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Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), who leads so graciously with his chin on so many issues. He talks about a referendum, but we know that he would vote against it. He has said tonight that he is pro-devolution, yet he is going to vote against that, too.
I happen to agree with a lot of what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said, but we think that things should move at a different pace. That is the difference between us. In 1997, I was happy to work with many pro-devolution parties to get the Assembly up and running, and it was a great tribute to the cross-party coalition that that happened. The referendum result in my constituency reflected the national picture51 per cent. were in favour and 49 per cent. against, which is why we have to be a little cautious about the pace at which we move forward. I engage a great deal with my constituents and I do not think that they have the appetite for the great change that the Liberal Democrats and, certainly, Plaid Cymru wantnamely, total independence. Plaid Cymru wants to use the Assembly to move towards full independent status. I want the Welsh Assembly to work for the people of Ynys Môn, and I believe that the Bill is pitched just about right in that regard.
I am proud to follow a strong tradition, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith). Our predecessors, Jim Griffiths and Cledwyn Hughes, were the real architects of devolution, and they knew what was acceptable to the people of Wales at the time. They set up the Welsh Office and introduced the biggest pieces of legislation of the time to help the Welsh language. I remember talking to Cledwyn Hughes after the 1997 referendum debate. I thought that he would be very disappointed at what was on offer, but he said no, it was about right. It was enough, given the shock when we lost the referendum in 1979, and he felt that we had to move at an appropriate pace.
The Bill has three main parts. There is consensus on the part that separates the Executive from the corporate body of the Assembly. We all agree with that. My difficulty with the Conservatives' argument is that although, in Committee and on Report they said time and again that we should not amend an arrangement that was only a few years old, they agree with us on that aspect. Even the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) said tonight that we could have had a Bill dealing only with the separation of powers. The Conservatives really are confused about the Bill as a whole.
Then there is the banning of the dual mandate. That is confusing. Like the hon. Member for Monmouth, I do not get exercised about it, but I recall that when I was first elected a Member of Parliament, the Assembly Member who is now the leader of the Opposition in the
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Assembly did get exercised when a Conservative list Member used to claim to be the based Assembly Member in that constituency. That has changed a little. It does not really bother me, but it is confusing when losers under the first-past-the-post system become winners. I think it right to adjust the position. The Opposition's arguments about gerrymandering and rigging were unfoundedthey had no evidence to support their claim that the measure would benefit the Labour party. I do not think that it will be of benefit, but I think that it will clarify the situation.
The other main measure involves Orders in Council. On the eve of St David's day, I hope that one of the first Orders in Council from the Welsh Assembly will be for a public holiday in Wales. It would be very symbolic. I believe in enabling powers, and in working in partnership with the National Assembly. It is important for that young institution to produce positive measures that we can discuss and on which we can make progress.
I want devolution to move faster because I am a pro-devolutionist. I always have been, following a proud tradition in my constituency. However, I do not think that we should move too far ahead of the people in Wales. I think that the Bill has the balance about right. That is why, as a pro-devolutionist, I am proud to support pro-devolution measuresunlike the Conservatives, who claim to be pro-devolution but are prepared to vote against any pro-devolution measure at any stage in the House.
Ministers, I am sure, hope that the eventual passing of the Bill will be greeted in Wales with a Millennium stadium-style roar of approval, but I believe that it will be greeted with an empty millennium dome-style wall of silence and lack of interest. We should not forget that nearly two thirds of the Welsh electorate did not participate in the last Assembly elections two and a half years ago, and I see nothing in the Bill that will deal with that problem.
I want devolution to work. I am one of the Conservative Members who are open-minded about how the devolution settlement might be extended and deepened in years to come. What the people of Wales signed up to in the referendum, by the thinnest margins, was Executive devolution, not legislative devolution. What the Bill gives them is legislative devolution in all but name, through a piece of constitutional trickery. That is why, with a heavy heart, I shall vote against the Bill this evening. I want the Assembly to workI want it to be an expression of a vibrant political culture in Wales. However, I consider the Bill to be deeply flawed.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab):
It gives me great pleasure to speak on Third Reading. I know that my predecessor James Griffiths, the first Secretary of State for Wales, would have been proud to see the Bill become law. He was very clear that there should be a Wales Office. He was also very clear that there should be a strong voice
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for Wales in the Cabinet. He was an enthusiastic advocate of devolution long before it became popular. At the same time, he did not want independence for Waleshe saw Wales as an integral part of the United Kingdom.
To me, the Bill represents an important step in bringing decision-making nearer to the peoplethe people who will be affected by the decisions. Given the increasing emphasis on globalisation, it is important for us to find the correct level for each type of collaboration and each type of legislation. I believe that the Bill brings power to a more appropriate level. At a European level, we can discuss issues such as the environment and working together to maintain decent working conditions and standards of living for workers across the European Union, while ensuring that our own workers are not undercut.
In this place, we discuss issues appropriate to the UK as a nation, such as defence, finance and law and order. The Bill will enable the Assembly to have a much greater degree of flexibilitya flexibility that will allow it to reflect more truly in its legislation the concerns and wishes of the people of Wales. As I said, I see the Bill as an important step in bringing decision making closer to the people. We need to go further and to ensure that we listen more carefully to our town and community councils. We must renew and strengthen our community spirit and get more people involved in the decision-making process.
Although the list system has been much criticised, it does give a much louder voice to those voters whose parties do not do so well under the first-past-the-post system. They have the Labour party to thank for that. The Assembly is a very representative body that reflects the diversity of community and politics in Wales. The Bill will give it greater opportunity to reflect the needs and wishes of the people of Wales. I look forward to attending the opening of the new Assembly building tomorrow, and I wish the Assembly as an institution a very successful future.
Adam Price: The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) is of course rightthe Charter Secretary of State for Wales advocated the creation of a Welsh Office as early as 1946, I believe. Of course, it took almost 20 years to achieve that modest objective, and that is part of the problem that we as a nation have had to face, namely, the exasperating, almost glacial speed of political devolution.
This Bill, like so many home rule Bills in our history, stands in a long line of half-measures and missed opportunities. Tom Ellis's home rule Bill, for example, was struck down by a Liberal Government and certainly was not given time or support. Such things have happened throughout our history. People sometimes speak of a slippery slope to independence, but the slope certainly is not slippery and it is always uphill. Every small step constitutes precious ground that those of us in the national movement, and devolutionists in other parties, have had to fight for every inch of the way.
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Lord Morgan of Aberdyfi has pointed eloquently to the fact that it took some 70 to 80 years longer to establish a Welsh Officein 1964than it did to establish the Scotland Office. He said that that was a product of our being a conquered people. Only a Labour parliamentarian could say that without getting heckled, but there is probably something in what he says. Consider our history as a nation. In contrast with Scotland, we did not retainin fact, we did not even havemodern institutions of civil society. We had an absentee aristocracy, followed by an absentee landlord and political class. Because of that, we have had to make these halting steps forwardsteps that we see once again in this Bill.
I do not think that the Government have got the Bill just about right, but I do not think that they have got it totally wrong, either, which is why I will support Third Reading. If we had refused all along the crumbs and half-loaves that were sometimes given to us by the political establishment in this place, the Welsh nation would have withered on the vine. We have to accept that pragmatismthe accepting of sometimes deficient measuresis part of our history. However, I look forward to the day when Government of Wales Bills no longer echo in this Chamber and when the governance of Wales will not be a matter for debate in this neo-gothic monument. It will be a matter, entirely properly, for the people of Wales, and will be dealt with where it belongsin the Senedd that will be symbolically opened tomorrow. One day, it will be open in earnest, and have all the powers that a Welsh nation with the right of self-determination will deserve.
The late Gwyn Alf Williams said that Wales as a nation had existed for almost 1,600 years, and that it was about time that we got the keys to our own front door. We are still waiting. The Government somehow suggest, through the post-referendum device, that Welsh democracyand, by extension, even the Welsh nation itselfis not yet mature enough to have the full range of primary law-making powers. I reject that assertion. It is symptomatic of the strange position that Wales is in that one of the oldest nations in these islands and on this continent should be one of the youngest democracies. There is a contradiction and a tension there, and that is why I think that, in his heart of hearts, the Secretary of State does not believe his own assertion that the Bill, shot through with contradictions as it is, can resolve the national question that we in Wales have debated for so many generations. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman is also shot through with contradictions and tensions: he is certainly a complex political operator.
The Secretary of State said earlier that the matter has been resolved for a generation, but I think of a generation as lasting 20 years. I am not prepared to wait that long to get primary law-making powers in Wales[Interruption.] He also said that no other party had delivered devolution for Wales. However, I thought that the referendum campaign was meant to be a collective enterprise that went beyond political party divisions. How easy will it be to resurrect that sense of collective endeavour, given the sectarian and partisan approach displayed even tonight by the Labour party and the Secretary of State?
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We must recreate the national consensus created in 1997 so that we can make progress along the long and arduous path towards national self-determination. By their approach to the Bill, the Secretary of State and his colleagues have made that difficult task even more onerous. Unfortunately, that will be the badge of shame that he must carry.
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