Wales Bill - Committee (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 7th November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Kinnock Lord Kinnock Labour 4:00 pm, 7th November 2016

My Lords, in a tiny way this is a historic occasion: it is the first time in my recall that I diverge ever so slightly from the view of my noble friend Lord Morgan, and it is on the issue of the relevance and applicability of referendums. It is clear from what several noble Lords have said that bruises are borne as a result of the fact that we in this country having recently been through a referendum—indeed, I have not only bruises but scars to show for the experience. Nevertheless, the reality is that in a parliamentary democracy referendums are justifiable when there is a proposal to change the way in which we are governed.

That was the basis for the justification of the 23 June referendum, just as it was for those of us who campaigned for a referendum on entry to the European Communities and those of us who campaigned for referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution back in 1979 and greeted with satisfaction the proposal in the 1990s that referendums should determine whether a Welsh Assembly and a Scottish Parliament were introduced. The same joy stirred our hearts when we saw an enacted proposal for referendums to determine whether major conurbations in England should have elected mayors. I use these references only to demonstrate the realism and the relevance of using referendums when there is a proposal to change the way in which a democracy or part of a democracy is governed.

Such is the case if there is a proposal to offer to the Welsh Assembly the power to levy income tax. That would profoundly change the way in which Wales was governed. It is on that basis that there is a straightforward justification for a referendum on such a fundamental constitutional and economic decision that has immense social, commercial and personal implications for every family, every community, every business and every employee in the whole of Wales.

Left at that, it could be dismissed as an academic, almost arcane argument—but it is not. It is much more prosaic than that. I join with my noble friends in objecting to the removal of the undertaking to give a referendum on the issue of the introduction of income tax-raising powers for the Welsh Assembly. That undertaking was not only given by several political parties representative of and represented in Wales, it was the subject of statute. It remains the subject of statute unless and until this Bill is enacted. For many years—indeed, decades—most political parties offered to the people of Wales the utter reassurance that they would have the final determining word on whether the elected Welsh Assembly is to have the power to levy income tax. Clause 17 should be removed from the Bill to ensure the continuity and integrity of those previous, voluntarily offered undertakings to the people of Wales.

There is a further consideration: we have a model to consider. It has been referred to already. It is, of course, the fact that the Scottish Parliament, from its inception, has had the power to vary income taxation in Scotland and has never seriously considered—let alone debated or proposed—in any formal manner such a variation. Why is that? Because of the utter unacceptability and impracticality of such an idea, even for a substantially devolved institution in a unitary state. I will certainly give way in a moment but will just finish this particular reference. The proposal that the Welsh Assembly should have this additional power in the absolutely certain and cynical knowledge that it would not be exercised is like offering me a car with the capacity to travel at 200 miles per hour and I buy it in the knowledge that the speed limit in the United Kingdom is 70 miles per hour.