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Monday, January 23, 2006

The art of castration

Having disagreed so sharply with Peter Hain yesterday I am going to make common cause with him today. The issue is the Tories' attitude to devolution and in particular the amendments that they have tabled to the Government of Wales Bill currently going through the House of Commons.

Last week the Assembly Conservative group joined in criticism of the Bill and the way that it puts disproportionate power into the hands of the Secretary of State for Wales to veto the Assembly Government's agenda. This week they are seeking to amend the bill to strengthen that veto and to create the sort of viceroy they were condemning only a few days ago:

"The Tory amendments we are debating would replace the simple procedure set out in the Bill with a byzantine 16-lock process that would cripple the Assembly," he said.

Mr Hain added, "These amendments are a total insult to the people of Wales. Not only do they prove that the Tories still don't understand devolution and don't trust the Assembly. They show that the Tories are trying to turn the clock back and reverse the outcome of the 1997 referendum. These Tory proposals would leave us worse off than we are now."

The only problem with the Secretary of State's comments of course is that he is embarked on a watered down version of the same exercise, as Mike German made clear last week:

We are supposed to be producing better government for Wales through this Government of Wales Bill, securing changes that will enable us to do more for the people of Wales. Unfortunately, despite containing some good points, the Bill spends too much time turning the Secretary of State for Wales into the viceroy of Wales, and creating a labrynthine process for creating new laws when a simple path could have been taken. Lord Richard proposed a simple path, with simple steps towards an easily understood goal, namely a parliament for Wales. Our amendment 10 recognises this. Instead of having a straight 100m dash, we now face the viceroy of Wales’s steeplechase, with two laps around Gwydyr House, one around the House of Commons, and a final leap over the wool sack before we can even start to draw up a single Assembly measure.

However, we are where we are. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have been the champions of devolution for over 100 years, and we will continue to fight to make this Bill better. Look at how long we have been at it. We are going to stick to our original plan to ensure that Wales has a proper parliament.

Perhaps the greatest failing in this Bill is the democratic deficit. Mr Hain gives the impression that the Assembly will be granted whatever powers it seeks—at least that is what he tells us when he is here; it is a slightly different message when he is in London. However, to ensure that the Assembly is not too ambitious, he has put a triple lock on the door. First, the Bill has to have the Secretary of State’s approval, and he must consider whether it is appropriate—his words—that we should have these powers in Wales. It then goes to the House of Commons, where MPs are asked whether it is appropriate that Wales should have these powers. It then goes to the House of Lords, where the Lords are asked the same question. No answer has been given to the question, ‘How do you define appropriateness?’. At any one of these stages, a democratically elected Government of Wales could see its ambitions vetoed by politicians from any part of the UK. The post-2007 Welsh Government will need the skills of Houdini to make the laws that it wants to see enacted.

It seems that castration is the name of the game for both Labour and the Tories and the losers in this process will not be the politicians but the people of Wales.
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