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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I welcome the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) to her new Front-Bench role on Welsh matters. The early indications are that she will, indeed, be truly inclusive and take a positive approach. That will certainly endear her to her three Conservative Members from Wales.
I also pay tribute to Merlyn Rees, who made a tremendous contribution to Northern Ireland affairshe will be considerably missed in the other place, where he was active until Decemberand to Tony Banks, with whom I had considerable interactions, particularly on the vexatious issue of fox hunting. Irrespective of whether I agreed with him, I think that the House can agree that he made a difference and left an indelible mark on parliamentary matters, and to that extent, British politics will be worse off without him.
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I apologise to the House on account of the fact that, on this occasion, I may have to be a little rude and leave at about four minutes to 6, as I am chairing an important meeting concerning the local difficulties facing my party. Although I pay tribute, as leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, to the loyalty of my hon. Friends the Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) and for Ceredigion (Mark Williams), I recognise that my absence may give them the opportunity to call for my resignation. I intend to fight on and consider my position to be tenable.
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham suggested that I was standing for the presidency of my party. I can tell her that no vacancy currently exists for the presidency. However, if called upon to serve humanity in that way, I may allow my name to go forward. I thank the hon. Lady for her offer of support.
As is the fashion at the moment among young Opposition MPs, it is necessary to pay tribute to the Government. Labour deserve some credit for grasping the nettle in 1998 and kick-starting the devolution process in 1997. The Bill that the Government presented then was a cautious one; it created the Welsh Assembly, but it kept the Assembly's powers firmly in check. In effect, Westminster still ran a large part of the show. The Government now have a mandate to give Wales the deal that it deservesan Assembly with primary powers.
Polls suggest that the Welsh public support such a move, and all but one of the major parties seem wholly to support moves toward primary powers. The Richard commission set out a clear path for a proper devolution settlement. Having surveyed all the issues in unique detail, Lord Richard and his colleagues concluded that the best way forward for Wales was, first, to create an 80-Member Assembly, with primary law-making powers, elected by a single-transferable-vote system.
Ian Lucas: The hon. Gentleman suggests that the Richard commission gave detailed consideration to relevant matters in Wales. A very important issue for his constituency and mine is the provision of public services from England to Welsh constituents. The Richard commission did not cover that in any detail at allor can he perhaps enlighten me and tell me where in the Richard commission report it was?
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is right, but in many ways that is a tactical matter. The way in which the Assembly exercises those powers is a strategic question. He and I and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire all have issues about health and other provision across the border, but it is probably more appropriate for us to discuss those specific matters in a debate other than one that deals with these weighty constitutional matters, although the hon. Gentleman may want to discuss that issue in more detail in his own contribution.
The Richard commission also said that law-making powers would be more effectively dispatched by an 80-Member Assembly. That is the model that Welsh Liberal Democrats want to see put in place. Not only would it create a powerful and professional Welsh senate and a proportional political body with the responsibilities and capacity to move Wales forward,
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but it would also resolve the issues that the Secretary of State for Wales was trying to grapple with in terms of the frictions that he observes between list Members and constituency Members of the Assembly.
Unfortunately, the Bill comes nowhere near what Lord Richard advocated and what the Welsh Liberal Democrats and, in my judgment, a very large proportion of the people of Wales would like. In its current form, the Bill is flawed, patronising and limited. Its main problem is that it concentrates great power in the figure of the Secretary of State for Wales and, in doing so, could thrust the devolution process into complete limbo for decades. I give considerable praise to the current Secretary of State, who I believe is genuinely committed to devolution, but there is no guarantee that his successors will share his enthusiasm. In fact, he highlighted a possible risk whereby a Secretary of State for Wales might decide to stamp on the requests of the Assembly and therefore thwart devolution.
Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. He may agree that it is not a question of whether the Secretary of State decides to stamp on the Assembly. The fact that he has these draconian Executive powers places the Assembly under his administrative tutelage. That is the reality of the arrangement that is being sold to the Welsh people, as though the Assembly were getting a proper legislative function, which it is not.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman makes an insightful point. Although he and his party may be coming at the issue from a different direction from my party and, I suspect, Plaid Cymru, the inference is nevertheless the same. If the Secretary of State decided not to grant additional powers in the context of the Bill, he or she could literally prevent those powers from being passed.
Mr. Hain: That exists now. Under existing procedures, a Secretary of State, myself included, could decide not to introduce a Bill requested by the Assembly. Ironically, the hon. Gentleman and the shadow Attorney-General are endorsing my argument that Parliament remains in charge and that the first stage of a modest increase in powers does not change the settlement at all. That is the reality. If that does not work, a move to primary powers could take place subject to a referendum. That is the point.
Lembit Öpik: Although I suspect that it has happened by accident, we violently agree. The Secretary of State appears to be trying to mollify not necessarily those on the Conservative Front Bench but the troublesome trio who sit behind them and who want to be reassured that there is no substantial change to the settlement. However, that does not work for the Liberal Democrats or, I imagine, for Plaid Cymru, as we believe that the Bill presents an opportunity to devolve primary powers in a fashion that is similar to the Scottish model rather than maintaining so much influence in the hands of the Secretary of State for Wales that, ultimately, an anti-devolution Secretary of State could postpone things.
: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the current settlement was endorsed by the people of Wales
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in a referendum and that we are now looking to give greater powers to the Welsh Assembly? Irrespective of whether we move to primary powers for which there would be a referendum, does he agree that the people of Wales must be trusted? They voted once for what we have now and they must be allowed to vote again for a change in the settlement.
I shall finish on this point. Ironically, the Secretary of State and the Conservatives are trying to resist what the Liberal Democrats wantfor trust to be placed in the Assembly to dispatch primary powers in a fashion similar to the Scottish Parliament and for trust to be placed in the Welsh people, through the electoral process, to elect Assembly Members whom they trust with those responsibilities. As it is at the moment, the Secretary of State's office has the enormous power to run with or kill legislation.
We have seen the taming of the three Welsh Conservative Members. It is a delight to note the influence that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham has already had, but I am more than a little surprised by their mouse-like silence. The guns of Monmouth have been silenced, and the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) has been tamed by the new shadow Secretary of State for Wales. However, I suspect that underneath their docile fac"ade, those three hon. Members are still the same people whom we knew and loved before. I would counsel the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) that, as the Liberal Democrats know all too well, a revolution can start with a whisper. If the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham wishes to lead her Back-Bench colleagues through the Lobby, she must explain what the transformation on the road to Damascus has been framed on. If the Conservatives really want to reassure us that they are pro-devolution, they must explain why, as the Secretary of State pointed out, they have tabled a reasoned amendment that would abolish the Bill before it had received its Second Readingthat is the nature of the vote. I have heard the words of the hon. Lady and her boss, but it will take more than words to convince me that there has been such a transformation and that a Conservative Government would be committed to devolution in the way in which I have described.
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