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Roberts: Labour must consult on way ahead for Wales

Speech to the House of Lords.

"Any speech about the Welsh dimension of the Queen's Speech must begin with a comment on the changed political map of Wales after the election.

I am delighted to say that Wales is no longer a 'Tory free Zone'. The Conservative Party now has three Welsh members in the Other Place - a cause for rejoicing - the Lib Dems four - one more than previously - and Plaid Cymru one less than before at three.

We also have a noble independent in Peter Law of Blaenau Gwent who took one of Labour's safest seats and taught the Labour Party a sharp lesson - never to take their huge majorities in their heartlands for granted.

There are three Bills and a draft Tourism Bill relating exclusively to Wales to come before us in this extended session.

The first, establishing a Commissioner for the Elderly in Wales, has been welcomed by Age Concern and Help the Aged although the latter rightly points out that the commissioner will not be able to do anything about the elderly's greatest problem, namely pensions.

The second Bill, relating to transport, we are already familiar with from the last session.

The third piece of legislation, the only one directly referred to in the Queen's Speech, will and I quote 'reform the National Assembly for Wales'.

The precise nature of that proposed reform is something of a mystery.

Mr Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Wales, has said that the Government 'will introduce a Bill, following publication of a White Paper, to develop democratic devolution in Wales with our clear commitment to enhance the Assembly's powers while reforming its structure and electoral system to make a more accountable legislature for the people of Wales'.

Those are fine words. However, Mr Nick Ainger, the new Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Wales Office, has made some intriguing, off the cuff comments to the media which suggest that the Government's commitment is not as unequivocal as it sounds and that the path to further devolution will be littered with boulders.

According to the Western Mail, Mr Ainger said: 'If the people of Wales want greater powers, we are providing the vehicle for them to do that but I don't think at this stage there is that demand for full legislative powers or for a referendum for that but we are providing a vehicle for them'.

These rather cryptic remarks have antagonised die-hard devolutionists who have interpreted them as a betrayal and an abandonment of the proposals put forward in the report of the NL Richard's Commission and in particular the contents of Box 13.5 on Page 250 of that Report which appeared to find favour in senior Labour circles at one stage but not with Labour MPs who foresaw their own role diminishing.

Some of the proposals contained in Box 13 appealed to my own instinctive desire to improve the Assembly and its performance.

For example, I favoured and still do the replacement of the present corporate structure, which diffuses responsibility between the Assembly and its Government, confuses the public and results in a far too cosy relationship between Ministers and Assembly members.

The separation of the executive from the legislature would hopefully induce a more critical, adversarial spirit to the Assembly's proceedings and result in closer scrutiny of the Assembly Government's activities and greater accountability on its part through the Assembly to the Welsh people.

As to the issue of whether the Assembly should be remodelled on the lines of the Scottish Parliament and be given primary legislative and tax varying powers, there are serious reservations, not least because the question of tax varying powers was never put to the Welsh people in the '97 referendum and it is inconceivable that such powers should be granted without the electorate's consent.

While the Richard Commission rightly argues that taxation powers are desirable but not essential to the exercise of primary legislative powers (para 35, page 258), the absence of such revenue raising powers would surely be a severe constraint on the power to legislate.

Most Bills have financial implications and their implementation costs money. Either the resources are available from the block grant or from extra revenue; if not, there is little point in legislating. Of course I understand the Government's dilemma, which some of us anticipated years ago.

The Assembly's Labour Government has a tenuous majority and they are already threatened by a take-over from a coalition of other parties which may well become a reality after the next Assembly election in 2007.

How would the New Labour Government here respond to such a situation, especially if the alien, non Labour Government in Cardiff had primary legislative powers and scant respect for the financial constraints imposed by Whitehall?

My guess is that it would be very unsympathetic - to put it mildly - and that the scene would be set for a major conflict.

The UK has enjoyed a period of prosperity while the Assembly has been in existence but there is no guarantee that that will continue indefinitely or that the planned rate of public spending can be sustained.

There are already signs that Labour's third term may not be as easy as its predecessors and that the public purse strings will have to be tightened.

Furthermore, there are signs that the Assembly Government is already feeling the pinch.

The extra monies that the Welsh local authorities are collecting after revaluation is being docked from their grant settlement. Revaluation in Wales is proving to be another stealth tax.

I hope that whatever electoral reform is proposed for the Assembly, there is no tampering, no gerrymandering of the PR arrangements which enable minority parties to be represented.

Again, I understand the Government's dilemma and its wish to hold on to power in Wales at all costs but they will be aware that a one party dominion has inherent weaknesses and cannot endure forever.

In view of all this, I am not surprised to hear on the grapevine that what the Government have in mind is the retention of primary legislative power here for the time being.

If so, there will have to be improvements in the legislative process and a closer relationship between Westminster and the Assembly.

I hope that the Government will consult all parties on the best way to achieve that very desirable end.

Wales still has many problems and I have only been able to touch on one of them.

Wales has a very low GDP by EU standards and longer waiting lists than before devolution.

There has been a bonfire of the quangos but it is far from clear who or what is to perform their functions.

It is therefore very important that Wales should continue to engage your Lordships' interest and concern."

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