HC Deb 28 February 1996 vol 272 cc914-20 5.11 pm
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the improvement of democracy in Wales; to establish a legislative Parliament elected by proportional representation in Wales; to secure a direct role for Wales in the institutions of the European Union; and for connected purposes. As I follow what was a momentous statement, which we all hope will signify progress in Northern Ireland, I might say that if there had been a flexible approach 100 years ago, when the troubles of Ireland were so high on the political agenda, we might not today be faced with the difficulties in the six counties of the north of Ireland.

I introduce my Bill with mixed feelings. I feel satisfaction that I have been given time to introduce it, and, of course, satisfaction because of the importance of the issue, particularly as this is the 22nd anniversary of my election to the House, on 28 February 1974, and the closest opportunity to St. David's day. We had a Labour Government then, and it is a matter of great regret that they did not succeed in putting into operation a meaningful assembly or parliament for Wales and for Scotland.

I also feel some frustration. When I was first elected, I expected that a parliament for Wales would be set up fairly quickly. The recommendations of the Kilbrandon report in 1973 gave a certain credence to that. It will be 17 years ago this St. David's day that the ill-fated referendum on Labour's previous abortive effort on the matter took place. Had we established a powerful parliament for Wales in 1979, Wales would have avoided the worst excesses of the Thatcher decade. We have had four Secretaries of State for Wales since then—I am glad that the present Secretary of State is in his place to hear the debate—who have not represented Welsh constituencies. That has been an ignominy for Wales, and it could have been avoided.

Had we had a parliament for Wales in 1979, we would have avoided the disastrous policies of that decade: the poll tax; the cack-handed local government reorganisation that we are going through at the moment; water privatisation; the decimation of the national health service, particularly the dental service; and the creation of a two-tier education system in Wales, which we most certainly do not want.

For the past 17 years, Wales has been governed on the basis of the priorities of south-east England, not the priorities of the people of Wales. We have been governed by a Tory regime which was not elected by the people of Wales. Never in any election from 1868 onwards have the Conservatives held a majority of seats in Wales. Indeed, in some elections, they have not held any. Yet we have had Tory policies, for which we did not vote, thrust upon us. Recent examples of legislation forced on Wales include the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 and the Welsh Language Act 1993, which were dealt with by Committees of the House that were dominated by Conservatives from English constituencies, who did not know the background to the issues and did not have to live with the consequence of the legislation.

The very reason for having a Secretary of State for Wales in the Cabinet has been undermined in recent years. He should be the authentic voice of Wales, articulating the hopes of Wales as a nation, spelling out our fears, speaking up for our aspirations and our trepidations. Instead, we have a Secretary of State—whatever his abilities—who has never lived in Wales, has never faced the Welsh electorate in a general election and whose party was overwhelmingly rejected at the polls in Wales. Rather than an advocate for Wales, we have a salesman travelling the length and breadth of Wales as an apologist on behalf of the Cabinet.

We are governed in an outmoded colonial fashion, and it is high time that that came to an end. Furthermore, there is a total absence of Welsh representation in Brussels when the Council of Ministers discusses vital issues such as agriculture. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for England attends those discussions. The Secretary of State for Wales has never been there. Vital issues such as milk quotas and the sheepmeat regime are now determined in Brussels rather than in the House.

Likewise, Welsh industry and commerce has missed out by not having a voice in Brussels to get regional policies that suit our needs. We can compare the position in Wales with the successful deals that Ireland has succeeded in getting from the European Union, and the 6 per cent. growth rate that Ireland has obtained as a result. In terms of the accountability of the Welsh Office and its 80 quangos, the answerability of the Executive and the £7 billion budget of the Welsh Office, the formulation of legislation to meet Welsh needs and values, the voice of Wales in the Cabinet or the direct links between Wales and the European Union, the truth is that the present system of government has broken down and is not serving Wales. We do not have any meaningful democracy at the all-Wales level.

My Bill is a modest attempt to put that right. It would set up a directly elected democratic parliament for Wales. The lower chamber would consist of 100 Members elected by proportional representation, and the upper chamber would consist of two representatives from each of the unitary authorities in Wales. It would have full legislative power for all Welsh Office functions, including education, employment, housing, health, transport, arts, environment and agriculture. If I cannot carry certain Labour Members with me on the proportional representation part of my argument, I remind them that that is their proposal for a parliament for Scotland in due course.

The parliament would have control of the civil service, which is currently answerable to the Welsh Office. It would have full legislative responsibilities for all functions undertaken by the quangos in order to overcome the way in which the Tory Government succeed in getting their writs to run in [...] system of patronage, which is not acceptable to the people of Wales. The parliament would be funded initially by the current block grant plus some £25 million for administrative costs, but we hope that within three years there would be a Welsh Treasury Department, which would collect all the taxes arising from Wales.

The Bill does not present Plaid Cymru's ultimate aim of full self-government within Europe. We accept that we cannot go in one jump from the status quo of no national democracy to full independence, but we believe that, after five years of the government that we propose in the Bill, the people of Wales should be allowed, if they so wish, the opportunity to decide by referendum on moving to self-government. However, that is not the proposal in the Bill. Under the Bill, there are functions that are not currently devolved to the Welsh Office and that should remain at Westminster: defence, foreign affairs, social security and certain trade matters.

The Secretary of State for Wales would remain, as, of course, would the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, under the Government's proposals for an elected legislative assembly for Northern Ireland. Incidentally, it is instructive that the Tories are prepared to yield such an assembly to Northern Ireland in the wake of the bombs and the bullets, but for those of us in Wales, who have pursued our politics through constitutional and democratic means, it appears that the Conservatives have nothing but a closed door.

If the Tories are consistent, they will accept my modest proposal. So will the Labour party, because it proposes a similar model for Scotland. If it is good enough for Scotland to have a law-making parliament, it is good enough for Wales too, and we demand that we should have one. The Liberal party, too, should support the idea because it at least pays lip service to the concept of an elected parliament or assembly for both Scotland and Wales.

I appeal to Members in all parts of the House to support the Bill. It would provide for a new partnership between the peoples of these islands, and bring an end to the monolithic centralism of Westminster's legislative dictatorship by allowing Wales to decide democratically for itself on all aspects of domestic policy. The Bill would give the people of Wales responsibility, opportunity, democracy and hope. I commend it to the House.

5.19 pm
Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan)

I oppose the Bill. What we have heard from the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) is the politics of socialism and defeatism, which we are so used to hearing from the Opposition, who love to run Wales down. It is clear from what the hon. Gentleman said that Plaid Cymru remains committed to turning Wales into a republic, although there is no significant support for such a proposal in Wales.

The results of the 1992 general election in Wales show that Plaid Cymru mustered only 154,439 out of the 1,748,796 votes cast. That was a mere 8.8 per cent.—less than one third of the number of votes cast for the Conservatives, and less, even, than the number cast for the Liberals, who managed to win only one seat.

Even that very poor result for Plaid Cymru fails to reflect the lack of interest in nationalism in many parts of Wales. In Vale of Glamorgan, for example, Plaid Cymru [...] only in a very small part of Wales does that party represent the views of a substantial proportion of the Welsh electorate. Despite that poor mandate, Plaid Cymru has learnt nothing from the ballot box. It would still sacrifice the political and economic interests of Wales, which are best served by it remaining part of the United Kingdom.

Like Labour, Plaid Cymru wants more public spending, higher taxes and the centralisation of power, but it sets out its plans in the hope of concealing the full extent of the damage that it would do. The most damaging aspect of the party's policies is the plan to set up a Welsh republic. At its conference at the end of October 1993, delegates overwhelmingly endorsed proposals to establish an independent Welsh republic. So the House will not be fooled by talk of a staged process. Clearly, the long-term objective of Plaid CyMru is to make Wales a republic within the European Community and the Commonwealth.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon can claim at least one merit for his speech; he was consistent. Unfortunately, he was consistently wrong. Most of the people of Wales do not want a Welsh republic. They realise, rightly, that the break-up of the United Kingdom would be bad for every part of it—bad for England, for Scotland, for Northern Ireland and for Wales.

Wales is an important part of the United Kingdom. The cross-fertilisation of ideas and the pooling of resources between the different countries that make up the United Kingdom strengthen us all. Wales is far stronger as part of the United Kingdom than it would be on its own.

The people of Wales are fairly represented at Westminster, especially as the average electorate in Welsh constituencies is significantly smaller than that in English ones. The people of Wales enjoy all the constitutional advantages enjoyed by UK citizens living in England, including the right to be defended by the British armed forces against external aggression.

In addition, we have our own Secretary of State for Wales, who has a strong voice in the Cabinet and at Westminster. Partly because of the way in which successive Secretaries of State for Wales have lobbied on our behalf, we enjoy a significant advantage over England in the amount of central Government financial support that we receive.

Even after the expected increase in council tax bills, we in Wales will still pay considerably less than our counterparts in England. I am sorry to have to spell that out, because right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who represent English constituencies may believe it unfair, especially now that, after 17 years of Conservative Government, the Welsh economy is doing so well.

We have benefited from massive inward investment, thanks in part to the Government's refusal to accept the social chapter. The social costs of labour are considerably lower in the United Kingdom than in our major European rivals, giving businesses in Wales a big advantage. The success of the Government's economic policies and of the Welsh Office in attracting investment to Wales has led to steady reductions in unemployment in Wales, which now, for the first time since records began, is down to the UK average.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon claims that his proposals are gradualist. In this week's edition of The House magazine, he has stated, as he did today, that The first stage Parliament for Wales will have two chambers. He also wrote: The lower chamber will consist of 100 members … with 20 added members but today he said that the lower chamber would have 100 members—two for each of the 40 constituencies, with 20 added. Whatever the exact figures are, such a parliament would be expensive.

Given the statistics that I have already revealed about Plaid CyMru's poor electoral performance, it is understandable that the hon. Gentleman should favour proportional representation. However, nothing could justify having 100 or 120 Members of Parliament for a country the size of Wales. A good case can be made for the proposition that there are already too many Members of Parliament at Westminster. The suggested 100 Members would be far too many for Wales, and would add considerably to the cost of such a parliament.

I note that both Welsh and English would be official languages of the new parliament, which would waste more money. If the proceedings were televised, the many people in Wales who cannot speak Welsh would be unable to understand the debates without subtitles.

The hon. Gentleman proposed a second chamber with two elected representatives from each local authority in Wales. That seems to me a recipe for muddle and waste. Furthermore, the proposal that the new parliament would take over all the present functions of the Secretary of State for Wales and of the quangos would deprive Wales of a voice in the Cabinet, and would cost a substantial sum.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned £25 million as an additional subsidy from the Westminster Parliament. What would English Members say if they were invited to fork out £25 million to run an unwanted Welsh Government? Even worse, the new parliament's legislative capacity would drive a massive wedge between Wales and England. That would grow worse as the two legal systems diverged, creating discrepancies and anomalies across the boundary between the two countries, which would become a border.

The hon. Gentleman envisages that, for the first two years, the new parliament in Wales would receive a block grant based on the amount currently allocated for the transferred functions, plus the £25 million that I have already mentioned. How unfair and how unrealistic that Wales should expect to receive that huge subsidy for going its own way and setting up a parliament that even the people of Wales do not want.

The hon. Gentleman said that the proposed parliament would have direct links with the European Union, which would weaken the negotiating position of the United Kingdom as a whole. He envisages that, during his proposed first stage, Wales would still send Members of Parliament to the House of Commons, but that they would be able to vote only on aspects of policy that had not been transferred to the Welsh Parliament. That might deal with the so-called West Lothian question, but it would mean that all Members representing Welsh constituencies would be semi-neutered part-timers, who would enjoy little respect or influence at Westminster.

The hon. Gentleman said that, after five years, the interim parliament would have the right to seek full self-government for Wales, and to take over the subjects previously reserved for Westminster, with a constitutional referendum as a so-called safeguard to protect the wishes of the people of Wales.

It is easy to see Plaid CyMru's not very well hidden agenda. It wants to neuter Welsh Members of Parliament at Westminster and then say, "We don't need them. Let's have a referendum and get rid of them." With respect, I must point out that we have already had a referendum in Wales, and it showed clearly that the people of Wales did not want devolution. When the implications of costs and of loss of influence at Westminster and in Brussels are taken into account, Plaid CyMru's views will be found to be just as irrelevant to the wishes of Wales as they were in 1992.

It would be wrong of me to conclude my speech opposing the Bill without stressing that the halfway house proposed by the Labour party is equally repugnant to me as a Conservative and a Unionist. As so often in the past, the Labour party is papering over its deep divisions on this issue to come up with a proposal—any proposal—designed to create the illusion of a workable policy. Labour's concessions to nationalism would imperil the United Kingdom's survival and should be rejected—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)


Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):

The House divided: Ayes 20, Noes 73.

Division No. 62] [5.30 pm
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Beith, Rt Hon A J Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Rendel, David
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Salmond, Alex
Canavan, Dennis Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Cunningham, Roseanna Tyler, Paul
Dafis, Cynog Wallace, James
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Wigley, Dafydd
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Tellers for the Ayes:
Lynne, Ms Liz Mr. Andrew Welsh and Mr. Elfyn Llwyd.
Marek, Dr John
Alexander, Richard Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Barnes, Harry
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Body, Sir Richard
Booth, Hartley Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Brazier, Julian Mills, Iain
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Bruce, Ian (South Dorset) Neubert, Sir Michael
Butcher, John Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Patnick, Sir Irvine
Cash, William Pawsey, James
Day, Stephen Redwood, Rt Hon John
Deva, Nirj Joseph Riddick, Graham
Dover, Den Shaw, David (Dover)
Duncan-Smith, Iain Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford)
Dunn, Bob Skinner, Dennis
Fabricant, Michael Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Forman, Nigel Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley) Stern, Michael
Gale, Roger Stewart, Allan
Gallie, Phil Sumberg, David
Gill, Christopher Tapsell, Sir Peter
Gorst, Sir John Thomason, Roy
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Grylls, Sir Michael Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Tracey, Richard
Hargreaves, Andrew Twinn, Dr Ian
Harris, David Viggers, Peter
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Hawksley, Warren Whitney, Ray
Hayes, Jerry Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk) Wilkinson, John
Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Jessel, Toby Yeo, Tim
Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine Tellers for the Noes:
Lamont, Rt Hon Norman Mr. Walter Sweeney and Mr. Michael Stephen.
Mans, Keith

Question accordingly negatived.