Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman once again that a Third Reading debate concerns the contents of the Bill rather than what is not included?

Lembit Öpik: All right. Nevertheless, Madam Deputy Speaker, we did discuss those issues, and in every single case I felt that the Government were not only intransigent but completely unwilling to listen to the many reasonable points made by Members on both sides of the House.

Mrs. Gillan: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman very carefully. He has read out a catalogue of aspects of the Bill with which he categorically does not agree. How does he think that he will help the Assembly and the people of Wales by abstaining or voting for it? Can I persuade him to join me in the Lobby with the intention of voting to try to improve the situation for the Assembly, and not to accept the flawed Bill to which he has outlined his objections?

Lembit Öpik: Despite its imperfections, of which there are many, the Bill is marginally better than the existing arrangements. The channels to primary powers, narrow though they are, represent an improvement on the Government of Wales Act 1998, the passage of which I was as intimately involved in. Liberal Democrats will support the Bill because it is a small step in the right direction towards the truly democratic and authoritative representative body that Wales needs and desires. What matters now is that we understand the way in which the new system will work. In particular, I hope that the Secretary of State will apply his mind to the many criticisms of the Orders-in-Council process that he envisages. I am not even sure that we have spotted all the unintended consequences, but I suspect that it will be fraught with problems.

My answer to the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham is that we have to make a judgment about the real situation. Instead of making the tokenistic gesture of filing into the No Lobby, as if that is in any way a responsible and mature commitment to what we are trying to achieve, we will, with a heavy heart, vote with the Government.

The Conservatives feel uncomfortable about that because it serves only to highlight their anti-devolution position and I am not surprised that they want members of other parties to vote against the Bill, but there is no prospect of the Liberal Democrats doing that.

Mrs. Gillan: Hypocrisy.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Lady accuses me of hypocrisy. How ironic that she does that after pretending to hope
 
28 Feb 2006 : Column 218
 
that the Bill would change so much that she could vote for it on Third Reading. She pretended that, in all but absolute fact, the Conservatives voted against Second Reading, dressed up as voting for a reasoned amendment. She should be cautious before accusing me of hypocrisy. I may be many things—an unsuccessful punter when it comes to the leadership election in my party—but I do not believe that I am hypocrite.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps I can take some of the heat out of the debate and remind the hon. Gentleman again that we are debating Third Reading.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham is now blackmailing me from a sedentary position and it has worked. I shall move on to my conclusion.

The true party of devolution—the Liberal party—was talking about devolution when the Labour party was in short pants. It is a delight to witness the first faltering steps towards a grasp of what devolution means. I know that the Secretary of State, who is truly in favour of devolution, would perhaps like to go further.

Mr. Hain: I would not.

Lembit Öpik: In his heart, the Secretary of State is a Liberal, and hope springs eternal.

Although we hoped for a big step forward, we have a small shuffle in the right direction. However, even the Bill's modest powers are better than nothing. I assure hon. Members that Liberal Democrats will continue to dream of a devolution settlement that is worthy of the nation that we represent. It is a shame that the Government found themselves snoozing for five days at the various stages of the Bill's passage. However, I hope that, through working together, the Government will perceive the flaws in the measure and have the humility to come back and put right the elements that they have allowed to go badly wrong in the five days and 33 hours that we have had in which to debate the matter so far.

9.27 pm

Dr. Hywel Francis (Aberavon) (Lab): I want to place on record my personal support for the Bill and that of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing.

In Committee, I presented several constructive proposals and criticisms on behalf of the Welsh Affairs Committee. We noted the Government's responses and it is important to acknowledge that we are taking an important—some may call it modest—step forward. Nevertheless, as a strong and long-standing supporter of democratic devolution, I believe that it is a critical step forward for the people of Wales. I am proud on behalf of not only the Welsh Affairs Committee but my constituency and the people of Wales to say that the Bill constitutes a major step for democracy in Wales and in the whole of Britain.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Does my hon. Friend accept that, when one is attacked on the one hand for not going far enough and on the other for going too far, it may be because we have got it right?

Dr. Francis: I think that I understand my hon. Friend and I suppose that I agree.
 
28 Feb 2006 : Column 219
 

It is important to recognise at this vital stage that the Bill was a Labour manifesto commitment that we are now fulfilling. I am delighted, on behalf of the Welsh Affairs Committee, to support it.

9.29 pm

David T.C. Davies: The Secretary of State began his speech with the bizarre accusation that the Conservative party is trying to undermine devolution or prevent it from working. Ever since the referendum, the Conservative party has worked flat out to ensure that an institution with which we did not especially agree works as well as possible for Wales. That is why we got involved in the Welsh Assembly and why Conservative Assembly Members work so assiduously to scrutinise legislation in Committees and in the Chamber. That is why we hold surgeries every week, and why we raise issues on behalf of our constituents at local and national level—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I have said to other hon. Members? We really must concentrate on the content of the Bill on Third Reading.

David T.C. Davies: Very well, Madam Deputy Speaker, but one of the major effects of the Bill is the change in the voting system that has been proposed because Labour Members have said that they are tired of Members who represent regions popping up in constituencies and opening up offices to compete with other Labour Assembly Members for their work. That is what my Conservative colleagues in the Welsh Assembly have done, and I am very proud of them. It is partly because we have worked extremely hard to make devolution work for the people in Wales that Labour Members have become frustrated and have had to use their strength in Parliament to change the voting system in a way that they know will hinder the Opposition parties. I represent a constituency in the Welsh Assembly, but I have had Assembly Members from other parties, including the Liberal Democrats, claiming to be the Assembly Member for Monmouth. In reality, if the constituency Member is doing their job properly, they have nothing to worry about.

The Secretary of State for Wales undermined his own argument when he admitted that he would never hold a referendum unless he thought that he could win it. We argue that the Government should hold a referendum and let us see what the people of Wales have to say. I am not afraid to put these matters to the people of Wales, even if the Secretary of State is. We know why the people would vote against giving any further powers to the Assembly. Contrary to what the Secretary of State says, we have longer hospital waiting lists there, and fewer schools, and higher council taxes—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman has been asked once to confine his remarks to the content of the Bill. I hope that he will do that; otherwise I shall insist that he does.

David T.C. Davies: We will vote against the Bill tonight not because we do not want devolution to work but because we want to reflect the views of the people of
 
28 Feb 2006 : Column 220
 
Wales. Even the Secretary of State for Wales has admitted tonight that those people would not be in favour of giving the Assembly any further powers.

Tomorrow will be an historic day in Wales, and I shall be down there with my colleagues—yes, in a building that we might not particularly have wanted in the first place—making sure that devolution works.

9.23 pm


Next Section IndexHome Page