HC Deb 16 July 1997 vol 298 cc379-84
1. Mr. Tyrie

To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what representations he has received from Blaenau Gwent relating to the referendum on devolution in Wales. [6995]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ron Davies)

I have received two such representations.

Mr. Tyrie

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) has alleged, on several occasions, that he was threatened with expulsion from the Labour party if he continued his opposition to a Welsh Assembly. Does the Secretary of State regret having made those threats?

Mr. Davies

I did not make any such threats, and neither of the representations that I received from Blaenau Gwent concerned my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith). If the hon. Gentleman had witnessed an incident last night, when I saved my hon. Friend from being run over by a ministerial car, he would realise just what a close and loving relationship we have.

Mr. Touhig

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Blaenau Gwent and the whole of Gwent would benefit if the result of the referendum were in favour of an assembly? We would have a democratically elected assembly to run services in Wales such as education, instead of unelected quangos, such as the body that runs the Gwent tertiary college. It has increased staff costs by £4.5 million in two years while student numbers have been static, has made 40 people redundant and is now cutting courses.

Mr. Davies

My hon. Friend is right. I am aware of the problems of the Gwent tertiary college, which are of great concern to the community, the students, the staff and the management of the college. I know that my hon. Friend and others from Gwent have made representations to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is dealing with the matter. I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend's question—if we had a democratic settlement in Wales and if the quangos were subject to democratic accountability, the situation would not arise.

Mr. Ancram

The Secretary of State really cannot take refuge behind humour on what is a serious matter. Will he take this opportunity to deny categorically that he ever threatened the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) with expulsion from the Labour party or brought undue pressure to bear on him, either directly or vicariously through advisers, if he did not toe the party line on devolution? If the Secretary of State denies that, is he accusing the hon. Gentleman of not telling the truth?

Mr. Davies

I have already answered that question by reference to an incident that occurred last night. The right hon. Gentleman should not assume that the generosity of spirit that I showed last night would necessarily apply were Ito see him in the same circumstances.

Mr. John Smith

Will my right hon. Friend take every opportunity, when he receives representations, to point out that a Welsh Assembly will give a bigger boost to the Welsh economy than it has seen in the past 20 years—indeed, since the creation of the Welsh Development Agency by the last Labour Government?

Mr. Davies

My hon. Friend had a distinguished career in furthering the economic development of Gwent before he re-entered the House. All of us recognise the great work that he has done. He paid tribute to the Welsh Development Agency. I am pleased to say that we will announce next week a positive programme to modernise the WDA by creating a new economic powerhouse. The name of the Welsh Development Agency is of worldwide renown. When it has the support of a democratically elected assembly, it will continue to improve our economic prospects in Wales.

2. Mr. St. Aubyn

To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what plans he has for campaigning with his parliamentary colleagues during the referendum on devolution for Wales. [6996]

3. Mr. Whittingdale

To ask the Secretary of State for Wales what will be his role in the referendum campaign. [6997]

Mr. Ron Davies

I shall play a vigorous part in securing a yes vote, along with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, other Cabinet colleagues and hon. Members representing constituencies all over the United Kingdom in the referendum to be held later this year. The Government are launching a crusade to create a modern constitution for the entire United Kingdom, and a Welsh Assembly is a vital part of that.

Mr. St. Aubyn

Will the Secretary of State and his colleagues in the campaign promise that the new Welsh Assembly will decide such matters as the legal age at which people can buy cigarettes in Wales? Will the new Welsh Assembly be able to decide such matters as how foxes are controlled in Wales? If the right hon. Gentleman will not promise to let the Welsh Assembly decide such matters, is that not because he trusts the choice of the people of Wales in such matters as little as he trusts the people of Blaenau Gwent in their choice of their Member of Parliament?

Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman is new to the House, and I welcome him to Welsh Question Time. Clearly, he has not yet had the opportunity to learn the difference between primary and secondary legislation. We are not proposing to give to the Welsh Assembly discretion to pass laws on the matters that he cites. The assembly will, however, have responsibility for determining a block allocation of finance, which is currently running at a record level of more than £7 billion a year. It will have a range of responsibilities for secondary legislation. It will be able to deal with many of the administrative matters that I currently deal with as Secretary of State for Wales. More important, it will bring an end to the quango years during which our democratic government in Wales has been corrupted by previous Conservative Governments.

Mr. Whittingdale

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe, as is now apparent, that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are to front the referendum campaign as a direct response to the embarrassing revelations of the right hon. Gentleman's threats to his own Back Benchers to try to silence opposition?

Mr. Davies

No, I do not recognise any truth in that. The real question that must be asked is, where is the no campaign? [HON. MEMBERS: "Behind you."] The Labour party will run a whole-hearted and vigorous campaign to secure the support of the people of Wales in the referendum. It appears that the Conservative party is frightened to mount its own campaign and has decided to hide behind the millions of pounds being put up front by a tax exile from Jersey.

Mr. Llew Smith

Whether we are for or against a Welsh Assembly, does not the Secretary of State regard it as wrong that massive amounts of taxpayers' money will be spent pushing the yes vote, but not one penny of taxpayers' money will be spent to assist those trying to put an alternative view?

Mr. Davies

If that were the case, I would indeed be worried, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman and every Member—[Interruption.] Let me assure the whole House that there is no question of one penny of taxpayers' money being spent to assist the yes campaign. The Government will put their proposals before the people in a referendum. We have a responsibility to explain to the people of Wales the details of our proposals. We will do that. It will, however, be a matter then for the political parties to seek to persuade people either to support or to oppose those proposals.

Mr. Donald Anderson

When my right hon. Friend enters the referendum debate, will he, in his usual gentle way, point out that the people of Wales do indeed have a choice? They can choose either movement and constitutional change, or the status quo—a status quo that suits Conservatives, who can never win power in Wales through the ballot box, but have to rely on stuffing the quangos with their friends and relations and bypassing the normal processes of democracy.

Mr. Davies

I agree with my hon. Friend, and it is a great surprise to me to note the arrogance of the Conservative party. Conservatives have just come through a bruising general election in which they lost every seat in Scotland and Wales because they wanted to defend the over-centralised status quo. If they continue as they are, they will manage to create in England precisely what they recently achieved in Scotland and Wales—a Tory-free zone.

Mr. Dafis

Would the Secretary of State be interested to know that I was in Cardiff this morning, collecting names for Plaid Cymru's petition on parity with Scotland, and that the vast majority of people approached enthusiastically signed up to that principle, as well as to the principle of establishing a democratically elected body for the whole of Wales?

Mr. Davies

I am pleased to note the hon. Gentleman's second comment—that the people in Cardiff enthusiastically supported the creation of a democratically elected assembly. His earlier question, however, was a little late, because we have finalised the proposals in the White Paper. They are now at the printers and will shortly be made public, so I am afraid that it is a little too late to accept the sort of amendment that he suggests.

Mr. Gareth Thomas

In view of the report in today's edition of The Times that my right hon. Friend usually takes his holiday in Wales, does he agree that the quality of debate, especially at Welsh Question Time, would be substantially improved if Conservative Members, none of whom represents a Welsh constituency, followed his example and learned something about Wales, especially about the huge demand for a renewal of democracy there?

Mr. Davies

I certainly know that my hon. Friend will attend the National Eisteddfod at Bala in August, and I look forward to joining him there and spreading the message for a yes vote. I also note that he has been enthusiastically campaigning in north Wales, and I am delighted to assure him that when the White Paper is published next week he will see that we have many positive proposals to ensure that the interests of north Wales are properly represented, and that the assembly we create will be a truly inclusive one, representing all interests in Wales.

Mr. Evans

The Secretary of State cannot take all the credit for the fiasco that best sums up his first few weeks in office. As he gently roams the hills and valleys of Wales, trying gently to persuade the Welsh people about the merits of his argument on devolution, he will have to answer some serious allegations relating to his special adviser.

What advice did the right hon. Gentleman give his special adviser after the embarrassing revelations about the advice that that person gave to Blaenau Gwent council? What role will that special adviser play during the referendum campaign? Will he accompany the Secretary of State on his tour of Wales, or will he be confined to barracks with strict instructions not to use the telephone to issue any advice on behalf of the Secretary of State, especially to local authorities in Wales?

Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman is new to the Front Bench, and it falls to me to congratulate him on his appointment—but I must say that when we refer to the valleys of Wales, we do not always think of Ribble Valley as one of them.

Mr. Evans

Answer the question.

Mr. Davies

I shall answer the question. One of the reasons why I support a new democratic arrangement for Wales is because of the way in which over the years the hon. Gentleman's party systematically corrupted public life in Wales. Last weekend, Viscount St. Davids, a former Welsh Office spokesman in the Lords, confessed to having plotted with David Hunt, a former Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, to ensure political bias in Welsh quangos. I should have thought that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), in his first appearance at the Dispatch Box, would take the opportunity to apologise for the previous misdeeds of his party.

4. Mr. Caton

To ask the Secretary of State for Wales when he expects to publish the White Paper on the Welsh Assembly; and if he will make a statement. [6998]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Win Griffiths)

The White Paper will be published on 22 July.

Mr. Caton

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Clearly, it is time to shift the focus from the democratic rights of individual Welsh Members of Parliament to the democratic right of all the people of Wales to hold their Government accountable. Does my hon. Friend agree that the challenge for the Conservative party and any allies that it may have in Wales is how they can justify supporting devolved power, in the form of the Welsh Office, while denying the democratisation of that power through a Welsh Assembly? Is not that the key democratic question at the centre of the debate?

Mr. Griffiths

It is indeed, and we know why the Conservative party does not want a Welsh Assembly: through the appointments that it has made over the years, it has taken powers from local government—creating Tai Cymru, for example—and by and large packed the quangos with its own supporters, who have often been defeated in elections in Wales. The sooner we get back to a democratic Wales, in which the people have a real voice in its government, the sooner we can be assured of even better government in Wales.

Mr. Livsey

Can the Minister confirm that, when the White Paper is published, the interests of mid-Wales will be looked after by the continuation of the Development Board for Rural Wales? There is great concern about structural funds being renewed and, in the agriculture industry, about green pound devaluations. Can he give us an assurance?

Mr. Griffiths

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the concerns and needs of mid-Wales will be fully catered for in the new economic powerhouse that we will create. We want the Welsh Assembly to be fully inclusive and to ensure that mid-Wales benefits, like all of Wales, from the new arrangements.

Mr. Rowlands

Can my hon. Friend also assure us that the White Paper will foreshadow legislation that will abolish the unappointed quango boards and not, as has been suggested, merely make them accountable to a Welsh Assembly? Our rhetoric must be matched by our legislative action.

Mr. Griffiths

Without wishing to prejudge what the White Paper will say, I can tell my hon. Friend that some quangos will disappear immediately and others will be democratised, after which the Welsh Assembly will have a choice to make about the best way of proceeding with democracy and the organisation of quangos in Wales.

Mr. William Ross

Given the earlier assurance that the Government would welcome an input from all parts of the United Kingdom on the question of devolution for Wales, can the Minister give us a precise assurance that, in preparing the White Paper, the Government have taken fully into account the experience of devolved government in Northern Ireland, from which it is apparent that only when a Unionist party has a say can the Union of the whole Kingdom be maintained? Will the policy of Labour members elected to a new devolved body be to maintain and secure the Union?

Mr. Griffiths

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Union will be maintained, by consent, and that in the preparation of our White Paper we considered not only what has happened in the United Kingdom but what has happened in Europe and many other parts of the world.

Mr. Ancram

I thank the Minister for at least trying to answer the questions: a great improvement on the Secretary of State, who has not answered a single question that the Opposition have asked him. Can he confirm the report in yesterday's Financial Times that, far from getting rid of quangos, the intention in the White Paper is to merge the highly successful Welsh Development Agency and others into what can only be termed, in the Secretary of State's words, an over-centralised super-quango? How does that square with him and his colleagues calling themselves the slayers of quangos?

Mr. Griffiths

The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait for our White Paper on 22 July to see specifically what is proposed across the range of quangos in Wales. I am quite sure that he will then have plenty of opportunity to make whatever response he likes.

Mr. Alan W. Williams

When the White Paper is published, will it describe a system of proportional representation for elections to the Welsh Assembly, which will involve additional members, based on the Euro constituencies? It appears that the Government will conform to proportional representation for the European elections nationally in 1999, or certainly by 2004. Those elections will be based on the regional list system. Does that mean that our Euro-constituency basis for the additional members has to be rethought?

Mr. Griffiths

To respond to my hon. Friend, I would have to move into Departments over which the Welsh Office has no control. I reassure him that no decisions have been taken about what will happen at the next round of European elections. We need to take each bridge as it comes, and I do not propose to cross that one at the moment.

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