Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Government of Wales Act 1998

11 am

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I am pleased to have secured time for such an important debate. As we know, the creation of the National Assembly for Wales carried some high hopes. It was to be a new age for Welsh politics and the Assembly would make practical improvements to everyday life in Wales. Some positive things have happened. There is a more open and accountable system than was in place previously. We have got rid of testing for seven-year-olds. We have seen the end of the publishing of school league tables. I am delighted that we have a Children's Commissioner, a post for which I have worked hard over the years. We have free prescriptions and dental checks for under-25s.

Such achievements are laudable, but a recent headline in the South Wales Echo said "Scrap the Assembly". The paper published a survey that showed that 46 per cent. of people in Wales did not want the Assembly. Apparently, the majority view of people under 40 was that we should increase the Assembly's powers. The survey made it clear that people are not happy with the Assembly as it is at present.

What are the problems? Let us consider first the myth of inclusive politics. The Assembly is supposed to be a collective body, with each elected Member taking responsibility for its decisions. In practice, the power to make decisions has been transferred to the First Minister under section 62 of the Government of Wales Act 1998. Under section 63, the First Minister has deputised specific responsibilities to various Ministers who then deputise decision making to the civil service. The ethos of the civil service is to serve the Government, not the collective body. Instead of decisions being taken by a collective body, we have created a cabinet system that is similar to Westminster's.

It could be argued that the committee system provides inclusive politics, but under section 57, Ministers sit on subject Committees, because the cabinet structure was put in place after the legislation was made for Committees. As a consequence, Committees have no independence from the Minister. They influence the agenda. All briefing papers to the Committee are sourced from the ministerial Department and the Minister takes part in all the discussions. Will a briefing paper from the Department contain anything that conflicts with current policy? Ministers over-influence the Committees because the devolution legislation did not, as in Scotland, create a legislature and a Government. It created instead a corporate body that on Fantasy Island would have led to consensus politics but that has in fact led to tension, frustration and lack of delivery.

Recently, Rosemary Butler—then Secretary for Education and Children, with responsibility for the under-16s—revealed what the Government really think of the Committees. She said that she listens to the views of the Committees as she listens to the views of any other body or institute that she discusses matters with. Clearly, that is not a partnership, and although section 62 allows the Minister to delegate responsibilities to the Committee, that has not happened yet.

The National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill that is currently before the House of Commons contains the proposals of Jane Hutt—the

5 Dec 2001 : Column 92WH

Minister for Health and Social Services in the Assembly—about local health boards—before the Assembly has agreed to them. She has told the media that we will be moving immediately towards implementation, and that is before the Assembly has even discussed the plans, never mind agreed to them.

A further problem is that the Assembly is too weak. On 29 October 2001, giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee, the Secretary of State for Wales said:

How much secondary legislation for Wales is actually passed by the Assembly and how much is really different from what is passed in England? Even in the areas that are supposed to be devolved, there have been more Statutory Instruments passed for Wales in Westminster than in the Assembly. In 2000, the Assembly passed 70 SIs, 30 of them for education or health. Westminster passed 40 SIs relating education or health in Wales. In 2001, up to 31 July, the Assembly passed 28 SIs for education and health whereas Westminster passed 22. We are pulling ahead a little, but those figures do not include instruments passed for both Wales and England. Research on that has not yet been concluded.

The way in which the foot and mouth crisis was handled brings the matter into focus. The National Assembly for Wales took de facto control, but had to wait for permission from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in certain cases, which caused delay. As we all know, delay was the worst thing in the circumstances. The Assembly did not have sufficient powers to react adequately: for example, it could not decide to reopen livestock markets. Carwyn Jones, the Welsh Minister for Rural Affairs, said in the Assembly on 8 November:

that is, to open livestock markets.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): The hon. Gentleman argues that the Assembly has been given too few powers, but some would argue that the problem is that it has not been willing to use what powers it has. Some of us remember the great debate at the time of the referendum and the promise that we would make a bonfire of the quangos. The Assembly has the power to make that bonfire, but all we have had is a damp squib. It has not happened.

Mr. Llwyd : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I quote from The Western Mail today, in which a Labour insider said:

That might put that matter in context.

The Assembly could not make the decision on foot and mouth, although it has been asking for the necessary powers. In another example, it is pressing for powers over animal health, but that is being ignored.

5 Dec 2001 : Column 93WH

The Assembly still has to rely too often on Westminster for primary legislation. Whitehall appears to ignore the wishes of the Assembly on the Animal Health Bill, which will give the Government far-reaching powers, for example, to reduce compensation to farmers in special cases, and stronger powers to slaughter animals. The Secretary of State has admitted that there has been no consultation, and the Assembly is not mentioned. The Bill gives the Assembly none of the powers for which it has called. The Executive are calling for them and the subject Committee is calling for them. In a recent debate on the Queen's Speech, the whole Assembly voted for them. A perfect opportunity for devolving those powers has again been ignored.

In higher education, the Assembly is responsible for access grants and bursaries, but student fees and loans are still the responsibility of Westminster. How can the Assembly develop a proper policy on student and university funding when it has responsibility for only half the tools involved?

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Will the hon. Gentleman explain why, if he is so concerned about the way in which this House deals with primary legislation that has been requested by the Assembly, he as leader of his parliamentary party has not attended the debates on education and health relating to Wales that we have had in the past couple of weeks? Not a single member of his party said anything at all in the important debate on health that he has just mentioned.

Mr. Llwyd : It is quite simple. I cannot be everywhere at once. We are a team, and the matter was being covered. Such comments come well from a Labour Member. Let us look at Welsh Grand Committee attendance. Fewer than a third of Welsh Labour Members turned up. Where were they?

On 26 November, the Welsh Executive published their action plan on tax incentives. It is a helpful document, including proposals to the United Kingdom Government on how to improve incentives for business through the UK tax system. How many of those proposals were included in the pre-Budget statement? Only two or three. Calls for such things as broad-band incentives and national insurance credit were not mentioned in the pre-Budget statement.

Under the Transport Act 2000, Parliament and the Scottish Executive can nominate a member of the Strategic Rail Authority, yet the Assembly has the right only to be consulted, even though it asked for the same right to nominate. It is true that the public had high expectations of the Assembly.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason why there has been a 10-month delay in the establishment of a single rail franchise for Wales is precisely that we do not enjoy the representation in the railway infrastructure that, for example, the Scottish Executive enjoys?

Mr. Llwyd : I am sure that that is right. Once again, we are lagging behind. We are being let down and our public services are faltering through no fault of the Assembly itself but simply because of the way in which it was constructed.

5 Dec 2001 : Column 94WH

There is some confusion about the way in which the devolution settlement was put together. For example, two years ago a calf processing scheme was established to help dairy farmers who could not export calves because of BSE. Although the United Kingdom Government discontinued the scheme, the Assembly's Agriculture and Rural Development Committee looked at whether Wales could proceed with it. After a great deal of confusion, it became clear that such a scheme had to operate everywhere in the UK—it could not operate in only part of a European Union member state. In other words, because it did not function elsewhere, it could not do so in Wales.

There is the further example of pay and conditions for teachers. For a while, the Assembly was unsure whether it was empowered to deal with such matters and in the end it was decided that it was not. However, the Assembly is responsible for appraisals and therefore for performance-related pay. Teachers find that very confusing and it is difficult for them to know who to complain to. Even in respect of matters that are supposedly devolved, many responsibilities remain with Westminster.

Another good example is building regulations. At one time, the Welsh Office dealt with such matters, but during the reign of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) the relevant expert retired—probably late on in life—and the powers were returned to Westminster.

Unfortunately, an anti-devolution attitude exists in Whitehall, and Westminster has clawed back powers that were devolved. There is the example of the Local Government Act 2000, section 6 of which enables the Secretary of State for Wales to amend or repeal statutory requirements on local authorities to produce particular plans, so that they can streamline their planning by reducing the number of separate plans required. In an Assembly debate of 4 July 2000, Peter Law, the then Local Government and Planning Secretary, called for those powers to be extended to the Assembly. The Westminster Government responded by giving it such powers in a few specific areas, but Peter Law argued that that was not a satisfactory response to the strong representations that were made. He said that

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) has mentioned railways, and it would make sense if powers relating to our railways were devolved to Wales. As a result, the Barnett formula grant would itself increase—although that is a debate for another day and I shall not get into it now. We have made no secret of the fact that we want stronger powers for the Assembly. In customary fashion, the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith) said that we cannot expect to have those powers, and that we must learn to walk before we can run. There are many obstacles in the Assembly's path, however, that make its operations difficult. Of course, we would argue that for the time being we need parity with Scotland—the power to pass primary legislation and to vary taxes.

5 Dec 2001 : Column 95WH

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of another referendum, or does he believe that such powers should be granted without consulting the people of Wales?

Mr. Llwyd : I am not entirely sure whether a referendum is called for, although we might have to consider that idea. At the moment, the Assembly is undoubtedly underperforming, but not through any fault of its own.

Let us compare the Government of Wales Act 1998 with the Scotland Act 1998. The Government of Wales Act lists exactly what is devolved and the minutiae of various statutes; the Scotland Act merely states which powers remain with Westminster and, unless something is mentioned in the Act, the Scottish Parliament is automatically responsible. That is much more clear-cut than the confusion in the Government of Wales Act. The Assembly cannot assume discretion, but the Scottish Parliament can. The Scotland Act keeps the door open for further devolution by including a section allowing devolution in other matters if and when needed; the Government of Wales Act does not say how future Acts of Parliament shall confer further powers on the Assembly, but there is an assumption that the Assembly will be able to debate Westminster's intentions and influence further legislation. However, we saw how that worked on the Animal Health Bill.

Future Westminster Governments could reduce the Assembly's powers without further legislation. There is no protection because of the complete lack of a logical basis for the current pattern of powers. Had subject areas been devolved, matters would be simpler. The coalition Government in the Assembly have appointed an independent commission to look into powers and electoral arrangements for the Assembly—we welcome that—because they can see a problem, but the commission is not due to report until 2004.

Edwina Hart, the Minister for Finance and Communities in the Assembly said in a BBC report on 29 September 2000:

Welsh cars

Christine Gwyther, the late lamented Agriculture and the Rural Economy Secretary, claimed that Whitehall had kept her in the dark about a mix-up over genetically modified seeds being sold in the United Kingdom by mistake. She put that on the record on 19 May 2000.

I know that several hon. Members want to speak in this debate, but I want to raise two further matters. One is a quotation from an article entitled, "The New Model Wales" in the Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 25, No. 4 of December 1998, which was, of course, before devolution. Richard Rawlings of the law department at the London School of Economics said:

5 Dec 2001 : Column 96WH

He continued:

He also refers to the

I shall conclude by referring to today's edition of The Western Mail. Mr. Alun Pugh, a Deputy Minister at the National Assembly for Wales, is a Labour Member who can hardly be called Plaid Cymru's friend, or perhaps anyone's friend. The paper says:

where he discussed the completion of

The article further says:

and informs us that Mr. Pugh will tell students that

heaven forbid—

A senior Assembly Member said:

Again, I shall refer to the closing words of the article:

11.21 am

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Hon Members will not be surprised that the nationalists have called this debate. It is another opportunity to push the arguments for a Welsh parliament, with the ultimate goal being a separatist Welsh state. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) would deny that, and he uses moderate language to hide his agenda because he knows that the goals of separatism and independence are utterly unacceptable to the electorate.

5 Dec 2001 : Column 97WH

The nationalists' misuse of language is obvious in their attempts to project a more moderate image, and it is wise to recall a few examples of that.

Ieuan Wyn Jones, who was then a Member of Parliament, was obviously having trouble with his crystal ball—it was probably not bilingual—when he predicted:

If Labour was unelectable there was no need to worry because Ieuan and his fellow nationalists had the answer, which was independence. However, that idea had to be couched in sweet and moderate language to make it acceptable to a hostile electorate. The buzzwords that Ieuan used to hide his aim of independence were:

Sadly for Ieuan, he forgot to tell his mate Cynog Dafis, again a former MP, who proceeded to announce that self-government, which used to be called independence, remained Plaid's aspiration.

Determined not to be beaten, and equally determined to make a fool of himself for a second time, Ieuan, recognising the flexibility of human nature and ideas, was pleased to announce:

On that occasion he learned from history and told his party's members the reasoning behind the new line of full national status. Unfortunately, the members failed to keep those discussions secret and proceeded to tell the world, or least their recent party conference. When David Senior, a conference delegate, referred to independence, he said:

Mr. Llwyd : Once again, the hon. Gentleman has quoted a junior party member and portrayed his view as being somehow representative. Far from trying to keep the discussion secret, all the media, including HTV and BBC, had been invited in.

Llew Smith : I am unsure how Cynog Dafis will respond to the accusation that he is a junior member of the Welsh nationalist party. If we have time, and certainly after this debate, I am willing to refer the hon. Gentleman to quotation after quotation from both junior and senior members of the Welsh nationalist party, where they use such language to cover the aims of their party, which obviously involve separatism.

There are other nationalists who are equally confused about their aims or, more accurately, determined to hide the truth. That became even more obvious to me shortly after the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) was elected, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies) said:

5 Dec 2001 : Column 98WH

It is amazing the sacrifices the nationalists are willing to make to represent this great nation of ours. My right hon. Friend went on:

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy replied:

How can Plaid Cymru deny that it is the party of separatism and independence, when it concedes that its future plans do not involve having representation in the House of Commons? Are we expected to believe that the nationalists would have supported the Assembly if that was the end of the process? It would be the equivalent of signing their own death warrant if they were to support a halfway house, and not press for a parliament and ultimately independence. Anyone foolish enough to consider working politically with the nationalists should also remember that they helped to keep the Tories in power by voting with the Tory Government on the Maastricht treaty in exchange for a seat on the European Committee of the Regions. Indeed —

Mr. Llwyd : On a point of order, Mr. Amess. I have been listening for the past six minutes to this rant, and so far there has been nothing about the Government of Wales Act 1998. Others are waiting to speak about the Act. With great respect it really is out of order.

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): I remind the Chamber that there are a number of hon. Members who are waiting to speak. It is my intention to get everyone in.

Llew Smith : I am sure that you do not need reminding, Mr. Amess, but the hon. Gentleman may have been listening to me for six minutes, but I had to listen to more than 20 minutes of his drivel, so time is certainly on my side. If we are going to discuss the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the role of the National Assembly for Wales, it is important that we examine the alternative, which is a Welsh parliament in a separate state. We should discuss why the Welsh nationalists want a separatist state and why they want independence.

We were consistently told that the failure to achieve independence was preventing additional European money, such as objective 1 funds, from being allocated to large parts of Wales. This was obviously another cheap attempt by the nationalists to con people into supporting independence, because the Labour Government delivered objective 1 for Wales and made a mockery of the nationalist claim. Those who are pressing for a Welsh parliament should recognise that once it has been achieved, the next demand will be for a separatist Welsh state divorced from the rest of the United Kingdom.

5 Dec 2001 : Column 99WH

The present demand by a few for a Welsh parliament is often justified with the argument that it was an insult to Wales to be given fewer powers than the Scottish Parliament. That is once again a nationalist argument. I am still not sympathetic to an Assembly, but I am of the opinion that the powers should be based on the most effective form of decision making. We want good government, not nationalism. Are we so unsure of ourselves in Wales that we have to copy the Scots, when we were informed that one of the reasons for devolution was that we were different from the rest of the United Kingdom?

In my opinion, the Government must now consider decreasing the powers of the National Assembly for Wales and devolving them to local authorities. Unlike the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, that would be an act of real devolution, not nationalism. It is also necessary for central Government to devolve a number of their powers to local authorities.

The Assembly has been unwilling to use all its powers to keep promises that it made to justify its existence. We all remember the promise to make a bonfire of the quangos, but that has not happened and we have seen only a damp squib. During the referendum, some of us said that we did not need an Assembly to make a bonfire of the quangos, just a one-line Bill from this Parliament. At that time, many nationalists extolled the virtues of an Assembly by informing us that it would be a miracle cure for all our economic, social and constitutional ills—you name it, the Assembly would cure it. No explanation was provided as to how that could happen—the mere existence of an Assembly would be sufficient. No matter what nationalists might dream up, we all recognise that their aims are separatism and independence.

It is important that we understand the reasons for the demands of the nationalists and why they are pushing for independence. Anti-English prejudices have run throughout their party since its birth. Saunders Lewis, a founding member and former leader, saw the Jews and the English as enemies, while admiring Hitler and Mussolini. [Interruption.] Of course, the nationalists do not want to hear this. Of Hitler, Saunders Lewis declared:

The Welsh nationalist attitude to the English is also seen in their opposition to English children being evacuated to Wales to avoid the bombing of their homes during the second world war. They said that that would

Saunders Lewis went on to say that the

So, there we are. Hitler and Mussolini were friends of the nationalists, but English children escaping the ravages of war were the enemy. The anti-English prejudices of the Welsh nationalist party have changed

5 Dec 2001 : Column 100WH

little over the years and can be witnessed from the statements of some of its members. Gwilym ap Loan referred to the English in Wales as an

and Simon Glyn referred to retired people moving into Wales as a "drain on our resources."

So deep was the nationalist hatred of the English that they originally opposed the building of the Severn bridge and referred to it as a "suicidal policy". Then, as now, jobs are not important to the nationalists compared with the need to break the link with England and all things English. Nationalists in the Chamber may want to clarify their position today.

I do not want to give the impression that Welsh nationalists hate the English to the extent of taking a principled stand against any English involvement. Certainly not, because although they want independence, they also want English money to subsidise their aims. Hardly a day goes by without their taking the begging bowl to demand more money. One of my predecessors, Aneurin Bevan, rejected the anti-English sentiments of the nationalists and never failed to emphasise the common goals that unite us. Leo Abse, referring to Nye, reminded us:

That is why, as a socialist, I reject nationalism and separatism: it would take us down the road to a Welsh parliament. The problem is not nationality but economics and the system and, as a socialist, I will always base my ideas and action on that fact.

11.34 am

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): It is a great pleasure to follow the socialist hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith)—he is one of the few socialists left in the Labour party. During his regurgitation, mixed with bile, of the future of Wales, we were given no idea what his constitutional settlement or his party's idea of a constitutional future would be.

I welcome the Secretary of State for Wales. I attend Westminster Hall fairly regularly and this is the first time that I have seen a Cabinet Minister here to respond to the debate. We are grateful for that acknowledgement that this is a serious debate—despite the contribution of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent.

In reply to the hon. Member for Cardiff, Students (Mr. Jones)—

Mr. Llwyd : Cardiff, Cannabis.

Mr. Thomas : Yes, perhaps it should be Cardiff, Cannabis.

My hon. Friends the Members for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) and for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) were present at the debates on both the Education Bill and the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr spoke in the Education Bill debate, which is

5 Dec 2001 : Column 101WH

more than any Wales Office Minister did. Those debates had important Welsh aspects and merited some ministerial contribution.

I want to consider a narrow aspect of the operation of the Government of Wales Act 1998 to show how its failings have meant that we have not been able to achieve what we should like to achieve in Wales. Section 121 places a duty on the National Assembly to make a scheme promoting sustainable development. In response, it produced a paper entitled "Learning to Live Differently"—a positive document containing many ideas about how to use sustainable development as an opportunity to improve the quality of life instead of viewing it as a barrier or hurdle to economic development. We need to build on our burgeoning industries. There are few coal miners or steelworkers left, thanks to the Government's policies.

Llew Smith : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas : No. The hon. Gentleman did not want to debate with me and I do not want to debate with him.

Llew Smith : What about the miners' strike?

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order.

Mr. Thomas : We must base a new economy on new industries such as renewable energy, which will benefit both the economy and the environment, and introduce the knowledge economy more fully. It is sad that Wales lags far behind in that respect.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones : I wish to make a serious point as the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central and Cannabis. The hon. Gentleman is about to argue that the constitutional process does not allow sustainable development to take place as was intended. However, does he not agree that there is no bar on the Welsh Assembly setting up renewable energy plans? Before devolution, the Welsh Office agreed several plans for wind power stations, but the Assembly has not proceeded with them—not because of any constitutional bar, but because it decided not to.

Mr. Thomas : The hon. Gentleman obviously thinks that he knows what I am going to say and is trying to take advantage of that. In fact he is wrong, and I intend to deal with the points that he raised. He is right to say that the Assembly has not seen fit to give the go-ahead to some important renewable energy projects, but that is nothing to do with the constitutional settlement—it is the result of a political decision by the Labour-Liberal coalition to thwart those developments. I suspect that he is as disappointed about that as I am.

However, the constitutional settlement also thwarts such developments. For example, on energy policy, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Assembly is responsible for planning for electricity generating plants of less than 50 MW. Unfortunately, these days that is virtually nothing—any new renewable energy projects have to generate more than 50 MW if they are to pay their way—so although the Assembly may be consulted, the decision making remains here in London with the Department of Trade and Industry. That becomes even

5 Dec 2001 : Column 102WH

more worrying when one considers that nuclear power stations generate at least 1,000 MW, so the role of the Assembly in deciding whether there should be a new nuclear power station in Wales is negligible, if not nil. Can the Assembly deliver the coherent energy policy that it is supposedly putting together, which is compatible with sustainable development, when it is responsible only for small-scale energy generation?

On renewable energy, Wales already contributes 40 per cent. of the wind energy produced in the United Kingdom. However, there is an increasing likelihood that a new nuclear power station will be foisted on the people of Wales against our will. If that happens, it will be akin to the foisting of Tryweryn on us in the 1960s against our will. It is interesting that the interconnector that has been suggested for renewable energy, pitched as an interconnector to link renewable energy sites along the west coast of Britain, also links the sites of existing and potential nuclear power stations. There is no reason why an interconnector could not be used for nuclear energy as well as energy produced by renewables.

In my constituency, an application has been made for a large new wind farm at Cefn Croes, which would generate something like 59 MW—1 per cent. of Wales's electricity needs. The decision on that rests with the Department of Trade and Industry and not with the National Assembly. Hon. Members might say that at least the Assembly has a consultative role, but it has not seen fit to say yea or nay to the Cefn Croes application. That might be a political problem in the Assembly, but I suggest that it is also a constitutional problem. It feels that it does not have the right level of decision making over such processes, and because it is not responsible for the outcomes it shirks away from taking decisions.

Things would be bad enough if that remained the situation. However, if we pry further into the future of renewables in Wales, we find that the DTI has produced a consultation paper for offshore wind or water-driven electricity stations in Wales. Not content with relying on its ability to decide on projects of more than 50 MW, the DTI is suggesting that it should decide all applications for projects of more than 1 MW in London. That might happen in consultation with the Assembly, but it is removing from Wales to the DTI powers that currently reside with the National Assembly and local authorities in Wales.

The consultation process on that recently ended and, lo and behold, the Government have decided to go ahead. Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 will be expanded and the Government response simply states that

The role of the National Assembly as a statutory consultee in the process will be covered by detailed guidance, and any change in the National Assembly's overall position in the devolved arrangements will have to be separately considered by Ministers. Now, the Assembly is passing from being a decision-making body to being a consultee body.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones : The hon. Gentleman is discussing renewable energy. He will know that those who promote renewable energy argue, and have argued

5 Dec 2001 : Column 103WH

for some time, that the primary problem in gaining permission for renewable energy sites is the difficulty with planning. Organisations calling for more renewable energy have asked the Government to remove the ability to restrict planning easily, by taking decision making to a higher level. I cannot see how it is consistent for him on the one hand to promote renewable energy but on the other to argue that planning permission decisions should not have been taken to a higher level.

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. There are 47 minutes left, and six people, including the Secretary of State, waiting to catch my eye. I would be grateful if we could have shorter interventions.

Mr. Thomas : Thank you, Mr. Amess. I will deal briefly with the intervention.

I know that the hon. Gentleman takes such matters seriously, but the outcome of what he just advocated would be the reverse of devolution and democracy. He is advocating that all decisions be taken at the highest level and not at the most appropriate level for the local people concerned. If the people in Wales say that they do not want renewable energy, I, though an advocate of renewable energy, have to accept that as the democratic view of the people of Wales. I do not think that the current constitutional arrangements allow them to express that will properly and fully.

The change in procedures for renewable energy was opposed by my county council. It has also caused concern to the Association of National Park Authorities, the Countryside Council for Wales, the National Trust and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority. They were all concerned to see that a level of democracy was being taken away from them and the Assembly and given to the Department of Trade and Industry. A parallel process is taking place, whereby the Government are consulting the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions about a change in planning law. They want to get rid of public inquiries—admittedly, they can prove lengthy, wasteful and expensive—and introduce a fast-track process for large-scale applications. That could benefit some renewable energy applications, but it could also benefit nuclear power stations.

I should also remind hon. Members that the application for the Kielder Forest renewable energy wind farm has been with the DTI since 1992, but the fact that it has taken the DTI nine years to reach a decision has nothing to do with the public inquiry—it is the DTI's decision alone. Raising the level at which decisions are taken does not necessarily lead to greater efficiency.

Many of us are criticised for wanting the famous process of devolution to be a bit like a Benny Hill sketch and move at a fast pace. Some say, "Whoa! That's too fast—let's see things happen at a normal pace." Perhaps there are a few hon. Members who want matters to

5 Dec 2001 : Column 104WH

progress in slow motion, but I doubt whether many—other than the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent—want the reels to run backwards.

Llew Smith : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas : No. I want to—

Llew Smith : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is clearly not giving way.

Mr. Thomas : I want to make two final points, on the environment and on the failure of the present constitutional settlements. A decision was taken overnight by the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to allow the planting of genetically modified crops on three sites in Wales. There was no consultation with Members of the Assembly, the Welsh Executive, local Members of Parliament or Opposition spokespeople on the environment. In fact, there was no consultation at all.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): The hon. Gentleman will know that two of the three sites were in my constituency, and he will also be familiar with the frustrations arising from the Assembly's lack of powers. However, if he has done his homework he will surely acknowledge that it was not a question of the DETR's retaining such powers, given that it, too, did not have them. They were given away in 1991 on implementation of environment legislation by the then Tory Government.

Mr. Thomas : I thank the hon. Lady for that contribution, but she is not entirely right in implying that her Government's hands are clean. It was a committee established by the then DETR that decided to plant GM crops in Pembrokeshire. Although I am pleased that planting on the two Pembrokeshire sites has not gone ahead, she will be aware that there remains a site in Wales on which such crops are being grown. That has thrown into complete disarray the Assembly's policy of a GM-free Wales, and its vision of Welsh agriculture based on a green, increasingly organic concept. If it is to have one hand tied behind its back and be thwarted at every opportunity by decisions taken in Whitehall, the Assembly will be unable to develop a sustainable future for Welsh agriculture.

The biggest issue in Wales this year has been access to rural housing. Unfortunately, the debate has been coloured by the use of extreme language on both sides of the argument. However, there is a solution. A number of reasonable proposals can be made in support of greater access to rural housing that enjoy the support of, say, people in Exmoor national park and in Cumbria. I included such proposals in a private Member's Bill that I wanted to present to Parliament. The Bill was thwarted by the arcane procedures of the House, to the extent that we did not even debate its merits. Nevertheless, during that process it became clear that simple matters such as planning the number of second homes in Wales could be decided not at Welsh level but only a Westminster level. Such problems underline the frustration felt by many in Wales. The Assembly could,

5 Dec 2001 : Column 105WH

and should, be doing a better job, and it should be given the necessary powers. That is why we need a review of the Government of Wales Act 1998.

11.49 am

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon): I am a long-standing campaigner for democratic devolution. In 1979 I was the treasurer of the West Glamorgan campaign and in 1997 I was the national convener of the cross-party "Yes for Wales" campaign. I mention that not because I am keen to indulge in veteranism, but to remind hon. Members that the Labour party and the Labour Government come to the question from our vision as democrats and our respect for the democratic will of the people of Wales and the people of Britain. In that spirit, hon. Members should be reminded of the words of the current Secretary of State for Wales in October 1999 when he said that devolution is "a settled question." Many chose to misunderstand the meaning of that statement, which was borrowed from the late John Smith's memorable words,

For us in Wales, the settled question means that there is no going back. One of the new responsibilities of the Secretary of State is to safeguard the new constitutional settlement, as represented by the referendum result and the Government of Wales Act 1998. We should all, whether we were for or against devolution, now work with the Secretary of State and Assembly Members to make the present democratic settlement work.

The settled question in Wales also means that it is the democratic will of the Welsh people. The people voted, albeit narrowly, for democratic devolution and we must respect our democratic decision. It is disingenuous now, and it was disingenuous immediately after the referendum result, to call for additional powers. Our task in Westminster and the Assembly is to make the democratic devolution settlement work. It is inappropriate to call for additional powers without recognising the need for a further democratic mandate.

The task before us is simple. First, we must stop talking down the Assembly. The democratic partnership between the Assembly and Westminster is working, as evidenced, for example, by the creation of the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the additional funding achieved for objective 1 areas. Secondly, we must remind ourselves that our main task as Welsh Members of Parliament and Welsh Assembly Members is to improve the quality of life of the Welsh people. My distinguished predecessor, Lord Morris of Aberavon, said that we must achieve

That has now been achieved, and it is our task to make it work for the benefit of the people of Wales.

11.52 am

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), I have always supported the principle of devolution. However, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) missed the point—I may not have made myself clear—that if devolution had been in place in 1991, the Assembly would have had the powers, because it would have had to be consulted.

5 Dec 2001 : Column 106WH

The hon. Gentleman also referred to nuclear power stations. There is great fear in my constituency in west Wales at the prospect of a nuclear power station, but I cannot help thinking that he is scaremongering. He will be aware that although the nuclear installations inspectorate is still the responsibility of Westminster, the Environment Agency and the planning aspects of any applications are devolved to the Assembly.

Mr. Simon Thomas : We are debating the Government of Wales Act and the hon. Lady should be aware that the Environment Agency is not devolved to Wales. It may have a Welsh branch or arm, but it is not devolved. She should also be aware that the Minister in the Welsh Grand Committee refused to rule out a new nuclear power station in Wales.

Mrs. Lawrence : My understanding is that the functions of the Environment Agency in Wales are devolved to the Assembly, perhaps the Secretary of State will expand on that.

On nuclear waste, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the consultation document on the management of nuclear waste, it is clear that the Assembly will have its say in the matter.

Given the opening statement by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), one is tempted to ask why he voted yes in the devolution referendum. He referred to the Welsh Grand Committee, but he does not seem to be aware that there was a three-day sitting of the Welsh Affairs Committee when the Welsh Grand Committee met last week. At the Welsh Grand Committee meeting of July 2000, only one Plaid Cymru Member was present. It was an important occasion on which we debated the comprehensive spending review, and he may wish to explain why he was not there.

I support devolution and I have always supported devolution. I tabled amendments to the Government of Wales Act 1998 on behalf of business in Wales. Those amendments were accepted in principle, and they were the only amendments that were accepted during the Act's passage through the House of Commons. I support devolution because actions such as the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) sending £100 million back from Wales could not happen under the Assembly. The decimation of NHS management under the former Welsh Office, which is a fundamental problem for the NHS, could not happen under devolution.

Llew Smith : Putting aside whether an Assembly is right or wrong, or whether we should have voted yes or no, does my hon. Friend agree that the reason why the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy voted yes was that he and his party saw it as a step down the road to a separatist, independent Wales?

Mrs. Lawrence : One is tempted to believe that.

Nursery vouchers, which were anathema to the Welsh people, could not have been imposed with the Assembly as it is now.

The issue of secondary powers, on which I did some research, was raised by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy in last week's Welsh Grand Committee. The Assembly is not using its existing

5 Dec 2001 : Column 107WH

powers on secondary legislation, and my information, which comes from the House of Commons Library and the Assembly, reveals that the Assembly passed 29 statutory instruments in 1999.

There are three systems for handling secondary legislation in the Assembly. I shall describe them as outlined by John Osmond, director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs. There is a full-length process, there is a foreshortened process and there is an emergency process. In 1999, there were 29 statutory instruments of which 15 were subject to the emergency system; in 2000, there were 119 statutory instruments of which 40 were subject to the emergency system; in 2001, there were 221 statutory instruments—that is a different figure from the one cited by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy—of which 48 related to foot and mouth disease and 93 were subject to the emergency system. In two years, there were 369 pieces of secondary legislation, of which only eight were dealt with by the full system, while 148, approximately half, were dealt with by the emergency system.

We must examine what those three systems do. The full procedure means that secondary legislation goes in front of the business unit, the subject Committee and the Legislation Committee before being debated in plenary. Eight of those 369 statutory instruments were dealt with through the full process. The emergency procedure involves a decision made by the Welsh Executive subject to scrutiny by the Legislation Committee after the instrument is made.

On that subject, John Osmond states:

The number of statutory instruments dealt with by the Assembly during the first months was low compared with former Welsh Office's activity.

Mr. Llwyd : I am listening intently to what the hon. Lady is saying, and it is constructive. Can she tell us how many such instruments were passed in that time by the House of Commons?

Mrs. Lawrence : I understand that the hon. Gentleman alleged that 60 had been passed by the House of Commons, but I am talking about legislation dealt with by the Assembly. It seems that there has been a lack of time to examine secondary legislation with the degree of scrutiny that those who support devolution, and supported it during the passage of the Government of Wales Act, expected. Here, we have one and a half hours for statutory instruments in Committee, but there, because of the lack of time, such decisions have not been given sufficient scrutiny. We must ask the hon. Gentleman and his party why that is so.

I looked at the debates in the Welsh Assembly during that period; the majority had been secured by Plaid Cymru. We should consider the Assembly's responsibilities. Labour Members want the Assembly

5 Dec 2001 : Column 108WH

and devolution to work and when the Government of Wales Bill was proceeding through the House, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues said that that was also their position—if we can believe what they say. Now, the leader of Plaid Cymru is saying that devolution is doomed to failure. The only reason why it is doomed is that instead of handling secondary legislation openly and transparently in the Assembly, which it has a responsibility to do, the party introduces debates on UK Government fiscal and public expenditure, royal commission and Lords reform, new deal, relief of world debt and the up-to-date situation in Afghanistan. Any council or local authority could discuss those subjects if it wanted to, but if the ordinary population of this country felt that their local authority was discussing such matters and avoiding the problems of rubbish collection, transport, street lighting and so forth, there would be an outcry.

Labour Members want the Assembly to work and to have the opportunity to do the job that we voted for it to do, and that was the purpose of the Government of Wales Act 1998: to have devolved, transparent decision making, which is as near as possible to the people it serves. That is the purpose of devolution. If the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy and his party co-operated in the manner in which they said that they would when we were enacting the legislation, rather than calling for debates for which the Assembly has no responsibility, it would work effectively and could progress in its job.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I am going to call the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), but I ask him to speak for no more than three minutes, or I may not use such discretion in future.

12.2 pm

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Thank you, Mr. Winterton.

I want to concentrate on how the constitutional settlement is working. In the past fortnight, two major Bills that will effect health and education provision in Wales have been discussed. Plaid Cymru showed poor attendance in debates on both.

The system is not working as well as it could. Both Bills had Welsh clauses that are considerably different from major English clauses. Yesterday's debate on the Education Bill revealed many differences. The best way to give scrutiny to a Bill, whose major provisions affect Welsh constituencies in a different way from English ones is not to be obliged to vote on the whole package on Second Reading, when it includes entirely contradictory things for different parts of the country.

The reason why the Welsh provisions are appended to bigger Bills is to do with the constraints on time in the House. I understand why that is a practical necessity if we deal with legislation as we do. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, Wales Office Ministers were unable to respond to the issues raised in the debates on both Bills. That may not have been the best way to deal with them.

I ask the Secretary of State to consider again whether mechanisms could be introduced whereby we could deal with Welsh legislation in a separate way that did not take time away from the rest of the Government's

5 Dec 2001 : Column 109WH

programme. They want to implement the programme and will be understandably reluctant to introduce Welsh Bills that will take up precious time. We have discussed before whether we could introduce some fast-track mechanism or use the Welsh Grand Committee.

We must consider how to make the settlement work. I am sure that that is a great priority for the Secretary of State and he will have thought about it deeply for some time. Although the existing mechanism is better than nothing, it is not working as it well as it could in respect of those two Bills, and we need to make progress on improving it. It would be useful if other parties offered help and suggestions, rather than simply saying, "Scrap the whole thing."

12.6 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Let me first say how pleased I am that Plaid Cymru Members have secured a debate—in a way, it has enabled us to celebrate the success of the Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition in Cardiff—and how appropriate it is that representatives of the two parties of government in Wales should make the last two speeches.

Devolution was a Liberal idea, a long time ago. Many believe that it was a consequence of Liberals dragging their feet that Plaid Cymru came into existence, partly as a pressure group to drive Wales towards devolution. I am concerned about Plaid Cymru's entirely negative attitude to the early years of the devolution project in Wales. I have listened with interest and some confusion to what its members have said about its position. For a long time, I mistakenly believed that its policy was to support independence. That was clarified when a former Member of Parliament, Dafydd Wigley, said that the party had never supported independence, much to the surprise of many of its members and the rest of us.

The confusion remains. Plaid Cymru has a very close working relationship with the Scottish National party, which is committed to independence for Scotland. Hon. Members and the public can be forgiven for being somewhat confused about why two parties with such different objectives in principle choose to align themselves in the House of Commons.

Mr. Simon Thomas : Perhaps it would help the hon. Gentleman's confusion if he could explain why last night his party voted against the Education Bill, including Welsh clauses that his party had put in and supported in Wales. Does that not show that his party is not only two different parties, but a different party in any given constituency?

Lembit Öpik : The hon. Gentleman has failed to clarify the question of independence.

Mr. Thomas : He has failed to clarify his voting record.

Lembit Öpik : I assure him that independence involves making difficult decisions and trying to find a balance between the best interests of the UK and those of Wales. [Interruption.] We try to draw a responsible line, part of which involves not shouting down Members who are trying to make a sensible and constructive contributions.

Llew Smith : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in reality there is no confusion in the nationalist party

5 Dec 2001 : Column 110WH

about its position on independence? Indeed, Dafydd Wigley, to whom he referred, is on record as saying that an independent Wales would leave NATO.

Lembit Öpik : The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Although we can all be entertained by the contradictions, it is a serious matter, because it is hard to gauge exactly how one should view Plaid Cymru's position on devolution. The hon. Gentleman has been a long-time opponent of devolution. [Interruption.] I am sorry: of the settlement in Wales. That is a respectable position, although I do not necessarily agree with it.

It was symptomatic of Plaid Cymru's approach that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) intervened after six minutes to imply that the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith) had no right to make his points. That summarises what many feel is the attitude of Plaid Cymru Members. They try to shout down any opposition, including me when I was speaking a few minutes ago, rather than respecting the right to a different opinion.

We should all remember what was said at the time of the devolution debate: new politics requires new attitudes and a willingness to operate in a different way. That willingness is not apparent among Welsh nationalists. For example, Plaid Cymru Members tabled three amendments on the child care debate in the Assembly. The amendments were on matters that were about to be addressed anyway. They tabled four amendments on the ministerial code; that subject too, was already in hand. Tomorrow, Plaid Cymru Members will lead a debate on economic development. All those issues are already on the agenda.

It seems to Liberal Democrat Members that although Plaid Cymru Members take a negative attitude towards the devolution settlement, they want to steal the clothes of the coalition for the many positive things that are being achieved. The two parties in the coalition have embraced a new kind of politics by operating together and trying to provide political stability in the devolution settlement in Wales.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) made an insightful point. Eight out of the past 10 minority party debates awarded to Plaid Cymru were wasted on matters that Plaid Cymru Members know that the Assembly could not influence significantly. The nationalists are entitled to spend that debating time as they wish, but it seems to the Liberal Democrats that Plaid Cymru Members are more interested in posturing and playing at party politics than in spending debate time constructively and making a helpful contribution to the government of Wales.

Mr. Llwyd : Mike German.

Lembit Öpik : The hon. Gentleman says the name as though it were a mantra that evokes the devil himself. That is an example of Plaid Cymru seeking opportunistic advantage, even though Mike German has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing throughout what has been, in my view, an overly long and drawn-out inquiry. [Interruption.]

5 Dec 2001 : Column 111WH

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Order. I do not want to hear sedentary conversations. I am trying to listen to the hon. Gentleman's speech.

Lembit Öpik : I am sure that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is supporting me from his sedentary position. He is so angry about the injustice meted out to Mike German by Plaid Cymru that he felt the need to shout out. He can be forgiven for that.

Plaid Cymru Members have attempted to score a party political point against Mike German and the Liberal Democrats, even though in this country a person is innocent until proven guilty. The fact that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy is willing to drag that up is symptomatic of the attitude that bedevils the nationalist contribution to the government of Wales.

In response to an intervention from the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, almost out of frustration with the Government of Wales Act 1998, said that Plaid Cymru cannot be everywhere at once. That is true. Plaid Cymru's long list of criticisms, complaints and frustrations cannot be resolved by the four Plaid Cymru Members of Parliament, although it is not the party's fault that it has only four seats. The Liberal Democrats have 52 Members of Parliament, all of whom are committed to devolution. All Liberal Democrat Members take a federalist attitude toward the United Kingdom, and are willing to engage in devolution—not just for Wales, but for England and Scotland, too.

I suggest to Plaid Cymru that it seek allies carefully, rather than making enemies of potential allies. It should be willing to engage with those who are committed to devolution and its expansion, as are many—not all—of the hon. Members present.

I remind the Chamber of the long list of triumphs achieved by the Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition. They include the Reece report on student funding, which pushes for a more generous settlement for students. Farming Connect was a significant achievement of my colleague, Mick Bates. We provided free school milk, which many feel was a great step forward in health provision for young people. On economic development, the Assembly's efforts made a significant contribution to save many jobs in Llanidloes—to be parochial for a moment. I am sure that there are many other examples.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy rightly praised the Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition for its proposals on free prescriptions and dental charges for a proportion of the population. That is another Liberal Democrat policy, as was the introduction of the Children's Commissioner. Even when condemning and criticising the Assembly for its performance, hon. Members cite some of its successes.

I recognise that Plaid Cymru has a legitimate right to try to maximise its power and the number of votes that it can secure in Wales. However, I suggest to Plaid Cymru and all parties that we have a higher responsibility: to make devolution work. To do that, we must think positively about the opportunities that it brings, rather than simply run it down. I invite Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives to enter into the coalition of ideas that can put the public first, rather than engage

5 Dec 2001 : Column 112WH

in a cynical and incessant attempt to drag down an institution that so many of us worked side by side to try to convince the Welsh people was worth while.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): Before I call the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), I shall say that I want to give the Minister 10 minutes to wind up this important debate. If the hon. Gentleman can use self-discipline—I know that he can—the Chamber will be very happy.

12.16 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I will make a brief contribution, Mr. Winterton.

This is an important debate, but part of the problem is the high expectations of devolution that existed when the process was introduced. We all remember the debates. We were all told how wonderful everything was going to be—we would have a cure for the common cold, and the Welsh rugby team would never lose again if only we had a Welsh Assembly. Look at what happened. I shall not talk about Welsh rugby, because I have only four minutes. The fact is that the expectations could not possibly have been met.

We now know—we expected to hear this from Plaid Cymru—that devolution was a journey and not a destination in itself. Now Plaid Cymru thinks that the reason for the Welsh Assembly's not working properly is that it has not gone far enough—it should have primary legislative powers, and if only it had them, we would have a cure for the common cold and the Welsh rugby team would never lose another match. We have been there before. Yes, we should make devolution work—it is a reality, because the Assembly has powers—and we should use the powers that we have, and stop whingeing. The Assembly has sufficient powers to make a difference in many fields, but they are being used as a vehicle to try to push devolution even further.

I was in Corwen this week, and I saw the North Wales group having a meeting on the Welsh language with Dafydd Iwan. It seemed successful, and a lot of people were there. That is one area where devolution has worked. The Children's Commissioner has already been mentioned, and the Assembly gave the Westminster Parliament a lot of evidence which enabled it to introduce the post through primary legislative powers.

My goodness, though, what a load of piffle the Assembly concentrates on. It has a hole in the ground that cost £8 million to £10 million, when we were told that the whole thing would cost only £17 million. Why does the Assembly not scrap it and spend the money on the people instead? Assembly Secretaries have renamed themselves Ministers, and Rhodri has renamed the whole organisation WAG—the Welsh Assembly Government. Instead of navel gazing, why does the Assembly not focus on the requirements of the people, not the politicians or institutions, and start delivering?

In the national health service, which is a clear example of the way in which the Assembly could have made a difference, waiting lists of six months or more have increased by 900 per cent. The situation is far worse that it was before devolution. It is pointless for the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) to look

5 Dec 2001 : Column 113WH

smug, because he is part of the coalition that brought that about. He should have taken some of the responsibility and blame in that regard.

Part of Rhodri Morgan's problem is that he has too many jobs. Mike German has been mentioned before—he was put to one side, and Rhodri Morgan took on the responsibility. Manufacturing is in meltdown, agriculture is in crisis and tourism has been hit because of foot and mouth. We need somebody at the top who takes a clearly focused interest in the economy of Wales rather than one person trying to juggle too many jobs at one time. Frankly, it is Rhodri in Wonderland, and he must ensure that he gives a proper opportunity for other people to delegate the responsibility. I understand why he does not want to delegate responsibility when he looks at those who sit around him, but they are his Members and it is time that he did.

The National Assembly for Wales must not be given taxation powers because the referendum did not grant that, and it must not be given primary legislative powers without the people of Wales having their say. They did not vote for that last time, and there is no desire for it now. The Assembly should use and concentrate on the powers that it has. The National Assembly for Wales will be judged on what it does.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his brevity.

12.20 pm

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy) : We have had an interesting and informative debate. This is the first time that I have spoken in Westminster Hall, and if it is always as cold as this, I will not return in a hurry.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) made reference to my presence as Secretary of State—the debate is important. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, Wales Office is not here because he is Cardiff discussing the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill that is currently going through the House with a National Assembly for Wales Committee. The purpose of his journey to Cardiff is to ensure the progression of the partnership in shared government that the devolution settlement is all about. When I heard the speech of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), I wondered whether his party wants that partnership and sharing of government. On the basis that Plaid Cymru's aim is independence or full national status, does he want the sharing of government between Members of Parliament who represent Wales and Assembly Members?

Mr. Llwyd : With respect, partnership must be equal. The example that the Secretary of State cites is not good. The Under-Secretary is at the National Assembly for Wales today discussing a Bill that has received its Second Reading, and surely it is now too late to change it. The Assembly expressed a view against the Bill before Second Reading.

Mr. Murphy : Although the Assembly had some differences of opinion about structure, there are opportunities for both Assembly Members and

5 Dec 2001 : Column 114WH

Members of Parliament to deal with many aspects of that Bill and the draft NHS Bill that will come before us soon.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Assembly was weakened because powers were transferred to the First Minister. The Assembly itself voted in plenary to delegate power to the First Minister. He also said that the Government of Wales Act 1998 does not provide further powers to the Assembly, unlike the Scottish equivalent. However, section 22 provides for the transfer of functions, and other functions may go to the National Assembly for Wales.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned statutory instruments and, specifically, those that are made in Westminster but affect Wales. In 2000, 225 SIs were made in the National Assembly for Wales and seven were made in Westminster. In 2001, 308 SIs have been made in the Assembly and nine in Westminster. All the statutory instruments that are made in the House of Commons either transfer powers to the Assembly, or concern the law—the hon. Gentleman's profession—language or education. Such statutory instruments give extra powers and responsibilities to the National Assembly for Wales, which he would presumably endorse.

Plaid Cymru Members questioned whether the settlement is working. Of course it is. It works better each year. They and others have called me a dinosaur, but I am told that dinosaurs lasted for millions of years. The people of Wales voted for the Assembly only four years ago and it has operated for just over two years. I read in the South Wales Argus about Professor Hazell from the university of London who said that the settlement is not working. I have never met him, and I do not know who he is. All I know is that the Prime Minister has charged me with the responsibility of ensuring that the devolution settlement works. It does, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) has said. I agree with him that there are ways in which we can improve it, and we will look carefully at them in the years ahead. However, a comparison between 2001 and 2000 shows that the Assembly has been given more enabling clauses, so that it can decide how to deal with matters such as education.

Education provides a good example. There are 31 clauses that refer specifically to Wales in the Education Bill that yesterday had its Second Reading in Parliament. That Bill also proposes to enable the Assembly, if it so wishes, to have various powers. The Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001 has been derided by some people, who said that it was tagged on to another piece of legislation at Westminster. That was not the case. An opportunity was provided to introduce a Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill quickly, and that was supported by every party. Matters such as legislation on the national health service and on post-16 education could also serve to illustrate my point that not a single piece of primary legislation of importance to Wales has been refused in the past two years.

More importantly, the working relationships between the House and the Assembly are continuing to improve. What the people of Wales are concerned about above all else is the delivery of the services that affect their lives—as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) said. However, they voted in the referendum of 1997 for a particular form of settlement:

5 Dec 2001 : Column 115WH

a partnership in government between the House and the Assembly. They voted for primary legislative powers to remain at Westminster, on the basis that there is a reason for that, which is the partnership. That is what they voted for.

I have read the proceedings on the Government of Wales Bill—and I advise hon. Members to do the same. Those proceedings, on the Floor of the House and in the other place, are peppered with references to the fact that the people of Wales voted for the settlement, and to the fact that that is why—as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) mentioned—the settlement is settled. It is not settled in concrete for many years to come—nobody has ever suggested that—but it is settled in the sense that only very recently people decided to vote for a particular type of devolution settlement.

Of course we have had teething problems, and there will be more to come. There will be occasions when the Government and the Parliament disagree on certain matters with the National Assembly for Wales. That will always happen, so long as Wales remains within the United Kingdom, and so long as the devolution settlement that the people of Wales voted for is in place.

Parliament is sovereign; it agreed to ensure that the legislation was passed, but did so on the basis that a majority of the Welsh people said that that is what they wanted. I say to Opposition Members that, although there have been difficulties, it is important that the Ministers and Members of the Assembly should be able to ensure that we get better services in health, schools, local government, transport and the environment, by sharing the responsibility for them with hon. Members at Westminster. The people of Wales want that settlement. It is working well and it will improve in the coming years.

The big test will come in 18 months. It is essential that we do not allow ourselves to get into a position where we use the constitutional questions to obfuscate the importance of the services themselves and the delivery of them. We must not carry on talking so much about constitutional issues—frankly, they turn off most of our constituents, important though we think they are.

Our constituents want a genuine improvement in the quality of their lives. We want to achieve that in a special way, by means of a devolution settlement—a constitutional arrangement—that has been operating for only a short while. That sharing of power and responsibilities between hon. Members and the Assembly is crucial to the success of the working of the Assembly—and, above all, to the success of the improvement of the quality of life of women, men and children. All hon. Members, along with Members of the Assembly are jointly responsible for that.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): As we have finished early, we can now move on to the next debate. It is a good day for the Welsh. I call Mr. Gareth Thomas.

Next Section

IndexHome Page