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Lembit Öpik: The Assembly's current workings are affected because of the amendments' unintended consequence in terms of existing legislative procedures. I do not want to speculate about that, because I am sure that the Minister will have had a more detailed analysis from his advisers, which will give a definitive answer.
Mrs. Gillan: I am merely trying to be helpful. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that our amendments to the first clause in part 3on Assembly Measures, which do not exist at the momentwill affect the Assembly's current legislative position. Will he give examples of the unintended consequences to which he has referred? We should have a list of those, because it was neither my intention nor that of my hon. Friends who tabled the amendments to do other than to probe this matter and get clarification. The discussion of the amendments leads me to believe, however, that the longer the hon. Gentleman goes on, the more likely we are to put them to a vote.
I have been inspired to raise such points only by the exhortation from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that we should have a proper debate. It is useful that we are having such a debate, as we cannot both be right. I do not have a profound insight, as I do not read his amendments in great detail at night, but I
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believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) does, so I shall give way to him to clarify the situation definitively.
Mr. Roger Williams: As my hon. Friend might have realised, much of the primary legislation passed in this place enables the Assembly to carry on its work and achieve its objectives without further reference back to this place. The Conservative amendments, however, seem to me to put a hurdle or even an obstacle in the way of the Assembly carrying out its purposes.
Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman makes a point on which I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments. The amendments could only have the unintended consequences that he states if, as a result of the passage of the Bill, the previous mechanism governing the Assembly's action disappeared, so that everything had to be an Assembly Measure. The Minister might tell me that that is how the Government have done it. If so, the House needs to debate that, because an Assembly Measure is different from the Assembly's previous powers. If that is one of the consequences of part 3, I find it slightly surprising that it was not highlighted by the Minister on Second Reading, because it would not only enhance the Assembly's existing powers but change them radically so that the Assembly could do something that it could not do previously.
Lembit Öpik: I think I can say on behalf of all Members that we are in for a treat when the Minister clarifies the issue. I do not think that I have anything to add. The Minister has heard the question, which now hangs poised above him as we await his answer.
There is another point, probably less controversial in terms of interpretation, but nevertheless controversial in terms of judgment. Notwithstanding the debate in which we have just engaged, the aim of the Conservative amendments is evidently to rein in the Assembly's latitude to operate autonomously, because they introduce the necessary involvement of both Houses of Parliament to affirm matters that, as the Bill stands, would not require the affirmation of either House. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) observed, that is a legitimate position, but my position is different. The amendments go even less far than a Bill that I feel does not go far enough, and it therefore goes without saying that we cannot support them.
It is not clear to me why the Conservatives seem to be both very pro-devolution and very much against giving the Assembly its head. I think it was the hon. Member
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for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) who pointed out that the Assembly is democratically elected by the people of Wales.
Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): May I offer a simple explanation for the amendments? Could it be that none of the four Members who tabled them has represented a Welsh constituency since devolution or, indeed, sat on the Welsh Affairs Committee, which has worked hard and closely with the Assembly, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas)?
Lembit Öpik: I will not go down that path. I do not question the intellect or the parliamentary capabilities of three Conservative Front Benchers with a collective IQ of at least 600which is doubled if we include the acting duty Whip, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant).
That issue does not concern me. The issue that concerns me is an issue of judgment. Surely if we are truly committed to devolution we must, at the very least, oppose the amendments. The Liberal Democrats think that the Bill as it stands is timid, but the amendments take it backwards.
Issues relating to scrutiny may also be discussed later, particularly when we debate clause 97, but I was prompted to speak at this stage by what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas). The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) made an interesting speech, although I do not agree with the requirement for resolutions. I think that we achieved a balance when providing for Orders in Council. Another possibility would have been primary legislation every time the Assembly wished to deal with an issue. That would have been entirely impracticable.
The hon. Gentleman made some interesting points about scrutiny of the Orders in Council, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham. It was pointed out that in Northern Ireland, in the absence of a functioning elected Assembly, direct rule must rely on Orders in Council. As everyone knows, Orders in Council are unamendable, and the time taken for consideration is very short. In Northern Ireland the problem has been partly overcome through a decent system of pre-legislative scrutiny, and I think that that is what should happen in this instance.
It went on to talk about the role of the Welsh Grand Committee. The reply from the Government was effectively that it was a matter for the business managers. I am not convinced that it is. Obviously, business managers have an important role to play but the House has a right to look at how properly to scrutinise the legislation. There is a case for both the Assembly and Parliament meeting together in a Committee structure to look at that. There is a case for the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs to play a role in such legislation. In particular, there is a case seriously to question whether one and a half hours' debate on Orders in Council is adequate. I am sure that it would be possible to extend that debate to three hours. I am sure that debates could be held on the Floor of the House if the issue were of such gravity, and that we can look at the role of the Welsh Grand Committee in these matters. That may be another way out.
In all the documentation surrounding this part of the Bill, little is said about the parliamentary scrutiny of the Orders in Council, but plenty is said about the role of Government, whether it is in Cardiff or in London. Such comment is right, but then it stops. The arrangements for the Assembly Government, or the Executive as it is likely to be called, and the British Government in terms of working out what happens with the Orders in Council are well defined in the Bill. Checks and balances exist, but there is a gap as far as this place is concerned. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister would do well to return to the issue with colleagues, whether it be the Leader of the House or whoever, to consider again whether to establish formally in writingin Standing Orders, in legislation or wherevera system by which pre-legislative scrutiny is defined more closely and adequately, and Orders in Council themselves are not limited to one and a half hours' debate upstairs in a Committee. That is not good enough for the issues that we are dealing with.
As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said, these are gravely important issues. This is a new form of procedure and arrangement for the House of Commons, so there is nothing to stop us having a new form of scrutiny. I look forward to the response of my hon. Friend the Minister, but these are important issues and I am sure that many Labour Members agree with my argument.
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