HC Deb 07 June 2004 vol 422 cc73-92 6.41 pm
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas)

I beg to move, That this House approves the Third Report of the Procedure Committee, on Joint activities with the National Assembly for Wales, HC 582; and that the following Order be a Standing Order of this House until the end of the present Parliament: 'The Welsh Affairs Committee may invite members of any specified committee of the National Assembly for Wales to attend and participate in its proceedings (but not to vote).'. The motion provides that the House should approve the Procedure Committee's third report of this Session, on joint activities with the Natioanal Assembly for Wales. I shall attempt to explain the Committee's proposals. I should say, first, that I am grateful to the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton). I understand that he had an important meeting t afternoon, and I am very grateful for his letter and for the fact that we are able to begin the debate with him in his place. It is obviously beneficial to the House that that is the case.

The Procedure Committee's report follows the 2003 report of the Welsh Affairs Committee on the primary legislative process as it affects Wales. The Welsh Affairs Committee found that in pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft National Health Service (Wales) Bill—and, more recently, the draft Public Audit (Wales) Bill—there was considerable overlap between its work and that of the relevant National Assembly Committee. Joint hearings would remove that overlap and be of benefit both to Committees and to witnesses. The Welsh Affairs Committee therefore recommended the granting of powers for joint formal meetings between it and Committees of the National Assembly for Wales.

In its response to the Welsh Affairs Committee's report, the Government expressed the view that joint pre-legislative scrutiny by the Committee and the appropriate Committee of the National Assembly for Wales would be helpful. We hoped that the House authorities would examine whether the procedural obstacles could be overcome. The Clerk of the House and his counterpart in the National Assembly set up a joint working group of officials to consider how that could be done.

The report of the working group is published as an appendix to the Procedure Committee's report. In short, the working group found that joint meetings, if desired, could be conducted on the principle of "reciprocal enlargement": either Assembly Members would be invited to attend and take part in House of Commons proceedings or Members of the House would be invited to attend and take part in Assembly proceedings, the activities concerned counting as proceedings of the host body, chaired by one of its Members and governed by its rules.

The Procedure Committee has come to the view that the underlying question of principle, as to whether joint meetings are necessary or desirable, requires further consideration.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

You bet.

Mr. Woolas

The right hon. Gentleman says "You bet," and I imagine that such consideration will form the substance of this debate. However, the proposals are common sense.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

The Minister said that, according to the report, the proposal requires further consideration. How many of the Procedure Committee's published reports, with recommendations, have the Government failed to find time to debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Woolas

I am afraid that I do not have those details at my fingertips, but I can say that the thrust of the recommendations has been accepted, as is the case with this report, which the Government believe is very sensible. I hope that the House will agree. Indeed, it was the Government who tabled the motion to accept the report.

Mr. McLoughlin

There is one particular Procedure Committee report, which formed the basis of a complaint that I made in the last Parliament, which the Government have never found time to allow the House to debate or decide on. I wonder on what grounds the Minister or the Government decide which Procedure Committee reports they will find time to debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Woolas

The Government decide on the Procedure Committee reports with which the House agrees, and we use common sense to decide whether we agree with the reports. Those are House of Commons reports, not Government reports, and the Government's response is based, in large part, on the consensus of the House, as in this case.

Mr. Forth

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Woolas

I will finish this point first. I hope and believe that this report carries the consensus of the House. It is not a Government report, but there is a Government motion that endorses and accepts the report. I believe that the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) understands that.

Mr. Forth

I am curious to know how the Minister knows what the consensus of the House is if he will not bring a measure before it to be debated and if he has not heard the views of Members. That is typical of Ministers' attitudes: they assume that they know what the House thinks and they make their decisions on that basis. Can the Minister enlighten us as to how he divines the consensus of the House before he decides whether to bring something before it?

Mr. Woolas

The answer is common sense.

Mr. Forth

Your common sense.

Mr. Woolas

Well, somebody has to provide common sense, and it is a good basis for judgment. It if transpires, following Members' contributions in a debate, that there are objections, the House will decide. The right hon. Gentleman is no stranger to the practice of objecting to motions moved from the Dispatch Box or elsewhere. However, to coin a Euro 2004 phrase, somebody has to decide what common sense is. If the right hon. Gentleman disagrees, it is his right to do so.

This Procedure Committee report is one from the House, to the Government. The Government are facilitating debate in the House; they did not need to do so, but they have provided time for debate. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would welcome that opportunity. The Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Macclesfield, is in his place. The Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee also supports the motion and has recommended it to the House. If the House wants to disagree, that is its choice. I fail to see what else I could do if I am not to be accused of bludgeoning the report through the House. If the right hon. Gentleman were a reasonable man who accepted that the House is being asked to consider proposals regarding the procedures of the House and its Committees, I think that he would nod his consent. The fact that he fails to do so is a matter for him.

The Procedure Committee has come to the view that the underlying question of principle of whether joint meetings are necessary or desirable requires further consideration. The right hon. Gentleman is not listening, so I reiterate: the Procedure Committee has come to the view that whether joint meetings are necessary or desirable requires further consideration. I should have thought that he would support that point at least.

Mr. Forth

indicated assent.

Mr. Woolas

The right hon. Gentleman nods, so I find it difficult to understand how he can oppose the motion before the House—but that is a matter for him. I am sure that he will take the opportunity to explain, should he catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Committee also believes that pre-legislative scrutiny of an expected draft Bill that applies only to Wales would provide a suitable experiment in joint working before it decides whether to recommend its wider use. The Committee therefore recommends that, until the end of the current Parliament, the Welsh Affairs Committee be authorised to invite members of any specified Committee of the National Assembly for Wales to attend and participate in its proceedings, but not to vote on those matters—that is most important—and subject to a quorum of both Committees being present. The Procedure Committee further recommends that during such proceedings use of the Welsh language be allowed in all circumstances, with the National Assembly providing interpreters and transcription of Welsh language contributions. The current rules allow the use of Welsh in Select Committees only if a witness has given advance notice of a desire to give evidence in Welsh, but the National Assembly is obliged by statute to treat the English and Welsh languages equally. I hope that the House will think that that is a sensible and pragmatic modification to our rules.

The Government have responded to the Committee in positive terms. We agree that the forthcoming pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Transport (Wales) Bill, which was laid before both Houses on 27 May, provides a suitable experiment for joint working before considering whether it should be permitted more widely in respect of legislation relating to Wales. With the agreement of the Chairman of the Committee, our response has been placed in the Library and attached to the explanatory memorandum provided in the Vote Office. The Government are grateful to the Procedure Committee for carrying out a difficult technical task on a difficult policy area and for its measured and timely report. We are alto grateful to the Welsh Affairs Committee for its consideration and its commitment to pre-legislative scrutiny and to joint working with the National Assembly.

Perhaps the Chairman of the Procedure Committee will explain his Committee's thinking in more detail. I hope that the House will agree that the experiment suggested by his Committee should go ahead. I urge the House to support the motion.

6.53 pm
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)

The debate so far on this relatively straightforward motion shows the benefit of having the opportunity to debate such matters rather than let them go through on the nod, as the Government too often seek to achieve. Courtesy of the powerful point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), important questions have been asked about the extent to which the Executive set the agenda for the House of Commons in relation to the selection of Select Committee reports for debate.

In a sense, we are having this debate because the present situation is the product of the very different models of devolution used for Scotland and for Wales, and the proposals represent an attempt to tidy up some of the loose ends left by the devolution process. I am glad that the Minister did not describe them as part of the modernisation agenda. He would have been wrong to do so because, as the Procedure Committee's helpful report points out, there is a precedent for the proposals. In 1933, it was decided that people who were not Members of either House of Parliament should be able to take part in proceedings in the Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out, but does he not think that the fact that the procedure has not been used for all this time suggests that it might not be very useful, after all?

Mr. Luff

I suspect that my right hon. Friend will explore that matter during his remarks, should he have the good fortune to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In my view devolution has created a new and untidy situation, and the proposal—which I, rather reluctantly and on the basis that it is a trial, will support—may well he a necessary development to enable us to cope with that.

Mr. Woolas

Anticipating that the word "modernisation" would be used against the proposal, I conducted some research, which tells me that in July 1933 the Joint Committee on Indian Constitutional Reform set up several sub-Committees to hear various witnesses on specific topics and nominated five Indian delegates to take part in those proceedings. The proposed procedure is not new and cannot be diminished by accusations of modernisation.

Mr. Luff

I do not know what the Minister intended by that intervention, but I had intended to make precisely that point—there is a 71-year-old precedent for the proposals. Perhaps, in the spirit of openness, I should declare at this point my chairmanship of the Conservative Friends of India group. It is important that we attest to the relevance of that precedent and the need for the procedure to be revived.

I was a little shocked by the radical nature of the proposal at first glance, but then I thought that if my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), a great and distinguished parliamentarian, recommends it, who am I to demur? However, I have three serious points to put to the Minister, because although it is not the official Opposition's intention to oppose the motion, it raises questions of some importance that must be answered.

My first question is: how will the trial be assessed? No doubt, if it is deemed to have succeeded, a motion to continue the trial will be laid before the House at the start of the next Parliament. I would therefore like to know precisely what procedures the Government intend to use to assess success or otherwise. We know from bitter present experience that trials are not always successful—one thinks of the fiasco regarding postal voting in the European elections. Trials can fail, and the Government must recognise that we regard what is proposed as very much a trial; they must not take our not opposing the motion as carte blanche to continue, willy-nilly, in the next Parliament.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

Seeking to remove responsibility from the Minister, may I tell my hon. Friend that I believe that, after a trial period, the Procedure Committee will examine the matter again as part of its ongoing duties to monitor the procedures of this place? Clearly, we shall tale evidence on how effective the new procedure has been, not least from the Welsh Affairs Committee and the National Assembly for Wales.

Mr. Luff

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, although that raises a slight difficulty of timing. I do not know when the Procedure Committee intends to examine whether the trial has been a success or at what stage the Government will seek to revive the motion in the next Parliament. None the less, I am grateful to him and I am sure that his Committee, which I hope he will continue to chair in the next Parliament, will make an important contribution to the assessment of the trial.

Before I put my second point to the Minister, I should declare that I am a former member of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I see among those who may not speak others who were on that Committee with me As such, I think instinctively that the proposal makes sense.

My second point is that the very fine memorandum, written by the Clerk of the House, in the Procedure Committee's report shows the extraordinary complexity of such a simple concept. Of course, the report addresses a range of other options beyond the straightforward co- operation involving the Welsh Affairs Committee, and considers other methods of "reciprocal enlargement"— a rather ugly turn of phrase. I want to ensure that the Minister is happy that the Government have properly addressed the concerns expressed in the Clerk's memorandum and that he foresees no difficulties in that regard.

Thirdly, do the Government plan to consider any other manifestations of "reciprocal enlargement"? There are four different models suggested in the Clerk's memorandum that go well beyond the relatively modest measure before us this evening. It would be helpful to know whether the Government are sympathetic to any of those other models, or whether they regard this measure as the end of the question.

To pursue the thin end of the wedge argument a little further, it strikes me that the Government already have other devolutionary schemes in place, and that others are planned. Might they therefore come before the House at some point to suggest a similar arrangement for the London Assembly, for example, or for the elected regional assemblies—should there ever be such things, which I personally find unlikely? Such proposals could have quite serious consequences for the sovereignty of this House, and I would like to know whether the Government have given any thought to that possibility.

The official Opposition have no objections to this trial, as long as it is precisely that, as long as it is properly judged before being made a permanent feature of the way in which our Welsh Affairs Committee conducts its business, and as long as it is not used as a wider precedent. It has been 71 years since something like this was last attempted, and it could well be another 71 years before we need to do it again, but we think that it is worth a trial.

7.2 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for his opening remarks. On behalf of the Procedure Committee, I am glad to be able to support the Government's motion to implement the recommendations made in our third report. I should like to pick up on the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin). Perhaps there will be other occasions on which I, as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, will be able to press the Government to provide time on the Floor of the House to give their responses to our reports and to debate those reports in full. I should like to take this opportunity to say that we would very much like not only a response but a debate on Sessional Orders and resolutions, as well as on our reports on procedures for debate, the role of the Speaker, and private Members' Bills.

In fact, I have just seen a member of my Committee, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), indicating that we have received a reply on the issue of Sessional Orders, so I apologise to the Deputy Leader of the House. I hope that I understand the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine correctly, and I would simply say that we would have liked a more positive response than the rather bland one that we have received from the Government. However, this debate is not about that.

Mr. Forth


Sir Nicholas Winterton

If my right hon. Friend wishes to intervene, I shall not refuse him.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend is being a bit overgenerous to the Government, if I may say so. Does he share my suspicion that the motion before us illustrates that the Government will bring before the House in a timely fashion those motions from his Committee that they find congenial, while failing or hesitating to bring forward anything that they find less congenial? Does that not give my hon. Friend a sense of unease?

Sir Nicholas Winterton

I am very tempted to respond to that question at some length, but I shall resist the temptation. My right hon. Friend's intervention leads me to the next comment that I was going to make, which is that the Leader of the House wrote to me less than three weeks after the report was published, to give the Government's response to it. I was gratified to receive such a prompt reply. My right hon. Friend was suggesting that the Government would respond speedily only to the reports that they liked and found it easy to respond to, but they have responded to this report pretty quickly, and I am grateful for that.

Perhaps, however, my right hon. Friend will think that I am following up on the gist of his intervention when I say that, in this case, this has happened mainly because the recommendations in our report are urgent because a draft Bill—the draft Transport (Wales) Bill—was published just before the recess. This is the Bill to which our experimental recommendation has been directed, so that pre-legislative scrutiny—of which the House is very much in favour—can be carried out jointly by the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Economic Development and Transport Committee of the National Assembly for Wales.

Mr. Woolas

It might help the Chairman of the Procedure Committee if I were to repeat what I said earlier to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), which was that it is not true that the Government give time only to reports with which we agree. We gave time to the report on the estimates procedure, and we have committed ourselves to finding time to debate the reports on Sessional Orders and procedures for debates before the summer.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

I am, as ever, extremely grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House—and the Leader of the House, for that matter—for indicating so clearly that there will be a debate on the Floor of the House on those critical Procedure Committee reports on Sessional Orders and resolutions, which are strongly supported by the authorities of the House, the Speaker and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, as well as on the reports on the procedures for debate, the role of the Speaker and private Members' Bills. That is extremely important.

The draft Transport (Wales) Bill is the third Wales-only Bill to be published in draft. The draft National Health Service (Wales) Bill was considered by the Welsh Affairs Committee and by the National Assembly's Health and Social Services Committee, but the two Committees had to take evidence separately. Members of each Committee attended the meetings of the other, but as observers rasher than participants. There were similar parallel inquiries into the draft Public Audit (Wales) Bill.

The Welsh Affair Committee has recommended that there should be procedures for joint formal meetings, and the Government's response to our Committee's report agreed that this would be very helpful. They suggested that the House authorities should examine whether any procedural obstacles could be overcome. As we explain in our report, a joint working party of staff of this House and of the National Assembly recommended the procedural solution of "reciprocal enlargement". Our Welsh Affairs Committee could be empowered to invite members of a National Assembly Committee to attend and take part in its meetings, and the National Assembly could give parallel powers to its Committees to invite members of our Welsh Affairs Committee to take part in its meetings. The object of these arrangements is to ensure that proceedings always count either as proceedings of these Houses of Parliament or of the National Assembly, rather than falling between two stools. The working party's report, which is appended to our report, also makes suggestions on the practical arrangements for such meetings.

We therefore had an outline of how such joint meetings could be made to work. It was up to the Committee to decide, as the Deputy Leader of the House has said, whether such meetings were necessary or desirable. The Welsh Affairs Committee had also recommended joint debates between the Welsh Grand Committee and Members of the National Assembly, but although the same procedural and practical arrangements could apply, the Procedure Committee did not feel it right to recommend such debates at this stage and, in our report, we say that this matter requires further consideration. I am delighted that the Government agree with that conclusion and recommendation.

We have therefore recommended an experiment, limited in duration—I say this to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Lull)—to the current Parliament. I agree that we do not know how long that will last, but we all agree that it could last a further two years. The proposal is for joint meetings of the Welsh Affairs Committee with any specified Committee of the National Assembly for Wales. That is what the motion before the House would authorise, and I hope that the House will support it.

We recommend, as the Deputy Leader of the House said, that a quorum of both Committees should be required to be present, and that the rules should be relaxed to allow use of the Welsh language in all circumstances. I am delighted that a Welsh Member—the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams)—is here, who will no doubt seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] He is the only Welsh Member from the Opposition Benches who is present. I see that the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson), the distinguished Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is also in his place—it is a pleasure to see him there, and I am delighted that so many Members representing the Principality, primarily Labour Members, have found time to be here. Clearly, this is an important debate as far as they are concerned. As I was saying, use of the Welsh language should be allowed in all circumstances. rather than only if requested in advance by a witness, as the Deputy Leader of the House also said. The National Assembly will provide interpreters.

In paragraph 10 of our report, we mention the possibility that joint meetings could also involve Committees of the other place. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the Procedure Committee of the House of Lords has made a report saying that in principle it favours involvement by the Lords, and that it will watch our experiment with interest before making recommendations in future if appropriate. That indicates that we seek to be meaningful in the recommendations, and that both Houses of Parliament are important in respect of legislation. It is important that Committees of both Houses should be involved with the National Assembly.

The experiment that we are considering today may lead to wider use of joint meetings in future—I say "may"—but at the moment what we have in mind is the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Transport (Wales) Bill, which is of obvious concern to the Welsh Affairs Committee and to the Economic Development and Transport Committee of the National Assembly for Wales. Both Committees wish to examine the draft Bill, and they may well want to hear from the same sets of witnesses, so it seems sensible that they should be able to do that together.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman said in a rather pregnant way that this experiment might lead to other experiments in future. He will be well aware of the proposal for some European Grand Committee. In principle, might the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, which have an important input in those matters, al so be considered for that Committee if it comes into being?

Sir Nicholas Winterton

I will do my best to avoid answering that question. The report from the Procedure Committee—as its Chairman, I am permitted only to respond on behalf of the Committee as a whole—is very specific. It is possible that in future the Procedure Committee may consider this matter again, and that the House may consider similar matters to see whether, in co-operating with other bodies, there may be ways of meeting together for discussion. I will not be led down a tricky and steep path, however, as the right hon. Gentleman would seek to lead me. That is a matter for the future.

Let us see how this experiment works. As I said in an intervention earlier on my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire, the Procedure Committee, as part of its duties and responsibilities, will return to this matter. Clearly, that will not be in this Parliament, but I hope that it will do so at the beginning of the next Parliament, to see how the experiment has worked. I hope that the House as a whole, without division, will support this motion, which makes good sense.

7.16 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

I am glad to follow the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, as it will enable me to make an even briefer speech than I intended. In the past, I have managed to do that, and I hope that this is also an appropriate occasion to do so.

On joint pre-legislative scrutiny with Members of the other place—I, too, have seen the report to which the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) referred—there is a problem when so many participants are involved in the exercise that it is not clear who will be the core of that group. We must think carefully about that.

In general, this is a sensible move. It is experimental and temporary, and my colleagues and I think that we should move more often in an experimental and temporary way, to test the water and to see how it works. That is the evolutionary way in which this Parliament has managed to do its business in the past. Sometimes, that evolution has been far too slow.

I heard the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) refer to this as obviously not a radical reform, as it was supported by the hon. Member for Macclesfield, who chairs the Procedure Committee with such distinction. That is rather unfair, as, occasionally, he is radical, and sometimes he and I have been radicals together against the hegemony of the two Front Benches. I am glad that he is an independent soul in that respect.

Mr. Luff

I am entirely persuaded by the hon. Gentleman's argument. I wish to withdraw the earlier unintended insult.

Mr. Tyler

It is great to hear a Conservative Member say that being described as a radical is not an insult. I certainly agree with that.

I like the concept that has been developed by our Clerks of reciprocal enlargements. There is always something that our Clerks can tell us, even if it is only a new dictionary inclusion, and I am sure that it will end up in the dictionary. In the explanatory memorandum from the Leader of the House and his Deputy, a clear example is given of why this needs to happen. It refers to the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft National Health Service (Wales) Bill, in which members of each Committee attended meetings of the other, but joint hearings were not possible, giving rise to a significant overlap of work. What a ridiculous situation. There is far too much overlapping of work in this building as it is, and that is why we should pass the motion this evening.

To show that I believe fundamentally in avoiding overlap, and that I intend to abide by my commitment to that, I will avoid duplication and tedious, time-wasting repetition, and I will not set out again the arguments that have already been put on the record so well by the Chairman of the Procedure Committee and the Deputy Leader of the House.

7.19 pm
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC)

Musing on the 1933 precedent, I felt that were I a sanguine man I would say that, 71 years later, Wales was achieving the status achieved by India in that year. As it is, I rejoice in the possibility that we may have independence in 15 years. It also occurred to me that I might be the sole speaker from the Welsh Affairs Committee today, but I was overjoyed to observe the arrival of our able Chairman a little earlier.

I dare to speak for some other Committee members in saying that we welcome this move. For my part, I welcome to a limited extent what is a limited move—the recognition of the effects of devolution and the possible redundancy of extra meetings in Cardiff and here. The experiment seems to have a practical purpose, and I hope that it succeeds. My party and I look forward to primary legislative powers for the Assembly if Lord Richards's recommendations are implemented—which, I suppose, would make the experiment redundant.

This may not be a subject for today's debate, but if we were discussing the possibility of a Welsh language Act—fervently desired by some of my countrymen and countrywomen—I would point out that the Assembly could have a pertinent and relevant input. I am sure that many Members would welcome a joint input from the Committee and the Assembly, without the need for separate discussions and separate presentations of evidence. Such streamlining would be much more economical and effective.

We would also welcome any influence that a joint Committee could have on Bills such as the forthcoming Public Audit (Wales) Bill—which, as far as I can see, replicates current legislation but with a "for Wales" tag. If I may say so, it does so rather unimaginatively, but that too is an issue for another day. Certainly, any development that could make legislation clearer and more adventurous would be welcome, as would be any hastening and increasing of the flow of Welsh legislation. The Assembly's record is pretty miserable in that respect, as is clear from a comparison of the number of Bills passed there with the number passed in the Scottish Parliament, where the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) may confirm that 10 times as many have been passed.

I would be glad of the opportunity to work through the medium of Welsh in the Committee. I have a certain facility in English and speak it when I must, but I commend the liberating effect of normalising this place's use of language—enabling it to employ all the languages spoken in these islands. Certainly, the use of both Welsh and English in the Assembly and the Welsh Affairs Committee has facilitated productive discussion rather than hindering it.

7.24 pm
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South) (Lab)

I apologise for my late arrival, which was due to the usual London travel problems. I am sorry not to have been here for the Front-Bench speeches, but I understand from colleagues that there is support for this minor but, I think, important change in the way in which we deal with Welsh legislation. I consider it to be eminently sensible. I did manage to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee. As my Committee has pushed for it, it is gratifying that the Procedure Committee has proposed what is admittedly a one-off trial. After all, we ought to try out such arrangements to make sure that they work. Our relationship with the devolved institutions, particularly the Welsh Assembly where there is no primary legislative power, is evolving. This measure, although slight, would enable us to discover the views of our Back-Bench Assembly Members, and enable them to ask questions on behalf of those affected by proposed legislation during the process of pre-legislative scrutiny.

I do not want to take up too much time, because I understand that the speakers so far have supported the proposal. I will say, however, that it would be bizarre if those not in favour of devolution or not—crazily enough—in favour of pre-legislative scrutiny opposed a move that has nothing to do with either. In fact, it has to do with our ability to work with our colleagues in the Assembly to produce legislation that is workable and will do the business for both the Assembly and the House of Commons

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

I, too, welcome the proposal, and congratulate the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) on what his Committee has done. Given that it is a one-off proposal, however, may I ask whether any evaluation is planned? That would help us to learn the necessary lessons and build on them.

Mr. Jones

Our Committee will, as usual, submit to the House a report that will receive a Government response. In that report we will evaluate the implementation of the proposal, and the joint sessions will enable us to establish what Assembly Members think. I consider this a very good evolutionary measure.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman has said. Let me repeat what I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and also in my speech. At the beginning of the next Parliament, the Procedure Committee will assess how the experiment has worked. The experiment will apply to the rest of the current Parliament, and to a specific piece of draft legislation. The House, no doubt, will also review the position.

Mr. Jones


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. I should point out to both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) that one problem when Members arrive late is that they start dealing with matters that have already been dealt with some time earlier.

Mr. Jones

In fact I was about to finish my speech, but I then allowed interventions.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Macclesfield will produce a report and evaluate what has happened. I am confident that the arrangement will work well, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has done.

7.28 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

I am not at all sure that this is a good idea. I am always suspicious when Members wallow in mutual self-congratulation, saying how wonderful a report is, how wonderful the idea has turned out to be, and how everyone welcomes it. The only comforting thing I have heard so far came from the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), who pointed out that there had been less Welsh legislation than Scottish. I have never heard a better argument for keeping the Assembly as it is and looking askance at our poor cousins north of the border, who must now suffer an endless flow of ludicrous legislation from their rather ridiculous Parliament. I would have expected the Welsh people to draw the obvious conclusion that they should keep the Assembly as it is, in the hope that that would reduce the flood of legislation.

Here is a proposal that—contrary to what was said by the late-arriving Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones)—has potentially profound constitutional implications, involving the relative roles of a non-legislative Assembly and its Members on the one hand and a sovereign Parliament on the other. It is dangerous to assert that intertwining those roles would be beneficial, and I am slightly surprised that the suggestion has received such a general welcome, even on a trial or pilot basis.

If we are to take seriously the much lauded, but overestimated, process of pre-legislative scrutiny and assume that it has the benefits that it is widely assumed to have, given that the phrase contains the word "legislative", we must consider the fact that it implies that we should introduce into the legislative process members of a non-legislative Assembly. That is a rather large step to take, so to dismiss it as a relatively trivial matter and something that can be easily welcomed, and to say, "It's only a trial, so we needn't worry too much", as has happened so far this evening, funnily diminishes the importance of the measure rather than having the opposite effect. I should have thought that the House would want to pause before rushing down that route, even though, as I am glad to note, the procedure would be on a trial basis and would last for only this Parliament. That makes me think, is passing, that if the Prime Minister were to succumb to the temptation that Tea Room chatter suggests that he might and call a snap election in October, none of this might happen at all, which would be a good thing. We might then have to return to the matter in a more leisurely way.

Mr. Luff

My right hon. Friend reminds me of a possible danger of the proposal. If the measure is passed as a device to facilitate pre-legislative scrutiny, surely it is possible that the Government would increasingly impose the Welsh Affairs Committee's agenda on it by giving it successive draft Bills for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Committee would thus have insufficient time to follow its own agenda and do its real job of scrutinising the Executive.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out one of the many dangers that exist. We should not assume that two different bodies with different roles—if devolution has any point, the bodies should be different—will always be able to work as harmoniously as has been implied during the debate. That raises several questions about how the interrelationship would function.

Privilege has been touched on during the debate, but it has not been explored and should not be taken for granted. I am pleased that we are at least insisting that if the bicephalous body is to function, a proper quorum of both its component parts must be present. I find that slightly reassuring, given the recurring temptation for quorums to be interfered with and diminished as Members of the House are less prepared to attend meetings. The safeguard is vaguely reassuring, but it gives rise to interesting procedural questions. For example, would Members of the House have priority over Assembly Members when speaking and participating in a joint meeting?

Mr. Woolas

Before the right hon. Gentleman carries his argument too far, will he accept that the recommendations from both the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Procedure Committee suggest that during the process of pre-legislative scrutiny—I assume that he supports that idea—only Members of this House should be able to vote and that Members of the Welsh Assembly should not be able to do that?

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman intervenes to respond to a point that I have not made. I did not say anything about voting; I talked only about speaking. The simple procedural point that I raised, which will be close to your heart, Mr. Deputy Speaker, was whether different categories of Committee members would have priority over others when being called to speak or in the way in which they may participate. I did not mention voting because I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that matter is fairly clear. Such detailed and important points must be considered.

Although the documents before us examine privilege in some depth, I am not sure whether they are entirely satisfactory or conclusive. Hon. Members are covered by the historical concept of privilege, which is as it should be. However, it appears from the analysis that we have been given that Members of the Welsh Assembly are not similarly covered, but have partial protection. That gives rise to several questions. Will Welsh Assembly Members who participate in a joint meeting be covered by only their protection or will they have full privilege? Conversely, will Members of this House participating in a joint meeting chaired by a Member of the Welsh Assembly only be covered by the partial protection, or would they have full privilege? The Procedure Committee report mentions the marginally less protective arena of the National Assembly so there is a potential problem.

Mr. Woolas

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The advice given by the Clerk of the House is that formal meetings of the Welsh Affairs Committee to which National Assembly for Wales Members were invited would be covered by parliamentary proceedings and therefore covered by absolute privilege. On the reciprocal point on the National Assembly, that is also the case as relates to Members of Parliament. The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's important question is yes.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but that worries me. If what he has said is that an Assembly Member—not an elected Member of this House —participating in these joint proceedings would be covered by privilege of this House, it is an important constitutional step.

Mr. Woolas

The right hon. Gentleman is stretching it. Members of the House engaged in joint meetings are covered by privilege.

Mr. Forth

In that case, I am reassured that Members of the Assembly would not be covered, as that is the implication of what he hon. Gentleman said. You see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, these debates have a use. So often, when we have these debates, cease wallowing in mutual congratulation and start getting down to cases, the odd interesting and important point emerges. It is a revelation to some, I suppose, that debates on the Floor of the House still have their uses.

Mr. Luff

This is probably the single-most important issue of the debate, and perhaps it is something to which I should have addressed more remarks in my own contribution. I think I am correct in saying that all those who participate in Select Committee hearings—witnesses, or anyone else—are always covered by privilege. There is no innovation in giving privilege to a member of the National Assembly for Wales, because anyone who participates in such a hearing is always covered by privilege, including any witness.

Mr. Forth

That is useful, but it raises a subsidiary question. Is there any distinction between a joint meeting held in the Palace of Westminster and a meeting held within the Assembly premises?

Sir Nicholas Winterton

I refer my right hon. Friend to paragraph 7 of the report, headed "Privilege", which says—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We now have another musical Member of Parliament.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab)

My apologies, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We do not want these devices making noise in the Chamber. They should all be switched off before Members come in or, preferably, left outside.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

I thought for a moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you were saying that I was waxing lyrical.

Paragraph 7 says: MPs taking part in NAW proceedings would need to be aware that they would not be protected if (for example) anything they said was held to have infringed someone's human rights. Attached is a note from the Counsel to Assembly Committees. There is a difference, and those taking part in the debate should realise that.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend?I think—but things are now taking a turn for the worse because the ghastly human rights have intruded into our proceedings. What is worse, it now looks as if the ghastly human rights are going to inhibit the right of Members of this place to speak their mind if they are participating in one of these, I now think, increasingly dubious joint proceedings with the Welsh Assembly. I thought for a moment that we were about to achieve clarity but a fog has descended yet again over this matter, which is regrettable because—as my hon. Friend the Member for. Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) has said—it is of the greatest possible importance. We have had attempts to clarify the matter by the Deputy Leader of the House, another brave attempt by my hon. Friend, and the Chairman his done his best, but I am not sure that we are much further forward as a result.

Mr. Woolas

We are.

Mr. Forth

The Deputy Leader of the House says with great confidence that he is, but he will not have to participate in these increasingly dubious proceedings. Therefore, he will not be vulnerable in the way it now appears other Members of this House might be.

Let us have a go at something that is perhaps a bit clearer and on which we seem to have clarity. I hope the Deputy Leader of the House will verify the matter of translation. Many years ago, I had the burden of being a Member of the European Parliament and I had to participate in proceedings in which many weird and wonderful languages were used. In this instance, fortunately, we will lave to struggle with only two; for the time being, anyway. I know from my experience what a burden interpretation and translation can be. I was worried for a moment when I saw that we were to have two languages of participation, and I was reassured that paragraph 17 of the Procedure Committee report states that the National Assembly would be prepared to provide the required interpreters and transcribers. I seek an undertaking that the Assembly will pay for all the costs of translation if we are to have a full Hansard in English of the proceedings. I do not want taxpayers to be expected to pick up the tab for exercises in languages other than English If the Welsh want to use two languages, with all the attendant costs, that is fine as long as the budget of the Assembly picks that up. I do not want the House of Commons to pay an additional cost for having a strange language interpolated into our proceedings.

I am glad that this, proposal will be only a pilot. I am not at all satisfied that it will be as productive as has been claimed and I think it will give rise to a number of problems. I am reassured that the Procedure Committee will return to this mater. I hope that it will cast a genuinely critical eye and will not simply accept, as is so often the case, that something that has been tried will automatically be deemed a success, or that somehow it would be difficult at the end to say, "Sadly, this has not worked as we expected and we should just lay it quietly to rest."

It may be that the end of this Parliament will provide a kind of natural end to this experiment, which might not be a bad thing because the next Parliament may want to look at it again. I have the greatest possible reservations and the constitutional implications have not been fully examined or considered. The very different roles played by this Parliament and the Assembly have not been taken into account, but at least we can look at the matters again. I remain to be convinced.

7.44 pm
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op)

I thought that I would add a word as a Back-Bench member of the Procedure Commie tee to endorse what the Chairman spelled out at some length. I want to make two points. The House should be grateful to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who sometimes points out that things that might be taken as simple are in fact more complex than they might appear on the surface. I think that Hansard will show that this is a complicated matter. We certainly found that to be the case in our debates in the Procedure Committee, which is one reason why we wanted a relatively limited experiment to try to see how the complications would work through in a particular case. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that some of the points that he has raised formed part of our Committee debates.

In such arguments, it is important that we have a balance and look not only at the complications, difficulties and obstructions but at the positive side. One aspect strikes me strongly from our consideration of specifically Welsh legislation. This may not be the greatest example, but it was dealt with in this House. When we debated the Children's Commissioner for Wales, many of us wanted to understand the arguments for that move so that we could see whether they were compelling in dealing with children's matters in England. Speaking as secretary of the all-party group on children and young people in care, for much of that time I felt as if we in the rest of the United Kingdom were unaware of some of the matters being raised in the Welsh debate. One aspect of the suggestion before us, therefore, is simply that we all have the capacity to learn from one another. I believe that that can benefit the way in which these islands are governed.

My second point concerns finance and money. It must strike people as crazy that the same arguments are repeated in many different places when those who can profit from the powerful arguments being adduced and who have the responsibility to act on them could hear the arguments themselves rather than repeats of them, or repeats of repeats of the arguments. They would then have the opportunity to share whatever wisdom other people who have heard those arguments have. That is particularly important on complex and technical issues—I speak as a member of the Science and Technology Committee—that sometimes require much argument. Some of those arguments stretch the understanding beyond, or to the limits of, what some of us can cope with. If we want a Parliament better able to take informed decisions, it is important that it tries to adjust some of its structures so as to be better informed and able to think matters through more carefully, in line with the emphasis on pre-legislative scrutiny, which is a remarkable improvement in the way in which government is conducted.

I not only commend the report to the House, but hope that its consequences will be that we see the benefits of such an arrangement and—agreeing with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—its complications. We can then make whatever changes are necessary to achieve the report's laudable aims without running aground on rocks in waters that we have not previously charted.

7.49 pm
Mr. Woolas

With the leave of the House, I thank right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in this debate, which on the whole has been consensual, although I accept that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made some points—particularly on parliamentary privilege, which I shall address—that need consideration.

I re-emphasise my thanks to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and his Committee, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter), who is a member of it. These are House matters, but they are important as we work out the proceedings for the consideration of matters relating to devolution. It says in my brief that I should thank the Chairman of the Committee, which is right and proper. but it is also well meant, because the Committee takes time to consider these matters. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) for explaining why the Welsh Affairs Committee has requested the power to hold joint meetings with the National Assembly for Wales, and how it is planning to make use of its powers. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) for his support. He recognises that this is a House matter.

I should like to clarify the point about privilege, because it is important. However much other Members—not least myself—may jib at the contributions of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst in such debates that go on into the evening, it is important to put this point on the record. Both Members of the House of Commons and Welsh Assembly Members would be covered by full parliamentary privilege when taking part in an extended meeting of the Welsh Affairs Committee, wherever that Committee met—in Cardiff, here or elsewhere. We are not tonight debating whether the National Assembly for Wales should extend reciprocal arrangements but whether, as the Chairman of the Procedure Committee explained, should our Members be invited to participate in meetings of a National Assembly for Wales Committee, they would be covered by the slightly more limited privilege enjoyed by the National Assembly. Assembly Members would be covered by full privilege when participating in our proceedings, and our Members would be covered only by the more limited privilege of the National Assembly for Wales. It is important to put that on the record.

The debate has been consensual, for which I am grateful. This is an experiment, for the lifetime of this Parliament, and there is no compulsion on the House to carry it forward.

Mr. Forth

I do not know whether the Minister is reaching the conclusion of his remarks, but will he be able to answer my question on the cost of translation—of getting the Welsh that may be used in the joint Committee proceedings properly into our Hansard in English?

Mr. Woolas

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. When the National Assembly for Wales meets, and when its Committees deliberate, it is automatic that interpretation and translation are provided. That is one of the advantages of the meetings of the Welsh Affairs Committee taking place in Cardiff and other parts of Wales. The Welsh Grand Committee, too, has that facility when it meets. That is not necessarily the case when the Welsh Affairs Committee meets in Westminster but, if advance notice of that requirement is given, it is facilitated. The right hon. Gentleman, who is ever vigilant about taxpayers' money, as are we all, especially the Government, need have no concern over his question—he can relax.

Hywel Williams

I am grateful for the opportunity to make what is in some ways a rhetorical point. Using two languages is no problem for someone such as me. This is in fact a facility for people who are not bilingual, and some people would argue that the cost of such a facility should be borne by people who are not bilingual rather than by people such as me, who are.

Mr. Woolas

That is an important point, but I would point out that currently, when the Welsh Affairs Committee takes evidence from witnesses who wish to speak in Welsh, the costs of translation fall to the House, so what is proposed would represent an economy and I would have thought that hon. Members would welcome that. That is not merely a debating point. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst furrows his brow and looks perplexed. He cannot cope with the idea that we can benefit from Welsh translation. I would have thought that he would welcome the extension of pre-legislative scrutiny. He fails to shake or nod his head.

I recognise that some hon. Members have concerns about involving non-Members in the formal proceedings of this House, which is why it is right that the Procedure Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committee have recommended a cautious approach—this is an experiment—and the Government agree with that. This is a coming together of modernisation and cautious traditionalism, which surely must be right in improving the way in which we do our business.

That is why the Procedure Committee recommended this modest experiment before coming to its fully considered view. and I believe that this is a sensible approach, which incidentally extends the good facility of pre-legislative scrutiny, which even the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst supports. He did not say so today, but he has expressed that point of view before. It may cause some Government Members to have reservations about supporting the measure—

Mr. Tyler

Me, too.

Mr. Woolas

Despite that remark, the hon. Gentleman welcome I the proposal and said that it was "quite sensible", and I am grateful to him for that. I recommend the proposal, on behalf of the Committees, to the House. Question put and agreed to. Resolved, That this House approves the Third Report of the Procedure Committee, on Joint activities with the National Assembly for Wales, HC 582; and that the following Order be a Standing Order of this House until the end of the present Parliament: The Welsh Affairs Committee may invite members of any specified committee of the National Assembly for Wales to attend and participate in its proceedings (but not to vote).'.