HC Deb 16 January 2001 vol 361 cc212-20 4.13 pm
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy)

I beg to move, That the proviso in paragraph (2)(ii) of Standing Order No. 86 (Nomination of standing committees) shall not apply to the Children's Commissioner or Wales Bill. Paragraph (2)(ii) of the Standing Order provides that for the consideration of any public Bill relating exclusively to Wales, the committee shall he so constituted as to include all Members sitting for constituencies in Wales. We have considered the implications for the Bill of the Standing Order and we believe that the paragraph should be disapplied. If the Committee were so constituted as to include all Members sitting for constituencies in Wales, it would be very large and unwieldy. In addition, even if we added hon. Members to make it a Committee of 50, it would not be possible to achieve a political balance that reflected that in the House.

This is a small Bill of only eight clauses, but it is an important one for Wales, with wide-ranging implications for the welfare and interests of children in Wales. Many Members sitting for Welsh constituencies will have a keen interest in the Bill, bat they will have an opportunity to contribute to the Second Reading debate and to be involved on Third Reading and on Report.

The Committee needs to be kept small and focused and it needs to reflect the political balance of the House, so as to ensure that there is a full and frank debate on the Bill's provisions. In the interests of efficiency and of achieving a political balance that reflects that of the House, I commend the motion to the House.

4.15 pm
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

This is the first Wales-only Bill since devolution, so the motion is, constitutionally, important. That will become clear as we proceed with the Bill because one of the questions that Conservative Members will ask is why similar provision has not been made for England.

My position on the Bill is clear. I was a member of the Select Committee on Health that recommended such a commissioner for England and Wales. Furthermore, the Opposition made it clear during the passage of the Care Standards Act 2000 that they envisaged a role for this form of official.

Under the Government of Wales Act 2000, the National Assembly has powers to make and amend secondary legislation, but can only request primary legislation of this House. We believe that it is appropriate that legislation that affects England and Wales should be considered by a Committee of Members from England and Wales. For the avoidance of doubt, I refer to clause 8(4), which states: This Act does not extend to Scotland or Northern Ireland. There is, however, a certain irony in these proceedings. On 9 June 1992, during the passage of the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill, the Secretary of State for Wales, when he was Opposition spokesman on Welsh affairs, said: In April 1907, the then President of the Board of Education, and my direct predecessor as Member for Torfaen, Mr. Reginald McKenna, spoke in the House on behalf of the Government and in support of Standing Otter No. 86, which the Government, in their arrogance, are proposing to abandon. The House believed 85 years ago—and made that belief resolute by a Division—that Welsh Members should have the same rights and privileges as their Scottish counterparts …—[0fficial Report, 9 Jun 1992; Vol. 209, c. 251.] The Secretary of State—as he now is—went on, at column 252, to say that the circumstances then were different. They were also completely different when the House—under a Labour Government—discussed the Welsh Development Agency Bill in June 1975 and the Development of Rural Wales Bill in July 1976. Those Bills were supported by Members on both sides of the House. There is clearly a parallel with that today.

There is an inconsistency in the Standing Order, which we might consider at a later stage, because we are now in a post-devolution situation. Standing Order No. 86(2)(i)—the provision that precedes the one that we are debating and which applies to Scotland—is clearly redundant. I suggest that paragraph (2)(ii) might also be redundant. I seek an assurance of the Minister that members of the Committee should be drawn from England and Wales, and not from Scotland and Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Minister will be able to give me such an assurance, and, on that basis, we are content with the motion.

4.18 pm
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I thank the Secretary of State for having the courtesy to speak to the motion. Too many motions have been moved formally in the past, and I am pleased that he attempted to justify the provision. That is welcome.

The Secretary of State has missed the reason why we support the motion, which is set out in the debate to which the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) referred. The Secretary of State—as he now is—said in that debate: All those years ago, Members believed that argument was right, and we do not believe that it has changed with the passage of time.—[Official Report, 9 June 1992; Vol. 209. c. 251.] The Secretary of State should explain what has changed with the passage of time between 1992 and today. I suggest that the change involves flu establishment of the National Assembly for Wales. The Assembly has debated the Bill and the principles behind it, supports it and wants to see it passed as swiftly and effectively as possible. That extra legislative scrutiny has been introduced, and has worked on the Bill, so my colleagues and I will support the motion tonight, on this occasion only.

We do not agree with the hon. Member for North Dorset that Standing Order No. 86 (2)(ii) is necessarily redundant. There may come a time when the House will debate Wales-only legislation that has not been debated by the National Assembly and has not had the democratic scrutiny that the Secretary of State wanted in 1992, and which I hope he still wants.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

The hon. Gentleman seemed to imply that if we passed the motion it would save a fair amount of time. Will he give us an idea of how much less time it would take to pass the legislation if we adopted the motion?

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but I do not want to trespass on what the Secretary of State said, because I accept the argument that he advanced when he opened the debate. The motion will speed up the Bill's passage, but, importantly, it will not do so to the detriment of democratic scrutiny by Welsh Members because, in the face of opposition from the Conservative party, the National Assembly for Wales has been established and has allowed that element of democratic scrutiny to take place.

I am content for the motion to be passed, because we shall do an additional job in scrutinising the Bill in Committee. I hope that members of the Committee will work in tandem with ideas emerging from the National Assembly. If they fail to do so, the whole House will have a chance to amend the Bill on Report.

I hope that the Secretary of State will echo those views and will say clearly that this is a one-off, because of the circumstances in which the Bill has been formulated—through the processes of the National Assembly for Wales. In that context, on this occasion, we shall support the motion.

4.21 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

What I suspect some hon. Members thought would be a quick, uncontroversial nod-through has turned into an important debate, because the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) has given the lie to the whole thing.

Before I get into the substance of my remarks, I echo what the hon. Gentleman said and pay tribute to the Secretary of State for doing us the courtesy of coming to the House and, briefly but succinctly, setting out on the Government's behalf what lies behind the motion. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I wish that some of his colleagues would follow his example. Perhaps he will have a word at the next Cabinet meeting and say that some measures might get through the House much more painlessly if some of his colleagues did us the courtesy of explaining what they were up to, instead of trying to smuggle things through in the shifty, surreptitious way that has become the practice of the Government.

On the face of it, the motion appears to be a pretty bland measure about which we should not be too worried. The hon. Member for Ceredigion said, "It will be all right, just this once", but as I was listening to the Secretary of State the word "precedent" was floating through my mind, and I began to ask myself three questions. First, why do we have the Standing Order? Secondly, if it is redundant, why have we not revisited it since devolution? Thirdly, what is so special about the motion that would require a rescinding of the Standing Order, and what are all the implications of that?

The Bill may well be one of the less political Bills that the House has had to consider, in which case it is ironic that the Secretary of State should have been so anxious to ensure a proper party political balance on the Standing Committee. It is the wrong way round. Here is a Bill that, on the face of it, may seem to be less party political than most, yet the Secretary of State wants to ask the House to lift the Standing Order so that it has proper party political representation. I am not sure that a Committee of, say, 50, which the Standing Order allows for, would necessarily be a bad thing in this case, because it would allow the unusually large number of Members—all, I suspect, from the same part of the United Kingdom—who, quite properly, are waiting to contribute to the debate, to take part in the Committee. The Secretary of State will be in a very difficult position if he proposes a Committee of a size that might preclude some of his right hon. and hon. Friends from taking part.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Would such a large Committee—that is a possibility, and we shall have to see what transpires—provide a justification for a lengthier timetable, or possibly for more careful consideration by the Programming Sub-Committee? I am sure that that will have occurred to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Forth

I was going to move on to the matter of timing. We are being asked to make a decision on the important matter of the Standing Order before we know the size of the Committee. The Secretary of State did not reveal that to us. Perhaps even more important, he did not reveal the time that the Government will impose for consideration in Committee and, as important, for Report and Third Reading. The right hon. Gentleman's argument rested on the proposition that all the Members precluded from the Committee—all that we know about its size is that 50 Members will not serve on it, and we do not know how much time he will allow the Committee—would be able to bob up on Report and Third Reading to say their piece. Before I give my approval to the motion, I would like to know how much time the Government will give for Report and Third Reading.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

If Standing Order 86 is sacrosanct, why did the Government of whom he was a member set it aside on the Welsh Language Act 1993, the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 and the Cardiff Bay Barrage Act 1993?

Mr. Forth

I am not saying that the Standing Order is sacrosanct. I am simply saying that it was the hon. Member for Ceredigion who said, "Let us lift it just this once; otherwise, the motion is a jolly good idea."

I do not have a fixed view on the way in which the matter is dealt with because, unusually for me, I do not have direct participation. I may even have off at least the early part of the evening. I understand that the Bill is important and that many right hon. and hon. Members will want to take part in the debate.

I have paid my little tribute to the Secretary of State and now I shall be slightly critical of him. He has given us only partial information. He has not told us how many Members the Government will impose on the House as members of the Committee.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)

I am listening with great interest to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, especially about the time that will be available to consider the Bill. Is he aware that on 7 November one of his party's colleagues in the National Assembly for Wales said: Will you assure us— the question was addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales— that every effort will be made to fast-track the Bill? Is this a case of the right not knowing what the extreme right is doing?

Mr. Forth

I am not remotely interested in what the member of some assembly said. This is the House of Commons. From what little I understand of the National Assembly for Wales, it rightly has no legislative powers. We make law in this place. Until a Government or the people of Wales decide otherwise, that is how it will remain. The views of a Member of the Assembly are of no relevance to our deliberations. However, our views have relevance because we are the House of Commons and we are the people—at least for the time being, until the Government give the responsibility to Europe—who make laws in the United Kingdom.

The way in which we make laws is vital. I do not know how many Members now in the Chamber are prepared to buy a pig in a poke or accept what the Secretary of State says and wander off into the fog of the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill. I am not satisfied. How can we be satisfied that all right hon. and hon. Members who have a legitimate interest in the matter will have sufficient time and opportunity to give it their consideration and make their input if, for example, the Committee were to be very small or if consideration in Committee were to be very short? From what the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) said, she seems to want the process to be "fast tracked".[Interruption.] I thought that she was quoting with approval. If not, I hope that she will tell us. I took it that she was quoting an obscure person with approval, and that that is how the matter rests.

Mrs. Lawrence

I quoted the Conservative Health spokesman from the National Assembly for Wales, Mr. David Melding, who was asking for the Bill to be fast tracked because of time considerations, respecting the fact that this place has responsibility for primary legislation, which is why we arc here. Given the opportunity to set the agenda within the United Kingdom, I would welcome the Bill being fast tricked because of what it can do for children in Wales.

Mr. Forth

I am now even more worried. I should have thought that fast tracking was the last thing that we want in respect of this Bill more than any other. Matters such as those with which the Bill deals must be carefully considered and scrutinised, and legislation on them should not be rushed into. It is unacceptable for the hon. Lady to suggest that such speed would be beneficial. Indeed, I would be surprised and disappointed if her parliamentary colleagues wanted to rush the legislation.

A number of questions have arisen to which we have no answer. The Secretary of State gave us partial information. I am sure that he did not intend to withhold information, but I hope that he will answer the questions for his colleagues, as much as for anybody else. The questions concern the size of the Standing Committee that will consider the Bill and the programming of the Committee stage, Report and Third Reading. We must have information about those matters before we can make the important decision rescinding the Standing Order provision. We need that information whether or not the decision will apply only on this one occasion, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion hoped, whether or not it creates a precedent and whether or not such a precedent already exists, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) suggested. All those matters must be resolved before we can decide on the motion.

4.31 pm
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

It is understandable that some hon. Members have reservations about the exceptional circumstances in which the motion has been proposed.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I am sorry to intervene so soon on my hon. Friend, but I have a question: does he agree that there is something contradictory about the official Opposition's mild criticism of the Secretary of State's position? They have used the same tool to great effect in the past. Indeed, my predecessor, Alex Carlile, said so. Does he further agree that the Secretary of State should have a little humility about the matter, for the simple reason that he made great play of it in debates held in 1992 and 1993?

Mr. Livsey

The Secretary of State certainly dealt with the matter in that way.

The limited powers of the National Assembly for Wales mean that we have to consider the primary legislation in Westminster. However, the Bill's importance means that the Assembly has taken due cognisance of it, debated it and refined proposals for it. I believe that that is an adequate pre-legislative process for due consideration by the House. As things currently stand, the process is in line with that for primary legislation. The Waterhouse report made serious points and exposed serious matters regarding the care of children in Wales. It underlined the urgency of the issue. The Bill Is the first primary legislation on that issue and the Waterhouse report is applied exclusively—perhaps I should say inclusively—to Wales. Those are adequate reasons for agreeing the motion.

4.34 pm
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I have no philosophical objection to changing procedures from time to time if circumstances warrant such change. I understand the cross-party feeling in Wales that the legislation should be agreed with all due speed, but I am sure that sensible care and attention is also desired. I regret the dispute between my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who has done sterling work to assert against a reluctant Executive the right of the House to scrutinise and debate, and the desire of many Welsh Members of Parliament and Assembly Members for the Bill to be fast tracked, as the process is called. I hope that all would agree that the Bill should be dealt with expeditiously, but also sensibly and thoroughly.

One of the reasons for this little delay—the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst were a little short, by his usual thorough standards—is that, although the Secretary of State was, unlike some of his colleagues, generous enough to make a statement to the House about his intentions, he was not open enough to enable us to reply "That is a reasonable change; let us go ahead." As our short debate draws—perhaps—to a close, let me press him to try to reassure my right hon. Friend and others that there will be enough time for all Members with legitimate interests to express their views on Report and Third Reading, or that all those with such interests will be invited on to the Standing Committee and will have a chance to speak then. If we knew how many members the Committee will have and what the true party balance will be, and were able to gauge that against the strength of feeling and the numbers in the House, we might feel reassured that the procedure was sensible, rather than another attempt by an Executive in a hurry to stifle legitimate debate.

I hope that at this late—but not too late—stage it will be possible to reassure Members who reasonably say that the House must undertake this legislative task, and must undertake it properly. We could, of course, read the report of the Assembly's debates, but there is nothing like hearing debates in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and being able to able to satisfy ourselves before voting.

I hope the Secretary of State will understand that these are reasonable fears. We need a decent length of time in Committee. We need reassurances about the balance of the Committee, and its ability to absorb what may be the different viewpoints and experiences of Members with a direct interest. I hasten to add that I shall not seek to be involved myself, because the subject is not a specialty of mine, but many others will. We also need to be reassured that there will be enough time for Members who are not privileged to sit on a Committee to make their points when it has completed its deliberations.

I give the Secretary of State two marks out of 10 for letting us know a little of his thinking when he wishes to change the House's procedures. Perhaps I will give him three marks, because it was slightly embarrassing for him to have to do that, in view of his past statements. If he wants the other seven marks, he really ought to tell us how long the Committee will have, who will be on it and why it will produce the right balance between scrutiny and the reflection of opinions in Wales.

4.37 pm
Mr. Paul Murphy

The debate has been useful. It has given all Members an opportunity to understand why circumstances have changed since 1992, when I made my remarks from the other side of the House—which, incidentally, echoed what was said in 1907 by a predecessor of mine, the then Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, who represented North Monmouthshire.

The right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) raised a number of important constitutional issues, as did the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) and for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey).

What is the difference? Obviously, the difference is that the world has changed in constitutional terms: the way in which Wales is governed has changed. The existence of the Welsh Assembly and the settlement that accompanied its creation mean that Cardiff will deal with secondary legislation, while primary legislation remains a matter for the House of Commons.

That is the big change, but it must also be said that while some Bills have both an English and a Welsh context—we dealt with a number of such Bills last year—others, such as this, deal exclusively with Wales. In such cases, the procedures followed in the Assembly, and the procedures followed by the Government and the Assembly in drawing up the terms of the legislation, are uniquely different from the position before. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire spoke of an extensive process, to which I hope to refer later. The procedures involved are indeed extensive, and have already given all the political parties in Wales an opportunity to deal with the issues in the Bill.

Mr. Simon Thomas

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the legislative protocol between his Department and the Assembly is not quite complete yet? Members might feel more reassured about the change in procedures here when it is complete.

Mr. Murphy

I can confirm that, but the protocol is very close to completion. One of the reasons why it is not complete is that we are using the procedure for the first time only today. Today is the first occasion on which the House has considered an all-Wales Bill—as is its right—reflecting the National Assembly's wishes and desires. We have to learn from our experience. I hope that, within weeks, the protocol will be available for discussion.

The other issue is the nature of the process that will be used during the Bill's passage in the next weeks and months. Although right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned matters that I suspect should be dealt with in a later debate, I shall deal with one or two of them now.

Mr. Öpik

The Minister has clarified why he thinks that the position today is different from that which applied in 1992–93, and I accept the point. However, will today's debates serve as a precedent for similar future debates?

Mr. Murphy

No, but I shall address those issues in a moment.

I should like, first, to deal with the motion, which we shall debate later, and to furnish the House with more details. It is anticipated that, some time after 1 February, the Committee will report the Bill to the House. I understand that the usual channels are considering the composition of the Committee. Nevertheless, it will be composed of 16 members, of whom 10 will be Government Members and four will be official Opposition Members, with two members from each of the other two parties in the House representing constituencies in Wales.

As some hon. Members seem to be concerned about the time issue, I should re-emphasise my remarks on precedent and the nature of the proposed Standing Committee. As I shall explain in much greater detail on Second Reading, the Bill's provisions have not simply just appeared, but were considered at great length, in Cardiff, by all-party Committees of the National Assembly. The Bill does not establish the role of the Children's Commissioner for Wales; that has already been done. Many of the commissioner's functions are already on the statute book, and the provisions that we are discussing will merely extend the commissioner's powers.

As for the Standing Committee that will consider the legislation, about a year ago, the Procedure Committee considered whether the Welsh Grand Committee is the appropriate place in which to consider specifically all-Wales Bills on Second Reading and in Committee. I think that, occasionally, that Committee might be the appropriate place for such consideration. However, I also think that, at this early stage in the devolution settlement, we have to decide those matters Bill by Bill. We should work with the parties in the House to discover what they believe would be the best course of action in relation to time and to the composition of the Standing Committees, so that they include hon. Members from all parties who wish to be represented.

We should also bear in mind that, in addressing the various issues, ultimately we are a United Kingdom Parliament. Therefore, at this stage in the devolution process, it is not easy to be categoric about precisely how we will address these issues in future. However, in relation to representing the views of all the parties in the House and reflecting previous consultation in the National Assembly, I think that we are proposing the most appropriate way in which to consider the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill.

Mr. Redwood

I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for sharing a little of the Government's confidence with the House; it is a model of how Ministers should do it. It would have been even easier if we had heard his comments at the beginning of the debate. I express sympathy with his view that these are early days, and that he should consider the issues as a United Kingdom Cabinet member and understand that the Bill is United Kingdom legislation. Will he confirm that it is this House that is charged with the sole responsibility for primary legislation, and that this House cannot rely on the debates and views of another place or another Assembly, however good or worthy they may be, because it is this House that has to take responsibility for the resulting legislation?

Mr. Murphy

I confirm that this House, exclusively, deals with primary legislation for Wales. I confirm also that such proposals are the result of a working partnership between the House, the Government and the National Assembly, and that they would not be a matter for the Government's programme unless there were such a working relationship and partnership.

I therefore hope that the House will be convinced by the points that I have made and that we shall proceed to Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That the proviso in paragraph (2)(ii) of Standing Order No. 86 (Nomination of standing committees) shall not apply to the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill.