Hywel Williams – 2016 Speech on the Loyal Address

Below is the text of the speech made by Hywel Williams, the Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon, in the House of Commons on 18 May 2016.

I join other Members in congratulating the right hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) and the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) on their speeches today, which were an adornment to this occasion. I also think that the Leader of the Opposition did rather well, at least for the first few minutes of his speech—it rather fell away after that. A very long time ago I was on the staff of the University of Bangor and, as such, sometimes had to recycle some very old lectures, but at least I took the care to preface them with the phrase, “Same old lectures; all new jokes.” That might be a strategy for the Leader of the Opposition next time.

I am afraid that the Queen’s Speech provided pretty thin fare. One might even suppose that the Prime Minister and his friends are occupied with something else. So as not to disappoint the Welsh media, and particularly the BBC, I should repeat the traditional Plaid Cymru response to a Queen’s Speech: “A bit of a slap in the face for Wales; and not a lot in it for Wales.” Having done that, I can now explain myself.

On the claim that it is a bit of a slap in the face for Wales, if one looks at the prisons Bill, one sees that there will be profound changes to the prisons system, but as far as I can see we will still have no provision at all for women prisoners in Wales. They are very small in number, but they all have to travel to prisons in England, which causes great difficulties for their families. I am sure that many Members will agree that many of those women are wrongly imprisoned anyway. I was very glad to hear other right hon. and hon. Members make similar points with regard to prison reform. By the way, we still have scant provision for young people in Wales. We are just about to have a new super-prison open in Wrexham, HMP Berwyn, but that huge institution—it will hold 2,000 prisoners—will apparently be unable to guarantee that a Welsh-speaking pastor will be available, even though it is serving largely Welsh-speaking north Wales. There is therefore a great deal that could be done.

With regard to the claim that “there is not a lot in it for Wales”, it has been widely trailed that the spaceport will be in Newquay. I want to pay tribute to the excellent case for Llanbedr made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts). I am sure that the Members representing the other five potential sites will say the same thing, but Llanbedr stands out, to me at least, as the obvious choice.

Of the Bills set out in the Queen’s Speech, by my count there were three that apply to England and Wales and a further five that apply to England only. That is devolution for England, I suppose. It is little noted, but it is devolution by default. That is not a bad thing, but I think that we really should be planning all of this, rather than falling into it by accident. England-only Bills also have implications for Wales, of course, because Welsh people access services in England, particularly health services, so changes to provision on Merseyside, in Manchester and in London do have direct and indirect effects on health in Wales. The funding of England-only policies sometimes has profound implications for funding for Wales through the Barnett formula. No mention was made of that particular elephant in the room today, of course. Barnett staggers on even though clearly it needs to be reformed.

As has already been mentioned, of the 30-odd announcements made today, significantly, 28 have already been trailed in some form or other. That is the case with the only Wales-only Bill, which I will come to in a moment. Looking at the 37 paragraphs of the Gracious Speech, I see that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland rate just one specific mention, although that mention could have great significance for Wales, for we are to have yet another stab at a Wales Bill. This will apparently be simpler than the previous draft Bill, which was panned by nearly everyone involved. As I noted in an earlier intervention, a prominent Welsh academic called it

“much the worst devolution bill that I have seen”,

and that was one of the milder responses.

We could have great expectations of the Wales Bill. There are many examples of things that I would like to see in it, but just two will suffice this evening. It needs to be recognised that we now have a body of Welsh law that is growing and will continue to grow, because the Welsh Assembly is passing laws—that is another elephant in the room. We need recognition of that fact, and that could be achieved, at least in my opinion, by recognising a distinct Welsh jurisdiction. Now, what that would actually look like is a matter of considerable discussion, and some of it is extremely obscure legal discussion that I am entirely unqualified to participate in. However, the plain fact is that we now have Welsh law but an England and Wales jurisdiction, and that must be addressed in some way. Another point relating to the Wales Bill is the devolution of policing to the Welsh Government. There is now great support for that across Wales, not least from the four police commissioners, two of whom have been Plaid Cymru nominees.

We in Plaid Cymru worked constructively with the previous Secretary of State, putting forward quite positive proposals, none of which was realised because the draft Bill was withdrawn. By now we have a new Secretary of State, and indeed a new Labour shadow. I hope that they will be able to work together, and with us, to realise that next step in the process of Welsh devolution. A former colleague of ours, Ron Davies, famously said in 1997 that devolution is a process, not an event. We have had several attempts at that process. I think that now is the time for a substantial leap forward in Welsh devolution through this Bill.

One thing that I think we really do need to have in the Bill is a change to the electoral system. We have in Wales and in Scotland—I am not sure about Northern Ireland—something called the d’Hondt system, which is an additional member system. I do not intend to go into the theology of the matter this evening—I might leave myself—but I will say that we really do need a different system. That system delivered a less proportionate result in Wales than the first-past-the-post system did in May last year in the elections for this place, with Labour getting 28 of the seats on something like 35% of the vote, even under a system of proportional representation. I might as well say now that I and my party are in favour of STV—the single transferable vote. I will say no more about that now, but I will certainly be trying to impress that point on the Secretary of State and the House when the opportunity arises.

Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru has an alternative Queen’s Speech in which we put forward our own measures—the House will forgive me if I indulge in a bit of sloganeering here—to make Wales stronger, safer and more prosperous. I have been saying that for the past six weeks in preparation for the Welsh elections, so it is rather difficult to get it out of my head, like an irritating pop song. It includes plans for an EU funding contingency Bill to safeguard vital EU funds in the event of Brexit, a specifically Welsh issue that we need to address; a UK finance commission Bill to put an end to the historic underfunding for Wales; a north Wales growth fund to deliver genuine infrastructure and investment for the north; a policing Bill to make good on recent independent and cross-party recommendations to devolve policing, a Severn bridges Bill to enable the Welsh Government to put an end to the bridges tax on economic growth; and a broadcasting Bill to devolve powers over broadcasting to Wales. Those are just six of the points in our alternative Queen’s Speech. I will expand briefly on some of them later.

That is Plaid Cymru’s positive alternative: not preoccupied with our economic decline, though that is real enough, I am afraid; not obsessed with the City of London at the expense of the rest of the UK; not, like some in other parties, hanging on the nail over Europe or at each other’s throats on the fundamental course their party should take; and not rejected by the voters and shunted into a siding. Clearly, those people are not in their places this evening. Rather, we are looking to the future of our country—to supporting Wales’s interests and delivering policies needed to make Wales a stronger, safer and more prosperous country.

Unfortunately, Wales is still at or near the bottom of league tables across Europe on economic performance. The Government here should be doing everything they can to promote growth in Wales, making Wales an attractive place to do business, investing in roads and railways, and upgrading the digital infrastructure. The headings of the digital economy Bill read well enough, and I am glad to see them: a legal right to fast broadband, a universal service obligation, and automatic compensation when things go wrong. We would be very happy to support such measures. However, I am afraid that my constituents, and indeed people throughout rural Britain, may be excused a hollow laugh at this Bill, because I am afraid we have heard it all before. I hope that the Government succeed, but one must be slightly sceptical.

I hope you will allow me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to recount a short story to do with the digital economy. It is about mobile phones, not broadband. I have abandoned the use of a smartphone in my constituency, because there is no point in most parts of it. I now carry one of those flip-top, oyster-type phones that were all the rage, I think, in 1997—but it works well enough. The other day my office had a phone call from one of the leading digital phone companies announcing to us that the city of Bangor in my constituency would have 4G. There was general rejoicing around the office, and we were just about to put out a press release welcoming this wonderful development when my colleague, Alun Roberts, said, “We’d better phone them up, just to check.” That is what he did, and the company then confessed that it was Bangor, Northern Ireland, not Bangor, north Wales.

Mr Dodds

Great news!

Hywel Williams

Yes, indeed—wonderful news, but wrong Bangor, unfortunately. I am afraid that sort of thing happens rather often.

Let me turn to some of the detail that I wanted to put on the record. I referred to our EU funding contingency Bill, which would introduce statutory contingency alternative funding arrangements should we leave the European Union. A couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister confirmed to me at Question Time that the Government could not say now that regional funding under the convergence funding would continue if we left. That funding is extremely important to west Wales and the valleys, because we have intense economic problems. There are also questions around the common agricultural policy. It is imperative that plans are put in place to safeguard businesses, farmers, communities and projects in west Wales and the valleys. We have already sunk to the economic level of parts of former communist eastern Europe, and it is really important that these funds are not held up in any way in the event of Brexit.

I mentioned the problems around Barnett. There are ways out of this, although I concede that it is a complicated area. We would want to see the establishment of a commission to resolve funding disputes between the UK Government and the devolved national Governments. Barnett has been roundly condemned over many years, not least by the independent Holtham commission set up by the Government over five years ago. Establishing an independent commission is essential in the context of the emerging debate over the fiscal framework. If the Welsh Government started levying taxes and varying income tax, how would we figure that out? How much should we lose in our grant from London, and how do we ensure that this sort of settlement is fair? We want to look at a fiscal framework within the tax-sharing arrangements between the UK and the Welsh Governments. The commission would also adjudicate on the appropriate deduction method that is employed so that Wales does not miss out on potentially extremely large amounts of money as a result of inappropriate or unjust methods being used, or of so-called cannibalisation of the Welsh tax base. I will not go into that now.

There is a highly respected academic institution at Cardiff University called the Wales Governance Centre. In one of its recent reports, it concluded:

“An independent adjudication commission should therefore be an essential component in the UK’s emerging fiscal framework”

as a way of solving the problem all round. It continues:

“A 2015 report by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law recommended the establishment of an independent body to advise HM Treasury about devolution finance and particularly about grant matters. This body could be modelled on the Australian Commonwealth Grants Commission and named the UK Finance Commission. The Bingham Centre report also proposed that this body or another independent body be responsible for adjudication in the event of disputes between governments that cannot be resolved through joint ministerial processes.”

That is the way out that I commend to the Government and that we will be proposing.

Much has been said today about the northern powerhouse. We would want to see a north Wales growth deal looking at matters such as electrification of the north Wales main line. We still, unfortunately, have not an inch of electrified rail in north Wales. It would also lead to the inclusion of Welsh rural areas on the UK’s list for the EU fuel duty rebate, which is another important matter in rural areas. There are several other matters that we would like to see dealt with, such as a major upgrade for the A55.

As I said, we would want a broadcasting Bill establishing a BBC trust for Wales and dealing with other matters regarding the responsibility for S4C, the world’s only Welsh language television channel: in fact, the universe’s only Welsh language channel; there is no other. We believe that that responsibility should be transferred to the National Assembly, as should the funding for the channel, which is currently with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and that the Welsh Government should appoint a board of members for S4C.

I have already mentioned police devolution, so I will conclude with the Severn bridges Bill. We will introduce a Bill in this place to transfer responsibility for the Severn bridges to the Welsh Government when the bridges revert to public ownership in 2017. This will enable the National Assembly for Wales to decide on the appropriate level at which to set a charge, if it sets a charge at all. At its current high rate, it is a tax on the Welsh economy.

Those are some of the very ambitious measures that Plaid Cymru will promote. No doubt some people, both here and in Cardiff, are willing to trundle along on a “business as usual” basis, but as the Labour party discovered in Cardiff last week when we were choosing a First Minister, “business as usual” is not Plaid’s business.