HL Deb 01 March 2000 vol 610 cc549-52

2.43 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any proposals to amend the Government of Wales Act in the light of the current situation in the Welsh Assembly.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the Government have no such plans. The Assembly has very many powers to control and influence matters of great importance to the people of Wales. We believe that this gives the Assembly genuine scope to make a real difference in Wales. The new First Secretary has said that he shares this view.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, first, I wish the noble Baroness and all noble Lords a very joyful St David's Day.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, what are the Government going to do about the fact that the National Assembly is lagging behind this Parliament in its consideration of the contents of Bills as they affect Wales? Will the Minister refer the matter to the joint ministerial committee set up to deal with devolution problems so that we may have the benefit of the Assembly's views before rather than after we in this Parliament have begun proceedings on Bills as they affect Wales?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in wishing all noble Lords a happy St David's Day. His suggestion of a JMC meeting will be given great consideration. It may not be the most appropriate way to begin to raise the important issue he has raised. The most appropriate way may be to seek to have a meeting including non-Assembly or non-Government Members to examine the process followed with regard to the legislative procedure relating to Wales. Perhaps that could be best achieved initially by himself and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, with their experience of the legislative process, meeting the Secretary of State.

Secondly, the Assembly did not have the benefit which it will have this year; that is, to begin consideration of next year's legislative programme early. It was not in a position to examine current legislation until the autumn. However, I am sure we all want to ensure that the process is the most effective possible.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that as the Assembly is only a few months old it should be properly helped by all of us to achieve perfection in a reasonable time?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question. My experience of those involved in Welsh public life, in particular Welsh politicians, is that they always strive to achieve perfection as quickly as possible.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that experience has taught us that the less interference there is from London in the affairs of Cardiff as regards the Welsh Assembly and its leadership, the better—and that goes for the Government and everyone else? Does she also agree that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, might benefit and have a more joyous St David's Day if he reminded himself of the outstanding contribution of his noble friend Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach in a debate in the Welsh Assembly a fortnight ago? He suggested that the Welsh Assembly was doing extremely well—and coming from the former chairman of the think-tank of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, that ought to be compulsory reading for all Conservative supporters in Wales.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, was right in much of what he said. My recollection is that I complimented both the noble Lords, Lord Griffiths and Lord Roberts, on their contributions to the debate to which he referred. Perhaps I may gently suggest that at the beginning of that debate one of his noble friends sought to pass judgment on decisions and matters that are better left to the Assembly.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I am delighted to see that, like so many other noble Lords, she is florally celebrating the day of our patron saint? Does she recall that yesterday the Secretary of State for Wales, at a luncheon in his honour, said that the test for a devolved assembly was whether it brought benefit to the people it was meant to serve? Is there any evidence that that is happening in Wales?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

Yes, my Lords, I believe that there is. The Assembly has, for example, issued a draft document for consultation, Better Wales, and the budget agreed by all parties for next year includes additional spending on health and education. Policy is being developed by the Assembly on matters such as the serious issues arising from the Waterhouse report, with consideration of its recommendations, including that relating to a children's commissioner for Wales.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, will the Minister recognise that the turn-out for the elections to the Welsh Assembly was abysmally low and that, now, to assert political control there is the equivalent of walking on eggs? Does she not agree that so many of these difficulties are due to the alien voting system that was introduced? Is it not time that we returned to a first-past-the-post system, which would result in overall political control, because that body could do much and be so beneficial to the future life of Wales?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, in achieving devolution in Wales, as in Scotland and, of course, Northern Ireland, which we hope will return as quickly as possible, the Government have sought to ensure that matters are devolved to all three countries in a context which will encourage a consensus approach towards the development of policy. I share my noble friend's concern about the low turn-out. I can assure him that I was there on the doorstep, doing my best to ensure that the turn-out was as high as possible.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, can the Minister explain why the Welsh have only an Assembly while the Scots have a Parliament?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is, I know, fully aware that the histories of Scotland and Wales are different. Their legislative histories are different, with separate Scottish legislation as opposed to the relationship between Welsh legislation and that of Westminster. Perhaps I may hope that the noble Baroness is signalling that the Conservative Party now not only fully supports devolution but wishes to enhance it in Wales.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, I wonder whether on St David's Day the noble Baroness will announce to the people of Wales that on every St David's Day from now on we shall have a national holiday.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I shall have to check whether a national holiday for Wales is a matter that has been devolved to the Assembly. I shall write to the noble Lord. However, I am quite sure that people will feel that it is a holiday on Saturday when, we all hope, Wales will be successful.