HC Deb 02 December 1996 vol 286 cc657-8
5. Mr. Dykes

To ask the Secretary of State for Wales how many representations he has received on a referendum for a Welsh Assembly; and if he will make a statement. [5212]

Mr. Hague

Three since the beginning of January.

Mr. Dykes

While I fully respect Welsh public opinion because I believe that there is a slight edge in the opinion polls for this proposal, it was rejected by 4:1 originally. In view of the muddle, will my right hon. Friend explain to my untutored mind the policies of the various parties? Is not there every indication that both a referendum and an assembly would be a colossal waste of money?

Mr. Hague

My hon. Friend does not need much tutoring if he has worked that out already. An assembly would be a ridiculous and time-wasting distraction from the real job of continuing to attract new investment and more prosperity into Wales. It must be said that Opposition Members have been confused about this question: they were against such a referendum a few months ago and are now in favour of one. Their colleagues in Scotland were originally against one and were then in favour of one with two questions; they were then in favour of two referendums with one question and have now gone back to the policy before that.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones

Has the Secretary of State noticed the proportion of Conservative Members who do not represent Welsh constituencies who are asking questions this afternoon about constitutional change in Wales? Is it not the height of arrogance for the Secretary of State and the amen chorus behind him to tell us in Wales how we should govern our own country? Is that not a matter for the people of Wales to decide? If he and his colleagues behind him are so confident about their position, he should put it to the test and call a referendum now.

Mr. Hague

The hon. Gentleman should understand that this is a United Kingdom Parliament and my hon. Friends take part in the activities of the United Kingdom Parliament. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends often take advantage of their membership of a United Kingdom Parliament. It is hugely in the interests of Wales to be fully part of the United Kingdom. The last time the people of Wales were consulted about that matter in a referendum, they told the hon. Gentleman in no uncertain terms that they wanted to continue to be part of the United Kingdom and not to have a Welsh Assembly. After all, the trouble with a pre-legislation referendum is that it creates more questions than it answers. Those are not my words, but the words of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies).

Mr. Sweeney

Will my right hon. Friend give his latest estimate of how much a Welsh Assembly would cost the people of Wales? Will he comment on the effect on representation at Westminster if such an assembly were set up?

Mr. Hague

In its report earlier this year, the constitution unit pointed out the possible implications for Wales of setting up an assembly in terms of the loss of extra representation in this House, the possible loss of a seat in the Cabinet, and a possible change to the formula that brings higher public spending per head than in England. All those factors have brought tremendous benefits to Wales in recent decades and they should not be given up for the sake of a roomful of hot air.

Mr. Ron Davies

I noticed with interest that the Secretary of State did not reply to the question about the cost of an assembly. Perhaps he is embarrassed by the figures and the fact that we now know that the top 10 quangos in Wales account for some £54 million a year in unnecessary and bureaucratic administrative costs.

The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) asked a pretty silly question. Why should anybody make representations on a referendum to a Government who we already know have set their face clearly against democracy in Wales and who, in any event, have only a few months left in office? Let me make it clear that the next Government will take the earliest opportunity to legislate for a referendum. The real question now is for the present Secretary of State: will he oppose giving that choice of a referendum to the people of Wales? If he is determined to oppose it, is he seriously saying that, as the Member of Parliament representing Richmond in Yorkshire, he will ally himself with the unelected and hereditary peers in the House of Lords to oppose giving the people of Wales a vote on their democratic future?

Mr. Hague

The hon. Gentleman should not presume on the outcome of the next election. The last senior Welsh Labour Member of Parliament to do that in the previous Parliament is now living in Brussels. Any Government who propose to set up a Welsh Assembly should put it to a referendum, but they should do so after legislation has been passed, as was done in 1979, so that people can see the proposals that are being put before them. The hon. Gentleman himself has pointed out the trouble with a pre-legislative referendum. It is a pity that he has not stuck to his guns over that, rather than take orders from the Leader of the Opposition or the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson). On the last part of the hon. Gentleman's comments, I am allying myself with the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith)—I am sorry to pick him out for special attention again this afternoon—because he said that, in a referendum, he would campaign for a No vote; I would be right there alongside him.