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Monday, September 24, 2007

The Viceroy speaks

Radio Wales is reporting this morning that Rhodri Morgan and Peter Hain are using the Labour Party Conference to emphasis the role of Wales within the UK so as to reassure jittery Labour MPs.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are clear benefits for Wales in remaining within a increasingly devolved United Kingdom. However, such a settlement needs to involve the creation of a full-law-making Parliament here and elsewhere so that those decisions that are best taken at a local level remain there.

The premise of the second Government of Wales Act is that the National Assembly for Wales will take on additional powers over a period of time until, having proved it is ready, the people of Wales will be asked to vote on a final transfer of responsibility that will have the effect of creating such a Parliament.

The problem, as I have outlined here and elsewhere on a number of occasions, is that the powers reserved to the Secretary of State for Wales and the UK Parliament enables them to dictate the pace of change and to restrict our natural development. In effect it makes Peter Hain into a Viceroy, overseeing the Assembly.

This morning's Western Mail justifies our fears about this Act though I do not believe that anybody envisaged the UK Government flexing its muscles so early nor on a Legislative Competence Order straight out of the Labour manifesto, put forward by a Labour Minister in what was then a minority Labour Government.

The paper reveals that a major constitutional row could be on the horizon as the UK Government seeks to limit the National Assembly’s powers to combat climate change. Apparently, officials in Cardiff Bay have been told by their counterparts in London that proposals to protect the environment and crack down on pollution are unacceptable in their present form:

Ms Davidson said the LCO aimed to address a major cross-cutting issue, with environmental problems being linked to a fear of crime, as well as inhibiting job creation and tourism. Cabinet colleague Carwyn Jones has mooted the idea of banning supermarkets from giving out plastic bags.

But an Assembly source told us, “Whitehall thinks the terms of the LCO as currently drafted are too broad and should be narrowed. It could be that they don’t want to set a precedent by giving the Assembly wide powers to make its own laws. There could also be policy considerations, with Whitehall not wanting Wales to go further than England in cracking down on pollution. Perhaps they don’t want to upset the business lobby.”

If a modest and quite frankly conservative proposal such as this LCO can be filleted by MPs and Government Ministers, then what chance do some of the more ambitious proposals in the One Wales document have? Rhodri Glyn Thomas for example has told people that his proposed Welsh language LCO will be as far-reaching as possible. Will Civil Servants, MPs and UK Ministers allow him to get away with this? What are the chances that the Welsh Government will be given the powers it needs to deal with the issue of affordable housing?

It seems that having failed to stop the Labour-Plaid deal, Westminster based forces are seeking to undermine it in other ways. For the sake of the devolution process Rhodri Morgan needs to put his foot down now and persuade Peter Hain to stop his officials fooling around with our future.
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