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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I cannot deal with that in precise figures. I can agree with the

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noble Lord's observation that a substantial bulk of the Secretary of State's present responsibilities will be devolved to the assembly and therefore a substantial number of the civil servants who will remain members of the Home Civil Service will be attached to the assembly for the discharge of those functions.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, I welcome the White Paper with enthusiasm. I also congratulate the Minister on the manner in which he introduced it and replied to questions about it.

I particularly welcome the reference in the White Paper to an all-party commission to decide on standing orders. Will the Minister confirm that the intention is that the assembly should be less confrontational than the Westminster model; and that there should be a greater degree of co-operation between parties in serving the interests of Wales through this assembly?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do. It is far from my mind that our discussions on the referendums Bill have been in any sense controversial.

Wales is a different country. It has a small population. It has particular characteristics. I hear from the Benches behind me that it has select characteristics--perhaps elite characteristics. The way ahead for us in Wales is co-operation. Your Lordships may remember that years ago I mentioned this matter in a constitutional debate. If it wished, in present conditions, the Labour Party could have bullied through such a system as would have produced a virtually monolithic result in the assembly elections. We specifically chose, I believe honourably, not to do that. I am happy to confirm that there will be an independent commission to propose the standing orders, and the way the assembly should operate. In due time, as the noble Lord implied, if experience then shows that amendment of those standing orders is required, the assembly will be fully entitled to do that. We want inclusiveness. This is not simply a talisman that we have produced; it is what we really want. I hope that we have begun to demonstrate that.

Viscount St. Davids: My Lords, the Minister said that he wished the assembly to be politically inclusive. How will it take on board the great tradition that we have in local government in West Wales of the independent member? I cite as an example Pembrokeshire County Council, where two-thirds of the seats are held by independents. Annex C.6 of the White Paper states that,

    "Political parties will be permitted to nominate individuals".

Independent groups are not parties and cannot group together. Does the Minister have an answer to that point?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not see any reason why an independent group should not register itself. The noble Viscount raises a very important point. As he will know, I am familiar with the long independent tradition--for instance, in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. It is an important

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question and I shall turn my mind to it--not in any sense of "kicking the ball into the long grass"; I genuinely believe it to be important.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, perhaps I might ask a brief technical question from this side of the House. The Minister may wish to write to me rather than explain the matter at the Dispatch Box. I believe he said that the staff of the Welsh Office would be transferred to the new Welsh assembly but would still be home civil servants. Effectively, they would be answerable to the Secretary of State, who would in effect employ them. When it comes to disbursing public money, it is not politicians who write the cheques; it is civil servants. They take their instructions from politicians. When the civil servants in the Welsh Office write out cheques to disburse public money, whose instruction will they take--that of their "employer", or that of the assembly, which is not their employer?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord may have misunderstood what I said. I was very eager to underline and demonstrate that civil servants will remain bound by the high degree of fidelity to the public interest that they constantly demonstrate. If assembly sums are to be disbursed, that will be done on the authority of the assembly, not the Secretary of State for Wales. I was particularly anxious to underline that the public duties of civil servants will be maintained intact. They will not suffer any loss of independence by virtue of the fact that they will serve the public interest through the vehicle of the Welsh assembly as opposed to serving it through the vehicle of the presently constituted Welsh Office.

Lord Rees: My Lords, if I understood the noble Lord correctly, there will--

Noble Lords: Order.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I am sorry; I am advised--

Lord Rees: My Lords, I have one specific question.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I am advised that the 20 minutes' time limit for Back-Bench questions is mandatory, as is the 30 minutes allowed for Questions. I was about to say that, had earlier remarks been shorter, we could perhaps have included more speakers; however, in deference to those who spoke I shall not say so.

Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill

5.23 p.m.

Further consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

[Amendment No. 25 not moved.]

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Clause 3 [Referendums: supplementary]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 26:

Page 2, line 34, leave out subsection (2) and insert--
("(2) The Secretaries of State shall appoint an Independent Statutory Commission which shall monitor the conduct of the referendums provided for under this Act, and shall, in the light of those referendums, draw up recommendations for the conduct of future referendums, having regard to the 1996 Report of the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums, such recommendations to be laid before each House of Parliament.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I took the hint that Amendment No. 25 would not be welcome and so decided not to move it.

I hope that we can deal with Amendment No. 26 quite quickly. It returns to the general proposition set out in the report of the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums as to what we ought to be doing with regard to the situation in this Parliament: we are promised four or five referendums, of which this is to be the first.

I accepted the point made in Committee by the Government that to draw up a referendums Bill--which is, I believe, the right way to proceed--before starting on the first referendum would not allow the Government to obey their election manifesto promise to hold the two referendums in relation to Scotland and Wales in September. I understand that. On the basis of their manifesto the Government have a good case for saying that we ought to proceed in the way in which we are proceeding, with these two referendums.

However, I wish to place on record, and try to elicit from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate who will reply, merely some kind of appreciation--I do not even seek a commitment--of the argument in favour of having a generic referendums Act.

In Committee I quoted at some length the opinions of the commission, whose members included some very important people. The commission made this matter perfectly clear in its report. Perhaps I may quote from Guideline 3 of the report. It states:

    "If the Government is planning a series of referendums, it has the option of establishing a statutory framework for the conduct of referendums through the enactment of a generic Referendum Act. Such an Act would demonstrate the Government's commitment to the efficient, fair and consistent conduct of referendums. It would provide for the establishment of an independent 'Referendum Commission' and include fixed rules on some matters (for example the organisation of the poll and the count). For other matters, on which it is impossible to determine rules in advance (for example, the wording of the question), the Act should set out how a decision should be reached. Those matters which will be different in each referendum and are likely to be of Parliamentary concern could be dealt with through primary legislation on each occasion".

The proof of that argument is contained in the Marshalled List that is before us, in which the schedules contain--I make no complaint about that because it was my idea--the mechanism for holding the referendum. It does so in the way set out because it has to ride piggyback on the Representation of the People Acts. I think all noble Lords will agree that that is not a very satisfactory way to proceed. There is constant cross-referencing. It would be far better to have a proper Act which, like the Representation of the People Acts, allowed referendums to be fought on a common basis.

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I wish briefly to draw to the attention of the House a letter that I received from Mr. Michael Clancy, deputy secretary of the Law Society of Scotland, who, I have no doubt, is not unknown to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate. He states:

    "I read with interest the exchange between you and the Lord Advocate (Official Report Volume 581 No.28, column 420). The Society considers that there may be some advantages to the enactment of a generic Referendum Act and is currently gathering information on Acts which relate to referendums in other jurisdictions.

    "There are of course many difficulties in relation to a Referendum Act not least the issue of the Referendum Commission. No doubt this and other issues will become clearer as the Society concludes its examination".

I know that the noble and learned Lord received a copy as that is stated at the foot of my letter. He will therefore know that this is the society's view. The letter uses the words,

    "there may be some advantages",

However, I suggest that there would be very considerable advantage.

This is merely a probing amendment. However, I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate will think beyond September and see that, in relation to referendums to come, such a measure would save us all a great deal of bother. It would save schedules of the kind that we see here having to appear in every referendum Bill. It would be the right and proper way to proceed.

I suggest that we should set up a commission now. It would not take a lot of time to appoint one or two people merely to look at the way in which the referendums work in Scotland and Wales in September and then to report to both Houses of Parliament and to the Government. That could be used as one of the factors in the creation of a generic referendums Act. I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

The Lord Advocate (Lord Hardie): My Lords, the amendment is identical in terms to the one which was moved by the noble Lord in Committee. That was withdrawn after a lengthy debate. Noble Lords will recall that the question of an independent commission was debated at some length in Committee and I seem to recall that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, acknowledged that he did not wish the bureaucracy of a full-blown commission. I am grateful to him for acknowledging today--as he did on the previous occasion--that it would not be appropriate to have a referendum Act as part of this referendum as that clearly would not be possible.

I remind the noble Lord of what he said in dealing with this amendment at Committee stage and contrast it with what he said a few moments ago about the time taken to set up such an independent commission. On 7th July, at col. 423 of Hansard, he said:

    "Of course I appreciate the difficulty of setting up a commission, as I propose, in the short time we have available".

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He acknowledged at that time that there were difficulties in the timescale in setting up the commission that he proposes in Amendment No. 26, which is in identical terms.

It is all very well talking about setting up a statutory commission, but the commission would have to be in place before the referendums in September if it is to have a proper opportunity to monitor them. The appointments procedure for such a commission would no doubt be a lengthy affair and, in my submission, it would be very difficult if not impossible to hold the referendums by autumn of this year, as promised in the manifesto, if one were to go along that route and accept the amendment.

During the passage of the Bill the Government have indicated the precise dates on which it is intended to hold the referendums. I am sure that the people of Scotland and Wales would not accept any unnecessary delay arising from my accepting this amendment.

I am also sure that the noble Lord did not wish to frustrate the Government's manifesto commitment in that regard when he put down the amendment. I urge him to reflect and to withdraw it today. He has quite properly, on several occasions, drawn the attention of the House to the report of the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums. Perhaps I may assure him that, were he to visit the Scottish and Welsh Offices, he would find a number of well-thumbed copies of the report, which has been an extremely useful document to the Government in preparing our proposals.

I said earlier that I thought the delay would be unnecessary. I also point out to noble Lords that the preparation of the report on which the noble Lord relies illustrates another matter. The commission did its work without any prompting from the Government. It did not require a statutory commission to be set up and in my submission it is unnecessary to have a commission at this time.

Previous referendums have been held successfully, as was recognised in the commission's report. Lessons have been learnt from them and noble Lords will appreciate that each referendum is different in many respects. However, I can assure the House that, should any lessons be learnt from the forthcoming referendums, the Government will take account of them in providing for future referendums. That is what was done in the past in respect of this referendum and it is what our predecessors did in respect of the 1979 referendums.

Quite rightly, I believe, Parliament will wish to consider on its merits the legislation providing for each referendum, as we are doing today. That allows the opportunity to consider how each individual referendum will be run, while taking account of past experience. I do not think that anything will be gained by these amendments, which would simply add another layer to the process.

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