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Friday, September 07, 2012

An extra Minister

Like many other Welsh Liberal Democrats I am delighted and relieved that Jenny Randerson has been made a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Wales Office (PUSS). This position is significant because unlike many other domestic departments, the Wales Office's role can be reduced to a representational one, rather than legislative and administrative, though they do some of that as well.

Most of the responsibilities of Wales Office Ministers have been devolved to the Welsh Government, so they are focussed on representing Wales in cabinet and vice versa. It has to be said though that this role is crucial when it comes to legislation on non-devolved matters. Consideration has to be given to ensuring that Wales' interests are properly represented, that new powers are properly allocated and that existing powers held by the Welsh Assembly are not compromised.

The nature of a Wales Office Minister's work is eessentially that of communication. When that is working well in both directions then both the Welsh Government and the UK Government benefit. When it is not working then we have conflict and Wales' interests suffer. Wales Office Ministers also need to have a good understanding of devolution largely because they end up explaining it to other UK Government departments.

But it is not just the Welsh Government that needs to be kept in the loop and listened to. The Welsh Conservatives and the Welsh Liberal Democrats are in government in Westminster and in opposition in Cardiff Bay. We need to have an input too, not least because Welsh Government Ministers occasionally use us as a conduit to send a message to their opposite number on the other side of the Severn Bridge.

I have been able to facilitate meetings between Ministers for example, whilst my ability to pick up the phone and talk to the right people was crucial in getting the Housing Legislative Competence Order approved back in the early days of the coalition Government.

In a coalition government situation, and given the nature of Wales Office Ministers' jobs, it was absurd that the Conservatives had this additional line of communication, but the Welsh Liberal Democrats did not. That is why Jenny Randerson's appointment is so important, it gives us a formal input into Government discussions.

Many commentators have suggested that Jenny Randerson's appointment means that the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Group's strategy of distancing themselves from the more unpopular proposals of the UK government, such as regional pay and cuts to welfare, will now be a whole lot harder. I do not accept that.

For a start, the group's strategy is not to distance ourselves from the UK Government, it is to represent Wales' best interests. Thus, if we disagree with a policy and feel that it will damage Wales then we will say so and we will lobby hard both privately and publicly for that change. Ultimately, we know that if we don't succeed then we will be associated with the policy irrespective of what we have done. Jenny Randerson's appointment gives us an additional route to put across our views.

This is not a unique strategy. It is one that was practised by the Wales Labour Party prior to 2010. We should not forget Rhodri Morgan's clear red water nor the many instances when Labour AMs stood up in the chamber and disagreed with what their colleagues were doing in Westminster. Indeed, given that many of the welfare reforms were inherited from Labour, they are still doing it.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats' strategy has been a bit of slow burner but it has achieved results, not least in the recent announcement on electrification of the main line to Swansea and of the valley lines. We are still working hard behind the scenes on a number of other issues. Once we have set up a set up a formal line of commication with Jenny Randerson, we will be lobbying her as well.
we still don't need 40 odd MPs
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