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Welsh Assembly

Volume 300: debated on Wednesday 5 November 1997

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If he will make a statement on the outcome of the vote on a Welsh Assembly. [12377]

The Government put their proposals to the people of Wales in a vote on 18 September. I am delighted to remind the hon. Gentleman that the people of Wales recorded a yes vote. There was a massive 30 per cent. increase in the yes vote compared with 1979. The swings in the south and south-east were truly remarkable, from barely 12 per cent. in favour in West and Mid Glamorgan in 1979 to more than 55 per cent. in favour now. In Gwent and South Glamorgan, the yes vote rose from well under 10 per cent. to more than 40 per cent. We now have a unique opportunity to improve the governance of Wales and I look forward to introducing legislation at the earliest opportunity. We have a mandate, but it is important that we continue to broaden and deepen our support.

Does the Secretary of State accept that—although he tried so hard in that answer—almost three quarters of people in Wales did not support the proposals, which can hardly be described as the settled will of the people of Wales? In those circumstances, it must be right for the legislation to be scrutinised carefully. Will he give an undertaking that any Bill dealing with the proposals will be introduced in the House and not in another place, and that it will be considered, as a constitutional Bill, on the Floor of the House? Is it not surprising that we have yet to see the Bill published, and is that not a rather dismal reflection on the stewardship of the matter?

Not at all. The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues, and I shall try to deal with them. In the referendum of 18 September 1997, 25 per cent. of the people of Wales voted against the proposals. He has no basis on which to claim that those who did not vote in the referendum were expressing opposition. I cannot give him the guarantee that he requests on introducing the Bill into one or another House, because that is a matter for the Government's business managers. I can tell him, however, that I am anxious that there should be proper scrutiny of the legislation as it passes through the House. I have always made it clear that I expect the Bill to be published by the end of this month. I made that statement at the start of the legislative process, and I am happy to repeat it today. I expect the Bill to be published before the end of this month.

Does my right hon. Friend expect the Assembly to meet in north Wales—for example, in the county of Flintshire? Does he expect the Assembly to have plans to improve road and rail communications between the north and the south, bearing in mind that many people in the north think of Cardiff as a faraway place?

Those are interesting questions, but they deal with matters that the Assembly itself will have to decide. The purpose of devolution is to empower the Assembly to deal with those matters relating to Wales that are best dealt with in Wales. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), is examining ways in which we can improve road and rail links between north and south Wales—an important matter. As for the Assembly meeting in north Wales, it will have the right to choose where to meet. I certainly expect the Assembly to have its headquarters in Cardiff, but there will be a north Wales committee. The Assembly may well decide to meet in various parts of Wales when it wishes to examine matters of current concern.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the historic result of the referendum and the establishment of a Welsh national assembly. Does he agree that one of the main reasons why people voted yes was the Assembly's potential for developing the economy of Wales, not least in the context of reorganisation of the Welsh Development Agency and other agencies dealing with industry?

In that context, will the Secretary of State give the House a categorical assurance that the powers that have been enjoyed by the Welsh Development Agency to attract inward investment to Wales will not be undermined by the action of other Ministers, and that the power will be there to do the much-needed job of raising Wales's gross domestic product from the current 83 per cent. nearer to 100 per cent? We are at the bottom of the league table of regions and countries in Great Britain, and we shall need those powers, and more, to get a solution.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman—I congratulate him on achieving that new status—that the economic future of Wales was central to the devolution debate. I pay tribute to the work done by members of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats in achieving the yes vote, which was an historic performance by all three progressive parties in Wales.

The right hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the powers that will be available to the Assembly to attract inward investment and deal with other economic development matters. I remind him of the statement made in "A Voice for Wales"—the White Paper on which the referendum campaign was based—which was:
"Financial assistance to industry will remain subject to common UK guidelines and consultation arrangements to be set out in a published concordat."
That is my policy, and that is the Government's policy. I strongly support it.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be far better if Opposition Members ceased to refight the battles of this summer, accepted that the people of Wales have asked for a Welsh Assembly and contributed constructively to the establishment of a democratic institution which we all want to work? Does he agree that there is no point in fighting old battles and that we have to look forward?

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. He has for many years made known his views known on Welsh devolution. I am delighted that he, like many other people in Wales who had reservations about the proposals, now accepts the outcome. I agree that it is a great pity that the Conservative party in England does not talk to the Conservative party in Wales. The Conservative party in Wales, what little there is, has now accepted that there is no turning back the clock. It wants to play a constructive part in building the new democracy, and it is a pity that Conservative Front Benchers do not learn some lessons from it.

Does the Secretary of State recall that, on the morning after the vote, the Prime Minister scrubbed his celebration visit to Cardiff—which, incidentally, had voted no—and in Downing street told journalists that he would now listen to the people of Wales? Does the Secretary of State accept that, whatever else they might do, the votes revealed the real and legitimate fears of people in certain parts of Wales that a Welsh Assembly would permanently ride roughshod over their interests? What listening has been done since 18 September, and what fundamental changes are proposed to the plans—or was it just one more bit of prime ministerial hollow rhetoric that he will ignore by riding roughshod over the voice of the people of Wales?

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is stuck in a time warp. Politics has changed, and the vast majority of people in Wales now understand that there will be a new democracy. No prime ministerial visit was arranged for Wales for 19 September. What I remember from 19 September was my announcing the Government's determination to proceed with the devolution plans on the basis that it was a very good morning for Wales.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I propose to create an advisory committee, which will consist of representatives of all political parties in Wales. I am delighted that members of Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, as well as representatives of business, industry and the voluntary sector in Wales, have all undertaken to co-operate in the process. I hope that, if the right hon. Gentleman is sincere in his protestations about building a consensus and listening to people with reservations, he will, in turn, be prepared to play a full part in the process.

Is it not good that we have an example of yet another manifesto commitment being delivered and endorsed by the people? Is there not now a new obligation on the Conservative party to recognise that the people of Wales have endorsed the proposal and an obligation on the other place to recognise that it is not elected and should have no place in seeking fundamentally to alter what was proposed by the Government and endorsed in the election and the referendum?

I am delighted to be able to agree with my hon. Friend. I refer him to an article in the Western Mail this morning, which appeared under the heading "Devo-vote linked to surge in optimism". The London editor of the newspaper says:

"A wave of optimism is sweeping across Wales as consumers indulge themselves in a pro-devolution spending boom celebration".
The article reports an economist as saying:
"The pro-devolution votes have unleashed an unprecedented wave of optimism in both Wales and Scotland".
The only people who are going to be left behind are those on the Opposition Front Bench.