Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 160)

TUESDAY 16 FEBRUARY 1999

MR BARRY JONES, MP and MR DAVID LLOYD

Mr Syms

  140.  We are going to have a situation where the National Assembly for Wales has 60 Members of the Assembly and there will be 40 Welsh MPs. You are proposing that we continue with the Grand Committee and with the Welsh Select Committee and all the existing arrangements. Do you not think this means that Wales is not only going to be heavily over-governed but certainly over-politicianed and do you not think that this is going to muddy accountability? The public we like to think are educated in tiers of government and what is going on but we all know that when there is sometimes more than one local authority people do not always know who empties the bins and who does planning. Do you not think that there is a danger that if you keep the existing infrastructure at Westminster that is going to muddy accountability and cause problems for the ordinary Welsh elector?
  (Mr Jones)  The legislation said that Welsh Members of Parliament here will continue to represent their constituents in all matters. I agree that we do not want a situation that has too many politicians, it could be that the waters would be muddied. However, I believe that what is of importance for this House is that the Members of Parliament from Wales who shall remain here shall not feel that they are cut off from their country in terms of their work here. Obviously as Members of Parliament we have a major change ahead of us. I think your question shrewdly points to those areas where we shall find out but, as the Chairman said, we need tolerance and we need understanding. What we do have here in massive quantities is experience, not simply vested in us as Members of Parliament but also in the traditions of this House and arguably of the nation. Evolution largely rather than revolution. I am the first to say that is what is going to happen in May and when our Sovereign goes to Cardiff and when this great Assembly is up and running. There is something else happening in another Celtic part of these islands. It has a massive, huge consequence. The British way has always been to cope but it remains to be seen. I am anxious for our Members of Parliament here to have a role.

Chairman

  141.  As a Welsh Member of Parliament in Westminster, Mr Jones, do you have any sympathy for the English and the English Members of Parliament?
  (Mr Jones)  I do, Chairman, not simply because you sit in that chair. You pay your taxes, the English pay their taxes. That is a short answer. Every Welsh Member of Parliament will be sympathetic to that point of view.

  142.  But the point I am trying to make or to draw you out on is obviously there will be certain things, more so in respect of Scotland and less so in respect of Wales, where the English Member will not be able to vote on Welsh matters and yet the Welsh MP in Westminster will be able to vote on English matters. Of course it has affectionately become known as the West Lothian question. I wonder whether you have any view on that.
  (Mr Jones)  I was here and you were here, Chairman, when that question was asked. I tried to answer it then when I was a minister and the legislation was going through. Looking back I wish I had answered it better. The nation is going to attempt to answer that by making a National Assembly for Wales and we shall see. That would be my answer to you. I have great sympathy for the English.

Chairman:  I think that will be very welcome.

Mr Burgon

  143.  Just on that sympathy, Mr Jones, do you think it will be appropriate to limit Welsh questions in any way after devolution?
  (Mr Jones)  I see the drift of the question but as Chairman of the Welsh Grand Committee and one who moves amongst Members of Parliament from and of Wales I know that the House has spoken, the legislation is made, but within that context I would hope for as sympathetic a view from the authorities of the House with regard to Welsh Members of Parliament as could be made.

Chairman:  It is, of course, only, as you know, half an hour on Wednesday when it comes before Prime Minister's questions. Perhaps the Welsh have a rather stronger case to maintain that current position than the Scots, but I merely pose that point of view.

Mr Drew

  144.  Following on from my earlier question, the panel last week were quite clear that they did not envisage individuals being both a Member of Parliament as well as a Member of the Assembly for more than the immediate cross over. I know that is the will of the parties and I accept that but can you perhaps paint a picture of what you think the role of a Member of Parliament may well become after that split takes place? Do you envisage it being quite a different role or will it just be the same but more circumspect in terms of the types of areas that a Member of Parliament will, if you like, play their part within given that they will have to be very aware of the role of the Assembly and the role of the Assembly Members?
  (Mr Jones)  Well, I think your latter point is a truism and I think the use of the word "circumspect" is important. I emphasise again I very much want as full a role for Members of Parliament from Wales here in this honourable House and I think the comprehensive House would be the lesser if Welsh Members of Parliament felt that they had been shorn of their relevance. I think that would be tragic for the House and it would be far worse if Scottish and Northern Ireland Members felt that as well, which is where I come back to the Chairman's use of the word "tolerance".

Chairman

  145.  Following up this general drift of debate before we have the next question from Edward Davey, Mrs Ray Michie, who came as the Chairman of the Scottish Grand Committee last week, said that if the Scottish Grand Committee remained it should only meet in Scotland at the invitation of the Scottish Parliament. Would you have the same restriction like that imposed upon the Welsh Grand Committee, that it can only meet in Wales at the invitation of the Welsh Assembly?
  (Mr Jones)  Were it left to me, no. I want the fullest role for the Welsh Grand Committee and for Welsh Members of Parliament. I think that would be good for this honourable House and if the standing of the Welsh Member of Parliament could remain that would be good for Wales and for the National Assembly.

  146.  So you believe that you should continue to have the right to meet wherever in Wales it is appropriate for the Welsh Grand Committee to meet under your chairmanship?
  (Mr Jones)  Yes or no? Yes. But in the new situation I would envisage there would be contact, there would be consultation. There would be perhaps a channel whereby the Assembly and the Grand Committee would have contact and would take each other's views. On that basis I would hope there could be agreement, just as I have thought maybe possibly the Welsh Grand Committee, on an informal basis, may be enlarged sometimes; and the National Assembly Members, some of them might come here and might be in the body of the Grand Committee. They might. Whether that is a constitutional outrage I do not know. I have in mind collaboration, co-operation and keeping open the channels of communication, so that relationships do not deteriorate; that the relationships are positive and you can build on them. That is good for this House. I would like to think the experience of Members here could be at the disposal of the Assembly.

  147.  Would your clerk, Mr Lloyd, like to add to that. Does he believe that it would be a constitutional monstrosity if there were informal gatherings at which the Grand Committees got together with Assembly Members. What is the legal position?
  (Mr Lloyd)  Chairman, I think, to an extent, it depends on how each institution wishes to play that. Clearly there is a need for contact. Discussion between the two bodies is going to be paramount. One of the suggestions in Mr Jones's earlier letter was the talk of the evidence gathering role, which the Welsh Grand Committee might possibly take on. There is one procedure that already exists, the Special Standing Committee, whereby a Committee takes evidence for up to three sessions before moving on to consideration of a bill. A procedure of that kind might be thought to be appropriate for the Grand Committee in its contacts with the Assembly, perhaps with Assembly Members giving evidence, and then the Grand Committee going on to debate the issues. So within structures that the House is already familiar with, there might be a possibility along those lines.

Chairman:  Thank you very much. Edward Davey.

Mr Davey

  148.  Mr Jones, in your comments—maybe I am slightly over-sensitive—but I felt you were being slightly guarded in your responses to the points from the Chair about the West Lothian question; and to Mr Syms about the possibility that the lines of accountability could be slightly blurred when we have Welsh MPs at Westminster, the Welsh Grand Committee, and, of course, the Welsh Assembly. I would be interested to know how you see the dynamics playing out and where this might all end. You talked about the British tradition of evolution. I am wondering whether the Welsh Grand Committee would be part of this evolutionary process, moving on this relationship between the centre and the Welsh Assembly. I am particularly interested in relation to the financial aspects. You will be aware that the House, when it spoke, decided not to give a lot of financial powers—in terms of tax raising powers certainly—to the Welsh Assembly. It seems to me that this has a potential for confusing accountability, because you will have Welsh MPs obviously arguing in this place for a generous settlement for the Welsh Assembly to dispose of. Do you think that the Welsh MPs in their relationships to the Welsh Assembly, perhaps when they meet Assembly Members in their sittings, will want to argue that finance is the next step, because the tensions which will already be raised by this divided financial accountability will be, if you like, rather extreme. The only way to solve that is to go further along the line to greater financial autonomy.
  (Mr Jones)  I was guarded. I do not wish to say anything so near to the establishment of the Assembly that may cause difficulty. I wish to see evolution, development, co-operation, respect, from either side. But I think you have raised a principal debating point. Finance is there at the heart of it. The House has spoken with regard to the Welsh Assembly, the National Assembly in Wales. Revenue raising has not been gifted by this House. However, I do know of people who are likely to be National Assembly Members, some who wish to have that power. It is just possible that I know some here in this House, who are Members of Parliament from Wales, who may wish to see some power like that. I would be astonished if the debate ends now. So I think it calls for judgment. It calls for the Welsh Grand Committee, the Welsh Select Committee, the National Assembly, to proceed with care (perhaps with caution) in the early years. But being a realist I think the world of media, journalism, indeed of debate and national consciousness—The core of your questioning is not dead. It is about to be considered in some detail. I remain guarded.

Lorna Fitzsimons:  I totally appreciate the standpoint that you have, Mr Jones, because obviously this is something new to us all. We, as a Committee, are aware that there are not really any precedents in Europe or from elsewhere in the way we are seeking to do devolution differently in Scotland and differently in Wales. However, one of the things that the Committee is grappling with is how we can make more efficient the functions of this place, specially given that we are spending a lot of time on modernising our own functions within the Mother of Parliaments, as you referred. Do you think it is reasonable to assume, given the fact that there will be an Assembly, and there is the Grand Committee, and there is a Welsh Affairs Select Committee, that there is cause for concern that there is some duplication; and that we need to take something out of the system to clarify what bodies are seeking to hold whom accountable. Also, given the fact that this is going to be, I suppose, a learning period for Welsh Members of Parliament about what their function is, post the establishment of the Assembly, obviously everybody will have to learn by experience as it beds itself down. Do you agree that we should be looking to pursue the modernising agenda of whether we do need to have so many Committees? Do you agree that there is the possibility of duplication? Therefore, are you prepared to go away and look at the proposal that the Chairman suggested, of some form of amalgamation of the Grand Committee and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. I just put this in your mind. We have had a proposal from a group of four very eminent academics for something called the Welsh Territorial Committee. Their belief was that the Grand Committee and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, if you merge them together it might be a bit messy and it would not be as precise or as an effective functioning body as you would wish. They have come up with the idea of a Territorial Committee which would effectively give the remaining Welsh MPs the power and the wish, whilst cutting down on the duplication of Committees.

Chairman

  149.  That is the Study of Parliament Group, which has given evidence to this Procedure Committee.
  (Mr Jones)  I think the modernisation of the House should continue apace. Currently, I think it is finely judged, cleverly done. But in any further modernisation I would not like to see a situation develop where my colleagues in this House from Wales felt that they were marginalised, that they were downgraded, that they did not count. That when they went home to their constituencies they were lesser, even though they were from the Mother of Parliaments. That is my principal plea, my point I make to the Committee. I believe that my colleagues have a very important role to play in the British House of Commons, post-devolution, but I do not see how I, for one, can deny that modernisation. So far as I am concerned it has been important and, I think, largely successful.

  150.  Would you deal with Lorna's specific question, Mr Jones. Do you think that it would be a good thing, as it were, to merge the Select Committee and the Grand Committee under the title of a Territorial Committee for Wales on which Welsh Members of Parliament would be able to do perhaps both what they do now on the Grand Committee and what they do on the Select Committee but the rules and regulations governing that new committee might be adjusted to take account of devolution?
  (Mr Jones)  The answer from me personally is no. I would like to see both remain. It is conceivable quite soon that the question must be put again but experience will tell us that.

Chairman:  Thank you. Eric Illsley.

Mr Illsley

  151.  Mr Jones, do you think that there should be any scrutiny at Westminster of the way the Welsh Assembly is actually using its powers? Do you see a role for the Westminster Parliament in looking at the Welsh Assembly's functions and, if so, would you see that as a role for the Select Committee or for the Welsh Grand Committee or do you think there is no role at all?
  (Mr Jones)  I think from day one the National Assembly will be a body fully aware of the powers vested in it by this House. It will know its legislation. I think it will guard its powers jealously. Any sign of an attempt by, say, a Welsh Grand Committee to criticise or to scrutinise in the sense of when it has no authority to do so I think that is broken glass and there would be problems. I said at the outset that we want a flying start for the National Assembly, we do not want to see it crowded, we do not wish to see it over-policed and we do not wish to see it belittled. It must have the confidence of this House and it must gain its confidence from day one. Nevertheless, I would guess, for example, that the National Assembly will consider some day in the future that its endowment by this House and by the Chancellor of its monies are inadequate and then I think a real debate will begin.

Chairman

  152.  That is the point that Mr Illsley is asking. Do you think that this House has an ongoing responsibility for scrutinising the way that the block grant is spent, particularly if the Welsh Assembly would come back and ask for more money in certain areas?
  (Mr Jones)  We will remain here with the Secretary of State for Wales. One of the roles of the Grand Committee will be to hear him debate and Members of it shall ask questions. I presume, for instance, there is a Queen's speech, I presume there will be a Budget debate and here Mr Illsley's question is subsumed. Again, I say it is a moving scene and the British way is to evolve. I would not expect any committee here in this House to level a direct criticism of a National Assembly.

  153.  It was not criticism that we were talking about, Mr Jones, it was whether there should be any scrutiny here at Westminster of the way in which the National Assembly for Wales was using its power. You are saying that initially any such scrutiny should be low key?
  (Mr Jones)  My response was couched in such a way as to show full respect for the importance of the question asked of me by Mr Illsley.

  154.  You are not only Chairman of the Welsh Grand Committee you are a politician as well.
  (Mr Jones)  Yes, Chairman.

  155.  Exemplary. Do you think that in respect of devolution it might be a good idea to set up here in the United Kingdom Parliament a permanent "constitutional affairs" committee to look at devolution issues throughout the United Kingdom, not just in Wales but in Scotland and Northern Ireland? Do you think that would be a good move here?
  (Mr Jones)  I have not considered it previously, Chairman, but responding immediately to you the answer I would give is yes. I think there will be so many developments. These Assemblies and Parliaments will be very vigorous, very ardent, very committed, they will be very representative. I envisage controversy of the best kind, parliamentary controversy. With the wisdom of this House, the experience of this House, the goodwill of this House, committees such as these I think will be of immense importance in a positive way.

  156.  Taking that forward, your own Government has suggested "A spirit of tolerance between the different chambers might be fostered"—this has really been very much the way you have tackled questions from us this afternoon—if the House permitted criticism of Members of the other legislatures only in a substantive motion. A counter argument might be that this would mean offensive remarks were enshrined in what we know as Early Day Motions in this House and therefore become widely available, rather than if they took place in debate where they might pass unnoticed. What is your view? It might well be that there could be conflict and criticism of Welsh Members here of what the National Assembly is doing in Wales and vice versa. How do you think that criticism might be dealt with? Do you want to see it, as I say, enshrined in Early Day Motions and therefore in the formal way or do you believe that we should tolerate critical remarks on the floor of both the Assembly and the House of Commons about the performance of individual Members both of the Assembly and if the United Kingdom Parliament?
  (Mr Jones)  I have only been here 29 years but always I am learning and hearing that question I had not considered that. I am a loyal supporter of this Government, if I could have that recorded. In the best sense I have considered Early Day Motions as graffiti, honourable graffiti but graffiti nevertheless. Take it, look at it, read it and acknowledge it but with a pinch of salt. However, you have pointed to practical consequences very early on and, good gracious me, where will that lead? To angry, vigorous, typical parliamentary responses. Wherever the rude remarks emanated from the other may well have a point of view. That is as I envisage it. Therefore, I think in the Welsh Grand Committee, which could largely be measured and friendly in its attitude towards the National Assembly and vice versa, that is the situation I would like to see but I think you and I envisage a dynamic from day one because in this honourable House there are strong independent voices and I am sure it will be the case in Cardiff.

Mr Syms

  157.  Mr Illsley mentioned the Secretary of State and of course the Secretary of State's role even if he or she in the future does not become Leader of the Welsh Assembly as of right will be able to attend the National Assembly and give evidence and discuss. It is going to be a difficult position sometimes shuffling up and down the M4 consistently. Therefore, there is going to be a relationship built up between the Government structures here in Westminster and the National Assembly for Wales in Cardiff. We have heard that there is going to be a whole range of concordats negotiated about how things will actually run. Would you see not only your Grand Committee continuing to look at what happens in Wales but continuing to look at the relationship of the Government in London to Wales or perhaps looking at the concordats, whether there should be public scrutiny of these concordats and a relationship between the Government here and the National Assembly in Wales?
  (Mr Jones)  I think in your question and in your remarks there are grounds for hope. I see in the early years in terms of the development of the National Assembly and the relationship of this House with the Assembly that the role of the Secretary of State will be crucial. The fact that the Secretary of State shall be rooted in the Grand Committee and has been given by this House a role with the Assembly I think there are grounds for optimism there. That is the positive side. I think it is a shrewdly drawn question, if I may say so.

  158.  On the assumption that one day the Secretary of State will come from a different political party.
  (Mr Jones)  I am not sure I can entertain that.

  159.  The structure, as it is set up at the moment with the National Assembly and the Welsh representation in this House, means that it is highly likely that the same party will be in the control of both bodies. But the Secretary of State may be a post which may change at some stage in the future. It might not change next year but in ten years, five years, or whatever. Do you see the relationship working as well? Perhaps an honourable friend of mine could be Secretary of State. I will not mention which one.
  (Mr Jones)  The British House of Commons always has. My recollection is of very able Secretaries of State who are not of my party. Lord Crickhowell had a lengthy tenure of office. If I were pressed, I could indicate some of the things of a very positive nature that he did. He was followed by Mr Hunt, Mr Redwood and Mr Hague. Their relationships with the Welsh Grand Committee were sometimes strained but they were truly Parliamentary and most honourable in the sense of this House. In the theory that you have proposed I could see it being managed in the way this House manages. No difficulty whatever if it were 40 or 50 years on.

Chairman

  160.  A very final question from me and then I think we must wrap up this evidence session. Do you think there are any procedural issues which need to be reviewed in this House, as a matter of urgency, as a result of the devolution of powers and functions to the National Assembly in Wales?
  (Mr Jones)  Yes, sir. I would simply restate the point I made in my letter to you last year, which Mr Illsley majored on in his first question to me. That the Standing Orders, the short debates, the ministerial statements and bills relating to Wales, those powers have not yet been used. I think it would be to the benefit of the House as a whole, to the benefit of the Grand Committee, and surely for the National Assembly, if a Committee such as yours were able to get the microscope on to the capabilities and potentialities and make a report, so that Members of the Grand Committee and of the Select Committee knew perhaps, where as far as they may honourably and legitimately go. For me, the crucial issue that now faces Welsh Members of Parliament is to feel they truly belong to this House and have full status of this House after May. I think that is utterly crucial.

Chairman:  Thank you very much, Mr Jones and Mr Lloyd. Thank you very much for coming to give evidence to us. We are very grateful indeed. Thank you.

  


 
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