Speech Clause 1 Wales Bill

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, and to speak to amendments 30 and 31, which appear in my name and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd). They are both probing amendments and follow the spirit of the contributions by the hon. Members for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) and for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).

We welcome the fact that we are discussing a piece of Wales-specific legislation. It is only three years since the remarkable referendum in 2011, when the people of Wales voted overwhelmingly in favour of full political sovereignty over the political fields that were devolved to the National Assembly. I have no hesitation in saying that that was one of the proudest days of my political career. The desktop on the computer in my Westminster office has a picture of the referendum count in Carmarthenshire, with the yes votes piled up proudly on the yes table, and a few bundles of no votes on the no table.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Get a life!

Jonathan Edwards: Well, apart from the Swans staying up this year—another great achievement, which I know the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) shares with me.

Most striking about the referendum result was that it was matched across every county in Wales—apart from Monmouthshire, which only just voted no. When the history of Wales is written, that result will be recorded very strongly when compared with the referendums of ’79 and ’97. It was an earthquake moment, and I remember the shell-shocked faces of many Unionists down in Westminster the week after that historic occasion.

The nature of the game has therefore changed, and subsequent opinion polling clearly indicates that the people of Wales want greater control over their lives. I think they are far ahead of the political class at the moment, and I even include Plaid Cymru in that context. Today we are discussing in historical terms a further milestone on the path towards Welsh self-government, with, for the first time, a national legislature being empowered to have an element of fiscal powers. Needless to say, the Bill does not go anywhere near as far as my party would want in terms of powers for Wales, but as an historian in a previous life I can safely say that when the history of Wales is written, this period will be seen as one of rapid political development for our nation.

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the great indie band from Manchester, Oasis, and its first studio album in ’94, I am reminded of one of its best songs, “Little by Little”. I hope sincerely that when we conclude our Committee deliberations we will not be “looking back in anger”—a reference to another of its great songs. Today is therefore another landmark in the political development of our country.

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The context of the Bill is interesting in itself, and I get the impression that the Secretary of State would rather walk through fire than deal with the Bill today. I am sure he sees it as a hospital pass from his predecessor. The Bill results, of course, from the UK Government-sponsored Silk commission, in particular part I, and I pay tribute to Sir Paul and his fellow commissioners for their work on both stages of the report. As I said, as a party our evidence to both parts of the commission called for far greater progress than was finally agreed, but we were prepared to compromise to seek agreement and make progress. It is therefore disappointing that we find ourselves presenting amendments in Committee, and endeavouring to preserve the integrity of the Silk commission.

Unfortunately, the Wales Bill has torpedoed the recommendations of the Silk commission, particularly in relation to the lockstep on the income tax powers, which we will discuss later. Even more regrettably, it seems that Labour’s amendments to the Bill, rather than strengthening it as we seek to do, aim to place further roadblocks and move us even further from what the Silk commission proposed.

Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is running through the parts of the Bill that he disagrees with, and it is entirely possible that people on both sides of the Committee may disagree because it is a wide-ranging Bill. Does he accept, however, that the Bill makes dramatic progress in that it provides the foundation stones for financial accountability to be vested in the National Assembly for Wales? That is a key step forward that makes the Bill hugely important for the interests of Wales.

Jonathan Edwards: As I said, I think the Bill will be viewed as an important milestone in the constitutional development of our country, but it will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to hear that my ambition for Wales is greater than what is set out in the Bill.

Owen Smith: A moment ago the hon. Gentleman said that Labour was in some way seeking to undermine the Bill, and I am aware from media reports that that is the line Plaid Cymru is taking in the media. I wish to place on record that that is the opposite of what we are seeking to do. We are probing the Bill today but we will support it. We are looking to strengthen the powers held by the Welsh Assembly in many regards, and we are seeking greater symmetry on tax powers with Scotland. Crucially, we will be tabling amendments to secure fair funding in advance of any of those changes, and looking to ensure that we move to a reserved powers model—all of which I am sure the hon. Gentleman would support.

Jonathan Edwards: If that is indeed the hon. Gentleman’s position, I am sure he will join us in the Lobby when we vote on the new clauses later.

The second major context in which this debate takes place is the seismic events happening in Scotland. As I said yesterday in the Welsh Affairs Committee, the second part of the Silk commission’s work will be superseded by the result of the independence referendum, one way or the other. Even the Bill could be superseded by events in Scotland, as its proceedings in the Lords are likely to happen after the people in Scotland have cast their vote in the independence referendum.

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Jonathan Evans: Does that really hold good as an argument? The hon. Gentleman will have seen current opinion polls that show that support for independence—as opposed to support for devolution—in Wales is at an all-time low. He has rightly talked about the seminal change in Wales in which the Conservative party has joined other parties to support devolution, but the result of the Scottish debate so far is that support for Welsh independence is lower than ever before.

Jonathan Edwards: I do not want to get into a debate about independence, but the most detailed polling ever undertaken on devolutionary attitudes was by the Silk commission in the second part of its work. It suggested that 20% of people in Wales wanted devolved defence and foreign affairs, and those would be the two last powers that would ever be devolved.

Regardless of the result in Scotland, the constitutional landscape of the UK will change considerably. If Scotland votes yes, that will be the end of the British state as we know it. If it votes no, the likelihood is that it will get significantly more powers, with 90% approval ratings for a devolution-max settlement that would devolve everything apart from defence and foreign affairs. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously saying that the people of Wales would accept the settlement in the Bill if Scotland were to get significantly more powers, even in the event of a no vote?

Chris Ruane: If the vote in Scotland is close but ultimately a victory for no, does the hon. Gentleman anticipate that the SNP will come back for another vote, and another after that, and that it will not be so much a referendum as a neverendum?

Jonathan Edwards: As long the people of Scotland have those aspirations and vote for an SNP Government, I imagine that they would want to ask the question on subsequent occasions, but that is a debate for another time. Considering the way in which the opinion polls are moving, it seems that the question might be settled this time.

Mr Elfyn Llwyd (Dwyfor Meirionnydd) (PC): I remind the House that the Prime Minister said a few months ago to the people of Scotland that, whatever happens, devo-max is on offer to them. My hon. Friend is right to say that that means that the constitutional set-up of the UK will have to change, come what may.

Jonathan Edwards: As ever, I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his valid and expert intervention. Whatever happens in Scotland, it will completely change the political landscape and supersede Silk and even perhaps what we are discussing today.

With the Scottish question in mind, I believe that the UK Government have missed an opportunity to bring forward a settlement that would have helped them to develop a narrative in Scotland in which the Westminster elite recognised the national aspirations of the people of the nations of the state, and were happy to reform the relations between the nations of these isles to preserve the future of the state. One obvious measure would have been to devolve income tax powers to Wales in the Bill without the Scottish lockstep model. We will debate that issue in greater detail, but suffice it to say at this
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point that the unambitious nature of the Bill leaves the people of Scotland in little doubt that the referendum is a straight choice between more powers with yes and the status quo with no.

Amendments 30 and 31 would ensure that the poll for an ordinary general election to the National Assembly could not be held within six months of a general election for the UK Parliament. I am reassured by the discussion I had with the Minister before the debate. That, and the comments by the former constitutional Minister, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean, is why I am probing rather than pressing the amendments to a vote. When he took the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill through the House, he did a lot of work to ensure that there would be no coterminosity between the Assembly and the general election. That would have presented a great danger to our democracy in Wales.

4 pm

This is important because we have to mitigate the damaging effect that media distortion can have on democratic debates in Wales. Plaid Cymru was excluded from the 2010 election TV debates, in which no mention was made of the fact that much of the discussion surrounding health, education and other devolved areas would not affect the people of Wales. Wales has a number of daily newspapers, notably the Western Mail and the Daily Post, but their readership is extremely small. Many fantastic local papers are under pressure, not least the Carmarthen Journal, South Wales Guardian, the Tivyside Advertiser and the South Wales Evening Post.

Chris Ruane: The Ryhl Journal.

Jonathan Edwards: And the Rhyl Journal, although I am not an avid reader, I must admit.

Most people get their political news from London papers. If we have a Westminster election and an Assembly election in close proximity, there is a great danger that the issues for which the national Assembly is responsible will be dropped completely. The Minister has indicated that there is no intention to bring the elections closer and that there are protections in the Bill to ensure that there will a gap of at least a year between them, so I am happy not to press my two amendments.

On the Labour amendments, the Electoral Reform Society has lobbied extensively against amendment 9, arguing that

“good governance and greater stability is achieved through fixed terms and this should not be a power that is given to the Executive to decide.”

It points out that, as the electoral system for the Assembly makes coalitions more likely, fixed terms also provide stability and security for parties of government. Two of the four terms in the Assembly have seen coalition Governments, so I agree with that point.

Amendment 10 appears to have been drafted with the aim of ensuring that Assembly and Westminster elections are not held on the same day. I would have been happy to support that if it had been pressed to a vote.

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