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10.45 pm

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): I share the view that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Members have expressed about the significance of this debate, and may I tell the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) how much I share their sentiments with regard to the death of Carwyn Jones's mother? Significantly, this is the first such debate on the Floor of the House since the changeover in Cardiff, and I pay tribute to Rhodri Morgan for all the work that he has done for Wales and, particularly, for the Welsh language during his tenure in office.

For 17 months, when I held the position of Secretary of State for Wales for a second time, much of my time was spent looking at this particular legislative competence order and discussing with Rhodri Morgan how it should eventually emerge for our consideration. When Sir Emyr Jones Parry's report came out the other week, I thought it a bit churlish when it referred to the LCO process as being too complicated, too intricate and not to be understood. I reject that. The process of creating this LCO has been exemplary, and the Welsh Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, has done a remarkable job in changing how the order has developed and how it will be accepted throughout Wales.

I, myself, decided to ensure that there was a proper consultation process, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State kindly remarked, and that process was very wide-ranging indeed. Representatives of industry, trade unions, the academic world, local government, public bodies and anyone who wanted to comment on this very important measure were allowed to do so, and they did. As a consequence of that consultation and our scrutiny here, including in the Welsh Grand Committee, in the other place and finally in the House tonight, the Measures that the Assembly eventually passes will be better. That is absolutely the case.

I welcome the order for a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important one is how the world has changed, since I was a lad, in terms of those of us who represent areas that are not Welsh-speaking-areas encompassing 80 per cent. of the population of Wales. Those of us who are Welsh men and women and proud of it, but who cannot speak the Welsh language, now accept the language as part of our life in the same way that those who speak the language have for many generations. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) has often said, that is largely due to education. In our schools throughout Wales, from Monmouthshire, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, to Meirionnydd and beyond, we see people who are able to speak and learn the language in a way that we could never do in the past. That is important, and this LCO will give the Assembly the authority and the competence to extend the use of Welsh language throughout our nation.

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We must look at one or two caveats, however. We must recognise that different parts of Wales need to be treated differently. If we look at people living in my constituency, a south Wales mining valley, in rural Wales or in the cities, we find that there is a case for considering how the Welsh language is dealt with. Provision is universal in education, for example, but we must tread carefully with regard to business. We are still in a recession, and it is good that the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and businesses generally support this LCO. They believe that the Welsh language is very much a part of our heritage, but they also warn that the measure should be implemented with sensitivity and reasonableness.

A soft touch is required in terms of how the measure is implemented throughout the whole of Wales. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) made reference to compulsion. Of course this LCO would allow the Assembly to introduce compulsory legislation for people in Wales, but it is better to have consensus than compulsion because that is more acceptable. Compulsion may be there as a last resort, but it should not be the first method by which we deal with this issue. If those whose job it is to enforce the legislation, whether it be the new commissioner, the Welsh Language Board or the Assembly itself, are heavy-handed, then the measure will have exactly the opposite effect to what we in this Chamber have been arguing for over the past year in saying that this is an important piece of legislation. I do not believe that that will happen, but that people will be sensible about this.

Nearly two centuries ago, when my great-grandparents came from Ireland and the west of England to the eastern valley of Monmouthshire, 60 or 70 per cent. of the population were indigenous Welsh speakers. We can tell that from looking at the Welsh chapels that are still in my valley and the history of the place. I recently read a biography of Thomas Thomas of Pontypool, a great Baptist leader who was Welsh speaking, and who said that with the great influx of English speakers coming into the valleys of Wales, it was necessary to temper the approach with moderation. I believe that in the past 20 years, particularly in the past 10 years since the Assembly has been operating, we have adopted the right approach. Because of the sensitive way in which these matters have been approached, in my constituency and the valley of Torfaen, which is one of the most English-speaking constituencies in the whole of Wales, we now have a Welsh-medium comprehensive school and Welsh-medium primary schools. Welsh is taught in every school, and the language is no longer a divisive issue.

When this LCO goes to the Assembly in Cardiff for it to pass the necessary Measures, as it rightly should, rather than this place, I hope that the Members of the Assembly will realise-I am sure they will, as do Members of this House-that the process over the past year has been one of great co-operation between legislators in Cardiff and in London: all of us representing the Welsh people, all of us with the interests of the Welsh language at heart.

I wish the measure well. Like my right hon. Friend and hon. Friends, I believe that it is a milestone, not only in the history of the way in which we deal with Welsh matters in the House of Commons but in the history of the Welsh language.

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10.53 pm

Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): I join the Secretary of State in offering condolences to the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, on the loss of his mother.

Tonight's debate, as several colleagues have remarked, is the culmination of a process that has shown the best of parliamentary scrutiny and shown that Welsh MPs have an invaluable contribution to make in strengthening devolution and in supporting the Welsh language. I very much echo the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). As a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee, it was a privilege to be involved in that scrutiny. Before we started, there was a prediction that there would be division. There were fears that it would all end in tears: on the one hand, there would be too light a touch; on the other, too onerous a burden would be imposed on business.

That process of scrutiny reflected the way that things have changed over several years. The language has been a matter of division and controversy in the past, but, as my right hon. Friend said, it is now valued by the vast majority of those who do not themselves speak Welsh. That includes many who have chosen to move to Wales from England or Scotland, or other parts of the world, as well as those of us who speak the language. I believe that that is largely because our model has been one of choice rather than compulsion. Education through the Welsh language was unusual as recently as when I and my wife were choosing it for our children. It is now chosen by increasing numbers every year. Let us not forget that a great deal of the progress that was made was due to decisions of Labour local authorities in places such as Glamorgan, Clwyd and Gwent. Those decisions were often taken by councils with very little representation, if any, of Welsh speakers.

In the Assembly, the language has never been an issue. Why? Because it has been possible for people to use Welsh or English as they choose and be answered in Welsh or English, and for translation to be available to all. When the LCO came forward, there were doubts from organisations such as the CBI, which were worried that the powers might be used to put onerous burdens on companies. I spent some time with the CBI and its members debating these issues, and I found that some of the concerns were genuine but some arose from considerable misunderstandings about the intentions behind the LCO. I pay tribute to David Rosser and members of the CBI for being willing to spend time exploring the issues and expressing their concerns.

Those concerns are answered by two things. The first is the provisions requiring reasonableness and proportionality. Essentially, what the Assembly has to ask itself in deciding whether to approve any Measure is whether it will help citizens to choose to use the Welsh language rather than just increase burdens or bureaucracy.

The second thing that answers the concerns is crucial, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen referred to it. It is the advice from the Catalan Government. When we asked whether legislation was necessary, their answer was essentially, "Yes, it requires a framework of law, but all your action thereafter should be directed to building consensus and seeking agreement to enable people to be positive about the developments that you want to promote." I hope
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that there will be the wisdom on the part of Assembly Ministers and the Assembly itself to make that the test all the time. They must ask themselves, "Have we done enough to build consensus? Will this actually help citizens to make positive choices about the use of the Welsh language?" The Assembly should use Measures when they are necessary to support consensus, not as an alternative to the hard work of building consensus.

There are three lessons that we need to learn in future from this process on the Welsh language LCO. The first is on policy development. It is important that there should be full debate, and that the intentions behind any proposal should be thought through properly. Clear policy is necessary for creating good law. The second is on drafting. Intelligent and sophisticated drafting is not easy, and it is very easy to have loose phraseology and create unintended consequences. I fear that the drafting in LCOs has sometimes been too general, or certainly the first draft. It seems to have followed the Whitehall pattern, if you like-officials seeking to draft something because there may not be another opportunity for primary legislation for a number of years. Vague and loose language is therefore used to give the widest possible powers. That is not a good way of drafting legislation, especially because the LCO process makes it possible for the Assembly to come back for a further order if it wants to do something more, without any great delay.

The third lesson to learn concerns scrutiny. The Committee of the Assembly did a good job and asked the right questions, and we on the Welsh Affairs Committee quoted extensively from its findings and evidence in reaching our own conclusions. However, it did not provide answers, which the Welsh Affairs Committee did. As others have, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon for building consensus in his capacity as its Chairman. It is an example that we should all follow. I pay tribute also to the members of all four parties who worked hard on getting the matter right and put a great deal of time and effort into the discussions and examining the evidence; to the Assembly for accepting our suggestions; and especially to the new First Minister, then the Counsel-General, for his willingness to engage with MPs. Finally, I thank the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary for their willingness to take our recommendations and use them. I say that because it is very easy to say, "No. We have drafted it this way. It is not invented here. We will go the way we intend." The willingness to listen to the wisdom of the Members of four parties on the Welsh Affairs Committee is good for Wales and we should celebrate it.

The best model for devolution is shown by the way the order has been dealt with. At the end of the day, it shows a willingness to trust the Assembly, but also to encourage it to be joined up and to be intelligent in its use of the power being transferred. The process has also made use of the knowledge and experience of Welsh Members of Parliament of the four parties that are represented here. That must be a good model for the future.

11 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I do not intend to detain the House for long on this subject. I feel something of an interloper in these
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affairs, but as various right hon. and hon. Members will know, including a number of former Ministers on the Government Benches, I have ventured forth on Welsh affairs on a number of occasions, imperfectly but enthusiastically. As a Member of this Parliament, I of course take an interest in the whole of the Kingdom.

The background to this debate is the Welsh Language Act 1967 and the Welsh Language Act 1993. It is instrumental to consider those for a moment in the context of the order. The order transfers competence, but it seems to me, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), the shadow Secretary of State, pointed out, and as the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) made clear in a typically splendid contribution, important that we do so in a collaborative fashion and with what the latter described as a light touch.

To that end, I want to draw the attention of right hon. and hon. Members to the debate on the 1993 Act, which began, as they will remember, in the House of Lords. There are two aspects of that debate that I think are pertinent to tonight's considerations. The first was the comment made by the Minister who introduced the Bill. He said:

that, by the way, is the principle that the Welsh and English languages should be treated on a basis of equality-

That abiding principle of reasonableness seems essential to our considerations of the possibilities that might arise from the transfer of competence in the way the order plans. As I said, the right hon. Member for Torfaen made that point very clearly.

The three issues I would therefore like to raise are to some degree amplifications of the remarks made by the shadow Secretary of State. It is important that we consider both the disincentive effect on companies or bodies that might want to locate in Wales and the effect on organisations already situated there of any additional cost burden. I hope that that will be considered. That is certainly a reflection of some of the less favourable sentiments that have been expressed in Wales on the back of the publication of the order. As hon. Members on both sides of the House will know, reaction has been mixed. Part of that mixed reaction has been founded on concerns about the possible additional burdens on the organisations I mentioned.

The second question relates to the cost of implementation-the shadow Secretary of State raised the issue of appeals. It is inconceivable that there has been no modelling in Government of the likely costs of implementation. I appreciate that the absence of an impact assessment results in part from the very nature of the process that we are now enjoying, but none the less it would be interesting to hear what modelling has taken place. It is inconceivable that the Secretary of State has not taken a view on the likely cost that might arise from the measure.

The third issue relates to the test of reasonableness. What test of reasonableness might be applied? What constraint might be placed on where this order could end up? The possible destinations could be very different, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen implied in his
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speech. We need to apply a test of reasonableness to this provision, and I hope that we might hear more about that from the Minister when he sums up.

As I said, I periodically and with some trepidation intervene on Welsh affairs in the knowledge that many other hon. Members know far more about them than I do, including you, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I may say so. None the less, it is important that hon. Members who represent constituencies far from Wales show an appropriate level of concern about the affairs of this House and of the Assembly, and the relationship between the two.

11.5 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): May I echo the sentiments expressed by colleagues across the House in sending our sympathy to the First Minister on his loss? Our thoughts and prayers will be with him and his family. May I also echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) in paying tribute to the retiring First Minister, who has been an exceptional First Minister for the whole of Wales for the last 10 years?

I welcome this debate and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on bringing this matter to the Floor of the House of Commons. It is right that this legislative competence order should come here, because tonight we are changing the constitution, and that should be a matter for the whole House of Commons. Indeed, this matter is listed on the Order Paper as constitutional law.

We are changing the constitution because the Government of Wales Act 2006 specifically allows us to do so by use of LCOs. I hope that in future all Welsh LCOs brought forward under this Act will come to the House in this way. Nobody here or in Wales should have any concerns about this form of scrutiny. We are, after all, changing the constitutional relationship between this sovereign Parliament and the devolved Welsh Assembly.

If we pass this LCO tonight, as I believe we will, we will pass to the Assembly the competence to make primary legislation on matters relating to the Welsh language. I approve of that, because the National Assembly for Wales is the right place to make such legislation. By bringing this matter to the Floor of the House the Government are avoiding the charge of devolution by stealth-a charge that I have laid at their door many times in the past when these LCOs have been taken upstairs in Committee, not down here. I take the view, as I did as deputy to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that changes to the devolution settlement that affect the constitution should be debated in this House and, if necessary, voted on by this House. I hope that in future all LCOs relating to Wales will be brought here in this way.

This LCO, concerning legislative powers over the Welsh language, has the potential to divide Wales. I am not entirely convinced by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) that this has united Wales, because-if we are honest-debates on the Welsh language have tended to divide opinion in Wales in the past, not unite it. That may be sad, but that is how it is. In the case of this LCO, there has been wide concern that the measures that will follow giving the Assembly the right to make secondary legislation will in some way discriminate
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against the 80 per cent. of our people who are not bilingual. Many of those concerns have been assuaged by the extensive consultation on this LCO that was launched by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen when he was Secretary of State. The work of the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Committee of the National Assembly in taking evidence has helped to reframe this LCO so that it has been more warmly welcomed across Wales. I think that this consultation is the right way to go.

I cannot see why any Assembly Minister or Member should fear open and transparent consideration of a matter that will affect every man, woman, child, business and industry in Wales. When I first heard about this LCO, I was concerned that the measure would have some adverse effect on business, industry and non-bilingual people in Wales. The Assembly has the right to make secondary legislation-in other words, to put meat on the bones of the order-when the power is passed to it. I consulted widely in my constituency and beyond, and talked to businesses, trade organisations, training providers and charities, all of which were seeking to express their concerns and worries about the use of the LCO.

I discussed the matter with colleagues and Ministers, including in the Assembly, and I know that many others did the same. We were not helped at the outset by what I must describe as a paranoid approach by some in the Assembly who seemed to go out of their way to refuse to give any indication of what might happen when they receive the power from Parliament and of how it might be operated. That was wholly unhelpful to the kind of discussions that we had in the beginning, and there is no doubt that the work of the Welsh Affairs Committee, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon, made a big difference there. Great credit must be given to it.

I recall that, when I was a Wales Office Minister, when matters affecting Welsh legislation came before Parliament, I often exchanged letters with the relevant Assembly Minister. That exchange would then be made public without in any way interfering with the Assembly's right to make secondary legislation. Very often, those letters and that information enabled people in this place to better understand what would be done with the legislation when the relevant powers were passed to Cardiff. I commend that approach. I cannot think of anything better, but if anyone else can, I hope that they will pursue it, because that is the right way to pursue such matters. At the end of the day, however, we must leave the Assembly with the right to make secondary legislation.

The Assembly, as an institution, will demonstrate its maturity when all its Members-not just some of them-and some of its Ministers too, get a little less worked up about the kind of scrutiny in which we in this place, under our constitutional settlement, are rightly allowed to participate. It makes for better legislation, and I believe that we are proving that tonight.

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