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Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): If Standing Order 86 is sacrosanct, why did the Government of whom he was a member set it aside on the Welsh Language Act 1993, the Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 and the Cardiff Bay Barrage Act 1993?
Mr. Forth: I am not saying that the Standing Order is sacrosanct. I am simply saying that it was the hon. Member for Ceredigion who said, "Let us lift it just this once; otherwise, the motion is a jolly good idea."
I do not have a fixed view on the way in which the matter is dealt with because, unusually for me, I do not have direct participation. I may even have off at least the early part of the evening. I understand that the Bill is important and that many right hon. and hon. Members will want to take part in the debate.
I have paid my little tribute to the Secretary of State and now I shall be slightly critical of him. He has given us only partial information. He has not told us how many Members the Government will impose on the House as members of the Committee.
Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): I am listening with great interest to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, especially about the time that will be available to consider the Bill. Is he aware that on 7 November one of his party's colleagues in the National Assembly for Wales said:
Mr. Forth: I am not remotely interested in what the member of some assembly said. This is the House of Commons. From what little I understand of the National Assembly for Wales, it rightly has no legislative powers. We make law in this place. Until a Government or the people of Wales decide otherwise, that is how it will remain. The views of a Member of the Assembly are of no relevance to our deliberations. However, our views have relevance because we are the House of Commons and we are the people--at least for the time being, until the Government give the responsibility to Europe--who make laws in the United Kingdom.
The way in which we make laws is vital. I do not know how many Members now in the Chamber are prepared to buy a pig in a poke or accept what the Secretary of State says and wander off into the fog of the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill. I am not satisfied. How can we be satisfied that all right hon. and hon. Members who have a legitimate interest in the matter will have sufficient time and opportunity to give it their consideration and make their input if, for example, the Committee were to be very small or if consideration in Committee were to be very short? From what the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) said, she seems to want the process to be "fast tracked". [Interruption.] I thought that she was quoting with approval. If not, I hope that she will tell us. I took it that she was quoting an obscure person with approval, and that that is how the matter rests.
Mrs. Lawrence: I quoted the Conservative Health spokesman from the National Assembly for Wales, Mr. David Melding, who was asking for the Bill to be fast tracked because of time considerations, respecting the fact that this place has responsibility for primary legislation, which is why we are here. Given the opportunity to set the agenda within the United Kingdom, I would welcome the Bill being fast tracked because of what it can do for children in Wales.
Mr. Forth: I am now even more worried. I should have thought that fast tracking was the last thing that we want in respect of this Bill more than any other. Matters such as those with which the Bill deals must be carefully considered and scrutinised, and legislation on them should not be rushed into. It is unacceptable for the hon. Lady to suggest that such speed would be beneficial. Indeed, I would be surprised and disappointed if her parliamentary colleagues wanted to rush the legislation.
A number of questions have arisen to which we have no answer. The Secretary of State gave us partial information. I am sure that he did not intend to withhold information, but I hope that he will answer the questions for his colleagues, as much as for anybody else. The questions concern the size of the Standing Committee that will consider the Bill and the programming of the Committee stage, Report and Third Reading. We must have information about those matters before we can make the important decision on rescinding the Standing Order provision. We need that information whether or not the decision will apply only on this one occasion, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion hoped, whether or not it creates a precedent and whether or not such a precedent already exists, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) suggested. All those matters must be resolved before we can decide on the motion.
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I am sorry to intervene so soon on my hon. Friend, but I have a question: does he agree that there is something contradictory about the official Opposition's mild criticism of the Secretary of State's position? They have used the same tool to great effect in the past. Indeed, my predecessor, Alex Carlile, said so. Does he further agree that the Secretary of State should have a little humility about the matter, for the simple reason that he made great play of it in debates held in 1992 and 1993?
The limited powers of the National Assembly for Wales mean that we have to consider the primary legislation in Westminster. However, the Bill's importance means that the Assembly has taken due cognisance of it, debated it and refined proposals for it. I believe that that is an adequate pre-legislative process for due consideration by the House. As things currently stand, the process is in line with that for primary legislation. The Waterhouse report made serious points and exposed serious matters regarding the care of children in Wales. It underlined the urgency of the issue. The Bill is the first primary legislation on that issue and the Waterhouse report is applied exclusively--perhaps I should say inclusively--to Wales. Those are adequate reasons for agreeing the motion.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I have no philosophical objection to changing procedures from time to time if circumstances warrant such change. I understand the cross-party feeling in Wales that the legislation should be agreed with all due speed, but I am sure that sensible care and attention is also desired. I regret the dispute between my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), who has done sterling work to assert against a reluctant Executive the right of the House to scrutinise and debate, and the desire of many Welsh Members of Parliament and Assembly Members for the Bill to be fast tracked, as the process is called. I hope that all would agree that the Bill should be dealt with expeditiously, but also sensibly and thoroughly.
One of the reasons for this little delay--the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst were a little short, by his usual thorough standards--is that, although the Secretary of State was, unlike some of his colleagues, generous enough to make a statement to the House about his intentions, he was not open enough to enable us to reply "That is a reasonable change; let us go ahead." As our short debate draws--perhaps--to a close, let me press him to try to reassure my right hon. Friend and others that there will be enough time for all Members with legitimate interests to express their views on Report and Third Reading, or that all those with such interests will be invited on to the Standing Committee and will have a chance to speak then. If we
I hope that at this late--but not too late--stage it will be possible to reassure Members who reasonably say that the House must undertake this legislative task, and must undertake it properly. We could, of course, read the report of the Assembly's debates, but there is nothing like hearing debates in Committee and on the Floor of the House, and being able to able to satisfy ourselves before voting.
I hope the Secretary of State will understand that these are reasonable fears. We need a decent length of time in Committee. We need reassurances about the balance of the Committee, and its ability to absorb what may be the different viewpoints and experiences of Members with a direct interest. I hasten to add that I shall not seek to be involved myself, because the subject is not a specialty of mine, but many others will. We also need to be reassured that there will be enough time for Members who are not privileged to sit on a Committee to make their points when it has completed its deliberations.
I give the Secretary of State two marks out of 10 for letting us know a little of his thinking when he wishes to change the House's procedures. Perhaps I will give him three marks, because it was slightly embarrassing for him to have to do that, in view of his past statements. If he wants the other seven marks, he really ought to tell us how long the Committee will have, who will be on it and why it will produce the right balance between scrutiny and the reflection of opinions in Wales.