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Lembit Öpik: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Cannot one argue that there is a presumption in favour of devolution on the basis that we had a referendum on the principle of devolution? Therefore, the Assembly having been set up, one can assume that there is a progression. As Ron Davies used to say, devolution is a process, not an outcome. I think that he had a lot of wise words to say about devolution. Does not the right hon. Gentleman accept that the principle of devolution was established in 1997 in the referendum and now we are discussing the pace at which it progresses? That is why one would establish the criteria that he described.
We can go forward, but we cannot go back. That is astonishing. It is a somewhat interesting perspective on what constitutes democracy. I will come to that in a moment.
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Despite the Select Committee's recommendation that there should be a minimum of two full Assembly terms before there is a second referendum, the Government have not accepted that. Despite the First Minister's indication that a generation would be needed before there could be a second referendum, the Secretary of State has not accepted that. Despite his own declaration that it would be a very long time before there was a second referendum, he has not even been willing to incorporate a very long time in the Bill. Why? I have not seen the quotation that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham read out, but a time limit is not included in the Bill because he is waiting for a moment of political opportunism. That is what it is about. He will not put a time limit in. He will just wait for the opportunity, if there is one. If that opportunity arises, he will jump while he can to get the vote that he wants. Meanwhile, we shall still have the drip, drip, drip of the order-making process. For that reason, I welcome the amendment that was tabled by my hon. Friends; I apologise for jumping in before them. I wish that the interval had been substantially longer, but at least I agree with the principle.
I tabled my amendment not in the expectation that it would be accepted but because I want to alert the people of Wales to the fact that, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) has just revealed, the people of Wales are trappedthey were trapped by the original Bill. I described it then as a constitutional mystery tour, but the mystery has gone. We are now on a one-way escalator with two buttons: slow and fast. There is no stop and certainly no reverse, as we heard from the hon. Gentleman. The devo-zealots will not contemplate the fact that the people of Wales have as much right to think of going back as they have of going forward. They are not willing to offer them that option. They could put it at nil cost on the ballot paper to resolve once and for all perhaps the issue of whether the people of Wales want devolution, but we can rest assured that that choice will not be offered.
The Secretary of StateI am not knocking him for thisis a self-declared enthusiast for full legislative power. I am as sceptical as he is enthusiastic. I respect his position, although I do not agree with it, and I hope that he respects the sincerity of my position and what I am saying. What worries me is the determination that he shows. He showed it in his evidence to the Select Committee. I quoted this last time but it is worth repeating. He was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones):
"There was a widespread process of consultation following the Richard Commission, in which both Rhodri and I were in exactly the same position, that we wanted to see the Assembly get on with its task of having greater powers following 2007 and did not want to wait".
He and Rhodri did not want to wait. That sounds like a great consultative process. He says that he consulted on the Richard commission. He consulted, and then he ditched it, because he and Rhodri did not want to wait.
There is something even more revealing, and I asked about it in my speech last week. When I was talking about consultation, I asked Ministers to put in the
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Library the consultative papers that had been issued before the election. The White Paper and the Bill came afterwards, but what papers had been issued for the people of Wales, to consult them about this switch to the salami-slicing of the order-making process? In fairness, I must tell the House that the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary gave me a firm answer: there were no papers to go in the Library.
There had been no consultative processwith one exception: there had been consultation within the party. That worries me even more. Of course the Minister should consult the party; that is rightbut I am talking about what happened before the election. He knew his intentions before the election. He knew his intentions after the election as wellbut he decided that he did not want to bother the people of Wales with them. Well, I think that the people of Wales deserve better than that.
Lembit Öpik: I have considerable issues with amendment No. 189, and I suspect that, on reflection, those on the Conservative Front Bench ought to feel the same. That is because there is a simple precedent for mechanisms with regard to holding referendums on constitutional issues affecting nations within the United Kingdom.
I am, of course, referring to Northern Ireland, where we have a clear structure that determines when and how often referendums can be held on the reunification of the north and south of Ireland. As far as I know, when that legislation was framed, the Conservatives did not object to the framework allowing a referendum to be held more than once. I certainly do not recall any Conservative spokesperson on the referendum provisions for Northern Ireland saying at any point that they thought that there should be only one referendum, and that if the idea were defeated, the question of reunifying the north and the south of Ireland would have to be shelved forever.
David T.C. Davies: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, I was not in the House at that time, but surely he recognises that the situation in Northern Ireland is unique, and that Governments, particularly the last Conservative Government and the present Labour Government, had been trying to overcome a very difficult situation to bring peace there. It is unfair for the hon. Gentleman to use that as an example of a referendum framework that could be repeated elsewhere. A better example would be something like entry into the European Union, where there is scope for a further referendum that might change the direction of our European policy at some point in the future.
The only reason why my example may seem unfair to the hon. Gentleman is that it utterly contradicts his party's position. The principle is the same: significant constitutional change to a nation state of the United Kingdom. The question is whether a referendum of this type can be held more than once, or whether one single referendum is binding. I am in no doubt that the comparison is entirely valid, so for the Conservatives to say, as they do in amendment No. 189, that we have the referendum once, and if the idea is
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defeated, never again, suggests that they feel that we could have a referendum once only in the north of Ireland, and if that idea were defeated, never again.
Lembit Öpik: I will; just let me finish this point. Obviously, I am willing to hear any clarification that the hon. Lady can give me. I feel that we need joined-up thinking in such important constitutional debates, rather than having one argument in one debate about Wales, and a different argument in a different debate about Northern Ireland.
Mrs. Gillan: To equate Northern Ireland with Wales or Scotland is to misunderstand the situation entirely. I have a question for the hon. Gentleman: do he and his party, believe that there should be the same voting system and the same constitutional arrangements in Ireland, Wales and Scotland? That is where his argument is leading.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Lady says that I am making a false equation between the two situations, and that I do not fully understand them. I humbly suggest that in the nine years that I have been speaking on Northern Ireland matters on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, in the various debates that I have had on exactly this point I may have picked up one or two salient points regarding the comparisons that I make. In fairness, I must recognise that the hon. Lady did not take part in those debates, but the Secretary of State for Wales, coincidentallyand, on this occasion, helpfully, I thinkcan provide his own perspective, if he is the Minister who will respond to the amendments. I suspect that he will agree with me that there is no fundamental difference in having a significant referendum on constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland and having a significant referendum on constitutional arrangements in Wales.
As for the hon. Lady's second point, the issue at stake is not whether there is a difference of principle, but whether in WalesI shall focus on Wales for the momentit is acceptable to give the Welsh people one chance, and if the answer is no, to terminate any prospect of developing the devolution process further.
I was not sympathetic to the idea of having a referendum in the first place. However, that is not the main point with this string of amendments, so notwithstanding that, I shall turn to the comments made by the Father of the House, who paraphrased me and suggested that I had said, "We can go forward, but we can't go back." Actually, that is not far from what I said. More to the point, it is exactly what the leader of his party, the Prime Minister, has said; he said that he had no reverse gear. He has also said that every time that he has initiated a reform, he wishes that he had gone further. [Interruption.]
I hear howls of woe from the Government Benches, suggesting a rebellion among the Labour MPs from Wales who are here. I understand that they may not be happy with this. Nevertheless, my understanding is that if we initiate some constitutional changes, we must make the assumption that, the principle having been set, there will be an evolutionary process that goes with it.
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The Father of the House is entirely justified in taking a different view. It is a difference of judgment. However, on behalf of myself and the Liberal Democrats, I would summarise the situation by saying that once the devolution process has been set in motion, there will be a momentum within it that will militate in favour of giving more powers to the Welsh Assembly, rather than stalling at some fairly arbitrary point by putting a cap on the number of referendums that can take place.
I understand the case for having some kind of structure and timetable governing the frequency of referendums. I am less unsympathetic to the attempt, rudimentary as it may be, in a couple of the amendments that have been tabled on that basis, because that more closely reflects the situation in Northern Ireland. However, the Liberal Democrats are not very keen on having a referendum on this matter at all, because we think that it is acceptable and appropriate for us to assume that the Welsh Assembly should have the same kind of powers as Scotland. I do not need to dwell on that, because we had a fairly significant debate on that subject yesterday in the context of changing the name from the Welsh Assembly to the Welsh Senedd.
In conclusion, I understand that there is a genuine difference of view. I believe that there is a contradiction between the way in which the Conservatives are approaching this piece of legislation and their approach to Northern Ireland legislation. I believe that that comparison is valid, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about it.
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