Saturday, 10 October 2009

Referendum Now?

Rumours abound that the All Wales Convention will soon report and suggest that the time is ripe for a referendum on part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. None too soon in my view. This will enable the National Assembly to pass Acts, rather than rely on Westminster to approve powers to pass Measures in bites of subject areas. The process of transferring powers, The Legislative Competence Order system seems to not be functioning properly. In particular the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs seems to have taken on its self the role of second chamber to the National Assembly, and instead of deciding the constitutionality of a request for powers and the reasonableness of such a request it now seems to want to know in detail what possible Measures could flow from such a grant. In short it wants to control any future legislation. In the guise of “review” it seeks to restrict and control the National Assembly and the Welsh government. Alun Michael is a past master of micromanagement and excels in this role on the select committee, his grudge against the National Assembly for voting him out of office is clear for all to see, and carries over in his input into the deliberations of the Select Committee. As chief apologist for the current system he presents a reasonable sounding case for this level of enhanced “scrutiny”. In reality it impedes good governance and frustrates the ability of Welsh governments to control their own legislative program.

The LCO process is a mess, it must be intolerable for the Welsh Government to have its legislative program controlled by another legislature, especially as the time table is entirely in the hands of Westminster. How can they plan? How can they draw up policy that requires legislation when they have to go cap in hand to get specific legislative power for specific purpose? One could almost conclude that the current settlement is a conspiracy designed to ensure that the referendum passes with the full support of all Assembly members.

To the various posters on political blogs who disbelieve the pollsters, well some scepticism is sensible, but all the polls seem to point the same way, and unless everyone is manipulating the process this is highly unlikely. You can see from the BBC English language Welsh politics blogs that some of the posters there believe in a grand conspiracy encompassing much of Welsh civic society (all the voluntary organisations, trades unions, community groups etc) or at least all those parts of it receiving Assembly funding, the Welsh Political Parties (at least all the parties represented in the National Assembly) and all the Welsh print and broadcast media, to force further devolution on an overwhelmingly anti devolution Welsh Public. The scale of this can be seen in attacks on the Welsh Government for looking into the possibility of setting up a Stock Exchange in Cardiff or a Welsh Honours system – they see this as proof positive that the Welsh government is secretly plotting to make Wales independent. Nonsense of course. In living memory Cardiff and Swansea had stock exchanges, as did about 16 other towns in the UK. Indeed Birmingham has recently set up a virtual one... As for the honours system, well this is something most communities and private companies have.... Perhaps British Gas or Butetown are planning independence as well?

The current settlement fails basis test of reasonableness, its not reasonable that one government has to rely on the goodwill of another for its legislative abilities or the timetable for the implementation of its legislative program. The lace doily of legislative powers granted to the National Assembly impedes joined up government. Fragments of power are transferred over policy areas, requiring the Welsh Government and backbenchers to go back to the Parliament at Westminster every time they want to create a new Welsh Measure that falls outside the narrow confines of what is already devolved. A referendum is the only way forward, it does not give the National Assembly the powers it needs, only independence will do that, it doesn't even grant the Assembly the powers of the Scottish Parliament or give it any tax raising powers, however it would be a vast improvement over the current situation.

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