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Mr. Grieve: We will come back to that point in a moment. How is such a mechanism any less, or more, devolutionary than the Government's proposal in part 3, which is not devolution, either? They are proposing to substitute government by primary legislation in respect of important laws with government by Order in Council. The Secretary of State seems not to understand that that is an assertion of Executive authority, not legislative authority. I fear that he has put together this proposal because he knows that he cannot satisfy either half of his party on the question of whether to proceed with the transfer of primary legislative functions and nor does he have a clue whether he would win a referendum. [Interruption.]
The Secretary of State, having asked me a number of questions, is disappearing from the Chamber. He asked me rhetorically whether we are in favour of this legislation or against it, so let me make our position clear. We have reservations about giving the Assembly more power, but we are absolutely clear that, if there is to be a transfer to it of primary legislative power, such a transfer should be put to the people of Wales in a referendum. If that is what they want, we will of course accept their view, because referendums are there for that precise purpose. What we are very worried about is part 3 of the Bill. As it stands, there will be no referendum in respect of part 3. There will be no formal consultation of the people of Wales whatsoever. The Government propose to take away this House's power to scrutinise and enact legislation, and to create a hybrid instrument involving the Executive and the Assembly governing by
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Order in Council. They say that that is a better procedure, but by any objective analysis, it diminishes democratic accountability at every level. Indeed, we in this House have often criticised the system of governance by Order in Council for Northern Ireland. While I accept that the analogy with Northern Ireland is not perfect because Northern Ireland does not have its own Assembly to carry out any function at all, it remains the case that the Government's understanding of how the constitution in this country works is woeful.
Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend rightly said that referendums have become one of the accepted mechanisms whereby people are asked whether they want more powers or fewer powers to be given to this or that body. Does he, in the same context, accept, on the same basis, that referendums can, and occasionally should, be used to ask people whether they want the body to exist at all? In other words, a referendum can be used to give, but on occasion also be used to take away.
Mr. Grieve: To my mind, properly conducted referendums are on issues on which Government ought to give people choices. They ought not, in fact, to labour to influence the result, but to set out the options and ask whether people want them. That is how referendums were always supposed to work. The trouble is that Napoleon III rapidly turned them into a form of executive and parliamentary dictatorship, using them for that purpose. This Government have been adept at picking up the tip.
If there were a clearly manifested desire among the people of Wales for a referendum on whether to get rid of the Assembly, the House would have to listen very carefully. For present purposes, and for the purposes of the Bill, we are content to operate on the principle that, so far as we can see, the Assembly as set up, with its imperfections, appears to have a sufficient measure of support to justify its continued existence. What we will seek to do, therefore, is to see whether there are ways in which we can improve the working of the Assembly, either by granting the option, as the Secretary of State and the Minister want to do, of letting the Assembly have primary legislative powers, or by separating the executive from the legislature, which we entirely agree with.
What we are not prepared to do is allow the Government to manipulate the constitution simply because it suits them to do so to satisfy the tendencies in the Labour party that are pulling two ways. I regret to say that that is what part 3 is all about. The Minister's party is split. There are many in Wales who have no desire that primary legislation powers should be granted. In any case, the Minister knows, that there is no possibility of the Welsh people voting in a referendum for primary legislative powers.
That raises an interesting question: if the Welsh people do not want the powers in that form, why should they have them thrust down their throats in the form
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proposed in part 3? Were the Government going ahead with part 4, we would cheerfully support them; indeed, we shall do so when we come to part 4. We will try to improve any parts that need it, but we do not object to the principle of part 4, including the referendum.
Mr. Grieve: I thought I had made it absolutely clear that we were not in favour of multi-option referendums. The Bill does not offer one and we are not trying to amend it to suggest that it should. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.
Lembit Öpik: I am delighted to hear of that transformation on the road to Damascus on the Conservative Front Bench, at least, on the idea of a multi-option referendum in which one option would be the abolition of the Assembly. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the Conservatives returned to Parliament from Wales share his view? If not, for my clarification, what has driven that strategic change of heart?
Mr. Grieve: I fear that we may be straying somewhat from the purpose of the lead amendment. The view taken by my party is that, at present, we should concentrate on seeing whether the way in which the Assembly operates can be improved, and that is what we will seek to do in the course of the passage of the Bill. In doing that, we are prepared to consider whether the Assembly should have more powers, although we believe that if it is to have powers, they should be the powers in part 4 and should come into force only if a referendum has taken place beforehanda democratic process with which, I would hope, most hon. Members would find it difficult to disagree.
We favour the splitting of the executive and legislative roles, because they have not worked. I think that there is general agreement on that point. We have anxieties about some of the other details of the Bill, including the gerrymandering of the electoral system, to which we shall return later, but for present purposes, I enjoin the Committee to concentrate on the issues in part 3.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for finally giving way. If he is in favour of a referendum on whether Orders in Council should be introduced, can he tell the Committee what might be on the ballot paper?
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Mr. Grieve: That is a matter that we will come on to debate. The group of amendments before the Committee concerns the mechanism by which further scrutiny of the part 3 process might be achieved. Later, we shall look at other ways in which part 3 might be improved. As I said to the Secretary of State, my experience of a lot of Standing Committee work suggests that it is not unusual to advance different options to the Government and the Committee on how we might proceed. Otherwise, we would fetter our options. It might be that one option commends itself to the Committee more than others, in which case we will go away and think about it. I thought that that was what a Committee stage was about. I despair at the way in which proceedings in Committee are treated as policy utterances, rather than as what they should be, which is a debate on the detail.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman indirectly refers to the next group of amendments on referendums, as well as to the current group on resolutions of both Houses. Am I right in assuming that he is implying that there is a principle behind both groups of amendments but that they manifest it in slightly different ways?
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