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Wiggin: Referendum essential on more Welsh Assembly powers

Welsh government warned not to sneak changes in through the back door.

Speech to the Welsh Grand Committee

"I wish to join the committee in thanking all those on the Richard Commission who worked hard on the report.

This is a report for the Assembly which re-opend the devolution debate at a time when the Labour party in the Assembly is struggling to show any sort of serious success.

I don't need to remind the committee that the Secretary of State said that the prime function should be to benefit the people of Wales, on this I and my party whole heartedly agree with him.

All our concerns on this side are focussed on benefiting the people of Wales and with that in mind every member of the Welsh Conservative Party will be consulted this will form the basis of our policy on the future powers for the National Assembly.

Our members can be certain that their views will be listened to and our policy will be formed on the views agreed on - unlike, I suspect, other party leaders who may have already made up their minds.

The Conservatives have remained consistent in our opposition to any further changes to the powers of the National Assembly without a referendum.

Any changes to the arrangements made between the people and their Assembly must be decided by the people of Wales themselves. This is essential.

The Conservatives believe that the people are perfectly capable of understanding the arguments and making their own decision. Especially, on whether they want to pay even higher taxes to fund more politicians and more bureaucracy in Wales.

Following the Prime Minister's U-turn on the issue of a referendum on the proposed EU Constitution, even after this Secretary of State had told the Conservatives to put our placards away because it wouldn't happen, it will be difficult for Labour to resist the call from the Conservatives and from across Wales, for a referendum on the issue of further powers. We will not be putting our placards away.

And our placards will say that any decision on further powers must be up to the people of Wales, put in a referendum and that decision abided by.

I know that is supported of course by a majority of the Welsh MPs opposite.

Given that there are clearly divisions within the Labour Party, and there are differences of opinion within all parties, a referendum is the equitable way to settle the issue.

This issue is too large to merely be slipped into a general election manifesto. It warrants a separate democratic vote. (if we could trust Labour to stick to their election manifesto promises anyway).

I hope the Secretary of State will use his other job to ensure that Parliament agrees to a referendum on further powers and does not allow major constitutional change to be slipped in through the back door.

The Commission recommended that there be 20 extra Assembly Members to accompany primary law-making powers. If there is to be an increase in the number of Assembly Members, which would cost an estimated £2 million a year. It begs the questions could there be justification for the number of Welsh MPs to remain the same?

If further powers were transferred from Whitehall to Cardiff, with 20 extra Assembly Members, the argument would be the same used in Scotland otherwise the Government would be most inconsistent.

Perhaps it was unwise of the Secretary of State to have ruled this reduction out point-blank.

Again, it is a case of the Party Leaders stating their Party policy which has not even been consulted on and is supposedly not to be decided upon until the autumn.

Although, the First Minister has now said that extra AMs may not be necessary for primary law-making powers. Whether or not he has caved in to pressure from Welsh MPs, in order to appease an already embarrassing Labour quarrel in public, it must be what is in the best interests of the people of Wales.

The Richard Commission was critical of the Assembly's scrutiny of secondary legislation so they should be resolving that before even considering moving on to primary legislative powers.

Although the Commission recommended the transfer of law-making powers from Westminster to Cardiff by 2011, we must seriously consider whether the Assembly is working effectively enough with the powers it already has.

We welcome the suggested change in the corporate body status so that the executive and legislative are separated. This means that it is the Government of the Assembly which is responsible not the Assembly itself.

This will alter the responsibility for failure and success and ensure that any attacks are on the Labour Assembly Government rather than the opposition Assembly Members.

I pay tribute to the hard work of the excellent 11 Conservative Members who are officially the hardest working AMs. As the Commission pointed out, at present there is too cosy a relationship between Assembly members and the assembly government.

An equally important topic for discussion is an assessment of the success of the powers already devolved, judged on their benefit to the people of Wales. The most obvious and relevant power, it will come as no surprise, is the health service. Since the Labour-led Assembly took charge of health in 1999, waiting lists have soared by 82% despite an increase in expenditure of 30%.

Rhodri Morgan's U-turn on the Richard proposals from favouring assembly law-making powers to now proposing instead that the assembly amends Westminster legislation, sends out signals that he is not confident himself that the assembly could cope and also recognises that the public will not accept full responsibility for law-making to the assembly because of the appalling failure of the assembly to manage secondary powers in health.

On 18 March, Rhodri Morgan said, "I have never departed from my view that the Assembly would be able to do a better job for Wales with primary legislative powers".

What has changed his mind so dramatically to…? I suspect it is the pressure of hon. Members opposite who are rightly horrified ahead of the next election about the ever-increasing failure of the Labour Assembly Government in the health service.

Lord Richard deemed tax-varying powers desirable but not essential. Again this is clearly a question for the people. I believe what would be beneficial to the people of Wales are tax cuts.

The people of Scotland had two questions in their referendum, one of which sought approval for tax-varying powers. Such a question was not put to the people of Wales. So before any changes of that magnitude I am sure the people of Wales must be consulted on this issue.

I now move on to the costs on the Welsh taxpayer of the Commission and its recommendations.

The most up-to-date figure available for the cost of the Richard Commission itself stands at £788,298, and Nick Bourne AM is presently awaiting the latest costs from a written Assembly Question, which we estimate will be nearer £1 million after printing costs.

The Richard report estimated that the direct increase in costs of an Assembly with more powers and Members would be around £10 million a year. But these things have a habit of spiralling out of control, such as the costs of the new Assembly building, which have increased by 450% from the initial estimate of £10 million in October 1998 to a predicted final bill of £55million.

The fact that any changes would cost the taxpayer so much more is even more reason for a referendum.

The ink is barely dry on the Government of Wales Act yet some people would like to change it. The Labour Assembly Government have a long way to go before they demonstrate they can use their existing powers effectively.

The Conservatives will maintain pressure on the Government to ensure they do not sneak major constitutional change in through the back door, and that the benefit to the people of Wales must be the key to any alteration. That would of course require the consent of the people in a referendum."

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