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Parliament: Representation of Wales

Volume 707: debated on Monday 2 February 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any proposals to alter the representation of Wales at Westminster.

My Lords, that is a welcome and reassuring reply. The Minister will be well aware that Mr Cameron stated on 12 January that, if elected, he would as a matter of priority reduce the number of MPs overall by 10 per cent and Welsh MPs from 40 to 30. A few days later, his shadow spokesman confused the picture by saying that Wales would be exempted until such time as there was change in the Assembly. Does my noble friend agree, first, that Wales needs a strong voice at Westminster and, secondly, that it is wholly wrong for a party to change electoral arrangements for partisan reasons and without obtaining consensus?

My Lords, the first consensus that the Leader of the Opposition in the other place should strive for is consensus within his own party. As my noble friend has indicated, no sooner had he made the comment that it would be a good idea to drop the level of representation of Wales at Westminster, but his spokesman made it clear that he did not think that it should happen in the immediate future. This Government will preserve a strong voice for Wales at Westminster.

My Lords, is it not the case that, in every election since the privacy of the franchise was established by the Ballot Act 1872, the Conservative Party has not succeeded in gaining a major share of the votes or the seats contested? In such a situation, the Conservative Party is perhaps not best appointed to seek unilaterally to bring about such a fundamental change for Wales.

My Lords, this may of course be part of a wider strategy crudely billed as “England for the English”. That is likely to cause resentment in more quarters than just Wales.

My Lords, how great it was to hear the Welsh language, the language of heaven, spoken in this Chamber just before the Question was asked. Will the Minister confirm that his Answer, while very welcome, will not preclude Her Majesty’s Government from following the Richard Commission’s suggestion that the number of Welsh Assembly Members be increased from 60 to 80 to give the Assembly a more sound and thorough opportunity for scrutiny?

My Lords, sometimes the language of heaven can produce discordant voices. As the noble Lord will know, the argument of some in Wales that the Assembly needs to increase in size is countermanded by very many who think that it is just about the right size at present.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that, in electoral matters, it is desirable that there should not be any great divergence in the size of constituencies and that, if there were a significant variation in certain parts of the kingdom, that would have an unfortunate effect. Would it not be much better if there were, as it were, a single UK electoral quota and efforts were made to ensure that constituencies were approximately of the same size throughout the United Kingdom? I put that forward without any hesitation because Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where the seats are judged on a UK-quota basis.

My Lords, of course I listen carefully to what the noble Lord has to say about this; he is a significant voice. However, he will appreciate that the devolution arrangements produce different positions in different parts of the United Kingdom. He will also appreciate that Wales is a significant minority voice. All democracies pay some regard to the needs of minorities when working out their constitutional system, and so do we.

My Lords, surely the point of devolution for the Welsh Assembly is that it should take more and more powers from Westminster. As that process evolves, surely that should mean more Members of the Welsh Assembly and fewer in Westminster.

My Lords, that would be the case if the Welsh Assembly had tax-raising powers on the principle of no taxation without representation. The Scottish Parliament has such powers and, as we all know, Scottish representation at Westminster was reduced in cognisance of that fact. However, Wales does not enjoy that position at present. If it ever achieved a level of devolution comparable to Scotland’s, the argument would assuredly change.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the All Wales Convention has just started its work going around Wales under the chairmanship of Sir Emyr Jones Parry? While we await the result of that consultation, and the result of a referendum, is it not rather premature to talk about reducing the voice for Wales at Westminster?

My Lords, as I indicated in my immediately prior answer, Wales does not have full tax-raising powers, nor has it had devolved to it powers comparable to the Scottish Parliament’s. Some wish that to be achieved. We have no idea whether that is a majority opinion in Wales at present; in fact, many think that it is very much a minority opinion. We await the outcome of the deliberations in due course.