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National Assembly for Wales

Volume 512: debated on Wednesday 23 June 2010

2. What recent discussions she has had with the First Minister on the proposed referendum on the law-making powers of the National Assembly for Wales. (3033)

8. What recent discussions she has had with the First Minister on the proposed referendum on law-making powers of the National Assembly for Wales. (3040)

May I also echo the words of my hon. Friend in recognising the tremendous work that the right hon. Lord Walker of Worcester did in this House as one of my predecessors as Secretary of State for Wales from 1987 to 1990? I am sure that all our thoughts are with his family at this sad time.

I have had regular discussions with the First Minister on the proposed referendum on the law-making powers of the National Assembly for Wales.

Given that so few people in Wales actively voted for the National Assembly in the first place, will my right hon. Friend consider having a turnout threshold for any referendum on whether to give the Assembly more powers so that at least a respectable number of people vote before we make any constitutional changes?

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of it, but there was a threshold of 40% for the previous referendum. I am afraid to tell the House, however, that I am bound by the Government of Wales Act 2006, in accordance with which there is no threshold, but a simple majority. It is therefore important, I believe, that the electorate in Wales uses its right to vote on an important issue. I hope that when the referendum is run, they will turn out in numbers.

No work was done in the Department on the question prior to the general election. I am pleased to tell the House, however, that the project board has produced a question and a preceding statement for the referendum on law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales, and I am sending it today to the Electoral Commission for the 10 weeks that it needs to carry out its work in proving that question. In the short time I have been in the office, I think I have achieved more than my predecessor did in the time from 17 February, when notice was given to him that a referendum was required.

May I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her new job? Despite what the London commentariat say, it is a very important job indeed. She will know that, during any referendum, the question of Members of Parliament from Wales will be an issue. Will she confirm that she agrees with her previous statement that there should be 40 Welsh MPs?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome. When I dealt with him from the other side of the Dispatch Box, I always found that his courtesy was unfailing. He refers to the potential boundary changes and the reduction of the number of MPs—I am sure that no one outside the House will be arguing for more highly paid politicians. However, I take very seriously the representation of Wales in the House, and nothing will be done in reducing the number of MPs that will disproportionately affect the share of voice that Wales has in the House and at Government levels.

Would the Secretary of State like to campaign for a yes vote in the referendum, or will she consult the electorate of Buckinghamshire first?

I am very proud to be the first woman to occupy the position of Secretary of State for Wales, and I was born and brought up in Wales. It is singularly important that the people of Wales decide on the referendum and the outcome, and I will campaign for neither a no vote nor a yes vote. I and my Minister will remain neutral, which is the proper thing to do. The hon. Lady needs to familiarise herself with her own party, as I believe that there are split views in the Labour party as well.

The Secretary of State will be aware that some of us on these Benches will campaign with great enthusiasm for the referendum, and were disappointed that the referendum that we hoped for in October did not come about. Does she think the fact that it did not occur reflects on the inactivity of the previous Government? Furthermore, in welcoming her news about the question, may I ask whether the Government will make a speedy commitment to a referendum in the spring of next year?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As we said in the coalition agreement, and as I said before the election, I am determined to allow the people of Wales to decide in a referendum. It is only polite to accede to the request of the Assembly, which, after all, voted unanimously for a referendum, and I am sad that the previous Secretary of State commenced no work on the question and confined himself to work on the order that we will eventually lay before the House. I am pleased to confirm that I am sending the preamble and question to the Electoral Commission.

May I just gently ask the Secretary of State to face the House rather than having her back to the Chair? That would be very helpful.

May I join in the commiserations to Lord Walker’s family on his death?

May I congratulate the right hon. Lady, especially on being the first woman Secretary of State for Wales? However, as accounts given to the media have traduced the truth, I must ask whether she is aware that as Secretary of State, on Monday 10 May, in the Wales Office, I specifically asked and received an assurance from senior officials that work I had put in train months before would have enabled a referendum to be staged this October. Before she answers, may I remind her that whatever she has been saying to the media, she must not mislead this House, especially as she will not have seen the official papers detailing my preparations for the referendum?

I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his welcome. I cannot comment on the advice received by the former Administration; however, I do have access to documents that have indicated to me that no work was done on the question before the general election. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to have a discussion with me about the matter, he is quite able to do so, but no work was done by the Department. The only work carried out was on the order that was to be laid before the House. This was the first question that I asked when I walked into the Department.