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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Jigsaw politics

One of the biggest problems for politicians is communicating complex ideas in a way that is easily understood and media friendly. Thus, when Peter Hain announced his plans for giving the Welsh Assembly more powers the Liberal Democrats Leader, Mike German, found a way to explain it.

He suggested that if the Assembly is to accumulate responsibilities then there will come a time when there will be only a few powers that it does not have. Would a referendum then be needed to acquire those last few powers? At what level would a referendum be triggered?

It is a bit of an anorak-point I know, but Mike had a very useful analogy which seemed to work quite well. He compared the accumulation of powers to a jigsaw. Each piece put in place represents an additonal Assembly responsibility. When the jigsaw is complete then the Assembly will be a fully-fledged Parliament. If there is only a few pieces needed to complete the jigsaw will that trigger a referendum or will it be too late? Peter Hain understood the point and acknowledged that it was one worth considering.

By the time Mike came to try out his analogy on the First Minister however, things did not seem so clear:

Michael German: Perhaps I could take you back to the interesting answers that the Secretary of State for Wales gave last week to questions on the White Paper. In response to one of my questions, he said of the transferring of powers through Orders in Council:

‘we will have a jigsaw of powers, with pieces missing.’

That was an interesting way of putting it. He then moved on to justify why a referendum at that point in the timetable would be right. Do you agree that whether you are in favour of referenda or not, it would be an odd time to have a referendum? Can you imagine the question: ‘Are you in favour of the Assembly jigsaw being almost complete, or entirely complete?’ Do you think that that would be a recipe for the referendum to be on something other than the future of devolution for the people of Wales?

The First Minister: I am not sure that the Secretary of State would quite accept the logic of how that was put. The question surely is as to whether an enhancement of the legislative powers of the Assembly is done by incremental means, involving Parliament at each stage, so that it does not fundamentally determine by whom we are governed in Wales, or whether it is done on a fundamental basis, and that is a shift to something quite different from the model that was put to the people of Wales in 1997, and a completely new arrangement in terms of the balance between Parliament and the Assembly.

Michael German: I was trying to get from you a view, given your standpoint that referenda should be used sparingly, on whether, if you had got to the position where most of the jigsaw of powers was in place, and there were a small number of pieces missing, it would be appropriate to have a referendum. You might have 50 to 70 per cent of the full primary legislative powers that you need. Would it then be appropriate to say that a referendum is needed for the remaining chunk, or do you think that it is a logical next step, as I think that the Richard commission would have said, and that you should just move straight on to full legislative powers? Is that not a logical next step, without having a referendum?

The First Minister: I think that you are getting obsessed with the word ‘jigsaw’ here, just because the Secretary of State used it, and are building a huge mountain out of that particular molehill. What is important in relation to the comparison with the Richard commission’s proposals is that the interim stage, which is missing from the Richard commission’s proposals, but which is at the heart of the White Paper proposals, does enable you to come forward four years, from 2011 to 2007, and avoids those big, fundamental changes and questions that, if they were to arise, would tend to be linked to a referendum.

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