HC Deb 11 March 1996 vol 273 cc685-703

6.9 pm

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

I beg to move, That, at this day's sitting— (1) the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr. Tony Newton relating to Welsh Business not later than Ten o'clock, and such Questions shall include the Questions on any amendments to the said Motion which she may have selected and which may then be moved; and (2) Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates) shall apply with the insertion in line 41, after the words 'At Ten o'clock', of the words 'or immediately after the previous business has been disposed of, whichever is the later'. The motion is intended simply to provide for the tidy organisation of our business tonight and for a substantial opportunity to debate the Standing Orders relating to Wales—more substantial, dare I say, than the time devoted to the debate on the Scottish Grand Committee, but it may be unwise to make that point.

Paragraph (2) of the business motion deals with voting on the estimates, which is intended to take place at the end of tonight's proceedings. I commend the motion to the House.

6.10 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I welcome the fact that the Government have decided that a debate on the Standing Orders to change the Welsh Grand Committee's workings should continue until 10 o'clock this evening. Had the attitude of certain other Conservative Members been different, such a long debate might not have been necessary and the Leader of the House's comparison with the changes that we made to the Scottish Grand Committee would have been more valid. May I give hon. Members a little background to what has happened on this occasion? It might help the Leader of the House understand why we are in the position where we may debate the Standing Orders for four hours.

The Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Wales will be aware that Labour Members have long been pressing for changes to the Standing Orders on the Welsh Grand Committee. They have made it clear that the required changes should be meaningful and should properly improve the way in which the Welsh Grand Committee works. They have argued that any such changes should be implemented after discussion and by agreement among all the people involved in the Committee.

I am sure that such an approach would commend itself to the Leader of the House because, whenever he has proposed changes, he has proceeded by way of consultation. Some 18 months ago, after considerable discussion with the Opposition parties, with my predecessor and me and with hon. Members from the minority parties, he recommended changes to proceedings in the House of Commons based on the Jopling Committee's recommendations. Although we want to go further in some matters, the changes have been made on the basis of consensus, discussion and consultation.

It is important for the Leader of the House to recognise that his approach of introducing change after consultation has not been the Secretary of State's approach on this occasion. Therefore, responsibility for the problems that the House faces in having a longer debate on these Standing Orders than on those on the Scottish Grand Committee lies clearly at the door of the Secretary of State. It is not the Leader of the House's fault that we are in this position.

The problem of negotiating changes to the Welsh Grand Committee need not have resulted in a stalemate between the Secretary of State and Welsh Members. Labour and other members of the Committee have attempted to discuss in good faith changes that would be most appropriate. I do not know whether the Secretary of State understands how strong feeling is among Labour Members. Many overtures have been made to him and to his predecessor. Had any of those offers been taken up, there could have been a more constructive discussion on how the Welsh Grand Committee discussed affairs relevant to Wales.

The approaches that have been made to Ministers go back almost a year—certainly to April 1995. The Secretary of State was not in his position then, but discussions were proposed to his predecessor. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones) suggested to a Government Whip that changes would be appropriate and that more constructive use could be made of the time available to the Welsh Grand Committee. It took some time for the Welsh Office Minister to reply to my hon. Friend. In July, the Minister said that it was up to the Committee to determine when and where it met and that such things were arranged through the usual channels.

My hon. Friends tried to use the usual channels to arrive at some consensus. Their approaches to Ministers were rejected on all occasions—so much so that, by November last year, when the Secretary of State had been in office for four or five months, my Welsh colleagues decided that it would be appropriate to make their own proposals on the workings of the Welsh Grand Committee.

Shortly afterwards, the Secretary of State came up with some ideas and made a statement on the Welsh Grand Committee, suggesting improvements and changes in its business. Even after that statement, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central again tried to enter into negotiations to ensure that there was agreement on what changes were necessary to the Standing Orders and that best use was made of the time.

My hon. Friends have suggested that progress could have been made had those proposed changes been discussed in the Welsh Grand Committee by Welsh Members of all parties who are most affected by them. I would have thought that that was a reasonable proposition. I cannot understand why the Secretary of State has been adamant that that procedure is not appropriate.

I understand from my hon. Friends that the Secretary of State still has not said why that was not possible. Had we had such a debate in the Welsh Grand Committee and, in particular, had Ministers listened to the constructive suggestions that would have been made by my hon. Friends, we could have had a far shorter debate this evening. We could have had a motion that was the subject of agreement and discussion and that was amended when proper ideas and suggestions were proposed.

The Leader of the House's approach on all these occasions—of trying to work with the people who will be affected by change—has not been followed by the Secretary of State for Wales. If he believed that his suggestions were valid and would work, it would have been reasonable to agree to Welsh Members' request to discuss them in the Welsh Grand Committee. Had that happened, we might not have needed such a lengthy debate this evening. The reason why the House's time is being taken up on these matters is that the Secretary of State has been obstinate and has decided to make decisions rather than enter into genuine consultation.

6.18 pm
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I want not only to support the points that have been made by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) but to add some of my own. The procedure for tabling the motion, the details of which we will discuss later, is unsatisfactory.

For those of us who were able only on Friday to submit amendments, the workings of the Table Office again turned out to be unsatisfactory because, for reasons that I do not understand but perhaps you can look into, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it refused to accept amendments that had been tabled and signed by hon. Members because they were not present in person. I understand that that is the drill to which we work on oral questions, but early-day motions and amendments to them and amendments to legislation are put down in writing. To have them refused on this occasion means that it is impossible for us to have on the Order Paper the amendments that we wanted to debate. That is because the motion appeared late on Thursday, amendments had to be tabled by Friday and the Table Office was unwilling to act.

I should like to lodge a protest on behalf of my staff about the way in which people on my staff were treated by the Table Office when they tried to negotiate on the matter. The attitude was far from satisfactory and the lack of courtesy was matched only by the lack of courtesy in not giving us proper notification of what was to come to the House.

This should be an important debate, but the opportunity for it to be constructive rather than a polarised party debate has been thrown out by the Secretary of State because, within half an hour of meeting the Welsh parliamentary party, the group containing all Welsh Members, he announced to the press that he intended to carry on regardless with the motion. He did not follow the representations that were properly and reasonably discussed by Members at the all-party meeting with the Secretary of State in the Norman Shaw building. The meeting seemed promising because it showed the way forward. It showed that we could discuss issues and move to a constructive way of handling such matters.

We spent an hour discussing the matter in detail and making constructive proposals about the orders, but the door was quickly shut on the overwhelming majority view of Welsh Members. That has inevitably led to polarisation and the issue will be fought line by line in the House. I regret not only that our amendments cannot be debated but that more have not been selected, because there is room to debate many of the amendments on the Order Paper. Presumably, the House does not have time for that.

If the Welsh Grand Committee is to be meaningful, Welsh Members from all parties will have to support the changes; but the Government's attitude has shown that that is highly unlikely and that we will enter a period of entrenched warfare over the Committee rather than proceed on a basis of co-operation between parties. Weak as it is, that is the way in which the Committee should discuss Welsh matters. I am unhappy with the business motion and I hope that the House will divide on it.

6.22 pm
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Although I confess that I cannot and do not intend to cultivate anger on this issue, it is regrettable that the debate, which of course it is procedurally right should take place on these matters, is not taking place after a debate in the Welsh Grand Committee. Much trouble would have been avoided if the Welsh Grand Committee had had the opportunity to discuss the amendments and make recommendations, even if only on an advisory basis. That might have resulted in less contention.

The issue that will concern many hon. Members is whether there will be any significant improvement in the government of Wales as a consequence of the business motion. I do not think that there will be. However, I think that there will be some, albeit limited, improvements in the way in which the Welsh Grand Committee will operate.

I ask the Government, even at this late hour, to consider whether it would be wise to postpone the debate on Welsh business and allow the Welsh Grand Committee, in clear support of the opinions expressed to the Secretary of State at the meeting of the Welsh parliamentary party, to have its say so that we may have a seemly rather than an unseemly debate in the House.

6.23 pm
Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)

There would have been no need for the debate to take this form had the Secretary of State effectively continued in the spirit of the Welsh parliamentary party and submitted the whole issue to the Welsh Grand Committee. If that had been done, all Welsh Members would have been able to get to grips with the detail and express their views. Having used the Welsh Grand Committee as an effective sounding board, the Secretary of State could then have formulated his proposals on a basis of consensus.

The Government have contrived to have a debate that could run for nearly four hours. Does that mean that they have virtually run out of business for the remainder of the Session and need to fill it with a debate under entirely unsatisfactory circumstances and against a background of deep opposition by virtually all Welsh Members, who feel that the Government are railroading these proposals through without proper consent?

Instead of allowing Welsh Members to discuss the matter properly, the Government simply want a long drawn-out skirmish in the House rather than having to table other business, because they do not have much other business. The Secretary of State had an opportunity to arrive at a consensus, initially through the Welsh parliamentary party and then through the Welsh Grand Committee. That would have concertinaed the process and would have led to a much shorter, crisper debate and could, perhaps, have resolved any outstanding issues. Instead, as will become evident when the matters are discussed, the Secretary of State has unilaterally proceeded against the wishes of the vast majority of Welsh Opposition Members—if not all—who comprise by far the greatest number of Welsh Members. He is proceeding against our wishes in a way that challenges the democratic relationship between the House and the people of Wales.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

As my hon. Friend says, the Secretary of State is proceeding against our wishes. Perversely, when the Secretary of State met the members of the parliamentary group, he showed that he had much sympathy with the vast majority of our proposals. Is it not even more surprising that he should choose to ignore that opportunity to reach a consensus and instead proceed in a dictatorial fashion?

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend makes a valid point and it will be interesting to hear the Secretary of State's answer, or that of the Leader of the House if he intends to reply. The Secretary of State approached that meeting in a conciliatory and informal fashion and listened to all the views expressed at it. There was understanding and a fair consensus, and we thought that on that basis we could get the new arrangements up and running; but the Secretary of State has almost entirely ignored the spirit of the meeting and, using his majority in the Chamber, he seeks to impose these arrangements on us.

If the Secretary of State had chosen the Welsh Grand Committee route, not only would it have shortened the proceedings—that would be an advantage to everyone except perhaps the Government business managers, because it would have made a hole in their day—but it would have allowed us to establish arrangements for the Welsh Grand Committee that would have stood the test of time because they would have been based on consensus.

The suspicion must be that the Secretary of State is imposing these arrangements on us because he wants to dodge not just the will of the Welsh Grand Committee and Welsh Members but the will of the people of Wales. Welsh people do not want a half-baked, jazzed-up Welsh Grand Committee: they want a Welsh Assembly. They want to have the ability to express their views through an elected assembly so that their voices can be heard in a way that the Government have consistently denied them for the past 17 years. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), shakes his head, but he more than any other Conservative Member consistently flouts the wishes of the Welsh people in his behaviour as a Minister and in the way in which he conducts himself in the Chamber in proceeding with the business for which he is responsible.

The Government's action will leave a sour taste in the mouths not only of Welsh Members, other than the one or two Welsh Conservative Back Benchers who are not even in the Chamber—where are they?—but of the people of Wales as a whole. Once again, the Government, who take no interest in their wishes, are flouting those wishes and riding roughshod over them by imposing arrangements that do not have the support of Welsh Members of Parliament.

6.28 pm
Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

I should like to follow and take up the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain). We should ask ourselves whether the proposed changes—if and when we debate them—will improve the standard of decision making in the Principality. I believe that they will not. More paper will be used, more words will be printed and more words will be spoken, but the proposed changes will not make one iota of difference to the quality of decisions. The final arbiter of that will remain the English Tory party in the House of Commons.

My hon. Friend the Member for Neath was right. Just six Government Members are present, of whom just one represents a Welsh constituency. The Conservative party has other Welsh Members—

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Not for much longer.

Dr. Marek

Where are the Conservative party's other five Welsh Members, even if, as my hon. Friend says, it will probably not have them for much longer? Are even they against the Government's proposed changes? Are they treating the debate with disdain by being absent? What is the explanation for their absence? At the moment, the matter is completely beyond me. Of course Conservative Members know that there is a desire in the Principality for more decisions to be taken there instead of foreign politics and foreign decisions being inflicted on us by people who have no interest whatever in the Principality.

I met the Secretary of State and he knew nothing much about Wales. He has at least taken an interest in it, but only of course during the past six or nine months. That is no substitute for living in the place and knowing it. If one knows a place, one is likely to make better decisions as a result.

Will the changes allow any decisions to be made by the Welsh Grand Committee that it would not have been able to make before? The answer is, of course, no. We know that the Welsh Grand Committee cannot make any decisions.

Mr. Wigley

It is a talking shop.

Dr. Marek

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Committee is a talking shop, and if the Secretary of State's proposals go through, it will still be a talking shop. The changes will not make any difference.

Although I would like to catch your eye in the main debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to make it clear that I am profoundly disappointed in this short debate on the business motion. I am not surprised by it, however, because the Tory party does not represent the people of Wales and does not have much regard for them. The motion is merely some cosmetic tissue through which the Government hope they will hoodwink people.

I am sure that not only the Labour party but the Liberal Democrats and the Welsh nationalists will ensure that any such deception is uncovered quickly and that the people of Wales will vote for the party that will return decision making—certainly on local matters, if not on others—to where it rightfully belongs at the next election. There should be subsidiarity down as far as possible—in this case, to the people of Wales, the Principality, the regions and local authorities.

6.32 pm
Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

The Leader of the House should explain, especially to the Opposition, what happened after the Welsh parliamentary party meeting. The Welsh parliamentary party is a very curious animal. It is defunct for years at a time. It very rarely meets, but is suddenly activated—we activate it. I have been tracing the history of its meetings.

The Welsh parliamentary party met in the mid-1930s when there was an economic crisis, to try to gain some degree of consensus and present a united voice on the economic plight in south Wales to Whitehall and Westminster. It came up with some very interesting and unanimous suggestions. It again met during the war, in 1944, to recommend to the War Cabinet the appointment of a Secretary of State for Wales to promote the reconstruction of post-war Wales. It also met once or twice in the 1950s and 1960s to bring to the attention of Ministers the consensual approach to various political activities. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] The right hon. Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts), who has just walked into the Chamber, is a living embodiment of consensual politics.

Sir Wyn Roberts (Conwy)


Mr. Rowlands

I should like to continue making my point.

The Welsh parliamentary party has therefore just occasionally played a functional role in presenting a case to Ministers. At its recent meeting, a virtually unanimous opinion emerged that we should debate matters first in the Welsh Grand Committee. Given that consensus and the curious function that the parliamentary party plays every once in a while in Welsh-Westminster politics, it is extraordinary that its view should have been not just disregarded but, given the Secretary of State's statement to the media, disregarded within half an hour.

Although we will soon have a chance to debate the orders, I should tell the Secretary of State that we all remember his original statement. I certainly got the impression from it that he was generally open-minded about the shape, character and nature of the revamped Welsh Grand Committee. He invited consultation, and that was the whole tenor of the statement. When some of us wrote to him suggesting variations—I will not raise my suggestion because I have tabled an amendment on it—we received appalling answers. It was quite clear from the two-line replies that the Government had no intention of taking on board interesting variations on the original theme. Indeed, the motions on the Order Paper are exactly the ones that the Government first thought of.

It makes matters worse when one considers that Whitehall and the Government agreed to do something about the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees. There has not been any real consultation on the proposals. There is not a shred of evidence that any meaningful point made by any Back Bencher—in an individual, not a partisan, fashion—has been incorporated in the measures.

The Leader of the House must realise the extent of the resentment felt and why the business timetable motion must be opposed. He should tell us what happened after the Welsh parliamentary party meeting and why no meaningful alterations have been made to the orders as a result of hon. Members' representations.

6.37 pm
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I was also at the Welsh parliamentary party meeting, and at its conclusion I thought that the Secretary of State had taken on board some of the points that were made. He left the room saying that the meeting had been helpful, useful and businesslike. That was the kind of language that he used. Within half an hour he had obviously gone back on everything that he had said, including, "I shall consider further the points that you have made to me."

For all his faults—and they are legion—the Secretary of State's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), would have at least said straight away whether he was with or against us. The Secretary of State handled the meeting with rather unclever deceit. We are not children; we know what is going on in politics, and we are rather taken aback at his attitude. The people of Wales will not be treated like children.

All of a sudden there is an indecent haste to try to do something about the Welsh Grand Committee, which has taken the same form for a long time. Many of us have argued about its form over the years. Apparently, nothing was to happen to it. Then, suddenly, experiments in Scotland were put in train.

There has been a mobile press conference in Scotland, attended by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister and others. I hope that the Secretary of State does not think that by rushing the motion through with almost indecent haste and not even allowing a modicum of proper, reasoned discussion—such discussion was evident at the Welsh parliamentary party meeting—he can steamroller us into a similar format to Scotland. That will not do. I understand why the Government want it. They are not very welcome in Wales at present and there is no other way of getting the Prime Minister and other Ministers into various parts of Wales without this particular platform.

I must make it clear to the Secretary of State that we are serious about the purposes of the Welsh Grand Committee. We are here to represent the people of Wales; he is not. He made plain his disdain for the people of Wales in the manner that he insulted those representing them.

There are two fundamental points that should be included in the Standing Orders, but I shall confine myself to one of them—the question of dealing with specifically Welsh legislation. Over the past couple of years, on at least two occasions I have had the bitter experience of being in Standing Committee with hon. Members from the other side of the border who have voted down our amendments. I have respect for each and every one of them, but they knew nothing about the argument; they simply signed their correspondence and voted against every amendment. I had the bitter experience of losing one amendment on the casting vote of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). I found it rather galling that the people of Wales should be deprived of the right to Welsh jury trials by the vote of a Member representing a Cheshire constituency. It is not good enough.

Today, we have an appropriate vehicle to amend the Standing Orders and bring them up to current standards. The Government's proposals will do nothing other than exacerbate an already bad position.

6.41 pm
Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

I worry greatly about the motion. I genuinely want to know from the Leader of the House why there is such undue haste to discuss the matter. I have several reasons for wanting to know that. First—and this is not meant to be a party political point—the Conservative party in Wales starts from a position of fundamental weakness; it has just six Members of Parliament. The last time my local authority went to the polls, only three Conservatives were elected. The Conservative party does not have the support of the people of Wales for the policies that it is carrying out in Wales.

We can argue until the cows come home about the benefits of the United Kingdom Parliament and the position of English Members of Parliament voting on Welsh issues and vice versa. The point is that the Conservative party in Wales does not have the moral authority to impose its policies on the people of Wales. Whenever it has gone to the polls, it has been beaten—in general elections, Euro-elections and local elections. Therefore, it is incumbent on the Government, when they consider the development of the Welsh Grand Committee, to take with them those who represent Welsh constituencies. I say that not because of some ethereal, far-distant notion, but because we represent the people of Wales. We have been sent to this House to argue the case for the people of Wales and we have a majority in doing so. Whatever the Government think, at the end of the day they do not have a majority of Welsh votes or seats at local, national or European level. Therefore, our majority and moral authority are important and appropriate consultation is important.

It would have been appropriate for the Welsh Grand Committee to discuss these issues prior to their coming before the House. Any amendments tabled by my hon. Friends and others will be voted on and defeated, possibly by the votes of Members of Parliament representing seats in England and Scotland. It is important that there is consultation if we are to have a Welsh Grand Committee that is meaningful, that challenges the Executive, that can discuss and reflect Welsh opinion and that actually has an important role, irrespective of our wish in the long term for an Assembly or, in some cases, a Parliament.

I am worried because the Government do not seem able even to let the Welsh Grand Committee discuss its own future and establishment—so what use will it be in discussing the big issues that affect our constituents, such as value added tax, local government spending, democracy, quangos, trusts and housing, education and national health service policies? If the Government will not even let it decide how it is set up and how it arranges its discussions, what is the point of hon. Members going to the Committee to argue matters? We shall know that ultimately the Government are not interested in what the Committee says and does.

It is important that the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State reconsider the motion and whether to proceed with it. The Government should take Opposition Members with them on the motion. That is important for democracy and for moral authority. It is also important for ensuring that the Welsh Grand Committee works and is effective. The trust will be broken if the Government force through the motion tonight without further discussion.

6.45 pm
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will have gathered from the flavour of this brief debate the strength of feeling on the Opposition Benches.

I welcome the speech of the Leader of the House, which I thought was conciliatory. As I am sure my hon. Friends will have noted, his approach contrasts sharply with that of the Secretary of State for Wales.

It is clear that all the parties are unhappy with the way in which the business motion has been brought before the House. Even at this late stage, I ask either the Secretary of State or the Leader of the House to say whether the Government are prepared to allow the Welsh Grand Committee to consider the Standing Orders that will govern its own proceedings. That is hardly a revolutionary request. All we are asking is that the Committee be allowed to consider the Standing Orders that will apply to its own proceedings. Will either of the right hon. Gentlemen respond to that point now?

Mr. Newton

I had intended to respond when the hon. Gentleman had concluded his remarks. Indeed, I have one or two other things to say. In view of what I believe to be the desirability of the changes and the fairly lengthy period during which there was a good deal of consultation, I think that it is right to expect the House to proceed with this business tonight and put the changes in place. While I accept that hon. Members want to go further, the changes are an improvement in the Welsh Grand Committee and will offer opportunities and advantages to the people of Wales and those who represent them.

Mr. Davies

In effect, the right hon. Gentleman is saying that he will not allow the Welsh Grand Committee to consider its own Standing Orders. I hope that he will reflect on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), that there are 38 Welsh Members of Parliament, 32 of whom want the opportunity to discuss the Standing Orders in the Committee. The right hon. Gentleman is refusing to allow us to do that.

Mr. Newton

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in allowing me to intervene again briefly. One important point that is relevant to this line of argument is that these are not the Standing Orders of the Welsh Grand Committee; they are the Standing Orders of the House governing the arrangements for the Welsh Grand Committee. That is why the matter must necessarily be decided by the House and why it is appropriate that it should be debated by the House.

Mr. Davies

The right hon. Gentleman has repeated the error made by the Secretary of State when I wrote to him on the matter some time ago. I fully understand, as do all my hon. Friends, that the Government are not prepared to allow the Welsh Grand Committee to resolve these matters. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, these are Standing Orders of the House. What we want is the opportunity to debate them in the Welsh Grand Committee. Obviously, at the end of the day they have to be approved by the House, but why on earth are the Government so set in their determination to prevent us from even discussing those matters in the Welsh Grand Committee? That is the question that I put to the Secretary of State and to the Leader of the House, but I have not yet had a satisfactory answer.

The business motion restricts our opportunity to have a proper examination of the proposed amendments to the Standing Orders. Will the Leader of the House tell us why he is so anxious to restrict debate and to prevent us from even discussing the Standing Orders in the Welsh Grand Committee? Will he answer that specific question? Why cannot we even discuss the proposed changes in the Welsh Grand Committee?

Mr. Newton

Rather than allowing the debate to become a question-and-answer session, it would be more appropriate for me to make further remarks in my winding-up speech in a moment or two.

Mr. Davies

This is a question-and-question session, not a question-and-answer session. We are putting questions to the Leader of the House and we are not getting answers. If he is not prepared to give us an answer or to say, even at this late stage, that the Government will relent and will allow the Welsh Grand Committee to consider those matters, why on earth does he not at least give us a reason? What is so wrong about us being able to debate those matters? We have not had a satisfactory answer on that point.

We are angry about the business motion for this reason. Although the debate on the Standing Orders would have been allowed to run its full course in the Welsh Grand Committee, on the Floor of the House, it will be restricted by the business motion.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that the Leader of the House gave one answer to explain why he did not wish the debate to take place in the Welsh Grand Committee? He said that he thought that it would delay proceedings and that he wanted to move on. Is not the truth that if the Secretary of State had acceded to the wishes of the parliamentary group, so that we could have debated the matter in the Welsh Grand Committee, it would have been dealt with by now and the changes in the Standing Orders would already have been delivered? It is not we but the Government who are delaying the procedures.

Mr. Davies

My hon. Friend understands the usual channels in a way to which I could not possibly aspire. However, I recall a meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee in Cardiff in 1993, when we urged the Government to accept the changes.

I contrast the procedures that we are being invited to follow, by means of the business motion, with the procedures that were followed when the Welsh Grand Committee was established. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), who spoke earlier, is an historian of great note. He drew my attention to the proceedings of the Select Committee on Procedure, which met in July 1958, when the Welsh Grand Committee was established. Our debate later will concern amendments to those Standing Orders. I refer to three brief points of note.

First, the Committee received evidence from Mr. Ness Edwards, who recommended the establishment of a Welsh Grand Committee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Who?"] Hon. Members ask who he was. He was a former Member of Parliament for Caerphilly; he was my predecessor but two. He was a man of great distinction and I think that it is necessary that I, as one of his successors, should try to take forward the advantages that he brought to us as Welsh citizens. It was his submission to the Procedure Committee that established the Welsh Grand Committee as we know it now.

Secondly, it is interesting to look at the Committee's proceedings. The Welsh Grand Committee was established by means of a detailed cross-party examination of the submissions. The business motion tonight will prevent Welsh Members and the Procedure Committee from undertaking that detailed, cross-party examination of the procedures of the Welsh Grand Committee, although that is just the sort of examination that is necessary to create a consensus. If the Leader of the House has a moment or two to spare from his onerous tasks, he will do well to read the proceedings of the Procedure Committee in 1958.

Thirdly, the Welsh Grand Committee was established before the office of Secretary of State for Wales. Since 1964, under Conservative and Labour Governments, there has been enormous administrative devolution and the Welsh Office has grown beyond all recognition. Surely, if there was a case in 1958 for a properly structured Welsh Grand Committee, there is an even stronger case in 1996 for a proper Welsh Grand Committee to examine matters relating to Wales and to monitor the procedures of the Welsh Office.

We oppose the business motion because, despite the assertion made by the Leader of the House, the change to the Standing Orders has not been the subject of proper consultation. I do not know what the Leader of the House means by consultation, but I know what I mean. I believe that consultation means that people, in good faith, make proposals for change, that those proposals are discussed and that when it is possible, on the basis of that discussion, agreement is reached. We have not had such consultation.

I do not know what the Leader of the House has been told by the Secretary of State for Wales. I can assure him that 32 Welsh Members have had no meaningful consultation on the proposed changes. I hope that the Leader of the House now fully understands that there is no agreement on the matter between Welsh Members and the Secretary of State. The wishes of the majority of Welsh Members have been ignored so far. If the business motion is accepted, they will be prevented from expressing their views later this evening.

Some of my hon. Friends have already referred to the Welsh parliamentary party. We met on 20 February, and I hope that the Leader of the House can offer an explanation for what occurred. By all accounts, it was a very cordial meeting, apart from the fact that the Government Whip was excluded from the proceedings because he had not sought an invitation. It was a matter of great embarrassment to him, but it gave great merriment to the rest of us. The meeting then proceeded in a cordial and good-natured way. At the end, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) pointed out, the Secretary of State left the room saying, "Yes, I shall consider the matter. I hope that if any of you have further submissions to make, you will make them and I shall give the matter further consideration."

Within an hour, I was telephoned by a BBC journalist, who said that the Secretary of State had given an interview in which he had announced that the proposed changes to the Standing Orders would not be considered by the Welsh Grand Committee, but would be taken on the Floor of the House. I ask the Leader of the House a direct question. Does he think that that is the way in which the matter should be conducted between the Government and the Opposition? Does he think that that is a fit, appropriate and courteous way for a Secretary of State to conduct himself, especially when he does not represent a Welsh constituency and can muster, at best, only six Members out of 38?

I wrote to the Secretary of State on the following day, 21 February, to express my concern, to ask him to reconsider his decision and to ask him to allow the matter to go to the Welsh Grand Committee. I still have not had a reply from the Secretary of State. Does the Leader of the House think that that is an appropriate way for one of his Cabinet colleagues to conduct business? I certainly do not.

Mr. Wigley

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Secretary of State had taken on board all the points that were made at the meeting of the parliamentary party and if he had said, "I have met all the points, so there is no need to go through the Welsh Grand Committee; I am willing to change the proposals to take those points on board," he would have made a comprehensible defence? To close the door, to refuse to back the changes that were asked for at the meeting and to support the business motion is, to all intents and purposes, to tell us that it was a total waste of time to have the meeting of the Welsh parliamentary party.

Mr. Davies

Very much so. It is my personal regret that the Secretary of State did not have the courage or the courtesy to tell us that to our faces at the meeting in Norman Shaw. He must have been set in his mind then, so why on earth did he not have the courtesy or the courage to tell us that that was the case rather than sneaking out and giving a BBC interview half an hour later?

I also oppose the business motion because it institutionalises conflict. I hope that the Leader of the House now understands that if we had been able to deal with the matter in the way that we wished, we could have reached agreement. There is a need to reform the procedures of the Welsh Grand Committee; everyone understands that. As a result of the business motion, there will be unnecessary confrontation with the Opposition. The procedures of the House are rigid and formal. We shall not be able to have the flexibility—the give and take—that we could have had in the Welsh Grand Committee. The business motion denies us that opportunity. Undoubtedly, the motion that will be put to the House at 10 o'clock will not command the broad support of Welsh Members. Indeed, it is a missed opportunity to reform the Welsh Grand Committee.

Those arguments underscore the fundamental divide between Welsh Members who represent Welsh constituencies and the Secretary of State. There is no doubt that Opposition Members have a genuine desire to improve democracy in Wales. but the business motion prevents us from doing so. There is a genuine desire to have better and more accountable government in Wales. The business motion will prevent us from having that debate. There is a genuine desire to have more efficient government, less corrupt government and a Government who reflect the wishes of the people. The business motion will prevent us from developing that argument. There are four hon. Members on the Conservative Benches who represent Welsh constituencies, but it is quite clear that they do not share our aspirations.

As an Opposition, we have always been constructive in this matter. To my knowledge, as far back as 8 March 1993, when the Welsh Grand Committee met in Cardiff to discuss the governance of Wales, the Opposition suggested to the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), how we could restructure the Welsh Grand Committee. We were then debating the reorganisation of local government. We asked the Government why on earth, if they wished to proceed with it, they did not put the matter before the Welsh Grand Committee. Their response some months later was to deny Welsh Members of Parliament by repealing Standing Order No. 86—which is what the motion before us does—and to prevent Welsh Members from sitting on the Committee, which, above all else, was discussing local government in Wales.

Instead of putting Welsh Members on the Committee, the Government included luminaries such as the hon. Members for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), who came to something of a sticky end, for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg)—a fine record he has in Westminster—and for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Hawksley), who had no Welsh interests apart from a property that he owned in Powys.

The debate is not about devolution, which is not on the agenda tonight. The Government know our position on that, which is clear and unequivocal. The debate is about reforming the procedures of the Welsh Grand Committee. We want workable, meaningful changes. We want it to be given proper powers, not only to debate and to question the Government—when we do that, the Government can run away from the arguments, as they have done tonight—but to decide matters. If there is a difference between the Government and the Opposition on the handling of the Welsh Grand Committee, it is down to that.

The Government currently hold all the cards. They decide all the matters and want to keep the cards in their hands. They make the arrangements for the Welsh Grand Committee. They control its agenda and always have the last word in it. They refuse it the power to decide any matters. The business motion will curtail debate to about two hours, but that is not enough time to explore those matters, particularly on the Floor of the House. The motion will deprive Welsh Members of Parliament of any opportunity to seek a consensus on how the procedures of the Committee could be improved. Thanks to the motion, there will be artificial votes. Those of us who sit on the Welsh Grand Committee, who represent Welsh constituencies and have a vested interest in ensuring that we get it right tonight, will be outvoted by Conservative Members, who will be whipped at 10 o'clock to deny us our rights.

For those reasons, we oppose the business motion and shall seek to divide the House.

7.3 pm

Mr. Newton

I thought that the debate started rather promisingly, when the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor)—I thank her for this—spent a great deal of time saying what a reasonable man I was. However, it has gone steadily downhill from there, but I shall try to remain reasonable in my brief winding-up speech.

I do not accept, however grateful I am for the remarks about me, the contrast that has been drawn with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. It is certainly not a breach of confidence—I do not think that anybody would mind me saying this—to say that being, as I am, quite keen to see this particular improvement, as I see it, in the procedures of the House advanced as soon as possible, I had a sketch plan of business a week before Christmas. I offered my right hon. Friend the opportunity to proceed with the changes that he had outlined—which, generally, appeared to have been welcomed—to the Standing Orders that govern the Welsh Grand Committee. He declined, saying that he did not want the opportunity to debate the business at that time, precisely because he wished to go through a process of discussion and consultation with other Welsh Members of Parliament.

I understand that my right hon. Friend wrote to the hon. Members for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) and for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), and to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) on 14 December, explaining exactly what changes he proposed to introduce, offering a meeting to discuss them and asking their agreement. Thereafter, there was a considerable exchange of correspondence, and, as has been acknowledged, something rare happened: there was a meeting of the Welsh parliamentary party—a gathering of all hon. Members who represent constituencies in Wales—which my right hon. Friend attended. I accept that there appears to have been some misunderstanding in the wake of that meeting. My understanding is that my right hon. Friend had always made it clear that changes to the Standing Orders of the House were matters for debate on the Floor of the House. That appears to be the main point of disagreement.

Mr. Ron Davies

Whatever faults we might have as Welsh Members of Parliament, I can assure the Leader of the House that we never let the Secretary of State leave any of our meetings under any misapprehension of our true feelings. May I clarify one point and ensure that Hansard records what happened? It is quite correct that the Secretary of State wrote to me and other hon. Members on 14 December, but the Leader of the House has just suggested that, in that letter, the Secretary of State offered a meeting. That is not correct.

If the Leader of the House consults the Secretary of State and looks at the correspondence, he will find that the Secretary of State did not write to me, the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), who represents Plaid Cymru, and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), who represents the Liberal Democrats, until 31 January. I now ask the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider his point, because that is very important.

Mr. Newton

I understand—I gather that it is my right hon. Friend's recollection—that my right hon. Friend offered a meeting at that stage, but if there has been any misunderstanding about that, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to clear it up when he speaks in the debate, which I hope that we shall get on to before much longer.

Mr. Llwyd

On the question of misunderstanding, the Leader of the House is at a disadvantage, because he was not at that meeting. I was, and I think that we all have a similar recollection. We all understand that, for any effective change to be introduced, there has to be a change in the Standing Orders of the House. We need not be experts in "Erskine May" to work that one out. The point is that the Secretary of State left the meeting with the firm impression that he was considering actively all the points that had been raised, none of which now appears on the Order Paper.

Mr. Newton

We are, are we not, in effect talking about two different things. There seem to be differences of perception about the meeting, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, I did not have the advantage—if that is the correct word—of attending. My right hon. Friend's understanding, if I may speak for him further, is that he had consistently made clear his expectation that the matter would be debated on the Floor of the House.

Clearly, there are also a number of other disagreements about what should be in the Standing Orders, on which, of course, my right hon. Friend has reflected, but that is a somewhat different matter. Of course it is the case, as it was in relation to the changes in the Standing Orders for the Scottish Grand Committee, that some hon. Members would wish to go further than my right hon. Friend proposed or make more extensive changes to the Standing Orders, but it has certainly been my understanding, and, I think, that of my right hon. Friend, that there was general support for changes that at least go as far as the ones that have been proposed.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

With respect, the Leader of the House quibbles on the wrong point. Everyone understands that the Standing Orders are a matter for the decision of the House, but the suggestion was that there should be proper discussion and consultation by the Secretary of State in the Welsh Grand Committee before proposals were brought to the Floor of the House. It is a sign of the generosity of my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), Labour Members and other Opposition Members that we were prepared to meet the Secretary of State in the Welsh parliamentary party and to suggest a proper and sensible debate, and did not reject his right to make suggestions in the first place.

Mr. Newton

Given that we have been accused of resisting debate or attempting to muzzle Members of Parliament representing Wales, I must make the point that all members of the Welsh Grand Committee, by definition, are Members of the House. There is nothing to prevent any Member who wishes to do so from seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in the debate that I hope will take place. We have provided in the business motion, although some of the time for debate has now been consumed by the debate on that motion, significantly more time than would normally be provided for debate on such matters, precisely in order to enable Welsh Members to have a proper debate.

I believe that we should accept the business motion and get on with that debate.

Question put:—

The House divided:Ayes 162,Noes 61.

Division No. 70] [7.10 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald
Amess, David Hampson, Dr Keith
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy
Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E) Hargreaves, Andrew
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Harris, David
Baldry, Tony Haselhurst, Sir Alan
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Hawkins, Nick
Bellingham, Henry Hawksley, Warren
Body, Sir Richard Heald, Oliver
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Booth, Hartley Hendry, Charles
Boswell, Tim Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Hicks, Robert
Bowis, John Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Brandreth, Gyles Horam, John
Brazier, Julian Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Bright, Sir Graham Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Browning, Mrs Angela Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Bruce, Ian (South Dorset) Hunter, Andrew
Burns, Simon Jack, Michael
Burt, Alistair Jenkin, Bernard
Butterfill, John Jessel, Toby
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Chapman, Sir Sydney Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)
Clappison, James Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Coe, Sebastian Key, Robert
Congdon, David Kirkhope, Timothy
Conway, Derek Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Couchman, James Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Cran, James Legg, Barry
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Lidington, David
Davis, David (Boothferry) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Deva, Nirj Joseph Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Dicks, Terry Lord, Michael
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Luff, Peter
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Dover, Den MacKay, Andrew
Duncan-Smith, lain Maclean, FH Hon David
Dunn, Bob McLoughlin, Patrick
Durant, Sir Anthony Maitland, Lady Olga
Dykes, Hugh Malone, Gerald
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Evennett, David Moate, Sir Roger
Faber, David Neubert, Sir Michael
Fabricant, Michael Newton, Rt Hon Tony
Fenner, Dame Peggy Norris, Steve
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight) Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Forman, Nigel Ottaway, Richard
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Page, Richard
Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley) Paice, James
Freeman, Rt Hon Roger Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
French, Douglas Portillo, Rt Hon Michael
Gill, Christopher Richards, Rod
Gillan, Cheryl Riddick, Graham
Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair Robathan, Andrew
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N) Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)
Hague, Rt Hon William Robinson, Mark (Somerton)
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Trend, Michael
Sackville, Tom Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Shaw, David (Dover) Walden, George
Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian Waller, Gary
Skeet, Sir Trevor Ward, John
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Soames, Nicholas Waterson, Nigel
Spencer, Sir Derek Watts, John
Spring, Richard Wells, Bowen
Sproat, lain Whittingdale, John
Squire, Robin (Hornchurch) Wilkinson, John
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Willetts, David
Streeter, Gary Wilshire, David
Sweeney, Walter Wolfson, Mark
Sykes, John Wood, Timothy
Taylor, Ian (Esher) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Thomason, Roy Tellers for the Ayes:
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V) Mr. Roger Knapman and Mr. Michael Bates.
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Ainger, Nick Hughes, Kevin (DoncasterN)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Hutton, John
Barron, Kevin Ingram, Adam
Battle, John Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Bennett, Andrew F Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Benton, Joe Llwyd, Elfyn
Bermingham, Gerald Mackinlay, Andrew
Bradley, Keith McWilliam, John
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Mahon, Alice
Burden, Richard Marek, Dr John
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Martin, Michael J (Springburn)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Michael, Alun
Campbell-Savours, D N Morgan, Rhodri
Clwyd, Mrs Ann Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Corston, Jean Pike, Peter L
Cousins, Jim Pope, Greg
Cummings, John Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Rowlands, Ted
Dafis, Cynog Skinner, Dennis
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Soley, Clive
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly) Spearing, Nigel
Dewar, Donald Sutcliffe, Gerry
Dixon, Don Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Dowd, Jim Timms, Stephen
Fisher, Mark Wicks, Malcolm
Flynn, Paul Wigley, Dafydd
Fyfe, Maria Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Hall, Mike
Hanson, David Tellers for the Noes:
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Mr. Jon Owen Jones and Mr. Peter Hain.
Hoyle, Doug

Question accordingly agreed to.


That, at this day's sitting—

(1) the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the Motion in the name of Mr. Tony Newton relating to Welsh Business not later than Ten o'clock, and such Questions shall include the Questions on any amendments to the said Motion which she may have selected and which may then be moved; and

(2) Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of estimates) shall apply with the insertion in line 41, after the words 'At Ten o'clock', of the words 'or immediately after the previous business has been disposed of, whichever is the later'.