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Devolution: Wales

Volume 670: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2005

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Whether they are considering taking further measures to give greater devolution to Wales.

My Lords, first, I wish all Welsh Peers and all Welsh staff a very happy St David's Day. I believe that it is appropriate to offer our warmest congratulations to the Welsh rugby team on its quite brilliant win in Paris last Saturday.

The Government of Wales Act 1998 provides for the transfer of additional functions to the National Assembly for Wales. Animal health powers have been transferred to the Assembly under that provision. Functions can, and have been, transferred by primary legislation. They include the Railways Bill and responsibility for the fire service, for CAFCASS and for the funding of higher education. Since devolution 33 pieces of legislation have been passed by Parliament, transferring power to the Assembly. The settlement is, and will continue to be, dynamic.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that good reply, outlining the extent of the devolution that we have in Wales so far. Is the Minister aware of the Welsh Labour Party policy for further devolution, which includes a number of proposals? One is to extend the secondary legislative powers in devolved areas, and a second is to end the body corporate status, which would separate the executive from the legislature. A third proposal is to improve the electoral system to end the anomaly of a candidate standing in a constituency, losing the election, but still being elected to the Welsh Assembly. Does the Minister agree that that is a sensible proposal, in contrast with the proposal from Plaid Cymru, which still advocates independence for Wales?

My Lords, I am aware of the Welsh Labour Party's attitude to the Richard report which is very similar to the outcome of the debate in the Assembly on that report in October last year. Following that debate, the First Minister wrote to the Secretary of State for Wales asking him to bring forward proposals to amend the Government of Wales Act. That letter has been received, is being considered by the Minister and will be replied to in due course.

I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Richard cannot be with us today, but he is in Korea. His view is that there is widespread recognition in Wales that the Assembly needs greater competence, although there are ongoing discussions on the precise way in which that should take place.

My Lords, while we on these Benches associate ourselves with his remarks about good will to the people of Wales, does the Minister agree that, in the spirit of the Welsh rugby team and St David, the Richard commission recommendations on extending primary legislative powers to the Assembly should go ahead? Has he or any of his colleagues had discussions with the Welsh Assembly and is it their wish to extend the powers of the Assembly to primary legislation?

My Lords, unfortunately, I am not in a position to make government policy on this matter. I am simply the spokesman for government policy. Of course, there are excellent relationships between the Government and the Assembly, and all the matters mentioned by the noble Lord are being discussed. As I said a moment ago, we have heard from the First Minister, and the Secretary of State will be replying to him in due course.

My Lords, I wish to reciprocate the Minister's good wishes on this our saint's day. Does the Minister agree that while there is plenty of scope to improve the workings of the National Assembly and its provision of services, especially in the area of health, it would not be advisable to grant further fundamental powers, particularly tax-varying powers, without another referendum of the Welsh people, who, unlike the Scots, were never faced with the tax question?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. for his question, but it is difficult to answer because Conservative Party policy on devolution is, to put it in the vernacular, all over the place. Bill Wiggin, the Conservative Party shadow spokesperson for Wales, tells us that the people of Wales would do better without an Assembly; the Tory leader in the Assembly, Nick Bourne, says that it would be disastrous to abolish the Assembly, and, best of all, after visiting Wales in January, the Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard, said that he has not yet made up his mind but he will focus on it in due course.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that it would be sensible to allow the Assembly to have the secondary powers that it requests, whether or not it has primary legislative powers? Does he also agree that powers to deal with such matters as smoking in public places, which have been repeatedly requested by the Assembly, should be allowed to progress through the House?

My Lords, I take the noble Baroness's point, but I repeat that discussions are taking place between the Welsh Assembly and the Secretary of State for Wales. I hope that many of these issues will be resolved during that debate.

My Lords, given the overwhelming rejection by the voters of the Government's proposals to extend devolution in England, will the Minister not be a little more careful to take account of the question put by my noble friend Lord Roberts? Would it not be appropriate, before embarking on yet another Labour Party programme of devolution, to let the people of Wales have their say?

My Lords, we let the people of Wales have their say. They voted for devolution. One of the constitutional reforms that this Government can be proud of is devolution of power to the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.

The last academic survey showed that 38 per cent of the Welsh thought that the Assembly was absolutely terrific, as opposed to only 21 per cent three years ago. So we are moving very much in the right direction.

My Lords, it is the turn of these Benches.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the Richard commission observed that the present legislative process for Wales is very unsatisfactory, with Welsh legislation depending on the whim of Ministers and civil servants in London? Would he also agree that the Welsh people have shown enormous gratitude to the Government for giving devolution to Wales, in contrast to the Tory Party in Wales, which has ended up like the English rugby team with "nul points"?

My Lords, of course I agree with my noble friend on the second point. I disagree with him on his first point. These matters are not settled on the whim of the Government in London, but on intelligent discussion on where devolution is going for the people of Wales and for the Assembly.