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National Assembly for Wales

Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

It is a great pleasure to rise at this slightly later than anticipated hour to debate the Green Paper on the future electoral arrangements of the National Assembly for Wales.

I do so against the background of the Government’s wanting to reduce the number of MPs in Wales from 40 to 30 as part of a broader remapping of boundaries which has, I am delighted to say, failed in its attempt to reshape the political map, particularly in Wales but across the country, for party political gain. One of the key problems with that proposal is that it would break the coterminosity in Wales between MPs and Assembly Members. In the knowledge that they were doing that, the Government produced a Green Paper that said, in effect, “Don’t worry about it—we’ll reintroduce the coterminosity as a sort of Trojan horse to bring about a 30:30 arrangement, reducing the number of democratically elected AMs, increasing the list numbers, and changing the prospective balance of power in the Assembly.” That was done without any consultation or collaboration with the Assembly itself—a complete disgrace.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he think that given the Prime Minister’s assurance to the First Minister that any changes in Wales should have the consent of the Welsh people, it was pretty outrageous that he just went ahead regardless, which does not say much for any kind of respect agenda?

I will be mild in my criticism, but I thought it was completely disgraceful. It showed a great lack of respect for the blossoming new democracy that we have in the nation of Wales, with a Welsh Government doing very good things and the road of devolution moving forwards. Where important decisions can be made locally by the people they affect most, that is what should happen. It was very unfortunate, to put it mildly, that the Prime Minister showed such disrespect to the leader of the Welsh Assembly Government.

The other propositions in the Green Paper include the idea of a five-year cycle for the National Assembly for Wales detached by a year from Westminster’s five-year cycle. That might be quite sensible on the grounds that it would be unfortunate to have both elections on the same day because there could be confusion in Wales as a result of the media carrying more about UK policies of the Labour party and other parties that may differ from those in Wales. It is important in the interests of effective democracy, and effectively communicating democracy, that the elections do not occur in the same year, and I am therefore minded to support the idea of moving to a five-year cycle displaced by a year.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Would he not argue that extending the Assembly’s term—I agree with what he said about the longer-term prognosis for that—so that the elections did not clash was an example of the respect agenda in practice? I have some sympathy with what he said earlier, but in this instance we saw the respect agenda in practice.

It is a good idea, but that does not mean that it is about the respect agenda. I think that perhaps the idea came from this place without proper consultation and it just so happened that the Welsh Assembly Government agreed with it. Will the Minister tell us whether there was consultation on that part of the Green Paper. My understanding is that there was no consultation on any of it. Was there, in any sense, an element of the respect agenda, or was it just a blind coincidence of view?

There is also a move towards the resurgence of dual candidacy whereby somebody can stand in a first-past-the-post election and, should they fail, reappear like a vampire figure through the list mechanism and find themselves transposed into the National Assembly without a mandate, having failed to win in the first place. In other words, losers will be winners; I will be talking about Bob Dylan later.

The hon. Gentleman holds the strong view that the Green Paper was an attempt to gerrymander the political system in Wales. However, the implementation of the double jeopardy rule that prohibits people from standing in the list and in a constituency was the worst kind of gerrymandering by the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) when he was Secretary of State for Wales. Is the hon. Gentleman proud that the electoral system that we now have for the National Assembly for Wales is mirrored in only one country in the world—Ukraine?

It is a shame there is no one from Ukraine present to speak up for themselves—no disrespect to Ukraine, but that matter could be taken up in another place, namely Ukraine.

On double candidacy, the proposition was put in a manifesto which was voted for in an election. There was a White Paper and it went through a proper system. Of course, it is possible to disagree with something that has been properly considered and passed in a democratic way—I respect that and I am sure that we all share that view—but we are complaining about proposals that were put through in a one-sided and seemingly political way without proper collaboration with the institution that would then have to run the situation, namely the National Assembly for Wales.

Could the Minister confirm whether the boundary changes are now dead and buried in the aftermath of the vote here, particularly in the light of a Wales Office spokesperson saying that it is now not in anyone’s interests to change the boundaries as proposed by the Green Paper?

The proposed parliamentary boundary changes have been abandoned, which means that £1.5 million has been wasted by this Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that, should the Minister confirm, as is likely, that the review of the Assembly boundaries is dead and buried, they will have wasted even more money?

That is completely right. For a Government who are obsessed with cost cutting, they are wasting money on completely unnecessary new things. Had the changes been made, the lack of coterminosity, the confusion and the bedding in of various challenges would have cost enormous sums of money. The money would have been better spent in Wales on services and jobs for Wales, instead of on administrative expense for the sake of it that has now hit the dust. I want a reassurance that the Government do not plan, certainly in this Parliament, to re-tamper with the boundaries.

What is the Government’s position on the fixed term? Is the Minister at last consulting and collaborating with the National Assembly for Wales, and do the Government intend to press for five years, which I support in principle?

I am interested in the issue of double jobbing. There are examples of Assembly Members, MPs and peers who do two of those three jobs at the same time. What is the Minister’s position on that? My instinct is that one should do one job well and that it is very difficult to be in Cardiff and Westminster at the same time, even given modern media. Other people can fill different positions and one can meet up with them to compare notes.

I have already mentioned double candidacy—what is the Minister’s position on that? Is he hurtling ahead with it without consent or collaboration? Will he push it forward irrespective of the Welsh Assembly Chamber that it will affect?

This is about balance. There was no consultation on the boundaries, co-determination could have happened, and it is possible for a movement of competence, under the respect agenda, to the Assembly itself. The Silk report is being discussed, so the Minister might want to talk about that. I am sure there will be active engagement in the question of the future arrangements for competence over these issues or, at least, for co-determination. We should move towards giving that competence to the place where the impact of these decisions will be felt, which is, of course, Wales. I want a general reassurance that there will be no further unilateralism that could be construed as gerrymandering.

Our great forefather Aneurin Bevan saw political economy as a struggle between private property, poverty and democracy, and that at times of economic difficulty democracy would be compressed and would suffer and be undermined by private property stopping poverty getting its fair share. In the pit of this recession, which is being made worse and worse by the Conservative-Liberal alliance, we have seen an attempt on a number of fronts to undermine democracy, to pick away at it and to increase the odds of the retention of power by the incumbents.

That attempt has included the boundary gerrymandering, the attempt to impose voluntary registration for voters, which was disgraceful and eventually had to be withdrawn, and individual registration. There has been cross-party support for the last measure, but I think that it is unfortunate because 25% of people are functionally illiterate and some households contain many people who cannot speak English, so people often need help to register and participate. The Green Paper, which comes on the back of the attempted boundary changes, is another attempt to change the political balance when things had settled down after a proper democratic process.

My hon. Friend has used the word “gerrymander” a couple of times and he is right to use that term. Does he agree that the bottom line is that the proposed boundary changes for Wales were all about preventing the election of another Labour Administration in Wales? That was the motivation and it has been stopped.

The evidence certainly points in that direction. Thankfully, there are different institutions in the United Kingdom that can take forward different policies and ideas. For example, in Wales people can go to university for £3,000 a year or about £10,000 across three years, rather than pay £30,000. In this place, the Conservatives say, “It is impossible to have lower fees. Where would the money come from?” That idea and many others show that there are different ways of doing things. That is healthy for democracy.

The attempt to use the power that this place has had historically to blunt the blade of innovation in Wales is quite wrong. Unfortunately, all the evidence suggests that these changes are being proposed for party political gain.

The hon. Gentleman is being very gracious in giving way. I am sure that he will be glad to hear that Gareth Bale has just scored for Wales and that we are beating Austria 1-0.

There has been cross-party consent in Wales on creating a fairer electoral system. The Richard commission published its report in 2004 and argued for 80 Assembly Members elected by single transferable vote. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that parties across the divide, both here and in the National Assembly, should come together and look again at those proposals?

There is a case for having a broad debate about the best way forward. That is part of the Silk discussion and I agree with that. I am surprised that Plaid Cymru’s position is that there should be co-determination as opposed to devolution on these matters. Perhaps that is a change in its position and it is now less devolutionist than I appear to be. That is there for the record.

I will be helpful and give the Minister time to respond and to answer any questions that other Members may have. Clearly, there are more questions than answers in the aftermath of the great boundary victory—a constitutional change for which we can thank the Liberal Democrats, who are here in abundance. I can barely see the green leather, there are so many of them here tonight!

We need to move forward with effective democracy. It would help to have coterminosity of seats for Assembly Members and MPs. Obviously that could change in the future. It would be good to have stability in our relationships with constituents and for decisions increasingly to be made where they have the greatest impact.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) on securing this Adjournment debate on the Green Paper on future electoral arrangements for the Assembly.

Hon. Members will recall that we debated the Green Paper in Westminster Hall on 3 July last year. I was not in Westminster Hall for that debate and I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was. I have watched the video and read it in Hansard and neither makes for a particularly edifying experience. It was not a particularly good debate, so it is worth revisiting some of the issues this evening.

Some hon. Members from Wales participated in the consultation and are keen to know where we have reached, particularly, as the hon. Member for Swansea West said, in the light of the vote last week on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill—I will come to that in a moment. I was going to say that this debate is timely given that vote, but I will not congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that because, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) has reminded us, it is keeping us all from the football. We are, however, grateful to him for keeping us updated with scores. That might prove to be one of the more interesting points of the debate this evening.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has made it clear that following last week’s vote in the House the Government will not now take forward the Green Paper proposals on Assembly constituency boundaries. I hope that answers one of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Swansea West. Indeed, the Government have been clear all along that the changes to the make-up of Assembly constituencies proposed in the Green Paper—either reinstating the link between Assembly and parliamentary constituencies, or retaining 40 Assembly constituencies but making them a more equal size—would be predicated on Parliament approving the proposals of the four UK boundary commissions for new parliamentary constituencies.

The hon. Gentleman opened his remarks by stating his delight that the proposals for revised parliamentary constituency boundaries were defeated, but I thought he gave the game away as to his agenda this evening. I think he is throwing up a smokescreen for the vote that he and his colleagues took that evening, which was not only a vote against fairer-sized parliamentary constituencies across Wales and the UK, but a vote against cutting the cost of politics.

The Minister says the motivation was cutting costs but will he explain why his Government are in the process of creating 50 extra peers for the other place?

We will not take any lessons from the Labour party on spending money. The hon. Gentleman was a distinguished Minister in the previous Government and perhaps bears more responsibility than most, in terms of collective responsibility, for some of the decisions taken by that Government with such disastrous financial consequences for this country. We will take no lessons from the Labour party on the good use of resources.

I think that the hon. Member for Swansea West and his colleagues will come to regret the vote that they took last week, which was, as I have said, against fairer-sized parliamentary constituencies and cutting the cost of politics. Voters want more out of democratic system; they want more value for money and to know that their votes count. The hon. Gentleman’s constituency has an electorate of 60,000 or 61,000, but some of his colleagues have 94,000, 95,000 or 96,000 constituents. He should be able to see as well as anyone the inbuilt unfairness in the current system of parliamentary boundaries.

Has the Minister made any assessment of how much the abortive boundaries review in Wales cost, as well as the mess-up over the ballot papers, the police and crime commissioner elections and the Green Paper process? How much has that all cost Wales in total?

The hon. Lady asks a direct question about the cost of the Green Paper consultation and I will give her a direct answer. The consultation on the Green Paper cost just over £3,000. If she or any of her colleagues are tempted to say, “Isn’t that now a waste of money because we are not proceeding with changes to Assembly constituency boundaries?” I remind them that the Green Paper was about a lot more than the shape of constituency boundaries for Assembly elections. Important parts of the consultation still need to be considered, and I will come to that in a moment.

The Minister seems to suggest that the Government’s plan was to improve democracy. He will correct me if I am wrong, but the plan that has been mentioned was, in essence, to reduce the number of directly elected MPs from 650 to 600, and increase the number of peers by 50. In other words, to substitute 50 elected Members of Parliament for 50 unelected Members. How can that be democracy? It is ridiculous.

I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman has been for the last year, but he will know it was this Government’s serious intention to see a substantial directly elected proportion of the House of Lords, and there is still a huge appetite for that. As a result of Parliament’s decision to defer the reform of parliamentary constituencies until 2018, it would not be in anyone’s interest to proceed with that aspect of the Green Paper at this stage.

I am going to make some progress. I am disappointed but not surprised that the Labour party is using this opportunity for point scoring and attempted grandstanding, rather than for a serious discussion of the issues.

While the Labour party engages in what has become characteristic negativity, and in the absence of any constructive contribution to the debate from Labour Members, the Government will consider how to take forward the other important proposals in the Green Paper. First, should Assembly terms be increased from four to five years? Secondly, should the prohibition on standing as a candidate in both a constituency and a region be lifted? Thirdly, should Assembly Members be prohibited from sitting in Parliament and from having multiple mandates?

Before the Minister answers those important questions, will he confirm that the boundary changes are dead and buried and that there is no plan to introduce further boundary changes in Wales before the next election? Following his point about the Lords, will he confirm whether there is a plan to introduce a change to the House of Lords before the next election? I would be very glad to hear that there is such a plan.

I have been clear about the consequences of the vote taken in the House last Tuesday—I was disappointed with the outcome—and that we will not proceed with the aspect of the Green Paper that deals with changes to Assembly constituency boundaries.

Of the three questions I have highlighted, the most pressing is on the length of Assembly terms. Hon. Members will be aware that, as a result of concerns expressed by the Welsh Government during the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the Assembly election scheduled for May 2015 was deferred by one year until 2016 to avoid a clash with the next general election. That is a good example of the UK Government listening to the concerns raised by the Welsh Government and, to address another point the hon. Gentleman raised, collaborating with them. That is a one-off change. The two elections are set to coincide again in 2020 unless provision is made to prevent it.

A majority of respondents to our consultation favoured a move to five-year terms to reduce the likelihood of elections coinciding in future. The decision is a finely balanced one—good arguments have been made in support of both options—but however we decide to proceed, we are mindful that electors in Wales should be clear on how long they are electing their representatives for. Importantly, all four political parties in the Assembly favoured a move to five-year terms. It is worth putting that on the record.

In the Green Paper, the Government set out our intention to repeal the prohibition on a candidate at an Assembly election standing in both a constituency and a region. All three Opposition parties in the Assembly favoured removing the ban, but I acknowledge that, overall, a small majority favoured retaining the prohibition in their responses to the consultation. A significant majority of respondents agreed with our proposal to prevent Assembly Members from sitting in Westminster.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned competency—that issue was discussed at length during the debate of 3 July 2012. I should point out that the Government are simply operating within the framework that the previous Government set out in the Government of Wales Act 2006. As he knows, the Act states that competency and responsibility for electoral arrangements for the Welsh Assembly resides at Westminster. There is a Silk process—part 2 was launched recently, which provides a great opportunity for people who have concerns and other ideas to contribute. The Government have made it clear that we will listen and read very carefully all submissions to Silk part 2. We will announce our response in due course. The hon. Gentleman was not in the House at the time, but other hon. Members in the Chamber were, and I remind him that they supported the previous Government’s legislation and the framework that retains competency and responsibility for Welsh Assembly elections at UK level.

The Minister indicates that a large part of the Green Paper is redundant because of last week’s events in the House. Will he issue another Green Paper? If not, the consultation was on a largely flawed document.

I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We have said that we are not proceeding with one aspect of the package that we consulted on in the Green Paper because of the outcome of last week’s vote. As I have said, Labour Members will, in time, come to regret that vote—it was a vote against fairness in the electoral system and against reducing the costs of politics at a time when the electorate demand more from our democratic system. There are still some very important issues. I highlighted three a few moments ago that we will consider further. It is right that we do that, and we will be making announcements in due course.

The Minister intends to introduce legislation to this House on those three points on the consultation he has already had, which was to do with the fourth point as well—is that how he foresees taking this measure forward?

The hon. Gentleman is an experienced parliamentarian and I think he is trying to tempt me to say more than I am able to at this stage. The Green Paper presented a package of changes and proposals. As hon. Members recognise, one significant part of the package is not being proceeded with, so we now have to look at the other elements on their own terms and decide how we can proceed with them, and, if we proceed with them, what would be the best legislative vehicle for them. I am not, therefore, in a position to give him all the information he is looking for this evening, but I am sure we will come back to it.

The Minister mentioned that £3,000 had been wasted because a large chunk of his document is now totally irrelevant. Does that £3,000 include the time civil servants spent on the element that has been ditched?

If ever there was a false premise to an intervention, that was one. It was not wasted at all. We had extremely valuable responses to the consultation that will feed into our deliberations about the other parts of the Green Paper package. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman laughs. If we were not consulting, he would be the very first Member to stand up and complain about a lack of consultation. We can never win with the Opposition: there is either too much consultation or not enough consultation, or we are going too fast or going too slow. Actually, we think we have the balance right. We are taking the time to do this properly. We know that the most timely part of the changes will be, as I said earlier, the need to make a decision about the length of the Assembly term—whether we move from four years to five years—and we will proceed on that in a timely manner.

The Minister may have already answered this, but just to clarify the point about the list and dual candidacy, he mentioned he has had some feedback. I think he said that the feedback was that there should not be dual candidacy. What is his instinct about the way forward, and how will he be collaborating with Cardiff?

The responses to the consultation were mixed. I acknowledged that a majority of correspondents appeared to say that there should not be dual candidacy—where somebody is both a candidate on a list and a candidate in a constituency. However, when I read through those responses I have to say that a large number of them seemed to come from the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues and seemed to bear a remarkable degree of similarity. They got hauled up recently for copying each other’s press releases. Far be it from me to suggest that some of his colleagues might have been doing that when they responded to the Green Paper.

In conclusion, I reiterate that the decision not to proceed with changes to Assembly constituencies does not mean an end to all the proposals in the Green Paper. We do not intend to let the significant work we have already undertaken go to waste. The work is not wasted—I refute that suggestion made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). These are issues of real importance. We can joke about them as we have done a little this evening, but we need to get them right. It is right that we consulted the people of Wales, and we are considering how best to proceed before announcing our plans. In light of the Commons vote last week, we will announce how we intend to move forward in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.