|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because the policy line that we are taking is obviously deeply upsetting to him. My three colleagues who represent Welsh constituencies and I are firmly wedded to giving the people of Wales a choice and trusting them. If we have a situation under this legislation in which Cardiff ends up with greater powers while Labour Members in Westminster say that they have not devolved primary legislative powers, we are seeing an act of political prestidigitation from the Secretary of State that would make Paul Daniels look like an amateur. If I can make common cause with the leader of my party and my three colleagues who
9 Jan 2006 : Column 59
represent Wales to give the people of Wales a choice, I shall do so. I hope that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) will agree with me on that.
The Committee did not ask for a referendum. Although the hon. Lady is perfectly entitled to call for a referendum, that is a matter of judgment, and I do not think that it would be appropriate to hold such a referendum.
It is the same story with the Governmentthis is where I respond to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). Lord Richard called the Bill a "tortuous route" towards primary powers. We think that part of that tortuous route is putting a referendum between us and equivalence with Scotland. Hon. Members who feel that they cannot trust the Welsh Assembly, or trust the Welsh people to elect a competent Assembly, might want to support a referendum, but those of us who think that devolution means exactly that believe that the House has the authority and the duty to give the Welsh Assembly responsibilities comparable with those in Scotland.
Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): My hon. Friend mentioned the Richard commission, the report of which was well researched and clear. Does he agree that it is now the Government's responsibility to explain why they commissioned the work, but completely ignored what was said?
Lembit Öpik: As my hon. Friend rightly points out, those in government in Wales commissioned the report. It is interesting to note how quickly Labour Members want to distance themselves from those in government in the Cardiff Assembly. As my hon. Friend says, Lord Richard makes a serious and insightful contribution to devolution. The document shows that if an anti-devolution party were to come to power in Westminster, it could halt the devolution process indefinitely. Under the Bill, the scenario could occur whereby 90 per cent. of the Welsh public and 90 per cent. of the Assembly Members want primary powers and the Secretary of State could simply say no. Lord Richard was right to highlight the dangers, as is my hon. Friend.
The Bill was meant to tip the balance of power from Westminster to Cardiff, but instead it strengthens the Secretary of State's grip. On Orders in Council, primary powers and future referendums, he holds all the aces. The Welsh Assembly has to pull off a five-card trick to guarantee that it will get anywhere at all. If Labour were really pro-devolution, would it present us with this convoluted process, riddled with caveats and clauses, which could threaten the whole devolution process? At best, the impression is one of compromise. It seems as though the Government have conceded considerable ground to their own anti-devolution elements.
9 Jan 2006 : Column 60
That perhaps explains the evident friction between what Labour Ministers say in this House and what Labour Assembly Members say at the other end of the M4, in Cardiff. That transparently seems to be the case on the issue of dual candidacy, on which there is commonality among all the Opposition parties. The issue has attracted considerable attention and will, I am sure, be discussed in Committee. Labour's policy of banning dual candidacy does not put our Secretary of State on quite the same moral level as Robert Mugabe, as somebody suggested, but there is little evidence that the measure is anything other than politically motivated.
Academics and non-partisan organisations, such as the Electoral Reform Society and the Electoral Commission, have all condemned the Government's proposals. Such people have found no evidence that dual candidacy, in the words of the Secretary of State,
Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman has just referred to himself as a democrat, so I must drag him back to the issue of giving the people of Wales a choice. Had it been left up to him, the people of the north-east would have had their regional tier of government. The fact is that they were given a referendum and they voted overwhelmingly against. What is he afraid of? Let us give the people a choice.
Lembit Öpik: As I said, the Liberal Democrats feel that, in essence, the Welsh Assembly deserves the same powers as the Scottish Parliament. We asked the people in Wales and we doubled the number of seats in Parliament. We increased our share of the vote and we anticipate that we will do well in the Welsh Assembly elections. Let us not dwell on the matter, which is a matter of judgment; the Liberal Democrats and, I suspect, Plaid Cymru believe that we do not need a referendum to move forward.
The main issue on the Bill is devolution and the extent of the powers available to the Welsh Assembly. We have an historic opportunity to give Wales what it deserves: a proper law-making senate, just like the Scottish Parliament. If Labour had followed the Richard commission, we would be much closer to having that, but it has categorically failed to do so.
The Bill nevertheless offers potential. With finance, there is a great opportunity finally to end the injustice of the Barnett formula and to replace it with something fairer. We can change that situation if we choose to do so, through our dialogues in the Committee sittings, as set out in the programme motion, with which we agree.
9 Jan 2006 : Column 61
We can talk about the other details and elements by passing the Bill on Second Reading and seeking to amend it. In so doing, and in opposing the reasoned amendment because we feel it is anti-devolutionary, we must also be honest. The Government have an obligation to listen. Today, we shall support the Bill on the understanding that they will take feedback on the elements that are unsatisfactory and that can be improved upon in the interests of Wales. It will not be good enough if every Opposition amendment is simply defeated on the basis that the Government do not like to accept Opposition amendments and believe doing so to be weak.
We have major reservations about the Bill and major amendments to table in Committee. If they are taken on board, we will vote for the Bill to become law. If they are not, we will find it difficult to back a Bill that could set back the devolution process for 20 or 30 years. We believe that this Secretary of State is pro-devolution and that he has the opportunity to deliver to Wales what it requires. He can be a hero in the eyes of the Welsh. I hope that he does not sit on his hands and, by default, become a villain.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: May I say to hon. Members that no time limit was imposed on speeches by Back Benchers, but there is a long list of those wishing to speak in the remaining time available. If all hon. Members present are to make a contribution, 10 minutes would be a guide.
Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): I join in the comments made by Members of the House about Tony Banks and particularly, from a Welsh point of view, about Merlyn Rees. He was a Cilfynydd boy, and a distinguished Home Secretary and Northern Ireland Secretary. We will miss them both.
I also warmly welcome the new shadow Secretary of State for Wales to her post. I know that Wales has a special place in her heart and we wish her well in her new job. I particularly thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister for the enormous amount of work that they have put into the Bill and the arrangements before Parliament over the past months and years. The result of those efforts will be seen in the weeks ahead.
In 1979, my constituency of Torfaen voted overwhelmingly against devolution, and I was one of those who voted against. That was the case among most of the valley constituencies in south Wales and most of Wales itself. Some 20 years later, my constituency continued to vote against devolution, but it did so with the tiniest of majorities. I am unsure what it would do today were there a referendum on the issue, but I believe that it would probably vote in favour. There are two reasons for that.
The first, inevitably, is that the difference between 1979 and 1997 was nearly two decades of Conservative Government. In a country such as Wales, which overwhelmingly votes Labour, people felt that they needed the change. The second reason, which has not been touched on tremendously this evening but I am sure will be in the debates to follow, is that devolution is not about high constitutional principles but about how services are delivered to the people whom we represent.
9 Jan 2006 : Column 62
That is the basis of devolution: do people get better health services, schools, planning or local government? It is not only about whether services improve in quality but about whether government is accessible and more accountable to people. To a large extent, accessibility is the one area that my constituents would regard as having changed during all those years.
I am not saying for one second that improvements are not necessary in service delivery in Walesof course they are, as in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, people now understand that the Assembly exists to deliver the services so that people's lives can be improved. Does the Bill change that in any way? That is the question that we must consider on Second Reading and in Committee. The change in relation to the separation of powers is very important because the Assembly's corporate status simply has not worked and needs to be changed.
I was confused by the Conservative party's reasoned amendment. I am in favour of such amendments when they mean something, but this one means that the Opposition are inviting this House to turn down completely the Second Reading of the Bill. There is ample opportunity in Committee, on Report and in the other place to deal with the important issues. To reject the entire Bill on such a basis is wrong and is, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, bizarre.
The changes that will result from the Orders-in-Council provision are necessary. They are not especially dramatic and they will improve service delivery. In the past, including when I was Secretary of State, we transferred powers to the Assembly on several occasions. Fire services are an obvious example: they come under local government in England and should in Wales as well. There are other examples, including animal welfare, in which services or functions were devolved to the Assembly because it made sense so to do. The Order-in-Council procedure enhancing the legislative competence of the Assembly will make sense where the Assembly has responsibility.
I am a little doubtfulI agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the Father of the Houseabout the way in which Parliament will deal with scrutiny in that Order-in-Council process. I am not convinced that we have got that right yet. As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend knows that the Order-in-Council provision, which is used to legislate while there is direct rule for Northern Ireland, does not allow for amendments to be made to legislation and that there is a limit of one and a half hours for debate. I know that putting on the face of the Bill improvements to our method of scrutiny would be a problem, but Parliament and the Government ought to consider in more detail how the process could be improved. Pre-legislative scrutiny, working with the Assembly Committees and extending the time for debate on Orders in Council will all be necessary, of course, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will also take on board the suggestions that I am sure will be made in Committee.
I do not think that a referendum is needed on the Orders-in-Council provision, and I certainly do not believe that one is needed on whether to allow dual candidacy. A referendum will be needed if primary
9 Jan 2006 : Column 63
powers are to be given to the Welsh Assembly, because that would fundamentally change the settlement on which we agreed back in 1997.
There might be a case in years to come for holding another referendum, on the way in which we elect Members to the National Assembly for Wales. The present system is confusing to our electors, and if an electoral system confuses the electors, it is not a good electoral system. I would prefer to have two-Member constituencies using an alternative vote system. That is what I argued for in the mid-1990s, but it did not happen. I doubt that it would be acceptable now, but it remains my preference. I would like to see a first-past-the-post system, but I do not think that that is likely to happen because it would fundamentally change the system on which people voted. If we want fundamentally to change the electoral system, there is a case for giving people the right to vote on that, because that would be meaningful.
The change in respect of dual candidacy is necessary. I do not think for one second that it would give any party an advantage. Different parties might have different rules on who should stand for what, but in terms of who is eventually elected, it will make no difference. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, six of our Labour colleagues in the Assembly could face defeat on the smallest of swings, but will not have the safeguard of standing for the top-up list.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|