HL Deb 22 July 1997 vol 581 cc1322-39

4.17 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the Government's proposals for creating an assembly for Wales.

"This Government believe that, in the United Kingdom, too much power is centralised in the hands of too few people. We believe that there is too little freedom for people in each part of the United Kingdom to decide their own priorities. Our manifesto made clear our intention to give Britain a modern constitution fitting a modern and progressive country. We believe it is right to bring decisions closer to the people, to open up government, to reform Parliament and to increase individual rights.

"Madam Speaker, the White Paper I am publishing today marks a major step forward in the achievement of our proposals for Wales. We propose to create a democratically elected assembly that will give the people of Wales a real say in the way public services in Wales are run.

"Since the Welsh Office was set up over 30 years ago, there has been a progressive devolution of administration to Wales. As Secretary of State for Wales I am responsible for taking decisions about health, education, economic development, roads, planning and many other public services that matter to people's lives. I am accountable to this House. But our procedures here are too often seen as remote from the day to day realities of devolved administration.

"Madam Speaker, this Government are committed to bringing decisions closer to the citizen. Our aim is to improve public services by making them more responsive to the needs and the views of people in Wales.

"Wales will continue to share the same framework of laws as England, including the primary legislation made for it by Parliament; and it will remain firmly part of the United Kingdom. But the new assembly will assume many of the functions and powers which I currently exercise. It will have at its disposal the staff and budget of the Welsh Office—now totalling £7 billion. It will determine policies and set standards for major public services. It will bring forward secondary legislation where necessary to implement these policies. It will assume responsibility for unelected bodies in Wales and have powers to reform them and bring them to account. This means that in future decisions on schools, health care and other key services will be taken by people directly elected by, and accountable to, Welsh voters, and responsive therefore to their views. And we will be equipping the assembly to set a new economic agenda for Wales, focused on Welsh needs and priorities, to create the new jobs and industry that Wales still badly needs. Above all else the assembly will provide a clear and distinctive voice for Wales.

"Madam Speaker, the Government intend that the assembly should be a new kind of elected body, open to all talents and close to the people it serves, working in partnership with central and local government, for the benefit of all parts of Wales. It is this Government's intention to forge a new kind of politics. The assembly will therefore be based on principles of partnership, democracy and inclusiveness.

"Partnership. First, the assembly will improve the government of Wales by working in partnership with others, and especially with Welsh local government. That partnership will respect the legitimate role of each of the tiers.

"Madam Speaker, in making this point, I thank my honourable friend the Member for Rhondda for his most helpful paper on the proper relationship between the assembly and local government. Let me tell him and the House: the assembly will promote and foster local government in Wales; the assembly will regularly review with local government how effectively that commitment is being observed; the assembly will not be given any new power to take functions away from local government; but it will be given powers to transfer functions from quangos to local government. The establishment of the assembly gives local government a new opportunity to reassert its rightful place as an equal partner in the governance of Wales. The assembly will also need to work closely with other key partners, including business and industry and the European institutions. The business community will gain easier access to key decision-makers in the assembly as it pursues its new economic agenda; and the assembly will listen to the voice of business and respond quickly and effectively to its needs.

"The assembly will foster a new relationship with Europe. The administration of European structural funds is a matter of great importance to us in Wales. This responsibility will pass to the assembly which will, in consultation with the Commission, be able to determine priorities for European funding in Wales. Assembly members with executive responsibilities and their officials may, where appropriate, have a role to play in delegations to the Council of Ministers as agreed by the UK Minister leading those negotiations.

"Democracy. I turn to the second principle: democracy. For the first time the key decisions for Wales will be made by people elected by and democratically accountable to the people of Wales. The executive committee will provide the political leadership for the assembly and will be subject to scrutiny through the processes of question and debate. Under the assembly, policies which matter to people in Wales—education, health, and other key public services—will be determined in Wales.

"I now turn to the quango state. In recent years the growth in the number of unelected bodies and some of their activities have caused great concern in Wales. Our proposals for a new and democratic structure of government in Wales will address that concern. The assembly will be given sweeping powers to democratise and if necessary further restructure quangos that remain. That is a major package of reform, but in the Government's view the need to start the reform of the quango state in Wales is too urgent to be left to await the assembly. Action is required now even before the assembly is established—a point which has been made forcefully by my right honourable friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney in earlier debates. I agree. The Bill establishing the assembly will by merging the WDA, the DBRW and the Land Authority for Wales, create a new economic development agency for Wales. It will be a powerhouse to promote the economic regeneration of Wales. It will also transfer Tai Cymru's staff and functions to the Welsh Office and wind up that body.

"We will also wind up Cardiff Bay Development Corporation by March 2000 while securing the continuing development of Cardiff Bay; reduce the number of training and enterprise councils in Wales from six to four; and make important changes to NHS administration. The Government have already announced that the number of NHS trusts will be reduced. Today I can tell the House that the Health Promotion Authority for Wales and the Welsh Health Common Services Authority will be wound up and their functions transferred. Taken together, Madam Speaker, these proposals will have a profound effect. Unelected bodies will be reduced in number before the assembly is established and placed under proper democratic control and scrutiny once the assembly is in place. No longer will our key public services lie in the hands of political appointees operating in secret and accountable to no one in Wales.

"Inclusiveness. Madam Speaker, the third principle I mentioned was inclusiveness. The assembly we propose will have 60 members. Forty of them will be directly elected from constituencies, with 20 additional members to provide an element of proportionality. Voters will be able to vote both for constituency candidates and for party lists for additional members. The assembly will reflect all of Wales in its membership and in its working practices. Its committees will give all political parties in the assembly the opportunity to make their distinctive contribution to its work. And our proposals for regional committees will give all parts of Wales a stake in the assembly's success. I want people of real ability and commitment representing the widest possible range of interests to serve in the new assembly. In particular, although this is not a matter for legislation it is vital that we see greater participation by women in public life in Wales, and I look forward to seeing a high proportion of women as assembly members.

"The United Kingdom. Madam Speaker, it has been suggested by members of the official Opposition that our proposals in some way threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom. That is simply wrong. Parliament will continue to be responsible for primary legislation for Wales. There will be no reduction in Wales's representation in Parliament as a result of our establishing the assembly. The Secretary of State will continue to represent Welsh interests in the Cabinet and will participate fully in the Government's formulation of policy—and, through his links with the assembly, will ensure that Wales's voice is more clearly heard on issues of major importance to Wales. In the same way, assembly officials, who will be members of the Home Civil Service, will work in close partnership with officials in other government departments in developing policy proposals. Wales will remain an integral part of the United Kingdom. Let there be no doubt of that.

"Conclusion. Madam Speaker, on 18th September we intend to submit these proposals to the people for their endorsement. I am making arrangements for the White Paper to be widely available throughout Wales. A leaflet describing our plans will go to every household and the White Paper text will be made available on the Internet. Everyone in Wales will have the opportunity to know about our plans and to contribute to the debate in advance of the referendum. The Welsh assembly is a key element in this Government's project for a new Britain with strong communities, a modern constitution and a confident place in the world. In this new Britain, Wales will have its voice. These proposals are right for Wales and right for Britain, and I commend them to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.29 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for repeating the Statement made in another place and for his great courtesy in helping me to obtain a copy of the White Paper in time to have at least a glance through it before the Statement was repeated. It appears that the Welsh Office's van had forgotten that the House of Lords was here. If we come to the Bill that is to implement devolution I suspect that it will have good cause to remember where the House of Lords is for many long nights.

In terms of getting the information out to the wide world, I was particularly interested to note that this would be published on the Internet. I took the trouble to look at the Welsh Office site before I entered the Chamber to see whether this great event was presaged. The only statement that I could find on the subject was that press announcements had been withdrawn for the period of the general election. There may be a little updating to do.

Those of us who have been lucky enough have now received copies of the White Paper. I believe that it is available in the Printed Paper Office. One can now see the mess of pottage for which the Welsh are being asked to exchange their birthright. One sees at considerable length the dishonest question that is to be posed to that great country. On the one hand one is told that nothing in this threatens the Union. On the other hand if one happens to be a Plaid Cymru supporter one is told that this is the first step on the road to independence. There appears to be no shame about presenting those two answers to the same question.

The White Paper is entitledA Voice for Wales. It should be A Lost Voice for Wales. All that will be left at the end is an off-stage croak. It is as if the Government had invited a member of a great Welsh choir to step forward and take a solo part, only to tell him afterwards that he would have to sing the solo part in a locked room in the basement. Wales will be sidelined in government and Parliament. It will be a sad day if the proposition is ever agreed to.

I shall concentrate on asking the Minister some questions. I do not necessarily expect to receive answers today. I hope that he will be able to reply to me in writing before our debate—say, by next Tuesday evening—so that we can follow up the points which concern us.

I turn first to a subject which will be of considerable interest to the House; that is, the mechanism by which power will be devolved to the assembly. We are faced with a wide range of secondary legislation over which it is proposed the assembly should have power. Some of the secondary legislation has a great deal of flexibility in it; other parts are narrow. How will we set about widening that discretion so that the assembly can make use of it? Are we to be faced with an enormous Henry VIII clause so that it can all be done by secondary legislation, perhaps by the assembly itself, within some rather loosely defined power?

We are told that Welsh legislation will continue to pass through this Parliament. On what sort of timetable? How will it be done? Who is to promote it? Who is to ensure that it receives the precedence that it should have in the scheme of things? The White Paper says that the assembly will examine proposals for UK legislation to see what relevance they have for Wales. When will it do that? Will legislation be released to the Welsh assembly in advance of its coming to Parliament? Does that constitute a promise to publish all Bills several months in advance so that they can be looked at by the assembly?

It would be helpful if the Government, in their publicity, would make clear the limitations of what is being proposed for Wales. An interesting article in today's Western Mail contains two equal and opposite misunderstandings. The teachers have put together a "Teachers say Yes" campaign for Wales. They had a conference yesterday. One speaker said: We would not have seen the imposition of nursery vouchers; we would not have seen the opting out of schools if there had been a Welsh assembly. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is not the case. Those laws would have been passed in this Parliament and would have been effective in Wales. All that the Welsh assembly could have done would have been to ensure that they were pursued properly in Wales. The Welsh assembly could not have opted out of the legislation.

The second misconception in the article is the statement that the Welsh assembly could channel more funds to schools. That is equal and opposite. There is a widespread misconception that the Welsh assembly will not interfere with local government; that local government will continue to choose how much money goes to schools. That is clearly not the opinion of the teachers. Nor is it my opinion, having read the White Paper. It is clear to me that what is proposed for local authorities is that they should be subject to the power of the assembly. The assembly should decide how much money they are getting; should be able to ring fence what they are doing; and should be able to give directions which amount to pretty thorough control of local authorities. I should be delighted if the Minister would confirm that my understanding is right.

It would be helpful also if the Minister could outline the limitations that there will be on the assembly's powers which justify the policy of continuing with 40 Welsh MPs. It is clear that that policy will be called into question if some people's views of how wide the powers go are supported. As I understand it, the reason why the number of Welsh MPs is not to be reduced is that the powers are limited. A restatement of that by the Minister would be welcome.

Much was made of the quango state, although the reduction, as I see it, is from 80 to 71, which is not a major reduction. It rather gives the lie to a great deal of the rhetoric used in the run-up to the White Paper. Will the Minister confirm that what is at issue is not the power of the quangos passing to the assembly, but power over the quangos passing to the assembly? By and large, they will continue to exist. If they do not continue to exist, that is because, for the most part, they will have been merged with other quangos.

Will the Minister also confirm that the power to appoint members to those quangos as well as the power to hold the quangos to account will rest with the assembly? Is that not a rather surprising conflict of interest with which we deal adequately in our Parliament by having the appointment by Ministers and the questioning by the PAC? Why does the Minister believe it to be satisfactory that appointment and holding to account should be done by the same body? Will the Minister enlighten me as to the continuing role, or otherwise, of the NAO when it comes to the affairs of the assembly and of the quangos which it will control?

A little noticed—I do not believe that it has been widely presaged—element in the White Paper is the advent of regional committees of the assembly, representing the different bits of Wales. That surely must be a recipe for dissent between the different parts of Wales and a mechanism to allow it to happen and to encourage it. Will the Minister enlighten us as to how those regional committees will dovetail with the all-Wales committees, and how that process might be made to work without the dissent which seems inevitable?

My noble friend Lord Crickhowell, in his recent amendment, made much of the fate of the Secretary of State for Wales. When he has a chance to read the whole of the White Paper he will see that that creature is not to be a broker; he is, at best, to be a bookie's runner. He will have immense difficulty deciding where his loyalty lies. Is he a member of the Cabinet and responsible to the Cabinet under collective responsibility or is he someone who is loyal to Wales? When the two take different views, where will his heart and voice be? Surely it will quickly result in neither side believing that he is one of them, and his becoming totally excluded and irrelevant.

The assembly's powers to direct and control the cash flowing to local authorities; to control what they are doing; to cap them or not cap them, as it chooses in the future; to set rates and business rates, amount in the end, if I read it aright, to the assembly having tax raising powers. If the assembly can withdraw money from local authorities for its own purposes, leaving those authorities to make up the money through the council tax, that is just as much tax raising as if it had power over income tax. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain why, in that case, the Welsh are not being offered the second question that the Scots are.

An interesting variety of proportional representation is proposed for the elections. I am sure that it will greatly please the Liberal Democrat Party. I am not sure that I understand its details. What surprises me is that it is to be based on Welsh Euro-constituencies. Is it not true that by the time the assembly comes to be in place there will be no such constituencies? Wales will be all one region within the list system. So has the Government's thinking become a little confused as to what it will be based on? Where are the powers over the police which the Prime Minister promised to Wales only last week? I see no mention at all of them in the White Paper.

I have one last question: will Peers be entitled to vote for this? That is of local interest and I have failed to pick it up in the White Paper. As the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, said in speaking to my noble friend's amendment, the Government have out-Chinesed the Chinese with one country, four systems. Indeed, why stop there? The Government will not stop there because there will be a different system for London and it may be that the different regions of England will be able to choose their own system.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I was suggesting that that is the situation at the present moment rather than what the Government are proposing.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, it is clearly what the Government are proposing and they are proposing to take it further. I find their reasons for this proposition entirely inscrutable. However, we shall subject the inscrutable to scrutiny to make it suitably acceptable.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I am sure that I can put the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, at peace straightaway. I am sure that Peers can vote in the Welsh assembly provided that they are elected.

I add my thanks to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made in another place. First, I should like to congratulate the Government on producing this White Paper. I barely know the Secretary of State for Wales but I have the impression that he is a very direct, straightforward chap who is a determined person. He has delivered what he has been working so hard to do for several years in Wales. It is somewhat refreshing to have that direct approach rather than the PR approach which we had so often from the previous government.

I say that I congratulate the Government but, as they are aware, the proposals do not begin to achieve what my party stands for; that is, a domestic parliament for Wales. Our support for the Government is based on the fact that we much prefer the Government's proposals to the status quo because the status quo had become virtually intolerable in Wales. We had so many quangos, a disproportionate number of which represented Conservative interests. That was what was so objectionable about it.

The electors of Wales demonstrated their disapproval of that in the election results. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, will be very happy to know that if the Government's proposals are approved in Wales in the referendum, at least it will ensure that the Conservative Party has some representation in the government of Wales which otherwise it might not have at all either in the other place or, indeed, at the result of the next election.

I wish to ask the Government a certain number of questions on this matter. Obviously the greatest virtue of this proposed new body is that it will be a forum in Wales and it will be the first directly elected forum that we have ever had in our history. But the second very important matter concerns the quangos. As I understand it, the Government will abolish or amalgamate some of them before the next election. However, I do not read in the White Paper and do not understand that the assembly will have the power to abolish quangos. I believe that gradually we could do away with all the quangos in Wales. From a business point of view, I am a great believer in having managers to manage and who are responsible to somebody. That somebody should be the elected body in Wales. Therefore, I do not see the need for quangos as such if we are to have a properly run assembly.

As the noble Lord pointed out in the Statement: Since the Welsh Office was set up over 30 years ago, there has been a progressive devolution of administration to Wales". That is the answer to many of the criticisms made from the Opposition Benches. Devolution is an evolutionary process. I think I am right in saying that in 1964, when the Welsh Office was set up, it had 260 civil servants. That coincides almost exactly with the number of civil servants now employed in the regional offices set up by the Conservative Government in England in 1994. They now number 260 on average.

Therefore, that devolution has been started in England, which was already apparent in Wales before 1964 when the Welsh Office came into being. We may see in Wales the development of a means of having regional government which could be extended to England because the basis for it already exists there and was set up by the last government. However, modestly, they do not seem to take any credit for it. It may be that they wish to hide that devolutionary tendency from the electorate. I do not know.

The third matter is the relationship of the Welsh assembly to Europe. Obviously the European Structural Funds, which are so important in the development of Europe, are disbursed regionally. But what exactly will be the power of the Welsh assembly? For example, is it envisaged that there will be a European committee of the Welsh assembly which will specifically and directly deal with Brussels on those matters? With regard to membership of the assembly, I understand that the Secretary of State for Wales is to be an ex officio member. That is almost certainly part of an evolutionary process because I cannot see that there will forever be a Secretary of State. In time, that office will disappear.

Are MPs to be allowed to be members of the assembly? I very much hope not. In the White Paper it is said that it is intended that members of the assembly should regard it as a full-time occupation. I hope that Members of Parliament at Westminster will not be able to duplicate matters and become members of the assembly. Nor do I think that councillors from the various local councils in Wales, except for the community councils, should become members of the assembly. I do not believe that there should be, as it were, a clash of interest. It would be very much better for the assembly if it were independent of both national and local government, as far as that is possible.

The regional committees proposed will clearly he very important. There is an oft-repeated suggestion that the rural parts of Wales—and north Wales in particular—will be dominated by south Wales. Will the Government bear in mind that it is not so much a question of the division of north Wales and south Wales as a division between the industrial areas and the rural areas. For example, there will be a great deal to be said for the mid-Wales region of the five old counties—Cardiganshire, Meirionnydd, Montgomery, Brecon and Radnor—being subject to one regional committee because they have similar problems as opposed to the problems of north Wales or south Wales taken as a whole. Therefore, I hope that the Government will be able to confirm that there is no rigid thinking on those matters in relation to the regional committees.

When the Welsh Office is divided—and I refer to the majority of civil servants who come directly under the assembly—will there be a means of ensuring that the executive side works very well because in Parliament Ministers deal with the executive side of government while we deal with the legislative side? The Welsh assembly will deal with secondary legislation but if it is to control most of the civil servants in Wales by what means will they ensure that they are answerable to the assembly in an executive way? That matter needs a good deal of thought and guidance by experts.

I believe that the White Paper sets out exactly what the Government said they would produce. I have always made it clear that if the choice were mine I should have a different White Paper, as I am sure would the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, from his viewpoint. I believe that the proposal is what the people of Wales are likely to accept. It is what is on offer and it is very much better for Wales than the status quo.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, in his opening remarks. I appreciate his courtesy. If there was a misunderstanding about the journey that a particular copy of the White Paper followed at a particular time, I am happy to say that it was no more than that. I am also happy about the way he has approached his responsibilities vis-à-vis mine. I am grateful for his suggestion that if I wish to give mature consideration to particular matters I may write to him. I promise him, I dare say to the horror of the officials, that should I do so he will have the letter by Tuesday evening, as he graciously suggested.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, for his introductory remarks, in particular about the Secretary of State for Wales. Whether you agree with him or not, what you see is what you get! As the noble Lord said, it is a refreshing change and for the avoidance of doubt perhaps I may say that I agree with him.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, raised the question of Peers. Reference to that is to be found in the White Paper at page 37, paragraph C.7. It states: Members of the House of Commons, the European Parliament, or local authorities, and non-judicial members of the House of Lords. will be eligible to stand as candidates for the Assembly"— and this is important in the context of Wales— as will ministers of religion". Perhaps I may attach my answer to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, and extend to him the privilege that was offered to me by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Members of Parliament will be able to stand as members of the assembly. That is made plain in the citation that I gave from paragraph C.7.

Equally, the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, is correct in indicating that it is anticipated that membership of the Welsh assembly would be a full-time job. Ultimately, it will be a matter for individual political parties to decide whether it is sensible and appropriate that, for instance, an MEP ought to stand for election to the Welsh assembly. Different parties have different views. In the Northern Ireland context, the Reverend Ian Paisley is a Member of another place and a Member of the European Parliament. Such issues are best left to individual party and personal decisions.

Both noble Lords raised the question of the committees. It is intended that there shall be four different types. First, there will be subject committees, which will be responsible for particular areas of policy such as education or health. Secondly, there will be scrutiny committees, which will need to scrutinise proposed assembly orders or financial matters, therefore ensuring that the appropriate rules are properly followed.

Thirdly, there will be regional committees providing different parts of Wales with opportunities to express their views on matters of local concern. I deal specifically with the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson. We have very much in mind the problems that he outlined. The intention would be to have four regional committees; one for north Wales, one for mid-Wales, one for the south west and one for the south east. I believe that his point is well made and that there ought to be the most careful consideration with present bodies and local authorities to determine precisely where the boundaries should be drawn. We do not approach the question with a closed mind. We believe that those with experience of Welsh affairs across the spectrum have a useful input into the decisions that are made about the boundaries.

Fourthly, there will be an executive committee, which will provide political leadership for the assembly in the same way as does the Cabinet. I confirm that the Secretary of State will be a member of the assembly, able to take part in the deliberations but not to vote.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked about the police function. It is well known that the police function is a Home Office function. It is intended to remain with the Home Office. However, perhaps I may give a sensible, foreseeable example. If there were serious questions about police practices in any part of Wales, or in any area of Welsh life, it may well be that the assembly would wish to concern itself with what might have gone wrong. I do not say that in the sense that it would be able to direct police practice, which is firmly lodged in the present arrangements for the police forces. However, I believe that it is legitimate for such an assembly at least to ask for conversations and for an exchange of views with the appropriate police authorities, even perhaps with the appropriate chief constable. I see no difficulty or problem with that if one approaches the matter on the basis that I believe the majority of people in Wales will approach it; namely, that we want to make it work.

Of course, we can be gloomy and say that Wales is fit for no better control over its affairs than it presently has. We can turn our backs on the opportunity that we now have; the first opportunity to have accountable, devolved, representative government in Wales, as the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, rightly said. It is true—it has been said many times and it remains true—that there are devolved powers but they are not accountable in a full sense to the people of Wales. They have been unduly obscured. They have been kept private and secret, although the sums involved are vast—£7 billion or so of public money per year.

We believe that a sea change has occurred in Wales in the past 20 years. We believe that the proposal is what the people of Wales want. They want a decent consideration of their opinions. I invite your Lordships to accept that they do not say that in any sense of wishing to be aggressive or confrontational. Earlier this week, the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, made a point which stuck in my mind. Wales as a country has matured and changed and developed confidence during the past 10 years or so. He is right in saying, "Go and look at Cardiff." It is now a metropolitan, European city. We do not look down on anyone.

I value what England has to offer to the United Kingdom. I have lived here for most of my adult life and I know that it has enormous qualities of fairness and decency. The rest of the world has been able to learn from it. We believe in the Union but we believe in diversity. When noble Lords opposite speak of their Scottish experiences and traditions I respect them. I have been to Scotland only once—and that was only for the day!—but I know that Scotland is different. It does not claim to be better—at least, not too obviously—but it has variety to offer. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said that this is a mess of potage and that the birthright is being sold but I must most gently disagree. We are not selling our birthright; we are recovering it. I stress again, because there are mischief-makers about, that this is in no sense hostile to any other people who live in the United Kingdom, which we hope will continue to subsist.

Specific questions were asked about the control of local authority expenditure and the functions of the present Secretary of State. They will be transferred to the assembly. We say that that will democratise the current arrangements. We say that we are looking for a spirit of mutual respect between the local authorities in Wales and the new assembly. I am happy to repeat that no member of a local authority in Wales need fear that his or her powers will be decreased—quite the opposite is true. As regards tax, the arrangements currently in place whereby the Secretary of State determines the size of the local government settlement will transfer to the assembly.

A specific question—I believe it to be important—was asked about the National Audit Office. There will be an auditor general for Wales who will be supported by the National Audit Office. We are entirely in agreement with the spirit behind the question of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. Of course we need to be absolutely certain that the arrangements for accountability of public spending are properly in place.

The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, asked how power will be devolved. It is proposed that power will be devolved by a transfer order to be available for scrutiny before the Committee stage of the Bill. I hope that your Lordships think that is appropriate.

A further question was asked about control of the quangos. These bodies spend a vast amount of public money. I believe there is serious concern in Wales about accountability and whether or not the money is appropriately controlled. The assembly will be able to set the strategic framework for the quangos, make appointments to the quangos and fund them. Ultimately, it will be able to limit their powers.

We shall have to await the conclusion of those eligible to vote in Wales. I believe that it will be a positive conclusion. I believe that we have a fair wind for a voyage which will be exciting and which will have a productive outcome for those who care about the government of Wales.

5.2 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating a Statement made by my right honourable friend in another place, Mr. Ron Davies. Before I ask a number of questions I declare an interest as the chair of two bodies, one of which is to be transferred into the assembly; namely, the Welsh Language Board. The board welcomes that as a democratisation of its activity. Indeed, it decided at its last meeting to hold its future meetings in public as part of this new spirit of Welsh democracy. The other body, Sgrîn, is partly funded by the Welsh Development Agency.

In asking questions about this document I emphasise that, contrary to what my noble friend Lord Hooson might have implied, this is a White Paper which I unreservedly welcome. This is a White Paper which the Government promised and the Government have delivered it. More than that, it sets out a detailed and extremely intelligent structure of government for Wales. Contrary to what has been implied by some Conservatives opposite, it is not a staging post to anywhere else; it is a viable system of government in its own right. It is as stable, and can prove to be as stable in my view, as the Welsh Office in its great days under the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell.

This paper proposes for Wales three exciting developments. I am impressed by the commitment to regional devolution within Wales. Does the Minister foresee that there will be direct links between the regional committees of the assembly within Wales and local government, and also the training and enterprise councils and indeed other agencies which are currently established as joint agencies with local government?

My next question relates to the relationship with Europe. My understanding is that the assembly will elect members of the Committee of the Regions of the European Union. That is to be warmly welcomed. It was an unsatisfactory situation—although my own party, Plaid Cymru, benefited from it—when members were nominated. Now that there is a directly elected tier in Wales—if this is approved in the referendum—there will be direct election from the assembly to the Committee of the Regions.

Can the Minister confirm that it is the Government's intention that the assembly will scrutinise European legislation in draft form in detail; that the assembly will be able to continue to develop the existing WEC arrangements in Brussels should it so wish; and that the assembly will be able to have its own independent representation in parallel to representation of the current UK structure in Brussels?

My next point relates to the issue of equal opportunities. How do the Government intend to ensure that their objective and ours of greater equality of representation within the assembly is pursued? It is crucially important that this body is seen to represent the whole of Wales and that the gross gender inequality of the whole of Welsh politics should be urgently addressed.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for those comments. Although I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, and I have ever been members of the same political party we still have our different regards and different views about Wales. He is right to make the point that the Welsh Language Board which has done so much good in Wales has moved with the times. As he rightly said, the fact that the board is now holding its meetings in public is a reflection of a changed world.

The assembly members with executive responsibilities, and officials, may have a role to play in delegations, for example to the Council of Ministers, as agreed by the UK Minister leading those negotiations. The Secretary of State will continue to be able to participate at meetings of the Council of Ministers and, where appropriate, represent the United Kingdom on certain matters on the same basis as now. The Welsh assembly will have at its disposal the staff of the Welsh Office. We believe that there will be sufficient back-up available properly to discharge duties in addressing these European issues. The Welsh assembly will be able to scrutinise EU documents and it will be able to convey its views to the Secretary of State and to the UK delegations in Brussels. It will therefore be able to ensure that those views are taken into account in United Kingdom policy formulation.

The Welsh assembly will have to ensure the implementation of EU obligations in Wales. We obviously want to play a full part in the United Kingdom—a United Kingdom which is part of the European Union, and a part of the European Union which we wish to see continue. I may not have made it sufficiently plain that the assembly will take over the current functions of the Welsh Office with respect to the structural fund programmes for Wales. That means that the assembly will be able to determine in agreement with the European Commission what should be the priorities for the structural funds in Wales; how they should be administered; and how the partnership of organisations which access structural funds should be involved in the process.

The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, said it was important that there should be a devolutionary process which does not stop at Cardiff. I express that point more crudely than he did. I entirely agree with him. Devolution of powers will not be a single step. If the assembly is to do its work properly it will wish to have the closest liaison with local authorities, the business community, development agencies and public bodies. We do not wish there to be a monolithic devolution; if it is a monolith it will have no life and therefore it will not be successful.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. There are some matters in the Statement and in the White Paper which I welcome. For example, I welcome the fact that the White Paper confirms that Wales has been extremely successful in attracting inward investment and already enjoys a relatively favourable business climate. That is something one could not possibly have said 18 years ago. I also welcome the noble Lord's statement that over that same period it has developed a new confidence. Again I do not think one could have said that at the time I took over my responsibilities.

I agree with and welcome the decisions to merge the WDA, the Development Board for Rural Wales and the Land Authority for Wales. When I took over my responsibilities those bodies had been recently created by the preceding Labour Government. Clearly they had to be allowed to develop at that time. Indeed, I ensured the survival of the Land Authority for Wales. However, I think that the time has come to bring them together. It is a sensible proposal.

I also think it right that the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation should hand over its responsibilities around the year 2000. That is exactly what I intended when I set it up. I said at the time that it was there in order to hand over responsibilities to local governments. I agree with all that.

However, the Statement said that there is too little freedom for people in each part of the United Kingdom to decide their own priorities. In view of the fact that all the domestic responsibilities of the Secretary of State are to be handed over in Wales to an assembly, I must repeat the question to which I failed to receive an answer during our recent discussions. What then is to be done to ensure that the people in England have that same ability to decide their own affairs?

Perhaps I may address one group of issues: the relationship of the assembly to Parliament. The White Paper says that, There will be a procedure for the speedy settlement of any disputes about the Assembly's use of its powers, and if it exceeds its powers the Government will be able to challenge It in the Courts". Will the Minister tell us what is envisaged as procedure for the speedy settlement of any disputes? Disputes there inevitably will be. A body with control over £7 billion of expenditure which distributes money to local authorities will from time to time have disputes. I had nothing like that amount when I was Secretary of State, but I had to distribute money to local authorities, and about half that sum to other organisations. As Secretary of State I was faced from time to time with disputes. How are those disputes to be resolved?

The White Paper then states that, The Secretary of State for Wales and Members of Parliament representing Welsh constituencies will have a continuing role, but one which will be based upon a new partnership with the Assembly". Will the Minister tell us a little more about the nature of that new partnership? Unless they are members of the assembly, Welsh Members will no longer be able to raise questions in Parliament as they can at present about the health service, the education service and all the other matters that most interest Members of Parliament in their own constituencies.

The White Paper also states that, The Secretary of State will continue to be accountable to Parliament for his actions through the normal mechanisms of Parliamentary Questions and debate. He will not however be accountable for the activities of the Welsh Assembly". So what is he to be accountable for? Are Welsh Questions simply to address the nature of the messages that are passed by the Secretary of State up and down the conduit between the assembly in Wales and those few responsibilities that remain? Matters to deal with royalty are hardly likely to be the subject of frequent question. There are a small number of organisations, but it will be a pretty thin Question Time. What will the Secretary of State answer to Parliament about? We need some clarification on the future role of the Secretary of State and Members of Parliament in Parliament.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am reluctant to intervene, but we have had two interventions from Back-Benchers which have taken 11 minutes. I hope that the House will not take it unkindly from me if I draw attention to the Companion which says: Ministerial statements are made for the information of the House, and although brief comments and questions for clarification from all quarters of the House are allowed, such statements should not be made the occasion for an immediate debate". We seem to be verging on an immediate debate.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I did not mean to be discourteous to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gwydir. However, I shall respond briefly to some matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, bearing in mind the injunctions of the Lord Privy Seal.

First, I shall deal with the fast track procedure to which the noble Lord referred. The question of a dispute between the assembly in terms of vires on secondary legislation and the Westminster Parliament will be capable of a fast track dispute resolution. The intention is that the matters shall be in some circumstances immediately referrable to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, asked about a new partnership. He asked about the accountability of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State for Wales will continue to have important functions. He will participate fully in the Government's policy formulation, in legislative and resource decisions. He will represent the needs of Wales in Cabinet and Cabinet committees. He will sit on relevant Standing Committees of the House of Commons considering legislation which affects Wales. The short answer to the noble Lord's question is this. Any retained responsibilities which still remain with the Secretary of State for Wales will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny in another place in the usual way.

Perhaps I may respectfully suggest that we are attempting a debate which has been set for a little later in your Lordships' House, I believe next week. I would prefer to deal with specific questions either by letter if noble Lords prefer, as did the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, or by awaiting the general debate.

Lord Thomas of Gwydir

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister a simple question. He referred to the functions of the Secretary of State. The White Paper makes it perfectly clear that it is the intention of the Government that almost all the functions of the Secretary of State will be transferred to the assembly. I believe that about 2,000 civil servants are attached to the Welsh Office. How many of those will be transferred to the assembly, and how many will be left to the service of the Secretary of State?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot deal with that in precise figures. I can agree with the noble Lord's observation that a substantial bulk of the Secretary of State's present responsibilities will be devolved to the assembly and therefore a substantial number of the civil servants who will remain members of the Home Civil Service will be attached to the assembly for the discharge of those functions.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I welcome the White Paper with enthusiasm. I also congratulate the Minister on the manner in which he introduced it and replied to questions about it.

I particularly welcome the reference in the White Paper to an all-party commission to decide on standing orders. Will the Minister confirm that the intention is that the assembly should be less confrontational than the Westminster model; and that there should be a greater degree of co-operation between parties in serving the interests of Wales through this assembly?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do. It is far from my mind that our discussions on the referendums Bill have been in any sense controversial.

Wales is a different country. It has a small population. It has particular characteristics. I hear from the Benches behind me that it has select characteristics—perhaps elite characteristics. The way ahead for us in Wales is co-operation. Your Lordships may remember that years ago I mentioned this matter in a constitutional debate. If it wished, in present conditions, the Labour Party could have bullied through such a system as would have produced a virtually monolithic result in the assembly elections. We specifically chose, I believe honourably, not to do that. I am happy to confirm that there will be an independent commission to propose the standing orders, and the way the assembly should operate. In due time, as the noble Lord implied, if experience then shows that amendment of those standing orders is required, the assembly will be fully entitled to do that. We want inclusiveness. This is not simply a talisman that we have produced; it is what we really want. I hope that we have begun to demonstrate that.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, the Minister said that he wished the assembly to be politically inclusive. How will it take on board the great tradition that we have in local government in West Wales of the independent member? I cite as an example Pembrokeshire County Council, where two-thirds of the seats are held by independents. Annex C.6 of the White Paper states that, Political parties will be permitted to nominate individuals". Independent groups are not parties and cannot group together. Does the Minister have an answer to that point?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not see any reason why an independent group should not register itself. The noble Viscount raises a very important point. As he will know, I am familiar with the long independent tradition—for instance, in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. It is an important question and I shall turn my mind to it—not in any sense of "kicking the ball into the long grass"; I genuinely believe it to be important.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, perhaps I might ask a brief technical question from this side of the House. The Minister may wish to write to me rather than explain the matter at the Dispatch Box. I believe he said that the staff of the Welsh Office would be transferred to the new Welsh assembly but would still be home civil servants. Effectively, they would be answerable to the Secretary of State, who would in effect employ them. When it comes to disbursing public money, it is not politicians who write the cheques; it is civil servants. They take their instructions from politicians. When the civil servants in the Welsh Office write out cheques to disburse public money, whose instruction will they take—that of their "employer", or that of the assembly, which is not their employer?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord may have misunderstood what I said. I was very eager to underline and demonstrate that civil servants will remain bound by the high degree of fidelity to the public interest that they constantly demonstrate. If assembly sums are to be disbursed, that will be done on the authority of the assembly, not the Secretary of State for Wales. I was particularly anxious to underline that the public duties of civil servants will be maintained intact. They will not suffer any loss of independence by virtue of the fact that they will serve the public interest through the vehicle of the Welsh assembly as opposed to serving it through the vehicle of the presently constituted Welsh Office.

Lord Rees

My Lords, if I understood the noble Lord correctly, there will—

Noble Lords


Lord Richard

My Lords, I am sorry; I am advised—

Lord Rees

My Lords, I have one specific question.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am advised that the 20 minutes' time limit for Back-Bench questions is mandatory, as is the 30 minutes allowed for Questions. I was about to say that, had earlier remarks been shorter, we could perhaps have included more speakers; however, in deference to those who spoke I shall not say so.