HC Deb 30 November 1995 vol 267 cc1353-62 4.44 pm
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. William Hague)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the future proceedings of the Welsh Grand Committee. I have a number of proposals to make, which I hope will ensure that Welsh concerns are debated effectively in the House and which will bring the business of Parliament more effectively to Wales. With that in mind, I am proposing to seek to amend Standing Orders so as to extend and enhance the role of the Welsh Grand Committee.

The Welsh Grand Committee has for many years provided the House with a mechanism by which Members can give detailed consideration to matters relating exclusively to Wales. It is a mechanism which, in recent Sessions, has been relatively little used. In the past three years, there have been only eight meetings of the Committee, even though they have generally been held whenever requested.

I wish to change that disappointing picture. The Welsh Grand Committee has the potential to bring the business of the House to the attention of the people of Wales, and provide a more useful forum for discussion than at present.

First, I wish to introduce Question Time proceedings to the Committee. Interest in Welsh questions is considerable. On every occasion, there are many questions that cannot be reached, and I want to extend the opportunities for oral questions, to the Welsh Grand Committee.

I am therefore proposing that the Committee's Standing Orders should provide for an additional Question Time at some meetings, on dates to be specified in advance with the agreement of the House.

The normal arrangements for giving notice of questions would apply. Each member of the Committee would be able to table one question for answer on a specified day, and 10 sitting days' notice would be required. Questions will be taken at the beginning of sittings of the Committee, and could last for up to 30 minutes. Replies to questions not reached would be printed in the Official Report.

I hope that Members on both sides of the House will welcome this additional opportunity to put questions directly to me and my colleagues about the conduct of the Government's business in Wales, and appreciate that that will significantly increase their ability to raise issues of immediate concern.

I would like the Committee to be able to consider issues of current topical concern in more depth than is possible at present on the Floor of the House. I am therefore also proposing that the Committee will be able to hold short debates to allow more detailed consideration of a smaller number of specific questions.

Each member of the Committee will he able to give notice of a subject to be raised in a short debate on a specified day, with 10 days' sitting notice required. Proceedings on short debates will he allowed to continue for 30 minutes, which should be sufficient time to allow two or three subjects to be raised on each occasion.

In addition, and because I am aware that Members may from time to time wish to raise matters of particular concern to their constituents, I am proposing that in future the Welsh Grand Committee should be able to hold Adjournment debates on matters raised by Members, at the end of the Committee's normal business.

I am also proposing that in future any Minister in the House, whether or not he or she is a Minister for Wales, may take part in debates in the Welsh Grand Committee, enabling them to participate fully in discussion of matters relating to their United Kingdom responsibilities. Any Minister, whether or not he or she is a Member of the House, would also be able to make a statement and to answer questions arising from that statement.

That would represent a very significant and beneficial change in the Committee's procedures. It would enable Members representing constituencies in Wales to listen to and question a Minister with UK or Great Britain responsibilities that affect Wales. It will give the Welsh Grand Committee the scope to examine all aspects of Government policies affecting Wales, and not only on matters that are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Wales. It will give Welsh Members a further opportunity to debate Welsh affairs while benefiting from their role in a United Kingdom Parliament.

I am pleased to be able to tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer have both said that they will be prepared to attend a meeting of the Committee if the amendments to Standing Orders are approved by the House.

All those changes will, of course, be in addition to the Committee's existing provisions, and the emphasis will still be on broad-ranging debates on issues of general concern about policy in Wales. Wales does not have a separate legal framework and I am therefore not proposing an additional legislative role for the Committee. I propose that there should be a minimum of four meetings of the Committee each year and that they should be timetabled in advance, allowing notice for the tabling of questions and subjects for short debates. In addition, I would expect it to meet on at least a further two or three occasions, as business permits and issues arise.

To date, two meetings of the Welsh Grand Committee have been held in Cardiff. I want to see it meet more frequently in Wales, and not just in the capital city. It is important to give people in other towns and cities the opportunity to witness the Committee's debates and thus to recognise that the business of the House and of the Committee is intimately concerned with the impact of Government policy on people in all parts of Wales. I appreciate that meetings outside the House place special demands on the House authorities, and officials at the Welsh Office will be ready to offer whatever assistance may be needed in establishing meetings of the Committee in suitable venues across Wales. I would envisage half the timetabled sessions of the Committee taking place in Wales each year, and up to half the additional meetings.

The new Standing Orders will be brought forward for approval shortly. Should the House agree them, I would expect soon thereafter to table a motion setting out a timetable for the rest of this Session.

I hope that the House will welcome my proposals to give the Welsh Grand Committee a more prominent and visible role in the consideration of matters relating to Wales. My proposals will greatly enhance the ability of Members to raise constituency matters and other issues in Parliament. They will help to ensure that discussion of Welsh business is made more accessible to the people of Wales and that our procedures better reflect the Welsh dimension.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

The statement holds out the tantalising prospect of the Prime Minister addressing a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee at Machynlleth, talking about the efficacy of the hill livestock compensatory allowance. It really would be an interesting experiment.

The statement itself is a welcome admission by the Secretary of State of the inadequacies of the current arrangements for the exercise of democracy in Welsh affairs. The greatest need, of course, is for the representatives of the Welsh people to control our own devolved affairs in Wales, in our own directly elected assembly. That is and will remain our priority, and no amount of tinkering with the existing procedures will divert us from that.

Does not the Secretary of State understand that the only meaningful change, short of devolution, would be to allow the Welsh Grand Committee to take decisions or to influence policy? Without such policies, the Welsh Grand Committee is and will continue to be nothing more than a talking shop. In his statement, the Secretary of State criticised the existing arrangements for being ineffective. Does he not realise that the House of Commons Standing Orders already allow for great discretion to be exercised by the Committee? It does not require to be given, as he suggested, an additional legislative role. It already has one, specified in Standing Order No. 98. The trouble is that the Government have always prevented the Committee from exercising those powers on, for example, local government reform or the Welsh language Act, by suspending Standing Order No. 86.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the only reason why he is not prepared to allow the Welsh Grand Committee a real role is that he realises how hostile the opinion of Welsh Members of Parliament is to the record of cuts, unemployment, social divisions and abuse of power, which are his Government's hallmarks? Nothing illuminated that better than yesterday's meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee, where he was forcibly reminded of the virtually unanimous opposition in Wales to the introduction of the nursery voucher scheme. Will he now acknowledge the weight of opinion that was expressed at that Committee and drop that petty and divisive scheme, if only as a sign that he is sensitive to the majority of Welsh opinion? Does he not realise that failure to do that would make a mockery of his pious statements about reforming and improving democracy in Wales?

We in the Labour party certainly want to see improvements. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has received, through the usual channels, our own radical and constructive proposals for change? I also remind him that without the co-operation of Opposition Members, the Committee would not function, so I ask him now for his confirmation that the details of any changes will be implemented only after agreement has been reached via the usual channels.

The prospect of Ministers coming to introduce themselves to the people of Wales via sittings of the Welsh Grand Committee is a novel one and, presumably, is part of the strategy for the Conservative party rather than for the better government of our country. As the Prime Minister has never visited Wales as Prime Minister, except to fulfil the occasional party political engagement, will the Secretary of State confirm that the most appropriate subject for any debate involving the Prime Minister is the failure of the Conservative party to deliver economic prosperity, social cohesion and democratic government to Wales?

The Secretary of State's proposals are modest, but provided he is prepared to work with all the Opposition parties on the Committee, they can be made to work to bring about improvements in the way in which the House conducts its business. However, that will be for a short and experimental period only. These changes, if accepted, must and will be superseded by more far-reaching democratic reforms when the right hon. Gentleman's discredited Government are finally removed from office.

Mr. Hague

It is ironic that the hon. Gentleman should refer to talking shops when he wishes to set up an assembly in Wales that would be a highly expensive talking shop. It would be expensive to the taxpayer and damaging to jobs and investment in Wales, and it would diminish the role of the United Kingdom Parliament in Welsh affairs, whereas what we seek to do today is to enhance the role of the United Kingdom Parliament in Welsh affairs.

It is surprising that the hon. Gentleman describes my proposals as modest, as they go further than the proposals that he tabled two weeks ago, which, as he said, he communicated through the usual channels and which were published for public consideration in newspapers in Wales. My proposals go further: in involving Ministers with UK responsibilities, in bringing the work of Parliament closer to people in Wales, and in holding meetings of the Committee in different locations in Wales. None of those was contained in the proposals that he tabled two weeks ago. Nor was there any proposal about legislative consideration, to which he refers as the only meaningful change. I know about the provision in the Standing Order to which he referred. That is why I said in my statement that there would be no additional legislative role for the Grand Committee.

There is no question but that my proposals go further than those of the hon. Gentleman. I look forward to discussions about the proposals and am open to every idea and suggestion about developing them further, but the eventual decision about changes to Standing Orders is one for the House as a whole to take.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that he has no intention of amending Standing Order No. 98, which gives the Welsh Grand Committee the right in certain circumstances to consider Bills that are referred to it, in other words, to have a legislative role? If he has no intention of repealing Standing Order No. 98, will he explain why he made no mention in his paltry, miserable statement of referring any legislation to the Welsh Grand Committee under Standing Order No. 98, and explain why the Government are so frightened of using it that we were not even allowed to consider the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 when it was presented by the Government to the House? Will he give us one example of a measure about Wales on which he is prepared to give those who are elected to be legislators for, among other places, Wales, the right to legislate for the country that we represent?

Mr. Hague

I do intend that we should amend Standing Order No. 98, but not in the way that the hon. and learned Gentleman fears; I have no intention of removing the provision to which he referred. But he will also know that Wales does not have the separate legal framework that exists in Scotland and that has enabled the Scottish Grand Committee to discuss particular measures. We are talking about something in a quite different context, and no specific Welsh legislation is coming before the House in the current Session. I can reassure him, however, that I have no intention of proposing the sort of change in the Standing Order to which he referred and which he would oppose.

Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that his proposals to hold meetings of the Welsh Grand Committee in different parts of Wales will add locally to the interest and activities of the Committee and, indeed, the proceedings of the House in general?

Mr. Hague

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The proposal was not put forward by Opposition Members, but I hope that they will welcome it. It is a procedure used by the Scottish Grand Committee and it has been well received in Scotland. There is no reason why people in Wales should not have the same opportunity to see their Grand Committee at work, and it will be widely welcomed throughout Wales.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Does not the Secretary of State realise that, for the past 16 years, the Welsh people have seen the Welsh Grand Committee at work and they look on this proposal as yet another meaningless sop to the true aspirations of the Welsh people? But then, of course, we have seen a succession of Secretaries of State for Wales who do not represent Welsh constituencies or understand the Welsh people, and whose party will never represent the people of Wales. Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that the real aspirations of the people of Wales are for a Welsh Assembly, with devolution and proper control over their own affairs, not the useless suggestion that he has made yet again today?

Mr. Hague

The hon. Lady will recall that those 16 years began with an emphatic rejection by people in Wales of the idea of such an assembly. I do not think that it is meaningless for the hon. Lady, under these proposals, to have additional opportunities to put questions to Welsh Ministers, raise Adjournment debates and have short debates about matters of constituency concern. Those are not meaningless matters—they are enhancing the ability of Welsh Members of Parliament to represent their constituents and to bring matters before the House of Commons. That is a long way from being a meaningless proposal.

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley)

In terms of the United Kingdom constitution, will my right hon. Friend confirm that having the Prime Minister and senior members of the Cabinet travel to Wales to meetings of the Grand Committee is a constitutional novelty? Rather than call it a talking shop, would it not be more appropriate to call it a listening channel?

Mr. Hague

My hon. Friend is right. It is a novelty and it will happen in Scotland and Wales. It will be a popular procedure, it will be widely appreciated and it will enable my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to point to the many successes of Government policy and the improving situation in so many aspects of the Welsh economy, to which Opposition Members are always determined not to refer.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Although he was a youngster at the time, the Secretary of State may recall that in 1979, after the referendum, the incoming Conservative Secretary of State, Lord Crickhowell, said that he would consult about various proposals, including a forum for Wales. It was assumed at the time that specific legislative proposals—institutional proposals—would follow. Sixteen years have passed; this is it. If it is a revamped talking shop, it is a peripatetic talking shop. Surely it will go down in the "Guinness Book of Records" as the longest recorded gestation period of a mouse.

Mr. Hague

What we are seeing is a genuine attempt to improve the workings of the Welsh Grand Committee. At present, its workings are not regarded as satisfactory by people on either side of the House or any party in it. We shall be able to make the proceedings of the Committee more meaningful and more topical, and to ensure that a greater variety of matters can be raised and that particular constituency matters can be raised. Those are proposals that deserve a warm welcome in the House.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that those changes in the Standing Orders of the Welsh Grand Committee mean that more subjects can be raised—indeed, all subjects to do with the United Kingdom? Perhaps more importantly, can he contrast the cost of that sort of Welsh Grand Committee with that of a directly elected Parliament, which would have no more powers than the Committee would have anyway?

Mr. Hague

My hon. Friend is right. A far greater range of topics can be raised, and they can be raised by Welsh Members of Parliament in their role as Members of Parliament in this House in the United Kingdom Parliament. Such proceedings will have an additional cost, but the cost of having a completely separate assembly for no obvious purpose would be vastly greater. The direct costs to the taxpayer would be vastly greater, as well as the costs to the Welsh economy in lost inward investment and jobs, from the people who would be frightened away by the prospect of a fracturing of the United Kingdom—or the Balkanisation of the United Kingdom, as one Opposition Member referred to it not long ago.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Even in these modest proposals, is it not an assumption that there are distinctive policies that should be followed in Wales for the needs of Wales? If, as a result of all his listening, the Secretary of State finds out, for example, that nursery vouchers have no support in Wales, will he be willing to change the policy?

Mr. Hague

Of course, there is often a need for distinctive policies in Wales. I and my predecessors have pursued distinctive policies, which are different from policies for England in several respects. The Welsh Grand Committee is an additional forum for discussing what those differences should be.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

The Secretary of State's proposals are to be welcomed in the spirit that any change is bound to be preferable to what we have at the moment. In pursuit of his greater topicality, why is he introducing a system in which, unlike on the Floor of the House where questions can be tabled two days before, he will require 10 sitting days' notice, which is two calendar weeks?

In addition to the minimum four meetings that the right hon. Gentleman specified, will he consider the possibility of another four, to consider the reports of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which are never debated? Finally, since he refuses to let the Committee have any legislative functions, does he recognise that, although legislation is not separate for Wales in most instances, there are Welsh dimensions, so the Welsh Grand Committee could provide a useful function as a Special Standing Committee? We could hear evidence from experts and others on the Welsh aspects prior to dealing with legislation on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Hague

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his constructive welcome for the proposals. On oral questions, the rule would be the same as it is on the Floor of the House, that is, 10 days' notice of an oral question. Written questions can, in any case, be submitted for answer in two days or more and the proposal will not interfere with that procedure. I envisage that there would be scope for supplementary questions at the meetings and not merely for the questions tabled on the Order Paper.

As to the other subjects that could be debated, for instance the Select Committee reports, there need be no restrictions, as there are no restrictions now, on the subjects that the Committee could discuss. That would be for discussion between the usual channels. Of course, members of the Grand Committee must have a say in what the business of that Committee should be. I envisage that the two, three or more meetings that will be additional to the four timetabled meetings would be used to discuss some of the matters to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

Is not the Secretary of State aware that this timid little mouse of a statement is totally irrelevant to the needs of the people of Wales? He needs to address his mind to the enormous democratic deficit in our country, given that he is a member of a Government who have been rejected four times since 1979. Is not it right that the people of Wales, far from wanting a tarted-up talking shop like his proposal, are looking forward to the day when they can have a real Parliament in which real decisions are taken—a Parliament with legislative powers that will respond to the wishes of the people of Wales, not those of a Conservative Government who have been rejected by them?

Mr. Hague

The hon. Gentleman and I have an obvious difference of view: I believe in the United Kingdom and he does not. I believe that the Government of the United Kingdom are elected by the people of England, of Scotland, of Wales and of Northern Ireland, and that that should continue to be the position. I do not think that we shall be able to reconcile that fundamental difference of view, but I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman could have found it in himself to give a stronger welcome for what will be a distinctive improvement in the workings of Parliament for Welsh Members. They will be able to raise a wider range of issues and more constituency issues, and will be able to question Welsh Office Ministers and debate with other Ministers more often.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Has the Secretary of State noticed what happened on the two most recent occasions on which public opinion in Wales was measured? Conservatives managed to win 4 per cent. of the council seats, and at the Islwyn by-election they secured 3.9 per cent. of the total vote, narrowly beating the Natural Law yogic flyers and Lord Sutch's Loony party. Now that the Conservatives have established themselves as the prime loony party in Wales, how can they claim the right to dominate Welsh legislation—legislation that affects Wales alone? When 85 per cent. of Welsh Members signed amendments to Bills on the Welsh language and on Welsh local government, their opinions were swept aside by the dominance of Members from other parts of the United Kingdom, whose constituents were not affected in any way by the legislation. Is not that a travesty of democracy?

Mr. Hague

The hon. Gentleman knows that we all live and work in a United Kingdom Parliament. If he does not believe in a United Kingdom Parliament—and that is the implication of what he is saying—he had better say so.

Mr. Flynn

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hague

I think that the hon. Gentleman does not believe in a United Kingdom Parliament; we have got that clear, because he is shaking his head. Those of us who believe in a United Kingdom Parliament—I happen to think that the great majority of the people of Wales believe in one—should be concentrating on ensuring that that Parliament works well. My proposals will ensure that it works better for Welsh affairs.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)

Surely the announcement is a panic reaction to the overwhelming support for Labour's policy for an elected assembly in Wales. [Laughter.] Yes it is. Why does not the Secretary of State admit that he is adopting the same old English establishment approach to demands for constitutional reform? We have seen that reaction over votes for working-class citizens and over votes for women. First, people deride such demands as loony. Then, when the pressure keeps coming, they resist forcibly. Then they try to buy the protesters off, which is what this pathetic proposal is about. Finally they cave in, and when they have done so, nobody ever admits to having opposed the demands in the first place. Why does not the Secretary of State short-circuit that miserable process and grant the Welsh people's demand for an elected assembly now?

Mr. Hague

The hon. Gentleman knows why I do not want a Welsh Assembly. I have explained several times this afternoon. He also knows that when the opinion of the people of Wales was tested, they emphatically did not want an assembly either. Even if we agree to differ on the question of a Welsh Assembly, the hon. Gentleman knows that the Labour party published proposals for reforming the Welsh Grand Committee a couple of weeks ago and that our proposals go further than Labour's. The way in which the hon. Gentleman has characterised the whole process is highly inaccurate. We are making a sincere attempt to improve the workings of Parliament, and I think that it will succeed in that objective.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

Over the past 20 years, I have spoken to more people about devolution than almost anybody else in the House, while the Secretary of State has been in his post for only a few months. No one has ever put it to me that the answer to the problems of Wales lies in extending the powers of the Welsh Grand Committee, because 99 per cent. of the population of Wales are completely unaware of its existence. Did not the Secretary of State's statement underline how out of touch he and the rest of the Government are with the rightful demands of the people of Wales? We want the budget that he quite improperly controls to be administered democratically and accountably by an elected Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Hague

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that most of the people in Wales would not know about the Welsh Grand Committee or what it does. But that makes the case for changing its procedures, for breathing new life into it by revitalising and rejuvenating them. That is what the proposals are about. We strongly differ across the Floor of the House about the prospect of a Welsh Assembly. Conservatives believe that it would be a threat to the future of the United Kingdom, and an expensive talking shop. However, we should all be able to agree that the procedures of the Welsh Grand Committee need improving and that it needs to be made into a more topical and useful forum for discussion. That is what we propose to do.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Having listened to the Secretary of State's proposal, I fear that Mogadon man is proposing a Mogadon marathon of meetings all over Wales of a Welsh Grand Committee with zero powers. I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman peaked as a speaker at the age of 16. We would not want to see any changes in the powers of the Welsh Grand Committee unless they were a lead-in to a genuine democratically elected body for Wales. By now. the Secretary of State must have the clear impression that that is our attitude.

We do not want a talking shop, even a travelling talking shop, because it would still be toothless. The right hon. Gentleman talked about changing Standing Orders, but he must realise that we want a guarantee that the Standing Orders of the House will be respected in the future, in a way in which they have not been respected in the past. We want a guarantee that he will not use the Tory majority on the Floor of the House to remove the rights conferred by Standing Orders Nos. 86 and 98 for the Welsh Grand Committee to consider exclusively Welsh legislation.

Is not the Secretary of State attempting to parallel the meaningless gesture of Edward I, seven centuries ago, who promised that he would create a Prince of Wales who spoke no word of English, and then offered the young infant Edward II, who was only three months old and could not have spoken any language at all? The people want not meaningless futile gestures but a democratically elected body for Wales with real powers.

Mr. Hague

I am not sure whether to take it from the hon. Gentleman's remarks that he does not want the Welsh Grand Committee to travel to different parts of Wales, but that was the clear implication of what he said. I believe that that is an important part of the proposals and should be strongly welcomed throughout the House, as it will be in Wales.

The Labour party has one policy for Scotland, another for Wales and another for the different regions of England. It has a dog's breakfast of a policy on constitutional matters, which has not remotely been thought out with the interests of the United Kingdom at heart, but has been designed to do what Labour thinks will appease nationalist sentiments in each separate part of the kingdom.

Conservatives emphatically reject that approach. We want the United Kingdom Parliament to work effectively, so that Members from every part of the United Kingdom can use it to full and beneficial effect. I am surprised that Opposition Members have not been able to welcome more enthusiastically something that they will be able to use as much as Conservative Members will, to the benefit of their constituents and of wider public debate.