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Welsh Grand Committee Debates

Report of the Richard Commission

Welsh Grand Committee

Tuesday 6 July 2004

(Westminster)

(Morning)

[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Report of the Richard Commission

9.25 am

The Chairman: Before we start, I remind hon. Members that we have two hours this morning and from 2 pm until 4.30 pm this afternoon. I ask the Committee to bear it in mind that we could lose time this afternoon to Divisions in the House. Under Standing Orders, we cannot extend our debate beyond 4.30 pm.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the matter of the report of the Richard commission.

I recall, Mr. Griffiths, the work that we did as junior Wales Office Ministers in helping to win the referendum in 1997, and then the work that you did—you carried the bulk of the load—to get the Government of Wales Act 1998 through the House. The way that things have progressed is a tribute to your work.

The report of the Richard commission on the powers and electoral arrangements of the National Assembly for Wales was made to the Assembly Government. However, full implementation of its recommendations will require primary legislation; that makes it a matter also for the Government and for Parliament. It is therefore important that Welsh Members are given an opportunity to discuss it.

The report is substantial and exhaustive; it is also very clear and readable. The commission has taken, and sifted through, a great deal of evidence, both written and oral. It provides a significant contribution to the debate on the Welsh devolution settlement.

It is not my purpose today to set out a Government position on the report. It was made to the Welsh Assembly Government. [Hon. Members: ''Ah.''] Opposition Members predictably say ''Ah''—they are good at that, if not much else. The report was made to the Welsh Assembly Government. It is for them to give the first formal reaction to it. However, unless they reject the main recommendations entirely, they will need to come to the Government to ask for implementation of the recommendations that they accept. Only then will the Government give their response. The Opposition suggest that we should give a premature response, before we know what the Welsh Assembly Government want. We are a Government and not a bleating opposition, and that is not the way to behave.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I did not say ''Ah'', but I reserve my position. The First Minister has already gone out on a limb and given his opinion. The Secretary of State has

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effectively said that he does not agree with him. At what stage are we now?

Mr. Hain: I have not said that I disagree.

Mr. Llwyd: The phrase ''Nothing to do with me'' appeared in The Western Mail.

Mr. Hain: I have not said that I disagree with the First Minister. If the hon. Gentleman wants to indulge in a little Committee Room 14 spin from the newspapers, he is free to do so, but he should not include me in it.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): I am curious about the line that the Secretary of State is taking on whether he should make a formal or official statement. He said:

    ''My bottom line for change is that I am not willing to countenance anything that alters the number of MPs. It has to remain at 40 and I am not touching with a bargepole the Scottish nightmare of a reduction in the number of MPs.''

Does he not think that that has given the Committee a steer on what he really feels about the conclusions of the Richard report?

Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman will hear shortly—I am happy to repeat that statement—I do not think that it is in the interests of the people of Wales to reduce the number of Welsh Members of Parliament. If he is saying that it is now official Conservative policy to reduce the number, he should intervene and say so.

Mr. Llwyd: It would not make any difference.

Mr. Hain: It would not make much difference to the Conservatives, but it would make a difference to the people of Wales. They want the present number of MPs so that they are properly represented.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Secretary of State says that he wants to reserve his position. Will he confirm that he is not going to tell us today whether he agrees with Rhodri Morgan, who has made his position clear? Is the Secretary of State saying that we will not hear today whether he aligns himself with the comments of the First Minister?

Mr. Hain: I do not know specifically to what the hon. Gentleman refers, but Rhodri Morgan and I work extremely closely together. We talked about precisely that subject in a long session yesterday, as we did last week. Things are going very well. However, the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members will have to wait a while until the picture becomes clearer.

If I may, I shall make progress, although I am always happy to take interventions, friendly or unfriendly. Right hon. and hon. Members will then be able to tell the direction of my remarks.

I have said that the Government will give their formal response only once the Assembly Government have made a request. The report is not ours; it is not addressed to us but to the Welsh Assembly Government and to the Assembly. However, our response will be informed by consultation, including consultation with many individuals and groups and with Members of Parliament.

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I gave evidence to the Richard commission last year and set out on the Government's behalf our view that devolution as endorsed by the people of Wales has been a great success. It has become a settled part of the political landscape and the Welsh Assembly Government, working in partnership with Westminster, have begun to make a real difference to the lives of the people of Wales.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): The Secretary of State says that devolution and the Welsh Assembly have been a great success. Some of us remember the referendum campaign; the only reason given for the Welsh Assembly was that we had become a quango state and that to rectify that we should make a bonfire of the quangos. Will he accept that there are now more quangos in Wales than when the referendum took place?

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): Who said that?

Llew Smith: Will the Secretary of State accept that the quangos are more powerful today than when the referendum took place? As to what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) has asked from a sedentary position, the whole yes campaign said it; its whole campaign was based on that point about the quangos.

Does the Secretary of State understand the anger in my constituency where the quango Education and Learning Wales refuses to intervene to stop the closure of colleges in Blaenau Gwent?

The Chairman: Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that interventions should be concise?

Mr. Hain: On the question of Coleg Gwent, my hon. Friend and other Members of Parliament representing Gwent constituencies, including my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, have been concerned about what has gone on.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Llew Smith) has come to see me and has also, with me, met the Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning in the Welsh Assembly Government. My hon. Friend has at least the virtue of being consistent on these matters. He has always opposed devolution and still does. I disagree with him and so does the Labour party by a large majority, as did the people of Wales, but I respect his point of principle.

Llew Smith: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Hain: No. I want to make some progress.

Wales, including Blaenau Gwent, is enjoying the lowest level of unemployment for 30 years. Business confidence is growing. There are more doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers. The Welsh Assembly Government have used their powers to pioneer innovative policies such as student learning grants, free bus travel for pensioners and the creation of a post of Children's Commissioner for Wales. All those policies have benefited the people of Blaenau Gwent, as they have other constituencies across Wales.

Further areas of responsibility are being devolved to Wales this year, with the transfer of student support, the fire and rescue service and the Children

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and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. More Wales-only Bills have passed through Parliament than under the Conservative Government in the pre-devolution period, with the Children's Commissioner for Wales Act 2001 and the Health (Wales) Act 2003. The Public Audit (Wales) Bill is now going through Parliament. The draft Transport (Wales) Bill is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny. Any proposals for change to the devolution settlement must therefore build on that firm foundation, not detract from it.

The commission recommends that the structure of the Assembly be changed from a single unitary or corporate body to a separate Executive and legislature and that it should have primary legislative and tax-varying powers. It recommends that the Assembly should be expanded to 80 Members, to enable the increased work load to be managed, and that a different voting system should be used, using multi-member constituencies to elect members by single transferable vote.

The report contains an important letter of reservation from a commission member. Lord Rowlands, states that he does not believe that

    ''the experience and evidence of just four years of the devolution settlement justifies concluding, at this stage, that it should be supplanted by an alternative model''.

My role today is to listen to the views of the Committee, but I want to make some points that may help to focus what will inevitably be a wide-ranging debate. There has been much interest in the fact that the commission recommends, as an interim measure, giving the Assembly broader secondary legislative powers. Box 13.2 of the report sets out a model of framework legislative devolution, which Lord Rowlands believes will provide a way forward and, indeed, enhance the Assembly's capabilities and powers. Given that recent legislation granted the Assembly similar framework powers, there may be considerable support for such an approach. In a recent speech, the First Minister talked of applying the principle of framework legislation retrospectively, and hon. Members may wish to express views about that proposal.

On the electoral system, I have made no secret of the fact that I dislike the present arrangement, under which a candidate can be defeated in a first-past-the-post contest in a constituency, but then be elected as a list member and describe themselves as the Assembly Member for that self-same constituency. Often, they will set up a constituency office in competition with the elected Member who beat them.

Is there, however, a great appetite among the general public for increasing the number of Assembly Members? If the argument is about the greater work load that extra powers would bring, the Assembly could doubtless sit for more days and hours. In contrast, the recommendation that the Assembly should be reconstituted with a separate legislature and Executive has attracted support from all parties. Over the five years of devolution, the Assembly has discovered that the corporate structure does not give it the framework that it needs. Administratively,

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separation has already been implemented as far as possible.

Any further change would require an amendment to the Government of Wales Act and changes in the way that functions are conferred on the Assembly. At present, they are conferred on the corporate body; if the proposed change were made, they would be conferred on the Executive. How would that change the relationship between the legislature and the Executive? Would it have implications for the work load of Assembly Members? Would it inevitably mean that Assembly Committees devoted more time to scrutinising the Executive, as the commission believes that they should? Those are important questions.

The people of Wales voted—very narrowly, as you and I remember only too well, Mr. Griffiths, having been there in the early hours—for a settlement that did not give the Assembly primary legislative powers. If that is to be changed, we need a democratic mandate, but what should it be—a general election manifesto commitment, or a further referendum? I have previously put on record my view that tax-varying powers would require approval in a referendum, and several colleagues believe that primary powers would also require such approval. What does that imply for the timetable suggested by the commission? Is 2011 realistic? Should it be sooner or, as Lord Rowlands suggested, later?

In considering whether the Assembly would have the capacity to undertake such a role, the commission concluded that it would have to make more extensive use than the Scottish Parliament of Sewel motions, which implies that Assembly Members would have greater responsibility than Members of the Scottish Parliament. Is that the right solution?

Whatever proposals emerge at the end of the process, there is widespread agreement that they should not lead to a diminution in Welsh representation and influence here at Westminster. Contrary to the views of those who opposed devolution, Wales's voice has continued to be heard loud and clear since 1999—in Cabinet corridors, in the Committee Rooms of Parliament and on the Floor of the House of Commons. Long may that continue.

In considering such issues, the Labour Party will want to address the larger question of how we, as part of the evolution of the devolution process, can further improve the quality of people's lives, the health of the economy and the state of public services in Wales. The Tories may have seen devolution as a route to the break-up of Britain. The nationalists may have seen it as a stepping stone to independence. Both have been proved wrong. The Liberal Democrats may have seen it as their only chance of getting anywhere near power. They were probably right.

For Labour, however, devolution is a means of bringing decision making closer to the people, promoting enterprise and securing social justice in every community in Wales. Our challenge is to ensure that, in a changing world, the Assembly is fully equipped to work with the United Kingdom

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Government to meet those goals. I look forward to hearing what right hon. and hon. Members have to say.

9.39 am

 
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Prepared 6 July 2004