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Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab): I did not take part in Committee, for the very good reason that I believed that the Government had achieved the right level of devolution and introduced the necessary changes in Wales for the Assembly to further its powers and grow in the way that we all want. I believe that Committee is the appropriate forum for Members to voice their concerns to the Government. I welcome the amendments that have been made, but I am disappointed that the Opposition are going to vote against the Bill.
Mr. Jones: I am surprised, and it is a shame. We should vote collectively for a very good Bill which, I hope, will become a very good Act that will support devolution in Wales and throughout the UK, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, for a generation to come.
The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) may wish to raise other desirable options. I would have liked a provision to elect 40 male and 40 female Members, so that there is an in-built gender balance. However, that is not the way this place
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works. The Bill, on the whole, is acceptable to my electorate and will carry forward devolution in Wales, as I said.
David T.C. Davies: The comment that we should all vote for the Bill because the hon. Gentleman happens to think it is a good idea is extraordinary, especially given the fact that, in opposition, Labour Members often voted against Bills, such as the Maastricht Bill and even the Welsh Language Act 1993, which they subsequently thought were quite good ideas. They always put their party politics first. We are putting our principles first tonight.
Mr. Jones: I cannot follow the logic of that: when we were in opposition, we did not put our principles first, but the Conservatives are doing the same as we did in opposition. I find that a bizarre argument. I am more than happy to support the Government on a Bill which, overall, is good for Wales.
Lembit Öpik: We have heard some interesting debates and exchanges, not least the rather curious claim from the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) that as the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) points out, something that is rank and despicable when Labour does it is a matter of positive principle when done by the Conservatives. But that is not the only reversal that we have witnessed in the five days of debate on the Bill. Who would have predicted at the turn of the century that there would come a debate and a vote where the Government argued passionately in favour of the d'Hondt electoral mechanism and the Liberal Democrats voted against it? What a remarkable turn of events.
We also had the remarkable discovery of a mysterious and shady organisation, the Bevan Foundation, and we unveiled some research sponsored by a cheeky monkey from Caerphilly, as it turned out. He is not in his place today. I presume he is out there trying to prove, together with another 47 random members of the public, that 35 per cent. constitutes a majority. The most surprising claim is that because the Conservatives support devolution, they will vote against it. I studied philosophy at university, and I never came across that kind of logic. I got a 2:1, so I was not too bad at it.
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) said some interesting things in the spirit of the new liberal Conservatism that did so well in Dunfermline. She said a moment ago that she had started with a positive attitude towards the Bill on Second Reading. Let me remind her that she said on 9 January that
"made it clear that devolution and the National Assembly are now established features of the Welsh political landscape. I hope that the Secretary of State will resist the temptation to revisit past battles over devolution and misrepresent out position. A future Conservative Government will seek a constructive relationship with the Assembly".
As far as I can tell, one can judge a party by what it does, and today, if I understood the hon. Lady correctly, the Conservative party, the official Opposition, will vote
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down a flawed but nevertheless genuine contribution to the devolution debate and to devolution. I agree that the Bill is disappointing, but why vote against it? Surely she understands that all the high talk about a pro-devolution Conservative Government does not stand up if the Conservatives cannot even bring themselves to support such a limited and timid measure as the Government offer.
"I was delighted to stand against the original proposals for the Welsh Assembly. I can see that it has had some advantages in terms of openness, but those advantages do not outweigh the disadvantages. We have caused enormous damage to the UK".[Official Report, 9 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 46, 88.]
The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham has said that her party is united, and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) criticised my suggestion that there are splits. However, I did not make up those two quotations, which were made in the same debate by Conservative Members of Parliament. The biggest irony is that the Conservative Member who talks down devolution is a Welsh Member.
David T.C. Davies: If the hon. Gentleman were to shorten his speech, he would get to hear some more comments. I am sure that many people would like to hear from the monkey rather than the organ grinder.
Lembit Öpik: I would be happy to take lessons from Conservative Members, if the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is apparently a Welsh nationalist, had stayed for Third Reading instead of making
Lembit Öpik: I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. If the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal were available for comment, I am sure that he would have something to say in his defence, but no doubt he is at home writing his next speech on Northern Ireland or Scotland.
Although I have had a little bit of fun at the expense of Conservative Members, my criticism of the Conservative party is entirely serious. The Conservative party cannot be credible on devolution if it offers vague, warm words about hoping that the Bill would be good enough by Third Reading while behaving in a way that shows that its colours have not changed one iota on devolution. I believe that the mood of the hon. Member for Monmouth is in tune with what is going on in the Conservative party.
The Bill poses real dilemmas for the Liberal Democrats. We are a pro-devolution party that believes passionately in the best devolutionary arrangement for
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Wales, which was set out by the Richard commission. The Richard commission proposed an 80-Member Senedd with primary law-making powers elected by a single transferable vote system, and the Bill delivers some of that. The Bill provides two pathways for the Assembly to gain primary legislative powers, which are otherwise known as Assembly Measures, namely the Order in Council procedure and a referendum in Wales. It also creates a strong and clear basis for the Assembly to exercise greater powers more efficiently by separating the Assembly's Executive and legislative elements. That change was so desperately needed that the Assembly was heading that way itself through various ad hoc measures, and it is to the Government's credit that they have formalised that distinction. The Bill is a step away from the Conservative anti-devolution strategy, which would significantly dilute the potential for Wales to gain primary legislative powers by putting a whole series of restrictions and conditions between where the Liberal Democrats would like the Welsh Assembly to be and where it actually is.
So much more could have been done in the Bill, which is the product of compromise not with other parties or pro-devolution organisations in Wales, but with Labour Back Benchers. By caving in to internal pressure, the Government have missed an opportunity, and a number of points will need to be reconsidered in a future reworking of the devolution argument. In fairness, the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham has highlighted concerns that we share. The extreme concentration of power in the hands of the Secretary of State is not appropriate. The arrangement is almost colonial: unlike Scotland, Wales must go cap in hand to the Secretary of State for Wales.
The Secretary of State can turn down requests for pretty much any reason. As the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham said, every one of the modest changes that we proposed to reduce the Secretary of State's governor-like potential to intervene was rejected. The Welsh Affairs Committee said that
The banning of dual candidacy has been discussed in great detail. We feel that there is no justification for that, as did the Richard commission. The Government have acted in a way that I can understand emotionally but is not right in terms of human rights and democracy. Having people standing in a list on a constituency basis does not devalue the integrity of the electoral system or act as a disincentive to vote in constituency elections. Nevertheless, we lost that vote, and Welsh democracy has been somewhat compromised as a result.
We talked about the Barnett formula and the injustices of having a somewhat random formulation. I proposed, and we voted on, the modest request for a panel of experts to suggest how it could be done better, but even that was not accepted by the Government.
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The limit on the scope of the Welsh Assembly's powers is another frustration. The Secretary of State rightly commented on Wales's potential to be a beacon for the environment, yet the Assembly does not even have the power to legislate on power stations over 50 MW. That could become very significant in the nuclear debate.
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