Report of the Richard Commission

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): It is always interesting to hear the Secretary of State for Wales talk about devolution. We must accept that he played a very important part in the pro-devolution campaign before the referendum. What is more in doubt is whether there is the same unity in the Labour party on questions of devolution and the recommendations of the Richard commission. In March, the report of the all-party commission said that Wales should have primary law-making powers similar to those of Scotland. Rhodri Morgan supported the idea at the time, but many Labour MPs are known to be sceptical, as we have already seen this morning.

Rhodri Morgan's recent speech in Cardiff revealed that he may have changed his mind about the future of the Welsh Assembly. In that speech, and in an article in The Western Mail on 26 June, he argued for the framework legislation approach whereby all primary legislation would be drafted in a way that gives the Secretary of State for Wales a large amount of discretion in the use of secondary legislation powers: primary legislation would form a framework, and the Secretary of State would have significant discretion in its implementation. The way in which the Higher Education Bill is drafted, for example, would fit in with that approach as it gives the Secretary of State a great deal of leeway. The Children Bill, on the other hand, is very restrictive.

It seems that Rhodri Morgan has back-pedalled from his very bullish position of not many months ago. Moreover, his article in The Western Mail, so far as we can interpret it, seems to suggest that he justifies the framework approach by referring to the recommendations in chapter 13 of the Richard report. However, Professor Laura McAllister of Liverpool university, a member of the Richard commission and Plaid Cymru's nominee on the commission, said that Rhodri Morgan had misinterpreted that chapter. I would be interested to hear Plaid Cymru's views on that, because I do not believe that that is a partisan interpretation of what Professor McAllister said. In essence, she suggested that she and her colleagues comprehensively rejected the modest idea mooted by the First Minister. Will the Under-Secretary, in his summation, give his perspective on my analysis? To be specific, Professor McAllister said:

    ''As a Commission we did not think the option of using framework legislation as promoted by Mr. Morgan had any chance of satisfying the issues of clarity, scrutiny and policy choice in the long term.''

Her public comments on the matter were quite comprehensive. The problem is that, under Rhodri Morgan's proposals, the Assembly would be a hostage to fortune to Westminster. That might work when the party of government in Westminster is the same as that in Cardiff, but even that is not clear, because there has to be latitude within devolution for local solutions that allow divergence, even if the party is taking the same decisions in Westminster as it is in Cardiff.

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Mr. Llwyd: I agree entirely. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the First Minister's suggestion does not take the matter further forward, but can be effected at this stage without any change?

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is correct. Again, it will be interesting to hear the Under-Secretary's justification for the Government's belief that we are making progress with such a limited treatment of the issue. Moreover, if the party of government in Westminster were different from that in Cardiff, it is very hard to see how Rhodri Morgan's proposals would accommodate a significant increase in latitude with regard to devolution. We all predict a general election in May 2005, so the question is pressing. The Liberal Democrat Government, which will be elected, will unquestionably improve the devolution settlement in ways that Rhodri Morgan is not proposing and which the Secretary of State for Wales is unwilling to support, but it is absolutely clear that Rhodri Morgan's proposals are ad hoc, tactical, not strategic and fundamentally not in the spirit of what the Richard commission proposed.

Laura McAllister also said that she, like the rest of us, found it difficult to understand why Mr. Morgan had retreated from his earlier position of support for the Assembly's getting primary law-making powers. Indeed, the former Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies—a man who, for all his idiosyncrasies, was a strong advocate of devolution and one of its architects—accused Mr. Morgan of

    ''selling out on the drive to get full law-making powers for Wales.''

I see Labour Members reeling with shock that a man as loyal as Ron Davies might have said anything like that in public. However, the fact that many less controversial figures, from all parties, share his view should ring alarm bells for the Secretary of State.

It took just four months for Rhodri Morgan to change his mind on the future of the Welsh Assembly. On 3 February, he said:

    ''I have never resiled from my belief that we would be better off and able to do more of a job with primary legislative powers.''

However, on 29 June, he said:

    ''There is no point arguing over primary or secondary legislative powers.''

Both quotes come from First Minister's questions in plenary. They sound contradictory to me. Even if Ministers do not share the Government's view on the matter, it would be helpful if the Secretary of State explained why those contradictory remarks have been expressed by somebody who belongs to his party.

Mr. Hain: May I ask the hon. Gentleman something? I take it, although he has not said so in so many words, that the official policy of the Liberal Democrats would be to support full primary powers for Wales along the lines of the Scottish model. Does he think that there should be a referendum?

Lembit Öpik: First, the Secretary of State is correct that we would increase the powers to roughly those of the Scottish model. Our policy is not to support a referendum because—[Interruption.] I am not sure why hon. Members find that entertaining; perhaps they are delighted at my clarification. We do not support a

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referendum because the substantive point was debated in the original referendum for devolution in Wales. Furthermore, we have always been clear that if we were to form a Government, the Welsh people could be assured that we would seek to provide them with powers similar to those that have been given to Scotland.

Mr. Hain: May I seek clarification? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that Liberal Democrat policy is to deny the people of Wales a say on a completely different model, even if that is the Scottish model, with full primary powers, Home Office powers, a separate legal system, tax-varying powers and all the rest of it?

Lembit Öpik: With the exception of tax-varying powers, that is what I am saying. Liberal Democrat policy is, on the basis of a mandate from the people of Britain, to make the powers of the Welsh Assembly equal to those in Scotland. It is legitimate for other Members to take a different view, but the right hon. Gentleman asked me about the Liberal Democrat position, and that is it.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Has the hon. Gentleman's party always supported having a referendum on the European constitution?

Lembit Öpik: I apologise, but my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) was whispering words of wisdom to me; could the hon. Gentleman repeat his question?

Mr. David: I will repeat the question to give the hon. Gentleman longer to think about it. I am trying to establish whether there is consistency in his political thought and action. Have the Liberal Democrats consistently argued in favour of a referendum on the European constitution?

Lembit Öpik: Our judgment is that there should be a referendum. It seems that Members are exercised by the fact that we take each issue as it comes and make a judgment on that basis. I would counsel caution among Labour Members, because the Prime Minister resolutely said that there would be no referendum on European matters, until one dramatic day he changed his view. If Members seek to deride Liberal Democrat policies for their clarity in each circumstance, perhaps they, and the Under-Secretary, could explain why it was acceptable for the Prime Minister to do a U-turn on referendums on European matters.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says, because I have here a copy of the press release put out by the Liberal Democrats yesterday, in anticipation of this debate. It said:

    ''Welsh Liberal Democrats will put pressure on the Labour party to implement the recommendations of the Richard Commission''.

It goes on about all the virtues of liberal democracy and the report of the commission. Why does that press statement, which went out yesterday in the hon. Gentleman's name, not say, ''We don't intend to consult the people of Wales before such a decision is made''? Should not the Liberal Democrats, if they want a Scottish model, come clean with the people of Wales and say that they will deny them the chance of having a say in whether or not they want it?

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Lembit Öpik: As the 3 million citizens of Wales watch our debate today, they will be delighted with the clarification that I have given. Not just that, but one always has to hold some questions back for these debates, or else they might not watch in the numbers for which we would hope.

Mr. Simon Thomas: To try to help the hon. Gentleman, I think that we need to bear two things in mind. First, the full implementation of the Richard commission's recommendations is not the full Scottish model, which has a separate legal system. Secondly, when the Labour party makes its proposals, which it has signally failed to do this morning, the decision can then be taken on whether we need a referendum on those proposals. We certainly do not need a referendum on the Rhodri Morgan proposals to carry on doing what we are doing already.

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Prepared 6 July 2004