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Devolution has proved to be a success, both for Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. By establishing the National Assembly for Wales in 1999, following the endorsement of a referendum, the Government have moved the decision-making process closer to the people.
Six years on, the benefits can be clearly seen: record levels of employment, rising standards in education, and groundbreaking initiatives such as the Children's Commissioner, free bus travel for the over-60s and disabled, and Assembly learning grants. With equal numbers of male and female Members, and pioneering commitments to open government, sustainable development and equal opportunities, the Assembly has been a progressive institution attracting interest from around the world.
After the experience of six years of devolution and two full sets of elections, it is now appropriate to review and improve the working of the Assembly, not to make change for change's sake but to ensure that it continues to meet people's needs in Wales and remains accessible and accountable to them.
The White Paper therefore covers three key issues, which the Government believe need to be tackled to deliver better governance for Wales. It addresses the response of the National Assembly to the report of the commission on its powers and electoral arrangements, chaired by Lord Richard of Ammanford, and the commitments made in the Labour party's general election manifesto.
First, the White Paper contains the Government's proposals for legislation to effect a formal separation between the Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government. The lack of a clear separation between the Assembly itself and Assembly Ministers and the civil servants working for them has generated confusion about who is responsible for decisions. Under the corporate structure, Ministers are in the contradictory position of sitting as members of subject Committees meant to scrutinise their decisions.
As a first step, the Government have decided, from now onwards, to draft parliamentary Bills in a way that gives the Assembly wider and more permissive powers to determine the detail of how the provisions should be implemented in Wales. That will not require any change to the Government of Wales Act 1998, but it will require a more consistent approach to drafting legislation for Wales.
As a second step, we propose to put in place a streamlined procedure enabling Parliament to give the Assembly powers to modify legislation or to make new provision on specific matters or defined areas of policy within, and only within, the fields in which the Assembly currently exercises functions.
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Orders in Council conferring those powers would be made at the request of the Assembly Government, and would be laid by the Secretary of State and be subject to specific authorisation by both Houses of Parliament through the affirmative resolution procedures. That means that more legislation will be made in Wales and that the Assembly Government will be able to secure more effectively and more quickly the legislative tools they need to get on with the job of building a world-class Wales with a globally competitive economy and high-quality public services.
Those enhanced legislative powers are adaptations of the current settlement and do not require a referendum. However, it may prove in the future that even those additional powers and streamlined procedures are still insufficient to address the Assembly's needs.
The Government have therefore agreed to provide the option of further enhanced law-making powers. This would mean transferring primary legislative powers over all devolved fields direct to the Assembly. But, as a fundamental change to the Welsh devolution settlement, that option would require the support of the electorate through a post-legislative referendum, triggered by, first, a two-thirds majority of Assembly Members, and secondly, a vote in Parliament. The Government envisage no particular timetable for this, as it would be dependent on a consensus, which certainly does not exist at present.
The history of Welsh devolution referendums is salutary. The big No vote in 1979 showed the dangers of conducting a referendum before sufficient consensus had emerged, and the Government remain conscious of the narrow majority in 1997, when it appeared that there was indeed such a consensus.
I note that the Richard commission itself saw the acquisition of primary powers as a process that would take a number of years to achieve, and not before 2011. My view is that the new Assembly arrangements should be allowed to bed down through the next Assembly termbetween 2007 and 2011and that there is no case for considering a referendum until at least the following Assembly term of office.
The people of Wales will wish to be convinced of the reasons for going beyond the new enhanced law-making powers before being invited to vote in a referendum. We therefore need some years' experience of the new system before we can make a proper assessment of when that might occur.
Finally, we propose to deal with a weakness in the existing additional-Member electoral system for the Assembly. There is widespread concern that the current operation of the regional list system in Wales is damaging the vital relationship between Members and their constituents, and indeed causing unnecessary tensions between Members themselves.
Losing candidates in constituency elections being able to become Assembly Members through the regional list, and thus claim to act as a Member for that very same constituency, both devalues the integrity of the electoral system in the eyes of the public and acts as a disincentive to voting in constituency elections. We therefore propose to amend the provisions of the 1998 Act to prevent individuals from simultaneously being candidates in constituency elections and eligible for election from party lists. Candidates will have to make a choice.
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I believe that the proposals in the White Paper provide a practical, common-sense road map to sensible, staged improvement of the existing arrangements. One of the key reasons why the transition to devolved government in Wales has been smooth is that we have moved at a pace determined by the people of Wales.
The White Paper reflects that guiding principle. It will provide a reformed structure that is more accountable, more participatory and more effective, giving more powers to the Assembly and leading to better governance for a better Wales. I commend it to the House.
Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): May I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement, although I regret that I did not have quite as much time to read it as the BBC, which was quoting him at 6.43 this morning? Given that he is a former Leader of the House, I was surprised by that, but I do not wish to be discourteous.
The Secretary of State referred to the three key areas in the White Paper in which changes are proposed. We welcome the proposal to separate the legislature and the Executive and to improve effective scrutiny, but the bulk of his statement dealt with the enhancing of legislative powers and changes to the electoral system, about which we have profound concerns. Why did he say that there is no consensus for a referendum today, and that it would be lost? Why has he made it clear that the White Paper proposes moves that would lead to full legislative powers for the Assembly? Why is he not interested in the views of the Welsh people after six years of Assembly government?
It would seem that the Secretary of State has recognised the need for the referendum, but why is he determined to put the cart before the horse? Why has he proposed to empower the Assembly in areas such as health and education? Is he pleased with their record? Is he pleased that waiting lists have increased by 80 per cent. under Labour, and that 61 schools have closed since 1997? Is he pleased that Wales will not have tuition fees? It seems odd that he has chosen to enhance powers in the areas that are failing the people of Wales the most. Is that because the White Paper is really intended to empower Labour in Wales, rather than the people of Wales?
How does the Secretary of State square all this with condensing consideration of a Bill and all its stages into a one and a half hour debate? What does he expect will be the impact on the role of Welsh MPs? What opportunities will there be for them to amend an Order in Council, or to comment on Welsh legislation? Does he therefore propose to address the size of Welsh constituencies, as a result of their inability to determine Welsh legislation, or would that not be in the interests of the Welsh Labour party? Welsh MPs are elected by the people. Has the Secretary of State learnt from his friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to go for stealth empowerment of the Welsh Assembly? If so, why has he increased the number of Wales Office staff in London?
I now turn to probably the most spiteful part of these proposalsthe changes in the electoral system. How many Labour Assembly Members will be standing as
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first-past-the-post candidates, considering that all of them stood as such candidates, and as list candidates, at the last election? Why did he not see the anomalies when he fought for this system in the first place? Will list Members be able to stand as first-past-the-post Members in other constituencies? Does he not agree that his comments on the Assembly electoral system are equally applicable to any proportional representation system?
The Secretary of State said that he has moved at a rate determined by the people of Wales, but the reality is that he has not asked them about this issue because he knows that they will regret this stealthy empowerment, spun as further powers semi-skimmed. In fact, this is simply a way of avoiding a referendum. Why has he rejected the increase in Assembly Members advised by the Richard commission? He has given the impression of providing semi-skimmed legislative powers, but this White Paper is the full-fat proposal, stuffed with E numbers and leading to all the attendant health repercussions. I can understand why he said what he said. This is the man who called the EU referendum a tidying-up exercise, so the whole House will understand why he is afraid of referendums.
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