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Saturday, June 24, 2006

The fight for a Welsh Parliament

Presiding Officer, Dafydd Elis Thomas, and First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, have a common cause, to get the Government of Wales Bill into law as soon as possible.

In the case of the Presiding Officer, this desire is so strong that he is prepared to sacrifice some strongly held beliefs to achieve this goal. This has led to accusations of treachery, both from his own party and the Tories.

Nobody is quite sure whether Peter Hain's claim that delays in the House of Lords will cause the loss of the Government of Wales Bill altogether is just bluff or genuine concern. The opposition parties are treating it as a tactic designed to put the maximum pressure on them to agree to the unacceptable. However Dafydd Elis-Thomas takes a different view. He is worried that Hain may be right and that the Bill could be lost if the Lords continue to oppose changes to the voting system.

Accordingly, he has argued that the new voting rules should be accepted so that progress can be made on the giving the Assembly the powers it needs to make a difference to Wales:

The House of Lords and the Commons are locked in a dispute over one element of the plans, which would stop candidates standing in constituencies and on the regional list.

Peers want the idea ditched, but they may not finish debating the issue before the summer. Labour MPs want to keep it, not least as it was a manifesto commitment, and may find themselves voting late into the night on the days before the summer holidays.

The Government has warned that leaving the whole thing until the autumn is not an option as there will be little space in a crowded parliamentary timetable.

Assembly Presiding Officer Lord Elis-Thomas has called for the row to be settled - despite his own party's opposition to the new voting rules - so the rest of the Bill, which gives the Assembly more power, can be saved.

But furious Conservatives, who also oppose Labour's plans, have accused him of "going too far in sacrificing principle for pragmatism".

Lord Elis-Thomas used a BBC Wales interview to call for the parliamentary row to be come to an end. He said, "We need to be pragmatic and have this thing properly established. I will be there and I will be supporting the Government if it comes to the ping-pong because I see no point in extending this debate because it could endanger getting our new constitutional settlement in place."

Essentially, I believe that the Presiding Officer is right. Although Labour are fundamentally wrong on this issue, the argument over the voting system is essentially a distraction from the real issues in the Bill. That does not mean however, that we should give up hope of changing the bar on dual candidacy just yet. It is far too early to admit defeat in a ping-pong action that has not even started and which may well secure other concessions. Dafydd Elis-Thomas is wrong to offer the government support on this issue at this stage and is in danger of undermining the proper scrutiny of the Bill at Third Reading stage in the Lords.
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