New powers for Welsh assembly, but no parliament

By Matthew Tempest
Published June 15th 2005 in Guardian Unlimited
New measures to give the devolved Welsh assembly greater powers were unveiled today - but immediately came under fire for not going far enough.

The Welsh secretary Peter Hain published a white paper entitled Better Governance for Wales, which proposes that the 60-strong Cardiff assembly be permitted to draft legislation, which would then be fast-tracked by Westminster.

But he dampened expectation that Wales would get a referendum before 2011, at the earliest, on giving the assembly the same powers as the Scottish parliament. The Welsh first minister, Labour's Rhodri Morgan, is known to be in favour of the idea. The Liberal Democrat and Conservative leaders in the assembly, and the Plaid Cymru leader at Westminster, united in criticising the white paper for not going far enough.

Mr Hain praised the assembly as a "progressive institution", which had introduced policies such as free bus passes for the over-65s, a children's commissioner and grants for students.

He said: "I believe the proposals contained in the white paper provide a practical, common sense roadmap for sensible, staged improvements of the existing arrangements.

"One of the key reasons why the transition to devolved government in Wales has been a smooth one is because we have moved at a pace determined by the people of Wales.

"This white paper reflects that guiding principle. It will provide a reformed structure that's more accountable, more participatory and more effective, giving more powers to the assembly, leading to better government for a better Wales."

The paper says the Welsh assembly will be allowed to draft some laws of its own under a new "streamlined procedure", as long as MPs and peers agree.

Mr Hain said if the Westminster bill was passed next year, the changes would come into force after the next Assembly elections in 2007.

The Assembly would then be allowed to draft legislation, which would be passed by Westminster through an order in council.

But he said the more radical step of giving Wales the same legislative powers as the Scottish parliament would require a new referendum. Such a poll could only take place if two-thirds of Assembly Members and MPs agree. Mr Hain said he did not expect such a situation to arise until 2011 at the earliest, as the new powers would have to "bed down" first.

He said moving to Scottish-style powers would require "a consensus that certainly does not exist at present".

"My own view is that the new Assembly arrangements should be allowed to bed down through the next Assembly term between 2007 and 2011, and that there is no case for considering a referendum until at least the following Assembly term of office."

Last year's all-party Richard Commission recommended parity with Scotland by 2011. Further devolution has caused tensions among Labour MPs. Some feel threatened by the idea of a stronger Assembly, while the Labour administration in Cardiff favours parity with Scotland.

In a technical measure, the white paper also recommends scrapping the Assembly's unique "corporate body" status, replacing it with a Westminster-style executive and legislature. It also would make the first minister, Rhodri Morgan, and his cabinet ministers of the Crown in line with the Scottish executive.

Another change will prevent candidates from standing both in a constituency and on the proportional representation top-up list.

Mike German, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Assembly, said the government had "waved the white flag" to opponents of devolution.

He added: "The proposals in the white paper are putting the interests of the Labour Party ahead of the interests of the people of Wales. They have cast aside the route map which the Richard Commission gave to Wales.

Conservative AM Nick Bourne, who leads the party in the Assembly, said: "It is surely in the interests of democracy to let the Welsh people decide what the future of the Assembly should be."

Plaid Cymru's leader in the Commons, Elfyn Llwyd, said: "New Labour's proposals are a major disappointment to anybody wishing to see Wales gaining a proper parliament. These proposals fall far short of the law-making powers recommended by the Richard Commission, and favoured by the majority of the people of Wales according to opinion polls."

Mr Hain none the less said it was "absolutely crystal clear" there was no consensus for moving to primary law-making powers now.

"It would be a big error of monumental proportions to seek to trigger a referendum now or for the foreseeable future," he said.

"What is the point in calling a referendum that is going to result in a no vote? It would be a catastrophic setback for the cause of primary powers for the Assembly, which I personally have always believed in."

Mr Hain also dismissed calls for more Welsh assembly members to be taken on to deal with the increased workload. He said the answer was for current AMs to work harder.

The Electoral Reform Society criticized Mr Hain for agreeing to its suggestion to end candidates standing in both constituency and top-up list elections, but not ditching the current additional member system of elections in favour of its own recommendation of a single transferable vote electoral system.