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Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD):
My reading of the clause is that it applies only to Measures proposed by the Assembly, so the paragraph refers to the Secretary of State's decision, not on legislation that is coming from Parliament to the Assembly, but on a
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Measure proposed by the Assembly that would have an effect on the water supply. Will the hon. Gentleman clarify?
Mr. Llwyd: By all means. If the Assembly of its own volition, through one of its Measures, wished to signal that it opposed any such thing happening, the paragraph would enable the Secretary of State to overrule it. Now that the hon. Lady is taking an interest, perhaps she will tell me how she squares what she has just said with what the Liberal Democrat leader in Wales said. His response to the clause, which has been described as "bizarre" and "patronising", was:
"We're not children. Does anyone seriously think that a future Welsh Government would turn off the taps to England? Or that we would poison the water in our reservoirs? If we are to be trusted with making our own laws, then surely we can be trusted not to damage the supply of water to homes in the neighbouring country. This clause is insulting, and we will be seeking to get it removed as the Bill goes through Parliament and the Assembly."
"We don't want a Secretary of State telling us what we should do with our water. I thought the whole point of devolution was to transfer power from London to the democratically elected 60 Members of the National Assembly."
If the hon. Lady's reading of paragraph (b) is correct, her colleagues in the National Assembly and hon. Members heremyself includedwill take some comfort from that; but my ordinary reading of it suggests that it goes far broader than she has implied. It seems to me that a future Welsh Government could say, for whatever reason, that they were not willing to accept further valley drownings, and be overruled. My reading of the provision might not be correct, but that is my understanding.
That being so, may I ask the Minister what he means by "extreme circumstances"? If they include closing off the water supply or, worse still, fouling the water supply, does not the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 deal with them? We are owed a better explanation. I ask the Minister to give us examples of extreme circumstances and to tell the Committee that my reading of the clause is wrong and that it would not allow Parliament to override the democratic view of the National Assembly if it decided against another valley being drowned.
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Mr. Gummer: The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) has understated his case. The three amendments are most important. Paragraphs (a) and (c) in subsection (1) differ from paragraph (b) because paragraph (b) contains the word "serious". I find that peculiar, because it means that the provisions that are the least precise may be activated when the consequence or effect of the Measure is not serious, but merely adverse.
It is extremely difficult to envisage how paragraphs (a) or (c) would be used. They can be used even in circumstances where the Minister would not have to show that the "adverse effect" was serious. Even the word "effect", used in paragraphs (a) and (c), is less powerful than "impact", which is used in paragraph (b); an effect is a passing matter. I imagine that the phrase "adverse effect" refers to a range of issuesthe list of fields specified in part 1 of schedule 5 is considerable, encompassing a huge number of areas. Under the clause, a Secretary of State, by diktat, would be able to say that a Measure that has a passing or glancing effect on some matter of importancesufficiently important for the Assembly to feel that a Measure is neededshould be stopped because he has "reasonable grounds to believe" that it would have an "adverse effect". It is difficult to imagine that a Secretary of State would not be able to stop anything that he did not like. The condition of having "reasonable grounds" does not help, so vague is the wording used in the following paragraphs.
In my opinion, paragraphs (a) and (c) are entirely otiose. Their presence suggests that the Bill will not do what it is supposed to. I have all sorts of doubts about the processes set out in the Billthey are far too opaque. However, if we are to proceed, we must not pretend that the Bill is a means of enhancing the powers of the Assembly, when, just in case the Assembly does something of which we do not approve, we have put in a few get-out clauses to keep power in the hands, not of Parliament, but of the Secretary of State. That is the second reason why I feel so strongly about this matter: I do not like Ministers having such powers without reference back to Parliament. Through the Bill, in effect, Parliament is delegating further legislative powers to the Assembly, but the Government are ensuring that Ministers will still have power, even though Parliament has delegated it. Both paragraphs (a) and (c) are unacceptable.
On subsection (1)(b), I agree with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy. Either we trust the Welsh people or we do not. It is extremely difficult for me to accept that the Welsh people have to be singled out and measures taken to ensure that, where water is concerned, they should not in any way or in any circumstances be able to do anything that might upset the plans of English Ministers.
I have another reason to object. These days, when even some of our less educated newspapers are beginning to understand the importance of climate change, the issues relating to water have become more important, not less. I do not want to give the impression to the Welsh peopleor to the English peoplethat if we are short of water, our first response will be to extend the resource, rather than to improve retention and reduce use. The clause is very old fashioned. It suggests that Wales is a provider of water for England. It does
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not say that England and Wales together must deal with the problems of the shortage of water, the effect of climate change, the need to restrain our use of water, and the like.
Mr. Gummer: It is for the Government to name him or her. I suspect that somebody came out of the woodwork one day and said to the Minister, "Ah, Minister, better not." That is a very dangerous part of the civil servant's language. "Better not give the Welsh the possible power to do something about water. Better remind them that it's not their water. It is, in effect, our water and we're going to decide what is done with it. Better not, Minister. Let's keep the powers that really matter."
That is offensive to Welsh people. One would not have said that about any other community in the United Kingdom, either historic communities or newly found communities. I invite the House to substitute the names of a range of newly found communities in the clause and see how well that goes down. The quality of the drafting is below even the low standard of the Bill.
I suggest that we use the Civil Contingencies Act to cover the problem of a revolutionary party in the Assembly bent on stopping people having water. There is no need for the clause. It is an unnecessary attempt to remind the Welsh where they really areunder the control not of the House, but of Ministers. If I were living in Wales, I would find the clause unacceptable, as the leader of the Conservative party in Wales suggested, and I hope very much that it is removed.
David Mundell: My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) raised a number of interesting issues, which I look forward to hearing the Minister address. As I said in relation to an earlier amendment, the confusion derives from the explanatory notes that accompany the Bill and the lack of clarity about the meaning of nebulous phrases such as "adverse effect" and "serious adverse effect". It is incumbent on the Minister to define for us the difference between the two, and to explain the reason for two definitions in the same clause.
As there is a conjoined English and Welsh jurisdiction, subsection (1)(c) should refer to that, and not just to the law in England, which does not exist as a jurisdiction. That is the purpose of amendment No. 175. If the Minister is able to satisfy the House as regards the terminology in subsection (1), we propose in amendment No. 176 an affirmative procedure for orders brought before the House.
The Minister can hardly expect anything other than the reaction in the Chamber this evening to the clause, given that the definition is so nebulous and the potential impact of the clause is so serious. If the clause had been proposed as an amendment by the Opposition, the Minister and others would have called it a wrecking amendment tabled by people determined to ensure that the Bill and the procedures would not work. It is
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incumbent on the Minister to answer the questions that have been raised, and further questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) intends to raise.
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