Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Sewel: What about the poll tax?

Lord Lucas: It would also help if, when we reach the Committee stage, noble Lords opposite would give a little attention to trying to answer the questions that they are asked rather than trying to avoid them. That might be seen to be part of an inclusive, non-adversarial style of politics. I do not see how that phrase fits in with the reversing of our perfectly sensible and correct amendment on holding referendums on the same day. That is an out and out piece of political gerrymandering. That takes the biscuit. How they justify that in terms of their new style of politics is beyond belief.

But I shall offer them an opportunity to show how they believe in their new philosophy. Should the referendums succeed and should the following Bills come to the statute book, as is clear from much that has been said today, there is a great deal of detail to get right. There are also some very important principles to get right in the Bills that will come before us. We shall have a great deal of time--free time, I might almost say--in the first couple of months of our return after the Recess. Would not it be sensible to bring at least one of those Bills before this House first, allowing us a long and sensible time to give proper consideration to it, rather than asking us to rush through long nights in what will be, I hope, the hot summer of 1998?

Perhaps I ought to establish my credentials for speaking on these subjects. I share with the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, the distinction of having been attainted in 1715. I did not spot any other noble Lord who spoke having that badge of courage on them. Being on the losing side is a very honourable state and both of us are getting used to it. The first Lady Lucas also had the distinction of marrying into a family which had lived in Wales for 250 years. The Welsh were extremely glad to see the back of them, but that is another story.

Three things worry me about the White Paper for Wales, on which I shall concentrate: the lost voice of Wales; the effect on the county councils in Wales; and, as has been said by many noble Lords, the effect on the

30 Jul 1997 : Column 268

United Kingdom. Claims are made that the proposals will give Wales a better voice in Europe. But let us look at what is happening in terms of Members of the European Parliament coming from Wales.

They are now to be nominated by a list system, by parties, and are not to be the individual choice of the people of Wales. The systems which are offered for the Welsh to have an influence in the councils of Europe are to be at one remove. Now the Welsh people have a Minister who can go and speak on their behalf. In the future they are merely to be able to speak to people who will go and speak on their behalf.

The Secretary of State is reduced in office to a message boy. One of the few points on which I find myself in agreement with the Liberal Front Bench is that the Secretary of State will occupy a totally redundant post and cannot usefully perform any function because he will be seen to belong neither to the British Cabinet nor to the Welsh assembly. Neither side will trust him.

If the Welsh want to have a voice in Europe, surely they should follow their own distinguished example of the Welsh choir. If a group of people sing together, they can make an impression. If, at the end of the comprehensive reforms of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, there are 12 different regions all singing different songs in solo and discord, one has nothing. It would be much better in terms of influencing Europe if we could find ways of working together and all find ways of promoting what the Welsh want, putting the power of Britain behind them rather than having Wales left singing on its own and left a weakling in a very large continent.

In government, the Secretary of State will become a figure of no influence in the British Government. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy outlined the difficulties and the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, raised some very pertinent questions on that subject. In Parliament, what will become of the Welsh Grand Committee? There was no meeting on the Budget and no meeting on the White Paper. What is intended for that committee? The Liberal Democrat Party, in a non-adversarial act of singular inclusiveness, voted that there should be no Conservative representation on the Welsh Grand Committee. What is to become of MPs who will sit for Wales and Scotland? They will be unable to speak for their own native land and able to speak only on British matters or indeed English matters? What will be their status? How will they see themselves? Will they see themselves as the voice of Wales? No, because they cannot speak on Wales. Their influence will go. They will be seen by the English as aliens and enemies. The present system in which they have influence--indeed, in the case of Scotland an enormously disproportionate influence--will go. The voices of Wales and of Scotland in government and Parliament will be stilled.

Turning to county councils, what will be the relationship between the Welsh Assembly and county councils? It is quite clear that the Welsh assembly will not be a particularly powerful body. There is no significant power being devolved to it from Westminster. It will have to follow the Bills that we

30 Jul 1997 : Column 269

pass. It will have to create--I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will confirm this--secondary legislation in line with that required of it by the primary legislation that we pass. If that body wants to obtain power, the only place from which it can obtain it will be county councils. Indeed, if I read the White Paper aright, it will be given very considerable power of compulsion over those county councils. It will hold the finances; it will be able to twist their budgets in whatever way it feels necessary in order to get their compliance with whatever it wishes them to do; and it will be able to obtain finance in very considerable sums by restricting the amount of central grant which flows to them, making them raise the difference in council tax, or, if the system changes, from the business rate. On a very small scale, it is a parallel of what my noble friend Lord Nickson outlined so dramatically as lying in prospect for the Scots.

If the Welsh assembly is not to have that predatory role with local authorities, what is it to do? It will just be a talking shop, spending £100 million between now and its next election to no great function or benefit for the Welsh and depriving them of their voice in wider counsels, turning them inwards and leaving them nothing of what we have come to think of as a very great contribution by a small nation to our union.

Turning last to the question of the Union and to the instability which this proposal, coming on its own and not as part of the "greater package" of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, will create for our Union. There is a worm in the apple that we are offered by the Government. The worm--if the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, will pardon me--is Plaid Cymru; and its wish for independence for Wales and for severance from the Union. If we are to resist that, if that is not to rot the apple that the Government put in front of us, we must make sure that what we are creating will be stable. We must realise how bruised the English will feel at the end of the process which will end with the creation of the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly. My noble friend Lord Onslow succinctly illustrated the state of tenderness in which he finds himself, and I am sure that that is something which will spread.

We must be sure that the assembly is not created in such a way that people are rewarded for being disputatious by creating disagreements between the Welsh and the English. There must be defined powers. It is not at all clear how powers will be divided between the assembly and Westminster. It is not even clear how and in what form the Welsh will be allowed to create secondary legislation. It is not clear, though it is clearer, in the Scots White Paper how that will be done. There is a long list of reserve powers. When one runs through the first half, they seem logical enough. But when one reaches the second half there is an extraordinary mish-mash of bits and pieces over which there will surely be endless arguments as to whether they should be reserved. How can one rank the defence of the nation on one side, which clearly ought to be reserved, and things like regulation of estate agents and abortion on

30 Jul 1997 : Column 270

the other? It is not a clear definition with which we have been provided. It is something that will be a continuous source of argument.

We will need strong systems of dispute resolution. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie were particularly trenchant on that. It is not clear from the White Paper how they will work. It is not at all clear whether the Government have any conception of how they could work. If disputes arise, they must be defused and dealt with fairly and quickly.

We must have systems where the voices of the assembly and the parliament can be heard directly by those they wish to hear them. It is no good their having to use the Secretary of State or other Ministers as postboys for their opinions. They will not believe that their opinions are being delivered correctly and they will be in constant dispute with the British Parliament as to what has been achieved and why what they wanted has not been achieved. We need mechanisms where their voice can be heard directly where it counts in government and indeed in Europe. They have not even been sketched out by the Government. For instance, it would be interesting to know whether it is part of the Government's proposals for this House that, in its revised and eventual reformed state, it will include representatives of the assembly and of the parliament, and that that is the way in which the Government intend the voices of those bodies to be heard in Westminster. It is part of inclusiveness that the Government should tell us those things and not keep them secret to themselves.

The White Paper leaves far too many questions unanswered and far too many doubts in reasonable hearts as to what the assembly is for and what the Welsh face if they agree to it. I hope that they will choose to reject it on the basis of the sad consequences for the Union and for Wales if this rather sketchy proposal goes wrong in a way that seems likely.

9.11 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I am grateful for the speeches and contributions made by all your Lordships this evening. Perhaps I may mention three: namely, the notable maiden speech of the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose; the particular contribution made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, since he was last with us, having been translated, it is a pleasure to see him again with his informed contribution; and, finally, for reasons which are too obvious to need underscoring, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Gilmorehill. In a real sense this is a culmination of a legacy of which we all know the progenitor. The only "Mac" who has not spoken this evening seems to me to be Machiavelli, though I did detect a second cousin twice removed in the questioning of the noble Lord, Lord Lyell.

These are extremely important matters. I am obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, for the way in which he approaches this matter. I promised to write to him and it is nice that we are able to remain on decent, courteous

30 Jul 1997 : Column 271

terms, even though we hold different views. I am most grateful to him. There has been an enormous number of speeches this evening. There is something about Welsh and Scottish devolution. There were 37 speeches: two were made by myself and my noble friend Lord Sewel, which makes a total of 35 other contributions. I cannot conceivably, in the next 19 minutes, mention every noble Lord who spoke or deal with every point that was put.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, raised a specific question about the fact that there ought to be continuing debate and discussion through the summer. I welcome that. If on any occasion he wishes to write to me about a specific matter--or to my noble friend Lord Sewel if it seems more appropriate in the Scottish context--we are more than happy to provide him with information of the sort that he requires. I detected a similar approach in the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie. They are important questions. There is no point in treating them as a political football and I hope to avoid that. I shall deal with as many points this evening as I can but I am not being discourteous if I cannot deal with all of them.

Our approach is this--and I hope I am responding to the tone of your Lordships' speeches. First, these White Papers are a staging point on a longer journey. Secondly, that journey is undertaken to honour our specific, clear manifesto commitments. Thirdly, we believe--I know that many of your Lordships disagree--that the new and distinct methods of governing Scotland and Wales respectively will be a distinct and clear improvement on present arrangements. Most important and fundamentally, that improvement and the embedding of these new arrangements in our constitutional structure will strengthen and maintain the Union.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, asked the question quite plainly, as he always does: what is in it for the Union? My answer is this--diversity, development, accommodation for changed times and changed requirements and therefore, within a United Kingdom which is diverse, we offer new solutions for new times. That is what is in it for the Union. I can say two things positively and affirmatively. If this were to be, in my mind at least, the beginning of the fragmentation of a union which remains great, I would have no part in it. I say specifically in answer to the noble and learned Lords who have legal experience, not least the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rodger, that if this had anything to do with an attack on judicial independence in Scotland, neither the Lord Advocate nor I would have anything to do with the proposals. I hope your Lordships will accept those assurances. They are meant to be absolute.

There are areas in which honourable men may honourably disagree. I impugn the motives of none, nor do I question the sincerity of any who have spoken. What I do say is that we have diametrically opposed views about the future constitutional arrangements for England, Scotland and Wales. I hope that we shall be open to argument. We shall not always agree. I hope that we shall be willing to consider constructive

30 Jul 1997 : Column 272

suggestions and look kindly on real improvements to a scheme which I recognise is a developing scheme. But in the end it is plain: we propose to hold firm and stand fast on the general thrust of our proposals.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, took up the phrase, which had been offered to him earlier, that this was like trying it on the dog first. It is not. I know that it was meant lightly but I believe that people in Scotland and people I know in Wales do not regard this as an experiment to see whether the dog would be sick. Yet the dog has been sick these many past years. It has been sick of overcentralisation. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, on that point. It has been sick of having a voice which has not been heard. And it has been sick of devolved administrative matters which have not been the subject of devolved democratic control. That is important.

The point that my noble friend Lord Sewel made--that this is part of a new constitutional arrangement--is plain. The Government have said quite clearly that we are looking for a new elected mayor and a strategic authority in London. We are looking for new rights for our citizens by the incorporation of the European Convention. We are looking for legislation on freedom of information and a referendum on the voting system for electing Members of another place. That is part only of the pattern to which my noble friend Lord Sewel referred.

I think it is fair to say that few of the criticisms that we have heard today are new. That is inevitable because we have thrashed over these affairs over many hours. Some may not want power decentralised to democratically elected bodies. Some do not want government to be more open as it is convenient for governments to be secretive and to keep their own counsel. Some do not want the reform of Parliament or indeed of your Lordships' House. Some do not want individual rights to be increased. On those matters we must be content that we shall never agree.

The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, referred to Lady Crickhowell saying that 60 members was too great a number for a country the size of Wales. As he mentioned that, there floated through my mind the question to which I offer my own answer. How many members are there of the House of Lords? Is it 1,300 or 1,400? I cannot quite remember. If one is to look at reform, one needs to look at it over the whole spectrum.

The present Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition announced last weekend that a future Conservative government, if there were to be one, would not abolish a Welsh assembly or a Scottish parliament. I am not putting this as a partisan point because I welcome his change of view.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page