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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I do not want to take my right hon. Friend's arguments out of order, but will he project forward to clause 30, which deals with the power to implement Community law--a delegated power that the Bill gives to the assembly? At present, he is arguing about the effect on this Parliament of internal devolution within the United Kingdom, but clause 30 provides an example of extra-territorial law being handed straight to the Welsh assembly, bypassing this Parliament. Does not that underline all the more emphatically the argument in favour of my right hon. Friend's amendment?

Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for making that point. He has found an example of a potential erosion of sovereignty on the face of the Bill. Again, it is important in that respect to have the assertion on the face of the Bill. We must start from the position that this Parliament is sovereign and will remain so, and that is all that the amendment says, so I find it surprising that we meet such resistance from the Government side.

I shall ask the Secretary of State one question. I am not a suspicious character, but at the back of his mind there may be some element of what I am about to suggest. I do not know whether, in three years' time, the right hon.

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Gentleman will be a Member of the Welsh assembly or a Member of this Parliament, retaining his office of Secretary of State. I do believe, however, that those who see the assembly as their natural home will always argue for fewer restrictions on its potential for growth and for the maximum ability to undermine the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. By contrast, those who remain here will want this Parliament's sovereignty to be maintained.

Mr. Öpik: Would the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a big difference of tone between our new clause and what he is proposing? His amendment has a rather belligerent turn of phrase suggesting a fear of any kind of delegated authority being granted to the Welsh assembly.

Mr. Ancram: I do not accept that; and I do accept that authority will be delegated to the Welsh assembly. This Parliament has the right to tell the Welsh assembly that, although it has delegated authority, the authority of this House and the sovereignty of Parliament will not be diminished.

It is clear to me from the previous debate that there is something of a muddle on the question of sovereignty. The Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues have not answered the important points made by the hon. Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and others. I believe that they still harbour doubts about the extent of the powers of the assembly and the effect of those powers on the sovereignty of this Parliament.

The Government's approach this evening has been ambivalent. There seems to be an element of schizophrenia: will the assembly be strong and powerful with sovereignty of its own, or will it always be subject to the sovereignty of the UK Parliament? It is because of that schizophrenia, ambivalence and muddle that the amendment is necessary. I commend it to the Committee.

Mr. Öpik: Judging by its tone, this is something of a wrecking amendment. That is not to detract from what the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) has been saying, but words like "undiminished" give one the feeling that the Conservatives are worried about giving the assembly delegated powers that will enable it not to look over its shoulder to Westminster all the time.

Hence, we would be minded to oppose the amendment. It is also rather provocative; it implies that the Welsh assembly cannot be allowed to function without close scrutiny by Westminster. That goes dead against the idea of devolution.

It is all very well to talk about belt and braces; it is surely even safer not to put on trousers at all but to stay in the constitutional bed and not try to move decision making out from the centre to Scotland and Wales.

Mr. Dalyell: May I, out of curiosity, ask the hon. Gentleman whether he hopes to be a member of the Welsh assembly or to remain here as a Member of the Westminster Parliament?

Mr. Öpik: I do not see the relevance of that question to the points that I have been making. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that an Estonian in Parliament has far more to contribute than an Estonian in Swansea or

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Cardiff. I can foresee no circumstances in which I would stand for the Welsh assembly. I hope that that unequivocal statement reassures the hon. Gentleman.

The Liberal Democrats feel that the amendment is not in the spirit of devolution or of what was voted for on 18 September. Perhaps it is all a matter of judgment; perhaps the words would not undermine the effectiveness of the assembly, but they send out the wrong message. Having accepted the principle of devolution, we must now trust the Welsh people to elect individuals who are capable of operating effectively and wisely on their behalf. We do not see the need for endless insurance policies just in case the assembly gets it wrong. Responsible people act responsibly. I like to think that the Welsh assembly will behave responsibly and constructively in relation to Westminster; and that, if there are problems, they can be resolved by discussion and negotiation--and then possibly by legislation. We must not tie the hands of the assembly before it has even been elected.

7.15 pm

Mr. Gareth Thomas: A remarkable concession by the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) rather suggested that the amendment has more to do with mischief making and raking over the coals of an argument that the Conservative party has long since lost than with anything constructive. It is, in the right hon. Gentleman's words, purely declaratory: it has no practical purpose. Why then introduce it? As a lawyer, he ought to know the definition of otiose. There can be no better example of an otiose amendment than this one, because it is unnecessary. It is a propaganda exercise designed to create fear about the assembly. We should be concerned to engender precisely the opposite emotion.

The purpose of the package of reforms leading to this measure is to strengthen the unity of the United Kingdom and to reform the relationship between its constituent parts. That is eminently sensible and reasonable. It is not an attack on the sovereignty of the UK; it is a way of strengthening that sovereignty and improving our parliamentary processes.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Unlike Labour Members, I see this issue as important. If the amendment is purely declaratory--I do not believe it is; it also has a utilitarian purpose--then there are many precedents for that in law. My right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) gave examples from similar constitutional legislation of the past. As I recall, the Family Law Act 1997 includes a similar provision at the beginning, declaring that the purpose of the Act is to reinforce family life. So the fact that an amendment is declaratory does not diminish its importance or invalidate its consideration by the Committee.

I found the Secretary of State's interventions in my right hon. Friend's opening remarks extremely difficult to follow. He says that he wants the assembly to work. I am reconciled to the idea that there will be an assembly, although I am not glad about it, and I share the Secretary of State's view. I am a former member of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, and I am concerned for the Principality. It is only just over the border from my county, and I want the people of Wales, if they are to have one at all, to have an assembly that works.

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But if the assembly is to work as a secure part of the constitution of this kingdom, it must have not just the whole-hearted support of the Welsh people but more than the grudging acceptance of the English people. The latter need to be reassured that the assembly will work in their interests, too.

That is why I think the Secretary of State was profoundly misguided to describe the amendment as unworthy. It is a matter for incredulity that the amendment was not accepted on the nod. It does no harm, and it would provide a real reassurance to the people of England that their concerns will be taken into account in the process of devolving power to Wales.

I declare an interest--I shall soon get bored with hearing myself say this; I have said it in three debates in the House in the past week--in that Worcestershire stands to be disadvantaged by the Bill and by the Government's regional development agencies for England. We shall be caught between the Welsh powerhouse set up by part VI of the Bill, and the Birmingham-based RDA. That is why I know that my constituents are worried about the Bill's implications for them. Thus, a reassurance in the Bill to the effect that it will work for the benefit of the whole kingdom, and that the supremacy of this place will remain intact, would be of benefit to my constituency.

As an English Member, I would appreciate it if Welsh Members could see that perspective as they consider this matter. The amendment goes beyond being purely declaratory, and provides some practical safeguard for my constituents' interests and those of other hon. Members in England.

The Welsh people have not declared themselves that enthusiastically for this Bill and the assembly. There has been a grudging, half-hearted acceptance, and three quarters of them seem to be saying that they also value the United Kingdom. They want some reassurance that the supremacy of this Parliament will still be very real. I accept that "supremacy" is not the most attractive of words. Perhaps its connotations are not entirely happy, but it was right for my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes to draw on precedent in other legislation in drafting the amendment.

Why should the Government resist the amendment? Frankly, I do not understand it. They say--indeed, the Welsh nationalists have been saying this too--that the amendment is superfluous and unnecessary. I am deeply suspicious about the direction from which I am hearing that claim. Some people who are telling me that have clear agendas--which, to their credit, they do not conceal. Why are they saying that an amendment to the Bill that would reassert the primacy of this place in the consideration of United Kingdom matters is superfluous? That concerns me.

I see the amendment as an insurance policy for the people of England and, indeed, of Scotland in the relationship between the Welsh assembly and this Parliament. A devolved Parliament in Scotland will inevitably lead to pressure for independence for Scotland. I am as yet unclear whether the National Assembly for Wales will have a similar impact. I suspect that it will become an ineffectual talking shop, and that the

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enthusiasm of the people of Wales will diminish. However, the amendment is a useful safeguard should the Welsh assembly take off in the direction I fear.


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