Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  Q80  Mrs Moon: You have touched a little bit on what I wanted to ask you about which was your comment about the unacceptable strains that could develop if you had a different government in Westminster to that in Wales. I wondered could you be a bit more detailed and specific about what you see some of those strains being and what you feel could be done to alleviate them? I appreciate I am asking you to project into the future, but it would be helpful if from your experience you could outline what you see as the particular problems.

  Lord Richard: There are two arguments actually. One is that the sort of fears that I am expressing are illusory and the alternative is that you do not need to worry about it because the system is now so bedded in that it would be very difficult for any Secretary of State or any government up here to reverse the process. I am not as optimistic as that. It does seem to me that if you had an administration up here of a different political complexion to Cardiff then, to put it at its lowest, the Westminster administration could act as a brake upon the Assembly's doing what it is they want to do. Take smoking, which is a very good example actually, the Assembly want to ban smoking in public places in Wales; they cannot. Scotland just did it and the Secretary of State for Wales actually did it in Northern Ireland in his other capacity. It seems to me that is a bit crazy that you have got a situation in which the Assembly wants to do something, everybody knows they want to do something, everybody agrees that it should be able to do something in Wales, but it cannot and in order to get it done they have to depend upon, in effect, the goodwill of the Westminster Parliament, and Westminster inevitably will look at it on an England and Wales basis not just on a Wales basis. I think the danger is the brake point, that it could act as a brake upon the legitimate aspirations of a properly elected Assembly in Wales. I do think that if you start down this devolution route you have got to recognise the fact that as a nation Wales has got certain rights. If you want to treat it as if it were a glorified county council, okay, that is another matter, then you treat it like a glorified county council. If you want to treat it as a nation you have to treat it as a nation and if you treat it as a nation it has certain rights, and one of those rights seems to be basic, that on the whole it ought to be able to pass the legislation that it thinks right.

  Q81  David Davies: Lord Richard, you talk about an administration, presumably you mean in London, acting as a brake on the Welsh Assembly. Is it not the case, though, that at the moment Welsh Members of Parliament can act as a brake potentially on an administration which has a different view. You talk about rights but you do not mention the responsibilities. Surely the point here is if Wales is to be given the power to go off and do its own thing, then it cannot be right that Welsh Members of Parliament can go along to Westminster and vote on matters that affect only England—because at the moment that is what is happening and they are the ones who are potentially putting the brake on English aspirations?

  Lord Richard: I am not going to deal with the West Monmouth question any more than I can deal with the West Lothian question.

  Q82  David Davies: It is intrinsically a part of this, is it not?

  Lord Richard: It is an issue that at some stage will no doubt have to be resolved by discussion between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. That is the point. At the moment if you talk to Welsh MPs (and I expect this is true sitting around this table here) you would take the view that in relation to Welsh affairs you play a valuable role at Westminster in helping to govern Wales properly. You obviously take the view that in relation to English matters you play a responsible part in helping to govern England.

  Q83  David Davies: These are not English matters per se, are they, they are Welsh matters because it is Welsh MPs who are going over to England. The problem is whenever the West Lothian question is put to you, you say, "I am only interested in Wales." I am putting to you that Welsh MPs can act as a brake on England and you are saying that is nothing to do with me, however you are highlighting the fact that a potentially different administration could act as a brake on Wales. Surely you cannot separate the two issues; they are one and the same issue?

  Lord Richard: Except there is this distinction, is there not: I am talking about an administration in Westminster; you are talking about Members of Parliament in Westminster. I am saying if you have got a government in Westminster that can be a pretty effective brake. If you have got a group of MPs in Westminster, I do not think that has the effect of a brake because there is no secretary of state and administration here saying no to the administration in Cardiff. That is a slightly constitutional-type answer to a question. At the moment I am bound to say I think your question is unanswerable. I have always taken that view over the West Lothian question and I think it applies just as much to Wales as it does to Scotland.

  Q84  Mr Crabb: Given what you said earlier about your view on the state of public opinion in Wales with regard to devolution, would you therefore disagree with the Government who said that they do not believe there is a consensus within Wales about giving full legislative powers to the Assembly?

  Lord Richard: That is an interesting question. I would like to see more evidence but I do not accept the fact that there is none. In other words, it does seem to me that there is some evidence which shows that the people of Wales would like greater legislative competence. Whether that is sufficient at this stage to fight a referendum campaign I am not entirely convinced but I do think the evidence is capable of being gathered.

  Q85  Mr Crabb: How do you view that stream of public opinion in Wales, and it is a significant stream, that would either keep the status quo as regards the Assembly or even favour abolition? In your enquiries did you just ignore that stream of opinion?

  Lord Richard: We did not ignore it. We looked very hard to find people who wanted to abolish the Assembly and go back to the old status. There were some but there were not very many. Most people in Wales now accept devolution and the Assembly as part of the fabric of the way in which Wales is run.

  Q86  Mr Crabb: Maybe we are peculiar in Pembrokeshire but there is a significant strain of opinion—

  Lord Richard: Well, it did not surface in Haverfordwest and we had a good meeting in Haverfordwest.

  Q87  Mr Crabb: At what point do you feel it would be useful to test public opinion in Wales with a referendum?

  Lord Richard: When the Government has decided what they want to do in Wales. If the Government decide that they are going to grant legislative powers to Wales, there ought to be a referendum, but I do not think you could have a referendum on a referendum. I do not think you could go and ask the people of Wales, "Do you want a referendum on primary powers?" I do think there is evidence that can be gathered which would indicate what the state of opinion in Wales was and at the moment the latest poll I have seen is the one which Aberystwyth did which was 64%. I would like to see a more recent one.

  Q88  David Davies: Lord Richard, what aspect of these proposals to enhance the Assembly legislative powers, if any, would be most contentious in the House of Lords?

  Lord Richard: On the White Paper questions?

  Q89  David Davies: Yes?

  Lord Richard: I think the Order in Council procedure. Their Lordships will not like that. They will find it odd. First of all, they do not like being disturbed too much and this I think will disturb them quite a lot and, secondly, they really have a feeling, particularly in the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, which is a powerful committee in the House of Lords, that Henry VIII powers on the whole are not acceptable, that you can perhaps use them in exceptional circumstances but to found a constitutional settlement on that basis, I think their Lordship will have problems with that. The other thing one must say about the White Paper proposals is if you see them as a transition then you can approach them in one light, which is the light that on the whole I think I have. If you see them as an end in themselves you approach them I suppose with a much more critical view and you ask yourself, "Is this going to be the final constitutional settlement?" Does that make sense?

  Q90  David Davies: Yes, it does. Have you had any indication whether the changes to the voting system, which we are probably going to ask you about in a minute, are going to be contentious in the House of Lords?

  Lord Richard: Yes I think it probably will be, but...

  Q91  David Davies: I do not know whether the Chairman wishes to come in.

  Lord Richard: Not violently I would have thought because it is the second stage in the process.

  Q92  David Davies: That begs the question is it not the case that it is going to be contentious because it is such an illogical thing to do?

  Lord Richard: Illogical?

  Q93  David Davies: I think so, to change the voting system. You were making the case earlier on that we need a bit of consistency in the devolution system, and we need the same powers in Wales as we have in Scotland (although not in England of course), but surely what we are now doing is to change the voting system once again and it is a system that the public currently do not understand that well. They are going to understand it even less well and it is going to be a completely different system to the one that is being used in Scotland or in Northern Ireland or of course in England. I will tell you straight, I think the only reason it is being done is because the current voting system favours parties other than the Labour Party and the only reason it is being changed is that it will cause a certain amount of inconvenience to the minority parties particularly the Conservative Party.

  Lord Richard: Let's be clear what you are asking about. Are you asking me how did we come to the conclusion on STV, do I think that is going to be contentious, or are you asking me about the abolition of the right to stand?

  Q94  David Davies: The abolition of the right to stand on both. The STV effectively is not going to go through the House of Lords, is it, because it has not been accepted?

  Lord Richard: Let me go back a bit. The basis of our argument on the electoral system was the size of the Assembly. In other words, we said—and I have said it quite often since—that if the Assembly can run itself on 60 then problems with the electoral system tend to be lessened, tend to be slightly subsumed. If, on the other hand, you have got to put the number of AMs up because you cannot run the Assembly on 60, given that 12 are ministers and therefore you have not got enough people to do the job, if it goes up to 80 people, how are you going to elect the 80. Your arithmetic then does not work if you want to keep the existing constituency boundaries.

  Q95  David Davies: But it is not at present going to go up to 80, is it? The only change that we are going to see in the electoral system is the change to prevent people from standing both for the lists and for the constituencies.

  Lord Richard: I will not avoid that, I promise you, but I thought you wanted me to justify the STV proposal first.

  Q96  David Davies: I think that is a very interesting point and I would love to have that debate with you some time but that was the not question, the question was more about the changes that are being proposed. Perhaps you could tell us what your view is on the changes being proposed. Do you think it is constitutionally right, given your view that we should have more consistency, that we are going to make these systems more inconsistent?

  Lord Richard: There is something wrong in a situation in which five people can stand in Clwyd, none of them can be elected, and then they all get into the Assembly. On the face of it that does not make sense. I think a lot of people in Wales find that it does not.

  Q97  David Davies: That is a good argument for first past the post rather than STV.

  Lord Richard: First past the post is what?

  Q98  David Davies: I said that is a good argument for the first past the post system rather than the STV one which you actually propose in your report?

  Lord Richard: Not if you are going up to 80, it is not.

  Chairman: Could we pause a moment there and ask Hywel Williams to come in.

  Q99  Hywel Williams: As you said earlier, stage three full powers is the end point and if stage two is so complicated and difficult, for me at least to understand, what possibly could be the argument in favour of having a stage two at all?

  Lord Richard: I think you must ask the Secretary of State that. I suspect one of the arguments is sitting in this room actually. It avoids difficulties over the number of Welsh MPs, over the size of constituencies in Wales, it avoids all those difficulties, but it is actually an interesting and complicated device. I am not against devices if they work, but I am against devices if they look as if they are going to be difficult to run and if the end result is as yet unclear, and it is to me.

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