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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): We are more than happy to support the Government new clause, which gives important recognition to the work of the National Assembly for Wales. I wish to speak predominantly, but briefly, to new clause 6. I noted the Minister's rather strange use of the phrase, "I will potentially listen". I think that I am quoting him correctly.
Mr. Foster: If the Minister checks the record he will see that he said, "I will potentially listen." I hope that he will listen to the arguments and, while I suspect that I may not persuade him to accept the precise wording of new clause 6, I hope that he might be able to add some words of encouragement to the points that I shall raise.
The House will be aware that, under part I, all local councils will be given potentially important new powers on well-being. Liberal Democrat Members welcome those powers very much indeed and, with the Government, recognise that from time to time an existing piece of legislation may get in the way of local authorities exercising those powers in the way that they think appropriate. Clause 5 therefore gives the Secretary of State the power to
Our concern is simply this: it is right and appropriate for an individual council that believes that a particular enactment is getting in the way of it fulfilling its new powers under the well-being clause to be able to go to the Secretary of State and seek his support for changes or revocations of that enactment. On 11 May, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), said:
If the Minister is not prepared to accept the particular formulation of new clause 6, I hope that he will be able to put clearly on the record that individual councils will have the opportunity sought by the new clause, regardless of whether that is included in the Bill or simply a matter of him giving that assurance.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): First, I acknowledge the fact that the Government are doing right by new clause 8, which is the correct way forward in the existing constitutional and devolutionary arrangements between the National Assembly and this House. However, there was scope for the Government to go a little further, as the Minister is well aware. He will also be aware that Members of the National Assembly shared disappointment across the Assembly Floor in response to the statement from the Local Government Secretary, Peter Law, this afternoon.
For future reference, it is important to note some areas in which the Assembly is closely involved in local government in Wales, such as European development plans--the process for which will shortly restart in Wales--best value plans, local education plans and so on. By virtue of the fact that local government in Wales is a devolved matter and by virtue of the developing role of the National Assembly for Wales, such matters could in time--and perhaps even now, under the Bill, have come under the aegis--[Interruption.] I am pleased to hear from a sedentary intervention that those things will happen, as it is in those areas that local government most interacts with local people, and through which local people see their values and aspirations put into print in local government documents and reflected in priorities that the National Assembly for Wales may well take forward.
Many people in Wales want and expect to see that sort of thing emerge in the fullness of time from the Bill and the new arrangements for local government in Wales. However, there is some disappointment that the new clause, as presently constituted, does not take a wider approach to some possibilities for devolution and local government in Wales. We were told that, together, the Labour Administration at the National Assembly and the Labour Government in London would always ensure the best possible co-operation at every stage of devolution. That does not always seem to be the way because, for whatever reason--and perhaps the problem is with Government Departments, rather than Government Ministers--there are entrenched ways and, occasionally, a rather slow approach to developing local government in Wales.
The new clause is rather disappointing for what it leaves out. However, it is to be welcomed for what it includes, which is probably the minimum necessary to ensure a balanced set of powers in the Bill. However, from the Welsh perspective it is a rather poor start to consideration of the Bill. I very much hope that the power
It will not have escaped the attention of right hon. and hon. Members that the time taken by the debate on the programme motion--which is of course taken out of the time for debating these important provisions--was 53 minutes, which is well over half the time allotted for substantive debate on the first two groups of amendments.
I shall deal first with Government new clause 8, although I shall speak primarily to the Opposition amendments. The new clause seems straightforward and is linked with Government amendment No. 100. These matters clearly arise from devolution, and I do not want to get into a debate about that. I am puzzled about why the need for the changes was not spotted before, because it seems fairly obvious.
One loses count, but I think that new clause 8 is one of 115 new clauses and amendments that the Government have tabled on Report. The only good news is that as the Bill bounces back and forth between here and the other place, the Government will have ample opportunity to rewrite it at least a couple more times. Although I do not query the sense of the new clause, I wonder why it has been unleashed on an unsuspecting House at this late stage.
I hope that Liberal Democrat Members will not mind if I do not speak to new clause 6, which has broadly the same thrust as our amendments--which deal with a point that we debated briefly in Committee. We have tabled amendments similar to those that we tabled in Committee simply because Ministers were not prepared to accept those amendments any more than they are prepared to accept these.
As hon. Members have pointed out, the Bill gives the Secretary of State significant powers to amend, repeal, revoke or disapply an Act in pursuance of the new well-being power. Given that the power is meant to be a benefit to local authorities, however, it strikes us as slightly eccentric that the Bill does not make it clear that local authorities should be consulted and that they can apply to the Secretary of State for him to exercise his powers. The thrust of our amendments, like our amendments in Committee, is to allow local authorities to initiate that process and ask the Secretary of State to disapply certain enactments that are getting in the way of exercising the new power.