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Welsh Grand Committee Debates

Report of the Richard Commission

Welsh Grand Committee

Tuesday 6 July 2004



[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Report of the Richard Commission

Motion made, and Question proposed [this day],

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

2 pm

Question again proposed.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): The instability inherent in the settlement should be our main concern and our main reason for demanding change—the members of the Richard commission agreed unanimously about that. Much has been made of the commission's political complexion, but two of its members are professional Labour politicians, while another is a strong supporter of causes to the left of the Labour party. All its members deserve our respect, and they spent a great deal of time on the report before reaching the unanimous conclusion that the present set-up cannot continue. Those who argue otherwise belong to the steady-as-she-sinks group, and one cannot take that line with any conviction, because devolution really is in trouble.

I mentioned referendums earlier, and perhaps I could say a word about my trepidation as regards a referendum on this issue. A referendum would harm Wales and undermine our attempts to knit our community together in the way that we should. Throughout the centuries, our problem has been the great divisions between us, with each community against the other. A referendum would not solve that problem; it would simply deepen the divisions and expose the wounds.

A former mayor of Caernarfon told me a story that reflected the remoteness of Welsh life. I went to school at the same time as him, and it certainly reflected my experience. We used to have collections for the third world, but they were known as collections for black babies. They were for a charity in Africa. I see others of a similar vintage nodding.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Catholic schools.

Paul Flynn: Indeed, it was a Catholic school. I think that my family was supporting most of Africa at the time. Those who go to Catholic schools now will know of the frequent demands from the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development. That aside, the former mayor asked a fellow pupil, ''Where exactly do these black babies live?'' His companion said, ''I'm not exactly sure, but it is somewhere south of Betws-y-coed.''

Following devolution, every area in Wales saw almost every other area in Wales as bandit country. A councillor from Pembrokeshire said that if devolution came, she and her people would be dominated by the urban socialists from the valleys and cities of south

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Wales—a terrible threat. People in Wrexham were upset about it, too, and a memorable leader in the Wrexham Leader said, ''We have been invited to embrace devolution with both hands. We suggest you reject it with two fingers.''

People in the Welsh-speaking area in north Wales said that they did not want to be dominated by English speakers from the south. Wilfred Wooler, from Cardiff, led a campaign, saying that his children would not have the chance of a job in future, because all the jobs would be taken by English speakers. The ultimate in parochialism, however, was an advert in the Herald of the Hills—my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has great connections with the free press. Leo Abse—a Labour Member at the time—bought a half-page advertisement explaining to the good people of Pontypool and Cwmbran the dire consequences of devolution. The point of the advert was that if devolution came, all his constituents' jobs would be taken by Welsh speakers from Cardiff. If we have a referendum, the nation will self-lacerate. That will not solve our problems; it will make our divisions deeper.

I pay tribute to the Conservatives and the other parties for what they have done on the issue—the times when we make progress are those when we work together. It was the Conservatives who introduced S4C, albeit under great pressure, because they did not really want to do so. Sadly, those of us in the Labour party who had campaigned on the issue under a previous Labour Government did not make any progress. Indeed, it looked like the idea was going to be turned down in 1979, but the Conservatives implemented it. To their great credit, they also widened access to Welsh education under Wyn Roberts. What a great boon that is. Even if we ignore the value to us as Welsh men and women of ensuring the future of that beautiful ancient language, it is still a marvellous educational advantage.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab): My hon. Friend has made several telling points against referendums in general and the arguments on both sides that were made at the time of earlier referendums. However, like it or not, and despite all the problems of referendums, the Assembly was set up because of a referendum. Roughly 50 per cent. of the people voted; 25 per cent. voted for and 25 per cent. voted against. In those circumstances people will feel somewhat aggrieved about any major change that is made without going back to the people.

Paul Flynn: I think that people felt aggrieved at the time of the last referendum because they had such a limited choice. I did not vote with any enthusiasm for the set-up. It was the result of a shabby compromise made in this place between people who were opposed to any kind of devolution and those who were in favour of various types of devolution. I do not know of anyone who was in favour of the devolved Assembly as we set it up.

Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West) (Lab): I am a lower-case nationalist, attracted by the romantic picture of Wales and its language offered by my hon. Friend, but none the less I think that we must work in a hard-headed way and accept that close integration with

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England is sometimes in the national interest of Wales; for example, in the matter of delivery of services and the economy, the issues that my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies) referred to this morning.

My hon. Friend is doing a disservice to those who took part in the yes campaign by suggesting that we did not think that what was on offer was a perfectly sustainable compromise.

Paul Flynn: My hon. Friend may have been the one who was in favour. I am discussing the way the proposal emerged. My hon. Friend was not a Member of the House at the time. It was the result of a deal, which, if I remember correctly, involved compromises by those who wanted the Scottish kind of devolved Assembly and those who were opposed to any kind of devolution. As a result, those of us who wanted a stronger and more stable Assembly gave in, thinking that we could bring it about as part of a manifesto programme, without a damaging referendum.

If we must have a referendum we want a better choice. The last time, many people said that what made them sore was getting something inferior to what Scotland was getting; they wanted to know why that was and opposed the plan on that basis. Any referendum must give people proper choices and a choice of full independence. A substantial number of people of all parties say, when they are polled, that they would like the kind of independence that other nations have. That probably would not be the winning option, but it certainly must be a choice. We cannot pretend that we have given people a referendum and allowed them to declare their views if we give them a limited choice as happened last time: half a Parliament or no Parliament. That was a poor choice and left us where we are now—with an Assembly that is ham-strung because it lacks powers.

A report was published last week in Europe about the use of languages, and bilingualism generally, not as an issue of nationalism or focusing on any particular language, but arguing that children who have the opportunity to speak more than one language grow up to be more intelligent. It tests them and stretches their minds. It is understood that language is not just a simple way of communicating; it is using idioms in a special way. Language learning gives children a great educational advantage. We know from the success of our Welsh schools that children there are particularly adept, learning the two languages and a third as well. An entrée to the third language is provided.

The Institute of Welsh Politics report was very interesting and I urge hon. Members to read it. It stated that public opinion had changed dramatically, with a doubling of the number of people enthusiastic about devolution, and a halving of the number opposed. It also made a point about the special character of Wales, and the reason why people felt working class. That has not changed at all, because of our tradition of being communitarian and not individualistic. If there is any great divide between England and us, that is it.

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Let us look at the history of Welsh literature, and the works of Gwenallt and those who wrote about the quarrymen in north Wales. They were talking about the folk, y werin, and the English were the cracach. That is part of our history as a nation. The director of the Institute of Welsh Politics, which produced the report, said:

    ''The real divide isn't left right, but individual or communitarian.''

He went on to say:

    ''Our data shows very clearly that the people of Wales have warmed to the idea of devolution. It shows that the people have got a taste for more.''

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): As I follow the hon. Gentleman's argument, I see that he, like me, is not necessarily in favour of a referendum to extend the powers of devolution. If a referendum were to take place, I guess that the hon. Gentleman and I would campaign for more powers. However, what would the people who are in favour of a referendum campaign for?

Paul Flynn: I shall contemplate that. I am delighted to see the unity between the two Liberal Democrat Members; sitting wedged together, we realise that there are different facets of opinion among Labour Members because we have the luxury of being able to have a number of opinions.

If we want to see any other proof, in spite of all the negative publicity and press attacks on the Assembly and Labour, one way is to look at the results of the elections in Wales. A great deal was written about the elections as a bad result for Labour. A historically stupid front page by The Western Mail had a picture of Rhodri Morgan and the Prime Minister, with the headline ''Exit for Blair and Morgan''. If they had waited for Sunday, when they could have seen the true results of the vote on the European result, they would have seen that a more appropriate headline would have been ''Exit for Bourne and Howard''. It was a remarkably poor result for our main opposition in Wales, Plaid Cymru, who lost 10 per cent. of their vote and for the Tories, who lost 3 per cent. of their vote. Labour gained nearly 1 per cent.

That was the election that really mattered. Everyone in Wales took part in an election where they had a choice of all parties; that was the European vote. There was certainly very discriminatory voting in other areas, as people voted against certain councils and council leaders, but the all-Wales vote was a hugely encouraging one for us, with Labour on 32 per cent. and the Conservatives way down on 19 per cent. If there is a view of the Assembly in Wales, and the Assembly colours all opinion and all things, it is certainly not reflected in a desertion of the ballot box in Wales. It was a splendid result for Labour, and part of the credit for that must go to the Welsh Assembly for their work.

Our role as a generation of politicians is not about the practical things, important as they are—we will not be remembered for them. We spend most of lives trying to ensure that the economic base of our country is secure. However, we should be concerned about other things, for which we will be remembered. There

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is a marvellous arts festival going on in Newport at the moment, where people are creating works of art in a Celtic-Roman tradition. Those will last for a long time in the memory. That is what we remember: the poetry, the literature, the art. It is Michelangelo's work that we remember, not the man in the factory that made his paints or his accountant.

As a nation, we live in a fortunate time as the only generation that has restored dignity and pride to Wales, with our own Assembly—the first for six centuries—on the land of our own country. Our job on Richard is to make sure that it is not unstable, and that the partnership is an equal partnership at least. It will fail in the future if there are Governments of different colours. As Welsh politicians, it is our job to assure that we give our nation its own Government, which is strong and stable.

2.15 pm


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Prepared 6 July 2004