Draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Social Welfare) Order 2008

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Alun Michael: May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs. Dean? I am sure that the Committee will be one of the more disciplined ones as a result.
I am also a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, but I joined it after it had dealt with the hearings on this particular order. I rise to say a word about the process. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire referred to framework powers in primary legislation and suggested that they might be preferable to going down the avenue of the powers allowed by the Government of Wales Act 2006. I suggest to him that if we get the process right, the legislative competence orders may turn out to be a better means of scrutiny, given the expertise on the Welsh Affairs Committee and its development of a good understanding with the Members of the Welsh Assembly who have a role in scrutiny. The hon. Gentleman rightly says that the process was criticised by the Welsh Affairs Committee at this stage as unsatisfactory. Indeed, the Select Committee made similar points on a subsequent legislative competence order.
However, I believe that the steps that the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis), has taken to develop better liaison with members of the relevant Assembly Committee in respect of each order, and the very good evidence sessions that have taken place with Assembly Ministers and Deputy Ministers in recent weeks, have contributed to a significant move towards the Welsh Affairs Committee of this place and the Committees undertaking scrutiny in the Assembly being complementary in the work that they undertake. That is an extremely important and positive development.
Mr. Jones: The right hon. Gentleman and I both served on the Committee considering the Planning Bill. Does he agree that, paradoxically, the level and depth of scrutiny being applied to legislative competence orders is significantly more than that for framework powers in primary Bills? Indeed, does he also agree that in the case of the Planning Bill, there was unfortunately no scrutiny at all on the Floor of the House on Second Reading, Report or Third Reading?
The Chairman: Order. We need to focus on the contents of this order, rather than on the wider remit.
Alun Michael: I take your stricture to heart, Mrs Dean. I anticipated that we would be kept to the issues that are before us.
The point I am trying to make is that the Welsh Affairs Committee was able to focus on the purpose of this power and the purpose of amending the legislation. As the Under-Secretary mentioned in his opening remarks, we have a piece of legislation that is absolutely clear. Its intention is clear. It is clear that the points made during scrutiny by the Welsh Affairs Committee, as well as by the Assembly Committee, have been taken into account and it is a much better piece of legislation as a result.
I hope that the end result of the application of these powers will be consistency— perhaps that is a better word than uniformity—in terms of the level of charging that is made for the services, given that the 22 councils in Wales differ in size and in geography, and thus in the cost of services in some cases. As I said, the order represents a step forward in the joint working between Welsh Members of the House of Commons and Members of the Welsh Assembly. It is to be welcomed. It will be good for our constituents, but, as I said, the process of its scrutiny has also taken us a step forward towards a high quality of scrutiny in this place. That, surely, is to be welcomed too.
4.54 pm
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I also rise as a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, albeit, I have to confess, not a very good attender at the moment. You will know the reason for that, Mrs. Dean: it clashes with the Home Affairs Committee, of which I am an assiduous attender.
Alun Michael: I just want to be clear whether the hon. Gentleman is indicating an order of priorities.
The Chairman: Order. We are not here to discuss the attendance of various Committees.
David T.C. Davies: It is probably as well that I need not answer that question.
Suffice it to say that the Minister has made a perfectly cogent and reasonable case for this LCO, based on the fact that it is not controversial and that there is a disparity in the levels that local authorities charge. Nobody could really argue with that or the case that he has put forward. However, one might be inclined to ask him, as a Minister of a Government who are a national UK Government—long may it be so—why the case that he has put forward so well for Wales does not appear to be applied to England. Perhaps he is not in a position to answer that question.
I am concerned that although there is clearly a problem in Wales which the LCO may put right, it could also be the case that the Welsh Assembly finds that it is unable to deal with the matter in a fair fashion. It is quite possible that local authorities that are currently charging more may come back to us later and say that, surprise, surprise, they have not been reimbursed the extra money that they need and have been asked to find it out of other funds for schools, from other parts of the social service budget, from funds for cleaning the streets or whatever. The question that I have for the Minister is, just as we have the power to add things to schedule 5 of the 2006 Act, do we have the power to take them away again if we discover that the Welsh Assembly is not dealing with them in the manner that we would like?
Perhaps I should make more time to attend the Welsh Affairs Committee and not the Home Affairs Committee, as I would be throwing not just a spanner in the work, but on occasion an entire toolkit. I find it worrying that we can give these extra powers to the Welsh Assembly but do not have the power to take them away again. There are so many areas, which I cannot go into now, in which the Welsh Assembly has shown itself to be less efficient than the Government in England. I look forward to the Minister telling us just how easy it would be to remove the power if we find that things are not working.
4.57 pm
Huw Irranca-Davies: I am pleased to rise and respond to the many well-informed contributions that have been made in the process of scrutinising this order. I shall deal with them roughly in the order that they arose.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, West raised once again an issue that has proved a continuous theme of scrutiny in our discussions: fettering the discretion of local authorities. It is right to say that whatever arrangements are made regarding a Measure, they must be done in an open and inclusive way and with close consultation with local authorities and other stakeholders. I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government intend to take a collaborative approach to devising options for the shape of any Measure and on testing the likely impact of the proposals prior to implementation. I think that all members of the Committee would welcome that approach. While we are proposing that a competence be devolved to the Assembly, when a Measure is subsequently brought forward, it is right that it is also subject to the wide consultation and scrutiny in the National Assembly for Wales.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of compensation for local authorities, which has quite rightly been raised on several occasions, to try to test what resource implications the order will have. The extent to which the Assembly Government might decide to compensate local authorities for any revenue that they lose as a result of the Measure should be considered by the National Assembly when it is introduced, subject to the consultation and scrutiny.
Mr. Jones: I hear what the Minister says, but I seem to recall that he made reassuring noises when he was asked about that issue by the Select Committee.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Absolutely, and the hon. Gentleman is right to pay reference to what I said then and what I and the Welsh Assembly Government Minister continue to stand by. We do not go back on those assurances at all. In parallel with many other members of the Committee, I welcome the considered and warm approach that has been taken to this issue, recognising that this is a good potential competence to convey to the Assembly. It could have an impact on and give real value to people’s lives. Potentially it will impact on and give real value to people’s lives.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire asked whether the provision could have been appended as part of a framework power in relation to another Bill. I assure him that even now, as we consider the draft legislative programme for the next Session of Parliament, the Welsh Assembly Government and a wide range of consultees are invited to comment and make observations about whether they could introduce a legislation requirement as part of the overall legislative programme for England and Wales. That is always an option.
However, we must balance that against what my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth mentioned: the appropriateness of an LCO because of the timeliness with which it can be brought forward at the request of the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Assembly Government, and the capacity for effective scrutiny in a Standing Committee, in the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs and elsewhere. There are many advantages to that, and we have to find a balance, not hitch things up to any passing wagon for the sake of it. The scope needs to be appropriate as well.
Hywel Williams: Will the Minister assure the House that he and his colleagues intervene early in the process of making decisions about framework powers and LCOs? I asked the Leader of the House about this very point on Wednesday when she announced the equality legislation and she said she would have to consult the First Minister.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I can indeed give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that there is very full, frank and open dialogue at official and ministerial level to identify opportunities in the legislative programme that may come from the Welsh Assembly Government, or for them to be identified very early on. No opportunity is missed for want of discussion and attempts to see opportunities. However, to some extent what happens is at the behest of the Welsh Assembly Government, identifying for us what they see as the appropriate vehicle by which to present legislation. We respond to that.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire also referred to the vulnerable children LCO, which is progressing. That was identified by the Assembly as the appropriate way to introduce the Measure at the time it was wanted, and to afford it scrutiny at the level that we have seen. The order fell outside the scope of the Children and Young Persons Bill, so a framework power was not deemed appropriate in that instance.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon talked about scrutiny in the Welsh Affairs Committee and in Whitehall. The process is evolving and in a very positive way. The Welsh Affairs Committee is considering how it evolves its own role in scrutiny and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has also been very open in discussing matters with anyone who wants to offer suggestions about the way forward for scrutiny. He has met hon. Members, but I open the invitation to others, as I am sure that the Welsh Affairs Committee would also be interested in hearing from them as it considers how to refine the process.
From the perspective of the Wales Office, we already have a range of ways in which we can improve the mechanism by which we introduce LCOs in a timely way—not rushing scrutiny, but with appropriate scrutiny; working through the system in an improved way.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth referred to the way in which this LCO has evolved. We are getting better with every one at giving the right amount of scrutiny. He also referred to our continuing role in scrutiny and as constituency representatives. Some areas are devolved, but that does not stop individuals coming to raise issues with us, and it is right to give those concerns appropriate scrutiny here.
The hon. Member for Monmouth referred to the cogent and reasonable case that I made, and I try to be a cogent and reasonable Minister at all times. If I am not mistaken, Hansard will record that he talked of his wish to see me long remain a Minister of the Crown in the UK Parliament, and I welcome that.
David T.C. Davies: I do not actually remember that comment, but let me say that I would be happy for the Minister to remain in his post longer than any other Labour Minister until we have a change of Government.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Even if it was an inadvertent compliment, I welcome any compliments, because they are few and far between.
The hon. Gentleman’s main point related to whether we are in a position to claw back the power if we do not like what they are doing in Wales. Given where we are with the 2006 Act and with the evolution of the devolutionary mechanisms, we must have an element of trust in the fact that not only Labour, Plaid Cymru and independent Assembly Members, but Conservative Assembly Members, will carry out their role well, scrutinise measures well and introduce measures of their own making as appropriate.
I suspect that what the hon. Gentleman proposes is not reverse devolution, but a full-scale, headlong retreat from where we are. I would certainly not advocate that, although I note that he is nodding at me as I speak. All that I would say to him, as I would to all members of the Committee, is that we should trust Assembly Members. The hon. Gentleman was formerly an Assembly Member, and he was very outspoken and a very diligent attender in the Chamber. I am sure that he trusts his own Conservative colleagues in the Assembly to scrutinise measures.
In conclusion, this LCO represents progress in the way in which we scrutinise issues and in our delivery to the people of Wales. It is often asked what difference these LCOs make in reality to individuals living in Wales, but as we have heard, the order before us has the potential—subject to Measures introduced by the Welsh Assembly Government and the National Assembly for Wales—to make a material difference to the quality of people’s lives. With that, I thank Committee members from Wales and England who have supported and expressed their interest in this LCO and I commend it to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Social Welfare) Order 2008.
Committee rose at eight minutes past Five o’clock.
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Prepared 1 July 2008