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
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
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
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
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
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
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
28 July 1998