§ Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)
I beg to move amendment No. 14, in page 30, line 35, leave out from 'for' to end of line 43 and insert'each of the regions of Wales.(2) These regions shall be the same as the electoral regions at the last ordinary election.'.
§ Madam Speaker
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 242, in page 30, line 36, leave out from 'to' to end of line and insert'which the Assembly must have regard when deciding on matters affecting North Wales.'.No. 243, in page 30, line 38, leave out from 'to' to end of line 39 and insert'which the Assembly must have regard when deciding on matters affecting the region.'.No. 244, in page 30, line 41, at end insert—'(aa) Mid Wales, and(ab) West Wales, and'.
§ Mr. Evans
This will be a relatively short debate because the guillotine falls at 6 o'clock. That reinforces our request for an extra day to debate the many issues necessary to ensure that the Bill is improved. It is a great shame that we have only 45 minutes in which to debate two groups of amendments.
This is an important debate. I am interested not in point scoring, but in clarity and good legislation. I said yesterday that I am not a supporter of devolution in this guise, but I concede that it will happen, so we must make the best of it.
No one denies that a major stumbling block to the success of the assembly is that it may fail to unite Wales. The referendum result showed the difference between the east and west of Wales, and we know that there is a distinct difference between north and south Wales. As a south Walian, I say that with some feeling. Nor must we forget mid-Wales.
If the assembly is to have all-Wales support, a device must be invented that will give voice to and address all concerns. That might prevent the feeling that the south-east of Wales will dominate Wales: the fear that, with a twin-town axis—that was a movie about Swansea, but I am talking about Cardiff and Newport—that will have the loaf while the rest of Wales has the crumbs.
709 The Government have invented the concept of regional Committees, which is a step in the right direction, although they are pretty toothless. However, it shows that they recognise the need for some sort of body to give voice to the regions.
The next question is how many regions there should be and how they will be made up. The Bill is vague. Clause 62(3) states that there should be a regional Committee in north Wales and in the other regions of Wales. That is vague. In some cases, vagueness is a help, but in this case I do not think that it will be, and it might turn into a bit of a nightmare.
Clause 62(5) spells out the composition of the regional Committees. Paragraph (a) states that the members of a regional Committee will be the constituency Members of the Assembly—that is right—and paragraph (b) says that the members will also come from the top-up areas.
If we asked 10 Welsh Members to divide a map of Wales so as properly to reflect the regions of Wales, we would probably end up with 10 different maps, so there will never be a perfect solution to the problem. We are simply seeking a common-sense solution.
How did the Government approach the problem of the top-up candidates for the regions? They have adopted the old European parliamentary constituencies, which now mean nothing with regard to the European elections but are a handy device for deciding on the top-up Members of the Assembly, giving a regional flavour.
We could not adopt the new European region of Wales, because five Members of the European Parliament will represent the whole of Wales. Those five MEPs might even all come from the south-east of Wales, giving no regional reflection. We might have suspected low turnouts in previous European Parliament elections, but at the next European election, the turnout might be even worse, because the Welsh electorate will have been marginalised.
We want to ensure that all the regions of Wales have a voice on the new Welsh assembly. The Government have recognised the convenience of the old European parliamentary regions for the top-up candidates. Our amendment makes it clear, out of the muddle that will exist, where the regions will be, because we have used the same European constituencies. That also answers the problem of the top-up candidates who will be sitting on the regional Committees. There will be no problem of the old European constituencies straddling two areas.
If we use four rather than the five regions for the Committee of the Regions, the top-up Members of the Assembly will have regions that straddle different areas. How can that be rectified? The assembly may elect top-up Members to the various regional Committees, but that would be rather messy and cumbersome when the device of the five old European constituencies is already at hand. Each of the top-up Members would therefore naturally fall into those regional Committees. There would be no confusion about where the loyalty of some of those top-up candidates should lie, and responsibility would certainly not be given to the 40 Members of the Assembly who have constituencies to vote on where the regional Members of the Assembly will sit.
The way in which the five European areas are split may not be perfect, but if that system is good enough for the top-up for the Welsh assembly, it should be good enough 710 for the regional Committees. The proportion of the Welsh electorate in those areas varies from 17.9 to 21.6 per cent., so it does not differ widely, and the number of assembly seats is extremely comparable.
This is a common-sense and constructive amendment, which would ensure that the assembly helped to alleviate one of the major problems that arose immediately after the referendum, when people said that they feared that the south-east would dominate the assembly. If anything, those fears have been exacerbated since Cardiff was chosen as the site for the assembly. After all other areas had been asked to put in their bids, the Secretary of State announced that he had chosen the capital of Wales, Cardiff, for compelling reasons.
We must come up with a system that gives a voice to the regions via the regional Committees in a way that will be accepted by the whole of Wales. There must be no gerrymandering whatever. The European constituencies already exist, and I commend the amendment to the House.
§ Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)
Amendments Nos. 242 and 243 would require the assembly to have regard to the decisions of regional Committees when taking decisions affecting the regions. In Committee, we discussed amendments that would have allowed the assembly to delegate functions to the regional Committees. I still believe that that is the best way to proceed if we are to allow some decisions to be taken locally, representing the interests and needs of local people.
The Government have not adequately addressed the issue of regional Committees, which is why we tabled these amendments. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State said:"The Regional Committees are designed to enable the regions to feed back specific advice to the Welsh assembly when it makes its decisions."— [Official Report, 2 February 1998; Vol. 305, c. 801.]
There is no requirement in the Bill for the assembly to follow that advice.
Amendments Nos. 242 and 243 would provide that the decisions of regional Committees had an influence on the assembly's decisions. The Government have failed to give any powers to the regional Committees. With appropriate powers, those Committees could be the cornerstone of an effective, inclusive assembly, representing the views of the whole of Wales. Page 27 of the White Paper says that the regional Committeeswill ensure that the views of the different regions of Wales can be heard.I am sure that that statement was sincere. Our amendments would ensure that the views were not only heard but acted on.
Amendment No. 244 would ensure that mid and west Wales, as well as north Wales, had their own regional Committees. It is vital that those areas have separate regional Committees, to ensure that rural Wales has a strong voice in the assembly. The Bill singles out north Wales as an area that should have a regional Committee, and we certainly agree with that. However, the claims of mid and west Wales are equally strong.
711 Amendment No. 14, tabled by the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), and to which the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) spoke, would create regions based on the current European parliamentary constituencies.
§ Mr. Livsey
The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question. It is important that the Members on the regional Committees should represent those regions and be elected from within them, as that would give them democratic viability. That is the sort of set-up that we want.
§ Mr. Livsey
The answer is simple: we do not support amendment No. 14, because we believe that the configuration of the European constituencies is not appropriate. For example, the Wales Mid and West constituency covers a huge area—it goes to within 10 miles of Llandudno and includes Llanelli. That is not a suitable configuration. The hon. Gentleman and I are talking about different configurations.
§ Mr. Evans
The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. Twenty Members of the Assembly will be elected via the European regions. If we use four rather than the five European regions for the Committee of the Regions, so that the regions have a voice in the assembly, how will the hon. Gentleman deal with the fact that some Members representing those regions will cover more than one area?
§ Mr. Livsey
I should have thought that that could be simply dealt with by the fact that those Members would come within the new configuration—
§ Mr. Livsey
They do not at the moment, but we want arrangements to be put in hand to ensure that they represent north, mid and west Wales. Members of the Assembly will be elected from those areas.
We do not want a southern-dominated body. A National Assembly for Wales should structure its regional Committees to represent the whole of Wales. It might create regional Committees representing roughly equal numbers of people, but population is not the only factor that needs to be considered. The size of the region represented by the Committee is also important. If a region the size of mid and west Wales is created, it will be difficult for the regional Committee to represent the interests of all its residents, because it is such a diverse area.
I therefore urge the Government to accept the Liberal Democrat amendments, to ensure that the regional Committees have enough influence and size to command the full support of the people they represent. Amendment No. 14 would not do that.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Win Griffiths)
Despite the strictures of the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) about lack of time, we have added time to these debates since the first timetable was agreed. To judge from the brevity of the arguments made in this debate, we shall make good progress despite the later than expected start.
As the hon. Gentleman explained, amendment No. 14 specifies that the five European constituencies would be the regions in which to have the regional Committees. Amendments Nos. 243 and 244 would place a duty on the assembly to have regard to the regional Committees' advice in deciding matters affecting their regions. Amendment No. 244 stipulates that there must be regional Committees for mid Wales and west Wales, as well as for north Wales and any other regions of Wales. We have no proposals for the boundaries of those regions.
The hon. Member for Ribble Valley said that clause 62 allows for a regional Committee for north Wales and other parts of Wales. We wish to make progress through taking advice, as this debate is followed across Wales, from the work of the assembly advisory group. After Easter, it will consult on its proposals for regional Committees. We could use either the four regions of the Welsh Development Agency—there would be a certain sense in that—or we could consider seven regions across Wales, as the advisory group proposes. All members of the Welsh Affairs Committee, including Conservative Members, recommended the WDA boundaries as the basis for the regional Committees. In such circumstances, we are not inclined to accept amendment No. 14.
§ Mr. Evans
A map of Wales could be divided in all sorts of ways, and all sorts of bodies are probably lobbying the Minister on their preferred option. The WDA system uses four areas. I do not expect him warmly to embrace amendment No. 14, but I hope that he recognises that it is a serious attempt to solve the problem. I seek an assurance from him: will he consider carefully the fact that sensible representation would be achieved by ensuring that top-up Members represented their regions of Wales on the regional Committees?
§ Mr. Griffiths
I was about to deal with the hon. Gentleman's point about the fact that the four WDA regions or the seven regions proposed by the advisory group would not be contiguous with the European constituencies that will be used for the assembly top-up. We realise that a little ingenuity will be required to decide how overlaps should be dealt with. I assure him that I do not think that it is beyond the wit and wisdom of humanity, and of the Government and other people who are concerned about those issues, to come up with a solution that makes sense for the assembly and for the regions.
Amendments Nos. 242 and 243 are unnecessary because clause 62 creates regional Committees to ensure that there is a regional voice. They will report back to the assembly and regard will be taken of what they say. The regional Committees could not conceivably maintain their credibility if their views were disregarded in assembly decision making.
Given that the Government are aware of the problems with representation mentioned by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley, and given our willingness to accept the 713 spirit of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.
§ Mr. Evans
I listened carefully to the Minister. Hon. Members acknowledge that regional Committees are an attempt to deal with the problem of competition between areas. Wales is an entity, but there is tremendous suspicion between north and south Wales, and between east and west Wales. Newport and Cardiff have attracted the lion's share of inward investment in Wales, which has also caused suspicion.
§ Mr. Win Griffiths
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I want to reinforce what we have said on many occasions: we are very much aware of the need to spread economic development and prosperity further west in the south, in the north and in mid-Wales. I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point.
§ Mr. Evans
I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance, because there are pockets where unemployment is much higher than the average in Wales. Such areas will be keen to ensure that inward investment, or even indigenous expansion, will take place not only along the M4 corridor, but around the A55.
§ Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)
The differences across Wales are not coterminous with European parliamentary seats. Therefore, it would be sensible to take that issue into account after the assembly is established and create regional Committees that reflect those differences.
§ Mr. Evans
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that remark, but our starting point must be an acknowledgement that there is a problem. Following the referendum result, we must ensure that people are not afraid that the establishment of the assembly will result in a lot of inward investment being sucked to certain areas and in major decisions being made with an eye to Newport and Cardiff and not to other areas. The Minister mentioned the WDA and the need to ensure that inward investment continues in future. The previous Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the leader of the Conservative party, recognised the importance of inward investment.
The next step forward is to deal with representation on the regional Committees. The WDA, which operates on the economic front, has considered the issue, and we must ensure that there is a real voice for all the regions of Wales on the political front. We shall never reach a perfect solution, because there is no perfect solution. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) has experience of living in a certain area, and his map of regional Committees for Wales might differ from one drawn by me, because I was born in Swansea and lived around that area of Wales.
We must decide on a starting point, but I fear that the assembly may not make the right decisions if it is left to draw its own lines on the map. We are trying to solve the problems of the role of the regions and of top-up Members, who must have a clear role on the Committees. Top-up Members of the Welsh assembly should represent 714 the region that they were elected to represent and should not straddle two areas or sit on a Committee that represents another region, which would be absurd.
Hon. Members recognise the problem that I am discussing and know that we must be a little more determined and burn a lot of midnight oil before the problem can be solved. Therefore, I shall not press amendment No. 14. I hope that common sense will prevail and that the Minister will take my comments on board.
§ Mr. Livsey
I thank the Minister for the spirit in which he responded to our amendments. I especially note what he said about the WDA regions, which have an attraction. We in mid-Wales are concerned about the smallness of the area should Meirionnydd be lost as part of it. The critical mass of population would fall under 200,000, which would be a problem. Meirionnydd's gross domestic product figures are similar to those for other areas of mid-Wales, and I should be grateful if he took account of that. Although we have discussed the matter, I cannot speak for the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).
Given the spirit of the Minister's response, we should like to withdraw our amendments.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
Order. We need worry only about amendment No. 14 at this stage. Does the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) want to withdraw it?
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.