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Standing Committee F
Thursday 23 January 2003
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I am genuinely puzzled about something. I do not know whether there is a mechanism for resolving it and I seek your guidance. Ideally, we should not have completed the clause 8 stand part debate because information in my hand shows that the Minister's comments to the Committee in that debate were entirely inconsistent with what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural affairs says on its website.
On the current DEFRA website, rural development has links to the hunting with dogs page, the rural economy and communities web page also has such links, and until 20 December the landscape and recreation website was linked to hunting with dogs. In other words, DEFRA's website tells us that hunting with dogs has an impact on landscape and recreation and the rural economy and communities. Can the Minister deny that?
The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman has put his point on the record, but the Chair does not accept it as a point of order.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): I beg to move amendment No. 192, in
clause 9, page 3, line 32, at beginning insert 'As regards England'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Amendment No. 193, in
clause 9, page 3, line 33, after 'register', insert ' in England'.
Amendment No. 194, in
Amendment No. 195, in
Amendment No. 229, in
Amendment No. 196, in
clause 23, Page 9, line 6, at end insert—
'( ) shall, in Wales, make provision for a Welsh language version of the register to be made available for inspection by the public at all reasonable times, and'.
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New clause 13—Application to Wales—
'In application to Wales, this Part, except section 9 (1), has effect as if for any reference to the Secretary of State there were substituted a reference to the National Assembly for Wales.'.
Amendment No. 190, in
clause 3, page 2, line 15, at beginning insert 'As regards England'.
Amendment No. 191, in
Amendment No. 197, in
Amendment No. 198, in
clause 48, page 19, line 4, at beginning insert 'As regards England'.
Amendment No. 199, in
Amendment No. 200, in
clause 48, page 19, line 6, at beginning insert 'As regards England'.
Amendment No. 201, in
Amendment No. 202, in
Hywel Williams: We are not short of disagreements on hunting, as we have seen during the past few days, and we are not short of people who will take up defensive positions on hunting. As has been said many times, although hunting is not the most important issue before the House, it must be settled in a way that will last. When replying on Tuesday, the Minister said that he wanted the legislation to be practical and enforceable.
The Bill as drafted will establish a registrar and tribunal on an England and Wales basis. The amendments would lead to the appointment of a registrar for Wales by the National Assembly for Wales, who would comply with any new regulations made by the Assembly, and the establishment of a hunting tribunal for Wales alongside one for England. The register would be available in Welsh. The National Assembly for Wales would make regulations about the form of registration and cases from Wales would be heard in Wales. The amendments would replace references to the Secretary of State with references to the National Assembly for Wales and provide for the use of the Welsh language in Wales.
If accepted, the amendments would improve the chances of the successful and practical application of the law in Wales. There would be a greater likelihood of the law being willingly accepted by all parties involved. The bodies that would make decisions on
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hunting questions, especially in difficult cases, to which the Minister has referred, would be seen to be answerable directly to the elected body that deals with the majority of rural affairs in Wales—the National Assembly.
The Minister said, in Hansard, on 16 December:
''The registrar and tribunal will be required simply to interpret the legislation as similarly appointed tribunals do in other spheres, such as employment and housing.''—[Official Report, 16 December 2003; Vol. 396, c. 580.]
A Wales-based registrar and tribunal would be better able to interpret the legislation, with their particular knowledge and experience of hunting issues in Wales. What is serious damage to the flock of a Welsh hill farmer on marginal land might be different from what is serious damage to a farmer in East Anglia. Biological diversity is just that—diversity. A Welsh registrar and tribunal would be more likely to have the knowledge and experience to interpret the law in such particular cases.
The amendments aim to promote the efficient application of the law and to secure the greatest possible relevance and legitimacy for people in Wales who will have dealings with the registrar and tribunal. That would be superior to dealing with a registrar and tribunal that are national for England and Wales, to use the Minister's formulation.
I do not intend to list all the ways in which rural life in Wales is unique. The Government accept that it is different from rural life in England and that it needs to be dealt with in ways that are relevant to Wales. In recognition of that fact, the National Assembly for Wales has been given wide responsibilities for rural affairs.
However, farms are smaller, the average age of the Welsh farmer is 58, farm incomes, on average, are half what they are in England and there is much upland farming, which is economically marginal and may be severely affected by fox predation. In many cases, foxes are hunted on foot by groups of local farmers as a matter of utility, not for sport or recreation. The particular circumstances in Wales are partly recognised in the Bill under clause 12(2).
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Although I recognise the very great force of the hon. Gentleman's argument about utility and the fact that farmers group together to hunt the fox in very difficult and often hostile territory, hunting is also a great social bond in the community. He should not resile from the fact that hunting foxes in that way is great fun, as well as being very useful.
Hywel Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point, in that foxhunting, like other aspects of Welsh rural life such as co-operating on the harvest, is an example of the traditional way in which things are done in Wales. I take his point, but I am sure that my hill farmer constituents put the utility argument first.
Clause 12(2), which recognises the particular circumstances in Wales, states:
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''The Countryside Council for Wales may provide advice on request to the registrar or the Tribunal about the exercise of a function under this Act in relation to Wales.''
Much of the work of DEFRA in England is devolved through the National Assembly. It may not be the resounding success that some of us had hoped for, but its work in agriculture is considered by many to be an exception to the rule.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn): The hon. Gentleman says that the National Assembly has not been a resounding success. Does he agree that the Welsh Assembly's method of processing payments for the sheep annual premium has been worse than DEFRA's, and that it is an example of how Welsh farmers have been penalised by a Welsh-only solution?
Hywel Williams: Clearly, Welsh farmers have great reservations about some aspects of agricultural support in Wales. The matter of SAP payments has been raised by some of my colleagues, not only in Westminster but in Cardiff. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the operations of the National Assembly for Wales during the foot and mouth crisis, for example, were far superior to those of other bodies.
The measures in the Bill would give us an opportunity to build on the success of the National Assembly for Wales. Many UK public bodies have a Welsh incarnation. Wales has an agricultural land tribunal, a mental heath review tribunal, a registered inspectors of schools tribunal, a rent assessment panel and a valuation tribunal, and many other bodies have less formal Welsh arrangements.
If I may digress briefly to my own field of social policy, over several years we have developed a training and education body. It has grown from one person coming from Bristol for half a day a week and sitting next to a largely silent telephone to a fully functioning office for Wales, which provides all the services provided previously from Bristol and London and much more of great relevance to the field of social policy.
Such bodies co-operate happily with the similar bodies in England. The new Audit Commission for Wales was set up under devolution as a Welsh body. It works with the Audit Commission in England with no trouble at all, as far as I know. Its website states:
''Our work aims to meet the unique needs of Welsh public services and to reflect the cultural, social and economic environments in Wales.''
Significantly, it says:
''But we continue to work in close partnership with our colleagues at the Audit Commission in England.''
The former Secretary of State, now the Minister, said in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas),
''devolution means partnership between the two bodies, rather than the separation that the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) obviously wants''.—[Official Report, 28 June 2000; Vol. 352, c. 892W.]
I do not know whether he wants that separation, but the principle is partnership, and I agree with it. In an answer to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), the Minister also said:
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''The job of the National Assembly is to make the current devolution settlement work. It is a good settlement, which provides an opportunity for those who have been elected to the Assembly by the people of Wales to bring accountability and creativity to bear on policies directly affecting Wales.''—[Official Report, 7 July 1999; Vol. 334, c. 1014.]
I would contend that the Bill directly affects Wales, and there is an opportunity for the National Assembly to bring accountability and creativity to the process.
Some hon. Members have expressed understandable concerns that setting up such a body might lead to difficulties across the border. We had interesting debates on the matter when we discussed setting up specifically Welsh public bodies during the recent Committee stage of the Health (Wales) Bill. Some hon. Members expressed concerns that setting up bodies such as Health Professions Wales would lead to greater divergence between the health service in Wales and that in England. We heard a robust and effective response, which was made not by some wild-eyed separatist, or extreme nationalist, but by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales has many fine qualities, but he is no wild-eyed separatist—quite the contrary. As he pointed out many times, and with the full support of Government Members, there is no reason why Welsh bodies that are responsive to Welsh needs should not co-operate happily and successively with their counterparts in England.
A powerful illustration of the argument for having a registrar and a tribunal for Wales is language use. I should like to consider that issue a little further. Welsh is spoken by supporters and opponents of hunting in Wales. Welsh is spoken by about 20 per cent. of people across the country, but a much higher percentage of people in rural Wales speak and use Welsh as their language of everyday use. About 80 per cent. of people in my constituency speak Welsh as their daily language, and up to 93 per cent. do so in the neighbouring constituency of Conwy. In many rural and upland areas, particularly in the north and west, rural life goes on from day to day without the use of English, in the public and private spheres.
As a case in point, I spent three busy days in my constituency last weekend. I spoke English three times in three days. I did so twice while canvassing the support of English incomers during a local election campaign. I am happy to say that I received that support. I also spoke English during a back-to-back television interview, in which I did the interview in Welsh first and then, as a matter of courtesy, in English for the English news. That is the social reality of language use that the registrar must be able to address.
In Wales, the registrar and the tribunals will have to be able to work though the medium of Welsh effectively and as a matter of course. Otherwise, how will they be able to deal with cases presented in Welsh? Applications, objections and registration in Welsh should be enabled. The register should be kept in Welsh from day one. We should not underestimate the symbolic significance of that in garnering acceptance of the law.
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The Welsh Language Act 1993, which was passed by a Conservative Government, states that the Welsh and English languages should be treated on the basis of equality. The common experience of those who wish to use the Welsh language with public bodies, however, is that those bodies that have a Welsh incarnation can use the language with little fuss from day one because it is normal in their operation. Bodies based in England that serve Wales from without have much more trouble in responding to the requirements of a bilingual country.
More significantly, the Welsh language does not often seem to be on the agenda of organisations working from England. Welsh speakers, and others, perceive that those organisations see Welsh as an after-thought, nuisance or diversion from their main business. Rightly or wrongly, those are the perceptions of Welsh speakers and others. Dealing with the public in Welsh as an afterthought often leads to delay, expense, misdirected spending and waste, which are the results of the token implementation of the 1993 Act.
Not producing translations also causes problems. A case in point is the experience of many Welsh rural communities during the foot and mouth outbreak. For example—this is pertinent—the forms for the altered movement of livestock scheme were not available in Welsh from the very start. Farmers who wanted the forms in Welsh came into local offices, but the forms were not available. My local authority, Gwynedd county council, was so exasperated by the lack of translated forms that it translated them itself, only to be told by DEFRA that it was acting ultra vires, which was a problem. Those members of the public who merely wished to deal with a public body in Welsh in the normal course of everyday life rather than as an exception became increasingly frustrated with DEFRA, about which they had negative feelings. Those feelings have created a long hangover of resentment.
The 1993 Act requires public bodies to produce language schemes detailing how they will treat the Welsh and English languages on the basis of equality. However, 10 years after the introduction of the Act, some public bodies are still producing their schemes and others—often quasi-public bodies—either implement their schemes in a partial way or deny that they are subject to the Act. We need to avoid that source of disagreement and resentment. A Welsh registrar and tribunal would be more likely to operate on a bilingual basis from the very start. That would be consistent with the language requirements of all shades of opinion on the hunting issue in Wales. Both those who are in favour of hunting and those who are against it want to use Welsh, so it would be likely to inspire the trust, respect and confidence in the law that both applicants and objectors should have.
The amendments are concerned with effective devolution. They follow practice that has already proved to be effective since the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales. Will they make the application of the law and the sequential tests more effective in Wales? I contend that they would. They would make it more likely that applicants and
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objectors would feel that they had taken part in a real, relevant and fair process.
Let us not add to the scope for disagreement in Wales over hunting by putting in place a structure that might be less effective and responsive to the pertinent arguments from both sides of the debate that relate to hunting in Wales. Let us make the Bill better by accepting the amendments.