Neutering the Assembly

Last year, this blog discussed proposals by the Welsh Assembly Government to introduce legislation to suspend the ‘right to buy’ for council house tenants in Wales.

This was to be one of the first ‘Legislative Competence Orders’ which would, under the 2006 Government of Wales Act, essentially give Wales the power to pass its own laws, albeit after seeking permission from the House of Commons and its all-party Welsh Select Committee.

Given the emotive content of the legislation, commentators had suggested that politicians in Cardiff Bay should have chosen something that would have been passed with little opposition, thus embedding the legislative process for subsequent laws.

By focusing on housing laws in this way, some thought that the Assembly was ‘picking a fight’ with its bigger relative in St Stephen’s Green as it was clear that there would be difficulties with this issue from the start.

Indeed, as the Labour Party, in its wisdom, has set up a process whereby the UK Parliament could discuss and vote on the legislation being put forward by the Assembly, then MPs cannot be blamed for expressing their democratic right, as they are elected by the people to represent their views.

How on earth did we end up with this constitutional mess?

Some have suggested that this was a cunning plan to ensure greater backing for full Welsh law making powers and to show that MPs in Westminster could not be trusted with passing Welsh laws.

If there is any grain of truth in that rumour, then the stakes have suddenly been raised by the announcement at the end of last week that the Secretary of State for Wales would now essentially have a veto over laws put forward by the democratically elected members of the National Assembly.

So, as we approach the tenth anniversary of devolution in Wales, the Labour Government – which was content to let Scotland have full law making powers – has given control of Welsh legislation directly to a politician outside the National Assembly.

With a few exceptions, there has been a deafening silence from politicians and the media over this matter although bloggers such as Glyn Davies and the three Dewis on Politics Cymru have written on the issue in detail.

One can only imagine the howls of protests from the usual suspects if it had been a Conservative Government at Westminster that had given the Secretary of State for Wales a veto over the Assembly’s legislation.

Those who support further powers for Wales will see this as a retrograde step that allows Westminster to directly interfere in devolved matters. There is a small minority who believes that this is the impetus needed to ensure that there is a stronger case made for direct law-making powers for the Assembly with little intervention by Westminster.

However, this is a high risk strategy that could backfire during a recession in which the vast majority of Welsh people see the UK Parliament as the only aspect of government with the powers to make a difference to their lives in these troubling times.

It may also give fresh ammunition to critics who will argue that this whole process has emasculated the Assembly and reduced it to a glorified county council that deserves no further powers.

In my opinion, the whole point of having a National Assembly, voted for by the people of Wales, is that once matters are devolved, they should become the responsibility of the Assembly Members without any interference from London.

In now allowing the Welsh Office to essentially decide which laws can be enacted, politicians have allowed process to get in the way of demonstrating that devolution can make a real difference to the everyday lives of the people of Wales, leaving us with a legislative halfway house that does little credit to this nation or its political masters.

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