Plaid Cymru has asked me about this, because only today I received a press release from Helen Mary Jones, in which she describes herself as the "Llanelli-based Assembly Member". She complains about money spent on a hospital in Carmarthen instead of one in Llanelli. However, as a list Member, she represents both areas, and is the Member for Mid and West Wales. Yet again, a member of Plaid Cymru has been caught red-handed. Of all the parts of the list area that she represents, she targets the one place where she narrowly lost last time, and describes herself as the Llanelli-based Assembly Member. The Bill will stop her describing herself as the Assembly Member for Llanelli in future, because she was defeated there by Catherine Thomas in 2003.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman understands that Helen Mary Jones is saying that she is Llanelli-based. She lives there—she does not say that she is the Member for Llanelli. If that were the case, he would have ground for complaint. Perhaps more importantly, the right hon. Gentleman says that the point made by my hon. Friend Hywel Williams may be addressed by standing orders in the National Assembly. Will he oversee those orders, or will he allow the Assembly to deal with them itself?
The standing orders will be drawn up by the National Assembly itself. In his party's interests, may I discourage the hon. Gentleman from making such interventions, as he has provoked me to produce even more evidence? I have it on good authority from my hon. Friend Kevin Brennan that Helen Mary Jones lives in his constituency and is one of his constituents. We have a leaked memorandum—[Interruption.] I can see Plaid Cymru Members writhing—
Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman, but we must not have continual sedentary interventions. That applies across the House. There is a long list of Members who wish to speak in the debate, and they may be sacrificing their chances of being called.
I will take that as an instruction to make progress, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
It is significant, however, that Plaid Cymru Members are writhing in embarrassment, along with many other Opposition Members. I am not surprised, given the statement made in a memorandum by Leanne Wood, another Assembly Member. I could read out the entire statement, but I am pressed for time.
My hon. Friend may wish to know that, yet again, a member of Plaid Cymru has been caught red- handed, and advocates the targeting of Assembly office budgets in target seats. She says that her party's list Members will only do case work where it will benefit Plaid Cymru in those seats and will only attend civic and other events in the constituency if they think that there are votes in it. What a terrible advertisement for a Plaid Cymru Assembly Member.
The comments and evidence that I have cited demonstrate that the claim that the measure is partisan is entirely without foundation. I shall explain why. I remind the House that there are six Labour Assembly Members, including three Ministers, who would be defeated by a swing of 3 per cent. against them—a very small swing. They will no longer have the safety net of the regional list. This reform will affect Labour candidates, just as it applies to candidates of other parties. Candidates must make their choice, then the voters will make theirs.
The Bill marks an important step forward for the Assembly and an important step forward for Wales. I therefore hope that it will command broad cross-party support as it goes through both Houses. We all have our different views on which party should be in power in Cardiff bay, but we should all be able to unite to ensure that the Assembly works effectively as a democratically elected body for the good of Wales. There should be a cross-party consensus on putting Wales first.
I was encouraged when the new Leader of the Opposition said that he wanted to make a break from past Tory opposition to devolution and instead make it work for the people of Wales. He told The Western Mail that the Tories would no longer pursue the option of a referendum to abolish the Assembly. I had hoped, therefore, that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham would adopt a similarly constructive approach to devolution and abandon the anti-Welsh and anti-Assembly stance of her predecessor as shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Bill Wiggin. However, it is hard to see how the new consensus approach to Wales signalled by the Leader of the Opposition fits with the reasoned amendment tabled in his name and that of the hon. Lady, which seeks to block even a modest extension of powers to the Assembly by a ridiculous and ritualistic demand for a referendum.
The idea that the people of Wales would be galvanised by a referendum on the Assembly being authorised to legislate via parliamentary Orders in Council in future, rather than by parliamentary Bills as now, is absurd. What on earth would the question be? Even more to the point, what would the turnout be? The amendment calls for a referendum on enhanced legislative powers for the Assembly. Perhaps she could tell the House how she would campaign in such a referendum—for or against? Does she agree with Nick Bourne, her party's leader in the Assembly, who said that
"all parties agree the present situation is not sustainable in the long term"?
If the hon. Lady continues to pursue her opposition to even these modest additional powers for Wales, she will have squandered an historic opportunity to redefine the position of the Conservative party in Wales. Instead of consigning to the past the Tories' reputation as an anti-devolution party, she will have cemented it. A referendum is called for when the 1997 settlement is fundamentally changed, as the Bill proposes with regard to primary powers. There is no case at all for a referendum that merely adapts the current settlement, with Parliament remaining in charge, as has been the case so far. What she is recommending is a recipe for obstruction and paralysis. It is nothing more than another Tory attempt to thwart the development of the Assembly.
The Bill represents a crucial test for the Welsh Conservatives and they have already failed it. It is in the national interest of Wales for all parties to bury the arguments of the past and accept that the Assembly is here to stay, and to concentrate instead on making devolution work better. Instead, the Tories have stuck by their rejectionist policies of the past. So much for the Leader of the Opposition's new consensus approach to policy-making. It clearly excludes Wales.
Wales will have to move on without the Tories, and today we begin to do that, in a new dawn for devolution like that famous one in September 1997. Wales has made great progress over the past eight years. We now have the opportunity to settle for a long time the constitutional status of Wales, first by devolving further powers to the Assembly, and secondly by the prospect of primary powers at some time in the future, if the people of Wales vote for that option in a referendum. By equipping the Assembly to face the challenges of the 21st century, we will help to achieve our objective of a Wales that is world-class, both economically competitive and with high quality public services. For the good of the people of Wales, I call on all parties in the House to support the Bill.
I beg to move,
"That this House
declines to give a Second Reading to the Government of Wales Bill because there has been inadequate consultation about the electoral arrangements proposed in the Bill;
and because the Bill fails to provide for a referendum on the introduction of the Orders in Council mechanisms for conferring enhanced legislative powers on the National Assembly for Wales."
I join the Secretary of State in the tributes paid to Merlyn Rees and to Lord Stratford. In Merlyn Rees we have lost a man who was admired across all parts of the political spectrum, and in Lord Stratford we have lost a parliamentarian who gave us much pleasure and amusement over the years while pursuing some very serious policies in which he believed.
I also welcome the Secretary of State's ordering an investigation into the tragic deaths of Maurice Broadbent, David Horrocks, Wayne Wilkes and 14-year-old Thomas Harland. It seems that valuable lives have been wasted in a tragic accident, and I shall carefully consider the outcome of any investigation.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generous welcome to my new post. He began by trying to misrepresent my position, but I hope that I can put the record straight in the course of my brief remarks about the Bill and disabuse people about the position in which the right hon. Gentleman has sought to place me, my hon. Friends and my party.
The hon. Gentleman's extraordinary intervention is premature. If he contains his enthusiasm, I will set out my party's position.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for setting out the Bill's context and main provisions. The legislation is highly significant not only for the future governance of Wales, but for the constitutional position of the United Kingdom as a whole. Under my hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, the Conservative party is a party of localism and devolution. On his first visit to Wales as Leader of the Opposition just before Christmas, my right hon. Friend made it clear that devolution and the National Assembly are now established features of the Welsh political landscape. I hope that the Secretary of State will resist the temptation to revisit past battles over devolution and misrepresent our position. A future Conservative Government will seek a constructive relationship with the Assembly, whichever party or parties form the Welsh Assembly Government. We do not, however, believe that the Assembly discharges its functions in every respect either effectively or efficiently, which is something that we will seek to remedy.
Although I am impressed by Conservative Front Benchers' apparent change of heart, will the hon. Lady describe what sanctions exist to punish errant young chaps on the Conservative Back Benches—[Interruption.] sorry; I meant to say honourable young chaps—who have on occasion described the Assembly as a waste of space that should be abolished?
I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to look forwards rather than backwards, because he will run for office in his party at some stage. If he does not run for office, perhaps he will run to become president of the Liberal Democrats. [Interruption.] Conservatives are always ahead of the game. I shall keep looking forwards and seek not to be drawn into old arguments.
The debate is about the future structure and powers of the Assembly to allow it to perform what all hon. Members agree is its primary function—delivering a better quality of life for people in Wales. We can also agree on some of the changes that will result from the Bill, if it becomes law. I have made it clear to the Secretary of State in private meetings outside this House and in my interventions today that the Opposition believe that the Bill contains some good elements as well as some unacceptable elements.
First, let me set out the areas where we are supportive of the Bill. The decision formally to separate the Executive and legislative arms of the National Assembly is long overdue. There is almost unanimous agreement that the existing corporate Assembly structure has created confusion and misunderstanding as to where real power and decision making lie. That view was endorsed by the Richard commission, the Government's own White Paper in June, and most recently by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. From the outset, the Assembly has evolved beyond the limits of the Government of Wales Act 1998 so that there is now a much clearer separation between the Assembly Government and other Assembly Members. That should be recognised.
In February 2002, the Assembly agreed unanimously on as clear as possible a separation between the work of its executive and legislative arms. In response to Richard, it called for legislation to bring about a formal separation. We broadly believe that the proposals in part 2 are a step in the right direction, but we hope to look at the detail of their implementation in Committee. According to the Secretary of State's programme motion, he intends to allow three days on the Floor of the House for the Committee stage and two days on Report and Third Reading. We will support that.
If that were all that the Bill set out to do, we would have no hesitation in supporting it on Second Reading, but regrettably that is not the case. For the reasons set out in our much-criticised reasoned amendment, I invite right hon. and hon. Members to support our position by joining us in the Lobby tonight.
So that we have absolute clarity on the hon. Lady's exact position, will she say whether she agrees with the hon. Members for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) and for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) that health service powers should be taken from the Assembly and brought back to Westminster?
The hon. Gentleman will not take me down that route. [Interruption.] Chris Ruane may well laugh. It would perfectly suit the purposes of Labour Members to rerun old battles and take the focus away from the Bill, but I intend to discuss its provisions and ensure that people understand exactly what they mean.
The point is that the three Welsh Members sitting behind the hon. Lady have advocated returning health service powers to Westminster. Does she agree with her three musketeers, or not?
Before you rule the Secretary of State out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suggest that his real problem is that there are three Welsh Conservative Members of Parliament, as well as Conservative Members in the Assembly. If Labour Assembly Members had the same reputation for hard work as our Conservative MPs and AMs, they would do extremely well.
The Bill suffers from two fatal flaws. First, there is a lack of any proper consultation with the people of Wales through a referendum on the implications of the changes in part 3. Our argument is not that the Assembly should not gain additional powers but that, consistent with our approach to devolution, we need to give the people of Wales their say. We need to give them the opportunity to understand the proposals in the Bill and to express their views on what they want. However, although the Government are prepared to concede a referendum, at some point in the future, on the primary law-making powers set out in part 4, they do not provide for one on the new legislative procedures in part 3. That is inconsistent and wrong, and we will seek to persuade the Secretary of State to provide for an earlier referendum on the proposals for the two-stage process. [Interruption.] Chris Bryant says that I should not waste too much time doing that. In the spirit of consensus, however, I am going to try to make the Secretary of State see sense. He has described the procedures in part 3 as a mechanism to "streamline" or "fast-track" Welsh legislation. In fact, they represent a fundamental change to the 1998 settlement, not least evidenced by the extent of the repeals in the last schedule to the Bill.
The Government are proposing, without asking the people of Wales, to substitute the detailed scrutiny that Parliament gives to Welsh primary legislation with a procedure by which legislative competence is transferred to the Assembly through unamendable Orders in Council following a debate for one and a half hours. That procedure risks disfranchising Welsh Members of Parliament, who will no longer be able to carry out the job of work for which their constituents send them here, and at the same time it will disfranchise the Welsh electors who returned Members to this House in the expectation that they would represent their interests by properly scrutinising legislation—a function that will be diminished if the Bill is passed in its present form. It also risks placing the Assembly and Parliament on a clear constitutional collision course.
No convincing answers have so far been given to legitimate concerns over what would happen if Westminster rejects an application by the Assembly to legislate in a certain area or what would happen if the Secretary of State uses his pro-consular powers to block an application. If the Government envisage that the role of Parliament is simply to rubber-stamp applications, why involve us at all? Why should we go through that interim process and not go straight for full legislative powers? It is little wonder that Lord Richard concluded that
"There is very considerable lack of clarity in the way in which this interim stage would be managed and effected."
The Secretary of State has said that the interim stage would be a test of the robustness of the devolution settlement. The people of Wales and this Parliament deserve better than that.
We are entitled to ask where the demand for the proposed procedure has come from. The Secretary of State says that it will mean that Wales will no longer have to jostle each year to get legislation into the Queen's Speech. If that is so, it would be useful for the House to know precisely how many requests for pressing pieces of legislation have been made by the Assembly that the Government have turned down.
I am happy to say to the hon. Lady, as she has asked me, that there are a number of outstanding bids for legislation that the Assembly would have liked to have got on to the statute book. Actually, we have done quite well; we have two extra Bills this year, besides this one. She has invited me to clarify a point that is likely to arise in future. As I explained in some detail, there is a process of pre-scrutiny in which every Member of the House—not just Welsh Members—can take part. Such matters will not be rushed through in an hour and a half debate. There will be proper pre-scrutiny during which orders can be amended appropriately.
I do not think that the Secretary of State understands. He told us that the precise nature of pre-legislative parliamentary scrutiny will not be laid down in the Bill and will be subject to his whim and desires later. We do not have the detail.
As a Cabinet Minister, I cannot determine the House's procedures—and nor should I. That is a matter for the House. I have asked the Welsh Affairs Committee, which has come up with some interesting ideas, to be the fulcrum for the pre-legislative scrutiny process, but that is for the House to determine. It is entirely inappropriate for that process to be set out in the Bill, as I am sure on reflection the hon. Lady will agree.
The point is that it is pre-legislative scrutiny. We will not have the document; it could change. It was the right hon. Gentleman, I believe, who said that he did not think that the Orders in Council would trouble the legislative programme to any great extent:
"It is an hour-and-a-half debate on the floor of the House compared with going through all the stages of . . . legislation."
He is damned by his own words in showing that there will be a downgrading of the role of the House. There was no demand for such a move. It was not proposed by Lord Richard. No other party has put it forward. It is simply a compromise to try to keep the anti-devolution and pro-devolution wings of the Labour party together, although in the long run I suspect that it will satisfy neither.
There is a straightforward solution. If the Secretary of State is so confident that this move is right for the people of Wales, he should let them have their say. Instead, he is offering the people of Wales a referendum on proposals in the Bill on which he admits that there is no consensus, which he does not expect to call for many years—all because, in his own words,
—the First Minister—
"and I and Welsh Labour are not in the business of calling referendums we are going to lose".
That is the honest truth of the matter. We have proceeded from a pre-legislative referendum in 1997 to a post-legislative referendum in the Bill.
I want to make a little progress. I will let the hon. Gentleman know when I am going to give way to him.
No matter what the Secretary of State says, the changes in part 3 are not minor matters. They fundamentally alter the relationship between Parliament and the Assembly, and the people of Wales should be given a vote on them. Now I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the hon. Lady and welcome her to her post.
The people of Wales did have a vote, in May 2005, when they returned 29 Labour Members of Parliament in Wales. In the manifesto on which we all stood, we made clear that we would present proposals for the Assembly to be given enhanced legislative powers. There have been occasions on which I have been less than enthusiastic about more powers for the Assembly, but that was the manifesto on which I stood. Does the hon. Lady believe that that carries any weight at all?
I think that the hon. Gentleman will be the first to volunteer to give up his seat in the House so that there can be more Welsh Assembly Members, should more powers be devolved to the Assembly.
The detail in the hon. Gentleman's manifesto simply is not there. Orders in Council were certainly not envisaged at that stage. It is a clever idea, but it is a Johnny-come-lately idea. If it is such a marvellous idea, what is the problem with giving the people of Wales a vote on it?
I have already welcomed the hon. Lady to Wales and to our debate. Does she agree that one of the great successes of the last couple of years is the quality and extent of pre-legislative scrutiny applying to Wales? She is new to her post, but if she does agree, does she consider such scrutiny to be a good model to apply in this instance?
It is not a question of the merits or otherwise of pre-legislative scrutiny. It is a question of what is proposed in the Bill, and what is currently proposed in it is singularly unclear. We shall seek clarification throughout the Committee stage, and we shall re-examine these very points. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in examining the detail that we trust the Secretary of State will provide. Orders in Council were not envisaged in the Richard report, and have caused a great deal of consternation not just in this House but in another place, and it is important for us to be allowed three days of scrutiny on the Floor of the House.
The second major flaw in the Bill is the blatant alteration of the electoral system in part 1 to favour the Welsh Labour party.
May I say something before the hon. Lady leaves the subject of powers? She will know that differences of view between the Assembly and Westminster are reconciled through the judicial committee of the Privy Council—which, as I am sure she will agree, is not the most open and transparent body in the British constitution. Can she suggest a way in which the process might be changed in the future?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for treating me as if I were in the Government. Perhaps he would like to ask me that question if I were Secretary of State for Wales, but I think that it should be put to the current Secretary of State.
At the moment, I am convinced that our problems with the legislation are summed up by what the right hon. Gentleman said on
"you could get on with the job in the meantime and give substantial powers, as Rhodri said, to the Assembly through Orders in Council between 2007 and 2011".
That is what we must examine. It is a way of passing—almost—a concealed grant of direct legislative competence to Cardiff, and we need to examine it in detail. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, as he is currently the Secretary of State.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The proposed rigging of the electoral system will, despite the protestations of the Secretary of State, prevent candidates who stand in one of the 40 single Member constituencies and who fail to be elected from also standing on the regional top-up lists in any of the regional constituency areas.
Let me make a little progress, please.
The prime motivation for this appears to be the political interests of the Labour party in Wales. The Secretary of State and the First Minister have both said that, in respect of full law-making powers, we have to wait for the consensus. That is fine, but clearly there is no consensus whatever for the proposed change to the electoral system.
I do not believe that the changes to the electoral system for all elections throughout the UK were featured in the manifesto. Or did it apply only to Wales? This is an issue on which the Welsh Affairs Committee divided on party lines.
It may have been in the Welsh manifesto, but it was not in the Scottish Parliament and London Assembly manifestos.
The Electoral Reform Society has spoken out about its profound doubts on this change, saying:
"There is no evidence at all to back up this proposal and therefore we come to the conclusion that we do not think that the case for change has been made".
The commission also made the point that such a change needed to be considered in a UK rather than just a Welsh context. Perhaps the Secretary of State could tell the House when he expects his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to adopt the same procedures for elections to the Scottish Parliament. Why did such changes not form part of the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004?
As the hon. Lady has raised the issue, I shall tell her that the measure appeared in the UK manifesto. A more extensive description appeared in the Welsh manifesto, but the specific commitment appeared in Labour's UK manifesto, which was fought on by every candidate throughout the UK.
Does that mean that the Government will apply the measure to Scotland, in which case why did it not form part of the Labour party's representation to the Arbuthnot commission? If it is a principle, which the Secretary of State has said it is, it should apply right across the UK.
The truth is that this is a spiteful and anti-democratic measure that should have no place in a Government of Wales Bill and may not even survive a challenge under human rights legislation. In December, the Secretary of State boldly asserted that, in his view, the Bill would settle the constitutional question in Wales. In his own words:
"What I hope this will do is settle for a generation—if not more—the whole constitutional obsession we have in Wales about the powers and status of the Assembly".
He knows that the Bill as drafted will do no such thing. Rather than settle the constitutional question, it simply leaves it wide open.
The Bill offers little prospect of long-term constitutional stability. It proposes a hybrid system of enhanced legislative powers that weakens Parliament and the role of Welsh MPs, while fundamentally changing the 1998 devolution settlement without giving the people of Wales a vote or a voice. Further, it seeks to rig the electoral system to the partisan advantage of the Labour Party.
If the Government thought that the time has come to make further devolution to Wales, the honest way of going about it would be to consult the people of Wales now, through a referendum, and not wait until some intermediate point along the path, by which time important changes will have been introduced under the guise of this Bill. The Secretary of State had the opportunity to improve the operations of the Assembly simply by separating the Assembly Government from the Assembly Members. Instead, I am afraid that he has chosen to pursue his political interests at the same time, jeopardising the legislation and compromising the people of Wales by adding provisions for partisan, party purposes. I am sorry that he has made that choice.
We have had no choice but to table a reasoned amendment, and I ask the House to support it in the Lobby tonight. I will not vote against Second Reading if a vote is called because there are elements of the Bill that we Conservatives support, but because the Secretary of State has chosen to include partisan, party proposals, I had no choice but to table a reasoned amendment and to include it in the Order Paper. I ask my hon. Friends to vote with me on it.
Given that many Members want to speak in this debate, and that I intend to construct my contribution around a series of questions, may I suggest to the Secretary of State that he resists the temptation to try to answer them as we go along? I am happy to wait and to hear his answers—hopefully—in the winding-up speech.
The Secretary of State may be a little surprised to hear me start with a welcome, albeit a limited one, for the introduction of a referendum process, which is at least preferable to what was proposed by the Richard commission. What worries me is that the Bill as drafted allows for repeated referendums, until a majority of at least one is eventually achieved. That could conceivably be open to exploitation for political expediency—there could be a campaign of attrition until a majority is won. So why has the Secretary of State ignored the recommendation of the Welsh Affairs Committee that there be a minimum interval between referendums of at least two terms of the Assembly, which is eight years? Also, why has he ignored the First Minister's observation, in answer to question 226 in the Select Committee's report, that the interval would probably be a minimum of one generation, which is 20 years? Why has he even ignored his own contribution in that same question, in which he said that the proposal
"would be off the agenda for a very long time"?
I must admit that if there were a vote on Second Reading, I would be unable to support the Bill—I would not actually oppose it—because of the absence of such a provision.
Is it technically possible—I emphasise the word "technically"; I am not asking whether this is the intention—that under the Bill as drafted, which provides for a succession of orders, the full legislative objective could be achieved without a referendum? As I understand it, it could. It might take a long time, but a succession of orders could achieve that objective. If they could achieve that objective—I may be wrong—would there be any effect if there were a referendum and it returned a no vote, or would we go back to a system of orders and the inevitable chipping away at the devolution process?
I am also concerned about what I call the Trojan horse clause. Page 20 of the Wales Office's guide to the Bill points out that if just one non-controversial, innocuous order is passed, a policy area is opened. Once that happens, the Assembly is free to introduce new measures with different policy objectives, without having to go for a further order. It is a form of creeping devolution.
In view of that, and because that is a result of the order process proposed, it is important that we examine how thorough and efficient are the safeguards provided under the order process, in both the Lords and the Commons. My right hon. Friend knows, as I and every other Member of this House know, that a one and a half hour order cannot be amended. By the time that the Front Bench speeches have finished, there is hardly any time for any alternative opinion. Indeed, by the nature of the House of Commons, it is improbable that the House would be packed with English Members who were gasping to hear the detailed reasons why the order should not be introduced.
My right hon. Friend said that the answer would be in the draft Bill. I am a great enthusiast, as is the Liaison Committee which I chair, for the draft Bill process, but it is clear constitutionally that the draft Bill process recommendations are not binding on the Secretary of State. It is up to his whim whether he accepts them. I do not disagree that the Bill is a fair representation of his opinions but, as he told the Committee, he is an enthusiastic supporter of devolution of the full legislative process. We are therefore left with some scepticism about the effectiveness of the draft process.
In addition, I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is up to the House to decide the form of draft Committee. I can see the case for a Joint Committee between the House and the Assembly, as has happened on other issues. However, as I shall suggest to the Liaison Committee, another element is necessary, otherwise the two groups that make up the Select Committee would both be predominantly in favour of devolution going as far as possible. Therefore, the Joint Committee needs an element that would look after the interests of the House of Commons and consider the constitutional impact of the propositions outside Wales. My colleagues on the Liaison Committee and I will consider the possibility of the Constitutional Affairs Committee also being represented.
Now we come to the Lords end. As I understand the evidence that my right hon. Friend gave to the Select Committee, he clearly envisages that what is in effect the Parliament Act process would apply if the Lords rejected the order. So we have a process in the Commons that will be meaningless and a whipped majority will drift the provisions through. In the Lords, my right hon. Friend has cut the legs from under what is intended as a process of scrutiny on behalf of Parliament. It would be interesting to hear my right hon. Friend's evidence on whether the Parliament Act would be appropriate. The propositions before us certainly appeared in the White Paper that was published in June, after the election. They were embodied in a Bill that appeared six months after the election, in December.
My right hon. Friend says that there was pre-election consultation but, as far as we can gather, that consultation was on the Richard commission, which the Bill and the White Paper effectively reject. My right hon. Friend was asked by my hon. Friend Mr. Jones, in question 195:
"Have the people of Wales ever been consulted over the Order in Council procedure?"
That is not in Richard, which was part of the consultation; it is a clear and specific question. My right hon. Friend answered:
"There was a widespread process of consultation following the Richard Commission, in which both Rhodri and I were in exactly the same position, that we wanted to see the Assembly get on with its task of having greater powers following 2007 and did not want to wait another four years, as Richard proposed."
That is fascinating, but it is less than precise about what consultation there was with the public, so will my right hon. Friend put in the Library all the consultation documents that he released during the election that outline the procedures covered in the Bill?
I am not surprised that my right hon. Friend suggested 2007, although Richard proposed 2011. Most people are not thinking that far ahead, but I have my retirement to think about and 2011 will be after I have retired, which is not to say that my retirement is relevant, but that the process would take place after the general election. The measure is an insurance policy—a just-in-case provision. While a Labour Government are in office my right hon. Friend wants to get as much slammed through under the order process as he can get away with.
I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Is it not fair to say that as the First Minister plans to retire in 2009, the measure could be an attempt to put on the statute book something that will act as a memorial and a tribute both to the Secretary of State, as he moves on and a Conservative Government take over, and to the First Minister in Wales? It would grant more powers to the Assembly by the back door.
That suggests a degree of egocentricity on the part of my right hon. Friend that no one would associate with him. In fact, he has introduced a salami-slicing provision—a series of orders that one by one will chip away at the powers of the House and give them to the Assembly. We are still not clear what the consultation was about.
I conclude on a point that has been touched on and which is profoundly important. The House of Commons is sleepwalking and does not quite understand what the devolution process is about, and I suspect that many of my English colleagues have not understood what it might mean for them. Scotland already has its devolution. As Wales spreads its devolutionary catchment, increasingly larger parts of the legislation going through the House of Commons will be England-only. It will not apply in Wales or in Scotland.
I abstained on tuition charges because I felt that I should not vote on them, but we have an anomalous situation whereby Scottish and Welsh Members, who are not answerable to English constituencies, will vote to impose on them measures that will not apply in Scotland or Wales. That affronts my concept of the democratic accountability that I thought existed in our country.
In the atmosphere that has been partially created by the act of devolution—making the Welsh more Welsh and the Scots more Scottish—there is a seeping effect of making the English more English. I suspect that there is a limit to how long the English electorate will put up with a situation where Welsh and Scottish votes determine what they get, especially if there was a Government with an overall UK majority but only a minority of votes in England. I do not think that the Government have even considered the possible repercussions for my party in the future, when the English rumble the effect of what we are putting through the House. There will be a backlash, and at some stage the issue and the policy will come back to bite us.
I welcome Mrs. Gillan to her new Front-Bench role on Welsh matters. The early indications are that she will, indeed, be truly inclusive and take a positive approach. That will certainly endear her to her three Conservative Members from Wales.
I also pay tribute to Merlyn Rees, who made a tremendous contribution to Northern Ireland affairs—he will be considerably missed in the other place, where he was active until December—and to Tony Banks, with whom I had considerable interactions, particularly on the vexatious issue of fox hunting. Irrespective of whether I agreed with him, I think that the House can agree that he made a difference and left an indelible mark on parliamentary matters, and to that extent, British politics will be worse off without him.
I apologise to the House on account of the fact that, on this occasion, I may have to be a little rude and leave at about four minutes to 6, as I am chairing an important meeting concerning the local difficulties facing my party. Although I pay tribute, as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, to the loyalty of my hon. Friends the Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) and for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), I recognise that my absence may give them the opportunity to call for my resignation. I intend to fight on and consider my position to be tenable.
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham suggested that I was standing for the presidency of my party. I can tell her that no vacancy currently exists for the presidency. However, if called upon to serve humanity in that way, I may allow my name to go forward. I thank the hon. Lady for her offer of support.
As is the fashion at the moment among young Opposition MPs, it is necessary to pay tribute to the Government. Labour deserve some credit for grasping the nettle in 1998 and kick-starting the devolution process in 1997. The Bill that the Government presented then was a cautious one; it created the Welsh Assembly, but it kept the Assembly's powers firmly in check. In effect, Westminster still ran a large part of the show. The Government now have a mandate to give Wales the deal that it deserves—an Assembly with primary powers.
Polls suggest that the Welsh public support such a move, and all but one of the major parties seem wholly to support moves toward primary powers. The Richard commission set out a clear path for a proper devolution settlement. Having surveyed all the issues in unique detail, Lord Richard and his colleagues concluded that the best way forward for Wales was, first, to create an 80-Member Assembly, with primary law-making powers, elected by a single-transferable-vote system.
The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Richard commission gave detailed consideration to relevant matters in Wales. A very important issue for his constituency and mine is the provision of public services from England to Welsh constituents. The Richard commission did not cover that in any detail at all—or can he perhaps enlighten me and tell me where in the Richard commission report it was?
The hon. Gentleman is right, but in many ways that is a tactical matter. The way in which the Assembly exercises those powers is a strategic question. He and I and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire all have issues about health and other provision across the border, but it is probably more appropriate for us to discuss those specific matters in a debate other than one that deals with these weighty constitutional matters, although the hon. Gentleman may want to discuss that issue in more detail in his own contribution.
The Richard commission also said that law-making powers would be more effectively dispatched by an 80-Member Assembly. That is the model that Welsh Liberal Democrats want to see put in place. Not only would it create a powerful and professional Welsh senate and a proportional political body with the responsibilities and capacity to move Wales forward, but it would also resolve the issues that the Secretary of State for Wales was trying to grapple with in terms of the frictions that he observes between list Members and constituency Members of the Assembly.
Unfortunately, the Bill comes nowhere near what Lord Richard advocated and what the Welsh Liberal Democrats and, in my judgment, a very large proportion of the people of Wales would like. In its current form, the Bill is flawed, patronising and limited. Its main problem is that it concentrates great power in the figure of the Secretary of State for Wales and, in doing so, could thrust the devolution process into complete limbo for decades. I give considerable praise to the current Secretary of State, who I believe is genuinely committed to devolution, but there is no guarantee that his successors will share his enthusiasm. In fact, he highlighted a possible risk whereby a Secretary of State for Wales might decide to stamp on the requests of the Assembly and therefore thwart devolution.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He may agree that it is not a question of whether the Secretary of State decides to stamp on the Assembly. The fact that he has these draconian Executive powers places the Assembly under his administrative tutelage. That is the reality of the arrangement that is being sold to the Welsh people, as though the Assembly were getting a proper legislative function, which it is not.
The hon. Gentleman makes an insightful point. Although he and his party may be coming at the issue from a different direction from my party and, I suspect, Plaid Cymru, the inference is nevertheless the same. If the Secretary of State decided not to grant additional powers in the context of the Bill, he or she could literally prevent those powers from being passed.
That exists now. Under existing procedures, a Secretary of State, myself included, could decide not to introduce a Bill requested by the Assembly. Ironically, the hon. Gentleman and the shadow Attorney-General are endorsing my argument that Parliament remains in charge and that the first stage of a modest increase in powers does not change the settlement at all. That is the reality. If that does not work, a move to primary powers could take place subject to a referendum. That is the point.
Although I suspect that it has happened by accident, we violently agree. The Secretary of State appears to be trying to mollify not necessarily those on the Conservative Front Bench but the troublesome trio who sit behind them and who want to be reassured that there is no substantial change to the settlement. However, that does not work for the Liberal Democrats or, I imagine, for Plaid Cymru, as we believe that the Bill presents an opportunity to devolve primary powers in a fashion that is similar to the Scottish model rather than maintaining so much influence in the hands of the Secretary of State for Wales that, ultimately, an anti-devolution Secretary of State could postpone things.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the current settlement was endorsed by the people of Wales in a referendum and that we are now looking to give greater powers to the Welsh Assembly? Irrespective of whether we move to primary powers for which there would be a referendum, does he agree that the people of Wales must be trusted? They voted once for what we have now and they must be allowed to vote again for a change in the settlement.
I shall finish on this point. Ironically, the Secretary of State and the Conservatives are trying to resist what the Liberal Democrats want—for trust to be placed in the Assembly to dispatch primary powers in a fashion similar to the Scottish Parliament and for trust to be placed in the Welsh people, through the electoral process, to elect Assembly Members whom they trust with those responsibilities. As it is at the moment, the Secretary of State's office has the enormous power to run with or kill legislation.
We have seen the taming of the three Welsh Conservative Members. It is a delight to note the influence that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham has already had, but I am more than a little surprised by their mouse-like silence. The guns of Monmouth have been silenced, and David T.C. Davies has been tamed by the new shadow Secretary of State for Wales. However, I suspect that underneath their docile fac"ade, those three hon. Members are still the same people whom we knew and loved before. I would counsel Mr. Cameron that, as the Liberal Democrats know all too well, a revolution can start with a whisper. If the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham wishes to lead her Back-Bench colleagues through the Lobby, she must explain what the transformation on the road to Damascus has been framed on. If the Conservatives really want to reassure us that they are pro-devolution, they must explain why, as the Secretary of State pointed out, they have tabled a reasoned amendment that would abolish the Bill before it had received its Second Reading—that is the nature of the vote. I have heard the words of the hon. Lady and her boss, but it will take more than words to convince me that there has been such a transformation and that a Conservative Government would be committed to devolution in the way in which I have described.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because the policy line that we are taking is obviously deeply upsetting to him. My three colleagues who represent Welsh constituencies and I are firmly wedded to giving the people of Wales a choice and trusting them. If we have a situation under this legislation in which Cardiff ends up with greater powers while Labour Members in Westminster say that they have not devolved primary legislative powers, we are seeing an act of political prestidigitation from the Secretary of State that would make Paul Daniels look like an amateur. If I can make common cause with the leader of my party and my three colleagues who represent Wales to give the people of Wales a choice, I shall do so. I hope that Lembit Öpik will agree with me on that.
Let us move on to that point. We should remember that the Welsh Affairs Committee was unequivocal in saying that
"the Secretary of State's powers should be limited to refusing Orders in Council on the basis of procedure, and not on the merits of the policy aspiration."
The Committee did not ask for a referendum. Although the hon. Lady is perfectly entitled to call for a referendum, that is a matter of judgment, and I do not think that it would be appropriate to hold such a referendum.
It is the same story with the Government—this is where I respond to Mr. Evans. Lord Richard called the Bill a "tortuous route" towards primary powers. We think that part of that tortuous route is putting a referendum between us and equivalence with Scotland. Hon. Members who feel that they cannot trust the Welsh Assembly, or trust the Welsh people to elect a competent Assembly, might want to support a referendum, but those of us who think that devolution means exactly that believe that the House has the authority and the duty to give the Welsh Assembly responsibilities comparable with those in Scotland.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Richard commission, the report of which was well researched and clear. Does he agree that it is now the Government's responsibility to explain why they commissioned the work, but completely ignored what was said?
As my hon. Friend rightly points out, those in government in Wales commissioned the report. It is interesting to note how quickly Labour Members want to distance themselves from those in government in the Cardiff Assembly. As my hon. Friend says, Lord Richard makes a serious and insightful contribution to devolution. The document shows that if an anti-devolution party were to come to power in Westminster, it could halt the devolution process indefinitely. Under the Bill, the scenario could occur whereby 90 per cent. of the Welsh public and 90 per cent. of the Assembly Members want primary powers and the Secretary of State could simply say no. Lord Richard was right to highlight the dangers, as is my hon. Friend.
The Bill was meant to tip the balance of power from Westminster to Cardiff, but instead it strengthens the Secretary of State's grip. On Orders in Council, primary powers and future referendums, he holds all the aces. The Welsh Assembly has to pull off a five-card trick to guarantee that it will get anywhere at all. If Labour were really pro-devolution, would it present us with this convoluted process, riddled with caveats and clauses, which could threaten the whole devolution process? At best, the impression is one of compromise. It seems as though the Government have conceded considerable ground to their own anti-devolution elements.
That perhaps explains the evident friction between what Labour Ministers say in this House and what Labour Assembly Members say at the other end of the M4, in Cardiff. That transparently seems to be the case on the issue of dual candidacy, on which there is commonality among all the Opposition parties. The issue has attracted considerable attention and will, I am sure, be discussed in Committee. Labour's policy of banning dual candidacy does not put our Secretary of State on quite the same moral level as Robert Mugabe, as somebody suggested, but there is little evidence that the measure is anything other than politically motivated.
Academics and non-partisan organisations, such as the Electoral Reform Society and the Electoral Commission, have all condemned the Government's proposals. Such people have found no evidence that dual candidacy, in the words of the Secretary of State,
"devalues the integrity of the electoral system" or
Would the hon. Gentleman describe the Electoral Reform Society as a non-partisan organisation or does he think that it has a certain agenda to pursue?
Anybody who believes themselves to be a democrat and to be passionate about free speech will view that organisation as independent. Hon. Members can draw their own conclusions.
The hon. Gentleman has just referred to himself as a democrat, so I must drag him back to the issue of giving the people of Wales a choice. Had it been left up to him, the people of the north-east would have had their regional tier of government. The fact is that they were given a referendum and they voted overwhelmingly against. What is he afraid of? Let us give the people a choice.
As I said, the Liberal Democrats feel that, in essence, the Welsh Assembly deserves the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. We asked the people in Wales and we doubled the number of seats in Parliament. We increased our share of the vote and we anticipate that we will do well in the Welsh Assembly elections. Let us not dwell on the matter, which is a matter of judgment; the Liberal Democrats and, I suspect, Plaid Cymru believe that we do not need a referendum to move forward.
The main issue on the Bill is devolution and the extent of the powers available to the Welsh Assembly. We have an historic opportunity to give Wales what it deserves: a proper law-making senate, just like the Scottish Parliament. If Labour had followed the Richard commission, we would be much closer to having that, but it has categorically failed to do so.
The Bill nevertheless offers potential. With finance, there is a great opportunity finally to end the injustice of the Barnett formula and to replace it with something fairer. We can change that situation if we choose to do so, through our dialogues in the Committee sittings, as set out in the programme motion, with which we agree. We can talk about the other details and elements by passing the Bill on Second Reading and seeking to amend it. In so doing, and in opposing the reasoned amendment because we feel it is anti-devolutionary, we must also be honest. The Government have an obligation to listen. Today, we shall support the Bill on the understanding that they will take feedback on the elements that are unsatisfactory and that can be improved upon in the interests of Wales. It will not be good enough if every Opposition amendment is simply defeated on the basis that the Government do not like to accept Opposition amendments and believe doing so to be weak.
We have major reservations about the Bill and major amendments to table in Committee. If they are taken on board, we will vote for the Bill to become law. If they are not, we will find it difficult to back a Bill that could set back the devolution process for 20 or 30 years. We believe that this Secretary of State is pro-devolution and that he has the opportunity to deliver to Wales what it requires. He can be a hero in the eyes of the Welsh. I hope that he does not sit on his hands and, by default, become a villain.
May I say to hon. Members that no time limit was imposed on speeches by Back Benchers, but there is a long list of those wishing to speak in the remaining time available. If all hon. Members present are to make a contribution, 10 minutes would be a guide.
I join in the comments made by Members of the House about Tony Banks and particularly, from a Welsh point of view, about Merlyn Rees. He was a Cilfynydd boy, and a distinguished Home Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary. We will miss them both.
I also warmly welcome the new shadow Secretary of State for Wales to her post. I know that Wales has a special place in her heart and we wish her well in her new job. I particularly thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister for the enormous amount of work that they have put into the Bill and the arrangements before Parliament over the past months and years. The result of those efforts will be seen in the weeks ahead.
In 1979, my constituency of Torfaen voted overwhelmingly against devolution, and I was one of those who voted against. That was the case among most of the valley constituencies in south Wales and most of Wales itself. Some 20 years later, my constituency continued to vote against devolution, but it did so with the tiniest of majorities. I am unsure what it would do today were there a referendum on the issue, but I believe that it would probably vote in favour. There are two reasons for that.
The first, inevitably, is that the difference between 1979 and 1997 was nearly two decades of Conservative Government. In a country such as Wales, which overwhelmingly votes Labour, people felt that they needed the change. The second reason, which has not been touched on tremendously this evening but I am sure will be in the debates to follow, is that devolution is not about high constitutional principles but about how services are delivered to the people whom we represent.
That is the basis of devolution: do people get better health services, schools, planning or local government? It is not only about whether services improve in quality but about whether government is accessible and more accountable to people. To a large extent, accessibility is the one area that my constituents would regard as having changed during all those years.
I am not saying for one second that improvements are not necessary in service delivery in Wales—of course they are, as in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, people now understand that the Assembly exists to deliver the services so that people's lives can be improved. Does the Bill change that in any way? That is the question that we must consider on Second Reading and in Committee. The change in relation to the separation of powers is very important because the Assembly's corporate status simply has not worked and needs to be changed.
I was confused by the Conservative party's reasoned amendment. I am in favour of such amendments when they mean something, but this one means that the Opposition are inviting this House to turn down completely the Second Reading of the Bill. There is ample opportunity in Committee, on Report and in the other place to deal with the important issues. To reject the entire Bill on such a basis is wrong and is, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, bizarre.
The changes that will result from the Orders-in-Council provision are necessary. They are not especially dramatic and they will improve service delivery. In the past, including when I was Secretary of State, we transferred powers to the Assembly on several occasions. Fire services are an obvious example: they come under local government in England and should in Wales as well. There are other examples, including animal welfare, in which services or functions were devolved to the Assembly because it made sense so to do. The Order-in-Council procedure enhancing the legislative competence of the Assembly will make sense where the Assembly has responsibility.
I am a little doubtful—I agree with my right hon. Friend Mr. Williams, the Father of the House—about the way in which Parliament will deal with scrutiny in that Order-in-Council process. I am not convinced that we have got that right yet. As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend knows that the Order-in-Council provision, which is used to legislate while there is direct rule for Northern Ireland, does not allow for amendments to be made to legislation and that there is a limit of one and a half hours for debate. I know that putting on the face of the Bill improvements to our method of scrutiny would be a problem, but Parliament and the Government ought to consider in more detail how the process could be improved. Pre-legislative scrutiny, working with the Assembly Committees and extending the time for debate on Orders in Council will all be necessary, of course, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will also take on board the suggestions that I am sure will be made in Committee.
I do not think that a referendum is needed on the Orders-in-Council provision, and I certainly do not believe that one is needed on whether to allow dual candidacy. A referendum will be needed if primary powers are to be given to the Welsh Assembly, because that would fundamentally change the settlement on which we agreed back in 1997.
There might be a case in years to come for holding another referendum, on the way in which we elect Members to the National Assembly for Wales. The present system is confusing to our electors, and if an electoral system confuses the electors, it is not a good electoral system. I would prefer to have two-Member constituencies using an alternative vote system. That is what I argued for in the mid-1990s, but it did not happen. I doubt that it would be acceptable now, but it remains my preference. I would like to see a first-past-the-post system, but I do not think that that is likely to happen because it would fundamentally change the system on which people voted. If we want fundamentally to change the electoral system, there is a case for giving people the right to vote on that, because that would be meaningful.
The change in respect of dual candidacy is necessary. I do not think for one second that it would give any party an advantage. Different parties might have different rules on who should stand for what, but in terms of who is eventually elected, it will make no difference. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, six of our Labour colleagues in the Assembly could face defeat on the smallest of swings, but will not have the safeguard of standing for the top-up list.
It will never happen, but a candidate on a list would have a vested interest in ensuring that his colleague standing in a winnable seat did not win. Would not that cause problems to the parties that currently benefit most from regional lists?
It is for the individual parties to sort out how they select people for election.
That is a problem of the system. The additional member system that we have as a result of the 1997 settlement is fundamentally flawed. People do not understand it. They do not understand how an individual can stand in two ways for the same body on the same day in the same election and be defeated, then get elected a matter of an hour or two later. Equally if not more confusing is the fact that, in my constituency and in those of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the south Wales valleys, thousands upon thousands of people vote Labour on their second vote, yet none of those votes is counted. I do not understand the logic of that. I can understand the technicalities, because I taught the subject many years ago when I was a teacher in a college of further education, but as an elector or as an elected representative, I think that it is terribly confusing and ought to be changed.
How can the system be changed? We should keep the 40 first-past-the-post AMs and the 20 top-up AMs should be elected on an all-Wales list based on strict proportionality, so that people are elected according to the number of votes cast throughout Wales for their party. That would be easily understood by the people of Wales. In the months and years ahead, there is a debate to be had about what changes might be made. If none is made, the top-up system will become increasingly discredited.
The method that the right hon. Gentleman proposes has something to commend it, but if such a system were to be adopted, there would be nothing to prevent the mischief about which the Secretary of State is so exercised, of someone on an all-Wales list identifying himself with a particular locality, which he wanted to seize in future under first past the post. Does not the argument advanced by the Secretary of State debase the debate that we ought to be having on the matter, on which Mr. Murphy is making an important point?
Someone on an all-Wales list standing in a strictly proportionate election going to a particular constituency and fighting it would be much less of a problem than it is now. Now, elections are fought on electoral subdivisions of Wales and in those much smaller divisions it is more than possible—indeed, it is happening—for individual list Members to go to a constituency and campaign to get elected as a candidate under first past the post. That is wrong, because the 20 top-up Members should bring something different to the Assembly and thus enhance it. That would be more likely if they were elected as I have suggested.
I hope that the Bill receives its Second Reading today, because the people of Wales are served by all of us who are elected for that purpose, whether we serve in the House of Commons, the Assembly or local government. We are all there to serve those whom we represent and I believe that the Bill gives us an opportunity to improve the quality of life of all Welsh people.
I represent the border town of Shrewsbury. We have a long border with Wales and there are many issues common to Shrewsbury and Shropshire and the good people of Wales. Just last week, Lembit Öpik, who has now left the Chamber, came to the Royal Shrewsbury hospital in my constituency to fight for the services it provides because the vast majority of his mid-Wales constituents cross the border to use our services.
The United Kingdom is, in my view, one country—I am passionate about that—but the Bill and some previous pieces of legislation drive a wedge between England and Wales. When we cross the border, there are no passport checks or barriers, yet Parliament is starting to create huge gulfs between our two peoples. I shall give three or four examples of the way in which barriers are being erected between our two countries.
The first example is the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. Given the difference in policy of the Welsh Assembly and our authorities, my hospital in Shrewsbury loses more than £2 million every year. That is because the Welsh health authorities pay a different amount for their patients coming across the border compared with English patients. That is repeated over and over again in local newspapers. Shropshire newspapers state that we are subsidising the Welsh and ask why the Welsh should pay less. This is bad for cross-border relations.
Although I believe in devolution, I believe also that there must be some form of joined-up government. The Welsh Assembly must be thinking along similar lines on certain issues, such as health, when it comes to cross-border services. That should certainly be taken into consideration.
I move on to targets and hospitals. One of the problems for the Welsh is that, because the Assembly pays less for patients, they have to face far longer targets. If someone is Welsh and he or she comes across the border to use my hospital, they will have to wait far longer for their operation than my constituents wait. Many Welsh citizens say to me that they feel second-class citizens because of the waits that they face, and that they find them entirely unacceptable.
My constituents are treated differently from Welsh citizens when it comes to prescribing drugs at the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. Some Welsh patients receive drugs that my constituents are not allowed to have, and vice versa. This is appalling. Surely the Labour Government, a Government who talk so passionately about the NHS, should be talking about ensuring that services and drugs for patients are the same at a hospital, no matter where they come from.
I represent a border town and there are many farmers who own property on both sides of the border. They are frustrated by the differences in single farm payments with which they have to cope. These farmers get together at the Minsterley show every year to talk about how they are being treated in Wales and how they are being treated in England. Division is caused between the two sets of people.
The Secretary of State talked about accountability. I shall give one example of where the Welsh Assembly is not proving accountable to people in England. There is a major project on the Welsh-English border—the Middletown bypass—that is being considered by the Welsh Assembly. This huge bypass will come across the border into my constituency, yet it will be adjudicated on by the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, and the Welsh Assembly. We will have no input. Many acres of Shropshire countryside will be devastated by a huge bypass but we in Shropshire will have no say. We feel, as the Welsh felt in the past, a lack of accountability.
I shall talk about jobs, about which I feel passionately. Unemployment has increased in my constituency by 25 per cent. over the past 12 months. We have lost many jobs across the border to Wales. Welsh Members may say, "That is great. We are doing a better job than you are in attracting jobs." However, we are a united kingdom. We should be focusing on jobs throughout the country and not on poaching jobs from either side of the border on the basis that the Welsh Development Agency gives larger grants.
For the hon. Gentleman's information, Wrexham and Alyn and Deeside are not in the objective 1 area and do not receive grant aid, in contrast to areas of Shropshire that receive grant aid under EU regulations.
I am talking about the difference between Shrewsbury and Montgomeryshire, which affects Shrewsbury. The hon. Gentleman will have to speak to my counterpart on his side of the border.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the catalogue of issues that need resolving, it would have been an improvement to make the Welsh Assembly work better for the people of Wales and the people of the United Kingdom before the Secretary of State sought to change the way in which it legislates, and that his priorities are completely wrong? Instead of improving things for the people of Wales, he has sought once again to move the goalposts.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. She has encapsulated in a far better way than I have the main thrust of my speech, which is that the proposed legislation is moving ahead quickly before certain fundamental issues that affect both our countries are addressed. Unless someone lives in a border area, as I do, he or she may not feel the deep concerns and passions that are felt by myself and by my constituents in respect of anomalous cross-border issues.
I recently met directors of a large American company who basically admitted to me that they had played us off one against the other—the Welsh Assembly and the English authorities—and that they drove up the grants that they demanded. I urge the Secretary of State and the Government to bear in mind the effect that their proposed legislation will have on English areas near the border.
I begin by congratulating Mrs. Gillan on her new appointment. As Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I look forward to working with her. I pay tribute too to two great parliamentarians—Merlyn Rees, a true son of Cilfynydd, and Tony Banks.
As Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I wish to make a contribution to this important debate on the future government of Wales. On a personal note, I am encouraged by the constructive proposals in the Bill that have the capacity, I believe, to strengthen democracy, policy development and accountability within Wales. As someone who has actively supported democratic devolution for more than three decades in Wales, I am aware of the opportunities and also of some of the dangers swirling around the Bill. Most critically, I am aware of the need for a broad consensus within Wales to support the principles that underpin the proposals.
The devolution campaign in 1978–79 paid little real attention to the need for such a consensus; least of all, sad to say, within our own governing party. Even in 1997, a much more propitious time, we must acknowledge, and with barely an organised opposition, the referendum result was perilously close.
I am reminded of the prophetic words of my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy, who has made an important contribution to tonight's debate, when he was Secretary of State for Wales. He rightly characterised devolution as part of the long historic progress of Welsh and British democracy via the chartist and suffragette movements. Following the 1997 referendum vote, it was he who said, I believe borrowing from the late John Smith, that Welsh devolution was a "settled question". It was "settled" in the sense of no going back because the Welsh people had taken a vital democratic step forward through a referendum. He cautioned that further legitimate progress towards new powers could be made only with a further referendum sometime in the future.
My Committee considered the proposals contained within the White Paper and made a series of helpful recommendations that I believe will improve the proposed legislation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said previously that he would be responding in detail to my Committee's recommendations. I look forward to that response and I hope that he will be forthcoming in taking on board all of our recommendations.
The Government produced a White Paper rather than a draft Bill. That meant that there was insufficient detail for my Committee to consider when it looked at the Government's proposals, but it is an important piece of constitutional legislation for Wales and the Bill should have been submitted for proper pre-legislative scrutiny. We made that point in our report, because such scrutiny would have enabled us as parliamentarians and the wider public to assess properly the Government's intentions. It is regrettable that we could not do so.
I welcome the fact that the Government have introduced a free-standing Bill, rather than a Bill to amend the Government of Wales Act 1998. However, it represents only part of the solution. If there is to be absolute clarity about what powers rest with Parliament and what powers lie with the Welsh Assembly Government we need a Welsh statute book. Without one, an understanding of where the finer points of authority lie may remain beyond our grasp, so we made a recommendation that one should be established.
Our report welcomes the separation of the legislature and the Executive. The existing arrangements have bred confusion about the roles of the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Assembly. A formal separation of the two will make it clear to the people of Wales that the Welsh Assembly Government are responsible for policy direction in Wales while the National Assembly is responsible for holding the Government to account.
We also recommended that the Bill use the term "Welsh Executive" rather than "Welsh Assembly Government". The current terminology reflects the maximum separation possible under the 1998 Act. Now that we have a new Bill, we no longer need the connection that the word "Assembly" in "Welsh Assembly Government" implies. The term "Welsh Executive" removes any connection or confusion with the National Assembly, and reinforces the formal separation between the Executive and the legislature in Cardiff. For that reason, we recommended that "Welsh Executive" replace "Welsh Assembly Government" in the Bill.
The meat of the Bill consists of the Government's proposals to enhance the powers of the National Assembly through the use of Orders in Council. The Government propose that requests for powers in certain areas be approved by Parliament with secondary legislation rather than primary legislation. That would have the benefit of providing Wales with the tools that it needs to pursue its policy aspirations while at the same time preventing legislation from being caught up in the busy timetable of the Government's legislative programme. I appreciate that not everyone is keen on using delegated legislation to confer powers on the National Assembly, as it is possible that draft orders will not receive adequate parliamentary scrutiny. For that reason, our report recommended that draft orders should be considered not in a Standing Committee but on the Floor of the House for one and a half hours. If there was cross-party consensus that a particular draft Order in Council needed a longer debate, we recommend that it should be referred to the Welsh Grand Committee. Furthermore, proposals for draft orders will be subject to detailed pre-legislative scrutiny. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has suggested that there is a role for the Welsh Affairs Committee in such scrutiny.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman's chairmanship of the Committee led it to make certain proposals when it was unsighted about the Secretary of State's view, given the indecent haste with which the Bill was introduced. Does he agree that it would be better, not only if the Government tabled early amendments to the Bill but if they made a timely response to his Committee's recommendations, long before we scrutinise the Bill on the Floor of the House? Otherwise, we will once more be faced with a large raft of legislation and many Government amendments, together with a lack of a response to his Committee's excellent report.
In a word, yes. The hon. Lady has anticipated what I was going to say.
If pre-legislative scrutiny is to be conducted properly, we will need more than just sight of the proposal for a draft order. In addition, the Government must publish a detailed memorandum that sets out precisely the scope of the draft order, the legislative authority that would pass to the National Assembly and the practical legal effects of the proposals on Wales. I was interested in what my right hon. Friend Mr. Williams said about the impact of such measures on the rest of the United Kingdom.
During our debate, there has been a blurring of the line between the draft order and the Assembly measure. The detail and the meat will be in the measure, not in the order, which is likely to be a brief document. How can pre-legislative scrutiny of the order give any reassurance to the House that it will be satisfied with the measure that will be introduced in the Assembly?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point to which the Under-Secretary of State for Wales will respond in due course. I am not the Secretary of State.
The Bill allows for a final stage of devolution for Wales whereby the Assembly would become a fully functioning Parliament with primary legislative powers. I agree with the Government that a referendum of the people of Wales is necessary to determine that point, and I am pleased that many organisations and people across Wales concur. Recently, I was pleased to receive a resolution from the Presbyterian Church in Wales that supported such a referendum. My Committee believes that the Bill would benefit from certain enhancements. We need a strict limitation on the calling of a second referendum—a point that has been well made by other contributors to our debate. Referendums cannot be called persistently until they return the desired result, and that should be reflected in the Bill. The Committee came to the conclusion that two National Assembly terms are an appropriate period between a first and a subsequent referendum.
The Committee recommended, too, that the wording of the referendum should be included in the Bill. The question should be clear and straightforward—in essence, it simply has to ask the people of Wales whether or not they wish to have a Welsh Parliament. The wording is not dependent upon the time or year that the question is asked, so it can be set out now.
A key theme of our report is the roles of the Secretary of State, as set out in the Bill. Our report, like some participants in our debate, questioned the desirability of some of those roles. If we are serious about democratic devolution we need to move, or at least ease, the Secretary of State from a pre-devolutionary world to a modern democratic and decentralised one. I am sure that he would be happy to move with these new times.
In relation to draft Orders in Council, the Secretary of State would have the power to refuse to lay a draft order before Parliament. That power would be appropriate if the draft order did not comply with the Bill or did not conform to parliamentary rules. It would not, however, be appropriate for the Secretary of State to refuse an order on political or policy grounds. For that reason, the Committee believes that the rejection of a draft order is the preserve of Parliament, not the Government of the day. It would be more appropriate for the Secretary of State to be limited to assessing the validity of a draft order. He should not make decisions to lay such an order based on policy and political judgment or advantage. Similarly, the Secretary of State could refuse to lay the draft order for the referendum, despite the National Assembly voting by a two thirds majority in favour of holding that referendum. Again, we believe that Parliament, not the Government of the day, holds the authority to accept or reject a call for a referendum. For that reason, we recommend that the Secretary of State should not have the power to refuse a call for a referendum.
As readers of our report will see, there was no consensus on the Government's proposals for electoral reform. The majority support, as I do, the Government's proposals, and it should be noted that there was no minority report. My personal view is that, whatever the merits of the arguments on each side of the debate, the Government and all parties need to proceed on a cross-party basis. Electoral reform should not get caught up in internecine party politics. The Secretary of State may well wish to consider whether, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said in his contribution, the present system is an unloved and confusing creature that causes more grief than it is worth. I believe that, as he suggested, a national list may be a better option.
It is incumbent upon all Members to take the heat out of the debate on electoral reform and to find a way forward that gains cross-party consensus. Without that, the many welcome proposals in the Bill could be drowned out by the argument on what is for many of us a very minor part of a welcome improvement to the devolution settlement for Wales. The Secretary of State has it in his gift as the sponsor of the Bill to give serious consideration to other proposals.
Finally, as Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I have been at pains to recognise that all parties have made a contribution to the journey of the people of Wales towards democratic devolution. Unless we recognise this, particularly in the absence of an historic Welsh convention, we are in danger of failing to learn the lessons of history, although I should add, as an objective historian, that my party, the Labour party, had the decisive role in achieving victory in 1997 and, I have to acknowledge, a defeat in 1979.
Today there should be consensus around the belief that the Government of Wales Bill is about delivering better public services for the people of Wales and greater democratic accountability to the people of Wales. The Welsh Affairs Committee has a vital role to play in ensuring that the diverse views of the people of Wales are clearly heard in Westminster. We aim to champion the people of Wales here and certainly not to challenge or undermine our National Assembly. Together, as Welsh Members in Parliament and in the Assembly, we can work in harmony to strengthen our public services, and together we can strengthen our democracy in Wales. The Bill has the potential to do that, if the Secretary of State listens, as I am sure he will, to the constructive proposals being made tonight in the House and outside the House in Wales.
I add my sincere condolences to the words already uttered regarding Lord Merlyn-Rees and Lord Stratford. I also congratulate Mrs. Gillan on taking over the brief for the Wales Office. However, it is not her golden hour. Like others, I find it strange that a reasoned amendment has been tabled, but she has made her case—unconvincingly, with respect.
For the most part, the Bill is welcome, but there are parts of it that need strengthening and amendment. If, as has become standard procedure, the Government introduce a raft of amendments before Report, it would undoubtedly ease the process if the same were made available to all in good time, with cogent explanatory notes.
There is a broad consensus in favour of the separation of the Executive from the legislature. That is to be welcomed. Less welcome is the assertion in the Bill that pursuant to such change, there is a need for change in the National Assembly standing orders and that those standing orders must be made by the Secretary of State for Wales. Why is that so, when the core point is to ensure that the National Assembly is able to take charge of new powers for itself? Given that we have a democratic institution that is up and running, surely the Assembly could be left to look after its own House and its own standing orders. I hope that that will be the case in due course, contrary to some of the suggestions made earlier.
Before examining specific aspects of the Bill, it is right to point out that the better governance of Wales could have been assured in a bolder, simpler and more transparent way had the Government followed the full proposals of the Richard commission. In that regard the Bill represents a missed opportunity. It is all the more disappointing because the lost opportunity came about because of internal wrangling in new Labour, so we have a Bill that is the progeny of a 13(2)(b) fudge adopted so conveniently by the First Minister. I make that overtly political point because it means that the better governance of Wales is to be put on hold for over a decade at the behest of a few selfish new Labour Back Benchers from Wales. Perhaps the more important point is that we are left with an unnecessarily complex and cumbersome procedure for legislating in the National Assembly. As a member of the Richard commission said, it is a system that will work only if there is an enormous amount of pulling in the same direction between Cardiff and Westminster.
Before examining the triple lock procedure for getting an Order in Council, let us consider the inordinate delays that already exist in introducing legislation by Order in Council. I shall give the House an example of a measure that has taken more than three years to come about in the National Assembly. It is entirely uncontentious and is entitled the Removal and Disposal of Vehicles (Amendment) (Wales) Regulations 2005. The Minister grins. I had a private discussion with him some time ago, in which I expressed my concern about the delays in the Orders-in-Council procedure. I said that sometimes it takes between 18 months and two years. The Minister shook his head and said that I had got the timing wrong.The real example that I gave started its journey on
Did I? As usual, I am being generous to the Government. However, it is a genuine concern and I hope the procedure can be streamlined. The Second Reading debate is not the time for such a discussion, but in Committee I hope to go through what happened during the passage of that order.
We need to find ways of streamlining the process if it is to be fit for purpose. The triple lock procedure is worrying. The National Assembly, the Executive, the Counsel General or a Member of the Assembly can present a request to the Secretary of State for Wales. The Secretary of State calls that "making a bid", which is a rather unfortunate choice of words, as it implies an element of lottery. In any event, if the Secretary of State declines, the legislation will not advance.
One can think of any number of reasons or excuses that a less sympathetic Secretary of State than the right hon. Gentleman might employ—for example, "I shall not accept the proposed measure because it is the UK Government's intention to legislate for England and Wales in a similar way in the future." That would be a perfectly reasonable response. It could also be a brake put on the National Assembly by Westminster for less benign reasons. As I said earlier in an intervention on the right hon. Gentleman, we should consider including in the Bill some form of review or appellate procedure.
Clause 94 gives the Secretary of State 60 days after receipt of the request for a measure to lay a draft or to give written notice to the First Minister of his refusal to do so and the reasons for that refusal. Crucially, it is not clear what would happen next. The White Paper suggested that the Secretary of State should not decline to lay an order for "trivial" reasons, which is hardly comforting because common sense dictates that that must be the case.
The big question concerns where an appeal will lie. I am not saying that the National Assembly will always be right, but the Bill contains sufficient safeguards on policy, other legislation and the supreme court. What will happen if the Secretary of State denies the National Assembly's settled will for whatever reason? Some commentators have said that the next stage would be judicial review. As I have said, far be it from me to steer work away from my fellow lawyers, many of whom are going hungry because of the Government's recent prevarications, but I view the prospect of multiple judicial reviews with absolute dismay, because it means that we are introducing a flawed system. The real issue is the need for an unambiguous review or appellate procedure to address unusual situations, and I hope that we examine that matter carefully in Committee and consider how best to address it. It is little short of a constitutional outrage for the decision to lie with the Secretary of State alone, which is no better than a decision by the Secretary of State in the old Wales Office before democratic devolution.
It is worth considering the possibility of referral by the Counsel General to the supreme court, which would be similar in essence to the referral powers in clauses 95 and 98—when I referred to clause 101 earlier, I meant clause 98. That suggestion is not unreasonable, because the basis of a referral for judicial review is whether a public body or a person acting as a public body—in this case, the Secretary of State—has acted reasonably in executing its function, and the same question could equally well be put to the supreme court under the powers in the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. The difficulty is, however, that if anyone wanted to land the judiciary with the problem of its becoming politicised, they would ask it to resolve such a question. As it stands, the question is not a legal question because it involves the exercise of a political discretion by the Secretary of State, which is not a semi-judicial or administrative function.
The core point would be whether the Secretary of State acted reasonably in the circumstances. It is clear that the supreme court should not examine a policy area, and I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the danger. I would have preferred the Bill to contain a more streamlined procedure and a normal reasonableness test.
The hon. Gentleman is about to kick me again.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and have no doubt that the matter will be subject to considerable debate in Committee. Many believe that there must be a means of reviewing the decision. If the Bill is left as it stands, it will be an affront to the National Assembly. The potential blockage could—I believe that this will be inevitable—cause considerable friction between both legislatures and, potentially, both Executives, and an unambiguous and rigorous safeguard is therefore required.
Clause 100 continues the theme, which runs through the Bill, of the Secretary of State's influence and power, to which Lembit Öpik, who is a repetitious man, referred several times. From my reading of clause 100, a less worthy man than the present Secretary of State could scupper the Assembly's legislative plans on a whim, perhaps because of hostility towards the Assembly and irrespective of the subject matter of any proposed legislation. In particular, I direct hon. Members' attention to the powers in clause 101, which is very widely drawn. If such draconian powers were invoked, how would oversight take place? Again, the matter could form a constitutional time bomb that must be defused in due course.
On the Secretary of State for Wales approving a draft measure by laying an order, we still face the difficulty that the other place has taken a consistently critical view of Orders in Council, principally because Orders in Council are unamendable. I raised that point when the Secretary of State made his initial statement earlier this year, and he said that the Parliament Act would be invoked in that case. In my view, consideration from the very beginning of the use of the Parliament Act in the working of the Bill is evidence of a fundamental flaw, and the situation is a recipe for disaster and constitutional conflict.
Put simply, if it is envisaged that the Parliament Act must be invoked regularly, the system is surely wrong from the beginning. I expressed that view when the Secretary of State made his initial statement and have seen no evidence to the contrary. As Lord Richard said in his evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee on
"I have got some major qualifications about it, particularly on the Orders in Council procedure where I think, frankly, the idea that that is going to get an easy ride going through Parliament in principle to start off with is doubtful."
Even if Lord Richard was being a tad pessimistic, and if even the other place gives the Bill a fair passage, we are still left with a procedure that is likely to be very unpopular with their lordships, regardless of which Government are in power down the Corridor. It would have been much better to have accepted the Richard commission proposals in full.
I repeat my earlier question: will the Salisbury convention apply to proposed measures from the National Assembly Executive?
I had hoped that the Minister would respond, but I have got a Whip—
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Salisbury convention should apply to measures in the Government's manifesto in Wales and the UK in relation to this Bill?
I have no doubt that the Salisbury convention will be prayed in aid in the inevitable tussle with the other place. If the hon. Gentleman is asking me whether I approve of the gerrymandering technique, my answer is no because I would have no truck with it. I hope that that particular debate does not end up in another place, but I think that it will.
The proposed increase in the powers and responsibilities of the Assembly Members will probably not be popular inside or outside this House, but I cannot see any other means by which to increase membership. Looking at stage 3 of the process, I am still at a loss to fathom why there has to be a super-majority of two thirds, rather than a simple majority, to trigger the referendum. In previous exchanges, the Secretary of State has said that the referendum will be called for when there is political consensus in favour of it. How will that be gauged or arrived at? I hope that it will not merely be a consensus within the Labour party.
My major criticism—I have some sympathy with the reasoned amendment in this regard—concerns the self-serving nature of the ban on dual membership. I will not go through all the evidence, which other Members will have seen, from the Electoral Reform Society, the electoral commissioner and many independent commentators who are in a position to make cogent comments. Many people believe that there is abundant evidence to show that there is no case for change. I am sure that there will be much debate in Committee about this partisan provision, which was involved in pre-orange revolution Ukraine, but has been seen nowhere else. What an endorsement. No doubt Leonid Kutchma has been advising the Secretary of State, because he is the only person who would have any real experience of it. The right hon. Gentleman said earlier that it was looked at in New Zealand and in New Brunswick, Canada. Indeed it was, but it was rejected: he did not quite finish the story. It has been rejected in many areas, and there are good reasons why that should be. Some ambitious apologist will remind me that it was in the manifesto. Yes, it was, but new Labour's vote was 35 per cent. UK-wide and 42 per cent. in Wales—hardly an overwhelming endorsement. Given that no one mentioned it during the entire election campaign, not to me anyway, it was unlikely to have been uppermost in the minds of those who did vote for new Labour.
Yesterday, I took part in a radio discussion in which Mr. David said that he wished that Plaid Cymru's lukewarm support for the Bill could have been much stronger. My response is this: we have the privilege of considering the contents of every Bill instead of nodding them through regardless, as he does. In this case, there is a lot of amending to do—that is why we are lukewarm. The Bill represents a step forward, but it could have done much more. I trust that the debates in Committee will be productive so that ultimately we have a Bill that is worthy of far warmer support.
In contrast to the rather odd comments made by Mr. Llwyd, I commend the speeches that Members have made so far. Although they have been poles apart, they have contributed to a constructive debate. Instead of being an ambitious apologist, I shall offer my own contribution without, I hope, suffering any inapt denigration.
I commend the introduction of the Bill. The fact that it is opposed by some who feel that it does not go far enough and others who feel that it goes much too far suggests that the Secretary of State and his Front-Bench colleagues have got the balance right. The crux of the matter is that it is being perceived in both ways because it will succeed in putting the power very firmly with the Welsh public as opposed to any vested interests, think tanks, commissions and so on. People voted strongly for what was in the Labour manifesto. They made their choice, and I do not apologise for that. If there were to be any wholesale transfer of primary powers, they would need to vote again.
The Bill has managed to achieve a fine balance in bringing together most complexions of political opinion. Much of it has already been agreed on across the Chamber. Splitting the Executive from the legislature is a relatively uncontroversial measure that will help hugely and is overdue, as the situation has been confused.
Given the other two main areas, however, I am reminded of the Meatloaf song, "One out of three ain't bad".
So it was. That suggests that the Committee stage will be even more difficult.
We can already see the opposition to providing for a stronger Assembly with enhanced legislative powers. I can understand the logic of the arguments advanced by Conservative Front Benchers, but there will be ample time in Committee and in the other place for them to table amendments to try to get what they want, argue the case and vote on it. I am afraid that voting against the proposal on Second Reading takes us away from what we all assumed was going to be the direction of the new leadership of the party—a much more consensual approach that recognised the cross-party consensus that has been building in Wales in favour of devolution as it is now and in favour of letting the Welsh public choose whether to take it any further.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that consensus means agreeing on all the things that one can agree on, not everyone else going along with the Labour party just because it happens to be in government?
I make no apologies for my party being in government—that is a very good thing. The fact that we moved to devolution at all was because of a consensus that was the direct polar opposite of 18 years of Conservative colonial rule in Wales. The people of Wales rebelled and said, "We will move towards devolution", and the Liberals, the Welsh Nationalists and others were on board.
I want to touch on the representation of the business voice in the Bill. Clauses 72 to 75 deal with the partnership council, the local government scheme and the voluntary sector scheme. The clause on local government runs to 21 lines and the clause on the voluntary sector runs to 38 lines. That recognises the importance of those two sectors. Almost like an apology at the end, the clause on business organisations runs to four lines. The clause on local government states:
"The Welsh Ministers must make a scheme ("the local government scheme") setting out how they propose . . . to sustain and promote local government in Wales."
It says that they
"must keep the local government scheme under review, and . . . may from time to time remake or revise it" and that every year they must publish a report—and so on. That is replicated as regards the voluntary sector, whereby Welsh Ministers must produce an annual report and sustain and promote the interests of voluntary sector organisations.
All that is absolutely right. However, we are missing a trick if, in my constituency and across the whole of Wales, we fail to recognise the immense economic regeneration, and improvements to people's quality of life, that can be achieved by business interests—micro-businesses, small and medium-sized enterprises and large companies. When the Bill moves into Committee, the Government should either table an amendment to redress that balance, or accept another amendment that may be tabled, to replicate some of the details in the clauses on the voluntary sector and local government.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is sincere in wanting to improve consultation between the Welsh Assembly and various bodies in Wales, but does he agree that one consequence of separating the Executive from the legislature is that representatives on the partnerships will be representatives of the Welsh Assembly Government and not of the Assembly as a whole? In a sense, therefore, these measures will reduce consultation rather than enhance it.
Enhanced consultation is set out clearly in the Bill, and there are key words such as "sustaining" and "promoting" the interests of various sectors, but that is absent when it comes to the business community. The words are indicative of the approach. Clause 75 says:
"Welsh Ministers must carry out consultation with such organisations representative of business . . . as they consider appropriate having regard to the impact of the exercise by the Welsh Ministers of their functions on the interests of business."
Business by its nature is to do not only with business interests and economic regeneration but with transport, education and skills, and so many other aspects, so if we are seriously to empower all sectors to contribute to the Welsh agenda—the team Wales approach—we need to bring business much more into line. There is provision to make that work, but it needs to be more explicit in the Bill.
I turn to the highly controversial question of regional Members and first-past-the-post Members. I note that Lord Richard, the chair of the commission, stated:
"There is something wrong in a situation in which five people can stand in Clwyd, none of them can be elected, and then they all get into the Assembly. On the face of it that does not make sense. I think a lot of people in Wales find that it does not."
Many Members who were supportive of the PR settlement in Wales have become disenchanted with it. The problem is the type of PR that we have imposed on the Assembly. I challenge Conservative Members to say that the system has not been abused. I will happily provide examples, and will do so in Committee if I am chosen to serve on it. There has been abuse and that is the problem, and Lord Richard recognises that.
Under the Bill, regional and constituency Members will have to describe themselves more accurately. That is not political niggling. At the moment, regional Members have the ability to cherry-pick and to promote themselves as local in one area or as supporting a popular or a good campaigning issue but to hide from tricky issues. That is not promoting democracy; it is an abuse of the democratic system. Let them be a regional Member and take the rough with the smooth. Let them put their office not where they think they will win a seat—it could be an Assembly first-past-the-post seat or a Westminster seat—but in the areas of most need. That is where my offices are. There seems to be no interest in doing that. If regional Assembly Members seriously intend to tackle problems where, in their wide constituencies, there is greatest need and the most challenges, let them take their offices there and let us test that. At the moment, that is not happening. We have been accused of gerrymandering, but I throw that straight back. Too often we have seen the use of newspapers and the placing of advertisements and offices.
I ask the hon. Gentleman the question that I asked the Secretary of State earlier: how would the Bill remedy what seems to concern the hon. Gentleman and other Members? It seems to me to be part of the rough and tumble of politics—perhaps he does not like that.
I point out to the hon. Gentleman that I do not suffer any great disadvantage under the present system, but there are two equal but slightly different types of Assembly Member. A regional Assembly Member masquerading as local here and local there as he chooses is not the rough and tumble of politics but misrepresentation. Missives and memos, which have now been discarded, have said that that could never happen and that it was a case purely of an Assembly Member putting forward some ideas, but the very putting forward of those ideas is testament to the fact that an Assembly Member thought that the current system could be abused. That is what we are trying to change.
I want to take up the hon. Gentleman on his point, because he clearly takes the view that there should be two categories of Assembly Member. Although there may be two routes into the Assembly, it is dangerous to say that members of a corporate body have a different status in relation to each other. That is why I am troubled by the Government's approach, although I am sympathetic to some of the hon. Gentleman's points. I am a believer in first past the post and always have been, but the tinkering around the edges of the PR system that he and the Secretary of State are proposing is iniquitous. If there is to be a PR system, it should be on a national basis, and not just for Wales.
I return to the point—and I think that the Bill envisages the situation—that Assembly Members should be equal but different. A local constituency first-past-the-post Assembly Member has a specific constituency interest and a right to describe themselves as local and to campaign on issues specific to that constituency. It is regrettable and it was never envisaged that regional Assembly Members would choose to make use of the system to make political capital rather than to work on behalf of the area. Unfortunately, as we saw in the memo that was circulated, one Assembly Member envisaged where that could easily be done. It can, and I am afraid that the evidence is there for everybody to see.
Lord Richard talks of how, the morning after, Assembly Members who had been denied the chance of first past the post were suddenly resurrected. That causes immense confusion. It is a Lazarus-like resurrection, except that he had the decency to wait at least three days. Assembly Members who have been rejected outright by their electorate are suddenly back in place. As the Secretary of State said, the question of choosing one or the other is not simply to the advantage of one party. It will also be the case for Labour Members.
Is it not the case that under our system members of the public have a chance to reject people? Under the system that the hon. Gentleman proposes, they will not have that chance but the Assembly Member may still pop up the next day. Should he not have the intellectual honesty to admit that the proposals set out in "Llais Dros Gymru" in the first place were incorrect? If he wants to do away with proportional representation altogether, he might be surprised at where the support for that comes from.
There is a perfectly coherent proposal in the Bill, which is to choose one or the other. It is the same for all political parties and every Member will have that choice.
This Bill should be supported on Second Reading. Conservative Front Benchers know that they can raise their objections during subsequent stages. If they choose to push their amendment to a Division and to reject the Bill out of hand, they will be objecting to the principle of devolution. If there is one thing on which the other parties are united, it is that the Welsh public should be given the opportunity if they wish to take forward devolution. It should not be rejected out of hand as the Conservative amendment seeks to do.
Whatever questions people in Wales are currently asking about devolution, I do not believe that the Bill provides the answers. It contains useful measures to enhance the effectiveness of the Assembly's workings, which I welcome, but at its heart lies a very unwelcome political fix. I refer to part 3, which sets out the Order-in-Council procedure for granting further law-making powers to the Assembly.
By constructing a hugely complex procedure whereby the Assembly can essentially legislate for itself in the fields devolved to it by part 1 of schedule 5, and which requires Parliament to give its consent, the Secretary of State has pulled off the ultimate devolution trick. He can tell his impatient pro-devolution colleagues in the Assembly that he has given them full law-making powers in all but name. He can also tell colleagues who are more cautious about devolution—some may be present now—that Parliament is retaining its sovereignty and that part 3 does not constitute a significant extension of current practice. It is a political fix and I do not believe that the British constitution should be bent and shaped by such a fix.
Apart from the constitutional issues, I am very concerned about the way in which the Order-in-Council procedure would work in practice. It seems to rely heavily on a large measure of good will and shared objectives on the part of the Secretary of State and the Welsh Assembly Government. It is not difficult to envisage circumstances in which the relationship might not be so cordial and the scope for disappointment, confusion and, perhaps, legislative breakdown could be considerable.
If we are to extend and deepen the devolution settlement, the Order-in-Council mechanism, which emasculates Parliament and bypasses a referendum, is certainly not the way to do it. Without doubt, the Bill develops the settlement in a way to which the people of Wales never assented when they voted by a 1 per cent. majority to establish the Assembly in 1997. It is simply not true that, as the Secretary of State would have us believe, the Government of Wales Act 1998 provided for exactly this kind of arrangement.
As has already been said today, Lord Richard himself argued that the proposals for Orders in Council had the potential to be a
"concealed grant of almost a direct legislative competence down to Cardiff".
Professor Rawlings of the London School of Economics has argued that the approach could be described as a
"form of quasi-legislative devolution".
The claim that the Order-in-Council procedure is nothing more than what was agreed to by the Welsh people in 1997 is a bizarre and misleading interpretation of the Bill. The truth is that it goes significantly beyond what was agreed to following the referendum eight years ago—which is why, if part 3 is to be implemented, it should be implemented only after a new referendum decision.
The one fundamental driving force for devolution should be the people of Wales, and what they want for their country. If they want to take the devolution settlement further to give the Assembly full law-making powers, let us get on with it by using part 4. If they do not want that, let us not try to bring it about by using a byzantine alternative route that would risk further alienating Welsh people from the body that is supposed to bring decision making closer to them. It is essential for those making policy to move in step with Welsh opinion. Otherwise, they will risk creating an even more remote devolved body that will lack real meaning for the Welsh people.
It is worth reminding ourselves just how divided the Welsh nation was over the original devolution question in 1997. Wales was split down the middle on whether to create the National Assembly. Eleven of the 22 Welsh local authority areas returned no verdicts, while just 559,000 people—a mere 25 per cent. of the Welsh electorate—voted in favour. At the time, many of us believed strongly that that was a flimsy basis for the creation of an Assembly that could command popular legitimacy and interest, but we in the Conservative party accepted the fact of devolution and, as many neutral commentators have said, the Conservative group in the Assembly has perhaps worked harder than anyone else to make the institution work. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that large chunks of the Welsh electorate are disengaged from devolution.
At the first Assembly election in 1999, there was a 46 per cent. turnout and just over 1 million people voted. In 2003, only 850,000 votes were cast. There was a 38 per cent. turnout, about the same as the United Kingdom turnout for the 2004 elections to the European Parliament, an institution that is supposed to represent the very paragon of remoteness to the people of this country. That is a dreadful record for such a young institution, which was set up to satisfy some unmet desire for devolution on the part of the Welsh people.
Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that, if there is a referendum, one of the questions posed ought to be, "Should there be any Assembly at all?"?
My view is that the Welsh Assembly is not going to go away. [Interruption.] Let me answer the hon. Gentleman's question. I have said in the past that a future referendum question should include the option of abolishing the Assembly altogether. I think that that could constitute a healthy democratic mechanism to allow the venting of the significant stream of opinion in Wales that does not favour its existence. I do not believe that that stream of opinion would win—I do not think that there is a majority in favour of abolition, and I do not think that the Assembly will disappear at any point in the near future—but, at the beginning of 2006, we are being asked to believe that there is a consensus in Wales on the need to extend and deepen the devolution settlement, and that the Bill is necessary at this time. It takes a huge leap of the imagination to accept that.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could clear up a confusion that has arisen in my mind. I seem to remember that, during the Select Committee's discussions, he favoured a referendum including the option of abolition of the Assembly. Perhaps he could enlighten us on what has changed his mind.
I think that my response to Mr. David answers that question as well. The hon. Gentleman will recall from those Committee discussions that I thought that it would be healthy for the Welsh democratic process to allow the significant stream of opinion in the Principality that still has not come round to the idea of devolution, and would rather see it scrapped, to be aired. I do not think we should be afraid of that. I do not believe that it is deeply damaging, or even anti-Welsh, to suggest that a referendum should include such a question, and I remember that two Labour members of the Committee agreed with me.
Let us be clear about this. I do not oppose further devolution, if the people of Wales choose it. I have no problem with stage 3 devolution as envisaged in part 4. Full devolution following a strong, positive referendum result is essential, however: it cannot be introduced through the back door without an opportunity for the people of Wales to vote. The problem lies in the constitutional trickery in part 3—the Order-in-Council procedure.
The Secretary of State has spoken on a previous occasion of his dislike of referendums and has said that other issues can be bundled into a referendum campaign so that what might have begun as a question about a specific issue becomes a mechanism for disgruntled voters to sound off about their general unhappiness with the Government of the day. That is a fair point. I well understand why he is concerned about how the electorate might behave after nine long years of his cynical Government. I think, though, that he underestimates the sophistication of the Welsh electorate when it comes to thinking about their Assembly. We should have nothing to fear from a referendum. The pace and direction of devolution must be dictated only by the Welsh people.
As a member of the Select Committee, I want to record my disappointment at the way in which the Government produced the Bill without even waiting for the Committee to publish its report on the White Paper. That makes a mockery of pre-legislative scrutiny. Perhaps I should not be surprised, however. At no point during his appearance before the Committee for the inquiry did the Secretary of State appear to be in listening mode. That was particularly evident when he and the First Minister were asked about the proposals for altering electoral arrangements for constituency and regional list Members. Committee members will recall their double act when they sought, outrageously, to trash the reasonable and considered concerns put by the Electoral Commission and by Dr. Richard Wyn Jones and Dr. Roger Scully of Aberystwyth university, who said that the new arrangements could be seen as serving partisan interests and could therefore undermine confidence and participation in the electoral process. The First Minister laid into them, saying
"I think this is not their finest hour", and claiming that their statements were "poor and unsupported". The Secretary of State himself then accused the Electoral Commission of being out of touch with political reality. It was all very unsavoury. Those tactics only served to reinforce the impression that deep partisan motivation underlies the changes in the electoral arrangements, and that the Labour party has no desire to achieve any cross-party consensus on the issue.
The hon. Gentleman has been very honest in his answers to earlier interventions. Does he agree with his own Conservative association? He has named academics that gave evidence, but is he listening to his own constituency association, the only Conservative association in the UK to give evidence? Does he support it, yes or no?
Pembrokeshire is a very independent-minded place and, as much as I try to train my association, we take different views. The person who wrote the submission to the consultation takes a different view from me and I have discussed it with her. I am happy to be transparent about that.
To conclude, I want to see a strong, effective Assembly that is an expression of a vibrant political culture and embraces the full breadth of Welsh society, making decisions that deliver real value to the people of Wales. I would prefer to see such an Assembly rather than a remote and irrelevant one that has been designed and shaped by an ivory tower Welsh policy elite, far removed from the preferences of Welsh people. Yet that latter scenario is exactly where I think we are headed with the Bill. It must be for the Welsh people alone to dictate the pace and direction of devolution.
I have reservations about the Bill, which I have made clear on a number of occasions. Not the least of them is that the animal created by the Assembly, the Richard commission, made proposals that to me were better and went a long way towards allaying some of my fears.
My original fear was that we would require a referendum now. I do not agree with everything that my right hon. Friend Mr. Williams said, but many of my fears were addressed by him. The Government would do well to take account of some of the concerns about the process. If I am told that this is not a substantial shift and does not require a referendum because the control of the process is still vested in Parliament, some reassurance will be needed that that is really what is being said and that no sleight of hand is taking place. Essentially, that is the argument made by a number of Members.
The process of pre-legislative scrutiny is clearly a good one, and my hon. Friend Dr. Francis talked about different ways in which things could be done to make some proposals reality. It is disappointing that there has not been greater consultation with the Welsh people about the Bill and that there was not a draft Bill. These are serious comments.
Constitutional affairs is not top of the queue in Merthyr. People do not talk about it on the bus very often. I do not have people coming up to me and saying, "What about this Government of Wales Bill, Dai?" What they do say is, "How can Mike German come third in an election in Caerphilly and then, a few weeks later, end up as a deputy, running the whole outfit?" I have to say that the reason for that is the stupid and twisted electoral process that we have in order to populate the assembly. It is not rocket science, but it is some form of science to which I may return later.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and am enjoying his contribution. His constituents may come up to him and say, "What is this pre-legislative scrutiny, then?" What would the hon. Gentleman be scrutinising? It is obvious that he would be scrutinising a vague and broad measure and not the detail that would pass down to the Assembly. His constituents will be even more confused.
Like the hon. Lady, I thought about voting against the Bill tonight, but I dismissed it for the reasons I gave earlier. These matters now have to go into Committee and it has to be proved that what we are told is to happen will take place. The Government recognise that there is work to be done to put proper flesh on the proposals.
Some of the debate has been the wrong way around, as we have heard. It would have been better to have had a draft Bill. If there is to be real pre-legislative scrutiny, this Bill would have benefited. These are my tests, and I am not going to vote against the Bill tonight.
To refer back to the hon. Gentleman's constituents on the bus, would they, or the hon. Gentleman himself, have given evidence to Mr. Glyn Mathias at the Electoral Commission, who told the Welsh Affairs Committee that this was not an issue for Mr. German or any of the other candidates in that election as far as it could find out? Does the hon. Gentleman have any superior knowledge?
The last time I saw Mr. Glyn Mathias was in Carmarthen castle at an event for the Historical Society. I have had plenty of opportunities to talk to Glyn Mathias, but I do not think that he is instrumental in this.
I do not demur from the idea that it is daft to have someone standing on a list and also in a constituency. It is political gerrymandering of a sort, which does nothing at all for the legitimacy of the institution and does not do anything partisan for the Labour party. It also goes to guts of the proportional representation system that populates the institution. My right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy talked about different processes to deal with some of the issues.
Personally, I will not vote for PR. However, I also do not favour referendums. Since the time of Harold Wilson back in the 1960s, it seems to have become the thing to have referendums on constitutional issues. The test that I applied earlier was whether the measure was required now. It certainly will be required later, and what is good about the Bill is that it institutionalises the idea that there will not be primary powers unless a referendum takes place.
We are not dealing with my worries about the current electoral process. My concern is that I might not get the opportunity to deal with them later either. The Bill talks about "the question"—not "the questions"—which will be whether we have primary powers or not. Where is the question about the electoral process? Does the Bill actually debar that from happening at that point? That is the crunch for me and it will make the difference at Third Reading as to whether I support it. That question underlies a lot of the problems that have been talked about in terms of the interim measures on the electoral process.
I was in favour of devolution and I still am. The Welsh people—narrowly, as Mr. Crabb said—voted to democratise the powers of the Wales Office. They did not vote for much more than that. We therefore have to be very careful, which is why the power for extension has to remain here. That is where the Welsh people wanted it to stay. Unless and until that changes, that must be the point at which a referendum takes place. In that referendum, we will also have to deal with the electoral process. I want to know whether, by voting for the Bill, we will avoid that—by default, design or some sleight of hand—or whether that is the point at which the debate will take place.
I am delighted to declare an interest in all senses of the word, as I have been sitting as a Welsh Assembly Member since 1999. I well remember at the time of the referendum, in which I also played a part—I am certainly not ashamed to say that I voted against the Assembly—Labour politicians were falling over themselves to assure us that the people of Wales would be voting for an Assembly with secondary legislative powers and not a Parliament with primary legislative powers. They were clear about that because they knew that there was not the same enthusiasm in Wales for a Parliament as there was in Scotland.
That original legislation was, at best, inchoate and, at worst, completely incompetent; hence the fact that we are back here, eight years later, discussing the whole thing all over again.
It would be totally undemocratic if the people of Wales, having voted for an Assembly, were to have a Parliament forced upon them. The powers that the Assembly already has are more than adequate—we have enormous powers over all the devolved areas and over all matters that are likely to improve public services in Wales. The fact is that the Assembly has performed very poorly in its use of those powers—a problem that dates back to its very first meeting. We had to appoint some Ministers at that meeting, and out of all the people that Labour had returned, we managed to find a Welsh language Minister who could not speak a word of Welsh and an agriculture Minister who was a vegetarian. Despite the various problems that confronted Wales at the time, the first decision that this motley group of people took was to spend what they said would be £11 million—it turned out to be £66 million—on a brand new debating chamber. I went to see it the other day with Paul Flynn and it is a very fine building. Indeed, £66 million buys a lot of building, but it would also buy a lot of health care and education facilities. As I said, the Assembly already has significant powers in respect of those responsibilities.
One Member talked earlier about NHS waiting lists coming down, but the reality is that waiting lists in Wales are two to three times longer than those just across the border in England. Ambulance response times are a disgrace. We have problems with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, yet the Assembly have delivered a £15 million reorganisation that has led to 22 quangos in Wales dealing with health, instead of the four that existed before the referendum. We were promised that education would be the Assembly's top priority, yet we are witnessing the closure of small schools. Another two have closed in my constituency only this week, at the order of the Assembly's Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning. Cuts in funding for school sixth forms are likely to take place as a result of the new formula that Education and Learning Wales is considering. Of course, if the Labour Administration had their way, they would impose tuition fees on us. They talk about a nation fit from the cradle to the grave, but what we are getting from them is failure from the nursery to the bursary.
The Assembly also have significant powers in other areas, such as local government. They have the power to decide funding for local authorities, and the reality is that council taxes have gone up exponentially—by 130 per cent. in my constituency, and that is before the impact of rebanding.
The White Paper and the various documents issued at the time of the referendum stated that the top priority for the Welsh Assembly would be to ensure that the level of gross domestic product in Wales is the same as that for the whole of the United Kingdom. When the Conservatives unfortunately lost the 1997 election, average GDP in Wales was 85 per cent. of the UK average. The Assembly's top priority was to improve that figure to 100 per cent.; the reality is that Welsh GDP now languishes at 79 per cent. of the UK average. What a dreadful failure but how very unsurprising, given that one of the Assembly's flagship economic policies was to set up Welsh embassies across the more exotic cities of the world.
Such failures are summed up by our failure to deal with agriculture. During the foot and mouth crisis, I was telephoned by a farmer's wife from Raglan who was unable to get a movement licence for a bull because an official in the Welsh Assembly's agriculture department did not know what sex it was. Apparently, the farmer's wife had not included that information on the form. [Interruption.] Those Members who do not come from the countryside should think about it. In contemplating giving more powers to the people responsible for such problems, I am reminded of what Herbert Morrison once said about giving more powers to the colonies. He said that it would be like giving a latchkey, a bank account and a shotgun to a 10-year-old. These people should not be trusted with more powers under any circumstances. [Interruption.]
I am waiting for interventions and I am very disappointed that Labour Members have so little to say. They have been telling us all day that the Secretary of State will have the final say, but that is no caveat. It is probably better than giving blanket powers straight away, but the reality is that this provision will cause all sorts of problems in years to come. As has been pointed out, a non-Labour-led Assembly—a coalition-led one, for example—could ask for powers from a Labour Secretary of State for Wales and be refused them, or a Labour-led Assembly could be refused powers by a Conservative Secretary of State for Wales. I certainly look forward to witnessing the latter in the next few years. One can only imagine the rows in the press when such things happen, which will be yet another way of driving a wedge between England and Wales.
The point is that the Secretary of State can already prevent the Assembly's proposals from being implemented in legislation. That position will not change and that relationship is at the core of today's proposals, so as an argument for a referendum, the hon. Gentleman's point is completely without merit.
It is not without merit. The Secretary of State for Wales currently works quite well with the First Minister because both come from the same party, so the relationship has not really been tested. I suspect that the real problems will begin when the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister come from different parties. My point is simply that this proposal is a recipe for division. The more powers that we give to the Assembly and the more importance that we place on the Secretary of State's deciding whether to give powers the Assembly, the more likely it is that such divisions will occur.
Another problem is that future legislation will not subject to the existing level of scrutiny. I am new to this Chamber but I have learned very quickly that there are more than 1,000 people here—in this place and in another—who can contribute their views on any legislation. Most legislation is amended significantly during its passage, and although Members of Parliament will have some ability to amend legislation affecting Wales, such scrutiny will not be anything like the same. Scrutiny is likely to rest with the 60 Welsh Assembly Members and the 11 members of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. With the best will in the world, no matter how high the standards—they are particularly high among my own group, of course—those 71 people are never going to have the same pool of experience and expertise as the more than 1,000 people in the Houses of Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman touches on a very important point about scrutiny by the National Assembly. Is not the fact that it sits only two to three days a week one of its downfalls? Would it not be better to extend its sittings? Of course, if that happened the hon. Gentleman would be in a very uncomfortable position, because he would have to stay there to scrutinise such legislation, rather than being here. Would he be prepared to give up his dual mandate for the sake of better legislation in the National Assembly?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that I am doing what the Government of Wales Bill allows me to do. Perhaps he should have foreseen the possibility of people winning in two places; indeed, many did: many Labour Members of Parliament went on to become Labour Assembly Members. I shall deal with the question of the number of days that the Assembly sits in a moment, if he will allow me. In my opinion it would be completely unconstitutional and undemocratic to overturn the wishes of the people of Wales, who in a referendum clearly voted for an Assembly, not for a Parliament.
I turn briefly to two other aspects of the Bill. One of the issues that was raised in relation to the number of days that the Assembly sits is very important. We all agree on the proposed splitting of the Executive from the legislature. It was also suggested that another 20 Assembly Members might be required, because such splitting would mean the removal of Assembly Ministers from the Assembly's scrutiny committees. I have grave concerns about that idea. I do not believe that the answer to the problems caused by this legislation is more Assembly Members—another 20 people drawing their salaries. I have some sympathy with the point just made by Albert Owen. If there is a problem with the level of scrutiny in the Assembly, the scrutiny committees should be merged and more properly focused on the job to be done. Or, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn suggests, Assembly Members could consider the revolutionary idea of meeting more than two afternoons a week. If they decide to do that, I will put myself wherever I can be of most use to my constituents.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent contribution and I can see why his electors return him to the Assembly and to this House. Does he agree that it is ironic that the Government should bring forward proposals to change the legislative competence of the Assembly when it still has so much bedding down to do? Does he further agree that, after the 2007 election, it should absorb the changes by splitting off the Executive from the legislature long before it is given more powers? Does he agree that the management of the process is very poor?
I fully agree with my hon. Friend, as I do on most matters that relate to devolution—[Hon. Members: "Most?"] In fact, on virtually all matters, there is barely a cigarette paper to be put between us. My hon. Friend's point about allowing the Assembly to settle down is important. We had the referendum only seven years ago and the question that we should be addressing is that we have a Parliament in Scotland, an Assembly in Wales and a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, but nothing at all for the largest constituent part of the United Kingdom. That is the real problem that we have with the constitution at present, and that is what we should address.
The changes to the voting system are being made for only one reason, and we all know that. They are being made for the benefit of the Wales Labour party. That is the only possible reason for the changes, and I thought that the flimsy excuses about Assembly Members who were worried because someone had opened an office in their constituency were pathetic. It has been my experience that whenever people want to protest about anything, the first person they go to is their constituency Member of Parliament and the second person is their constituency Assembly Member. Only if they meet with no luck from either will they find out who their regional list Members are. What is really annoying the Labour Assembly Members is not that they are at some sort of electoral disadvantage, but that they have lost the huge advantage that comes with incumbency. That must be making many of them very worried.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but is it not the same old argument that additional list Members should not be given the same staffing and office costs allowances as properly elected Members?
There is a huge argument to be had about the relative merits of all sorts of different proportional representation systems, but we should not have a governing party using its majority to push forward changes from which it will gain electoral benefit. Mr. Havard was right to say that PR is not an issue on the omnibuses of Merthyr Tydfil, in the hostelries of Monmouthshire or in the supermarkets of Cardiff. Nobody is interested in proportional representation and the Government will get away scot-free. But everyone in this Chamber who knows about PR knows why the Government are doing this, and the Electoral Commission knows why they are doing it. It is a great shame that the sort of tricks that we might have seen in South Africa in the 1970s to prop up a failing regime are being imported into south Wales.
I was delighted to stand against the original proposals for the Welsh Assembly. I can see that it has had some advantages in terms of openness, but those advantages do not outweigh the disadvantages. We have caused enormous damage to the UK which will result in our having to return to legislation in a few years' time. We have also possibly unleashed the lion of English nationalism.
I am proud to be Welsh. I am also proud to be British, to be a Conservative and to be a Unionist. That is why we reject the proposals in the Bill.
The person who did most to deliver devolution in the United Kingdom was Margaret Thatcher. She alienated the people of Wales and Scotland so profoundly that she created the circumstances in 1997 that led to the setting up of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. We know from history that devolution referendums had been held before and had been unsuccessful. It was only because the Conservatives alienated people in Scotland and Wales so much by the manner in which they ran their Government between 1979 and 1997 that devolution was ever established.
The hon. Gentleman sets a dangerous precedent with his argument. Does he not appreciate that even at the last general election the Labour party lost to the Conservatives as a percentage of the vote? The valid point was made by Mr. Williams that resentment will grow in England because Scotland has a Parliament and Wales has an Assembly, now with increased powers. The only part of the UK that has been totally ignored is England.
I am very conscious of the relationship between England and Wales, England and Scotland, and England and the UK, because of the nature and position of my constituency, which I discuss regularly in the Chamber and will touch on in my speech. We have made progress with referendums on a regional basis. We had had approaching eight years of Labour Government before the referendum in the north-east. In those circumstances, the people said no. They said, "We've got a Labour Government, so what do we need an assembly for?" The position would have been different if the north-east had been asked that question in 1997.
I wish to discuss two main aspects of the Bill. I welcome the fact that the Bill recognises the continued place of Wales within the UK. That is extremely important, and not only for constitutional reasons. The constituents in my border constituency see an integral relationship between England and Wales. The relationship exists not only in the private sector, where many of my constituents live and work on both sides of the border—and cross the border every day in the course of their lives—but also exists in the provision of public services. We had discussions late last year about the reorganisation of police services in Wales and they included much discussion of the close links between north-west England and north Wales in the operation of "criminal markets", as they were called by chief constable Denis O'Connor. It is important that the links are recognised so that the public services can address the issues correctly.
Health services are also provided by north-west England to north Wales. There are also close links between probation and prison services, because there are no prisons or youth custody centres in north Wales. It is important for north Wales, as distinct from south Wales, that there is a close working relationship between north-west England and north Wales. That is about the delivery of public services.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if Welsh citizens are to use services across the border in England, their local authorities should pay the going rate, rather than being subsidised by English taxpayers?
The hon. Gentleman is describing particular circumstances. I do not agree with what he said earlier about linking waiting times to the price of operations, because I do not think that it was factually correct. I do not know the particular circumstances that he mentions, so I cannot address that question. It is extremely important that public services are still delivered to my constituents from England.
We also need a continued role for Westminster in legislation affecting Wales. In the context of any proposals for primary legislation for the Assembly in Cardiff, we must have provision for a referendum and I profoundly welcome this Bill and the guarantee that it contains. Furthermore, although the process set out in the Bill is novel, it will produce better legislation for the people of Wales. One thing that the Assembly has brought Wales is closer access for voluntary organisations, individuals and local government to its workings. Through joint Committees of AMs and MPs, there has been real progress in making better legislation for Wales, which brings benefits from the institution—the Assembly—being closer to the people of Wales, while taking into account the fact that in areas such as mine public services are also provided from across the border. Individuals thus benefit from having their views expressed by their Member of Parliament in this place.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the fact that the Assembly is less remote from the people, but does he agree that there is a particular concern in north Wales that Cardiff seems geographically and spiritually remote from the people of north Wales, so does he share my concern that the North Wales Regional Committee does not figure in the new legislation and that it has in fact been abolished?
I am not sure that the North Wales Regional Committee, as it currently functions, is the most effective way of integrating north Wales more closely with the operations of the Assembly. I believe in more devolution. Wales is a nation with different regions and they should have more control over their affairs.
My hon. Friend is right. The Bill does not propose to do away with the regional committee, but does he agree that regional buildings would be helpful? Scrutiny committees would be closer to the people, so that people in remote areas such as north Wales and on the periphery could witness the Chamber in progress as it examined legislation.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a valuable point. It is a great disappointment to me that no Assembly offices are based in Wrexham, the biggest town in north Wales. I hoped that the Assembly would have done more to bring offices to different parts of Wales—and, indeed, to bring more business to those areas.
My second essential point was about the proposed provisions relating to the electorate and changes to the electoral system. I strongly support the proposal to disallow regional list Members from standing for constituencies. I would like the Bill to go further. Under the present Assembly electoral system, we have two votes. At the last Assembly election, I was able to vote for the Labour Assembly candidate in my constituency and on the regional list.
Yes, that is correct. My regional constituency candidate lost, yet the strange thing is that the largest party at the Assembly election for the north Wales region was Labour, which gained 55,000 votes from individuals such as me—more than any other party in north Wales—but on the regional list, the Labour party gained no Members at all.
It is called defrauding the electorate; it is called wasted votes—something about which the Liberal Democrats have a lot to tell us. In 2003, they talked about wasted votes in their election literature, which I have with me. They said:
"If enough Labour voters switch to the Welsh Lib Dems with their 2nd vote, we can have a Tory Free Wales . . . Our region has 2 Tory AMs. Don't waste your 2nd Vote—Back the Welsh Liberal Democrats to beat the Tories!"
I thought about that and it was true. I voted for Labour because it is my party, but I wasted my second vote and so did 55,000 other people in north Wales. We have an electoral system that is defrauding the people of north Wales and a political party that wants to exploit their views by trying to suggest that they should not vote for the party in which they believe. That is dishonest. That is gerrymandering and it should not be allowed.
I should have so much more sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, and would share his views, if the system were not one that his party brought in. I do not understand how Members on his Front Bench can ignore his strongly held views, but it was the Labour party's mechanism that was introduced.
I understand that point. I am expressing my views to my Front-Bench colleagues and I am sure that they are listening to them carefully. The same views have been expressed by other Labour Back Benchers today and I am sure that they will also be listened to carefully.
There have been many accusations today from Opposition parties about Labour party gerrymandering, yet the Labour party is the only party to create an electoral system that disadvantages it. That is exactly what it did in 1999 when it set up the Assembly and allowed the introduction of proportional representation. It sent the Tories a lifeboat and a lifebelt. It gave the Liberal Democrats more representation than they had ever had and it helped out the nationalists. Our party is generous in its electoral system.
Opposition parties have produced no evidence whatever that the modest proposal in the Bill would assist the Labour party. In north Wales, three of our candidates with extremely marginal seats will not have the lifebelt that the Labour party generously offered Opposition parties. They should not lecture us about gerrymandering. They should thank us for the resurrection of their political parties.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate on the developing devolution situation in Wales. Unfortunately, the last time that the House considered devolution legislation I was not a Member, but I was interested in the way that the procedure was handled.
It has correctly been pointed out that the referendum on setting up an Assembly was won only marginally. I could not get very enthused about the proposal. I did not think that it would capture the imagination of the Welsh people because it did not go far enough. One of the reasons why turnout in the 1997 referendum was so low was that the prospect for devolution in Wales was much less than for devolution in Scotland.
The Bill will push forward the powers of the Welsh Assembly, which will appeal to the people of Wales, but it could be much better done. It seems illogical to give the Assembly powers to deliver health and education and to be responsible for local government, yet not to give it the necessary primary legislative powers to promote those services in Wales.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is also illogical to have established the Welsh Assembly on the referendum and then to try to alter that settlement without asking the people of Wales? Surely that would be a sensible and logical thing to do. Why are the Government and the Liberal Democrats afraid to ask the people of Wales about extra powers?
A referendum is not necessary. Although the Assembly is very unpopular in Wales from time to time—indeed, people blame it for many of the ills of Wales—that is a misrepresentation because the National Assembly Government are responsible for the delivery of services and it is they whom the people should criticise. In fact, one of the plus points of the Bill is the separation of the Executive and the legislature. The people of Wales will better understand the way that the Assembly works and they will be brought closer to the Assembly.
When I travel around Wales, I get the feeling that the National Assembly Government, Powys county council, Westminster and the European Parliament are not very popular. It is very difficult to have a legislature that is popular, but that does not necessarily mean that the people of Wales want to get rid of the Assembly. In my view, they want to promote the Assembly's powers so that it can better deal with the problems faced by the people and the nation of Wales.
I have never thought of devolution as a system for becoming insular and apart from the United Kingdom. I believe that devolution is about developing systems to deliver services that are best suited to the area, and that those systems can be shared with other regions and nations in the United Kingdom so that they benefit as well. I was a little disappointed when David T.C. Davies almost insinuated that people must be Conservatives to be Unionists or that people could not support devolution and be Unionists. I certainly am a Unionist, and I believe in the United Kingdom, which, by its very nature, is more than one nation—something that we should all bear in mind.
Welsh Liberal Democrats have always been a pro-devolution party, and we have consistently argued for a Welsh Senedd—we did so before 1998, and we do so today. We support a way forward that gives Wales more governance and more control over its own future, but, above all, good governance. Our party wholeheartedly endorses the recommendations of the Richard commission, which was effectively the most comprehensive constitutional consultation that was ever carried out in Wales. We support Lord Richard's view that Wales deserves a status equal to Scotland's, with powers over primary legislation, and that a larger Assembly of 80 Members is needed to cope with those extended powers. All the Members should be elected using a single-transferable-vote system.
Listening to the hon. Member for Monmouth and considering the difficulties that the Assembly may face in dealing with further legislation, it seems to me that the experience of the Scottish Parliament should be taken into consideration. With in excess of 120 Members, they find that all their committee time is taken up with legislation and that it is very difficult to carry out the necessary scrutiny and policy development.
Of course, it is typical of the Government to embark on a lengthy and costly consultation at taxpayers' expense only to ignore the expert advice. Such things can be said of the current consultation on the restructuring of the police force in Wales.
Just as a point of clarity, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Richard commission was set up by a Labour-Liberal coalition in the Welsh Assembly Government and that it was the price of the Liberals going into coalition?
I do not know whether it was the price of the Liberals going into coalition, but it was certainly a great virtue. Setting up the Richard commission was a great advance in the understanding of devolution in Wales, because it gave lots of people the opportunity to participate and to be consulted. Having set up the commission with the Labour Assembly Government's agreement, more consideration should have been given to it, as it was certainly a very expensive exercise.
I presume that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the introduction of the complicated process of Orders in Council was a surprise to Lord Richard and his commission. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps it would be better to allow the fledgling Assembly that is facing difficulties in the House today to develop and to absorb the separation of the Executive from the legislature before overburdening it with the complex Orders-in-Council procedure that very few people seem to understand?
I agree with the hon. Lady is one respect, namely, that the Orders-in-Council procedure is unnecessarily complicated. The Assembly will need some time to get to grips with the separation of the Executive from the legislature, but a commitment should have been given to follow the Richard commission's recommendation to move towards full legislative powers by 2011.
We want to give politicians in Wales the powers to make the decisions that will shape the future of Wales, without having to respond to the diktats of Whitehall. We want to give the people of Wales the opportunity to hold those politicians to account. Instead of that, the Bill contains a detailed, empire-building plan for the Secretary of State, under which Wales will not be governed by sound constitutional principles, but by the mood and whim of its ruler. What we are witnessing is the making of a self-proclaimed king of Wales. I have some experience of that in my constituency, where Richard Booth proclaimed himself king of Hay, and I have some understanding of a regal coup when I see one, but the Secretary of State is taking powers that are completely out of proportion and certainly unnecessary.
The truth is that Labour is split on devolution and always has been. That is why it gave birth to an emasculated Assembly in 1999, instead of a fully fledged Parliament. Six years on, Labour's devolution child may have been finally allowed to walk, but it has been placed in such powerful restrainers that it does so through no strength of its own. Indeed, under the Government's current proposals, the Welsh Assembly will be little more than a poodle on a retractable lead, held firmly in the Secretary of State's grip.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats want the Assembly to be set free of Westminster meddling on devolved issues, so that it is capable of doing what is right for the interests of the people of Wales, not what is right for the Welsh Labour party. On the basis of our pro-devolution stance alone, the Government will have our support on Second Reading, as it is only reasonable to give everyone the opportunity to have a mature and open discussion about how Wales should move forward. However, let us be clear that we fundamentally disagree with many provisions in the Bill, such as the Orders in Council procedure, the Secretary of State's role, the trigger mechanism for the referendum, the electoral system and the Assembly's size, to name but a few. We will table a series of amendments during proceedings on the Bill to turn the Welsh Assembly into what we believe it should be—a Welsh Senedd with primary law-making powers.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but on the basis of what he has just said I invite him to join me in the Lobby tonight to vote for our reasoned amendment. As I have made very clear, we are not opposed to everything in the Bill—we want to work constructively with the Government on building on what the Assembly has achieved already and improving it—and the hon. Gentleman has just articulated the very reason for my reasoned amendment. We do not intend to vote against the Bill on Second Reading, but if what he has just said is Liberal party policy, I invite him and his hon. Friends to join us in the Lobby tonight.
We will not vote to decline the Bill a Second Reading and we will not vote with the Conservatives on their reasoned amendment because we believe that the Bill has enough structure to be improved, so that we can move towards the image and symbol that we believe the Welsh Senedd can be for the Welsh people.
I will come to that later in my speech.
Despite the extensive and costly consultation by the Richard commission, the only solution that the Welsh Labour party came up with to move Wales forward was to turn to the Secretary of State's other hat as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Is that lack of fresh thinking proof that his dual role is starting to take its toll? We cannot find anywhere other than Northern Ireland where Orders in Council exist or any example where they have worked well.
The Orders in Council set a precedent for political interference in a formal constitutional process by putting in the Secretary of State as doorkeeper to the new legislative initiatives. His party might hold high hopes of being in power for ever, but surely the role of any sensible politician in the devolved nation is to ensure that the long-term interest of Wales is secured above and beyond ephemeral political victories. To misunderstand that is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of devolution. Perhaps Wales Office staff should also write a memo on devolution for the Secretary of State's attention. I understand that such a memo has been sent to all other central Government offices.
I would like to say a few words about part 5, which deals with finance. We welcome the setting up of a Welsh Consolidated Fund. That will bring more scrutiny and accountability to the finances of the Welsh Assembly and enable Welsh Assembly Members better to engage in the issues of probity and value for money. As the running costs of the Welsh Assembly and the Secretary of State for Wales will be deducted from the Welsh block grant before being put into the Welsh Consolidated Fund, will the Auditor General for Wales be able to investigate and comment on the expenditure of the Wales Office? This money comes directly out of the Wales block grant.
During the Bill's consideration in Committee, we also wish to consider the Barnett formula, which has been mentioned before. It was set up in 1978 and has been updated on a regular population-related basis. The 1978 element still remains and, since then, the population of Scotland has fallen in absolute terms as well as relative to the populations of England and Wales, while the Welsh population has risen. Although it has fallen in terms of England, it has risen substantially in terms of Scotland. This is no way to continue to fund the devolved Assemblies and Parliament and it would have been good if the Government had taken the opportunity to address this anachronism and anomaly that even Lord Barnett now says is inappropriate.
The Welsh Assembly does not have the powers to vary taxation that the Scottish Parliament has, so would the Government consider including in any referendum the opportunity for the Welsh people to express an opinion on that issue? Income tax-varying powers have been difficult to utilise in Scotland, but it may be that Wales should have powers over corporation tax or the unified business rate to encourage the economic development in Wales that still lags behind that in England. It would be interesting to hear the Government's view on these matters.
The Liberal Democrats will certainly support the Bill's Second Reading. However, there is much work to be done in Committee, so that the people of Wales will have confidence that the Welsh Assembly has the necessary powers to guide the delivery of services for which it is responsible.
I, too, welcome Mrs. Gillan to her new job on the Opposition Front Bench. I also express my sorrow at the loss of Lord Merlyn-Rees and Lord Stratford—Tony Banks—who was a good friend. He was missed when he left this House, and Parliament will certainly miss him. He was a great character, and we really lack such people. It is a very sad day.
I welcome the Bill which, in the main, strikes the right balance between building on the existing settlement and addressing at least some of the problems that have arisen since devolution. However, on some issues, I would have liked it to go further. We should recognise that the Assembly is a new institution. Although there is always a temptation and, for some, a desire to run before one can walk, it is important that the Assembly establishes itself in the minds and the hearts of the people of Wales. If devolution is to be a process, the process must have the support of the people at every stage. For that reason, I do not believe that we can have a pre-defined time scale for any change to, or enhancement of, the Assembly's powers. Equally, the people of Wales may well decide that the process has gone as far as it should. I therefore welcome the provision in the Bill for a two-thirds majority for the sanctioning of a referendum in respect of primary powers, although I cannot see the provision being used in the short or probably the medium term.
The system of Orders in Council strikes the right balance, with the aim of providing the Assembly with a mechanism to modify, or address, issues not covered by statute within devolved areas while retaining the sovereignty of Parliament and clearly not extending to affecting primary legislation in non-devolved areas.
I recognise that many speakers have referred to the pre-legislative scrutiny of Orders in Council and the process of how they will be considered in the House. I do not intend to go into detail on that, but hon. Members have already made it clear that the Welsh Affairs Select Committee has already considered the issue. I am sure that proposals will be made to bring forward ideas in that regard. The separation of the Executive from the legislature is a sensible change and it seems to have been welcomed on all sides. It mirrors what we have seen in local government.
Unlike Lord Richard, I do not believe that there is a requirement—or more to the point, public appetite or acceptance—for an increase in the number of Assembly Members from 60 to 80. There will clearly be an increased work load and increased hours, but it is fair to say that there is scope to accommodate that.
I think that many of us share the hon. Gentleman's views on the Assembly's work load, but has he considered the difficulty of staffing Committees when many of the 60 Members will be part of the Government or deputies? Is it a practical proposition to run Committees in such circumstances?
I accept that it is a problem and that it will take imaginative work to come up with a clear solution. However, one solution would be for the Assembly to sit for longer than it does at the moment, and there is scope for that. Two Members sit here as well as in the Assembly, and they can obviously do that.
Much attention has centred on the proposals in the Bill to end the ridiculous situation of dual candidacy in Assembly elections. It is important to build on the Assembly settlement, but we must address its failings, and dual candidacy is one of the biggest failings. Following the last Assembly election, many people asked me how candidates who stood at the election and were defeated—and, in many cases, defeated by a country mile—could find themselves sitting in the Assembly, claiming not only to represent constituents but having equal status with the people who defeated them. How would we feel if a third of this Chamber were made up candidates that had stood against us and lost?
As has already been pointed out, all four of the list Members in north Wales were defeated at the ballot box. Three of them stood in the same seat—the infamous Clwyd, West—that has been referred to many times today. All of them were defeated by Alun Pugh, who was the only candidate from a major party who stood a chance of not retaining his seat. All the other candidates were No. 1 on their list. That is farcical. I do not know about north Wales, but they would not have come up with such a system even in North Korea. Even Lord Richard made it clear that something was wrong and did not make sense.
That is bad enough, but the problem does not end there. Once getting into the assembly via the back door, these characters spend much of their time cherry-picking issues and targeting seats that they or their party are looking at for future elections. Unlike in Scotland, there is no protocol under which they have to inform properly elected Assembly Members that they are visiting their constituencies.
We need to examine that matter. I accept that the hon. Gentleman has experience of the situation because although he was not elected on the list first time around, his predecessor decided to spend more time somewhere else. I am not sure whether he was the next one on the list, but that shows that we have a fairly crazy situation. I make no criticism of the hon. Gentleman or the job that he did, but the system is fundamentally flawed.
For some unknown reason, we provide additional list Members with the same amount for staffing and office costs as properly elected Members. Let us be honest—I think that David T.C. Davies went some way towards saying this—who actually gets up in the morning and says, "I know, I'm going to write to my additional list Member today about this matter."? I would hazard a guess that the number of such people is pretty small.
May I establish that the hon. Gentleman said that Members elected on the list system are not proper Members and that he is putting forward a serious proposition to reduce the salaries and allowances of Members elected on the list system? If that is not a proposition to give the Labour party an electoral advantage, I am not sure what would be.
I certainly did not say that such Members should have a lower salary. I said that they do a different job, and I shall explain what I mean.
If list members are in any doubt about what their role should be, they have only to consult Leanne Wood's magic memo, or the additional list Members' bible, as it is known. She set out with great clarity her golden rules on how list Members should abuse the system: avoid casework at all costs; misuse the staffing allowance to benefit the party; locate the office not for the needs of the people, but in the interests of the party; and, of course, attend events only if it is in the interests of the party—if in doubt, send a pro forma letter of rejection. There is a problem with the system. List Members of any party—even Labour list Members, if there were any—would be drawn to that approach because the system allows and even encourages them to behave in such a manner. The system is wrong and should be changed.
I would like the Bill and the Assembly to go further and define the role of list Members. They should have exactly the same status as other Members within the Assembly, but without an unchecked roaming remit outside. We will have to return to the matter if that abuse continues to such an extent.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the problem that he is outlining regarding Miss Wood and her operations would be solved if people standing in constituencies were allowed to stand on lists for other regions?
No. That would make the situation even more complicated and people would not understand what on earth was going on—they fail to understand the situation at the moment.
As my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy said, list Members should be elected on a properly proportional second vote. In the same way in which people do not understand how losers become winners, they do not understand how a party can top a poll yet not get any of its candidates elected. In the 2003 election, for example, Plaid topped the poll in mid and west Wales. It received 51,000 votes on the second vote and received one additional list Member. Labour came second with 46,000 votes, but got no additional list Members. The Tories were back on 35,000 votes—19 per cent. of the vote—and got three additional list Members. The Lib Dems were not far behind the Tories, but got no additional list Members. A party that got less than a fifth of the second vote got three quarters of the seats. That is obviously a very democratic system—[Interruption.] The system is fundamentally flawed. I used to support proportional representation but, like an ex-smoker, I have seen the light and discovered the problems that it throws up.