Committee (14th Day)

Part of Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 26th January 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Crickhowell Lord Crickhowell Conservative 5:45 pm, 26th January 2011

My Lords, I had rather expected that I might follow the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, whose name is on the amendment, but probably it is right that we should split the Cross-Bench speakers at this time-the noble Lord will have the opportunity to demolish any arguments that I may make.

I hope that it is not out of order for me to start with two personal remarks. The first is that it is a great pleasure to see the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, in the House. He and I often did not agree with each other, but I always respected his views and the way in which he put them forward. My second personal observation is that the amendment was introduced with the extraordinary courtesy that is always shown by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig. It is in the spirit with which he spoke that I wish to take part in this debate. He said that we should all think about this issue. I have been thinking about it and I shall continue to think about it, but I would like to discuss a few thoughts that I have had along the way.

The noble Lord spoke about going too quickly. Others have also raised that subject. I greatly welcome the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, because it gives the possibility of some further consideration along the road. I contrast that with the third amendment in this group, Amendment 102AA, which seems to me to kick the whole thing out so far into the future that it would effectively kill this legislation. I find it difficult to have any but negative thoughts about the third amendment, but I, too, understand the need for thought.

The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, referred to the 1944 Speaker's Conference. My first thought is that there have been considerable changes since then. At that time, we did not have a Secretary of State for Wales in the British Cabinet. We did not have a Welsh Office or, as it is now, a Wales Office. We had not taken the first steps down the road to devolution and the creation of a Welsh Assembly, whether it has the existing powers or the powers that it may have after the referendum. Even the world of the valleys, about which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, spoke with feeling and great knowledge, has changed a good deal. Communities in those days were probably even more tight-knit than they are today. People walked straight out of their homes and into the pit or the mine and the road links between the valleys had not been improved. The first moves in 1944 were made at a time when the horrors of the recession were in many people's minds and it was felt that Wales needed special consideration. But things have changed.

My second thought is about the effect of having more Welsh Members of Parliament. In part, the answer was given by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, when he started listing the names of distinguished Welshmen. In my experience, what has influenced the decisions of Governments has not been the number of Welsh Members of Parliament but the quality of the arguments that they advanced. I spent a number of years leading on Welsh affairs from the opposition Benches and then for eight years I was Secretary of State for Wales. I cannot think of a single occasion when an important decision was taken-or, indeed, when any decision was taken-with the thought in Ministers' minds, "My goodness, there are 35 Welsh Members of Parliament, not 30". The number was, I think, 35 in those days. I was influenced by the quality of the argument that was put to me.

I will cite one example, which will be all too familiar to Welsh people in this House. In the dramatic early days, when the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, and I had only just become Ministers, we found ourselves in passionate debate about the future of Welsh language broadcasting. The crucial moment in that consideration was not, as has sometimes been said, the actions of Mr Gwynfor Evans. In fact, it was a visit paid to Lord Whitelaw and me by three very distinguished Welshmen: one much loved former Member of this House, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, the then Archbishop of Wales and Sir Goronwy Daniel. After the meeting, Lord Whitelaw asked me what I thought we should do. I said, "If we cannot carry sensible, wise, moderate, middle-of the-road opinion on this issue, we should change our policy, because we cannot deal with the extremists if we cannot have the support of people like that". The point that I am making is that it was the weight of the argument that was put to me that influenced the Government; it was never the thought of there being 35 Welsh Members of Parliament rather than 30. Therefore, I start with a certain scepticism about that argument.

Then it was argued-I think that the implication was made in this debate today, but it was certainly argued in another place at the time-that somehow the case for the Welsh language would be weakened if there were fewer representatives from north Wales, probably one fewer, incidentally. I think that I am probably right in saying that today there are more Welsh-speaking Welshmen living in Glamorgan, Cardiff and the industrial belt in the south than there are in north-west Wales. Furthermore, many of them represent the professional classes. They are in government, local government and the media. A number of them are very distinguished Members of this House. It is their voices-not just the voices, however strong, of the Members of Parliament for the north Wales constituencies-that support and sustain the Welsh language. Perhaps I might dare to add that it is not only the Welsh-speaking Welshmen. Regrettably, my grandfather was the last Welsh-speaking member of my family-I greatly regret that I do not speak the language-but I do not think that any Government of any political party have done more to support the Welsh language than the Government of which I and my English-speaking successors in the Welsh Office were members, supported and sustained all through, of course, by my Welsh-speaking noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy. The Welsh language has its defenders without the need for that special representation.

Then there is the argument that I thought that I must consider most carefully and which I do consider most carefully. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, will advance this argument, too. It is about the pace of change.