HL Deb 13 October 1999 vol 605 cc357-60

2.50 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with the progress made by the National Assembly for Wales in implementing the Government of Wales Act 1998.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, we are satisfied that the National Assembly for Wales is acting in accordance with the provisions of the Government of Wales Act 1998.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, first, may I congratulate the noble Baroness on embracing Wales among her responsibilities? I know that she has strong family connections with Wales, so her credentials are impeccable.

Since I tabled this Question, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has presented his significant Memorandum of Understanding and supplementary agreements between the United Kingdom Government, Scottish Ministers and the Cabinet of the National Assembly of Wales, as anticipated in our devolution debates

. Subject to more detailed scrutiny, I can say that we welcome that document as a statement of the Government's intent as to how the various bodies involved should behave. However, does the noble Baroness agree that while the memorandum and concordats represent a brave attempt to reduce the potential for conflict between the devolved administrations and central government, our experience of devolution to date—brief as it is—suggests that only the fullest possible co-operation and mutual support between the executive elements in the new system are required if the best interests of the peoples they govern are to be served?

Is the noble Baroness fully aware of the very serious difficulties the Welsh Cabinet has got into as it sought to pursue its own line on agricultural issues in Europe? Are there not some hard lessons to be learnt from that critical experience?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I agree with the first three points made by the noble Lord and thank him for the welcome he so generously gave me. Obviously the concordats have been considered and agreed by the Scottish Ministers in the Cabinet. They are available for scrutiny by the UK Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament Members at this point.

I share with the noble Lord the belief that we are all working together to overcome any minor difficulties at the beginning of the process.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in these early stages Mr Alun Michael and his colleagues are working extremely carefully? They are impressing the people of Wales, north and south. He deserves the help of all parties at present if the new Assembly is to be effective and respected by everyone in Wales and outside.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Cledwyn is right. I share with him the view that I believe was expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, who said that the principle of devolution for Wales is right, a principle which has been endorsed by the Welsh people. We owe it to them to work hard to make it a total success.

Lord Thomas of Gresford

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the Secretary for Agriculture of the Welsh Assembly has said that she will not resign in the face of a resolution of censure which is being debated at this moment? Does the Minister agree that it would be a bad day for democracy in Wales if a Minister of the Crown refused to resign in the face of such a resolution?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, seeks to draw me into a totally improper area: to discuss the decisions, policies and actions of Members acting in their capacity as Members of the Assembly for Wales. It would be a brave Minister in your Lordships' House who commented on the behaviour of even Members of a Committee in another place.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Welsh Assembly is still in its infancy, therefore, it will have its trials and tribulations? Nevertheless, progress is being made. Does the Minister further agree that one of the Assembly's principal objectives must be to get every possible aid for the South Wales valleys and other areas which have suffered so badly in the past? Does the Minister appreciate that the Assembly is buttressed by a first class Secretary of State in Mr Paul Murphy?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

Yes, my Lords, I agree with my noble friend.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the real effect of the actions of the Secretary for Agriculture, Christine Gwyther, which may lead to her defeat in the vote of censure, is exactly the same as with Ministers in both Houses of this Parliament? They have falsely given the impression that it would be possible to negotiate for Scotland and Wales wholly different policies in Europe from the rest of the United Kingdom. Has not the European Commission now called their bluff and quite rightly shown that it is absurd for farmers in, for example, my valley, to be treated differently from those in England two or three miles away or in the Scottish Borders where exactly similar conditions exist?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have put no obstacles in the way of the Assembly exploring possibilities of various courses of action with the Commission. As the noble Lord said, it is true that any application would have had to be made by the UK Government, as a member state. Such applications only occur when preliminary discussions have indicated that they would be acceptable.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the Welsh Assembly, like the Scottish Parliament, suffers from a gross under-representation of rural areas, notwithstanding the fell designs of proportional representation?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, ultimately it is a matter for the people in both Assemblies to consider whether the degree of representation is accurate. My experience from looking at television and reading the newspapers in Wales is that fair coverage is given to the needs of both rural and urban communities in Wales.

This may be the final comment on the Question and I am sure all noble Lords wish Wales well tomorrow in their rugby match against Samoa. We also wish Neil Jenkins well. He is a joint record holder, with the largest number of points scored. Tomorrow he may break that record.