5.11 pm

Mr Syms: It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch). She has done valuable work in raising the issue of bullying, which blights many children’s lives and is a very important subject for politicians to consider.

This is a Christmas tree of a Bill. When a Bill has so many aspects it makes it difficult to provide enough time for discussion of important issues. However, I think that it has been improved during its passage so far, and it has certainly been given a great deal of scrutiny. I always enjoy the exchanges between the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, which are sometimes robust, and certainly—in the good parliamentary tradition—provide answers to the question of why a Government and an Opposition take particular points of view.

The main changes that have been made relate to extradition. There was a fair degree of consensus on the Bill, which was why at one point we had to slow down a little so that the extradition clauses could be tabled. The Committee had also considered the issue of extradition. In recent years, we have seen a number of examples of why the European arrest warrant is sometimes a good thing for Britain. We have seen gangsters extradited from Spain very quickly, sometimes within hours, and identified. One can understand why the Home Secretary is minded to opt back in to the arrest warrant, following an opt-out, subject to reassurances.

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However, we are also aware of many constituency cases in which people have not been treated so well, and human rights have not been dealt with according to the good old British tradition of allowing someone his day in court. People have been whipped out of the country somewhere abroad, have spent a period in prison, and have ended up either not being charged or being acquitted. It is a pity that we did not have an opportunity to explore that more fully today, although I know that a good many Members will be doing so. Of course, the House of Lords is stuffed full of experts—lawyers and others who are au fait with the issues—and I am sure that there will be proper scrutiny in the other place.

I thank the Members who served on the Committee, and I thank the Ministers—including the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne)—for their contribution. We have considered some important issues, including antisocial behaviour, which blights many of our constituencies, and the National Crime Agency, which I think will be a great addition to crime-fighting, particularly across borders. Let us hope that they are considered further, and that we receive the reassurances on extradition that I think the House needs. I think that our constituents and the House will welcome many of those developments.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. There are two Members left to speak. Given that the debate will end at 5.30 pm, I hope that they will agree to share the remaining time, and that each will speak for seven or eight minutes.

5.13 pm

Dr Huppert: I am sure we can do that, Madam Deputy Speaker. It seems positively generous, given some of the discussions that we have had today. I am very glad that we agreed yesterday to extend the debate to a second day, although I think that we could have used the time more productively.

There is clearly a great deal of common ground, and the scrutiny process has clearly been useful. It began with pre-legislative scrutiny by the Home Affairs Committee. The Bill was examined very carefully, and I commend the Government for that. A great deal has been added since then, but it was good to start in that way.

I think that the large disagreement that remains ultimately comes down to whether we think that antisocial behaviour orders were an effective solution. I very much think that they were not effective. Yesterday, we heard that they were not effective in terms of breaches and that young people often used them as a badge of honour. We have also heard that the public do not think that they were effective. Last year, about 8% of people in an Angus Reid poll said that ASBOs were an effective way of reducing antisocial behaviour. Therefore, I am pleased that we are moving away from them. Unlike the shadow Minister, I am pleased that we are moving from sounding tough on antisocial behaviour to trying to reduce it. There is a difference between the two.

I still have a number of concerns that I hope their lordships will have a chance to consider. I hope that the Government will reconsider those issues during the passage of the Bill in the Lords. I was pleased by the attitude of my hon. Friend the Minister in his maiden speech in his

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new role. He highlighted that we must not allow injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance to

“become a means of targeting young people simply for being young people.”—[Official Report, 14 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 541.]

That is right. I am sure that the Government would not want that to happen. We must ensure that it does not. However, the breadth of the IPNA still concerns me. What counts as behaviour capable of causing nuisance or annoyance? I think that some draft guidance is going out. That needs to work. IPNAs should not be used to stop reasonable, trivial or benign behaviours that have not caused and are not likely to cause harm to victims or communities. Guidance can be misinterpreted and I hope that their lordships will look further at that issue. We must also ensure that any positive requirements granted are practicable and will not force people into a position where they simply cannot do what they are required to do and hence breach the IPNA.

I remain concerned about the naming and shaming issue. Judges should do that only where it is necessary. We should have legislation to deal with that. Failing that, the guidance must be expressly clear, but I hope that their lordships will look more carefully at that.

On eviction, the Joint Committee on Human Rights noted

“the seriousness of riot-related offences”,

but correctly questioned whether we need a special rule for riot-related antisocial behaviour, because it looks like

“a punishment rather than a genuine means of preventing harm”.

It punishes the entire family. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister told the House that he would reflect on the issue. I hope that he will do so in the right direction.

On schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000, I was pleased to hear the Minister make some commitments, having looked at David Anderson’s recommendations. That will take us forward. I am pleased that the Government saw the problem with the existing legislation before it became a massive media story. However, the Government can go a lot further. I have tried to itemise a series of amendments that would make a substantial difference. The time has already been reduced from nine hours to six. However, we should go further. We should get rid of the idea of holding people without reasonable suspicion.

One thing we do know is that, with all the people who have been convicted after being held, there has been intelligence ahead of that. I am told that not on a single occasion has someone been stopped and searched, effectively randomly, without suspicion, and been convicted. Therefore, if it is not working, we do not need it to be sure that we are convicting people. There is a series of processes—the right to silence, the right to a lawyer—which should be taken further in another place.

I am pleased that the Government have shown throughout the passage of the Bill, from pre-legislative scrutiny to now, that they are listening and will reflect. I hope that that will continue in the other place and that this can be the right sort of Bill that helps us to deal with the genuine problem of antisocial behaviour, but also protects, indeed enhances, civil liberties by retreating from some of the things that the previous Government introduced—antisocial behaviour orders, schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act and much more.

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5.18 pm

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I do not wish to detain the House for any great period. I had the great privilege and honour of serving on the Bill Committee with my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms), who was not always given an easy time by those whom he was whipping, even on his own Benches. As a number of hon. Members have done, I pay tribute to the proceedings in the Bill Committee. It was a great pleasure of course to work with the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) and with the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice and the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne), who was also taking the Bill through Committee.

The Bill has shown the House at its best. It has been improved throughout the Bill Committee, both by Opposition amendments that the Government have taken on board—they have brought changes to the Bill before the House on Report—and by amendments tabled by Government Back Benchers, which the Government have also taken into account. I want to pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) for her work during the passage of the Bill, which a number of us were pleased to support and which has led to the vast improvement of the Bill before it leaves this place.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Delyn for indicating he will not divide the House on Third Reading, but insofar as there is any difference between the two sides of the House on the Bill, it appears principally to centre on whether ASBOs have been a good thing. I understand that there is politics around this and the Labour party is deeply attached to the idea, but as I pointed out in our debate yesterday, whether or not ASBOs were originally effective, as matters now stand they have turned out not to be effective at all. As the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) pointed out, they have become a badge of honour for some teenagers, and the breach rates of ASBOs among teenagers in particular have risen to such levels that they have proved completely ineffective at controlling antisocial behaviour. It is therefore entirely right that the Government have moved to tackle this issue—as, I say to the right hon. Member for Delyn, I suspect that that would have been the position even if his party were in government.

Lady Hermon: We had to wait and wait impatiently for years for the Labour party to introduce ASBOs in Northern Ireland, and we were very grateful indeed when we had them extended to Northern Ireland and we have found them very effective.

Stephen Phillips: I hear what the hon. Lady says, but the breach rates among teenagers have in some places reached as high as 90% and in those circumstances it is

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absolutely plain, at least in England and Wales, that ASBOs are not working to control antisocial behaviour. The poll to which I referred yesterday and to which the hon. Member for Cambridge has referred today found that the vast majority of people in this country do not see ASBOs as an effective way of tackling antisocial behaviour. The position in Northern Ireland may be different, but the reality is that whichever party was in government, this issue had to be grappled with. I am pleased the Government have done so and have brought forward measures to deal with antisocial behaviour that are largely welcome on both sides of the House.

As the Bill leaves the House, there are great sadnesses. One of them is that we are yet to have a proper debate on the extradition provisions. We have had the Scott Baker report, yet that has never been debated at length in this House. My hon. Friends the Members for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) and for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) have repeatedly sought to have a proper debate on extradition, and it remains a matter of great sadness to me—and, I know, a number of other colleagues—that we have not yet had that debate. I therefore hope that, as this Bill leaves the House with these effectively undebated provisions relating to extradition, they will receive a great deal of scrutiny in the other place.

When my right hon. Friend the Minister opened the Third Reading debate he pointed out that one of the things this Bill will do is put the victim at the absolute heart of tackling antisocial behaviour. That is greatly to be welcomed. I had some concerns about the way in which community remedies were going to be dealt with in the Bill, but the Government have listened to the concerns I and a number of others had around how those provisions were to be interpreted and whether or not guidance should be given. That is one of the ways in which the Bill has been improved, and it serves to show this House in its best light.

The Government have listened and brought forward measures designed to improve the Bill, so that when it is rolled out across the country, it tackles the things it is designed to tackle. I have paid a number of tributes already, but may I pay a final one? It is fair to say that the officials at the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were given a great deal of work to do by the Bill Committee during the passage of this Bill, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister would wish to join me in congratulating them on all the work they did. As this Bill goes to the other place for further consideration, I can say that, in its drafting and the way in which it has been improved, it is, in my short tenure in this House, one of the best Bills the House has considered.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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Deep Sea Mining Bill (Ways and Means)

5.24 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Deep Sea Mining Bill, it is expedient to authorise:

(1) the imposition of charges in connection with licences granted as a result of the Act, and

(2) the payment of sums into the Consolidated Fund.

The House debated the Bill on Friday 6 September and it received its Second Reading unopposed. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray) for her work on the Bill thus far and to Members from across the House who took part in the debate. The former Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), signalled the Government’s support for the Bill on Second Reading, and in order for the Bill to progress to Committee it is necessary for a Ways and Means resolution to be agreed by the House.

As I have said, this motion allows for charges to be imposed in connection with licences granted as a result of the Act. Under the Act, licences would be granted for the exploration or exploitation of any of the certain mineral types for which the International Seabed Authority has regulations—currently, those are polymetallic nodules, polymetallic sulphides and ferromanganese cobalt-rich crusts. The licence would be specific to a particular area of the deep sea bed and it would not have effect until the ISA issued a corresponding contract to the same applicant. The application fee for an exploration licence currently stands at £10,000.

Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): Have mining companies expressed any interest in exploiting the deep sea bed around the coast of Northern Ireland? The Bill extends to Northern Ireland but not to Scotland, as is helpfully explained in the explanatory notes.

Mr Swire: I am not aware that there has been any such interest, but, as the hon. Lady says, the new licensing regime applies to Northern Ireland as much as it does to anywhere else. Of course, all this motion is doing is committing the Bill to Committee, where she will have a chance to use her forensic powers of examination to tease that and other information out.

As I was saying, the application fee for an exploration licence stands at £10,000. The company then pays an annual fee for three years to continue to hold the licence; those fees are £15,000 for the first year, £25,000 for the second year and £25,000 for the third year. Those are substantial sums; indeed the fee for an application to the ISA is $500,000. Those involved are not small-scale companies but businesses that are prepared to make significant investments in the search for minerals on the deep sea bed. Two licences have been issued under the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Act 1981, and should this Bill become law we hope it will encourage other companies to apply. The fees go into the Consolidated Fund. The ability of the UK Government to issue these licences, in a manner that is fully compliant with international law, will ensure that British companies benefit from the opportunities available in this new industry. The country as a whole will benefit, too.

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Lady Hermon: I was particularly struck by the Minister’s phrase that the Bill will benefit “British companies” and allow them to exploit the deep sea bed. The Bill runs to only two clauses, but does it contain a clause that I have not noticed which reduces those who can mine the deep sea bed around England, Wales and Northern Ireland—but not Scotland—to British companies only?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. Before the Minister answers, it may be helpful if I remind the House that we are not discussing the Bill. This is about the charging regime for the licences; the debate is on the Ways and Means motion. I fear that we are in danger of debating the Bill, which would not be in order this evening. I know that the Minister is trying to keep in order.

Mr Swire: I am most grateful to you for that ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would normally give the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) as straight an answer as I possibly could, but your injunction prevents me from doing so, so I will continue my speech.

The country as a whole will benefit, too, from the associated revenue, supply chain jobs and science and technology development. I therefore commend the motion to the House.

5.29 pm

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I had hoped to intervene on the Minister before he sat down. I shall keep closely to the parameters you have outlined, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I have a question about the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Bill will extend to England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Has there been any interest from companies in Northern Ireland to obtain licences for deep sea mining and will there be close control from the Northern Ireland Assembly?

Mr Swire: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman but I fear that I would be under the same injunction from you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were I to debate exploration around the sea in Northern Ireland. There will be an opportunity to explore these matters further in Committee; the motion is about allowing the Bill to proceed in Committee.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Mr Shannon, if you could stand up and thank the Minister for his intervention and clarification, that would help us.

Jim Shannon: I thank the Minister for his clarification on those matters and stand graciously admonished.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Thank you for your assistance, Mr Shannon, as the Minister would otherwise have spoken twice.

Question put and agreed to.


Elections in Zimbabwe

5.31 pm

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): I rise to present a petition on behalf of 68 of my constituents and people living near Slough.

15 Oct 2013 : Column 703

I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for writing to me about the issue before I presented the petition and want to tell the House how important my constituents, and largely those of Zimbabwean origin, believe the petition to be.

The petition states:

The Petition of the supporters of Zimbabweans who love peace, resident in the UK,

Declares that the Petitioners believe that elections held in Zimbabwe this summer were not free, peaceful and fair; further that the Mugabe regime has a long history of manipulating the entire process including pre-election, during voting and post-election and in 2008 Mugabe refused to accept the results in which his party was heavily defeated, he intimidated people, battered and killed MDC supporters before claiming victory; further that the 2013 elections have again been marked with massive irregularities and incomplete participation and there are serious questions about the credibility of the elections due to the number of irregularities both in the run-up to the ballot and on polling day.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons makes the world aware that the 2013 Zimbabwean election results are not credible and are not an expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people; and further requests that the House do all in its power to prevent the country plunging into another era of poverty and human suffering as it did in 2008, we ask for help to see human rights restored and support in the fight for a new Zimbabwe.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


Mr Speaker: It is heartening to note that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) has toddled into the Chamber in time by a few moments. We will enable him now to catch his breath, as I call Dr Thérèse Coffey to present her petition.

Replacement of Blaxhall Post Box (Suffolk)

5.33 pm

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): The petition requests the replacement of the Blaxhall post box. To give some context, a beautiful Victorian post box was stolen and has not been replaced, despite the fact that it is more than half a mile away from the nearest post box.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of Blaxhall,

Declares that Royal Mail has declined to replace the stolen post box in the village despite Ofcom’s recent measures to protect rural post boxes from removal.

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The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to support residents of Blaxhall in their request to Royal Mail to replace the post box.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


The Save Coniston and Hawkshead GP Surgeries Campaigns

5.34 pm

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I wish to present petitions on behalf of residents of the Hawkshead area and of the Coniston area—two separate petitions calling for the same thing, the retention of their two GP surgeries. I present the petitions on behalf of 928 people in the Coniston area and 1,228 people in the Hawkshead area.

The petitioners declare that they believe that the GP surgeries in Hawkshead and Coniston in Cumbria will close unless the Government’s funding formula is changed to support rural practices, and further declare that the petitioners believe that the GP surgeries in Hawkshead and in Coniston are vital to the local community and therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to change their funding formula.

Following is the full text of the petitions:

[The Petition of a resident of the UK,

Declares that the Petitioner believes that the GP Surgery in Coniston, Cumbria will close unless the Government’s funding formula is changed to support rural practices and further declares that the Petitioner believes that the GP Surgery in Coniston is vital to the local community as those in Ambelside and Ulverside are not easily accessible to Coniston residents.

The Petitioner therefore requests that the House of Commons urge the Government to change its funding formula.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.]


[The Petition of a resident of the UK,

Declares that the Petitioner believes that the GP Surgery in Hawkshead, Cumbria will close unless the Government’s funding formula is changed to support rural practices and further declares that the Petitioner believes that the GP Surgery in Hawkshead is vital to the local community.

The Petitioner therefore requests that the House of Commons urge the Government to change its funding formula.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.]


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Welsh Assembly Legislation (Attorney-General)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Gyimah.)

5.35 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): I am extremely grateful to the Conservative party. Because of the social event that Conservative Members are attending tonight, it managed to engineer a little under two hours for me to make the important points that I wish to make, which is just about adequate time.

We have a Government who are Janus-faced on a vital issue. I had the pleasure last Thursday of listening to the new Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), talking about his view of the principle of devolution. He is the one that is facing forward, but I believe there is another face to this Janus. Lurking in the Attorney-General’s Office is a little nest of devolution deniers who are doing great damage.

The Minister of State said last week:

“This has been something that, as you know, I have always been passionate about. Way back in Opposition, I wrote books on the need to transfer power from the centre to the places in our country. As you probably know, I am Middlesbrough born and bred, and the founders of the infant Hercules did not need to ask permission from central government to grow and prosper. I think we need to get back to the spirit of people, the leaders of our cities, towns and counties across the country, feeling that they have the right to initiate policies, do things differently, and have greater control of financial resources.”

Hallelujah. Amen to that.

But what has happened in Wales has been extraordinary. We have seen the other face of Janus that is looking backwards. That is where the devolution denial is coming from. The Attorney-General’s Office is suffering from an acute case of CPR—it is chronically power retentive in an era of devolution. This is not something that has come about as party propaganda. We have had votes on this. We have been through the whole process. We had a referendum to get devolution in Wales and we had a referendum to get greater powers.

I speak with some pedigree on this because I can fondly recall the day in 1953 when I marched through Cardiff with people from several parties. I had a Labour party banner that said “Senedd i Gymru”, “a Parliament for Wales”. It did not say, “hanner Senedd i Gymru”. It did not say, “LCOs i’r bobl”. It did not say, “half-baked policies that can be shredded by a national Government.” It said, “a Parliament for Wales”. We still do not have one, sadly. We have a form of democracy, but it is not tax-raising and the limited powers that it has for passing laws have been frustrated at every turn.

Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend recall also, on that theme, that in 1994 he and I and Jon Owen Jones, a former Member for Cardiff, Central, were censured by the Welsh Executive for speaking as Labour MPs at a conference in Llandrindod Wells for a Parliament for Wales?

Paul Flynn: I remember it vividly. It was a painful experience but one that resulted in promotion to Cabinet rank for my right hon. Friend. I saw the former hon.

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Member for Cardiff, Central today. At that time it meant challenging some of the views of the Labour party in Wales, which were not always progressive.

We got to the stage where Wales had the chance to make laws on its own soil, not for the first time in history, but for the first time in 1,000 years. Laws were made by Hywel Dda between 942 and 950, and they were very progressive. One stated that if a wife caught her husband in bed with another woman for the third time, she could divorce him and get compensation for the previous two occasions. Women had the right to own land, which was progressive in 942. There was also a law—it is rather better than the bedroom tax and other measures we have now—stating that if a person had passed through three villages asking for food but not been fed, he or she could not be punished for stealing food. That was progressive Welsh legislation, and it should have inspired the Government to realise that, as the great Welsh proverb states: Hawdd cynnau tân ar hen aelwyd—it is easy to kindle a fire on an old hearth. The old hearth was there, because we were law-makers in the past, and good law-makers at that.

Boldly the Welsh Assembly Government put forward their first law, which had the romantic title of the Local Government Byelaws (Wales) Bill. They took it through the Assembly and it became an Act. One would not have expected it to cause an enormous amount of excitement, because it just cleared up a few other laws to allow local government to pass their own byelaws, which they have been doing without trouble for a long time. There was no hesitation and no excitement, but for some reason—I am sure that the Solicitor-General will explain it when he replies—that modest Bill, the first for 1,000 years to bear the royal Welsh seal, which made it significant, even if its content was not, was opposed by the Attorney-General’s office.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): My hon. Friend might want to recollect that before that we had the procedure for legislative competence orders, which he has referred to. The first one I dealt with, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), was the LCO on red meat. Although it was delayed, subject to parliamentary scrutiny that was a little over-onerous, we did not delay the red meat LCO too long, because otherwise it would have gone off.

Paul Flynn: Yes, it was a difficult period when we had the LCOs, which were a new legislative monstrosity that we were stuck with and that puzzled us, but as a result of certain ingenuity they did mean that some sort of law was made in Wales, even if in a cack-handed manner. They are now a footnote in history.

The Local Government Byelaws (Wales) Bill went through because it was uncontroversial, and there was a little bit of ceremony because we were proud to be making laws in the land of our own country for the first time in more than 1,000 years. Why on earth was it opposed? The First Minister called it a

“ridiculous situation that has arisen on what is a totally uncontroversial piece of legislation…The primary policy objective of the Bill is to simplify and rationalise how local authorities make byelaws to deal with nuisances in their areas…So why the UK government has decided to take this to the Supreme Court, at the last minute, is inexplicable.”

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Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is making a strong case about the first law, which was very historic, as he mentioned. Did he share my surprise, along with other members of the Welsh Affairs Committee, that the Secretary of State, and apparently the Attorney-General’s office, did not even seem aware of the cost to the taxpayer of referring that very modest measure to the Supreme Court?

Paul Flynn: I am glad that my hon. Friend has intervened, because I can remind him of the costs that the Government seemed indifferent to. The legal cost of the Treasury Solicitor’s Department for representing the Attorney-General in relation to the Bill was £59,000.

Mr Hain: That would cover a lot of the bedroom tax.

Paul Flynn: Absolutely. We could have saved lots of the bedroom tax if this had not been done. The legal cost incurred by the Welsh Government was £30,000, and about £15,000 was spent on civil service time in the Wales Office. The total bill was £150,000. Why? Because some pernickety piffle artist in the Attorney-General’s office was trying to make some kind of stand against devolution. He went through the might of the High Court. Five judges were there, looking dignified and wise in their wigs. The total number of judges who agreed with the Government was zero. It was a unanimous vote that this was a frivolous intervention.

The Solicitor-General (Oliver Heald): While following the very excited way in which the hon. Gentleman is putting his case, I cannot let him get him get away with that, because the Court made it clear that it was a perfectly justifiable application, and in fact it clarified the law in an important way.

Paul Flynn: I think that a number of them agreed and the judgment was won.

Mr Hain: I am not sure that it is entirely fair for my hon. Friend to put all the blame on officials in the Attorney-General’s office in the way that he graphically described, because it was the Secretary of State in the Wales Office who referred the matter to the Attorney-General. As the then Secretary of State, I was the author of the Government of Wales Act 2006, under which this process took place. I can tell my hon. Friend, and the House, that in no way was that Act drafted and designed to allow for this situation to occur. The drafting of the relevant clause dealt with cross-border issues where there were questions, for example, about rivers that flowed across the border or other environmental concerns about which there might be disputes after a Wales Act had been passed by the UK Government in Westminster. There needed to be a reserve power by which the Secretary of State for Wales could clarify or tidy up anything that resulted from such a cross-border issue. It was never intended to allow the Secretary of State to ride roughshod over the devolution settlement and veto what the Welsh Assembly had decided.

Paul Flynn: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his expert view on this.

Another Bill was then presented by the Welsh Assembly.

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Huw Irranca-Davies: Before my hon. Friend continues on to another Bill, may I suggest that there might be an interpretation of what justified the Westminster intervention and challenge on this? It is as simple as this: for local government, a devolved area in Wales, read England.

Paul Flynn: Absolutely. This is part of the long history of the neglect of Wales and the undervaluing of Welsh life by the British Government over the years that now has a chance of being corrected.

A Bill about the Welsh language was proposed that offered equal status to the two languages. While there were quibbles from the national Government about this, they did not take it to the High Court. We now have a farm workers wages Bill—a splendid Bill in many ways—that has had great support even from the farm unions in Wales. That is because there are farm wages boards in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, and the Bill tried to get the board continued in Wales. Farm workers along the borders in Wales are already exposed to market forces and do not have the protection that the 13,000 farm workers in Wales have. The Agricultural Wages Board set pay rates that gave a modest amount of protection to farm workers, whose wages have never been generous and were hardly generous under the Bill, but are certainly exposed to greater cuts now.

The UK Government warned that there were important questions for the Supreme Court to resolve as to whether the Assembly acted within its powers on that matter. Yet whatever powers the Welsh Assembly got, they certainly included agriculture. There is no question about that, because it was the decision of this House under the Acts that were passed here. However, for some twisted reason the Government decided that this was to do with employment, and by that chicanery challenged the Bill.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Does my hon. Friend share my shock at the fact that the Welsh Government Minister, Alun Davies, had repeatedly made it clear to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that he wanted to carve a different path in Wales and was simply seeking a dispensation in order to do that, and yet he was told, “No, we will abolish the whole structure of the Agricultural Wages Board and then fight the battle over whether you can reinstate something that looks like it”? What sort of respect for devolution is that?

Paul Flynn: My hon. Friend gives a splendid example. This is the reverse of devolution, the very opposite of what the new Minister of State at the Cabinet Office said the other day about local opinion and good ideas. Wales has a stronger case for an Agricultural Wages Board, perhaps, than many parts of England, so we should be able to make a different decision, but the Government object.

Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Should it not be the case—it certainly was when I was Welsh Secretary—that disputes between devolved Administrations and the United Kingdom Government should be resolved at a governmental and political level, and that they should never get to a stage where they are resolved by the courts?

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Paul Flynn: That is absolutely right. Leaving decisions to the courts and depending on expensive silks is no way to run devolved Assemblies or national Governments.

A Bill on recovering NHS costs for asbestos treatment is also of great value. It went through the Assembly over the summer and is at an advanced stage. The first people to have their lives destroyed by negligent employers, or by defects in the health service with which they were provided, have suffered—it is a terrible, crippling disease—and they will be entitled to compensation from those who were responsible for causing the problem. What is wrong with that? The Bill has not been finally resolved, but if there is a problem with such Bills, surely the two authorities should discuss and resolve it.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that that Bill is important because it will recover money for the health service, which is a very worthwhile thing to do? One would have thought there would be support for that across the whole of the UK.

Paul Flynn: That is absolutely right. The main part of the Bill is to get money back for the health service from the negligent people who allowed diseases to take hold. Many of the unfortunate people affected by asbestosis in Wales worked in industry.

Tied to all this is the Government’s view of devolution. The Silk commission reported after a referendum that measured popular opinion in Wales. We know that the Tories have always had trouble with devolution. They were very much against it in 1994 when, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) has said, three of us were disciplined by the Labour party in Wales. Only one of their candidates in the first Assembly was elected by first past the post, while a few others came in through the assisted places scheme.

Mrs Siân C. James (Swansea East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. We are still awaiting the latest information on the findings of the Silk commission. Devolution delivers the things we need for the people of Wales—Welsh solutions to Welsh problems—and yet we cannot seem to prise that information out of the Government. It is a great shame that we cannot make progress at the pace that the communities and citizens of Wales want when we are putting all this time and effort into good governance.

Paul Flynn: My hon. Friend expresses very well the position we are in now. The Silk commission, after an exhaustive inquiry, made certain recommendations. We were promised that the Government would reply in the spring, then the summer, then the late summer and then the early autumn, but when will they actually respond? Carwyn Jones rightly said over the weekend that this is a major problem. An urgent bypass is required in Gwent and other constituencies that suffer continual traffic congestion, such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), in order to find an alternative route for the M4. As Carwyn Jones said, the situation is frozen. The Welsh Government cannot move forward until there is a response to the Silk commission and action is taken on that.

In a few weeks’ time, on 4 November, Newport will recall the great day when thousands of Chartists made their protest against the Government of the time. They

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intended to establish a republic. The plan was to stop the mail going from Newport—that is the Royal Mail, not the

Daily Mail

, although there may well be riots about that now—so that the signal would go to the rest of the country that a revolution was going on and that a republic was to be set up. It was very good of Her Majesty to organise a party tonight to give me enough time to explain what happened. Those people wanted to run their own affairs and to have autonomy 174 years ago.

I will conclude, because I am sure that my hon. Friends will want to contribute to the debate, by reading a poem about that march in 1839 by Gillian Clarke, who concludes by saying that the “grudged gift” of devolution was given sparingly:

“Their bones ached from the shift, wind in the shaft,

the heat of the furnaces, yet on they marched,

their minds a blaze because their cause was right,

through darkness from Ebbw Vale, Blackwood, Pontypool,

faces frozen and stung by the lash of rain,

trudging the roads to Newport through the night.

At the Welsh Oak, Rogerstone, betrayed by daylight,

Frost’s men from the west, Williams’s from the east,

Jones’s men never arrived. The rest struck on

To stand united, of one heart in the square

before the Westgate. Had they stood silent then,

had they not surged forward, had they not been shaken

by rage against injustice, had they muzzled

the soldiers’ muskets with a multitude

of silence, had reason spoken,

those steely thousands might have won the day.

But they stormed the doors to set their comrades free,

and shots were fired, and freedom’s dream was broken.

A score dead. Fifty wounded. Their leaders tried,

condemned, transported. The movement, in disarray,

lost fifty years. Then came, at last, that shift

of power, one spoonful of thin gruel at a time,

from strong to weak, from rich to poor,

from men to women, like a grudged gift.”

5.57 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on his excellent speech in which he described our grave concerns about the way in which money has been used and continues to be used to deal with matters in a legal context rather than a political one. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) made the key point that we would like to see such discussions resolved politically, rather than being taken through the courts, with the huge costs that that involves.

The Secretary of State for Wales is responsible for initiating the action. The sad thing is that in each case, he has acted right at the last minute. Instead of discussing early on whether the Assembly was taking the appropriate measures or proceeding in the right way, on each occasion he has waited until the very last minute, when the Welsh Assembly Government have had everything ready and have been prepared to act, to raise the objection, in an almost obstructive manner. I hesitate to use that word because it might be considered unparliamentary to

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accuse him of such action, but it really does look as though he acts just when the Welsh Government have an excellent idea.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) spoke about the preparation that was done to allow the Agricultural Wages Board to remain in Wales. That was not a matter of starting from scratch, but of continuing what was already there. However, that has been laid waste because the legislation was put in question. That is such a wasteful way of proceeding.

I would like to ask the Minister a question, to which I hope he will respond when he replies, although I fear it might be difficult for him as Solicitor-General, because he cannot predict what his colleague the Secretary of State for Wales will do. My question is, when will this process end? How many more things will the Welsh Government prepare and be ready to run with, only to find that they are suddenly thwarted? We want that process, and the ridiculous waste of money, to stop now. If there are doubts about what is within the competence of the devolved Government, let us get that sorted out properly, around the table in a grown-up manner, not in the current ridiculous way. It is like children running up to mummy or daddy to ask whether something is right or wrong. It is an absurd situation, and I would like to know whether the Attorney-General has had talks with the Secretary of State for Wales about making this the last time it happens. It should not continue in future.

6 pm

Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): Unexpectedly, I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on this issue. I do not actually think the Attorney-General’s Office is to blame for the situation. The system is to blame, because it means that issues are resolved through the courts when they should be resolved through the political process.

The whole purpose of the Wales Office and its counterparts in Northern Ireland and Scotland is to resolve disputes such as those that have been described in a proper political way, so that they never have to enter a court of law, let alone end up going to the Supreme Court and costing so much money. When I was first appointed Secretary of State for Wales, virtually all the responsibilities of my predecessors had gone to the National Assembly for Wales. Although my hon. Friend and I—we have been friends for far too many years to remember—were not always on the same path on the issue, we have ended up in the same place on it, not least because the people of Wales recently voted to extend the Assembly’s powers. For the first time, it will have the right to produce its own primary legislation.

The Solicitor-General will know that disputes in government are resolved either through correspondence or, if that cannot work, through Ministers meeting. In the case of matters involving devolved Administrations, Ministers of the Crown meet other Ministers of the Crown who happen to be in the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Beyond that, there is machinery, for which I was once responsible, for joint ministerial committees. If necessary, there is the British-Irish Council. All that means that matters can be resolved in a way that avoids the need to go to the

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courts. Of course, the situation is not the same when different parties are in government in London and Cardiff, but the principle is the same—to try to resolve the problem.

I rather fancy that the Solicitor-General will talk about whether the National Assembly has the powers to do certain things and whether it acts ultra vires or intra vires. Even those points can be resolved by diplomatic means, however, if they are talked through. By going to the Supreme Court, we press the nuclear button. Although that might satisfy the lawyers, civil servants and Ministers who think it should be done, they are unwittingly doing immense damage to the devolutionary settlement, whether in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. The whole purpose of devolving legislation and administration to those three countries and regions of the United Kingdom is that they are allowed, by Act of Parliament and by referendum, to take their own decisions. If the Government do not like something, a crafty way to stop it is not through negotiation among Ministers but by going to the courts. That is the wrong way to do it.

A lot of the problem is the general inexperience in government of how devolution works. For many years, I was frustrated with Whitehall Departments because they did not understand what devolution meant. The purpose of the territorial Departments of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is to undertake liaison between the Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and that of the United Kingdom.

Stephen Doughty: My right hon. Friend is making a strong case. Does he agree that at play here was something much more sinister because, in the case of the Agricultural Wages Board, the Welsh Government were going to show up the UK Government in what they were doing and what we were trying to protect? Let us not forget that the measure was to protect more than 13,000 low-paid agricultural workers in Wales. The use of this constitutional process shows not only disrespect for devolution, but a way of trying to get away from something the Government did not want to be shown up in public.

Paul Murphy: There are two ways of looking at it. There are party political differences because of the different parties in the different countries, but I also experienced that when Labour was in government and other state Departments were not necessarily sympathetic to what the Welsh Government were doing. It was my job to say, “You might not like it, but you’ve got to do it because that is what devolution is all about.” Otherwise, what is the point of having it in the first place?

Huw Irranca-Davies: When I served under my right hon. Friend as Under-Secretary of State for Wales, a signature of his tenure in office was that at all times such resolutions were dealt with early and within our mechanisms. It was a signal failure if something had to escalate to another constitutional mechanism, and it did not go at all to the Supreme Court.

Paul Murphy: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, and there is machinery within the Government system for resolving disputes between the devolved Administrations and their Parliaments, and the United Kingdom Government. That has been set up for nearly 16 years and is precisely to deal with those areas of

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considerable difference. In my view, that includes whether there is a dispute, and whether something is intra vires or ultra vires. I repeat: to take the issue to the courts is to press the nuclear button and could cause immeasurable damage to the devolution settlement.

6.6 pm

Mrs Siân C. James (Swansea East) (Lab): I want to return to the Agricultural Wages Board—a good example —and ask the Solicitor-General why he is so adamantly trying to stop the agricultural wages sector in Wales, which is important to us in Wales as a rural economy. I represent the wonderful rural constituency of Swansea East and—I have to say this—I have a husband and son who are actively engaged in the rural community. I therefore get my ear bent about this matter on a regular basis by family, friends and neighbours, and I note the concern that people are expressing to me, and the worry. We have already seen the agricultural industry hit. Many people will have far greater fluency on the issue and be more qualified to speak about these matters than I am, but the idea that we in Wales cannot make a decision about helping farmers and rural workers within the boundaries of Wales without having it challenged is a retrograde step in the light of devolution, as many of my colleagues have said.

I am worried because the Farmers Union of Wales has stated clearly that this is about attracting young people of high calibre to the agricultural industry. If we want to attract the best young, forward-thinking people, including women, into rural industries and those related to them, how do we do that when we have to fight for every penny? How do we say, possibly when unscrupulous employers are taking advantage of the fact that there is now no Agricultural Wages Board to protect people, “It’s okay, we’ll look after you”?

This is not a race to the bottom; it is supposed to be a race to the top, but I am finding it difficult, and I would like the Solicitor-General to explain the situation to me and to all the people in Wales, including the 13,300 agricultural workers who would be protected by the introduction of the legislation in Wales. They are heaving a huge sigh of relief and are sympathetic to their fellow workers across the border in England. We already have wages boards in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we cannot see why this legislation was introduced in Westminster.

I am going over old ground—the Minister will have heard this regularly and be well aware of it—but we want and need that protection in Wales. If we want a thriving rural sector in Wales, we must pay decent wages. We must ensure that we can protect people.

As I have said, I have friends in unglamorous jobs in farming—cow men, shepherds, general farm workers and farriers. They are cross, as hon. Members can imagine. They expect to be protected. They have been successfully protected for 65 years. During that period, many hundreds of thousands of people have been ensured a minimum wage and protection.

When the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) was a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he suggested that Labour Members assumed that farm workers were “forelock-tugging yokels”. All hon. Members accept that the world has moved on since 1948, but protection is not backward looking; it is about the future.

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Somebody once likened history to using a rear-view mirror in a car: it is useful, but we do not necessarily need it. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) spoke of history, particularly of the Chartists. We should look over our shoulders and ask why the Agricultural Wages Board was established in the first place and what it has done over the years. I am sorry, but in Wales we would like to plough our own furrow—pardon my pun.

I return to the basic question. The board is supported by farming unions in Wales and other parts of the UK. I ask the Minister to accept that we in Wales want to be forward thinking. We want to protect people and give them decent wages. The Labour Welsh Assembly Government is to be congratulated on their action. They should not be stymied and thwarted at every corner. Let us move forward.

6.12 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) not only on introducing the debate and on his excellent peroration on the stymieing of legislation and policy in Wales by the current Westminster Government, but on expounding on the narrative history of the Chartists and why it is relevant. I can only share his disappointment that we have so little time to debate this—we could go overnight, but, in compliance with the wishes of right hon. and hon. Members, we will try to avoid that situation.

The legislative competence order process was a previous mechanism for producing legislation in Wales. It was slightly cumbersome and convoluted, and required a great deal of detailed scrutiny in Parliament. However, it passed some cognisance of the growing authority of the Welsh Government. LCOs were much criticised at the time—rightly, in some ways, because they caused delay and were complex, even for the very good officials in the Wales Office in London and in Cardiff, and for Welsh Government officials, who worked through the minutiae. The intention—to afford proper scrutiny in Parliament and ensure that the Welsh Government could introduce their own measures under the process within their clearly devolved responsibilities and so on—was good. Yes, it caused delays, but there was a good spirit. We managed to pass LCOs into legislation, even after good scrutiny in Parliament by the Welsh Affairs Committee and others. There was never any intention to hold things up unduly.

The purpose was the growing relationship under the LCO system between the right scrutiny of this place at that time and the right role of the Welsh people, through their elected officials in the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government, to introduce appropriate measures from Wales. As my hon. Friend pointed out, that was not without its difficulties. It could sometimes be tortuous—even the now legendary red meat LCO took a little time to get on to the books, and that was one of the more straightforward orders—but we got there eventually. On all occasions, the intention of my right hon. Friends the Members for Neath (Mr Hain) and for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) was for their officials to work with officials in the Welsh Government and the Welsh Assembly to try to progress the measures through the LCO mechanism, which was imperfect but was what we had at the time.

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What has followed, with the will of the Welsh people, is ostensibly an attempt to streamline the process to give clarity on where devolved responsibilities lie, and to allow the Welsh Government, the Welsh people and Welsh civic society to get on with passing their own laws—whether we, on both sides of the House, might agree or disagree with them ideologically—to define their own democratic path. As we have heard, it has not quite gone that way. For those on the Opposition Benches it feels like there has been by the current Secretary of State for Wales—I do not blame the Solicitor-General for looking quizzical—a maybe inadvertent but deliberate attempt to hold up, to challenge, to rebuke the Welsh people for being so impertinent as to actually bring forward their own legislation.

The Solicitor-General: I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman suggest that LCOs are better than the current system, whereby the National Assembly for Wales has primary powers in 20 areas. What is more, most of the Bills are going through without any difficulty. There have been difficulties with two, but the idea that we should go back to LCOs is wrong.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I could not agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman more. Perhaps I should clarify what I was saying: LCOs were clearly imperfect, but the new system is meant to be better. Even with the LCO paraphernalia—it was difficult and cumbersome—attempts were made within the constitutional arrangement, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen has made clear, to work through those difficulties. If necessary, and as a last resort, they would be escalated up the constitutional food chain for resolution at a higher level, but there was certainly not the seemingly macho political posturing of taking it outside of this place without recourse to internal mechanisms and straight to the Supreme Court. I can see only one possible justification for that: to prove some sort of point and say to the people of Wales and the democratically elected representatives in Wales, “Know your place.”

Stephen Doughty: Does my hon. Friend accept that there is also an opportunity cost here? What is the Secretary of State for Wales doing with his and his officials’ time, attempting to stymie and frustrate the will of the Welsh people and the National Assembly instead of focusing on standing up for Wales around the Cabinet table? He was evasive when we questioned him on this point in the Welsh Affairs Committee. He would not give us an estimate of the amount of time that he and his office had spent on this. I suspect it was far more than it should have been.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. There is a clear case for a cost-benefit analysis of the tasks the Secretary of State is spending his time on, and for asking why he is not finding more useful things to do. There is also the question of the cost of challenging this through the Supreme Court. In an era of what we are told is great austerity, cutbacks and stringent demands on Departments, I am amazed that the Wales Office thinks it fit to throw on to Government—albeit another Department—the cost associated with a Supreme Court challenge.

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I turn to the Agricultural Wages Board, about which I know some small amount, given that I was the shadow Minister who stood here frequently in opposition to its abolition. Just as frequently, I put the case that the Westminster Government merely needed to allow Wales to continue as it was by putting a clause in the Bill, as requested by the Welsh Government, saying, “Ignore Wales for these purposes.” We only asked that they let us carry on and find a way to do it ourselves, rather than abolishing the whole mechanism and saying, “Now do what you want.”

I pay tribute to the work of Unite, in Wales and throughout the UK, which stood up for the lowest of the low-paid agricultural workers, for skills and training and for the development of earnings and capacity among agricultural workers. I also pay tribute to colleagues in the Welsh Assembly, including Mick Antoniw and others, who fought the good fight in Wales and to the Farmers Union of Wales—for goodness’ sake!—which said, “The reason we want to keep it in Wales is that we are slightly different from England. We have a higher proportion of small and medium-sized farms, which do not only employ individuals. That is why we want the clarity provided by the Agricultural Wages Board. We also rent ourselves out.” They would say to me, “I as a small farmer, rent out, and I know the terms of the contract.” I am talking of the young farmers of Wales too. These are not organisations that would automatically side with Labour on every issue in defence of something such as the Agricultural Wages Board, but my goodness they did on this occasion.

All that the Welsh Government and Alun Davies, the Welsh Minister, were asking was, “Give us time and space to define our own future”, but that did not happen. We debated it long and hard, we fought the good fight, speaking up for the Agricultural Wages Board not only in England, but in Wales, all the while conscious that the voice of representatives in the Welsh Government and the National Assembly was not being heard anywhere except in the media. We had to speak for them.

Wales lost without having had a direct say, and all that was required was for a Westminster Minister to say, “We concede that agriculture is a devolved responsibility. We won’t challenge you. We will put a clause in the Bill that will allow you to proceed.” That, I say to the Solicitor-General, would have shown respect for Wales and the devolution settlement. Rather than that, and symptomatic of the case put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West, we had a firm no. The door was shut in our faces. In effect, it wiped Wales off the democratic map. That is a regret.

The Solicitor-General is a reasonable and fair-minded fellow. The cacophony of pleas from the Opposition might remind him of the old poem about Welsh people worrying the carcase of a dead song and being a bit too melancholy, but we are not melancholy; we want to be joyous and we want to celebrate devolution and respect the fact that the people of Wales supported greater devolution. We just ask the UK Government, whatever political perspectives make it up, also to show that respect.

6.23 pm

The Solicitor-General (Oliver Heald): I start by thanking the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) for initiating the debate. The issues raised are important

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and go to the heart of the UK’s devolution arrangements. It is clear that the issues have raised concerns among several hon. Members.

The hon. Gentleman, in his characteristic way, brought in history and his own political struggle over many years, and it was clear that he would like devolution to go further still. That is his viewpoint. I found the information about the three villages law of 945 particularly interesting, although I am not sure that it would be of current import and could cause some concerns if implemented by the current Government. It is not the Conservative’s stance on law and order, but it was an interesting piece of context.

The subject of the debate is the role of the Attorney-General in reviewing legislation passed by the National Assembly for Wales—a role that I share with him. Despite the comments of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), this role was conferred by Parliament on the Attorney-General under the Government of Wales Act 2006. That was, of course, under a Labour Government, with their own approach to the issue of devolution. They had set forward a system of devolution that was a conferred powers model rather than the sort of model used elsewhere in the United Kingdom. As that happened, Parliament recognised that the devolution settlement for Wales must be made to work. The 2006 Act sets out the 20 “devolved” subjects in respect of which the National Assembly may legislate. It is the responsibility of this Parliament to legislate in any area that is not devolved.

The 2006 Act provides for the Attorney-General to consider each Bill of the National Assembly, so the Government look carefully at all legislation passed by it to ensure that it falls within the Assembly’s legislative competence. The Act provides that, where the Attorney-General or I consider a Bill to go beyond the Assembly’s competence, we can refer it to the Supreme Court to decide the question.

All of that recognises that it is in the nature of legislation that it may often appear to be about more than one thing. Where that happens with legislation passed by the National Assembly, a judgment has to be made about whether the legislation is about something that either is or is not devolved. The Government of Wales Act 2006 provides a means for the Attorney-General and, if necessary, the Supreme Court, to arrive at that judgment. If it did not, the devolution settlement could not work. The same power to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court is conferred on the Counsel General for Wales. In this way, there is an appropriate equality between the UK Government and the Welsh Government.

That illustrates an important point that I do not want to get lost in the debate. Something has been made of the idea that this Government are anti-devolution or are somehow determined to thwart the will of the Welsh Government and the democratically elected National Assembly for Wales. Where concerns arise, as the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) said, most are resolved by a process of negotiation between the UK and the Welsh Governments. My officials have excellent working relations with their colleagues in the Wales Office and their opposite numbers in the Counsel General’s Office. The Attorney-General and I have excellent working relations, as one would expect, with the Secretary of

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State for Wales and with the Counsel General, Theodore Huckle QC. Together, we are working hard to try to reach agreement.

It was suggested by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), the shadow Minister for Wales, that there was a problem with the UK Government making an effort to resolve issues before they escalated to the Supreme Court. It is, however, the last resort. The Wales Office, working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has discussed with the Welsh Assembly Government concerns about the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill from the outset, and the Secretary of State wrote to the First Minister as soon as the draft Bill was available, expressing concerns about it—but the Welsh Government could not be persuaded to address them. The mechanisms provided under the Government of Wales Act 2006 will therefore need to be followed. Under its provisions, we are guardians of the Welsh devolution settlement and together we must put our efforts into making it work.

A reference to the Supreme Court is not a confrontational process. It does not amount to this Government or any Government picking a fight with the National Assembly. It is a simple recognition of the fact that a particular piece of Welsh legislation raises difficult devolution questions that are best answered by the independent Supreme Court. That process of resolution is to the benefit of the Welsh Government, the National Assembly and the UK Government. It is in all our interests that we fully and clearly understand the boundaries of the devolution settlement.

Full primary law-making powers are still relatively new for the National Assembly. It was the UK Government and the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), who facilitated the successful referendum in 2011 on the devolution of those powers to the Assembly, allowing it to pass its own laws in 20 devolved areas for the first time. That was a major departure in comparison with a legislative competence order, as it lodged the power squarely with the Assembly.

We are still learning about the settlement. Decisions by the Supreme Court about what is within the legislative competence of the Assembly allow us to establish the boundary with greater certainty, and the Supreme Court itself has recognised that when there is uncertainty, it is appropriate for a reference to be made to allow it to be resolved at the earliest possible stage. That was true of the byelaws case.

Having said all that, 1 do not want the House to think that a reference to the Supreme Court is made lightly, or is somehow to be seen as the easy way out. Several Bills have now been passed by the Assembly, and the vast majority are uncontroversial in devolution terms. For the most part, there is consensus with the Welsh Government and the National Assembly that the legislation passed is within competence.

It is clear from this evening’s debate that the reference of the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill has given rise to strong emotions, which were set out by the hon. Member for Swansea East (Mrs James). Given that the reference has been made, I do not think that I should discuss the arguments about, in particular, the competence of that Bill in any detail here. We shall await the Court’s decision. What I will say is that the reference relates to all the

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themes that I have already identified, and that the United Kingdom Government take the view that employment law is a UK competence.

The Attorney-General considers that the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill raises important questions about the extent of the Assembly’s legislative competence and the boundary of the devolution settlement. Despite the good working relationships that I have described and the efforts of the UK Government, it was not possible to persuade the Welsh Government that there was a way forward that would meet their concerns. That is why the Supreme Court will have to make the decision. It is a sign of the Government’s respect for the current devolution arrangements, and our wish to provide certainty and stability for those who work in the agricultural sector, that we are continuing the existing agricultural wages regime in Wales until the court case is decided.

The Government of Wales Act 2006 was introduced by the previous Labour Government. It provided a conferred model for Welsh devolution whereby subjects that were devolved and within the legislative competence of the Assembly were specified in the legislation. The present Government believe that the conferred model is right for Wales. The settlement is not perfect, and the Silk commission—which has been mentioned—is currently considering how it could be improved. The Government will respond to Part 1 of the commission’s recommendations in due course, and, as the House will know, there was a further consultation about stamp duty during the summer. The Government are determined to see the process through, and to make it work.

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There is some room in the settlement for different views in certain areas about the extent of the National Assembly’s legislative competence. That is why the last Labour Government provided a mechanism for the Supreme Court to scrutinise Assembly Bills. However, I agree with the right hon. Member for Torfaen that, if possible, it should be the last resort.

It was this Government who enabled the referendum on full Assembly powers to take place. That is an achievement of which we are proud, and because of it we are seeing a growing and maturing legislature in Wales. That is what devolution is about.

The hon. Member for Newport West mentioned the Asbestos (Recovery of Medical Costs) Bill. It is true that there have been constructive discussions about the Bill, but that demonstrates that the UK Government are seeking to resolve the devolution concerns at the earliest possible stage.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) should be so pessimistic. I realise that to some extent he was making a political case, and it was very nice of him to say how reasonable and fair-minded I am; I have always found him to be the same. However, I think that progress is being made. It is early days, and I believe that this will be seen as a major achievement which is proceeding effectively.

Question put and agreed to.

6.34 pm

House adjourned.