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Gillan: Taking devolution forward in Wales

Speech during the second reading of the Government of Wales Bill in the House of Commons.

"I join the Secretary of State in the tributes paid to Merlyn Rees and to Lord Stratford. In Merlyn Rees we have lost a man who was admired across all parts of the political spectrum, and in Lord Stratford we have lost a parliamentarian who gave us much pleasure and amusement over the years while pursuing some very serious policies in which he believed.

I also welcome the Secretary of State's ordering an investigation into the tragic deaths of Maurice Broadbent, David Horrocks, Wayne Wilkes and 14-year-old Thomas Harland. It seems that valuable lives have been wasted in a tragic accident, and I shall carefully consider the outcome of any investigation.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generous welcome to my new post. He began by trying to misrepresent my position, but I hope that I can put the record straight in the course of my brief remarks about the Bill and disabuse people about the position in which the right hon. Gentleman has sought to place me, my hon. Friends and my party.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for setting out the Bill's context and main provisions. The legislation is highly significant for not only the future governance of Wales, but the constitutional position of the United Kingdom as a whole.

Under my hon. Friend the Member for Witney, the Conservative party is a party of localism and devolution.

On his first visit to Wales as Leader of the Opposition just before Christmas, my right hon. Friend made it clear that devolution and the National Assembly are now established features of the Welsh political landscape.

I hope that the Secretary of State will resist the temptation to revisit past battles over devolution and misrepresent our position. A future Conservative Government will seek a constructive relationship with the Assembly, whichever party or parties form the Welsh Assembly Government.

We do not, however, believe that the Assembly discharges its functions in every respect either effectively or efficiently, which is something that we will seek to remedy.

The debate is about the future structure and powers of the Assembly to allow it to perform what all hon. Members agree is its primary function—delivering a better quality of life for people in Wales.

We can also agree on some of the changes that will result from the Bill, if it becomes law. I have made it clear to the Secretary of State in private meetings outside this House and in my interventions today that the Opposition believe that the Bill contains some good elements as well as some unacceptable elements.

First, let me set out the areas where we are supportive of the Bill. The decision formally to separate the executive and legislative arms of the National Assembly is long overdue.

There is almost unanimous agreement that the existing corporate Assembly structure has created confusion and misunderstanding as to where real power and decision making lie.

That view was endorsed by the Richard commission, the Government's own White Paper in June, and most recently by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. From the outset, the Assembly has evolved beyond the limits of the Government of Wales Act 1998 so that there is now a much clearer separation between the Assembly Government and other Assembly Members. That should be recognised.

In February 2002, the Assembly agreed unanimously on as clear as possible a separation between the work of its executive and legislative arms.

In response to Richard, it called for legislation to bring about a formal separation. We broadly believe that the proposals in part 2 are a step in the right direction, but we hope to look at the detail of their implementation in Committee.

According to the Secretary of State's programme motion, he intends to allow three days on the Floor of the House for the Committee stage and two days on Report and Third Reading. We will support that.

If that were all that the Bill set out to do, we would have no hesitation in supporting it on Second Reading, but regrettably that is not the case. For the reasons set out in our much-criticised reasoned amendment, I invite right hon. and hon. Members to support our position by joining us in the Lobby tonight.

The Bill suffers from two fatal flaws. First, there is a lack of any proper consultation with the people of Wales through a referendum on the implications of the changes in part 3.

Our argument is not that the Assembly should not gain additional powers but that, consistent with our approach to devolution, we need to give the people of Wales their say.

We need to give them the opportunity to understand the proposals in the Bill and to express their views on what they want. However, although the Government are prepared to concede a referendum, at some point in the future, on the primary law-making powers set out in part 4, they do not provide for one on the new legislative procedures in part 3.

That is inconsistent and wrong, and we will seek to persuade the Secretary of State to provide for an earlier referendum on the proposals for the two-stage process.

The hon. Member for Rhondda says that I should not waste too much time doing that. In the spirit of consensus, however, I am going to try to make the Secretary of State see sense. He has himself described the procedures in part 3 as a mechanism to "streamline" or "fast-track" Welsh legislation.

In fact, they represent a fundamental change to the 1998 settlement, not least evidenced by the extent of the repeals in the last schedule to the Bill.

The Government are proposing, without asking the people of Wales, to substitute the detailed scrutiny that Parliament gives to Welsh primary legislation with a procedure by which legislative competence is transferred to the Assembly through unamendable Orders in Council following a debate for one and a half hours.

That procedure risks disfranchising Welsh Members of Parliament, who will no longer be able to carry out the job of work for which their constituents send them here, and at the same time it will disfranchise the Welsh electors who returned Members to this House in the expectation that they would represent their interests by properly scrutinising legislation—a function that will be diminished if the Bill is passed in its present form.

It also risks placing the Assembly and Parliament on a clear constitutional collision course.

No convincing answers have so far been given to legitimate concerns over what would happen if Westminster rejects an application by the Assembly to legislate in a certain area or what would happen if the Secretary of State uses his pro-consular powers to block an application.

If the Government envisage that the role of Parliament is simply to rubber-stamp applications, why involve us at all? Why should we go through that interim process and not go straight for full legislative powers? It is little wonder that Lord Richard concluded that

'There is very considerable lack of clarity in the way in which this interim stage would be managed and effected.'

The Secretary of State has said that the interim stage would be a test of the robustness of the devolution settlement. The people of Wales and this Parliament deserve better than that.

We are entitled to ask where the demand for the proposed procedure has come from. The Secretary of State says that it will mean that Wales will no longer have to jostle each year to get legislation into the Queen's Speech. If that is so, it would be useful for the House to know precisely how many requests for pressing pieces of legislation have been made by the Assembly that the Government have turned down.

I do not think that the Secretary of State understands. He told us that the precise nature of pre-legislative parliamentary scrutiny will not be laid down in the Bill and will be subject to his whim and desires later. We do not have the detail.

The point is that it is pre-legislative scrutiny. We will not have the document; it could change. It was the right hon. Gentleman, I believe, who said that he did not think that the Orders in Council would trouble the legislative programme to any great extent:

'It is an hour-and-a-half debate on the floor of the House compared with going through all the stages of . . . legislation.'

He is damned by his own words in showing that there will be a downgrading of the role of the House. There was no demand for such a move. It was not proposed by Lord Richard. No other party has put it forward. It is simply a compromise to try to keep the anti-devolution and pro-devolution wings of the Labour party together, although in the long run I suspect that it will satisfy neither.

There is a straightforward solution. If the Secretary of State is so confident that this move is right for the people of Wales, he should let them have their say. Instead, he is offering the people of Wales a referendum on proposals in the Bill on which he admits that there is no consensus, which he does not expect to call for many years—all because, in his own words,

'Rhodri - the First Minister - and I and Welsh Labour are not in the business of calling referendums we are going to lose'.

That is the honest truth of the matter. We have proceeded from a pre-legislative referendum in 1997 to a post-legislative referendum in the Bill.

No matter what the Secretary of State says, the changes in part 3 are not minor matters. They fundamentally alter the relationship between Parliament and the Assembly, and the people of Wales should be given a vote on them.

The detail in the hon. Gentleman's manifesto simply is not there. Orders in Council were certainly not envisaged at that stage. It is a clever idea, but it is a Johnny-come-lately idea. If it is such a marvellous idea, what is the problem with giving the people of Wales a vote on it?

It is not a question of the merits or otherwise of pre-legislative scrutiny. It is a question of what is proposed in the Bill, and what is currently proposed in it is singularly unclear.

We shall seek clarification throughout the Committee stage, and we shall re-examine these very points. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in examining the detail that we trust the Secretary of State will provide.

Orders in Council were not envisaged in the Richard report, and have caused a great deal of consternation not just in this House but in another place, and it is important for us to be allowed three days of scrutiny on the Floor of the House.

The second major flaw in the Bill is the blatant alteration of the electoral system in part 1 to favour the Welsh Labour party.

At the moment, I am convinced that our problems with the legislation are summed up by what the right hon. Gentleman said on 10 December. He said

'You could get on with the job in the meantime and give substantial powers, as Rhodri said, to the Assembly through Orders in Council between 2007 and 2011'.

That is what we must examine. It is a way of passing—almost—a concealed grant of direct legislative competence to Cardiff, and we need to examine it in detail. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, as he is currently the Secretary of State.

The proposed rigging of the electoral system will, despite the protestations of the Secretary of State, prevent candidates who stand in one of the 40 single Member constituencies and who fail to be elected from also standing on the regional top-up lists in any of the regional constituency areas.

The prime motivation for this appears to be the political interests of the Labour party in Wales. The Secretary of State and the First Minister have both said that, in respect of full law-making powers, we have to wait for the consensus. That is fine, but clearly there is no consensus whatever for the proposed change to the electoral system.

I do not believe that the changes to the electoral system for all elections throughout the UK were featured in the manifesto. Or did it apply only to Wales? This is an issue on which the Welsh Affairs Committee divided on party lines.

The Electoral Reform Society has spoken out about its profound doubts on this change, saying:

'There is no evidence at all to back up this proposal and therefore we come to the conclusion that we do not think that the case for change has been made'.

The Commission also made the point that such a change needed to be considered in a UK rather than just a Welsh context. Perhaps the Secretary of State could tell the House when he expects his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to adopt the same procedures for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Why did such changes not form part of the Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004?

The truth is that this is a spiteful and anti-democratic measure that should have no place in a Government of Wales Bill and may not even survive a challenge under Human Rights legislation.

In December, the Secretary of State boldly asserted that, in his view, the Bill would settle the constitutional question in Wales. In his own words:

'What I hope this will do is settle for a generation—if not more—the whole constitutional obsession we have in Wales about the powers and status of the Assembly'.

He knows that the Bill as drafted will do no such thing. Rather than settle the constitutional question, it simply leaves it wide open.

The Bill offers little prospect of long-term constitutional stability. It proposes a hybrid system of enhanced legislative powers that weakens Parliament and the role of Welsh MPs, while fundamentally changing the 1998 devolution settlement without giving the people of Wales a vote or a voice. Further, it seeks to rig the electoral system to the partisan advantage of the Labour Party.

If the Government thought that the time has come to make further devolution to Wales, the honest way of going about it would be to consult the people of Wales now, through a referendum, and not wait until some intermediate point along the path, by which time important changes will have been introduced under the guise of this Bill.

The Secretary of State had the opportunity to improve the operations of the Assembly simply by separating the Assembly Government from the Assembly Members.

Instead, I am afraid that he has chosen to pursue his political interests at the same time, jeopardising the legislation and compromising the people of Wales by adding provisions for partisan, party purposes. I am sorry that he has made that choice.

We have had no choice but to table a reasoned amendment, and I ask the House to support it in the Lobby tonight.

I will not vote against Second Reading if a vote is called because there are elements of the Bill that we Conservatives support, but because the Secretary of State has chosen to include partisan, party proposals, I had no choice but to table a reasoned amendment and to include it in the Order Paper. I ask my hon. Friends to vote with me on it."

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