Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1-19)




  1. Good morning, Secretary of State. I am sorry to have kept you waiting but we had rather a lot to deal with this morning. We had one or two problems which may surface later possibly. We are grateful also for the written answers that we have had because that has enabled us to focus a bit more on policy matters rather than the nitty gritty of the Annual Report. I will ask a general question then. What do you think have been the main achievements of the Wales Office in the last 12 months?

  (Mr Murphy) Well, Mr Jones, can I thank you, first of all, for your welcome and your colleagues and introduce to you Alison Jackson who here is the head of my Department and John Kilner who is head of the finance and administrative branch of the Department. Can I say that I do not think we have been in this room before and it is a bit echoey but I am sure that will have no affect at all on the answers or, indeed, the questions. In answer to the first question you posed to me—what do I think were the main achievements of my Office over the period covered by the report—I think that the most important achievement of the Wales Office, not just in the year under discussion but in terms of all the years that the Office has been in existence, is to ensure that devolution is bedding in, that there is a transition from what we knew under the old dispensation when my predecessors in two ministers ran the business of Wales from the United Kingdom Government into the new one endorsed by the people which means the devolution settlement, which is not just about an Assembly in Cardiff but is about what happens here in Whitehall and Westminster too in relation to that Assembly and in devolution terms. I think the first and sometimes unnoticed achievement is that that settlement continues to run smoothly. Inevitably there are going to be blips from time to time, hitches, disagreements between a department and the Assembly, disagreements between the Assembly and a department, that is the nature of things. I think that were we to cast our eye over the year in question there has been a huge amount of consensual working between the Assembly and between the Government and Parliament on a huge variety of different issues so that we can ensure that the people that we jointly represent with the Assembly have a better quality of life. That is the first point. That is achieved through a number of ways. It is achieved through membership of, in my case, the 14 Cabinet Committees and Sub-Committees. It is achieved through the business of the House, whether it is in the business on the floor of the House affecting Wales, as far as questions, the annual St David's Day debate, other debates, whether it is achieved through the workings of this Committee, the Welsh Affairs Committee, or whether it is achieved through various meetings of the Grand Committee which meets from time to time and so on and especially it is achieved through the legislative process because it seems to me that the inquiry upon which you and your Committee are embarking on is how we deal with primary legislation affecting our country in Wales, how is that dealt with in joint working between ourselves and the Assembly. In the year in question you will be aware, of course, that a number of hugely important Acts of Parliament have passed which involve my office in a considerable amount of time and work, in liaising first of all with the relevant Assembly ministers and the Welsh Assembly Government generally but also, of course, with our fellow ministers in other departments here in Whitehall too and then, of course, how that has an impact upon the parliamentary scene. Those particular Acts of Parliament, if I can just recall them, Mr Jones, would be the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professionals Act, which is transforming the way in which health is administered in Wales. A very good example of the Government and the Assembly delivering through partnership was Don Touhig, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, who was the Wales Office Minister responsible for guiding the Welsh clauses through Parliament. He worked closely with colleagues in Cardiff and of course he went to the Assembly's Health and Social Services Committee as well to discuss the legislation. Secondly, there was the Education Act 2002. That implemented various provisions for Wales, including steps to deliver the Assembly's distinctive agenda in their own White Paper called The Learning Country. Thirdly, and something in which this Committee played a vital role, the draft National Health Service Wales Bill where indeed we were pioneering a new system of dealing with legislation for Wales which meant that there was scrutiny and pre-legislative consultation both in Cardiff through the Assembly and yourselves in the way that you held your own inquiry into that Bill. It was a hugely successful means of delivering legislation through partnership but also involving members of this House of Commons through your Committee. Another small but important example is the Order which replaced the Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce, the Rural Payments Agency. It was vital for Wales that the change in responsibility for processing agricultural payments went smoothly. There was close co-operation between my office and Assembly staff and DEFRA. There were, of course, other Bills too which had an effect on Wales. The Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002, the Homelessness Act 2002 where the Assembly took regulation linking powers to prescribe classes of persons from abroad who may be allocated housing accommodation. The Child Concessions Eligibility Act 2002 which also gave the Assembly various powers and the Adoption of Children Bill. As well as that there were other Bills of course which had an effect on Wales but those are the ones specifically related to the Assembly. In addition to that of course secondary legislation is passed in this place, including the Order which dealt with the elections for the National Assembly for Wales. Finally, of course, an issue which doubtless you will return to later is the whole question of finance. A critical aspect of my role is of course to ensure that we get a decent financial settlement for Wales. Now of course the actual Comprehensive Spending Review when it was announced fell outside the actual Departmental Report that we were referring to but the negotiations leading up to it were not. As you may well imagine there were literally weeks, indeed months, of negotiations which occurred between myself and the Assembly and of course the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary on the final Comprehensive Spending Review. Those, Mr Jones, are some of the achievements of the Department which I have outlined. It is for others, not least this Committee but others outside in Wales to judge for themselves as to whether the Government through my office is serving Wales well.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, Secretary of State. I think the stress you made about the legislative process is an important one because we are looking at that. We have been taking part in it and we have to get it right. It does seem though, so far at any rate, that we are making great strides in that area. I am pleased to see your part in that has been very important.

Dr Francis

  2. Would the Secretary of State see it as part of his responsibility to look at current legislation, for example the Financial Services Act and the way in which Allied Steel employees or former employees have been treated? Given the gaps in that legislation would you see that it would be part of your role to protect those workers and pose to your colleagues in the Cabinet certain changes in the existing legislation?
  (Mr Murphy) It is certainly my role to see if there is something which has occurred in Wales which is of considerable importance in terms of, in this case, employment and pension law as to be able then to report that back to my Cabinet colleagues. In this particular case, of course, you will be aware because you met me on the general issue, not on the Allied Steel issue but the general issue of pensions, that we are now awaiting, very shortly, a Green Paper on pensions. Obviously I cannot go into details of discussions and negotiations within Government prior to that but you and the Committee may rest assured that the Welsh point of view is put forward, particularly in so far as it affects Welsh workers in this case who were treated in a very difficult and poor way. You can rest assured, Chairman, that these matters are conveyed to my colleagues and of course in the process which then surrounds the consultation following the publication of the Green Paper that I am quite convinced that Members of Parliament representing Welsh constituencies will certainly make their points known and indeed those representing Cardiff constituencies will make their points known so far as the ASW is concerned.

Julie Morgan

  3. Secretary of State, obviously this is future legislation. Do you think it would be possible that this legislation could cover the problems that ASW are facing with the pensions at the moment?
  (Mr Murphy) It would not be right for me to pre-empt what is going to be in the Green Paper and what is coming out other than to say that my colleague, Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Works and Pensions, has made absolutely clear that the White Paper will be based on fairness and will be based on security and retirement. Those are two overriding overwhelming aims which will form the basis of that Green Paper. Of course it is a Green Paper which is about consulting as many people as possible to make the pensions system better than they have at the moment. You and other Members representing Cardiff, including some of us incidentally on a constituency basis who also represent people who work in the ASW, and certainly in the steel industry, will have felt in the last few months acutely the shortcomings of some of these systems that we have currently.

  4. It is possible that fairness could be retrospective?
  (Mr Murphy) As I say, I cannot comment on what is going to be in the Green Paper. Certainly the points affecting your constituents and some of mine will be points I believe that need to be considered in the light of the Green Paper.

Mr Wiggin

  5. Good morning, Minister. In your written answer to question 67652 the report that we have before us cost £20,264.45 and in your written answer to question 63108 I have that the Wales Office receives 300 copies of its Departmental Report. That means that each copy is costing £67.54 but you are retailing at £8. Is that correct?
  (Mr Murphy) The details I will ask Alison Jackson to deal with because obviously I do not deal with the ins and outs of the Stationery Office. I simply want to make two or three points generally to you. First of all that all Government departments are required to issue departmental reports. You will see that in our case the cost does not differ tremendously from others because you and others around the table who are politicians, who have to get their election addresses printed every so often, will know that if you get your election addresses printed for 100 it is probably almost as cheap to get 1,000 printed because you have to have a small run or a large run. The cost of it is not so much in the numbers but in the setting up process of the document in the first place. Secondly, of course, we do have a unique position where we have to publish our document in two languages and that has an impact, obviously, on the cost as well. Have you any further comments?
  (Ms Jackson) Yes. There are more copies produced than the 300 which come to the Wales Office. The actual natural selling price of this year's report would be £25.95. What happens to the other copies is that the Stationery Office produce a boxed set of all departmental reports which are sent to various public libraries and other organisations. So the additional Wales Office reports will be part of that boxed set and distributed by the Stationery Office. The 300 are the ones that are distributed by the Wales Office.

  6. Can I ask then why you chose to sell them for £8? If this is good stuff for people to read why £8?
  (Ms Jackson) I think it was a consideration that this is the kind of price that people will be willing to pay. It is a matter for departments to decide whether they propose to subsidise the cost of their departmental report. In the past the Wales Office has always chosen to subsidise the cost so that people who wish to purchase them can do so at what we think is a reasonable price. If the Committee feels that this is not the right way for us to approach it and that we should charge an economic price we would consider the Committee's views certainly.

  7. Right. I looked at the objectives and achievements and 2.5 key achievements in 2001-02, and actually you did not mention any because you said that it was largely dictated by external demands.
  (Mr Murphy) What page are we on now?

  8. Page 12. "The Wales Office is a small policy department with few executive functions and our work is largely dictated by external demands. It is therefore not possible to measure all achievements against quantifiable objectives". The objective that I thought was most interesting was the objective number two which is "To work with other Government departments . . ." particularly in "Agreement on effect on Wales of other Bills introduced into Parliament".
  (Mr Murphy) Yes.

  9. Now you very kindly in your opening comments mentioned some of the Bills that you have been looking at. The one that I was particularly interested in was the Leasehold and Commonhold Reform Act. I just wonder if you can give us some examples about what exactly your Department did regarding that Bill because I had the joy of sitting on the Committee that scrutinised that.

  (Mr Murphy) Yes. The Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Act 2002 part 2 Leasehold Reform where the Assembly took regulation making powers for a right to manage companies. That was just one example under that reform. Obviously we will write to the Committee, Chairman, with more technical details of that. This is in line with all legislation which is England and Wales where there is a great deal of internal discussion and correspondence and sometimes negotiation between Assembly ministers and officials, certainly at official level but sometimes at ministerial level depending on the nature of the issue, between departments of Government and departments within the Assembly. The legislation after it has been drafted has to come before the legislation programme committee of the Cabinet, of which I am a member, and prior to that, of course, there has to be agreement between the Government and the Assembly on the policy issues which are reflected in the process. That means that a great deal of work could be done, as it were, behind the scenes before ever the Bill is produced. The Assembly has to be satisfied that legislation which has been enacted is going to be such that it is going to work properly and well in Wales. Obviously the Government has to be satisfied too that in preparing the draft legislation and preparing the Bill that it is properly dealt with for the whole of the United Kingdom.

  (Ms Jackson) I was not closely involved in the detail but I remember that there was quite a lot of discussion about the nature of freehold and leasehold tenure in Wales, about the kind of mix that there was and the different kinds of tenure and whether the legislation actually met the requirements of the differences between Wales and England. I am afraid if you want more detail I will have to go to the member of staff who dealt with it.
  (Mr Murphy) We can come back to you on the detail. In general not just this Act but lots of others, some of which may appear on the surface to be highly technical, do require a great deal of liaison with the Assembly both at official and sometimes at ministerial level. The big beasts, as it were, last year in the legislative programme covered education and health. There were two bills on health, one on education but there were others which I outlined to you as well like homelessness and travel concessions and adoption of children, all of which will require liaison between departments. Now where sometimes we find there is need for me to intervene is sometimes where there may be disagreements where I need to talk to a minister either in the Assembly or in Whitehall to overcome these problems.

  10. The point you made about the NHS Bill—
  (Mr Murphy) Yes, which NHS Bill?

  11. That was going to be my question. Why did it get broken into two parts if you worked so hard to do the best for Wales because we have now got the NHS Bill Wales, of which we have done the pre-legislative scrutiny but that should perhaps have been attached to the previous piece of legislation but was not.
  (Mr Murphy) Legislation as you will discover when you go through your inquiry, and are already discovering, legislation for Wales comes in two or three different forms. It can come sometimes in the secondary legislation which myself and my colleagues will put through the House in the usual way or it can come through parts of England and Wales Bills or in Wales ordinary legislation. To give you an example, the Children's Commissioner for Wales was originally established with a Care Standards Act which was an England and Wales Bill but the Children's Commissioner Act as it became, specifically the Welsh one, extended the powers and functions and responsibilities of the Children's Commissioner. Now the reason why it came through on the first was clearly that we wanted as a result of the Waterhouse Report a swift decision in terms of getting legislation to appoint the Children's Commissioner. That was the key recommendation of the Waterhouse Report. There was a vehicle going through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the Care Standards Act, however there are sometimes occasions when a Bill is very big, such as the NHS Reform of Health Care Professionals Act, which was a very big Bill, and we wanted also there to review powers to restructure the health service in Wales. It was an opportunity that was presented to us. At the same time the devolution settlement of course requests that I ask the Assembly for its own bids for Wales only legislation. The National Health Service Wales Bill was a result of a direct inquiry by me to the Assembly and a request from the Assembly to me that they wanted their own piece of legislation on the National Health Service Bill. The other thing, of course, which I think made the second Bill quite rightly separate is that it gave us that unique opportunity which I have referred to of having this very special scrutiny and consultation surrounding a Bill which I am not sure could have happened in quite the same way on an England and Wales Bill in the way that it did. I think as we develop we may well find ourselves having similar sorts of scrutiny on the Welsh clauses of an England and Wales Bill but here was an opportunity given to us by the Assembly, which they requested—they requested this Bill—and the Government and Parliament agreed to that request and we have that draft Bill.

  12. Just to close. Obviously there are problems facing you and in your written response to one of our questions you were keen to emphasise the growing weight of primary legislation which is going to have an implication on the Assembly. Do you see your role as changing from watching out for the best interests of the Welsh people to now watching out for the best interests of the Welsh Assembly?
  (Mr Murphy) My role is I suppose both. I have to ensure that there are good relations between the National Assembly and this Parliament and Government. As I said earlier this remarkable historic period we have just gone through and the way Wales has been governed in the last two or three years and in the years ahead is a very important role for me. At the end of the day I am not the Assembly's spokesperson, that is not my job. The people who speak for the Assembly is Rhodri Morgan and his ministers. Obviously I talk to Rhodri Morgan almost every day of a working week. Most of the time, nearly all of the time, we will agree on different things. When I took this job up in 1999 one of the first things I said was there will be occasions when the view of the Government and the view of the Assembly may well differ even though in this case it is the same party because that is the nature of institutions; they can but they are very rare. If I just give an example. One example, topically, was on fox hunting where the Assembly by vote decided that they would like the Assembly to have powers regarding fox hunting. That was not a view that the Government had, the Government believed that because this was essentially a criminal justice matter it should be a matter for England and Wales and on that occasion, I know, I did not agree with what the Assembly was saying because my Government, of which I am a collective part and have direct responsibility, said otherwise. That is very, very rare. On most of the occasions we will arrive at a consensus. I am not the spokesperson to the Assembly, that is the First Minister and the ministers, that is their job, but obviously I have to look after the interests of Wales which more often than not include the Assembly and the people of Wales as far as my judgment allows.

Julie Morgan

  13. How do you monitor the potential impact on Wales with bills that have not got any Welsh clauses or have a general interest to Wales such as criminal justice legislation, for example, where there are no Welsh clauses? How would you monitor those bills?
  (Mr Murphy) The actual way in which it is monitored is either personally through membership of committees, the relevant Cabinet committees, so either myself or the parliamentary under-secretary. We are members between us of about 22 Cabinet committees and ministerial committees. The chances are that there is hardly a subject which will be considered by the Government in terms of legislation which go before a Committee where either myself or a deputy in the department is not a member of that Committee. So that is the first way in which it is done. The second one is through the very elaborate system of inter-departmental correspondence where we may go through 300 inter-departmental letters per week which will cross our desks on policy development and also on the impact of any policy developments on Wales both from Government departments and from the Assembly. So that is the mechanism by which we do it. Basically it is watching out all the time for the impact of any legislation upon the Welsh people. As you rightly say that can be criminal justice bills. Some other examples that we have had in the period covered by the report: the European Parliamentary Elections, the Land Registration Act, Sex Discrimination Election Candidates Act, Police Reform Act, the Proceeds of Crime Act, the Draft Communications Bill. There are lots of them, all of which have different impacts upon the Welsh people. So far as the Assembly is concerned of course even if they have not got a direct responsibility for an issue there will be related responsibilities. So, for example, in any Bill which the Home Office proposes to deal with crime or drugs or the proceeds of crime, even though police is a reserve matter and so is criminal justice because the Assembly deals with crime prevention, for example, and rehabilitation through the health service, there is a close working relationship between myself, my office and the relevant ministers, in this case it would be Jane Hutt and with the Home Office it would be David Blunkett and his ministers too. So there are lots of other bills which would not on the surface be specifically referred to as a Welsh Bill or an England and Wales Bill but are Bills which of course affect the three million people who live in Wales and for which all of us collectively, including yourselves on the Select Committee, have responsibility.

  14. I wonder what your view is about standing committees, whether Welsh Members of Parliament on standing committees looking at bills you see as representing Wales in a way or there as the same as any other member on a committee? I think this is an interesting issue.
  (Mr Murphy) If I can say that it is actually both because if you are on a standing committee you are representing your constituency because you are a member for wherever it is. Inevitably you will be representing your part of the world because if you come from the North East of England and you are sitting on a standing committee then inevitably your experiences in your own constituency and your own area will have an impact upon your thinking. Most importantly I think a Welsh Member of Parliament is a United Kingdom Member of Parliament and has every right to sit on any committees, it seems to me, that the House of Commons chooses to set up. We cannot split ourselves up and imagine us to be something else. We are elected to the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that is our Parliament and we are members of it. I do believe, as it so happens, that in practical terms it is very useful to have a Welsh voice on as many standing committees as is possible because a Welsh voice post devolution working through a Welsh Member of Parliament is, I think, always useful. Now, of course, it is particularly useful on bills which have an England and Wales impact and without specific Welsh clauses. There are lots of bills but I think on the other bills too the experiences which we as Welsh MPs can bring to a committee can be nothing other than valuable and important.


  15. Secretary of State, do you think you have the resources necessary to monitor all England and Wales bills which are going through this place to the extent which perhaps you should be monitoring them?
  (Mr Murphy) I think that we have done a reasonable job at that. Obviously we can always do with more. I think that the combination of ourselves doing what we have to do, working in conjunction with the Assembly, because the Assembly too, of course, monitors legislation as it affects not just its own specific responsibilities but where there are side effects, and I have just described to you crime for example, crime issues, there the Assembly will take a great interest in what goes through, working together. Although sometimes, as we will doubtless talk about later, there have been strains upon the staff because of the way in which the work pans out. For example, if you get a large number of clauses or, indeed, complete Welsh bills, something which will happen at the same time, and sometimes that does happen, in the parliamentary year you will find that there may be two or three or even four bills affecting Wales happening at the same time, that is common, and then you add that to Welsh questions and everything else that is happening, that of course means inevitably with a limited number of staff that we will not be doing as much as we would like to if we did not have those strains upon us. Clearly it is better if we can avoid those strains by having people who work specifically on particular issues.

  16. It would be a shame if things were missed because we were not concentrating our resources in the right way, the resources you have and the little that we have. Hopefully the legislative process may mean that we might be able to sort that out.
  (Mr Murphy) I hope you do. At the end of the day any organisation or government department has to look at priorities within the timescale. The way as all of us know this place works that can sometimes be very difficult.

Dr Francis

  17. Could we turn to departmental objective 3, promoting Welsh interests in functions retained by the Government, specifically assisting redundant steel workers. What steps has the Government taken to reduce the impact of Corus's restructuring in Wales? What has been your role?
  (Mr Murphy) It is a role with which you will be not unacquainted from another life but also, of course, in your particular case because you represent one of the biggest steel making constituencies in the United Kingdom, you will understand, as indeed all Members of the Committee will understand, the significance of the steel industry upon Wales, not least my own constituency as it happens. During the run up to the decisions made by Corus regarding the run down of staff in Llanwern and Ebbw Vale and indeed Shotton and Pontardulais, there were constant meetings held in my office between Corus, including Sir Brian Moffatt, on more than one occasion, and between the ISTC and myself, between myself and the ministers in those days, Stephen Byers, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Alistair Darling who was then Secretary of State for Works and Pensions over the Government package. I think between us we were able to ensure the needs of the redundant Welsh steel workers were taken into account in the Government's response. Also I held with the management frequent meetings with the First Minister in order to co-ordinate the Government and the Assembly's packages of support. One example of that is on the introduction by the Government of the ISERBS, European scheme, which is about £2,500 paid to each redundant workers and a series of measures through the Employment Service to help match workers to new jobs. That included providing funding for the Job Transition Service, which extended to all sites affected by Corus, and establishing one stop shops on site. I continue to keep abreast of those developments. I regularly speak, only a couple of weeks ago, for example, to the General Secretary of the ISTC and others and of course with the Assembly, with the First Minister and the Economic Development Minister, to regenerate those former steel making areas, some of which of course are in my own county. I think too that the liaison between Government through the DTI, DWP and the Assembly on the other hand is helped by my office and we saw that happening in practical terms during the announcement of those redundancies in Wales. They had a devastating impact upon Welsh communities and Welsh workers but at the end of the day we had to ensure that we looked after, first of all, the people who were affected by the redundancies through the various packages we could offer and, secondly, through the communities which were affected by the redundancies through the regeneration schemes. It was, I believe, a classic example of a good working relationship between the Government on the one hand and the Assembly on the other in trying to do our joint best for the people who have been so badly affected and for those areas, including my own, which have been affected by those redundancies.

  18. Given that Wales bore the brunt of the redundancies would you describe your role in the Wales Office as co-ordinating the whole of Government's response to the Corus redundancies?
  (Mr Murphy) Yes, I would, because at all levels, including meetings with the Prime Minister on the issue, I was involved personally in those discussions and in all the negotiations which went on and also, of course, in co-ordination, if you like to say, between Government but also between Government and the Assembly.

  19. Specifically on Ebbw Vale, every redundancy is devastating on the family but it was particularly devastating there given the high rate of unemployment previously. What exactly has the Government done in relation to Ebbw Vale?
  (Mr Murphy) The first thing it has done, of course, is to continue to give special status to that area in terms of being an enterprise zone and that in turn gives certain opportunities to people who wish to look for jobs in a way which is different from other parts of the country. In addition to that, of course, we work very much in co-operation between government departments and the Assembly, for example on the creation of a railway line which has now been rebuilt between Ebbw Vale and Newport and Cardiff because that, we believe, is going to be so important to the economic regeneration of an area with which I am hugely familiar since I have worked for 17 years of my life in that town in the further education college there. Incidentally, we also of course work with the Prince of Wales who went there last year, to my old college, where he brought together the local authority, trade unions, the steel industry and other developers to try and work out through his own Prince's Trust and other initiatives how best to deal with the problems facing Ebbw Vale. I went back to Blaenau Gwent only a fortnight ago when I met with the Assembly member and the local authority leaders there and I believe that the co-operation between the Council, the Assembly and the Government coming to terms with what was an enormous blow to that community has been tremendous.

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