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    15 June, 2005

    Better Governance for Wales.

    The Government White Paper on the future of the National Assembly was published today. This will be quite a long blog-post as I go through some of the issues raised. I hope that people will comment on this and we can develop a dialogue as we move along.

    I have welcomed the White Paper proposals, just as I welcomed the Richard Commission Report. There are three key elements:

    1) Ending the corporate body status of the Assembly so that there is a real separation between the executive and legislature.

    2) Enhancing the powers of the Assembly, with a route-map towards primary powers.

    3) Reform of the electoral system, to prevent people standing for both a constituency seat and a list seat.

    I will comment on all of these issues in turn:

    1) Changes to the corporate body status have cross-party support in Wales and have been widely welcomed. This will mean, amongst other things, committees becoming proper vehicles for scrutiny rather than ways of prolonging broad general debates that should really happen in plenary. Ministers will no longer sit on the Committees, which will have the effect of making them less partisan in effect. This will all require primary legislation. The Committees will have to take more time on legislative scrutiny - see below.

    2) The powers of the Assembly will be enhanced in three ways. First, the UK Government will move immediately to fulfil the Richard Commission suggestion that in primary legislation broad enabling powers can be given to the Assembly to make laws within the specific field. This will not require primary legislation.

    Second, there will be a new arrangement, whereby the Assembly can ask Westminster to devolve powers to it to legislate in a given area, subject to this being approved by Orders in Council in Westminster. This will require primary legislation. It will come into effect from 2007.

    Third, the Government of Wales Act implementing these changes will also establish a trigger emchanism whereby, following a vote of 2/3 of the Assembly, the Assembly can apply to Westminster to hold a referendum which would enable primary powers to be granted to the Assembly. No further referendum Act of new Government of Wales Act would be needed.

    The first option implements the Richard proposal faster than Richard suggested. The second proposal goes further than the Richard proposal for first-stage transfer of powers. The third element could occur within the Richard timeframe of 2011 for primary powers to be given to the Assembly.

    3) The electoral system reform will be a controversial proposal. It is designed to end losers becoming winners: in Clwyd West, Alun Pugh won the seat, but Plaid's Janet Ryder, Tory Brynle Williams and Lib Dem Eleanor Burnham who all lost were all elected on the list.

    I have been a supporter of devolution since the 1970s and campaigned for it and voted for it as a student in Bangor in 1979. (For details, see my book, Wales Says Yes

    After the 1979 defeat, I came to the view that we would need a referendum to redress the 1979 situation and ensure we were taking the people of Wales with us. I was one of the co-founders of the Yes for Wales campaign in 1997.

    I have always believed that law-making powers for the Assembly would need a referendum, and argued that before I was elected to the National Assembly. I believed that Welsh Labour had to forge a new consensus for change.

    I think that the White Paper starts to do just that. I think that the referendum trigger mechanism is clever, and avoids the danger of the 1970s where a referendum clause was written into the Bill during its passage through Parliament. My own suggestion for avoiding that, which I argued publicly, was to commit to a pre-legislative referendum rather than a post-legislative referendum, but this trigger mechanism probably does the trick.

    As I said in the Chamber today, the White Paper demonstrates that Welsh Labour is taking devolution forward:

    Leighton Andrews: Many of us on all sides of the Chamber were proud to have been involved in the referendum campaign in 1997, which delivered a ‘yes’ vote for devolution. However, it is Welsh Labour that has delivered the National Assembly for Wales; it is Welsh Labour that is now strengthening the powers of the Assembly and taking devolution forward. First Minister, do you agree that the first stage proposals outlined today in the White Paper would operate faster than the first phase that the Richard commission proposed, and that the fast-track proposals go further than the Richard commission proposed? Do you also agree that the White Paper identifies a clear route map to primary powers for the Assembly, if backed by the Welsh people in a referendum, which will be set out in the new Government of Wales Act? Is this not evidence that Welsh Labour is the party of practical, effective and popular devolution for Wales?

    The First Minister: I agree, and I am glad that you made that point because opposition parties have tried to pretend that Labour is in business to veto legislation. In fact, Labour is the only party that has delivered devolution. The first attempt in 1979 failed, but the second attempt in 1997 succeeded, and, this being in Labour’s manifesto, on which we achieved a historic third term with a working majority a month ago, I have no doubt that it can also be delivered. It is a matter of democratic accountability to the electorate; we do what we say we will do on the tin, as it were. We put it to a conference; if we get a majority support in a conference, we put it in the manifesto; if we win a majority in the subsequent general election, we activate what we said we would in the manifesto. That is basis on which I trust that, not only the House of Commons, but the House of Lords—which has a different party composition—will accept that, under the Salisbury convention, they are not going to oppose the implementation of this principle and all the main things covered in Labour’s manifesto commitment. It is exactly the same with women’s equality.It is true that this Assembly is gender balanced. It is gender balanced because of what Labour has done to bring about gender balance, and we have carried the burden on that, if you like. It is exactly the same for devolution; we do not think of it, we implement it.

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    Promoted by Leighton Andrews AM, National Assembly for Wales, Cardiff CF99 1NA.

    Author's editorial policy: This blog does not publish anonymous comments, unless they are really witty and I like them. If you have something to say, then have the courage of your convictions and use your name or an identifiable alias. Even then I reserve the right not to publish comments that are malicious, defamatory, stupid, pointlessly cynical or boring. Any of the statements or comments made above should be regarded as personal and not necessarily those of the National Assembly for Wales, any constituent part or connected body.