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Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on her new appointment. As Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I look forward to working with her. I pay tribute too to two great parliamentarians—Merlyn Rees, a true son of Cilfynydd, and Tony Banks.

As Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I wish to make a contribution to this important debate on the future government of Wales. On a personal note, I am encouraged by the constructive proposals in the Bill that have the capacity, I believe, to strengthen democracy, policy development and accountability within Wales. As someone who has actively supported democratic devolution for more than three decades in Wales, I am aware of the opportunities and also of some of the dangers swirling around the Bill. Most critically, I am aware of the need for a broad consensus within Wales to support the principles that underpin the proposals.

The devolution campaign in 1978–79 paid little real attention to the need for such a consensus; least of all, sad to say, within our own governing party. Even in 1997, a much more propitious time, we must acknowledge, and with barely an organised opposition, the referendum result was perilously close.
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I am reminded of the prophetic words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who has made an important contribution to tonight's debate, when he was Secretary of State for Wales. He rightly characterised devolution as part of the long historic progress of Welsh and British democracy via the chartist and suffragette movements. Following the 1997 referendum vote, it was he who said, I believe borrowing from the late John Smith, that Welsh devolution was a "settled question". It was "settled" in the sense of no going back because the Welsh people had taken a vital democratic step forward through a referendum. He cautioned that further legitimate progress towards new powers could be made only with a further referendum sometime in the future.

My Committee considered the proposals contained within the White Paper and made a series of helpful recommendations that I believe will improve the proposed legislation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said previously that he would be responding in detail to my Committee's recommendations. I look forward to that response and I hope that he will be forthcoming in taking on board all of our recommendations.

The Government produced a White Paper rather than a draft Bill. That meant that there was insufficient detail for my Committee to consider when it looked at the Government's proposals, but it is an important piece of constitutional legislation for Wales and the Bill should have been submitted for proper pre-legislative scrutiny. We made that point in our report, because such scrutiny would have enabled us as parliamentarians and the wider public to assess properly the Government's intentions. It is regrettable that we could not do so.

I welcome the fact that the Government have introduced a free-standing Bill, rather than a Bill to amend the Government of Wales Act 1998. However, it represents only part of the solution. If there is to be absolute clarity about what powers rest with Parliament and what powers lie with the Welsh Assembly Government we need a Welsh statute book. Without one, an understanding of where the finer points of authority lie may remain beyond our grasp, so we made a recommendation that one should be established.

Our report welcomes the separation of the legislature and the Executive. The existing arrangements have bred confusion about the roles of the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Assembly. A formal separation of the two will make it clear to the people of Wales that the Welsh Assembly Government are responsible for policy direction in Wales while the National Assembly is responsible for holding the Government to account.

We also recommended that the Bill use the term "Welsh Executive" rather than "Welsh Assembly Government". The current terminology reflects the maximum separation possible under the 1998 Act. Now that we have a new Bill, we no longer need the connection that the word "Assembly" in "Welsh Assembly Government" implies. The term "Welsh Executive" removes any connection or confusion with the National Assembly, and reinforces the formal separation between the Executive and the legislature in
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Cardiff. For that reason, we recommended that "Welsh Executive" replace "Welsh Assembly Government" in the Bill.

The meat of the Bill consists of the Government's proposals to enhance the powers of the National Assembly through the use of Orders in Council. The Government propose that requests for powers in certain areas be approved by Parliament with secondary legislation rather than primary legislation. That would have the benefit of providing Wales with the tools that it needs to pursue its policy aspirations while at the same time preventing legislation from being caught up in the busy timetable of the Government's legislative programme. I appreciate that not everyone is keen on using delegated legislation to confer powers on the National Assembly, as it is possible that draft orders will not receive adequate parliamentary scrutiny. For that reason, our report recommended that draft orders should be considered not in a Standing Committee but on the Floor of the House for one and a half hours. If there was cross-party consensus that a particular draft Order in Council needed a longer debate, we recommend that it should be referred to the Welsh Grand Committee. Furthermore, proposals for draft orders will be subject to detailed pre-legislative scrutiny. I am pleased that the Secretary of State has suggested that there is a role for the Welsh Affairs Committee in such scrutiny.

Mrs. Gillan: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman's chairmanship of the Committee led it to make certain proposals when it was unsighted about the Secretary of State's view, given the indecent haste with which the Bill was introduced. Does he agree that it would be better, not only if the Government tabled early amendments to the Bill but if they made a timely response to his Committee's recommendations, long before we scrutinise the Bill on the Floor of the House? Otherwise, we will once more be faced with a large raft of legislation and many Government amendments, together with a lack of a response to his Committee's excellent report.

Dr. Francis: In a word, yes. The hon. Lady has anticipated what I was going to say.

If pre-legislative scrutiny is to be conducted properly, we will need more than just sight of the proposal for a draft order. In addition, the Government must publish a detailed memorandum that sets out precisely the scope of the draft order, the legislative authority that would pass to the National Assembly and the practical legal effects of the proposals on Wales. I was interested in what my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) said about the impact of such measures on the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Grieve : During our debate, there has been a blurring of the line between the draft order and the Assembly measure. The detail and the meat will be in the measure, not in the order, which is likely to be a brief document. How can pre-legislative scrutiny of the order give any reassurance to the House that it will be satisfied with the measure that will be introduced in the Assembly?

Dr. Francis: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point to which the Under-Secretary of State for Wales will respond in due course. I am not the Secretary of State.
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The Bill allows for a final stage of devolution for Wales whereby the Assembly would become a fully functioning Parliament with primary legislative powers. I agree with the Government that a referendum of the people of Wales is necessary to determine that point, and I am pleased that many organisations and people across Wales concur. Recently, I was pleased to receive a resolution from the Presbyterian Church in Wales that supported such a referendum. My Committee believes that the Bill would benefit from certain enhancements. We need a strict limitation on the calling of a second referendum—a point that has been well made by other contributors to our debate. Referendums cannot be called persistently until they return the desired result, and that should be reflected in the Bill. The Committee came to the conclusion that two National Assembly terms are an appropriate period between a first and a subsequent referendum.

The Committee recommended, too, that the wording of the referendum should be included in the Bill. The question should be clear and straightforward—in essence, it simply has to ask the people of Wales whether or not they wish to have a Welsh Parliament. The wording is not dependent upon the time or year that the question is asked, so it can be set out now.

A key theme of our report is the roles of the Secretary of State, as set out in the Bill. Our report, like some participants in our debate, questioned the desirability of some of those roles. If we are serious about democratic devolution we need to move, or at least ease, the Secretary of State from a pre-devolutionary world to a modern democratic and decentralised one. I am sure that he would be happy to move with these new times.

In relation to draft Orders in Council, the Secretary of State would have the power to refuse to lay a draft order before Parliament. That power would be appropriate if the draft order did not comply with the Bill or did not conform to parliamentary rules. It would not, however, be appropriate for the Secretary of State to refuse an order on political or policy grounds. For that reason, the Committee believes that the rejection of a draft order is the preserve of Parliament, not the Government of the day. It would be more appropriate for the Secretary of State to be limited to assessing the validity of a draft order. He should not make decisions to lay such an order based on policy and political judgment or advantage. Similarly, the Secretary of State could refuse to lay the draft order for the referendum, despite the National Assembly voting by a two thirds majority in favour of holding that referendum. Again, we believe that Parliament, not the Government of the day, holds the authority to accept or reject a call for a referendum. For that reason, we recommend that the Secretary of State should not have the power to refuse a call for a referendum.

As readers of our report will see, there was no consensus on the Government's proposals for electoral reform. The majority support, as I do, the Government's proposals, and it should be noted that there was no minority report. My personal view is that, whatever the merits of the arguments on each side of the debate, the Government and all parties need to proceed on a cross-party basis. Electoral reform should not get caught up in internecine party politics. The Secretary of State may well wish to consider whether, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said in his
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contribution, the present system is an unloved and confusing creature that causes more grief than it is worth. I believe that, as he suggested, a national list may be a better option.

It is incumbent upon all Members to take the heat out of the debate on electoral reform and to find a way forward that gains cross-party consensus. Without that, the many welcome proposals in the Bill could be drowned out by the argument on what is for many of us a very minor part of a welcome improvement to the devolution settlement for Wales. The Secretary of State has it in his gift as the sponsor of the Bill to give serious consideration to other proposals.

Finally, as Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I have been at pains to recognise that all parties have made a contribution to the journey of the people of Wales towards democratic devolution. Unless we recognise this, particularly in the absence of an historic Welsh convention, we are in danger of failing to learn the lessons of history, although I should add, as an objective historian, that my party, the Labour party, had the decisive role in achieving victory in 1997 and, I have to acknowledge, a defeat in 1979.

Today there should be consensus around the belief that the Government of Wales Bill is about delivering better public services for the people of Wales and greater democratic accountability to the people of Wales. The Welsh Affairs Committee has a vital role to play in ensuring that the diverse views of the people of Wales are clearly heard in Westminster. We aim to champion the people of Wales here and certainly not to challenge or undermine our National Assembly. Together, as Welsh Members in Parliament and in the Assembly, we can work in harmony to strengthen our public services, and together we can strengthen our democracy in Wales. The Bill has the potential to do that, if the Secretary of State listens, as I am sure he will, to the constructive proposals being made tonight in the House and outside the House in Wales.

6.32 pm

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