Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-113)


29 JANUARY 2008

  Q100  Dr Palmer: You have touched on this several times, but one of the tests of the success of devolution is whether it is able to work effectively when the devolved government has a different political complexion to the Westminster Government. I realise that you cannot really speak for the Welsh Office before last week, but is it your feeling as a close observer that the structures are sufficiently robust or is there anything further to accommodate potential differences, objectives and beliefs?

  Mr Murphy: In a way, I suppose, time is going to tell over the next couple of years how the new arrangements are going to work, because they are very new. Not one of these new orders has yet come to the floor of the House, but they are in the process of so doing. My own feeling is that the vast bulk of the functions which we asked to transfer—"we" by which I mean the British Parliament—I cannot see will be hugely controversial, because the real test of all this is how people's lives are improved because of the governance of the places we are talking about. If I as a Welsh person feel that my life is better because of devolution, then devolution will have succeeded. Better in a number of ways: obviously the democratic deficit that was there before, but also, more significantly, my school is better, my hospital has improved, is it a better place to work in, is the environment good, and all the rest of it, and that is the real test. I think also that the very sensible Orders in Council we have seen coming through so far—for example, I will give you one on domiciliary care, additional learning—go easily with the functions that the Assembly now has and have been passed in order to make those education and social services functions be more effective in Wales so that people's lives are improved as a consequence. That is the real test, it seems to me.

  Q101  Dr Palmer: The person in the street probably does not have a very clear picture of how the Government in London and the administration in Cardiff actually work together. Do you think there is scope for it to become more transparent or do you think it is better that it goes on quietly without too much trouble?

  Mr Murphy: It is part of my job really, and certainly my colleagues who represent Welsh constituencies, to be able to show that it is a genuine partnership in government, that we do certain things and the Assembly does others but that we do work together. It is easier, of course, when it is the same party, but every settlement has to be based on the assumption that there could be different parties governing in different parts, as there now are, of course, in Scotland and the United Kingdom, or, slightly different again, in Wales and completely different in Northern Ireland; but I do think that people in Wales are beginning to understand the constitutional differences too. Your constituent, for example, is likely to go now to an Assembly Member, in my case, in Wales, to deal with health issues and they will come me to deal with employment, welfare or tax issues, whatever it might be, and that did not at the beginning work like that, people would not understand it, but they are beginning to, more than beginning to, in fact they have understood that, and it is shown by the very basic business of where my constituents go to, to the Assembly Member or to me and, of course, some of them go to both to see if they can get a very good deal out of both of us, but that is another issue.

  Q102  Dr Palmer: Do you think the intergovernmental relations are also transparent, not just different roles of the two Parliaments?

  Mr Murphy: Yes, I think so, but I am not sure that the precise workings of how Orders in Council devolving these functions would be a matter of concern in the Splott market on a Friday. No, I do not think they would necessarily, but I think that if our friends in the media, for example, explain, as they do, what is happening in Wales, people would understand those issues, but it is not something naturally that would be of interest. What is of interest to them, of course, are the subjects that we are dealing with. I have given you two just now: domiciliary care and additional learning needs. They are of importance to the people in the markets because they are not usually important issues, and because they will see on the television and read in the newspapers who does what, I think the awareness is improving there as well, but some of the things that you and I, inevitably, as constitutionalists and politicians have to talk about are a bit more esoteric. It does not mean to say they are less important, but they necessarily are not going to be that popular as a means of communication with each other.

  Q103  Dr Palmer: Would you like to see greater co-operation between Parliament and the Assembly? For instance, the Health Select Committee talking to their counterparts in Wales, or do you basically feel that they have got their own departments to deal with?

  Mr Murphy: No, I think it is a very good idea. One of the issues that I have been dealing with in the last few days is to say how important it is that members of Parliament and Assembly Members physically meet more often to talk about issues.

  Q104  Dr Palmer: But not that much.

  Mr Murphy: It is very difficult. Of course they meet in the constituencies, but if you are in one part or another and there is 150 miles between you, it is logistically very difficult sometimes for those meetings to take place, but I think there is a case for AMs understanding more about what we do and vice versa, and I think that is happening. I also think your suggestion, for example, about the work of Select Committees, typically Select Committees, is very important now that the Assembly has changed the way it is organised through the Government of Wales. That is a long and corporate body, just like us, with a separate Executive and Parliament, and so, therefore, the scrutiny role of the Assembly is now much more significant than it was and, frankly, I think that it will be very useful for members of the Assembly to see how Select Committees operate and see whether any best practice could be used in Cardiff. That applies, incidentally, to policies as well, but that is another issue. I know Edwina Hart, for example, recently went to Bristol to look at our National Health Service drop-in centre's work. So, you learn by best practice from each other, but in terms of Parliamentary work, I think that is an excellent idea and one that ought to be encouraged.

  Q105  Chairman: You mentioned health and education a moment ago. At the next General Election you could find yourself leading for the Government on Wales, as a member of the election campaign, arguing for policies which might be diametrically opposed to some of the policies in that field of the Assembly, which has powers in that field on something like, say, prescription charges, to take one example. You will be campaigning in support of the policies of the Westminster Government, and your party is part of the Westminster Government, and seeking to be elected to carry out those policies, while at the same time being (a) responsible for relations with the Welsh Assembly and (b) fighting a constituency in Wales; so we come to the Welsh version of the West Lothian question, if you like.

  Mr Murphy: It is something that we have not experienced to any extent yet, probably for the obvious reasons that there has been a Labour administration and now there is a labour-led administration and a Labour Government. The issue, as you rightly say, Chairman, comes down to whether there are diametrically opposed parties in government.

  Q106  Chairman: No, it is not that, actually, it is that even within the same party you could find yourself having to argue for Westminster Government policy in a General Election even though that policy, in this particular case carried out by a government led by your own party but shared with another, is diametrically opposed to the one you are arguing for.

  Mr Murphy: As I said, I have not yet come across such a robust and stark example of that. The thing is that, if you are within the same party, the chances are that a manifesto being, for example, drawn up for the United Kingdom election would have a Welsh element to it and there would be lots and lots of discussion between the United Kingdom ministers politically and the Assembly ministers politically on what goes on that and vice versa. In other words, if an Assembly election was to held, then the chances of the, for the sake of argument, Welsh Labour Party putting something in there which would be so starkly and dramatically different from the United Kingdom Government, I think, would be quite rare, but not impossible. There are differences. You mentioned one—prescription charges is the classic one, I suppose—student fees is another, but there are a number of them which are different, but they are not differences which would bring down the end of government in either place. They are not that dramatic. I think also we have to accept that devolution is about devolution; that devolution is about the devolved administrations making their own decisions and being accountable to the people of Wales when their elections come up, and we have to accept that there will be differences like that, but they have been, and I am sure they will continue to be, manageable. The point which you quite rightly said was not the point you were making is another issue altogether.

  Q107  Chairman: But what about the fact that then you and your colleagues and Scottish members as well will be voting for a different set of priorities in England, confident in the knowledge that your own constituents will not have to live with those priorities. For example, removing prescription charges is not on the English priority list—your constituency in Wales do not have to suffer that; they get their free prescriptions—and then you come along and vote to assert the priorities of the Westminster Government?

  Mr Murphy: I suppose the technical answer to that is that when someone votes for Paul Murphy in Torfaen, they vote for the party, whose manifesto is UK-wide, and although it does not necessarily apply in my constituency, they will have seen what has been argued for on television day in and day out and, if they felt diametrically opposed to that, they would vote for another party. Whether they think those things quite so deeply as that is another matter. They vote Labour, or whatever it is that they vote for, because they believe that is their party, but, technically, it could be argued that in the manifesto which has been presented to the whole of the United Kingdom there is a bit on English health and you will have voted for it even if you are a Welsh voter.

  Q108  Dr Whitehead: Do you think there is a case for retaining the current levels of Welsh representation at Westminster when, post devolution in Scotland, the number of Scottish representatives in the UK Parliament overall has been reduced?

  Mr Murphy: It is a funny old thing to argue for less representation for your country in the national parliament. Let us have 20 fewer and let us have less influence, shall we? No, I think it is bonkers, to be honest, to want to do that as a Welsh person, to have less influence in the British Parliament by reducing your numbers. Others, undoubtedly, would argue the case, but a lot of people in Wales would not. No, I think the Scottish situation is different anyway because of the nature of the Parliament. It is a much different Parliament, it is historically very different, as I have said earlier on, the powers that they have over criminal justice and so on are very different from ours, and that is the reason, of course, that Scottish representation was reduced, but Wales has no tax-raising powers, it has not got primary powers in the way that Scotland has, it has not got the historical Parliament that Scotland inherited, and so, for all those reasons, it is different. My argument is let others argue the reduction of Welsh members of Parliament, but not the Welsh Secretary of State.

  Q109  Dr Whitehead: Scotland now has a quota equivalent to the rest of the UK. Wales does not, so Wales, as you might say, has had devolution and has retained an additional number of MPs in the UK Parliament over and above the quota. If you were a disinterested observer rather than the Secretary of State for Wales, would you not accept that that view might have some force?

  Mr Murphy: Only, I think, if tax-raising powers were given to a Welsh Parliament, because, as a lot of us know, the purpose of Parliament is to raise money, and so long as there is no such power in Cardiff in the way that we have got that power, then I think the case for the representation for Wales—. I think we represent slightly fewer than an English member of Parliament, but nothing like the Scots MPs did, and we are a country in our own right, a nation in our own right but without those parliaments that Scotland has, and so I think until you get to that situation of a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers, then I do not think there is an argument at all, to be honest, and even then I am not sure it is for me to argue it.

  Q110  Dr Whitehead: Seven extra MPs compared with the English quota is the price for tax-raising powers?

  Mr Murphy: Yes, it is not going to break the bank though, is it, really?

  Q111  Dr Whitehead: Have you had discussions with the First Minister and the First Minister's Deputy with regard to the potential referendum on further powers for the Assembly, given that in the Government of Wales Act there was a commitment to proceed to a successful outcome of a referendum before law-powers, I think before the end of the Assembly term.

  Mr Murphy: I am not sure that was in the Government of Wales Act. I think the commitment in the Government of Wales Act would have been before powers had been given.

  Q112  Dr Whitehead: I am sorry, the referendum itself is outlined. The possibility of a referendum was outlined in the Government of Wales Act. The commitment was part of the arrangement between—

  Mr Murphy: The answer, Dr Whitehead, to the first question is that I have had discussions with the First and Deputy First Ministers, but not in detail, in the last six or seven days, on the referendum. I have talked to them again about other issues but not in detail on that, no. I undoubtedly will do, but the first point about having a referendum in principle before law-making powers of the nature you have described are given is something I was particularly keen on. When I was in government last I thought it was a very important part of the Government of Wales Bill because of the very narrow majority that devolution obtained in 1997 and that, in order to change the fundamental settlement, the people of Wales needed to agree to such a change. So I think the referendum principle is absolutely vital on that. The other part of the question was about the "One Wales" settlement, which goes a bit further than that and, as you know, is separate from the Convention, to test the waters, if you like, as to whether there is any appetite in Wales for a referendum for law-making powers to be completely given to the Welsh Assembly, and that is rather different.

  Q113  Chairman: Secretary of State, thank you very much indeed. We much appreciate your evidence this afternoon and it will help us form our views.

  Mr Murphy: Thank you. Chairman, can I thank you particularly for chairing this session. As you said earlier, I did not think that this was going to happen but I have very much enjoyed my session with you and, if I might put on public record, I have enjoyed two and a half years on the ISC with you as well.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

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