HC Deb 25 April 1978 vol 948 cc1299-329

The Assembly shall publish daily a verbatim report of its proceedings and of the proceedings of its Committees and shall place such reports on public sale at reasonable prices.".—[Mr. Brittan.] Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Brittan

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

As the Committee will be well aware, there is very little in the Bill about the detailed organisation and conduct of the Welsh Assembly. It is understandable that that should be the case. However much one may disagree with the concept of creating an Assembly of this kind, with powers of this kind, if one is creating an Assembly it is right that it should not be tied down in too great detail with regard to its operation. If it has to come into existence, I would not wish it to be unnecessarily restricted.

On the other hand, even the Government recognise that certain provisions are necessary with regard to the conduct of the Assembly. There are a few clauses in the Bill dealing with such matters as the first meeting of the Assembly, Standing Orders, pecuniary interests, and so on. We believe that one of the most important requirements, if the Assembly is to work, in any sense—and if it is to do as little damage as possible to the structure of government, not only in Wales but in the United Kingdom as a whole—is that at least every possible step should be taken to ensure that there is public confidence in its operation. It is to that end that the new clause is directed.

The importance of the Assembly in the government of Wales needs no underlining. Not only is it an Executive—as the Government readily concede and present it to be—it is at least half a legislature, in that it has the power of secondary legislation. Again and again in our debates examples have been given of the far-reaching extent of the measures that can be imposed—and the changes brought about—by means of secondary legislation in areas such as education where, as we know, the whole direct grant system was created and destroyed by secondary and not primary legislation.

With an Assembly of this kind, it is right that a body which has such a wide ranging variety of powers on such a substantial scale should be one in which the public has confidence. The only way in which the public can genuinely have confidence in what the Assembly is doing is if they know, and have ready means of knowing to the extent that they are interested, what the Assembly has done on a prompt and regular basis. That is why the new clause, in effect requiring a Hansard of the Assembly, is proposed. We believe that the Assembly should sit in public and that what goes on in it should be fully and publicly available. There is no provision in the Bill to ensure that that happens.

9.15 p.m.

No doubt if the Assembly is set up the question whether its proceedings should be broadcast will arise. That is a matter that can legitimately be left for Cardiff to decide. Obviously, it is a matter that the Assembly can decide. It is possible for the Assembly to be public without its deliberations being broadcast, but those deliberations must be publicly and readily available.

There are factors that relate to the operation of the Assembly which make it even more important that its proceedings should be public. I have it in mind that the Assembly will operate a committee system. In that respect—painful as it may be for the Government to hear the analogy—the Assembly will be similar to a local authority.

I am not clear whether, in the absence of such provisions in the Bill, the provisions governing the admission of the public to local authority meetings and committees will apply to the Assembly. I should have thought that they would not apply. On the face of it, those provision apply only to local authorities. There is nothing in the Bill which directly equates the Assembly with local authorities in that respect. If much of the work of the Assembly, which will operate as an executive, deliberative and legislative body, is to be done in Committee, it is even more important that the public should know what is going on and have a ready means of finding out what is going on.

If one is concerned about delegated legislation it is not enough to provide that an edict should go"out from Cardiff and a decision should be made known. The public have the right to follow debates in detail. There is no guarantee that even the hawk-like Welsh Press will find the deliberations of such spell-binding interest that it will report automatically those proceedings, if it is allowed into the committees—and there is no guarantee that it will be.

There will be interested people involved in education, health, housing, and so forth, who will wish to follow in detail what is said in the Assembly. The only way of ensuring that is to provide the type of record that the Official Report provides for the House of Commons. That is particularly true of committees.

There is also the question of cost. Perhaps the cost of providing Hansard for the Assembly and committees will be substantial. I am not in a position to make an estimate. I imagine that since there is no provision in the Bill for such expenditure, it is not included in the estimate of the total cost of setting up the Assembly which is set out at the biginning of the Bill. That is misleading, because although I expect that the Secretary of State will say that the Assembly will no doubt itself decide to provide a Hansard, my guess is that that cost is not included in the cost of setting up the Assembly. If I am wrong about that, I am sure that the Secretary of State will deal with it.

The Assembly should publish a report. Whether it should do so as a result of a legislative requirement imposed by the House of Commons or of its own volition is a matter on which there may be scope for legitimate debate. Either way it should be done, and if it is to be done the cost is certainly part of the cost of the Assembly and should be included in the estimates. If it is included, I shall be delighted to hear it but as there is no response I assume that it is not. If it is not, the money will come out of the block grant that is to be negotiated, which will mean that much less for the people of Wales to have spent on their behalf on education, housing, and so on. If the Secretary of State says that in the calculation of the block grant account will be taken of the cost of providing a Hansard for the Assembly, it should appear as one of the extra costs and should therefore feature in the Bill's preliminaries.

Mr. Ioan Evans

The hon. and learned Gentleman says that he has not costed the operation. He has not mentioned the possibility of a request for a bilingual report, which would at least double the cost. If he is to argue that this cost will have to be met, and could well come from the amount allocated to the Assembly, surely discretion could be given to the Assembly to determine whether it should incur this expense. I imagine that it would be substantial, especially if all the proceedings in committees as well as the main debates in the Assembly are to reported bilingually. Is not that a reason for the Assembly to decide, rather than for us to make it an instruction that it should publish reports of all committee proceedings?

Mr. Brittan

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my two final points, to which I was coming next. I have little doubt that the Assembly will want to permit its proceedings to be conducted in both English and Welsh. Whether it does or does not, I have equally little doubt that it will be necessary for the proceedings to be published in both languages, and any estimate of the cost will have to take that into account.

Whether it should be left to the Assembly to decide must be a matter of judgment. Plainly, some ground rules about the way in which the Assembly operates are set out in the Bill. The balance, the detail, will be decided by the Assembly. In the context of the creation of an Assembly, there is no need for us to get too heated on the question where the line is to be drawn. That, too, must be a matter of judgment.

But presumably the criteria for what matters are included in the Bill and what are to be left to the Assembly must be that they are regarded as absolutely essential and fundamental to the operation of a democratic Assembly with substantial powers, and that without them an Assembly cannot have the confidence that it should have if it is to be set up at all. Those matters should appear in the Bill, and the rest can be left to the Assembly.

I am suggesting that today, in a world in which Assemblies of an executive kind, and certainly of a quasi-legislative kind, are dealing with complex matters of interest to outside bodies, which will want to make representations at the various stages of consideration, the question of the report of what is said is not a peripheral question, which can be left as a matter of discretion it is a central question. The Assembly cannot work democratically and properly if people are not in a position to know in detail what it is doing.

The hon. Gentleman is rightly foreshadowing a situation in which the Assembly may say "The mean British Treasury has not given us enough money, and so, instead of spending our resources on Hansard, especially on a bilingual Hansard, we shall spend it on schools, hospitals, and things that really count."

That argument would be extremely attractive to the Assembly. It is one that would not, I suspect, lose Assembly Members any votes. No doubt schools and hospitals are popular in Wales, and no doubt Hansards have limited democratic popularity. However such a decision would be fundamentally subversive to the whole concept of democracy as we know it. That would be so because it would deprive others of the opportunity of knowing what was happening and, therefore, reacting in a way to which they should be entitled. The Assembly will operate not in vacuo but in accordance with representations made to it and views put to it. If the means of an informed debate outside the Assembly do not exist, it cannot operate.

The fact that the hon. Gentleman has foreshadowed and contemplated as a real possibility the Assembly's not wishing to spend money on Hansard underlines the importance of our inserting a requirement that it does so. That should be done not in any hostile sense but to ensure that the basic democratic framework for the operation of a deliberative executive and quasi-legislative Assembly exists.

Sir Raymond Gower

I merely want to suggest to my hon. and learned Friend that for two reasons it is inconceivable that the Welsh Hansard should not be bilingual. Some of the Members of the Assembly will be from predominantly Welsh speaking areas, and will want it to be printed in Welsh. Secondly, there is the validity of the Welsh language. It has now been accepted and is a part of our law.

Mr. Brittan

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. My expectation that the Welsh Hansard would be bilingual was made from infinitely less knowledge of the circumstances than that possessed by my hon. Friend. I am grateful to have my assessment of the situation confirmed so authoritatively.

The cost must be faced, and for the reason that I have put forward I believe that the requirement is one that is not optional but central to the operation of a democratic Assembly. Therefore, it is entirely reasonable that it should be put forward in the Bill. It is inconceivable that such a requirement could be re-regarded as any sort of hostile act; it merely buttresses the operation of the Assembly. It no more dictates to it than the insertion of pecuniary interests and standing orders provisions, along with a whole host of other matters that appear in the Bill.

It is in that sense and in that spirit that I commend the clause.

Mr. Dalyell

It is in my mind that when we were discussing the Scotland Bill inquiries were made about Hansard for a Scottish Assembly. The feeling was that the cost would not be much less than the cost of the House of Commons Hansard, which is of the order—I stand open to correction—of £850,000 a year. Presumably some preliminary figures have been worked out. There must be some notion of what the cost would be. I ask for the very roundest figures.

As any of us who are delegates to the European Parliament will know, the cost of translation services is fantastic. Once translator is introduced it is necessary to have skilled translators. The technicalities are mind boggling. Everything has to be translated from one language into another. Translation adds to costs by a factor of two or three. All the typescript has to be reset.

I see that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales is in the Chamber. My hon. Friend has recently returned from Luxembourg. He will know the difficulties that I am talking about. What are the costs that are involved? It is unthinkable to have any sort of Assembly without having a record.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Wigley

The hon. Gentleman said that for any Assembly the costs would be unthinkable. Is he aware that in institutions such as the Gwynedd County Council there are already facilities for simultaneous translation and the publication of all documents in both languages? This is undertaken not to facilitate the Welsh speakers, who make up all but five or six of the council, but to help non-Welsh speakers who otherwise would not understand.

Mr. Dalyell

I think that the hon. Gentleman misheard me. I did not say that the costs were unthinkable. I said that it was unthinkable not to have a written record.

Sir Raymond Gower

I sincerely hope that the Government will accept the new clause. I am surprised that they have not indicated their acceptance of this principle in some way either by informing my right hon. and hon. Friends or by putting down a new clause of their own, possibly in language which they prefer. I see no objection to the principle. I hope that the Government will quickly signify that they find it acceptable.

I have no objection to the Assembly working out the details. I hope that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) will not be too superior about this linguistic problem. The day may come in the not-too-distant future when there will be a clamour to have the proceedings of the Scottish Assembly in Gaelic. I do not know. It may be a relatively small thing at present, but circumstances change.

I think that there should be written into the Bill, if enacted, that there must be a verbatim report of the proceedings of the Welsh Assembly. No sensible debate can be conducted in any Assembly without a verbatim report of the proceedings being made available to its Members. We know how difficult it is when industrial or other reasons prevent the publication of Hansard in time for us to refer to the speeches of other hon. Members on earlier occasions—even on the previous day in a continuous debate. Therefore, we want inserted into the legislation, if enacted, that there shall be a daily verbatim report on the lines of the Official Report of the proceedings of the House of Commons.

The new clause states that the verbatim report shall be on public sale at reasonable prices. Looking at a recent copy of Hansard, I noted that it was priced at 33p. I do not know how that is costed. It may be, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) stated in his admirable opening, that the bilingual element will demand a much larger cost. But provision for that should be made by the Government at this stage. That is another reason why it should be in the Bill. It is not fair to leave this as an expenditure which would bear harshly on the Assembly. Apparently the Government have so far made no provision for this matter.

I suggest that not only should the need for and the provision of a verbatim report of the proceedings be in the Bill, but that the Government should make provision for the report at reasonable cost.

As I intimated in an intervention, it is inconceivable that the report should not be bilingual. It must be bilingual.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

I wonder whether my hon. Friend can help me. With a bilingual Hansard, which would be the official version if it came to a debate on it?

Sir R. Gower

I should imagine that in an Assembly of this kind we would accept the law of the country, which is that there is equal validity. I am open to correction by the Secretary of State, but I should have thought that there was bound to be equal validity. This will be a bilingual Assembly in a country where both languages are spoken by significant numbers of people.

Mr. Wigley

I would have imagined that the principle must be that the language in which the original comments were made would be the valid version. This would overcome the problem if there were any differences in the translation.

Sir R. Gower

I agree. Where there are idiomatic differences that are unavoidable we must accept the language in which the speaker has spoken. The original English or Welsh version may present difficulties of translation of some exact idiomatic phrase. In such cases it must be inevitable that the words of the speaker, taken in the language that he or she has used,"would be considered as valid for the purpose of any subsequent investigation or interpretation of the meaning of them.

There will be equal validity, however, which is implicit in any country like Wales where two languages are spoken. There will be a large number of people elected to the Assembly who are more fluent in English and a lesser number who are more fluent in Welsh.

While I agree that the working out of the details can be properly left to the Assembly, I do not think that we should avoid all responsibility for this task. We must place the onus fairly and squarely on the Assembly of providing a report, but we should make provision to enable it to do this economically. We do not want a daily verbatim report that no one can afford. That is why we have used the words "reasonable prices" in the new clause. I hope that the Government will at least accept the principle behind the new clause.

Mr. Ioan Evans

I hope that the Government will resist the new clause. While I follow the argument that there should be a verbatim report of the deliberations of the Assembly in its main meetings, I do not take the point that it is essential for democracy that every word uttered in every committee should be known to everyone in Wales.

If that is what the Opposition are saying, they are arguing that every county council and local authority in Wales should have a verbatim report of all its proceedings. These councils are quite democratic, although the report that is issued is usually just a report of their decisions at the end of proceedings.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards

If that is what the hon. Member believes then he is at cross purposes not just with me but with his own Front Bench as well. The whole point of the Bill is that the body that is being set up is not a local authority. It is an Assembly which purports to speak for a nation and to a nation and which has legislative power in the form of delegated legislation. Therefore it is analagous to a local authority.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Member must allow me to develop my arguments. Democratic organisations such as local authorities meet and do not issue verbatim reports of their proceedings. Despite this, the public is aware of their decisions and no one has yet felt the need to call for verbatim reports.

The Assembly comes somewhere between the House of Commons and local authorities. It may be desirable for the Assembly to determine that it will issue a verbatim report of its main meetings, but this is a decision that we must leave to the Assembly to determine. After all, the whole argument is about devolution. Yet we are trying to hamstring the Assembly by laying down absolutely what it should do in all sorts of cases.

There is no verbatim report of the proceedings of certain Committees of the House of Commons. I serve on a Select Committee. The Services Committee, for instance, holds certain meetings of which verbatim reports are issued, but holds other meetings dealing with the services of the House of Commons at which Members discuss matters generally. Heaven forbid that we should add to the paperwork of the House of Commons by having verbatim reports of every bit of conversation that takes place in our Committees.

It is true that with Standing Committees on Bills, when legislation is affected and Ministers' decisions could have a great bearing on the eventual law of the land, one would argue that there is a great case for having a verbatim report. But just imagine if there were an Assembly Committee discussing the question of education allocations, attended by all the Members from various parts of Wales, and a Member from part of North Wales said that he thought that a school in his locality needed new toilets, and so on. There would be a long argument about minutiae in that Committee.

Opposition Members are saying that from these Committee proceedings, going into massive detail, just as they do now in local government, there should be a verbatim report of that nature, that it should be published, and that it should be published at reasonable prices. That means, of course, that there will be no demand for such a publication and, therefore, that there must be a heavy subsidy. Are Opposition Members suggesting that all the minutiae in Committees should be published in verbatim form?

Sir Raymond Gower

Does the hon. Member agree that in the House of Commons and in another place all the proceedings are taken down and reproduced verbatim? The proceedings of the House of Commons, in this Chamber, in Committee in the Chamber or in any of the Standing Committees, are recorded verbatim and published in Hansard. Comparably, we say that the proceedings of the Assembly should be reproduced in that way. We are talking not about ad hoc discussions or interrogatory committees analogous to one or two of the Select Committees to which the hon. Member has referred, but about the proceedings.

Mr. Evans

The hon. Member may be talking about that, because his interpretation of what the new clause would do is very different. He has said that we should not decide the details, but as I read the new clause— daily a verbatim report of its proceedings and of the proceedings of its Committees"— it seems clear that it is a question not merely of the proceedings of the Assembly but of all the Committee proceedings being published verbatim. I can understand that there would be a good argument for having a verbatim report of the proceedings.

Mr. Brittan

I certainly had it in mind that the informal discussions of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman refers were not included in the term "proceedings". If I am wrong about that—there is no point in our arguing about it—it is not my intention that the informal discussions should be included in what is published. It may be appropriate to redraft the clause in some other form. It is the intention that the ordinary Committees, which are, after all, debating substantial matters, should have verbatim reports, though not the informal meetings of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred. If the new clause includes such meetings—frankly, I do not think that it does—I would certainly be happy to have it amended to exclude such deliberations.

Mr. Evans

I am glad that the hon, and learned Member makes that point. I am sure that he would agree with me that if we were to interpret the proceedings of the Committees and all the informal discussions that they will have as requiring a verbatim report, it would be an absolutely illogical situation because more paperwork would be coming from the Assembly than we get from the Common Market. I presume that the hon, and learned Member wishes to amend the new clause.

Mr. Brittan

I said not that I wished to amend it but that I wished to do so only if it bore that meaning. I do not think that the term "proceedings" would cover all the meetings to which the hon. Member has referred. However, rather than seek to argue what the word would be held to mean, I readily say that if I am wrong I would wish to amend it. However, I do not concede that that is necessary. I am simply trying to ensure that our deliberations are on the basic point rather than on a peripheral point of drafting.

9.45 p.m.

Mr. Evans

The Opposition now take the point that there is no purpose in recording the minutiae of a committee on housing or education which might be of little interest even to other members of the Assembly. We should have simply a report to outline the decisions reached for the benefit of the general public.

I see that the hon, and learned Member for Cleveland and Whitby is getting some help on the meaning of the word "proceedings" from the hon, and learned Member for Montgomery.

Mr. Hooson

The hon. Gentleman should have looked it up.

Mr. Evans

But the hon, and learned Gentleman has had to get a book to look it up, and he is a practising lawyer.

Mr. Hooson

The hon. Gentleman can read, I suppose.

Mr. Evans

Of course I can. I am glad that we are to get a little legal assistance from the Liberal Party. We did not have much help from them in our last day's debate on this Bill.

One argument against an Assembly is administrative costs. The Conservative Party say that they are concerned about public expenditure. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian has estimated that the cost of reporting the House of Commons is £850,000. If the output of publications was the same, the cost of a bilingual system could be double that amount, and then there is the cost of translation.

Conservative Members may be devious and say that this is another argument against the Assembly. But we need not go into that. It is necessary to have a verbatim record of the main decisions of the Assembly itself, but not the committees. As politicians, we tend to speak at length, and as Welsh politicians we tend to speak at greater length. It would be wrong to give people in the Assembly an incentive to talk longer because their speeches will be reported and read in their localities. In local government, with no verbatim report, people address themselves to the point and reach decisions briefly.

Perhaps proceedings in the Assembly itself could be reported verbatim. If we are devolving powers to the Assembly, why not let it decide this?

Sir R. Gower

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the House of Commons should leave the question of what happens to large amounts of expenditure to be decided by the Assembly? Does he propose to curtail the speeches in the Assembly by ensuring that there is not enough money to publish a verbatim report?

Mr. Evans

It will be for the Assemblymen to determine the length of their speeches. It is a question of our making a definite block grant to the Assembly. There is no provision for the publication of a bilingual verbatim report of all the proceedings. I believe that reason will prevail in the Assembly and that the view will be taken, "There is a need for a verbatim report of certain proceedings, but it will be unnecessarily expensive to publish all the proceedings verbatim."

Obviously the Opposition are envisaging an Assembly that will be similar to the House of Commons, but I believe that it will be a different type of Assembly, especially if it is intended to undertake its work on a committee basis in determining the various allocations on social services and other items of expenditure.

The Assembly will not be a fund-raising Assembly. Its main function will be to act as a spending authority in allocating funds. It will be a question of how the Assembly allocates the main block grant to the various committees and how those committees allocate the funds to different parts of Wales. I believe that in the Assembly one will not have the same type of decisions that are arrived at in, say, the Committee system in this House. Indeed, the type of committee in the Assembly will be very different. Therefore, I do not think a verbatim report of the committee proceedings will be necessary.

There has also been mention of a daily report. Do we envisage the work of the Assembly as a daily occurrence? Surely that is a presumption which we should leave to the Assembly.

I hope that the Government will resist this clause. It will involve massive public expenditure. If there is to be no additional grant, that expenditure must be at the expense of other forms of public expenditure which are greatly needed in Wales at the present time.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

One of the reasons advanced by the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) in opposing the clause related to the matter of expense. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman hung his whole speech on that aspect of the matter.

I invite the Committee to consider the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill. In that memorandum we are told that the initial capital cost of establishing the Welsh Assembly will be £4 million. That is a once-for-all expenditure. We then see on page v. of the memorandum that the annual costs of running the Assembly will be £12.5 million. I respectfully suggest that that is likely to be a grievous underestimate. It is most rare for Ministers of the Crown to advise Parliament that there will be public expenditure amounting to £x which actually turns out to be £x. It will be £x plus 20 per cent. in the first year, and so the cost will escalate. Therefore, there is no realistic ground for objecting to the clause on account of the proposed cost.

In deciding whether there should be a daily verbatim report of its proceedings the Committee should examine the importance of the Assembly. My hon, and learned Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) said that he hoped that the Bill would never reach the statute book, but if it does we are entitled to take at its face value the importance that the Secretary of State and the Government attach to the Bill.

The view of the Treasury Bench is that the Bill is of supreme importance for the future government of the Principality and that the future unity of the United Kingdom will be enhanced by the passage of the Bill. The fact that my right hon, and hon. Friends and I take the opposite view, believing that the passing of the Bill into law will be damaging to the good government of Wales and most damaging to the unity of the United Kingdom, is not relevant when we are considering the new clause, since the new clause is introduced on the basis that the Bill will reach the statute book.

The Treasury Bench tells the Committee that the Assembly will be of crucial importance and that its deliberations will be of momentous consequence for the government of the Principality, and it is in that context that we have to consider the new clause.

What is said in the Bill about the Assembly? Is it to be a trifling body, like a county council or district council? Not so, in the Government's view, for although proclaimed in Clause 2(1) we find this stark sentence— There shall be a Welsh Assembly"— the powers to be accorded to it under Clauses 10 to 14 are very substantial.

When a new Assembly is to be set up, at an annual cost of £12½ million, with all the solemnity of an Act of Parliament, we are entitled to say, as did my hon, and learned Friend, that there should be a daily verbatim report of its proceedings, a report for the benefit not only of the Assemblymen but of those—no doubt, the Secretary of State believes that they will be many—who will be queueing up to learn what the Welsh Assembly is discussing.

I happen not to agree with the Secretary of State when he says that there will be an immense demand for a daily verbatim report of the proceedings of the Welsh Assembly. Indeed, I wonder to what extent there is a great public demand for a daily verbatim report of the proceedings of this Committee and of the House, but we have it as part of our procedure that there is such a daily verbatim report.

It has been suggested by the hon. Member for Aberdare that under Clause 16 there is power for the Assembly itself to decide these matters, but it is our case that we cannot leave that to the judgment of the Assembly, for it would be open to the Assembly to decide to have or not to have a daily verbatim report of its proceedings, and we wish to write into the Bill a provision that it be obligatory on the new Assembly to have this daily verbatim report. We cannot leave it to the judgment of the Assembly itself.

It would be incredible if the Minister were to tell us that the Government will resist the new clause. After all, we have heard again and again, notably from the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), and even from his successor, that the Labour Party is the party of open government. The Government say that they want to give the people of the United Kingdom a greater chance to see how government in its deliberative and executive forms is carried on. How, then, would it be consistent for the Secretary of State to resist a new clause which gives effect to precisely the policy that has been enunciated over and over again by the Prime Minister and his predecessor?

10.0 p.m.

We come, as we have so often during these debates, to a clash between the professed policy of the Government and the actual conduct of Ministers. If Ministers are right in believing that the Assembly is of such key importance and that only by the setting up of this Assembly shall we have good government and pre serve the unity of the United Kingdom—though that would be a profoundly mistaken belief—the Treasury Bench ought to accept with acclamation and enthusiasm the new clause, and the Minister should clasp my hon, and learned Friend to his bosom.

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Hooson

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) has demonstrated again the ambivalent attitude of the Conservative Opposition towards the Bill. He has said that we must adopt the Government's assessment of the importance of the Assembly and that we must therefore have daily reports of its proceedings. I think that he is right. It is important that the proceedings of the Welsh Assembly should be reported.

The Assembly will be a valuable step for Wales. I do not believe that the Bill goes far enough. It does not sufficiently divide the powers between the Welsh Assembly and the House of Commons. We are debating the first step in devolution. I totally disagree with the nationalistic approach. There is no point in having separate nation States in the latter part of the twentieth century. I view the devolution movement as being complementary to a much greater movement towards European unity and so on. The day of the nation State is already over. We go through the requiem masses in the House. We did so on the EEC Bill and we are doing so on the devolution Bills.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes


Mr. Hooson

The new clause says: The Assembly shall publish daily a verbatim report of its proceedings and of the proceedings of its Committees and shall place such reports on public sale at reasonable prices". Nobody can quarrel about the term "reasonable prices". I am sure that even the Government will agree with that part of the proposition.

The question is whether they should accept the proposition in the new clause that the House of Commons should lay down that the Assembly should publish its proceedings. I think that it should be a requirement. One of the key functions of the Assembly will be educative. We have not had a popular Assembly in Wales. Many people over the centuries have dreamed of an organisation representing Wales as a whole. If the Assembly comes into effect, it will be the first such organisation. It is important that the proceedings of the Assembly should be properly reported. I give way now to the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes), who tried to intervene earlier.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

The hon, and learned Gentleman is kind to give way, but the relevant moment has passed. I am intervening to say that requiem masses in Wales finished in 1735.

Mr. Hooson

The right hon. Gentleman has an unrivalled knowledge of Welsh history and Welsh spirituality. I was addressing my remarks to whether the House should lay down that the Welsh Assembly's proceedings should be reported. I think that its proceedings should be reported, because it would be a very bad day for Wales if the Assembly decided in its earlier meetings either that it could not afford to publish or, for other reasons would not publish its proceedings. This would be a retrograde step and the Welsh Assembly would start off on the wrong foot. It may do so from ignorance rather than any intention to prevent the people of Wales or elsewhere knowing of its proceedings.

The objection of the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) to the new clause was based entirely on the cost. He relied on the practice of this House and said that certain proceedings, for example, in a Select Committee when the public is excluded and the Committee discusses various important matters before going on with its formal proceedings, were not reported even to the House. He is correct, but "Erskine May" includes a definition of the term "proceedings in Parliament". It says: The primary meaning, as a technical parliamentary term, of "proceedings" (which it had at least as early at the seventeenth century) is some formal action, usually a decision, taken by the House in its collective capacity. This is naturally extended to the forms of business in which the House takes action, and the whole process, the principal part of which is debate, by which it reaches a decision. Normally, the informal discussions to which the hon. Member for Aberdare referred are not proceedings of the House. He need not worry on that point.

The reporting of Parliament by way of Hansard evolved during the 19th century. No formal decision was taken to achieve this end. Even the Manual of Procedure of the House says: A record of the proceedings of the House each day, compiled mainly from the minutes taken by the clerks at the table, but containing in addition a record of the public petitions and papers presented to the House, is distributed in a printed form next morning and is entitled the Votes and Proceedings of the House of Commons. Whereas there is formal provision for that, Hansard has evolved naturally and I am not aware of any formal provision concerning the production of Hansard.

Mr. Ioan Evans

The hon, and learned Gentleman is quoting "Erskine May", which defines the proceedings for this Assembly. The Welsh Assembly has not yet formulated its standing orders and it could define its proceedings in a different way from our definition.

For example, Committee proceedings in local authorities are regarded differently from our deliberations. The new clause could be taken by the Assembly to provide that reports of all its deliberations should be published. The Minister tried to clarify this point and if the Opposition want the new clause to be passed, it will be necessary, for the benefit of the Assembly, for us to define "proceedings".

Mr. Hooson

The hon. Gentleman takes a dim view of his countrymen. He seems to think that members of the Assembly will be stupid. Even if we passed no amendment, the Assembly would regard the interpretation of the word "proceedings" by this House at least as a strong persuasive authority. It would be equally possible, if the amendment were accepted, for the Government to include a definition of "proceedings" in the Bill. That may be a consequential amendment. There is no difficulty about that.

Mr. Brittan

Would not the hon, and learned Member agree that no problem arises, because what we are enacting is a measure of this Parliament and therefore the definition of proceedings of an Act of the Westminster Parliament must incorporate the practice and definitions used in the House of Commons which would therefore be binding on the Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Hooson

I am not sure that I would go along with the hon, and learned Gentleman on that matter. His argument has great persuasive authority. I come to the central point which is whether the House of Commons should lay down that the proceedings of the Welsh Assembly should be reported verbatim. I think that we should do this. We should give the Welsh Assembly complete guidance on this. It is important that the Assembly should not start off, as a few people might be tempted to start it off, as a rather secretive body. It is important that its proceedings be open and reported for all to see.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

I do not disagree generally with what the hon, and learned Gentleman is saying. There is one important aspect in all of this which he has omitted to mention—namely, the last few words of the clause: on public sale at reasonable prices. I wonder whether he has discussed this with the hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells), to whom this would be a pertinent and central aspect.

Mr. Hooson

As the right hon. Member well knows, what is a reasonable price in Montgomeryshire is always regarded as an unreasonable price in Cardiganshire. I am glad to know that the right hon. Gentleman has got himself beyond the early eighteenth century. I am sure that he agrees that it is right that the Welsh Assembly proceedings should be reported daily. I am glad to see him nodding assent. I hope that the Secretary of State will say that he is in favour of the new clause or something along these lines.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Kinross and West Perthshire)

It may not be appropriate for anyone who does not speak the language of the hon, and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) to intervene in this debate. I regret to say to my hon, and learned Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan)—whom I congratulate on reaching the same status as myself and the hon, and learned Member for Montgomery—that I could not support this new clause.

The hon, and learned Member for Montgomery began by telling us that he did not approve of requiem masses. I would have thought that they were something about which the Liberal Party knew a great deal and represented a subject which should not be mentioned by it. He told us that his party was in favour of nation States, a subject which it keeps raising. He also told us, I think, that it was important that we should know what has happened in the Welsh Assembly.

If there is one thing that the broadcasting of Parliament has demonstrated it is that a little ignorance of what is happening in these Assemblies might be preferable. A verbatim report of the proceedings of the proposed Welsh Assembly could never be on sale to the public at a reasonable price unless the public were charged an unreasonable price to produce it by way of taxation. It would cost a great deal of money to produce. We have to be responsible in Parliament if we are not to engage in humbug. If we were to produce all the verbiage which would come out of the Welsh Assembly—and the Scottish Assembly, God help us—it would cost a great deal of money. Presumably, in a mixed economy and with this Government, people would have to pay about one and a half times the cost of the publication so that there could be a profit.

I should have thought that it would be a very expensive document to produce. I do not want to insult the Welsh but I cannot imagine that even those who are sitting on the nationalist Benches will be queueing up at Her Majesty's Stationery Office with a £5 note and saying in Welsh "Please may I have a copy of yesterday's proceedings in the Welsh Assembly?".

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

Does the hon, and learned Gentleman think that the verbiage which is now issuing from him, and which will be published tomorrow, will be worth buying?

Mr. Fairbairn

No, I do not think it is worth buying, and I am trying to illustrate the absurdity of compounding the felony in Wales.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes

The hon, and learned Gentleman's accent was pretty poor.

Mr. Fairbairn

Let us be absolutely clear. This will be a very expensive, unnecessary and absurd operation. That is what I worry about, and I am sorry that I cannot support my hon, and learned Friend in this proposition.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. John Morris)

I shall not follow in detail the remarks of the hon, and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn).

When the hon, and learned Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) began his speech, I had a measure of sympathy with him when he spoke of what he was seeking to do and sought to explain the need for it. The basis of his case is that we should ensure that there is public confidence in a democratic Assembly of this kind, and that the publication of a verbatim report of the proceedings would be a material factor in relation to that confidence.

That is not really the issue before us tonight. We are concerned here with whether we should insert into the Bill a provision for the reporting of the proceedings of the Assembly and its committees. It is not a question whether it should happen but whether we should provide for it. That is the issue.

The hon, and learned Gentleman was perfectly right in saying that some ground rules are set out in the Bill, but in fact there are very few, indeed. It is important to get the Assembly going. It is important in regard to the involvement of Members. But one is seeking to provide the bare minimum for the Assembly by way of our seeking in the House of Commons to write into the Bill and to anticipate how the Assembly should conduct its business. I shall put the Committee out of its misery immediately by saying that very shortly, having heard the argument, I shall be advising the Committee to resist the amendment.

The hon, and learned Gentleman was perfectly right in saying that the Assembly will not operate in vacuo. The basis of my approach is that we should not legislate for this in the House of Commons but that it should be left to the Assembly. I have never in my experience known politicians to hide their lights under a bushel. That may be the experience of some other hon. Members but it is certainly not my experience in this House. I believe that hon. Members are delighted to be recorded in Hansard and elsewhere as fully as possible so that the whole world will know of their good deeds and activities. I believe, therefore, that it is right to take into account—adopting the words of the hon, and learned Gentleman—that the Assembly will be operating not in vacua but in the full glare of the public eye. Members of the Assembly will want to ensure, within reasonable bounds, that the maximum number of people are aware of what is happening in the Welsh Assembly. That is my approach to the problem.

The hon, and learned Member was also right when he said that where the line should be drawn is a matter of judgment. That is where my judgment lies. I believe that we should seek to write in the bare minimum of requirements.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) demolished the argument about other democratic Assemblies with substantial powers in this country. Some of them are very large, indeed. I do not know the exact figures for the Strathclyde Regional Council in Scotland, but I suspect that the population there is very significant and, perhaps, not too far removed from the Welsh position. It does not render an Assembly undemocratic if there is not a verbatim report of its proceedings.

Sir Raymond Gower

Does the right hon, and learned Gentleman recall that at one time a number of local authorities up and down the country intended to keep the Press from their proceedings? It was necessary at that time for a private Member to introduce a Bill—which was passed through this House and enacted—making it compulsory for all local authorities to allow the Press into their proceedings, unless they passed a special resolution for some special reason. If it was necessary in the case of local authorities at that time, I submit with great respect that it is just as necessary now.

Mr. Morris

Given that local authorities are now obliged under that particular enactment to conduct their proceedings in public, I should have thought it inconceivable that an Assembly of this kind—with regard to the majority of its deliberations—would seek to behave in any way whereby its proceedings were not carried out in the full glare of publicity. I would expect that argument to be untenable in this day and age.

Fortunately, it is not for me to define the words contained in the new clause. I am grateful to the hon, and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) for his help with regard to the word "proceedings". It is for the Conservative Party to seek to define what it means, If I am wrong, I can be corrected but it was not my impression that the Conservative Party was seeking to contain the need to publish to merely a collation of the decisions of the Assembly.

Mr. Brittan

That is not what the hon, and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) was saying.

Mr. Morris

No, that is not what he was saying. He was giving assistance to the Committee on the basis of his understanding of what the proceedings in Parliament, as a term, meant. The new clause contains the words "verbatim report of proceedings". It was not my impression that that was the intention of the hon, and learned Member for Montgomery, but I thought it was the intention of the hon, and learned Member for Cleveland and Whitby that there should be a verbatim report of, I presume, every word uttered, certainly in the formal part of the Assembly.

But there is a difference between the technical word "proceedings" and the words "verbatim report of proceedings", as I understand them, which are contained in the new clause.

Mr. Costain

I am sure that the right hon, and learned Gentleman will appreciate that a new Assembly of this sort will have to build up a series of orders and regulations. Is he suggesting that, rather than have official proceedings which are published, it should rely on the Morning Star, the Cardiff papers, or the Welsh papers? Who will be the official reporter who will build up the precedents on which the Chairman of the Assembley will make rulings in future? Is it not absurd that we should rely on the Morning Star to give Socialist Members a good write-up?

Mr. Morris

I have not suggested that. I have said that it would be unreasonable in this day and age to propose that the Assembly would not wish to have its proceedings reported with the maximum possible publicity. I say that it is for the Assembly to decide the form and the manner in which its proceedings should be reported.

It has not ben suggested that we should lay down that the Assembly should broadcast its activities. Why draw the line there? The hon, and learned Member for Montgomery said that this was a matter of judgment. Why not provide in the Bill that if the House of Commons decides to broadcast its proceedings, the Assembly should be obliged to do the same? Why not write into the Bill the provision that if the House of Commons decides to televise its proceedings, the Assembly should do the same? Why not write the whole lot into the Bill if that is regarded by the House of Commons as right? It is a matter of judgment.

These matters should not be inserted in legislation. They should be left to the Assembly. It will be comprised of politicians with the strength and possibly the failings of politicians generally, and they will seek the maximum possible publicity for their remarks.

As I understand the new clause, it requires that there should be a verbatim report of all the proceedings of the Assembly's Committees. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare was right to say that a line might have to be drawn. It is no good relying on the technical meaning of the word "proceedings". I am sure that the hon, and learned Member for Montgomery would not wish to do that. If the words verbatim report of its proceedings mean anything, they mean that whenever a Committee is properly called and meets, it must be reported, even when the occation is trivial. They mean that every word of the proceedings should be published.

It is not for me to define the words "verbatim report". What on earth do they mean? To me they mean putting down, presumably in some document, every word that is uttered in any Committee which is properly constituted. There is no other meaning.

Mr. Hooson

The Secretary of State surely is wrong about this. If the term "proceedings" does not include the informal discussion that takes place in the course of a meeting of a Committee—certainly in this House it does not—the verbatim report of proceedings cannot include informal discussions.

Mr. Morris

It is not for me to define "proceedings". We have not heard a word about the meaning of "verbatim report". Frankly, I do not know what is meant by "informal proceedings". When a Committee, whether it deals with a major or a minor subject, is properly constituted and has a chairman, it has discussions. Where does one draw the line? A Finance Committee which discusses the Budget is a Committee of this House. Is anyone to suggest that one can draw the line in legislation between informal proceedings and the proceedings of the Committee? There are no such words in the clause.

10.30 p.m.

The impression I gained from the way in which the hon, and learned Gentleman opened the debate was that he wanted the maximum publicity and believed that to that end words uttered in the course of a Committee's proceedings should be recorded verbatim and published. In my view, it would be wholly wrong for us to seek to crib, cabin and confine the Assembly in any way over such matters, whether over its reports, broadcasting, television or whatever. We should leave it to its good sense.

I shall not enter into the argument over what is a reasonable price. I come from the county of Cardigan, like the hon. Member who represents it. Our understanding of a reasonable price might well differ from that of the hon, and learned Member for Montgomery, who is a more generous and fairer man in all these respects. The hon. Member for Cardigan (Mr. Howells) and I take a more narrow, restricted and realistic view. The hon. Gentleman also has his roots firmly grounded in a most important part of Wales. Is a reasonable price to be the economic cost of the publication, or the price the average consumer is likely to be willing to pay? There would be a statutory obligation to publish daily, whatever the printing or other difficulties that may occur, as we have seen from time to time here.

One accepts that the Assembly and its Committees will be operating in the full realisation of the need to ensure that the public know what they are doing, so they will seek as best they can to see that as many as possible of their debates are reported. My advice to the Committee is that it is best left to them.

Mr. Brittan

The Secretary of State made much play in the middle of his remarks with the fact that I had said in opening the debate that the question of a verbatim report was a matter of judgment. The rhetorical flourishes with which he thought it appropriate to garnish the latter part of his speech suggested that he was trying to persuade the Committee that when he himself said it was a matter of judgment his judgment must be right and everyone else's wrong. That is a most unsound proposition to rely on, to judge by what has been said.

I am not pretending that a deep question of principle arises as to the precise point at which we cease delimiting how the Assembly should operate and leave it to the Assembly. But although I have said that it is a matter of judgment, the debate has brought out, as so often such debates do, one of the central features of the Bill and the problems relating to it—that the Secretary of State and the Government are trying to have their cake and eat it.

The problem arises most often in the analogies with local government. On the one hand, the Secretary of State wants to say that the Assembly is like local government but, on the other hand, he says that it is not. In minuscule, a charming little vignette of an illustration of exactly this ambivalent attitude was displayed here in relation to the reports. On the one hand, it is like local government in that a local authority decides whether reports of its proceedings should be published and in what form—whether verbatim and whether contemporary, and whether they should be full. In that respect the Secretary of State is content to regard the Welsh Assembly as if it were an arm of local government which was to be given the authority to decide how important it was to publish what was going on in its deliberations and in what form.

Another analogy with local government turns out to be less convenient and, therefore, less welcome to the right hon, and learned Gentleman. Local government is by law required, except in prescribed circumstances, to have its deliberations open to the public. That sort of provision does not appear in the Bill. There is no legal requirement on the Assembly to sit in public. There is no legal requirement on its Committees to sit in public. Is the right hon, and learned Gentleman prepared to be consistent and go the whole way, saying "The local authority must decide how much to publish of its proceedings; so shall it be with the Assembly. On the other hand, the local authority is obliged to sit in public except in certain prescribed circumstances; so shall it be with the Assembly"? If the right hon, and learned Gentleman, whose Bill it is, had procured within it a clause requiring the Assembly to sit in public, it would lie in his mouth to say that with that protection there is no need for any detailed legislative requirement as to reports. However, he has not done that.

I cannot answer a hypothetical question, but it may be that if the right hon, and learned Gentleman had procured a clause requiring the Assembly to sit in public, we would not have thought it necessary to table a clause of this sort. However, he has done no such thing. He cannot come along and with one eye shut and the other open tell us that the Assembly is like a local authority that decides how much of its proceedings should be reported and how much should not and completely to fail to say that it is totally unlike a local authority because there is no requirement that it should sit in public. That seems sufficient in itself to demolish in principle the case that he was making against the substance of the clause.

The rest of the right hon, and learned Gentleman's remarks consisted of nitpicking of a rather unworthy sort when it is borne in mind that I made it clear to the hon. Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) what was intended by the clause, and that if it were thought in any way not to convey that intention, I should be happy to take it away and to accept from the parliamentary draftsmen, who are employed in droves by the Government, a better version of it. If the right hon, and learned Gentleman had accepted the argument but added "I am unhappy about the definition of 'proceedings'; let me see whether I can do something better". I assure the Committee that my pride of ownership and authorship would not have been so great as to withstand such an alluring invitation. However, instead we have had nitpicking on the meaning of "proceedings".

The hon, and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) has performed a service to the Committee by making it clear that there is authority for the meaning of the word. That authority is to be found in "Erskine May". If a statute talks about the "proceedings" of an Assembly, any body that has to construe the meaning of the word would do so in the context of the proceedings of the House of Commons as defined by "Erskine May". There would be no trouble about that.

If there is thought to be any difficulty about it, I shall be happy that there should be a further refinement in the form of an definition clause stating that for the purposes of the new clause "proceedings" shall have the same meaning as the proceedings of the House of Commons. That would leave it without any doubt that"Erskine May was the authoritative source to consult for that definition.

It is slightly unworthy of the right hon, and learned Gentleman behind the rhetoric and verbiage to take refuge with such an argument. However, he does so and we have to take it seriously. At this stage I shall seek leave to withdraw the clause in its present form, remaining wholly unconvinced by the spurious argument put forward against the substance of it, but recognising the need to ensure that if the Committee is to be invited to enact it, it should be in a form in which it cannot be challenged beyond peradventure. It is in that spirit alone that I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause. I reserve the right to return to the matter at an appropriate time.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.