Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12 Mar 2003 : Column 340—continued

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): First, I emphatically agree with the Secretary of State for Wales, who said how delighted he is to see Welsh celebrities doing so well in the media. Things are going very well for Wales in that regard; I also speak in a personal capacity.

The St. David's day debate is always a great opportunity for hon. Members to remind ourselves of the vision of Wales with which most of us would agree. Our debates in the Chamber are inevitably partisan to some extent, but they do not diverge significantly in terms of the kind of Wales that we all feel we have been elected to try to achieve. It is a Wales that is economically, culturally and socially successful; where low unemployment is achieved, but not at the cost of unreasonably low wages; where there is a strong and confident culture that does not depend on the crutches of racism or exclusion; and where social diversity is humorous, lively, fresh-minded and experimental, as well as deep-thinking, wise and internally confident of its national identity. It is a Wales where the political structures are set not to rule the electors, but to serve them; where ideas are stronger than factionalism; where credit is given where it is due; and, crucially, where the public feel that those in politics know how to use the structures in the best interests of the people whom we are elected to serve. None of that is controversial, but we sometimes get so obsessed with arguing about the different process proposals that the parties make that we take our eye off the ball.

A classic example of a dark age for Wales was the period between 1999 and 2000 when, in the first 18 months of the Welsh Assembly, there was little better than feudalism—a moribund system in which the party politics of the situation seemed to obscure the opportunity for a strategic programme for government. Then, in October 2000, the political sun rose and a new dawn arrived as the Liberal Democrats finally decided that it was time to enable the Labour party to free itself of its Westminster shackles and to create some stability in Welsh politics. The seminal watershed in the effectiveness of the Welsh Assembly occurred when the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party took the mutual risk of attempting a partnership—a shared programme for government—that was intended to deliver outcomes rather than merely political stress between the parties.

Llew Smith: I want to make a correction. The Labour party did not take the decision to go into coalition; the respective leaderships took that decision. I assume that the party would have opposed it.

Lembit Öpik: I understand the bitterness experienced by the hon. Gentleman. Indeed, he might consider joining the Welsh Liberal Democrats. As he will immediately remember, the Welsh Liberal Democrats put the partnership proposal to a full party conference in Wales, where it was voted on.

Mr. Simon Thomas: How many people were there?

Lembit Öpik: It was very well attended. [Interruption.] I am delighted to see the enthusiasm that Welsh Liberal Democrat processes spontaneously generate among nationalist and Labour Members.

12 Mar 2003 : Column 341

Following the positive decision by the Welsh Liberal Democrats as a party to attempt to achieve that stability for Wales, profoundly important progress has been made. It was Lloyd George who said that the greatest eloquence is that which gets things done. I am fairly confident that, in our quieter and less confrontational moments, as we reflect on the achievements of Mike German and his team, we all accept that the whole has been greater than the sum of its parts in that partnership.

Sadly, the Secretary of State seems to have left, no doubt to congratulate Mike German on his achievements. It was frustrating to hear him imply—not even imply, but explicitly claim—that all the results delivered by the Welsh Assembly Government in the past two and a half years were a direct consequence of Labour party policy. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] If Labour Members—in many cases, I like to think of them as Labour friends—are willing to believe that, they need to compare the 2001 and 1997 Labour party manifestos with what appeared in the partnership agreement. They will find that the Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto made a significant contribution in that regard. One example is the introduction of Assembly learning grants to higher education and further education students.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): The hon. Gentleman talks of the new dawn after his party came into coalition in the Assembly, but does he recall that, until the creation of that coalition, his party, like the Tories and the nationalists, pursued wrecking tactics in the Assembly? By pursuing their own party advantage, they put our fledgling Assembly at risk.

Lembit Öpik: Although the Minister insists on making a partisan point when I was trying to make cross-party observations, I shall endeavour to draw a jewel from the mud of his intervention. I agree with his implication: all parties found it difficult to play a constructive role in the Assembly. The advent of the partnership agreement between the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Labour party enabled the Conservative party and Plaid Cymru to settle their focus on outcomes. I shall be interested to hear what other Members think about that.

Few deny that there was a lack of stability or that there were huge internal pressures in the Labour party. Surely, we can all agree that the improved stability that resulted from the decision of two parties to form a partnership Government has been advantageous to the interests not only of all four parties but of the Welsh public.

Mr. Llwyd: To return to the Minister's intervention, it was in fact the Labour party that ditched the First Minister—nobody else. That is why there was confusion and difficulty during the first few months.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is correct to highlight the fact that there was great pressure, which was widely acknowledged, in the Labour party as it

12 Mar 2003 : Column 342

struggled to form an independent Administration. Ultimately, the project was not successful and the partnership came into being.

There have been many successes in the Welsh Assembly Government. I have already referred to the learning grant arrangement for higher and further education students. This is the first time that the binary divide between further and higher education students has been breached, which is tremendously important news for people who believe that lifelong learning requires sensible funding.

The Secretary of State talked of the increased number of doctors and nurses. That was one of the important early steps taken by the partnership to address some of the serious health difficulties, including the under-provision that was a direct consequence of underfunding since 1979 under successive Conservative and Labour Administrations.

Few deny the importance of free school milk for children at key stage 1, a proposal that was explicitly promoted by Mick Bates, the Assembly Member for Montgomeryshire, who just happens to be a Welsh Liberal Democrat. There are other successes: free prescriptions for the under-25s; free dental checks for the old and young; and free personal care for up to six weeks after diagnosis. Crucially, prescription charges have been frozen, while they continue to rise in England; I imagine that, for residents of England, they will be going up again from April. There are 700 new teachers and many other proposals.

I do not suggest that everything in the list of the Assembly's achievements came about because of the Welsh Liberal Democrats. However, if we are serious about the new politics of Wales, it is incumbent on our partners in government—the Labour party—to acknowledge that the Welsh Liberal Democrats have tried to play a constructive role, and that many of those achievements are a direct consequence of Welsh Liberal Democrat promises to the people of Wales, which, to the credit of the Labour party, it has enabled us to implement.

Mr. Simon Thomas: The hon. Gentleman mentioned several important innovations made by the National Assembly. Can he tell us whether any of them were opposed by Plaid Cymru? Can he tell us which of them was not in Plaid Cymru's manifesto, or indeed that of the Labour party? Does he realise that Labour Members would drop the much-vaunted partnership on which he relies as quickly as they could if only they could get a majority in the Assembly—[Interruption.] They agree with me.

Lembit Öpik: The Minister resists that acknowledgement except for a wry smile. Of course, other Members may be jealous of the power enjoyed by the Welsh Liberal Democrats in the Assembly, or perhaps they are showing humility or envy in the face of the enormous wisdom and maturity demonstrated by the Welsh Liberal Democrat-led Government in Cardiff.

Mr. Roger Williams: Does my hon. Friend agree that the formation of the next Government in the Assembly is in the gift not of the Labour party but of the electorate? That is the important point.

12 Mar 2003 : Column 343

Lembit Öpik: I violently agree with my hon. Friend. However frustrating it may be for Members in this place, the decision will be made by the Welsh electorate. If there is no majority, the final decision on the future programme for government will be debated by Assembly Members and, I would hope, by the respective party conferences—although I suspect that will happen only if the Welsh Liberal Democrats do not actually win an overall majority. I would also go so far as to say that, on occasion, the stability that the partnership has brought has enabled Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives in Wales to come forward with some ideas of their own.

Once again, the fact that some of the friction that existed in the early days of the Assembly has been lifted has enabled everyone in the Assembly to adopt a more external focus. That is to the benefit of all. Nevertheless, it prompts the question of whether we should seriously consider moving further primary legislative power to the Welsh Assembly. I do not want to dwell on that, but I believe that there is a strong case for devolving transport, further education and other powers to the Assembly, now that it has proved itself capable and manifestly desirous of exercising responsible government for the people of Wales. This all comes down to whether we believe that devolution is working. For an establishment that has been going for only four years—and has been operational in an effective sense for only two and a half—the Welsh Assembly has done extremely well.

Looking ahead, we are about to have the elections, and much of what is said today will be tainted by that. However, it is important that we all recognise that, regardless of how the public in Wales vote, the Welsh Assembly does best when it focuses on outcomes. There will be a great opportunity to extend free personal care, further to cut junior class sizes to no more than 25, and to promote free access to sports centres for young people so as to promote health and fitness among youngsters and to reduce antisocial behaviour in young people. Those are some of the many opportunities that the Welsh Assembly has to diverge in its policy making from what goes on in Westminster. That brings me to an important point. As we see devolution take root, we see divergence in terms of local best practice—in this case, with regard to the three examples that I gave.

I noted with great interest the comments of the Secretary of State for Wales on student funding. I see the potential for a dramatic rift in student funding policy between what happens in Westminster for English students and what happens in Wales for Welsh students. There has already been an improvement in access for many target groups in Scotland as a result of fairly progressive student funding arrangements introduced in the Scottish Parliament by the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Labour party. If the Labour party achieved that idea independently, why has it not done it for the whole of England and Wales? Why have we had to wait for devolution?

I suggest that one of the spin-off benefits of what has happened in Wales is that other party policies—for example, those of my own party, and occasionally those of Opposition parties—get more oxygen for their promotion, and can sometimes be passed on merit. Let none of us pretend, however, that if the Labour party had an overall majority in the Welsh Assembly and there

12 Mar 2003 : Column 344

were no partnership, there would not be massively increased pressure on the Labour Administration in that environment to toe the party line from Westminster.

While the first four years of Welsh Assembly government have been a learning process, in the next four years, we can really hit the ground running. There is great potential for the confidence of the Welsh Assembly Government to develop. The maturity of the established organisations and the flow lines of power make it possible for the Welsh Assembly to settle down and, crucially, for the relationship between Westminster Members, including the Lords, and Assembly Members based in Cardiff to become more relaxed and smooth-flowing. This is not a party political observation but something that I have noticed across all parties. If we are honest, I think that we have all felt that.

There have been some teething troubles and frictions between parties, simply because the Welsh Assembly is new, and we have all had to rebalance the way in which we operate in the political environment that has ensued. Things have occasionally looked threatening to the Welsh Assembly, as the Welsh MPs have seemed unhappy about what it was doing, and vice versa. However, etiquettes have been established, and we increasingly recognise that working together, far from being a threat to the jurisdiction of either Westminster or the Assembly, results in better outcomes and right decisions at the right levels. Devolution is a process, and requires us progressively to give up more power as the Welsh Assembly develops and becomes more confident about the exercise of power.

The focus of our debate should be positive, and I exhort hon. Members to consider another initiative that I hope is welcome from the Welsh Liberal Democrats—a campaign charter to try to improve the style of politics that we practise in Wales and, in the longer term, elsewhere. On previous occasions, I have said that I am not comfortable about embarking on negative campaigning and debates and, more than anything, running other parties down in a non-evidence-based way. Individual parties do not gain from that and, collectively, the body politic loses.

Next Section

IndexHome Page