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Friday, March 24, 2006

Night of the long knives

As First Minister, Rhodri Morgan has always been very circumspect in the way that he has reshuffled Ministers. He prefers the surgical incision rather than the wholesale night of the long knives. Thus when he carried out his last change he jettisoned only one Minister, brought in Brian Gibbons at Health and moved the much-criticised Jane Hutt sideways. Some thought he should have been more radical but Rhodri is nothing, if not loyal to his friends.

Yesterday, in Finance Questions, the possibility of a further reshuffle was raised. Former Health Committee Chair, David Melding, was not satisfied with the way that Brian Gibbons has been doing his job. However, instead of demanding his immediate sacking as some of his raw-red-meat eating colleagues would have done, David had an altogether gentler solution:

David Melding: NHS Wales now has a deficit of over £70 million, and the figure is rising. Dr Gibbons is quite a popular fellow here, and I do not necessarily want him turfed out immediately. However, do you not think that he ought to be put on a period of probation so that you can monitor his performance and perhaps show us some improvement?

Sue Essex: I have no power to turf out Brian Gibbons, nor would I want to, and he is not ailing, sick or showing any signs of stress. I do not think that your statement that there is a deficit of over £70 million is factually correct. The in-year deficit this year is estimated to be £20 million, according to Brian’s February statement. We need to make clear that we are talking about a deficit of £20 million this year, so that people do not think that the £71 million that is being bandied around is this year’s deficit.

It was witty and cutting stuff but nowhere near as pointed as David's later contribution to the Government of Wales Bill debate. It is worth quoting at length:

David Melding: The Minister left us with an incredible vision that, down in the saloon bar of the ‘Dog and Order in Council’, they talk of nothing but the Government of Wales Bill and how the Labour Party has found the centre of gravity on devolution. I find it incredible that Labour has the gall to come here and say that, on the one hand, the popularity of this Government is such that devolution is soaring in the polls, while, on the other hand, the Government does not have the guts to put the real question to the people of Wales, which, incidentally, should have been put in 1997: should this be a proper Parliament to balance the fact that we already have—at least in legal terms—a proper Government? It does not know what to do with its powers, but that is a different matter. I find it incredible that the way that this Bill has been examined in the Assembly has led to no intellectual curiosity whatsoever on the Labour benches; they accept completely what is proposed by their colleagues in Westminster.

I do not know if Stalin ever wrote poetry—it would, no doubt, have been exceptionally bad poetry had he done so. Given his personality, he would probably have passed his first draft to a minion and said, ‘Please criticise it freely’, and the minion would have come back with some epic paean of praise saying that it should not be altered in any way, not one jot or comma. That is the approach that we seem to have had from the Government. It looked at a Bill of over 140 clauses, and did it propose an amendment? Not a sausage; not a cocktail sausage came from the Minister. She has completely swallowed everything. I am grateful for the mixed metaphor that has come from my right—‘hook, line and sinker’.

Let us return to the Order in Council, because it is very much like the first day of a slick New Labour budget. It seemed such a clever idea to those who support it; indeed, it confused others for a little while. After a few days, it all started to unravel under the light of scrutiny. What is an Order in Council? It either leaves a veto in another legislature, or with another Government Minister—not in this Government—or it, in effect, creates primary powers. It gives you an elegant system that saves the notional sovereignty of Parliament, in that everything has to go through Westminster, but it is the equivalent of the Royal Assent. If that is the way that you expect Orders in Council to operate—that powers will be given on request in any area for which the Government has devolved responsibility in Wales—you should have the guts to say that that is primary powers.

You should go to the people of Wales and ask whether they approve or not. That is why we tabled amendment 13. It would do away with Part 3 of the Bill, which creates this peculiar mechanism—unique, as far as I can work out, in the English-speaking world—and put in Part 4, which would create a Scottish-style Parliament or a Northern-Ireland-style Assembly that could pass laws and hold its Government properly to account in that process. That would have been the way to take forward the constitutional settlement and the way to better balance the British constitution.

However, it would have had one consequence, namely that the number of MPs from Wales—and I now address Gwenda Thomas’s points—like the number of MPs from Scotland, would have been reduced to a figure based on the population. This talk of not having our say on macro-economic and defence policy is nonsense. We would have as much of a say as the people of England and we would have as many representatives as England per head of population. So, let us not let this Labour Party off the hook. It is Labour that wants this system; it wants mock primary powers. We have everything other than an Act of Parliament, but that is their function. Yet, we still have a system that over-represents the Labour Party in Westminster because you know that the next general election will be a tighter contest than the last election and you may have to generate your majority in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is your motivation.

It is little wonder that Labour refused to support an extension of the time available for the debate.
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