Cancelled debate sparks political row

Furious row sparked by Cheryl Gillan's decision to cancel debate Credit: Commons TV

A furious political row has erupted after Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan cancelled a planned debate on changes to the way Assembly members are elected.

The debate itself was already controversial: it emerged yesterday that a Welsh Grand committee had been arranged for Monday much to the surprise of MPs of all parties including the Government's own backbenchers and even some of those with Government roles.

A spokesman for the Welsh Secretary said it was a question of timing: it had proved impossible to find parliamentary space for a full debate on the floor of the House of Commons.

Labour's Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith was highly critical, saying the possible effects of the changes outlined in Cheryl Gillan's Green paper were so significant that it should only be debated on the floor of the House of Commons.

Well today the controversy took a new twist. In the video below, the Welsh Secretary is answering a question from Wrexham Ian Lucas. But what she has to say in that answer took aback most of those who were listening.

Later in the session, her junior minister, David Jones added fuel to the fire by accusing Welsh Labour MPs of 'running scared' in the answer he gave Labour's David Hanson.

Meanwhile the Welsh Secretary had issued a statement expressing her 'dismay at the obstructive stance taken' by Labour MPs:

The debate on the consultation I launched in May looking at the future Electoral Arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales is an important one. I was looking forward to debating the issues in this Green Paper, so I am deeply disappointed that the official opposition have chosen to play party politics. I do not think most people would have difficulty in turning up to work at 11.30am on a Monday morning. So in view of the extraordinary position taken by the Shadow Welsh Secretary, I feel there is no other choice than to cancel this debate. It is disappointing that the Opposition have had the opportunity to debate this important Welsh issue, but have chosen not to take it. However as the consultation is open to all people in Wales, I urge them to make their views known by visiting the Wales Office website and taking part.

I should say that some Conservative MPs weren't slow in voicing their criticism of the plans themselves and the cancelling of the debate. One Tory MP said to me 'everything she does goes wrong.'

But the row didn't remain in the Commons chamber or in the lobbies. David Jones took to Twitter to reiterate his criticism of the Shadow Welsh Secretary:

Labour MPs running scared of Grand Committee debate; not a good start for Owen Smith as Shad Sec of State. Or can't he get them out of bed? Wonder how Owen Smith will explain his gutless objection to the Grand Committee debate?

When I spoke to him, he stood by his remarks, adding that Owen Smith had been 'cowardly' in his opposition. Meanwhile the Shadow Welsh Secretary also used Twitter to express his anger:'s petulant cancellation of the Welsh Grand a measure of her disdain for the opinion of the National Assembly and Welsh MPs

So what's behind the surprise move? Sources close the Welsh Secretary tell me she's 'fed up' with continued 'hypocrisy' and 'petulant behaviour' from Labour MPs' adding 'from now on it's no more Mrs Nice Guy.' She's also said to be angry that when Labour's Peter Hain introduced the White Paper which led to law-making powers for the Assembly and ultimately last year's referendum, there was no debate on the floor of the House, not even a Welsh Grand committee.

A Wales Office source pins the blame on the new Shadow Welsh Secretary, suggesting that Mr Smith is 'playing games to make his mark.' In turn he's accused her of making a 'petulant decision' in a letter he's now written to her. He also urges her to appear in a debate on the Green Paper being held by former Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy:

Dear Cheryl, In light of your announcement of a u-turn on the proposed Welsh Grand Committee debate that was scheduled for Monday July 2nd I wish to clarify for the record our position in respect of this matter. Firstly you will be aware that I wrote to you on Monday June 18th asking that you seek a debate on the floor of the House to reflect the magnitude of the constitutional change that you are proposing in your own Green Paper. I have received no response to that letter and was therefore, along with Welsh Members on both sides of the House, surprised to see on yesterday's Order Paper your proposal to discuss these constitutional matters only in a Welsh Grand Committee scheduled, unusually on a Monday morning. Our objection to the scheduling on a Monday morning in no way reflects an unwillingness to debate matters at that hour. It is a practical objection to the untimeliness of the debate for Members who often have full diaries in their constituencies at that time or who are travelling from more distant parts of Wales, although I can understand that this practical issue may have escaped your attention given your personal thirty-five minute commute from Chesham and Amersham. At no point have we suggested that we would not participate in a Welsh Grand Committee if that were all you were prepared to offer. However it speaks volumes of your attitude to the National Assembly for Wales and of you lack of influence with your own party's business managers that you are unable to secure a debate in government time, and on the floor of the House, on your own Green Paper. In the event that you continue to fight for a debate on your own proposals in government time and on the floor of the House, and you persist with your petulant decision to cancel the Welsh Grand Committee, I would ask that you personally attend the Westminster Hall debate in the name of the Rt Hon. Paul Murphy MP scheduled for Tuesday July 3rd, at 9.30am, to respond to this vital issue and to clarify your intention to change the voting arrangements for the people of Wales. I look forward to your response.

This is far from over.