Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Lembit Öpik: I understand that there are some arguments in favour of this change, but we have not heard them tonight. The extraordinary revelations in certain contributions by Labour Members underline the fact that this is political opportunism. This is not about finding the best system, because if Members wanted to do that, they would be able to answer this question. Why do they think that it is absolutely fine for the Government to have a large majority although two thirds of the British electorate voted against them in the general election? Sadly, they do not have an answer.

Without going too far into the debate that we will have later on the merits and demerits of the voting system, I hope that the Minister can explain the contradiction between what his Back Benchers said and
30 Jan 2006 : Column 50
what those Opposition Members who secured a majority of the vote in Wales, and who are opposed to this change, said at election time and are saying now.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I pay tribute to the measured way in which the Committee has approached the scrutiny of the Bill. The Committee will be aware that much of the Bill—indeed, 140 out of 165 clauses—is carried over, with only minor modifications, from the Government of Wales Act 1998, or implements changes on which all parties are agreed. We have properly focused our scrutiny on those clauses—just 25—that are new or controversial instead of reopening debates that were settled six years ago and procedures that have worked well since. I am particularly pleased with the detailed consideration of parts 3 and 4, which form the core of the new provisions. I hope that we can make good progress on the initial clauses of part 1, which include the remaining key provisions of the Bill.

The amendment ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and supported by my    right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr.   Murphy) touches on two separate but related issues; the system of voting used to elect the Assembly and the number of Assembly Members.

On the voting system, I understand and respect the position of my hon. and right hon. Friends; indeed, I share many of their concerns about the operation of the present system. In retrospect, all Labour Members would have preferred a different option. However, achieving the necessary consensus on a new electoral system would not be easy. For example, a return to first past the post, with a man and a woman elected from each constituency, would ensure equal representation, but it would also decimate representation for minor parties, including the Welsh Conservatives. That would be seen as deliberately partisan; politically desirable from our point of view, perhaps, but constitutionally very difficult, to say the least.

I believe that the best way forward is to seek to fix the flaws in the current electoral system through a ban on dual candidacy. I know that my hon. and right hon. Friends strongly support that. I hope that they also support clause 36(6), which requires the establishment of a code of conduct to ease some of the tensions between constituency and list Members. I hope that the Assembly Committee that is considering Standing Orders will also consider allowances for the different categories of Member.

With regard to the number of Assembly Members, I recognise my hon. Friend's concerns about the Assembly's increased workload, but there is plenty of scope for it to reorganise; for example, by changing the way in which it considers secondary legislation and by sitting longer hours for more weeks of the year. The Presiding Officer has made that point publicly in agreeing with me.

A fundamental difficulty with the amendment is that it would require unspecified further primary legislation to resolve the issues that my hon. and right hon. Friends have rightly highlighted. There is no guarantee that a Government sympathetic to their views would be in power at the time of such a review. Perhaps a different amendment would be appropriate to achieve my hon. Friends' proper objectives but I am not inciting them to table one on Report.
30 Jan 2006 : Column 51

In the light of my comments, I hope that my hon. Friend will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

5.15 pm

Ian Lucas: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's measured response, which I contrast with the rather graceless contribution of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). She suggested that the amendment was somehow dishonest because it did not make clear the fact that there would be a reduction in the number of Welsh Members of Parliament if Assembly membership increased. It was especially graceless because the hon. Lady intervened on me in our debate last Tuesday to ask me a question to which I gave a straight reply; she is clearly not accustomed to that. It is therefore unfortunate that she would not allow me to intervene on her to remind her of that fact. Never mind.

I respect the position of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. My concern about the Bill has always been that we are contemplating a position that is some years ahead and we do not know how successful the Order process will prove. We do not know exactly how the Assembly will perform between now and then. In those circumstances, it would be sensible for us to have at least an opportunity to consider the voting system and the number of Assembly Members. More important, the people of Wales should have that opportunity.

The amendment was clearly a probing amendment at this stage. My right hon. Friend has heard that there is a great desire on Government and Opposition Benches for a debate on the issue. I assure him that that extends to the people of Wales.

I am sure that we will return to the matter but, at this stage, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 103 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 104

Commencement of Assembly Act provisions

Hywel Williams: I beg to move amendment No. 124, in clause 104, page 57, line 38, at end add—

'(5)   This section is subject to section [Commencement of provisions relating to Welsh language].'.

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. Roger Gale): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 13, in clause 35, page 21, line 35, leave out from 'effect' to 'to' in line 36 and insert

'save in exceptional cases where it is not reasonably possible to do so'.

Amendment No. 16, in clause 61, page 36, line 10, at end add

', including the implementation of any of the provisions of the Welsh Language Act 1993.'.

New clause 10—Commencement of provisions relating to Welsh language—

'(1)   Sections 106 to 112 and 114 shall come into force on 1st April 2007 in respect of paragraph 20 of Schedule 7 (the Welsh language).

30 Jan 2006 : Column 52

(2)   Section 102 shall not apply to the commencement of subsection (1).'.

Hywel Williams: I begin with amendment No. 13, which would delete the words

in clause 35 and replace them with,

The wording in clause 35 comes from the Welsh Language Act 1993. I hope that hon. Members of all parties recognise that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with its operation. One reason for that is the wording that the amendment would delete. We argue that it places Welsh speakers at a disadvantage. Because of the clause, Welsh is not equal with English but is to

which is entirely different and has led to the Welsh language being treated less equally. The provision has been characterised as meaning that all languages are equal but some are more equal than others.

I should like to make a few brief points about the long and gradual journey of the status of the Welsh language to its current position. Welsh was used in government as an official language until the Act of Union 1532. Three measures in the past century—the Welsh Courts Act 1942, the Welsh Language Act 1967 and the Welsh Language Act 1993—have covered the subject.

Next Section IndexHome Page