Speech Constitutional Reform Wales – 19,5,2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) is always a tough act to follow. I was hoping to make a hard-hitting speech, but I fear that my contribution might be somewhat timid in comparison with his. I want to concentrate on two specific issues. The first, on which all parties in the House have concerns, and which has been the focus of the debate so far, is the number of MPs who serve the people of Wales in Westminster. The second is the opportunities that the proposed Calman Cymru process may offer democracy in Wales.

19 May 2011 : Column 154WH

Let us be in no doubt that the reason why the UK Government have introduced their proposals to cut the numbers of MPs from 650 to 600 is purely partisan. In nullifying the Celtic bias, the Prime Minister’s aim is clearly to enhance his electoral prospects at the next general election. We should ignore the spin surrounding equal- sized constituencies: if they undermined the Tory party’s electoral prospects, they would not be on the table.

I must admit that it is strange, as some Labour Members said in their contributions, that these changes are being introduced by the Conservative and Unionist party. Reducing Welsh representation in this place by a quarter will inevitably severely undermine the influence of Wales in this Parliament. The Westminster Parliament represents four distinct nations, and its make-up has always reflected that fact to avoid it becoming dominated by English representatives. Central Lobby, with its murals of the patron saints—St David, St Andrew, St Patrick and St George—is a reminder of the historical role played by the Westminster Parliament.

Many Members will undoubtedly be surprised to hear me make such points, because there will be no Welsh representation here at all if Plaid Cymru’s ultimate aim is achieved. However, as long as so many key political fields remain reserved, there is a role and a need in this place for Welsh MPs, and particularly Welsh Plaid Cymru MPs. [ Interruption. ] I am glad to see some Members nodding.

David T. C. Davies: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making such an important point, which I fully agree with. For as long as Wales remains part of the United Kingdom, he and other Welsh Members should of course be allowed to take their places here. In the same way, people who did not agree with devolution or the Welsh Assembly, and who still have questions about it, have every right to sit in the Welsh Assembly if they are elected to it.

Jonathan Edwards: I am grateful for that, and I will stick the hon. Gentleman’s endorsement in my next leaflet.

I am not against reducing Welsh representation in the House of Commons as a point of principle. However, any reductions should take place only after the devolution of political fields of responsibility. I do not, therefore, accept the argument that the successful March referendum justifies reductions in the number of Welsh MPs. The referendum did not devolve extra fields of power, but merely secured sovereignty over currently devolved fields. If we were to have the same devolved fields of power as Scotland, however, I would see the case for reducing the number of Welsh MPs.

For the remainder of my speech, I would like to concentrate on the UK Government’s proposed Calman process for Wales and its constitutional implications. I seriously hope that the Wales Office is not proposing a rerun of the Scottish experiment, which was a stitch-up by the Unionist parties and has now backfired spectacularly. The government of Scotland Bill that followed the Scottish Calman process lies in tatters because of the Sewel convention. There is no way the majority Scottish National party Government in Scotland will accept a Bill that totally ignores their views on the way forward

19 May 2011 : Column 155WH

for their country. I therefore hope that the Calman Cymru process will be fair, open, transparent and free from political influence.
To date, much of the debate surrounding the Welsh Calman has been about finance. The Holtham report is unlikely to be bettered, so the best course of action for the UK Government would be to accept its detailed recommendations. Reform of the Barnett formula should be a precondition for any further financial changes, but I am concerned at the noises that have come from the Treasury to date. That will be a major challenge for the new Welsh Government, and all their rhetoric about standing up for our country will be seriously tested on this single issue.

However, I welcome the fact that the Calman Cymru process will reopen debate about the Government of Wales Act 2006. In particular, we will have the opportunity to revisit the gerrymandering carried out under the Act by the then Labour Government in Westminster. The section introduced in 2006 to prohibit candidates from standing in regional lists and constituencies should be overturned. A similar ban exists only in Ukraine, and it is high time that we in Wales joined the rest of the democratic world.

The Calman Cymru process is also an opportunity to revisit the electoral make-up of the National Assembly in time for the fifth Assembly. My personal preference would be for us to increase the membership of the National Assembly to 80, as advocated by Lord Elystan-Morgan. Those 80 Members should be elected by a single transferable vote system. When the government of Wales Bill, which follows the Welsh Calman process, comes to this place, I will call for amendments to that effect, unless such provisions are already included in the Bill.

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is any appetite in Wales for yet another prolonged period of navel-gazing?

Jonathan Edwards: I am grateful for that intervention, but we have the Calman process and, following questioning last Wednesday, it was confirmed that such issues will be debated. The Bill will be an opportunity to address grievances that some of us have with the current settlement.

Paul Murphy: I am following the hon. Gentleman’s arguments with great interest. I agree with some of them, but I am doubtful about the appetite in Wales—or the UK, for that matter—for introducing any other systems of proportional representation. It is daft to argue that the overwhelming vote against AV was because people wanted STV. People want a first-past-the-post system, so would it not be a good idea to have 60 or 80 AMs elected, two per constituency, by first past the post?

Jonathan Edwards: I totally disagree with that, of course. When the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was a Bill before the House, I argued for the referendum to be held on STV, not AV. That was about a vote for the Westminster Parliament,

19 May 2011 : Column 156WH

and my preference for developing democracy in Wales is a plural, proportional system. I will get to that point when I conclude my speech.

During the passage of the 2011 Act, I welcomed the clauses that decoupled the Westminster and National Assembly boundaries; it was common sense to include them in the Act. My colleague, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), had a sparring session on BBC Radio Wales in the very early hours of Sunday morning on that issue. The Labour party was vehemently opposed to the decoupling; its preference was for coterminosity. From the point of view of organising local party structures, I can see the argument. They would be a total nightmare to organise locally with different boundaries for the Westminster and Welsh elections.

Nick Smith: It is not only about party organisation. Coterminosity is important for talking to borough councillors and chief executives, and the managers of local health services and housing associations. It helps us to make an impact as MPs with local civic society. Surely we should keep that.

Jonathan Edwards: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Coterminosity is favourable.
Given that, as a point of principle, Labour is opposed to decoupling and the Tories to PR, one way to achieve consensus might be to re-adjust the National Assembly boundaries to be coterminous with the new Westminster boundaries. Such a reform would have the added benefit of being more proportional. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Discussion Area - Submit a comment

Your reply will be moderated and not appear immediately. You can prepare your text in a word processor before pasting it into the box, but formatting such as bold and colour will not appear.