Clause 1 — Frequency of Assembly ordinary general elections

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 3:28 pm on 30th April 2014.

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Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales 3:28 pm, 30th April 2014

I beg to move amendment 9, page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

‘(1) GOWA 2006 is amended as follows.

(2) Leave out subsection 3(1) and insert in substitution—

“( ) The poll at an election to the National Assembly for Wales is to be held on a Thursday on a date to be determined by a Resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.”.

( ) Subsection 3(2) is amended by—

(a) leaving out “If the poll is to be held on the first Thursday in May”; and

(b) in paragraph 2(a) by leaving out “that day” and inserting “polling day”.

( ) Leave out sections 4 and 5.

( ) Section 13 is amended by inserting after subsection (1)(c)—

“(1A) The order may not include provision about the date of an election to the Assembly.”.’.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 30, page 1, line 6, at end insert ‘and after the words “order under”, insert ‘section 1A or’.

Amendment 10, page 1, line 8, at end add—

‘(3) A Resolution of the National Assembly for Wales under subsection (1) may not determine a date for the poll at an election to the Assembly that is the same as the date known or reasonably expected for a parliamentary general election as derived from the provisions of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.’.

Amendment 31, page 1, line 8, at end add—

‘(3) After section 3(1) of the GOWA 2006 insert—

(1A) A poll for an ordinary general election to the National Assembly for Wales may not be held within six months of the date of a general election to the United Kingdom Parliament.”.’.

Clause stand part.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

It is a pleasure to serve under your Bristolian and neighbourly chairmanship, Ms Primarolo.

Clause 1 relates to the timing of elections to the National Assembly for Wales. It is a response to the five-year term that has now been established for elections to this House. Our amendments 9 and 10 are probing amendments that seek to explore the Government’s willingness to concede the principle that the Assembly needs to have greater control and command over elections to it. That is what we are testing with our amendments.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

I am pleased the hon. Gentleman said that these were probing amendments, but I notice that he has not troubled the Committee with an explanatory note, which is disappointing. My reading of the amendment is that it removes any necessity for an election to be held to the National Assembly. It allows the National Assembly for Wales to have no more elections ever. It appears to be the “Labour doesn’t want to have an election ever again in Wales” amendment.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales 3:30 pm, 30th April 2014

I hoped that we would have a serious debate today and serious interventions from colleagues across the Chamber. Obviously it is not the intention or the effect of the amendment to get rid of elections to the National Assembly for Wales, not least because we want those elections not to coincide with the changes made in the House by the hon. Gentleman when he was pushing through the gerrymandering legislation relating to elections to the House and the five-year term that we now endure. “Endure” is the right word, given how little business is being brought forward by the Government and how little work we have to do in the House. Today we have an important and serious Bill before us and I hope the hon. Gentleman will engage with it in a serious manner.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

No. We all want to get on with the serious business before the Committee, not nonsensical point-scoring.

These are probing amendments. They explore the extent to which the Government agree with us that, in principle, it should be with the consent of the National Assembly that changes are made to elections that affect it.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion

I, too, am glad that these are probing amendments. I very much agree with the principle that the hon. Gentleman is establishing that these responsibilities should be devolved to the National Assembly, but what safeguards does he envisage operating there to ensure that gerrymandering, of which he has, sadly, accused the Government, could not occur in the National Assembly?

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

The clear principle to which we are responding with these amendments was outlined by the Welsh Government in their response to the Green Paper produced two years ago. For the information of the Committee, that stated that

“no change to the Assembly’s current electoral arrangements should be made without the Assembly’s consent. This is the fundamental constitutional principle in issue. It is a necessary consequence of a constitution based upon the principle of devolution.”

That is a clear expression from the Welsh Government on the centrality of their view in any changes to legislation which affect the elections to their Chamber—to the Assembly in Wales. That is something we wish to explore today with the Government.

Clearly, the Bill arises from the shift to a five-year fixed-term Parliament for this place. Three separate pieces of legislation needed to be amended as a consequence—the Scotland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, and now the Government of Wales Act 1998. Labour is not opposed to fixed-term Parliaments, as Mr Harper will recall. In previous manifestos, including the last manifesto, Labour has consistently pledged to shift to fixed-term Parliaments, but we have consistently said that a five-year fixed term for any institution was too long.

Photo of Jonathan Evans Jonathan Evans Conservative, Cardiff North

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tone with which he started his speech. Will he explain the rationale for his sticking with a Thursday? Since he is aiming to give responsibility to the National Assembly and to let it decide the issue entirely, why does he say that the poll should be held on a Thursday? He will be aware of a growing body of opinion among those who undertake electoral research, who look to examples on the continent, where elections are held at weekends—traditionally on Sundays—or opportunities when people may be able to participate more in the electoral process. Perhaps he can help us to understand why, since he is putting the proposition that it is entirely a matter for the National Assembly, he has restricted polling day to a Thursday.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea. I had not spotted that you had arrived, for which I apologise.

The simple answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that this is, of course, the custom, practice and protocol in British elections for all institutions. I hear what he says about the interesting debate about whether, in an era of great cynicism towards and disinterest in and disengagement from politics, we ought to expand people’s opportunities to vote. Labour Members are looking seriously at that and have already suggested that it ought to be looked at, but for the purposes of this Bill and the principle under discussion, as opposed to the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, it seemed simpler to stick to the customary practice of a Thursday. That is why we did not suggest a change.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Perhaps Jonathan Evans will have an opportunity to table a probing amendment on that issue. Why does the Bill refer to five years? I understand that that is how this Parliament currently operates, but is there now an accepted body of wisdom that says that five years should be the default position of any democratic Assembly or Parliament?

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

The reality is that the accepted, orthodox wisdom of electoral experts around the world, certainly in Britain, is that five years is probably too long and that four years would be more appropriate. Certainly in the history of this place, four years has been not the norm, but the exception. Ordinarily, over the long term, elections to this place have taken place rather more frequently than that. Our primary concern—this reflects the view of all parties in the National Assembly for Wales, particularly the Welsh Labour Government—was to ensure that the elections for this House and those for the National Assembly did not coincide on the same day, which would have been the case without the changes introduced by this Bill. Nevertheless, it struck us as important to probe the Government’s view of the degree of consent they ought to seek from the National Assembly and the respect they ought to show to devolution when making changes to an election that is not ours. I think that the view of most people—it is certainly the view of most experts—is that five years is too long.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

On Second Reading, the hon. Gentleman responded to a question asked by, I think, Chris Bryant by kind of giving the impression that Labour’s policy, if it were returned to power, would be to revert to a four-year term for this House and amend the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011. Will Owen Smith, for the convenience of the Committee, confirm that?

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

The hon. Gentleman claims that I implied that, but I do not think I have been explicit on the matter, either then or now. When we last debated the issue, we were clear that the majority opinion is that four years is better than five. Another orthodox opinion in Britain and elsewhere is that too many changes to constitutional matters are bad for the electorate and that constantly chopping and changing for partisan reasons—as the hon. Gentleman did when introducing the 2011 Act—is bad for democracy in Britain. In the light of that, and in a period in which people are disengaged from politics, we may choose not be partisan and not to pursue that sort of strategy when we win the next election.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development)

I want to refer to the point made by Jonathan Evans. There is a great deal of virtue in considering holding elections on days other than a Thursday. That is the practice in other countries. Perhaps Owen Smith can help the Committee with his historical knowledge: have elections in the UK always been held on Thursdays? I seem to remember that at some point in our history they were not.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

I believe that the hon. Gentleman is right. Elections have not always been held on a Thursday. However, in recent memory and certainly in the last century, elections have mainly been held on a Thursday, which is why we are sticking to it in amendment 9. That is not the substantive point that we are trying to make; it is an interesting debating point, but not one that we need to bother the Committee with any longer.

With that, I conclude my remarks on our amendments to clause 1. We do not intend to put them to the vote, but we want to hear the Government’s views on the need for them to engage properly with, seek proper consent from and pay proper respect to the devolved Administration in Cardiff.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.

I want to pick up Owen Smith on his response to my intervention. I was deadly serious. If he wants to intervene, I will happily take his intervention, but I am afraid that his amendment would do exactly what I said it would do. It would amend section 3(1) of the Government of Wales Act 2006, which states that a poll

“at an ordinary general election is to be held on the first Thursday in May in the fourth calendar year following” the previous one. In other words, the provision insists that there has to be an election every four years. His and his hon. Friends’ amendment would remove section 3(1) of Government of Wales Act and simply provide that the poll

“at an election to the National Assembly for Wales is to be held on a Thursday on a date to be determined by a Resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.”

That does not leave in the legislation any requirement for a periodic election. If the amendment were put into law and the National Assembly for Wales did not set a date for an election, there would never be such an election. An accurate characterisation of his amendment is that it is a “Labour party governs Wales for ever” amendment. Under his provision, if any party with a majority in the National Assembly for Wales simply does not set a date, there will be no election, and no back-stop in legislation would insist on an election. I absolutely accept that that may not have been the hon. Gentleman’s intention, but that is the effect of his amendment.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

As I have said, that effect was not our intention. I will not repeat myself, but I will say that were it our intention to stop more elections to the National Assembly for Wales, that would be a pretty peculiar thing for us to do because although we currently govern as a minority Government in Wales, we of course anticipate governing as a majority Government in Wales in the near future. I look forward to more elections in Wales, especially given the polls showing that both the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Liberal Democrats are failing badly.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming that that effect was not the intention of his amendment. However, as I have said, that would be its effect, and the Committee obviously has to consider the amendment on the amendment paper—the one he drafted and tabled—not one that he probably now wishes he had drafted. As I have said, it is not sensible to give the National Assembly for Wales the power to do exactly what the amendment suggests, which is to have no back-stop at all.

I am now even more confused about the Labour party’s policy on term limits. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that, during the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, his party did not disagree with the concept of fixed terms. It was very clear that it did not support five-year terms, but preferred four-year terms. On Second Reading just a few weeks ago, he made it clear in response to Chris Bryant that he wanted to move to four-year terms. I suggested that the hon. Member for Pontypridd ought perhaps to have a word with his party leader, and it sounds from his slightly more nuanced response that he has had such a conversation and been told that under no circumstances is he to pledge moving back to four-year terms. That probably also provides an answer to Huw Irranca-Davies.

I will not say any more about the amendments of the hon. Member for Pontypridd, which he has confirmed are probing amendments, but I want to comment on Plaid Cymru’s amendments 30 and 31, specifically amendment 31. They highlight an important issue, which is one for the Committee to debate, about the coincidence of elections. We discussed that when we debated the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, and it was one reason why I, as the then responsible Minister, decided to move the date of the National Assembly for Wales election.

There are two schools of thought on this matter. The first is that elections should be separated so that the debate on the issues that face the United Kingdom can take place and the British people can make a decision that is separate from the decisions that face the Welsh electorate. There is a perfectly sensible argument for that. The second view is that we should adopt the US model and have all the elections that we can possibly have on the same day. That means accepting that the public are perfectly able to distinguish between the elections.

Although I accept the latter point, we arrived at the conclusion that we did because of the point about media coverage and the ability for issues to be explored properly. I think that the public are perfectly capable of making decisions in different elections on the same day. The danger is that not all of the appropriate issues will be explored in the coverage, the debates in the media and the debates between that party leaders.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Shadow PC Spokesperson (Education), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Health), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development) 3:45 pm, 30th April 2014

This is a genuine inquiry. Does the hon. Gentleman recall the election day in Scotland when there were elections for various public offices using different electoral systems? I seem to remember that it was disastrous.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. If we have elections on the same day, we certainly need to ensure that there is clarity about the electoral systems and in the design and printing of the ballot papers, so that it is clear for people not just which parties they might want to vote for, which is a decision for them, but the mechanism by which they can do so. A lot of lessons were learned from that process. We had that in mind when we held the referendum on the parliamentary voting system and we tried to ensure that there was not the level of confusion that there had been in the past.

Amendments 30 and 31 are hopeful amendments. Having considered all the evidence, I think that it makes sense to separate the big elections. I am not sure whether six months is long enough. We decided to shift the elections by an entire year to separate the media coverage and the debates so that people could focus on the important issues. The amendments raise some sensible issues. It makes sense to keep the elections to the primary legislative assemblies in the UK—the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and this Parliament—apart. That was the provision that we made in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.

I am therefore pleased that the Bill presented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State permanently makes the terms of the Assembly the same length as those of this House, but offset by a year to keep the elections separate. That will enable a proper debate to take place before elections to this place and will enable Welsh voters to have a proper debate about the issues that the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Assembly Government will focus on.

Finally, if people’s decisions in Welsh elections are indeed made on issues for which the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government are responsible, my reading of the situation, based on how the Welsh Assembly Government are handling the national health service in Wales, which I will not talk about today, but which we will return to on the second day of Committee, is that the Welsh public might reach a different conclusion from that put forward by the hon. Member for Pontypridd. I look forward to their having the opportunity to do so and to the result, because I think that it might shock the hon. Gentleman. He should not be so complacent.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and to speak to amendments 30 and 31, which appear in my name and those of my hon. Friend Hywel Williams and my right hon. Friend Mr Llwyd. They are both probing amendments and follow the spirit of the contributions by the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) and for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).

We welcome the fact that we are discussing a piece of Wales-specific legislation. It is only three years since the remarkable referendum in 2011, when the people of Wales voted overwhelmingly in favour of full political sovereignty over the political fields that were devolved to the National Assembly. I have no hesitation in saying that that was one of the proudest days of my political career. The desktop on the computer in my Westminster office has a picture of the referendum count in Carmarthenshire, with the yes votes piled up proudly on the yes table, and a few bundles of no votes on the no table.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

Well, apart from the Swans staying up this year—another great achievement, which I know Owen Smith shares with me.

Most striking about the referendum result was that it was matched across every county in Wales—apart from Monmouthshire, which only just voted no. When the history of Wales is written, that result will be recorded very strongly when compared with the referendums of ’79 and ’97. It was an earthquake moment, and I remember the shell-shocked faces of many Unionists down in Westminster the week after that historic occasion.

The nature of the game has therefore changed, and subsequent opinion polling clearly indicates that the people of Wales want greater control over their lives. I think they are far ahead of the political class at the moment, and I even include Plaid Cymru in that context. Today we are discussing in historical terms a further milestone on the path towards Welsh self-government, with, for the first time, a national legislature being empowered to have an element of fiscal powers. Needless to say, the Bill does not go anywhere near as far as my party would want in terms of powers for Wales, but as an historian in a previous life I can safely say that when the history of Wales is written, this period will be seen as one of rapid political development for our nation.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the great indie band from Manchester, Oasis, and its first studio album in ’94, I am reminded of one of its best songs, “Little by Little”. I hope sincerely that when we conclude our Committee deliberations we will not be “looking back in anger”—a reference to another of its great songs. Today is therefore another landmark in the political development of our country.

The context of the Bill is interesting in itself, and I get the impression that the Secretary of State would rather walk through fire than deal with the Bill today. I am sure he sees it as a hospital pass from his predecessor. The Bill results, of course, from the UK Government-sponsored Silk commission, in particular part I, and I pay tribute to Sir Paul and his fellow commissioners for their work on both stages of the report. As I said, as a party our evidence to both parts of the commission called for far greater progress than was finally agreed, but we were prepared to compromise to seek agreement and make progress. It is therefore disappointing that we find ourselves presenting amendments in Committee, and endeavouring to preserve the integrity of the Silk commission.

Unfortunately, the Wales Bill has torpedoed the recommendations of the Silk commission, particularly in relation to the lockstep on the income tax powers, which we will discuss later. Even more regrettably, it seems that Labour’s amendments to the Bill, rather than strengthening it as we seek to do, aim to place further roadblocks and move us even further from what the Silk commission proposed.

Photo of Glyn Davies Glyn Davies Conservative, Montgomeryshire

The hon. Gentleman is running through the parts of the Bill that he disagrees with, and it is entirely possible that people on both sides of the Committee may disagree because it is a wide-ranging Bill. Does he accept, however, that the Bill makes dramatic progress in that it provides the foundation stones for financial accountability to be vested in the National Assembly for Wales? That is a key step forward that makes the Bill hugely important for the interests of Wales.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

As I said, I think the Bill will be viewed as an important milestone in the constitutional development of our country, but it will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to hear that my ambition for Wales is greater than what is set out in the Bill.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

A moment ago the hon. Gentleman said that Labour was in some way seeking to undermine the Bill, and I am aware from media reports that that is the line Plaid Cymru is taking in the media. I wish to place on record that that is the opposite of what we are seeking to do. We are probing the Bill today but we will support it. We are looking to strengthen the powers held by the Welsh Assembly in many regards, and we are seeking greater symmetry on tax powers with Scotland. Crucially, we will be tabling amendments to secure fair funding in advance of any of those changes, and looking to ensure that we move to a reserved powers model—all of which I am sure the hon. Gentleman would support.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

If that is indeed the hon. Gentleman’s position, I am sure he will join us in the Lobby when we vote on the new clauses later.

The second major context in which this debate takes place is the seismic events happening in Scotland. As I said yesterday in the Welsh Affairs Committee, the second part of the Silk commission’s work will be superseded by the result of the independence referendum, one way or the other. Even the Bill could be superseded by events in Scotland, as its proceedings in the Lords are likely to happen after the people in Scotland have cast their vote in the independence referendum.

Photo of Jonathan Evans Jonathan Evans Conservative, Cardiff North

Does that really hold good as an argument? The hon. Gentleman will have seen current opinion polls that show that support for independence—as opposed to support for devolution—in Wales is at an all-time low. He has rightly talked about the seminal change in Wales in which the Conservative party has joined other parties to support devolution, but the result of the Scottish debate so far is that support for Welsh independence is lower than ever before.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

I do not want to get into a debate about independence, but the most detailed polling ever undertaken on devolutionary attitudes was by the Silk commission in the second part of its work. It suggested that 20% of people in Wales wanted devolved defence and foreign affairs, and those would be the two last powers that would ever be devolved.

Regardless of the result in Scotland, the constitutional landscape of the UK will change considerably. If Scotland votes yes, that will be the end of the British state as we know it. If it votes no, the likelihood is that it will get significantly more powers, with 90% approval ratings for a devolution-max settlement that would devolve everything apart from defence and foreign affairs. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that the people of Wales would accept the settlement in the Bill if Scotland were to get significantly more powers, even in the event of a no vote?

Photo of Chris Ruane Chris Ruane Labour, Vale of Clwyd

If the vote in Scotland is close but ultimately a victory for no, does the hon. Gentleman anticipate that the SNP will come back for another vote, and another after that, and that it will not be so much a referendum as a neverendum?

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

As long the people of Scotland have those aspirations and vote for an SNP Government, I imagine that they would want to ask the question on subsequent occasions, but that is a debate for another time. Considering the way in which the opinion polls are moving, it seems that the question might be settled this time.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Constitution), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I remind the House that the Prime Minister said a few months ago to the people of Scotland that, whatever happens, devo-max is on offer to them. My hon. Friend is right to say that that means that the constitutional set-up of the UK will have to change, come what may.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

As ever, I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his valid and expert intervention. Whatever happens in Scotland, it will completely change the political landscape and supersede Silk and even perhaps what we are discussing today.

With the Scottish question in mind, I believe that the UK Government have missed an opportunity to bring forward a settlement that would have helped them to develop a narrative in Scotland in which the Westminster elite recognised the national aspirations of the people of the nations of the state, and were happy to reform the relations between the nations of these isles to preserve the future of the state. One obvious measure would have been to devolve income tax powers to Wales in the Bill without the Scottish lockstep model. We will debate that issue in greater detail, but suffice it to say at this point that the unambitious nature of the Bill leaves the people of Scotland in little doubt that the referendum is a straight choice between more powers with yes and the status quo with no.

Amendments 30 and 31 would ensure that the poll for an ordinary general election to the National Assembly could not be held within six months of a general election for the UK Parliament. I am reassured by the discussion I had with the Minister before the debate. That, and the comments by the former constitutional Minister, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, is why I am probing rather than pressing the amendments to a vote. When he took the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill through the House, he did a lot of work to ensure that there would be no coterminosity between the Assembly and the general election. That would have presented a great danger to our democracy in Wales.

This is important because we have to mitigate the damaging effect that media distortion can have on democratic debates in Wales. Plaid Cymru was excluded from the 2010 election TV debates, in which no mention was made of the fact that much of the discussion surrounding health, education and other devolved areas would not affect the people of Wales. Wales has a number of daily newspapers, notably the Western Mail and the Daily Post, but their readership is extremely small. Many fantastic local papers are under pressure, not least the Carmarthen Journal, South Wales Guardian, the Tivyside Advertiser and the South Wales Evening Post.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Shadow PC Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Wales)

And the Rhyl Journal, although I am not an avid reader, I must admit.

Most people get their political news from London papers. If we have a Westminster election and an Assembly election in close proximity, there is a great danger that the issues for which the national Assembly is responsible will be dropped completely. The Minister has indicated that there is no intention to bring the elections closer and that there are protections in the Bill to ensure that there will a gap of at least a year between them, so I am happy not to press my two amendments.

On the Labour amendments, the Electoral Reform Society has lobbied extensively against amendment 9, arguing that

“good governance and greater stability is achieved through fixed terms and this should not be a power that is given to the Executive to decide.”

It points out that, as the electoral system for the Assembly makes coalitions more likely, fixed terms also provide stability and security for parties of government. Two of the four terms in the Assembly have seen coalition Governments, so I agree with that point.

Amendment 10 appears to have been drafted with the aim of ensuring that Assembly and Westminster elections are not held on the same day. I would have been happy to support that if it had been pressed to a vote.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Government Whip

I, too, would like to start by welcoming you to the Chair, Dr McCrea. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the Committee for their contributions to this early part of the first day of our deliberations.

Amendment 9 would give the Assembly the power to decide, by resolution, when Assembly elections are held, and would remove the Secretary of State’s powers in relation to varying the date of Assembly elections and proposing a date for extraordinary Assembly elections. Amendment 10 would prevent the Assembly from setting a date for an election on a day on which it knows, or reasonably expects, a parliamentary general election to be held. The amendments would permit the Assembly to determine the date of Assembly elections and consequently the length of its own terms. That reflects a recommendation made by the Welsh Affairs Committee arising from its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Wales Bill.

It is worth pointing out that the Silk commission considered the matter of legislative competence for Assembly elections to be outside its terms of reference and made no recommendations in this regard in its second report. Nevertheless, the Government believe that the devolution of further powers to the Assembly should not be undertaken in a piecemeal fashion, and that the issue would best be considered in the wider context of possible changes to the Welsh devolution settlement arising from the recommendations made by the commission in its second report. The Government made clear, on publication of the report, that recommendations requiring primary legislative change should be a matter for the next Parliament and the next Government, and consequently that they should be for political parties to consider in preparing their election manifestos. We believe the same principle should apply when considering whether legislative competence for Assembly elections should be devolved to the Assembly. It is important that electors are clear on how long they are electing Assembly Members for when they vote in the 2016 Assembly election, and that five-year Assembly terms are in place by then to ensure that Westminster and Assembly elections do not coincide in 2020.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 moved this House to a fixed five-year cycle and consequentially provided that the next ordinary general election to the National Assembly for Wales would be moved on a one-off basis by one year from 7 May 2015 to 5 May 2016. This responded to concerns raised by the Assembly that holding general elections to this House and to the Assembly on the same day could lead to the Assembly elections being overshadowed. I am encouraged that Members of all parties seem to be in agreement on the position that we do not want the two elections coinciding. I particularly welcome the Labour party’s support in seeking to minimise the risk of that, which is evident in amendment 10.

Similarly, amendments 30 and 31, tabled by right hon. and hon. Members from Plaid Cymru, are intended to ensure that an ordinary Assembly general election does not take place within six months of a UK general election. I am encouraged that Jonathan Edwards has been reassured by the debate so far and by our previous discussions, and that he is looking to withdraw his amendments on that basis.

There is cross-party support for the principle that, as far as possible, we should seek to ensure that ordinary general elections to the Assembly and to this House should not coincide. With the next Assembly election scheduled for 2016, if the Assembly remains on a four-year cycle, the two sets of elections would coincide every 20 years, starting in 2020—something that all parties are clearly keen to avoid. Clause 1 makes it far less likely that Assembly elections and parliamentary elections will coincide in future. I therefore ask Opposition Members to support the clause, to consider the further devolution of powers to the Assembly in the context of preparing their own parties’ manifestos and consequently to withdraw or not press the amendments.

Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

I am grateful to the Minister for acknowledging that our amendments reflect the views of the Welsh Affairs Committee and, indeed, as I said earlier, those of the Welsh Government, and that they were tabled in good faith. I am equally pleased to hear that when it comes to looking at the Silk commission part I report or any legislation that might arise from it or be reflected in the manifestos before the next election, the Government will be open to considering whether the Assembly should be responsible for—or at least have the ability to consent to—when the elections should take place. In the light of the Minister’s remarks, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.