HL Deb 03 March 1999 vol 597 cc1776-8

10.21 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th February be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the basic principle is straightforward. Every statutory function my right honourable friend the Secretary of State exercises, with a small handful of exceptions, is to pass to the Assembly. What we are considering today is in essence a list of those functions. They constitute an important and extensive set of powers for the Assembly which would deliver the promise set out in the White Paper, A Voice for Wales. The order meets the duty and lays on the Secretary of State by Section 22 of the Government of Wales Act a duty to lay a draft transfer order before the first Assembly elections, including such functions in the fields of responsibility listed in Schedule 2 to the Act as he considers appropriate.

It might assist your Lordships if I outlined how the order works. For the most part, the transfer is straightforward. Where the Secretary of State is able to exercise a function now, the Assembly will be able to do so in the future. So an unqualified entry in the order means that the Assembly will, after 1st July, be solely responsible for the functions concerned in Wales.

In many cases legislation requires the Secretary of State to act jointly with his right honourable friends in exercising functions. In very many others he has to seek the consent of the Treasury before acting. We do not believe that the Assembly should generally be bound in this way. It should be accountable to the people of Wales, not to UK Ministers. So in most cases we have removed the requirements for joint action and for Treasury consent.

There are, however, a few instances where it would not be prudent to do that. For example, the Assembly could not sensibly make separate decisions about bodies that serve the whole of Great Britain. In those cases, the order transfers to the Assembly only the share of the Secretary of State for Wales of a joint function, leaving the Assembly to act jointly with the other Minister concerned. That will require the Assembly and the relevant Secretary of State to act in a sensible and co-operative manner.

The UK Government will still need to act in Wales on many matters which are not transferred to the Assembly: social security, broadcasting and prisons, for example. They are examples of powers under which UK Ministers exercise some functions now while the Secretary of State for Wales exercises others. In those cases, the order makes the functions concurrent so that both the Assembly and Ministers may use them. Indeed, if we did not do so, Wales would be deprived of programmes operated there by other Ministers now.

I should say something at this point about probably the most complex provisions in the order, those relating to water. As we recognise in the White Paper A Voice for Wales, water policy requires special treatment under devolution. Rivers do not respect the border between England and Wales and water companies do not do so either. There are many functions in the Water Industry Act 1991 about which the order makes special provisions. The Water Industry Act contains the great majority of powers regulating the water industry. The order gives the Assembly those powers as regards DŴr Cymru and allows the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to retain them as regards Severn Trent. That reflects the respective roles of the Welsh Office and the DETR now. It means that the Assembly will have jurisdiction over the operation of Dwr Cymru in Herefordshire and Cheshire, while the DETR oversees Severn Trent's activities in Montgomeryshire. That is the only sensible way to proceed. It would be a nonsense for one undertaker to be subject to oversight from two different authorities.

The construction of reservoirs is a matter of great sensitivity in Wales. We believe that the Assembly should have sole control over such decisions in all circumstances. My honourable friend the Member for Bridgend, Win Griffiths, assured the other place on 22nd July last year that that would be so. The order fully discharges that assurance. In no circumstances will a UK Minister be able to authorise such works. That will be a matter for the Assembly alone.

The transfer order is at the heart of the new government of Wales. It gives the Assembly comprehensive powers to improve public services, the economy and the environment and to do so solely on the basis of its democratic mandate. I commend the draft order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th February be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's explanation of the order. During the passage of the Government of Wales Act, on these Benches we tabled amendments to restrict the Government's ability to transfer further matters by means of orders. Noble Lords will need no reminding that it is not normally the practice of this House to fail to approve such orders when presented before your Lordships.

I have one concern regarding the lack of collective responsibility of the Welsh Assembly. That may have the undesirable effect of the Assembly deciding to spend money that should properly be under the control of the local councils. I understand that that is termed to be "top-slicing". That would result in the councils having to raise council taxes in order to maintain their services. I recognise that I may be covering old ground but I am advised that that is an important matter. Does the Minister regard that as a problem, or will he explain why it is not?

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, I wholly welcome this order. It is the raw meat for which I have been waiting for a very long time, even though it is in somewhat indigestible form.

In looking through some of the ancient Acts that are referred to in the schedule, it is like the history of the struggle of the Liberal Party in Wales for the people of Wales in the 19th and early 20th century, from the public health Acts to local government Acts, the great Lloyd George Budget of 1908 through to the disestablishment of the Church of Wales by the Welsh Church Act of 1914. All those past pieces of our colours are floating in front of my eyes. I have no criticisms and I thank the Government for getting on with it.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I particularly express my appreciation to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. What he described as the "raw meat" is, of course, served off the bone.

Looking at the Acts contained in the order, I question some of what the noble Lord says about the historical role of Liberal governments. There have not been many Liberal governments and they are not terribly proud of the Inclosure Acts of 1845 or the Burial Act of 1853. If the noble Lord looks further on, he will find many more from the Labour government of 1945 than from any preceding legislation. That is no doubt because much of the preceding legislation had been repealed or consolidated. I do not wish to make too much of a political point of that.

The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, is concerned about top-slicing. The Secretary of State for Wales already has full freedom to allocate the Welsh block between his responsibilities. There really is no reason to change that as a result of devolution. It is important that a single Assembly should be able to set spending priorities to reflect its electorate's wishes. The Assembly will be under a statutory duty to work in partnership with Welsh local authorities. The Welsh Local Government Association, which represents the local authorities, fully supports the proposals and I see no reason to doubt the ability of the Assembly to work closely with the local authorities in Wales. Indeed, my instinct would be to think that they would work a good deal more closely than the Secretary of State or the UK Parliament is able to do. I hope and believe that the noble Earl need have no fears about the relationship between the Assembly and its local authorities. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.