Report of the Richard Commission

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Lembit Öpik: No. The Richard commission has been fairly clear about its proposals—

Albert Owen: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with them?

Lembit Öpik: I agree with multi-seat STV—that is not a matter of controversy. The hon. Gentleman can take a different view, but I have been pretty clear about the Liberal Democrats' view. The issue is not the clarity of the position, but where we all stand. It would therefore be helpful to hear where the Labour party stands on such matters, so as to clarify the Government's position overall. I suspect that there are splits.

Welsh Liberal Democrats propose that a Welsh legislature should, subject to a referendum for the Welsh people, be able to vary the level of income tax in Wales to 3 per cent. There is a case for that, because it is an area of the Assembly's power that is quantitatively different from other that might be proposed. We also support a fully independent and impartial Welsh civil service, with clear lines of

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accountability and responsibility to Wales, and a greater capacity for specifically Welsh policy making.

I look forward to the Conservative party's contribution, because I am slightly at a loss to understand where it stands on these matters. The leader of the Conservative party has made some pretty scathing comments in the past. On one occasion, for example, he said:

    ''Unlike the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly will not have tax-raising powers. It will not have the power to legislate on local government, on health, on education, on housing or on transport. If the Scottish Parliament is like an English parish council, how would the Prime Minister describe the Welsh Assembly? Would he describe it as a meeting of church wardens?''—[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 312, c. 731.]

The implication is clearly that the Conservative party supports the idea of giving the Welsh Assembly greater powers. If that is not the case, the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) has the opportunity to intervene and clarify the position.

Mr. Wiggin: I shall be very happy to clarify my party's position in my speech.

Lembit Öpik: The people of Wales will be flocking around their televisions in anticipation of the hon. Gentleman's speech.

Over the past 40 years, the development of the Welsh nation, and its self-confidence as part of the UK, have evolved apace. It has been a continuous, but often messy process, and the Richard report is an important next step. Liberal leaders such as Clement Davies have made a great contribution to that process. Hon. Members can read all about Mr. Davies in a book by Alun Wyburn-Powell; indeed, I will lend my copy to those who are interested. Many of those who have followed the Liberal tradition will be pleased with how far the Government have taken Welsh devolution. No one can take that away from Ministers. However, now is the time for clarity, and if we are to make significant further progress, it would be helpful if the Wales Office were willing to state its position with the same clarity as Rhodri Morgan.

The Assembly is often criticised for not delivering for Wales, but it has lacked the capacity to do so in some areas. The Richard report sets out a timetable for delivery, and I trust that those politicians who have the interests of Welsh people at heart will support it.

10.7 am

Denzil Davies (Llanelli) (Lab): I congratulate Lord Richard and the members of the commission on an excellent report. It makes a good analysis of devolution; it is clear; its recommendations are fairly concise; and, in so far as logic determines such matters, it is logical.

As we have heard, the main recommendation is that there should be a legislative Assembly with primary powers covering all devolved issues. Leaving aside tax-varying powers, I am not sure whether those arrangements would go as far as the Scottish model, but they come fairly close. That is a radical recommendation. Indeed, when we consider that the report also recommends changing representation in

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Cardiff from 60 to 80 Members, perhaps resulting—I shall return to this—in changes to representation in Westminster and the voting system for the Assembly, we realise that the proposed changes are quite profound. We are moving from administrative devolution to almost full legislative devolution. If the recommendations are accepted, most people would, on balance, say that we should have a referendum of the Welsh people.

I have no objection in principle to the proposals; indeed, I am quite impressed by the analysis and the recommendations. I agree with the Secretary of State that the Assembly has been a success. It is not easy to graft devolution on to a centralised state such as that in Britain, because it is foreign to such states. Nevertheless, it has worked well. However, after only five years of devolution, now is not the time to begin another three or four years of constitution making in Wales. That would involve major changes, with most of the time being taken up in arguing about them and introducing them. However, such changes are not a priority for Wales at the moment. They may be a priority for the chattering classes of Dinas Powis, but not for the Welsh economy or for most people in Wales. Governments cannot do too many things. If they concentrate on one area, albeit a major constitutional one, it is very difficult to deal with all the other matters at the same time.

The Secretary of State rightly said that the Welsh economy is doing well, and things have improved in the past seven years. However, we should be clear that Wales still has major economic problems, which are caused mainly by the decline of our industrial base. We do not always realise the enormous consequences of that decline for our economy and our social cohesion.

Our gross domestic product is still well below that of the average for the United Kingdom, and we have not made up much ground in the past few years. That is not criticism, but reality. Frankly, four years of discussion and debate about the constitution will have no effect, except a bad one, on the real problems of the economy. Legislation of whatever type is really quite irrelevant to economic matters in the globalised world in which we live, and the priority of examining the economy will therefore be gradually pushed to one side.

The health service in Wales is under tremendous pressure. There has been progress, and money has been put in, but we have a long way to go. Will we put that problem to one side by talking about and trying to write a constitution? There is also the matter of education, and the need to rebuild in our communities the social and moral cohesion that has been shattered by the decline in industry. Those are the priorities for Wales in the next five years. On top of that is the upheaval in the electoral system.

The commission recommends an 80-Member Assembly. I do not dispute that recommendation. I read its analysis and believe that it is probably a good one. It has done its job as well as it can, and I accept its conclusion that the number of AMs would have to increase by a third, but I do not believe that people in Wales are ready to accept another increase in the number of political classes in Wales. We already have

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quangos, health boards, local government, partnerships, co-ordinators, bodies and committees—we do love our committees. If the ancient mariner returned to Wales and stopped one in three people, at least one of them would be a member of the political or bureaucratic classes in Wales. We should be careful as we graft more and more administration on to an economy that still does not produce enough wealth.

There will, of course, be 40 of us here in addition to the 80 in Cardiff. The cry from the bay would be, ''Off with their heads.'' When, in interviews for Welsh-language and English-language radio in Wales, I suggest that perhaps we should not reduce the number of Welsh MPs here, I am told that I have a vested interest. No doubt we all have a vested interest, but I hope that the argument can be lifted to a higher level. Again, I accept the argument that if we are to reduce the number of Members in Cardiff, which is currently 80, and have legislative devolution with primary powers, we have to ask why we need another 40 Members here. We currently have a total of 120 Members, quite apart from all the people that we have in Wales. I disagree with the Secretary of State on that point. On the other hand, there are counter-arguments that are also very strong.

Mr. Llwyd: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we could, with the proper will, do away with at least half of the quangos, transferring those responsibilities to the National Assembly? That would make it far more accountable and would be a major step forward. Indeed, at one stage I thought that his party was intent on doing that.

Denzil Davies: I, too, thought that we were going to do that. I remember people saying that we should make a bonfire of the quangos, but it has not happened. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, although what he suggests would obviously increase the Assembly's work load.

I return to our little 40. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said that he wanted to reduce the number and went on to talk about the Barnett formula. We are discarding that formula; instead, we will have something called a needs-based formula. I have not seen the equation yet—I have no doubt that it will be page after page of algebra—but it probably can be done. Of course, whether Wales comes out better or worse will depend on what is fed into the computer.

Yes, let us have a needs-based formula. It is a glib, easy phrase. The use of such a formula will be a major issue in the next Parliament because, if the Government carry their policy through, we shall have English regional devolution. The cry for a needs-based formula comes also from the north-east and north of England. If that is to be a major issue for the next Parliament—if it is something that we all want—it would make no sense to reduce the number of Welsh MPs. We need as many as possible here, to try to ensure a reasonable settlement for Wales. That, again, will present some difficulties.

I am sorry to do it, but I have to raise the West Lothian question. It has not gone away, and neither has the Member who first asked it. The Government

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tried to fudge their answer to that question by reducing the number of Scottish MPs. However, that did not solve the problem for Scotland, where Members for Scotland vote on specifically English and Welsh matters. If we have the sort of devolution recommended by the Richard commission, the problem will be compounded. We will then have Welsh Members thinking, quite reasonably, that they should not vote on English matters, just as we would not want to see English Members voting on Welsh matters.

I do not know whether we ever can resolve the problem, but there is no point in pretending that it has gone away. There may be a movement towards some sort of English parliament being part of the UK Parliament. The hon. Member for Ceredigion nods; perhaps he is nodding in agreement. However, I would not wish to see that; it would hold dangers for Wales, as it is the UK Parliament that votes the funds. Although this Parliament would be voting the money, it would not be beneficial to Wales if this place were to see itself more and more as representing the English majority.

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