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Lord Williams of Mostyn: Perhaps I could make one or two preliminary observations. First of all, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, reasonably asked what had happened to the political parties registration Bill, and the noble Lords, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord Henley, have made similar inquiries. I did say-- I do not think those two noble Lords were present then but the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, was--that on Maundy

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Thursday I had undertaken that the Bill would be ready soon after Easter. I did explain to your Lordships that on Good Friday there was the agreement on Northern Ireland matters and of course the resources of the parliamentary draftsmen had, rightly in my opinion, to be directed to those urgent matters. I can say that it is the Government's intention that the Bill on the registration of political parties should be published imminently.

I would echo, if I may, what I said at Second Reading, that any amendment which we regard as, first, consistent with the scheme of the Bill and, secondly, a genuine improvement would be carefully looked at. Perhaps I may also say with great respect that I believe that what the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, said has a good deal of virtue in it. Perhaps your Lordships will forgive me if I attend to the point of the amendment rather than rehearsing Second Reading speeches at any great length.

Questions were raised at Second Reading and in another place about sovereignty. It was said that the Solicitor-General, in his winding-up speech, did not refer to wider questions. That, of course, is wrong. I refer your Lordships to col. 1128 of Hansard for 21st April, where he specifically said:

    "The Government believe that this is a step which is in the interests of both the people of Wales and the good government of the whole of the United Kingdom".

Indeed, I opened the debate by saying that this will strengthen the union, to which this Government remain adamantly and unshakeably committed. I do not think I need to repeat more than that.

We believe that these amendments are not necessary and we cannot accept them. We do not seek to undermine the sovereignty of this place, whether by means of this Bill or any other Bill. For instance, the Human Rights Bill was carefully constructed and crafted to meet the proper legitimate place of a sovereign Westminster Parliament, and everyone who dealt with it recognised what we had done. There is nothing in the Bill which is capable of calling into question the sovereignty of this Parliament. I entirely endorse what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gwydir. The overwhelming mass of those who live in Wales wish to see their future continuing as part of the United Kingdom.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said, this is simply a transfer of functions already exercised by Minsters to the assembly; no more than that. Noble Lords have referred to Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and to Clause 27(6) of the Scotland Bill, which is presently before another place. Both have statements similar to the spirit of the amendment contended for, but both convey powers to make primary legislation. That is a complete qualitative difference.

The Belfast agreement, to which I referred a moment ago, makes similar provision for an assembly with primary legislative powers. Therefore it is only right to make clear the relationship between primary legislation in Belfast or Edinburgh and that passed at Westminster.

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This Bill, I respectfully repeat, conveys no such powers and there is therefore nothing to clarify. As Mr. Ancram said in another place, an identical amendment,

    "would not affect the position either way".--[Official Report, Commons, 20/1/98; col. 870.]

It is easy to think that it might be a good idea to have a cosmetic face-saver on this Bill, but that is not the purpose of a Bill. The statute book is not the proper place to seek to allay phantom concerns, and indeed sometimes, as an unintended consequence, to raise fears, as the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said, rather than dealing with them properly.

The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, chided the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, very gently about gloom and foreboding. I must say that from my own experience I always thought that gloom and foreboding were the most attractive part of life in North Wales. It certainly seems to be infectious because it has travelled all the way from Conwy to Abergavenny. The fact is that there is not a constant agitated thought, whether in the rugby club at Gresford or in the Pontllotyn branch of the Flat Earth Society as to what is actually intended by this Bill. It is perfectly straightforward. It is a transfer of functions which are presently devolved to the Secretary of State to a Welsh assembly, the principle of which throughout every one of the 35 speeches--I think it was--on Second Reading was accepted by the overwhelming majority of speakers. This amendment is not required and, being not required, it is not necessary.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: I am grateful to the Minister and indeed to all noble Lords who have participated in what I have found to be a very interesting debate. Of course we know all the arguments about otiosity and these suggestions being unnecessary. Nevertheless, a number of us feel very strongly that advantage should be taken of this opportunity in this Government of Wales Bill to build upon the relationship between the assembly and this United Kingdom Parliament, rather than suggesting that somehow or other they should be kept as separate as possible. As we pursue our discussions on the Bill, we shall see more clearly the need for a closer relationship between the two bodies.

I was interested in many of the comments that were made. I was glad that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, called the late Lord Attlee in my support in part. But he also described the amendments as niggling reservations and I take his point very much to heart.

We are seeking to suggest--and it is not all "North Walesian" or Presbyterian doom and gloom--that things may not go as well as the great optimists of devolution hope. I firmly suggest that our action would be remiss and that we would be culpable if things did go wrong in the assembly and the assistance of the United Kingdom Parliament was required.

As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, assured us, nothing in the Bill calls into question the sovereignty of this Parliament. As no powers of primary legislation are transferred from this place to the Welsh assembly one can understand the difference between the Welsh

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assembly, the Scottish parliament and the proposed Northern Ireland assembly and the need to differentiate between them by the inclusion of Clause 27(6) in the Scottish Bill.

Extensive secondary legislative powers are being transferred to the assembly and that is causing us a great deal of concern. Even the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, expressed his concern about the nature of delegated legislation and its extension. As my noble friend Lord Northesk suggested, there is little difference between primary and secondary legislation in, for example, the School Standards and Framework Bill.

A considerable number of Henry VIII clauses in the Bill cause great concern. Nevertheless, in view of the Minister's comments, we shall not press the amendment to a Division. We shall be watchful as we proceed with the Bill and on Report we may return to the broad thrust of the amendments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Membership]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 3:

Page 1, line 15, leave out from ("constituency") to end of line 16.

The noble Lord said: The amendment brings us to a discussion on the voting system. Not only are the Government proposing to change the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom vis-a-vis England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but they are proposing to turn upside down a voting system which I and many other people believe has served this country and the rest of the English-speaking world extraordinarily well over the long march of history. The Government intend to replace that with a system of proportional representation or, as I would prefer to call it, one of the various methods of fiddle voting on which some people are so keen.

The amendment deals specifically with removing from the Bill those parts which would introduce proportional representation. If I were successful the Bill would have a first-past-the-post electoral system for the Welsh assembly. I would not like it to be thought that I have not realised that the Minister will say that I am looking a gift horse in the mouth, but I have to tell him that the weakest of all arguments for one or other electoral system is that your particular party gains advantage from it. That ought not to be the argument which convinces anyone to choose one electoral system as opposed to any other.

That is why, when the Labour and Conservative Parties stood as one in favour of a first-past-the-post system, the Liberal Democrat Party was alone in wanting to change it. And it wanted to change to one specific form of PR which it believed would fiddle the votes in the most advantageous way for that party. I believe that the true voting system is the one which we have had in this country for many years--

Lord Thomas of Gresford: The noble Lord said that we were anxious to fiddle the vote. Will he explain

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precisely what he means by that? Is he saying that the importance which the Liberal Democrats attach to proportional representation is a fiddle?

4.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The point is that the argument in favour of one form of PR over another is usually put forward on the basis that the advantage may or may not be to the political party advocating it. In my view, and in the view of anyone who has studied the subject, I could put forward an electoral system which would present the Committee with any result it wished. Indeed, there are so many variations of proportional representation, which we shall debate later, that my argument would be adequately met by showing that the different types can lead to different results. That is why I used the word "fiddle" when I discussed proportional representation because it depends--

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