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I offer the Secretary of State and all Welsh Members my best wishes for St. David's day tomorrow. I was at a delightful service earlier today in St. Mary Undercroft with the Under-Secretary of State for Wales. Together with the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott), we had the privilege of
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contributing to the service to celebrate St. David's day. I was sporting a daffodil at that stage, but I am not now because I gave it to a little girlI think from the London Welsh schoolwho was also performing at the service. I thought that that was rather nice because she was able to take it home to her mother. I notice that Members on the Labour Front Bench are already wearing their daffodils, but that the Secretary of State's daffodil is wilting rather badly. That, I hope, is a reflection on Labour's fortunes in Wales, particularly after this Bill.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends for their assistance on the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) argued with great erudition, particularly on using Orders in Council to delegate law making to secondary legislation. It is always a pleasure to listen to him. He is exact and precise, and he has not found his equal at the Dispatch Box in the Under-Secretary. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who I think is taking a well earned break, having been on the Bench alongside me for many hours, has argued from a position of great knowledge on devolution, particularly in Scotland. It is sad that the arguments made by Opposition Members have been swept aside by the Government and given little credence.
There have been valuable contributions from Opposition Members. I draw attention in particular to those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I am pleased to note that the three Conservative Members with Welsh seats have all participated in the proceedings on the Bill. I wish that the same could be said for Labour Members with Welsh seats, not all of whom, I am afraid, have taken an active part or interest in the passage of the Bill.
I started on Second Reading with a positive attitude towards the Bill. There were some aspects on which we agreed with the Government and others that we drew to their attention in the hope that they would rethink their proposals. We purposely did not vote against Second Reading, but chose to highlight the problem areas of the legislation with a reasoned amendment, which we used expressly to launch our concerns about some of the matters in the Bill. With the new, strong intention of my party to try to make devolution work for the people of Wales, I had hoped that the Government would respond positively to our concerns, but that has not been the case.
We see successful devolution depending not only on the support of the people but on some broad political consensus, requiring in turn constructive dialogue between the political parties. We have seen little or none of that during the Bill's passage, and I notice that the other Opposition parties also received scant responses to their points. They have been swept aside and ignored by the Labour machine, which cannot bear to be questioned on any part of the Bill.
In fact, the only amendments that have been accepted are those tabled by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies). I will examine carefully what the Minister said about that, but that appeared to be a Government-placed new clause and amendment because they came as very little surprise to the Minister. [Interruption.] Yes, the new clause came from the CBI and the TUC, but it could just as easily have been tabled by the Government as by the hon. Member for Ogmore.
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I congratulate him on managing to at least produce some amendment to the Bill, which otherwise appears to be totally unamendableit has much in common with the Assembly Measures that it sets up.
As the Bill has progressed, more issues have emerged, and even the Father of the House has expressed disquiet at some of the provisions. Various claims of support put forward by the Government have not prospered under close scrutiny, and it has become apparent that Labour is putting party politics before the interests of people in Wales. If we are to have a devolution arrangement in Wales that is built to last, we will need more thought and consultation with the people of Wales than is evidenced by this Bill, and all-party support as far as possible.
Briefly, taking the parts in turn, on part 1 we agree with many of the provisions. However, the partisan way in which the Government have plucked out a change to the electoral arrangements to placate their own party members and against any clear advice from the Arbuthnott commission, the Electoral Commission, leading academics and even Labour-sponsored research projects, has made a mockery of their attitude toward the Assembly itself. Even there, a tied vote on that subject revealed that only Labour Assembly Members wanted the change, and in Divisions during our debates in this place, we have had the support of all the Opposition parties. A further change at this stage will undermine electoral confidence at a time when education of the electorate would seem to be the priority, in the interests of electors themselves. Furthermore, banning dual candidacy may impinge on candidates' human rights. I hope that the Members of the other place will look closely at those provisions, coupled with those in clause 11.
We support and agree with the separation of powers of the Assembly and the Executive in part 2. That, in itself, would have justified a Bill that would have received all-party support of the sort that the Government should have sought on changes in the constitutional position of Wales.
Part 3 is fraught with problems. It introduces the Order in Council provisions, which amount to primary legislation by the back door, to cure an alleged legislative blockage, which has not been proved under questioning. I do not know who is the author of that tortuous legislative route, but it cannot be one who has the best interests of the Assembly in his heart. The procedure is devolution by statutory instrumentor, as the Father of the House said, devolution by salami-slicing. It is a device for saying one thing to one audience and another thing to another, as was pointed out by Lord Richard, whose report has largely been pushed to one side. Lord Richard has expressed some major qualifications in respect of procedure, so I hope that he and his colleagues in the other House will examine the proposals, not least because, if viewed in conjunction with the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, which moves the Executive away from traditional ways of legislating to Orders in Council, they lead me to believe that we need to exercise great caution about the ways in which we are changing our systems.
We have argued that, if part 3 does indeed delegate the substantial powers to which the Secretary of State referred, that should be put to the people of Wales. Apparently, that is not a route that the Government are willing to take in respect of either the part 3 powers or
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the part 4 powers, unless and until they can win any referendum put to the electors. The Bill is not about consulting the people of Wales but about achieving a Labour agenda.
The Secretary of State said that part 4 will settle the constitutional issue for a generationa claim that he repeated this evening. How can that be, when part 4 leaves the question of additional powers wide open? How can it be, when not even the number of MPs has been discussed, or the number of AMs that might be required if the Assembly takes on the full law-making powers set out in part 4? Some Labour Members have suggested that the whole electoral system should be reviewed; perhaps it would have been better to reflect on that.
The Bill leaves the House with a lot of unfinished business and with a Government who are trying to create the impression that they are pro-Wales but, after scrutiny by Opposition parties, it has emerged that they are, in fact, purely pro-Labour. Claims have crumbled under scrutiny. The Secretary of State prayed in aid Lord Dahrendorf, Lord Holme and Sir John Arbuthnott, but his claims proved to be not strictly accurate. His claim that there is a legislative blockage hardly stood up to scrutiny, and his claim of abuse by AMs of the electoral system has not been substantiated. He has ignored the Richard commission, Assembly Members, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Reform Society and leading academics to go his own way and produce legislation that means that the people of Wales will not be consulted at the right time and that will give more responsibility to the Labour Assembly Government before they have even got to grips with the responsibilities that they already have.
The Assembly Government have not yet grasped the new local democracy with efficiency or effectiveness. They have broken promises to the electoratefor example, on free care for the disabled and free breakfasts for all primary school kids. They have ditched targets on economic matters, truancy rates and GCSE pass rates, and they have presided over huge increases in waiting lists for operations. That is to name only a few areas in which the performance of the Welsh Assembly Labour Government needs to be improved. To give the Labour Assembly Government more powers before they have flourished and got to grips with the difficult business of governing in areas already under their control is like suffocating the institution before it has embarked on its democratic journey. Faith in the Labour Assembly Government is fragile. Turnout fell at the last Assembly elections by 8 per cent. to 36 per cent., and the Electoral Commission said that that was the result of a lack of awareness of the role of the Assembly and a growing disconnection between the politicians and parts of the electorate.
The Secretary of State said at the time that the low turnout was dreadful and that politicians were "talking past the people". I agree, but it is the Secretary of State who is talking past the people in the Bill. I want the Assembly and the Assembly Government to do a good job for the people of Wales, and my party wants them to succeed. The Bill includes some good proposals, but the Government could not resist the chance to play party politics with it. It is therefore with a heavy and a disappointed heart that, to support the Assembly and to give the people of Wales a voice, I urge my colleagues to
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vote against the Bill. I regret that we were unable to have a better dialogue with the Government during its passage.
I want no nonsense from the Secretary of State and I do not want to hear his usual track of alleging that Conservatives are against devolution. He knows that that is not true. We want to make devolution work and we want it to secure substantial cross-party agreement on many matters. Ours is not an anti-devolution vote, nor is it an anti-Assembly vote. It is a vote against a Government who put party before people. That is not good for the House, and it is not good for Wales. The Opposition will do everything they can to explain to the people of Wales that the Labour Government are trying to manipulate their future for 10 or 15 years on the basis of a Labour fix while they remain in power. I sincerely hope that they will lose that power at the next Assembly election in 2007. In the meantime, to protect the health of the Assembly, its effectiveness and efficiency, and in the interests of the people of Wales, the Opposition have been forced by the intransigence of the Secretary of State and the Government to vote against the Bill.
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