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Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Does my hon. Friend agree that all the issues raised will have to be resolved? The problem is that they will be resolved by precedent, and probably as a result of friction arising from the testing of the arrangements. It would be much better if the Government would clarify the issues raised so that we might understand the process of consultation, and how far the National Assembly can be confident that consultation will be taken seriously.
Lords amendment No. 74 displays the power of the Secretary of State over the National Assembly, in its references to excluded authorities. Subsection (1)(a) of the proposed new clause within it refers to functions
When we consider the word "mainly", we might recall the song about the rain in Spain falling "mainly in the plain". The provision is broadly drawn and it is extremely difficult to work out what it means.
The measure is especially disappointing given that, when freedom of information legislation was being drawn up in Scotland, its architect was the Deputy First Minister of the Scottish Parliament, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). That was because the Scottish Parliament has primary powers. Indeed, as a result of that legislation, there will be more disclosure of information powers in Scotland than in Wales or England. Legislation for Wales falls short in that regard.
Mr. David Heath: My hon. Friend refers to the differences between arrangements for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland. Is not one illustration of that difference the fact that the draft of the Scottish legislation is so superior in both form and content to the legislation for England and Wales, which we are considering?
Mr. Livsey: My hon. Friend's question underlines the fact that the Deputy First Minister is a skilled Scottish lawyer and has, with the legal authorities in Scotland, drafted freedom of information legislation for Scotland that is far superior to that for England and Wales. It is difficult to divine how many of the amendments, and many aspects of the Bill, will apply to freedom of information in Wales. That certainly points to the need for reform of the legislation for Wales.
We are considering a maze of amendments with different meanings. Wales needs a settlement identical to that for Scotland, and we need a new freedom of information Bill to clarify the points that I, and other Members, have been making.
Mr. Mike O'Brien: When I opened this debate on what I thought was a relatively uncontroversial set of amendments, I little realised how many questions I should be faced with. During my closing speech on the previous group of amendments, I referred to a week of Tory waffle. When I saw the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) rise to speak, I knew what I was in for. No one admires more than I do the right hon. Gentleman's ability to think up detailed questions on minutiae while remaining in order and taking up time. He appears before us like a verbal magician to delay matters.
I sigh when I hear the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst say that he intends to make brief comments, for I know that brief they will not be--[Hon. Members: "Give way."] As we found out, they were not brief; he spoke for 29 minutes.
Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) spoke for more than 37 minutes. It was like a wonderful parliamentary version of the BBC Radio 4 programme "Just a Minute", except that the right hon. Gentleman was required to speak in order for as long as he could, without repetition, deviation or hesitation. I award him the points. I also award him Hillard and Botting points.
The Opposition's use of time is a matter for them. I do not criticise them; they choose to focus on minutiae rather than substance--that is a matter for them. Let Hansard record my suspicion--it is merely a suspicion--that the Conservative Opposition are making use of pedantry to make a point about the guillotine.
Mr. O'Brien: I want to make a few closing points. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst asked me what "consult" means--a penetrating question. "Consult" means just that. The Secretary of State will listen carefully to the views of the Assembly and the others that are put to him. The right hon. Gentleman then asked whether I was satisfied that the effect of the powers of a Department and the National Assembly for Wales was valid. Well yes, I am.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal made a vexed speech about Wales. As he did nothing to create an Assembly for Wales--no doubt he also opposed the devolution that the Government proposed--and as there are no Tory Members in Wales, forgive me if I find his concerns heartening; perhaps they represent the Tory party's Damascus-like conversion to Wales. The Government care about Wales. That is why we are responding to the concerns of the people of Wales, specifically by consulting them and ensuring that their views are taken into consideration.
Opposition Members, specifically those on the Tory Benches, have ignored Wales all too often, but the Government have responded to the concerns of Wales. We have consulted, where appropriate. We have ensured that the devolved Assemblies and the other organisations that need to be consulted are properly consulted, because the Government care about them; others do not.
Mr. Öpik: We need to understand explicitly what the consultation process will involve and what assurance the Welsh Assembly will have that the consultation process will be taken seriously and that their views will be listened to. Is it not a matter of concern that those points are not clear?
Mr. Redwood: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point--one of many that the Minister could not be bothered to deal with. The original draft of the Bill was an insult to the National Assembly for Wales, which was treated as a Department.
Mr. Redwood: I shall give way in a moment, when I have made some progress. There is very little time because of the ridiculous guillotine on this important devolution and freedom of information legislation.
The Assembly was insulted. Although the Minister will not clarify this, we believe from the debate that the First Secretary--who is of the Minister's own political party, we thought--had to object strongly to the insult and the Bill's inaccurate drafting. So the Minister has belatedly, at this late hour, moved the amendments which will strike out most of those provisions that state that the National Assembly is a Department and should be treated as such, instead inserting the phrase
Mr. Redwood: It is a great pity that the Minister was not a little more vocal at the beginning. I think that he will still find that the Bill is extremely badly drafted because it does not make clear the difference between the National Assembly for Wales and a Department. He has not explained the point that many Opposition Members have made--it is almost impossible to consult an elected Assembly.
Mr. Gummer: Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the Minister was prepared to answer that question, but none of the other detailed questions that we have asked? Is that not an abuse of the House? The purpose of asking such questions is to get serious answers, but the Minister has not given a single serious answer.