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Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) (Lab): Given that many Members want to speak in this debate, and that I intend to construct my contribution around a series of questions, may I suggest to the Secretary of State that he resists the temptation to try to answer them as we go along? I am happy to wait and to hear his answers—hopefully—in the winding-up speech.

The Secretary of State may be a little surprised to hear me start with a welcome, albeit a limited one, for the introduction of a referendum process, which is at least preferable to what was proposed by the Richard commission. What worries me is that the Bill as drafted allows for repeated referendums, until a majority of at least one is eventually achieved. That could conceivably be open to exploitation for political expediency—there
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could be a campaign of attrition until a majority is won. So why has the Secretary of State ignored the recommendation of the Welsh Affairs Committee that there be a minimum interval between referendums of at least two terms of the Assembly, which is eight years? Also, why has he ignored the First Minister's observation, in answer to question 226 in the Select Committee's report, that the interval would probably be a minimum of one generation, which is 20 years? Why has he even ignored his own contribution in that same question, in which he said that the proposal

I must admit that if there were a vote on Second Reading, I would be unable to support the Bill—I would not actually oppose it—because of the absence of such a provision.

Is it technically possible—I emphasise the word "technically"; I am not asking whether this is the intention—that under the Bill as drafted, which provides for a succession of orders, the full legislative objective could be achieved without a referendum? As I understand it, it could. It might take a long time, but a succession of orders could achieve that objective. If they could achieve that objective—I may be wrong—would there be any effect if there were a referendum and it returned a no vote, or would we go back to a system of orders and the inevitable chipping away at the devolution process?

I am also concerned about what I call the Trojan horse clause. Page 20 of the Wales Office's guide to the Bill points out that if just one non-controversial, innocuous order is passed, a policy area is opened. Once that happens, the Assembly is free to introduce new measures with different policy objectives, without having to go for a further order. It is a form of creeping devolution.

In view of that, and because that is a result of the order process proposed, it is important that we examine how thorough and efficient are the safeguards provided under the order process, in both the Lords and the Commons. My right hon. Friend knows, as I and every other Member of this House know, that a one and a half hour order cannot be amended. By the time that the Front Bench speeches have finished, there is hardly any time for any alternative opinion. Indeed, by the nature of the House of Commons, it is improbable that the House would be packed with English Members who were gasping to hear the detailed reasons why the order should not be introduced.

My right hon. Friend said that the answer would be in the draft Bill. I am a great enthusiast, as is the Liaison Committee which I chair, for the draft Bill process, but it is clear constitutionally that the draft Bill process recommendations are not binding on the Secretary of State. It is up to his whim whether he accepts them. I do not disagree that the Bill is a fair representation of his opinions but, as he told the Committee, he is an enthusiastic supporter of devolution of the full legislative process. We are therefore left with some scepticism about the effectiveness of the draft process.

In addition, I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is up to the House to decide the form of draft Committee. I can see the case for a Joint Committee between the House and the Assembly, as has happened on other issues. However, as I shall suggest to the Liaison
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Committee, another element is necessary, otherwise the two groups that make up the Select Committee would both be predominantly in favour of devolution going as far as possible. Therefore, the Joint Committee needs an element that would look after the interests of the House of Commons and consider the constitutional impact of the propositions outside Wales. My colleagues on the Liaison Committee and I will consider the possibility of the Constitutional Affairs Committee also being represented.

Now we come to the Lords end. As I understand the evidence that my right hon. Friend gave to the Select Committee, he clearly envisages that what is in effect the Parliament Act process would apply if the Lords rejected the order. So we have a process in the Commons that will be meaningless and a whipped majority will drift the provisions through. In the Lords, my right hon. Friend has cut the legs from under what is intended as a process of scrutiny on behalf of Parliament. It would be interesting to hear my right hon. Friend's evidence on whether the Parliament Act would be appropriate. The propositions before us certainly appeared in the White Paper that was published in June, after the election. They were embodied in a Bill that appeared six months after the election, in December.

My right hon. Friend says that there was pre-election consultation but, as far as we can gather, that consultation was on the Richard commission, which the Bill and the White Paper effectively reject. My right hon. Friend was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), in question 195:

That is not in Richard, which was part of the consultation; it is a clear and specific question. My right hon. Friend answered:

That is fascinating, but it is less than precise about what consultation there was with the public, so will my right hon. Friend put in the Library all the consultation documents that he released during the election that outline the procedures covered in the Bill?

I am not surprised that my right hon. Friend suggested 2007, although Richard proposed 2011. Most people are not thinking that far ahead, but I have my retirement to think about and 2011 will be after I have retired, which is not to say that my retirement is relevant, but that the process would take place after the general election. The measure is an insurance policy—a just-in-case provision. While a Labour Government are in office my right hon. Friend wants to get as much slammed through under the order process as he can get away with.

Mrs. Gillan: I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman says. Is it not fair to say that as the First Minister plans to retire in 2009, the measure could be an attempt to put on the statute book something that will act as a memorial and a tribute both to the Secretary of
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State, as he moves on and a Conservative Government take over, and to the First Minister in Wales? It would grant more powers to the Assembly by the back door.

Mr. Alan Williams: That suggests a degree of egocentricity on the part of my right hon. Friend that no one would associate with him. In fact, he has introduced a salami-slicing provision—a series of orders that one by one will chip away at the powers of the House and give them to the Assembly. We are still not clear what the consultation was about.

I conclude on a point that has been touched on and which is profoundly important. The House of Commons is sleepwalking and does not quite understand what the devolution process is about, and I suspect that many of my English colleagues have not understood what it might mean for them. Scotland already has its devolution. As Wales spreads its devolutionary catchment, increasingly larger parts of the legislation going through the House of Commons will be England-only. It will not apply in Wales or in Scotland.

I abstained on tuition charges because I felt that I should not vote on them, but we have an anomalous situation whereby Scottish and Welsh Members, who are not answerable to English constituencies, will vote to impose on them measures that will not apply in Scotland or Wales. That affronts my concept of the democratic accountability that I thought existed in our country.

In the atmosphere that has been partially created by the act of devolution—making the Welsh more Welsh and the Scots more Scottish—there is a seeping effect of making the English more English. I suspect that there is a limit to how long the English electorate will put up with a situation where Welsh and Scottish votes determine what they get, especially if there was a Government with an overall UK majority but only a minority of votes in England. I do not think that the Government have even considered the possible repercussions for my party in the future, when the English rumble the effect of what we are putting through the House. There will be a backlash, and at some stage the issue and the policy will come back to bite us.

5.35 pm

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