Report of the Richard Commission

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Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman makes an insightful point. Although Members may have issues of disagreement with Liberal Democrat policies, I find the Under-Secretary's failure to provide us with an outline of where the Government stand slightly more frustrating. The conclusion must inevitably be that there is a degree of division between Rhodri Morgan and the Wales Office. It is not a matter of shame for them to have different views, but it is a matter of frustration for those of us who, until very recently, assumed that Rhodri Morgan would be a consistent advocate for powers such as those proposed by Richard.

The other point that the hon. Gentleman reminds me of is that our position on such matters was in our election manifesto, and will be again. In that sense, the public have a choice: if they agree with the general approach taken by the Liberal Democrats, they have the opportunity to elect us into government at the next general election.

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Lembit Öpik: I will give way once more on this point, but then I want to move on.

Gareth Thomas: The hon. Gentleman has referred to the public having a choice. Did the public have a choice when the Lib-Lab coalition, which gave rise to the Richard commission, forced the report on the people of Wales?

Lembit Öpik: I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration that the Labour party was dragged kicking and screaming into a strategic consideration of what should be proposed for Wales, but I do not really understand his concern. The Richard commission was established on a cross-party basis, and it has made some clear proposals on that basis. Today, we are trying to get an understanding of where the parties in Westminster stand on what Richard proposed.

In contrast, the Liberal Democrats are fairly united. I have outlined our position. There is not a cigarette paper's width of disagreement between my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire and me on this point. More significantly, I was speaking with Mike German yesterday in Cardiff, and we are in the happy position of having a high degree of alignment

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between the Welsh Assembly Members, the Welsh Members of Parliament and the Welsh Lords speaking for the Liberal Democrats.

Richard does not agree with every point of our manifesto, but we would not expect that. However, his report goes a long way towards it. The commission took two years to consider all the issues and came back with a sensible programme. If Labour can resolve its differences, the Assembly can secure the powers that it needs to get on with the job of improving the quality of life of the people in Wales. Under Richard's proposals the Assembly could make its own laws and bring in policies such as providing free personal care for the elderly, or making St. David's day a bank holiday. It could also protect Welsh students from tuition fees. Under Lib Dem proposals, the Welsh Assembly would have a great deal of latitude to implement the ideas put forward in the Lib Dem manifesto for the last general election.

What we are specifically looking for with the Richard commission is a clear-cut understanding on a cross-party basis of where we can take things from here. The commission makes it clear that the initiative for Welsh policy already rests with Wales, but we currently have the worst of both worlds: the Assembly has the initiative but not the power, and Parliament has the power but not the initiative. It is clear from the commission's conclusions that independence is not an option, but that we cannot stay as we are.

Plaid Cymru has expressed its clear intent for independence, and one must respect the fact that the clarity that was missing is now present. However, the Liberal Democrats cannot support that position, as we do not think that independence is an appropriate solution.

Mr. Simon Thomas: Independence for Estonia.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman mentions independence for Estonia. He is right to call me, as he previously has, an Estonian nationalist, because that describes my position on that subject, but Estonian independence is not comparable with Welsh independence, because of the different circumstances. I am not against independence in principle; I simply think, for reasons that I have given, that it is not the right solution for Wales. I do not condemn Plaid Cymru for holding that position—I simply have a different view.

Welsh Labour's solution is for us to stay as we are.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): Is not the essential difference between independence for Estonia and that for Wales the fact that the people of Wales have comprehensively rejected the idea of independence, and do not want it, whereas the people of Estonia do?

Lembit Öpik: I agree. [[Hon. Members: ''Where was the referendum?] The Welsh separatists cry with one voice, ''Where was the referendum?'' but there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the people of Wales are not strongly in favour of independence. We saw what happened at the recent elections: there was no resounding vote of support for

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the one party that has clearly advocated independence for Wales.

I reiterate that there is nothing illegitimate or unprincipled about Plaid Cymru clearly stating its position in favour of independence; indeed, it would be churlish of me, or others, to denigrate the party for taking that view. Perhaps I have in the past been overly aggressive in my criticism of Plaid Cymru for its position, but I judge it to be the wrong solution for Wales, and votes in successive elections have shown that there is nothing like a majority in Wales in favour of independence.

I will now outline the Liberal Democrats' proposals regarding the Richard commission. For primary legislation to be successfully enacted in Wales, a new legislature is required with the ability to scrutinise as well as deliver Welsh policy. Our preferred model is that of a Welsh senate. Welsh Liberal Democrats also propose that Welsh funding needs be met in the context of a federal United Kingdom, and that the Barnett formula should be replaced with a new, needs-based funding formula that will take account of disparities throughout the UK. It is only the Government's inertia that has prevented change; apathy has been the path of least resistance. It is surely a compelling argument that the architect of the Barnett formula thinks that it should be replaced with something fairer. Ministers should seriously consider making that change, regardless of what they think about other aspects of the Assembly.

The Richard commission also recommends that the Welsh electorate should elect 80 members to the senate. We agree, and we believe that they should be elected using a proportional voting system, to ensure that the will of the Welsh electorate is broadly reflected in the senate's political make-up. Our preferred option is the single transferable vote, whereby the electorate elect local representatives in multi-Member constituencies. Again, to the credit of Ministers and the Government, we are now closer to a proportional system than we have ever been in this country. In that sense, the Government have shown their willingness to update the rather arcane first-past-the-post system. We now have an opportunity to push that little bit further.

Mr. Simon Thomas: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether there would be a reduction in the number of Welsh MPs under the proposals that he has outlined, and if so, which one of his party's two would go?

Lembit Öpik: On the first point, under our proposed system there would be a reduction, as long as the Welsh Assembly was bolstered with law-making powers similar to those of the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. Hain: How many MPs?

Lembit Öpik: I was coming to that. On the numbers, it is not for me to outline how the boundaries would be redrawn, although that is obviously a matter of great interest to us all, because we have a vested interest in them.

Mr. Hain: I am testing the hon. Gentleman's patience, but what he says is interesting. The number of directly elected Assembly Members is linked to the

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number of MPs. Given that, is he suggesting a reduction in the number of directly elected constituency AMs, which would follow from a reduction in the number of MPs, or is he suggesting different constituencies?

Lembit Öpik: Yes, in that sense we would reduce the number of directly elected AMs to zero, because we would change the system. We would introduce a multi-seat STV system, which is similar to the method used for European elections.

To finish my comments on redrawing boundaries and reducing numbers, I point out that it would not be appropriate for me to redraw those boundaries in a speech, or for us to do so as a party, because that must surely be done independently. Doing so of course presents no fear for my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire or for myself, because of the enormous gains that the Liberal Democrats will make under any system, as a result of the public's approbation for our policies.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's patience. Could he clarify what size he would like the multi-Member constituencies to be?

Lembit Öpik: They are matters for the boundary commission for Wales. I would be happy to have a chat with the hon. Gentleman in the break between this sitting and the afternoon sitting. However, as someone who does not spend all his time thinking about various electoral systems, I suggest that such matters are best left to the experts.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about the boundary commission for Wales, but the Richard commission's recommendation is to merge two or three constituencies. Does he agree that there is an important link between an elected Member and a constituency boundary, which is manageable, and that if two constituencies—let us say his own and that of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire—were linked, it would not be practical for Members to carry out their duties?

 
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Prepared 6 July 2004