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House of Commons
Session 2007 - 08
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General Committee Debates
Welsh Grand Committee Debates

Government’s Legislative Programme

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Martin Caton
Ainger, Nick (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab)
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Brennan, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Bryant, Chris (Rhondda) (Lab)
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon Valley) (Lab)
Crabb, Mr. Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)
Davies, Mr. Dai (Blaenau Gwent) (Ind)
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth) (Con)
Flynn, Paul (Newport, West) (Lab)
Francis, Dr. Hywel (Aberavon) (Lab)
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Hain, Mr. Peter (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions)
Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice)
Havard, Mr. Dai (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Minister for the Middle East)
Irranca-Davies, Huw (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales)
James, Mrs. Siân C. (Swansea, East) (Lab)
Jones, Mr. David (Clwyd, West) (Con)
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)
Lucas, Ian (Wrexham) (Lab)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine (Bridgend) (Lab)
Morden, Jessica (Newport, East) (Lab)
Morgan, Julie (Cardiff, North) (Lab)
Murphy, Mr. Paul (Torfaen) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Price, Adam (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC)
Ruane, Chris (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)
Smith, John (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab)
Tami, Mark (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Williams, Mr. Alan (Swansea, West) (Lab)
Williams, Mrs. Betty (Conwy) (Lab)
Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon) (PC)
Williams, Mark (Ceredigion) (LD)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Willott, Jenny (Cardiff, Central) (LD)
John Benger, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Welsh Grand Committee

Wednesday 12 December 2007


[Mr. Martin Caton in the Chair]

Government’s Legislative Programme

9 am
The Chairman: It might be helpful if I remind hon. Members about the timing of our sittings. We have from now until 11.25 am. We meet again at 2 o’clock and the debate on the motion will continue until 4 pm.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Caton. I seek clarification. Last time we debated the Gracious Speech in the Welsh Grand Committee, we had the opportunity to pose questions at the beginning of the sitting. Why has the procedure changed so that we do not have an opportunity to ask questions at the beginning of the sitting?
The Chairman: It is certainly true that we have had questions. We have even held Adjournment debates in Welsh Grand Committees. It is not a matter for the Chair. I do not know whether the Secretary of State has any comment to make. I assumed that matters had been arranged through the usual channels. I shall certainly investigate if that would be helpful.
9.1 am
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the matter of the Government’s Legislative Programme as outlined in the Queen’s Speech as it relates to Wales and Public Expenditure in Wales.
As for the point of order, I understand that such matters are resolved usually through the usual channels. It is open to the hon. Lady to advance any particular proposition that she wishes. Sometimes there have been questions; sometimes there have been Adjournment debates. Mostly, there have not, but we are pretty relaxed about it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Caton. With the help of the Queen’s Speech and the comprehensive spending review, Wales is moving forward with confidence. The legislative powers delivered in the Government of Wales Act 2006 are being put into action with the Welsh Assembly Government able to progress policy more widely and deeply than ever before. Against the backdrop of a flourishing Welsh economy, political culture and identity, devolution is strengthening the partnerships that bind the nations of the United Kingdom.
The energies of both Governments and legislatures in Westminster and Cardiff are now focused on ensuring that the 2006 Act works as intended, to deliver power to the Welsh Assembly and to broaden legislative authority where appropriate on an incremental basis with each bid subject to parliamentary approval. Both the Order in Council and framework power processes are guided by those principles, and both are already delivering.
In the forthcoming Session, three Bills will contain new framework powers. The Education and Skills Bill will transfer power to enable the Assembly to regulate the inspection of education and training for those aged 16 and under, and regulate and register the inspection of independent schools in Wales. The Local Transport Bill supports the Government’s strategy to tackle congestion and improve public transport, and the framework power will allow the Assembly to legislate on road pricing in explicitly limited circumstances. The Planning Bill will modernise and improve the planning system.
Mrs. Gillan: Can the Secretary of State tell me where in clause 109 of the Local Transport Bill there is an explicit limitation on the powers to which he referred?
Mr. Hain: I shall explain the purpose of the Bill and its provisions to the hon. Lady. It provides a limited power for the Welsh Assembly Government to impose limited congestion charges in relation only to trunk roads. That does not imply a nationwide tolling system, as she suggested at questions the other Wednesday. As I have said, if the Welsh Assembly Government decide to proceed with the M4 relief road, as it should given the congestion around the Brynglas tunnel and the fact that the M4 from the Severn bridge is sometimes a moving car park, I think that it should be given that power. That is a typical example of how such a power would be used. I do not understand why she is being so uppity about matters.
Mrs. Gillan: I am not sure that I can be uppity, given my current dose of flu, but I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support for my interventions. I fail to see how he can make such assertions. Obviously, he has not read clause 109. It gives a general power to raise charges over all trunk roads in Wales. It further hypothecates any money that is raised from those charges specifically to transport matters. It does not refine or keep itself to one limited scheme. Indeed, it creates a vehicle whereby a nationwide road charging scheme could be introduced by the Welsh Assembly and whereby that money could be put into ministerial cars, freeing up other parts of the settlement.
Does the Secretary of State truly believe what he is saying to me? Could he look at the clause and arrange for it to be amended before it reaches the House?
Mr. Hain: No, I will not arrange for that to be amended before it reaches the House because this is an agreed policy between the two Governments. There she is, at it again, seeking to undermine the principle of devolution. That policy will allow the Assembly to tackle congestion within Wales as it chooses, and to give businesses and motorists in general the opportunity to travel more freely. It will enable the Assembly, should it so choose—it is a matter for the Assembly, not for us—to impose charges in respect of the M4 relief road. Does the hon. Lady support the relief road or not? Where would she get the funding for it if she did support it?
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): My right hon. Friend gives an example from south Wales of the importance of tackling congestion. Can I give an example from north Wales? The fastest growing area of the country is between England and Wales: it is the Deeside hub. One of the biggest barriers to future growth in that area is public transport. The ring roads and roundabouts there are clogged, so we need public transport solutions.
Mr. Hain: I agree with my hon. Friend. I have sometimes found myself stuck in traffic when going about ministerial business visiting his constituency on precisely that stretch of the road. There are serious problems there, yet the funding available is limited. The M6 toll has proved to be a huge success. It may be that the issue could be addressed in the way that he has suggested. All we are doing is freeing up the opportunity for the Welsh Assembly Government to pick up if they decide that it is in the interests of the people of Wales.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): If the Secretary of State does get stuck in future, he can give me a call and I will fix him up with an aircraft—I declare an interest.
We have heard about south Wales and north Wales. The Secretary of State will be aware that there is a strong case for improving road links, east and west, in mid-Wales too. Is he cognisant of the case to create a semi-dual carriageway between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth to improve access to that part of the country? There is no need for a dual carriageway all the way along but some passing places would speed things up. Is he aware of the frustrations that many of us feel about the further delays in consideration of the Newtown bypass to achieve something like that?
Mr. Hain: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for the position that the Government are taking, which is to allow the Welsh Assembly Government to determine what is in the best interest of Wales, including the areas of his constituency with which he is concerned. I am well aware of the problems around Newtown and elsewhere.
With regard to flying, in a weak moment, I agreed to be flown in the hon. Gentleman’s plane and it was very pleasurable. I do not wish to libel her, but as I recall, the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central was then working for the hon. Gentleman and she even supplied me with a little whiskey from a cabin that he had in the plane. I made sure that she did not give him any, or his flying would have been even worse.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I do not want to interfere with this particular bit of Christmas bonhomie, but I would caution the right hon. Gentleman against using a semi-dual carriageway.
Mr. Hain: I would caution myself and agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point.
The Local Transport Bill supports the Government strategy to tackle congestion, which is serious in various parts of Wales, and to improve public transport. The framework power will allow the Assembly to legislate in relation to road pricing in explicitly limited circumstances.
The Planning Bill will modernise and improve the planning system, cutting down bureaucratic and lengthy delays in the system. The Assembly will be given increased power over local development plans and the Wales spatial plan.
The additional learning needs Order in Council has already been before the Welsh Affairs and Lords Constitution Committees for pre-legislative scrutiny, and the domiciliary care order has been published for pre-legislative scrutiny by both Parliament and the Assembly. Constructive negotiations are ongoing regarding orders on environmental protection, vulnerable children, affordable housing and the Welsh language.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): This is quite a simple question. How long does the Secretary of State think the first legislative competence order will take to come through this place and be put into legislation in the Assembly?
Mr. Hain: I cannot speak about how long it will take for that to happen in the Assembly because it is a matter for the Assembly’s business priorities as to when measures can be enacted off the back of the order, once it has been cleared by Parliament. If he is asking when the additional learning needs order will be passed by Parliament, I think it will, ideally, be through in a couple of months, certainly by spring. There is every prospect that the domiciliary care order will be in a similar position.
As for the other orders, discussions are continuing. We need to bear it in mind that that process started rather later than it would have ideally in the cycle, because we did not have an operating Welsh Assembly Government until August, when a lot of people were on holiday. The drafting of those orders, although they were pre-announced by the First Minister in May or June has been slower in the cycle, at both ends, than it normally would have been, but we are making a lot of a lot more progress already than we would have done under the old system.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): Would the Secretary of State like to comment on the apparent mismatch in timing between the activities of the Assembly, with respect to LCOs, and the cycle of work that the Welsh Affairs Committee has?
Mr. Hain: I was going to come on to that point. I think that the two Committees are looking at how best they can operate in a sensible and productive fashion. I know that they have taken evidence together, for example, on primary legislation. It may be that that is what they want to do in future. That is not a matter for me.
Apart from the Conservatives, although I do not want to provoke the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham, given my sympathy for her predicament this morning—
Mrs. Gillan: I have a cold.
Mr. Hain: She has a cold—I was not suggesting anything else. I was referring to the general predicament of any Welsh spokesperson for the Conservative party, which is a very dire one in any case but made worse by the cold. Apart from the Conservatives, who have objected in principle to those orders, both in the Select Committee and in other forums in Parliament, everybody has agreed that we are making progress in a sensible fashion, although we are all on a learning curve.
Mrs. Gillan: I have to say that I really do not need the right hon. Gentleman’s tea and sympathy at all. I remind him that, in the Assembly elections, the Conservative party polled the second largest number of votes in Wales, and that we moved forward, while his party moved backwards. Can I ask him not to put his head in the sand and try to play party politics with that procedure? At every stage, we have been trying to improve scrutiny. We take seriously our responsibilities here. We are neither anti-devolution nor anti-Welsh. What we are is anti-poor practices in this place, and he has used Wales as an experiment for legislative procedure. It is appalling what is happening at the moment, and I ask him to meet with me and Members from other parties to try to find a way forward that does not put a strain on the Welsh Affairs Committee, but results in something that is much more meaningful when it comes to scrutiny. I urge the Secretary of State not to play party politics but to talk constructively about where we could go with a procedure that is clogging up the Select Committee and not performing for Wales.
Mr. Hain: The proceedings and the conduct of the business of the Welsh Affairs Committee are a matter for my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon and the other members of the Committee, not me. I am, however, always open to constructive discussions and, while I do not want to delay this Committee, I would like to point out that, whereas every other party, including the Democratic Unionist party, voted for the Government of Wales Bill, the only party that did not was the hon. Lady’s party. The only party that continues to be obstructive is the Conservative party.
Lembit Öpik: Does not the Secretary of State find the hon. Lady’s comments somewhat surprising, given that the hon. Member for Monmouth has consistently made it clear what a dim opinion he has of the Welsh Assembly and has given the strong impression that, were he the Secretary of State for Wales, he would want to close it down?
Mr. Hain: Indeed. I do not think the comments of the hon. Members for Clwyd, West and for Preseli Pembrokeshire are supportive either of the Assembly, but that is a problem for them.
Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Could the Secretary of State enlighten the Committee as to which comments he is referring to?
Mr. Hain: I could quote loads of comments and I have done so on numerous occasions, but I would like to make some progress.
With both the Order in Council and the framework power processes, it is possible that, in this Session, the Welsh Assembly Government will be granted the authority to pass legislation through measures in nine areas—nine times more than before the 2006 Act, when, on average, a single annual Welsh Bill would have been passed.
The backbone of both the new Order in Council and framework power mechanisms is and will remain our commitment to devolve power where there is a purpose, powers requested for a purpose and powers devolved for a purpose—the purpose of improving the quality of life for the people of Wales.
I stand by what I have said previously: there will be no shortcuts, no full primary powers by the back door and no compromise on the primacy of Parliament and its right to scrutinise. Parliament is and remains the sovereign body of the UK. It does not rubber stamp anything, a point that I made to the Assembly when I gave my report as Secretary of State on the Queen’s Speech two weeks ago.
Subject to demand, Public Bill Committees for Bills with framework powers—and I am grateful for the points put by my right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen and for Islwyn—will now include at least one Welsh Member and time will be guaranteed to debate Welsh provisions. For Orders in Council, real progress will be made only once UK Government clearance has been agreed, since it is only then that parliamentary scrutiny can commence. Any other approach is a departure from agreed procedure, and ultimately counterproductive.
Mr. Roger Williams: In the past, Labour Members have almost been more unflattering about the legislation and framework powers than those sitting on the Opposition Benches. I can understand, therefore, why the right hon. Gentleman would want one Member on the Public Bill Committee. Surely there must be some political balance here to give opportunities to the other parties to put their point of view.
Mr. Hain: It is up to the hon. Gentleman to talk to his Whip and it is up to the Conservatives to decide whether they will put Welsh Members or other Members on those Committees. In any case, informal forums within Parliament have already been established. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales and Welsh Ministers have been up here to talk to anybody. All Welsh MPs and peers have been invited.
Mrs. Gillan: The right hon. Gentleman said that there will be one Welsh Member on the Public Bill Committee—
Mr. Hain: On the Labour side.
Mrs. Gillan: Ah, on the Labour side. As Plaid is in government with Labour in the National Assembly, would the Secretary of State consider putting a Plaid Member on every Bill as well, because it must be difficult, now that Plaid is in government with Labour in the Assembly.
Mr. Hain: Actually, it is not difficult at all. We are not in government with Plaid in Westminster and, frankly, I can never see that happening. That is a matter for the usual channels.
Last week the affordable housing order in Council was laid before the Assembly in draft, without Wales Office clearance. Negotiations are ongoing with the Welsh Assembly Government to assess the full implications of that order and I am of course keen to see it proceed. However, let us be clear that publication of an order without Whitehall clearance contravenes agreed process and is not helpful to smooth progress.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): As a supporter and one who voted for the Government of Wales Act, one concern I have from the Select Committee point of view is that we are awaiting Whitehall clearance. Would the Secretary of State use his good offices to speak with other Secretaries of State and to their Departments so that additional resources are given to Welsh measures and so that they can come speedily through the process? The logjam is in Whitehall between other Departments which may not have the expertise.
Mr. Hain: I think that the logjam is at both ends of the M4, but I take my hon. Friend’s point. As. my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon has pointed out, the Select Committee has other business and needs to be in a position to plan its business further ahead. As I say, these problems are working their way through and we can resolve them.
Hywel Williams: Will the Secretary of State give way?
Mr. Hain: Yes, and then I need to make progress.
Hywel Williams: Does not the Secretary of State accept that Departments in Whitehall need to have a proper amount of time to scrutinise orders coming from Cardiff—it is going to take some time—and that it is the structure that is at fault in delaying matters in Cardiff? Under the present structure, Departments up here clearly have a proper role in looking at Assembly suggestions.
Mr. Hain: Of course Departments have a proper role in scrutinising and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but it does not follow that the problem is always in Whitehall. As my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm, the Assembly, for good reasons, is getting to grips with a new system and its officials and Ministers are working that through. There is no problem about that. We are already making more progress than under the old regime, and will continue to do so. I am confident that the Welsh Affairs Committee, and both our Governments—Parliament and the Assembly in its legislative capacity—will be satisfied with the outcome.
Mrs. Gillan: The Secretary of State is generous in giving way and I am grateful. This is the last time I will intervene on this point. If he agrees with me that the framework powers in the three main Bills that he referred to need special scrutiny, will he ensure that a guillotine motion is introduced, so that, for example, clause 109 would have at least half an hour’s discussion within the Public Bill Committee? Can he pursue that through the usual channels? The pattern of legislation that has been set by this Government is that clauses at the tail end of Bills are never discussed or referred to. Every member of this Committee—Labour, Liberal, Plaid—would appreciate it if some protection were given to that Welsh business, which would ensure a specific discussion on the framework powers. We would be happy to co-operate if he could arrange to have such time protected in the Public Bill Committees.
Mr. Hain: The hon. Lady makes an interesting suggestion, which I will look into in a genuine spirit of bi-partisanship. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside is the Welsh Whip and he will look closely at that and talk to the usual channels. The intention, as I have signalled, is to make sure that there is an opportunity for scrutiny. The hon. Lady is right. We breeze past, as it were, some clauses. There is no intention to do that. I am grateful to her and we will certainly look at the issue. It is a matter for the usual channels.
The transfer of power will always be subject to the approval of both Houses, and at every opportunity the Wales Office will aid and inform Members of both Houses about the detail and progress of Wales-specific legislation, to ensure full and proper scrutiny. I also want to make it clear that any deliberate blocking of the will of the National Assembly is not acceptable. I will support bids for legislative competence wherever possible, where the parameters of such a bid can be clearly identified. If we can establish that the scope of a bid lies firmly within the remits of the 2006 Act settlement, we will work to ensure its successful passage through Parliament and oppose anti-devolution obstacles. The delay in what might otherwise have been quicker progress of the orders is partly the result of the fact that they have been drafted by Assembly officials to broaden their scope well beyond the settlement agreed in the 2006 Act. There is therefore an iterative process between our officials and their officials, and between our Ministers and their Minsters to get it right before Parliament is presented with a draft order. I am confident that that is within the letter and the spirit of the 2006 Act.
In short, getting the order and the Council process right requires careful attention, and we are all on a legislative learning curve. On the one hand, we have devo-sceptics who insist that Parliament must, in advance, dot every i and cross every t of the Assembly’s forthcoming measures, and who insist that every detail of future—perhaps even unforeseen—Welsh Assembly Government policy be disclosed immediately, before parliamentary consent to proceed is given. On the other hand, we have ultra-devolutionists who view any scrutiny by Parliament or questions by Whitehall as laced with malevolent intent to suppress the spirit of devolution and the will of Wales. Both positions are wrong, and they undermine the terms of the 2006 Act—[ Interruption. ] I see that the hon. Member for Monmouth puts up his hand to that crime.
A passionate belief in devolution is not at all at odds with a commitment to proper parliamentary process. We have a shared objective in the successful implementation of the 2006 Act, which will rely on a successful partnership between the Governments in Cardiff bay and Westminster. Those who see Parliament as an obstacle or an inconvenience flout the will of the Welsh people, who voted in 1997 for a settlement that did not give the Assembly full law-making powers. As I said in my speech to the National Assembly two weeks ago, the relationship between our two Governments and between the Assembly and Parliament needs to be mature, both now and in future. As we proceed to make the new system work, there will undoubtedly be bumps in the road. If we are to succeed, open and constructive negotiation is necessary—we need co-operation rather than competition; and patient partnership, not megaphone diplomacy. Devolution will only progress if we cherish a partnership based on mutual respect and recognition of our respective democratic mandates and accountability.
The Queen’s Speech highlights the strength of our bond and the huge benefits brought to Wales from its being a nation linked to, not separated from, the rest of the Britain. The Queen’s Speech contains wide-ranging Bills that directly affect Wales and its future—they range from pensions, security, education and housing to constitutional reform—and tackle the biggest issues facing us today and tomorrow.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): On the issue of pensions, will my right hon. Friend clarify the plight of the Allied Steel and Wire workers in my constituency and does he have any news about when the Young report will be published? Can we put an end to the misery of those pensioners? I know that the Minister is sympathetic towards their situation, but can he give us any news today?
Mr. Hain: I am indeed sympathetic. My hon. Friend has championed the cause of the ASW workers vigorously, as have other hon. Friends and hon. Members on a cross-party basis. The plight of the workers is a serious injustice. I have met many of them: some were only a couple of months away from retirement when the company collapsed—one, I recall, had served 35 years or so with the company—and they found that they had been robbed of their pensions. We are addressing that injustice. We have already provided £8 billion of funding. We await the final Young report, but a draft report has been published, so the direction of travel is clear. We want to resolve the issue as soon as possible in a positive way, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I are working with the Prime Minister to do so. Frankly, the newspaper speculation is so far from the truth that it is difficult to recognise it at all.
Mrs. Gillan: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Hain: I should like to make progress.
The Climate Change Bill will make Britain the first country in the world to introduce a legal framework for reducing carbon emissions by setting reduction targets for each five-year period up to 2050. The energy Bill will provide greater incentives for the vital expansion of renewable energy generation. The Pensions Bill will introduce mandatory employer contributions, and it will set up a new scheme of low-cost personal accounts, which will give millions of low to moderate earners without a pension the opportunity to save in good-quality occupational pension schemes.
Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): May I return to the issue of energy generation? We are missing a bit of legislation, as there was no marine Bill in the Queen’s Speech. It is important that Wales has the opportunity to have a single spatial planning system. What news can the Secretary of State give us about such a Bill, so that Wales can make full use of the offshore potential of wind generation?
Mr. Hain: Discussions both within Whitehall and with the Welsh Assembly Government are under way. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the question of offshore energy, particularly around the beautiful coastline of Ceredigion, is important.
The breadth of legislation affecting Wales is testimony to the importance of our role, whatever our party, as Welsh Members of Parliament. It is crucial that Welsh citizens have representatives in the House of Commons voicing their concerns and fighting their corner. Every one of the 40 Welsh MPs helps Wales’s voice to be heard in Westminster and ensures that Welsh voters count at Westminster. I simply do not understand the Welsh politicians and Welsh chattering classes who argue for fewer Welsh MPs, as that would only disfranchise Wales and harm Welsh interests. Welsh Labour MPs helped to design and deliver the 2006 Act, and it every Welsh MP’s constituents will be affected by the resultant Assembly measures. It is right that our role and voice is protected, not diminished. We are central to the success of devolution, and above all, to the success of Wales.
I will also fight the Conservative proposal of “English votes for English laws”. The Leader of the Opposition may commit himself to the Union—he did so, under pressure, yesterday—but his policies would wreck it. A recent ICM survey for The Sunday Telegraph shows that 69 per cent. of English people want to preserve the historic Union. Some 62 per cent. of English people say that their British identity is just as important as their Englishness. English, Welsh and Scottish citizens are also British, and are proud to be so. The Tories’ pandering to the gallery on English nationalism, and their casual disregard for the unity of Britain, are not only dangerous but wildly out of touch with the interests of Welsh voters.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Does the Minister not realise that it was he and his Government who opened a Pandora’s box when they created an Assembly in Wales and a Parliament in Scotland, without answering the fundamental question of what to do about England? The leader of the Conservative party is quite rightly trying to preserve the Union by ensuring that English nationalism does not get any stronger than it already is as a result of the disgraceful one-sided constitutional settlement that was imposed upon us by the Government.
Mr. Hain: That is a rewriting of history, as I am sure you would agree, Mr. Caton, in another capacity. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was still in short trousers at the time point, but he may remember that 18 years of Redwooditis were visited on the people of Wales, which led to a complete turnaround from the 4:1 anti-devolution vote in 1979 to a narrow win in 1997. It was the huge unpopularity of the Conservative governor-general rule from Whitehall by Members of Parliament who were not even Welsh MPs that caused a big flowering of support for devolution.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the important point is whether Conservative MPs from Wales will support their castration by allowing their voice to be removed on cross-border issues, thus preventing themselves, for example, from asking questions about services supplied to Welsh constituents from English hospitals? Does he share my great concern that Opposition Members are appendages of an English nationalist party, and not individuals from the Conservative and Unionist party?
Mr. Hain: I could not have put it better myself, and I completely agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. He and other hon. Friends, particularly my colleagues representing north-east Wales, together with other Welsh colleagues, have made very strong arguments about cross-border services, and the fact that his constituents and many others who access the neurosurgery service at Liverpool Walton hospital want to retain that service. This is a very important point, and I want to explore it further. The Assembly Member, Karen Sinclair, has just produced a very interesting pamphlet—it is on the Wales 20:20 website, and I commend it to the Committee—that explains in great detail how those services are linked, and how the Conservative proposition to divide up and balkanise Parliament simply would not work and would create a constitutional monstrosity. I want to explain why in a little more detail.
Chris Ruane: On the issue of English votes for English laws, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the author of that proposal, said in the Financial Times on 4 July:
“This proposal risks creating two classes of MP.”
The leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), says the Rifkind plan does not create two classes of MP. Who is right?
Mr. Hain: I think that it is absolutely clear, as my hon. Friend’s question implied, that the proposal will create two classes of MP. Once we create second-class Welsh MPs, which is the inevitable consequence of that policy, Welsh voters who vote for us will feel second-class and will perhaps find the nationalists’ arguments attractive. We therefore have a situation in which the English nationalist Tory party is combining with the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru in an attack on the unity of Britain.
Mr. Jones: What is the effect on support for the Assembly’s work on cross-border issues of efforts by the Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services to deprive north Wales patients of access to the Walton centre at Fazakerly? She wishes to ship them by ambulance to Cardiff or Swansea, purely to preserve her local hospital.
Ian Lucas: Does my right hon. Friend think that it would help or hinder the constituents of the hon. Member for Clywd, West if he put an Elastoplast over his mouth on this particular issue by agreeing to English votes for English laws?
Mr. Hain: My hon. Friend has pointed to the soft underbelly of the Conservative argument, as Opposition Members are clearly extremely insecure about the issue. They are worried almost to the point of paranoia, given that their leader was forced to make a speech that completely contradicted the reality of his policy. He said that he is prepared to support the flag of the Union while proposing policies that would dismantle the Union.
The Tories’ proposed English Grand Committee is an English Parliament in all but name. Not only would that put an end to the equality that currently runs through the House of Commons but stable government would become a thing of the past. Could an English Parliament with a different majority from that of a UK Parliament control health policy if it did not also control taxation policy? That is one question the Tories have to answer. The Speaker would become politicised, and the practicalities of allocating voting rights on specific measures in a Bill only to the MPs whose constituencies are affected would complicate the parliamentary system to the point of gridlock.
Where would it stop? Should only London MPs vote on the Crossrail Bill, which will in fact have a UK-wide impact, with cost implications for other budgets? Constitutional instability on that scale would threaten the very existence of the United Kingdom. It was Gladstone who said that devising such a system
“passed the wit of man”.
John Major who referred to it as a “constitutional chaos”. Indeed, even the architect of the scheme has recognised the damage that it would cause. Speaking in the Financial Times in July 2006, the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea said:
“This proposal risks creating two classes of MP. It would be a constitutional abortion.”
Legislation cannot be routinely divided into purely English, Welsh or Scottish categories because of the funding settlement for the devolved Administrations. Legislation that impacts on medication in England, for example, has cross-border funding and policy implications for Wales and Scotland. Student finance is another example. To divide voting rights as suggested would disfranchise swathes of UK constituents on either side of any number of borders. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Oxford university, said of the proposal:
“This initially plausible idea would be as great a threat to the union as the activities of Alex Salmond.”
David T.C. Davies: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he is generous on that point at least. Does he not realise that what he is saying is inconsistent, as Wales and Scotland have already been deemed capable by his colleagues in government of determining their own health service? He has just said, however, that he does not think English MPs are capable of determining their health service. Does he not recall, since he mentioned Gladstone, that it was Gladstone who tried to keep the Union with Ireland together by giving Home Rule to the Irish, although he was defeated in that ambition? The Secretary of State is trying to deny a form of home rule to the English, which is far more likely to split up the Union than giving them a say in issues such as health, education and transport, which have already been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Mr. Hain: I have always taken the view—indeed, my party supports the principle and it is a shame that the hon. Gentleman’s party does not—that the answer to the problem is to be found in the Prime Minister’s very sensible suggestion for Select Committees representing English regions in Parliament and in regional government in England. We did not manage to persuade the people of the north-east that that was a sensible proposition—I think that the model that was proposed did not have enough powers. It should be revisited, and we are considering how to proceed.
The hon. Gentleman’s party opposed regional government for England. Whatever his view, he has returned to the position of having an English Parliament. England would go its own way, as would Wales and Scotland, which is what the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru want. The Queen’s Speech is a milestone for both Wales and for Britain. This year was the first time that any Government has published a draft legislative programme prior to the Queen’s Speech and launched a nationwide consultation on its contents, enabling people in Wales to have a full and active role in the development of the Government’s policy programme.
Strong partnership between the UK Government in Westminster and Cardiff has produced huge progress in recent years. Wales has prospered, with today’s £14 billion budget from the Treasury representing a doubling of the budget since 1997, and delivering record investment in public services. This year, there is £5 billion for health in Wales, which is more than £1,600 per person and more than double the allocation in 1996-97. An estimated 50,000 children have been taken out of poverty in Wales since 1997 as a result of tax credits and increases in child benefit. An estimated 40,000 pensioners in Wales have been lifted out of poverty since 1997, and there are 1,700 more teachers and 5,700 more school support staff than in 1998. Following the pre-Budget report and the three-year comprehensive spending review settlement, by 2010-11 the Wales budget will touch £16 billion—some 130 per cent. higher in cash terms than the figure under the Conservatives. Even though the settlement was tighter, we still found £2 billion more for Wales over the next three years—a 2.4 per cent budget increase, better than the rest of the United Kingdom average of 2.1 per cent, with Scotland at 1.8 per cent and Northern Ireland at 1.7 per cent.
Lembit Öpik: The Secretary of State mentioned health funding and, in connection with something he said earlier, he may be aware that there are concerns about the repatriation of funds, making it more difficult for mid-Wales constituents and citizens to access the facilities at, for example, the Royal Shrewsbury hospital. Can he give me an assurance that in his conversations with the relevant Ministers in the Welsh Assembly he will stress the importance of those cross-border links, because the application of health provision to my constituents is not a theoretical political matter but a practical issue? My constituents are nervous that they might not be able to access Gobowen hospital and Royal Shrewsbury hospital.
Mr. Hain: The hon. Member makes a fair point which has been made by my hon. Friends, particularly in north Wales, and I agree with him. The new funding will help the Labour-led government in Cardiff to deliver its objectives, tackle poverty and priorities areas for public investment, and build the world-class Wales that we all want. The Queen’s Speech and the pre-Budget report show that only Labour, working in partnership in London and Cardiff, has a strong vision for the future, as well as the policies to meet the challenges that it presents.
The Wales-UK partnership is not one-way, and the devolution settlement is reciprocal by nature. UK Government policies are delivered in Wales in partnership with the Welsh Assembly Government to meet specific local needs. Labour’s vision for devolution within the Union respects the different nations and their identities while preserving the many benefits of being united. We find strength both in our diversity and in our shared values. We will continue to champion our vision for devolution within the Union, because there is a dangerous and unpredictable alliance of parties whose policies would result in the separation of the United Kingdom. That is not just a policy difference—it is an ideological chasm that we will not cross. A coalition for stable government implementing Labour manifesto pledges in Wales is one thing, but a coalition of belief or ideology is quite another. For us, separatism is not an option. We will not compromise on devolution within the Union, as we are stronger together and would be weaker apart. A confident, self-governing, internationalist Wales, proud of our Welsh patriotism, but proud of our Britishness too—that is Labour’s vision, and that is our mission.
9.47 am
Mr. Llwyd: Mr Caton, I am not obsequious by nature, but I have to say that having the pleasure and honour to serve under your able, wise and tolerant chairmanship is one of the high points of Christmas for many of us. On the other hand, that might not be the case—we shall see.
The Secretary of State spoke about funding under the comprehensive spending review, but his figures were not accurate and I wish to correct them. He referred to a 2.4 per cent. increase. The real figure is 1.8 per cent., because the baseline has been changed. There is therefore £700 million less in the next three years than he said.
Mr. Roger Williams: Such financial manipulations remind me of the Home Secretary, who has failed to backdate pay awards for the police in Wales. That has caused a great deal of consternation, and their award is now only 1.9 per cent.
Mr. Llwyd: As someone who takes an interest in home affairs—and I must declare an interest, because my brother is a serving police officer—I cannot understand a procedure whereby a third party determines the increase and the Government declines to accept its advice. The right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has been mentioned, and in Scotland, police have been paid the full amount. In any event, 1.9 per cent. is not a king’s ransom for the very dangerous job that the police do on our behalf, day in, day out, so I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Hain: If the position of the hon. Gentleman’s party on the budget for Wales is as he describes it, why have Plaid Cymru Members of the Welsh Assembly, along with the whole Assembly, welcomed the settlement as a good one?
Mr. Llwyd: I am not sure that they have done so. The right hon. Gentleman knows something about Cabinet responsibility and he knows well enough.—[ Interruption. ] If the right hon. Gentleman wants to discuss that issue, may I remind him that he has said that the settlement for the Department for Work and Pensions is tight, it will be grim for the next three years, there will be cuts, it will be painful, and services will be affected.
Mr. Hain: I agreed to that settlement, which was tough. However, the settlement for Wales is not a cut; it is an increase of £2 billion. I do not see how the hon. Gentleman can pass off as a cut an increase welcomed by the Welsh Assembly Government, of which his colleagues in Cardiff are Members.
Mr. Llwyd: I have referred to the figures. I will not repeat them, because other hon. Members wish to speak. However, that is on the record. What the right hon. Gentleman said is not accurate, and that is the end of it.
Again, the right hon. Gentleman said—[Interruption.] I did not mean to be offensive.
Mr. Hain: Go on!
Mr. Llwyd: Well, I will be, if he likes! The right hon. Gentleman said earlier that he was working on the pensions issue. I am sure that we are all very pleased about that and wish him well. However, I ask him to have a word with the Home Secretary about the police settlement, because morale in the police service is at rock bottom, just when we need it most. I leave that message with him, and I feel sure that he will take it on board.
As with any old-fashioned Welsh Minister, there will be three heads to my contribution, which will, as everybody will pleased to hear, be fairly short. I was going to mention the comprehensive spending review—the funding issue—and I have touched on that. However, in this part of my contribution, I shall make a plea directly to the Secretary of State for Wales, who is also the Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions. He knows that I have asked for a meeting, which we are having in January, to discuss the possible job cuts in Wales. That is a fairly long-running thing, but not so long that the right hon. Gentleman could not bring it to a halt.
Looking at the map of Wales, the job cuts fall largely, if not exclusively, within the objective 1 area. It does not require a great deal of brain power to work out that that will have a detrimental effect on gross value added, which is in the mid-60s now in the objective 1 area, whereas in other parts of Wales it is approaching 100. That disparity will get worse—there is no doubt about it. Everybody knows that the DWP-HMRC jobs are not hugely paid, but they are good, steady jobs. The closure of the offices will take millions of pounds out of hard-pressed local economies. I am urging the right hon. Gentleman to do something, because he is the man in charge and he could stop it. He does not need to speak with his Cabinet colleagues about drawing a halt or making differences to this particular situation.
I have a letter from a senior person within the DWP-HMRC, which reads:
“It is with sadness and embarrassment that I, and my colleagues at the HMRC office in Crown Building, Newport, have witnessed the publicity the department has faced during the past week. Perhaps the real sadness, however, is that not that one of us is surprised at what has happened.
HMRC has faced huge change over the last 7-8 years. The original structure of the department was that each of the 300 or so offices was responsible for a geographical area (in Newport’s case this was roughly two-thirds of Gwent, with a Pontypool office having responsibility for the rest of the county). Only the staff working in Newport could access the records of those taxpayers for which Newport was responsible. Security was therefore maintained by ensuring that no staff member was able to view or amend a record they had ‘no business need’ to access. Limited access, of course, means limited damage should things go wrong.
In 2000, we moved to an ‘area management’ structure. The databases of all offices in the UK were merged into larger units...In South Wales, this meant that all of the taxpayers previous dealt with at the Llanishen office were merged with those at Newport, Pontypool, Pontypridd, Merthyr and Brecon. Staff working at any one of those sites could access everything that South Wales area dealt with increasing the records each of us could view by around 1,500%.”
The letter details what is now happening on the ground:
“As we have seen all too clearly during the past week, this over-riding objective to cut corners and save money can ultimately cost millions of pounds to put right when things go wrong. It is not economy that HMRC is achieving by its current obsession with staff cuts and office closures. It is false economy!
I am very concerned, as are all of my colleagues, that there will be many more instances of the type of HMRC blunder that was witnessed during the past week if the rot is not stopped immediately. We already know of other similar instances that have not reached the public domain or were not as well publicised. Such blunders are becoming all too frequent. This recent incident is merely the tip of the iceberg.
There are millions of items of correspondence on hand which the department simply does not have the resource to deal with. Large areas of work are neglected. Cost cutting in IT produces unfit software with the result that hundreds of thousands of incorrect penalty charges are sent to compliant taxpayers each year for failing to submit forms that HMRC has already received. This creates huge amounts of unnecessary, additional work because the public has to contact us to put things right. It would be cheaper to invest the money in software that works than to pay people to sort it out afterwards. However, the ‘do it cheaply now but pay expensively later’ policy is becoming all too commonplace in HMRC.”
The letter goes on to state:
“I was once quite proud to work for a well run, secure and efficient government department. Unfortunately, the one that now employs me:
1. Values cost cutting more than customer service.
2. Is consumed with the idea that bigger means better.
3. Is desperate to lose staff by any means and then cannot cope with the workload on the reduced resources - employing Fixed Term Appointments to plug the gap with no taxes experience and offering them very little training.
4. Has spent millions of pounds on private consultants whose working methods have produced bigger backlogs than I have ever known in 22 years at HMRC.
5. Ignores huge areas of vital work, re-labelling it as ‘non-targeted’ and therefore low priority. Work that would bring ten times the cost of dealing with it in additional taxes to the Treasury if it were properly resourced and undertaken.”
That is from a loyal member of the HMRC who says, with great regret, what she is seeing on the ground.
I urge the right hon. Gentleman, in the spirit of co-operation, one hopes, to look at the matter again, because he is in charge of both Wales and the DWP. I remember visiting his predecessor in the DWP job some two years ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon and I put before the then Secretary of State a plan of Wales. He looked with some amusement at the map, and I showed him vast areas of what was effectively desert, with no DWP outpost whatsoever. Then I showed him the version that would prevail if and when his plans came to fruition. He was genuinely taken aback, but, unfortunately, the whole thing has been further steamrollered since then. I believe that the Secretary of State has the interests of Wales at heart, and I hope that he will look at this again.
Albert Owen: Hon. Members know that I am consistently against the centralisation away from north-west Wales of public services, particularly the Customs and Excise, but also health care provision. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of proposals—I am sure that he is taking notice—to centralise the North Wales Medical Trust at either Bodelwyddan or Wrexham Maelor, which I am against because jobs in the area would suffer. Is he aware that his fellow leader in the Assembly favours that idea? There is inconsistency, with Plaid Cymru in opposition saying one thing, but Plaid Cymru in government welcoming centralisation.
Mr. Llwyd: Welcoming what exactly?
Albert Owen: I thought that the hon. Gentleman was not listening. Welcoming the centralisation of trusts in Wales; moving resources from north-west Wales at Ysbyty Gwynedd, possibly to centralise them in either Maelor or Bodelwyddan. The Plaid Cymru leader in Wales says that that is a good thing and that it will happen anyway.
Mr. Llwyd: That is an interesting point, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for making it.
Lembit Öpik: On tax offices, I agree with the hon. Gentleman because of concerns expressed to me by tax office staff in mid-Wales. Does he agree that it seems like a false economy, given that the tax offices spread around Wales are often doing surplus work that cannot be handled by the centralised offices? Does he suspect, like me, that if this centralisation is forced through, not only does it contradict the decentralisation policies of the Government, but it is likely to be a fashion that will be reversed when we realise that centralised offices simply cannot cope with the work that is currently done on a localised basis?
Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman is right. What is foreseen by the Department for Work and Pensions is that in some outposts there will be a hot-phone where the applicant will have to deal with these matters over the telephone in a public place. The DWP deals, not exclusively but very often, with the most vulnerable people in society. Being vulnerable, one presumes that they are less able to express themselves over the telephone. The possibility of home visits is always thrown in, but if full-time offices are abandoned for full-time home visits, it will cost a heck of a lot more than keeping that office going.
The idea that people who are vulnerable and at their wits’ end can access these services by telephone is simply not working. I have had experience in Meirionnydd of having to go up to Wrexham with applicants to explain exactly what they were trying to do. The paperwork had been lost for the second time, and people had not received any income at all for four weeks. They were totally desperate and the staff contact point was a telephone conversation with an unnamed person in the Wrexham office. It is undermining the morale of the people in the offices and the level of service that is provided.
Mr. Hain: Clearly, that example is intolerable and needs to be addressed. I will look very closely at what the hon. Gentleman has said this morning. I will also draw what he has said about HMRC to the attention of a Treasury Minister. It is a Treasury matter, and he has put an argument that needs to be considered. I have also indicated that I am happy to meet him on this matter.
Mr. Llwyd: In which case, I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.
Mark Williams: To exemplify that point about vulnerable groups, I will give the example of those with autistic spectrum disorders. The very nature of autistic spectrum disorders means that a telephone dialogue when people are seeking benefits or appointments presents real difficulties. Some excellent work has been undertaken by Autism Cymru, based in Aberystwyth, which has had some dialogue with some DWP offices, but by no means all of them, across Wales. That work needs to be encouraged, because there is a lack of understanding about that issue across the board.
Mr. Llwyd: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There is also the issue of the Welsh language. Many people—the vast majority in the Porthmadog area—will make their applications through the medium of Welsh, but I am not sure whether they will be able to do so in future. My hon. Friend the Member for Caernarfon represents Porthmadog, so perhaps he can tell us.
Hywel Williams: In Porthmadog, people calling at the office wanting a service through the medium of Welsh are advised to call in on the Welsh-language hotline. They go away and phone in and the person giving that face-to-face advice rushes to the back of the office and answers the phone. That is an entirely intolerable situation. A face-to-face service through the medium of Welsh is obviously needed.
Mr. Llwyd: I agree with my hon. Friend. I live in hope that we can have these matters adjusted. The Secretary of State for Wales has said that he is prepared to meet me.
Lembit Öpik: Before the hon. Gentleman moves away from the DWP and related matters, is he aware of a pressing concern for those claiming benefits in Wales, and in England, that they can only get the payments due to them over Christmas on Christmas eve, which is a break with precedent? I ask the Secretary of State, through the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, to look into that, because surely it is not fair that benefits claimants only get their benefits for the Christmas period on Christmas eve. One can see the inconvenience and distress that that could cause.
Mr. Llwyd: Evidently, I have been a useful conduit there and am sure that the Secretary of State has heard what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has said. Obviously, it is a matter of great concern, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise it.
Mr. Hain: For the benefit of the Committee and for my hon. Friends who have raised the issue with me—in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli—40 per cent. of benefit payments will be paid on Friday 21 December. I have made sure that that will happen and am looking at what is possible with regard to the rest. However, I am afraid that that issue has arisen rather late in the day and the DWP normally has had a policy of paying on the last possible day before a bank holiday. In fact, payments have already been advanced ahead of the time when they would be paid in a normal month, but I understand the issues that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has raised.
Mr. Llwyd: I am sure that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has heard the Secretary of State’s response on that and hope that there is time to deal with that problem. I will truncate what I have to say on this head, bearing in mind that the Secretary of State has said there will be a meeting in January, but I want to stress one or two points.
“Mapping Social Exclusion In Wales”, which was prepared by the National Assembly, shows that more than one in four people of working age are deemed to be economically inactive: the highest level is in Merthyr, with 35 per cent., followed by 34 per cent. in Blaenau Gwent. Central valleys workers earn 73.3 per cent. of the EU average; 18.4 per cent. of the Welsh population suffer from long-term illness or disability; and 26 per cent. of 11-year-olds in Wales fail to reach expected figures in core subjects—the figure is 32 per cent. in Blaenau Gwent. The point that I am making is that those examples are within that cohesion area, the objective area of west Wales and the valleys.
We have had many debates about whether objective 1 has succeeded, but we can all adopt a modicum of common sense in that matter and see that the disappearance of thousands of jobs will clearly have a deleterious effect on those areas. As I have said, there will be a meeting in the new year, and I hope that I will be able to give greater detail about the potential damage that job loses could have in west Wales and the valleys.
The other point that I should make relates to the question of sustainability. For staff who are retained and have not lost their jobs, typically the intention would be for those in Porthmadog to drive to Bangor, which takes almost an hour. What about the carbon issue involved in relocating 50 or 60 staff who must travel 50 miles each way? Should the Department not consider sustainability when looking at that? Obviously, it is difficult in many of the areas within west Wales and the valleys to access public transport and, therefore, it is inevitable that the increased travel will mean a great deal more use of individual cars.
Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that objective 1 funding should be used primarily to upskill the people of Wales? We got support for objective 1 because our gross national product was lower than that of the rest of the UK and the rest of Europe. If it is used to fund infrastructure projects, such as town centre bypasses and multi-storey car parks, we will have failed.
Mr. Llwyd: I agree absolutely with the right hon. Gentleman, and there is no doubt about what he has said. I would much prefer to see jobs created and people upskilled and so on, which remains the challenge in Wales, and it is reasonable to say that unemployment in the average constituency is not huge at the moment. Having said that, many who are in employment are in low-paid jobs, and we need to upskill them as the right hon. Gentleman has said. Upskilling our labour force is the target for us to aim for. Demonstrably, some white elephant projects are not beneficial at all. It is often argued that if the environment is improved, then the economy improves too, but there is not always a read across there, and in some cases it has dramatically failed. I will not name names, but I accept what the right hon. Gentleman has said.
In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State referred to one or two Bills in the Queen’s Speech. I will refer to one which concerns me—the Planning Bill. Before I comment on that, I would like to quote the Secretary of State:
“I am a passionate devolutionist and my ambition is to see the Assembly’s wishes for greater powers fulfilled. Anything less would be against the grain of devolution and the aims of the Government of Wales Act.”—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee, 13 December 2006; c. 16.]
I have no doubt that that is a sincere statement of the way in which the Secretary of State views things. The concern about the Planning Bill is that it runs directly contrary to any notion of devolution. As we all know, its main purpose is to establish an infrastructure planning commission which will decide, develop and give consent for major infrastructure projects in England and Wales. We do not yet know who will be on that commission, but it does not really matter. It is an upward grasp of powers from the local planning committees. The Secretary of State pointed out that the smaller, everyday projects that planning committees deal with will be streamlined, and perhaps it is time to look at that—the last real planning shake up was in ’64.
In the past, I have argued for a third-party right to appeal in some circumstances, if certain hoops involving the locus and other such matters can be overcome. That happens in Ireland, and other European countries. It would not streamline matters, but it would enable local voices to be heard in the procedure.
My concern, and that of my party, is that we are now about to sweep away the democratic process for large infrastructure projects. What kind of projects? They are to do with energy. What kind of energy? They might involve nuclear energy—I do not know—but they might include a large-scale energy project over 50 MW. The Bill does not make it clear whether the building regulations will go to the National Assembly for Wales.
Albert Owen: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point about the Planning Bill and energy. Is he aware that the leader of Plaid Cymru in Wales, who is my constituency Assembly Member, is in favour of a second nuclear power station at Wylfa? Is he in favour of that, and is his party?
Mrs. Gillan: For clarification, Plaid policy is totally against nuclear power, and yet the hon. Gentleman is quite happy that a Plaid representative is going his own way and not taking the party line. Is that not absolute hypocrisy of the worst sort, and something that we should be stamping out of politics?
Mr. Llwyd: I have always taken the view that one’s first duty is to one’s constituents. If the hon. Lady thinks that she is going to get me to create a new story today by criticising a friend of mine for doing what he thinks is right then she is mistaken, because I am not going to do that. Is she saying that all Conservative Members agreed with the National Assembly for Wales? Does the hon. Lady not admit that there are serving hon. Members in Westminster who want an end to the devolution process and a vote to get rid of the National Assembly? That is true.
Mrs. Gillan: That is not the same.
Mr. Llwyd: How convenient that that is not the same.
There are concerns about the Planning Bill, because we do not know whether there will be a representative from Wales on the infrastructure planning commission, who that representative is likely to be and so on. It would introduce a single consent regime for a wide range of projects currently approved under separate pieces of legislation. On the face of it, that may look quite innocuous, but in certain circumstances it will override the powers of the National Assembly for Wales. To that extent, it is totally and utterly—since we are talking about contradictions—at variance with the stated aim of the Secretary of State and the Labour Government to ensure that there is a smooth passage of the devolution process.
I have referred to a new procedure for planning appeals for the minor applications, which may well be welcome. I have not looked at the detail yet, but I hope to do so if I am fortunate enough to be on the Committee. The current situation is that major infrastructure projects are decided by the Secretary of State under eight different Acts. I am concerned that at a stroke we are going to do away with the answerability, accountability and local input on all those particular applications. To that extent, the Bill is a bad Bill. I believe that, certainly as far as the IPC is concerned, it should be resisted at all costs.
Mr. Roger Williams: The hon. Gentleman has already pointed out that power stations over 50 MW are at present determined by a Minister in Westminster, and he has outlined the procedure that will come into force if the Planning Bill becomes an Act. There were tripartite talks between the Wales Office, the Welsh Assembly Government and what was then the DTI with a view to transferring those powers to the Welsh Assembly, but I think that the Select Committee said that those discussions had died on the vine. Does he think that it would be a good idea to resurrect those discussions, because Wales, wanting to be a sustainable nation, should have those powers to itself?
Mr. Llwyd: I certainly do. I was in the Chamber when the hon. Gentleman raised that point with the Minister, whose response was that the matter is ongoing, whatever that may mean. I think that the hon. Gentleman raised that issue on Monday. If the matter is ongoing, clearly we can do something about it in the Bill, if ongoing means anything at all—we shall see. The Bill is potentially insidious, because it is undemocratic and anti-devolutionary. I hope that hon. Members discuss it thoroughly in Committee and ensure that it is changed at the very least.
In case people think that I am all negative, I welcome the Housing and Regeneration Bill. At long last there is recognition in Westminster of the need for affordable homes, which we have argued for in this Committee for the past decade. I welcome the Bill, as far as it goes, and I wish it well.
Albert Owen: I, too, support the measures on affordable housing in the Queen’s Speech. There is also a measure to create a new Homes and Communities Agency. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that something similar should be adopted in Wales to give a pan-Wales view of affordable housing, so that developers do not pick out local authorities that will perhaps build fewer affordable homes and so that we can have best practice throughout Wales?
Mr. Llwyd: Obviously, the hon. Gentleman and I recognise that that is a matter for the National Assembly, but what he has said makes good sense. There is no point in providing affordable houses, when, strictly speaking, they could be put to better use elsewhere. A more strategic look would be acceptable. After all is said and done, part of the moneys being drawn down will be publicly funded in any event. The hon. Gentleman is right that we should look at a spatial plan. I understand that the National Assembly is looking at spatial plans, which should include a requirement to assess the need for affordable homes.
I urge right hon. and hon. Members to consider this point. About two years ago, a group of youngsters from my home village of Llanuwchllyn came to see me because they were desperate to live in the village but there was no way in which they could afford to do so. What could they do? It was agreed that they should speak to the local community council. The local community council urged them to draw up a questionnaire, which was then taken around the village. The questionnaire showed that about 12 couples were on the brink of leaving the village, because there was nowhere for them to live. Four couples wanted to get married, but they could not do so because they did not have anywhere to live.
I urge all hon. Members to consider the point that councils have spare land. We persuaded the Forestry Commission in Meirionnydd to give up its redundant land, so it can be done. It requires work, but we have argued for some time that we need a unit within the National Assembly to assist people who want such developments by telling them where to look in each area and which agencies to contact. That approach has worked fantastically well in my home village; it is working in other places in Meirionnydd; and it can work throughout Wales. I urge all right hon. and hon. Members to consider that point, because there is a large amount of redundant land around Wales that can be used for that important purpose.
Lembit Öpik: I note that there was no mention in either the hon. Gentleman’s speech or the Minister’s speech of our agricultural communities and our agricultural economy. Does he agree that to have a sustainable rural community, we and the Government need to do all that we can to support an agricultural industry that has really taken it in the neck in the past six months? Does he share my hope that the Government take seriously the problems that farmers are experiencing and find solutions to them?
Mr. Llwyd: I do not need any lessons from the hon. Gentleman about the rural community. I live in a rural community full time, which is slightly different from him. In addition, where in the Queen’s Speech would he put an area of law that is already devolved? Frankly, he should come here more often.
10.25 am
Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): May I first associate myself with part of the speech that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd)? That was the part about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs offices. As the Committee is aware, the last time that we met I raised the question of Pontypool, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have another look and pass on my views to the Treasury, which is responsible for the matter.
I have been trying to work out whether or not I am a devo-sceptic and I have come to the conclusion that I am not. In 1978, I was a devo-opponent, and in 1997 I voted for devolution. My constituents agreed with me in 1978, but they did not agree with me in 1997, because they voted against a Welsh Assembly on both occasions. However, I would rather describe myself as a devo-realist, in the sense that what is here is here. I am not all that keen on a coalition in Cardiff, but we are where we are, and we have to work in the current political climate for the benefit of the people whom we represent, whether we are Members of Parliament, Assembly Members or members of local authorities.
I repeat the point that I have made in previous meetings that any clamour for constitutional change passes by my constituents. I have received two letters about the constitutional arrangements in Wales in the past year, both of which opposed them, but that is all that I have had. No one rings me up, e-mails me, writes to me or stops me in the street about that issue, but they do so regarding the issues that I have just mentioned, which are the services that we are all pledged to improve.
We must take great care that we do not become a little bit too obsessed with identity and nationhood. I do not have to look in the mirror every quarter of an hour to remind myself that I am a Welshman—I am, and I am proud of it. At the same time, however, I know that what my constituents expect of me is an improvement in their lives. I believe that the arrangement that we have got, whereby our Assembly deals with certain issues in Cardiff and we share responsibility with it here in Parliament, is a good arrangement for improving our constituents’ lives.
I am particularly pleased about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s comments today about the way in which this Parliament will scrutinise legislation affecting devolution through so-called legislative competence orders and the framework powers in various Bills, which are, of course, in the Queen’s Speech.
I very much welcome the detail that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State described to us today. I welcome the fact that he will take certain issues even further and examine those matters. It shows that, right across the political divide in this Welsh Grand Committee, there is a belief that we can work together to ensure that we examine these matters properly.
I do not believe for one second that we should be rubber-stamping LCOs or legislation for devolution, because we would not be doing our job as Members of this Parliament. We must scrutinise such matters properly for the purpose of correctness, certainly, but also to establish whether we think that there is a case to be made for the particular powers, whatever they might be, to be devolved to the National Assembly.
I think that, overwhelmingly, most LCOs, when they come here, will be passed without too much fuss. However, there may be occasions when things are a bit more controversial, and I will cite two LCOs as examples. I think that the LCO that deals with the ending of the sale of council houses will produce controversy. For the past two decades in Wales, the fact that houses have been sold by local authorities has meant that people in Wales, by becoming home owners, have improved their lot.
The other issue, of course, is the Welsh language, responsibility for which is shared between those of us in Westminster, where it is a reserve power, and Members of the Welsh Assembly, who have a great interest in the importance of the Welsh language. Historically, the issue has been enormously controversial, and it has to be handled sensitively. Many hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies would be deeply troubled if an extension to the Welsh Language Act 1993 disadvantaged private companies, for example. We cannot afford for companies not to come to Wales because of potentially prohibitive Welsh language legislation We cannot afford to lose companies in Wales that might use the excuse of Welsh language provisions to leave our Welsh people.
Mrs. Gillan: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although we want to preserve the language and the culture of Wales, we do not want to allow non-tariff barriers to act as a disincentive to people who want to bring their skills and come to work in Wales? There have been reports in the media that people have been discouraged in their work environment because they are less than fluent in the Welsh language. That is a shame, because it could cut off Wales from a supply of skilled workers coming into the country to help to support our industries, which we need.
Mr. Murphy: I agree with much of what the hon. Lady has said. I represent a constituency that is one of the most anglicised in Wales—I think that it is 98 per cent. English speaking. Yet there is one Welsh language medium comprehensive school and two primary schools where Welsh is taught exclusively, and all young people are taught Welsh in the other schools, which I welcome. I also welcome the consensus on the extension of the Welsh language in Wales. I would be worried if such an extension had an adverse effect.
Hywel Williams: I am concerned that the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) have raised the matter of jobs moving out of Wales because of the language issue or, alternatively, of employers being discouraged from moving to Wales because of worries about the language. Can the right hon. Gentleman give actual examples of employers who have refused to come to Wales because of such fears?
Mr. Murphy: Of course I cannot, because the measure has not been passed yet. I am referring to legislation that might be introduced and simply saying, “Take care.” It is a measure for which all Members of Parliament and Members of the Welsh Assembly and councillors have responsibility. I am certainly not saying that legislation on the Welsh language has been wrong—far from it. I have just explained to the Committee that in my constituency there has been a flourishing improvement in the Welsh language in schools and elsewhere for people who want to learn it, but we must take care.
Mr. Roger Williams: The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned legislation on the sale of council houses and the Welsh language, which I accept are contentious issues. Surely, however, the locus for decision-making must be in the Assembly, which is what devolution is about. Our consideration will be whether the LCO is compliant with the legislation that has already been enacted, rather than what the Welsh Assembly will do with it. We can make those representations in other quarters.
Mr. Murphy: The Government of Wales Act 1998 is very finely crafted. When I was in government before the legislation was introduced, we took great interest in how it would be passed. The final Act has given the House of Commons a power in respect of the extension of powers to the National Assembly for Wales. It is not a rubber-stamping power, but a power that must be exercised properly and with proper scrutiny. In the Welsh language case, in particular, the powers are shared, and it is not the case that the Assembly exclusively has power with regard to the Welsh language, because this House of Commons and this Parliament also have power.
Mrs. Gillan: In order to help the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Caernarfon, I was referring to a broadcast—I think it was on Radio 4—where an individual working in Wales asked for his voice to be disguised. If the hon. hon. Member for Caernarfon were to ask the media unit in the House of Commons, it would be able to get the broadcast for him. It is right to reflect those concerns, because that is reasonable and in the best interests of Wales.
Mr. Murphy: The hon. Lady has made a perfectly fair point.
Mr. Llwyd: I heard that broadcast, and I was aghast. I could not believe it. It involved a person agreeing to meet a journalist on a dark night, down a country lane, in a van, because he was concerned about his—oh my God, come on! It was not Baghdad or Basra; it was Blaenau Gwent, or wherever. It was absolute nonsense from beginning to end. If people could not see through that, then good heavens. The point that I want to make to the right hon. Gentleman is this: I have a huge regard for him, and I know he would not want his comments to be misunderstood. He is a supporter of the Welsh language as much as I am. Can I take him back to when we were discussing the Welsh Language Act 1993, many years ago, when people said “it is going to impact on jobs”. Whatever legislation is introduced, there will have to be a gradualist approach. Nobody would ever sanction making it difficult for inward investment, whether they be small companies or large, and I am sure it is not beyond the ken of all good-thinking men and women in Wales to devise a scheme that does not penalise anyone.
Mr. Touhig: My right hon. Friend and I are on the same wavelength. Unlike the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, who is happy to rubber stamp anything that comes from Cardiff, we will want to scrutinise LCOs line by line to make sure that they are in the best interests of the people of Wales. Does he agree with me that if we are to sustain and support the language, then the one area where the language is strong in Wales is education? Why is that? It is because people choose to send their children to Welsh medium schools. Where the language is in difficulties is where people try to compel others to use it.
Mr. Murphy: I accept that entirely, which is why we have to tread carefully in dealing with these issues. In the past, it has not been a good story, because the issue became a political football. Now, there is a general consensus, but we still need to take care.
Mr. Jones: The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the need to scrutinise the proposed legislation. Of course, at present the only body conducting pre-legislative scrutiny is the Welsh Affairs Committee. Does he feel that there is scope for widening pre-legislative scrutiny to include more Welsh Members, or indeed other Members of this House?
Mr. Murphy: I do not want to go into detail on that issue. I think that the Welsh Affairs Committee—under my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon’s able chairmanship—and the equivalent Committee in the Assembly will do a very good job on pre-legislative scrutiny. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that when legislation has been through those processes and returns to the structures in the House of Commons, we should be given a proper opportunity to debate the issues, particularly when they are controversial. The Secretary of State has rightly and wisely told us today how we could deal with that.
The other issue that I want to raise relates to public expenditure in Wales and the partnership in Wales between councils, Assembly Members and ourselves. I believed that one of the great aspects of devolution was the accessibility of Ministers in an Assembly. When we had the old system of two junior Ministers and a Secretary of State, the accessibility of Ministers to local authorities and to people in Wales generally was, inevitably, limited. One of the great changes is that with a locally and regionally based Assembly in Cardiff, and Ministers from Wales in Wales to deal with the issues, Ministers are more accessible. Therefore the involvement of partners in government in Wales is more effective, and it is about listening to those partners.
I am sure that other hon. Members are troubled by the local government financial settlement. Although I do not for one second think that the expenditure, or the grant, that we give through Parliament to Wales should be mirrored precisely in the Assembly—that is not what devolution is about—I believe that Andrew Davies, who incidentally is a very able Minister, should have another look at the financial settlement. Compared with a 2.3 per cent. increase in Wales, in England there has been, for example, a 3.6 per cent. increase in the south-west, a 4.4 per cent. increase in the west midlands, and a 4 per cent. increase in the north-west, which makes the points about comparisons between England and Wales quite telling.
Albert Owen: My right hon. Friend has made an important point. Although there has been an increase in the settlement from Westminster to Cardiff bay, there is great disparity in the local government settlement within Wales. The fault lies in the formula, which seems to penalise some of the poorest county councils in Wales. For example, in my area we have had a 1.1 per cent. rise this year, which is the lowest ever, despite having an Assembly Member in the Assembly Government for the first time. It is the formula that is at stake, and when a tight settlement is in process, would it not be better equally to distribute an increase across all Welsh authorities?
Mr. Murphy: Yes, we do get that. In my constituency the percentages are 2 per cent., 1.7 per cent. and 2.3 per cent. In fact, the pay bill will increase by far more than the settlement itself. The problem has always been whether the block grant should be absolutely mirrored in Wales. The answer is no, because that is what devolution is about. Everything that we have discussed involves working together for the benefit of our people. It is difficult for Mr. and Mrs. Jones in my constituency, or whatever Welsh constituency it might be, to disentangle who is responsible for what and who does what. All they know are the services that they eventually receive, and because local government deals with some of the most important services, such as education and social services, it is important to get it right. I hope that Andrew Davies will consider the issue again for the benefit of our constituents.
Wales is a small place—just over 3 million people are represented jointly by all of us—and it is important that we consider that. I end with that, because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. The constitutional parliamentary year ahead will be interesting for those who represent Welsh constituencies, but I repeat that it is important that we properly scrutinise legislation that affects Wales, because that is what we were elected to do.
10.43 am
Mrs. Gillan: I am privileged to follow the contribution by the right hon. Member for Torfaen. He speaks in a measured fashion, and I feel sure that in the future we will do business in the best interests of Wales, as we have done in the past.
I am sad that this debate was not held on an earlier date. It was scheduled for a day when I believe that the Secretary of State was at the Dispatch Box for the Department for Work and Pensions—
Mr. Hain: The hon. Lady asked for the debate to be postponed.
Mrs. Gillan: I did not ask for the debate to be moved. I asked for it to be kept to the subject that had been discussed with me at an earlier date. However, it is a shame that more timely space could not be found in the timetable.
Mr. Hain: It is a small point, but since it has been raised, I was perfectly happy to do that. I understand that the hon. Lady was the one who made the original approach through the usual channels, as a result of which the debate was pulled. I was perfectly happy—it was in my diary.
Mrs. Gillan: I am afraid that the Secretary of State is absolutely mistaken, because the usual channels asked for a debate on the comprehensive spending review alone and, specifically, for the Queen’s Speech to be taken out. I agreed, but when the motion appeared on the Order Paper, the Queen’s Speech had been put in. Furthermore, I am not sure how the right hon. Gentleman would manage to be on the Floor of the House and in the Welsh Grand Committee at the same time. I have made the record absolutely clear, once and for all.
The Secretary of State set the scene when he addressed the Assembly last month, when he set out a rose-tinted view of Wales. However, he failed to mention that in Wales since 1999 hospital waiting lists have risen by nearly 40 per cent. and violent crime has increased by 65 per cent. He failed to mention that this year, on the provisional results, nearly 60 per cent. of Welsh pupils will not achieve a GCSE grade C in English or Welsh, maths and science. He failed to mention that under Labour, this year, more than 42,000 16 to 24-year-olds are unemployed and more than 113,000 16 to 24-year-olds are economically inactive. As we stand here today, throughout Wales more than 500,000 people are economically inactive or unemployed. The Secretary of State may boast of a 130 per cent. increase in money going to Wales, but he cannot boast about the results, given the unemployment figures or the economically inactive people on the register today.
The Secretary of State failed to mention that the Welsh electorate are now becoming aware of where the fault truly lies, as evidenced by his party’s defeat at the ballot box in the Assembly elections. However, he was right when he said that Wales is altogether a more self-confident nation. I agree: it is self-confident enough to start rejecting Labour and to start considering the possibility of change. His party’s electoral failure, combined with its desperation to cling to power, has led to the uncomfortable union of Labour with Plaid Cymru, the party he once described as the enemy. It is against this background of the warring tribes coupled in troubled partnership that we now have to view the governance of Wales, the legislative programme and funding. We have seen the evidence in Committee today.
Nowhere has the unhappiness of that marriage of political convenience, and the tension between Labour in Westminster and Plaid and Labour in Cardiff bay, been more apparent than in the response to the comprehensive spending review. The Secretary of State has said that public spending in Wales leads the UK at 2.4 per cent. compared with the UK average of 2.1 per cent. Yet the Finance Minister in the Assembly has said that Wales will receive only 1.8 per cent. We have already heard from the right hon. Member for Torfaen about dissatisfaction with the settlement at local government level. The First Minister said that Wales has the best of both worlds, when he went on an adventure to Scotland, but the Plaid leader has said that this is the worst financial settlement since devolution.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): The settlement is the worst since devolution, but it still does not compare to the last year of Conservative rule, which delivered a cut in real terms to the Wales Office budget.
Mrs. Gillan: I do not want to remind the hon. Gentleman about the way in which his party used to vote in the old days, but all I know is that we are 10 years on and people are not interested in history lessons. People are interested in what is happening in their lives today, but what they see is politicians squabbling over Wales. I hope that the hostilities between the odd couple—for that is what they are—that now form the Assembly Government will not leave Wales as the ultimate casualty. I would like to illustrate that by moving on to the legislative programme.
Labour in Wales is now propped up by an opportunistic party that has never been in office or faced up to the realities of government. The price of that support is to be paid by pursuing policies that would have otherwise been unpalatable or unaffordable, or by abandoning projects that could have brought real benefits to Wales. The result is figures that do not add up. We have only to look at yesterday’s Assembly debate on the budget, which could explain the provisions that have suddenly appeared in the Local Transport Bill that will enable the coalition to raise taxes on Welsh drivers—provisions that were not in the original draft Bill that went out for consultation. Those measures have not been put before the Assembly, but were actually hammered out by the Secretary of State and the Plaid Transport Minister in Cardiff.
Is that the price Welsh drivers, farmers, businesses and tourists must pay to plug the gap between Plaid’s spending commitments and Labour’s vanity? In that case, the mechanism to impose a national road pricing scheme, which has been so roundly rejected in England, would be tried out in Wales, and Wales would be the casualty. That would, however, not be the first time, because we know that Wales has been used as an experiment for council tax revaluation and rebanding, so it could easily be used as a guinea pig on a national road pricing scheme.
We have also seen a casualty that has already been announced, the electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line, which has now been shelved almost indefinitely. However, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for agreeing to consider singling out those framework provisions in the major pieces of legislation that are going through this House and protecting those clauses for significant discussion and scrutiny in Public Bill Committees. I hope when he looks at clause 109 of the Local Transport Bill, he will see that the possibility I have raised is absolutely for real. Hopefully, he will ask for the detail to be inserted, so that it can be dedicated to specific themes.
In the same way as the impact on the Welsh people of the proposed legislation has not been thought through, the same is true of other aspects of the programme laid out in the Gracious Speech. The Planning Bill looks attractive at first glance, as it appears to strengthen the Assembly’s control over matters that could reasonably be carried out under the current devolution settlement. However, closer examination reveals that it gives the Assembly powers sucked up from local authorities, which are closer to the people. It is a move that will centralise power rather than devolving it. Furthermore, it establishes an infrastructure planning commission, a quango which will effectively be unsackable, unaccountable and unelected. The IPC will have wide-ranging powers that will rob local communities of a voice over issues of the utmost concern to them.
It has been said that that Bill will:
“remove the public’s democratic rights to challenge projects at public inquiries.”
Those are not my words; they are the words of the National Trust, Friends of the Earth, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Transport 2000 and, most importantly, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales. It is all very well paying lip service to devolution, but the reality is that powers are being taken up and centralised, moving them further away from the people.
Mr. Roger Williams: I share the hon. Lady’s concerns about the Planning Bill. Does she agree that the only way in which people can take action against that new quango would be through the courts, which would be out of the reach of most people? The inability of people actually to attend a public inquiry and put their views forward would seem to be a real problem for people of low means who are trying to contest a planning application.
Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman might be right. It is possible that that could be done only by judicial review, so the measure could have even more implications. However, the Bill is passing through this place, and we do not know in what shape it will arrive at its final destination. I urge the Secretary of State to consider the effect that it will have on the people of Wales and their ability to have their voices heard.
The Education and Skills Bill looks reasonable from a Welsh perspective, and certainly transferring powers on the regulation and inspection of the education and training of 16-year-olds is probably welcome. However, it also includes powers over independent schools, including registration. One might consider that to be perfectly rational, until one examine the policies of the party that shares Government in the Assembly. Plaid has set its face against independent schools and has explicitly stated, in one of its manifestos that it wants primary powers to stop that kind of diversity in the education system.
Will the price of selling out to Plaid be the raising of taxes, the removal of powers from local government, the homogenising of our education system in Wales and being the guinea pig for the rest of the UK? The framework powers in the Bills before Parliament certainly indicate that the outcomes in each case could impoverish rather than enrich the areas in question. I hope that our scrutiny in this House and in another place will at least highlight the issues and ensure that the implications of the legislation are aired.
The Secretary of State is right to say that we have to consider the LCOs and that the process has now started. I agree wholeheartedly with some of his pronouncements on the procedures. As he said when he addressed the Assembly, and as he repeated here today:
“Parliament cannot rubber-stamp or let anything through on the nod.”
That is something that every Member of Parliament here at Westminster understands as their duty.
I also agree with the Secretary of State that an important principle is that Parliament and Whitehall Departments should be allowed to probe the basis of legislative requests and that in doing so they are not presented as “unreasonable” or “obstructive”—those are the words that the Secretary of State used in the Assembly. I ask him to remember those words in his rhetoric and attitude towards the Conservative party, which seeks to scrutinise and probe the powers that this Parliament is being asked to move from here to the Assembly, often without the advantage of the cosy consultation and collaboration enjoyed by him and Assembly Ministers.
Of course, legislating for Wales is not what it used to be. We now have 13 ways in which legislation can be introduced and brought into force, and the methodology is already proving less than desirable and is certainly burdensome. I urge the Secretary of State to reconsider the mechanism for pre-legislative scrutiny of LCOs, whereby the Welsh Affairs Committee performs a function that would possibly be better performed by a Public Bill Committee. Will he agree to meet and discuss some of the improvements to the process, which could yield the necessary scrutiny and avoid drowning the Welsh Affairs Committee in work for which it was never intended? That would be in the best interests of Wales. I know that under the distinguished chairmanship of the hon. Member for Aberavon, there have been concerns about how the Select Committee can absorb the quantity of LCOs that will come through.
We have only just started with the LCOs, and while we will certainly subject every transfer to the necessary scrutiny, I reaffirm that we will not be opposing for the sake of gratuitous opposition, because that is not our style. In supporting the current devolution settlement, it is our duty to oppose poor legislation and poor draftsmanship, and we will do our best to ensure that the people of Wales are not sold short because Westminster Members have been bullied into being afraid to question legislative instruments. I see few issues, for example, over the proposed mental health reform LCO, and domestic fire safety could well be a matter for local decision making. However, when it comes to the additional learning needs LCO, we have sought to refine the instrument to include greater clarity and precision, and it is wrong to represent that investigation as being anti-devolution or anti-Wales.
I understand that three of the proposed LCOs are stuck in the Whitehall pipeline. Will the Minister let us know where the affordable housing LCO, the environmental protection and waste management LCO and the vulnerable children LCO have got to? I understand from the Secretary of State that part of the problem is that the drafting of these LCOs has been too broad and that they would fall outside of the settlement. It would be helpful to have some details on that, so that we can establish changes to the timetable and the problems with those particular LCOs.
Turning from the dog’s breakfast that is the LCO legislative process to the broader legislative programme, there are 20 other Bills that affect Wales to different degrees, and I will mention just a few of them. The Bill on the EU reform treaty will remind everyone that the Government were elected on a manifesto promising a referendum on the EU constitution. With the enthusiasm of the Secretary of State for referendums, I am surprised that he will not join us in pressing for this particular one. Could it be that, as with the referendum on further law-making powers, the people will not be allowed a referendum by this Government, until the Government know that they can win it?
We will be working closely with the Government to make our country as safe as possible, and I therefore welcome the counter-terrorism Bill. We hope that we can persuade the Government to take practical measures that will make our borders safer, whether at Holyhead, Heathrow, Fishguard or Felixstowe. Just as we expect the case to be made to Parliament on the transfer of powers to the Assembly, we will not support any extension of detention without trial, unless the Government can make a convincing case for change.
Parts of the legislative programme represent lost opportunities for Wales. They will place impositions on local government and its ability to take decisions locally and close to the people. For example, the energy Bill will not even secure the future of our energy supplies and certainly will not provide us with the long-awaited answer to the replacement of Wylfa in the north.
The Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill will create the local better regulation office, but that body will also be able to direct local authorities on how to go about their business. Indeed, who will be able to give directions to the local better regulation office? The answer is Welsh Ministers in the Assembly.
The Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill, which is designed to put money in dormant accounts to good causes, has to be looked at closely, too. Who will decide which good causes that money goes to? It will not be an independent Big Lottery Fund, as we would imagine. In fact, this measure will also give more powers to the Welsh Ministers who will restrict the classes of organisation that can benefit from the legislation.
Time after time, the legislation transfers powers not closer to the people and not closer to local authorities or independent bodies, but to Ministers, who are gathering powers that were not envisaged in the original settlement. None of the measures appears to give people more control over their lives—they give Ministers more control over people’s lives. There are no measures to strengthen society, just measures to strengthen the Government.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will welcome the legislation on party funding. I am sure that he, like me, wants to restore public trust, which has been shattered by his party and its attitude towards the reporting and recording of donations. While administrative errors are always forgivable, using intermediaries systematically to evade disclosure is utterly unacceptable, as I am sure that he will agree. With that in mind, I hope that the Government will accept the need to treat trade unions in the same way as all other donors.
Albert Owen: The hon. Lady has mentioned trade unions. I argue that that is one of the cleanest, most transparent ways to give money. Everybody who has asked to do so fills in a form. That is not the case when it comes to the Midlands Industrial Council and other bodies that the Conservative party uses, which print such things every three to four months and perhaps forget to put some names on them.
Mrs. Gillan: I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that an analysis has been conducted of the trade union sites, which are difficult to navigate in many instances. Finding the way to the box to tick to remove a contribution is difficult. When one has stopped a contribution going automatically to the Labour party, I believe that no allowance is made in dues to the union. The contribution is not reflected there, because it still goes to the union.
I want briefly to mention the Climate Change Bill. Although we have welcomed it twice before and welcome it now, it seeks to set targets for the next 15 years, before the committee on climate change will have had a chance to report on the targets that it expects to be met. I therefore think that it will be an imperfect piece of legislation, and I hope that the Government will start to make their position on climate change much clearer.
We now have a process of legislating for Wales that is so tortuous and lacking in transparency that the Government could use it to pass competencies to the Welsh Assembly Government to stockpile against an incoming Westminster Government of a different complexion. That would not be honest or straightforward government with the best interests of Wales at heart—it would be the act of a Government prepared to go to devious lengths to pursue their own naked political ambitions. There is nothing to dissuade me from speculating in that fashion, because, after all, the Government have not proved to be trustworthy or competent.
This is the Government who lost the personal details of almost half the population. This is the Government who presided over the first run on a bank for 140 years and then spent £25 billion of taxpayers’ money shoring it up, which is not something that they were willing to do spontaneously for the pensioners of companies such as ASW—I would welcome any solution that would take those men and their families out of that misery. This is the Government who, through their own incompetence in their own establishment, unleashed foot and mouth disease on an already beleaguered farming community. This is the Government who released thousands of criminals early to offend again. And this is the Government whose party thought it acceptable to conceal donations and to break a law that it had introduced. Wales deserves better than that, and I am determined that my party will try to offer the vision and leadership that now seems to have evaporated as the Government lurch from crisis to crisis.
I want to see real devolution giving people more opportunity and power over their own lives, helping to make families stronger, helping to make society more responsible and helping to make our country safer and greener. I want a strong Wales within a strong United Kingdom. When the Government do the right thing, we will support them, but once again we have had a Queen’s Speech that has failed to inspire. Sadly, the Government have been more preoccupied with their own problems than solving those of Wales.
I remind members of the Committee that this is the first Queen’s Speech from a new Prime Minister, and the first CSR from a new Chancellor. We may well have expected a fresh start, but sadly we have more of the same coupled with legislative experimentation that is designed to walk the political tightrope that Labour’s failures have created for itself. Does Wales not deserve better?
11.7 am
Mr. Touhig: I welcome the opportunity to participate in today’s debate. I am delighted that we are talking about education, health and the economy—the real issues that concern the people of Wales. Despite claims to the contrary, I doubt whether many people in Islwyn or anywhere else in Wales lose much sleep worrying about independence and separation. That is an obsession of the nationalists, the BBC, The Western Mail and the chattering classes.
Today’s debate on the Queen’s Speech and the CSR gives us an opportunity to explore how Parliament and the Assembly can work in partnership to deliver better services to the people of Wales. The Queen’s Speech sets out legislation that addresses the concerns, struggles, hopes and aspirations of families in every part of Britain. I want a Welsh Assembly that shares those aspirations—an Assembly that is instrumental in delivering for hard-working families. However, I fear that the progress that we achieved in the early days, when there was real co-operation in the legislative process, to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred, and when there was real co-operation between the Government and the Assembly, is now at risk. It was bound to happen.
The Assembly, with the malign influence of nationalist Ministers affecting the political agenda, is now more narrowly focused and backward looking. Indeed, the language used by some nationalist Ministers since the “One Wales” document was signed is more separatist in tone and quite deliberately anti-British. More than ever before, there is a greater responsibility on the 40 Welsh Members of Parliament to focus on the main bread-and-butter issues that concern those whom we represent. When anyone challenges the legitimacy of our role, let us remind them that more people in Wales voted for Members of Parliament than all the Assembly Members and councillors put together.
We must therefore take the lead in building closer co-operation with the Assembly and ensure that legislative proposals are scrutinised fully. As part of that co-operation, any legislative competence order that is presented to Parliament by the Assembly should be subject to stringent line-by-line examination. On every occasion, we must ask a simple question: how does the measure benefit the people of Wales? If we find that the LCOs are of great benefit that is fine; if we do not, then we send them back to Cardiff with the great big letters “NO” stamped on them. I am encouraged by the discussions that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and I have had with Secretary of State about how we might use this place effectively to scrutinise the legislation. I certainly look forward to taking part in that.
At present, three Bills in the Queen’s Speech contain framework powers for Wales that, if agreed by Parliament, would transfer further powers to the Assembly. Orders in Council are also being taken through. The first such measure, on additional learning skills, is already receiving pre-legislative scrutiny; others, on housing and the Welsh language, will follow.
I am troubled that the Government announced £8 billion for innovative and affordable housing in England, which will deliver 70,000 homes by 2010, of which 45,000 will be social housing. In contrast, the nationalist Housing Minister in the Assembly wants to stop people buying their own council houses. If we want people to get their homes in Wales, we should build more homes; we should not use the Assembly to put a block on the aspirations of the people of Wales.
Mr. Llwyd: With respect, the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a high regard, is making the Tory case.
Mrs. Gillan: It is not a Tory case.
Mr. Llwyd: Yes, the hon. Lady voted for it. Jocelyn Davies is saying that we need to improve the number of social housing opportunities, which will give an opportunity to councils who are hard pressed and have not got social housing, to stop the right-to-buy. The right hon. Gentleman is saying that that is denying people access to social housing, while giving the possibility of buying a property. No one wants to prevent people from owning their own home; but surely, we have a priority to look after those more in need of social housing.
Mr. Touhig: I was encouraged earlier by the comments that the hon. Gentleman made about experiments in his own village, which we should replicate throughout Wales. I have great respect for him, but he has reverted to type now. His party is all about stopping opportunities for people in Wales—it wants to deny the Welsh people the chance to buy their own home. If he supports that legislation, I hope that he will go back to his constituency and tell the people there that he denies people the right to buy their own home.
Adam Price: As someone who took part in the negotiations on the “One Wales” document, I can say that that policy was included at the behest of Labour party members. We agreed with it, but it was a Labour party idea.
Mr. Touhig: Any proposal that diminishes the opportunity of people in Wales to progress and gain their own homes is not acceptable. From wherever a proposal is initiated in the House, we have a duty as Members of Parliament to protect the interests of the people of Wales, and I am sure that I will not be alone in doing that. I understand that there has been no agreement with the Government on that LCO, which shows how difficult things have become since we have involved the nationalists in Government in Cardiff.
I have similar concerns about the much talked of LCO on the Welsh language, which will discriminate against English speaking Welsh men and women. I will not support a measure that will deprive my Welsh constituents from getting jobs in Wales because they do not speak Welsh. Such an LCO will prove controversial, and no one should expect Parliament to rubber-stamp it, as the Liberal Democrat spokesman appears quite happy to do.
Mr. Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Touhig: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I am short of time and I want to make sure that other hon. Members can take part in the debate.
Such legislation cannot be rushed. That means slowing the process and handling the proposed legislation that comes from the Assembly in a considered way. If the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr had been here earlier in the debate, I would perhaps listen a bit more to his contribution, but he has been slipping in and out, as he often does.
The Further Education and Training Bill was considered by Parliament in May, and we were told in a accompanying memorandum that the Assembly had not even consulted interested parties, such as FE colleges and others, about what it should do with the powers if they were given to it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen and I argued that that put Wales at a serious disadvantage, and we cannot allow that to happen again. We were told that only after carrying out a consultation and settling its views would the Assembly be able to produce coherent proposals on what it would do with the powers. If ever there was a case of putting the cart before the horse, that was one. In future, the Assembly should ensure that it is fully consulted and has coherent plans in place before requesting further powers. That would provide a better focus for hon. Members to scrutinise Bills.
Thanks to the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, Wales has enjoyed unprecedented economic stability, with employment at historically high levels. Wales has contributed to a prosperous United Kingdom, and I welcome the commitment in the Queen’s Speech to invest in further training and skills. The key to our future economic prosperity is the upskilling of our people. Giving people the skills that they do not yet have, so that we can attract to Wales the jobs we do not yet have, is an important development. Our future is dependent not on constitutional tinkering, but on our ability to compete in a global economy.
I am delighted that the Government have made efforts to revive the apprenticeship scheme from near extinction—it was almost wiped out by the Tory party in the 1980s when it was in government. The apprenticeship reform Bill will introduce apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds. Unfortunately, at the moment, Wales will not benefit from the Bill, which is an absolute tragedy. I hope that my Assembly colleagues will grasp the nettle and look at ways of extending the measures in the Bill to Wales, so that everyone, regardless of age, is entitled to an apprenticeship to retrain and reskill throughout their working lives.
In the wider context, I believe that the Government have an opportunity to look further at engaging pupils in vocational subjects both at school and at an earlier age, and we must concentrate on that. As I said in my intervention on the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, if we do not invest in upskilling our people, we will be no further forward as far as the Welsh economy and the prosperity of the Welsh people are concerned.
It is no secret that I am not a fan of the “One Wales” document—I want to put that point on the record, as I do not want to be misunderstood. Above all, what disappoints me is that, rather than talking about how we can equip the Welsh people to compete in the global economy, the document seems more concerned with constitutional conventions and tinkering. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen knows, no one in Blackwood high street stops me and demands to know what we are doing about getting more powers for the Welsh Assembly. The things that concern the people of Wales are issues such as the economy, health, jobs and crime. We should talk about connecting training and skills to the benefit of business and industry, not about peripheral matters such as conventions. All that document does is to further the narrow, separatist agenda promoted by the nationalists—an agenda that views the Severn bridge as a border crossing, whereas I see it as a gateway for Welsh exports.
At the last Assembly elections the people of Wales voted overwhelmingly for Labour, whatever the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham says, and that was reflected in the number of seats that we won. We have 26 seats, while the nationalists have 15 and the others even fewer. The people of Wales wanted a Labour agenda, and that is what we must deliver. Therefore, it is the responsibility of Labour Members of Parliament to work with Labour Assembly Members to ensure that we deliver that Labour agenda. That is the task that we have been given by the people of Wales, and we will work closely with our colleagues in the Assembly to ensure that we do that. The people of Wales will judge us on how we improve the quality of their lives and look after their interests, not on whether or not we sit in endless meetings talking about conventions and who should have this or that power. That interests no one in Wales.
11.19 am
Mr. Roger Williams: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton, and it is always a pleasure to speak immediately after the right hon. Member for Islwyn. We all know him as a good and passionate Welshman, and I am sure that, when the runes are read, they will show that he is not devosceptic either.
Mr. Touhig: Want to bet?
Mr. Williams: The right hon. Gentleman gives a good impression of it, but perhaps that is to provide balance to the debate. We have covered a lot of ground this morning, and it shows the value of having the Welsh Grand Committee and the opportunity for Welsh MPs to raise many issues.
I should like to comment on one or two of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy regarding the closure of offices serving the Welsh people, particularly in areas that possibly will not have any DWP or HMRC offices. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion has provided me with some information that shows that, while the number of HMRC senior civil servants in London has increased, there has been a reduction of 7 per cent. across the UK in people employed in that vital service. Indeed, Wales has lost 372 HMRC staff since 2005. Although the Government champion small businesses, doing away with those local offices does not allow small businesses to have the personal contact that is vital, especially when they are being set up, to give them confidence to engage with HMRC on tax issues, pay-as-you-earn and all the complicated factors that make starting up a business so difficult.
I, too, think that it is a shame that we are holding this debate so long after the Queen’s Speech—it is rather stale news. The Queen’s Speech itself held no surprises, and that was not surprising because we had already had the pre-legislative statement. It shows something of the Government’s lack of energy and enthusiasm that they could not surprise us at all. There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech that had not been anticipated, but there were a few issues that we wished had been in there, but were not.
The Queen’s Speech contained three Bills with framework powers. In our view, it could have contained far more. The Liberal Democrats want to see the maximum amount of framework powers given to the Assembly. Will the Minister tell me why it matters whether the current Assembly Government request the power or not? If the powers created in England are within the devolution settlement, why should not the Assembly stockpile powers? Surely, a devolutionist would want to achieve that. An example is the Education and Skills Bill. Why not devolve the power to set the school leaving age for Wales to the Welsh Assembly? My party does not agree with the idea of making education to the age of 19 compulsory. We think that the language being used will send out the wrong message to young people and risks turning them off education. Surely, the power to set the school leaving age should rest in Wales. How can that not be in the spirit of devolution? I am surprised that the Government in Cardiff did not request that power, as I understand that it was in the Plaid Cymru manifesto, but it did not get into the “One Wales” document.
Mr. Llwyd: Welsh Labour MP.
Mr. Williams: Indeed. The Minister will recognise, from the way in which Committees are set up, how difficult it would be to have a team looking at the English aspects of any legislation and include a Welsh representative as well. Liberal Democrats wonder whether the Minister could intervene to find out whether there is a resolution for that difficulty.
It will be impossible for Welsh MPs with an interest to be nominated to a Public Bill Committee for some of the smaller parties. How does the Minister suggest that Welsh MPs propose amendments to clauses on framework powers if they wish to do so? Will hon. Members who do not serve on the Public Bill Committee be allowed to speak to amendments?
It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o’clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.

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