HL Deb 05 July 1979 vol 401 cc509-23

3.23 p.m.

Lord BELSTEAD rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd March 1979 be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, we have before us today a Motion approving the draft Order-in-Council repealing the Wales Act. Section 80 and Schedule 12 of the Wales Act provided that before the Act can be put into effect a referendum on that question should be held in Wales. Section 80 also provides that, if it appears to the Secretary of State that less than 40 per cent. of the persons entitled to vote in the referendum voted " Yes ", or that a majority of the answers given were " No ", he shall lay before Parliament the draft of an Order-in-Council for the repeal of the Act. If the draft is approved by resolution the order may be made. If we approve this Motion today we shall therefore be approving repeal of that Act.

I do not think I need say anything about the 40 per cent. requirement or about the calculation of those entitled to vote. In the event, neither needed to come into consideration in the Welsh referendum. Of the valid votes cast only 243,048 were in favour of putting the provisions of the Act into effect while 956,330 were against—a majority of nearly 4 to 1. The outcome was the same in every county of the Principality—a heavy vote against. The Welsh people overwhelmingly rejected the provisions of the Wales Act. In accordance with the provisions of the Act, the draft repeal order was laid before Parliament by the previous Government on 22nd March and it now comes before your Lordships' House for decision today. The draft order was approved in another place last week by 191 votes to 8.

One of the principal claims for the Act was that it would provide closer democratic control over central government and central government decision-taking in the Principality. In suggesting that the Act be repealed, I do not want it thought that the Government are hostile or even indifferent to this laudable aim. We believe in more effective local scrutiny of the activities of government—not only in Wales but in the country as a whole. But we do not believe that the best way of achieving this aim in Wales is through the creation of an Assembly. We believe that the right approach is rather through improved parliamentary scrutiny; and the Government have already taken a number of steps to give effect to that belief.

Already, in the Government's short tenure of office, there has been a debate on Welsh Affairs in another place. It is intended also to have more meetings of the Welsh Grand Committee—and, indeed, the committee met only yesterday to discuss the economy in Wales. Some of those meetings might discuss the activities and reports of nominated bodies operating in Wales. Further, the Government have put forward proposals, which have now been agreed in another place, for a Select Committee to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Welsh Office and associated public bodies. Finally, the Secretary of State for Wales plans to encourage some of the leading nominated bodies in Wales to experiment by holding public meetings to present their annual reports. All this will add up to a substantial improvement in the accountability of government in Wales.

The Welsh electorate pronounced their verdict on the Wales Act on 1st March. I hope your Lordships will agree that we should now give effect to that verdict, and approve the Motion before your Lordships' House. I beg to move that the draft Wales Act 1978 (Repeal) Order 1979, which was laid before this House on 22nd March 1979, in the last Parliament, be approved.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd March 1979 be approved.—(Lord Belstead.)

2.29 p.m.


My Lords, it is not a particularly happy task to be a principal mourner and this seems to he my role today; hut I shall resist the Welsh temptation to linger long at the graveside of the Welsh Act which we are finally burying today. Although Lloyd George described the Welsh as a nation of quarrelsome nightingales, I think that one of the qualities that the Welsh people have is that they do not nurse grievances, and I certainly do not do so now. I believe that the devolution debates at least showed that there is a Welsh element in United Kingdom politics which I believe it would be folly to ignore. Although the attempt to cater for it in the Wales Act failed, the aim to increase democratic control over the machinery of government in Wales was not an unworthy one. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has recognised this in what he has just said. The need for increased democratic control, I believe, remains. Similarly, there is a need to make the several nominated bodies in Wales—and there is a whole plethora of them—more accountable and more democratic.

Whether the Government proposal to deal with these problems by setting up a small Select Committee of 11 Members of Parliament on Welsh affairs will satisfy those needs and the feelings that exist about these things in Wales, remains to be seen. At one point in our debates on the Wales Bill the noble Lord, Lord Elton —whom I am glad to see is here to celebrate his ultimate victory—said: We believe in a louder and more effective Welsh voice in deciding how Wales should be run ". Whether this group of 11 Members of Parliament will be loud enough and effective enough to deal with the shortcomings in Government that I have mentioned, also remains to be seen. The fact is that the issues which gave rise to the prolonged devolution debates both in Scotland and in Wales continue to exist. They cannot be just swept under a parliamentary carpet.

I think it was Seneca who said that that which is intolerable to endure is agreeable to look back upon. Looking back on the long devolution debates, I do not think they were intolerable to endure, but they are at any rate agreeable to look back upon. In particular, I treasure the memory of the courteous, witty and endearing speeches made by Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest. We all lament his recent passing; a great loss has been suffered by us all.

Our Welsh debates were characterised by moderation, good humour and a good deal of hwyel. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, indulged in a good deal of it as the debate went on, and I was prepared to give him honorary Welsh citizenship. So, my Lords, I say farewell to the Welsh Act without recrimination, but in the belief that we have by no means heard the last of the devolution debate, either in respect of Wales or of Scotland.

3.31 p.m.


My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of my noble friend Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran I should like to comment briefly on the order. We on these Benches regret that we should be faced with this order today. We supported the Wales Bill, although we were critical of its provisions, because we have long been committed to the concept of a Parliament for Wales and we felt that the Bill was a very modest step on the road to devolution.

However, in the referendum the Welsh people decisively rejected the Act. Some no doubt rejected it because they were against devolution in any form; some no doubt rejected it because they were against devolution in the particular form in which the Act set it forth. As I said a second ago, we on these Benches were critical of the provisions of the Bill, and indeed on Second Reading I said that there was truth in the criticism that the Assembly might be no more than a glorified county council. It is possible that some who felt that, and who wanted to go further, rejected the Act as inadequate and voted against its implementation.

In any event, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, I cannot believe that a Select Committee will be the final solution. Perhaps if an Assembly for Wales were presented in the context of a federal solution for the United Kingdom as a whole, and with wider powers, it would be acceptable to the people of Wales. We on these Benches will certainly continue to advocate such a solution.

3.33 p.m.

Baroness WHITE

My Lords, I had a self-denying ordinance on the debates on the Act which we are now burying because as chairman of a very active and successful Quango in the Principality I felt I should keep silent. We were one of the bodies which might have been subsumed by the Assembly and therefore had slightly too direct an interest in the matter. I must confess quite frankly that I am very glad that that particular possibility has been removed from us. On the other hand, I have another interest. It is now more than 10 years since Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (whom we shall shortly have the pleasure of welcoming to your Lordships' House) who was then Secretary of State, and I was Minister of State at the Welsh Office, put forward the proposal that arrangements should be made for the surveillance of nominated bodies in the Principality, and that they should be made more publicly answerable.

When the party now in Government came into office in 1970 they paid no attention whatsoever to that proposition. Subsequently, it was overtaken by the much more ambitious scheme which was ultimately rejected by the people of Wales. I am very much interested in the proposals now put forward by the present Secretary of State for Wales. As was said in another place, his propositions at least deserve a cautious welcome.

It would be inappropriate in this House to comment in any detail on the arrangements proposed in the other place beyond perhaps drawing attention to the fact that the Select Committee is to number 11 Members, of which six will be from the Government Benches, and that will take up the entire Government Back-Bench strength that is available for the purpose in the other House.

It is a little galling to those of us who are concerned that Welsh affairs should be considered in detail by the people of Wales that there will be six Conservative places on the Select Committee in return for 11 seats in the House of Commons, whereas the Labour Party in the other place will have something between five and three places, according to the places given to minority parties, in return for 21 Members elected to the House of Commons. Within the Welsh context there is a certain incongruity in this situation.

Nevertheless, we should wish this experiment well. It is not going to be an easy one to carry out for reasons which were given in some detail in the debate in the other place on 26th June, because, although the Secretary of State for Wales has general authority within the Principality, there are a number of bodies which operate there which are not appointed by the Secretary of State for Wales but by other Ministers. There are various curious anomalies, as might be expected in this field. Members of the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council, for instance, are nominated by the Secretary of State for Wales, but he has no control over anything that it does. I do not think that it would be appropriate to go into too much detail on this occasion as to how they intend to operate at the other end.

One should, however, comment on the fact that there is a good deal of very unclear thinking about nominated bodies. They are not at all popular at the moment, and I can think of a number of them myself that I would not grieve over very much if they were disbanded. I am a member of one which might well be done away with for various reasons which we have made very clear to the department concerned.

It is disturbing that there should be this lack of clarity of thought. So far as the ends of policy and administration are concerned, it is extremely important that they should be determined by democratically-elected bodies. But the implementation of those ends, the carrying out of the functions, are not necessarily susceptible to democratic processes in the way in which they are sometimes referred to. I was a little disturbed when my noble and learned friend used the phrase that they should be " more accountable and more democratic ". More accountable, certainly. It depends what you mean by " more democratic ".

I have not unlimited faith that elected bodies will necessarily choose the most appropriate persons for complex affairs which may require specialist knowledge which they are not themselves capable of judging and in fields in which they have inadequate experience to decide who are the appropriate persons. In those circumstances, I think it is far better that bodies should be nominated. There may be occasions in which it is appropriate that elected bodies, particularly local authorities, in this case in the Principality, should put forward a list of persons from whom a selection might be made. But if one is trying to get a balanced team that is not something that one can do by committee. The sooner that some of those who are criticising nominated bodies recognise these facts, the better for the body politic.

As for accountability, that is another matter. Where that is concerned, I am strongly in favour of having a very considerable degree of public questioning and discussion of the manner in which the bodies concerned are carrying out the ends which have been entrusted to them. May I speak for a moment as chairman as one of these nominated bodies; namely, the Land Authority for Wales? That happens to be a peculiarly successful one, if I may say so, which is an embarrassment to Her Majesty's Government at the moment. We should be delighted to appear before the Select Committee or any other appropriate forum and to give an account of our stewardship and explain in greater detail than one normally can in a printed report just how we try to operate. If we are questioned, we shall be glad to admit that sometimes we have made errors of judgment but also show how in other cases we are pursuing ends which we believe are fully compatible with our purpose. We shall be glad to explain to any interested party how we are endeavouring to carry out the duties entrusted to us. That is a thoroughly healthy thing to do, and something I have long thought should be in operation. In so far as the Select Committee in the other place is able to deal with the matter, we should wish it well. I doubt myself whether it can be accepted by any means as the final stage in this process, but it is a beginning, and I think we should give it a fair wind.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, I was particularly pleased to see this order on today's Order Paper—not that I want to rake up any stale coals or to accuse this or that Member of your Lordships' House of any dreamt-up or real infamy that I might bring forward, but because I feel it is perhaps a little overdue. I know there are good reasons for it. The 1st March, St. David's Day, is now four months ago and of course a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. Not only have we had the results—which came out very quickly—of the referenda, but we have had a change of Government, and I think it would be fair to say at this point that, as we have had these very concrete results from the referenda, and particularly the Welsh one that we are now discussing, whatever Government were now in power would be moving this order.

I had the luck to be in Bangor in North Wales last weekend and I discovered something which, though it did not alarm me, did interest me. On Saturday there was a demonstration of young people of Welsh nationalist views. I have since discovered that Bangor has always been a centre of nationalist cohesion, so that, if there was going to be a demonstration, that was the obvious place for it.

This leads me to suppose that this issue of nationalism, and probably of devolution itself, is not something that is going to go away. It is going to come up again and again and again during the course of my lifetime. I would hope that, when it does come up again or at the appropriate time, the then Government will look into exactly what it is the people want and try to get a Bill on to the Statute Book which expresses their hopes and desires, rather than do what I think happened in this case: namely, to suggest a scheme which the people of Wales did not want.

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that during the course of my remarks this afternoon I might contribute towards an explanation of some of the things which the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, may find interesting about nationalism. I think I ought to say, first of all, that I was sorry not to have been able to take part in the debate on the Scotland Act last week. I spoke quite a lot during the passage of that Bill and should have liked to say something on its repeal. Nevertheless what I have to say on this Motion I think would apply equally to the Scotland Act.

I was one of the very few people on my side to show " disloyalty " in opposing both Acts very strongly; but my views were vindicated by the fact that only 7 per cent. of the electors in my county voted for this Act. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, has just said, I do not think this is the last we shall hear of this matter. To the extent that the passage of these two Bills consumed an immense amount of time and energy which might have been better devoted to matters which in fact would have been of more benefit to us, it is a pity that they were brought. But I do not blame the last Government for bringing in the Bills. That one Government or another would have had to bring in a Bill of some kind was in my view inevitable, considering the passion with which a number of distinguished people in Wales and Scotland attached themselves to the cause, and in view also of the way in which Governments of all three colours over the decades have either encouraged or not discouraged them.

Although the great thing is that it has at last been thrashed out in the open, the difficulty has been and still is that in presenting arguments against devolution, as it has been called, one comes up against minds which are so prejudiced that it is perhaps not possible to move them with rational discussion. Thus the noble and learned Lord, Lord Kilbrandon, could say to your Lordships last week in connection with the Scotland Act—and I am quoting from column 1638 on 28th June: There is nothing at all in this Act which is not confined to the internal government and administration of Scotland. If the English say that they do not like the Act, it is a fair retort that they are called upon neither to like it nor dislike it, because it does not affect them ". Of course, the Scotland Act would have affected the English; that for one thing was what the West Lothian question was all about. And this Act likewise would also have affected the English; but it is part of the intellectual outlook of the nationalists that their minds tend to be closed and they cannot look beyond the confines of the area of what they take to be their own country.

So I think it is very important to be as clear as possible about understanding what nationalists believe in. As we know it today, nationalism was shaped largely by mystical philosophers of the 19th century. They believed that history was a force carrying humanity irresistibly forward in a continuous progression of achievement. They acknowledged that some societies appeared to be more forward than others, and so they opined that we were divided into species called " nations ", each with its own defined geographical area, and that these nations would arrive independently of each other at an ultimate condition of progress and grace. In a famous phrase, the 19th century German philosopher, Hegel, said that this would take us another 18 centuries and that we would be led there by the Germanic nations. He thereby contributed towards considerable trouble in this century!

The theory of nationalism dictates that each species, as well as being of the same blood, requires its own culture, flag, anthem, costume and so on, as the outward signs of its homogeneity, and that it should also develop independently its own institutions of government. It therefore follows that if you believe that Wales or Scotland is a nation, you believe that it should have its own parliament. So anyone thinking, much worse saying, that Wales should not have a parliament stands to be condemned not just for letting the side down but for being insulting to the political potential of the inhabitants of Wales and therefore to " the dignity of Wales ". That is a well-known phrase to us who live there.

I think it should be clear that the desire for a parliament, or for other specifically Welsh institutions, does not really stem from a wish for better government or for better institutions. Indeed, the question of the quality of the institutions does not really enter into it, being taken for granted. The primary requirement is that they should be exclusive. This is in order to obtain status in their own eyes—self-respect, one might call it. That is understandable, and that is why the nationalists, and what have been called the quasi-nationalists, are always full of complaints about how hard-done-by they are by the English, to whom they see themselves as being in subjection.

So they have been pushed on by a powerful sense of grievance, aided and abetted over the period of a century by ethnically-minded English people who have scented historical romance within easy travelling distance. If these people did not hold their mystical view of history, and if they did not insist upon politically and artificially dividing the Welsh from the English, along a fictitious border which was drawn in the Middle Ages and which is totally irrelevant to modern life, they would never have manoeuvred themselves into thinking that they were a politically emergent nation, and they would never have cast us, the Welsh, in the role of political juveniles.

Plaid Cymru knows what it believes in, and says that a separate Wales will never join the political grown-ups unless it goes independent. They are right, and I respect them for their views even though they are frankly racialist, and although their small following is bigger than they deserve. But what caused this Act to be brought in and passed were pressures from the quasi-nationalists, who really do not know what they believe in, and who go around with great big chips on their shoulders. They would like to pass on to us all their sense of inferiority and grievance.

They have been playing at Wales being a nation, and have inflicted upon us a kind of second-class nation status, and I believe that they created a worse kind of Government than if we had remained integrated with England. They have been in the habit of claiming to speak for none other than all the people in Wales. One continually hears them saying how the people of Wales want this and the people of Wales think that. But until recently the people of Wales had not been asked what they want or what they think, and the referendum in the secrecy of the ballot box showed, I believe, how few adherents these nationalists actually have.

Yet the fact is that in supporting political institutions, such as the Secretary-ship of State for Wales, Governments have been committed to separatism and therefore to the support of nationalism. This, I think, will lead to a dilemma in the talks which the Government say they are going to have, especially as even now the Government still feel bound to pay lip-service to nationalism and are, as the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has told us, creating separate Select Committees for Wales and for Scotland. Once again, Wales and Scotland will be merely given second-best for nationalistic reasons. The Secretaries of State, being, as I think, Pooh-bahs over six or seven Ministries, are to get Pooh-bah committees attached to them, instead of the dozen specialist subject committees which Westminster Ministers will be dealing with.

So the nationalist wagon still rolls on and I believe that, for the sake of the better democratic functioning of our still united Kingdom, it really must be checked. Nationalism, at first sight, has the appearance of being a democratic ideology and seems to be a cause to which a good, liberally minded person might, or ought to, attach himself. But in case anyone thinks that, I should like to conclude by quoting from a little book by someone called Alfred Cobban, which was published 35 years ago and is called National Self-Determination. He examines nationalism with thoroughness and fairness, and in one passage he says that in view of the history of the movement and its very restricted democratic elements, We are bound to conclude that the association between nationalism and democracy may be the result of historical accident ". I hope that that insight, coming as it does not from me but, with great reserve, from a distinguished historian, will help stiffen the Government in what I hope will be their resolve not to follow upon the same path in relation to Wales and Scotland as Governments have been wont to travel in the past approximately 100 years.

3.57 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones, for his acceptance of this order. The noble and learned Lord, and indeed many of his noble friends, some of whom are sitting in the House this afternoon, together with my noble friend Lord Elton and other of his noble friends, laboured long and seriously over the Bill. If, in office, my noble friend Lord Elton had not disappeared across the water to Northern Ireland, I am sure that he would have wished to reciprocate the noble and learned Lord's courteous and humorous remarks.

As I understood him, the noble and learned Lord said that Parliament must not underestimate the importance of Wales in the affairs of the United Kingdom. In essence, I think that all the remarks of your Lordships who have taken part in this short debate this afternoon have been to the same effect, and the Government genuinely take that view seriously. With the conclusive vote of the people of Wales, we feel that we take this seriously by saying that we have to look to the future. We believe that the first reform that is needed is to increase Parliamentary control over Government and the bodies which Government appoints in Wales. It is for this reason that the remit of the Select Committee on Welsh affairs is widely drawn.

With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, the setting up of a Select Committee is not paying lip service to nationalism in Wales. In 1978, the Procedure Committee of the House of Commons recommended that there should be Select Committees covering all the Departments of State. But, of course, Scotland and Wales were left to one side because they were the subject of devolution legislation and the Government have decided that it is of the first importance that Wales should be provided with a Select Committee. It will cover the responsibilities of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

Of course, the noble Baroness, Lady White, is absolutely right that there will be some overlapping with other Departments, and the responsibilities which will fall within the ambit of the Select Committee for Welsh Affairs will have to be seen in the context of the other departmental Select Committees. But let me make it crystal clear that that does not detract from the fact that the new Select Committees will cover the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales. If I may be allowed to say so, I think that the Government have started well in this respect. We have already seen the Welsh debate in another place, an active start by the Welsh Grand Committee and the setting-up of the new Select Committee to which I have just been referring.


My Lords, I wonder whether it would be possible for the noble Lord to say if the Select Committee will sit in Wales from time to time and have public deliberations, if that is the right word?


My Lords, I am afraid that the noble and learned Lord has bowled me out. I should like, if I may, to write to him on the matter. This will, of course, be a committee of another place—


Yes, my Lords.


—and, as the noble and learned Lord would be the first to tell me, it will be within their remit to decide where they will sit. None the less, I should like to collect what information I can gather on that point and write to the noble and learned Lord.

Baroness WHITE

My Lords, with great respect, the order which was passed in the other place would permit them to do so.


My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. As I was saying, I think that this is not a bad start. Whereas at the beginning I said that noble Lords all agreed, in one sense, with the noble and learned Lord, perhaps it is fair to me to say that noble Lords speaking in this debate have also in essence said that if there is not to be a devolution Bill this is not a bad way of making a fresh start. In the hope that that is the right way of summing up what has been said this afternoon, I now ask your Lordships to agree to the passing of this order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.