Second Reading Debate
14th June 2016
Congratulations to the Government on the improvements to what was an ugly draft Bill. We have before us a Bill that will be a genuine step forward in devolution.
I was taken by the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who talked about Welsh people seeing themselves not as victims but as visionaries. Absolutely right—we can go forward on a confident note, but not by having referendums. The whole system of our democracy is in peril at the moment, partly because of the debasement of political discourse, which is the worst it has been for a couple of centuries. The worst example was in the referendum on the alternative vote. Here was an opportunity for an advance in the quality of our democracy, but it was not argued in that way. As I came in every morning at Vauxhall Cross, anti-AV campaigners were telling people that those who voted for AV were the sort of people who believed in seeing babies die in hospitals and our brave soldiers die in Afghanistan. That seemed a rather extraordinary argument, but it was the one put forward by those opposed to AV. It was based on the idea that AV would cost money—a tiny amount of money, really, because democracy is expensive—and that the first thing the Government would do would be to cut the protection of our soldiers in Afghanistan and the money provided to baby units in hospitals. It was an outrageous lie, but that is currently the quality of parliamentary debate.
Would the hon. Gentleman therefore like to dissociate himself from suggestions that voting for independence from the European Union would lead to world war three and the collapse of western civilisation?
If the hon. Gentleman reads his local paper, he will find that I did precisely that the other day—it was next to a column by him, so I thought he might have had the grace to read my column, even if he did not read his. I made the point in that article that I am embarrassed by the lies of people on my side, just as I treat with contempt the lies of people on the other side. That is the choice facing the public—whose lies they will vote for next week.
The point is, of course, that the Bill covers how we deal with income tax. I challenge anyone to imagine some future time when there will be somebody for tax and somebody against it. The argument is unwinnable—it is impractical to suggest that there will be people marching down the streets with banners, saying, “What do we want? More tax! When do we want it? Yesterday!” It is so unlikely that it is not worth wasting money on.
The public are in a strange, deep and profound anti-politics mood. They are more interested in jokes and trivial points than in the leadership that we offer as politicians, which is damaging to us. I gave the example earlier of Boaty McBoatface—the public showed their contempt in that way, and they are continuing to do it.
I have supported the idea of proportional representation for all my parliamentary life. I remember that in two of the general elections that we have had in my time here, the Conservative party secured 20% of the Welsh vote but did not have a single representative among the 40 Welsh MPs. That was a distortion of democracy that we put up with—we all believe in our own forms of democracy.
Here we have something remarkable in Welsh devolution. In 1886, Cymru Fydd was founded in this city by a couple of Welsh MPs and some others, seeking a form of devolution for Wales. It has been a long, slow process. In 1888, the Welsh Parliamentary Party was formed, from all Welsh MPs. It has a spectral and occasional existence now, but it still goes on, and has met in the past five years.
One of the joys of my political life, and one of many things I feel fortunate about, is that I am in this generation of MPs. Those who, from the 1880s onwards, fought to achieve devolution made no progress whatever; in our generation, we have got there. The process has been very slow, mainly because of the power-retentive features of this House. It does not want to part with anything; it sees these offspring and is rather jealous. Now is the time to make progress and give the Welsh Assembly the dignity of making more of its own decisions and having a title that befits it.
It is interesting that, for the first time in history, the two Ministers for Wales and the two shadow Ministers are all Welsh speakers. That has never happened before. Yet the status of the Welsh language in this House is the same as that of spitting on the carpet—it is out of order. Speaking Welsh is disorderly behaviour. If I were to turn to Welsh now, you would quite rightly have me ordered out of the Chamber, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is a novel way to treat one of the beautiful languages of these islands. It should get the same dignity. I am sure that that will come about.
Generally, I accept the Bill, but we should not follow the very limited restriction on the Welsh Assembly’s adjudication on electrical generation schemes.
The hon. Gentleman is making a great speech, as ever. It strikes me that, as with Scottish issues, the Bill ultimately boils down to the question of where Welsh powers will reside, in Wales, the most democratically elected forum of Welsh opinion, or in Westminster. Surely anyone with a modicum of trust in the Welsh people will understand that they can make better decisions for themselves than can Scottish MPs or English MPs.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. In 1953 I took part in a march in Cardiff in which I carried a Labour party banner that said “Senedd i Gymru”. It did not say that we wanted a half Parliament in Wales, but that we wanted a Parliament. That has been part of my political life. One thing that enthuses me is that that was a tiny minority movement in 1953. In 1979, my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn and I took part in a very painful referendum—well, it was a painful result, anyway, as we scored less than 12% of the vote in Wales. That was a very emphatic rejection. The 1997 referendum was absolutely knife-edge, with about a 0.5% majority. But in the last measure of public opinion in Wales, in 2011, the vote in favour of giving considerable powers to Wales was 64%. The momentum is there, so we can go ahead and give Wales the tax-raising powers that any dignified self-governing Assembly should have, without going to the people for a referendum that will be in the hand of the Crosbys, the lobbyists and those who are not telling the truth.
Just to take the hon. Gentleman back a little and pick up one point, the Welsh language is being treated with a good measure of respect here. It is used regularly at the Welsh Affairs Committee. I would have liked it to be used in the last Welsh Grand Committee, and I am sure we will get there in the end, with cross-party support.
At business questions last week that was emphatically turned down by the Leader of the House. I hope that we can have a sensible discussion on that. It has been a huge success in the Welsh Assembly itself, where the language is used quite freely and in a very relaxed way. That is greatly to the benefit of Wales.
My main point about the Bill is about the level set in clause 36, which will act as a great restriction on Wales’s progress in using the greatest source of power that we have. It has long been neglected, yet it is like our North sea oil—it is that great cliff of water that comes up the Bristol channel twice a day. It is a source of immense power. It is entirely predictable, unlike wind or solar power—we know when it is going to happen—and it can be tapped in so many ways.
To our credit, we have already used that source in hydropower. But under the scheme in the Bill, even the hydropower station at Ffestiniog would be too big for the Welsh Assembly to authorise, at 360 MW. The one at Rheidol would have been fine, but Dinorwig would be too big at 1,800 MW. Those stations are a wonderful way of using that power. They are entirely demand responsive. The excess electricity can be used in off-peak hours to pump the water up to certain levels and then bring it back down again.
The greatest chance Wales has to produce power that is entirely non-carbon is through using the tides. Where would we be under the restriction in the Bill? The Swansea bay lagoon would be just within the 350 MW limit. But the Newport lagoons—both start at the River Usk, then one runs in the direction of Cardiff and one the other way—are both 1,800 MW. They have enormous potential. The resource is there, and the topography is perfect.
The hon. Gentleman is making some very valid points. Does he agree that the huge investment by energy companies in storage technology means that renewables could seriously take off, making them something that would be hugely beneficial to our economy in Wales?
Absolutely. It is the untapped resource. I know that there are objections to various other forms of power. Another question that comes in here is about nuclear power. The scheme in the Bill will not allow Wales any control over Hinkley Point, which is very close to us in Wales; although it is almost certainly doomed now. The future scheme at Wylfa would be outside the limit. Small modular schemes mostly start at about 300 MW, but go up to about 700 MW, so if people wanted to go down the road of nuclear power, they would be outside the scope set in the Bill. We should allow the visionaries of the Welsh Assembly to go ahead and develop power. We have an enormous resource. We could be a vast power station for ourselves and for the whole United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. Does he find it telling that in my constituency there was a plan to develop a hydroelectric scheme at 49 MW to avoid the bureaucracy of having to come to London for permission? Now that the changes in the Bill are afoot, the people in charge of the scheme are talking about going up to 350 MW. Why should they be constrained by what seems an entirely arbitrary limit?
It is a great shame. The Rheidol station is of that order, at 45 MW. The stations exist. They enhance the beauty of the scene—they do not detract in any way. Wind turbines do and so are very unpopular, but no one knows that Tanygrisiau is there. The three great pump storage schemes in Wales are entirely acceptable and fit in with the beauty of the hills, or improve things, because of the lakes. There is no pollution of any kind. It is the way forward—it has been successful. The two main ones were built in 1963, which is a long time to have been manufacturing electricity from a wholly benign source without appreciating its value. We go on from there to tidal power.
I believe the people in the Welsh Assembly should be in charge of decisions on power. We can be a great source of power generation in a way that is wholly British and free. It will last eternally, and, as I say, it is entirely predictable. I hope that point will be considered.
If the Bill goes forward with goodwill from all parts of the House, we should remember the story of devolution in Wales and how it has grown up and can stand tall among the nations of the world. It is a matter of pride to see the development of the Welsh Assembly in that beautiful building in Cardiff.
We have just opened a centre in Newport. A marvellous poem by Gillian Clarke about the story of Wales and the struggle for our rights over the years is embossed on the side of Friars Walk. She writes about the Chartists who came down to Newport in 1839, with the cold rain stinging their faces and
“heads bowed against the storm like mountain ponies”
marching for something they believed in. Twenty were shot and killed outside the Westgate hotel. That is commemorated today, with the six points of the People’s Charter, on Friars Walk. She writes about that and the rise of devolution:
“…they stormed the doors to set their comrades free,
and shots were fired, and freedom’s dream was broken.
A score dead. Fifty wounded. Their leaders tried,
condemned, transported. The movement, in disarray,
lost fifty years. Then came, at last, that shift
of power, one spoonful of thin gruel at a time,
from strong to weak, from rich to poor,
from men to women, like a grudged gift.”
The grudged gift keeps on giving and now we have another example of it. The gruel is a little thicker and the spoon is a bit bigger.