[Relevant documents: The First Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2015-16, on Pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Wales Bill, HC 449, and the Government response, HC 280.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We are here today to debate the Wales Bill—legislation of fundamental importance to the future governance of Wales and its role within the United Kingdom. It will empower the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government to deliver the things that really matter: the economy, the environment and essential public services. I want to thank stakeholders, including the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs and my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), and the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, for their work on the draft Bill, and those, including the Welsh Government, for the way they have responded to the publication of the Bill. I am committed to continue working with all those stakeholders and others as the Bill progresses through Parliament.
I would first like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friends the Members for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs Gillan), for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) and for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) who each worked tirelessly to put Welsh devolution on a stable footing for the long term, and who have all played a major part in the development of this Bill. Following the resounding yes vote in the March 2011 referendum on full lawmaking powers for the National Assembly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham sought to simplify Welsh devolution by removing the widely disparaged legislative competence order, or LCO, system—a system and process I think we would all sooner forget. My right hon. Friend established a commission to review the financial and constitutional arrangements in Wales. The Silk commission, chaired by Sir Paul Silk—I pay tribute to him and to those who joined him on the commission for their work—included representatives from all four political parties represented in the Assembly. It published its first report in November 2012, which was on devolving financial powers to the Assembly.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West then took forward the Wales Act 2014 to implement recommendations in that report, devolving tax-varying powers to the Assembly for the first time, and establishing an important principle.
The Silk commission published its second report, on the Assembly’s legislative powers, in March 2014, from which my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire established the St David’s day process seeking political consensus on what could be taken forward. This culminated in the St David’s day agreement published in February 2015, which forms the blueprint for the Bill before us today.
I have also considered the Smith commission’s proposals, and in turn the Scotland Act 2016, to include the elements that work for Wales.
In preparing this Bill I have been guided by two underpinning principles: clarity and accountability.
I am happy to give that clarification. Matters of elections, which I will come to in further detail, will be devolved, subject to a two-thirds majority. That includes the franchise for the Assembly elections and the constituencies and a whole range of other areas. [Interruption.] I will happily respond to those points when I get to that part in my speech a little later.
I was guided by the principle of clarity because the new reserved powers model of devolution draws a well-defined boundary between what is reserved and what is devolved, clarifying who is responsible for what. It is also a major step in extending powers. It will end the squabbles over powers between Cardiff Bay and Westminster, enabling the Welsh Government to get on with the job of improving the economy, securing jobs and improving devolved public services.
The second principle is accountability. The Bill paves the way to introduce Welsh rates of income tax. It will make the Welsh Government accountable to people in Wales for raising more of the money they spend. This, again, is a major step in the Assembly’s maturity.
The Secretary of State just mentioned Welsh income tax rates. What guarantees is he going to give the House with regard to the Welsh block grant to the National Assembly for Wales over the duration of this Parliament, which is all he can speak for? My worry is that he will cut the block grant and expect the people of Wales to make up the difference from higher income tax rates.
The right hon. Gentleman will recognise the funding floor introduced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which was a clear commitment and promise delivered by the Government. Of course, the Barnett adjustments need to be considered, and discussions between the Welsh Government and the Treasury and my officials are ongoing. We would like to see progress on those matters as the Bill is scrutinised throughout the parliamentary process. Both Administrations are determined to find a transparent way that will rightly serve the people of Wales and the Welsh and UK taxpayer.
I wish to draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the comments of his colleague the Secretary of State for Scotland on the Scotland Act:
“This is a truly significant day for Scotland. If this Bill completes its parliamentary progress, it will add to the already extensive responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament a range of important new powers. It provides even greater opportunities for the Scottish Government to tailor and deliver Scottish solutions to Scottish issues.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 1683.]
Was the Secretary of State for Scotland right, and if so, why has the Secretary of State for Wales brought forward a Bill that pales into insignificance when compared with the Bill given to the people of Scotland?
I am somewhat disappointed by the tone the hon. Gentleman is taking. We have developed the Bill through consensus. We have responded to the comments that were made following the publication of the draft Bill, and before that we had the St David’s day agreement, in which his party was an active participant. We have sought to develop political consensus, but ultimately we do not have a uniform approach to devolution. What is right for Scotland is not necessarily right for Northern Ireland or for Wales. Clearly we have different circumstances and needs, and we should respond to those needs by developing appropriate Bills. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will actively participate and seek to improve the Bill through the parliamentary process; I am determined to achieve a Bill that all Members of the House will be at best satisfied with.
In February, the Secretary of State’s predecessor said:
“A lot of the criticism of the draft Bill has been ill-informed or just plain wrong.”
Given that the Government have accepted most of the criticism and amended the Bill, does the Secretary of State agree that his predecessor was wrong?
It is right to say that part of the criticism was certainly ill informed and will have been wrong, but that does not necessarily mean that all the other elements of the scrutiny were wrong. One of the purposes of publishing a draft Bill was to encourage active scrutiny by the Welsh Affairs Committee, of which the hon. Lady is an active member. We are grateful for her input and that of the Committee.
We have made a commitment to put in place a clearer, stronger and fairer devolution settlement for Wales, and that is exactly what the Bill does. The St David’s day process established “Powers for a Purpose”—that is, powers that can make a real, practical difference to the lives of the people in Wales. Among the many powers devolved in the Bill are those that will enable the Assembly to decide the speed limits on Welsh roads; how taxis and buses in Wales should be regulated; whether fracking should take place and, if so, how it should be regulated; and how planning consent is given for all but the most strategic energy projects.
The powers in the Bill will be limited to a capacity of 350 MW, as I have stated.
There can be no doubt as to the extent to which the Assembly has matured over the 17 years since it was established. That maturity is reflected in the development of the institution into a confident law-making legislature. In recognition of this, the Bill enshrines the Assembly and the Welsh Government as permanent parts of the United Kingdom’s constitutional fabric for the first time. It also makes a commitment that Parliament will not normally legislate on devolved matters without the Assembly’s consent.
The Secretary of State referred a moment ago to some of the new powers, but of course some powers are not going to be devolved. Could he explain the principle behind choosing which powers to devolve and which to retain? For example, why is water to be retained here while sewerage goes down to Cardiff?
I will talk about the devolution of powers relating to water a bit later on. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that an intergovernmental working group has been established and that it is considering the implications of the in-principle decision that has been taken on devolved water. I will happily comment in further detail when I reach that part of my speech.
My right hon. Friend mentioned what will effectively be the incorporation of the Sewel convention in statute, for the first time so far as Wales is concerned. Clause 2 of the Bill states:
“it is recognised that the Parliament of the United Kingdom will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Assembly.”
If the United Kingdom Parliament were to legislate for such matters and there were to be a challenge from the Welsh Government as to whether that was “normal”, how would that matter be adjudicated?
The basis of this clause has been drawn from the Scotland Act. It would be a matter for the courts to judge in such a situation, but this underlines the principle that Parliament is sovereign in these matters, although we will absolutely respect the rights of the Assembly. That is why we have included a clause stating that we will not “normally” legislate on devolved areas.
The debate on the draft Bill, which was published for pre-legislative scrutiny last autumn, was dominated by justice issues. In particular, it focused on something that was labelled the necessity test, and the inclusion of the test led to calls for a separate jurisdiction. I have listened to those concerns, and this Bill has moved a long way from the draft version and is by general consensus more suitable. The necessity test was believed to set too high a bar, and calls were made for a lower threshold. I have gone further, however, and removed the test entirely when the Assembly modifies the civil and criminal law for devolved purposes. As a consequence, many of the arguments for a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales should have fallen away.
However, I recognise the validity of some of the points raised during pre-legislative scrutiny about the existence of Welsh law. The Bill formally recognises for the first time that a body of Welsh law made by the Assembly and Welsh Ministers forms part of the law of England and Wales within the England and Wales jurisdiction. The recognition of Welsh law needs distinct arrangements. As a result, I have been working with my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary to establish an officials-led working group to look at how those administrative arrangements should be improved. The group includes representatives from the Judicial Office and the Welsh Government, and it will take forward its work in parallel with the progress of the Bill through this House and the other place.
The single jurisdiction can readily accommodate a growing body of Welsh law without the need for separation. There are many reasons why a separate jurisdiction would be to the detriment of Wales. As well as the unnecessary upheaval and cost of such a change, the economic and commercial interdependence of the legal profession on both sides of the border means that separation would undermine the success of one of Wales’s fastest growing sectors—the legal profession.
The terms of reference for the working group have been published, and I would expect it to report in the autumn. The justice impact assessment is a matter for the Assembly and for scrutiny by Assembly Members. The principle of having a justice impact assessment is fundamental to proper scrutiny of any mature legislature. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, we might be able to debate that when I get to that element—as I am about to do now.
Some Members, such as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), have asked me about the requirement in the Bill for justice impact assessments to accompany Assembly Bills, and I would like to take this opportunity to clarify its purpose a little further. It is only natural for a mature legislature to consider the consequences of its own legislation. The impacts of Assembly Bills are assessed against a range of matters, including, quite rightly, the Welsh language and equalities, but no formal assessment is made of their potential impacts on the justice system, which is vital for its laws to be enforced properly. It is simply common sense that any such matters are considered and such an assessment is made, to help with the efficient delivery of justice services.
The Government committed in the St David’s day agreement to implementing—
This is the key point in relation to these new impacts. Who is going to be making the assessments? I take it that the Minister’s view is that that is a matter for the Welsh Government, but would those assessments at any point lead to a trigger whereby the Ministry of Justice could object to Welsh legislation?
It is a matter for Assembly Members, and the requirement is that the Standing Orders include a request for a justice impact assessment. No, there will be no veto arising out of the justice impact assessment. Let me give the hon. Gentleman a practical example.
The Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 has supporting documents in excess of 30 pages, with 15 lines talking about the justice implications or the consequence thereafter. The principle we are requesting is that full, proper consideration be given to the justice consequences that arise thereafter. That is mature scrutiny, and I pay tribute to the way in which the First Minister responded to the question on the Floor of the Assembly some weeks ago. Rather than a general accommodation with the Standing Orders, we are talking about a specific request for a justice impact assessment.
The Government committed in the St David’s day agreement to implement a clear devolution boundary for Wales. The reserved powers model at the heart of the Bill will make the Welsh devolution settlement clearer by drawing a well-defined boundary between what is reserved and what is devolved. Anything not specifically reserved is devolved to the Assembly and the Welsh Ministers—it does not get clearer than that! The Bill’s pre-legislative scrutiny prompted a wide-ranging discussion on what the future shape and structure of Welsh devolution should be. The list of reservations included in the draft Bill was criticised as being too long. We have listened, and the list in the Bill now contains fewer reservations and I have made the descriptions more accurate. More importantly, there is a clear rationale for reservations that are included. The list of reservations will never be as short as some would like, but clarity requires specificity. The list included in the Bill will be subject to further fine tuning, but I believe that, broadly, we have struck the right balance.
The Bill also clarifies the devolution boundary by defining which public authorities are Wales public authorities—devolved bodies—with all other public authorities being reserved authorities. To add further clarity, the Bill lists those bodies that are currently Wales public authorities, a list we have compiled in consultation with the Welsh Government and the Assembly Commission. Naturally, the consent of the UK Government will be needed if an Assembly Bill seeks to impose or modify the functions of a reserved body. That follows the well-established principle that the Assembly approves through legislative consent motions UK Government legislation that touches devolved areas.
The final key element of a clear settlement is the change we are making to the functions of Welsh Ministers. It is hard to believe that Welsh Ministers have not been able to exercise common-law powers up to now, unlike Ministers of the Crown and Scottish Ministers; the Bill puts the misjudgment of the Government of Wales Act 2006 right. Similarly, the Bill also removes the current restriction on the Assembly being able to modify Minister of the Crown functions in devolved areas. It lists those functions that Ministers of the Crown and Welsh Ministers exercise concurrently or jointly, and the small number of Minister of the Crown functions in devolved areas the Assembly could modify, with the consent of UK Ministers. All remaining Minister of the Crown functions in devolved areas will be transferred by order to the Welsh Ministers.
Taken together, these provisions deliver a settlement that will make it clear whom people in Wales should hold to account—the UK Government or the Welsh Government—for the decisions that affect their daily lives. I would like to inform the House that some minor clarifications have been made to the explanatory notes relating to some of these clauses, and revised copies of the notes are available for Members.
The Minister is talking about extra powers and what is transferring across. What is he doing to help to get that information across to the people of Wales? Even under the current settlement, there is still a lot of misunderstanding as to who is responsible for what.
The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. The intention of this Bill is to provide that clarity, from which there will be the opportunity for greater communication. All Members in this House and stakeholders have the responsibility to help to communicate this, but one key function of the Bill is to provide a clear line between what the UK Government are responsible for and what the Welsh Government are responsible for, so that anyone living or working in Wales clearly knows not only who to give credit to when policies are going right, but who to hold responsible where policies or the impacts of policies are not as effective as the policymakers might have thought at the outset.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the other reasons why clarity is so important is so that we have far fewer examples of the Welsh Government and UK Government ending up arguing about things in the Supreme Court? Would clarity not assist in reducing that?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about that, and this is the function of many of the clauses and much of the motivation behind them.
The Bill also strengthens Welsh devolution by devolving further powers to the Assembly and the Welsh Ministers. To complement the Assembly’s existing powers over economic development, the Bill devolves responsibility for ports in Wales. That will enable the Welsh Government to consider the development of ports in Wales as part of their wider strategies for economic development, transport and tourism. Major trust ports will remain reserved, given their national, UK-wide significance. That means Milford Haven, given its importance to the energy security of the whole of the UK, will remain reserved. We are also devolving consenting responsibility for all energy projects in Wales up to 350 MW, aside from onshore wind projects which are being devolved through the Energy Act 2016.
The Bill also streamlines the consenting regime for energy projects, providing a one-stop shop for developers by aligning associated consents with the consents for the main project. When the Welsh Government make a decision on a new energy project, they will also be responsible for consenting to the new substations, access roads and overhead power lines relating to that project.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The purpose of the Bill is to give that one-stop shop in terms of consents for energy projects and all the consequences that follow thereafter, from access roads to overhead power lines and the connections thereafter. Those will of course be conducted in discussions with National Grid plc.
My right hon. Friend has expert knowledge. Obviously, he has some detailed understanding of this Bill and a range of other Acts that relate to such decision making. As this Bill progresses through the House, particularly through Committee, we will be able to examine, line by line, the consequences of each individual clause. I will happily write to him should he need further information.
I wish to make a little more progress, then I will happily give way to a number of colleagues.
The Bill devolves a range of further transport powers, enabling the Assembly to legislate on all aspects of Welsh roads. It will be able to decide what the speed limits should be on Welsh roads; the regime for traffic signs and pedestrian crossings on those roads; the regulation of taxi services; and the registration of bus services in Wales.
There will be further powers on the environment. The Assembly can decide whether and how fracking takes place in Wales, and Welsh Ministers will have a say on whether licences are granted for new coal mining operations. It is difficult to believe that, with all of the Wales Acts that have passed since 1997, the Welsh Assembly does not have the power to sanction a new coal mine; it needs approval from the UK Government.
Discussions are ongoing between the Department for Transport, the Wales Office and the Welsh Government about the functions and role of the transport commissioner, who serves the west midlands as well as Wales.
Welsh Ministers’ powers over marine licensing and marine conservation in the inshore area are being extended to the Welsh offshore zone.
The Bill devolves powers over sewerage and, as we committed to in the St David’s day agreement, we will consider the views of the joint Government review on aligning the devolution boundary for water with the national boundary when it reports its findings in due course. That was a point raised by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr.
The Bill devolves a significant number of further powers, and I shall not go into detail on each this afternoon. The purpose of Second Reading is to consider the broad principles of the Bill before we move forward to the Committee stage. As I mentioned at the outset, the Bill devolves further powers that stem from the Smith commission. These include powers over equalities, the design of renewable incentives and the scrutiny of the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets. We are also giving the Assembly and Welsh Ministers a greater say in how the interests of Wales are represented within Ofcom. This is a strong package of further powers that moves Welsh devolution forward substantially and can be used to improve the lives of people in Wales if exercised thoughtfully by the Assembly and the Welsh Government.
I spoke about the Assembly coming of age, and the package of further powers for the Assembly truly gives form to that vision. Through this Bill, the Assembly will take control of its own affairs, including deciding arrangements for its own elections. It will be able to determine how its Members are elected, the number of Members, the constituencies and regions used in those elections and who is eligible to vote. As we promised in the St David’s day agreement, the Bill gives the Assembly full responsibility for deciding how it conducts its own affairs and regulates its own proceedings.
The Secretary of State said that he would get to this point, but he has not answered my question, which is not about who will be able to vote, but whether the Bill will give powers to enable the Assembly to introduce compulsory voting if it chooses to do so. For clarity’s sake, it is very important that we know whether the answer to that question is yes or no.
I am happy to clarify that matter. The Bill gives provision for who votes rather than for compulsory voting.
The Assembly is a fully fledged legislature, trusted with passing laws that affect the lives of millions of people in Wales. It is right that the legislative framework in which it operates reflects that, and enables the Assembly to decide how it conducts its business.
The Bill also repeals the unnecessary and outdated right of the Secretary of State for Wales to participate in Assembly proceedings. Subject to the Bill’s progress, I hope that my attendance at the Assembly in a few weeks’ time will be the last by a Secretary of State for Wales. I am sure that Members of all parties, both here and in Cardiff Bay, will welcome that—probably for many different reasons. I am sure that it will go down well in all parts of the House. A key feature of a mature legislature is that it raises, through taxation, at least some of the money it spends. With power comes responsibility. The Assembly must become more accountable to those who elect it. It must take responsibility for raising more of the money that it spends. The devolution of stamp duty, land tax and landfill tax, and the full devolution of business rates in April last year, are the first steps towards that, and it is only right that a portion of income tax is devolved too.
In the autumn statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that we will legislate to remove the need for a referendum to introduce Welsh rates of income tax, which means that the Welsh Government can take on more responsibility for how they raise money, and the Welsh Government want that to happen.
There are practical issues—the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) raised some of these—to agree with the Welsh Government, particularly how the Welsh block grant is adjusted to take account of tax devolution. Those discussions are already taking place, and I expect them to progress as the Bill passes through both Houses.
It is residence in Wales. There will be further technical issues that we will want to clarify in discussions between the Treasury, the Welsh Government and the Wales Office. Those elements will be considered in further detail as the Bill progresses, and as the adjustments are agreed between all parties involved. The base is focused on residency rather than on where people work.
I have two points to make in response. First, it was the Wales Act 2014 that devolved tax-varying powers to the Assembly. This Bill will go one step further by removing the requirement for a referendum. Secondly, devolution has moved forward since that time. We can either seek to have the hollow argument about rowing back, or we can make the Welsh Government more accountable and more responsible for the money that they raise. Under current legislation and current arrangements, the Welsh Government already have responsibility for raising £2.5 billion of their own income, through council tax, business rates and other taxes such as stamp duty, land tax, aggregate tax and landfill tax. According to the forecast of the Office for Budget Responsibility, the devolution of income tax will transfer something in the region of £2 billion to the Welsh Government, which is a smaller sum than the one for which they already have responsibility.
To develop the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), is it not the case that just over 12 months ago the Conservative party fought on a manifesto that pledged that there would be a referendum before any tax-varying competence was devolved to the Assembly?
My right hon. Friend played a significant part in the development of legislation relating to Wales when he was Secretary of State. He will recognise how quickly the devolution make-up of the UK has developed and matured in that time. This is the next logical step in making the Assembly more mature and responsible, and ultimately more accountable to the people of Wales, because it will have to consider how money is raised as well as how it is spent.
I am greatly enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, but has his enthusiasm for referendums been diluted by recent experience, particularly the alternative vote referendum and the current referendum, which is a choice between whose lies people believe? Finally, was his faith in public opinion shaken by the large number of people who voted to name a boat Boaty McBoatface?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. It is fair to say that many of us might have referendum—or referendums—fatigue. The principle of devolving taxes was granted and supported in the Wales Act 2014, which transferred responsibilities in those areas without a referendum. The principle has been established, and we are taking it further through the devolution of income tax, removing the requirement for a referendum in the Bill.
I am conscious of time and the fact that many Members want to make a contribution, so I will conclude. The Bill delivers clarity to the Welsh devolution settlement and accountability to devolved government in Wales. It draws a clear line between what is devolved and what is reserved, so that people in Wales know whether to hold the UK Parliament or the Assembly accountable for the services on which they rely. It includes an historic transfer of powers to the Assembly and Welsh Government. It will strengthen Wales and it will strengthen the United Kingdom. It further enables the Welsh Government to deliver the things that matter to people living and working in Wales, and to be held to account for their decisions and policies. I commend the Bill to the House.
It is said that devolution is a process, not an event, a journey rather than a destination, and that is certainly true when it comes to the Bill. The journey has taken longer than it should have done, because in the draft Wales Bill the immediate predecessor of the Secretary of State seemed determined to drive us along a tortuous and convoluted path, going back the way we had come. That was in spite of an extraordinarily united chorus of navigators—everyone from Cymdeithas yr laith to the Conservative group in the Assembly—telling him to turn round the other way. It was quite an achievement to unite everyone against that Bill. Mind you, the Bill was so bad that it would have made the Assembly’s job impossible, and it would definitely have taken Welsh devolution backwards, not forwards. I am glad, however, that the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) eventually listened, put the brakes on, and prepared to change direction. We now have a piece of legislation that, while not perfect, is definitely a marked improvement.
I suppose like any lost driver, the right hon. Gentleman could be forgiven for hurling some irrational abuse at those of us trying to offer navigational advice. In February, he told us in no uncertain terms that we were launching some kind of separatist plot, that we had
“given up on the union”
and that all our criticism was actually a bid for Welsh independence. I hope that we can have a more sensible and measured debate today.
My hon. Friend will remember from the Welsh Grand Committee debate on 3 February that the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) said:
“There is nothing in the draft Bill that makes the Welsh Assembly consider whether legislating in a devolved area is necessary.”—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee, 3 February 2016; c. 61.]
Is my hon. Friend as pleased as me that finally the then Secretary of State realised what was in his own Bill?
Indeed, it was laughable at times when the former Secretary of State noticed things to which we assumed he had already given his approval.
I want to make it clear at the outset that we welcome the reserved powers model, for which we have been calling for some time, as we feel that it has the potential to clarify the devolution settlement, and we welcome each of the new powers contained in the Bill. As the party that established the Welsh Assembly, we want to see our devolution settlement strengthened, with more powers devolved from Westminster to Wales. We are glad that the Assembly will have new powers over transport, energy and elections. As with the areas it already controls, the Assembly will be able to use those new powers to make different choices that reflect the will of people in Wales.
The powers over shale gas extraction will allow the Assembly to take into account the very real fears that people in Wales have about fracking. Labour has made it clear that, as the necessary safeguards cannot yet be met, we should not push ahead with fracking. We welcome the powers over energy planning consents for projects generating up to 350 MW, but we would certainly like full powers over grid connections devolved to Welsh Government. I hope that that is what we will hear from the Secretary of State.
That would not solve the delays with the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, which are due to the failure by Conservative Ministers to agree a viable financial framework for investors to proceed. I very much hope that the Secretary of State does everything he can to speed up the review, so that we can have a world first in Wales, with all the positive spin-offs for our manufacturing industry, rather than letting other countries steal a march on us.
The power to change the name of the Assembly means that we could call it a Welsh Parliament. Responsibility for the voting age in Welsh elections means that the Assembly could introduce votes at 16 for elections to the Assembly and to local councils. Whatever the Assembly decides, what matters is that those decisions will be taken in Wales by elected Assembly Members.
What concerns me about the devolution of powers to the Assembly on elections is that 16-year-olds could vote in local government and Assembly elections, but not in elections for MPs to the House. Does my hon. Friend share that concern?
Does the shadow Secretary of State accept that the new electoral legislation might enable a Welsh Parliament or Welsh Government to impose compulsory voting on our country? Would she support that or oppose it?
The Secretary of State has told us that he will clarify that, so we will know whether that will be possible. I understand from what he has said today that it is very unlikely, because he said it was about people who can vote, not the system itself, but we await clarification from him to know where we are going.
The Bill is designed to strengthen and streamline the current devolution settlement. For example, clause 18 allows the Assembly to implement European Union legislation directly where it relates to devolved matters. That is a sensible development, and one that I sincerely hope does not become redundant by the time the Bill goes into Committee after the referendum recess.
The biggest structural change in the Bill is the move to a reserved powers model, as recommended by the Silk commission. As Silk said, that should allow the Assembly to legislate
“with greater confidence and with greater regard to the purpose of the legislation, rather than being constrained by uncertainty”.
That change will bring greater clarity to our devolution settlement and, if the Government get the Bill right, it should result in fewer cases being taken to the Supreme Court. Too much public money has been spent on such manoeuvres.
I welcome the important statement on the permanence of the Assembly and of Welsh government in clause 1, and the inclusion of the Sewel convention that the UK Parliament will seek consent from the Assembly before legislating on devolved subjects. This recognises that just 17 years since the process of devolution began, the Assembly has become a fundamental part of our constitutional landscape. In 2011 the Welsh people voted for the Assembly to have full law-making powers, an important sign of confidence in the institution. Together with this Parliament, the Assembly should now be recognised as one of two significant legislatures that represent the people of Wales.
It was the Assembly’s ability to pass laws in devolved areas that the draft Bill put at risk in the most unnecessary and short-sighted way. It is a simple fact that as a law-making body, the Assembly must have the ability to change the law, but the draft Bill would have required it to pass a number of necessity tests before being able to amend the civil or criminal law. In the words of David Melding, the Conservative Chair of the Assembly’s Constitution Committee, these tests would have created
“an atmosphere of profound uncertainty”.
He went on to say:
“Taken to extremes, the very exercise of the legislative function could be compromised.”
I am pleased that the Government have seen sense and removed these tests so that the Assembly can amend the law when it needs to, but there are other tests that I will return to later.
The removal of the necessity tests means that a distinct body of Welsh law will continue to grow over time, a fact that poses a challenge to the single legal jurisdiction of England and Wales. We understand that the justice impact assessments outlined in clause 10 are intended to address this point, but a more long-term solution may need to be found at some point in the future. We trust that the working group consisting of the Ministry of Justice, the Lord Chief Justice and the Welsh Government will keep this issue under review.
On the areas of the Bill that require more work, I want to deal with the reservations, the necessity tests, and the devolution of income tax. It was a common theme in the response to the draft Bill that the list of reservations was far too long. Even the Secretary of State’s predecessor expressed surprise at the number of reservations—an unusual admission, given that it was his Bill. This rather suggested that there was a lack of a clear rationale for the compilation of that list. I note that the list of reservations in this Bill is very slightly shorter but it still runs to 34 pages, and the justification for reserving some subjects is far from clear.
The root of the problem with the reservations in the draft Bill was that the Wales Office allowed Whitehall to have free rein in deciding which areas it was willing to devolve, rather than adopting the principled process that the Silk commission recommended. In its report on the draft Bill, the Welsh Affairs Committee said that Whitehall Departments should be given
“clear guidance about the questions they should ask themselves before deciding whether or not to reserve a power”,
and that this guidance
“must be published prior to the publication of the Bill, so that the final list of reservations can be assessed against the criteria given.”
It is regrettable that no such fresh guidance has been published, which would allow us to decide whether the list of reservations has been drafted with clear criteria in mind.
In response to the Select Committee’s report, the Secretary of State said:
“The explanatory notes that accompany the Bill provide a clear rationale for each reservation included in the list.”
I am afraid that this is not the case. The justifications offered in the explanatory notes are patchy at best. Most just state what is reserved, without explaining why. We will consider the list in more detail as the Bill proceeds, but the Secretary of State must be ready to justify each of the reservations and to present a rational basis for the final list.
It is already clear that some of the reservations are unjustified. The decision to create a special category of reserved trust ports is one example. This means in practice that control of every Welsh port except Milford Haven will be devolved to the Assembly. The Government have presented no sensible justification for this, or for the turnover requirement in clause 31, based on the Ports Act 1991. As the Bill stands, ports that meet an annual turnover requirement of £14.3 million or more remain under the control of the UK Government, while powers over those with a smaller turnover would be transferred to Welsh Ministers. This seems to create a perverse incentive, because if the Welsh Government foster economic development in smaller ports, which significantly increase their turnover as a consequence, the Welsh Government could find that they lose control over those ports.
In the absence of an explanation, we can only assume that the Government want to keep control of the most profitable ports, with a view possibly to privatising them in future, as indeed the Government considered doing in 2011. Strange, is it not, that this annual turnover is the same threshold above which ports can be privatised under the 1991 Act? Previous privatisation proposals have raised serious concerns about asset-stripping by speculators and the fragmentation of ports, and these dangers would be just as real in the case of Milford Haven.
On the necessity tests, I am pleased that the most problematic of these, relating to civil and criminal law, have been removed from the Bill. This has made the Bill markedly clearer and more workable than its predecessor. However, two necessity tests remain in clause 3 and in paragraph 1 of new schedule 7B. As many witnesses noted during the Welsh Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the draft Bill, the problem with these tests is the uncertainty surrounding the word “necessity”. A representative from the Law Society described it as certainly not a term that is as well understood by lawyers as a concept, which raises the potential of legislation being challenged not just in the Supreme Court, but in the course of other civil and criminal proceedings. Given these very real concerns, would it not be preferable to ditch the necessity tests entirely and retain the wording in the Government of Wales Act 2006, which avoids invoking this legally difficult concept?
On the ministerial consents, we welcome the simplified system proposed in the Bill, but the Government could go further. The Welsh Affairs Committee has recommended introducing a 60-day time limit for consent to be given or refused. A change to this effect would give greater confidence and I urge the Government to consider adopting it in law.
Finally, on income tax, the current situation is that the Welsh people would have to support the devolution of income tax in a referendum before the powers could be transferred to the Assembly. This Bill removes that requirement, meaning that the Secretary of State could devolve income tax powers via an Order in Council, without the Assembly even having to agree to it. That cannot be right. Allowing the Assembly to levy taxes is a very significant constitutional development, and one which should not take place without a clear democratic decision, so we are asking the Secretary of State to consider amending the Bill to require the Assembly to agree to the devolution of tax powers before they are devolved.
The shadow Secretary of State for Wales will be aware of the comments of the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, who said on the BBC on 9 November 2015, on the Scotland Bill, which gave full income tax powers to Scotland:
“When this Bill becomes law, it will present the Scottish Parliament with the opportunity to make Scotland the fairest nation on earth.”
I assume that that would be an objective for the hon. Lady and her party. Why, therefore, is she dithering about giving her colleagues in the Assembly the same powers as Scotland to achieve that objective?
It comes as no surprise that an intervention from the hon. Gentleman focuses on his party’s determination to see Wales become an independent state, regardless of the economic consequences. As I have just explained, it is crucial to give the Assembly the opportunity to negotiate a proper, fair fiscal framework with a “no detriment” principle before it accepts responsibility for income tax. That opportunity is extremely important.
The hon. Lady mentions what she sees as the need for the Assembly to consent to the devolution of tax powers, but what about the people of Wales? Given that the people of Scotland were consulted in a referendum prior to tax-raising powers being given, does she not think that the people of Wales deserve the same respect?
We have moved on since the last Wales Bill, but it is vital that there is a mechanism to establish a clear financial framework with a “no detriment” principle so that the Welsh Assembly can have the confidence to decide whether to accept the devolution of tax-raising powers.
As I said at the outset, this Bill is not perfect and it will require amendments, but I hope that the UK Government will commit to working constructively with the Welsh Government and with Opposition parties to ensure that we deliver the strong, stable, workable settlement that the people of Wales deserve.
I begin by thanking all the members of the Welsh Affairs Committee who took part in the pre-legislative scrutiny. When the Select Committee was formed after the last Parliament, I wooed Members in all parts of the House to encourage them to join the Select Committee, telling them tales of all the pertinent and interesting things that we had done in the previous Parliament: considering broadband, the Severn bridge, S4C and the Welsh language, and even visiting the Welsh speakers of Patagonia in Argentina. I think some of them may have been a bit taken aback when we spent the first year or so just doing pre-legislative scrutiny of the government of Wales Bill, with an endless series of academics and legal experts coming in and out to talk to us about legislative consent orders and the like, but everyone persevered, and I am grateful to them for that. I would like to think that we worked in a completely non-partisan fashion, and we offered a number of recommendations, which the Government have taken forward, and I will come to those in a moment.
I am a former Member of the Welsh Assembly, but I actually opposed it in the first instance. I was very much involved in the 1998 referendum campaign, when I often heard the argument that laws that affect our nation should be passed by people who are based in our nation and elected by the people of our nation. I thought that that was quite a powerful argument at the time, and it is one that Government Front Benchers and Opposition Members might want to think about at the moment, because that principle that was certainly accepted then.
I and others had genuine concerns about the Welsh Assembly. One of my concerns was that, having got the Assembly, we would have a constant drive to give it extra powers, and that does seem to be what has played out over the past 17 or 18 years. My concern was that that could undermine the Union of the United Kingdom, and I therefore supported English votes for English laws because there has to be some answer to the English question. Opposition Members may not agree, but if they do not, it is for them to come up with another answer to the English question. Asymmetric devolution, where we give more and more powers—not always even the same powers—to different legislative bodies around the United Kingdom while ignoring the largest constituent part, will surely not create stability. That was one answer to the question, and the other was to come up, finally, with a lasting solution that will keep us on an even track for years, which is what the Government have attempted to do.
When I have been into primary schools and I have been asked about the issue, I have tried to explain it thus—this is a fairly simple analogy, perhaps, but I like such analogies. At the moment, the Assembly is a bit like a legislative park: it has a slide and swings, and it is quite well maintained in its own way, but there is no fence around it. What has happened is that Members of the Welsh Assembly have wandered out of the park into slightly dangerous areas—areas inhabited by other people—while other people have perhaps even trespassed on their park. Ministers have therefore come forward with what is almost a legislative version of Alton Towers: an enormous theme park with all sorts of exciting things for Members of the Welsh Assembly to deal with, such as taxis, buses and sewage, but with a great big fence to prevent them from getting out and perhaps encroaching on other areas, while preventing other people from encroaching on their area. I therefore welcome the Bill as a move towards stability.
Let me quickly go through a couple of the Committee’s recommendations. Obviously it is important to work with the Welsh Assembly to come up with a deal that everyone can live with. Constitutionally speaking, if there were a majority in the House of Commons, we could do practically anything we wanted, but I think all of us accept that, with a Government from one party here and a Government from a different party in the Welsh Assembly, it would be foolish to push something on the Assembly that it clearly did not want—that might be possible constitutionally, but it would be a non-starter politically. I am glad that my colleagues accept that and that talks are ongoing.
I am glad the Government have removed the necessity test. I got a strong feeling from talking to legal experts that it just would not work in its proposed form. At the same time, however, it is important that the Welsh Assembly is unable to change criminal or private law in a way that would affect non-devolved areas or people living outside Wales, in England, so we must be mindful of that in all cases. For example, the Welsh Affairs Committee held a public meeting in Chepstow yesterday to discuss the Severn bridge, which is one of the areas that is being retained—not least, perhaps, because three of the four ends are in England. A resident of Gloucester made the point that if it were handed over to the Welsh Assembly, how would people living on the English side of the border who use it every day be able to raise concerns about delays, tolling or pre-payment systems? They would have no MP who could take up those issues for them, despite the fact that they would affect almost as many people in England as in Wales. Those principles are important.
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman’s speech carefully. I commend to him the work of the all-party group on Mersey Dee North Wales, which is addressing precisely the issue that he raises. It works with Members on both sides of the border to deal with practical issues that affect all our constituents every day. We have the capability to do these things if we work together.
I had to think hard about this, but I think it was the hon. Gentleman himself who, during the discussion of English votes for English laws, raised the concern that giving England the power to decide over NHS matters would affect his constituents who use the NHS in England. He felt that it was therefore wrong that English MPs should have the last word on that matter, and I would reflect that back to him. Whenever we hand things over to devolved systems, people living on the other side of the border who use whatever has been devolved can lose out, and that was the point I was making about the Severn bridge. However, I commend the all-party group of which he is a member, and I am sure it is doing everything it can to resolve these issues.
Let me turn to some of the other recommendations. The tax issue is obviously tricky. I am in favour in principle of having a referendum before tax-varying powers are devolved to the Welsh Assembly or, rather, tax-raising powers—let us be honest: Governments rarely vary taxes downwards. The issue merits further exploration throughout the Bill’s passage. Obviously, I will not vote against Second Reading, but I might discuss this issue further with Ministers. I am conflicted, and I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) because I suspect that the last thing anyone will want at the moment is another referendum on anything. I would not like to go back to my wife, Mrs Davies, and tell her that, having finished this referendum, we are about to start another one and I am going to throw myself headlong into it. I appreciate that that is rather a personal point of view, but I suspect that many people across Wales feel exactly the same way and really would not welcome a referendum. Surely, however, a way must be found to make sure that the Welsh Assembly is unable to go ahead with such powers unless full account is taken of what the public think.
As someone whom my hon. Friend cajoled into becoming a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee under his chairmanship, and as someone who spent nearly 12 months scrutinising the draft Wales Bill, may I ask him whether he is as disappointed as I am that we could not scrutinise the withdrawal of the referendum during those many hours and months of our consideration?
This certainly came through rather late in the day, and I think we made it clear in our report that we were disappointed that we did not have enough time to scrutinise the issue, but I suppose that it is now done with. I am here not to defend the Government but to scrutinise them, and I am very happy to do so.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the evidence of the momentum of Welsh opinion is enough for us to forgo the joys of another referendum? Only 11% were in favour of Welsh devolution in 1979, but 64% were in 2011. Is that not evidence enough that the public will certainly favour the development and growth of the Welsh Assembly’s powers?
I have to admit that it is certainly evidence that the public have accepted the Welsh Assembly and, therefore, that it is pointless for even arch-devo-sceptics such as me to try to resurrect that particular battle—I have no intention of doing so. There will be people taking part in the next election who were born under the Welsh Assembly. While the hon. Gentleman and I can remember a time before the Welsh Assembly, that does not exist for some people, although he can go back a bit further than I can. I canvassed against the hon. Gentleman in 1983. He used to come into my school to try to brainwash me, but he never succeeded. We have moved on a long way. If he was trying to put me on the spot, yes, of course we have to accept that the Welsh Assembly is here for good, and that brings me back to the point about stability and trying to make this work.
I am pleased that one of the points that has been accepted was about ministerial consent, such that when the Welsh Assembly intends to legislate in a way that may affect England or have some impact on non-devolved areas, it will have to get permission from the Government, which I fully accept. As we have heard, there have been delays while this has been going on, with the Welsh Office blaming the Welsh Assembly for that and the Welsh Assembly blaming the Welsh Office—I have no idea who actually was to blame. Nevertheless, we recommended that if the Assembly applied to the Welsh Office for a consent and nothing was given within 60 days, the application should be nodded through on the basis that nobody had come up with an objection. Although that is not going into the Bill, it will, I believe, become part of the guidance—a convention, no less—so may I make a pitch for something? I have been here for a long time now and I have never had a convention named after me, but I think I am right in saying that this was my idea, so perhaps it could become the “Top Cat” convention.
I am glad that the Welsh Assembly will have powers to run its own elections. It would, if it wanted, be able to move out of the Senedd and to relocate anywhere in Wales—from Llanfihangel Tor-y-Mynydd, right down in the south-east of my own constituency, to Llanfair- pwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch in the north-east. Is not that wonderful? Assembly Members will have more powers than MEPs in Strasbourg, who cannot even decide whether to move to Brussels full-time. Ministers are giving them a really good deal—a really good legislative theme park to operate in.
While I do have concerns about the Bill, I will, in the words of the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), give it 7.5 out of 10 and go along with it for the time being.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) on his speech. I agree with him on one thing: the need for an English Parliament to balance things out. I am sure that that debate will come forward and that he and I will be on the same side for once.
I congratulate the Government on pausing the Bill, which was the right thing to do because they got it wrong the first time round. The St David’s day agreement was not a major declaration in Welsh history—it will not be remembered as that—but it did move us in the right direction, and the Government did listen. I pay tribute to the Welsh Affairs Committee for its pre-legislative scrutiny because that highlighted some of the draft Bill’s weaknesses. I am sorry that the process took 12 months and it could not get on to other things, but it is important that before we bring forward major legislation in the House of Commons, we have the pre-legislative scrutiny for which Members—two of them, my hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), are sitting here to my left—fought very hard. Before, Bills were rushed through without the necessary scrutiny.
I very much welcome the fact that the Bill has now been changed, with major parts of it dropped, not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, the necessity test, which I felt was a step too far. Rather than a measure for moving forward with devolution, it looked a bit like the old secretary-general giving powers and the nod to what the Welsh Government could do, which did not sit very comfortably. I look forward to improving the Bill and, by doing so, we should act more as visionaries than victims. We have had devolution for a number of years and it has done a lot of good things. The additional powers will empower the Welsh Assembly to do more good things for the people of Wales, moving forward and taking the people with it. That is the idea of devolution.
I am a long-standing pro-devolutionist and I have fought three referendums—in 1979, 1997, and 2011. The score in those referendums was exactly the same as that for Wales on Sunday—a 2-1 victory. I am not so confident about the outcome of the referendum later this month, but I hope to be on the winning remain side. To me, devolution is about decentralisation and greater democracy, or it is about nothing.
The UK state has changed considerably since 1997. It is more open, democratic and decentralised. I congratulate all parties on playing their part in making the United Kingdom a more decentralised and democratic state. I also welcome the support from many Conservatives. The hon. Member for Monmouth, a former Member of the Welsh Assembly, has changed his stance on devolution, and the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) also used to be against it. It is important that we bring people with us as we move forward positively.
Does my hon. Friend agree that at the conclusion of the passage of the Bill and after the EU referendum, the time will genuinely have arrived for a constitutional convention to consider the future of the United Kingdom and its constitution, particularly with regard to how the nations of the United Kingdom and their devolved institutions relate to each other?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a very important point. There has to be a time limit if we are going to have a constitutional convention, because we do not just want academics producing papers and having long arguments. We should draw on the experiences of the British state as it is today, with the degree of decentralisation that has already taken place, and look at the English question. I genuinely agree with the hon. Member for Monmouth that that needs to be looked at in a positive way. I welcome the extension of powers to the regions and cities in England.
I talked about the many people who have moved from being against devolution to now being very active pro-devolutionists. Many in this House, including those in the two nationalist parties, do not think we are going far enough or quick enough. I understand and respect that, but as a pro-devolutionist I want the devolution settlements to work for Wales and for the UK. I want us to move forward in a positive way, bringing the people of Wales with us. Rather than just having ideologies, we must have practical devolution that works. We are moving forward, and this Bill helps in many ways in doing that. It is no good having devolution that just devolves powers from London to Belfast, Edinburgh or Cardiff—I want it to be spread within the nations and within the rest of the United Kingdom. I have seen some bad examples in this regard. When I served on the Welsh Affairs Committee and we went up to Scotland, we saw a lot of centralising of services. I worry about that. As a real devolutionist, I think we need better devolution within the devolved countries, as well as England, to get the balance right. I want to see this Bill improved, but I say that as someone who is an advocate of practical devolution. I welcome the devolving of more powers.
I am not going to deal with the detail of the constitutional issues, but I do want to talk about the practical implications of devolving powers in the context of ports, transport, and energy. I have a specific interest in ports, as the Member for Ynys Môn, which has a principal port that has grown. I have seen how the flaws in the devolution settlement have hampered some of the development of ports. I recall a new berth being built in the early 2000s—I think it was 2003-04—when we had to get special consent from the Department for Transport, the Welsh Office and the Welsh Government, with one saying that it was not possible to build within the port. The new provisions clarify that. When the Welsh Government take over responsibility for ports, they will be able to develop them in a practical way, with the local authority doing the planning as well. I welcome that.
As a former member of the Energy and Climate Committee, I welcome the move towards devolving powers on fracking and on petroleum extraction on land, and, I think, if I am reading the Bill correctly, at sea in territorial waters. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that when he winds up. It is important for the Welsh Government to have those consents in the same way as they have consents for offshore wind and other things. Wales could be really radical in low-carbon energy and the low-carbon economy if it has the tools to do so. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on nuclear power. I think that we need to have baseload low carbon alongside renewable energies. We need to have the proper mix, and Wales can be a leader in low-carbon energy. I welcome the consent for power stations up to 350 MW. That is a very good step forward.
I am concerned, however, about the grid connections. The Bill gives consent to the Welsh Government in planning and various other areas, but it does so only for the distribution grid, not the national grid. The measures relate to developments under 132 kV. I would like some clarification on that, because in my area and many other areas of Wales, National Grid projects are going ahead that will have a great impact on local communities. The Welsh Government and local government are best placed to look at those, rather than National Grid, which is an organisation that looks to its own private interests.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work that he has been doing on this matter in Ynys Môn, which is similar to that which I have been doing in Arfon. I share his concern that National Grid is not accountable to the people of Wales. It has supposedly carried out extensive consultations, but there has been no real consultation in our area.
In the past couple of years we have highlighted the importance of giving the energy regulator more teeth to deal with that issue. We need the regulator on one side and the consenting authorities—which will be the Welsh Government, I hope, and the local authorities—on the other, so that we can put pressure on National Grid to take into account the impact that energy generation has on the environment and local communities, as well as on the national interest. I accept that there is progress in the Bill, but I would like clarification on that.
Clause 46 places a greater duty on the Secretary of State to consult Welsh Ministers before amending or establishing renewable energy incentives, such as feed-in tariffs and contracts for difference. That is important, because when Welsh Ministers then give consent, they will understand what it means for local developers and the total project. I would like to hear greater detail in Committee on what that means. A one-stop shop for energy developers sounds very good, but the involvement of multinationals and other developers will make it difficult.
I welcome the consent for fracking and extraction. As with other minerals, it is important that the Welsh Government have that. It is a tidying-up exercise.
I have already touched on port consent. The road transport powers are welcome, but they do not go far enough. Wales needs a more integrated transport system that takes into account sea, road and rail, rather than an approach that breaks them up. I want greater powers over rail. The franchise is coming up for renewal both of the Virgin Trains service on the west coast and of the Arriva Trains service on the Welsh borders. The Welsh Government will have an input, but the approach could have been tidied up a little bit better.
The Bill addresses predominantly constitutional issues, but it has important practical implications for Wales. I welcome the scrapping of the necessity tests and the fact that consents have been simplified. That is very good. I also welcome the reserved powers model, which a lot of Members from across the parties have worked together to establish.
I am concerned about income tax, an issue I argue about with some of my colleagues at the National Assembly. I have been involved in a number of referendums. If we think that the European referendum is going to be close, let us not forget how close the result was in 1997. I remember the differential between Scotland and Wales. I believe that if income tax powers for Wales had been on the ballot paper, the result would have been different. I say that as someone who argued the positive case for devolution, and that is what I am now doing for remain. We have to be delicate in the way we talk about devolving income tax and what it really means to the people of Wales. If the Government are saying that the Bill will introduce it without further consultation with the people of Wales and without a proper financial settlement, we will be in trouble. I do not want a huge gap appearing as a result of the block grant being reduced and it having to be made up out of general income tax.
I am not against the principle of devolving tax-raising powers to the Assembly—we have already done that in other measures in the Wales Act 2014—but I have also consistently supported the principle of holding a referendum when a major constitutional change is proposed, and I think that the devolution of income tax is one such change. That is the principle that I held in 1997, and I still hold it now. We need a further debate on the issue, because it would be wrong for the UK Government to make that decision after saying in 2014 that they were not going to make it. Indeed, the Conservatives, who are now in the majority here, told the country that they did not want to devolve income tax powers. I am cautiously concerned about the way in which the change is being made.
I have not thought of the wording, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that democracy is difficult. We have to make a positive case for things and do so honourably. I did not understand, and was not able to explain in great detail, the question on extending powers in 2011, but I argued, along with members of Plaid Cymru, that the Welsh Government deserved to have lawmaking powers. Tax-varying and lawmaking powers are simple questions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West has said, it may be difficult to win an argument, but we have to stick to principles. I have been consistent on this matter since 1997, and I do not think we can just jump into it after all the different elections we have had. However, given the current referendum, I understand the climate of fear that people find themselves in at present. I want to be radical and forward looking, and I want the Welsh Government to be so, too.
When the Minister winds up, I want him to clarify the issue of election powers. On the issue of lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, am I right in thinking that the Welsh Government will have the power to do so and that it will apply to Welsh Assembly and local government elections only? If there were a Welsh-only referendum, such as one on tax-varying powers or another Wales-specific issue, would the Welsh Government have the power to lower the voting age from 18 to 16? I am an advocate of that and have argued the case for it in this House for some time. This is an opportunity for us to give those responsibilities to the Welsh Government.
My hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff West and for Wrexham have been campaigning hard on compulsory voting. This is a great opportunity for the Welsh Government to be radical. Let us give them the tools to do the job. If the Welsh Government decide that they want compulsory voting in Wales, that would be a good step forward.
That is excellent news, and it is on the record. It is a victory for the three of us on the Labour Back Benches that we will now have the opportunity for compulsory voting in Wales, which I think is a radical step. Hansard will make that known, but I hope the media in Wales are watching the progress of the Bill. After all, it is not dry as dust, but is about the real issues affecting people, including compulsory voting.
It is the Secretary of State’s job, with his extra responsibilities and wages, to decide on the details. As a Back Bencher, I am saying that I am very proud that the Welsh Government have the opportunity to have compulsory voting.
As I have said, I want devolution to work. I want the Bill to work, but I want it to be considerably improved. I think the name of the National Assembly for Wales is a matter for the Assembly itself, but I do not see anything wrong with the current name. I am not a revolutionary, but I remember from reading about the French revolution when I was studying history that the French people wanted a national assembly. They did not fight for a parliament, and I do not think there is much in that word. I am very proud, as I know the French people are, of having a National Assembly. The National Assembly is a good term: it is a good name and it has a good meaning. It is a sovereign body, and I think the name should be kept, but that is my personal view.
I want a strong Wales, a strong United Kingdom and, yes, I want the United Kingdom to remain within the European Union. I agree that the Bill will provide some extra tools for the Welsh Government to do their job. I think there has been progress, and I congratulate Carwyn Jones on being re-elected as First Minister of Wales. I hope that he will get a good Bill once it has gone through its parliamentary stages, so that he can continue to do his job and serve the people of Wales with a Labour programme that will have been enhanced by the Bill.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on introducing the Bill. I have to say, however, that that should not be interpreted as meaning that I greet it with unalloyed enthusiasm. This is the fourth major piece of constitutional legislation aimed at conferring devolved powers on Wales in less than 20 years. The very fact that we are in the Chamber to debate this yet again shows just how flawed the original devolution settlement was and how important it is that, on this occasion, we try to get it right at the fourth time of asking.
The Secretary of State has very kindly presented a briefing note on the Wales Bill, in which he acknowledges that
“there is more work to do”,
and that there are “unresolved issues” and “unfinished business”. He goes on to say that he is looking to
“amend the Bill if necessary during its parliamentary passage.”
I must say that he is probably not likely to be disappointed in that regard.
The opening clauses of the Bill follow the current fashion for declaratory legislation. We are solemnly told that the
“Assembly and the Welsh Government are a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements.”
We are also told that they are
“not to be abolished except on the basis of a decision of the people of Wales voting in”—
We are told that there is a “body of Welsh law”, which should not of course be in any way confused with a Welsh jurisdiction. There is a declaration that in effect incorporates the Sewel convention into statute, in that the Bill declares that this Parliament
“will not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters without the consent of the Assembly.”
Such declarations are all well and good, but they are in danger of overlooking the constitutional fact that this Parliament is supreme, which makes one wonder about their worth and whether they are in reality mere window dressing.
It is somewhat ironic that, having quite rightly abandoned the necessity test, the Government are now apparently introducing a normality test. As my right hon. Friend acknowledged, that means that the courts might intrude on parliamentary sovereignty by deciding or being asked to decide whether a piece of legislation passed by this Parliament is, so to speak, normal.
The Bill does of course change the devolution settlement from a conferred powers model to a reserved powers model, which is deemed to make matters clearer. I have to say that I do not believe that a reserved powers model is, as many contend, a panacea. The reserved powers model is in reality simply a mirror image of the conferred powers model. The nature of the model is less important than the clarity of language, as other Members have pointed out.
That is particularly important in relation to whether the reservations are comprehensive. The danger is that if the reservations are not comprehensive, there will be problems. I am glad, for example, that my right hon. Friend has not emulated a former Secretary of State for Scotland, who made sure that Antarctica was a reserved matter, and that we will not therefore see an attempt to create a new Patagonia on that continent.
The necessity test has been abandoned to the extent that it is no longer the case that the Assembly can modify criminal and private law only where modification
“has no greater effect otherwise than…is necessary to give effect to the…provision.”
That was a positive invitation to go to the Supreme Court. However, there is still a necessity test in relation to the law on reserved matters. Proposed new section 108A(3) of the Government of Wales Act 2006 will provide that Assembly Acts cannot modify the law on reserved matters unless ancillary to a provision that is not reserved, but modification cannot go further than is necessary to achieve the devolved objective. Words such as “necessary” and “normally” lack objectivity, and are therefore subject to interpretation, including, in difficult cases, by the Supreme Court. I do not believe, therefore, that simply changing the model of devolution will necessarily achieve the clarity that everyone wants. In Committee, I believe it will be necessary to test whether the reservations are truly comprehensive to avoid any further difficulties of the sort we have already experienced. To be fair, however, the Secretary of State has acknowledged that the Bill is a work in progress, and he will no doubt be expecting such tests and, if necessary, significant amendments in Committee.
I do not want to dwell too lengthily on individual provisions, but some matters are worth mentioning. First, as the Secretary of State will have anticipated from my interventions, I have a huge concern about the proposal that income tax varying powers in the 2014 Act should now be triggered without a referendum. As a Conservative, I have a particular concern, because at the last general election—despite the apparently rapid passage of time, I remind him that it was only just over a year ago—I and Conservative colleagues campaigned on the basis that the powers would not be triggered without a referendum. Indeed, when I was specifically asked on the doorstep whether the powers would be imposed on the Assembly without consent, I made it absolutely clear that a referendum was contemplated. I must say that it is positively disrespectful of the people of Wales for this Parliament to seek to impose new tax-raising competences without consulting them first.
That was done in the case of Scotland, and despite the interventions already made by Opposition Members, it is perfectly possible to formulate such a question and, in the case of Scotland, one that could be answered in the affirmative. If the Scots are entitled to that, surely the people of Wales should be entitled to the same level of respect. I invite the Secretary of State to think about that, and to consider whether, in the circumstances, the Bill should be amended by the deletion of clause 16.
Secondly, although this may appear to be a minor point, I find it difficult to understand the rationale for devolving to the Assembly the setting of speed limits. Wales and England have a continuous, porous border, and every day there are many thousands of journeys back and forth across the border. It does not bear scrutiny that there should potentially be different speed limits on either side of that border—it makes no sense. I cannot understand what possible reason there could be for devolving the setting of speed limits. What mischief is it aimed at? Who asked for it? Why is it necessary?
Thirdly, there is the issue of electricity generating consents, set out in clause 36. I intervened on the Secretary of State about that. The 350 MW limit provided for in the Bill seems to have little practical significance, because wind generating stations are expressly excluded. The granting of energy generation consents for capacities of more than 350 MW will remain with the Secretary of State, and there are few conventional power stations with an output of less than 350 MW.
The worrying fact is that although the Bill is silent on the subject, it devolves competence to the Assembly for all onshore wind farms, with no upper limit at all. I refer the Secretary of State to the excellent Library note, which points out that the Energy Act 2016 has transferred competence for wind farm consents to local planning authorities. A piece of Welsh legislation with which I have no doubt we are all familiar, the Developments of National Significance (Specified Criteria and Prescribed Secondary Consents) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2016, provides that all wind farm developments in Wales are designated as developments of national significance. According to the Library note, which I have no reason to doubt, that means that all such developments, whether of up to 50 MW or more than 50 MW, will be determined by procedures set by the Assembly.
Given the thrust of policy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, I suggest that the consequence of that will be a rush to develop wind farms in Wales. Indeed, I suggest that there may be a free-for-all. Areas such as my constituency, Montgomeryshire and Brecon and Radnor, which already have a lot of wind farms, are likely to be under further pressure for wind farm developments.
The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. I have two TAN 8—technical advice note 8—areas in my constituency, and in one of them the only developments that have occurred have been determined by Westminster. The local planning authority, which is responsible for developments of below 50 MW, has turned them down.
That may be the case, but I say with huge respect that I think the hon. Gentleman is missing the point, which is about competence. It seemed clear from the Secretary of State’s response to my intervention that what I said was news to him. It was based on the Library note, which I believe is accurate. I therefore ask the Secretary of State to reconsider the matter, and he may well wish to table amendments himself in Committee.
The Bill is a further step in the process of devolution, and I believe that it is a brave attempt to rectify the errors of the past. However, I strongly question whether, in its current form, it will do the job that it is intended to. As I said, the Secretary of State anticipated amendments in his briefing note, and I have no doubt that he will look forward to them with great anticipation.
Congratulations to the Government on the improvements to what was an ugly draft Bill. We have before us a Bill that will be a genuine step forward in devolution.
I was taken by the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who talked about Welsh people seeing themselves not as victims but as visionaries. Absolutely right—we can go forward on a confident note, but not by having referendums. The whole system of our democracy is in peril at the moment, partly because of the debasement of political discourse, which is the worst it has been for a couple of centuries. The worst example was in the referendum on the alternative vote. Here was an opportunity for an advance in the quality of our democracy, but it was not argued in that way. As I came in every morning at Vauxhall Cross, anti-AV campaigners were telling people that those who voted for AV were the sort of people who believed in seeing babies die in hospitals and our brave soldiers die in Afghanistan. That seemed a rather extraordinary argument, but it was the one put forward by those opposed to AV. It was based on the idea that AV would cost money—a tiny amount of money, really, because democracy is expensive—and that the first thing the Government would do would be to cut the protection of our soldiers in Afghanistan and the money provided to baby units in hospitals. It was an outrageous lie, but that is currently the quality of parliamentary debate.
If the hon. Gentleman reads his local paper, he will find that I did precisely that the other day—it was next to a column by him, so I thought he might have had the grace to read my column, even if he did not read his. I thought it was rather better written, although I am slightly biased. I made the point in that article that I am embarrassed by the lies of people on my side, just as I treat with contempt the lies of people on the other side. That is the choice facing the public—whose lies they will vote for next week.
Order. While I am certainly enjoying the hon. Gentleman’s speech, the House would appreciate it if he addressed the matter in hand, which is the Second Reading of the Wales Bill. I understand that he is giving some illustrative examples in order to come to his point, but I am sure he will do so quite soon.
The point is, of course, that the Bill covers how we deal with income tax. I challenge anyone to imagine some future time when there will be somebody for tax and somebody against it. The argument is unwinnable—it is impractical to suggest that there will be people marching down the streets with banners, saying, “What do we want? More tax! When do we want it? Yesterday!” It is so unlikely that it is not worth wasting money on.
The public are in a strange, deep and profound anti-politics mood. They are more interested in jokes and trivial points than in the leadership that we offer as politicians, which is damaging to us. I gave the example earlier of Boaty McBoatface—the public showed their contempt in that way, and they are continuing to do it.
I have supported the idea of proportional representation for all my parliamentary life. I remember that in two of the general elections that we have had in my time here, the Conservative party secured 20% of the Welsh vote but did not have a single representative among the 40 Welsh MPs. That was a distortion of democracy that we put up with—we all believe in our own forms of democracy.
Here we have something remarkable in Welsh devolution. In 1886, Cymru Fydd was founded in this city by a couple of Welsh MPs and some others, seeking a form of devolution for Wales. It has been a long, slow process. In 1888, the Welsh Parliamentary Party was formed, from all Welsh MPs. It has a spectral and occasional existence now, but it still goes on, and has met in the past five years.
One of the joys of my political life, and one of many things I feel fortunate about, is that I am in this generation of MPs. Those who, from the 1880s onwards, fought to achieve devolution made no progress whatever; in our generation, we have got there. The process has been very slow, mainly because of the power-retentive features of this House. It does not want to part with anything; it sees these offspring and is rather jealous. Now is the time to make progress and give the Welsh Assembly the dignity of making more of its own decisions and having a title that befits it.
It is interesting that, for the first time in history, the two Ministers for Wales and the two shadow Ministers are all Welsh speakers. That has never happened before. Yet the status of the Welsh language in this House is the same as that of spitting on the carpet—it is out of order. Speaking Welsh is disorderly behaviour. If I were to turn to Welsh now, you would quite rightly have me ordered out of the Chamber, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is a novel way to treat one of the beautiful languages of these islands. It should get the same dignity. I am sure that that will come about.
Generally, I accept the Bill, but we should not follow the very limited restriction on the Welsh Assembly’s adjudication on electrical generation schemes.
The hon. Gentleman is making a great speech, as ever. It strikes me that, as with Scottish issues, the Bill ultimately boils down to the question of where Welsh powers will reside: in Wales, the most democratically elected forum of Welsh opinion, or in Westminster. Surely anyone with a modicum of trust in the Welsh people will understand that they can make better decisions for themselves than can Scottish MPs or English MPs.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. In 1953 I took part in a march in Cardiff in which I carried a Labour party banner that said “Senedd i Gymru”. It did not say that we wanted a half Parliament in Wales, but that we wanted a Parliament. That has been part of my political life. One thing that enthuses me is that that was a tiny minority movement in 1953. In 1979, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and I took part in a very painful referendum—well, it was a painful result, anyway, as we scored less than 12% of the vote in Wales. That was a very emphatic rejection. The 1997 referendum was absolutely knife-edge, with about a 0.5% majority. But in the last measure of public opinion in Wales, in 2011, the vote in favour of giving considerable powers to Wales was 64%. The momentum is there, so we can go ahead and give Wales the tax-raising powers that any dignified self-governing Assembly should have, without going to the people for a referendum that will be in the hand of the Crosbys, the lobbyists and those who are not telling the truth.
The point the hon. Gentleman has just made illustrates the fact that when people are free from media scare stories and have the experience of making decisions for themselves, that only grows in popularity. When we contrast Cardiff with Westminster, it seems to me that Cardiff comes out on top each and every time.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn said, let us not think of ourselves as victims—an obsession with a sense of victimhood is debilitating—but as people going forward as victors. That is how we should be going.
Just to take the hon. Gentleman back a little and pick up one point, the Welsh language is being treated with a good measure of respect here. It is used regularly at the Welsh Affairs Committee. I would have liked it to be used in the last Welsh Grand Committee, and I am sure we will get there in the end, with cross-party support.
At business questions last week that was emphatically turned down by the Leader of the House. I hope that we can have a sensible discussion on that. It has been a huge success in the Welsh Assembly itself, where the language is used quite freely and in a very relaxed way. That is greatly to the benefit of Wales.
My main point about the Bill is about the level set in clause 36, which will act as a great restriction on Wales’s progress in using the greatest source of power that we have. It has long been neglected, yet it is like our North sea oil—it is that great cliff of water that comes up the Bristol channel twice a day. It is a source of immense power. It is entirely predictable, unlike wind or solar power—we know when it is going to happen—and it can be tapped in so many ways.
To our credit, we have already used that source in hydropower. But under the scheme in the Bill, even the hydropower station at Ffestiniog would be too big for the Welsh Assembly to authorise, at 360 MW. The one at Rheidol would have been fine, but Dinorwig would be too big at 1,800 MW. Those stations are a wonderful way of using that power. They are entirely demand responsive. The excess electricity can be used in off-peak hours to pump the water up to certain levels and then bring it back down again.
The greatest chance Wales has to produce power that is entirely non-carbon is through using the tides. Where would we be under the restriction in the Bill? The Swansea bay lagoon would be just within the 350 MW limit. But the Newport lagoons—both start at the River Usk, then one runs in the direction of Cardiff and one the other way—are both 1,800 MW. They have enormous potential. The resource is there, and the topography is perfect.
The hon. Gentleman is making some very valid points. Does he agree that the huge investment by energy companies in storage technology means that renewables could seriously take off, making them something that would be hugely beneficial to our economy in Wales?
Absolutely. It is the untapped resource. I know that there are objections to various other forms of power. Another question that comes in here is about nuclear power. The scheme in the Bill will not allow Wales any control over Hinkley Point, which is very close to us in Wales; although it is almost certainly doomed now. The future scheme at Wylfa would be outside the limit. Small modular schemes mostly start at about 300 MW, but go up to about 700 MW, so if people wanted to go down the road of nuclear power, they would be outside the scope set in the Bill. We should allow the visionaries of the Welsh Assembly to go ahead and develop power. We have an enormous resource. We could be a vast power station for ourselves and for the whole United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. Does he find it telling that in my constituency there was a plan to develop a hydroelectric scheme at 49 MW to avoid the bureaucracy of having to come to London for permission? Now that the changes in the Bill are afoot, the people in charge of the scheme are talking about going up to 350 MW. Why should they be constrained by what seems an entirely arbitrary limit?
It is a great shame. The Rheidol station is of that order, at 45 MW. The stations exist. They enhance the beauty of the scene—they do not detract in any way. Wind turbines do and so are very unpopular, but no one knows that Tanygrisiau is there. The three great pump storage schemes in Wales are entirely acceptable and fit in with the beauty of the hills, or improve things, because of the lakes. There is no pollution of any kind. It is the way forward—it has been successful. The two main ones were built in 1963, which is a long time to have been manufacturing electricity from a wholly benign source without appreciating its value. We go on from there to tidal power.
I believe the people in the Welsh Assembly should be in charge of decisions on power. We can be a great source of power generation in a way that is wholly British and free. It will last eternally, and, as I say, it is entirely predictable. I hope that point will be considered.
If the Bill goes forward with goodwill from all parts of the House, we should remember the story of devolution in Wales and how it has grown up and can stand tall among the nations of the world. It is a matter of pride to see the development of the Welsh Assembly in that beautiful building in Cardiff.
We have just opened a centre in Newport. A marvellous poem by Gillian Clarke about the story of Wales and the struggle for our rights over the years is embossed on the side of Friars Walk. She writes about the Chartists who came down to Newport in 1839, with the cold rain stinging their faces and
“heads bowed against the storm like mountain ponies”
marching for something they believed in. Twenty were shot and killed outside the Westgate hotel. That is commemorated today, with the six points of the People’s Charter, on Friars Walk. She writes about that and the rise of devolution:
“…they stormed the doors to set their comrades free,
and shots were fired, and freedom’s dream was broken.
A score dead. Fifty wounded. Their leaders tried,
condemned, transported. The movement, in disarray,
lost fifty years. Then came, at last, that shift
of power, one spoonful of thin gruel at a time,
from strong to weak, from rich to poor,
from men to women, like a grudged gift.”
The grudged gift keeps on giving and now we have another example of it. The gruel is a little thicker and the spoon is a bit bigger.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), for the constructive way in which they have engaged across party divides to try to ensure that the new Bill will be a positive step in the devolution process and a positive move for the people of Wales.
I might not have started out being one of the great advocates of devolution, but I have, through my years as a Member of the National Assembly, come to realise that the devolutionary process is something that is important not just to Welsh political life, but to Welsh cultural and national life on many levels. I am sure that the Bill will continue to improve and add to the devolution process, and I look forward to scrutinising it during its passage through the House.
I will talk briefly about a topic that has been well-exercised today: taxation powers for the Welsh Government. There is a famous American slogan that there should be no taxation without representation. I am concerned that the new tax powers for Wales will receive no seal of approval from the people of Wales and no democratic process, and will involve no representation for the people of Wales. At the key stages of the devolutionary process, the people of Wales have been able to debate and have informed discussions about their future and what they want their democracy to look like. Of course, that process led to the creation of the National Assembly and law-making powers for Wales. Taxation powers represent a major step in devolution, so they deserve the same level of debate and discussion.
As an Assembly Member, I am worried about the level of scrutiny not just in the Assembly, but in Welsh political life, where there is limited media and political analysis. That is part and parcel of the Assembly being a young institution in the process of finding its distinct place in Welsh life, and its own methods of scrutinising Government and debating major issues.
The huge sea change in the level of scrutiny is something that has really struck me since I have become a Member of this House. One cannot fail to be impressed by the House’s extremely long and detailed process of scrutinising Bills. The Investigatory Powers Bill that has just been through the House is a key example of that. We had Committee reports, a Public Bill Committee and, perhaps more importantly, a constructive debate about not just the Bill, but society, technology and the crucial issues of privacy and security in a world that is becoming ever more dangerous. The process highlighted the crucial role of a constructive Opposition in the passage of legislation. It highlighted the significant role of the Back-Bench MP and reflected positively on a Government who wanted to engage in a process with all parties to achieve the very best piece of legislation.
This is the process that is missing in Wales. There has, until now—I am sure some of the new Assembly Members will change this—been very little in the way of Back-Bench scrutiny of proposed Welsh legislation. I have witnessed Bills being essentially nodded through, with serious and sensible amendments refused simply because they have come from an opposing party. It has simply been a case of, “This is the legislation. It is what we as a Government want and that’s the way it is going to be.”
That is not the way an institution that now has major powers over everyday life in Wales should be run. We need a wider debate in Welsh society and political life about our democratic processes, and our scrutiny over the Welsh Government and their processes. This is a genuine cross-party point. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House agree about the need to discuss these issues without fear or favour to ensure that the devolution process is the very best it can be.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about scrutiny in both this House and the Assembly. I chaired the Investigatory Powers Public Bill Committee, so I know the length of that process. Does he agree that one reason why scrutiny is lighter in the Assembly is because it has fewer Members? The number of Members who are not on the Front Bench and in the Executive is an issue. Does he think we should look at the number of Assembly Members as this Bill progresses?
That is a difficult question to answer. Should we increase the number of Assembly Members, particularly in the current climate in which the amount we spend in the world of politics is scrutinised? I had great difficulty coming to terms with that when I was an Assembly Member, but the honest truth is that if we are going to have proper scrutiny, we will have to consider increasing the numbers. I accept that many AMs are in government and unable to scrutinise.
I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a very good point.
This is what concerns me regarding taxation powers: the Welsh people have not had their voices heard. They have not had the chance to hear the arguments, to debate with their neighbours and friends, or to discuss with their local politicians what the new powers will mean for their lives. The powers are significant not just to family lives, but to the economic future of Wales. I have felt that the Welsh public deserve a major discussion about this most crucial of issues, which will affect their day-to-day lives.
I have made my points about how we view the Assembly and how it scrutinises the Welsh Government, but I hope that I will be forgiven for going into my concerns regarding the Welsh Government. The previous Welsh Government were, I am afraid, completely adverse to any scrutiny or constructive criticism, as I saw at first hand. I was an Assembly Member until May last year, and I saw a complete lack of will and want in that Government to hear an opposing view or to discuss a different solution. That led to the appalling running of certain services in Wales. For example, there is a complete lack of an integrated transport system that would be fit for a modern and outward-looking nation. Legislation was not to the standard it should have been and there were scandals such as the regeneration investment fund for Wales. The Welsh Government scandalously sold land massively under value—we are talking about millions of pounds—and deprived Welsh taxpayers of key revenues, which highlighted the very inadequate processes for and governance of major public assets. That leaves me deeply sceptical about that Government’s ability to control billions of pounds of revenue that they raise themselves. I do not make that point to be party political, but it would be remiss of me and remiss of the House if we did not consider such issues, which are absolutely crucial to our constituents.
As it stands, I am completely unconvinced of the Welsh Government’s ability to run a Treasury. That Government have chronic and long-standing problems regarding their ability to run projects, so I feel uneasy about giving them such powers. I therefore hope that the Secretary of State will assure us that the Treasury and the Wales Office will ensure that there is a clear process so that the Welsh Government are prepared and equipped to use these powers in a way that befits the Welsh people.
I look forward to scrutinising the Bill. I know that it could not be in better hands than those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). I know that they will listen and speak to Members to ensure that the Bill benefits the people of Gower and the rest of Wales and, above all, to give the people of Wales greater confidence in further devolved powers.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The Bill is the latest in a long line of Wales Bills to be presented to the House since the establishment of the Welsh Assembly. Part 1 of the Silk commission resulted in the Wales Act 2014, while part 2 has resulted in the Bill before us today, aside from its elements that were covered by the famous, great St David’s day agreement, which I am sure schoolchildren will discuss for the next 50 years.
The Bill represents the latest part of a long saga of political tinkering around the edges of devolution in Wales that has been a constant theme in political circles since the establishment of the National Assembly. Devolution has brought with it the possibility that Wales can make its own choices and go its own way, with its own Government elected by the people of Wales. The Welsh Government are entrusted by the people of Wales to act in their interest, and I am confident they have done so, in so far as they can under the current constitutional settlement. However, I believe that vast swathes of Wales have been turned off by the constant political debate over the constitutional arrangements. It almost seems as though the argument is, “Once we have the powers to Wales, all the problems in Wales will be solved.” That is a simplistic view of a complicated situation. What we need is certainty in a Welsh constitutional settlement that will last for longer than a few short years, or until we have the next commission funded by the Government.
This Bill is much better than the draft Bill. Like many Members, I had problems with the necessity test. To me, that was a simple case of a lack of understanding of devolution. It treated Wales as a Commonwealth outpost, with the Secretary of State doubling up as the governor-general. I am delighted, as many others will be, that the Bill removes provisions for a further referendum on income tax powers. I for one am looking forward to 23 June and the end of another referendum.
Until we settle this matter of constitutional certainty once and for all, considerable time—and, yes, political opportunity—will be spent arguing the merits of further constitutional change. As someone who came into politics to change the world, I do not want to waste the next five years, as we have the past 15, debating the dry subject of constitutional reform. That subject not only turns off the political commentariat, but costs money.
When the Silk commission was set up, the then Secretary of State for Wales gave it a budget of “around £1 million”. Overall, the Wales Office spent £1.3 million on the Silk commission between 2011-12 and 2014-15. If we do not show ambition with this Bill and leave more to be argued and debated for years to come, what will be the cost? How many more commissions will we need to create? A freedom of information request to the Wales Office found that the 2011 referendum on powers to the National Assembly was expected to cost upwards of £8.2 million. How many more referendums will we need to go through, and at what expense, before we reach a final constitutional settlement?
The real question and the real test of any Wales Bill, or any Bill that comes before us, is this: what in this Bill will speak to the people of Wales and address their day-to-day concerns? Although support for further powers for Wales is strong, with 43% of respondents to the BBC/ICM St David’s day poll this year saying that the National Assembly should have more powers, and only one in three people saying things should stay as they are, the issue does not really enter the daily lives of my constituents. I cannot recall a single instance in the past few years when a constituent has written to me about the Welsh constitutional settlement. Indeed, when I was knocking doors just a month ago, not a single person spoke to me about the Wales Bill, the Silk commission or the Williams and Smith commissions. All these people have entered the lexicon of the commentariat who go absolutely mad for constitutional reform, but to the people on the streets, they mean absolutely nothing.
Having read the Bill, I think it is little wonder that people are switched off when the issues discussed are of so little relevance to their lives. The dry subject of constitutional reform might float the boat of commentators and politicians in this place and in Cardiff Bay, but it is simply not something that people talk to me about on the doorstep. The prospect of Wales switching from a conferred to a reserved powers model might have excited some, and the necessity test might have caused a row here and in Cardiff Bay, but I have to say that people on Blackwood high street in my constituency who are trying to feed a family on a shoestring budget, who are signing on in the jobcentre as they have still not been able to find a job, or who are desperately trying to find ways of making do after their disability payments have been slashed care very little about the Wales Bill.
The one element of the Bill that will have a direct impact on my constituents is the devolution of some—not all—income tax powers to the Assembly. I have long been an advocate of regional taxation. I genuinely believe that the challenges we face in Wales are different from the ones faced here in London, which is an economic powerhouse, and from those in the north, in Scotland and in other regions. However, as we pull ourselves to pieces over whether we can devolve income tax or have a referendum, we should reflect that this means nothing if we look at the Scottish model. The Scottish Parliament has never raised income tax or used the powers given to it in 1999. It seems an absolute moot point.
The fact of the matter is that we are an economy that is heavily based on the public sector, rather like in Northern Ireland and the north-east. If we are allowed to start reducing income tax rates, we may start attracting ever greater numbers of entrepreneurs and wealth creators to the Welsh economy. It is a contradiction in terms that Northern Ireland, which has high public sector unemployment and fewer businesses and entrepreneurs than it should—very much like Wales—should be allowed to slash its own corporation tax in the hope of attracting more businesses, as its neighbour in the south has done, while Wales cannot.
Why is it good for Northern Ireland to have the power to alter corporation tax when Wales does not? Although it is true that Northern Ireland has a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which has notoriously low corporation tax rates, Ireland is still only a short distance from Wales, so we are competing with it. We are a small island race. We can get to Ireland and back in one day, yet we are not allowed to compete. Northern Ireland is allowed to reduce its corporation tax, attracting massive business to come in and create jobs, while we are to be fed with the scraps. Yet again, it seems that Wales is being forced into the role of the poor cousin. Do we want a powerhouse economy, moving forward and attracting high-tech, high-skilled jobs, or we do we want to continue to be reliant on the public sector and grants from the European Union? Regardless of how the referendum goes in a couple of weeks’ time, that is no future for the people of Wales.
Wales is a country with access to cutting-edge technologies and a skilled work force. General Dynamics in Oakdale in my constituency, and BAE Systems in Glascoed, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), underline this fact. They attract some of the finest minds from our universities, but how can we attract more good people unless the Government are given the lever of corporation tax to encourage more large businesses to come to Wales, bringing jobs with them, and the lever of income tax so that people can have more money in their pockets to spend in our local economies, such as on the high streets that I mentioned earlier? I believe that that is the way forward.
As for the rest of the Bill, it seems that, again, there is a working group of officials from the Wales Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Welsh Government and the office of the Lord Chief Justice to monitor the prospect of a Welsh jurisdiction. That, surely, is legislating for legislation’s sake. The joint legal jurisdiction in England and Wales has been maintained for just under 500 years, and I believe that tinkering around the edges of that could cause more problems than it would solve. We must either commit ourselves to a wholesale split and devolution of policing and justice, or retain the union of the England and Wales legal jurisdiction.
Those are the questions that we should be asking in the Bill, but we are not asking them. Again, we are just tinkering around the edges. We shall be back here again in two or three years’ time with another Wales Bill, which will cause more constitutional uncertainty and more arguments in which people are simply not interested. The message, in my view, should be that the Bill could have been so much more. It could have settled, once and for all, the constitutional argument in Wales. It could have allowed constitutional arguments to be put aside, with a line drawn under them, so that we could get on with the things that really concern people: health, education and transport. Those are the bread-and-butter issues that affect families and constituencies across Wales.
The Bill represents yet more tinkering and yet more argument. It must be realised at some point that what we discuss in this place when we talk about the constitutional settlement is far removed from what concerns people in Wales. I support the Bill, but I am extremely disappointed, because it could have been so much more—it could have brought about the ambition that we need in Wales.
The Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee is no longer in the Chamber, but I should like to thank him for a fascinating insight into both the previous Wales Bill and the Bill that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has brought to the House today to start a new journey. The pre-legislative process certainly gave us an insight into how legislation is put together, but, perhaps more broadly, it also gave us an insight into the devolution journey on which we embarked with the creation of the National Assembly for Wales.
I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State and his team for the amendments that have brought us from the pre-legislative Bill to what is before us today. The dropping of the necessity test is very welcome, as are the inclusion of the Severn tolls in the reservations and the removal of various elements. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the cross-party Welsh Affairs Committee to establish how we can improve the Bill further as it proceeds through its various stages.
Let me begin by tackling the elephant in the room. I support the income tax provisions, but I think that the horse has bolted to some extent. If we look at business rates and council tax receipts, we see that more than £2 billion of income is being raised, and is already devolved to the Welsh Government. That is more than income tax, and it gives the Welsh Government a bit of accountability, which is welcome. The more accountability we can give that institution, the better. My hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies) touched on some of the more worrying aspects of the competence of the Welsh Government to date. It has taken many forms, but it has, I am afraid, been Labour-led since the creation of the Assembly.
I understand the passion expressed by some of my colleagues, and I find it difficult to separate my heart from my head. My heart says “Do not give the Welsh Labour Government any more power. They must prove that, to date, they have been competent in regard to education, health, local government and economic development.” At the same time, my head says that this is a very principled debate about the devolution journey and the powers that the House needs to give the Welsh Assembly as an institution. A journey is taking place in my own head, or a fight between poor performance and more principled considerations about the localism agenda.
I was very taken with the pragmatic approach of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) to some of the battles over devolution, but I wanted to focus for a moment on the fact that the income tax provision constitutes a very welcome step. It will improve transparency and accountability, although we are already there with more than £2 billion of revenue from council tax and business rates, which the Welsh Government and Welsh Assembly completely control.
Well, the world moves on. I cannot say that I am ever terribly comfortable about breaking a manifesto commitment, but when it comes to income tax, I have said consistently to my electorate—throughout the general election period and before—that we need accountability in the Welsh Assembly and, more important, in the Welsh Government. I believe that passionately. My constituency, more than most, has seen at first hand some of the real scandals caused by complacency, such as the scandal of the regeneration investment fund for Wales, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower. Some of the most expensive residential land on the main site, in Lisvane, was sold at agricultural prices. There is a complacency, and until the place has real accountability and is shaken up, I believe we are going to continue in the same vein. I have made that very public statement, throughout my time as a candidate and in this House. I stand here comfortably, although I accept the wider point about the manifesto. However, the people of Cardiff North and of Wales put us here to make unpopular and difficult decisions, as well as the popular and easy decisions, and I think this is one of the former.
My hon. Friend stated that his constituents are unhappy with what has already gone on under the Welsh Assembly, so does he not agree that the timing of this Bill is not right? Let the Welsh Assembly get its house in order before we pass to it even more commitments.
I thank my hon. Friend for making one of his classic interventions. I touched on this when I spoke about the heart and head. I disagree fundamentally with a lot of what the Welsh Labour Government do, but I support the institution of the Welsh Assembly, and I want to strengthen it and one day return a Welsh Conservative Government who have the levers and powers to get on and do the job.
I will touch on bus regulations a little later. I refer Members to my declaration of interests: I served on the board of a major bus company for many years, and I welcome the bus regulations we are giving to the Assembly, because of the importance of issues such as integrated transport.
I do not want to jump around the issues too much, but the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) mentioned corporation tax, and there is always something else to get. Now business rates are with the Assembly. In terms of the Cardiff city deal and getting high-value companies from London to Cardiff, we have discretion over business rates, and we can do exciting things with them. Rather than talk about more powers again, we should encourage the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Assembly to put a visionary bid together with the powers they already have, if we manage to get this Bill through with income tax included.
I was talking about the fact that we need certainty now in the constitutional settlement. I would be happy to see corporation tax devolved in the Bill, in the hope we will not be revisiting this, as we have done over the last couple of years. The reason I mentioned corporation tax is the example of the Republic of Ireland, which has been very successful in getting some large companies to headquarter there.
I accept that point, but I hope the hon. Gentleman sees where I am coming from. Complacency sinks in when we give the Assembly more powers. It thinks, “Right, we’ve got them, and rather than think about what to do with them, we’ll think about what we want to ask for next.” What could be done with corporation tax and what can already be done with business rates is a good example of that.
I want to talk a little about the capital side of this. The more revenue streams and accountability we are able to give the Welsh Government, the more capital they can borrow, so the more capital they can put into infrastructure projects off their own bat, and we can judge them on the success of that. The Commonwealth games bid will require some capital. More revenue streams, and more accountability and transparency in being able to raise money, would mean that we could make a Commonwealth games bid in Wales. We could put more into the south Wales metro, too, and top up the Cardiff city deal. At the moment, the Welsh Government come to Westminster to access borrowing powers—the old Welsh Development Agency powers, for example—but this Bill tidies things up: it enables the Welsh Government to get on and hopefully deliver for the people of Wales. If they do not, we can more appropriately judge their failure or success.
I have touched on the worrying parts of the RIFW scandal and how I see that as an example of a lazy approach and attitude within the Welsh Government and Welsh Assembly more broadly, but I want to move on to the single legal jurisdiction question for Wales. I believe that a single legal jurisdiction of England and Wales has served us well and should be maintained. Although we acknowledge that the Assembly is now going to make a greater body of law, and I commend this Bill for tackling what has been a very thorny issue, I agree that the disruption and cost of establishing a separate legal jurisdiction is not justified at this time. A separate jurisdiction would create upheaval and huge cost for no good reason.
Another issue that has been modified owing to the scrutiny of the draft Bill is the formal recognition in this Bill of a body of Welsh law made by the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Ministers—or Welsh Secretaries, as I should now call them. This change reflects the importance placed on this matter during the revision process in the past few months. Most of the debate on a distinct or separate jurisdiction revolved around the necessity test, and I am hoping that the Bill in its present form will have lanced that boil. I am sure that we will hear more about that from Plaid Cymru Members later. The Welsh Affairs Committee, on which I am proud to serve, concluded that the necessity test was wrong and recommended that it be replaced. I therefore welcome the Secretary of State’s approach to this issue.
The body of Welsh law continues to grow. I have made the point in the Welsh Grand Committee and the Select Committee that the Assembly is making Welsh laws and a body of Welsh laws exists, and that the Assembly should have the security and confidence to stand up and say that, rather than constantly looking for reassurance from Westminster that it can have its own body of laws. We can now build our legal infrastructure around the body of Welsh laws, but we would risk economic and commercial damage if a separate jurisdiction were pursued. We would risk a flight of talent, given that Cardiff has strong professional legal services. We would also face problems with our universities. The University of Aberystwyth is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), and I would not want to put it or any other Welsh university in a position of having to debate whether to teach English or Welsh law to international students. That might be a difficult one for the dean of law at Aberystwyth. For all those reasons, I support the Government’s belief in maintaining a shared legal jurisdiction, and I welcome the work being undertaken by representatives of the Lord Chief Justice’s office.
The short answer is that I am sure the head of the law department at Aberystwyth would enjoy teaching both English and Welsh law. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the positives that has come from the Government in recent days is the at least partial acknowledgement of the need not for a separate legal jurisdiction but for a distinct legal jurisdiction? The difference seems to have been lost on some Conservative Members. People are talking about a separate jurisdiction, but many of us here are calling for a distinct one.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We debated this matter in the Select Committee and in the Welsh Grand, and I constantly said that I thought we already had distinct arrangements and could not understand what was being asked for. He was right, however, and the Secretary of State has made it clear in the Bill that those distinct arrangements will be put in place.
But surely the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that the creation of the working group that the Government have announced is a step in the direction of a distinct jurisdiction. Otherwise, we shall be revisiting this matter in the years to come, as the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) has suggested.
I am going to touch on something that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said. I agree that this is a pragmatic solution to a thorny issue, and I cannot see why the distinct arrangements would not stand the test of time as the body of Welsh law emerges. This is a significant change.
In that case, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the findings of the working group will be extremely important to our discussions on the Bill? Given that it is going to report back in the autumn, should we not ensure that its findings are incorporated in the Bill?
Being a new Member of Parliament, I am guessing that that will fit into the timetable of the Bill’s passage through the House, given that we do not exactly rush things here. I think the Secretary of State alluded to the fact that that work would be carried out coterminously. I look forward to the findings; they will be important and they will perhaps bring Members together to deal with the thorny issue of jurisdiction. I am looking forward to the findings of the working group and I hope that they will be produced in a timely fashion so that we can consider them in Committee. These proposals represent a significant change from those in the draft Bill.
I support the proposals on the judicial impact assessments. I do not follow the rationale behind the objections to them. Any sensible institution or Government would have them, but I look forward to sitting down and discussing that rationale with anyone who opposes them. Adopting those assessments would be a sensible approach. Similarly, the electoral arrangements have been a long time coming. As I have said, it is not right that we in this place should debate how many Assembly Members there should be or at what age people in Wales should have the vote. The new arrangements are quite right, and if the Assembly chose to call itself the Welsh Parliament, I would be entirely relaxed about that—a rose by any other name—given that it is making laws, generating revenue and borrowing against capital.
In drawing my contribution to a close, I wish to talk about two practical things. The shadow Secretary of State mentioned ports and the protections on trust ports, particularly Milford Haven. Some 62% of all UK natural gas is coming through that port, so I judge it to be a port of national infrastructure on a UK level, and it is entirely warranted that there is protection there. I have alluded to a welcome, practical measure on bus regulation, which I see as an excellent step forward for what the Welsh Government have been trying to do on integrating transport. It is also an excellent step forward for local authorities. I served on the board of Cardiff Bus, the largest south Wales bus company, and I think this measure will enable the integrated approach between buses, city regions and the train services.
I hope that the Bill has a speedy and successful passage through the House, and I very much look forward to seeing what the Welsh Government do with these powers and, as I said to the hon. Member for Islwyn, the business rates and the huge powers and levers the Welsh Government currently have to better the lives of my constituents and the people of Wales. I commend this Bill, I thank the Secretary of State and his team, and I look forward to the remainder of the debate.
After the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the Prime Minister promised the people of Wales that just as the rights of Scottish voters will be “respected, reserved and enhanced”, so, too, would the rights of the Welsh voters. He promised that Wales would be “at the heart” of the devolution debate. Since then, the Wales Office has published a draft Wales Bill and now we have the Wales Bill proper, billed as the UK Government’s response to the cross-party Silk commission. The draft Bill failed to deliver on the recommendations of the Silk commission—a commission established by the Tories themselves. Its recommendations were supported by all four of Wales’s biggest political parties, including the Secretary of State’s own Welsh Tories. Plaid Cymru, civil society groups, and people in all parts of Wales had hoped that the re-drafted Wales Bill would return to the consensus of the Silk commission and would offer the people of Wales the devolution settlement that is ours as of right, one that is sustainable, ambitious and fair. Today, we are very far away from that wholly reasonable goal.
I freely acknowledge that, compared with the draft published last autumn, some progress has been made in making the Bill fit for purpose, but we still have a long way to go before this Bill will become fit for enactment. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has acted on some of the criticisms of the previous draft, for example on the reservation of criminal law and the necessity tests. The recognition of the fact of Welsh law is very much to be welcomed, but it is just a recognition of the reality of the situation in Wales. There remain serious concerns regarding the complexity, uncertainty and indeed lack of coherence in some parts of the Bill.
Throughout Wales’s long devolution journey, Plaid Cymru has always tried to get the best possible deal for everyone and anyone who chooses to make their home in Wales. Those people who call Wales their home best understand the needs of our country. I believe it was Gwynfor Evans who once said that anyone can be Welsh, as long as they are prepared to take the consequences. One of those consequences is that those who live in Wales face up to deciding for Wales, but we recognise that not all parties share this view, which is why we signed up to the Silk commission. It was a cross-party commission, with nominees from each of the four biggest parties in Wales, along with academic experts, who talked, formally and informally, with people all over Wales. It was a truly representative commission and the two reports it produced represented a true consensus.
That consensus was not easy to achieve. We in Plaid Cymru gave way on some points, ones that were important to us but not to others, as did other parties on their issues. The Silk process involved all parties making compromises, including my own, so it was deeply disappointing and frustrating to see the Wales Office dump that true consensus in order to find a lowest common denominator and then call it an “agreement”. Far from being an agreement, the St David’s day White Paper and this eventual Wales Bill fall well short of the consensus that Silk worked so hard to achieve. The profound criticism of this Bill, after just one week, is in the same vein as that of the discredited draft Bill all those weeks ago. The criticism is really striking when we contrast it with the consensus and welcome that surrounded the Silk recommendations in Wales.
What happened to the consensus on the idea that Wales’s natural resources should be in the hands of those living in Wales? What happened to the consensus on the idea that it is the people of Wales who are best placed to determine our policing policies? What happened to the consensus on the idea that it is the people of Wales who best understand our country’s transport needs? Under this Bill, Wales can set its own speed limits, but drink-drive limits are just too complicated for little old us. One of the historical political controversies in Wales relates to water. Water is much too valuable a resource to be left to the Government of Wales, but, yes, we are allowed to have sewerage.
I have many concerns regarding the current list of reserved policy fields, and I shall return to them later. I wish to start by focusing on the foundations of the draft Bill. I should stress that Plaid Cymru warmly welcomes the move to a reserved powers model—that is, to move away from the current devolution model in which the settlement lists areas on which the Assembly can legislate to a model in which the settlement lists areas where they cannot.
There was an unusual and welcome consensus across all of Wales’s six biggest parties on the need to move to a reserved powers model. That consensus stems from the lack of clarity on where the responsibility lies, especially as compared with the Scottish dispensation; the challenges to Welsh legislation in the Supreme Court under the current dispensation; and the danger of further and increased challenges in the Supreme Court if we do not get this sorted out.
It was thought that moving to a reserved powers model would provide clarity both legally and for the public as to what is and what is not within the legislative competence of the Assembly. This is a problem for MPs as well, and it is no small matter. When considering legislation, I do not know how many times I have had to ask: “Is this Wales only? Is it England only? Is it England and Wales only? Is it Great Britain, or is it even Great Britain and Northern Ireland?” Whatever people’s opinion on devolution—whether pro or anti—we can all agree that such ambiguity is bad for democracy.
Moving to a reserved powers model should also be about changing the ruling attitudes towards devolution. It would be for the UK Government to justify whether something should be reserved, rather than justifying why something should be devolved. This is devolution based on subsidiarity—real subsidiarity, as I said to the Secretary of State earlier—rather than retention. It is enabling rather than hobbling, and trusting and respecting rather than suspecting and resenting. That is the case, however much some Whitehall Departments might snarl—and I think we know who they are.
I fear that these principles—the foundations of the arguments in favour of the reserved powers model—have been lost, and the result is a Bill that is unclear, somewhat unstable and possibly unsustainable. We have gone from a position as recently as last May where all six of Wales’s biggest parties agreed on a way forward, to a position now where the UK Government are alone in thinking that this Bill delivers a lasting settlement. The Wales Office has admitted that, rather than using the Scotland Act 1998 as a starting point—a devolution dispensation that has avoided the constant legal challenges and political tinkering that have bedevilled Welsh devolution—it has used the Government of Wales Act 2006, the failed devolution settlement that we are trying to replace. In fact, it is a model based on the administrative devolution in the 1960s, from the creation of the Welsh Office, as it was then known, onwards. It is a deeply outdated model and not fit for today, let alone tomorrow. The Bill claws back the powers for which the people of Wales voted overwhelmingly in 2011, and returns to a long list of reservations. The Western Mail, which, I concede, is not always 100% correct, lists 267 powers that
“Westminster doesn’t want Wales to have”,
“from axes to outer space”.
Almost every measure in the draft Bill was roundly criticised, but there was particular ire for the lengthy list of reserved powers. The Wales Office admitted that the list was too long, and promised to shorten it. It may well have taken out a few reservations, but the fact that the list has increased from 42 pages to 44 suggests that the ones that remain are even more long-winded than before.
On the list of reservations, simply measuring something according to the number of pages is not necessarily the most sensible thing to do. In the Scotland Act 1998, reservations are listed according to subject matter with a broad headline. A requirement in the Wales Bill is to make the list far more specific, so exceptions to the reservations are included, which naturally lengthens it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts the spirit in which those reservations are defined: to prevent our ending up in court challenging each other.
I am grateful for that point, which we have discussed before, and I have said that the number of pages might not be the best indication of the number of reservations or their complexity.
There are new reservations in this Bill that were not in the draft Bill, for example, on matters as important as the Severn bridges—that nagging toothache for our economy in the south.
No doubt that is something that we will debate. I relish the opportunity to discuss the reservations and hear the Secretary of State or his colleagues justify them. The explanatory notes include a description or explanation of the reservations but, as far as I can see, there is very little justification for them. I therefore look forward to hearing about that in subsequent debates.
The report by the Wales Governance Centre and University College London on the draft Bill described the list of reservations and said:
“Complexity is piled on complexity...the potential for legal challenge casts a long shadow.”
I see little evidence that the revised list is much clearer. It remains, alas, a lawyer’s playground. As I have said, the shift to a reserved powers model was supposed to be made in tandem with a shift in mentality—that is extremely important—to determine what needed to be reserved, rather than what should be devolved. It is clear that the Secretary of State has instead facilitated a Whitehall trawl of the powers—a pick and mix of what the Sir Humphreys fancy bagging for themselves—sometimes based on principles no deeper than the chance to shout “Mine!”
If the Secretary of State is serious about creating a lasting devolution settlement, he cannot simply flip the current settlement from the conferred powers model to the reserved powers model, then allow Whitehall to pick and choose which tasty bits of power they want to hang on to. The process must be built on principles. I agree with the principles that he identified—clarity and coherence—but I would add proper subsidiarity.
Some time ago I had an entertaining lunch with the Irish Minister responsible for a new Irish language Act. He was quite candid, loquacious and hilarious. He had been to Canada and Quebec and had thieved—his words—a little bit of their language law. He had been to Wales and has snaffled bits of ours. He had been here and there in the rest of Europe, and hey presto, here was their language bill. We do not need to roam two vast continents, stitching together a bit of this and a bit of that. A model is already there for the borrowing and—perhaps Plaid people will forgive me for saying this—it is a home-grown British model called the Scotland Act.
The Silk commission hoped that moving to a reserved powers model would be a chance to rewrite the settlement to remove some of the defects of haste and inconsistency that have so far marred legislative devolution in Wales. The list of reservations does not reflect that hope. The director of the Wales Governance Centre has described the Bill as being underpinned by a “patronising attitude” and as continuing to regard Wales as “enjoying a lower status” than the other devolved nations. In practical terms it will undoubtedly lead to more blame shifting between Cardiff and London. That is the last thing that people in Wales want and the last thing that the governance of the people of Wales requires.
Both the Welsh Affairs Committee, which has a Tory majority, and the National Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, which was also chaired by a Tory, recommended that each reservation should be individually justified. That recommendation has been ignored and, as I said, I look forward to hearing the Secretary of State or his colleagues making up for that as we go into Committee.
The Wales Governance Centre has offered a list of considerations for identifying functions that should be devolved: is it necessary to retain function X for the functioning of the UK as a state? Does retention of Y make the governance of the UK less clear or comprehensible? Does retention of Z undermine the workability, stability or durability of the devolution settlement? These are the questions that the Secretary of State should be asking himself for each and every one of the reservations in the Bill and I hope we will have time to hear him go through those steps. Simply making hundreds of reservations for no given reason is not acceptable, particularly when the real rationale seems to be a deeply suspect power grab by Departments of Government that have failed Wales so spectacularly over the past few years.
I am not sure. I am in two minds about that. If we have full days of debate, that might indeed be the case. I have been here too long, so I remember days of Welsh debates which have been interrupted by statements, urgent questions and all kinds of shenanigans that have led to Welsh debates being curtailed. If we have protected time, we shall see. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) will be looking into this point further in his remarks and I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be here to hear him.
I challenge the Secretary of State to respond today and offer justifications for why he believes the people of Wales do not deserve the same responsible government as the people of Scotland. As has been said, the Secretary of State voted for the Scotland Act. He voted to give the people of Scotland a Government with full control of Scottish natural resources, policing and criminal justice. He voted to make the Scottish Government responsible for raising a significant proportion of the money that they spend. He has also voted to devolve policing to Manchester, yet he refuses to do so for Wales. What practical reasons are there to insist that Welsh police forces follow the agenda of English forces? Those who were fortunate enough to be in the House last night would have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) making just those arguments. What reason is there for focusing largely on problems prevalent in urban England, such as knife crime, rather than on meeting the needs of Wales, and in my case, particularly of rural Wales? What practical reason is there for setting, for example, a 350 MW limit on the Welsh Government’s power over energy—a point that I made to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who is no longer in his place—when there is no such limit on the Scottish Government? I raised the wholly practical question about that in my point to that hon. Gentleman. I will expand a little on it now, with the permission of the House.
A local hydroelectric scheme in Snowdonia was going to limit itself to 49 MW—that is the old limit. Those involved told me quite plainly that that was to avoid the entanglements of London bureaucracy. Now they are aiming for 350 MW, and they could produce more, but why should we skew reasonable economic development on the basis of a number that has, as far as I can see, been plucked out of the air? I would like to know why the figure is 350, and not 351 or 349.
We have moved on from the Silk commission, and we are now looking at this issue—[Interruption.] If the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary can contain themselves, I will explain the position in a moment.
I would still like to hear the justification—not from the Silk commission, but from the Secretary of State—as to why the figure is not 351 or 349. What practical reasons are there for devolving the tidal lagoon in Swansea bay but not the lagoons proposed in the Cardiff area or in Colwyn bay, in the area of the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones)? What is the justification? I am interested, and we might even get an answer. However, there is no sensible argument for this limit—for me at least—and there is no limit in Scotland. Unless such decisions are based on reason and principle, the devolution settlement will never be long-lasting, and we will perpetually be debating the constitution.
It is not Plaid Cymru who is the constitutional obsessive here, despite frequent challenges that it is; it is successive Westminster Governments who have chosen Sir Humphrey’s fudge, mudge and fix over empowering the Welsh Government to settle down and get on with the job of bettering the lives of the people of Wales—and, boy, do they have a job on their hands!
The Bill is, among other things, an attempt to keep as much power as possible in Whitehall by devolving as little as possible to Cardiff. As far as I can see, it is not likely to build a stable, sustainable and fair devolution settlement for our country. However, the Wales Office has an opportunity to give us the devolution settlement we need: one that leads not to court cases and blame shifting, but to economic growth, a healthier NHS and a better educated workforce—one that will actually work and stand the test of time.
Plaid Cymru will be tabling amendments to the Bill to ensure that the people of Wales are treated with respect. We will demand a devolution settlement that facilitates progress, rather than puts up blocks. I still hope that the official Opposition will support those amendments. The opportunity to shape Wales’s constitution does not come around that often.
The Bill is crucial to all of us who care about the future of our country so I do not want to be forced to vote against it, and neither do my hon. Friends. There are many things in it that we welcome, including powers over fracking and the devolution of electoral arrangements, for example. For the party of Wales—a party whose very reason for existing is to empower the nation and the people of Wales to run their own affairs—it would be a painful decision to vote against those powers, and I sincerely hope the Secretary of State will not force us to do that. I therefore urge him to take our criticisms in the constructive spirit in which they are intended and to bring forward his own amendments to rescue the Bill.
I urge the Secretary of State to reflect on the significance of what he is building. He is reshaping the constitution of Wales, and he has an opportunity to create a significant shift in Wales’s future—to build a new Wales for a future history of Wales. This is an opportunity to construct the foundation on which his country’s economy will be built; his country’s NHS will be healed and his country’s schools will be transformed. He should not waste it.
The Bill falls well short of the Silk commission’s recommendations. However, the reality is that the commission, despite its good work, has now been superseded by the Scotland Act. Wales must not be forced to lag behind. The Secretary of State can be stubborn and push the Bill if he wishes to, but he will be in danger of pushing yet another failed Bill and of becoming a failed Secretary of State for Wales, and I would not wish that on him. He would be one in the line of a great many others who, as Secretary of State for Wales, have failed to serve Wales all that well. He should heed the arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, who last night made a compelling case on, for example, devolving policing. We heard not a peep from Welsh Tory Back Benchers or Welsh Labour Members on this matter, let alone ascertained their opinions in the Lobbies, with the honourable exception of the Secretary of State himself, who I think I spotted trooping through the No Lobby. He should also take the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, who called for him to follow in the footsteps of the great Conservative reformers of the past—politicians who foresaw the future and legislated with foresight rather than submitting to the constraints of the present.
Disraeli wrote novels, now largely unread, as well as getting in a bit of prime ministering while he was at it. When asked if he had read “Daniel Deronda”—a very good novel—he replied:
“When I want to read a novel, I write one.”
The Secretary of State might likewise wish to see a good Wales Bill, so he should write one. I am sure he is capable of doing that, but this one is not quite it. He and his Under-Secretary now have a rare opportunity to prove that they are politicians of vision. My hon. Friends and I envy them. As to the Bill, I say with our national poet, Waldo Williams,
“Beth yw trefnu teyrnas? Crefft
Sydd eto’n cropian”,
or, “What is ordering a kingdom? A craft that’s barely crawling.” I say to them: do not waste this opportunity to build your nation into the country that it could be—the country that, by rights, it should be.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams). Even though I did not agree with a great deal of his speech, I congratulate him on the passion for and commitment to Wales that we are accustomed to hearing from him.
I both congratulate and sympathise with the Secretary of State and his Minister. It is never easy taking over a Bill that was started by a previous Secretary of State, but he has brought this forward, and I congratulate him on doing so. I sympathise with him because, as many will now know, many Members within his ranks are very unhappy with the Bill as it stands. In fact, with 11 Members from Wales, and taking the two Ministers out of the scenario, the majority of Welsh Conservative MPs are unhappy with the Bill.
This is an important Bill, but so far today we have seen most of these green Benches empty. Members who have spoken have done so with great passion and great commitment to Wales, but we have had a lot of green shown to us today and not many Members from throughout Great Britain and across the House joining us. That is very disappointing.
The Bill comes at a crucial time for our home nation. The Welsh economy is now chugging back into life after a protracted stall since 2008. Businesses are hiring again, the unemployment rate is falling, and our GDP is beginning to rise. The historic Cardiff city deal introduced by this Government that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Craig Williams) does so much to champion is bringing great infrastructure and further job prospects to south Wales. That will have a knock-on effect on many hon. Members’ constituencies, including my own, boosting our local economies.
This is also a crucial time for Wales because it is so soon after the Welsh Assembly elections that returned no overall majority. On its own, perhaps that result does not have a great knock-on effect on uncertainty in the Welsh economy, but coupling it with the EU referendum, whichever way the vote goes, makes for an uncertain time for Wales. It is imperative that we do all we can to make Wales strong and resilient for the future. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and I do not want Wales to be the weak link in the United Kingdom chain. I think that we can all agree on that, as we all want Wales to be a strong, successful player in the United Kingdom.
Some Members might be surprised to hear that I am not opposed to the overall concept of further devolution in trying to achieve that goal. I agree with the Government that power should be held as close to the people as possible, which is why I believe that some parts of previous Wales Acts need to be tidied up. I also agree that the Welsh Assembly needs to be more accountable to the people of Wales. We should stick to our manifesto pledge to deliver the Wales Bill that I and other Conservative Members were elected to deliver by the people of Wales.
That, however, is where my agreement with this Bill wanes. I cannot stand idly by my principles and accept the Bill in its current form. I am disappointed about the timing of the Bill, its application and much of its substance. I want a Wales that can decide its own destiny and has control over its future, but most of all I want a Wales that plays a key part in, and remains a strong part of, a United Kingdom. The only way we can achieve those goals is through a devolved settlement that the people of Wales actually want and accept—a settlement that will hold long into the future.
I thank my parliamentary neighbour for his intervention. As far as I am aware, there will be no vote this evening, but I shall scrutinise the Bill exceptionally closely over the next two or three days and I will table amendments.
We as politicians should never assume that we know exactly what the people of Wales want. On matters as important as this settlement and the Bill, which will affect me, my children and my children’s children long into the future, we cannot afford to get it wrong. That is why the devolution settlement should, above all, have accountability and democracy at its very core and as its foundations. Without such strong pillars on which to build our settlement, we cannot expect our structure to hold. As we have seen recently in Scotland, we could come dangerously close to a total collapse if it is not right.
Does the Bill uphold what I suggest, with little dispute, to be the settlement that Wales wants and needs? First, I want to consider the timing of the Bill. Government Front Benchers will no doubt be aware that the Welsh Affairs Committee looked long and hard at the draft Wales Bill. Many hours over many months were dedicated to studying its detail, and I was very pleased to be part of that Committee and grateful for the time we were allocated.
Although it appears that we were given plenty of time to look at the particulars of the draft Bill, the Bill in front of us today includes important clauses that the Committee was not asked to consider. We spent hours scrutinising the draft Bill, not this Bill. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who used to work at the Wales Office, and to the current Secretary of State for Wales for the evidence and assistance they gave our Committee during our inquiry. However, we have had an about-turn on the need for a referendum on the devolution of tax-raising powers and the new commitment to allowing for the abolition of the Welsh Assembly through a referendum squeezing their way into the Bill, so it was disappointing that the Committee was not given the chance to look in depth at those issues, which underline the whole Bill and will have enormous consequences for the people of Wales. Many members of the Committee would, I am sure, have welcomed more time to look into those important changes to the constitution of Welsh devolution, but we have been denied that chance by the apparent rushed introduction of the Bill.
On the substance of the devolution settlement, it was while looking over the draft Bill that I felt the most sympathy for one of the Welsh Affairs Committee’s witnesses—I do not usually feel sympathy for him—namely Professor Richard Wyn Jones, who told us that
“to read this Bill, you have to have a copy of the 2006 Act, and a towel doused in cold water wrapped around your head, and you have to compare the two pieces of legislation. As a constitution for Wales, this isn’t user friendly.”
Nevertheless I, like many in this Chamber, persevered, and I have found many surprises. First, I was struck by proposed new section 92A(3) of the Government of Wales Act 2006, on the very first page of the Bill before us—I do not propose to go through each clause—which says:
“the Welsh Government are not to be abolished except on the basis of a decision of the people of Wales voting in a referendum.”
I was heartened because I believed that there would be true democracy in the Bill, with the people being given the chance to abolish the Assembly if they so wish. I was therefore very encouraged, only to find, when I turned the page, that there was no instruction in the Bill about how that referendum would be triggered—I found only the next clause. I had hoped that the foundations of accountability and democracy were to be upheld, but that seems to be missing. Why not state in the Bill that the referendum could be triggered by a petition of the people?
When I looked at the will of the people, as expressed in the recent Assembly elections, I found that the Abolish the Welsh Assembly party had achieved a decent share of the vote—4.5%, in fact—from a standing start. I have been approached by people saying they would have lent that party their vote if they had believed that it would have made those of us in Westminster sit up and listen. While I neither support nor dispute the aims of that party, it shows that there is an appetite for political engagement in Wales, so the Government should do what they can to support that. I was sorry not to see that reflected in the Bill, and I believe that the provision falls disappointingly short of providing the key democratic pillar on which the settlement should be built.
Secondly, I want to touch on the application of the devolved settlement. Last night, I sat up in bed with the Wales Bill by my side and a copy of our manifesto open at pages 70 and 71. I am sure that everybody in the Chamber will know what was on those pages, but I remind them that it was the section on Wales’s devolution settlement. With my highlighter, I was ready to mark out each commitment that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I stood on to gain election to the House. I went through each point: introducing a Wales Bill—check; implementing much of the Silk report—check; devolving control over the Assembly’s name—check; reserving police and justice matters—check; introducing a funding floor for the Welsh Government once it has called a referendum on tax-raising powers—ah! I was ready and waiting with my highlighter, my eyes scanning swiftly across the Bill and my hands turning the pages, eagerly waiting to find the commitment that I had mentioned so many times on the doorstep. Clause 13 went by, as did clauses 14 and 15, and then it hit me—clause 16. I checked our manifesto and checked the Bill again, and there it was in black and white: a commitment to give the Welsh Assembly tax-raising powers without a referendum. It was a further disappointment to find that the pillar of democracy on which I believe our settlement should be built was missing from this Bill.
In his op-ed on the Bill on the day of its First Reading, the Secretary of State himself said:
“Welsh men and women want sensible legislation that reflects their priorities and allows them to live under laws of their own choosing.”
Why will the Welsh people not get to choose the legislation under which they want to live? Why is the Welsh people’s voice being silenced on this issue? Why are the Welsh people being denied a say? Might referendums really be going out of fashion? Surely the whole idea of devolution was to move power out of Whitehall and closer to the people when they wanted it. I fully agree with that. Many political pundits have said that Cardiff Bay is the most centralising Government in Europe, and my constituents quite often feel that Cardiff Bay is far more remote than Westminster. Why have powers been moved from one Government to another when our constituents are either missing out altogether or being doubly burdened?
Finally—I am sure you are glad that I am coming to a close, Madam Deputy Speaker—I must stress that I am not in principle against the devolution of further powers to any Assembly, mayor, local authority or Government, and I want to put that clearly on record. I have absolutely no problem with the devolution of powers. In fact, I often think of devolution as a good thing, where it works. My concern in this case is about the Welsh Assembly’s ability to take on the extra powers outlined in the Bill and to utilise them in a competent and constructive way, particularly at this time of no overall majority.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) spoke eloquently about the devolution of wind energy provision, and my neighbour, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), said that he was scaremongering. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the prospect of having more pylons in Brecon and Radnorshire is scaring my constituents and is a serious worry, but I believe the Welsh Assembly will take it lightly.
Let us take some further examples. The first is health. The Labour-run Welsh Assembly Government have so far presided over a fall in real-terms spending on the NHS in Wales. Waiting times are through the roof, and some people are reregistering in England just so that they can be seen by a doctor within a reasonable timeframe. Ambulance and A&E targets are constantly missed, and there has been no implementation of a cancer drugs fund to save lives.
The second example is education. Standards in our Welsh schools are slipping under the Welsh Assembly Government while those in England rise. Schools in my area are closing due to cuts in local government settlements by the Welsh Assembly and its outright rejection of the excellent academies programme that is being rolled out across England. That makes no sense at all to me.
The points that the hon. Gentleman raises are about Government decisions, as opposed to decisions on devolution.
The hon. Gentleman accused me of accusing the right hon. Member for Clwyd West (Mr Jones) of scaremongering. I did not say that, but perhaps he might be willing to inform us of how many projects in Powys have been above the 50 MW level.
I think the question to ask is how many will be above that level if we have Welsh devolution on the matter.
My third and final example is agriculture. The Welsh Assembly is just not hearing the voices of those of us in rural areas. It has substantially cut the agricultural budget and taken the maximum support payment away from our farmers. Until a month ago, it did not even allow agriculture, the environment and rural affairs a full place around the Cabinet table. This is the same Assembly that spent nearly £50,000 on a wind turbine that generated £5-worth of energy before being switched off.
I am afraid I must insist that the hon. Gentleman says that it is the Government doing that, rather than the Assembly. It is the Labour Government who are taking those decisions, not the Assembly itself. It might be ruled by a Labour Government, but those decisions are not the fault of the Assembly as such.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right, and I stated that earlier in my speech. However, there is collective responsibility down there, and it is the Assembly Government who are making those decisions.
This is the same Assembly that, when given the independent living fund by the Department for Work and Pensions, passed it on to local councils, but not before taking a so-called administration fee. That cost the adult social care budget for people in my local authority area of Powys £49,000.
Devolving further powers before the Welsh Assembly proves that it can utilise the powers that it already has is like hiring the same cowboy builder who has built a structurally unsafe house to come back and build the extension. It is unsound to make the assumption that piling more bricks on top of a wobbly Jenga tower will make it sturdier. It just does not make sense. Surely this is not the pillar of accountability.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on reading his party’s manifesto, which was a brave step. But seriously, we have just had an Assembly election, and his party went down from second to third. He says that he wants to bring power closer to the people, so is he arguing for more powers for local authorities? That would in some way devolve powers within Wales.
To follow on from the point that the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) made, devolution to local government is fine. The British Government have devolved planning to local authorities, but the first thing the Welsh Government did was to take that power away from local authorities and centralise it to themselves. Planning powers are devolved to local authorities in England but centralised to Cardiff in Wales.
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely valid point. My theme is the centralisation of government in Cardiff Bay. That is not devolution to the people of Wales. Sadly, devolving further powers at this time, when that Government are not capable of handling the powers they have, is a bad way forward.
I will just say in relation to the intervention by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) that the last time I went along to Torfaen’s planning committee it seemed to have some planning powers. To return to the point, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies) is attacking the Welsh Labour Government. Will he show some respect to the people of Wales, who on five occasions have elected Labour as the largest party in the Assembly?
The hon. Gentleman said the important thing, which was not said by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen): the people of Wales have elected the largest party, not a majority party. That party has achieved government by a coalition—is it a coalition; is it a merger? I am not quite sure what it is down there at the moment. They do not seem to know down there either, so is now the time to pass on more powers?
There we have it. I have asked only for a devolution settlement that allows Wales to decide its own destiny and future and to play its part in the United Kingdom, and that is built on the firmest foundations of accountability and democracy. Let us give Wales desired devolution, not disappointment, and a settlement, not a setback. Most of all, let us give real democracy to Wales.
I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words, not least after that tour de force by my neighbour the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies). I assure him that there has been no merger; the Liberal voice might be somewhat muted these days, but it is still there.
If there was ever a case for a clear and understandable devolution settlement, some of what the hon. Gentleman said would be a basis for it—the need to distinguish between Government and Government decisions, and decisions made by the Assembly. That is what the debate is all about. So many of the issues he raised were of the domain of the political debate that was no doubt held in the villages and halls of Brecon and Radnorshire; I say to him with great respect that the people of Brecon and Radnorshire made a very clear statement a few weeks ago of what they wanted, and endorsed a party that has always been and remains committed to extending the case for home rule within a federal Britain.
I very much endorse what the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said about the history and journey of devolution being a tribute to many people and many political parties. It will come as no surprise to the House to hear that I think there were Liberal Democrat fingerprints—perhaps a little faded and jaded now—on the earliest stages of the current process, with the creation of the Silk commission. It produced two reports, one on fiscal responsibility and one endorsing the reserved powers model. I welcome that work, as well as the earlier work done by the previous Labour Government. It has begun to bear some fruit in this Bill.
Perhaps things went a little out of kilter, thereafter—this wave of nostalgia for the coalition had better end now. The St David’s day agreement followed, and we saw the introduction of the draft Wales Bill, which was subjected to extensive scrutiny by the Welsh Affairs Committee under the great stewardship of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies). I will not dwell on the inadequacies of the draft Bill other than to say that our scrutiny was thorough and detailed. The overwhelming response—from civil society, from people of most political parties and from the Welsh Government—was that the draft Bill was at best inadequate and at worst had a stifling effect on the quest of many of us for meaningful, clear and transparent devolution. I repeat that my party has always believed in the idealism I think the hon. Member for Ynys Môn alluded to: home rule for Wales within an aspirant federal Britain.
It always amazes me that the Liberal Democrats—I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman, as he knows—use the phrase “home rule” in this context, because home rule failed and led to Ireland leaving the United Kingdom. Does he not think it would be better to use a phrase that conjures up a vision of success within the United Kingdom, rather than failure?
The hon. Gentleman makes a historical interpretation. I use the phrase “home rule” in the context of the historic battles for, and crusade towards, self-government in Wales, evoking the memories of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) about marching with his banner, the Cymru Fydd and his references to the Welsh Parliamentary Party. I think the term resonates with people, if not the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas). I do not think we are arguing against each other; I think we probably aspire to the same objective. We are dancing on the head of the proverbial pin.
I do have one big concern. In the past few months, the previous Bill was kicked into the proverbial long grass or cul-de-sac. I commend the Secretary of State and his officials for their alacrity and speed—it took us all by surprise that we would be here today—in ensuring that the Bill is now before us, and I thank him and his officials for the opportunity to informally raise concerns and ask questions directly in the past few days. Notwithstanding that, there are aspects of the Bill that should not be rushed. There has been some concern expressed about that speed. It is fundamentally important that the new Bill is given sufficient opportunity to be properly scrutinised. I hope officials will be thorough in their consultation and discussions with civil society, political parties and the Welsh Government to ensure that we have a workable Bill which retains and builds on widespread support.
I was privileged to take part in the St David’s Day discussions. Looking around the House, I think I am the only other person here who was in the room having those discussions with the other representatives: the former Plaid Cymru leader, the right hon. Elfyn Llwyd, the former Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith). I well remember the first meeting. I reminded the Secretary of State that I would be discussing our meetings with my colleagues in Cardiff Bay, and that our discussions—the four of us sitting in isolation around that familiar big table in the big office in Gwydyr House—should not be seen in isolation. I have to say that I do not believe those discussions were as inclusive as they should have been. Cross-party and cross-parliamentary collaboration will be the key to the Bill succeeding as discussions proceed if the durable, permanent settlement we wish to see is to be secured.
Were the St David’s day talks an attempt to move the agenda on? Yes they were, and indeed they have moved the agenda on. Inevitably, however, allowing a veto from any one of the four participants risked stopping discussions in their tracks. That was how it was. We went through every one of the Silk commission’s recommendations, item by item: hands up boys if you agree, hands down if you do not. If one person objected, the issue was not pursued. When people talk about the advancement of the debate by the lowest common denominator, they are correct: it was very, very easy to stop aspects of the Silk recommendations. I say that as someone whose party was one of the first—my friends in Plaid Cymru might have been there just before us—to endorse all that Silk said in his second report.
The hon. Gentleman, who is my parliamentary neighbour, will not expect me to answer that question. I suspect his sources in Plaid Cymru have given him the answer to that question already. Despite the best intentions, the structure was going to fail from the outset.
Now, to the Bill. To start at the beginning, it is welcome although not surprising that clause 1 recognises the permanence of the National Assembly. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has told us that the detail of a referendum to abolish the Assembly is not there, and I am pleased about that, but it does establish the principle that the only way we could ever abolish the National Assembly would be through the consent of the Welsh people as expressed in a referendum.
The recent National Assembly elections were not—this will come as no surprise—a stunning success for my party, but they were even less stunning for the Abolish the Welsh Assembly party. Whatever our concerns, and perhaps with just one or two exceptions, there is a recognition that our Assembly is here to stay. Importantly, clause 1 provides for a new and specific recognition of Welsh law:
“There is a body of Welsh law made by the Assembly and the Welsh Ministers.”
It is the first time that such recognition has existed, and it is of course welcome, but it must not end there. If the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire were tempted to divide the House later and vote against the Government, the Government Front-Bench team can have some assurance that I would be likely to go through the Lobby with them— but with significant caveats and provisos. I do not know how much power solitary Liberal Democrats have these days—perhaps more than the hon. Gentleman thinks in an Assembly context. I will support the Bill at this point, but with the proviso that certain things must change.
I am sure that the Secretary of the State and the Minister will be overjoyed to hear that the Liberal Democrats will join the Conservatives once again—just like in the previous five years. It was remiss of me not to congratulate my parliamentary neighbour on becoming the new leader of the Welsh Liberals and the last man standing—or last person standing, I should say—in the Welsh Liberal party. Was I hearing Liberal-speak when the hon. Gentleman said he was glad to have a provision for abolishing the Welsh Assembly, but not to have a mechanism included? Surely the Liberals would nowadays want to give people the democratic rights that they should have.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Reference is made to it in the Bill, which should satisfy the hon. Gentleman. We look forward, as I am sure the people of Brecon and Radnorshire do, to seeing the detail in the lengthy schedule that the hon. Gentleman will table to allow the abolition. He might be helping the 4.5% of people who voted for the Abolish the Welsh Assembly party in their cause, although I am not sure it will help his cause if he proceeds along that route. There we are; we will see.
I was talking about the issue of distinct jurisdictions. There is, I think, a concern—the Secretary of State might have gone partly down the road to addressing it—about the Bill’s reference to a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction. It seems pointless to refer to a body of law without addressing the issue of jurisdiction. With the growing body of Welsh-specific law that will emerge, this seems necessary if the Bill is to provide a proper and long-term settlement.
In common with the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) and others, I do not want to be back here, if I am lucky enough still to be here in five, 10 or however many years, to encounter what would be the fifth Wales Bill. I predict that this issue will not go away, and the Secretary of State should be mindful of it. He is partly mindful of it through the creation of the working group, for which I am grateful. Even if Conservative Back Benchers will be grinding their teeth at the thought of any changes to the judicial system, I think there needs to be greater acknowledgement of the fact that this issue will not go away.
Let me move on to clause 10 and the necessity test, which was an issue of real concern, as many Members on the Opposition side have confirmed. The Welsh Affairs Committee was concerned about it, and I believe the concerns were legitimate that this could be used to curb the powers of the National Assembly. Whether it be true or false, that was the perception. I am glad to see movement on that issue, and although the necessity test remains in part—it will be justified for cross-border and reserved matters—I am glad about the extent to which it has gone. That test seems to have been replaced—I use that word cautiously—by the justice impact assessment undertaken by the Welsh Government. In the spirit of devolution, the Bill says that that is done in the “way they see fit”, and presented with accompanying legislation. I note, however, that the Welsh Government have stated that the Assembly already has the potential to deal with that issue through their Standing Orders.
Quite where that assessment goes, I am unsure; and quite what the response from Westminster Ministers and officials from the Ministry of Justice to it will be, I am also unsure. What would it take for the intervention powers of a Secretary of State to be enacted? I am not sure. What would set in train the mechanism to go to the Supreme Court—something we want to avoid? I am not sure. I wrote this speech before I heard the opening remarks from the Secretary of State, who reassured us that this measure will not go anywhere, but that prompts the question as to why we need it, if the National Assembly can pursue that device through its Standing Orders. I seek reassurance from the Minister that there is nothing sinister that devolutionists like me and others on the Opposition Benches—and, to be fair, on the Government Benches—should be concerned about.
Is there any need for this provision, given that according to the First Minister the Assembly has the capacity to introduce its own impact assessment? I welcome the fact that there will be a joint Justice in Wales working group to consider that and other judicial matters, and to establish the protocol on judicial arrangements. The group’s objective is:
“To provide clear and efficient administrative arrangements for justice in Wales that fully reflect the distinctiveness of Wales—
I am surprised that the Wales Office allowed that word in the group’s remit, because we are all against distinctiveness or separation, but it is an encouraging sign—
“and the distinct body of Welsh law within the England and Wales justice system.”
I look forward to that report. I do not know what form it will be in, or whether there will be opportunities as work proceeds for people to come to the House or report to the Secretary of State, who will answer our questions. However, it is worrying that this Chamber will not consider the outcome of that work before the Bill goes to the other place. People may say that I cannot have it both ways—I cannot have the working group as well as the Bill coming speedily before the House—but I am reflecting on the quality of debate that we will have on such matters, if the body of expertise and officials are meeting and reaching conclusions, and we do not have the opportunity to respond to them as we proceed.
Recommendation 28 of Paul Silk’s report states that he believes we should hold a review within 10 years of devolving legislative responsibility for the Courts Service, sentencing, legal aid, the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary to the National Assembly. Let the remit of the working group be as broad as possible, and perhaps I will be reassured that it will consider those matters. If that is the case, the Secretary of State will have trumped—dare I use that word?—Paul Silk on timescales, which is to be welcomed.
The bulk of the Bill relates to schedule 2 and the detail of reserved matters. The Western Mail says one thing, and David Melding in the Welsh Assembly tells us that we are down from 250 to 200 reservations, which is a move in the right direction. We may have had the bonfire of the quangos, but that is not quite the bonfire of reservations that some of us had hoped for. A reserved powers model will inevitably involve a list, and we are told that 15 to 20 reservations have been taken out of the Bill—I do not know where those numbers are coming from—and that three more have been added. My elementary maths tells me that that is a positive of up to 17 reservations in our direction, but interestingly, the three added reservations concern the second Severn crossing, prostitution, and heating and cooling systems. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us as to the rationale behind those three things.
I would also be interested to hear more about how the process was undertaken by the Wales Office, and the extent of the consultation when deciding on those reservations. The Select Committee made clear recommendations. It said that the Wales Office should go back and start the list again. Did that happen? I rather doubt it, given the time that elapsed between the publication of our report and the inception of the Bill.
We are where we are, and the Bill does represent a significant move forward. I would not be so churlish as to suggest that the last year has wasted the opportunities provided by the work of Paul Silk and the limitations of the St David’s Day agreement, because much has been learned on the back of the unfortunate draft legislation that followed. At the very least, it has taught the Government, and many in the House, that devolution is an important issue that will not go away, and that if we are to achieve a lasting settlement, the Government must do better: they must consult widely, and they must respond. They have done that to a degree, and I am therefore prepared to give the Bill cautious support at this stage. However, I do so on the understanding that the work of the working group is not peripheral but important, and that it will enhance our democratic processes rather than inhibiting them.
According to a press release issued by the Wales Office last week:
“The Wales Bill is in the finest traditions of Welsh radical reformers like Lloyd George.”
Neither I nor, I suspect, anyone in the Wales Office has had the benefit of Lloyd George’s wisdom on the Bill, literally or spiritually. The nearest that I got to Lloyd George was having tea with one of his daughters, a prominent lady in the constituency of the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams). However, notwithstanding what the Minister has said about the need for cross-party consensus—and I wish him well in that regard—I suspect that my party’s agenda is rather more in tune with the thinking of David Lloyd George than the Government’s.
It is a pleasure to follow my friend and neighbour the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), who, as always—but he is not even listening to me as I congratulate him on the quality of his speech! It is also a pleasure to have been in the Chamber for most of the debate, and to have heard some fairly strong opinions delivered in such a reasonable way. It has been a constructive debate, and it has been pretty enjoyable.
I was pleased to see a Wales Bill in the Gracious Speech, although I believe that every Queen’s Speech since I have been a Member of Parliament has contained a Wales Bill. I think it was the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) who said that we did not have many opportunities to look at the constitution of Wales and change it, but it seems to me that we have such an opportunity pretty well every year. I do not know whether we shall have one next year; that will depend on the success of the Secretary of State.
There has been a fair degree of agreement across the House today. I have sensed that everyone wants to support the Bill, although many Members will clearly want to see some changes to it. I, too, was surprised by the speed at which Second Reading arrived. It is fairly obvious to me that the Secretary of State is a man of action and a man in a hurry, given that it was only a few days ago that we first knew that there was to be a Wales Bill.
The Secretary of State told us at the beginning of the debate that his two objectives were clarity and accountability, and those objectives will form the two most significant parts of the speech that I intend to make. The Secretary of State also said that he hoped that we would be able to end the squabbling between the Welsh and United Kingdom Governments for good, and that we would have a permanent settlement. I wish him the best of luck with that, because I should be surprised if we Welsh managed to stop squabbling.
Clarity is a key aim of the Bill. Like the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who spoke earlier, I was opposed to devolution in 1997. Indeed, I campaigned against it, and voted against it on 18 September. However, I was on the losing side. The National Assembly for Wales was set up, and I became a Member of it for eight years.
One reason why I opposed it was the obvious lack of certainty and clarity on how the devolution process would develop. It did not seem to me as if it was stable or could last. The leader of the Conservative party in Wales at that time, who was opposed to devolution, did not think that there was any certainty to the process, and a leading Labour party member described the process as being a magical mystery tour with no obvious end. My hon. Friend suggested that the end might be like Alton Towers. The truth is that we do not know, and I am still not convinced, even with this Bill, that we can ever actually reach the end, because in terms of constitutional settlements, there will always be debate and change. One day sometime in the future there may be a Wales Bill that reduces the amount of power that goes to the Assembly. Who knows?
I became Chair of the legislation Committee in the National Assembly quite early on, and partly through my experience of that I became convinced that we needed to have a reserved powers model, rather than the conferred powers model: that all power should be devolved unless there was a very good reason why it should not be. That has informed my attitude to devolution ever since. If something can reasonably and sensibly be devolved, I think it should be, and I think the move to a devolved model delivers that. It is a much more permanent settlement and is much less likely to lead to visits to the Supreme Court for arguments to be heard. I greatly support that, therefore. It is one of the two fundamental drivers behind the Bill, and one of the two issues that make me very keen to see it go through.
The second one, however, is more controversial: accountability, and in particular financial accountability. I know that there is some disagreement, certainly on the Conservative Benches, on this issue, but I became convinced many years ago that responsibility for a significant level of income tax was crucial if the Welsh Assembly was to become an accountable body that engaged with the people of Wales at election time. People could look at both sides of the ledger—how money was raised as well as how it was spent. When I first took that view and espoused it publicly, there were not many people in my party who agreed with me, but it has been consistently and solidly my opinion ever since, and it is as strong today as it has ever been.
On a number of occasions at the last election I was asked about my position on this. I said very clearly that my view was that we should devolve a significant proportion of income tax—probably the ability to levy up to 50% of income tax—and until that power was devolved, I could not see how the Welsh Assembly could be seen as a Parliament.
Part of this Bill is about giving the Welsh Assembly the name “Parliament”, but how can we have a Parliament that does not have the ability to levy the most important tax that people understand? Without that, it cannot properly be described as a Parliament; there have to be powers over income tax.
Members have referred to the £2.5 billion that is already devolved to the National Assembly, but it is income tax that engages people. When voters in an Assembly election are looking at what parties to support, income tax is what engages them. They consider not just the parties’ spending promises, but how they are going to raise that money. It is crucial that we go down that road.
Apologies to Labour Members, but it is a weakness to assume that the Welsh Government will always be a Labour Government. There will not always be a Labour Government in Cardiff. It is not the Welsh Assembly that passes the laws; it is the Labour Government who do so. If we can properly engage with people at election time—financial accountability is a key part of this—we might be able to have something other than a Labour Government. We might be able to have a genuine view among the Welsh people and the possibility of a Conservative Government in Wales.
There will be debates on many other parts of the Bill as well, and we have already talked about a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales. There is no doubt that a body of Welsh law is developing. It is a small body at the moment, but it will grow. It will be a long time, however, before it becomes a significant body of law and I do not feel that it is justifiable to have a separate legal jurisdiction to deal with the limited amount of Welsh laws that we have. I cannot justify having a separate jurisdiction from the current England and Wales jurisdiction.
There has also been quite a lot of debate about the justice impact assessments. We removed the necessity test, which was pretty important. Almost everybody thought that that was the right thing to do. However, it seems unreasonable that there should be no mechanism within an institution to assess the impact of the laws it passes on any other institution. All this means is that when the Welsh Government pass legislation, they will have to assess the impact of that legislation on other legislation. That seems entirely reasonable, and I suspect that every other legislative body in the world does it, so I really cannot see why this should be an issue.
Policing has also been an issue. Perhaps this is just my view, but I have never been opposed in principle to the devolution of policing. However, we cannot support the devolution of policing to Wales until a very strong case can be made that it would improve policing there. We need to know how it would be improved and whether the new arrangement would work well for England and Wales.
Had the hon. Gentleman been here during last night’s debate, he would know that I support the devolution of policing because of what has happened to the police helicopter service in Dyfed-Powys. It has been lost because policing is a reserved power. The helicopter services were not lost in Scotland or Northern Ireland, but the service has been lost in Dyfed-Powys because policing is reserved, and we now have a pooled service that is letting my communities down and letting his communities down.
I thought it might be helpful, before my hon. Friend replied to the Plaid Cymru intervention, to take careful note of the fact that the Dyfed-Powys police helicopter has not been lost, and that it would be a gross misrepresentation of the truth to claim that it has been.
I thank my hon. Friend; that is exactly what I was going to say.
I also want to touch on the question of devolution in regard to energy. We all pay a price when we support a Bill that is as comprehensive as this one, because there are often parts of the Bill with which we are very uncomfortable, and I have to say that devolving power over wind farms up to 350 MW to the Welsh Government really sticks in my craw. For me, that is a high price to pay to support the Bill. Perhaps I did not make what I meant absolutely clear in an earlier intervention, but we know that the Welsh Labour Government—perhaps supported by some of the other parties—are hugely enthusiastic about covering mid-Wales with wind turbines, wind farms and pylons. There has been a huge battle to try to stop them, but the Welsh Government are very keen to do it.
On 1 March this year—St David’s day—the United Kingdom Government passed powers over onshore wind to local government across England and Wales. In England, local government now has the power to make decisions on wind farms of any size, and that power has also been devolved to Wales. On that same day, the Welsh Government took that power unto themselves. In Wales, everything over 25 MW is therefore now decided by the Welsh Government in Cardiff, but in England local authorities decide this. That is one reason why I find this part of the Bill to be extremely difficult to support.
I am looking forward to the Committee stage, where we will debate a series of aspects of the Bill, as we are not able to touch on everything today. The Bill is really worth while. We can perhaps change one or two parts of it, but it is a good Bill that will bring more stability, more security and more democracy, in the sense that through financial accountability people will be more engaged with the democratic process than has ever been the case in Wales before. That is why I very much hope that the Bill makes its way through the House.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Madam Dirprwy Lefarydd. Am fod yn bowld, fe gymeraf y cyfle i ddweud rhyw frawddeg arall yn Gymraeg. If I was braver, I would probably carry on, but it did seem appropriate to get more than the usual introduction and salutation in Welsh in today on the Floor of the House.
As a relatively new MP, one of the 2015 generation, it seems to me that successive Secretaries of State for Wales are fond of bigging up Wales Bills as “generational milestones”. These landmarks of legislation are intended to stand as rocks of ages, directing the flow of governance with their permanence. I am a new MP, yet already I have seen Wales Bills come and Wales Bills go. Although I am impassioned with the will to empower Wales, I fear that the House must be concerned that this Bill, yet again, is a cypher for the ongoing tussle between Westminster Departments desperate to protect their little empires and the National Assembly for Wales—not the Welsh Government—seeking the tools to do its job.
For a second time, the laudable concept of reserved powers, which was so well explained by my neighbour the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies)—the hon. Member for Trefaldwyn—is in a reality little more than a series of glosses scribbled over the Government of Wales Act 2006: a cross-referencing exercise for lawyers and academics, shuffling backwards and forwards among documents. The people of Wales deserve clarity and permanence, whereas this remains an exercise in safeguarding the status quo and legislative sacred cows. The Government make much of lessons learnt from the draft Bill: the necessity tests have almost disappeared; ministerial consents no longer apply to so-called “Wales public bodies”, but they remain none the less; and the previous 267 reservations have been whittled down to 250. This is hardly evidence of a change of heart, although I particularly welcome the devolution of powers of heritage railways, having six in my constituency—very lovely they are, too, and I recommend a visit to any of them.
The Government have still got us jumping through hoops to maintain the fiction of a unified legal jurisdiction of England and Wales, when the very existence of the legislature at the Senedd, the growing body of Welsh legislation and the vast majority voice of civil and professional opinion together, in consensus, prove otherwise. Perhaps talk of distinct legal jurisdiction is the domain of political obsessives—we have heard this already this afternoon—but it is the very fabric of the infrastructure of government. It is boring, in the same way that the infrastructure of a country is boring, and roads and railways are boring—unless we have to travel to get somewhere and be there on time.
Wales is on a journey. Each new piece of constitutional legislation promises to deliver us at our destination, but the road ahead is not yet clear. We have had 17 years of learning to walk, but why are we still to be hobbled when we want to run? The present England and Wales single legal jurisdiction is past its sell-by date; it yokes together two diverging legal landscapes. Acknowledging this reality will remove the problem. Attempting to tie them together with legal shackles only underlines how much this is really about asserting London’s sovereignty over Wales—the last of the home colonies—and how little it is about mutual respect and support among equals.
What we have allegedly gained in the vaunted listening exercise between this Bill and the draft Bill runs the risk of being little more than a sleight of hand and a change of name. Out go necessity tests and in come justice impact assessments and a diktat to Assembly Standing Orders, which impose—as compulsory—something that Westminster treats as optional in its own affairs.
We are told that the protocol for dealing with disputes as a result of these assessments will be determined by the Justice in Wales working group—I am glad to learn of that working group, as it reflects the concern that some of us on the Welsh Affairs Committee had with the draft Wales Bill and that we raised in our report. None the less, it does concern me that there is no mention of these justice impact assessments in the working group’s remit. Indeed, there are concerns all round.
Does the hon. Lady accept that a justice impact assessment is a sensible thing for any mature legislature to have in relation to the scrutiny of legislation? If she does, what is her objection or question when I say that it is merely a statement of fact that helps with the scrutiny of a Bill, as we have not had justice impact assessments up until now?
I note first of all that the impact assessments are compulsory in that they would be compulsory in their effect. However, for this Bill, they are not compulsory, but optional. We do not know for sure what results they could trigger. It interests me that they are not in the working group remit, but that they appear in the Bill. We should explore more fully what their impact is likely to be. Yes, at face value, they are to be welcomed, but we need to know more about them. We need to know the mechanism by which we will know more about them, and we need to be sure that that will feed into the process of this Bill.
Indeed, there are concerns all round about the pace of the Bill’s introduction, the need for scrutiny on its workability and how it synchronises with the timetable of the justice working group, which reports in the autumn. I anticipate that the Secretary of State will outline how these material issues co-ordinate, but I am disappointed that we are being asked to vote today on matters about which so many questions remain unanswered.
In passing, I also note further concerns about the working group. I seek a guarantee that the interests of Westminster departmental workings will be secondary to the best interests of Wales with regard to membership, remit and stakeholder evidence. To reiterate, I ask the Secretary of State to assure me that this Bill will not reach its Committee stage until the working group has reported. It would be unacceptable to move ahead in the present state of uncertainty.
I recall that, in discussions on the draft Bill, the sheer unworkability of the foundation principles meant that the reservations themselves did not receive proper attention. That must not happen again. We have had many speeches about the potential of Wales—I applaud the speech of the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) who is no longer in his place—and how the Wales Bill should be looking to realise the fantastic future for Wales. We should be optimistic in our anticipations.
In fact, rather than giving the people of Wales more control over their own resources, some aspects of the Bill give the UK Government a greater hold. Clause 44 amends section 114 of the Government of Wales Act 2006—a section that gives the UK Government a veto on any Welsh legislation or measure that has an adverse impact on water quality or supply in England. Incidentally, that section is exclusive to the Welsh devolution settlement. It appears in neither the Scottish nor the Northern Ireland settlements. Rather than removing this section, bringing Wales into line with Scotland and Northern Ireland, clause 44 extends the veto to cover anything that has an adverse impact on sewerage systems in England, too—so we have water and now we have sewerage.
In last October’s debate on the flooding of Capel Celyn, I recall the Secretary of State referring to the joint Government review programme and how it was considering the Silk commission’s recommendation on water. I understand that this group is to report shortly. Perhaps the Secretary of State will be minded to amend the Bill to include a reciprocal power for the Welsh Government to veto UK Government measures that impact on Wales, or perhaps he will see sense and remove clause 44 from the Bill. That will, at long last, right the wrong of Capel Celyn and give Wales full powers over our own water.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) as another member of the 2015 generation.
I welcome the Wales Bill in its new form, which is a significant improvement on its first incarnation last October. There is still work to do, but I am reassured that the Secretary of State has made it clear that he will continue to have constructive discussions on the Bill with the Welsh Government, and there is still scope to amend the Bill during its passage through the House. I welcome the additional powers on elections, energy, transport and marine licensing. The Bill represents a further stage on the devolution journey that began under a Labour Government in 1999.
In the Welsh Grand Committee on 3 February, I highlighted three concerns about the Bill regarding ministerial consents, reservations and the necessity tests. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, the then Secretary of State said:
“There is nothing in the draft Bill that makes the Welsh Assembly consider whether legislating in a devolved area is necessary.”—[Official Report, Welsh Grand Committee, 3 February 2016; c. 61.]
I am pleased that there has been a rapid move from denial to acceptance, and that changes have been made in that regard.
The necessity tests have not been scrapped completely, and they remain in the Bill, admittedly in a watered-down form, in clause 3 and new schedule 7B. They apply, first, if Welsh legislation touches on reserved matters and, secondly, if there is an effect beyond Wales. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State made it clear that there may be scope to remove that altogether, and that may be something that the Secretary of State will consider during the passage of the Bill. Simpler ministerial consents are welcome. It is entirely right that the Welsh Government have the power to remove or modify UK ministerial powers in devolved areas without consent, and the shortened list of reservations is welcome too.
I spent some time teaching politics before entering the House and I remember many debates 10 to 12 years ago about pre-legislative scrutiny. Such scrutiny has been helpful for the Bill, and I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs and the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee in the Assembly, as well as to my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, particularly for the speech that she made in the Welsh Grand Committee in February.
I want to deal with the issue of jurisdiction. I should refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and declare that I am a non-practising barrister, following my door tenancy at Civitas Law in Cardiff. There is an emerging body of Welsh law, which is a reality, and it will grow in years to come as a consequence of the primary powers devolved in the 2011 referendum. I am pleased that that has been explicitly recognised in the Bill, and I welcome the working group to which the Secretary of State has referred. As I understand it, the group can take in representatives from the Wales Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Welsh Government and, indeed, the Lord Chief Justice, all of whom should be able to contribute.
The power to modify criminal and private law on matters in the competence of the Assembly is welcome too, along with clause 10 and judicial impact assessments. However, a steer on a distinct jurisdiction would be extremely useful, and was proposed by the Welsh Government in supplementary pre-legislative scrutiny evidence. That would assist in the longer term—we all want a lasting settlement, not one that is revisited. I do not, however, think that a separate legal jurisdiction is the answer to the problem. I approach this from the perspective of access to justice. I have been critical of the Government in other contexts and their record on access to justice, but that issue has to be borne in mind in the Bill.
At present, if someone wishes to take a legal action on something outside the jurisdiction, within the civil procedure rules—sadly, I can remember these things; this is covered in part 6—a number of requirements have to be met in order to do so. I do not want a constituent from Torfaen, who goes, for example, to Bristol, falls over or has an accident, and then wants justice in that matter to find that there are barriers in the way of securing that. As the working group goes forward, it must look at the access to justice issue and ensure that we have a pragmatic way forward—the kind of vision of devolution set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)—so that individual access to justice is at the heart of the matter. It would also be useful to have far fewer clashes in the Supreme Court. I hope that as we proceed, the Bill will be able to achieve that.
On the devolution of income tax, I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), the shadow Secretary of State: it must be on the basis of no detriment to the current funding settlement for the Welsh Government.
My vision of the Bill is the vision of one of my hon. Friend’s predecessors as Member of Parliament for Llanelli, James Griffiths, whom I regard as one of the most underrated politicians of the previous century, particularly for his work as Minister for National Insurance after the second world war. He was the very first Secretary of State for Wales, appointed by a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, in 1964, and his vision was of strong devolution for Wales within a strong United Kingdom. That is precisely the vision that I have today, and I sincerely hope that we can achieve that by building on the Bill and passing it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds). I do not always agree with everything he says, but what he says, he says with substance, and is well thought out. I enjoyed his reference to James Griffiths, who is a proud son of Ammanford, which is my home town as well, so I will make sure that the South Wales Guardian reports his comments.
At the start of my contribution, I would like to raise an issue relating to the programme motion, which will be taken after these proceedings. There will be no debate on the programme motion, but when the Under-Secretary makes his winding-up speech, will he clarify the time allocated for the Bill’s Committee stage? In our view, two days will not be enough—the Scotland Bill had four days’ deliberation—but if the Under-Secretary is able to give guarantees that that time will be protected, we will be willing to concede on that. Will he also give an outline of the likely timetable for the Bill as it proceeds through its various stages?
We have heard some fantastic contributions to the debate from Members on both sides of the House. I particularly enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), in which he made a passionate case for the full devolution of corporation tax. I fear that my comments will be tame in comparison. I made similar comments in the Western Mail on Saturday while I was out in Bordeaux, only to be accused by the shadow Secretary of State for Wales of nationalist dogma. The hon. Member for Islwyn, who is not in the Chamber, might be in trouble with the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) after this debate.
After less than two decades of devolution in Wales, we have had to change the settlement four times—this Bill will be the fifth time. Every one of those changes was meant to settle the constitutional question for a generation, yet here we are, debating another Bill that, it is claimed, will settle the constitution for our lifetime. I fear that we yet again have another tinkering Bill which will be past its sell-by date before the ink dries. During the course of the previous Bill, Plaid Cymru, the party of Wales, endeavoured to strengthen it, as we will do during the course of this Bill. I am glad to see that some of our amendments, which were ruthlessly voted down last time, are reflected in provisions in this Bill, specifically the parts that allow the National Assembly to determine its own electoral system and give the National Assembly the right to change its name if it chooses. Surely since the last Assembly election, when one party had 50% of the seats on 30% of the vote, every true democrat must realise that we have to do something about the electoral system for the National Assembly.
On the question of the name, as far as I am concerned, now that the National Assembly can pass laws, it is a Parliament in its own right. However, I accept the arguments of some of my colleagues back home in the motherland that law-making bodies in Europe are known as assemblies, such as the Assemblée nationale in France.
I particularly welcome the Chancellor’s decision in the autumn statement to remove the need for a further referendum before the proposed income tax-setting arrangement is implemented. Referendums should be held only on a fundamental point of principle, as with next week’s vote on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Conversely, the 2011 Welsh referendum on a very opaque matter indicates the problems associated with holding a public vote on technical issues.
The principle of fiscal devolution from Westminster to Wales has already been conceded in the 2014 Act, with the devolution of minor taxes, stamp duty land tax, the aggregates levy and landfill tax. Devolution of power is the settled will of the people of Wales, as is highlighted by a long list of opinion polls. Political parties just need to get on with it now and react to the growing demand for more powers for Wales, as opposed to hiding behind referendums. The only future referendum that should be held on the constitutional question in Wales is the referendum on Welsh independence, when the time comes.
The Bill is a step forward from the draft Bill, which was published last year by the then Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb). That Bill included roll-back powers, which would have been completely unacceptable to Plaid Cymru, because they undermined the settlement overwhelmingly endorsed in the 2011 referendum.
Three new reservations have been added, including the Severn crossings. We will be pushing an amendment to repatriate the bridges during the Bill’s later stages and look forward to the support of Labour and Conservative Members. It is allegedly Labour Government policy in Wales that the bridges should come under the control of the Welsh Government. It is also the policy of the Conservatives in the National Assembly. In 2013, their transport spokesman said:
“Devolution of the crossings—and future use of the tolls—has the real potential to help hard-pressed motorists, provide significant investment in Welsh infrastructure and encourage economic growth”.
The hon. Member for Gower (Byron Davies), who uttered those words while in the Assembly, was singing from my hymn sheet, and I am disappointed that he is not in the Chamber.
Which of the three ends of the Severn bridges that are in England does the hon. Gentleman feel are subject to a right to be repatriated to Wales? After all, there is a geographical reality that should be recognised.
I am grateful for that point, which is always used by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies)—I am glad to see him in the Chamber, as we have debated this issue many times. However, the reality is that the Severn bridges are the two main supply links into the south Wales economy, so it is clearly in the interests of the Welsh Government to have control over them.
I always endeavour to be helpful in my politics, and when I look at the rate of constitutional change in the UK, it appears that the only way the British state can possibly survive is as a confederal arrangement between its constituent parts. The only reserved matters in that scenario should be those relating to currency, the Head of State, defence, welfare and foreign affairs, although the boat on welfare may have started sailing with the Scotland Act.
The necessity tests have been replaced by so-called justice impact assessments. In response to the Bill, my former academic master, Richard Wyn Jones, from the Welsh Governance Centre, said in the Western Mail:
“I’m afraid this unexpected addition to the Bill suggests the mindset that devised the necessity test is still alive and kicking in Whitehall.”
He went on to say:
“It clearly undermines the UK Government’s claim to respect the National Assembly as a mature democratic institution able to make its own laws without interference.”
He concluded by saying:
“Ultimately the Secretary of State would be able to override a piece of legislation passed by the democratically elected Assembly. It is a mindset which sees the Assembly as a second-class legislature. There is no similar provision at the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Scottish Parliament.”
I will refer to the Secretary of State’s earlier points and let him intervene following that.
Professor Jones makes the further valid point that these impact assessments are not reciprocal, citing the example of the super-prison in Wrexham, where the UK Government took no account of the impact on devolved Welsh public services such as health, social services, education, lifelong learning and skills.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments during the debate and the guarantee that the justice impact assessments cannot trigger a UK veto—I accept him at his word. However, we will have to take our own legal advice to ensure that these assessments are not a Trojan horse to stymie the ability of the National Assembly to function fully as a legislative body.
Let me politely reassure the hon. Gentleman that the justice impact assessments are in absolutely no way considered to be a veto. He referred to the prison in Wrexham—HMP Berwyn. When two mature institutions come to agreements, and one is seeking to encroach on devolved areas or another to encroach on an area that is non-devolved within the UK, the UK Government need a legislative consent motion to take action in Wales. There is a mature arrangement. We need to come to a position where we understand each other, and these mature discussions should take place, rather than one having a right over the other. That is not the area that I want to get to.
I am extremely grateful for that intervention by the Secretary of State. His point about the Wrexham super-prison makes our argument for us. That facility has not been created to deal with the custodial needs and requirements of our country. That is partly why we will aim to remove the reservation on policing and prison services during the passage of the Bill.
My other major concern, as my party’s Treasury spokesperson, is the second-class settlement we are being offered in relation to fiscal powers. The Scotland Act 2016, which all Labour and Tory MPs based in Wales voted for, fully devolved air passenger duty and income tax—including, crucially, the tax bands and half of VAT receipts—to Scotland. The Scottish Government will now be responsible for raising over the half the money they use in all devolved expenditure. Yet, as the recent Cardiff University assessment, “Government Expenditure and Revenue Wales 2016”, notes, following the fiscal plans in this Bill, the Welsh Government will be responsible for raising only about 20% of the devolved expenditure for which they are responsible.
If the twin arguments for fiscal devolution are accountability and incentivisation, surely we need more ambition for Wales than what is currently on offer. After all, in essence, we are talking about keeping more tax revenues raised in Wales directly in Wales, as opposed to collecting them in London and sending them back. The Welsh Government should be responsible for raising the money that they spend. That is a very valuable principle in politics. We will seek to amend this Bill and the forthcoming Finance Bill to secure parity for Wales with Scotland, and challenge Labour and Conservative Members who supported these powers for Scotland on why they oppose them for Wales.
The other issue in relation to tax powers that must be addressed if the measure is to receive our support is the fiscal framework to accompany tax devolution. As we have seen with the debate surrounding the Barnett formula, words such as “fairness” and “non-detriment” are extremely opaque and open to interpretation. The Bill will put in place a Barnett floor to stop further funding convergence, but let us be clear that that is not the same as “fair”. A fair settlement would surely, at the very least, peg Welsh funding at the Scottish level, especially since that is what Labour and Tory Members of Parliament from Wales voted for for Scotland. I will let them explain to the people of Wales why they think that Wales deserves less support through public funding per head than Scotland.
Returning to the fiscal framework, I am glad that there seems to be genuine good will around a non-detriment principle, but that will need to be clearly outlined before we finally vote on the Bill. I would expect the Treasury, at the very least, to publish its recommendations in an official statement to the House during our proceedings on the Bill because Members of Parliament will otherwise be voting blind on the consequences of the tax proposals. I say this as a strong supporter of devolving job-creating levers to Wales, as I outlined earlier. However, neither I nor my colleagues will support the Bill if the UK Government intend to push a straightforward indexed deduction method. I note the significant concessions gained by the SNP Scottish Government on this issue, so I would hope that the Labour Government in Wales and the Wales Office here will be pushing hard for a suitable deduction method for Wales.
This vital issue is even more complicated than my favourite topic of Barnett consequentials, so we must get it right. We need a formula that will reflect the fact that the population of Wales, and hence our tax base, will grow more slowly than the UK average. We cannot be left in a position whereby a successful fiscal policy in Wales leaves us standing still in terms of Welsh revenues. Incentivisation can work only if the Welsh Exchequer is not at a loss before the process starts. Scotland has once again achieved a fair settlement, and so must Wales. It would be far easier to come up with a fair framework if we were debating full income tax powers similar to those awarded to Scotland—that is, full devolution of the bands and thresholds.
If the other main aim of fiscal devolution is to increase the political accountability of the Welsh Government, the sharing arrangement envisaged for income tax would continue to allow them to pass the buck. The shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), said that full devolution of income tax powers under the Scotland Act would stop the Scottish Government playing the politics of grievance. If Wales has a sharing arrangement, the politics of grievance will continue. In the interests of accountability, incentivisation and, critically, transparency, the UK Government need to revise their plans and fully devolve income tax powers to Wales.
This March, in an act of blatant electioneering, the previous Welsh Labour Government published an alternative Wales Bill that called for a separate legal system for Wales and the devolution of policing. I look forward to the Labour Opposition here tabling such amendments to the Bill. If they do, I will support them with vigour, but if they do not, Plaid Cymru will do so and the people of Wales will be able to judge for themselves whether the First Minister has any influence over his bosses here in Westminster.
In conclusion, I would like to highlight the policy areas devolved to Scotland that are not included in this Bill, which include legal jurisdiction, policing, prisons, probation, criminal justice, full income tax, VAT sharing arrangements, air passenger duty, welfare and employment, consumer advocacy and advice, gaming mechanisms, full energy powers and rail franchising of passenger services, to name but a few. As I have said before, it will be up to our political opponents to explain why they voted for those powers for Scotland, but are opposed to them for Wales.
That brings me to the forthcoming parliamentary boundary review, which has not been mentioned at all during the debate, but will reduce Welsh representation in this place to 29 Members. That means a loss of more than a quarter of Welsh seats in the House of Commons.
I will take that intervention in the spirit in which it was intended. Those powers now reside in the Scottish Parliament, so is the hon. Gentleman saying that Scotland is independent? That is ridiculous. I am sure that the good people of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire will be delighted to hear that he is in favour of full Scottish and Welsh independence.
I have made that clear in my contribution. However, if I was a Unionist such as the hon. Gentleman, I would make exactly the same argument as him, and I commend him for it.
Before I was rudely interrupted by my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), I was talking about the boundary review. Wales is about to lose more than a quarter of our political representation. To put that in context, Wales will experience the largest proportional cut in representation here while simultaneously being denied powers and responsibility for our devolved Government. If the boundary changes go through without our significantly equalising the Welsh settlement with that of Scotland and Northern Ireland, there will be a further democratic deficit. With that in mind, I will vote against the boundary changes unless we have the same powers as Scotland.
The constitution of the UK is rapidly changing. This is a time for bold and visionary acts in the finest traditions of this House. I am afraid that the Bill does not reflect the realities we face, nor does it respond to the practical problems that arise from tinkering with the settlement. We will endeavour to strengthen it during its passage so that our country is not treated like a second-class nation.
It is a pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), although I am not brave enough to call him a naughty boy.
When the Welsh Assembly was constituted in 1999, there were 20 conferred subject areas in which matters were to be determined by the Welsh people through their democratically elected representatives. One famous Welsh politician once said that
“devolution is a process, not an event”.
In the 17 years since the Assembly came into existence, there have been three constitutional settlements, which reflects the need to expand the powers of the Welsh Assembly because of the evolution of the legislative procedure in Wales. However, Members who served on the Welsh Affairs Committee during its inquiry into the draft Wales Bill sometimes wished that it was an event, not a process.
The fourth constitutional settlement—the draft Wales Bill introduced by the then Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), in October 2015—promised
“a stronger, clearer and fairer devolution settlement for Wales that will stand the test of time.”
It lasted for four months. On 29 February 2016, he announced that significant and substantial changes would be made to his baby. It may just have been serendipity, but on the day that the Queen officially opened the fifth National Assembly for Wales, the current Secretary of State introduced the revised draft Wales Bill as the fifth constitutional settlement—or, rather, the second fourth attempt—to this House. He said:
“Welsh men and women want sensible legislation that reflects their priorities and allows them to live under laws of their own choosing. I have heard that instruction loud and clear, and I will deliver on it.”
Those were brave words, indeed.
I will not speak about the modification of the necessity test, ministerial consents or even the list of reserved matters, which has been reduced by some 15%. I will concentrate on the devolution of justice, which has been a major area of disagreement between the UK Government and the Welsh Government. There was no mention of devolution of jurisdiction in the draft Wales Bill. First Minister Carwyn Jones has made it known that he is in favour of the devolution of justice, and in 2015, in response to the draft Wales Bill, the Welsh Government argued for
“a Welsh legal jurisdiction that is distinct, but not separate from that of England.”
The new Bill does not propose the devolution of the justice system or of policing, but explicitly recognises that there is a “body of Welsh law”. It allows the Assembly to continue to modify the civil and criminal law to give effect to its legislation, but does not extend to legislating on substantial areas of criminal law, such as offences against the person. The new Bill creates a working group of officials from the Wales Office, the Ministry of Justice, the Welsh Government and the Lord Chief Justice’s office to monitor the situation. I welcome that because in Wales many areas of justice need clarification.
What matters to the people of Wales is whether they can get access to justice. I must admit that in the many campaigns during which I have knocked on doors, I have not found that devolution of the justice system has been a burning issue for constituents. Many of my constituents contact me because they cannot get access to legal advice, or have problems that they do not necessarily identify as legal issues. I am sure that many other Members find that their advice surgeries are inundated by constituents who are being denied access to justice.
It is fundamentally important that the justice system of England and Wales and the ever growing body of law in Wales are clear and accountable, and work for the benefit of my constituents in Neath and those of other Welsh constituencies. It is not straightforward to understand the administrative justice landscape, which is made complex by the intertwining of devolved and non-devolved systems. Administrative justice is not only about citizens’ rights and redress but about learning from what has gone wrong and producing a vision of good public administration. It covers issues including disputes between the citizen and the state, and it is the cornerstone of social justice in Wales—a means by which citizens can have a voice other than through the ballot box, and by which public services can be held to account. It will lead to better results for citizens, less work for the appeals system, lower costs and, most importantly, social justice.
In areas such as housing, education, health and planning, Wales has its own administrative law, and the Welsh Government have responsibility for relevant justice policy and daily administration. Clause 10 introduces justice impact assessments, meaning that the person in charge of an Assembly Bill must make a written statement about its potential impact on the justice system of England and Wales. Every regulatory Bill and statutory instrument introduced to this House and the other place that affects private, civil society or public services has—or should have—an impact assessment, which Opposition Members rightly often use to attack the proposed legislation and suggest amendments.
Most tribunals still operate on an England and Wales basis, but some are devolved—for example, the Agricultural Land Tribunal for Wales, the Adjudication Panel for Wales, the Mental Health Tribunal for Wales and the Residential Property Tribunal Wales. These devolved tribunals are supported by a single Welsh tribunal unit, and there are issues to consider concerning the status of the judiciary in devolved tribunals. They are not a fully integral part of the judiciary for England and Wales, and there is a lack of clarity concerning arrangements for their appointment, training, conduct and discipline. Statutory responsibility is not clear in all cases, and formal agreements are needed so that there is no room for doubt about roles and responsibilities.
The working group may wish to consider the following suggestions: that all devolved Welsh judicial appointments have a standard procedure agreed by the Welsh Government and the Judicial Appointments Commission, and that training, appraisal and disciplinary arrangements be of a standard as demanding as that elsewhere in the UK; that the Welsh Government work with the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and other UK Government Departments to ensure that data concerning redress systems can be separately identified and made available to elected representatives; and that the Lord Chief Justice appoint an existing Welsh judge to lead on devolved Welsh tribunals.
As the Bill passes through Parliament, efforts must be made to articulate how the body of Welsh law that it recognises forms part of the law of the legal jurisdiction of England and Wales, with the primary purpose of making it accessible to practitioners and citizens alike.
The working group should also consider youth justice. When Charlie Taylor began his review of youth justice, the first place he visited was Hillside secure unit in my constituency. It is the only institution in the UK that offers placements for children who have suffered through multiple social service placements and/or who have got into trouble with the law. Children from all over the UK are placed at Hillside, but placements last only three months, which is not long enough to make a positive difference to a child’s life. The judiciary and social services departments often see Hillside as a place of last resort, but if children came there earlier in their troubled lives, they would not suffer the trauma of multiple placements and/or many visits to youth courts.
The work at Hillside is aimed at helping children turn their lives around and involves health assessments, psychological assessments, behaviour modification, academic and vocational education, the improvement of communication skills and children becoming self-sufficient before leaving to resume living in the community. It is an excellent example of partnership working, with Neath Port Talbot Council, the police, police and crime commissioners, the Youth Justice Board, the Welsh Government and the UK Government working together for the benefit of troubled children.
Hillside wants to build a step-down unit on its site, so that children can make a smooth transition from living in a secure unit to living in independent accommodation such as flats and dormitories before they have to fend for themselves in the community. Hillside needs funding to build that unit, but it is not clear who is responsible for paying for it. Is it Neath Port Talbot Council, which is responsible for social services and whose funding has been cut by £50 million because of the austerity policies of the UK Tory Government? Is it the Welsh Government, who are responsible for education, health and housing, and whose funding has been cut by the UK Tory Government? Or is it the UK Government, who are responsible for police and youth justice? We need clarity.
Youth justice and access to comprehensive and coherent legal advice are two areas where the involvement of the Welsh Assembly and devolution to the Welsh Government have significantly contributed to rationalising the offer to citizens. The UK Government should look to those models of delivery for examples of how they can support the Welsh Government to create Welsh law within the parameters of current jurisdiction. I look forward to the passage of the Bill.