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Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): I would like to speak to amendments Nos. 59 to 61. It seems a long time since we started debating this group of amendments and I shall endeavour to be brief.

The amendments would restrict the ability of the Secretary of State to derail the Welsh Assembly's wishes. They would remove the power to refuse to lay a draft order before the House and prevent unnecessary delay by requiring the Secretary of State to act within 30 days, rather than the 60 days currently stated in the Bill. Given that any Assembly Measures or draft orders have already been debated and agreed in the Assembly, there appears to be no need for further delay at this end. Liberal Democrats believe that the whole point of devolution is to let the people of Wales have their views represented, and it would completely undermine that principle if the democratic will of the Assembly were allowed to be delayed or completely stymied by the will of one individual in the person of the Secretary of State for Wales.

6.45 pm

Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend will, like me, expect the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) to vote for that change because he has made it very clear that he would support any opportunity to increase democratic accountability in the system. Obviously, then, he would agree with my hon. Friend's argument that the will of the Assembly is clearly a more democratic guide to the interests of Wales than one appointed Secretary of State for Wales.

Jenny Willott: Not surprisingly, I agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Grieve: I would be grateful if, in the course of her remarks, the hon. Lady spoke to amendment No. 59 in
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her name and those of her hon. Friends. I am sympathetic to the idea of preventing the Secretary of State from derailing the process, but the impact of that amendment, if I understand it correctly, appears to be to remove the need for there to be a resolution of this House at all.

Jenny Willott: As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Liberal Democrats believe in a full Welsh Parliament, so ideally we would like the democratic will of the Welsh people to be expressed in such a Parliament. However, the amendments are about ensuring that, in the orders that come through this Parliament, the will of the Assembly cannot be derailed.

Mr. Grieve: Will the hon. Lady give way again?

Jenny Willott: I would rather not. This debate has gone on for a long time and it is important that we move on, or many issues will not be covered.

Unfortunately, we cannot support the Tory amendments in this group. Although we do not agree with all of the Bill, as we have made clear a number of times during the debates, we believe in devolution and would like the Assembly to have further powers. The Conservatives' amendments would slow up the process and cause unnecessary delays that would undermine the view of the Assembly; therefore we cannot support them.

Mr. David Jones: The hon. Lady talks in terms of delay, but could not delay be avoided altogether if we deleted part 3 and proceeded immediately to part 4?

Jenny Willott: I point out that the hon. Gentleman's own party does not necessarily agree with that. We have made our view clear throughout.

Depending on the Minister's response, we may want to press amendment No. 60 to a vote.

Mr. David Jones: I rise to support wholeheartedly the amendment that stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve). Part 3 goes to the heart of what I consider to be a most reprehensible and devious piece of legislation proposed by this Government.

The Government seek to portray part 3 as an innocuous measure aimed at modestly increasing or, if you like, streamlining the powers of the Assembly. Were that the case I have no doubt that neither I nor my right hon. and hon. Friends would have any problems with it and we would not be taking up the time of the House. The Assembly is now a fact of life in Wales. It may not yet be working entirely satisfactorily but it is part of the fabric of government in Wales and we all have a duty to make it work as best it can. However, part 3 is not a modest measure. It is a measure aimed at conferring primary legislative competence on the Assembly on a piecemeal basis. It is therefore, by any measure, a major constitutional innovation which, if enacted, will transfer a significant degree of legislative competence from this place to another legislative body.
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The fact that such transfer is, as I say, on a piecemeal basis through Orders in Council does not render it any less significant. The fact is that, over time, more and more primary powers will be ceded by Parliament to the Assembly, subject of course always to the executive filtration process of the Secretary of State, which, like my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, I find particularly repugnant.

It is generally agreed that the convention that has developed in this country is that if primary powers are ceded by Parliament to another body, a referendum should first take place in which the will of the people is consulted. That is what happened in Wales in 1997; that is what should happen now. The Government know that. Part 4 provides that such a referendum must take place before Assembly Acts may be passed, but Assembly Measures will be no less primary legislation, so the question is: why will the Government not give the people of Wales the simple right to vote on the proposals in a referendum? The answer is simple: they know that they would lose.

The Secretary of State has already acknowledged that there is no consensus in Wales for more primary powers for the Assembly. On 15 June last year, he said:

and recently the right hon. Gentleman said that neither he nor the Welsh First Minister was

That is all well and good, but if the Secretary of State fears that the people of Wales would vote against the transfer of primary powers to the Assembly, why is he so insistent on inflicting those powers on the people of Wales, whether or not they want them?

The suspicion must be—I hope that it is not unfair—that some internal Labour party tension is prompting the proposals in part 3, which enable the transfer of powers to the Assembly while preserving the illusion of power remaining at Westminster, whereas, in fact, the power remains in the hands of the Secretary of State for Wales. The fact that the proposals constitute such a device was acknowledged by Lord Richard when he gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee. What he said has been quoted before, but it deserves to be quoted again. He said:

In fact, it is more than almost; it is the transfer of a direct legislative competence to Cardiff without first consulting the people of Wales in a referendum.

That is reprehensible, and made all the more so by the fact that control of the whole procedure resides in the Executive and not in this House. The Minister shakes his head, but it is true: control rests with the Secretary of State for Wales, not with this House. The proposals represent a fraud on the people of Wales and the electorate of the entire United Kingdom. If the people of
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Wales are to have more devolution—not an ignoble aspiration on the part of those who want it—we should be entirely satisfied that that is what they want. Part 3 is wholly unnecessary; it is in the Bill purely and simply to serve the internal interests of the Labour party.

I say that we should proceed immediately to part 4 and consult the people of Wales now, through a referendum, on whether they do indeed want more legislative competence to be handed down to Cardiff. If so, we must abide by their decision and hand over that power. If not, we must equally respect their decision. The proposal is a three-card trick—an absolute disgrace to the Labour party. Perhaps the absence of Labour Members indicates the shame that they feel. What is proposed is an illegitimate exercise—an attempt to usurp the powers of this place. It is wholly reprehensible and the amendment should be supported.

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