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St. David's day, tomorrow, sees the official opening of the inspirational new Assembly building in Cardiff baythe very same building where the Bill was launched only two and a half months ago. A truly iconic building that has attracted architectural acclaim from all over the world, I have no doubt that it will become a powerful symbol of the new Wales. With the Bill now empowering the Assembly to be bolder and more ambitious than ever before, the people of Wales have all the more reason to feel proud.
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Devolution and decentralisation of power have been watchwords of the Labour Government. Just as one of our first acts in 1997 was to bring forward proposals for an Assembly for Wales, so we have moved swiftly in our third term to build on the success of devolution. Once again, that destroys the myth that any party other than Labour is the true party of devolution. It was a Labour Government who appointed the first ever Secretary of State for Wales. It was a Labour Government who broadened and deepened the role of the then Welsh Office. It was a Labour Government who passed the first Welsh Language Act in 1967 and it was a Labour Government who called the 1997 referendum and then passed legislation for a democratically elected Assembly for Wales.
No other party has come anywhere near to delivering so much for Wales. Indeed, no other party has ever delivered any devolution for Wales. So as we commemorate 100 years of the parliamentary Labour party, we can be truly proud that devolution, one of the ideals of our first parliamentary leader, Keir Hardie, has not only been achieved, but is being improved. Once again, it is Labour and only Labour that is delivering on devolution.
I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales for his sterling work on the Bill. After four years of silence in the confines of the Whips Office, his voice has been heard during the five days of consideration that the House has given to the Bill. He has dealt patiently and diligently with the issues that Members have raised.
I should also like to express my appreciation of the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), who, notwithstanding his role as a Whip, has also been able to assist in the progress of the Bill from the Front Bench. Similarly, I thank my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who has supported me with his customary energy and enthusiasmthe quietest man in the House. Above all, I thank my excellent team of hard-working officials, drawn from both the Welsh Assembly and our own Wales Officea partnership in action.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), who, with the members of his Select Committee, produced a report on the Bill that helped to inform our deliberations. As I have said previously, I envisage his Committee playing a very significant role in the pre-legislative scrutiny of the proposed Orders in Council that will come before the House by virtue of the proposals contained in part 3. Such pre-scrutiny is crucial, and it will be open to all Members to submit written evidence for consideration, or even to seek to give oral testimony if they so prefer.
I am glad that we have been able to subject the Bill to detailed scrutiny, through some 33 hours of debate on the Floor of the House. The House will be aware that the vast bulk of the Bill was either modelled closely on the Government of Wales Act 1998, or modelled on other statutory provisions that have worked effectively. The finance provisions, for example, draw heavily on those in the Scotland Act 1998. Those 141 clauses have broad cross-party support. I am therefore particularly pleased that the House was able to concentrate its scrutiny on those parts of the Bill that are genuinely newthe 24 clauses on enhanced and primary powers and our
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proposed electoral changes. Those are clearly the most significant parts of the Bill, and I am pleased that they have been given such thorough consideration.
One thing that has not survived the scrutiny of the House is the credibility of the Opposition and their new, supposedly more constructive stance on devolution. First, they tried to scupper the Bill at the outset by tabling a reasoned amendment on Second Reading, and I am told that they may even vote against the Bill on Third Reading. Then they attempted to construct a process of 16 locks to hamper the Assembly acquiring enhanced legislative powers. Then we saw them try to insist on a referendum before Parliament could grant the Assembly even a modest extension of its legislative powers through the Order-in-Council process. Then they tabled amendments that would have reduced the democratically elected Assembly to little more than a Committee of Parliament.
Finally, the Opposition tried to strike enhanced powers out of the Bill altogether, even though such powers were a clear Labour election manifesto commitment. It is hard to square that approach with the view of their leader, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who says that he wants to make devolution work. It is even harder to reconcile that with his opinion that, on devolution, the Tories share the views of the Liberal Democrats. They called themselves liberal Conservatives in the recent Scottish by-election. Well, there is not much liberal about their attitude to Wales. I thought the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) would bring a new approach; instead, she has played the same old Tory gramophone record of suspicion and hostility to more powers for Wales.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) was worried that such a reform would make life tougher for weak Tory candidates. The Government's view remains that such matters are for the electorate, rather than the political parties, to determine, so we intend to put the voters back in charge by requiring candidates to choose between the constituency and the list seats and by removing the ability of candidates to guarantee election for themselves regardless of the voters' verdict. There will be no more each-way bets at the voters' expense.
We have made great progress in Wales since the establishment of the Assembly, through a strong partnership between our UK Government and Rhodri Morgan's Labour Welsh Assembly Government. Wales has a strong economy, more jobs, rising prosperity, better hospitals and better schools, but it still has huge challenges to face. Levels of economic inactivity are still far too high. Welsh industry is facing tough global economic competition. Although crime is falling compared with the situation under the Conservative Government, it must be reduced still further, and antisocial behaviour must be combated. We also face important decisions on energy policy to cut costs, guarantee security of supply and keep Wales clean and green. By giving the Assembly the means, through the
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Bill, to respond to those huge challenges, we will enable Welsh politics to focus on policy delivery, rather than debate about more or fewer powers.
The Bill will settle the constitutional debate in Wales for a generation. For the first time ever, it places full law-making powers for Wales on the statute book. It also recognises the need to proceed by consensus, requiring a referendum while providing a path towards primary powers when that consensus emerges. Some argue that that does not go far enough and that we should move to a referendum immediately. All I say to them is: remember what happened in 1979. The defeat then set back the cause of devolution for a generation. Even in 1997, when all the parties except the Tories were united, we only just squeaked home. I have no doubt that if a referendum were held today, it would be lost. Indeed, I cannot see it happening before the end of this decade.
I urge all supporters of primary powers, of whom I am one, to recognise the need for consensus. The Bill provides a route to primary powers, but places the responsibility on supporters of primary powers to go out there, build a consensus and win the argument. In the meantime, the Bill develops the existing devolution settlement by conferring enhanced legislative powers on the Assemblywhile ensuring that Parliament remains in overall controland giving it greater discretion to determine the detail of Welsh legislation. That streamlined procedure will enable the Assembly to break free from the Westminster logjam, while ensuring that the final say remains with Parliament just as it does today, as was endorsed in the 1997 referendum. The Bill also means that the Assembly will start to gain new powers from 2007four years earlier than the Richard commission recommended.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), whom I commend for his insightful contributions during the course of our deliberations on the Bill, has referred to the views of the man in Splott market. I am sure that he would agree that the true test of devolution is whether it enables us to deliver positive benefits and lasting changes to the lives of our constituents, whether they be in Cardiff, Pontypool, Neath or Holyhead. The Bill will enable the Assembly to achieve exactly that. It is right at the political centre of gravity in Wales. It provides for better, more responsive, more accountable Welsh government and helps us to build a world-class Wales.
The Bill will provide a lasting constitutional settlement for Wales. It establishes a flexible constitutional architecture that will adapt to Wales's changing needs over the years to come. It is designed to endure. Whatever changing circumstances we face over the coming years, there will be no case for a successor Government of Wales Bill in the decades to comethis really is it. I commend the Bill to the House.
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