Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 320)



Mr Stunell

  300.  I do not think we should discuss the conclusions of this inquiry until we have completed it, but we should clearly listen carefully to the evidence we are given. But if I can just come back to my point about second-guessing the Welsh Assembly, it does seem to me that one of the things which it is important to do, as you all said, to make sure that it is a successful move forward, is to avoid that second-guessing, and, therefore, the relations with the Welsh Affairs Committee are important. I was not really clear, from the answers that you gave, how you saw that proceeding; maybe that is because you yourselves are not clear, it is a very provisional situation that we are in. But what are the necessary measures, perhaps to put it the other way round, to minimise the situations in which you are treading on their toes, or you perceive them to be treading on yours?
  (Mr Jones)  I think, Mr Stunell, it is very important that we get procedures in place, but, of course, until the Assembly is up and running, that is only half of the marriage, so to speak; until the Assembly Members decide themselves on how they want to liaise then I think we are in the dark, to a certain extent. But I think there is goodwill on behalf of the Committee that we would want to do that, and that we see that as our role, rather than scrutinising what the Assembly is doing, rather than, as you say, second-guessing, and I think that we see our role as Westminster helping the Assembly. Can I just say, Chairman, that we had as one of our inquiries in terms of finding out what our role should be, because we had not really thought about it, certainly I had not, as the Chairman. Until I started thinking about it, I did not think there was a role for this Committee, for even the Select Committee never mind the Welsh Grand Committee, because I thought that we are devolving this power that it should stay there. But once I had thought about it for some time, and we put it to the National Assembly Advisory Group, which was set up with all the political spectrum within Wales to advise on Standing Orders for the Assembly, basically, but we thought, well, they were there, let us use them, and we put it to them, what we thought our role might be, and they absolutely endorsed, totally, the view that I have expressed to you, Chairman, about this pre-legislative process, and to act as an all-party conduit into this place and out of it again, in terms of the sort of legislation which might be, if you like, imposed on Wales from other Departments.

  301.  That sounds admirable, but then we have had the example of how your Committee was able to do a really useful job, setting about the Cardiff Bay Corporation when they took a silly decision; is there not going to be a considerable temptation for you to set about the Assembly, if it is perceived that they have done something with which you disagree?
  (Mr Jones)  There might be a temptation, but I do not think we should give way to it.


  302.  But there is, of course, good reason for you to have the former duty, because, as you have said, the Assembly does not have primary legislative powers, and therefore this House retains primary legislative powers, and therefore you must hold the Government of this place to account, as Select Committees do, in my view, admirably. So I think you have certainly made a very good case for the continuation of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, but I do not want to pre-empt our findings.
  (Mr Llwyd)  In response to what Mr Stunell was saying just now, I do believe that it is vitally important that the contents of the so-called concordats are known as soon as possible, because I think they are vitally important, and we are all, at the moment, in the dark; perhaps if we had read them before we came here we would all be a bit wiser, and I think the sooner they are out in the open the better.

Mr Darvill

  303.  Can we turn to the subject of questions. Welsh Questions, as you know, currently last for 25 minutes, once every four weeks, and we note, from your Committee, that the "direct responsibility of the Secretary of State for Wales will be much reduced and a Question Time limited to those matters would be a dull affair." This is from your Committee. In response to that, the Clerk of the House has suggested, and I think it necessary for the report, Mr Chairman, to read this out: "Based on past practice and on the desirability of encouraging the House's activities to be focused on matters for which UK Ministers are responsible, I suggest the following statement of practice for the consideration of the Committee:" and it goes on to say: "Subject always to the discretion of the Chair, and in addition to the established rules of order on the form and content of questions, questions may not be tabled on matters for which responsibility has been devolved by legislation to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Welsh Assembly unless the question—(a) seeks information which the UK Government is empowered to require of the devolved executive, or (b) relates to matters which—(i) are included in legislative proposals introduced or to be introduced in the UK Parliament, (ii) are subject to a concordat or other instrument of liaison between the UK Government and the devolved executive, or (iii) UK Government ministers have taken an official interest in, or (c) otherwise presses for action by UK ministers in areas in which they retain administrative powers." Do you think it would be acceptable if, in addition to matters within the responsibility of Ministers, questions were permitted to seek information which the UK Government is empowered to require or relates to matters included in legislative proposals, is subject to a concordat or is an issue in which UK Ministers have taken an official interest or presses for action in areas in which UK Ministers retain administrative powers?
  (Mr Jones)  Speaking personally, Mr Darvill, yes, I do, but, knowing the way this place works, I think that questions will be asked on practically anything a Member wants to ask, and they will get round whatever barriers are put in their way; whether they will get a sensible answer, of course, is another matter. Perhaps my colleagues would like to comment.
  (Mr Llwyd)  I am going to say something now which will undoubtedly anger the Chair. There will, of course, be more opportunities for even more Members of Parliament from English constituencies to ask questions during Welsh Questions. That is meant as a joke, Mr Chairman, in case it gets you worried.


  304.  I wondered why it should provoke me; it did not provoke me at all.
  (Mr Llwyd)  I see you are number one tomorrow.

Chairman:  Indeed, I do have question number one, but I think that the Member for Plaid Cymru knows only too well, at the moment, the Conservative and Unionist Party is a little limited in respect of those that can ask questions representing a Welsh constituency in the United Kingdom Parliament.

Mr Darvill

  305.  Really, although we have gone through the formal part then, what changes, clearly Members will use any opportunity to get in, but there will be a different aspect in either the way that Ministers answer questions or Members put them, and how do you see that affecting the role of Members in this House generally?
  (Mr Jones)  I think it is going to make it more difficult for Welsh Members, inevitably, because although Mr Llwyd said earlier that our constituency workload is going to be less, frankly, I think it is probably going to be more, since most other Honourable Members' surgeries are full of people wanting local government matters dealt with by them, I think they are going to come and ask us for Assembly matters to be dealt with as well, and we will have a sort of—I do not think it will reduce our role at all. I just think this question is probably one of the most difficult questions you are having to deal with, the question of questions, because the Secretary of State for Wales, who will be the only Minister left, presumably, will have to answer questions which will be put to him by Members and will get round whatever barriers the Table Office try to put in their way, and will expect a reply. I think that, like a lot of other things, this is going to evolve in all kinds of ways we cannot even imagine at the moment. I hope that we still maintain a Welsh Question Time, even though it might be quite frustrating and sometimes quite boring, because I think that, if only for primary legislative purposes, we, as Members of the UK Houses of Parliament, will want to know what the Secretary of State will be planning to legislate in, for example; so that is one area which needs to continue.


  306.  Julian Lewis, I know, wants to come in on this?
  (Dr Lewis)  I think this question of the question session with the Secretary of State is going to cause immense difficulties in the future, because, even leaving aside the issue of what gets through the Table Office, we all know that supplementary questions have only got to be linked to the primary question by the merest connection in order to survive. And I, for one, can see an outcome where the Secretary of State is put on the horns of a dilemma, when he is answering questions, he is either going to have to say "I'm sorry, I mustn't answer this, this is outside my remit these days", or he is going to have to go outside his remit and risk, what Mr Stunell is so concerned about, second-guessing and treading on the toes of the Assembly. And whereas we, as a specialised, consensual, cross-party committee, might be expected to exercise a considerable degree of restraint in our proceedings, when we are moving in those delicate areas, when one is in the adversarial, single-party, as it were, environment of Question Time in the Commons chamber itself, that sort of restraint will not be there.

Chairman:  Would our witnesses not think that the occupant of the Chair might be helpful in indicating that a particular question was out of order and should be re-worded to bring it within order? I know, because I myself occupy the Chair from time to time, that the Speaker, or Chairman of Ways and Means, or Deputy Speakers, might assist in these matters, and that after a time the House perhaps could be better trained to ensure that matters relating to devolved responsibilities are not asked and only matters relating to the responsibilities of the Secretary of State are. Clive, would you like to add to this?

Mr Efford

  307.  Can I just add to that, because one of the things which might blur the edges there is, of course, the Secretary of State has a responsibility to liaise with the Assembly, and if questions are couched in those terms then that might blur the edges?
  (Mr Jones)  Yes.
  (Mr Livsey)  I think we have to recognise that the Secretary of State has a function in Cabinet and also to the Assembly, as has been mentioned, and I think that it should be quite easy for the Chair to interpret what is a question that is acceptable and what is not. And I think, by convention, that will develop, and I think it will be quite a lively question session that will result from that.
  (Dr Lewis)  I have no doubt at all that the Speaker, or Deputy Speaker, whoever was handling the matter, would very quickly master what was within and without the Secretary of State's brief. What I am concerned about is that, in the chamber as a whole, knowing the way in which the individual political parties get a vast range of their backbenchers to put down questions, you would find the Speaker having to intervene very frequently to correct people who, in their supplementaries, had gone beyond what was acceptable under the new order of things. And I think it would be a very long time indeed before the vast majority of backbenchers who would find themselves asking questions and supplementaries on these subjects would themselves be sufficiently trained that the Speaker was not constantly having to come into play to correct them, and I think this would be an embarrassment.

Chairman:  I am not sure that Dr Lewis should have suggested that the party machine gets backbench Members to table Parliamentary Questions.

Mr Gardiner:  He obviously speaks for his own, Chair.


  308.  That is a most outrageous remark.
  (Dr Lewis)  I withdraw, Mr Chairman; nothing was further from my mind.
  (Mr Llwyd)  I have to say, I picked up on that as well, Mr Chairman, we do not have a vast range of Members either.
  (Mr Livsey)  Mr Chairman, there is one point, if you will allow me, and it is this, that we have discussed what would affect the Secretary of State and at Question Time the Secretary of State; there are a number of other topics outwith the remit of the Secretary of State, like rail services in Wales, like the MoD, and matters of that kind, which obviously will have to go through the normal channels here. But I am just pointing up, there are a number of major issues which are not within the functions of the Welsh Assembly at the present time and yet cause us great concern.
  (Mr Llwyd)  And social security, of course.

  309.  Can I put a question to you, quite a difficult one, I do not think we have tackled this precisely yet. The Government envisages that legislation should continue to be made for England and Wales, although, as a general principle, the Government expects Bills that confer new powers and relate to the Assembly's functions will provide for the powers to be exercised separately and differently in Wales, and to be exercised by the Assembly. Do you, as members of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, think that there is a case for increasing the amount of legislation relating solely to Wales and providing special Parliamentary procedures for it?
  (Mr Jones)  As you say, Chairman, it is quite a difficult question. I think a lot of the questions that we have been asked are crystal ball questions. I think that it is probably inevitable that that will happen, I think that the legislation produced by other Departments, other than the Welsh Office, which will not exist, will tend to become split, I think that is probably the case, because the legislation will have to recognise the role of the Assembly, and I think even that, just that factor alone, will create that, and I would think that evolution will create the need for perhaps separate processes. I will see if I can give another plug for the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, Chairman, in its pre-legislative role, which Select Committees are, I think, quite rightly, doing at the moment, in terms of the present Government's policies, which I think are very good in this regard, that we, as a Select Committee, or whatever this committee that we are proposing is called, would have a role of a pre-legislative nature, and that might actually influence Government later in the process to actually produce separate legislation.

  310.  What I am trying to do is, and, again, then perhaps Mr Llwyd can come back, go back to what we were discussing some time ago, when you introduced the title of a territorial committee, and you quite rightly pointed out that the Study of Parliament Group suggested superseding the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and the Grand Committee by a Welsh territorial committee. What you are saying to us is that you would not particularly like to go down that path, you would like, if anything, modestly to expand the duties of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, to take in what the Study of Parliament Group thought could be dealt with by a new committee, which was the Welsh territorial committee; am I correct?
  (Mr Jones)  I think you have put it very nicely, Chairman.
  (Mr Llwyd)  Just returning briefly, Mr Chairman, to your question about the need for specifically Welsh legislation, or whatever, of course, there is a precedent for it, because, over the years, we have seen particularly Scottish legislation, one, for example, White Paper being issued on the floor of the House, and then the next one being for a Scottish model, and legislation, very often, being substantially different, and also, of course, in the context of the north of Ireland. So I do not think it is going to create insurmountable difficulty, and I do believe there will be a growing demand or need for it.
  (Mr Livsey)  Absolutely.

  311.  Thank you very much. There is one final question I would like to ask, and then I am going to ask you if there are any matters any of you would like to put to us, before we bring the session to an end. And I suppose I can say this with a certain equanimity, as I am an English Member of Parliament and perhaps I am seeking, as Chairman of this Committee, your views; it is really linking up to what we said about evolution, to devolution, at the beginning of this meeting. Do you think devolution in itself makes it desirable for new arrangements for considering matters relating solely to England, and I would hope you would go beyond what Richard Livsey, I think, said about regional affairs committees for the regions of the United Kingdom; are you concerned for England that they will not have the sort of voice that Wales will have, following devolution, that Scotland will have, with its new Parliament, and, of course, the people of Ulster will have, in respect of their Assembly in Belfast?
  (Mr Jones)  Chairman, I think this is one we will have individual opinions on, and I think it is something that we have not considered as a Committee. I think there is a very good case for English regional procedures, and it is something I would certainly support.
  (Mr Llwyd)  I think that, in the European context, the danger is that some regions of England will be left behind, because, obviously, it is very much a lobbying process and a recognition from Brussels of the need for action to be taken in a part of the UK, or whatever; and I feel that it is almost inevitable that there will be a tendency to regionalise within England. I would go further than that and I would say that I would like to see a Welsh Parliament, clearly, that is what our Party stands for, but I also think, at some point, there will have to be the question whether there will be an English Parliament as well, because, inevitably, there is a Scottish Parliament, there may evolve in the coming years, I would hope, a call for a Welsh Parliament; at the same time, I think, following the regional route, pro tem, on to, I hope, an English Parliament as well, and I sincerely hope that we will all work very well in partnership.
  (Dr Lewis)  I go back to the remark I made earlier about the coming of the large county councils under the Redcliffe Maude reforms of the 1970s. I remember thinking at the time that they were a bad idea and wondering how long they would last; they lasted quite a long time, but eventually they were recognised as being a bad idea and got rid of. In the meantime, my Party, accepting the democratic mandate that they have, did its best to stand for them and make them work. My view is exactly parallel with this. I believe that the Welsh Assembly is a mistake; had I still been resident in Wales I would have voted against it. I believe it has a very slim and slender mandate from the people of Wales to exist, it is in existence, I and my party will do everything we can to make it work; but, at the end of the day, I wish it had not happened and I would not wish to reinforce it by having a parallel institution for England.

  312.  A very succinct presentation. Richard Livsey?
  (Mr Livsey)  Mr Chairman, as an unashamed and unabashed federalist, I see the situation as a multi-speed one at the moment, as it would appear that Scotland has a Parliament, Wales does not have a Parliament. I wish to see Wales having a Parliament, with greater powers, and I believe that when one gets into that situation, with regional government in England, which should have, in my view, considerable powers, that will be the point where Members of this House will vote purely on those regional matters. But I think we are in an evolution, as someone has famously said, in terms of a process, at the moment, which eventually will lead to that.

Chairman:  I can only say, from the Chair, that you have, in those four briefish presentations, just now, I think, highlighted the problems facing this Committee in dealing with devolution. Are there any other matters that any colleague on the Committee would like to put to our witnesses? Keith Darvill.

Mr Darvill

  313.  Just a question of general debate; do you think it would be practical, in this House, to restrict to debate on devolved matters within the UK Parliament? I am thinking about not only, we were talking about questions earlier, but of course there is the question of Adjournment Debates, and so forth; have you given any thought to that?
  (Mr Jones)  I think it would be practical; whether it is actually advisable is something else again. We are still the UK Parliament, even after May 7, and really it depends on the Chair, not just our Chair here but the Chair of the chamber, the Speaker, as to whether the view is taken to have as wide a range of debates as possible. My own view is that I would be very worried if those kinds of debates took the form of second-guessing what the Assembly or the Parliament was doing.
  (Mr Llwyd)  I agree entirely with the Chairman's view that there has to be a strict demarcation, otherwise there will be debates in this House that cannot possibly have any possible influence, so, in fact, virtually no point at all. And, worse still, coming back to what Mr Stunell said earlier on, it is that question of second-guessing or interfering with another competence, and I would hope that the authorities will be fairly firm on this, otherwise we will be going in all kinds of directions, without really knowing where we are going.

  314.  So you would be suggesting that this Committee, in its report, actually would be proposing some restriction?
  (Mr Llwyd)  I think that the other side of the coin is this, is it not, that we will be having debates in this chamber which necessarily conclude one way or the other, but those conclusions are not enforceable, per se, by this chamber because they are a matter of policy for another, and I find that difficult to reconcile.

  315.  This is the nub of it. As a Committee, we have got to consider in our report how the House will work, and if debates are not answered properly, or they cover areas which are in conflict with the Assembly, and that brings both the Assembly or this House into disrepute, then we should be thinking about it and covering it in our report; that is why I am interested to see what your views are on this particular matter?
  (Mr Livsey)  To try to be helpful, Mr Chairman, I think there ought to be a distinction drawn between topics, issues, which clearly would be in the province of the Welsh Assembly, and those matters which refer perhaps to individuals who have received an injustice, or a matter of conscience, or a matter of that type, or perhaps has been done down, who knows, by the Department of Social Security, or something of that kind. And I think it is possible to draw some guidelines along those sorts of lines.

  316.  So you would think that we ought to be considering guidelines from this Committee, or recommendations, in that respect?
  (Mr Livsey)  I think it would be very helpful, yes, I do.


  317.  Another difficult task. Can I put a final question to you, from the—Julian, yes, I had promised you.
  (Dr Lewis)  Chairman, I think this is a very important question, I am glad you have asked it, and I think it pinpoints the sorts of difficulties here, because the logic of the situation is, as I think you are suggesting, that there will need to be some sort of restriction on what debates can be held at the Westminster end, and I think that is very unfortunate, for two reasons. One is, it is a very sad state of affairs, if we, in the United Kingdom Parliament, cannot freely debate things that are going on in what is still part of the United Kingdom; and, secondly, if there is less debate of that sort in the Westminster Parliament, there will be less understanding in the rest of the United Kingdom about the concerns of Wales. But it is another of these dilemmas which is inescapable from the process which was set in train by the result of the referendum.

Mr Darvill:  I was not trying to imply any particular thing, I really wanted to hear your views, so that we can consider all of them when we are making our report.


  318.  Chairman, to put to you a final question from myself, in the long term, do you believe and your Committee believe that it would be desirable to establish a constitutional affairs committee of this House?
  (Mr Jones)  I think, probably, yes, Chairman, but I would not like to subsume the Select Committee's role into that committee, I think it would have to be a separate body, I think it would not work otherwise.

  319.  This really would be, Mr Jones, to enable this House, I put it forward as a suggestion, to monitor the impact of devolution from all those other countries that are part of the United Kingdom, which have one form or another of devolved government, and, of course, to see the impact upon the remainder of the Kingdom, namely England?
  (Mr Llwyd)  I think it is actually going to become necessary, as time goes by, and I would add to that, of course, the fact that we will have the Council of the Isles as well, which is a body which will encompass all the countries, and I have a feeling that it would not be a bad thing at all to be able to measure how things are developing and to see whether they are, in fact, developing as they should, or whatever.
  (Mr Livsey)  Mr Chairman, could I endorse what Mr Llwyd just said. The Council of the Isles, I think, will become increasingly important, but I do believe that because we have no written constitution and that things are evolving particularly at the moment then it will be necessary to have such a committee.
  (Dr Lewis)  I can only answer like the Irishman: if I were you, I would not be starting from here.

  320.  Are there any matters, Mr Jones, that you or colleagues from your Committee would like to draw to our attention, before we complete this session?
  (Mr Jones)  Chairman, only that I would like to stress two or three points, crucial points, about this. One is, as I said at the beginning, that we are going to have to change the Standing Orders of the Select Committee in any case, there is at least one point there. Welsh devolution is very different from the Scottish model. I think we should have a general principle, as a House of Commons, that we should not seek to undermine the spirit of devolution, but that we should end up with more scrutiny and not less. And I think that if we just allow things to evolve there is always a danger that Government, not Parliament, will make the decisions at the end of the day, and I think that we owe it to ourselves, as Members of Parliament, to make sure that we set up what we want to set up.

Chairman:  I think that is an extremely good note to finish on, particularly as the Procedure Committee is here to ensure that Parliament can properly scrutinise any legislation that the Government of the day brings before Parliament. As I say, I find your remarks, Mr Jones, very apposite indeed. Can I thank you, and can I thank Elfyn Llwyd, Plaid Cymru, can I thank Julian Lewis, a Conservative member of your Committee, and Richard Livsey, the Liberal Democrat, very much indeed for the excellent evidence that you have given to us today. We thank you for the assistance in the difficult inquiry which we are undertaking. Thank you very much.

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