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Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill

9.15 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 2.

Lord Crickhowell moved Amendment No. 29:

Page 2, line 6, at end insert ("as set out in a White Paper to be published and debated by each House of Parliament not less than six weeks before such a referendum").

The noble Lord said: The amendment covers two important points. We have dealt with one in some detail and touched on the other. The Bill refers to the establishment of a totally undefined Welsh assembly. An assembly might do almost anything, or nothing. Nothing in the Bill states what the powers and responsibilities, the limitations, of the assembly might be. Everyone--Ministers as much as those on this side of the Chamber--acknowledges, that the White Paper will be of fundamental importance. The contents of the White Paper will guide the electorate. The electorate will be asked its opinion about the contents of the White Paper. Without the detail contained in the White Paper, it is not in a position to express an opinion.

On 1st March 1979 we debated the contents of a Bill which had already passed through Parliament in which the responsibilities of the proposed assembly were not

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only set out in legislation but in legislation which had been the subject of almost endless debate and examination. Everyone knew exactly and precisely what they were being asked to vote about.

What worries me is that the present Bill gives no real indication of what the electorate is being asked to vote about. I fear also as to what will happen subsequently. If we simply have a vote which refers to an assembly without reference to the crucial White Paper, there is nothing to stop the Government subsequently coming forward with a set of wholly different proposals, saying that Parliament must support them because the Welsh people have expressed a wish to have an assembly. The fact that the assembly may bear no resemblance to the White Paper is not a matter to which we could respond. First, there must be reference to the White Paper in the Bill if we are to impose any limitation and discipline. Secondly, we must have adequate time in Parliament to debate the White Paper, and then to discuss it and present it to the people.

I tried to refresh my rapidly failing memory about some of the debates that took place last time. I dug up Hansard and was interested to see (for those who think that we are taking excessive time on proceedings this time) that we spent more than three hours debating a Bill put forward by Mr. Geraint Howells (as he then was) on the timing of the referendum, and the amount of time there would be for debate before the referendum was held. It cannot be said that that was a filibuster by the Conservatives, because Mr. Wyn Roberts, as he then was, and I were criticised for not taking part at all in the debate, which was held between the Labour Party, the Liberals and Plaid Cymru.

A major speech in the debate was made by Mr. Gwynfor Evans, who was then the Member for Carmarthen. The bulk of his speech was devoted to the need to have adequate time for the referendum to be held. He argued that people do not easily grasp these constitutional issues, which are very complicated. He said that if an appeal is to be made to reason, time must be given for people to understand it, and the arguments must be set out clearly and often. The Bill should therefore give enough time. He suggested that the amendment under debate did give enough time; although it would not extend the length of time interminably, it would provide enough time for people to understand the arguments and for those arguments to be set out and debated not only in the press but in all the media. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, in an earlier guise, took part in that debate and supported the general argument advanced by Mr. Gwynfor Evans.

So I hope that there is agreement in all parts of the Committee that there must be adequate time to debate the issue in Parliament and to present it to the electorate. This amendment merely seeks to ensure that there will be adequate time, and that sufficient detail will be contained to enable the electorate to take an informed decision. I beg to move.

Lord Lucas: In lending support to my noble friend's amendment, I am not in the strong position I should like to be in, since I find myself facing the wrong

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Lord Williams. At about this same time last year, I had the great pleasure of helping to take through two housing Bills. Opposite me was the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. When we came to amendments such as this, proposed by him or his colleagues and full of evident good sense, I might have been under some restriction from my briefing but one way and another we contrived over the period of the Bills' passage to reach agreement. I believe that on both Bills over 100 amendments that were accepted by the Government were either directly proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams, or were attributable to amendments that had been proposed by him.

I hope that some of the cousinly virtues of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, will rub off on the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, and that he will feel able to look favourably on this amendment. I understand that it bears a great resemblance to one that we discussed only a couple of days ago. It may be that the noble Lord is not able to move a great way on this occasion.

Surely the two propositions embodied in this amendment work very much together. If the White Paper is to be taken seriously--if we are to be asked when we come to the Bill to pay attention to the contents of the White Paper, to treat it with great seriousness, to be extremely judicious in proposing any moves away from the principles set out in the White Paper; if we are to accord it approval in a referendum, to accord it that degree of importance--then the Welsh people must be given a decent length of time in which to examine it. The period proposed is six weeks, and four of those weeks are likely to be in August. How can anyone argue that that period should be any shorter?

Lord Mackie of Benshie: I have listened ad nauseam to this argument. The fact is that in Scotland the debate has been going on for years. And we have heard evidence that the debate has been going on in Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said that it was fierce and savage in the last referendum. He was, of course, satisfied with the outcome.

General elections are normally held over a period of three weeks. In this case the White Paper should be presented quite soon. It is nonsense to talk of a period of six weeks. The issue has been debated in Scotland. It is known that the constitutional convention has already announced that papers are available. There is no question: the sooner we have the White Paper and the debate, the better. To try to lay down a period of six weeks is surely excessive.

Lord Tebbit: I hope that I shall be forgiven, as an Englishman through and through, for intruding into these matters which are often portrayed as being of concern only to the Welsh and Scots. However, anything which affects the constitution of this kingdom is of interest to all its citizens. I take the view that I have some feelings, particularly towards Wales, having spent some of my childhood there and having taken an interest in its affairs for many years.

I have to ask, not least of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie: what on earth is the haste? Why must these matters be decided in such a helter-skelter fashion?

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If we are to have an assembly in Wales or a parliament in Scotland, is it of any great import whether the assembly or parliament is established this October, next October or the October after? Surely these issues can be given mature consideration.

The noble Lord says that all these matters were decided at the time of the general election. It is difficult to pick out from a general election campaign just which items in a party's manifesto carried it through to victory. I suspect that the concept of devolution is more popular--for many reasons, which we all understand--in Scotland than it is in Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, said that one of the problems about the Welsh issue is that Welsh people prefer to read newspapers which are published in London and prefer to watch television programmes which are produced in England rather than read newspapers and watch programmes produced in Wales. Maybe that tells us something about all the issues. I would not want to argue the point too strongly. I just put it to the noble Lord so that he may take it into consideration.

What is clear is that the tactics being pursued by the Government show that they have learnt something from past experience. Of course, the experience of the last time the issues were put before the electorates of Wales and Scotland is that the more people knew about the details of the proposals, the less attractive they became. Of course, it is enormously attractive to say in general terms that the people of Scotland or Wales should have more say over their own affairs. Sometimes it is quite attractive to the people of England to take that view. I have been cursed for much of my life to have been ruled by Labour governments which have been imposed not by the people of England but by the people of Scotland and Wales. So I can understand that view. But I believe that in a united kingdom we take the rough with the smooth. Fortunately, for the past 18 years we have had more smooth than rough and maybe that is about to change now.

However, why is there this unseemly rush? Why is it that when we say to the Government, "When is the White Paper going to be published?", they regard it as though we are asking them for the key to the codes which allow the firing of Trident missiles? It is something which has to be hugged, in the interests of national security, close to their chests. If we say to them, "What is a reasonable time for this debate to take place, for these campaigns to be organised and these issues to be discussed?", they say, "reasonable". You ask, "Six weeks, eight weeks?". Their reply, essentially, is, "That is difficult to say. Enough is enough." I can understand that. When I was a Minister I often thought about debates--enough is enough. I ask the Government to think back just a little to the time when they were in opposition and indeed to think forward a little to the time when they will next be in opposition. They are making some rods for their own back.

It seems to me that it would be very easy to present the issues to the people of Scotland and of Wales--we are discussing the Welsh case at this point--in very easy terms. Have more control over your affairs; this is a cost-free option; the proposition has nothing but an upside; there is no downside. It sounds very glib and

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very easy. The White Paper may be very glib and very easy. But it is essential that we give time out in the country--for there will not be any time given before the referendum in Parliament--for these issues to be discussed in detail. Precisely what are the proposals? How will they affect Wales? How will they affect the United Kingdom? A Welshman is not only a citizen of Wales; he is a citizen of this kingdom. Why is there such unseemly haste? Why cannot we be assured tonight that there will be an adequate time for these matters to be decided?

After all, if the Government's case is good, it can only get better with discussion. It seems to me that whenever one encounters the slick salesman of a shoddy insurance policy or a second-hand car that is bent, the one thing he will say to his prospective customer is, "You must make a decision quickly. Do not give yourself time for adequate thought. Sign up now." That is the proposition which is put to us by Her Majesty's Government this evening.

It seems to me that it is not only in the interests of those to whom the proposition is being sold but in the best interests of those who are selling the proposition that there should be adequate time for it to be discussed and debated. I suspect that in the speeches of Labour candidates during the general election campaign in both Scotland and Wales there was more time given to the issue of sleaze or health service funding than there ever was to the question of devolution. The Government should now have the decency, the honour and the courage to admit that adequate time should be given to debates on these matters in the country at large. They should accept with good grace the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: I intervene to say only that it is utterly unreal to treat three or four weeks in August as though they were the same as three or four weeks in October. Three weeks in the holiday period when we are considering a major issue of constitutional import is not the same as three weeks outside the holiday period. I am, on balance, a supporter of devolution but I respectfully pray Ministers not to ask us to live in Cloud-cuckoo-land, as though time in August were exactly the same as time in October.

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