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Mr. Hain: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is intervening in the way for which he has become well known in the House, taking up a misleading point rather than addressing the central issue. I say to him and his Conservative colleagues who represent English constituencies that England voted for devolution as well. The Conservatives received only 34 per cent. of the vote in England--a minority vote in England. The then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), made the break-up of the United Kingdom, as he misleadingly put it, a central issue in the election campaign. He and his fellow Conservatives lost the argument.

Mr. Howard: Will the hon. Gentleman now answer the question that I put to him a minute ago? Will he apologise for the misleading information given by the Prime Minister to the House on 14 May? He said:

May we please have an answer to that question?

Mr. Hain: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is the person who should apologise for attempting to divert the

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debate from the central issues of democracy and devolution which we have been discussing. He has hardly been here to listen to the arguments. The Prime Minister made the position absolutely clear this afternoon.

Mr. Salmond: Conservative Front-Bench Members might consider why they did not ask that question on 14 May, but we will leave that to one side. Would it not have been better if the Prime Minister had simply told the House today that he was sorry and that he had made a mistake?

Mr. Hain: The Prime Minister made the position absolutely clear. I will speak to the hon. Gentleman in a constructive spirit; I welcomed the constructive spirit in which he and his colleagues contributed to the debate. What is important, once we have the White Paper which will be published later this summer before the House rises so there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss it and consider it in the weeks that run up to the referendum, to those of us--the vast majority of Members--who support democracy and decentralising decisions to local people, on a national basis in Scotland and in Wales, is that we unite for a yes vote. That is absolutely vital. We must not allow the Tories to divert the people of Scotland and the people of Wales from our historic mission to get democracy brought back to our people and to get decisions brought down close to the individual. That is our mandate; that is our historic obligation. We were given the mandate by the people in the massive landslide victory on 1 May, and all of us--Government Members, Liberal Democrats and nationalists--have a duty to unite, grasp the opportunity, move forward and create a democracy in Britain of which we can be proud.

8.44 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): We have reached Third Reading, and in my view and that of my hon. Friends we have done so extremely prematurely. The debates have not done justice to the importance of the Bill or to its detail. We have just witnessed four clauses and two schedules of a constitutional measure being agreed to without any debate at all, which is a disgrace to the procedures of the House. That is what we have come to with the Government's arrogant behaviour. They have been unbelievably arrogant to treat the House in such a way.

There is no finer example of such arrogance than the speech of the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain). Despite the fact that holding referendums was a manifesto commitment, the hon. Gentleman proudly and magnanimously announced that the Government did not need to do so. The Government have a responsibility to implement what was in their election manifesto.

Mr. Hain: The point that I was making was that we did not have to put the commitment in our manifesto but that we wanted to do so because we have confidence in our policies engaging popular opinion and receiving support.

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman knows full well that the Labour party felt that it had to include the commitment

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in its manifesto in case it lost a large number of votes in Wales and Scotland at the election. It wanted to be able to say to the people, "Don't worry, you can have a referendum about it later."

The Under-Secretary of State not only derided people who spoke on the matter in the 1970s; he criticised Opposition Members for raising detailed points when that is exactly what debates on Bills are for. He criticised me for receiving standing ovations around Wales. If he continues to make such speeches, he will never enjoy that experience for himself.

The Secretary of State for Scotland referred to the Bill a couple of days ago as a modest measure. It is not a modest measure: it is a measure of great importance, which is how he described it a couple of weeks ago.

Mr. Flynn: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I will not give way for the moment. Many of my hon. Friends want to speak. Debate on a measure of such great importance has either been severely limited or denied. We do not dispute that the Government have a mandate to hold referendums. We believe that it is right for them to hold referendums on the subject. Indeed, we welcome the Labour party's belated conversion to the idea of holding referendums on devolution. The Scottish Labour party had five policy positions on the matter in five years--indeed, it had three in two weeks. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) reminded the House a few minutes ago, it was decided in London that Labour party policy would change.

Although the Secretary of State for Wales has just left the Chamber, I make no apology for reminding the House of his famous remark on 24 June 1996, when he said:

Three days later, it was his policy to hold a pre-legislative referendum. How true it has become that the trouble with a pre-legislative referendum is that there are so many questions that one cannot answer, since there have been so many questions that Government Front Benchers could not or have been unwilling to answer in the debates. The Secretary of State for Wales was right--he is not often right and it was a pity that he changed his mind--on one of the rare occasions when he came out with a perceptive and perspicacious remark about the folly of holding pre-legislative referendums.

Mr. Salmond: On the subject of parties changing their minds on this issue, on what date did the Conservative party decide that in principle it was in favour of a multi-option referendum in Scotland, as we were told this afternoon?

Mr. Hague: The Conservative party is entitled to set out its policies without having to report to the Scottish National party on what date it developed its policy. We have stated in the House today that the multi-option referendum policy is one with which we would have sympathy. If the amendments tabled by my hon. Friends on a multi-option referendum had been selected, we would have voted for them. It has been a side effect of the guillotine motion, which has denied debate on large

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parts of the Bill, that my hon. Friends have not been able to vote on or argue for the amendments that they had tabled.

Mr. Flynn: The right hon. Gentleman would not have noticed, because he was absent himself, but for the major part of the debate no Tory Whip has been present and only one or two Tory Back Benchers have been in their places. On the subject of losing votes, does he not take responsibility for making devolution his one priority in the election? He went prancing around with balloons and told everyone that we had 72 hours to save the Union. He is personally responsible for the worst election result the Conservatives have had in Wales. If he had been standing for a Welsh seat, he would not be here now. Will he introduce a note of humility and apologise to his colleagues who used to represent Welsh seats, because his leadership destroyed their position?

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that the final opinion polls of the general election campaign--which, as it turned out, accurately forecast the result of the general election--showed that opinion on a Welsh Assembly had moved to 34 per cent. in favour and 37 per cent. against by the end of the campaign. The hon. Gentleman should make no presumption yet about who has won the arguments or about the result of the referendum in Wales when it is held. Labour Members made assumptions about the result of the referendums in 1979 and they regretted it. I advise the hon. Gentleman not to make such assumptions on this occasion.

The Government have ignored in their handling of the Bill the truth spoken by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) on Second Reading when he said that the devil is in the detail. They will hold referendums without being able to give the public the detailed implications of what they propose. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) has just reminded us, the Prime Minister told us on 14 May that the Bill would be published before the referendums were held, but he was too mealy-mouthed today to recognise either that he had made a mistake or that he was backtracking on the commitment that he had given. The Prime Minister should have had the courage and the confidence to admit that his statement was a mistake or that he had backtracked on his commitment.

As it is, we are promised a White Paper. We do not know whether the White Paper will answer the questions to which the electorate need answers before voting in the referendum. We do not know whether the White Paper will be able to explain the relationship between a Welsh Assembly and non-departmental public bodies in Wales, or between an Assembly and local government in Wales. We do not know whether the White Paper will explain the Assembly's power to call for persons and papers, its relationship with the Committee of the Regions, the role of the civil service, the resources that the Assembly will have at its disposal, the running costs and the remuneration of its members, its impact on inward investment, or how its electoral arrangements could be changed in the future. We do not know whether a White Paper will cover those subjects.

The Government do not know whether the commitments that they will make in a White Paper will still be intact after the referendum has been held or after the legislation has passed through the House. If the

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Government are asking the electorate to vote on specific proposals in a White Paper, can they now say that the provisions of the White Paper will not be changed after the referendum has been held? They can give no such commitment. They are asking the electorate to vote for a pig in a poke; that is no way to hold a referendum in a parliamentary democracy.

It should be a basic principle of referendums that the electorate should be as well informed as possible about the proposition on which they are voting. That principle could be satisfied only by holding the referendum after the legislation had passed through Parliament, not before. It should be a basic principle of referendums that people should know exactly what they are voting on. They cannot know exactly what they are voting on when a pre-legislative referendum is held.

Our second objection to a pre-legislative referendum--after the fact that it leaves the electorate in the dark--is that the Government clearly intend to use the holding of a referendum as a substitute for the parliamentary process rather than as an addition to it. The Government clearly intend to use the result to say that the electorate have now voted on the general proposition and that nobody else should dare to argue with the details of the legislation.

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales said that the House would decide how the eventual legislation would be handled, but that is not the reality. The House will not decide, because Labour Members would vote for any proposition put forward by the Government even if it meant dealing with the whole Bill in a Committee lasting five or 10 minutes. Most Labour Members would be prepared to vote even for that proposition if the Government Whips said that they should.

The Government have to decide. It is the Government's responsibility to say that constitutional legislation should be dealt with on the Floor of the House. It is their responsibility to give us the guarantee that we have asked for--that that Bill will not be guillotined in the disgraceful way that we have seen happen to the one before us. They must guarantee that the abuse of the rights of the House will not continue. As we come to the end of proceedings on the Bill, they are not prepared to give those guarantees.

What confidence can the Opposition and people outside the House have that debates on the legislation which may follow the referendums will be treated fairly and properly when the Prime Minister has described the prospect of debates on such legislation as "game playing", when the Secretary of State for Wales has said that he will brook no interference with his plans, and when we have seen the cavalier use of the guillotine over the past two days?

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