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Friday, January 25, 2008

Fantasy politics?

The Presiding Officer has gone on the offensive today to defend the mechanisms contained within the Government of Wales Act and to rubbish those who say that the process of accumulating new powers is not fit for purpose and is not working:

Lord Elis-Thomas denied that a crisis broke out this week when the Assembly Government agreed to redraft legislation concerning vulnerable children at the request of London. It will make it clear it will not use new powers in this area to seek a smacking ban.

Speaking in his Assembly office, the Presiding Officer said debate between Cardiff and London formed a key part of the law-making process and should not come as a surprise.

He said, “The assumption that because there is a discussion democracy isn’t working is, to me, turning the truth on its head. Because there is discussion, because there is debate, it shows we are growing in influence as law-makers here. And what I want us to be are happy and progressive law-makers, not looking over our shoulder saying, ‘Oh, they’re not going to let us do it.’

He condemned this response as “a kind of infantile view of politics and constitutions”, saying, “It’s growing-up time.”

His particular frustration is targeted at commentators convinced the system by which Cardiff Bay can request new powers from Westminster is failing.

“For goodness sake, the system has been at it for three months,” he said. “We’re not going to get another Government of Wales Act – we’ve had two already. How are we going to win a referendum – assuming that is the intention of these people who say we need to have more powers and the system isn’t working? In my book, the way we get there is by showing we are capable of legislating.

Despite this it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that the expectations of pro-devolutionists are being thwarted by the Act. The new Secretary of State for Wales has just contradicted the PO by saying on the radio that recent 'negotiations' have taken place during a "rocky period", whilst a look back through the newspaper clippings reveal that even Dafydd Elis-Thomas' own expectations of the process have not been met.

He told the Western Mail on 21 November 2006 that the Assembly will be putting forward 18 pieces of new legislation in the first year of its new incarnation. In fact we have managed five legislative competence orders and one measure, none of which have yet completed their passage to full approval, a testament to the extraordinarily lengthy and difficult process set down by the Act. Is it any wonder that people are getting frustrated?

The Act may be working to some people's expectations but that does not disguise the fact that it was a compromise to stifle internal dissent within the Labour Party and that as such it was designed to allow Parliament to set its own pace in advancing the devolution process. The full Parliament envisaged by the vast majority of Assembly Members is dependent on the good will of the Government and of MPs who are currently seeking to restrict our room for manoeuvre on the few modest proposals we have put forward so far.

We may be growing in influence as law-makers but that progress is painfully slow and there is no sign soon that it will pick up any pace whatsoever. My problem is not only that the Government of Wales Act is acting as a brake on our expectations but also that the Presiding Officer has scaled back his own ambitions in response.
Is this the official Plaid line now then? Backing up their Labour pals again? Or are the rest of them cringing yet again at his comments?
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