Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Further Submission from the Welsh Affairs Committee

  We are very concerned by the proposal, contained in paragraph 9 of the Government's memorandum, that the terms of reference of the Welsh Affairs Committee should be amended to confine them to the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales.

  Our terms of reference, as set out in Standing Order No. 152, will have to be amended at least to take account of the fact that (as is now clear) there will be no Welsh Office after May 1999. We are concerned, however, that replacing "Welsh Office" with "the office of the Secretary of State for Wales" may be far too restrictive. Much would depend on what the future "responsibilities" of the Secretary of State are considered to be. His executive functions will, it appears, be few. (We enclose an explanatory note we have received from the Welsh Office, on the role of the Secretary of State after devolution.) If we were to be limited to scrutiny of the Secretary of State's executive functions, our existence would be pointless. However, given that the Secretary of State will be responsible for all primary legislation which affects Wales (where powers are to be given to the Assembly), it might be that his "responsibilities" could be deemed to cover also the functions transferred to the National Assembly. If that were the case, our role would be no more restricted than at present. And given that the Secretary of State will be responsible for representing Welsh interests in Cabinet, it could be that our remit could extend to all UK policy affecting Wales. However, it does not seem satisfactory to define our remit in a way that is open to such differing interpretation.

  We would emphasise that the model of devolution adopted for Wales is very different from that for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Westminster's continuing responsibility for primary legislation for Wales in all policy areas will require Members of Parliament (and not just Welsh Members) at the very least to keep a watching brief on matters for which executive responsibility has been transferred to the Assembly. As we said in our earlier submission, 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.

  The National Assembly Advisory Group has suggested that we might have a useful liaison role, as a channel of opinion between Westminster and the Assembly. For that liaison to be effective, it is essential that we should not be constrained by overly restrictive terms of reference. For example, in order to fulfil the pre-legislative role which the Government envisages for select committees, we might usefully take evidence from the Assembly on legislation they consider necessary for Wales.

  Our preference would be to be given a cross-cutting brief to scrutinise Welsh Affairs. This would allow us to examine proposals for UK policy and legislation which appeared particularly to affect Wales, if necessary taking evidence from UK Departments. Obviously we would have to ensure that we did not tread on the toes of other Departmental Select Committees, but we do not believe that the risk of overlap problems would be much greater than at present.

16 February 1999

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