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Column 316Wheeler, John
Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Winterton, Mrs Ann
Wise, Mrs Audrey
Young, David (Bolton SE)
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mrs. Ann Clwyd and
Mr. Ted Rowlands.
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Neil Hamilton and
Mr. Michael Brown.
Question agreed to.
Question put accordingly and agreed to.
That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the county constituency of Richmond, Yorks in the room of the right hon. Sir Leon Brittan, QC, who, since his election for the said county constituency, hath accepted the Office of Steward or Bailiff of Her Majesty's Manor of Northstead in the County of York.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The closure of the previous debate was moved after one hour and nine minutes which is an extremely short period after which a closure motion is accepted. May I take it that, in accepting the closure, you were taking into account our five-hour debate on this subject the Friday before last? If that is so, may I take it that, when we debate the Pontypridd writ, which has not previously been debated, you will bear in mind the wishes of hon. Members who want to speak on the subject?
Mr. Speaker : I take account of all kinds of matters in accepting a closure motion to be put to the House. Thereafter, I am bound to abide by the House's decision. Mr. Holt : With respect, Mr. Speaker, I must draw your attention to Madam Deputy Speaker's ruling on this subject a week last Friday. She said--I believe that I quote her almost exactly--that she would not allow a closure motion to be put until there were fewer Members rising in their places to speak. I made a challenge on a point of order at that time and she told me that, in her opinion, as too many Members were still rising to speak, a closure motion could not be allowed. In other words, the Chair's decision was based on the number of Members rising to speak.
Motion made, and Question proposed ,
That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the county constituency of Pontypridd in the room of Brynmor Thomas John, Esquire, deceased.-- [Mr. Foster.] 4.55 pm
Dr. Dafydd Elis Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : I wish to speak not as a procedural way of delaying a debate or to refer to the impeccable tradition and service of Brynmor John, whom we still mourn in this House, but to refer to the technical issue of the nature of the electorate and the rights of potential electors to be registered and able to vote. I have made this technical objection to raise the issue and to request the official Opposition Chief Whip to delay the moving of the writ so that all the potential voters will have an opportunity to register and vote.
At the beginning of this year, it became clear to the electoral registration officers of the Taff Ely borough council, which is the district authority for the parliamentary constituency of Pontypridd, that there were at that time some 4,000 houses in the Pontypridd constituency without an entry in the electoral register. Under the legislation, those who are not registered are of course entitled to be placed on supplementary lists, but, because of the changes in electoral law passed by the House last year, many electors are not yet aware of the way in which the registration rules operate. The Taff Ely borough council officers have contacted those electors and we understand that the rate of response is improving, but, if the election is to be held on 23 February, many electors --hundreds, possibly thousands--including a high proportion of younger people, may not by then have registered their right to vote.
The names of those wishing to vote in any election held before 28 February will have to have been received by electoral registration officers before 19 January because supplementary lists normally come into effect on the first day of the month. By calling the election one or two weeks later, in March, there would be a greater opportunity for unregistered electors to have their names entered on supplementary lists and, therefore, to be able to vote.
I raise this issue because I am anxious that all electors entitled to vote should be registered to do so. We in Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom do not want to slip into American-style electoral practices where non-registration can have as much effect on election results as the votes cast. For those reasons, I object technically to the moving of the writ and request the Labour Opposition to defer moving the writ in the interests of democracy.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham) : I should first like to pay tribute to Brynmor John, who died so sadly on 13 December. He had been a Member of this House for more than 18 years and was extremely well liked and respected on both sides of the Chamber. He will be greatly missed. [ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."]
It is the convention not only that the writ should be moved within three months of the vacancy occurring but also that it should be moved by the party whose Member formerly occupied the seat, and that party should have priority in choosing the day for the by-election. That is
Column 318what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) is now seeking to do, and I do not think that there can be much objection to it.
The comments of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas) about the electoral register will have been heard in the appropriate quarters. The new register comes into force on 16 February, in time for the by-election, as he said. Any possible omissions are a matter for the local registration officer. About 4, 000 homes were missing from the first draft roll, but the local registration officer recanvassed and the 1989 register now has about 1,250 more electors than the 1988 register. The claims of the Plaid Cymru candidate do not bear much inspection. The House should support the motion.
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) : I join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to the late Brynmor John, who was popular not only in the House but with the electors of Pontypridd--rightly so, because he represented them well for many years. They will miss him, and so shall we.
I also join the Leader of the House in responding to the point raised by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Dr. Thomas). The electoral registration officer for the district council of Taff Ely said that during the preparation of the 1989 register of electors it became apparent that there would be a parliamentary by-election in 1989. At that time, 89 per cent. of the householders in the constituency had responded to the original canvass. A further canvass was undertaken and 4,000 householders were identified as not having responded. They were then re-canvassed. One thousand six hundred peopleimmediately responded, increasing the percentageresponse to 94.5 per cent. However, the remainder of those who had not responded but were on the 1988 register have been carried forward to be included in the 1989 register, which will therefore include 1,260 more electors than appeared on last year's register.
Any concern that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy may have felt is rendered irrelevant by the electoral registration officer's information. The hon. Gentleman may be more concerned about the limited number who will register votes for his candidate than about those who will register for the election.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : I should like to link my name to the remarks already made by other hon. Members about the late Brynmor John. I recall his last speech in the Welsh Grand Committee. We crossed swords there, but generally he had a gentle and polite way of treating his political opponents.
The Pontypridd by-election should go ahead as soon as possible, if only to spare the Opposition the trauma of deciding where they stand on Welsh devolution. That will be a major issue in the by-election--so major that the Leader of the Opposition was reported in last Friday's Western Mail, the national newspaper of Wales, as having come "off the fence on devolution". The Western Mail said that the Leader of the Opposition
"gave his clearest commitment so far to the principle of establishing an elected assembly in Cardiff he told a press conference at Westminster, I am in favour of devolution throughout Britain' ".
It said that the conversion came
Column 319"only weeks before the 10th anniversary of the ill-fated devolution referendum, which the then left-wing back bencher" --
I think that is a reference to the Leader of theOpposition-- "did much to sink as a leader of the No' campaign."
By Saturday, 28 January, a Western Mail headline read : "Off-the-fence report gets short shrift".
The article said :
"Labour leader Mr. Neil Kinnock yesterday waded into the Western Mail report saying that he had come off the fence over devolution. He said it was a mischievous misrepresentation or gross ignorance of what I have said and stood for over the last 15 years'. The Western Mail report he referred to as palpable nonsense'. He told a Cardiff press conference, Wales will get devolution (under a Labour Government), but what is not yet determined is the form of devolution.' "
The article continued :
"While Mr. Kinnock said he supported devolution, he refused to say what form it should take, and whether Wales would remain one unit or be divided into two or three."
Presumably the Leader of the Opposition is working on the basis that, if Wales and the United Kingdom are divided into small enough bits, one bit will eventually return a Labour majority. I do not know how small those bits would have to be.
It will be of great importance to the people of Pontypridd when they vote to know that the Western Mail continued :
"After the press conference, Mr. Jones"--
the Welsh chairman of the Labour party--
"admitted he personally had not seen any replies from the 2,500 organisations approached in Wales which favoured the possible division of Wales spoken of by Mr. Kinnock."
The article said that the deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), as chairman of the central review group, took
"a stronger line on a Welsh assembly than Mr. Kinnock. In late December, he published his own views involving a Welsh assembly possessing powers to make its own laws and to raise the necessary revenue.
The article quoted the Opposition Leader as saying : In the North-East, the predominant demand is for an economic planning council'."
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) has heard much demand from people in the north-east for an economic planning council. I am sure that is all they talk about.
The article quoted the Labour leader as saying that in London the demand was for a strategic authority, and
" in Wales the demand is for a different form to
Mr. Bennett : I am trying to be fair to the Leader of the Opposition. It is important for the electors in the Pontypridd by-election to be aware of what the Leader of the Opposition said and that he should not be misrepresented.
Column 320conflicting and confusing stance on devolution during our debate on the writ for the Pontypridd by-election. However, perhaps this is not merely the Leader of the Opposition shooting himself in the foot again, but a desperate tactic on the part of the Labour party to talk up the Plaid Cymru campaign, which until last week was a nonentity, because it is afraid of the rapid advance of the Conservative candidate, Mr. Nigel Evans.
Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend makes a telling point. There may be a second reason why the Opposition want the by-election to take place quickly. Perhaps they have an attack of Govanitis. They saw what happened in that Scottish constituency, where there was a larger Labour majority than the Labour candidate enjoyed at the last Pontypridd election and were worried that, if the debate was allowed to continue, and Plaid Cymru and other candidates were allowed to question the stance of the Leader of the Opposition from day to day, they might find themselves in even more of a mess on devolution.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West) : Perhaps the Opposition wish to move the by-election writ as quickly as possible because, during the past 10 years, they have changed their view on defence--an important issue for everyone in this country--and no doubt there is concern that they may change their mind on devolution.
Mr. Bennett : That is a good point. As we discovered when we discussed Richmond, the Labour party would not like the electors to consider a range of issues, including education and defence. We can add Welsh devolution to that list, and before polling day arrives, I am sure that several other isues--for example, rates--will arise which the Labour party will not wish to discuss.
Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North) : My hon. Friend was good enough to say that he had reached the conclusion that the by-election should be held straight away. Will he consider another matter, which may lead him to a different conclusion? There have been reports in the press that the Labour candidate for Pontypridd is a Communist or has Communist sympathies. My hon. Friend talked about setting up democratic institutions for Wales. Perhaps the Labour candidate does not believe in democracy.
Mr. Bennett : My hon. Friend is right. The Labour candidate for Pontypridd, according to the Leader of the Opposition, was a member of the Communist party for a short time. The Western Mail of 27 January said that the Opposition Leader said that
"it was a Euro-communist party at the time he was in it, and the issue has never had particular resonance in the South Wales Valleys".
When the Labour candidate fell out with the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984-85 strike, he resigned from the Communist party.
Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North) : I know that my hon. Friend is in a hurry to finish his contribution, but lest he be in too much of a hurry, I wonder if he could take note of the fact that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), who is very concerned about not moving writs for by-elections, is not here--perhaps it is a call of nature or he is having a cup of tea--so can my hon. Friend go slowly through his notes? Of course, he will want to accelerate afterwards. If the hon. Gentleman is detained longer,
Column 321perhaps my hon. Friend, being a kind gentleman, will send him a copy of Hansard so that he can get the full benefit of my hon. Friend's remarks.
The views of the Leader of the Opposition are of great interest. In the Western Mail, the Leader of the Opposition reportedly came off the fence on Friday and back-tracked a bit on Saturday. When we look at his record-- because the Leader of the Opposition has challenged the Western Mail as being inaccurate--we find that when he was a Back Bencher, he said on Second Reading of the Wales Bill on 15 November 1977, which was introduced by a Labour Government :
"I certainly hope and confidently believe"
that the referendum will
"crush this nonsense once and for all and, with it, the architects of it and the profiteers from it, the Welsh nationalists But we shall have some difficulty in explaining to the people of Wales the incredible waste of time and the incredible insensitivity of the Government to what they must surely know--because members of the Government are people who represent seats which are no different in any important respect from ours, in a country beset by the most enormous social and economic difficulties--is the most nominal support among the people for this constitutional change."-- [ Official Report, 15 November 1977 ; Vol. 939, c. 465-6.]
So the Leader of the Opposition was attacking his own Government in 1977 and opposing in principle the whole concept of devolution. That was not the first time that the Leader of the Opposition had changed his mind. In 1974, in an election address for the constituency of Bedwellty, as the Labour candidate he put in a line saying that he was in favour of meaningful devolution and an assembly. By 1977, he was against it ; he had changed his mind again--and now he has back-tracked yet again. Is it any wonder that on Monday the Western Mail was moved to write in an editorial on the subject that there was a
"whiff of de ja vu around. It is better known as devolution, although some would have us believe it is the slippery slope to Home Rule. Many of the players are the same as in the great debate which preceded the 1979 referendum. Only the costumes have changed. Remember Neil Kinnock, the voluble backbencher, and Leo Abse, the flamboyant member for Pontypool, whose cut and threat despatched the then proposed devolution package (with its Welsh Assembly) into a political black hole? Ten years later Mr. Kinnock leads a Labour Party struggling to escape from its own black hole."
Mr. Bennett : One of the major issues in the by-election will be where the Government and the Opposition parties stand on the crucial issues of Welsh devolution and separatism. We thought we knew where the Leader of the Opposition stood in 1974 and 1977, and where he stood until last Friday. We are not sure where he stood on Saturday, and even less sure where he stood on Monday or today. it is clearly important for the electors of Pontypridd to know that, but it is clearly also important for the Labour party that a by-election should take place as quickly as possible before it changes its policies and its mind again.
Column 322On 23 February, the electors will at least have the opportunity to make a decision on what they believe to be the policies of the various parties. They will find a Conservative candidate, Nigel Evans, who will stand clearly and firmly against Welsh separatism, devolution and a Mickey Mouse assembly in Cardiff, for retaining the unity of the United Kingdom and for the people of Wales having a proper voice in the House.