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Monday, October 20, 2008

Our maiden aunt

The Presiding Officer's letter to the Secretary of State for Wales chastising the Welsh Affairs Select Committee for their treatment of the Affordable Housing Legislative Competence Order has grown into a major row. It is of course a process issue of little interest to the general public but that does not detract from its importance. Whether and how the Assembly is able to acquire powers is key to the future of devolution and to the ability of that institution to influence the quality of life of Welsh people.

The PO himself was on the Politics Show yesterday and Good Morning Wales today. Meanwhile former Welsh First Secretary, Alun Michael has hit back claiming on Radio Wales that there is in fact a good deal of consensus between AMs and MPs from all parties that represent Wales in parliament about these matters. I wonder what planet he has been inhabiting recently.

This lack of understanding about roles appears to go to the heart of the problem. Conservative MP, David Jones illustrates it well on his blog where he accuses Dafydd Elis Thomas of erupting in paroxysms of high indignation in the style of Kenneth Williams in Carry on Cleo. Like Alun Michael and others he argues that the LCO that has been recommended by the committee will enable WAG to do precisely what it says it wants to do and that therefore there should be no problem.

What he really means is that MPs' recommendations fit in with what they think the Welsh Government wants to do irrespective of the fact that the paperwork before them says something different. In fact the intentions of the Government are laid out in the LCO itself and by seeking to restrict its scope the Welsh Affairs Select Committee is intervening in matters over which it has no constititutional jurisdiction. The Government of Wales Act 2006 is quite clear on that point.

MPs are acting like an interfering maiden aunt, they may think that they are helping but in fact they are making things worse. I think that the Presiding Officer is right, they are too close to the action. They are approaching LCOs from the viewpoint of self-interested Welsh politicians and thus seeking to micro-manage the process, when it would be far more appropriate for them to take a higher-minded constitutional approach. Their role is to determine whether the order falls within the scope of what is allowed by the Act, nothing more.

Meanwhile Glyn Davies offers another solution. Like me and many others he has been arguing for some time that the LCO process is unworkable and will lead to these sorts of conflicts. Nevertheless, I do not think that a period of purdah, in which the Assembly Government avoids submitting contentious proposals to Westminster, is an appropriate way forward. The One Wales Government has a mandate too and they have every right to pursue it. It is not for MPs to try and frustrate that process.

Bethan Jenkins asks what will happen when the Welsh Language Legislative Competence Order makes it to Westminster? It is a fair point. I will await that moment with interest though, come to think of it Bethan, when exactly will we be seeing this Welsh Language LCO in the Assembly? I suspect that there will be problems with Labour in Cardiff Bay on that one as well.
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