Monday saw the whole House of Commons sitting as a committee to consider the Wales Bill 'line by line. We spent 6 hrs in debate and will spend another 6 hrs next week. Thought I'd tidy up my speech a bit and share it.
"I begin by paying tribute to the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). I have a particular personal reason for welcoming him to his position. Of all the Welsh Members of Parliament, I am probably the nearest to becoming an octogenarian, and his wonderful example gives me promise and ambition for the future. It may yet be that I will find a place on the front bench. If he can do it in his eighties, there is no reason why I will not be able to do the same. I thank him for rekindling my ambition, as well as for the great wit with which he has entertained me over many years.
The Bill is wide-ranging. Inevitably, opinions on aects of it will differ. To be passed by this House it will need an element of compromise on all sides. In his response to earlier amendments, the shadow Secretary of State said that we need to be pragmatic. He tells us that Labour intend to be pragmatic. We have differing opinions, including in my own party. I will address those later in my speech. But we all, or nearly all want this Bill pass into law. For that to happen we need compromise.
The major compromise that I have had to make personally is that the Bill transfers energy powers to the Welsh Government, the idea of which fills me with absolute horror. I would find it difficult to support the Bill, except that the Welsh Government have, quite shockingly and disgracefully, already taken unto themselves those powers through their local government responsibilities. It was one single act that in my view showed Welsh Labout to be unfit to hold power in the National Assembly for Wales. It is ironic that that hideous centralising power grab makes the Bill’s transfer of energy powersin the Bill less damaging to mid-Wales and less of an attack on the people of mid-Wales than it would otherwise have been.
The intention behind the Bill is to provide a much more stable, long-lasting and permanent settlement for Wales and to provide greater clarity. Previous speakers have suggested this Wales Bill should be a permanent settlement. I am not sure about the word “permanent”. I do not think it is wise to have a Wales Bill every five years, which is pretty much what we have been doing. But this bill is not permanent. We will come back to developing devolution at a pace the people of Wales will be comfortable with. Plaid Cymru Members spoke earlier about a separate legal jurisdiction for Wales. If at some time in the future, the body of Welsh law is no longer tiny, when it has grown to be substantial, we may have to revisit the issue. The same may be true of other aspects of devolution that we have not entirely foreseen.
Today, I want to base most of my speech on clause 16 of the Bill. Devolving responsibility for levying income tax to the Welsh Government is absolutely fundamental to the Bill. Devolving this responsibility is hugely important, ensuring that the Welsh Government becomes properly financially accountable to Welsh voters. Like the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I was opposed to devolution in 1997, but came to terms with the result almost immediately. This is the way we should do react to a referendum result when we have been on the losing side. In 1997 it was a very close result indeed, just 50.3% voting in favour on a 50% turn-out. As I was driving home from the count in Llandrindod Wells in the early hours of the morning of Sept 19th, I accepted that we would have a Welsh Assembly. The only way forward was to become committed to making a success of it. In this Wales Bill, we are doing our best to achieve that.
At the first Assembly election in 1999, I was elected to be an AM, representing Mid and West Wales. Some years later I was appointed the Welsh Conservative spokesman on finance. I was expected to speak for my party in the annual budget debate. As preparing to speak in that debate, I realised “This isn’t a budget; what we are dealing with here is just a spending plan”. When I was chairman of the finance committee on Montgomeryshire District Council, the biggest meeting of the year, by a long way, was the meeting at which we set the rates. We set aside a whole day to debate whether or not to put a penny on the rate. Every budget I have ever been involved in debating has two sides of the ledger to consider - one side relating to what will be spent and on the other relating to how the neccasary resources are to be raised.
Devolving responsibility to levy income tax is now the Government’s view. It's one of the two most important provisions in the Wales Bill. The Silk Commission’s recommendations may be the bible of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), as he told us in his earlier speech. I too welcomed the a Silk Report, but it was wrong to recommend making devolution of responsibility to raise income tax provisional on a referendum. It was a weak recommendation. The Silk Commission should have recommended that the only way to ensure financial accountability is to allow income tax bands to be varied by the Welsh Government. A referendum has been proposed in the past. I am pleased that this requirement has been dropped in the Wales Bill we are debating today.
I know from campaigning at election time that how much money the competing parties will levy in tax is a fundamental consideration. It engages the interest of voters if they are able to consider how much Monet they will have to pay in tax, and what it will be spent on. That is what elections should be about—but not in Wales. In Wales, if the Government are spending money on a popular provision that the people might generally approve of, they say, “This is what we are doing, aren’t we great?”. However, occasionally in politics we find that Governments have to support a law, or an investment that is not so popular and is difficult to argue for in public because people are not altogether convinced. It is not acceptable just to say, “We can’t do that because we don’t have enough money from the Westminster Government”. The Government have to be financially accountable to people. That is what makes a parliament.
In this Bill, we intend to change the position and allow the National Assembly for Wales to formally change it's name to a "Welsh Parliament". I fully support that. However, if it is going to be called 'The Welsh Parliament', it has to have the powers and responsibilities, and particularly the financial accountability, which we would expect a Parliament to have. That is why that is so important and fundamental to this Bill.
There is division of opinion on this issue. Some of my colleagues do not agree with me, and we have had this difference debated previously. Sir Alan, this is not an occasion on which I want to be party political, but what I am about to say could be interpreted as being so - against the Labour party. It is not intended to be, but rather it is an attempt to demonstrate point I want to make? A lot of people are opposed to granting the ability to vary income tax to the Welsh Government because they assume it will always be led by Labour. I do not know why my colleagues are quite so pessimistic. The day will come when the Welsh Government will not be led by Labour. In fact, we are not so far from that day now. We had a Welsh Assembly election on May 5th, in which the total Labour vote was about 30% or 31%. We then had an EU referendum in which the advice of the First Minister, who had put himself at the head of the 'Remain' side in Wales, was virtually ignored in Labour strongholds. It was ignored by the very people who usually support Labour. They just dismissed the First Minister’s leadership of the campaign. The First Minister must wake up in the night thinking, “My position is looking a bit dodgy, seriously weak. I’ve had just 30% support of the Welsh vote in May (the lowest percentage of the vote in recent history) and that may well have been halved in the EU referendum among Labour voters.” We could well be reaching the end of Labour domination in Wales.
I genuinely believe that we are on the verge of creating a proper democracy in Wales, one in which not everyone assumes that Labour will rule, but we have competition instead. People will be much more engaged and interested. My comments might be perceived as being against Labour, but they are not meant to be. I am simply saying that I am in favour of genuine political debate whenever we have an election in Wales. That can only happen if the Welsh Government is financially accountable to the voters. I believe we are not too far away from that.
One issue that has caused some controversy, on the Conservative Benches in particular, has been the need for a referendum on whether income tax powers should be devolved. I think we have had enough of referendums. As a general principle I am not in favour of them. On this particular issue I do not think one is necessary. That has been my view for a long time. I believe the referendum has been proposed, and is supported, as a blocking mechanism to ensure that the Welsh Government never become financially accountable. That is not the right way to go.
The Bill is broad-ranging and hugely important to the future of how Wales is governed. It is the next step forward in making the Welsh Assembly into a Parliament. It will settle the constitution for some years to come—I would not like to predict how long it will be until we are back here talking about another Wales Bill; I might even join the Shadow Secretary of State as an octogenarian by then. The Bill before us today is an important step forward and I very much hope that it passes through this House, and the other place largely unchanged."