Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Vara.)
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue in Westminster Hall. This debate was intended to occur two weeks ago, but as that clashed with the Welsh Grand Committee, the usual channels and I agreed to postpone it for the convenience of Members who represent Welsh constituencies, and one who does not—the Secretary of State for Wales. There has been a bit of fuss about another Welsh Grand Committee that was planned for yesterday, but for which only half a week’s notice was given. The whole thing amounts to something of a fiasco, in terms of debating the exceedingly important issue of the electoral arrangements for our Assembly in Wales. The subject has been debated at length and with great expertise and skill by those in the House of Lords, and in my view, this debate should have been held not in Westminster Hall but on the Floor of the House.
Did the Secretary of State give any reason why only half a week’s notice was given of such an important Committee?
Not to me, although I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who will wind up for the Opposition, will touch on that. I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here. I have a great deal of time and respect for the Minister, but on this occasion the Secretary of State should be present. Secretaries of State sometimes think that they are too grand to come to debates in this Chamber, but when I was Secretary of State I certainly took part in Adjournment debates. I think that she should be in this Chamber, but she is not, and we will hear what the Minister has to say.
My right hon. Friend is a distinguished Member of this House and a former Secretary of State for Wales. Does he agree that the fact that the Secretary of State is not here is totally disrespectful to Welsh Members? I venture to suggest that if we had been a group of community campaigners from Buckinghamshire who were opposed to High Speed 2, she would have been present, even if it was 6 o’clock in the morning. Is it not time for her to turn on her alarm clock and show Wales a bit more respect?
None of this is a surprise to me, because it follows the pattern of what happened when we discussed parliamentary constituencies during the progress of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. There was no adequate debate on the Floor of the House; the guillotine fell, and we did not really have the chance to discuss the issues for Wales. Furthermore, the Secretary of State refused point blank to hold a Welsh Grand Committee on the issue. But enough of that; I am sure that the Minister will be able to explain the Secretary of State’s absence in his concluding remarks.
I wish to come to the essence of the debate, which is the Government’s Green Paper concerning electoral arrangements for our National Assembly in Wales. I will not touch on some of the more peripheral issues, but will rather focus on the central matter of how boundaries are configured and how constituencies are worked out in Cardiff. The Green Paper is flawed for two reasons. First, it is almost exclusively based on partisan grounds, and follows the pattern of the gerrymandering that we saw in the case of parliamentary constituencies. Secondly, that is backed up by the fact that there are only two options in the Green Paper, which is deeply wrong.
If we want a proper debate on how Welsh Assembly Members are elected, to say simply that the status quo is one option and the other is a 30-30 match—30 directly elected Members and 30 top-up Members—is not the end of the story, and other possibilities should have been included in the paper for consideration. I may disagree with most of them, but that is not the point—the option should be there. There is a genuine argument, with which I know the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) and his party—and, I suspect, the Liberal Democrats—agree, regarding the single transferable vote. I do not particularly believe in that, but it should have been an option in the Green Paper.
The option that I favour should also have been considered: retaining the 60 Assembly Members and having two Assembly Members per new parliamentary constituency. I would favour the election of those two Members by first past the post, but they could be elected under the alternative vote system.
The right hon. Gentleman spent a good deal of time talking about the Secretary of State, but I am rather sad that he did not mention the full turnout of Conservative MPs from Wales. He is touching on electoral arrangements, and proposing, in essence, that we move away from the system of proportional representation. As he will know, I debated these issues with Ron Davies, then Secretary for State for Wales, during the course of the referendum campaign. Ron Davies promised the people of Wales that there would be a proportional system. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that before a change is made to any electoral arrangements, the matter should be put to the people in a referendum?
The answer to that is yes; I believe that to be the case for major electoral changes, and I will come on to that point, because it is an important part of today’s debate. I am not necessarily saying that we should move away from the proportional system. I would favour a first-past-the-post arrangement and, after the referendum that was held on the alternative vote, I think that the people of Wales would, too, but I would argue that the options should be in the Green Paper, so that the people of Wales have the opportunity to debate and discuss them, and eventually to decide on the method by which their Assembly will be elected.
We have all gone through the process of the Boundary Commission inquiry into parliamentary boundaries. Does my right hon. Friend find it extraordinary that this proposal was made after all those hearings had ended, and that the Assembly boundaries were not part of that process? Would it have been better for the issue to have been put forward for consideration at that initial stage?
Of course it would. The reason why it was not is that the system is entirely partisan.
My right hon. Friend is generous in giving way. To go back one step, it is my understanding that the Prime Minister told the First Minister that no constitutional issues would be sprung on him or on the National Assembly. That involved an element of trust. There is no mandate for the changes that we are discussing in the Tory manifesto. A promise was made to the First Minister that the changes would not go ahead, yet they were sprung on him. What does that do for the trust between Britain and Wales?
It seriously damages it, and I will come on to that issue in a second.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that the grandstanding from Opposition Members, and even some of the so-called logical arguments that he presents, are undermined by a former Secretary of State, and a former Labour Government, who went against guidance from the Electoral Commission when they changed the electoral system?
No, because I think those issues were different at the time. The other option that is not in the Green Paper is the question of whether top-up Members of the National Assembly should be elected on an all-Wales basis, as opposed to a regional basis. Personally, I think that would be more logical, and that there should be a list system for Members elected by proportional representation. My point, however, is that these debatable options should have been put to the people of Wales but were not, and that is why the Green Paper is flawed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) touched on the assurances that were given to the First Minister of Wales concerning electoral arrangements for the National Assembly. I understand that the Secretary of State said last week that no such assurances were given, but I want to provide the Chamber with two quotations from what was said when the National Assembly debated the issue some weeks ago. The first comes from the former Presiding Officer of the National Assembly, Lord Elis-Thomas:
“Would it surprise the First Minister to know that, when I was Presiding Officer…I received assurances from the Prime Minister…and the…Secretary of State that there would be no change in our boundaries to coincide with Westminster boundaries?”
The First Minister, Carwyn Jones, answered:
“I received an assurance on two occasions from the Prime Minister that there would be no change without the consent of the Assembly, and I am on record as saying that. I took that assurance in good faith and I expect it to be adhered to. However, the reality is that Scotland will continue to have different boundaries for Scottish Parliament and UK Parliament constituencies. If it works in Scotland, what evidence is there that it could not work in Wales? None is offered.”
The point is that there is obviously a huge difference of opinion between the First Minister and the former Presiding Officer on one hand, and the Secretary of State on the other. Whom are we to believe in this instance? The First Minister has made it absolutely clear to me and to others that such an assurance was given.
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the First Minister’s recollection of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to him. It is important at this juncture to make it absolutely clear that that is not a recollection that is shared by the Prime Minister.
In which case someone is telling untruths. The reality is that the former Presiding Officer, Lord Elis-Thomas, confirms that he was told exactly the same thing as the First Minister. Whom are we to believe? If there are such vast differences of opinion on this matter, the Government should rethink their whole strategy on the Green Paper.
The intervention from the Minister is very significant, because when I put this question specifically to the Secretary of State last week, she said that she was not aware of the conversation between the Prime Minister and the First Minister. She was very careful in the wording that she used with me. When the Minister winds up the debate, I would like him to be very clear that the Prime Minister is denying that he said to the First Minister that the assurance was given. Will the Minister confirm that, because if that is the case, someone is not telling the truth?
Of course they are not, and the point about this whole business is that it undermines the trust between the two Governments and the two Parliaments. It cannot be the case that the First Minister did not discuss such an important issue with the Prime Minister when the Prime Minister visited Cardiff—or, indeed, with the Secretary of State. It is so fundamental to the future of the National Assembly and the way in which it is elected that it seems impossible that the issue would not have been discussed, and that assurances would not have been given. I cannot go any further, because on the one hand the Minister says that the assurance was not given, and on the other Lord Elis-Thomas and Carwyn Jones say that it was.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way to me again, because clearly this is a matter on which Opposition Members would like further clarification. The position is clear so far as the Prime Minister is concerned: he agrees that the electoral arrangements for the Assembly are not within the Assembly’s devolved competence. That is a point on which the First Minister appears to agree. When they had their discussion, the Prime Minister said that the Assembly should be fully engaged in the process. He does not recall, as the First Minister seems to recall, saying that the matter was to be decided by the Assembly itself and, indeed, the notes of the discussion do not reflect the First Minister’s recollection of the conversation.
Whoever said what to whom, the reality is that we are now in a fine old mess over it. It seems to me that the Government should go back and rethink their whole approach, not just on the Green Paper, but on how they handle relations with the National Assembly, the Welsh Government and the First Minister.
It is inconceivable that the First Minister would not recall precisely what he was told, and what he understood he was being told, on a matter of this importance. However, I am sure that the matter is of lower importance to the Prime Minister. The point is that the integrity of discussions between Government and Ministers in the Welsh Government is in question as a result of the withdrawal from an assurance that was heard, so we understand, on more than one occasion by both the First Minister and the former Presiding Officer.
One wonders how much the Prime Minister knows about the details of these things. Sometimes confusion arises because of that. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) is right to say that this opens up a serious chasm between the Government in Wales and the Government here in London, which is highly regrettable, because that is in no one’s interest.
The point that is so important and that came through very clearly in the debate in the National Assembly is that the Government and Parliament here have the legal right to take the decision with regard to the electoral arrangements for Wales, just as they have the legal right to abolish the Welsh Assembly, but they ain’t going to do that. They have no moral right to do those things without the consent of the Welsh people, or those who represent the Welsh people.
The point has constantly been made—those of us who were about in those days will reinforce this—that, as everyone knows, the decision to establish devolution in Wales was based on a very narrow majority. Nevertheless, it was a majority. The people of Wales took part in a highly charged referendum campaign. In that campaign, what was put to the people of Wales was the electoral arrangement that now stands. They voted on it on the basis that it was part of the package. That means, in my view, that we cannot unravel such a basic platform of devolution without either asking the people of Wales about it in a referendum, as the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) said, or getting the absolute agreement, by consensus, of all the political parties in the National Assembly. That is the moral thing that should happen. It is not necessarily the legal thing that should happen, but in moral terms, it seems absolutely the case that before anything goes ahead, it should have either the approval of the people in a referendum, or the approval of the directly elected representatives in the Welsh Assembly, once they have reached consensus, on the basis that no political party, and particularly not the Conservatives, went into the election—either the general election or the election for the National Assembly—with a mandate for this change.
My right hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. I can honestly say that no one has come to me recently in my constituency clamouring for change in the electoral system or the make-up of the Welsh Assembly. Does he think it bizarre that the Secretary of State is expending energy on the Green Paper at a time when she should be concentrating on jobs and growth?
Absolutely. The Secretary of State should also be trying to ensure that she has reasonably good relations, despite the political differences, with the Government in Cardiff. It seems to me that there is almost a permanent state of civil war between the United Kingdom Government and the Welsh Government on various issues. That has come to a head on this point about the electoral arrangements.
My right hon. Friend has been very generous with his time. Does he, like me, think it is significant that Conservative Members in the National Assembly for Wales have concerns about the matter? Take, for example, the statement of opinion signed by the Minister’s counterpart in Clwyd West, Mr Millar, and by Mr Paul Davies and Mr Russell George. It says:
“This Assembly recognises that there is absolutely no mandate to change the current electoral system in Wales and that any future change should be put to the people of Wales.”
I am sure that, like me, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) will be very interested to hear the Minister tell us who he thinks speaks for the people in Ruthin market on this issue—him or Mr Millar.
Indeed. My hon. Friend has pre-empted me; I intended to give a similar quote from the very same Member of the Assembly. Darren Millar said to the Western Mail some time ago that the Welsh Assembly Conservative group
“has made its position very clear. We have said we want the status quo to continue. We don’t want any change. That’s our position. We think the 40:20 position we have with the existing boundaries is perfectly adequate.”
Not even the Conservatives—the Secretary of State’s friends in the Assembly in Cardiff—agree with the Green Paper, so what is she doing this for? What is the point of it? Unless she gets consensus and agreement, this will be a running sore between the two Governments and the two Parliaments.
Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify a point? I thought that the option to which he refers is option 1 in the Green Paper.
Reading the Green Paper, it is clear to me that the Secretary of State’s preferred option is option 2. That is rather different, particularly bearing in mind that she has been telling everyone that she has the right to do this and the right to do that, because she is the Secretary of State for Wales. So was I, but one can have a legal right to do something, but not a moral right. There certainly is no moral right to do this from Chesham and Amersham.
A moment ago my right hon. Friend asked the rhetorical question: what is the point of all this? I suggest that the point—I hope that this is not true—is that, cynically, the Secretary of State wishes to undermine devolution. She has eloquently pointed out the background to devolution, the struggle to achieve it and the very narrow majority for it. On my right hon. Friend’s watch, and that of previous Labour Secretaries of State, we developed the strategy of partnership, and now we see it unravelled.
It has unravelled for party political reasons.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way a third time. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis) says that a reason why the Tories propose the change is to undermine devolution. I suggest a reason on top of that: it fits in with a raft of legislation. There is the equalisation of seats, for party political advantage; the bringing forward of individual electoral registration by one year, with consensus smashed, for party political advantage; and this new proposal, put forward for party political advantage. If one party acts without consensus, another party—it might be us next time, in 2015—could adopt a similar position.
In the past, issues as important as these constitutional questions have been the basis of consensus among political parties, whether in Westminster or in Cardiff. We had no consensus whatever on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. That legislation was entirely for party advantage, although the boundary review in Wales turned the tables on those who thought that they would get an advantage out of it. The Prime Minister wants consensus now. On the reform of the House of Lords, for example, he wants all the parties to come together and agree on something. That is different, is it not? In that case, he wants something to happen, but there is no consensus here.
I will conclude, because many other Members want to take part in the debate. The Scotland Act 2012 was passed by this Parliament. It gave extensive new powers to the Scottish Parliament, but was also based on the consent of Members of the Scottish Parliament. Why not have that in Wales? Why not base suggestions—in the Green Paper, or elsewhere by the Secretary of State—on the consent of the National Assembly for Wales and the political parties there, or, if that does not work, the consent of the people of Wales in a referendum?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
I listened to the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) with a degree of interest, but also with surprise. The implication in the comments is that the Labour party in Wales is not partisan, but anybody who lives in Wales is very aware that if there is one party in Wales that is partisan, it is Labour. The changes in 2006 were made with no consultation and the offered guidance was rejected for party political purposes, but we have already heard this morning that that was different.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I would be very glad to hear why it is different when a change is made for Labour party advantage. Why is it so different? An explanation would be appreciated.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. In 1997 we came in with a majority of 180, so if the Labour party was simply seeking party political advantage, we would have steamrollered the legislation through. We could have had first-past-the-post and controlled Wales for ever, but we did not do that. We introduced proportional representation, and we did the same in Scotland and for European elections. All the constitutional steps we took over 13 years were taken with consensus, but these arrangements are steamroller government on important constitutional issues.
Once again, the hon. Gentleman has not responded to the point about 2006. As a result of the changes, we lost very good Assembly Members, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who would have stayed with the Assembly were it not for the fact that changes were made to the rules specifically to damage the opposition parties. [Interruption.] I hear Labour Members talk about democracy, fairness and party advantage, but I will take no lessons from them whatsoever.
Another key point is that a Green Paper is all about consultation. It is part of a consultation process. Why is the Labour party so scared of consultation? Because it does not do it in a Welsh context.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that the change in the Government of Wales Act 2006 with regard to Members not being able to stand as an Assembly top-up or an Assembly first-past-the-post Member was based on a Labour election pledge. There was an electoral pledge and it had a mandate.
But the electoral pledge was made in a Westminster election, I believe. I will not take lessons from Labour on partisan behaviour over Wales.
On the point that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) raised, at the time of the referendum on creating the Assembly, was it not the case that Labour pledged that there would be a referendum? Furthermore, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats certainly would not have supported the creation of an Assembly without ensuring that there was an appropriate proportional system of election. Bearing in mind that the outcome was 4,000 votes in 1 million, is it not likely that we might not have had an Assembly at all?
Indeed. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
Let us remind the hon. Gentleman of two things: first, as other hon. Members have pointed out, Labour created a system that deliberately went against its political interest in order to have balance and give an opportunity to smaller parties; and, secondly, in the 2005 general election Labour committed to dealing with some problems that had arisen in the Assembly, particularly the separation of government from the Assembly as the body to which the Welsh Government are accountable. That was an election issue, which was dealt with in advance of those changes being made in legislation.
I am sorry to say that the right hon. Gentleman shows the arrogance of Labour. The Labour party did not create the Assembly. The people of Wales created the Assembly. I accept the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans); the decision of the people of Wales to say yes to the Assembly was based on the offer made. It was not a gift from the Labour party. It was a decision taken by the Welsh people, and the Welsh people are not the same as Welsh Labour. Some Opposition Members should remember that.
To return to the key issue, we are discussing a Green Paper. What surprises me is the fact that the Opposition do not seem to understand the word “consultation”. They do not accept that the document is for consultation. The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), for example, highlights the possible difference of opinion between the Assembly Member for Clwyd West and the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones). I have not heard the Minister state his opinion on the issue, but I have seen him present the Green Paper.
I am proud to stand here on behalf of the party that has democratic debate among its members. We are willing to debate the issue and contribute to the Green Paper and consultation, because the issue is of concern to the people of Wales. We are asking whether we want a system similar to that in Scotland, with boundaries for the Scottish Parliament that are not the same as the Westminster boundaries. That question is worthy of discussion. I am the MP for Aberconwy, a constituency that, under the proposals for changes to the Westminster boundaries, will probably disappear into a seat called “North Wales Coast.” We shall see whether that is the ultimate resolution.
There is no doubt but that there was a manifesto commitment to change the Westminster boundaries, and as a result of that commitment, there is an issue as to whether constituency boundaries need to be coterminous. I need to be persuaded that the change is needed, but I am not running away from the debate, because there is a debate to be had. What is disappointing about the discussion so far today is that there seems to be unwillingness even to grasp the need to have that debate.
A key problem is the growing disconnect between the people who elect us and the democratic process. We need to think about that issue carefully. Do people want to elect a Member for Anglesey and Bangor for Westminster and for Anglesey alone for the Assembly? That discussion is worthy of this House and the wider polity in Wales.
How does the hon. Gentleman explain the fact that the Government have already brought forward a standing order for the delegated legislation procedure that has been agreed by the House, allowing the next Assembly elections to be fought on the existing boundaries?
I am happy for that issue to be clarified by the Minister in due course.
The key thing, in my view, is that there is a debate to be had. There are disagreements within the parties. I believe that some members of the Labour party would be fairly happy with a change. We have heard a lot from the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Torfaen, about the need for two Members to be elected from a single constituency. That view has been talked about this morning. I find it incredible that the Labour party can talk about political advantage and put forward a plan for two Members for one constituency, which would also be a partisan change.
The other thing that I am surprised by this morning is the fact that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the fact that there were two options in the Green Paper: the status quo and the change to 30:30. In my reading of the Green Paper the status quo is not an option, because option No. 1 is to keep 40 constituencies but to have them equalised. I have some concern about that proposal: one of my key concerns about any changes to the Welsh Assembly is the need to ensure a buy-in to the concept of the Welsh Assembly in all parts of Wales. I represent a constituency in north Wales, including parts of the north Wales coast, and there is often a feeling that Cardiff does not concern itself, or take as much interest in, the affairs of north Wales as those of south Wales and Cardiff in particular. That may or may not be fair. Some past Assembly proposals have led to that perception. However, it is important to point out that equalisation, for example, would probably result in fewer Members from north Wales and west Wales.
What about mid-Wales?
And possibly fewer from mid-Wales as well. That would be a matter of concern to me, but, again, it would not make me oppose a discussion of the issue. It would lead me to contribute to the debate and make my views known.
I welcome the debate. It is important not only to engage parliamentarians in Westminster and Cardiff bay in the debate, but to try also to engage the people of Wales. The issue is not whether the decision can be implemented without the consent of the Welsh Assembly. It would be a mistake to implement any change without its consent. A far more important matter is that no change should be implemented without the consent of the people of Wales. We are talking about the electoral arrangements for the Welsh Assembly. The issue should be debated and discussed, and we should be willing to consider the options; but the decision should rest with them—not for any reasons of party political advantage, but because any change, if change were necessary, would be for the benefit of Welsh democracy and the further development of the Welsh Assembly.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. I have finished my comments.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on securing the debate. The issue is important, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) said, it is not a priority, certainly not for constituents in Ynys Môn or, indeed, north Wales.
I want to reiterate some of the points that my right hon. Friend made, but also to take up some of the comments of the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), with whom I agree on many constitutional issues. I used to agree with him on some constitutional issues when he was a member of another party; but I have been firm in my belief that changes to the electoral system should be brought about by referendum of the people of Wales. That must be the principle we stand for in this place. Only recently, the people of Wales were given a referendum on relatively small extra powers, yet when it comes to making significant changes to the boundaries on which they will elect Assembly Members, there is no question of the Conservative party offering a referendum.
The priorities for my constituents are the cuts, policing and the armed forces—all those issues—but not electoral arrangements. Yet in the short time for which they have been in office the Government have already pushed through changes to the boundaries in which Members of Parliament are elected. That must be a huge priority for them—but not, it seems, when it comes to the House of Lords. There is a possibility that changing the second Chamber could be dealt with by a referendum; but when it comes to National Assembly arrangements, then, with no mandate, the change should go through—and with little consultation too.
I want to address the Minister’s remarks about whether the Prime Minister said one thing or the First Minister said another. I assure him and the House that when I asked the Prime Minister a question in the Chamber, about the respect agenda, his response was very firm: he respected the National Assembly and the other bodies, and would listen to what they said. The First Minister has made it very clear in the National Assembly that he feels the proposal should not go ahead in the way in question. If the Prime Minister is to be taken at his word—he gave me a cast iron guarantee, as he did his Back Benchers on the European referendum—he should respect the views of the Assembly and the First Minister and withdraw the Green Paper and engage in a proper debate.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy said consultation was important. In a parliamentary democracy we have the relevant debates before a general election. We put our policies into a document called the manifesto and allow the people of Wales to judge the parties on it. That is what democracy, the voice of the people, is about. We have changed from a position where parliamentary parties seeking election put policy in their manifestos to one where they do not have a policy, but invent one when they are in office.
I do not know why the proposal has become a priority for the Minister and the Wales Office. Perhaps they have little to do, and are looking for issues to run with. No one I represent—or, indeed, who is represented by other Members of Parliament in the Chamber—has come forward to say “We need to do this.” Yes, there is an issue of coterminosity, because of the changes in the parliamentary boundaries. The hon. Member for Aberconwy said that his seat would disappear as a consequence of the proposals, and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. I can guarantee what would happen if he said to his electorate before the election, “The seat that I am standing for will be done away with, because my party will push through electoral changes.” Yes, the manifesto quite correctly said there would be a change of boundaries, but nowhere did it say that a quarter of the seats in Wales were to disappear. I challenge the hon. Gentleman to intervene, if he feels it necessary, because that is what he voted for.
The manifesto commitment was for an equalisation of the seats in the United Kingdom. I fail to see how anyone would not have seen that as a change that would result in a proportionately larger fall in the number of seats in Wales, because Wales has traditionally been over-represented in comparison with the population. That over-representation was justified in historical terms, but with the existence of a law-making Welsh Assembly I fail to see how the issue could have been a surprise to anyone in my constituency.
The hon. Gentleman might feel that that is a good academic argument, but it was not the outcome of the Act of Parliament. When it came to the Isle of Wight or the Western Isles, or many parts of the United Kingdom with strong Liberal representation, there was consensus. There was no equal representation across the United Kingdom.
Several hon. Members
I give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) and then to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart).
The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) would be well advised to read the Westminster Hall debate initiated by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who castigated the Government for the way in which the size of constituencies in Wales had been downgraded because of the relationship between Wales and England. Reading that speech might be an education for the hon. Gentleman.
I often agree with the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee. In his most recent pronouncement he criticises Defence Ministers—I am sure that the Minister wants to hear this because he always criticises Assembly Members for not coming before the Welsh Affairs Committee—for not coming forward when radical changes are being made to regiments in Wales. There is inconsistency in the Government’s stance.
Does the hon. Gentleman at least accept that there is a distinction between the Government and the Boundary Commission? The Government passed legislation that a constituency should be 75,000, or 5% either way, but it was the independent Boundary Commission that actually drew the lines.
I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is really apportioning blame to the Boundary Commission. He and his party voted on strict criteria, which were then imposed on the Boundary Commission. First, they allowed exemptions in some areas, which means that the argument that the hon. Member for Aberconwy made about equalisation across the entire United Kingdom is a false one. Secondly, the Boundary Commission was given no room for manoeuvre, which is why we will end up with this Government doing away with a quarter of the seats in Wales.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a degree of nonsense in what certain Conservative Members are saying? It seems that they want fewer Conservative Members of Parliament in Wales as long as it does not affect their own seats. In his role as Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) has to sit silently, but he has described the changes as the death of parliamentary democracy in mid-Wales. Although he is not allowed to speak, he can nod—he is not even nodding this morning. Does my hon. Friend not agree that there is real inconsistency in what the Conservatives are arguing on this point?
I have highlighted the inconsistencies of the Conservative party on these issues, but I now want to move to some of the important points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen made in his opening remarks. I have dealt with the first point: there was no mandate for the change. There is no respect for the National Assembly as a body and for the First Minister as a leader of that body. That is absolutely clear from what has come out of this debate and from the way in which the matter is moving forward. As for the idea that there is dialogue among people through a Green Paper—the hon. Member for Aberconwy gave me the ammunition to go after this one—I have to say that not many people concentrate on a Green Paper. Many people concentrate on manifestos. That is the difference.
The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but that is what parliamentary democracy is based on. I am disappointed that the Secretary of State is not here this morning. She was the one who said at Welsh questions that she wanted to lead this debate. This was the opportunity for her to do so. Perhaps 9.30 is a little too early in the morning for her to turn up to lead a debate, but at 11.30 on Monday she wanted to do so. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen has given us this opportunity at 9.30 on Tuesday.
Let me correct the hon. Gentleman. This is not the debate that the Secretary of State wanted to lead. She wanted to lead the debate in the Grand Committee that Opposition Front Bench Members refused to have.
I do not take notice of what my Front Bench colleagues say on every occasion, but they were absolutely right about this. What they said—if the Minister is going to quote them, he should do so correctly—was that they wanted a debate on the Floor of the House, in the main Chamber. Changing the way in which people are elected and the numbers who can be elected to the National Assembly are important issues. I welcome a debate, but not after the event.
The hon. Member for Aberconwy said that the status quo is not an option, so the only option left is 30:30. Those are the only two options presented by the Government. We stay with the status quo, which will not be an option, or we go for 30:30. I have concerns about equal weighting between regional Members and constituency Members. Members of the Assembly and Members of Parliament serve a community. There is a link with the individual who is elected. He or she represents the views of the people and they can be voted out. When we increase the regional lists—this is another inconsistency among some Government Members—we make things less representative. The power goes not to the people but to the party managers, which is something I disagree with, whether for the European elections, the Assembly elections or any other election. In this Chamber today, there are three Members who were regional Assembly Members, and I have respect for all of them as individuals, but they have all chosen to come here and to be elected on a constituency basis. I take from that that they favour that form of election.
I realise that there is a convention that Parliamentary Private Secretaries do not speak in a debate, but I do not want the hon. Gentleman’s point to pass unchallenged. As an individual Member, I certainly did not decide to move from the Assembly to Westminster; it was the election result that decided that.
I did not single out the hon. Gentleman, but I am glad that he has intervened, because we miss his contributions. The fact that he is a PPS and is unable to contribute to debate is a sorry thing for this Parliament and this Chamber.
There is an important point about the lack of democracy when there are list Members. If we go to 30 seats in the parliamentary boundaries and they are coterminous, we should have dual membership. I disagree that it will give an advantage to the Labour party, because the electorate are sophisticated in Wales and they will make their choices. They have limited choices as to who their regional Members are. That is decided by party managers, which is what this Government want; they want to strengthen their grip over who gets elected to the Welsh Assembly.
In my own region and in the region of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), in south-east Wales, Labour consistently tops the poll on the regional list yet we do not have a single Labour regional AM. Is that democratic? Is that not ignoring the democratic will of the people?
No, it is not democratic, but it was accepted by the electorate in Wales when we had a referendum. I accept that members of the public in Wales knew what they were voting for, but I do not accept having radical changes without going back to the people of Wales and having another referendum so that they can endorse or disagree with the principles. That would be real democracy.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could calm his colleague, the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), who has such a sense of injustice, by reminding him that in the Assembly elections last year, Labour got 43% of the constituency vote and 70% of the constituency Members. I say that in case he feels hard done by.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for pointing that out, and for once again putting on his record his disagreement with the Conservative party on the way we elect Members. He has been honest and consistent that he wants greater representation through proportional representation, and I give him credit for that. Indeed, I am at one with him. We should elect all our Assembly Members on the basis that they serve their constituencies and that the constituents have the right, every four or five years, to turf them out if they think that they are not doing a good job, or re-elect them if they think that they are doing a good job. We should strive for having a named person and a named party, which is open democracy, not for increasing the list proportion, which does away with that and gives party managers a greater responsibility that they do not deserve.
Why is the issue a priority? It was not in the Conservative manifesto. I do not believe—I will take an intervention if it is not the case—that it was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. We had a referendum on the alternative vote, which I support and would do so in the future if we had a proper Green Paper to advance it. Why did we have a referendum on the alternative vote but not on changing the boundaries for the Assembly? Why are we pushing this forward? The reason why we pushed AV up the parliamentary timetable was because it was the cement that kept the coalition together. Perhaps, this is cement, too. I will take an intervention from the Liberal Democrats, although I know the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) is going to speak in a minute, to hear whether they have been pushing for the measure. I have not seen any political party pushing it in this place.
Going back to the respect agenda, there needs to be real respect for elected bodies, whether they are in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister should check his notes and look for what he actually said in the meeting, because two against one is a democratic vote in my thinking, and two people remember one thing and one does not. I rather suspect that the Prime Minister’s memory is failing him or that he has done another U-turn. He is very good at doing U-turns; he has done dozens of U-turns. I remember him telling the electorate in Wales that he would not, in any circumstances, put VAT up, yet he did so as a priority when he came into office. I say to him, “Check your notes, certainly show respect for the First Minister and the people of Wales and let’s have a proper debate on this before we move forward.”
I believe that there is no consensus to be built around this narrow Green Paper. What we need is a proper debate in both institutions; indeed, we have had an excellent one in the House of Lords. I hope the Minister will reflect on what has been said by far more independent-minded people in the House of Lords on the issue. We need a proper debate in which we have the choices in front of us: whether we really want to be radical and move forward, or just to edge forward, giving more power to party managers rather than to the people of Wales.
Can the Minister clarify some points in his winding-up speech? What mandate does he have for the changes? I think I know the answer to that question. What are the views of the Assembly and does he respect them? Indeed, does he respect the views of the Welsh Conservative group within the Assembly, who have made it quite clear that they do not want these changes? How did the Government build the consensus that they put into the Green Paper and how do they hope to move forward?
I suggest that the only way forward is to scrap the proposed changes; to get the parliamentary boundaries firmed up, with Parliament’s will; and to look at the issue properly and give the people of Wales the chance either to endorse it or kick it out.
Several hon. Members
Order. I shall call the shadow Minister at 10.30 am. Before then, we have Roger Williams and Wayne David. Gentlemen, it is up to you, but I should think that five minutes each would be a fair allocation of time.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for giving me this opportunity to speak. I believe that this is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship.
Once again, the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) has shown his splendid independence, which has won him so much popularity and support in his constituency. He is right to say that there is very little appetite among the population of Wales—certainly among my constituents—for further constitutional change. Indeed, there would be even less appetite for it if they saw us trying to debate whether we should debate, or when we should debate, constitutional issues. We are a relatively small congregation in Wales of 40 MPs. There must be more consultation in future about when and how we can discuss these important issues, because it does us no good to be seen to be rowing about things that are viewed by the people we serve as of little importance.
The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) secured the debate and I congratulate him on doing so. He introduced it in a very statesmanlike way. Unfortunately, however, there were some rather partisan interventions, which sometimes forced him to divert from his decided path. Nevertheless, the debate has thrown up some sharing of views; I would not say that we have gone so far as consensus, but debates such as this one help to firm up ideas, and the pros and cons of particular proposals.
From my point of view, it is a very happy occasion when we can debate these things against a background of acceptance in Wales of the Assembly. At one time, a lot of people thought that the Assembly would not play a constructive part in the governance of Wales, yet the evidence of the recent referendum, when a considerable majority of people voted for extra powers, demonstrates the support that the Assembly receives from the Welsh people.
As far as that support is concerned, one of the key issues—yes, we would all like a better health service and better education for our young people—that attracts the people of Wales to the Assembly is the way Assembly Members are elected and that the Assembly is a body that reflects opinion within Wales. I have been given a little quote by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans); I think that it was Ron Davies who said that he did not want the Assembly to be
“Mid Glamorgan council on stilts”,
so that it was completely dominated by Labour. It was on that basis that Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats were attracted to the cause of the Assembly for Wales.
In considering these issues, we must understand that the people of Wales accept the Assembly and they like the electoral system that we have. Yes, the Liberal Democrats would like to have the single transferable vote and we share that view with Plaid Cymru. However, we made the concession and reached agreement on that issue, so that the referendum on the Assembly could be carried; we think that is a good thing. Over time, we will again put forward the case for STV, but we will look at the proposals in the Green Paper and decide whether any of them are helpful to us and helpful to the people of Wales.
We would support the 30:30 option. We would perhaps look at the election of regional Members on a whole-Wales basis. We believe that there could be dual candidacy, so that people can stand in both the regional and the constituency part of the elections. Indeed, we believe that these issues should be debated in Wales and should have an airing. This debate has been the start of that process, as far as the House of Commons is concerned; we have already had the debate in the House of Lords. I look forward to continuing the debate, particularly with the people of Wales as well as among ourselves in Westminster.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. I will keep my comments brief. I just want to make one essential point: that the whole consultation on this issue is partisan. It is skewed to the benefit of the Conservative party, and the sooner the Liberal Democrats wake up to that reality, the better. I will quote a few passages from the Green Paper to support that contention. The first relates to preventing an individual from standing for the list and for a constituency. The Green Paper says that the proposal to end that prohibition
“should help smaller parties in particular”.
It goes on to say:
“It may also have a positive effect on representation in the Assembly; currently high quality candidates who stand as a constituency candidate…are lost to the Assembly”.
Well, that is democracy. People lose elections; that is not something that we should be against, although the Green Paper is against it. We should say, “Fair enough, that’s the democratic process.” Why on earth do we want to prevent that from happening by having this skewed approach towards democracy?
My second point is on the all-important issue of the Assembly boundaries. We all know that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was a partisan document. It reduced the number of MPs across the UK by 50, but the largest reduction was in Wales; it was a reduction of 25%. It is likely that the Labour party will suffer most from that reduction. According to that Act, geography is now a minor consideration in determining parliamentary boundaries, as are topography, history, community and sense of identity; it is all down to a rough equality of numbers.
If anyone has any doubt at all about whether that Act is a partisan piece of legislation, they should compare the Isle of Wight and the Isle of Anglesey. Under the Act, the Isle of Wight is to have two MPs. Why? To keep Conservative English Back Benchers happy. Yet Anglesey will not even have one. That is crudely partisan. The Government are even distorting their own legislation to keep the Conservative party happy, and that is no way to enhance democracy or introduce constitutional change. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) says, change must be on the basis of consensus. That is how it always has been done, and how it should be done.
Regarding the boundaries, the Green Paper states:
“These developments mean that we need to change the present arrangements for Assembly constituencies”,
because of the 2011 Act. That is wrong. They do not need to be changed. In fact, the 2011 legislation contained a decoupling clause, which made it absolutely clear that the Assembly boundaries would not depend on parliamentary boundaries, so the Government want to revise their own legislation. To complicate things even more, bizarrely, the Government introduced a statutory instrument confirming the existing Assembly boundaries for the 2016 elections. They intend to rescind their own statutory instrument and contradict their 2011 legislation, and that is extremely confused, to say the least.
Option 1 of the two options outlined states that continuing with 40 Assembly constituencies
“would require a new system of boundary reviews”,
but a boundary review system is already in place, and the Government have confirmed the boundaries for the next Assembly elections. That statement might be referring to a system for the future but, on the basis of what we have had already, the changes are likely to be minor if we stick with the status quo. The Government’s arguments are false and superficial, and what is really behind the changes is a partisan approach to constitutional change.
The Government believe that this is about consultation, but I suggest that it is all about gerrymandering. To take up a point made by a number of Members, the approach taken shows an unbelievable—I will be kind—misunderstanding between the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister of Wales. That is no way in which to approach an issue as important as representation and democracy, and I urge the Government to recognise that they have been ham-fisted. They need to recognise that there are fundamental flaws in the Green Paper, say that it is a mistake, and recognise that the way forward is on the existing boundaries.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on securing this useful and important debate. It is a profound matter of regret to me, and to my right hon. Friend, that the Secretary of State is not here to listen to the arguments on both sides, not least because the Minister’s comments, and their further underlining of the clear disagreement between the Prime Minister and the First Minister, are a matter of the utmost seriousness. The word of either the Prime Minister or the First Minister is being called into question, and as the Secretary of State is at the heart of that unfortunate disagreement, it ill behoves her not to engage in the debate today.
It is no surprise, however, that the Secretary of State is not here, because that is in keeping with the ham-fisted, high-handed manner in which she has dealt with the matter over recent weeks. She has accused me of playing games. I put it to her that we are not playing games but merely articulating the views of Opposition Members and, I suggest, the National Assembly, which are already on record. This is a matter of profound significance to the National Assembly and the people of Wales. I ask whether there is any other Welsh issue of this significance being debated in the House this morning. I did not see anything on the Order Paper that should be detaining the Secretary of State. I certainly felt that my attendance here was important enough to warrant my sending my apologies to the shadow Cabinet, which meets as we speak.
I want to make something clear about the debate that we did not have this week. I wrote to the Secretary of State several weeks ago, telling her that I thought this such an important issue that it ought to be debated on the Floor of the House. She did not have the courtesy to write back with her opinion but merely tabled, through the usual channels, a debate in the Welsh Grand Committee. That was why we objected to the debate; it was nothing to do with the timing, but because we felt it ill-considered and ill-judged to debate something of this significance in Committee, and not to expose a constitutional matter to wider discussion.
This is a high-handed and ham-fisted way of going about things. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen made clear in his eloquent remarks, the Green Paper is highly partisan. It represents a barely veiled political agenda of increasing representation for minority parties in Wales. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, that agenda is, incredibly enough, there in black and white in the Green Paper. I include among those minority parties the Welsh Tory party and Plaid Cymru, a party that, extraordinarily, is not represented in this debate about the National Assembly for Wales.
Does the fact that the Labour party got 43% of the vote in the Assembly elections not make it a minority party?
No, it very clearly does not. The Labour party is here today speaking for Wales, and it is a shame that the hon. Gentleman sought earlier to misrepresent the options in the Green Paper. He suggested that on the table was one option of keeping the status quo, and he knows that that is not straightforwardly true. The option is to keep 40-20, but to shift to a more equalised block of constituencies by changing all the constituencies across Wales, with none of the benefits of retaining coterminosity with the parliamentary boundaries. Even that minor change is so significant that the consent of the National Assembly for Wales, as proxy for the people of Wales, ought to be sought.
The Green Paper is partisan, and also arrogant, in that it completely eschews the tradition of seeking consensus on issues such as constitutional change. When in office, the Labour party sought change through cross-party consensus, including when we proposed changes to the National Assembly for Wales in election manifestos. Amusingly enough, even the Tory party is split on this issue, with the party in Westminster taking one position in documents, and the party in Wales, which is perhaps more in touch with the people of Wales, taking an alternative one.
This is essentially an anti-devolution Green Paper, at odds with the spirit, if not the law, of devolution, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said. How else can we describe a proposal from a Westminster-based, Tory-led Government for changes to both constituencies and elections to the National Assembly for Wales—a proposal that does not require the consent of the Assembly or the people of Wales? The proposal lacks even a modicum of a mandate, and thus lacks legitimacy, and it should be called out for what it is.
The two options are clear. One is to keep the 40-20 split but change the nature of the boundaries. That has all the disbenefits of reorganisation and none of the benefits of retaining coterminosity. That is why, of course, the Secretary of State is not minded to take the option forward. It is a red herring, designed to deceive. The second option is to shift to 30 on a list and 30 first past the post, increasing the number of Members elected via proportional representation, and decreasing the number directly elected by 10.
No one is suggesting that the nature of the National Assembly should be set in stone or fixed in aspic. Nobody is suggesting that no changes should be proposed and no reforms undertaken. Many people in Wales have lots of ideas—we have heard some suggestions today—about how the National Assembly could be reformed, but few of those people would have the temerity to propose imposing those changes on the National Assembly and the people of Wales without seeking their consent in any meaningful fashion. Fewer still would have the nerve to propose changes without any real evidence or impact assessment of how they will affect voting patterns or election turnout in Wales.
However, our absent Secretary of State proposes to do just that, giving effectively one option, the justification for which is cut and pasted from the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, with nothing to back up either that or the alternative except the threat that if the option she favours is not adopted, the other even more destructive and disruptive option will be adopted. So much for the respect agenda.
That is happening despite the fact that in the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs last year, when I suggested that the Secretary of State had precisely such a plan in the back of her mind and warned her not to try to gerrymander the map in Wales, she told me that
“before anything goes forward to do with boundaries there would be a loud, long and large period of consultation”.
Consulting on a flimsy Green Paper for a few months over the summer, and treating the National Assembly as a consultee like any other individual or institutional consultee in Wales, while the Secretary of State for Wales refuses to submit to any meaningful scrutiny, does not constitute a loud, long or large consultation to my mind. It is certainly not appropriate to the changes proposed.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, consider the contrast between that and the attitude taken by this Tory Government when they sought to introduce changes to the nature of the voting arrangements for Parliament in Westminster. We had a three-month, significantly contested and well-resourced campaign, followed by a national referendum. I am not necessarily suggesting that that is comparable to the changes proposed in the Green Paper, nor am I necessarily suggesting, as some have done, that the changes necessitate a referendum. However, I put it to Members that at the very least, the consent of the National Assembly must be obtained as a proxy for that of the people of Wales if there is to be no referendum on the changes.
Consider, too, the changes mentioned in this debate in respect of the passage of the Scotland Act 2012. This Government explicitly accepted that the Scottish Parliament should have to consent to the views included in the Bill before it could become law in Scotland. Why does this Welsh Secretary, parachuted into Wales, not feel that a similar job should be done for Wales? Why does she treat the National Assembly for Wales with such disdain when her counterpart in Scotland treated the Scottish Parliament with such respect?
All that prompts the question: why these changes, and why now? Like others here, I cannot but conclude that it is about narrow party self-interest for smaller parties that will benefit from an increased proportion of Members in the National Assembly being elected by proportional representation. To proffer a piece of evidence in support of that contention, think back to 1999, when the Labour party was well supported by the people of Wales and did well at the elections, with the Tories winning just one seat by first past the post. What was the impact for them on the list? Eight seats were delivered. I suggest that a similar position might well come about, with similarly happy benefit for Conservative Members, if the proposals are adopted.
One cannot help thinking that the reason why Plaid Cymru is so quiet on the issue is that the party has cooked up a deal with the Conservative Secretary of State to accept the proposals, because it knows that they will benefit Plaid Cymru, too. The people of Wales will note Plaid Cymru Members’ absence from this debate and understand precisely what they are about.
On that point, does my hon. Friend not find it extraordinary that Plaid Cymru’s position appears to be that it will consent to the UK Government’s imposition of an electoral system on the Assembly without the Assembly’s consent?
I find it absolutely amazing that Members from the so-called party of Wales should be absent from a debate on electoral arrangements for the people of Wales alone. It is an absolute dereliction of duty for them not to be here engaging in this debate.
Suspicions only harden when we consider the fact that No. 10 has now been dragged into the debate about Wales. That too strikes me as extraordinary. No. 10 is now reduced to the kind of weasel words that we read in the newspaper this morning and heard repeated by the Minister earlier today:
“the Assembly should be fully engaged in the process of deciding its future electoral arrangements”.
What does “fully engaged” mean? Does it mean consulted with, like any Tom, Dick and Harry in Wales, any public body or any MP? I suggest that that is not full engagement. Equally weaselly is the Prime Minister’s letter to the First Minister. He did not say that the changes in Wales should be decided by the people of Wales, but he certainly said, in the words of the First Minister, that the people of Wales should agree with the changes through the National Assembly. That is a bone of contention to which we will need to return later.
In conclusion, I have some questions for the Minister sent here today by his extremely busy Secretary of State to represent the Wales Office. First, what exactly does No. 10 mean by “fully engaging” with the National Assembly? Does it mean anything more than consulting with it, as with others in Wales?
What weight will the consultation accord the views of the National Assembly? To quote the motion passed there by the Tories, Plaid Cymru and Labour, it has already voted to:
“This Assembly recognises that there is absolutely no mandate to change the current electoral system in Wales and that any future change should be put to the people of Wales.”
Given this Government’s complexion, what notice will be paid in particular to the views of the leader of the Welsh Tories, Andrew R.T. Davies? He said:
“I think the Assembly should determine its own boundaries”.
In another interview, he said:
“I am in favour of the status quo”.
Ultimately, what will this Government do if, as seems likely, the National Assembly holds to its course and continues to submit evidence to the consultation saying that it does not believe that there is a mandate for the changes and does not support them? Will the Secretary of State for Wales continue to drive through the changes in the teeth of clear opposition from the National Assembly? If so, something has gone badly awry in the arrangements between Wales and Westminster. The Minister and his Secretary of State would do extremely well to consider the damage that will be done to that relationship if they press ahead. Devolution was intended not to diminish the voice of Wales within the UK, but to amplify it. It was intended to grant greater control over national affairs to the people of Wales via the National Assembly, within the framework of the UK. That framework is delicate, as events in Scotland are displaying only too clearly. All of us who believe that we in the UK are better together should reflect on that, and on the impact on that delicate framework.
Imposing ill-considered and ill-judged changes from Westminster on the National Assembly will only damage it. I am not playing games; I am simply stating the facts. I hope that the Minister has some answers on behalf of his Secretary of State.
Mr Hollobone, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. In the brief time available to me—some 11 minutes—I will do my best to answer many of the questions posed in this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) on initiating this debate. He was kind enough to say during his remarks that he had considerable respect for me. I must tell him that as a lawyer, I am always suspicious when told that people have respect for me, because the expression “with great respect” is the greatest insult in the legal profession. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman’s compliment was, in fact, meant as a back-handed insult to the Secretary of State for Wales, and that insult was echoed by many Opposition Members. Frankly, the personal nature of their criticism does them little credit.
It is important that the facts are set out clearly on the record. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, although we have had the benefit of a one-and-a-half-hour debate today, the Secretary of State had offered to hold a Grand Committee on the issue. The right hon. Gentleman is an important supporter of the Grand Committee system and, had that offer been accepted, we would have had a three-and-a-half-hour debate yesterday morning. For the life of me, I cannot understand why his party’s Front-Bench representatives refused that offer. The right hon. Gentleman said that it was made on short notice, but as he will know there is little time left in this parliamentary term to hold such a debate. I hope that I am not being unfair to the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), but I think that, had the right hon. Member for Torfaen been in his position, that offer would have been accepted and we would have had a Grand Committee debate yesterday, led by the Secretary of State, and not the attenuated process that we have gone through today.
Will the Minister give way?
I will, but I will not take many interventions, because I have been left with so little time.
Why is the Minister waffling so much? Where is the Secretary of State for Wales?
That was a very helpful intervention. The fact is that, had Opposition Members been willing to turn up on a Monday morning, there would have been a debate yesterday.
Where is she?
The hon. Lady’s personal animosity towards the Secretary of State is well known, so I will not grace her comments with any further response.
This debate is about the Government’s Green Paper on the future electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales, but the Labour party appears to spend most of its time agonising about process. Having hacked through that undergrowth of process, its principal complaint seems to be that it is the Assembly, not Parliament, that should be responsible for determining those electoral arrangements. The position, however, is absolutely clear: this Government can only work within the devolution settlement that was put in place by the Government of Wales Act 2006. That Act was implemented by the Labour party, so it is rather rich that its Members are now complaining about the arrangements that they thought perfectly adequate back in 2006. I witnessed the passage of the Bill through Parliament, and I cannot recall any of those Members suggesting at the time that the arrangements should be anything other than those that we are pursuing.
Will the Minister give way?
No, I will not, because I have been left very little time by the hon. Member for Pontypridd.
Under the settlement, the Assembly’s electoral arrangements are not a devolved issue, so constitutionally it is entirely proper for Parliament to consider the question. The issue of the First Minister’s conversation with the Prime Minister has been raised. Let me make the position clear for the record: the Prime Minister’s recollection is that, when he met the First Minister at the Broughton aircraft factory, he told him that the Assembly should be fully engaged in the process. He did not say that the matter was to be decided by the Assembly itself. Frankly, it would have been extraordinary if he had done so, because that is not an option under the devolution settlement. As I have said, the notes from the meeting do not reflect the First Minister’s recollection of what was said.
I repeat that this debate is about a Green Paper, in which the Government are asking important questions about the future conduct of Assembly elections and the make-up of the Assembly itself. It is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) has pointed out, a consultative document, and the Assembly, the Assembly Government, Opposition Members—in fact, everybody—are not only free but positively encouraged to play into that process. I have no doubt that the right hon. Member for Torfaen will himself play into it and make submissions to the consultation, which will continue until 13 August.
The Government are seeking to establish whether people think that the Assembly constituency boundaries should reflect the 30 proposed new parliamentary boundaries in Wales, or whether there should remain 40 constituencies, which would have to be of equal, or nearly equal, size. I find it extraordinary when Opposition Members criticise the principle of equality of vote, because it was my understanding that the Labour party—we have been reminded of this by several Opposition Members, most notably the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)—considers democracy to be important. It is wrong, according to the values of any democracy, that a vote in the constituency of Cardiff South and Penarth should be worth almost twice the value of a vote in Arfon. What is sauce for the parliamentary goose is sauce for the Assembly gander, and that is precisely what we seek to achieve—fairness and equality within the voting system.
We have made it clear, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) has pointed out, that we favour a move to 30 constituencies that are coterminous with parliamentary constituencies, because that would be cleaner and clearer for the people of Wales. Under such a system, they would know which constituency they were casting their vote in, whether it was at a Westminster or an Assembly election. I do not believe that there is anything controversial about that.
This has been an extraordinary debate, because it should have taken place yesterday in Grand Committee, and it should have lasted for three and a half hours, rather than an hour and a half. I must say that it is because of the ineptitude of the shadow Secretary of State in opposing the motion for a Grand Committee when it was made on the Floor of the House that we did not have the debate yesterday. I do not believe that his party’s Back Benchers are idle or cowardly, but that the hon. Gentleman has completely mishandled the process.
It is also extraordinary that Opposition Members appear to be clamouring for a debate on the Floor of the House about a consultation paper. When the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was progressing through the House, they clamoured for a Grand Committee on the issue, yet when they were offered a Grand Committee on the Green Paper, they refused it because they wanted a debate on the Floor of the House. This is a question of utter, shambolic inconsistency on the part of Opposition Members in general and the hon. Member for Pontypridd specifically. I realise that he is very new to the job and that he is inexperienced, but it would have been more beneficial to him if he had sought the counsel of the right hon. Members for Torfaen and for Neath (Mr Hain) before he decided, in such a cack-handed manner, to refuse the offer of a debate in Grand Committee.
The Green Paper is an important document. I hope that Opposition Members will play into the process and that the hon. Member for Pontypridd will learn from this experience and exercise a little more caution before shouting, “Object”, on the Floor of the House.
Order. As Members who have just arrived to take part in the next debate will note, we have had a very interesting and lively debate on the electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales. We are now going to have an equally interesting and fascinating debate about East Anglia rail. It gives me great pleasure to call the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey).