HC Deb 27 January 1999 vol 324 cc323-5
1. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

What plans he is making to hold regular meetings with the First Secretary of the National Assembly; and how frequent he expects those meetings to be. [66268]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Alun Michael)

Regular meetings will be held to ensure that the Secretary of State for Wales is fully aware of the views of the National Assembly for Wales on relevant issues. For the first few weeks following the establishment of the Assembly, I shall have to talk to myself quite a lot. I have made it clear that that period will be brief, essentially to smooth the process of transition—in weeks rather than months. Thereafter, I shall certainly work hard to achieve a partnership for Wales with the new Secretary of State.

Mr. Luff

It will be very convenient for the Secretary of State to be able to talk to himself in the mirror when he is shaving in the mornings, but does he agree that, in the long run, there will be a considerable inconsistency between the First Secretary and the Welsh Secretary if the posts are filled by the same individual? The Welsh Secretary would be bound by collective responsibility, unlike the First Secretary, which would make a mockery of devolution.

Mr. Michael

It is clear that the hon. Gentleman, whose interest in devolution is new and welcome, did not listen to my answer. Precisely for that reason, I have made it clear that I intend to step down as Secretary of State for Wales, after a brief transitional period, to concentrate on my work as First Secretary. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is the right thing to do.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

I accept the theoretical point that meetings arranged with oneself are terribly easy to set up—it can be done in a nanosecond—but does my right hon. Friend accept that meetings between two people might be of greater value? Does he also accept that the most significant point behind that question is how Welsh Office civil servants—the Westminster and Whitehall hook-up civil servants, who will serve the on-going functions of the Secretary of State; those who will serve the democratic Assembly; and those who will serve the First Secretary and the Cabinet of the Assembly—will be retrained, or given a new culture, according to which of those functions they will carry out?

Mr. Michael

I find that, when listening to one's first thoughts, it is sometimes wise to ponder a little rather than to think for only a nanosecond before acting or speaking. I have made it clear that, as soon as the functions are in place, it would be sensible, and right, that the First Secretary and the Secretary of State for Wales should be different people, so that they can fulfil those different functions. That is my intention.

I am pleased with the positive response of civil servants to the challenge posed by the Assembly. They understand the new nature of the relationship between them and Members of the Assembly, as compared with the current arm's-length relationship with Members of Parliament. The civil service will be doing things in a new way that will be exciting for Members of the new Assembly and for the officials who work for it. The distinction between the new responsibilities and responsibilities to the Secretary of State and this Parliament is well understood.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that the long-drawn-out leadership battle between him and the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan), which is now coming to the Floor of the House, is destroying the opportunity for proper debate on the real issues affecting people in Wales? When will that leadership battle end, so that we can get on to important policies such as health, education and economic development?

Mr. Michael

I regret the synthetic way in which the hon. Gentleman phrased his question. He well knows that it is the battle for leadership within the Labour party that is interesting. He also knows that the Labour party is delivering on promises made at the general election, and that it is the only party that is able to do that for the people of Wales. In the run-up to the arrival of the Assembly we will concentrate on building a strong economy in Wales, providing jobs for our young people, improving health, improving standards of education and creating safer communities. That is what our people want to hear from us.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

When my right hon. Friend engages in those very important and regular meetings with himself, will he remind himself of the valuable role played by Sully hospital, which is in my constituency and which serves my constituents and his very well, and has for many years? When the future of that hospital is considered by himself, will my right hon. Friend remember the important role that it plays?

Mr. Michael

I could hardly overlook the importance of Sully hospital, given that my hon. Friend is a consistent and long-standing advocate of it. Over the years, he and I have looked at the interests of both Sully hospital and Llandough hospital, which received a charter mark yesterday. I am sure that my hon. Friend will share my pleasure at the recognition of the work of the hospital staff. Certainly, I understand the high priority that he gives the future of Sully hospital.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

Leaving aside the presumptuousness, both personal and party, of the Secretary of State's initial answer, may I ask why—in the same Government—it is considered unacceptable for the two jobs to overlap in Scotland, but acceptable for them to do so in Wales? What is the essential difference between the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly that makes that so?

Mr. Michael

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would know the answer to that. I believe that he has many jobs. I believe that, in the Opposition, he is supposed to be Mr. Scotland as well as Mr. Wales, Mr. Northern Ireland and goodness knows what else.

He should know full well that the nature of devolution in Scotland is different from that in Wales, and that the transition period—which will be short—needs to be managed carefully.

When I first went into local government in 1973, there was an 11-month shadow period before responsibilities were taken over. The Assembly will take over its responsibilities very soon after the election. It will be important to manage that transition, in order to ensure that the Assembly starts off effectively and on a sound footing.

Dr. Fox

I am sure that the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) will be grateful for his right hon. Friend's confused boost to his own campaign.

Surely my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) is entirely right: it is not possible for someone both to be the independently minded leader of a Welsh Assembly and to subscribe to collective responsibility in Cabinet. Those roles are mutually exclusive, and should be separated from the outset, as they have been in Scotland. Would not the Secretary of State do a great service to the whole concept of devolution in Wales by making that clear from the start?

Mr. Michael

The only confusion is in the hon. Gentleman's mind. I have made it clear that it is for precisely those reasons that I intend to stand down from my Cabinet role once the Assembly is in place, in a short rather than a long time. I have been saying that for two and a half months; the hon. Gentleman is obviously deaf.

The role of Secretary of State for Wales needs careful consideration. It changed dramatically in May 1979—[HON. MEMBERS: "1979?"]—when a Labour Government began to breathe life and vigour into it. That contrasts with the activities of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who sent moneys and resources back from Wales to the Treasury.

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