Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Letter from Mr Martyn Jones, MP, Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, to the Chairman of the Committee together with a submission from the Welsh Affairs Committee

  Thank you for your letter of 5 May, kindly inviting the Welsh Affairs Committee for its views in connection with the Procedure Committee's inquiry into the extent to which devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will make changes to the procedures of the United Kingdom Parliament desirable.

  The points set out in your letter seem to us to identify correctly the issues which need to be addressed. We would suggest only that the references to "devolved matters" and "reserved matters" are not strictly applicable to Wales.

  A brief submission outlining our first ideas on these issues is enclosed. We would welcome the opportunity to see other submissions made to the Procedure Committee and to submit further comments at a larger stage. These issues are crucial to future smooth relations between Parliament and the Assembly.


  We are grateful to the Procedure Committee for giving us the opportunity to comment to comment at an early stage in its inquiry. The questions posed are of great importance to the future of our democracy and need very careful consideration. In this submission we do not offer a clear blueprint but rather outline some ideas, which we hope will help to take the debate forwards. We would welcome the opportunity to see other submissions made to the Procedure Committee and to submit further comments at a later stage.

  As well as discussing these matters within our Committee, we have met informally with the Welsh Office Devolution Unit, with the National Assembly Advisory Group and with the National Audit Office in Cardiff.

  The thoughts expressed below relate to the relationship between Westminster and Wales: it may be that other factors arise in relation to Scotland.

To what extent should the UK Parliament restrict its consideration of (a) devolved and (b) reserved matters as they affect Wales?

  The terms "devolved matters" and "reserved matters" are not used in the Government of Wales Bill, and strictly apply only to the Scottish devolution model. The question of whether and to what extent the UK Parliament should restrict its consideration of Welsh matters as a result of transfer of functions to the Assembly is of great importance, and one to which there is no simple answer.


  For the UK Parliament to interfere in the exercise of functions which have been devolved would be contrary to the spirit of the devolution legislation and would undermine the authority of the new Assembly.

  On the other hand, the UK Parliament will remain responsible for primary legislation in Wales. It is therefore imperative that Members of Parliament are fully aware of the implications of such legislation for Wales.

  There would seem to be no reason for the UK Parliament to restrict its consideration either of the continuing responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales or of Welsh matters which remain the responsibility of other Central Government Departments. Indeed, we see it as a key function of Welsh MPs to ensure proper scrutiny of Central Government policies affecting Wales.

To what extent would it be appropriate to provide for consultation between Members of the Welsh Assembly and the UK Parliament and what would be the nature of any consultation or joint operations?

  There will certainly be a need for close liaison between the Assembly and Westminster. Whether a mechanism for formal consultation is required is less clear. It will be a duty of the Secretary of State for Wales to consult the Assembly on the Government's legislative proposals.

  As to joint operations, it might well be useful to hold joint meetings of the Welsh Affairs Committee and subject committees of the Assembly, for example, but these would probably be best on an informal basis.

Should there be a reduction in the frequency of Welsh Questions and/or a restriction of the subjects which can be raised therein?

  Careful thought needs to be given to the nature of Welsh Questions after the Assembly is established. There must be an opportunity for Members of Parliament to hold the Secretary of State for Wales to account. However, the direct responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales will be much reduced and a Question Time limited to those matters would be a dull affair, of little interest to Members or their constituents. If Questions were limited to these direct responsibilities, their frequency or length could probably be reduced.

  While it would be more interesting to allow Questions on a wider range of issues affecting Wales, we would not wish the principle of devolution and the authority of the Assembly to be undermined by holding the Secretary of State to account for Assembly matters. It has been suggested to us that the Secretary of State might act as a conduit for information, perhaps answering questions on Assembly matters on behalf of the Assembly. We do not think this is practicable. While the Secretary of State could deliver a prepared answer to Questions, it is hard to see how he (or she) could respond to possibly critical supplementaries. The principal point of oral Questions is to hold Ministers to account, rather than to elicit information.

  An alternative might be for Welsh Questions to extend to all matters affecting Wales within the responsibility of Central Government. It would be unreasonable to expect all Government Ministers whose responsibilities cover Wales to be present, so the Secretary of State for Wales might act as a spokesman for the Government as a whole. Whether this would be tolerable to other Ministers is perhaps doubtful.

  We would not wish the opportunities for Welsh Members to take part in other Questions to be restricted.

  As to written Questions, it might be that the Secretary of Wales could answer questions of fact on behalf of the Assembly or convey Questions to the Assembly for answer direct. Whether the Secretary of State would be prepared to act as a post-bag in this way, and whether the Assembly would always be prepared to answer Question from Members of Parliament, remains to be seen.

Will the Welsh Grand Committee continue to have a role?

  We do not envisage that the Welsh Grand Committee will have a role as a forum for debating matters relating to Wales or questioning the executive, since this role will be carried out by the Assembly. However, it might possibly have a role as a forum for debating Welsh bills, at Second Reading or Committee stage (perhaps under the "fast-track" procedure discussed below).

What should be the role of the Select committee on Welsh Affairs?

  While we began with an open mind as to whether the Committee should continue to exist, we have come to the conclusion that there is an important role for it. There is a danger that Welsh interests might be neglected at Westminster after devolution: the Committee could act as a voice for Wales and as a bridge between Westminster and the Assembly. We would not, however, see the Committee as the voice of the Assembly.

  In our view, the Committee could play a useful role in the scrutiny of Welsh legislation, and of UK-wide (or England and Wales-wide) legislation as it affects Wales, perhaps particularly at the pre-legislative stage. In this role, we envisage that it would work closely with the Assembly's subject committees.

  As present the remit of the Committee, as prescribed by Standing Order No. 152, is to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Welsh Office and associated public bodies. This will have to be changed since there will not (as we understand it) be a Welsh Office, only an office of the Secretary of State for Wales and the Assembly. We would not wish the committee's remit to be restricted to the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales, since (as we discussed above on Questions) there are few and largely of little political interest. We do not envisage that the Committee should seek to inquire into (or second guess) Assembly policy, but it may be best not to restrict its role too tightly. It might wish to monitor how the moneys allocated by Parliament are spent. It might well need to examine matters within the responsibility of the Assembly as part of its scrutiny of legislation, or in order to establish where legislation might be needed.

  It might be best for the Committee to have a wide-ranging Welsh Affairs brief, perhaps including matters within the responsibility of other Government departments. In that case, it would no longer be a "Select Committee related to a government department", but this has not been a bar to the creation of, for example, the Environmental Audit Committee.

What should be the role of the (other) departmental select committees in relation to reserved matters relating to Scotland or Wales?

  It would seem to follow from the above suggestion of a wide-ranging all Welsh Affairs Committee that the other departmental select committees should not have a formal role in relation to Welsh matters. However, there is no reason why, with agreement, other committees should not take evidence relating to Wales if it is helpful to their inquiries, as is done at present. Moreover, there may be some matters (defence, for example) that are best addressed on a UK-wide basis.

Given that the Welsh Assembly will audit the monies it distributes, what level of financial scrutiny should the House maintain?

  We have discussed with the National Audit Office the arrangements for financial accountability after devolution, and they appear to be satisfactory. The Government of Wales Bill provides that the Assembly must have an independent Audit Committee, along the lines of the Public Accounts Committee, though we understand that the Public Accounts Committee will continue to have power to intervene if necessary. There may be a minor role for the Welsh Affairs Committee in scrutinising the direct expenditure of the Secretary of State for Wales.

  The Welsh Office envisage a much simplified Estimate and Vote Structure for the Secretary of State and the Assembly, but the details are still being worked on. We are concerned that Parliament should be properly consulted on this.

Are special procedures needed for subordinate legislation that will require approval by both the Assembly and the UK Parliament?

  We claim no expertise in these matters but it may be that current procedures will suffice.

Power to promote private bills

  We understand that this is a technical provision designed simply to allow the Welsh Assembly to act as a promoter of a private bill or to oppose such a bill, though little use is expected to be made of this power.

Should there be a "fast-track" procedure for Assembly-sponsored primary legislation?

  It is assumed that this question relates to public bills relating to Wales, rather than to private bills promoted by the Assembly. While the Assembly will have no power formally to sponsor public bills, there may well be bills or legislative proposals which it encourages the Secretary of State to bring before Parliament. In such cases, it might well be acceptable for the progress of the bill to be accelerated. The Standing Orders provide already for bills to be referred to the Welsh Grand Committee for debate on Second Reading.

  It has been suggested to us that a "fast-track" procedure would encourage Cabinet to proceed with Welsh bills which might otherwise be accorded low priority in the Government's legislative programme.

28 July 1998

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