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Sir Teddy Taylor: As one of the hon. Members who tabled the amendment, I want to make a few brief points that I hope the House will bear in mind. When the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) said that Assembly Members would have to sign the Official Secrets Act 1989, his comments were met with contempt by Ministers--the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), seemed to shake his head as if to say rubbish. However, way back on 26 March, the Government were proposing that every Assembly Member should sign the Act. On that occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and I tabled an amendment to point out that the proposal was an outrage.

Mr. Shepherd: In fact, the proposal was much worse; not only did Assembly Members have to sign the Act, but that was mandated by a Westminster statute--they had no alternative. To say that they were required to sign it suggests that they could have said, "I don't wish to sign it." The statute will now affect only the Executive of the Assembly, but it was intended to apply to all Assembly Members by fiat.

Sir Teddy Taylor: How right my hon. Friend is. The Government had proposed that, unlike all other democratic assemblies of which I know, the provision would apply to all Members. Happily, a minor change has been made.

On 26 March, I asked why the measure would apply to Wales but not to the Scottish Parliament. The Under-Secretary seemed to have acquired a delightful new interest in democracy, so I was staggered when, a few weeks later on 5 June, it was announced in the House of Lords that the provision would apply to the Scottish Parliament.

5.45 pm

Mr. Grieve: The simple answer to why that was been done must be that the Government believe that it is impossible to govern across the United Kingdom without the exchange of secrets between themselves and those in office in Wales and Scotland. That, of course, strikes at the root of democracy; the provision fetters those in the Scottish Parliament and in the Welsh Assembly, preventing them from responding to the needs of their electorates.

Sir Teddy Taylor: I am delighted to hear those words from my hon. Friend. I look forward to his joining me in the battle for democracy whether we have a Conservative or Labour Government--that will be great news for democracy.

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I make a point of not attacking people in the House, but I hope that the Under-Secretary--not the Secretary of State, for whom I have a high regard--will appreciate that he was regarded as someone who would fight for liberty and for people's rights. However, he defended a proposal that would apply the Official Secrets Act to every Assembly Member.

What secrets are involved? The impression may be created that the Government are thinking only of massive issues, but that is wrong. I urge hon. Members to consider what respected members of their parties said when the Official Secrets Act was passed. Roy Hattersley, for example, pointed out that it applied not only to big issues, but to every piece of paper marked confidential or above. We were told that there would be a harm test, but, sadly, that does not work.

I hope that hon. Members will also ask themselves what the blazes they would do if they were Executive Members of the Assembly and found a United Kingdom Government or European Union document that contained scandals or abuses that would damage Wales--not England or necessarily Britain, but specifically Wales. Under the provision, Executive Members of the Assembly would not be allowed to refer to such a document in any way. Members of the Executive should be fighting for Wales, so why should they not be able to reveal information about a new policy that would hit Wales hard?

The Government should appreciate that the Welsh Assembly is not a branch or subsidiary part of the UK Government but something separate. I did not want a Scottish Parliament or a Welsh Assembly, but, as we are now to have them, we must appreciate that their task is to fight for Scotland and for Wales. Unfortunately, by applying the Official Secrets Act, the Government are giving the impression that they regard the Welsh Assembly as a branch of their operation. The provision is wrong and unnecessary, and I believe that we should accept the Lords amendment. The Official Secrets Act should not apply--the proposal is an insult not only to Wales, but to democracy.

Mr. Ron Davies: I understand that the House wishes to reach a swift conclusion, so I shall curtail my remarks. I compliment the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on the way in which he presented his case. I pay tribute to him, and to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) for the way in which they have consistently argued their case. Their beliefs are genuine, but wrong; I shall briefly explain why.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills correctly described the history of this debate. The last time it occurred in this House, on Report, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), said that the Government intended to give further consideration to the matter. We tabled amendments in the other place, which were discussed there, and we now propose to agree with those amendments.

The Bill, as amended, provides that the Assembly First Secretary and the Assembly Secretaries are to be Crown servants for the purposes of the Official Secrets Act. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), the provision does not apply to Assembly Members per se. The proposal is consistent with our

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earlier debates on the issue. Assembly Secretaries will be acting in a quasi-ministerial role and might, from time to time, need to be entrusted with classified information within the meaning of the Act. Lord Williams and police investigations into child abuse were cited, and there are other instances in which classified information might have to be given to Ministers.

The amendment is also essential if Assembly Secretaries are to discharge their responsibilities to the Assembly in European and other international negotiations. If Assembly Secretaries were not bound by the Act, it is quite possible that a Minister of the Crown would be legally unable to share information about such negotiations with them. That would leave the Assembly unable to use the powers available to it to address many matters of vital interest to Wales.

The House will recall that, on Report, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who was then Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on constitutional matters, with his hon. Friends tabled amendments that were identical in effect to the amendment before us now; so did the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), his hon. Friends and my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek). It is therefore reasonable to assume that amendment No. 49 fully reflects a cross-party consensus in the House. I noted with interest the support for the Government's position expressed by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). There is a cross-party consensus--one to which the Government rightly responded in the other place. I might add that the amendment was warmly welcomed by the Conservative Front Benchers in the other place. I trust that Conservatives in this House share that view.

If the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills gets his way and the amendment is not accepted, members of the Executive Committee will be seriously hampered in their work. They might well be unable to discuss matters of crucial interest to Wales with Ministers of the Crown. They would also have to assent to conditions imposed by civil servants on each and every occasion that they required access to classified material. That would be both inefficient and a distortion of the proper relationship between senior elected Members and their officials.

Mr. Shepherd: It is perfectly true that the then Conservative Front-Bench team and the Liberal Democrats in the other place supported the amendment. However, the Secretary of State should remember that there is a fall-back position from the totalitarian grasp whereby everybody is covered by the Act. Even in the House of Commons, we had a fall-back position. The Secretary of State will have noticed that the Conservative Front Benchers in this place supported the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), so the right hon. Gentleman should not over-emphasise that point.

This is meant to be an intelligent debate in which we test the arguments being advanced. We are hopeful that, when the Bill returns to the Lords, the Government will have reflected on the issue, but it does not sound as though they will, from the Secretary of State's speech.

Mr. Davies: Like the Conservative party, we are a listening Government, and it would be wrong of me not to say that we shall listen carefully to all the comments

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that have been made. However, I cannot hold out any prospects, because the matter has been debated and we listened carefully when it was considered on Report. We made a sensible amendment in the other place, and the provision that we now have reflects the need to ensure that the Assembly can conduct its business properly.

If we were to remove the amendment, that would cause considerable doubt about how the Official Secrets Act applied to the Assembly in the conduct of its business. It is possible that, without there being any provision on the face of the Bill, the courts might look at clause 1(3), which gives the Assembly Crown status, and conclude that all Assembly Members were bound by the Act as Crown servants. That is precisely the opposite of what the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills wants.

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman seeks to re-run this argument and to overturn an amendment that I genuinely believe improves the Bill and reflects a cross-party consensus both here and in the other place. I am also disappointed that, in so doing, he would leave the Executive Committee in doubt as to its status and hampered in its work. I urge the House to reject the hon. Gentleman's motion and to agree with the Lords in the amendment.


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