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Rene Kinzett

Yes for Wales – Welsh Conservatives support new powers for the National Assembly

February 24th, 2011 by René Kinzett

This post first appeared on Platform 10

With all the controversy surrounding the AV referendum in May, the other referendum next week has all but been ignored by the Metropolitan-based media. Whilst the Parliamentary Ping-Pong of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was interesting to watch, the referendum on further powers for the National Assembly for Wales has been progressing at a more steady rate of knots.

The constitutional settlement with regard to Wales and its place in the United Kingdom has always been different to Scotland and Northern Ireland. History plays its part in this and whilst I wouldn’t overplay the direct effects of the struggles between the Welsh, the Normans and the Tudors, the fact that Wales hasn’t been an independent nation for many hundreds of years cannot be ignored. In Scotland a distinct educational system, a different legal jurisdiction, an “organised” alternative to the Church of England and a recognised separate Royal Household all helped to ferment over centuries a strong civil society in which debates for a new relationship with the United Kingdom could take place in a mature and highly functioning polity. Northern Ireland, with the demands of the peace process, had a different driver to create a new devolved settlement for the Province.

Wales, on the other hand, has lacked both the benefits of a distinct political identity from England as in the case of Scotland and the political impetus of Northern Ireland finding a sustainable model of devolved administration. The 1997 referendum was held on the basis of proposals for a relatively weak Assembly with the powers to vary legislation pertaining to Wales on a prescribed list of devolved areas. Essentially the Assembly as proposed in 1997 and embodied in the Government of Wales Act 1998 was able to pass secondary legislation, control the devolved budget and had about the same powers as a Secretary of State. The referendum was passed by the smallest of margins (50.3% to 49.7%) and the new system lasted until the Government of Wales Act 2006.

The current arrangements, as specified in Part 3 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, allow for the Assembly to pass primary legislation, known as “Assembly Measures”, but only if it has received the necessary legislative powers with the agreement of Parliament, through the passing of an LCO, within the 20 fields in Schedule 5 to the 2006 Act. In a nutshell, the LCO process is outlined below:

  • Internal discussion on the terms of a draft Order with the Wales Office and Whitehall
  • Draft LCO published
  • Pre-legislative scrutiny by committee at the Assembly
  • Pre-legislative scrutiny at Westminster, usually by the Welsh Affairs Committee in the Houses of Commons and the Constitution Committee in the Lords. Each committee prepares a report and can propose amendments to the draft LCO, as can the Secretary of State if s/he wishes
  • The Welsh Government considers the various responses, and prepares a formal LCO
  • The proposed LCO is considered by the National Assembly
  • If approved by the Assembly, it is then considered at Westminster. It may be considered again by the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, and will also be scrutinised by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments
  • Both Houses of Parliament approve the LCO, or not. If approved, it then receives Royal approval

In terms of the referendum, if there is a majority vote in favour of further powers, the Assembly will be able to pass legislation, in the form of “Assembly Acts”, under all areas outlined in 20 subjects in the 2006 Act without the need to follow the LCO procedure. Should there be a majority vote against further powers, the status quo will continue.

Recent opinion polls have indicated a majority for enhanced powers. The Referendum is also likely to be fought on a low turnout. According to the most recent opinion poll in, late January, 46% would vote ‘Yes’, 25%, ‘No’ with 21% ‘Don’t Know’ and 8% not voting. The Welsh Assembly Government has launched a roadshow-style information campaign to encourage people to vote.

In lining up with Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats in backing a Yes vote, the Welsh Conservatives have undergone a massive policy shift since the 1997 referendum which established the National Assembly for Wales. Back then, there were no major Conservative figures backing a Yes vote and the current Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly, Nick Bourne AM, was one of the chief spokespeople in the No camp. As Nick is now not slow in pointing out, lots has changed in that 13 and a bit years, notably the Welsh Conservatives.

The Welsh Conservatives were quick to rid themselves of the anti-devolution badge just as soon as they were able to ditch Rod Richards as their Assembly Leader barely a few months after the first Assembly Election in 1999. In that time, Nick Bourne has led the Party in the Assembly and has carefully crafted a progressive message of pragmatic Toryism with a good dollop of support for practical devolution. For Nick, for the majority of Welsh Conservative Assembly Members and indeed for many like me in the County Halls and Constituency Associations up and down Wales, the issue is not really one of “extra powers” for the National Assembly, it is a question of creating a devolution settlement for Wales that is fair, easy to understand and enables politicians in Wales to deliver real change for the people in Wales. The current system with its overly complex procedures leads to gridlock and conflict between Cardiff Bay, Whitehall and Parliament.

We need a new constitutional settlement for Wales. In supporting the Yes vote, the Assembly Group Leader and his colleagues, as well as the majority of Welsh Conservative Councillors and activists, are working hard to position our Party to be able deliver a progressive Conservative agenda in Wales after the Assembly Elections in May.

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